There was something immensely satisfying about sitting on a park bench in warm sunlight, watching his son play alongside and laugh with other children. Yeah, there was that giant knot twisting in his stomach, the one that reminded him of Lori and the divorce and the affair. But…this was still nice, even if the baby gurgling in his arms didn't look a thing like him. He couldn't help but love her almost as much as he loved Carl.
"Pretty day with a pretty baby," he cooed into the blankets, the baby squealing in delight, "How could it get any better, huh, Judith?"
"Hey! I called dibs on that swing first!"
Carl's rowdy, boyish yell snapped Rick's attention back up to the playground in front of him. His son, with arms crossed and expression sour, stood across from a girl about his age and height, hands on her hips and leaning forward, as if to provoke Carl further, "You know the rules, Tori! You have to wait your turn."
"Well, my little sister wanted to go on the swing now," the girl replied, tilting her head towards the rambunctious toddler jumping up and down on the swing set, waiting to be pushed, "And she's been waiting all day. Why can't you wait another two minutes?"
"Because rules are rules," Car seethed, clenching the folds of his jean pockets, "You can't just break them, even if your little sister gets all fussy."
"You're the only one who's getting fussy around here, dork," the girl narrowed her eyes, poking Carl in the chest, "If you want it so bad, why don't ya fight us for it?"
That did the trick. Instead of lashing out in words, Carl indeed tried to take the swing away from the sisters, pushing the girl to the ground and shoving sand into her hair. In retaliation, the girl kicked Carl's hips and scratched at his waist, yelling obscenities Rick might have blushed at if he had the time.
"Carl, get off of her!" Rick shouted, clutching the baby close to his chest and jumping off the bench to sprint over. God, would Lori have a field day with this. Can't even watch after his own kid for half an hour without the boy starting a fight (which made him wonder if she had ever talked to Shane outside the security of a bed), "Carl, stop that!"
But before he could get to the unfolding quarrel, a woman appeared on the scene, hovering over the two children with a weary gaze. She bent over and picked them up, pulling their faces close to hers.
"What do you think you're doing, Victoria?" she asked.
"Momma, he was the one that started it!" the girl yelled, pointing at Carl while her legs still attempted to kick him, "He was trying to kick us off the swing set."
"Is that true, boy?" her stare redirected to Carl, face pushing closer towards him, "Did you to bully my daughters off the swings?"
"I - uh," Carl stammered, breaking eye contact and staring nervously at the sand below, "They were…breaking the rules…it was my turn…"
"Breaking the rules, hmm?" the woman rolled her eyes, gaze flickering back to Victoria, "Why am I not surprised?"
"What?" her daughter shrugged, "Miss Thing over there wanted to play on the swings and she said she was going to cry if I didn't get her on them. You know how embarrassing that is, Mom!"
"Don't I know it," the mother sighed, putting the children down back into the sand. She caught sight of the approaching Rick soon enough, mimicking her daughter's previous behavior by pressing her hands into her jutting hip bones, "Are you this boy's father?"
Rick nodded, pulling off a sheepish smile (as a wave was near impossible with Judith so close to his chest), "Yeah…that would be me."
"Mind telling me why his first instinct was to push my daughter to the ground and throw sand in her face?" she asked, her stare unrelenting.
"Now…." Rick trailed, trying to calm the situation down as best he could. He really didn't want any trouble, and it seemed like Carl already knew the girl beforehand. Maybe they went to school together; Rick didn't want to mar their tense relationship any further, "What Carl did was wrong. Very wrong…but in his defense, your little girl did provoke him. It's a two-way street here."
The woman hummed in agreement, taking a step closer with pursed lips. Despite the atmosphere, Rick took in her toned arms and shoulders, appreciating the way her dark skin glistened in the bright sunlight, "Guess you're right. Both of the rascals need a good timeout from all this play…do you know where the library is? A few blocks down?"
"Ummm…" Rick blinked, unsure of what she was getting at, "Yeah, I do."
"Well then, how about my kids and I meet you and your boy over there?" she suggested, extending her hand out, "We'll find some books, they'll read and learn to get along. Isn't that right, Victoria? Carl?"
"Yes, mom," Victoria drawled.
"Yes, ma'am," Carl said, stare still fixed on the sand.
"That's…actually a pretty good idea," Rick replied, taking her hand and shaking it, "I was just going to talk to him about it. He's been fighting a lot lately."
"Well, talking obviously wasn't helping," the woman said, "I'm Michonne, by the way. That's Victoria and the brat on the swings is Raquel."
"Rick Grimes," he said, watching as said brat came racing to her mother, eyes big and smile wide as if she hadn't caused this fiasco, "You've met Carl and…this is Judith."
Michonne grinned at the sound of the baby's name, pulling the blankets back to reveal the babbling Judith, "She's beautiful. Especially the curly black hair."
"Yeah…" Rick cleared his throat again, the knot in his stomach tightening, "She doesn't get that from me….Would you like to go now? I don't think the library is open too late on Saturday."
She seemed to pick up on his unease, drawing back and reaching out for Raquel's hand, "Yeah, I guess so. See you in a few. C'mon, Victoria! Let's go."
"Coming, Momma," Victoria quickly looked over and waved at Carl before running up to Michonne, taking her free hand into hers.
Carl raced up to his father as soon as they were out of earshot, face still pale and nervous, "That woman, daddy…"
"She didn't scare you, did she, Carl?" he asked, grabbing his son's hand and heading back towards the bench and their forgotten belongings.
"No…" Carl's voice wavered, trying to put his thoughts into words, "She was kind of…cool."
"Cool?" Rick crooked an eyebrow at that, "You thought she was cool?"
"Mmhmm," Carl nodded, "I liked her. Maybe hanging out with Tori won't be so bad if she's around."
His father laughed at that, a little relieved there was one woman they could agree on, "Yeah, Carl. Maybe it won't."