Actions

Work Header

Your Prayers Are Always Answered (In The Order They're Received)

Work Text:

Surgery

Every time Carl looks at Judith he remembers watching her being pulled out of Lori. He remembers the slickness of blood on his hands, his fingers curling around Lori’s flesh so that Maggie could get her hands inside. It turns his stomach but he can’t stop imagining it as he cradles Judith in his arms. He’s seen and done so many things already, but never to someone he loved. He remembers how hot her insides were, the wet, spongy feel of tissue. He remembers tiny squirming limbs. He remembers pulling the trigger.

He holds Judith tight, looking into her brown eyes, and he can’t hold that against her, even if he can’t make the images go away. He clings to her because this is what he has left. And if he can look at her after all that, he thinks Rick should be able to too. It feels unfair that he’s left with this burden on top of so many others.

Judith needs her dad. Carl needs his dad. He’s not sure he cares what Rick needs right now.

Rick won’t look at him, won’t really acknowledge any of them, so far gone in his own grief. Carl wants to yell at him. He wants to cry and scream. He wants to beg for attention. In the end, he just climbs silently into Rick’s bed one night, slipping under the blanket and pressing close against him in the small space.

Rick shifts, a grunt the only acknowledgement Carl thinks he’s going to get, but then Rick’s arms wrap around him, painfully tight, his face pressed into Carl’s hair. Carl feels all his anger, all his frustration, all his loneliness slip away. Rick clings to him like he’s a lifeline, like he’s all he needs, and that love suffocates Carl, the tears coming like he finally has permission.

 

Taking care of somebody

They don’t talk much during the day, but Carl climbs into Rick’s bed with him every night. It’s the only time he gets a response from him and he feels like it’s helping.

You take care of your daddy for me. He plays Lori’s words over and over in his head like they’re a favourite song. He wants to live up to them. If he does that then maybe she’s not really gone. Maybe he can carry her with him.

Rick wraps him up tightly in his arms like he’s the most precious thing in the world, strokes his fingers through Carl’s hair, presses his face into his neck. It’s a little suffocating but Carl doesn’t mind. He likes the sensation of being held, comes to crave it in the starkness of the day when everything hurts and Rick is just the embodiment of pain. He’s different at night, in the dark, under the blanket. It’s like he’s unwound, open and vulnerable, capable of comfort and love.

One night he presses Carl onto his back and, with his eyes closed tight, peppers kisses all over his face. There’s something desperate and feverish about it at first, like Carl might fade away, but then he slows and Carl can feel something in him settle. His lips brush over Carl’s and then there’s a tiny moment of hesitation before he does it again.

He opens his eyes, staring down at Carl, a question poised on his lips but he doesn’t ask. Carl’s glad. He doesn’t want to be found lacking. He wants his dad back. He wants to help. He feels like this is helping.

Rick closes his eyes and kisses his mouth again, harder this time, his fingertips stroking Carl’s hair back from his face. It tickles and makes him shiver beneath Rick. Rick tenses, breathing in hard through his nose, and then their mouths are together again. Rick flicks out his tongue against the seam of Carl’s mouth and Carl gives a little laugh. Rick does it again, more determined, and it doesn’t seem funny that time.

Rick lifts his head, his eyes flicking to the door before he looks down at Carl. “Does anyone know you’re here?”

Carl shrugs. “I think they’re all asleep.”

“We shouldn’t tell them,” Rick says. “We should keep it just between the two of us.”

“Okay,” Carl agrees. He’s probably too old to be sneaking into his dad’s bed at night for a cuddle. Rick doesn’t want him to be seen as weak.

Rick leans in again, slowly, watching Carl’s face as his own lips part, as his tongue slides out, as he traces the line of Carl’s mouth. Carl lets his lips fall open and Rick closes his eyes, sliding his tongue inside. The sensation reminds Carl of his fingertips slipping past Lori’s flesh, hot and wet. It’s that same spongy feeling, squeamish and slick. Rick cradles his face though, makes it okay, and Carl tentatively touches his own tongue against Rick’s. It’s the most intimate thing he’s ever experienced.

Rick pulls back again, gazing down at Carl, that same question in his eyes. Carl stares back, trying to work it out, but in the end he just nods. He doesn’t know what this is but he wants to find out.

 

First transformation

Carl keeps climbing into Rick’s bed long after the wounds of Lori have healed over enough to stop it hurting every time they think of her. This isn’t about comfort and grief anymore. Carl keeps going back because he’s come to crave the kisses that go on for longer every night. They make him feel like there’s a tickle in his belly, an impatient sensation that he can’t quite seem to shake, and it only gets more intense with every passing night, every slide of Rick’s tongue over his. He feels restless in Rick’s tight hold and he feels like there’s a secret that’s just beyond his grasp. If he keeps going back, Rick will tell him though. He always looks like he really wants to.

It’s almost accidental when it finally happens, a whole new world opened up to Carl.

Rick kisses him deeply, like he’s trying to consume him, like he can’t live without him. Having all of Rick’s attention focussed so completely on him is already overwhelming, the soft touch of a shaky hand against his cheek, the tenderness at odds with the way he steals Carl’s breath away like he needs it to breathe. Then he shifts, his body pressing fully against Carl’s, his hard cock trapped against Carl’s thigh.

Rick whines high in his throat, his whole body tightening. Carl can feel heat radiating from him where they touch. It’s irresistible, making Carl press up into it. Rick pulls away, his mouth twisting in discomfort. Carl gazes up at him, licking his own lips that are already wet with both of their saliva. Rick shakes his head even though Carl hasn’t said anything. His eyes fall away, his hand twisting into a fist around the pillow beside Carl’s head. Carl waits, breathing in and out, the scent of Rick so strong that Carl can practically taste him. He wants to taste him.

Rick meets his eyes again, his face softer now, a resolve behind his expression. “I love you,” he says, hushed and rough but drenched in truth.

“I love you too,” Carl tells him.

Rick nods. “This is what people who love each other do.”

He dips his head back down, kissing Carl again, slow and deliberate until Carl feels that squirmy sensation in his gut. As Rick starts to rock his hips, the feeling goes lower, heat drenching his cock, making it go hard. He pushes his own hips upwards, an instinct he can’t resist, like scratching an itch. Rick growls, burying his face in Carl’s neck and kissing him there, licking at the flesh, as his whole body pushes Carl’s down into the thin mattress, moving in a way that feels animalistic. Carl likes it though, biting down on his own lip as the sensations get sharper, almost painful.

Rick’s whole body tenses above him, shaking in Carl’s arms, and Carl can feel a wetness against his thigh through the layers of clothing separating them. Carl is burning up, wants to strip away everything that’s keeping them apart. Rick lies on top of him, not moving except for his heaving breaths, and there’s dampness against Carl’s neck too but he doesn’t know if it’s saliva or tears.

Rick finally lifts his head, looking down at Carl with such softness but Carl can already see the guilt welling up in his eyes, the same look that haunted him in the weeks after Lori, the look Carl has been trying so hard to rid him of.

“I love you,” Rick tells him again. “Can I show you how much?”

Carl nods his head, his body still so on edge that he feels like his skin is a size too small for him, like he’s about to burst right out of it. When Rick doesn’t move, he makes a pleading noise, wanting to kiss again. He never feels done. Rick strokes his hair back, something like regret on his face as he closes his eyes, pressing his face back into Carl’s neck.

Carl makes a noise of frustration at being denied again, but then Rick’s hand slides down, catching on Carl’s clothing, and Carl wants to take everything off. Rick’s fingers skim over Carl’s bare thigh, that tickly sensation that’s mirrored in his stomach, and then his hand is pressing firmly down on Carl’s dick through his underwear. Carl gasps, a sensation like an electric shock passing through him as Rick squeezes. His body jolts and he presses irresistibly into the touch, unable to stop himself, some other instinct taking over.

Rick massages his cock and it reminds Carl of the way he massaged his leg when he had a cramp from having to walk so much, before they finally found the prison and they could rest a little. It was a caring action then. It must be a caring action now.

He can feel it all welling up inside him, something so alien and yet it feels intrinsically right. It feels like the secret that’s been welling up on the tip of Rick’s tongue for so long and he’s finally sharing it with Carl. It makes Carl feel closer to him than ever. It makes him feel like he’s not such a kid anymore, like things are shifting in his favour.

His hips buck upwards as he feels something taking him over like a tsunami. He cries out and Rick clamps his other hand over Carl’s mouth, shaking his head that’s still buried in Carl’s neck. Carl feels tears welling up at his eyes, overwhelmed by the sensations that wrack his body, making him shake, making his head feel like it’s about to cave in.

As he stills, Rick’s hand slides away from his mouth and he gasps in air, panting as he stares into the darkness. Rick’s arms wrap around him, pulling him in close, but he doesn’t lift his head, doesn’t look him in the eye. Carl doesn’t know how to communicate what he wants to with words so he stays quiet and he waits.

“That’s what people in love do,” Rick tells him, face still buried in Carl’s neck. “Everybody does it. But nobody talks about it.”

Carl nods his understanding. He can do grown up things. He can follow the rules. Rick can trust him with this.

 

Comfort item

Being in Rick’s cell in the middle of the day is jarring, like he’s slipped into some kind of alternate version of himself. It looks cold and stark in the daylight, so different from the heat that radiates from the images that play through Carl’s mind.

He shifts on his feet, resisting the urge to adjust the hat on his head. It’s started to feel like an extension of himself, a representation of all those things that they can’t say, and he’s scared that if he can’t count on that, everything else will slip away in the daylight too.

“I don’t want a farming hat,” he states.

Rick looks up at him, perched on the edge of his bed. He looks tired, weary, and Carl feels it too after the day working out in the sun. He flicks his eyes down to Rick’s forearms, tanned and warm looking. That’s how they always feel when they’re wrapped around him at night. Carl blinks, remembering his hat, Rick’s hat, falling in the dirt, remembering Rick placing it on Beth’s head. Carl felt naked without it. Naked not in a good way.

“I don’t want to be a farmer,” he says instead, knowing it sounds petulant. It’s not the way he means it.

Rick smiles, the amused smile of a father. “It’s the right thing to do, Carl. We have to think of our futures.”

The words should be heartening to Carl. When he first started visiting Rick’s bunk at night he was trying to rescue Rick, bring him back from the brink, reconnect him with his family, the people around him. Now Carl just wants Rick to himself. He counts the hours until the sun goes down and the prison gets quiet and he can crawl into Rick’s bed; kisses, touches, hot bodies beneath the sheets. He was the one who made Rick smile again after Lori died. When he sees it directed at someone else now, he only feels jealous.

“It’s hard work, but it’s going to be worth it,” Rick tells him.

Carl looks away. Rick thinks he’s being a brat. He thinks he’s trying to get out of manual labour.

“What’s wrong?” Rick asks, getting to his feet so stiffly Carl feels like he should creak.

“Do you want your hat back?” Carl asks, daring himself to meet Rick’s eyes. “I know I said we’d share. We can share.”

He takes it off his head, holding it out into the space between them. He has no right to it really, Rick gave it to him when he was recovering from a gunshot wound, when Rick was guilty and weak with exhaustion and blood loss. Carl thinks about that sometimes, Rick’s blood coursing through his veins, beating in his heart. It didn’t used to make him feel as warm as this though. It didn’t used to feel so intimate.

Rick reaches out and takes the hat with a smile, looking it over before taking a step forward. He places it on Carl’s head, just like he did that day. He adjusts it, appraising Carl fondly.

“It suits you,” he says. “That’s why I gave it to you.”

Carl nods, his gaze falling away. It should be enough but Carl can’t even put his finger on why this bothers him so much. It was supposed to be something special. Special. It’s a word Rick uses a lot now, in the dark. Sharing it makes it less special. They wouldn’t understand what it means to us. Carl likes when it’s just the two of them. He doesn’t want to share.

Rick places his hand under Carl’s chin, lifting his head upwards so that Carl has no choice but to meet his eyes. Rick looks at him, tilting his head slightly, as though he’s working him out.

“I won’t give it to anyone else,” he finally says, eyes flicking up to the hat and then back to Carl. “It’s just for you. I promise. Okay?”

Carl nods again but he means it this time. He leans forward, eyes fixed on Rick’s mouth, but Rick shakes his head, his hand falling away as he takes a step back. He looks pointedly at the door.

“Right,” Carl mutters. Rules are rules. They can’t let anyone else taint this.

“Later,” Rick tells him, squeezing Carl’s shoulder as he passes him on the way out of the room.

Carl stares at Rick’s bed and swallows hard, wishing for nightfall.

 

Combat

It feels like a life of contrasts. War and peace. Night and day. Two opposing sides that can never be reconciled.

They have a functioning community, a world away from the fighting and death that Carl knows is still out there, but inside these walls they build and they grow and they create. If he’s honest, he can’t make himself care about any of those things. He’s lost interest in anything outside of Rick’s bunk.

Rick doesn’t teach him how to kill anymore. He teaches him how to love.

“This is love,” he says as he covers Carl’s body with his own, mouths sliding wetly together.

“This is love,” as he presses his thigh between Carl’s legs, making him buck up.

“This is love,” as he takes hold of Carl’s hand, guides Carl’s fingers to close around his cock, to stroke him until he comes, sticky and gross in a way that still makes him want to giggle.

“This is love,” as his lips trail down Carl’s body, as he takes Carl’s cock wetly into his mouth. It feels tickly and it feels squishy and he tries not to think of Lori’s insides because mostly it feels good.

“This is love,” he says afterwards as he holds Carl close, stroking his hair, rocking him in his arms like he’s a baby again. Carl doesn’t mind being the one comforted, even if he doesn’t need it. It makes him feel safe, protected. This peace can’t last forever and Carl likes knowing that Rick will do anything for him when the time comes.

 

Loss of home

Carl can hear Rick calling his name, the pain and desperation in his voice, but he doesn’t slow down, doesn’t look back. There’s a burning in the pit of his stomach, anger at Rick for letting this happen. It curls his hands into fists, vibrates through every stomping step he takes. He knows there’s so much more than rage churning away inside him though. It’s the guilt that really hurts, the knowledge of his own accountability. Rick should have fought back, but Carl should have made him. He should have spoken louder, should have forced him into action, shouldn’t have let him retreat.

Carl got caught up in the dream, the supposed security, because he wanted so badly to believe this could be their lives. His mind was focussed purely on Rick’s smile, something that was taken away from him after Lori’s death, something that Carl had given back to him and he didn’t want to lose it again. He wanted the happy, contented Rick he saw working during the day, wanted the love and intensity they shared during the nights. He didn’t want to think about outside those walls. He couldn’t, not when Rick’s body was pressed against his like there was no one else in the world that mattered.

Carl bought into the lie. That’s his shame. He should have known how it would all unravel.

“Carl!”

The anguish in Rick’s voice makes Carl stop but he still can’t bring himself to turn around.

“Carl,” Rick says again, his voice totally wrecked. His laboured, shuffling steps stop by Carl’s side and he reaches out to take hold of Carl’s fingers. Carl tenses but he doesn’t pull away. “It’s just you and me now, Carl,” Rick says. “Just the two of us.” His voice is stripped bare, not from the physical pain, Carl can tell, but from the emotional loss. “We have to stick together,” he pleads, his fingers gripping Carl’s harder. “We’re all we have now.”

Carl turns to face him, swallowing uncomfortably. He feels sick of the thought of what’s happened to everybody, all of them lost, and yet he can’t deny the fact that he sometimes wished them all away. It was becoming increasingly frustrating to confine the things they did until everyone else was asleep, to try and get his fill between sunset and sunrise. It was wearing him down.

He thinks about a world where there’s no division between public and private. If they’re always alone they can kiss whenever they want, touch whenever they want. They won’t have to hide to be respectful of others. They won’t have to hold themselves back.

He links his fingers with Rick’s, squeezing his hand as he gives him a tired smile. They can make this work. Just the two of them. They don’t need anyone else.

 

Eating disorders

The neighbourhood reminds Carl of home. He tries not to get caught up in fantasies, he knows where they lead and he has to be smart about this, but there’s something about being in suburbia that makes him feel giddy inside. It’s like a fresh start, a second chance. They’ll do it right this time. They’ll stay vigilant. They’ll fight to protect what they have. Carl won’t lose anything else and he won’t ever take Rick for granted.

He stands in the master bedroom, staring at the real bed, the thick mattress, the soft blankets. He wants to crawl into it with Rick. He wants to do the things they do with air and space and daylight. He wants to revel in it.

That’s not their lives though. Not today. Survival has to come first.

He walks downstairs to see the couch cushions on the floor, a bed that Rick has made for him. Just for him. Carl looks down at it and then watches Rick limp across the room. It hurts to look at him.

“We can share,” he says.

Rick shakes his head. Carl sighs, sitting down on the makeshift bed. Rick walks past, dropping one of the scavenged bags of chips into Carl’s lap.

“You should eat.”

“I’m not hungry,” Carl tells him, putting them aside. “We should save them.”

Rick stops in his tracks, spinning around and snatching the chips back up. He stares Carl in the eye, glaring at him as he rips the bag open, throwing them back down at him. Carl catches them, watching Rick struggle over to the couch, slumping down onto it with a wince. Carl stares at him, tears welling up in his eyes.

“Did you look in the bathroom?” he asks. “They might have painkillers. Do you want me to go see?”

“No,” Rick says gruffly. “I’m fine.”

“You’re in pain,” Carl insists. “Let me help you.”

“Eat the damn chips,” Rick says.

Carl bites down on his lip, putting the packet aside again. “Please don’t shut me out. Not like before. It’s not fair.”

Rick looks at him, his face softening, and then his eyes slide closed with a sigh. He bows down his head like his body’s about to give in and Carl can’t take it. There’s a familiar ache inside him and he can’t watch Rick disappear inside him own head again. He can’t do this all on his own.

Rick lifts his head, looking over at Carl. “This isn’t like before,” he promises. “We just need to work things out. We need to take stock. If you want to help me, eat. Stay strong. I need you.”

Carl nods his head, picking up a chip and nibbling at it. He’s really not hungry, or maybe he just doesn’t recognise the sensation anymore. They don’t have the luxury of obeying their basic needs, of getting what they need when they need it.

He watches as Rick lays down along the length of the couch, sucking in air as he adjusts himself. Carl wants to curl up there with him. He doesn’t ever want space between them. He’ll only hurt Rick if he touches him now though, he can tell that from all the way across the room. He doesn’t want to be the one who causes him pain. He couldn’t take that right now. So he eats his chips and he watches Rick fall into a deep sleep and he tells himself he’s going to be strong for both of them.

The next morning, Carl is awoken by the sunlight streaming in. He turns over, looking at Rick who’s still fast asleep. Carl gets up, going through to the kitchen and grabbing some cereal. It’s almost normal except for the lack of milk. He sits on the floor by the sofa while he eats, watching Rick, wanting to wake him up. Their first morning together. He wants to make it mean something. He wants to kiss him without having to check who’s around first.

Rick was in a bad way yesterday though, Carl should let him rest. If Carl can find supplies, secure the place a little more, maybe by the time Rick wakes up they can simply enjoy the space and privacy. Carl smiles to himself at the thought. He wants to make Rick proud so he’ll show him how much he loves him.

Carl hears walkers outside and sees his chance to be strong like Rick told him. He can do this on his own. He can look after both of them. He lures the walkers away from the house, feeling like he’s in control of what happens next, but he really should know better by now. It’s messy but he gets the job done, even if he can’t be proud of it. He decides that when he tells this story to Rick, he’s going to miss out the part about being pinned down and nearly dying. That’s not who Rick needs him to be.

He brushes himself off and starts to search the houses, loading any food he finds into bags, his pride resurfacing as his haul grows. They can live off this for a while, they can make it last. They can stay here and set up house. Carl just wants a few days, a week maybe, where they can pretend to be normal. They won’t let their guard down, won’t ever stop fighting, but they can let themselves enjoy it too. They can have it all now that nobody else is watching and they only have to look out for each other.

He looks up and spies a huge tin of chocolate pudding on the top of the cabinets. When he was little, pudding was something he got as a treat, when he’d been good. He’s been good today, he’s worked hard, he’s sure that Rick would agree. Carl climbs up onto the counter and pulls the can into his arms, considering it. He could go and ask Rick, but he doesn’t want to wake him up. He needs to take responsibility for himself.

He takes his chocolate pudding up onto the roof so that he can keep an eye on things. He can multitask. This doesn’t make him irresponsible. As he spoons the pudding into his mouth, savouring the sweetness, he lets his mind wander. He thinks about sharing it with Rick when he wakes up, thinks about the smile on his face, thinks about chocolatey kisses shared between them. He thinks about that master bedroom. He thinks about being able to see Rick’s face when he comes, no longer shrouded in darkness.

Before Carl knows what he’s doing, his spoon is scraping the bottom of the can and his knuckles are smeared with pudding. He looks down at it and he feels ashamed. He didn’t save any. It’s been so long since he’s eaten something simply because he wanted it, because he was enjoying it. It feels strange to be guilty about something that’s basically a part of survival.

He licks his knuckles clean, climbing back in the window and leaving the empty can of pudding on the kitchen counter. He stares at it forlornly and tries to remember the joy it brought him moments before. As he gathers up all of the supplies he’s found he reminds himself again that he’s been good. Maybe like the close call with the walkers though, Carl won’t mention this to Rick.

“I’m back,” he calls through the house as he dumps his food in the kitchen with a grin. There’s no response. He heads through to the living room to find Rick still fast asleep on the sofa exactly as he left him.

“Dad,” he says. “I’m back.” Nothing. Carl rolls his eyes, moving closer. “I got food. Lots of it. I did good. I was strong like you said. And I killed some walkers too. We can stay here. It’ll be safe. I’ll keep us safe.”

He stares down at Rick, the way his chests rises and falls, but somehow it doesn’t look peaceful. It feels wrong. Rick always woke up when Carl went into his room when he was a kid, even if he’d been working a nightshift. He was always vigilant, even in his sleep. Even before monsters were real, he’d never let anything hurt Carl.

“Dad?” he asks, but his voice is too meek and it will never get through. “Dad!” Not even the flicker of an eyelid. Carl leans right down into his face. “Dad!”

Carl can feel all of the bluster go out of him. He’s been playing pretend all day and he knows it. This was never something he could do on his own. He can’t keep Rick safe if he’s already dying. He thinks of all the things that can go wrong in a body, internal bleeding and heart failure, and his eyes well up with tears.

“Dad!” he screams in his face. “Wake up! Wake up, wake up, wake up!”

He hits Rick, full body shoves him, but it doesn’t get a reaction. Rick’s leg falls from where it’s resting on the couch, his foot hitting the floor with a dead thud. Carl moves back, feeling guilty and sick. He can’t even take care of himself. He can’t even eat properly to keep himself alive. Not that it matters. If Rick dies, he’s dead anyway.

There’s not much else to do so he secures the house and he sits and he waits. If he’s going down, he’s going down with Rick. He doesn’t want it to happen any other way. It takes a long time, hours Carl thinks, but he doesn’t have anything to gauge it by. The sun goes down and beside him he hears the wheeze, so familiar, and he tries not to be scared. It’s going to hurt but then it’s over and there’s nothing to separate them again.

Rick’s body, what used to be Rick, reaches for him and Carl can’t help himself, he moves away, watching from a distance as Rick falls from the couch, that rasping breath that haunts Carl’s nightmares echoing in the darkness between them. Carl’s glad he won’t have to watch, that everything can be black instead of red. Rick pulls himself across the floor and Carl braces himself, flinching as fingers land on his ankle.

“Make it quick,” he whispers, more to himself than whatever his father has turned into. “Just do it.”

“Carl.”

Carl looks down, not quite able to trust what he’s hearing. Rick looks back at him, breathing laboured, but he’s there, he’s still there.

“Don’t go outside,” Rick rasps. “Stay safe.”

Carl moves to him, leaning down and pressing their foreheads together, tears dripping down his face. “I’m scared,” he admits.

He kisses Rick’s forehead, his cheeks, all over his face like Rick did that first time. He brushes his lips against Rick’s, dry and chapped but warm. Carl feels like that warmth gives him life. Rick can’t kiss him back but there’s the tiniest movement that tells Carl he wants to.

“I’ll keep watch,” he tells Rick.

Rick shakes his head. “Sleep. Rest.”

Carl moves, lying on the hard floor beside Rick’s body. He can’t rest against him like he usually does, can’t bury himself in Rick’s chest, but this is enough. The heat from Rick’s body, the sound of his breaths, this is everything.

He wakes with the sunlight again but this time he’s not the only one. He goes through to the kitchen to fetch food for them both, feeling the swell of pride at being able to provide.

“You did good,” Rick tells him.

Carl smiles, shifting closer. “We’re going to be okay,” he says. “We’ll look after each other.”

Rick nods, leaning in to kiss Carl on the cheek, but Carl turns, moving to kiss him on the lips instead. Rick smiles against him, kissing him back, tentative at first, like it’s new, or maybe like he wants to savour it. Carl promises himself he’s not going to take this for granted. Nothing to hide.

As their lips part to one another, a knock at the door makes them both jump apart. Rick grabs his gun, pulling himself up to look through the peephole. He laughs, sagging back onto the couch as he looks down at Carl.

“It’s for you.”

 

Stalkers

Carl knows that all the things he imagined about he and Rick and that little suburb couldn’t really come true, but he didn’t even get chance to pretend. He thought they might get one day where they could just be happy together before they had to give in to this. The road. The search. The exhaustion and hunger and uncertainty.

Through everything else, through each tired step, Carl is eaten up by something else though. Guilt. In the instant he saw Michonne through the peephole, he wasn’t happy to see her. He resented the fact that she’d found them, that she was going to change everything. Rick hasn’t kissed him since she knocked on the door, has barely touched him and never in the way he wanted.

After sharing a small rabbit between the three of them, Carl goes to bed hungry but at least he has some shelter. He curls up in the front seat of the abandoned car, Rick and Michonne’s voices by the fire lulling him off to sleep and he hates that he ever resented having her here. She’s a comfort to him just like Rick is and he needs all the comfort he can get. They’ll find another place to stay. They’ll build a new home. Carl and Rick will find their moments of privacy again. It can’t be like this forever.

He wakes to a strange man at the window, a knife pressed against the glass. He looks over to see a gun to Rick’s head and his whole body goes cold. They’re surrounded. There’s no way out of this.

The car door is opened and the man grabs Carl, drags him out and throws him to the ground. Carl doesn’t have time to reach for his gun and he curses himself for looking to Rick to protect him when he should have been preparing to fight himself. He remembers Rick’s instruction for him to be strong but now he has no leverage between the man and the cold ground.

Carl knows enough now to know what this is as he feels his trousers tugged, hears a belt unfasten behind him. It’s the touch that he’s been craving, he knows how this goes, but it’s supposed to be about love. It’s supposed to be something special. He didn’t know it could be used in violence too.

A gunshot rings out and Carl tries to hold the man off long enough for Rick to save him because Rick is going to save him, he can feel it in his bones. The desperation of the fight behind him is the same one that keeps Carl kicking and squirming with all his strength.

“You leave him be,” Rick growls.

Rick won’t let this happen. Not this. It’s supposed to be about love and Carl isn’t going to let this man take something he’s only willing to share with Rick. It’s special, it’s what bonds them and it’s what keeps fuelling this fight.

Carl hears the scream, quickly muted, and tilts his head to see the spray of blood, Rick spitting out a chunk of flesh. He stares, scared but in awe. It’s for him. Rick is saving him. Rick is loving him.

The man drags Carl up to his feet, an arm wrapped around his neck, a knife held up to him. Rick leans down, taking a knife from one of the bodies and pointing it towards the man.

“He’s mine.”

The words send a thrill through Carl as Rick strides towards him. The man pushes Carl away, lets him go like it’s going to save himself. Michonne pulls Carl in close, cradles his head, but Carl doesn’t look away. He watches Rick plunge the knife into the man over and over, staring him right in the eye. At first he screams but as he folds down to the ground, Rick going with him, the only sound is the sickening plunge of the knife that continues long after the man is dead.

This is how much Rick cares about him and Carl is going to internalise every last bit of it. It might just see him through.

 

Hostages

They’re hungry and exhausted and now Daryl is back with them there’s an extra mouth to feed. Carl shouldn’t resent that. He tries not to. He tries to let go of his suburban fantasy, having Rick to himself. None of them are getting what they want here. Survival is what matters. They’re tougher than everyone else out there, they’ve proved that already, and they’ll keep proving it if they have to.

When they finally reach Terminus, they don’t take any chances. They do the smart thing, they check the place out, go in the back way, but it all amounts to nothing. Tough isn’t going to save them now.

The men intrinsically know that Carl is Rick’s weakness and Carl holds himself tall, unwilling to be vulnerable for them. Rick can’t play it cool and Carl loves him for it. The men call him the boy just like the ones on the road did but Rick just says my son. It gives Carl purpose and courage and he doesn’t listen to anybody else. He never looks away from Rick.

When Carl steps inside the train car after the others, Rick is right there waiting for him, pulling him close as soon as he’s through the door. Carl puts his hand on Rick’s waist and he wants to fold into him but they can’t do that here. Last night, after the attack, Rick had held him all night, gripping him like he was the most precious thing in the world. Carl had missed it so much, the way they were tangled together in Rick’s bunk at the prison. They couldn’t kiss like that though, couldn’t touch. They couldn’t do all of the things Carl craves more than food and they can’t do them now. But if holding each other was okay last night, maybe it can be now. He doesn’t know if this is a good enough excuse though. He doesn’t understand the rules.

There’s movement in the darkness at the other end of the train car and Rick moves in front of Carl, shielding him. Glenn is the first one to emerge, Maggie close behind him, and Carl leans around Rick to watch his friends reappear as though they were never really gone. The group is back together and Carl thinks that Rick has never been more capable of being their leader.

That night, when everything is quiet and only the tiniest slivers of light creep through the cracks of the train car, Rick sits down by Carl’s side. They have their plan, there’s nothing to do but wait now. Rick shifts closer, reaching out and taking hold of Carl’s hand, squeezing it in his own. It gives Carl that warm feeling in his gut.

“You okay?” Rick asks.

“Yeah,” Carl responds.

Rick leans in, pressing his forehead against Carl’s temple, the movement pushing Carl’s hat out of place. Carl closes his eyes as Rick breathes him in before placing a kiss on Carl’s cheekbone. It the silence it’s too loud, everyone can hear.

“You’re okay?” Rick asks again, his face still pressed against Carl’s. Carl nods, not needing to speak this time. “Okay,” Rick whispers, breathy against his cheek. Carl shivers, clenching Rick’s hand in his own. Rick pulls back. “You should get some sleep.”

“I’ll stay up with you,” Carl tells him.

Rick let’s go of his hand. “Sleep. Rest. Stay strong.”

Carl nods even though Rick can’t see him now, can’t feel him. He shifts down so that he’s laid on the hard floor, his head resting against Rick’s thigh. It reminds him of the night in the house, the one night they had, but he knows he doesn’t haven’t to be scared this time.

In the morning they come for Rick along with Daryl, Glenn and Bob. Carl refuses to be scared. He knows they’re coming back. He knows that Rick would do anything to get back to him. Anything. This isn’t how the story ends.

The others are coming up with plans, trying to get the door open, but Carl is calm. His heart is pounding in his chest but it’s not fear, it adrenaline. It’s anticipation. “My dad’s gonna be back,” he tells them, waiting by the door. And when he is, Carl will be ready.

It’s obvious without being able to see that something has gone wrong out there, but chaos is a good sign. Chaos means that Rick isn’t going down quietly. Carl feels that little thrill as he remembers the way Rick drove the knife into the man that threatened Carl, gutted him, turned him literally inside out. Daryl had cleaned Rick up but Carl didn’t mind the blood. He’s not squeamish. If the blood is someone else’s then they’re still winning.

They can smell smoke, hear walkers and gunfire. Getting out of here won’t be easy. That doesn’t mean they can’t do it. Carl is ready. As the door unbolts he gets to his feet, holding up his makeshift weapon as he watches it slide open. Rick is stood there with a machine gun like the best kind of action hero Carl has ever seen.

“Let’s go!” he yells, his attention already turned back to the disaster around him. “Fight to the fence!”

They file out and as soon as he’s clear of the train car, Carl runs to Rick who is already there ready to catch him. Rick looks him over, a silent question in his eyes, and Carl nods, the assurance they both need to fight on. All they need is each other.

 

On the run

Every step feels like a death march because what are they even walking towards? Judith’s back with them now, everyone’s together, but it barely seems to matter. Nobody talks much, reserving their energy for when they need it. There’s never enough food and water to go around.

That’s not what Carl is craving though. It’s Rick’s touch that he’s really starved for.

They lay across from each other at night and Carl can feel his body heating up just from the thought of it. He’s used to hunger, used to his tongue dragging in his dry mouth, but this is something new. Being denied something that’s right in front of him, close enough to touch, makes him want to tear his own skin off.

When everyone else is asleep, they stare at each other through the darkness of whatever place they ran out of daylight that day, and Carl shifts closer but Rick always shakes his head, gives him a warning look. These are things that are supposed to happen behind closed doors. Carl isn’t sure if they’ll ever see a door again.

Carl never complains, tries not to let his frustrations show, but he can sense Rick watching him during the day and it makes him even more tense. He’s trying his best, he doesn’t need Rick constantly judging his performance.

One morning, Rick shakes him gently awake as the sun is just starting to shine through the leaves. That means it’s early. Carl sits up groggily, looking at everyone else still sleeping on the ground. “Come on,” Rick whispers, nodding his head away from the clearing.

Carl gets to his feet, rubbing sleep from his eyes as he follows. “What’s going on?” he asks as they get out of earshot of the others.

“I missed you,” Rick says, leading him further away. “I know it hasn’t been easy.”

Carl feels that little thrill in his stomach, his footsteps speeding up. “We’re still alive,” he says, as though that’s what really matters to him anymore. He wants to prove to Rick that he’s brave though. He wants to prove he’s worth it.

“Sometimes you need a little more than that though,” Rick says.

“Where are you going?”

They both turn to see Daryl behind them, looking curious. Of course Daryl is awake, skulking in the shadows.

“We were just going to see if we could rustle up some breakfast,” Rick says.

Daryl gives a curt nod, adjusting the bow on his shoulder. “I’ll come with you.”

“No,” Carl says indignantly, feeling his eyes flare. None of them know what the next few hours, the next few days, might hold, if they’ll ever find any kind of stability again. This might be the only chance they get at this and Carl’s not letting it get taken away when it’s so close.

Daryl looks at Carl, clearly puzzled by his outburst. Rick glances at Carl, moving towards Daryl.

“The kid needs to let off some steam,” Rick says. “Things have been pretty tense lately. I’ll take care of it. Why don’t you stay here and keep an eye on things?”

“Okay,” Daryl agrees, still eying Carl warily. He turns back to Rick, giving him a nod before heading back towards the group.

“I wish you wouldn’t call me a kid,” Carl says.

Rick looks at him for a long moment, his eyes softening with regret before he looks forward at the woods ahead of them, starting to walk. “It got rid of him, didn’t it?”

As they get further away, Rick glances behind him and then reaches out to take Carl’s hand in his own. He twines their fingers together, looking over to smile at him as he leads him deeper into the woods. Carl can feel the heat rising inside him, impatience making him literally itchy, and he wants to rub himself against every inch of Rick to make it stop, or maybe just to set himself on fire. He tugs at Rick’s hand, trying to stop them walking.

“A little further,” Rick tells him, glancing behind them again.

“We’ll get lost,” Carl says. “It’s far enough.”

Rick chuckles. “We’re fine. I don’t want to have to worry about being interrupted. Again.”

“Please,” Carl whines, his voice breaking on the word. It was hard enough to hold himself together before; being this close feels impossible.

Rick stops, looking down at him. There’s that soft look in his eyes again as he tugs on Carl’s hand to bring him closer, letting go to rest his fingers on Carl’s waist. “I’m sorry,” he whispers, reaching down with his other hand to stroke Carl’s cheek.

Carl presses against him, wrapping both arms around Rick’s neck and pulling himself up for a kiss. Rick tugs him in close as their mouths fit together and Carl had almost forgotten what this felt like. It unleashes something in him that he’s tried to keep wrapped up too tightly, shoving Rick backwards without breaking their mouths apart until they’re backed up into a tree, holding them up so Carl can press all of his weight against Rick.

They’ve never been stood up before, Carl realises, have never been anywhere but Rick’s bunk. He’s not even sure how this works, but he’s already hard and he can feel that Rick is too. Carl claws at him, desperation fuelling him on. He was so scared they’d never find a safe space to do this again. The survival part of his brain tells him this really isn’t safe, not by a longshot, but it’s what they have for now. It’s a tiny bit of privacy away from all their other responsibilities and they’re going to make it work.

Rick grabs hold of him, spinning them around and then lifting Carl up against the tree. Carl wraps his legs instinctively around Rick’s waist as Rick holds him under the thighs, pressing their hips together. Carl moans as Rick grinds against him, gripping him tight as he buries his face in Carl’s neck.

“I love you,” he gasps against Carl’s flesh. “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

Carl moves with him, squeezing his eyes shut as he bites down on his lip. Then suddenly he’s falling, all the air going out of him, but Rick is falling with him, holding him tight against him. He opens his eyes to see Rick dropped down to his knees, tugging Carl further into his lap. Their eyes meet and Rick looks as lost and needy as Carl feels. He leans in, smashing their mouths together, letting himself be consumed by it all over again.

Rick grabs him by the ass, forcing their crotches together, hard cocks rubbing together through their jeans. It’s almost painful, the constraint, the friction. Carl keens, digging his fingernails into Rick’s shoulders, pushing his hips into Rick’s.

Rick reaches between them, pulling at the buckle of Carl’s belt, breaking the kiss to look down at what he’s doing, his forehead bumping against Carl’s. When he gets the front of Carl’s jeans open he slides his hand inside, fingers closing around Carl’s cock. Carl whimpers, his hips bucking forward as Rick pulls his cock out.

Rick nods. “Hold that thought,” he says gruffly, letting go of Carl to work on his own belt.

Carl watches, vaguely aware that he should probably be helping, but they don’t usually have this many barriers, already in bed, and Rick always leads, always takes care of everything, always show Carl how. But if Carl is supposed to be a grown up then he should probably try.

Rick already has his dick in his hand before that thought becomes coherent enough in Carl’s head though, and then all reason takes flight again. Daylight, early morning sun filtering through the trees, nothing to hide behind. He’s never really been able to look before, hidden in the dark, beneath the blankets. Even when he had his head right there, when he could smell Rick so strong it was already thick on his tongue before he opened his mouth, Carl still couldn’t really see him. Now he can’t avoid it.

Rick grabs him again, bringing their bodies flush together with a growl, Carl straddling his lap. One hand slides to the small of Carl’s back to keep him steady and it makes Carl feel so safe. Rick’s other hand slides between their bodies, bringing their cocks flush together. The sensation is familiar, sliding himself against Rick’s cock through the slickness, but usually it’s just hips, bodies pressed together, never like this with Rick’s hand feeling like it’s trying to strangle them both. He cries out, his head threatening to fall back, but he doesn’t want to look away.

“You can’t be that loud,” Rick tells him.

Carl bites down on his lip, all of his senses overwhelmed. It’s been too long and it feels like his body might shatter. He watches Rick’s hand, mesmerised, and then he realises that Rick is watching too. He lifts his head to look at Rick’s face, the flushed cheeks, the sheen of sweat, the way his eyes are dark and wild. It’s similar to when he’s in a rage, when he fights to protect Carl, but it’s more than that. He’s overwhelmed too, so close to falling apart, and it’s a vulnerability Carl can’t resist eating up.

Rick looks up, catching him watching, and Carl just stares back, letting everything be written over his face, handing it all over. His lips slides from beneath his teeth, his jaw going slack as he keens. Rick stares at him, a millisecond of hesitation before his face collapses with love and want. He closes the gap between them, his hand sliding away from their cocks as he cradles Carl’s face, kissing him deeply. It’s like that first kiss, the one that Carl thought might kill him but he couldn’t seem to care.

Rick guides him backwards, never breaking the kiss, until he’s laid back in the dirt, Rick’s body weighing him down in that familiar way. He tries not to think of the man by the road pushing him body into the cold ground. He wouldn’t have kissed him like this. He wouldn’t have loved him like this.

Rick’s hand slides back down his body, taking only Carl’s cock in his hand now, Carl bucking his hips wildly upwards. “Can’t make a mess,” Rick mutters to himself, and then his hand is gone and his mouth is gone and Carl can’t help but cry out. “Shhhh,” Rick reminds him harshly.

He doesn’t say anything else, his mouth wrapping around Carl’s cock, and as Carl comes, instantly, irresistibly, with a violence that feels like it’s going to rip him apart, Rick puts a hand over Carl’s mouth to muffle his moans. Carl writhes, not sure if it goes dark because his eyes have fallen closed or because he’s lost all control of his body, unable to even find air with Rick’s hand in the way, but he can’t help thinking this would be an amazing way to die.

As he shivers in the dirt, Rick’s tongue licking over his softening dick as he lets it slip from his mouth, Rick finally moves his hand away. Carl gasps for breath, his whole body arching with it, and it takes a couple of seconds for Rick’s form hovering over him to come into focus.

“Sorry,” Rick says. “Sound travels. They can’t hear us.”

Carl nods. He knows the rules. These things are private. It’s not fair to make other people witness them. Besides, secrets make it more special. He likes having this one thing that’s just for them and no one else.

He tugs at his pants as he sits up, knowing he must be dragging dirt into his underwear. He reaches for Rick, pulling them flush again as he wraps his hand around Rick’s cock. Rick tenses, clenching his jaw as he grabs hold of Carl’s shirt. He keeps himself under control though, unlike Carl, only small grunts escaping as Carl strokes him in all the ways that Rick has taught him. He massages the head, jerks him fast, his hand sliding in the wetness of his precome, and Carl remembers what Rick said about making a mess. He can’t remember the last time they had a wash. Who knows when they’ll be able to have one again.

He knows all of Rick’s tells by now, but he knows them in the dark, not the light. He knows the hardness of his body when he’s wound up so tight on the edge of orgasm but he’s never seen that vein standing out on his neck before. He knows the flood of wetness that leaks right before he comes but he’s never seen it shimmering on his fingers.

He cups his hand, finishing Rick off and managing to catch most of it with his palm. He feels proud as he pulls it away, holding it up and looking at the milky liquid. He’s felt it before, hot and sticky, but he’s never seen it. He stares, breathing in through his nose, and then he dips in a finger from his other hand, lifting it up to his mouth to taste. He knows the bitter flavour, the texture of it against his tongue, but it feels different when he’s looking right at it.

“Don’t do that,” Rick tells him.

Carl looks up to see Rick grimacing at him. “I like it,” he says. “You ate mine.”

“That’s different,” Rick says, still looking unsettled. He grabs Carl’s wrist and turns his hand, pushing his sticky palm into the dirt.

“Gross,” Carl complains, lifting his hand to find the come mixed into a muddy mess.

Rick picks up a large leaf, pulling Carl’s hand back towards himself and wiping it off with such care that Carl doesn’t argue anymore. When he’s done, Rick tosses the leaf aside and sighs, righting his pants before he leans back against a sturdy tree trunk. He holds a hand out in invitation, Carl smiling at him as he accepts it, allowing himself to be pulled into Rick’s lap. He cradles him there, rocking him like he’s a baby, and Carl happily curls into his chest.

“I love you so much,” Rick tells him. “That doesn’t change just because I can’t show you like this as much as I want to.”

“I know,” Carl agrees. “I love you too.”

Rick leans down, brushing a kiss against Carl’s temple. “You know, we’re going to have to actually find some breakfast now or Daryl’s going to be pissed.”

Carl laughs, closing his eyes as he snuggles in closer. “Five more minutes,” he says. “Then we’ll go.”

“Five more minutes,” Rick agrees, hugging Carl closer.

 

Nervous breakdown

Alexandria reminds Carl of the neighbourhood he and Rick found after the prison fell. It’s not the same, not their own little private escape, but it’s got all those comforts he thought he might never see again. There’s houses, beds, doors, and some of those doors even have locks. There’s more important things too, the survival things, food and running water and walls. That’s not what Carl’s mind latches onto though. He’s so sick of survival, he just wants to just live for a while. He wants to know if he can.

Once he’s done investigating the house he throws himself down on the sofa, trying to get his head around the fact that maybe they could stay here. Maybe this could be it. Michonne comes and joins him, falling into the cushions at the other side of him. Neither of them speaks, they don’t quite have the words for this yet, but they smile at each other, an acknowledgement of what they’ve found, what they might be able to keep.

“Carl,” Rick calls from the bathroom where he went to try out the new plumbing. It’s not the urgent way he usually calls Carl’s name, it’s casual and questioning, like when he used to call Carl down from his room to set the table. It makes Carl feel nostalgic and safe.

“Yeah?” he responds.

“Come here,” Rick tells him. “I want to show you something.”

Carl exchanges a look with Michonne, heading up the stairs to find Rick. He’s in the bathroom doorway, still dripping from the shower, a towel wrapped low around his hips. Carl can’t stop his eyes from sliding over the exposed flesh, his own body already responding as Rick closes the door behind them, sliding the lock into place.

“You could have called me up here earlier,” Carl complains. “Now you’re clean and I’m still dirty.”

Rick turns to face him. “You can shower after. You should. That water pressure is amazing.”

“After what?” Carl asks suggestively, raising his eyebrows.

Rick moves over to the sink, wiping the condensation off the mirror and looking at him. “I’m going to shave this off,” he says, gesturing to his beard. “I wanted to show you how. You’ll need to know yourself soon enough.”

“You called me up here so you could teach me how to shave?” Carl asks.

“This is the kind of thing that fathers and sons do,” Rick tells him, still staring at himself in the mirror. He sighs before looking up at Carl and forcing a smile. He picks up a pair of scissors. “First you need to trim.”

“I like the beard,” Carl says as he hops up onto the counter to Rick’s side. “It tickles.”

“Are you paying attention?” Rick asks, the irritation clear in his voice.

“Yeah,” Carl says, unable to stop the pout forming on his face.

Rick pulls at his beard, using the scissors to chop at the unruly strands. “I just want to do something normal.”

“We can do all kinds of normal things here,” Carl says.

Rick nods his head, his focus still on his own reflection. “Yeah.”

As Rick continues to work on the length of his beard with the scissors, Carl’s gaze falls away. “We need to be careful though,” he says. “No farming. Other people can do that. We need to protect this place.”

“We will,” Rick insists, finally looking at Carl, making sure he’s looking back. “We’re the people who can.”

Carl watches as Rick continues to chop roughly into his beard with the scissors, frowning when he finally places them down on the counter by Carl’s side.

“That looks worse than when you started,” Carl says.

“I’m not done yet,” Rick responds.

“It’s really patchy,” Carl continues. “All you’ve done is make a mess.”

Rick smiles. “Patchy is something you’ll have to get used to when this starts to grow in,” he says, playfully tapping Carl’s cheek.

Carl shoves him back before lifting a hand up to touch his own jaw. “You really think I’ll need to do this soon?”

Rick looks at him, serious and contemplative. “You’re growing up.”

Carl drops his hand down into his lap. He doesn’t want to be too old for this thing between them. Ever since they found out Judith was alive, Carl has had a nagging thought in the back of his head. Will there be a crossover point, a day when Judith is the right age and Carl is old news? Is that how it works?

Rick picks up a can of shaving foam, holding it up to Carl before shaking it. “Step two.”

Carl rolls his eyes. “I know how it works.”

“You’re going to be grateful for this,” Rick tells him, lathering up his face. He picks up the razor. “You want to go with the grain,” he says, running the blade through the foam, the hair coming off with it. “And don’t press down too hard. That’s how you cut yourself. Let the razor do the work.”

Carl nods, some part of his mind not able to grasp that this might be something he will need. It still feels weird to be in this house, he feels like he shouldn’t be letting his guard down this much, like his mind should be set on killing instead, survival. This isn’t like the farming though, this is just a moment in time, and Carl can give that to Rick. He can tell how much it means to him.

Rick splashes water on his face, rinsing off the last bits of shaving foam before grabbing a towel and patting his face dry. He straightens himself up, presenting himself to Carl. “What do you think?”

Carl considers him for a moment. “You look… clean.”

Rick laughs. “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

“No,” Carl says, still trying to square away how it makes him feel. “You look less like a crazy homeless guy,” he offers. “I think the nervous breakdown look was making people… nervous.”

Rick smiles at him, running a hand over his jaw as he looks in the mirror. “We should try and make a good impression with these people.”

“Then it’s a good look,” Carl agrees.

Rick moves over to stand directly in front of him. “But?”

Carl shrugs, lifting up a hand to feel Rick’s smooth cheek. “I dunno. I like the tickle.”

“It can tickle again,” Rick says, leaning in. “Give it a few days.”

One of his hands lands on Carl’s thigh, the other skimming his cheek and sliding into his hair as he leans in to kiss him. Carl doesn’t remember it ever feeling like this, not even at the prison when this first began. There was always stubble that grated Carl’s skin or a beard that scratched or the longer facial hair that tickled, the one Carl was more recently familiar with but that had been held at arm’s length for too long, never able to indulge like they wanted without a safe base and so many people around.

Carl could get used to this though, he thinks, as Rick’s tongue slides into his mouth, slipping over his own. He rubs his thumb over Rick’s soft cheek, tilting his head. If they get to do this, he doesn’t care about the details. He pulls Rick between his legs, wrapping them around his back, Rick pushing him back against the wall with so much force it makes Carl grunt. He doesn’t let it break his stride though, just tugs Rick closer to him, getting lost in the expanse of flesh as he runs a hand down Rick’s back to his low riding towel.

A knock on the door makes Rick pull out of the kiss, panting as he grips Carl like he might have to protect him.

“Rick?” Michonne calls through the door.

“Yeah?” Rick calls back, making an obvious effort to keep his voice even.

“There’s a neighbour here,” Michonne says, sounding like the words don’t quite make sense to her.

“I’ll be right there,” Rick tells her. He looks at Carl, pulling him back up to sit on the edge of the counter. He looks him over, placing a kiss on his temple before he steps away, reaching for his clothes. “You should take a shower,” he says.

“Yeah,” Carl agrees, looking over at the still wet stall.

Fully dressed, Rick pauses at the door, his hand on the lock. “When things settle down,” he promises. They both know what he means. Carl nods his head in understanding, taking one last look before Rick pulls his T-shirt on over his damp skin.

 

Wildcard – lost childhood

There’s an adjustment period. They have to learn to trust the people around them, learn to fit into the rhythm of the place. They find there’s a lot of teaching to do as well, the people inside these walls aren’t prepared for what’s out there. Sometimes Carl is amazed they’ve made it this far.

But things settle down, just like Rick said. Their little group spreads out, letting go of the need to cram together for safety. It’s less oppressive, less claustrophobic. It’s the little family home Carl imagined. Well, not quite how he imagined. But he’s glad that Judith’s here with them, ashamed of how special it made him feel that it was just the two of them after the prison. He’s glad for Michonne’s presence in the house as well, the way she grounds Rick, the way she can always make Carl smile, the way she can be trusted to keep to herself. It’s the perfect balance to allow Carl to start sneaking back into Rick’s bed at night.

One night, when Carl is laid on his bed reading a comic, Rick is the one to come to him. Carl smiles at him as Rick closes the door behind himself.

“Hey,” Rick greets in a way that seems strangely formal.

“Hi,” Carl returns.

Rick approaches the bed, sitting down on the edge and placing something down at the other side of himself. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you about something.”

“Yeah?” Carl asks. He closes the comic book and Rick’s eyes fall down to the movement.

“I feel like it’s time,” Rick says, his eyes still directed downwards.

“Just say it, dad,” Carl insists.

Rick looks up at him with a sigh. “You’re growing up,” he says with a mixture of fondness and regret. “And things change when you grow up. The ways you express love change. Because when two people, two consenting adults…” He trails off, his eyes landing on the comic again.

“Are you talking about sex?” Carl asks. “Are you about to give me the birds and bees talk?”

Rick looks up, smiling like he’s amused, but it doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “I love you,” he says in that same fierce way he always says it. “Sex, it’s about intimacy, it’s the closest you can be to another person. It’s like you’re not even two people.” He looks down at the comic again, picking it up and placing it on the nightstand before turning back to Carl. “I wondered if you wanted me to show you how?”

Carl is ashamed to admit that he doesn’t really understand all of it, that he knows how babies are made but he’s not sure how that translates here. All he knows is that he has that hot feeling prickling at his flesh and there’s an intensity in Rick’s eyes that he wants to answer, that he wants to feel under his skin. He nods his head.

“We don’t have to,” Rick tells him. “It’s up to you.”

“I want to,” Carl says. “Show me.”

Rick reaches forward, taking hold of Carl’s hand. Carl props himself up a little further, waiting for Rick to join him, but Rick just stares at his own thumb stroking over Carl’s knuckles. Carl squeezes his fingers, reaching up with his free hand to touch Rick’s face, no longer smooth after a fresh shave but prickly in a way that sets Carl’s skin on edge, makes him shudder and want to beg. Rick lifts his gaze, meeting Carl’s eyes, licking his lips as he considers him.

“I don’t need a pep talk,” Carl tells him. “Or a lecture, or whatever else you’re building up to. You taught me how to do all that other stuff.”

“I did,” Rick agrees tightly.

“You didn’t make a big deal about it,” Carl continues. “It’s just love. We’re in love. Show me.”

Something softens on Rick’s face and he leans in, pressing his mouth hard against Carl’s. “I never want to stop showing you,” he breathes against his lips before kissing him deeper, swiping his tongue into Carl’s mouth and making him groan. Carl pulls him closer, wanting to be covered by him, weighed down, suffocated. Rick pulls back, reaching behind himself and retrieving a bottle of something, placing it on the nightstand on top of the comic. “We’ll need that later,” he says, adjusting himself so that he’s laid on the bed alongside Carl.

“What is it?” Carl asks.

Rick looks at it. “I found it in a house we searched, after Terminus, before we found this place,” he explains, turning to Carl. “I wasn’t looking for it, but I found it and I’ve put a lot of thought into it since then.” Carl frowns at him, not getting it. Rick takes a steadying breath. “It’s so that I can…” he trails off, the air coming out of him as a sigh.

“Fuck me?” Carl finishes for him.

Rick gives him an unimpressed look. “What have I told you about watching your language?”

“But that’s what you’re going to do,” Carl says. “Right?”

Rick licks his lips slowly, like he’s buying time. “If you want me to.”

Carl nods his head, closing his eyes as Rick leans in to kiss him. It’s just the same as always, same kisses, same touches, same way Rick slowly takes him over, pushing Carl down into the bed. Carl loves that they have a bed. The undressing still feels a little strange and they do some of it themselves but Carl likes Rick’s hands on him. He likes having all the barriers taken away.

They lie together on the bed, naked but for the blanket they’ve pulled over themselves, never knowing when an interruption might come and an excuse need to be made. There are certain things they can never take for granted. Rick’s hand is hooked under Carl’s thigh, gripping him there like he doesn’t want to let go.

“I need to…” he begins, reaching for the bottle he placed on the nightstand earlier. “If I put this on my fingers I can put them inside you.”

“Put your fingers inside me?” Carl asks.

“Fingers first,” Rick tells him. “Then dick.”

Carl nods, that fluttery impatient feeling in his stomach. “Okay.”

Rick reaches for one of the pillows, dragging it down the bed and then manipulating Carl onto it so that his hips are angled upwards, Carl pliant as ever in his hands. He watches as Rick dribbles some of the liquid onto his fingers.

“It’ll feel weird,” Rick tells him. “It might hurt the first time.”

“I’m not scared of pain,” Carl tells him.

Somethings passes over Rick’s face but he forces it away before Carl can grab hold. Rick pushes his legs further open, hand sliding between Carl’s thighs, and Carl’s dick gives a little jump in anticipation, only to be ignored. This isn’t like before. Rick moves further back and Carl braces himself but Rick doesn’t push inside, he just touches him there, between his cheeks, against his hole. It makes Carl squirm, not out of discomfort, just newness.

Rick leans into him, kissing him again, slow and deep and like he has the ability to make this last forever. Carl doesn’t doubt that. He pulls Rick closer, wriggles against him, the tickly feeling of Rick’s fingers making it hard to keep still. He finds it almost impossible to focus on any one thing, the familiar kiss and the new sensation and the anticipation of where it all goes, it battles for Carl’s attention and makes his head spin while Rick steals his breath away.

He feels lightheaded, confused but not sure if he wants it to make sense. Then Rick’s fingertip edges its way inside him, a feeling of pressure that demands his attention, and Carl can’t think about anything else, can’t even remember to breathe. He wants to shy away from it because it’s so intimate, but Rick told him that’s the point. It’s about trust. It’s about having nothing left to hide.

Rick keeps kissing him, keeps touching him in all the right ways to keep him distracted and needy as he edges deeper, the tiniest fraction at a time. Carl almost doesn’t realise it’s happening until he feels it curl deep inside him, somewhere he never thought you could be touched. He pulls out of the kiss, gasping for air, feeling himself tighten around Rick’s finger.

“Are you okay?” Rick asks.

Carl nods frantically, not able to put it into words, not even able to process it. Rick watches his face as he pushes his finger deliberately deeper, all the way in, and Carl keens, begging with his eyes, not even knowing what he’s begging for. Rick moves his finger gently, a push and pull, leaning in to kiss Carl’s cheek, his jaw, his neck. Carl lets his eyes fall closed, lets himself just feel, lets it take him over because he doesn’t know what other choice he has.

He feels like he’s not in control of his own body anymore, like he’s a puppet on a string. Rick slides another finger into him, stretching him open, and Carl bites down on his lip, Rick’s teeth grazing over his collarbone. As Rick’s fingers slide in and out of him Carl feels like there’s something on the tip of his tongue, a memory he can’t quite grasp. His hips ride upwards into Rick’s touch, knowing intrinsically what to do, but his body knows what it wants, it’s been here before, if not down this road.

As he focuses on the sensation he’s suddenly hit with a sense memory, that thing that was hovering just out of his grasp. The slippery heat of Rick’s fingers inside his body, it reminds him of his own fingertips sliding through Lori’s blood, delving inside her. The thought doesn’t turn his stomach like he knows it should. He opens his eyes, frowning up at the ceiling, Rick’s face still buried in his neck, still lost to his own seeking.

It's just a sensation, a physical overlap, lacking the emotional echo that trauma should have. He pushes her from his mind, pushes thoughts of Judith away too. He’s not sharing right now. This is for him. He’s earned this in so many horrible ways and he’s going to get what he deserves. He’s going to be loved, be the only person in the world to Rick, if only for this moment.

He reaches down, running his fingers through Rick’s hair, getting his attention. Rick looks up, a question in his eyes.

“Can we do it?” Carl asks.

“Yeah,” Rick agrees.

He goes in deep with his fingers one more time and then pulls them out, adjusting his position between Carl’s legs as he grabs for the bottle. Carl watches as he pours some of the liquid onto his hard cock, already shining with precome. Carl wants to taste it. Rick always makes him feel greedy.

“It might hurt,” Rick reminds him, getting himself into position. “Tell me if it hurts too much.”

Carl nods his agreement, still not quite knowing what to expect, even after all the build up. Rick’s cock is bigger than his fingers, blunter, wider, making Carl feel like he can’t breathe. It’s hotter too, so hot that Carl is sure he’s burning up, wanting to throw the blanket off them, not caring about the consequences.

It does hurt, really actually hurts, not unbearably but in a way that’s inescapable. He grips hold of Rick, shudders beneath him, but he never wants it to stop because Rick is right, there’s no way to possibly be closer to someone than this. He stares up into Rick’s eyes because he doesn’t know what to do or say and Rick always guides him through. Rick takes care of him.

“Breathe,” Rick tells him.

Carl nods, because that sounds like excellent advice, but it’s another few moments before he manages to actually follow through on it. His head falls back as he lets the air fill his lungs, taking the edge off. His body gives with a whimper, feeling like he can bend instead of snapping. It makes Rick feel more fluid inside him, pulls him in deeper. Carl moves his hips experimentally, moaning at the feel of Rick’s cock shifting, searing him in two.

When he lifts his head to look at Rick again his pupils are blown wide, his whole body vibrating. “This is love,” he tells Carl, the same declaration he used to make in his bunk at the prison. This is another way to love.

Rick starts out slow, long smooth thrusts that make Carl tingle up his spine, make him want to melt. It’s not a sensation he can equate with anything else, it’s completely overwhelming, Carl reeling as his brain tries to categorise it, come to terms with it. He can feel the tension in Rick’s body as he braces himself on the mattress either side of Carl, his own anticipation rising. He’s not sure how much more he can take, but he wants to find out.

Rick leans down, brushing their lips together, not a kiss but maybe a reassurance. Carl slides his hand into Rick’s hair, wanting to pull him down again, be kissed properly, but he doesn’t think he could handle that on top of everything else and there’s a focus in Rick’s eyes that he doesn’t want to lose. He feels like there’s secrets there and he wants to learn them. This is his coming of age and he wants it to change him. He wants to be the man Rick needs. He wants to know how.

Rick shifts his weight, lifting a hand to grab hold of Carl’s hip. He rubs his thumb over the flesh before gripping firmly, holding him steady as he begins to move faster, harder. Each thrust has a little more power behind it than the last, gradually building until Carl feels like he’s hit with a full body blow every time Rick thrusts into him. Carl’s hand tightens in Rick’s hair, his fingers closing into a fist as he’s forced back towards the headboard.

Rick comes with a low growl in his throat, his chin dropping down to his chest. It’s the first time he’s looked away since they started and Carl feels lost without his gaze, his guidance. Rick shudders above him like a chill goes through him, digging his fingernails into Carl’s hip before he seems to make a conscious decision to unclench them. He falls bonelessly onto Carl, pressing his face into the crook of Carl’s neck, weighing him down.

Carl untangles his fingers from Rick’s hair, smoothing the strands down like Rick does to him. Rick makes a little noise as his breathing evens out, pressing his lips against Carl’s shoulder in a closed mouth kiss. He shifts, leaving a trail of kisses down Carl’s body, his cock sliding out of Carl as he moves downwards, making Carl bite down on his lip at the messy wetness of Rick’s come leaking out of him.

Rick breathes hotly over Carl’s cock, nuzzles at it before opening his mouth. He’s sloppy, careless almost, but Carl can tell it’s just exhaustion. Carl’s not sure if it’s selfish to let him continue but he couldn’t stand it if he stopped now. He closes his eyes, lost in the slide of Rick’s mouth, his tongue, loving how imperfect it is. It makes it feel more honest.

He reaches down to Rick’s hand that is still on his hip, twining their fingers together and holding on tight as his brain and his body seem to fall into sync with what Rick’s doing, holding his breath as he comes so that he doesn’t cry out. Rick swallows it down like Carl swallows his own moans, everything feeling as though it’s connected, as though they’re an unbreakable circle.

Rick pulls his mouth away, squeezing Carl’s hand as he hefts himself up, falling on the bed beside him. “That’s how grown-ups say I love you,” he tells Carl. “Everyone does it.”

Carl nods. “No one talks about it.”

Rick smiles at him, squeezing his hand again. “I knew you were old enough,” he whispers. “I knew I could trust you.”

 

Drowning

Sex is like a drug to Carl and he can’t get enough. He sneaks into Rick’s bed with him every night once the house goes quiet, an echo of the prison but so much better. It’s like playing house, playing because this can never be real, not with the threats that lie just outside those walls, but in the dark it’s easy to pretend. This isn’t a child’s game though, not anymore.

He loves to kiss, Rick’s body weighing him down, kiss until he can’t breathe and his lungs are burning but he wants just a tiny bit more. He loves hands sliding under worn T-shirts and underwear, finding hot flesh, ticklish touches that turn to desperate grabs as they dissolve into the act. He loves their bodies pressed together, no space between them, cocks painting their bellies with precome where they’re trapped. He loves Rick’s fingers inside him, that hot, slick slide, dissociating it with anything but this. He loves Rick fucking him, so overcome with how Carl’s insides feel, eyes damp and intense as he stares down at him like he’s about to break. He loves Rick.

It’s a rhythm, the things they do night after night, but instead of sating Carl it makes him crave more. He feels like he’s going under, real life, the fight, everyone else, it’s all so far above him, obscured by sunlight hitting the waves, and he never wants to surface again.

 

Loss of vision

The first thing Carl is aware of when he opens his eyes is Rick sitting by his bedside, holding onto his hand. He looks like hell, splattered with blood, his hair matted to his head with sweat. There’s dark circles under his eyes, his face drawn and pale.

The second thing he’s aware of is the pain.

He makes an involuntary noise in his throat, his fingers twitching in Rick’s hand. Rick jolts like an electric shock has gone between them, looking down at Carl as he shifts closer to the bed.

“Hey,” he says softly, tilting his head with what Carl knows is pity. “How are you feeling?”

Carl tentatively lifts his free hand, his arm feeling heavy and like it doesn’t quite belong to him. He touches his cheek, the edge of his bandage, and that’s enough. He lets his hand drop away.

“You’re going to be okay,” Rick assures him, but it sounds like he’s trying to convince himself.

“Is it gone?” Carl asks.

Rick’s eyes fall away, like he can’t stand to face Carl. He presses his lips together, shifting on his seat before looking up with renewed determination. “It’s gone. You’re here. That’s what counts.”

He squeezes Carl’s hand, grips it so tightly it hurts, and Carl nods, trying to push away the memory of the gunshot, the blood, the walkers closing in on them as he fell to the floor. Rick gets up, leaning over Carl and kissing him on the top of his head.

“You’re here,” he whispers fiercely.

Carl can smell him now, the cloying scent of death and sour sweat overpowering. He crinkles his nose as Rick pulls away. “You need to shower.”

Rick smiles, looking down at himself. “I do,” he agrees. “I didn’t want to leave you.”

Carl nods. “Thank you.”

He hesitates, the thought of being alone unsettling to him. He’s supposed to be a grown-up and grown-ups don’t need their daddies holding their hands. He tries not to see that vulnerability as a weakness. The sight of Rick turns his stomach though, brings back unsettling memories, too many of them. They’re not untouchable, they never will be, but Carl wants to believe that they’re safe right now, in this moment. He wants that fantasy left alive.

“Get cleaned up,” he tells Rick. “I’ll be okay.”

Rick considers him for a moment but he’s clearly uncomfortable enough that he’s not going to pass up the chance of a shower. He gets to his feet. “I’ll tell Denise to come check on you.”

“Okay,” Carl agrees.

“I won’t be long,” Rick promises.

He barely leaves his side while Carl is in the infirmary, keeping him company, watching over him, protecting him. When Carl is well enough to move back to the house, Rick stays with him that first night. He doesn’t hide it, tells Michonne he wants to keep an eye on him, make sure he’s okay.

It’s a new experience, going to sleep together, waking up together. Carl wishes it could be like that all the time. Sometimes he dozes off in Rick’s bed after they’ve had sex but Rick always wakes him up before morning, sending him back to his own bed which is cold and empty.

The only other time they’ve been together the whole night was after the attack on the road, the men who wanted from Carl what he’ll only ever give to Rick. The men Rick killed for him. He remembers being in the car with Michonne before Rick had come to take over, remembers listening to he and Daryl outside the part open window. I want to keep him safe. That’s all that matters. He wants that still to be true.

Just like that night, Rick holds him tight, and even though there’s no witnesses now, no Michonne sleeping close by, no Daryl keeping guard, there’s nothing beyond a hug, Rick’s dry lips brushing his temple. Carl is too tired to care. He just wants his dad.

Carl has to relearn a lot of things after his injury. His left hand becomes his shooting hand, easier to aim with even if it’s not as strong. It makes him feel disorientated, the world no longer seeming to line up with his vision, his body not able to coordinate with what he sees, what he wants to make happen. It’s the smaller things though, the loss of peripheral vision making him vulnerable, making him miss things, the loss of depth perception making it impossible to tell how close and near things are to him.

But with Rick, at night, he doesn’t have to change a thing. When they’re beneath the covers he’s always been led by touch, feel, and he allows himself to indulge all the more. Rick is gentler with him, that fierceness turned to something else, something softer. Carl didn’t like it at first, he didn’t want to be treated like he was broken, but over time he realises that Rick is just looking at him like he’s precious. He’s something to be protected but something to be savoured as well. He’s something to never let go.

 

Culture shock

Carl tries not to take the calmness for granted, he knows just how wrong things can go in a heartbeat, but the domesticity in the house makes him feel like he’s at home, as though such a place might still exist. Rick is happy, relaxed, focussed on Carl’s recovery and the things still to come. Judith is getting bigger, no longer a baby but a little person with her own personality. Michonne always has their backs, the rapport between her and Rick as they run the household making Carl feel warm. Just like a mom and dad. Just like a family.

Carl didn’t realise just how true it was.

He’s already feeling cornered, unbalanced, by this man in their house. This is supposed to be their safe space, impenetrable. And then Rick and Michonne are coming out of Rick’s bedroom, Rick pulling his shirt over his head, and Carl knows exactly what’s going on because he’s been there. This is what they do.

As they sit and listen to Jesus’ story, Carl thinks about what he’s lost, what he could still gain, but not in the same way as everyone else. The bond that he and Rick have is strong, unbreakable, but maybe that’s not enough. Carl has always tried to dismiss the fact that they’re only as close as they are because of their shared grief for Lori but he knows that it’s true. Their love for each other was built on their love for her, multiplied by it.

And now there’s Michonne, Michonne who has always been there for Carl, who has watched him grow up, who has gotten him through some of his toughest times. He trusts her. He loves her. He knows Rick does too. When you add love to love it can only grow.

When he and Rick get a moment to themselves while they pack up the RV, he can see the hesitation, the way he shifts Judith on his hip. He looks guilty, the same look he had when he came out of his bedroom earlier that morning to see Carl standing there, like he’d been caught in the act.

“Look, I was going to tell you about me and Michonne but it just happened,” Rick says, his eyes flitting around nervously, clearly worried about Carl’s reaction. “It just happened,” he emphasises. “Last night.”

Carl nods, his unasked question of how long answered. He doesn’t go to Rick’s room every night anymore, not since he got shot. Healing takes a lot of energy, that’s what Denise told him, and sometimes he falls asleep before the house gets quiet, before he gets his chance to sneak into Rick’s bed. He’s missed a lot but he’s glad he didn’t miss this, not entirely. Rick hasn’t been keeping secrets. Carl is still a part of this.

“This is, this is different,” Rick tells him, finally looking him in the eye, looking for approval.

Carl’s lips curl into a smile. He gets it. Things grow, they change, two becomes three becomes family. “It’s cool.”

When Carl is getting ready for bed that night, his body already dragging even though he didn’t go on the road with the rest of them, he realises he doesn’t have to try and stay awake. He doesn’t have to wait. Michonne is a part of this now so he doesn’t have to sneak around. Everyone under this roof is family.

He walks across the landing, listening at Judith’s door first, all settled down for the night. He glances across the hall to Michonne’s open door, her empty bedroom, before stopping outside Rick’s door. He can hear them inside, a moan from Michonne that sounds softer than the noises Carl makes, more appreciative, less desperate. Rick’s grunt he knows so well, so intimately, and he can picture Rick above her, inside her, his body taut, dripping with sweat, intensity shining in his eyes.

Carl steps back. He doesn’t want to interrupt, he knows how it feels to be in Michonne’s position, to be the only thing in the world to Rick in that moment, and he couldn’t stand to have that torn away from him. Michonne deserves this. Carl can wait his turn.

He sleeps heavily through the next morning, no one waking him early, no strangers in his house. There’s plans, talk of the Saviours, of Negan, and Carl knows that it matters but it’s not what’s on his mind right now. He watches Rick and Michonne and Judith and he feels warm. He feels complete like he hasn’t in a long time, like he’s a real person and not a fractured splinter of something.

He waits that night, waits until everything is quiet, like the house itself has fallen into a slumber, the air still and silent. It’s his favourite time of the day, always bringing a feeling of peace with it. He steps across the landing, opening Rick’s bedroom door and peeping inside. They’re both there, Rick and Michonne, tangled sheets and exposed flesh. It makes Carl chew on his lip as he crosses the room, wanting to be a part of it. He doesn’t know how it works with three but the thought of all that attention on him, all that love, it makes him hot and needy.

He tugs at the sheets on Rick’s side of the bed, loosening them to find himself an opening. There’s no room for him right now, but Rick will make room. They’ll make it work. Rick stirs, shifting, and Carl smiles as he nudges him, impatient to be a part of it. Just the thought of flesh against flesh, all of them pressed together, holding each other, that would be enough. For now.

Rick opens his eyes and then jolts, something like anger flashing over his face. He sits up, pushing at Carl to hold him at arm’s length away from the bed as he looks over his shoulder at Michonne. Once he’s satisfied that she’s not going to wake up he stands from the bed naked, pushing Carl back out into the hallway with him.

“What are you doing?” he asks frantically.

“I wanted to get in,” Carl says. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“You can’t get in,” Rick says tightly, looking at him like he’s just aimed a loaded gun at himself. “Not when Michonne’s there.”

“Why not?” Carl asks, trying to work out what he’s done wrong.

Rick’s face falls, the exasperation replaced with guilt. “Let me put some pants on,” he says. “I’ll take you back to bed.”

Carl frowns as Rick leaves him standing there. He doesn’t understand the anger, doesn’t understand the new rules, doesn’t understand why Rick is treating him like a little kid who had a nightmare and needs to be tucked back in.

When Rick returns wearing a T-shirt and some boxers he looks worn in a way he hasn’t in a long time. He looks like he’s carrying a heavy weight that no one can help him with. Carl hates the thought that he might have handed it to him.

Rick places his hand on the small of Carl’s back, guiding him back to him own bedroom. He pulls the covers back, gesturing for Carl to get in, but he doesn’t join him. Instead he pulls the blankets up over Carl, sitting on the edge of the bed as he looks down at him, stroking a hand through his hair.

“Did I do something wrong?” Carl asks.

Rick sighs, leaning forward and placing a kiss on Carl’s hair. “Maybe I didn’t explain things properly the other day. This is probably something we should have talked about, not just in passing.”

“But she joined us, right?” Carl asks. “She’s with us now.”

“She’s with me,” Rick corrects. “And you’re with me. But she can’t know that. That hasn’t changed.”

“If she’s family she should know,” Carl says. “If she’s sharing she should know.”

“She wouldn’t get it, Carl,” Rick says. “She wouldn’t understand.”

“What’s to understand?” Carl asks. “You said everyone does this.”

“Not everyone,” Rick tells him, his eyes falling away. “It’s special. This is special. It’s not special if you tell people.”

“You tell people about Michonne,” Carl points out. “Maggie and Glenn tell people. Rosita and Abraham tell people. Why are we different?”

“Carl, they wouldn’t understand,” Rick snaps, that anger flaring in his eyes again.

Carl shrinks back, feeling ashamed. All those times on the road that Rick wouldn’t touch him. All those times he had to wait until the dead of night to climb into Rick’s bed. It wasn’t because those things were private. It’s because they were wrong. The possibility makes him feel sick.

Rick’s fingers stroke over his hair again, soft and caring. “I love you,” he says, sounding like he means it. “I like having you to myself. We don’t need them. It’s just you and me against the world, right? That’s the deal.”

Carl nods his head. He wants that still to be true.

Rick leans over, his breath brushing Carl’s ear. “They can’t ever understand what we have, what we’ve been through, what we mean to each other,” he whispers, harsh and passionate. “And they can’t take it away. Not if we don’t let them.”

Carl nods his head again, looking up at Rick as he pulls away. “I won’t tell.”

“Just me and you,” Rick says.

“And Michonne,” Carl points out.

Rick shakes his head. “Not Michonne. Me and you. Michonne is something else. That doesn’t change this. You understand me?”

“Yeah,” Carl agrees, reaching out for Rick’s hand, needing his reassurance. Secret doesn’t mean wrong. Secret can mean precious. It’s what he has to believe.

Rick smiles at him, loving and tired and conflicted. “Do you want a blowjob?” he offers. “Want me to get you off?”

Carl shakes his head. He’s really not in the mood any more. “I’m tired,” he says, closing his eyes. “Can you stay for a little while?”

“Sure,” Rick agrees.

He moves closer, wrapping and arm over Carl, but there’s the blanket between them, suffocating Carl, insulating him from the skin against skin contact he craves. It’s not even to do with sex, it’s just a primal comfort, feeling that connection with someone. He shifts, trying to be content with what he has, wanting to fall asleep before Rick goes because he knows he’ll be alone by morning. He always is.

 

Rejection

Carl didn’t realise how much power he had in his relationship with Rick until it’s taken away. When he wanted Rick all he had to do was wait until nightfall, wait until everyone else to fall asleep, and then climb out of bed, cross the landing, take what he wanted.

Waiting means something else entirely now.

Rick comes to his room now, not the other way around. Carl has no control over it. Some nights he’ll come soon after the lights go out. Some nights he’ll come in the early hours of the morning, leaving Michonne’s satisfied body in his bed. Some nights he doesn’t come at all.

Carl thinks that if there were some kind of rhythm to it, if he knew which nights to expect Rick and which nights he would be left alone, maybe it would be easier. Maybe he could stand it. He wouldn’t stay awake until his one remaining eye burned with tiredness. He wouldn’t be wondering what Michonne was doing with him, wondering if she’d do a good enough job that he wouldn’t have to come to Carl for seconds.

He tries not to think that way, he tries to push those thoughts as far from his mind as he can, but the truth is Carl is second best. Michonne knows where she stands, never has to doubt that Rick will be there every night, doesn’t know what he sneaks out to do, who he’s doing it with. Michonne never has to lie in the dark and wonder and wait.

These thoughts feel petty and jealous whenever Rick is with him, showing him how much he loves him. He says the words, murmurs them right into his ear, gasps them as he comes. He proves them with that intense, fiery protectiveness in his eyes, like he’d do anything for Carl. He proves them in the way that he touches him, like he’s something so special to be revered. He proves them in the way he kisses him, deep and sensual and full of passion. He proves them by knowing Carl’s body more intimately than he knows it himself.

Sometimes, on those lonely nights, Carl touches himself, feeling guilty and dirty because these acts, these feelings, are supposed to be about love. He’s learnt how to get himself off, has learnt from Rick, but it’s a poor imitation. Rick knows every inch of Carl’s flesh, knows him inside and out, has mapped him out and taken him apart and put him back together. Sometimes Carl can feel the cracks like fault lines in his soul.

Carl tries to be content with that because he wouldn’t wish Michonne out of his life. He sees the burden that she lifts from Rick, sharing the load in a way that Carl can’t because their dynamic dictates that Rick always has to protect Carl. That always has to come first. They can’t be equals no matter how much of a team they are. Michonne does what he can’t. She complements him. She plays the mom that’s been missing from their story.

The nights that Rick comes to see him get less frequent though, the balance shifting, and Carl lies alone in the dark, warm bodies so close to him but ultimately untouchable. He doesn’t know if he’s an afterthought or an obligation, doesn’t want to believe either, but the thought nags at his brain. Rick loves him. For the first time he questions whether that’s enough.

 

Forced body modification

If there was one thing Carl never doubted it was the fact that Rick would protect him, no matter what. But now Carl is face down in the dirt, not for the first time, but this time Rick is the one holding him down, a hand pinning Carl’s wrist to the ground. Rick is the one threatening harm.

The thought is stuck in his head despite the fact that Negan is the one standing above them, Negan is the one who just killed his friends, Negan is the one who put Rick into this state, put the axe in his
hand, told him what he had to do. But Rick is the one who’s going to do it. Carl never would have believed that once, but now he can see it playing out. Carl isn’t all he has anymore. The days of it being the two of them against the world are over.

As he looks up at Rick through his hair, the dust still settling around him, Carl counts back, tries to remember the last time Rick was in his room. He’s been alone for four nights. He wonders how much longer Rick was planning on leaving it. He wonders if Carl having another part missing will make it easier to push him aside. Michonne is strong and brave and stable and beautiful. Carl is simply lacking.

Carl watches Rick fall apart above him, the tears and the snot and the desperate, animalistic noises, and he feels bad for even thinking these things, for putting them on Rick right now. Rick is not in a position to save Carl, not physically, not emotionally. Rick is the one who needs saving and it’s Carl’s turn to step up. That’s what being a team means, even if you’re not the only two players anymore.

“Dad, just do it,” he tells him. “Just do it.” It has to happen, there’s no other way out of this. Giving Rick permission shifts the blame. It stops him being accountable.

Rick’s fingers tighten around his wrist and Carl flinches, not because it hurts but because he knows that what comes next will. He wants to close his eyes but he won’t look away, won’t abandon Rick. They have to see this through together.

Then Negan is between them, crouched in front of Rick, getting right in his face. He takes Rick away from him, changes the rules, makes Rick pledge allegiance. Maybe this is Rick saving him. It doesn’t feel like it though.

After Negan leaves, Carl picks himself up, retrieves his own hat. He doesn’t wait for Rick to help him, to comfort him, to hold him like he’s scared of letting go. Those things aren’t coming, Carl knows that intrinsically, so he stands in the clearing and gets to work on what comes next.

 

Trust issues

Rick is a shell of the man he knew in so many different ways. It’s not just the strain of their new regime under Negan, not the indignity of answering to someone else for the first time since the outbreak, maybe even before that. It’s all the little things, the way that Rick never looks at him for too long, the way he avoids being alone with Carl until he’s creeping into his bed at night. Creeping. That’s what it feels like. He’s not keeping this a secret to protect it, Carl feels certain of that now. It’s a secret because he’s ashamed.

Carl wishes he knew enough to know why. Is he cheating on Michonne? Is it because Carl is too young and it’s embarrassing to be doing these things with a kid? Does it show a lack of maturity in Rick to want Carl? Is Carl just not that good of a person to deserve someone like Rick? Rick is the hero. Carl feels constantly shrouded in darkness. Carl is probably bad for his reputation. Rick can’t choose his family, but he can choose his relationships. Choosing Carl probably reflects badly on him.

There’s no bed for Rick to climb into now, just the blankets on the floor. It feels stripped away, dirty, raw. There’s nothing romantic about being slammed into a hard floor and yet somehow that feels fitting. This hasn’t felt romantic in a long time. Not since Rick freaked out when Carl tried to climb into bed with he and Michonne. It hasn’t felt right since then, even if Carl’s only starting to admit that to himself now.

Carl is woken one night by Rick sliding under the covers behind him, pressing up against his back. He kisses the back of Carl’s neck, pressing a hand against Carl’s cock through his underwear, and Carl makes a pleased noise, feeling warm all over. He lets the sensation wash over him, getting hard under Rick’s hand as he shivers against the tickle of Rick’s lips. He tries to turn and face Rick but he’s held tight in place, Rick pressing him closer to the floor.

“We can do it like this.”

The lube that was once hidden in Rick’s bedroom is now stashed in Carl’s nightstand. Rick retrieves it as Carl frowns, not daring to try and turn around again, feeling his whole world off kilter. Rick slicks him up, lips trailing over his neck and shoulders, all the same moves that spell out love but Carl can’t put them together.

Rick pushes him down to the floor as he presses his cock inside him, as he fucks him. Carl lies there, face pressed into the pillow, just like by the roadside, just like in the clearing. He grabs at Carl’s hips, pulls him up onto his knees, grabs hold of his cock and strokes him in time with his thrusts.

Carl can’t help remembering the way it used to be, the passion between them, the desperation. They could never get enough. Now it all feels devoid of emotion, like an obligation to be filled. Rick isn’t here because he wants to be. He’s here because he’s scared what will happen if he stops. He thinks if Carl’s not benefitting from their secret then he’ll have no reason to keep it.

He feels tears welling up and he squeezes his one remaining eye shut tight. He just needs to get off and then Rick will leave and maybe this awful feeling will go with him. Rick still knows his body well enough to do this without even thinking and Carl has enough memories to fill in the gaps where the connection should be.

“I love you,” Rick tells him as he pulls away, allowing Carl to collapse onto the blankets as he lies down beside him. Carl doesn’t bother saying it back. He doesn’t think it matters to Rick. He’s not sure the words can possibly be true anyway, not if Rick can’t even bear to look him in the eye. Carl’s nothing but a representation of a guilty conscience that needs to be silenced.

“I won’t tell anyone,” he tells Rick. “You don’t have to come here.”

Rick turns to look at him for the first time, frowning. “Carl…”

“It’s okay,” Carl says with a shake of his head. “Maybe I’ve grown out of it.”

He wants the words to hurt Rick but he doesn’t think they can. Rick just stares at him, eyes searching his face.

“I do love you,” he says. “No matter what.”

“Okay,” Carl agrees.

He wants to ask for the millionth time what would have happened if Negan hadn’t stopped him, if he could really go through with cutting off Carl’s hand, but he presses his lips together. They’ve never spoken about it, never acknowledged it. The answer would either make Rick weak or Carl disposable and Carl can’t let either of those things be true and so he keeps his mouth shut.

“I might like Enid,” he says instead.

He can see the tension draining from Rick’s body. He’s been let off the hook. “She seems nice. I think she’d be good for you.”

Carl can’t help bitterly thinking that him being with Enid would be good for Rick. Both of them would have their girls. He’d have an excuse to never climb between these sheets again. Carl wants to cling to him, wants to beg not to be thrown aside, but that’s a choice that was made a long time ago. He has to hold it together. He has to show he can be trusted. Maybe then there’s still a little bit of hope that Rick will come back to him, that one day he’ll be able to look him in the eye again. When things have calmed down, when they’re back in control, then maybe I love you can mean I love you again.

 

Loss of identity

Carl doesn’t go with Rick and Aaron the next day no matter how many times Rick asks. He knows Rick doesn’t want him to be alone with Michonne, that he still sees Carl as a liability and he’s scared what might happen when he’s not there. Carl knows better though and Michonne will be gone on her own mission as soon as Rick is out of here. There wouldn’t be chance for a heart to heart even if he wanted one. He doesn’t. Carl has his own mission and she’s currently climbing over the wall.

It’s fun, being with Enid, being a kid. It’s something he’s fought against for so long now, always trying to be the man that Rick told him he was. Enid doesn’t expect that of him. She doesn’t expect anything of him. She just wants the honesty of him being himself. He’s not sure he remembers who that is anymore.

As they hold hands, flying down the street on their skates, he tries to imagine being with her. It would be nothing like being with Rick. He would have to relearn everything, would have to get to know her body, the subtleties of their differences, the things that she liked that might not match up with his own. He would have to be the one in charge, the one on top, the one that slid inside her body. The thought makes him strangely squeamish. He doesn’t know what that would feel like but Rick seems to like it. He wonders if Enid has done these things before, if she could guide him through. He wonders if it’s impolite to ask.

When he kisses her it’s tentative, asking a question he never had to ask with Rick. His lips brush her forehead first, watching carefully, moving slowly, as though she’s a skittish animal. The truth is he’s more likely to run. They angle their heads, meeting halfway, and that’s the way it’s supposed to work, isn’t it? He pushes the circumstances from his head, as though he can separate them from what this is. It might be the last chance they get and he wants to have at least tried this. He wants to say that he tried.

He plays out a fantasy as he hides in the back of that truck, a distraction from what comes next. He imagines Enid as his girlfriend, holding his hand and kissing his cheek in front of the whole of Alexandria, never being ashamed of him, never making him be a secret. He imagines her body, the way it would look, the way it would feel. He imagines Rick being proud of him, realising he could trust him again. He imagines Rick being jealous, realising what he’s lost, crawling back into his bed at night.

He squeezes his eye shut. He doesn’t want to be that person anymore, can tell just from Rick’s reactions that it’s not a good person to be. He wants to be normal and if he can’t have that, he wants to be useful. That’s why he’s in this truck. He’ll win or he’ll lose but he’s doing something. If he can make that his legacy then he can’t be that bad.

 

Prostitution

When they were on the road and Carl couldn’t sleep because he was too wound up, craving Rick’s touch that he couldn’t have, he would overhear conversations that he wasn’t supposed to. He remembers one night, when Daryl was on guard duty and Abraham was keeping him company. Carl laid facing away from them, looking into the dying embers of the fire as they spoke about whether they’d ever find somewhere safe where they could start over.

“What’s the best-case scenario?” Abraham asked.

“That everyone else is dead and we can go wherever the hell we want,” Daryl responded gruffly.

“Mmm,” Abraham considered. “Or, we come across some little backcountry brothel with pretty ladies who’d be very grateful for our protection. They’d have good liquor, even better beds, and all those nice little outfits.”

“Wouldn’t be the worst conclusion to this,” Daryl agrees. “The beds aren’t that great though.”

“You speaking from experience?” Abraham asks, a note of glee in his voice.

“If you’re keeping watch I’m going to get some sleep,” Daryl told him.

“You do that,” Abraham agrees, the words drawn out and suggestive.

Carl closed his eyes as Daryl came closer to the fire, faking sleep like he did every night as though he could wish himself away from here. He imagined the place that Abraham described, held it with him because it was as good as anything to hope for, even if he didn’t really understand it.

This room is exactly what he pictured that night. The decadent furniture, the alcohol in fancy bottles, the nicely dressed women. It makes Carl feel off balance, as though this is what he’s been looking for all along. He wishes he could tell Abraham it exists. He wonders if he would even remember what Carl was talking about.

Negan treats him like he’s never seen a woman before, like he has no idea about sex. Carl doesn’t correct him. Being underestimated works to his advantage. It gives him leverage. But when Negan explains the set-up to him, his wives, his rules, Carl can’t help getting drawn in.

“Why follow the same old rules?” Negan asks. “Why not make life better?”

Carl knows that he and Rick being together was against some rule, can tell by the way Rick treats him even if he’s never told him exactly what it is they’re doing wrong. But maybe that rule doesn’t exist anymore. Maybe it doesn’t have to. If Negan can have all those wives, have what must be some men’s fantasies if that fireside conversation is anything to go by, why can’t Rick have Michonne and Carl? Why does he have to choose? Carl never made him. Maybe they can have it all. They deserve it, Carl feels certain of that. They’ve fought so hard, sacrificed so much, why not make themselves happy.

It’s a thought that settles in his brain as they take the long drive back to Alexandria, plotting in his brain how he can make Rick believe it.

 

Panic attacks

When Negan explains to Rick what Carl has done, Carl braces himself for Rick’s anger but it doesn’t come. There’s a look, incredulous and disappointed, but then he turns away, turns his back, shutting Carl out again. It feels worse than watching Spencer and Olivia die. It feels worse than the guilt of bringing Negan here and giving him the opportunity to do it.

After Negan leaves, Carl stands on the porch of the house with Olivia’s body and he waits for Rick to come home. Rick doesn’t even acknowledge him, heading the other way. Carl tries not to dwell, getting to work on helping bury the bodies. Everyone has a job to do and this belongs to him more than anyone right now. He needs to pay his dues.

Carl figures that by the time he’s done, Rick might have calmed down a bit, might at least be able to look him in the eye, that thing that’s been missing for so long. He finds him in the basement, the cell they built. He’s kneeling on the hard concrete, hunched over, his breathing erratic. He’s broken by the beating they’ve taken again, the powerlessness tearing him apart. Carl can practically see it coursing through his veins, the adrenaline turning bitter with nowhere to go, making him sick and shaky.

Carl watches in the shadows and he feels like he’s responsible but Rick won’t even give him that. He won’t even get mad. He wants Rick to yell at him, to shout at him, to let out all his frustrations. He wants him to tell the truth because he’s certain he still doesn’t know. He wants it laid out for him, all the ways in which he’s lacking, and then he wants to make up for it. He wants, more than anything, just to comfort him.

He’s not the right person though. He hasn’t been for a long time. He steps away, going back to the house and scrubbing the deck clean of Olivia’s blood, waiting for Michonne to come home so that he can send her after Rick, get her to do what he no longer can.

 

Hiding an injury

Rick looks like hell when he returns from his rescue mission. He’s sweaty, filthy, cut up, limping as he comes into the house. He glances at Carl but doesn’t greet him, something Carl’s more or less used to now. He keeps his distance.

“What happened?” Carl asks, looking him up and down.

Rick shakes his head and gives a dismissive wave of his hand like Carl isn’t even worth the effort of his words anymore.

“Did you find Gabriel?” Carl asks him.

Rick nods. “Found a lot more than that.”

Michonne enters behind him, holding up a sculpture made of twisted wires. “Your dad got me a cat,” she says proudly, putting on the sideboard.

Carl stares at it, remembering her original cat, the family photo she saved with it. It was the first time the two of them had worked together. Both of their prizes are gone now. Carl thinks about the innocence of that photo and he’s glad it’s gone. It’s just a lie. Everything is torn apart with blood and horror, there’s nothing left of who they were. He doesn’t want to see the loving family they came from. If he can pretend they never existed maybe it will be easier to accept his present.

“I’m going to take a shower,” Michonne says. She kisses Rick on the cheek, smiling at Carl and squeezing his shoulder as she passes by. Rick watches her leave and then takes a step to follow, his whole body looking like it will buckle under the pain.

“What happened?” Carl asks again.

“I’m fine,” Rick dismisses.

“Let me take a look,” Carl says. “Let me help.”

“It’s fine,” Rick insists, the words gritted out as he stares at the floor like he’s trying to wish Carl away.

“You can trust me,” Carl says too loud. He glances over his shoulder towards the stairs and sighs, taking a step closer as he drops his voice. “You can trust me,” he implores. “I’m not going to try anything. You’re hurt. I just want to help you.”

Rick stares at him, really looks him in the eye, and it’s so intimate Carl wants to look away. Rick breaks first though. “It’s not you I don’t trust,” he mutters, the words slurred and maybe not what Carl thinks they are at all. He nods his head. “Okay.”

“There’s some hydrogen peroxide in the bathroom upstairs,” Carl says, gesturing.

Rick nods again, leading the way. He sits heavily on the edge of the bath as Carl opens the cabinet, getting out the first aid supplies. He turns to see Rick unwrapping some grubby material from his hand. He drops it on the counter and offers his hand up to Carl, something resigned about his body language. Carl takes hold of his fingers, turning his hand to see a clear exit wound. He looks up at Rick, raising his eyebrow.

“It’s not a big deal,” Rick dismisses.

“Yeah, looks like not a big deal,” Carl responds dryly.

He holds Rick’s hand steady, using the peroxide to clean up the wound. Rick hisses, his whole body tensing, and Carl holds his fingers tighter to keep him in place. It’s the first time they’ve touched in Carl can’t remember how long and in the small space it feels intimate. It’s not, he assures himself. It’s just first aid. He’d do this for anyone.

He wraps a clean bandage around Rick’s hand, taking care to cover the wound, making sure it’s snug enough to stem the bleeding, help it heal. He’s used to war injuries now and it comes as second nature.

“What about your leg?” he asks.

Rick shakes his head. “I can deal with it.”

Carl makes an exasperated noise, the frustration making him want to cry. He can’t remember anymore if he’s supposed to be a kid in Rick’s eyes or not. He can’t remember any of the rules.

“I miss you,” he says brokenly. “And I don’t mean…” He looks behind himself at the closed door, lowering his voice again even though he’s sure Michonne has her head buried under the stream of water in the shower. “I don’t mean the sex. I miss you. You’re supposed to be my dad and you can’t even stand being in the same room as me. We were supposed to be a team.”

Rick looks down, ashamed. “I’m doing what’s best for you, Carl.”

“It feels like what’s best for you,” Carl counters.

Rick reaches out for him, taking hold of his hand, but he winces, looking down at the bandage. He lifts his uninjured hand, holds onto Carl’s with it. “It wasn’t right, everything I put on you,” he says.

Carl shakes his head, looking down at their hands. “I didn’t mind.”

“That’s not the point,” Rick says. “You didn’t know better. I did.”

Carl frowns, looking down at him, but he doesn’t dare ask. Still, after all this time, he doesn’t dare.

“I still love you,” Rick tells him. “I mean that. More than anything. I just want you to be happy.”

“Then trust me,” Carl says.

Rick meets his eye and he looks so vulnerable, so stripped away. He looks honest and Carl believes him, even if he still doesn’t get it. This part is real. Rick nods his head, letting go of Carl’s hand to open his belt but he winces again as he tries to get the buckle open.

“Let me,” Carl tells him.

Rick relents, pulling his hands away so that Carl can slide his belt open, unfasten his fly, tug the ripped jeans down his hips. His face is hot, his whole body awakening, but this isn’t about that. He concentrates of what he’s doing, inspects the gash on Rick’s thigh, cleans it up as best he can, wraps it in a clean bandage. He’s so focused on what he’s doing, knelt between Rick’s legs on the cold tile floor, that he doesn’t realise until he sits back that Rick is hard. He stares at the bulge in his underwear, his mouth dry with want.

“I’m sorry,” Rick tells him, but he doesn’t move away.

Carl looks up at him, at his eyes that have lost the hardness Carl always sees there lately. He licks his lips, an unconscious movement that he catches a moment too late. “Can I?” he asks.

“Carl,” Rick says, a denial on the tip of his tongue, but he doesn’t say it.

“Please let me,” Carl whispers.

Rick reaches down with his good hand, cradles Carl’s cheek against his palm, looks at him with such fondness. It’s not quite the overwhelming love it used to be but it’s enough. Carl will take it.

He lifts his hands, fingers curling into Rick’s waistband, and Rick doesn’t stop him. He frees Rick’s cock, wrapping a hand around it as he sways forward, the musky scent of Rick’s sweat and arousal mixing together, making him feel high. He didn’t know how truly painfully he missed this until it’s right in front of him again.

He licks his tongue over the tip, savouring the taste before moving his hand out of the way, sliding his lips down Rick’s length. He loves everything about this, the taste and the weight and fullness in his mouth, and the scent caught in his nostrils and the way Rick still holds him, thumb rubbing over his jaw, encouraging him along just like he always did.

Carl closes his eye, lets himself just enjoy it. He loves how he can read Rick’s body, the heat of his skin pressed against Carl’s cheek, the restless little movements his hips make, the noises that get caught in his throat like they’re choking him. It floods Carl, every one of his senses filled with Rick, and he doesn’t ever want to be anywhere else.

Rick’s hand slides back into Carl’s hair, not pulling the strands, not forcing him down, but Carl knows the tension he can feel vibrating through him. He can feel it winding up as surely as he can when it’s his own body. He opens his eye, looks up at Rick who’s watching him, eyes dark and wet, cheeks blushing red, biting down on his own lip like he’s going to draw blood.

Carl smiles around Rick’s cock, proud that he can still do this to him. Nothing beats this, nothing else can possibly make Rick feel this rush of arousal and love. In that moment, Carl has never been surer of anything.

Rick comes in his mouth, trying not to cry out, but a broken sound escapes him anyway. He clenches his injured hand, wincing at the sensation, but he never takes his eyes off Carl, never looks away from him, like there’s nothing else in the world that could possibly matter.

He grabs at Carl’s shoulders with both hands, pulls him to his feet before he can even finish swallowing, come still thick over his tongue. Rick can’t really move with his jeans around his ankles but he shifts them enough in the small space that he can crush Carl against the door, kissing so deeply and ferociously that Carl feels his head spin.

Rick attacks the front of Carl’s pants with little finesse, pressing the material against his hard on and making him squirm. He pushes Rick’s hands out of the way, gets his own jeans open, and then Rick is there again with his good hand, not the one he’s used to using for this but Carl’s pretty sure anything would get the job done right now.

He whines, his head bashing back against the door as Rick’s gets him off, coming over his hand, making a mess of his clothes. Rick is buried in Carl’s neck like he can’t hold his own weight and maybe he can’t. Carl takes in shuddery breaths, sweaty and sticky, blinking to try and clear his vision. He can barely process everything, wrapping his arms around Rick and holding him there, wanting to just be in this moment for a little while longer.

When Rick doesn’t immediately try to remove himself, Carl relaxes, the door holding him up, pressed in place by Rick’s heavy body. They’re so tight together that there’s not enough room for them both to breathe in at the same time, Carl inhaling as Rick exhales. It’s like they’re one being, co-dependent, nothing without each other. Carl is almost certain that’s true.

“I think you’re wrong about Michonne,” he says. “I think she’d get it. This. We don’t have to follow the same old rules anymore.”

Rick lifts his head, his face awash in regret. “Yes, we do, Carl,” he tells him. “Or we’ve got nothing left.”

Carl pouts, knowing that he’s ruined it, knowing that this is probably the last time Rick will ever let this happen. Sure enough, Rick steps back, awkwardly pulling up his jeans. Carl doesn’t try to help him. Maybe it’s pettiness or maybe he just doesn’t want him to leave. He can’t, not so long as Carl stays leaning against the door.

Once Rick has righted himself, his stupid torn up jeans back in place as though they’re doing any good, he lifts his gaze to Carl, that familiar guarded look returned. “We can never tell Michonne,” he says. “You get that, right?”

“No,” Carl tells him. “She loves you. She loves me. We can love each other.”

“It doesn’t work like that, Carl,” Rick says.

“It could,” Carl responds.

Rick clenches his jaw, moving closer to Carl, his desperation making Carl feel cornered. “You cannot tell.”

Carl has never felt scared of Rick but all he sees when he looks at him now is a threat. He gets the impression that the feeling is mutual. He nods his head. “Okay.”

Rick considers him for a moment and then looks at the door behind him. “I should go.”

Carl steps out of the way, letting Rick get the door open. “You’re welcome,” he says pointedly.

Rick turns to look at him and then holds up his bandaged hand. “Thank you.”

Blood is already soaking through. Carl can’t fix anything.

 

Isolation

As Carl kneels in front of Negan and his men he feels a familiar shame wash over him. It’s not that he should have fought harder, that he should never have allowed himself to get caught in the first place. All he cares about is the disappointment he’ll see on Rick’s face when they bring him over here. His own failures pale in comparison to having to see himself through Rick’s eyes like that.

Rick is hurt, hurt like he was when he came back from the junkyard, and Carl imagines cleaning him up, making him better. His mind runs through images of bandages and cold tile floors, of his mouth around Rick’s cock, being pressed against the door, that fire in Rick’s eyes when he thought Carl was going to tell. Carl just keeps letting him down.

As Rick kneels beside him, Carl watches him out of the corner of his eye, grateful he’s at the right side of him to at least be able to do that. Rick doesn’t look back, doesn’t acknowledge him past his distaste of the situation in general. Carl turns his attention to Negan instead, easier to hate than to accept his own insignificance. It’s almost funny, Negan choosing him when Rick hasn’t in so long.

“I gotta tell you, Rick,” Negan says emphatically. “If I had a kid, I’d want him to be just like your kid.”

Carl stares up at him, tries to put as much indignation into it as he can, but the truth is that the words hurt. He’s the opposite of everything Rick wants him to be.

His point is driven home when they hear Michonne scream, hear her fall. That’s when Rick breaks, when he falls apart. Negan sees it just as clearly as Carl does, using it to get Rick where it hurts, to bring home how finished he is. Maybe he’s realising that he picked the wrong one in Carl but it doesn’t matter now, Rick loses either way.

“I’m gonna kill Carl now,” Negan says, so matter of fact.

It’s not like Carl didn’t see it coming, didn’t know since his knees hit the grass that it was heading this way, but to hear it laid out like that, an inescapable truth, it fills his whole body with dread, a physical sensation that makes him feel like he’s made of lead.

“I'm gonna make it one nice, hard swing, try to do it in one because I like him,” Negan says, the words spoken calmly right into Rick’s face. “I just want you to put that in your brain and roll it around for a minute.”

The words don’t mean anything to Carl now, all he can hear is the pounding of his own heart, pumping with his and Rick’s combined blood. That fact used to be so comforting. Now it just makes him feel sick.

Negan likes the sound of his own voice and he’s still waiting for some kind of reaction. Carl is waiting as well. He’s waiting for that fierceness, that red mist that descends when Carl is in trouble. He should know better, but this is evolutionary surely, a biological compulsion to protect his young. But Carl hasn’t been his little boy for a long time now, maybe too long. Neither of them really remember what that was like.

When Rick does speak, he doesn’t beg, he doesn’t cry, he doesn’t fall apart. He’s as matter of fact about Carl’s death as Negan is. He doesn’t try to save him. He’s already thinking about what comes next.

Negan gets to his feet, walking around behind them both. “You said I could do it,” he says, lifting the hat from Carl’s head and throwing it aside, the words a worse punishment to Carl than what comes next.

He remembers after the prison, when it was just the two of them, Rick’s words to him. Stay strong. I need you. They’ve gotten him through so much already and if he can give Rick one last thing it has to be this. He won’t flinch. He won’t cry. He’ll stay strong.

He takes a breath, waiting for the hit, hoping Negan can keep to his word. One swing. Maybe he won’t even feel it. It doesn’t come. Instead there’s screaming, gunfire. Carl opens his eye to find chaos around him, the tiger from the Kingdom let loose. Carl and Rick both see the chance for what it is, grabbing whatever weapons they can under their friends’ cover, given the fighting chance they need.

After it’s over, Alexandria back under their control, the quiet is haunting. He tries to brush off what happened as he stands in the doorway of the infirmary watching Rick and Michonne. They won. That’s all that matters. It doesn’t calm the sick feeling in his stomach though. Rick and Michonne won. Carl’s still on the outskirts and he feels like he has no place here.

He walks back through the streets to their house, their empty house with Judith still at the Hilltop, and it seems like a fitting place to be. Alone. He tries to tell himself that Rick was being strong, like Carl was, that he wasn’t going to give Negan the satisfaction of seeing his pain. It doesn’t ring true though.

He remembers that look in Rick’s eyes by the roadside. He remembers the look in his eyes in the clearing. That look wasn’t there. As he swallows uncomfortably he remembers the look in Rick’s eyes as he had Carl forced against the bathroom door, as he promised him not to tell. The desperation not for Carl to be safe but for him to keep his mouth shut.

Rick doesn’t need him anymore, not with Michonne as his partner, not with Judith undamaged by all the things that have made Carl less and less valuable. Carl is little more than a liability now, the keeper of secrets Rick wants kept, and maybe Negan would have been doing him a favour getting him out of the way.

Every rejection over the last few months stings afresh as Carl lets it sink in. He thinks back to their last time together, the bathroom, cramped and uncomfortable and the least romantic thing they’ve ever done. I still love you Rick had told him but if that were true he couldn’t do this to him. If that were true he would be showing it.

He plays it through his head again and again as he lies on his blankets on the floor, blankets that still smell faintly of Rick because they’ve never been washed. A ghost to wrap himself up in.

It wasn’t right, everything I put on you.

Carl grips the blanket in his fist. He only ever tried to make Rick proud, to be strong, to be the grown-up he needed him to be. It never felt like a burden at the time, it made him feel taller, but Rick’s apology weighs on his mind. Maybe he didn’t deserve this. Maybe it isn’t his fault.

You didn’t know better. I did.

The words stick in Carl’s throat, an admission he didn’t spot the first time around. He trusted Rick, always followed his lead, liked being so special to him. He wasn’t special though, not when a better option came along. Not when he could have a wife again instead of a son. It left Carl caught in the middle, unsure what he was, a question Rick was never willing to answer. It wasn’t right though. None of it was right. It’s a fact Carl can no longer turn away from.

 

Forced to participate in illegal/hurtful activity

Carl leaves Alexandria at dawn. He goes over the wall even though he doesn’t feel like anyone would even notice if he walked right out the gate. Rick still spends all his time with Michonne in the infirmary, just like he did with Carl after he lost his eye. He hasn’t been around to see Carl poring over the maps, planning his route, rehearsing in his mind what he was going to say when he got there. He didn’t hear Rick come home last night which means he probably never did. Carl doesn’t try and stay awake anymore, doesn’t listen for him. He knows his bedroom door is never going to open.

Before he leaves he takes his hat, placing it on the kitchen table where Rick won’t be able to avoid it if he comes home. Carl doesn’t want to carry it anymore, doesn’t want it weighing him down. He’s going to be his own person. He’s going to try and learn how.

When Negan and the Scavengers retreated from Alexandria they didn’t take everything they came with. Carl took advantage of the confusion and clean up in the following days, taking one of the bicycles that had been left behind and stashing it outside the walls. He pushes it from the bushes now. It’s banged up but it beats having to walk all the way. If he doesn’t get lost, he should be able to make it by nightfall.

He keeps a good pace up on the bike, able to go fast enough that he doesn’t have to worry too much about walkers, easily leaving them behind by the time he’s caught their attention. He only stops once, sitting by the roadside to eat some of his supplies and let his legs rest a little, checking his map to make sure he’s still on track. He takes advantage of every downhill section to save some energy, the wind in his hair making him feel like he’s free, making him forget where he’s coming from, where he’s going.

When he gets close he hides the bike somewhere he can recover it later, taking the rest of the journey on foot. He doesn’t want to approach too quickly, doesn’t want to take anyone by surprise. He walks past the point where Jesus jumped out of the truck the last time they were here, past the trash strewn street and the abandoned cars. He walks past the walkers, tied in place, sure there must already be sniper rifles on him by now. They probably won’t shoot. Not until they find out what he’s up to.

As he reaches the gate, the audible sound of guns being unholstered and cocked has Carl stopping in place. He pulls the rifle from his shoulder, making a show of keeping his hand on the strap as he tosses it away from himself onto the floor. He takes the pistol from his holster, then his knife, adding them to the pile. He raises his hands in surrender as Simon comes out from the doorway, eying him up.

“I want to talk to Negan,” Carl tells him.

“Oh yeah?” Simon asks, scoping out the area behind Carl. “And what about your friends?”

“I’m here on my own,” Carl says.

Simon moves forward, kicking the weapons further away from him as he approaches. “Spread ‘em then.”

Carl does as he’s told, legs apart, arms out, waiting patiently while Simon frisks him. It’s the first human contact he’s had in days. He tries not to dwell on that fact. Once Simon is satisfied he takes a step back, not taking his eyes off Carl.

“Tony, go tell Negan we have company.”

“Yes sir,” Tony responds, heading for the door.

Simon gives Carl a smug look, as though Carl is going to be in trouble now, as though this isn’t going exactly how Carl wants. Simon steps away from him and Carl lets his arms drop down, relaxing his stance.

“You keep those hands where I can see them,” Simon tells him. “We don’t want anyone getting trigger happy, kid.”

Carl lifts his hands from his body, meeting Simon’s gaze. He’s going to comply. He’s not going to cause any trouble. He’s not going to back down either though.

“Carl!” Negan greets with over the top enthusiasm. “It is so nice of you to pay us a visit.” He walks out into the yard, eyeing the weapons. He looks up at Simon. “These his?”

“They are,” Simon agrees.

“Well I’m going to need someone to pick them up and keep them nice and safe for our honoured guest,” Negan says. “He’s going to need them back when he leaves.”

Simon nods, directing one of the nearby men.

Negan turns his attention to Carl. “A little birdie told me that you came all this way just to see me.”

“Yeah,” Carl agrees, looking up at him. He remembers now how small Negan makes him feel but he’s come this far, he’s going to see it through.

“Well I guess we should go inside then, make ourselves a little more comfortable.” He gestures towards the doorway with Lucille. “You know the way, kid.”

It feels strange to be the one leading Negan through the Sanctuary. He thinks about pretending that he doesn’t know where he’s supposed to go, as though he didn’t memorise every step he took the last time he was here, hasn’t visualised it in his mind a million times, drawing out floorplans to share with the others. He doesn’t want to pretend now though. He wants every part of this to be the truth.

He can feel the proximity of Negan behind him, making the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. The bat is balanced on his shoulder and it feels precarious, one fluid swing all it would take to bring it down on the top of Carl’s skull. He’s not scared it’s going to happen but he can’t help playing it through his mind over and over again like a broken record.

When he reaches Negan’s door he stops, turning to look at him.

“Go ahead, kid,” Negan assures him. “Let’s get ourselves settled in before we begin.”

Carl opens the door, walking inside and sitting in the same seat he sat in last time. He feels that same apprehension but this time he’s not scared of what Negan’s going to ask, what he’s going to do. He’s scared what answers his own questions are going to get.

“So,” Negan says, the word drawn out as he sits down on the leather couch opposite him. “What is it you were so eager to talk to me about?”

Carl swallows. Straight down to business. He thought Negan might bullshit for a while, try and knock Carl off balance, maybe lull him into a false sense of security. Carl is the one who came here though. Again. He has to take responsibility for that.

“I wanted to tell you about me and my dad,” he says. “Because I told you that my mom died but I didn’t tell you what happened next.”

Negan narrows his eyes at him. “You came all the way out here on your lonesome because it was just eating you up to leave me at such a juicy prologue?”

“Can I just tell you?” Carl pleads, knowing that he’s showing weakness but he needs to get this over with. He needs to get it out. “And can you listen to the end before you say anything? Please? I really need you to just listen.”

Negan considers him for a moment, still looking serious. “Okay,” he finally responds, leaning back in his seat as he gestures grandly. “Go ahead.”

Carl nods, his gaze falling away. He can tell Negan thinks he’s giving Carl permission to dig his own grave and maybe that’s true but Carl’s as good as dead anyway, he doesn’t want to take this secret with him.

“After my mom died my dad was… broken,” he begins. “I don’t mean he was falling apart or emotional or broken-hearted. It was like something in him stopped working.” He glances up, Negan giving him a little nod like he gets it. “I thought I could fix him. I climbed into his bed at night, like I used to when I was a kid. He used to hold me really tight. Then one night he started kissing me, all over my face. Then my mouth. Then he used to touch me.”

He shifts in his seat, knees pressed together, not daring to look up at Negan. He wants to stop there, Negan can fill in the gaps, but he has to be clear. He doesn’t want any chance for misunderstanding. If he’s saying any of it, he has to say it all.

“He ran his hands over my body and under my clothes. He laid on top of me and put his thigh between my legs and pressed down. He kissed me with his tongue in my mouth until I was dizzy. He rubbed against me until he got off. Until he came in his pants. Then he taught me how to get off too.”

The memories make him burn up, turn him on, as much as he wants to despise them. He can still feel the love, the intensity of it, when he still believed in that. It’s so hard to dismiss when he’s lost in the memory, even though he knows how it ends.

“He showed me how to give a blow job,” he continues. “He taught me how to do it to him. We used to do this every night but he told me I shouldn’t tell anyone because it was better if it was just between us. He said it was because he loved me so much. He said it was better if we didn’t share it.”

He feels the shame clinging to him now, his own naivety at believing the lie for so long. Rick was hiding him. Rick was ashamed of him. Carl finds it difficult to deny that now.

“When we got to Alexandria he taught me how to fuck.”

He lets it hang there for a moment until he gets up the guts to lift his gaze. Negan is sat incredibly still, his body stiff. Carl takes in the unsettled look in his eyes, the disgust at the corners of his mouth, but he forces himself not to look away.

“That’s not normal, is it?”

Negan looks like he’s had all of the air punched out of him. “No,” he says, his voice rough, almost a growl. “That is probably the most fucked up thing I’ve ever heard and I have seen some shit.”

“Yeah,” Carl agrees numbly, dropping his head down. “That’s what I thought.”

“I always knew there was another level to that guy’s hero complex,” Negan says. “I didn’t have him pegged for something quite as repulsive as that. Fucking Christ.”

Carl nods his head, shrinking further into his humiliation.

“Hey,” Negan says firmly. Carl looks up at him. “I’m not talking about you. None of this is on you, kid.”

“I liked it,” Carl shrugs. Rick went into this willingly, putting aside what was acceptable, but it never felt wrong to Carl so he must be fucked up too. Lori’s dying words, his moral code, if it feels wrong, don’t do it. She gave him too much credit to know the difference and he realises he’s let her down too.

“Of course you did,” Negan responds. “He made it feel good so you’d keep letting him do it.”

“He said he loved me,” Carl tells him. “He always said that.”

“If you believe that then what are you doing here?” Negan asks.

Carl looks down, embarrassed by the pettiness of it. “He doesn’t need me anymore. He has a girlfriend.” He lifts his head up, meeting Negan’s gaze. “He was going to let you kill me. He wanted you to. He’s so scared I might tell someone that he’d rather I was dead.”

Negan’s jaw clenches. “He is a piece of shit, your father,” he states. “You get that, right? He is an asshole of the highest degree.” He shakes his head. “He makes me sick to my fucking stomach.”

Carl stares at him, wondering where the vitriol is coming from.

“He thinks I’m a psycho but I have a moral code, that is not how things are done around here and I do not let that shit slide,” Negan tells him. “If you break a rule you have to be taught a lesson. I might have to get creative with my teaching methods on this one.”

Carl can feel himself shaking but he doesn’t move, just continues to watch Negan, scared to imagine what he might be suggesting. This wasn’t his intention.

Negan looks at him, taking him in, and then he sighs, leaning forward to bridge the gap between them. There’s a softness about him, that same look he had when he asked Carl about his mom.

“But this isn’t about me,” he says. “This is your fight. You make the call.”

Carl frowns at him. “What?”

“Let’s talk vengeance,” Negan says, his lips quirking up into a smile. “Personally, I think death’s too good for him, but if that’s the way you want to go I hope you at least make it painful. He deserves to suffer. If it were me, I’d keep him alive and make him pay though. We can lock him up here, break him down, make him sorry he ever touched you. String it on for as long as you can and then let him rot.”

Carl shakes his head, trying not to imagine it, trying not to take any pleasure in the thought. “That’s not why I came here,” he insists.

Negan tilts his head at him. “Then why did you come here, Carl?”

“Because I knew you’d tell me the truth,” Carl says. “I was worried that if I told anyone else they’d make an excuse for him or they wouldn’t believe me. They think he’s a good man. I just wanted to know the truth. I wanted to be sure.”

“And you’re not going to do anything with that information?” Negan asks. “You’re just going to let him get away with it?”

Carl shrugs, looking down at his lap. “It won’t change what happened. Maybe it will just make everybody hate me. They need him.”

“You’re twice the man that he is, even if you are a kid,” Negan tells him firmly. “You could be a leader. You’d sort their sorry asses out, I’m sure of that.”

Carl doesn’t respond, frowning down at his clasped hands. No one would ever listen to him. Rick made sure he never got a real voice.

“Where does your dad think you are?” Negan asks.

Carl looks up at him. “I doubt he’s noticed I’ve gone but if he does he’ll probably figure I’m at the Hilltop.”

Negan nods, looking thoughtful. “How about we get you some dinner and sort you out with a room and then we sleep on it,” he suggests. “We’ll talk in the morning when the dust’s settled a little.”

Carl feels himself get a little lighter. “Okay,” he agrees.

Negan gets to his feet, stopping in front of Carl before he gets a chance to stand. “Carl,” he says, making sure he’s looking at him, making sure he’s paying attention. “I’ll follow your lead.”

Carl nods. “Thank you.”

 

Deprogramming

The drive back to Alexandria feels familiar and there’s a comfort in that. When everything’s constantly going to shit, the things you can count on take on a special meaning. Maybe that’s why Carl clung to Rick for so long. It was what he knew and once that’s gone he’s not sure what’s left.

He knows that he still has time to call this off. He can’t take it back, can’t stop Negan possibly using it against them in the future, but for right now he can tell Negan he’s changed his mind, that he’ll deal with it himself, or that he won’t deal with it at all. But at the end of the day he doesn’t want to be responsible for that.

He knows what he’s doing to everyone he cares about by taking this option but it still feels better than the alternative. Having just one person on his side makes him feel stronger, makes him feel deserving of this. If it was anyone else, if it was Michonne or Maggie or Daryl, they would pity him or they would doubt him but they’d never really stop blaming him for taking Rick down off his pedestal. They need him. Carl’s willing to let them keep him. That means the sacrifice has to come from elsewhere.

He didn’t come to this lightly. He stayed up all night, even the comfort of a real bed not able to lull him to sleep. He stewed in his own guilt for finally breaking Rick’s trust, Negan’s disgust validating him but also making him feel complicit. Carl didn’t know any better though, Rick himself admitted that. By dawn, Carl had started to believe it and that meant he and Negan were able to get on the same page.

The two trucks pull up about twenty minutes outside Alexandria, before the road starts to straighten out, where there’s still enough cover to keep them out of view. Carl walks the rest of the way alone, each footstep a chance to change his mind, but the closer he gets the more his determination grows. This is what he’s due.

Daryl is on the gate when he gets back. He eyes Carl suspiciously as he lets him in.

“Where’ve you been?”

“Hunting,” Carl says with a shrug, not breaking stride.

Daryl doesn’t comment on the fact that he’s come back emptyhanded. Either he believes that Carl is incompetent or he can’t be bothered to untangle the lie.

Carl goes to the infirmary first. Michonne is alone, Rosita having moved back to her own house and Rick, for once, absent from her bedside. Carl watches her sleep for a moment, peaceful despite the swelling, and he wonders how disappointed she would be in him for this. He thinks at least a little part of her would be proud that he was standing up for himself though, even if he was doing it at everyone else’s expense.

He closes the door softly behind himself, making his way back home. The hat is still on the kitchen table where he left it, unmoved. It feels very much like being forgotten. He wonders if Rick even knows he was gone all night. He wonders if he cares.

He turns at the sound of footsteps on the stairs, watching Rick come into view. He stops when he sees Carl, hesitating. He’s freshly showered, hair still damp, wearing what passes for clean clothes. They stare at each other in silence for a moment like they’re strangers.

“Can I show you something?” Carl asks.

“What?” Rick responds, looking around.

“Outside the walls,” Carl tells him.

“Can it wait?” Rick asks.

“No,” Carl says, staring him down.

Rick shifts on his feet. “I was just on my way to see Michonne.”

“She’s asleep,” Carl tells him. “I was just in there.”

“Yeah,” Rick agrees. “Why don’t you take Daryl? Or Tara?”

“Because I need to take you,” Carl insists. Rick doesn’t relent. “Please,” Carl grits out, resenting the word, resenting that he has to beg.

Rick adjusts his stance, puts his hands on his hips while he thinks about it. Carl wants to hit him, wants to hurt him, and he’s tempted to go back on the deal he made with Negan, to ask for more, to ask for Lucille. Negan’s right though, death’s too good. When he takes Rick down he wants him to have to live with the consequences.

“It won’t take long,” he promises. “It’s important.”

Rick nods, looking more thoughtful than in agreement. “Okay.”

They walk in silence, Carl’s heart beating too fast in his chest, and he wonders if Rick can tell. He wonders if he thinks this is an ambush of a different kind, if Carl is going to push him against one of these trees and try to kiss him. He remembers the way that Rick took hold of his hand as they walked through the woods that early morning on the road while they looked for a private spot to be together. Now there’s nothing but space between them.

As they round the corner they see Negan’s men stationed in the road, guns aimed their way, weapons audibly cocked. Negan stands in the middle, full of swagger, Lucille raised up on his shoulder. The scene gives Carl a thrill. It’s all for him.

Rick stops in his tracks, reaching for his own gun, but he knows it’s too late, doesn’t try to draw it. Instead he takes in the situation, the fact that they’re outnumbered, the fact that they’re just far enough away for help to not make it, the fact that every single gun is trained solely at him. Carl can see the moment it dawns on him as he slowly turns to face Carl, a look of incredulous disbelief on his face. Carl should be flattered that it took him that many seconds to get there. Maybe that means he hadn’t totally given up on Carl. It’s all over now though.

“Rick,” Negan greets, stretching his arms out wide like he’s expecting a hug.

Rick is still staring at Carl. “What did you do?” he whispers harshly.

Carl wants to answer for himself, wants to tell Rick exactly what he did, but the words stick in his throat, his mind feeling like it has pins and needles. It’s harder now that Rick is in front of him, looking so vulnerable and flawed, but he deserves this. Carl refuses to let himself believe otherwise. He knows better now.

“It is very disrespectful to turn away from your host, Rick,” Negan says, his voice taking on a harsher tone. “And I know you don’t want to offend me right now.”

Rick sets his jaw, sending his silent disappointment to Carl before turning his gaze back to Negan, glaring at him.

Negan grins, stepping forward but still staying behind his line of men. He leans closer as if to create intimacy, dropping his voice. “We’re not here to talk about what Carl did,” he says, an edge of excitement in his voice. “We’re here to talk about what you did.”

Carl can see the first flicker of panic in Rick’s eyes, the chink in his armour. It feels good to know that it’s real. If Rick is scared that means what he did is as bad as Carl now believes.

Negan nods his head towards the woods to the side of the road. “Let’s go have a chat.”

“I’m not going anywhere with you,” Rick tells him.

“No?” Negan responds, sounding like he could care less. “We can talk here if you want. In front of all my men. It can’t be that bad, right? I mean, what secrets could Carl possibly have told me?”

Rick is starting to shake, his breaths ragged, that wild look in his eye. A cornered animal. A man who knows he’s already lost. He turns to Carl, his movements jagged, begging him for it not to be true. Carl feels his eye welling up with tears but not at what he’s reduced Rick to, at the fact that Rick is still refusing to apologise, is still treating Carl like he’s the problem when the only thing he did wrong was believe Rick’s lies.

Carl turns away from him, can’t stand the injustice of feeling like the bad guy. If there were ever a time for Rick to step up and be a father it would be now, but he’s still just looking out for himself.

“Should I start talking?” Negan prompts.

“No,” Rick snaps. Negan adjusts his hold on Lucille and Rick takes a breath. “No,” he says again, calmer.

Negan waits, a picture of stillness, and Carl finds his patience calms something inside him. Eventually, Rick moves, heading towards the side of the road.

“Leave your weapons,” Negan prompts.

Rick eyes him and then takes out his gun, handing it to the nearest of the men. He does the same with his axe, his knife, looking to Negan for approval. Negan nods and Rick continues moving, Negan following after him, guiding the way. They go out of earshot but not out of sight, Negan’s men adjusting their positions as though it’s been rehearsed. Some of them watch the road for anyone approaching, the rest covering Negan, making sure Rick doesn’t try anything.

Carl watches Negan get in close to Rick, grinning at him. He watches Rick tensing up, not looking back at him until something makes him glare and snap. He watches the tone change as Negan talks and Rick stares at the floor, his posture defeated. His hands are curled into fists, his jaw clenched, everything about him looking painful but it’s self-inflicted. It’s all self-inflicted. He brought this on himself.

Carl moves closer, needing to see it play out, needing the closure. He was grateful when Negan offered to do this for him, even though he knew it was for self-serving reasons. This is the greatest gift he could have handed Negan, just as his control was beginning to slip. Carl was willing to part with it. It was worth the payoff. He needs to see it through though. He needs to be a part of his own redemption.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Rick is saying in a clipped voice as Carl walks up behind him.

“I got my information from what I consider to be a pretty reputable source,” Negan responds. “I don’t know why he would make something like that up. Do you?”

“It’s not as simple as that,” Rick says. “It’s very complicated. We’ve been through a lot. You have no idea.”

“You know what, Rick, I just can’t seem to give a fuck,” Negan tells him. He looks at Carl, shaking his head. “I’m sorry, kid. I thought he might finally man up but he is just as spineless a piece of shit as ever.”

Rick turns, seeing Carl. His eyes are red, that sweaty, sickly look about him. It used to hurt to see him like this but now Carl is just disgusted. He’s let down. The only reason Rick is in this state is because he’s worried about himself.

“Carl,” he says brokenly. He takes a step forward and Carl instinctively takes a step back. “This was never meant to hurt you. I wish you’d told me how you felt. We could have fixed this.”

“I’m not allowed to talk about it,” Carl points out.

“So you went to him?” Rick asks incredulously, his anger at Carl so quick to come to the surface. Carl remembers being on his knees, that bat ready to swing, Rick wishing it to happen.

“Anyone else would make it go away,” Carl says quietly. “It shouldn’t go away. You shouldn’t get away with it.”

“Do you have any idea what you’ve fucking done?” Rick asks him.

Carl just stares at him, unable to process Rick turning him into the villain when it’s so obvious he has no shot at redemption.

“You know what?” Negan says. “From now on, you’re not allowed to talk to Carl unless he gives you permission. Hell, you can’t look at him unless he says it’s okay.” He moves closer to Rick, waiting for him to look back at him. He bends his neck slightly, getting at eye level, smirking at him. “That’s rule number one. Do you want to hear the rest?”

Carl can see the fight fading, that submissive posture Rick’s fought so hard against beginning to take over. He doesn’t say anything but he doesn’t move. He waits. The inevitability is obvious.

“You belong to me now,” Negan tells him. “For good this time. That means you call off this vanity project of a war you’ve got going on and you get your people back on my agenda. That means you provide for me. Are we on the same page so far?”

Rick drops his head and Carl can see the way that he’s shaking, hair stuck with sweat to the nape of his neck. Negan moves in closer, lining his mouth up with Rick’s ear.

“I’m going to need a verbal response there, Rick,” he says, deep and low.

Rick shivers. “I don’t know if I can do that.”

“You can,” Negan assures him, shifting back again to take him in. “And you will. Because do you want to hear what’s going to happen if you don’t?”

Rick shakes his head, his head still bowed down, eyes on the dirt.

“If one of your people steps out of line,” Negan says. “If I get any trouble or I don’t get enough shit from you or someone looks at me in a way that I don’t like, I’m going to kill one of your people, Rick. And you’re going to tell me who. I think that’s pretty fucking generous. I’m going to let you get rid of some deadweight. Of course, if you don’t choose, I’ll take three people of my choosing, and I know just where your weak spots are so I’m sure you don’t want it to come to that.”

“They won’t do it,” Rick snaps, looking up at him. “They want you dead, they won’t let things go back to how they were. I can’t do that.”

“I don’t care what you tell them,” Negan says. “I don’t care how you do it. But I will be back here in seven days with my men and if I’m not welcomed with open arms and given my first generous offering then there will be consequences. Bullshit excuses are not going to save you. I’ll kill as many people as I have to to make my point. I’ll kill every fucking one of them, Rick. But I promise you’ll be last. You can save them. Just make them step in line.”

Rick glances at Carl, knowing that he’s out of reasoning, knowing that Carl might still be able to stop this. Carl doesn’t want anyone to die but he doesn’t think they have to. Not if Rick can do this right for once.

“And if your people give me shit, Rick,” Negan goes on. “Or if you ever touch that boy again,” he says, his voice dark and threatening in the way Carl always associated with Rick protecting him. “You are going to win a free weekend retreat to the Sanctuary. I’m assuming Carl’s told you all about that place. He tell you about the iron?”

Rick shudders, swallowing hard, but he refuses to look at Negan.

Negan chuckles. “That’s too good for you,” he says. “What I have for you is a little less messy. Simple castration. We have a decent doctor over there, should be a straightforward procedure, we’ll even drop you off home again. That is service, Rick. You can explain that to your girlfriend any way that you like. Or maybe you can just try keeping it in your pants for a change.”

Rick is shaking his head but Carl can’t tell if it’s a conscious motion or if he’s just shaking so much he can’t keep still. Negan gives a sharp whistle, making Rick wince. One of Negan’s men tosses the camera to him, Negan catching it effortlessly. He holds it up to Rick.

“You remember this?” he asks. “I did enjoy your little story time, I must say. Carl and I recorded over it this morning though. He sat down and like the goddamn champ that he is, he looked down that lens and he told his own story. Every detail. He did not skimp, let me tell you, if it wasn’t so unbelievably sick and fucked up I would call it deliciously pornographic. As it is, I was just trying to hold onto my breakfast. There is absolutely nothing redeemable about raping your own damn kid.”

Rick looks at Carl again, stares at him as the tears come. Carl never used that word. He wants to tell Rick he never used that word, doesn’t even really agree with it, but he doesn’t want Rick to feel better. Rick who’s looking at him like he just performed the ultimate betrayal, as though Carl telling is worse than the secret Rick was forcing him to keep.

“If you can’t make your people fall in line, Rick,” Negan says. “If you break the rules, I’m going to run a little movie night at Alexandria and then they’ll all know every sordid detail of what you did to Carl. Then I’m going to let them decide what to do with you. And let me tell you Rick, if they can stomach watching that to the end, you don’t stand a chance.” He tosses the camera back to one of his men, keeping it well away from Rick’s grasp.

Rick lifts a hand, scrubbing it over his face like he feels dirty, like he’s marked by what he’s done and he wants to make it disappear. He turns to Carl, blubbering and pathetic.

“I’m sorry,” he says desperately.

“I think it might be a little late for that,” Negan tells him.

Rick doesn’t respond, clenching his jaw as he keeps his focus on Carl. “I was always sorry. Every time. I loved you. That wasn’t wrong.”

Carl jolts as Negan’s fist connects with the side of Rick’s face, sending him reeling to the ground. He sits in a daze and the punch was so shocking that Carl feels like it’s knocked him to. He looks up at Negan who calmly unclenches his fist, looking at Rick like he’s dirt. He turns to Carl.

“It’s wrong,” he says. “Don’t let him pretend it’s not. Hell, for that alone I’d jump straight to the first punishment. We can take him with us now. That’s your call though.”

Carl stares down at Rick, slumped on the ground, and he feels numb. He feels nothing.

“Let him try,” he says, the words sounding far away.

“Alright then,” Negan agrees. He waits for Carl to look up at him, offering him a kind look. “Did I cover everything? Anything you want to add?”

Carl licks his lips, thinking it over. Once they leave here, nothing is going to be the same. He’s giving Rick a chance for the sake of the people he cares about which means when they go back it will be like this never happened. He’ll still have to pretend. This could be the last time it’s as real as this and Carl needs to get what he came for.

“You were supposed to protect me,” he says. “But you did more damage than any walker or roadside attack or…” he gestures to Negan, “maniac with a baseball bat ever could. You were supposed to keep me safe from all that. All you ever did was save me for yourself.”

Rick closes his eyes, bowing his head, and it’s not enough. Carl doesn’t want an apology, doesn’t want an excuse, but he wants more than this.

“You ruined it for everyone,” he says. “But I know what it would do to them if they lost you and that’s why you get a second chance. For Michonne. For Judith. For all of them. Don’t let them down.”

Rick nods his head, looking up at Carl like he finally gets it.

“You belong to Negan,” Carl tells him.

Rick grimaces.

“Say it,” Carl insists.

“Carl,” Rick implores.

“You need to say it,” Carl tells him, his voice turning childlike, pleading. “It needs to be real when you say it to them. This is the price we have to pay. This is how we move on.”

Rick shakes his head.

“It’s the only way we can,” Carl says sadly. “You can’t be in charge anymore but they need to believe that you are. They need to believe in you. So suck it up.”

Rick stares at him, seeing him as both a child and a grown-up, as his downfall and his salvation. “I belong to Negan,” he says hoarsely.

Carl nods. “Kneel.”

Rick gives him a weary look but Carl can’t meet him halfway on this. He’s already given enough. Rick shifts, pulling his legs under him, pushing himself up onto his knees. He looks at Carl but Carl is already turning his attention to Negan, looking for approval. Negan smiles at him, looking impressed, and Carl starts to bend his own knees. Negan puts a hand out to stop him.

“You don’t kneel,” he says firmly. “You never kneel. Not for anyone.”

Carl feels a little swell of pride, the warmth of protection. He nods his understanding, wrapping his arms around himself. Negan turns his attention to Rick.

“You need to get the widow on board,” he says. “And that tiger wrangling motherfucker. And any other friends you’ve been making behind my back. Any one of them causes me even the slightest inconvenience and you will be redeeming that travel voucher after Lucille has had her fill of however many people you have me kill. And then we all know what comes next.”

“I get it,” Rick grits out.

“It’s about fucking time,” Negan responds. He looks at Carl. “You got this, kid?”

Carl nods. “I got it. Thank you.”

“If you ever need anything, you know where I am,” Negan says. “You’ve proved that on more than one occasion.” He considers Rick for a moment. “You’ve got seven days. I hope you’re plotting in that devious little brain of yours. You’re going to need every bit of cunning you’ve got to pull this off. Good luck.”

Rick glares at him but clamps his mouth shut. Negan chuckles, swinging Lucille onto his shoulder as he turns and walks away.

“Wait,” Carl says. Negan turns back to look at him. “Can you give me a ride to the Hilltop.”

“I’m sure we could manage that,” Negan agrees.

“Carl,” Rick says. “You don’t have to do that. We’re fine. I’m not mad. I would never hurt you.”

“It’s not about that,” Carl dismisses.

“We have things to work out,” Ricks says. “How we’re going to make this happen.”

“That’s not my problem,” Carl tells him. “That’s your problem. And we’re not a team anymore. You made that very clear.”

“I never meant to push you out,” Rick responds. “I got scared.”

Carl nods his head. “I bet you’re very scared now.”

Rick lowers his head and despite himself, Carl feels a give. It’s the first admission of having acted wrongly, of understanding the impact of his actions. It’s not enough but it’s something.

“I’m only going to the Hilltop,” he says. “You’re going to be there in a couple of days anyway, right? You need to talk to Maggie.”

Rick visibly winces at the thought. Maggie is the one Carl feels worst for. He saw what losing Abraham drove Sasha to do. This war is likely what’s keeping Maggie going. He feels guilty for taking it away from her but she’d get it if she knew why. She’d be on his side. He hopes she would.

“I’ll see you then,” he tells Rick.

“Yeah,” Rick agrees, trying not to waver.

Carl gives him a nod and heads for Negan’s truck. Rick is still on his knees by the side of the road when they pull away. Carl wonders how long he’ll stay there. He feels as though he’s been beaten up, his body aching from the tension he’s carried with him the last few days. Maybe he’s only swapped one problem for another but at least he feels like he’s in control. He made this choice, made it in the best interests of everybody, even if Rick might never really forgive him. Carl would rather Rick hate him for something he actually believes in than something he was taught to love and then taught to despise.

“You know, you’re welcome to come back to the Sanctuary with us,” Negan tells him as he stares out of the window.

Carl imagines it for a moment. Negan would be so proud of him, parading him around. He understands why Eugene chose it. He smiles to himself sadly as he turns to face Negan.

“They’re my family,” he says. “All of them. Not just Rick.”

Negan nods his understanding. “Well, I’m going to keep a room ready for you,” he says. “You come and use it whenever you want. I sincerely mean that, kid.”

Carl believes him. He stares back out of the window at the passing scenery, giving his thoughts space to breathe. He thinks of the way Negan was so unconditionally on his side after hearing his story. If I had a kid, I’d want him to be just like your kid. He thinks of the instinctiveness of Negan punching Rick, that visceral need to protect that comes before logic. I like him. He turns to look at Negan, all that strength, all that power, and he makes Carl feel like Rick used to make him feel. He makes him feel safe.

“We’re going to have to drop you here,” Negan tells him as the truck comes to a stop. “I don’t think they’re going to take too kindly to seeing us around here right now.”

“Yeah,” Carl agrees, trying to push that from his mind.

“But I’ll be seeing you in a week,” Negan says. “We’re going to check in with each other, me and you. I’m going to make all your troubles go away.”

Carl laughs, as though it were that simple. “Thanks,” he says. “For the ride. For… everything else.”

“I’m glad you came to me,” Negan says. “You did the right thing, kid. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad about that. You did good. I’m proud of you, those things you said to Rick. You made it real like I couldn’t, but I know that took balls. Those huge, man size balls of yours. You have my admiration as always.”

Carl smiles, feeling himself blush.

“Take care of yourself,” Negan says firmly.

“I will,” Carl agrees.

He watches the trucks leave, turning and starting his trek up the hill. It makes him walk a little taller, knowing that someone has his back again, knowing he’ll never have to do this alone.