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You Can Let Go Now

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"Y-you can let go now, daddy," Carl's voice was small and broken, but to Rick it rang out as clear as a bell. "You can let go now. Your little boy is ready to do this on his- his own," Carl choked the last part out with a sob, grabbing Rick's hand and curling up beside his father. Rick curled around Carl, least, he did it the best he could. The walker had bitten a huge chunk out of his side, and rolling over hurt. Hell, just breathing hurt, but he couldn't let Carl know that. He couldn't show Carl how much pain he was in. He couldn't let Carl see how scared he was. He just couldn't.

"Hey, hey," Rick tried to sound reassuring, but his voice was too weak, and Carl's sobs became harder. "Carl, none of that." Carl's sobs didn't stop, but Rick could tell he had his attention. "I love you, Carl. I tried- I tried to take care of you. I tried to do right by you." Carl's sobs picked up, and he pressed his face into Rick's shoulder. "Carl, shh, it's okay." Rick tried to rub Carl's back the way he used to when Carl was a baby and he'd get fussy, but he was losing control of his arms. He was turning, and he was turning fast. "Carl, I love you. I love you, and you need to listen to me right now. You'll have time to cry later, but right now you need to listen."

Carl had heard Rick's commanding voice enough to pay mind to it, even if it was a subconsious act now. His sobs started to subside, and when he looked up at his dad, Rick was smiling through the pain, his teeth a bright white against the pale skin, stained with blood. "I'm listening, Dad."

"You gotta' take care of me. One shot, between the eyes. You k-know how to do it." Carl teared up and nodded, and Rick felt his heart break. "Find Daryl. Tell him he's the ringleader now. He'll take care of y'all. You know he will."

"I know he will, Dad." A tear slid down Carl's cheek, and a spasm overtook Rick. Carl panicked, standing up and backing away, but when Rick forced himself up, Carl was back beside him in an instant. "Dad, sit back down. You're just gonna make it-"

"Worse?" Rick cut Carl off, giving him a small smile. "I don't think I can make this much worse." Rick finished standing up, accepting Carl's help before pulling his son into the tightest hug he'd given him since he'd found him alive at that camp in Atlanta. "Carl, you're the man of the Grimes family now. Take care of your sister."

"I will, Dad." Carl started crying again, and this time Rick didn't stop him.

He couldn't. He was crying too. "I love you, Carl. I love you so much, and I tried to do right by you, and I tried so hard for you, and Carl, I'm so-"

"Shut up, Dad." Carl cut Rick off by tightening his arms around his waist. "I love you, too. I...I'm gonna' miss you." Carl pulled back to meet Rick's eyes, committing his father's face to memory. "You can let go now, Daddy. It's gonna' be a little bit scary, but... but I can do this own my own. Daryl will watch out for me. You can... you can let go now."

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Daryl came running when he heard the gunshot. Rick and Carl had been gone way too long, and he was starting to feel uneasy. When the gunshot went off, his heart dropped to his feet. He didn't know what it was, and he didn't know what happened, but he knew it was bad. He could feel it in that pit in his stomach, the one that had formed when he remembered Rick telling him goodbye earlier. "It won't be long," Rick had grinned at him. "I'll make it back. Just like I always have."

It didn't take Rick long to find Carl. Carl who had aged at least five years in two hours. "Carl?" He didn't want to ask Carl what had happened, but he had to know. He had to know where Rick was. "Carl, what happened? Where's your dad?"

Carl's expression was blank, and Daryl shook his head. "No," he breathed, shaking his head and backing away from Carl. "Nuh uh. No...not Rick. Not... not Rick."

Carl's expression broke, and the tears in his eyes shattered Daryl's heart into a thousand, irreparable pieces. "Dad said you're the ringleader now."

"No." Daryl's voice was soft, the pain that was flooding through his body a thousand times stronger than it had been when he lost his brother. "No. Rick can't-"

"He let go," Carl's voice broke, and before Daryl could help himself his arms were wrapped around Carl's shoulders, trying to hold both of them together. For Carl's sake. Daryl would have to hold them both together for Carl. "Dad let go, Daryl." Carl was sobbing before Daryl knew what was happening, and he held Carl tighter than he ever had before. "He... he let go."