Chapter 23.

Rick woke while it was still pitch dark out, jerked back to consciousness by some dream he couldn't remember.

The manor house they were staying in was big, but not big enough to give the girls their own room, so they were sleeping with him and Andrea for the time being. (Carl was bedding down in the living room with Daryl and Hershel.) Rick could feel Judith's elbow digging into his hipbone as she sprawled on her back next to him, her other arm pinned to her side by the laundry basket they were using as a bassinet.

He couldn't see Georgia from where he was lying, so he leant over her sister to peer into her basket. Like him, the baby was awake, but she wasn't making a fuss about it. The impression he'd been getting from her so far was that she wasn't much of a crier. Not unless she was hungry or wet, and at that moment she didn't appear to be either.

She noted Rick watching her, but didn't play up to his attention, gazing back at him serenely with her huge blue-green eyes. Andrea's eyes. As usual, the look she gave him was so innocent, so trusting that it felt like an admonishment; not for the first time, Rick found himself wondering if it was possible that she knew the truth: that he hadn't wanted her, that he'd wished her gone, that he would have killed her if her mother had let him.

At a little less than two weeks old, she was seven pounds of sheer perfection, and he worried that he didn't deserve her. Even if he loved her unequivocally now, and had from the first moment he saw her.

It was a mystery to him, how he could love all three of his children with equal intensity, and yet feel so differently about each of their births.

The day Carl was born was and always would be the best of his life. He'd had such hope for the future back then.

The day Judith was born was the worst, rivalled only by the night he killed Shane. Days went by in a bitter, grief-induced haze before he could even stand to look at her; weeks before the pain inside of him dulled enough for him to start being the parent she needed.

He held Andrea largely responsible for helping him put the pieces of his heart back together, which was why the night Georgia was born fell somewhere in the middle for him.

Andrea had never given him any reason to doubt their relationship, or that the child she was carrying was his, but that hadn't stopped him from viewing it as an intruder, a flesh-and-blood time bomb threatening to destroy everything they had worked so hard to build.

When their daughter finally made her hasty entrance into the world, what she brought with her wasn't joy like Carl, or pain like Judith, but a sense of relief. Rick was so relieved that she hadn't blown an irreparable hole in his life that it took him a while to realise that he was happy, too.

The revelation hit him the next morning as he was giving her her first bottle, Andrea sleeping in the bed beside them, physically and emotionally spent, but mercifully alive. Even more miraculously, she didn't seem to be holding a grudge against him for being such a lousy partner to her at a time when she'd really needed his support.

It was the first time in a long time that Rick had felt truly blessed. He had never been what you would call a religious man, but in that moment, he thought maybe he should be. God couldn't be all bad if he'd seen fit to grant him this one desperate prayer.

Rick extricated himself carefully from Judith's long limbs – he had a feeling that she was going to be tall, like her mother –, lifting Georgia out of her basket.

She was smaller than her siblings had been at that age, but like her mother, what she lacked in stature, she made up for in ferocity. She might give off the appearance of being an angel most of the time, but she could turn into a little hellcat if anyone tried to get between her and something she wanted, usually food.

"How long have you been up?" he asked her in a low voice so as not to disturb the others, settling her against his shoulder.

She didn't answer, not that he expected her to.

"It's way past your bedtime," he continued, walking her over to the window.

He drew back the drape with his free hand. There were a couple of lurkers outside the front gates, a deadly reminder that these walls only gave the illusion of safety.

The real threat was inside, though: two weeks into their stay, the pantry was almost bare, the water tank down to its last dregs. Even the generator was running on empty. Georgia was the only one not subsisting on rations, but Rick doubted that Andrea would be able to feed her for much longer if she couldn't even feed herself.

He hated to admit it, even to himself, but sooner rather than later they were going to have to think about moving on.

He let the drape fall back over the window, hiding the walkers from view.

"How about you try to go back to sleep, huh? Before we wake your sister up," he murmured to his daughter, rocking her lightly.

Rick was an expert at dealing with babies by now, but this was the first time he'd ever had to juggle two at once; the biggest lesson he'd learnt over the past two weeks was that the only thing worse than a screaming newborn was a screaming newborn and toddler. Every time Georgia cried, it seemed to spark some kind of reaction in Judith, and soon they were both wailing at the top of their lungs.

When Georgia didn't show any signs of drifting off again in the near future, Rick decided to try serenading her.

"Georgia," he sang in a whisper, his lips brushing the tiny shell of her ear. " 'Georgia, the whole day through, just an old sweet song, keeps Georgia on my mind'."

It seemed to be working, her doll-like lashes fluttering open then closed. He pressed a kiss to the side of her head, then continued:

" 'I say Georgia, Georgia,

A song of you,

Comes sweet and clear,

As moonlight through the pines.

Other arms reach out to me,

Other eyes smile tenderly,

Still in peaceful dreams I see,

The road leads back to you.

I said Georgia, oh Georgia,

No peace I find,

Just an old sweet song

Keeps…' "

" 'Georgia On My Mind' ?" Andrea said, her voice thick with sleep.

Rick tore his eyes away from their daughter in time to see her sitting up, shoving her tousled blonde curls back from her face.

"Cute," she remarked, stifling a yawn in her palm.

Warmth flooded into Rick's cheeks. He hadn't realised that she was awake, or that she had been listening.

"It was the only song I could think of with her name in it," he explained.

He couldn't remember if he'd ever sung to Carl when he was a baby, but with Judith, whenever he was trying to get her to sleep, it was always a slightly off-key rendition of 'Hey Jude'.

Andrea drew her arms around herself, hugging her knees to her chest. " 'Midnight Train To Georgia' ?" she suggested with a smile.

"This one suits her better," he told her.

Georgia was on his mind, every minute of every day. So were Carl and Judith. He loved each of them so much it hurt; his one regret was that he didn't have time to enjoy them more, that he was always too busy worrying about whether or not they were safe and warm and getting enough to eat.

He wasn't a worrier before all this started. When Carl was small, Lori had worried enough for the both of them. But these days, he couldn't stop himself from running through lists of all the nightmarish scenarios that could befall his children, because when he did, he saw Sophia's face right before he put a bullet between her eyes, and well… Rick wasn't going to let that happen to one of his kids. He would sooner die.

He worried about that, too.

The fact that Andrea was such a loose canon sometimes didn't help because it meant that he had to worry about her as well.

He'd barely survived the loss of his wife and the destruction of his first family. He didn't know if he had it in him to live through another tragedy.

He tuned back into the present when he heard Andrea calling his name, asking him if everything was okay.

She had slid forward to perch on the side of the bed, regarding him with a concerned frown. "You spaced out for a second."

"I was just thinking that maybe it's time we hit the road again," he explained. "See what else is around here. At the very least, we need to go on another supply run. These walls won't be worth much if we don't find some more food soon."

Andrea nodded, as if she had been expecting him to say something like that. "You're leaving first thing tomorrow, aren't you?"

He hadn't even realised his mind was made up until then. "As soon as I talk to the others."

"I want to go with you," she told him, her voice heavy with resignation, devoid of her usual bravado.

He could see in her eyes that her heart was pulling her in two directions at once. She wanted to be out there with him so that she could watch his back, but she didn't want to leave Georgia. He couldn't say that he blamed her. He didn't want to leave them either.

"I know you do," he agreed gently, sitting down beside her, "but you just had a baby. If we were in the old world, you'd be on maternity leave right now."

"You really think those—" Whatever word she planned to use, she seemed to think better of it, eyeing their daughter warily, "—freaks are going to care about that? They'd kill me just as soon as they'd kill you."

"Which is exactly why I can't take you with me. I can't afford to lose you, and neither can Georgia. She'll die if you do, you know that, right? We've got formula, but it's not enough. She needs her mother."

More than I do, he thought. The words hung unspoken in the air between them.

Andrea sighed. "Is that all I'm good for now? My breasts?" she joked.

Rick felt the corners of his lips twist into a wicked smirk. "You really want me to touch that?"

"It's probably better if you don't," she agreed, returning his grin.

Then: "I don't understand how you can still find me attractive. I'm starting to feel like one of those fat milking cows Hershel had back at the farm."

"You are not fat," he scoffed.

He was amazed at how quickly her body seemed to be bouncing back. She didn't look like a woman who had given birth recently, although deep down he knew it had less to do with hard work or good genetics than the fact that with food so scare, she hadn't had the luxury of putting on much weight during her pregnancy. Most of what she ate had gone Georgia, and the little that didn't went to keeping both of them alive.

"Oh, so I'm not fat, but I am a cow?"

"Only sometimes," he teased her.

He didn't mind, though. Her sharp tongue and sassy mouth were just two of the things that he loved about her, after her good heart, of course.

She let out a startled bark of laughter. "You asshole," she gasped, giving up on trying to keep her language in check. She smacked him with her open palm, and he couldn't help chuckling a little himself.

"Promise me you'll come back to us," she said once her giggles had subsided, laying her head on his shoulder.

"You know I can't."

He didn't want to lie to her, to build her hopes up with false assurances. There were no guarantees in this life, not when they'd watched so many of the people they cared about succumb to the brutality of this world.

His heart gave a painful jolt as he watched her face crumple with misery.

"I hate the thought of you going back out there," she admitted. "It's bullshit. This whole thing is bullshit."

Rick kissed her temple, keeping his nose buried there while he breathed in the scent of her hair. The shampoo she'd used had a distinctly feminine smell, like flowers.

"I can't argue with that, but you know what Hershel says."

She flashed him a faint smile. " 'We all have jobs to do'," she recited.

"And right now, yours is taking care of Georgia."

She and Judith had to come first, even if it meant he had to do without his best shooter for a little while longer. If he was honest with himself, he was grateful for the excuse not to have to put her in harm's way. As his feelings for her had grown, it got harder for him to treat her like just another hired gun, and that was before she became the mother of one of his children.

"Doesn't that make Judith yours?" she asked him, in what he assumed was a half-hearted attempt to convince him not to go.

"That and taking care of you," he retorted. "It's hard work, but someone's gotta do it."

She kissed him then, long and sweet, her tongue tangling leisurely with his. It reminded him a little of that afternoon supply run when one thing had led to another, which led to the newborn currently nestled in one elbow.

"Let's not start something we can't finish," he said, pulling away from Andrea abruptly.

He remembered from when Carl was born that it would be at least another month before they could safely have sex again, and even if their actions weren't medically restricted, it was hard to get in the mood when you were sharing a bed with two impressionable infants.

He snuck a peek at the baby. Her eyes were closed now. He counted to ten but they didn't reopen.

"We should try to get some rest before she wakes up again," he told Andrea.

He gave it about forty-five minutes before she decided that she was more hungry than tired and the whole cycle began again.

Andrea crawled back into bed. "Hold me?" she asked him with a hopeful smile.

Rick put their daughter back into her basket, and got in on Andrea's side this time, wrapping his arms tightly around her waist.

She wriggled closer to him until her back was flush with his chest, his knees slotting in neatly behind hers.

"How long do you think we can keep doing this?" she asked him, lacing their fingers together.

"Don't tell me you're sick of the sleepless nights already?"

"I wasn't talking about the baby. I was talking about running."

Rick sighed. "As long as we have to," he answered, remembering something she'd said to him a long time ago. Really, what other choice did they have?

She turned her head slightly to look at him. "But there has to be an end soon, right? If we keep moving, eventually we're going to find someplace where we can stay for good?"

Rick didn't necessarily believe that was true – not when experience had convinced him otherwise –, but he didn't want to take that away from her, not when she needed it to keep going, so all he said was:

"I hope so."


Anyone out there still reading (or writing) Walking Dead fics that don't star the Dixon brothers?