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Devil's Backbone

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These days were rare - the days when he could get off work early enough to see one of Carl’s games. The sheriff’s department was understaffed, and that meant long hours and few breaks. When Rick allowed himself to luxuriate in bitterness, he thought of it as the poisoned parting gift of his former friend, Shane Walsh, whose sudden resignation had cast a pall over the department. His false friend. Lost in unhappy memories as he was, he almost missed Carl stepping up to plate. Two pitches whistled straight past him, but he got a piece of the third, sending the ball sailing into midfield. Unfortunately, a midfielder leapt up and caught it as easily as if it had been tossed to him in a game of catch, and the crowd groaned along with Rick. As Carl slumped away from the plate, his coach slapped his shoulder and leaned forward, apparently speaking to him. The man was wearing a leather motorcycle jacket - in this heat? Rick thought incredulously - and dark pants, and he looked like a smudge of black ink amidst the bright white of the uniforms.

The game continued to go poorly for the home team, and inevitably the final inning concluded with a decisive loss. Rick let the crowd dissipate around him, mentally rehearsing what to say to cheer Carl up. Of course, nothing he said cheered Carl up these days. The loss of his mother hung heavy over him, and the passing of time just saw him drifting further and further out of Rick’s reach. Truth be told, it was lonely. Rick’s life had narrowed down to his children after Lori’s death, and since Judith was a toddler, Carl’s distance left him with no one to confide in that was capable of speaking back in more than a few babbles at time. Rick sighed, getting to his feet and making his way down the bleachers.

As he got to the bottom, angry voices reached his ears. He glanced over, unable to stop himself. A parent was arguing with the coach, he realized, and they were tucked behind the abandoned bleachers, largely hidden from sight. He ducked his head and began to walk past them. Something stopped him, however. He approached, and slowly the shouted words became more distinct.

“Don’t be a fucking idiot, Anderson. Everyone gets the same amount of play time.”

“Aw, come on! You know you’re just going easy on him because of his mother! That kid should have been cut ages ago!” Rick froze in his tracks. No. “This season has been one shit-show after another! When are you going to wake up and - “

Rick was not aware of closing the distance to the pair, but his hand was suddenly on the man’s shoulder, spinning him around like a top. He gaped at Rick - a handsome, fair-haired man in a blue button-down. Respectable-looking.

“Excuse me,” Rick said in an even tone that belied the red, hot buzzing in his head. “You talkin’ about my son, there?”

The man at least looked a little ashamed, although that did nothing to quell Rick’s rage. “Look, nothing personal. But he’s dragging down the whole team.” The man eyed him, a nasty little glint flashing in his eye. “I haven’t seen you around the games, Mr. - uh, Grimes? Maybe you don’t know, but your son’s been struggling for some time now.”

The implied rebuke stung far more than it should have, and Rick fisted his right hand involuntarily. “Yeah? And what was that part about his mother?” Rick asked quietly. Silence stretched thick between them, and Rick saw the other man’s throat bob as he swallowed.

“Nothing personal,” he repeated, but the unpleasant look hung around his eyes and mouth, and Rick felt something pull taut inside him. Suddenly, a broad expanse of black blocked his view, and he realized that the coach had stepped in front of him, walling him off from the other man. He blinked and stepped aside, feeling his adrenaline flee and leave him faintly sick.

“I hate to fuckin’ break it to you, Anderson, but none of these kids are going to the majors. That bein’ the case, maybe you should calm the fuck down and let them play the game.”

The man’s eyes bulged.“Maybe they would have a chance if this shit district could hire a decent coach instead of a Hell’s Angel reject!” he hissed, his face reddening.

The man in the leather jacket merely chuckled, apparently not perturbed in the slightest. “You’re probably right,” he drawled, flashing an easy grin. Rick studied him out of the corner of his eye - despite his casual air, the man’s powerful hand gripped the bat he dangled in his grip a trifle more tightly than was strictly necessary, and the smile on his face seemed almost jagged. This is not a man to cross. The thought bubbled up in his mind, unbidden.

The fair-haired man was shaking his head. “Trash,” he spat before spinning and stalking away. The two men stood in silence for a moment.

The coach sighed theatrically, startling Rick. “He’s right,” he said, with exaggerated regret. “I am trash.” He could only hold a solemn face for a moment before his smirk resurfaced, dimples peeking out of the dark stubble on his face, and Rick found himself smiling back.

Now that he could get a good look at the man, he saw that with his slicked back dark hair, sparkling dark eyes that glinted with hazel in the sun, and finely formed features, he was startlingly attractive. Based on the way he held himself, Rick had a feeling he knew it. “Jesus, I’m sorry. I think I made that worse.”

The man looked startled for a moment before throwing his head back and laughing. “You? Hell no. That motherfucker is like that all the time. Christ, he’s up my ass every damn day about his kid. He wants him to be somethin’ he’s fucking not.” He gazed across the field at the distant figure, now standing over his son. The boy was sitting slumped, every line of his body speaking dejection, while his father gestured and shouted. Rick cringed, passing a hand over his eyes. “Poor little bastard,” the other man muttered.

“Dad?”

Rick spun around. Carl was standing there, holding his helmet and looking from him to his coach. Had he heard? Rick felt a stab of alarm. “Hey, Carl. I was just, uh…introducing myself.”

Carl looked at him in that cool, appraising way that Lori had had - a look that told him his statement was being assessed and a final verdict was pending. It still hurt, seeing the ghost of her in him like that, as exasperating as this particular trait was. “You were talking to Mr. Anderson?” Carl glanced between the two men. “He’s a prick,” he announced matter-of-factly. Rick opened his mouth to deliver an instinctive reproof, but the other man laughed boomingly beside him, startling him.

“That he most certainly motherfucking is.”

Rick shot him an incredulous look. “Really? You talk like that in front of the kids?”

“Yeah, he does,” Carl said.

The other man’s grin never faltered. “Sorry, daddy Grimes. Can’t fucking help it. Anyway, let’s get introduced. Hi. I’m Negan.” He switched his bat to his other hand in a fluid motion, holding out his right.

Rick shook it. “Rick Grimes.”

“Nice to meet you, Rick Grimes. Your kid over there has some great intuition on the field. But he won’t fuckin’ practice the way I tell him to, which is why his batting stance still sucks balls. And kid - it’s all in the fuckin' stance.”

Carl rolled his eyes dramatically, but Rick was surprised to see the hint of a smile at the corners of his mouth. “No one has the time to practice the way you tell us to. We have lives. And homework.”

Negan’s hand shot up, palm out, as if warding off something. “Far be it from me to suggest for one shitting second that you should take time out of doing whatever the fuck teenagers do with their lives. Please, keep on fucking texting and sneaking your daddy’s copy of Penthouse.”

“Dad doesn’t read Penthouse.”

Negan scratched his cheek thoughtfully. “Hustler?”

“Nope.”

“Well, shit.” Rick stared at the two of them, a blush burning his cheeks, and Negan clapped him on the back hard. “You are a pillar of virtue, Rick Grimes.”

“He is. It’s annoying.”

Carl,” Rick said, finally finding his voice. He was pleased, however, when Carl smiled at him. It was one of the soft, genuine ones that you rarely saw from a kid his age.

“Just messing with you, Dad. I need to grab something from my locker. Meet you at the car, okay?” He jogged away.

Rick cleared his throat, still aware of the heat on his face. “Look, uh…thanks for standing up for him. To that…” Rick struggled for the high road and lost it. “That prick,” he sighed.

Negan looked at him thoughtfully for a moment. “You’ve got nothin’ to thank me for, daddy Grimes. I’m sorry you had to hear the stupid shit he said. Don’t fucking pay it any mind, all right?”

Rick nodded jerkily, looking down the field and squinting in the sunlight. “Was it true? I mean…is he still on the team because of what happened to his mo - “

“No,” Negan interrupted firmly. “I meant what I said. Carl’s got talent that he could polish if he put his mind to it, but who gives a fuck? They’re kids. It’s a game. He’s fucking right, he should be doing teenage shit instead of practicing all the damn time.”

“Since none of them are going to the majors?” Rick offered, smiling a little.

“‘Fraid not.” Negan tilted his head at him. “You’re a law man, ain’t you, Rick?”

“How did you - “ Negan pointed his bat towards his waist, and Rick followed his gaze. He was wearing his holster, empty as it was. In his haste to change out of his uniform and make it to the game, he had forgotten to take it off. “Uh, yeah. I’m at the sheriff’s department.”

Negan absently swung the bat dangling at his side up and onto his shoulder. “That pencil dick Anderson? He’s beating that kid. Probably his wife, too.”

Rick felt his stomach drop. “Jesus.”

“I’m not saying I have proof, because I don’t. It’s not like he told me, either. Just…intuition. And you know what? Turns out nobody gives a fuck when you try to report your intuition.” Negan’s eyes met his, and all good humor had fled. “Can you keep an eye on that shit somehow?”

“Of course. I’ll do what I can,” Rick said, looking off towards where he had last seen the unhappy pair. They were gone now.

“Okay. Good. See you around, sheriff.”

It’s deputy, Rick thought, but before he could give voice to the thought the man was striding away.

...

Later on, driving home with Carl, Rick remembered the encouraging remarks he had been rehearsing before he walked into the fight with Anderson. He cleared his throat. “You, uh, looked great out there today.”

Carl shot him a withering look. “Seriously? No, I didn’t. I suck.”

“You don’t suck,” Rick protested. “You got a hit.”

“Someone caught it.”

“It was still a hit,” he insisted.

Carl shrugged wordlessly in response and stared out the window.

Rick felt defeated, and he drove in silence for a few moments. “Seems like you get along well with your coach,” Rick offered, trying again.

“He’s okay, I guess. He teaches gym, too. What were you talking to Mr. Anderson about?”

“Huh?” Rick was caught off-guard. Carl’s eyes were on him. “I wasn’t talkin' to him. He was just there when I went down to - “

“Introduce yourself?” Carl cut in, tone skeptical.

“Yeah.”

“I know you’re lying, dad.”

Rick smiled ruefully. “Your mom always knew when I was lying, too.”

Carl frowned at him for a moment, and then his expression softened. “That guy’s the worst. Don’t worry about him.”

Rick glanced at him, touched. His son was trying to protect him. He reached out instinctively and squeezed Carl’s shoulder. Carl shrugged him away, but without any real aggression. It was a little bit of progress, and Rick would take it.

The next day at the station, Rick sat in front of his computer, a pit in his stomach. Peter Anderson had at least half a dozen calls to his house for domestic disturbances over the past year alone. Somehow, Rick hadn’t caught any of them. He drummed his fingers on his desk and glanced around the office until he spotted one of the deputies that had worked some of the calls. He wasn’t close to anyone on the force; he had snapped shut like a bear trap after Lori’s death, and the fallout with Shane had been the final nail in the coffin of the department’s camaraderie. Rick held himself aloof, aware of the ugly rumors slinking around the station. When all was said and done, the others had gotten the hint pretty well and learned to keep their distance. He could see the surprise in the other man’s eyes as he approached him.

“Morning, Abraham,” Rick said pleasantly. “What can you tell me about a guy named Peter Anderson?”

“Oh,” the other man said, lifting a hand to rub at his mustache, “that sack of monkey shit. Same old story - we get called to the house, and his old lady - beautiful blonde babe - has a shiner and a story about walking into a door. We’re sitting there, dicks in our hands, can’t do a damn thing.” His expression was dark. “He’s some big-shot doctor, too, so the sheriff is limp-dicked on the topic. Fucking travesty.”

Rick had suspected as much. “He has two kids, right? Any evidence he’s doing the same to them?”

Abraham’s shocked eyes met his. “Fuck no, man. If there was, he’d be locked up. You know we don’t need a complaining witness to press charges for that shit. Why, you know something?”

Rick hesitated. “No. Not really. His son plays baseball with Carl, and the coach told me he thought something seemed wrong.”

Abraham shook his head. “Motherfuck,” he said grimly. Rick gave him a wan smile.

“Rick!”

He turned his head. The door to the sheriff’s office was open, and the man himself was waving him inside. Rick groaned inwardly. The previous sheriff, Hershel Greene, had been like a father to him, but he had retired just after Lori’s death. His successor was nothing like him - he was a politician through and through, a smarmy glad-hander with a unsettling emptiness behind his blue eyes. Rick braced himself as he walked into the office. There was a young woman in a deputy’s uniform sitting in the chair in front of the sheriff’s desk, and Rick looked at her in surprise.

“Uh, what can I do for you, sheriff?”

The man laughed, waving his hand. “Oh, Rick, please. I’ve told you a hundred times. Call me Gregory!” Rick smiled thinly at him. “Rick, our prayers have been answered. We have a new recruit ready to join the department and be all she can be. Isn’t that right, Cara?”

The young woman blinked up at him, expression almost comically dismayed. “It’s, uh…Tara.”

“Right, right.” Gregory flapped his hands. “Rick, this young lady is your new partner. I trust you to show her the ropes, train her, all that sort of thing.”

Rick’s heart sank. He had been largely working alone since Shane’s departure, only partnering up when necessary for patrols, and frankly, he liked it that way. Besides, training a new recruit was difficult work. But the young woman was looking up at him with such eager hope in her large, brown doe’s eyes that he mentally kicked himself for his selfish dismay. “Of course. Welcome to the force, officer.”

She beamed at that. "Thanks so much! I really - "

“Lovely, lovely. Now, go. Go, go, go.” Gregory shooed them away, and Rick suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. Tara stood hastily and retreated from the office. Once outside, she stood looking at Rick uncertainly.

He smiled at her in a way that he hoped was reassuring. “I’ll show you to an empty spot, and you can settle on in.” Tara nodded gratefully, and Rick led her, with a tiny pang of sadness, to Shane’s old desk.

Tara proved to be a quick study, and Rick began to relax around her. He had to admit, it was nice having a companion in the office again to help pass the time when work was in short supply, and Tara herself was good company. She was kind, funny, and endearing in her ingenuousness. She had lit up when Rick asked her if she wanted to drive on their first patrol, and she had been behind the wheel ever since. Today, she was humming while cruising down the tree-lined avenues, happy as a clam.

The dispatcher’s voice cut in over the speaker, and Tara stiffened, glancing over at him with wide eyes. Rick shot her a reassuring smile as he reached for the receiver. They hadn’t caught anything all week, but maybe today was the day. He would finally have the opportunity to evaluate his new partner in the field. After a moment of communication, Tara had turned the car around, and they were heading towards a domestic disturbance call. Rick shifted uneasily. It wasn’t possible, was it? Rick had never in his nearly two-decade long career on the force caught a call to the Anderson house. What were the odds that he would catch one today, less than a week after he met the man?

Several minutes later, they were pulling up to a large, handsome house set in a well-manicured lawn. As they walked up to the front door, shouting became audible.

Rick glanced at Tara. “Follow my lead, okay?” He walked up to the door and rapped firmly. Feet stomped through the house, and the door swung open. Peter Anderson’s surprised face glared down at him. Of course.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” he snapped. It took a moment for him to take in Rick’s uniform, and then his expression shifted, grew closed and guarded.

Rick stared at him coldly. “May we come in?” he asked quietly. Anderson hesitated, frowning, then stepped aside. Rick walked into the house with Tara close behind him. “Is anyone else at home with you, Mr. Anderson?” He felt Tara’s eyes on him, surprised. The dispatcher had never given the name of the occupants of the home they were sent to, and she must have just caught on that they were acquainted.

The man sneered at him. “My wife is taking a nap. She’s not feeling well.”

“We’d like to have a word with her, if you don’t mind.”

“I do mind. I just said she’s not feeling well.” Anderson crossed his arms and glared.

“Sir,” Rick said carefully, pushing down the anger that tried to claw its way to the surface, “we’ve received a report about a disturbance at your home, and we’re here to investigate. It’s important that we speak to your wife.” Suddenly, a faint noise reached his ears - something that sounded like a gurgle. He started towards it, past Anderson, and that’s when the other man swung at him. He was distracted enough that he didn’t see it coming, and his fist connected squarely with his cheek, knocking him flat onto his back. There was a flurry of activity above him, and when he jumped back to his feet, Tara was pointing her stun gun square at Anderson’s chest.

“Get on your knees and put your hands behind your head,” she said firmly, without a hint of a quaver in her voice.

Rick looked at her, surprised and impressed. Anderson’s gaze flitted between them. “Don’t do anything more stupid than you already have, Mr. Anderson,” Rick said calmly, ignoring the horrible throbbing in his cheek. The man finally complied, and Rick stepped behind him to cuff him. “Keep an eye on him,” he said to Tara before disappearing down the hall. He turned a corner and found himself in a gleaming white kitchen. He had expected it, but the sight of the dazed woman sitting on the floor, blood dripping steadily from behind the hand pressed to her nose still made him stop in his tracks. He swallowed, sadness for the woman thick in his throat. “You’re going to be all right, ma’am,” he said gently as he pulled out his radio to call for medical backup.

The woman lifted her eyes to him, a deep, clear, lovely blue. “My head,” she said slowly.

Rick walked behind her and saw blood matting her blonde hair. Shit. “I need an ambulance, dispatch. Hurry.” A small movement caught his eye. He turned his head and froze. A young boy, maybe seven or eight, was crouching under the kitchen table. Rick slowly dropped to his knees. “Hey there. What’s your name, son?” The boy looked at him solemnly and gave no answer. He crawled out from beneath the table and edged around Rick warily, going to his mother. He sat down next her and put his small hand on hers, limp and sticky with blood. Rick waited on his knees beside them until the howl of the ambulance reached him.

The punch to the face earned him three days off, over his protestations. Nothing was broken, but the bruising was hideous - Rick’s left eye sat in a swollen, purple socket. He suspected that Gregory wanted him gone just for the sake of appearance, and his scorn for the man was boundless. He wanted to process Anderson and work the case, but instead he found himself sitting in his car and irritably tapping the steering wheel. Another deputy had been dispatched to pick up Ron Anderson and bring him to the hospital - Rick couldn’t even talk Gregory into letting him do that. Judith was in daycare, and it would be hours before it was time to pick her up. Rick started up the car and found himself driving to the high school. He supposed he might as well follow up with Negan and let the man know that his hunch was right. As he pulled in, a squad car was just leaving. He caught a flash of the boy from the baseball field, his face ashen in the window, and his heart squeezed in his chest. The secretary at the front desk gaped at him when he walked in.

“Uh, hello. Is…I’m looking for the baseball coach - er, gym teacher. Is he in?”

The man continued to stare, wide-eyed, and Rick grew a trifle irritated. Did he look that bad?

“His office is right outside the gym,” the man said finally. “Walk down that hallway, double doors on the left.” Rick thanked him curtly and headed out the door. Heads turned towards him as he made his way down the hall, and he was beginning to think this was a bad idea. He supposed it would get back to Carl that his father was walking around school with a horrendous black eye. He wasn’t sure why that should embarrass him, but it would, somehow. He pushed through the double doors and stood in the entrance to a large gymnasium. Banners hung on the walls, and basketball hoops lined the polished floor. A shuffling to his right caught his attention, and he turned towards a half-open door set just beyond the entrance to the gym. Hesitantly, he knocked on the door frame.

“Who the fuck is it?”

Rick sighed. “I guess this is the right place.”

“Is that you, sheriff? Come on in.”

Rick stepped through the door and into what appeared to be a supply closet. Metal shelves overflowing with sports equipment were shoved up against one side of the room. A large sagging box full of brightly colored balls sat just inside the door, and Rick had to squeeze around it. A desk with two chairs was shoved in the corner, and Negan was standing on top of it, facing away from Rick and rummaging at the top of one of the metal shelves.

He stepped back and looked down at him. “Holy mother of fuck! What the fuck happened to you?” He hopped down from the desk. Rick found himself at a loss, and Negan looked at him curiously. “Jesus,” he said, suddenly moving closer until he was less than six inches from Rick, inspecting the injury. Rick swallowed, the proximity unnerving him. His heart sped up in his chest, and his skin prickled with heat. Negan lifted a hand as if to touch the bruise, and Rick flinched involuntarily. The hand dropped. “Here,” he gestured towards the chair in front of his desk, “sit down, get comfortable. Welcome to my fucking kingdom.” He gestured grandly, and Rick found himself smiling a little in spite of himself.

“This is a closet, ain’t it?”

No, Rick, this is my office. Just because I allow a few fucking things to be stored in here does not make it a goddamn closet.”

“A few?” Rick shot back wryly, kicking a pile of jerseys at his feet. Negan grinned at him, and he walked over to the chair in front of his desk and sat down. Negan followed, sitting in his chair and settling his black boots on the desk in front of him. “You were right about Anderson.”

The smile fell off of Negan’s face. “You let fucking Anderson do that to you?”

Rick looked up at him incredulously. “Let him?”

Negan scratched at his cheek. “Well, what the fuck happened?”

“I’m not at liberty to say, exactly, but…he’s in custody.”

Negan let out a low whistle. “Well…shit.” He gestured towards Rick. “You need to get some ice on that shit. I’ll bet it hurts like a bitch. Getting hit in the face always does.”

Rick smiled up at him. “You get punched in the face a lot, Negan?”

The man smirked down at him. “Me? Nah, I’m too fucking quick for that. You need a few pointers, sheriff?”

Rick was torn between amusement and annoyance. “Look, he got the jump on me, okay? Shut up.”

Negan laughed, the sound filling the small space and reverberating off the walls. “You want to grab a drink? I think you fuckin' need it.”

“Aren’t you working?”

Negan shrugged. “On Thursdays, I have a morning full of kids absolutely fucking pissed about having to run around the gym at 9-o’-fucking-clock in the morning, and then nothing until four. Plenty of time for a beer. Come on, sheriff.” Negan was out the door in an instant, and Rick had to scramble after him.

“I’m not the sheriff, I’m a deputy,” he muttered beside the man. Rather than turning out to the front, Negan stepped into the front office and strode towards the back. Rick followed him awkwardly, intensely aware of all the eyes on him. “Where are you - “ he stopped as Negan paused in a doorway. The room beyond was clearly a nurse’s office, and a pretty woman with honey-brown hair piled up in a bun looked up at the two men.

“Sherry!” Negan’s voice dropped, and the name came out an insinuation. The woman’s lips curled in a knowing smile, and Rick suddenly felt very much like a third wheel. “Can I get an ice pack from you for our friend Deputy Grimes over here? He’s been injured in the line of duty. How fuckin’ macho is that?” He winked over his shoulder at Rick, who shuffled his feet and turned pink.

“Of course!” She bent towards a small refrigerator and extracted a bright blue gel pack. Negan watched her backside with interest, and Rick nudged him, frowning. He half-turned to him with a wide-eyed look - who, me? - and the young woman walked over to them with a smile. “Here you go, officer.” She handed him the pack wrapped in a thin paper towel.

“I appreciate it, ma’am.”

Negan leaned towards the woman conspiratorially. “Is he a perfect fucking Southern gentleman or what?”

“Maybe you can learn something from him, Negan.”

He clutched his chest dramatically. “That really hurts, darlin’.” The woman laughed and flicked the collar of Negan’s jacket before walking back to her desk.

“Are you…” Rick began when they were safely outside the school. He paused. “Never mind.”

“Am I playing doctor with that beautiful nurse?” Negan eyed him, amused. “No, I’m not. Not anymore, anyway. She’s got herself an on-again, off-again boyfriend, and too fucking bad for me, they’ve been on-again. Jump in, sheriff.” They had arrived at a black car, and Negan pulled a set of keys from his pocket.

“I really don’t know if - “

“I do. Get in the fucking car.”

Rick stared, struck silent at the gall of it - he couldn’t remember the last time someone had barked an order at him like that. To his surprise, he found himself at the passenger door, obeying on instinct. He slid inside, glancing warily at Negan. “Drinkin' in the middle of the day ain’t a great look for a cop. This is a small town, you know.”

Negan grinned at him, teeth gleaming, and Rick was suddenly struck by how predatory the expression was on the man’s face. “Live a little. And put that fucking ice on your face.”

Rick did, and the cool touch of it was welcome. “How exactly did you end up at the high school? You’re, uh…different than Carl’s other teachers.”

Negan chuckled at that. “I moved down here a couple months ago. I had been a mechanic all my life, but believe me, I was a shitty mechanic. Couldn’t find a garage that would take me. I heard through a friend that the highschool was looking for a new gym teacher and a coach for the baseball team. I played some ball in school, and what can I say? Apparently they were pretty fucking desperate. I thought it would be an easy gig, but fuck. I underestimated these goddamn fucking teenagers.”

Rick imagined facing down a class full of Carls - inscrutable, emotions on a hair-trigger. “I think I’d rather be shot again than deal with that,” Rick replied drily.

“Wait - you got fuckin’ shot? Are you shitting me?”

Rick wordlessly reached up and pulled at the collar of his shirt, exposing the supernova of raised, rough skin at the front on his shoulder.

“Jesus. Look at you, dirty Harry.” Negan’s fingers ghosted over the spot, and an electric thrill ran up Rick’s spine at the contact, flustering him. He couldn’t stop himself from looking over and into the other man’s dark eyes. Negan ran his tongue through his teeth before withdrawing his fingers slowly. “You’ve got some fucking war stories, don’t you?”

Rick cleared his throat. “Actually…that one was bad. It went through some kind of artery. I almost died, and I ended up in a coma for months.” Why am I telling him all this? Rick wondered. Next I’ll be telling him that’s when Lori and Shane started…

“Shit.” Negan’s voice broke through his reverie. “I guess drinks are on me, then.”

Later, Rick stood in front of the kitchen sink, hands buried in soapy water, turning over the events of the day. Carl had stared at him when he picked him up from school, but after one brusque You okay? had thankfully left it alone. Rick wasn’t sure how well he knew Ron Anderson, but he had a feeling word would spread around the school, and he would have to dodge questions about the visit to the Anderson household soon enough.

He had enjoyed spending time with Negan. He marveled at that, rinsing a glass slowly. The last time he had enjoyed drinks and a friendly conversation was with Shane; after the catastrophic end to that relationship, he had held everyone in his orbit at arm’s length and then some. Negan hadn’t brought up the shooting again, and for that he was thankful. They had kept their conversation light, Rick gingerly icing his bruised face, deflecting Negan’s teasing and giving it back to him, enjoying the way his dark eyes flashed with appreciation every time Rick lobbed a retort at him. They bantered.

It was nice.

And as it turned out, it was the beginning.

They bantered when Rick picked Carl up after practice. They bantered when Rick began to stop by Negan’s office after work and before Judith was out of daycare, sitting in the rickety wooden chair propped in front of the equally rickety wooden desk. They bantered when Negan began to swing by the station occasionally for lunch. And slowly, they began to know each other. Negan was relentless in digging out Rick’s buried pieces - he was a divining rod for secrets. It flustered Rick, and it put him on the defensive more than once. But to his surprise, it was also a relief, a tremendous relief, after the solitary life he had been living since Lori’s death. That someone else would come and unearth him - that someone would even care to - was something that Rick had not believed possible.

It’s good to have a friend again, Rick told himself. But he couldn’t stop a nagging memory from worrying at him - the brush of calloused fingers over his scar, and the jolt that shot out in their wake. Don’t even think about it, Grimes. That was a level of complication he didn’t need in his life, and Negan…well, Negan flirted outrageously with pretty much everyone that crossed his path. He doubted that kind of attention from him meant much. And yet, on occasion, he found himself tracing the scar on his shoulder, wondering what it would have been like if those fingers had begun to wander.

Chapter Text

Rick stepped out of the station and squinted in the bright noon sunshine. Even through the painful glare, he could make out a figure like an inky smudge perched on top of his squad car. Damnit, Negan.

“Are you kiddin’ me?” he called out as he approached. Negan grinned at him cheekily. “No sitting on the squad car. Especially when it’s parked at the station.”

“Aw, come on,” Negan lolled his head back as if Rick had made the most unreasonable demand he had ever heard. “Hop on up, deputy. Who the fuck is going to tell you not to? I thought you were the law around here.” Rick crossed his arms and smiled up at him, shaking his head. Quick as a flash, Negan’s arm darted out and seized his, trying to haul him up onto the car beside him.

Rick struggled, mortified. “Damn it,” he hissed, “cut it the fuck out.”

Negan chuckled, not letting up, and he managed to get Rick halfway up the hood of the car before a voice cut through their struggle.

“Oh, cool,” Tara chirped. “I didn’t know we could sit up there!”

Rick managed to slip from Negan’s grasp, sliding off the car and stumbling a little when his feet hit the ground. “We can’t,” he mumbled, flushing. “He’s just being an idiot.”

Negan flashed his familiar grin out at them, tongue between his teeth. “That’s me. Village idiot. And aren’t you the prettiest little deputy I’ve ever seen, Officer…” He squinted at Tara’s name badge. “Chambler,” he finished, eyes crinkling down at her.

Tara blushed, looking startled at his words. “What, me? N-no. I mean, I’m Tara. But I’m not pretty. I mean, I don’t think I’m that pretty. I’m definitely not the prettiest deputy out there, or what you just said.” She stopped, shuffling her feet and blushing harder. Rick smiled, patting her shoulder reassuringly. God knows Negan had made him blush and stammer his fair share of times, too.

“Aw, darlin’. Of course you’re pretty. But I sure as hell didn’t mean to fluster you like that.” The smile Negan beamed down at Tara was kinder than his usual teasing smirk. “You forgive me, don’t you? Come on, say you do, Officer Tara. I can’t stand to have cute girls pissed at me.”

Tara laughed shyly and stuck out her hand. Negan slid off the car and took it in a firm shake. “It’s nice to finally meet you, Rick’s friend," Tara said, smiling. "I’ve seen you around the station, but Rick never introduced us.”

Negan looked over at Rick with raised eyebrows. “Now why the hell would Rick fail to introduce me to such a pretty - “

Rick cut him off before he started in again, for Tara’s sake. “Sorry. He’s Negan. Carl’s baseball coach. He’s like this with everyone.”

Tara laughed and pushed her hair back. “Damn. I thought I was special for a second.”

“Darlin’, you are special, I’m sure,” Negan purred, dropping a wink at her while draping an arm around Rick’s shoulders. Now both Tara and Rick were blushing, and Negan looked back and forth between them, clearly satisfied with his handiwork.

“Could you dial it down, Negan? Jesus,” Rick muttered.

Tara smiled at them, an appraising, thoughtful look in her eyes that made Rick squirm. “Uh, I’m glad I caught you. There’s actually someone I want you to meet.” Tara tugged at her dark hair, suddenly looking very young. “I wanted you to meet my girlfriend. Since we’re partners now and stuff.”

Rick blinked at her, touched. “Sure. Yeah. Of course.”

Tara beamed. “She’s coming to pick me up to grab some lunch. She should be here any second.” She had hardly finished the sentence before a silver car was pulling into the station, and her face lit up at the sight of it. The driver’s side door opened, and a long, slim leg poked out.

“Holy shit,” Negan said beside him, “way to fucking go, kid.” To say that the woman who emerged from the car was a beauty would be an understatement. Her face was looked as if it had been sculpted from smooth marble, with a red, sensuous mouth and large chocolatey-dark eyes that immediately locked on Tara.

“Hey, mama,” the girl called as she approached, and Tara’s eyes sparkled at her with such adoration that Rick couldn’t help but smile.

Tara reached out a hand, and the woman took it before leaning in to kiss her cheek and turning to the two men with a friendly smile. “This is Rosita Espinosa,” Tara said shyly, looking through her lashes at her girlfriend. “Rosita, I want you to meet my partner, Rick Grimes.”

Rosita reached a long, elegant hand out, and Rick took it warmly. “Nice to meet you, Rick Grimes. You looking after my girl over here?”

“Oh, sure. But she don’t need it. Actually, she had my back in a situation a few weeks ago.”

Rosita’s smile practically glowed. “And this is Rick’s friend, Negan," Tara added. "He said I’m the prettiest deputy ever, or something, whatever. He’s lying.”

Rosita laughed, shaking hands with Negan. “Damn right she is. But back up off my girl, man.”

Negan held his hands up and winked. “Whatever you say, dollface. I don’t want to get between you two. Actually, I’d love to get between two smokin’ hot - ”

Rick slammed his elbow into Negan’s side, earning a yelp from him before the man doubled over in laughter. “I’m sorry, he’s - “

“Like this with everyone?” Tara finished, grinning. “We’ll see you guys later.” The girls walked off, hand-in-hand. They paused at the car, and Tara went up on her tiptoes to kiss Rosita before turning around and practically skipping to the passenger’s side.

“Young love. It’s a beautiful fucking thing,” Negan murmured beside him.

“Yeah,” Rick said, his throat suddenly dry. He had had a love like that once. He had gazed at someone like that, with worship in his eyes. A hand descended on his shoulder, and he jerked his head around.

Negan was watching him closely. “You okay there?”

“Yeah…yeah,” Rick tried to cover his momentary retreat into his own mind, scrubbing a hand through his hair.

Negan rocked back on his heels, as if to get a better look at him. “Yeah,” he said slowly. “You’re okay, Rick Grimes.” A smile quirked at the corner of his mouth, and his eyes on him were soft, as if he somehow knew where Rick’s thoughts had been. Rick blushed, and he didn’t know why.

“You seeing anyone?”

Rick was caught off guard by the question. They were in Negan’s car. The man had made him promise they would get drinks after work. He had dropped Judith off at the sitter, and Carl had barked a “whatever” at him through a closed door when he told him he was going out for a bit. Now Rick was pleasantly buzzed, and they were heading back to the school where he had left his car. “Uh, no. No…no one since Lori died.”

Negan’s eyebrows shot up. “No one at all since then? Carl says that was almost two years now.” His tone was gentler than Rick had ever heard it.

“Carl…talked to you about it?” Rick asked, surprised. Negan hummed in the affirmative. “That’s good,” Rick said slowly after a moment. “I’m glad he’s talking.”

“Well, he don’t talk much, I can tell you. Takes after his daddy, I guess.” Negan’s smile flashed out at him in the darkness, and Rick returned it.

“What about you? Were you ever married, or…?”

Negan was silent for a moment, and Rick suddenly wondered if he had said something wrong. “Yes, but not anymore,” he replied finally, his eyes on the road, fingers drumming lightly on the wheel.

“Seein’ anyone now?“ Rick ventured, hoping to steer the conversation away from whatever he had just stepped into.

“I might have a few irons in the fire,” he said, and the grin had returned, to Rick’s relief, ”but nothin’ serious.” They drove in silence for a bit before Negan spoke again. “How long you been on the force, anyway, Rick?”

“Oh, nearly twenty years now. I went straight to the academy after I graduated high school. Hell, I was just a kid when I started carryin' a badge…barely older than Carl now.” Rick’s fingers tightened in the fabric of his jacket. Memories of those days trembled on the edges of his recollection, and he didn’t want to face them now.

Thankfully, Negan’s voice broke through his thoughts. “Why’d you do it? Become a cop?”

Rick glanced over at him, taken aback. “Well…I don’t know. Me and Lori had gotten married right away, and I guess I figured it would be a steady job.”

Negan licked his lips slowly. “Bullshit,” he replied.

Rick stared. “What?”

“I said ‘bullshit,’ sheriff.” Negan’s booming laugh filled the car, swallowing the oxygen and leaving too little for Rick to breathe comfortably. “You’re a fucking badass under that good ol’ boy routine. You’ve got some o’ that bloodlust inside of you, and if you get to work it out on some lowlife, all the fucking better. Am I right, or am I fucking right?”

“I’m not…” Rick trailed off, flustered. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”

Negan’s laugh rolled over him again. “Oh, you don’t? You don’t fuckin’ know? Because a few weeks ago, when that shit-eating bastard Anderson started in on you, I thought you were going to snatch that bat out of my hand and swing it into his fucking face.” Rick froze, open-mouthed. “I saw it in your eyes.” Negan answered the unspoken question, his deep, rich voice reaching him in the darkness of the car.

“Well, I - I was…” Rick gestured helplessly, feeling exposed in some shameful way, as if he had been caught with his hand down his pants. “That was different. You make it sound like I…”

Negan chuckled softly. “Aw, relax sheriff. Your secret’s safe with me.” Rick felt a blush creep up his face, and he said nothing. They drove on in the conspiratorial silence that stretched between them. They pulled into the parking lot at the school, beside Rick’s squad car. He got out and slowly walked around to the driver’s side window. He found himself looking at Negan thoughtfully, and the other man stared straight back, a decidedly intrigued expression on his face.

“I’m not the sheriff. I’m just a deputy.”

Negan grinned lazily at him, his arm draped out of his open window. “I think you might be more than that, Rick.” He winked at him, slow and deliberate, and was gone, taillights shrinking as he drove into the darkness.

Rick stood staring after him, cheeks burning. He got into his own car, slowly. It was as he was clicking his seatbelt into place that he realized he had a full-blown, adolescent, heart-pounding, blushing crush on the man in the leather jacket. He groaned out loud, resting his head on the steering wheel. What the hell, he thought. You’ve lost your damn mind.

Morning briefing at the station. Rick shifted his weight restlessly from leg to leg, taking in the glazed expressions of his coworkers. Beside him, Tara smashed a hand to her mouth to disguise a yawn. With Gregory, it was always more of a stump speech than a briefing. Rick prayed the man’s political ambitions took him to a new position soon - rumor was that he planned to run for mayor. While the thought of the pompous little man with more power than he currently had made Rick shudder, he would at least be out of his hair. An ugly rattling echoed through the room, and Rick cringed. He had left his phone at his desk, and someone was calling, the vibration amplified by beating a tattoo against the cheap wooden desk. It rattled loudly again. Damnit, Negan.

Gregory glared at the group at large, and Rick allowed himself an adolescent spark of amusement at his expense. Just when Gregory had settled back into his oration, the abandoned phone emitted yet another rattle. Then another. Another. Rick frowned. Another. All at once, Rick’s blood turned to ice water. This was no social call - someone was trying to reach him urgently. Carl. Judith. Gregory followed Rick’s gaze to his desk and the offending phone, and he fixed him with a cold glare.

“Deputy Grimes, I expect your full attention at this most critical - “

Rick had already whirled, snatched up the phone, and shot out of the station doors before Gregory finished the sentence. The heat of the day hit him in a sticky, thick wave. The phone buzzed again in his shaking hand, and he hastily answered, nearly dropping it in the process.

“Mr. Grimes,” the voice on the other end of the phone sounded slightly exasperated, “I’m calling in regards to your son - “

“Is he all right?” Rick broke in breathlessly, feeling ill with dread.

“Oh,” the voice was taken aback, “yes, yes of course. But I’m afraid he’s in serious trouble.”

“Trouble?” Relief flooded him. Not hurt. He pressed a hand to his eyes.

“He’s been in a fight. I’m afraid he’s been given a two-week suspension, effective immediately. Would you be able to pick him up and discuss the matter with the principal?”

“Yeah. Of course. I’ll be right there. I’m…sorry,” Rick muttered lamely. He leaned back against the rough brick of the station building, sweat trickling down the back of his neck. The terror he had felt in his uncertainty was fading slowly, and apprehension was creeping into its wake. Carl, in trouble for fighting. It’s happening again, he thought dully. He turned back towards the station, steeling himself to confront a no-doubt irate Gregory.

“Family first, family first,” Gregory chirped at him after several apologies and an abbreviated explanation. The man’s eyes betrayed an offended dignity that contradicted his words, but Rick was too distracted to care. He drove to the high school in a daze. Carl’s return to school after Lori’s death had been nothing short of an utter disaster. He was in trouble every other week for every imaginable reason - mouthing off to teachers, fighting, refusing assignments, outright truancy. At first, the school had been sympathetic - teachers would call Rick in for conferences, give him a warm, meaningful look, maybe even touch his arm, and say something like we know what you’re both going through. And Rick would smile, thank them, and inwardly recoil.

Of course they didn’t know; how could they? They only knew what they felt they ought to say, and the shallowness, the falseness of it made him angry. But that wore thin soon enough as Carl’s behavior showed no signs of improving. More often than not, Rick could feel the hard, judgmental stares as soon as he stepped into that building, and a part of him welcomed the blame. Nothing he had done helped; he was a failure, deserving of the righteous scorn. For the last few months, however, for no discernible reason, things had been quiet, and Rick dared to hope that Carl had turned a corner.

Now this.

Rick walked through the double doors. He stopped short at the sight of Negan, standing in the front of the main office, speaking in a low voice to a man in a suit who gave an occasional, reluctant-looking nod. Rick recognized the man as the principal, and Negan turned to move away.

He spotted Rick and came striding over, slapping his shoulder and leaning in to speak directly into his ear. “Go easy on him, daddy. There was some shit the law would call provocation.”

The man in the suit cleared his throat. “Mr., er…Officer Grimes?”

Negan was already walking away, and Rick fought the urge to call him back. He cleared his throat and approached the principal, giving him a tight-lipped smile.

“I’m afraid this is a bit more serious than in the past, Officer.” They were seated in the man’s office, and Rick felt very much like he was the teenager who had transgressed. “The other boy’s nose is almost certainly broken.”

“I’m sorry,” Rick said, aware of the absurdity of the apology.

The principal looked at him, and his eyes were solemn, sad. “Officer Grimes…I am very sorry for the loss your family has endured. We have truly wanted to work with Carl to help him adjust. But I’m afraid if this behavior continues, we have no choice but to consider expulsion.”

There it was. No more than Rick had expected. He leaned forward, scratching the stubble on his chin, and suddenly white hot anger was surging through his chest. He drew a deep breath, forcing it deep beneath the surface. “You wanted to help him? Yeah?” There was no disguising the scorn in his voice. “I can’t say I see it that way.”

“Officer - “

“He’s just a kid. He’s a sad, angry kid, and he’s not going to stop acting up because it’s inconvenient for you. You think you can just wait a little and expect things to go back to how they were? It doesn’t work like that. He’s still…he’s still just trying to find a way to be after everything that happened. He needs…more time. More help. He needs you all to try and understand him.”

The man regarded him, hands tightly clasped on the desk in front of him. “Sir, I have a school full of children to think about. What about what they need?”

Rick stared, fighting the rage that wanted so desperately to surface. “Okay,” he said expressionlessly, standing. “I’m going to take my son home now.” He walked away, grateful that the man didn’t try to stop him. Carl was sitting on a grey couch in the front office, staring at his sneakers. His dejection stabbed at Rick. He walked to him and cleared his throat. “Let’s head on home.” Carl wordlessly rose and followed him. They made their way to the car and climbed in. Rick sat, keys in the ignition, letting the suffocating heat roll over him. Minutes ticked by, and he finally spoke. “What happened?”

Carl looked at him out of the corner of his eyes. “I lost it.”

Rick leaned his head back and closed his eyes.

“Dad?” Carl sounded uncertain.

“I don’t know what to do,” Rick said, too tired for anything aside from the truth. “Tell me what to do, Carl. They’re talking about expelling you if you keep fighting.”

Carl turned his head to stare out the window. “I’m not gonna fight anymore.”

Rick stared at the back of his son’s head. “What?”

“I’m not gonna fight anymore. Today was a mistake. I lost it. That’s all.”

Rick continued to stare, at an utter loss.

Carl glanced at him, frowning. “Come on, dad, I haven’t been in a fight since forever. You know that.”

“Yeah,” Rick said slowly. “Things’ve been good lately.”

Carl turned away again.

“Why is that? What changed?” Rick asked curiously.

Carl shrugged and stared out the window.“I talked to Coach awhile back, I guess.”

Rick startled in his seat. “You - “ he glanced swiftly at his son. “Yeah?”

Carl shrugged again. “Yeah.” They sat in silence for a few moments before Carl hesitantly went on. “He told me about his wife. I guess she got sick and died. He said he was messed up after it and did a lot of things that he shouldn’t have.” Carl’s shoulders slumped. “Like I did.”

Rick’s eyes stung, and he reached over to give Carl’s shoulder a quick squeeze. “You were grieving. I was, too. Carl…” Rick hesitated, searching for the right words. “If it seemed like I wasn’t around for you, wasn’t there for you the way you needed…I’m sorry. I truly am. You and your sister, you’re everything to me. I’m - “

“Dad, stop.” Carl’s voice was tight, and Rick knew he was fighting back tears. “It’s fine.”

Rick nodded jerkily and twisted the keys in the ignition. “Okay.” After a suitable amount of time had passed, Rick ventured, “You gonna tell me what happened? What made you ‘lose it’?”

Carl pressed his lips together. “It’s nothing.” And that was all that he would say.

Back at home, Rick busied himself with laundry while Carl phoned for a pizza. “What about you? Were you ever married, or…?” Rick recalled the shadow that had passed over Negan when he asked that, and he cringed. He had no idea that he had been thrusting his fingers into an open wound. He supposed he had more in common with the man than he realized. And when he thought about the change that had settled over Carl in the last few months - knowing that Negan had been instrumental to that, it made his chest ache. It made him want to climb onto the man and taste his lips, kiss that smirking mouth.

Rick felt his face heat up as he struggled to pull the mass of tangled clothing out of the dryer. You’ve got it bad, Grimes, he thought. Shane had said that to him in the seventh grade, after he had caught him mooning over Lori for the umpteenth time. It had taken Rick two full years before he worked up the courage to ask her on a date, despite Shane’s constant ham-fisted attempts to play match-maker. He shook the bittersweet memories away, hefting the oversized basket up and heading back up the stairs. Those days were gone, as was the timid, tongue-tied boy he had once been.

“Do you think you can watch Judith until Beth gets here? I need to run a few errands.” It was later that evening. He and Carl had managed to spend the day in what seemed like a companionable silence to Rick, but he had completely failed to pull any further details out of his son about the earlier events of the day. He wanted to talk to Negan. He seemed to have known something about the fight. It wasn’t the only reason Rick wanted to see him - he couldn’t lie to himself about that.

Judith was happily banging a block against the oversized head of stuffed animal while sitting on the floor of the living room. Carl looked up from the comic book he was reading on the couch and met Rick’s gaze. “You don’t have to call Beth. I can watch Judith.”

“I know you can. But I figured you had homework or somethin’.” He knelt by the toddler, who beamed up at him, clearly delighted with her current game.

“Bunny, daddy,” she said by way of explanation, dealing the unfortunate toy an exceptionally hard blow with the little yellow block clutched in her chubby fist.

“Sure is, sweetheart,” he answered, kissing the top of her head as she giggled. The intense heat of the day had gone with the setting sun, but it was still uncomfortably warm and humid. Rick let the car run a bit, closing his eyes as the cool air of the conditioning system danced over his face. Strange day. He pulled out his phone and dialed Negan’s number.

“Rick fucking Grimes,” the man’s voice drawled out at him, and damn it if his heart didn’t speed up in his chest.

“Hey, uh…can I see you? I wanna know about what happened today.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line. “Not much to tell, Rick. I’m down at the office, though, if you wanna come by.” He sounded more subdued than usual, and Rick frowned to himself.

“You, uh…everything okay?”

“I’m peachy-fucking-keen, Rick. As always.”

“Meet you in the supply closet, then,” Rick said drily, hanging up in the stream of good-natured curses that followed. When he arrived, he was grateful to see that the school was utterly abandoned at this hour - the last thing he wanted was to run into anyone else. The darkened halls were eerie, and Rick’s footfalls echoed. Faint light glowed under the gym doors, and Rick pushed past them, anxiety thrumming through him. He wasn’t sure why he was suddenly nervous - likely it was the horror-movie atmosphere of the empty school. He paused at the door to Negan’s office, trying to collect himself.

“Rick,” the voice spoke out from behind him in the darkness, and whirled around, heart in his throat.

“Jesus Christ, Negan! Y’all tryin’ to give me a damn heart attack?” he snapped.

Negan stepped forward into the light, and Rick could see that he had an armful of jerseys. He was smiling, but something was off in his expression. Rick noticed for the first time that day that he had dark circles under his eyes. “Fuck, man. I’m sorry. I was trying to fucking clean up. Didn’t mean to sneak up on you.” He jerked his head towards the office. “Go on in.”

Rick slid inside, heart still slamming against his ribs. The adrenaline surge left him shaking slightly, and he leaned against the wall and crossed his arms tightly in an effort to disguise it.

Negan tossed the jerseys in a corner. “You all right?”

Rick knew he wasn’t talking about the accidental scare. “I think we’re okay,” Rick said hesitantly, “but what the hell happened? Carl won’t tell me a damn thing.”

Negan shrugged. “Like I said, Rick - there’s nothing to tell. Your boy got in a fight. Shit went sideways. It happens.”

Rick stared, mind working. “What was that you said about provocation?” he asked slowly.

Negan licked his bottom lip, tilting his head. “Rick. Just fucking forget about it. It doesn’t matter.”

“Carl wouldn’t tell me. You won’t tell me. You two tryin’ to to protect me from somethin’?”

Negan scratched the dark stubble of his cheek, smiling faintly. “Maybe we are, so leave it the fuck alone.”

Rick stared thoughtfully. “Must’ve had something to do with his mother,” he said quietly. His shoulders slumped, and he stared at the floor.

Negan was silent for a moment. “It did,” he said finally, “but you don’t want to know the gory fucking details of the shit teenagers say to each other. Trust me, these little bastards can be fucking vicious. They don’t mean ninety percent of the shit they say, but that doesn’t mean it don’t fucking hurt.”

“Who was the other kid?”

Negan cringed and frowned, clearly hoping to avoid this question. He said nothing for a moment, lifting a hand to run through his hair.

Rick pinched the bridge of his nose. “Negan, come on…”

“It was Ron Anderson, Rick.”

Rick started, cold horror settling over him. Ron Anderson? Jessie Anderson had spent several days in the hospital after Rick had found her sprawled on her kitchen floor, blood spilling out of her nose and oozing from the back of her head. Luckily, none of her injuries were too serious, and she had recovered quickly. Peter Anderson was in jail awaiting his court date. She had so far refused to put up the bail for her husband, to Rick and Tara’s relief, but they both sensed her resolve wavering. There was a good chance that Peter Anderson would end up back at home with the family he terrorized before he had his day in court. Of course Ron would be lashing out. Rick groaned, settling his head in his hands. “Oh, my god.”

Negan sighed. “Two kids who’ve been through some shit, Rick, they just…” Negan lifted his hands, forming them into fists and knocking them together. “Carl knows he shouldn’t have beaten on the kid, what with his fucked-up situation, but fucking provocation is motherfucking provocation.”

Rick looked up at that. “I know you’ve been trying to help him. He told me…” Rick swallowed, hoping he wasn’t out of line, “that you told him about your wife. About how you lost her. I - thank you. He really has been doin’ better since he started talking about things with you. I guess that’s ‘cause you actually know what he’s been goin’ through.”

Negan was still and silent for so long that anxiety coiled in Rick’s stomach. “Lucille,” he said finally, drawling out the name as he walked slowly around the desk, putting it in between him and Rick. “That was her name. I loved that woman more than anything in this miserable fucking life.” Rick waited silently, sensing that something was coming. “It was a year ago today that she died.”

Rick looked at him, feeling his face twist in dismay. “Jesus. I’m sorry, Negan.”

The other man looked up, and the dim light of the office made the shadows under his eyes deeper, darker. “Feels like so much fucking longer,” he said, his voice hardly audible. He pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes, sighing.

“Is that why you’re here so late, by yourself?” Rick asked gently.

Negan sat down slowly in his chair and leaned back. “I don’t know what the fuck to do with myself,” he admitted. “I came here so I wouldn’t start drinking or some shit. Trying not to do anything too fuckin’ stupid.”

Rick ducked his head. “Yeah. I been there,” he said quietly. “Is it all right if I ask what happened to her?”

“Cancer,” Negan said, “can you believe that shit? Fucking cancer. She was always healthy as a fucking horse, and then one day…” Negan trailed off, staring beyond Rick, into a distant memory.

“I’m real sorry.”

Negan looked up at him sharply, something raw in his gaze. Rick held it, unblinking. “You shouldn’t be sorry for me, Grimes,” Negan said, a knife’s edge in his voice. “Wanna know something I didn’t tell your boy?” Rick stood still, transfixed. “While my girl was dying,” Negan paused, and a laugh rang out, bitter and hard, making Rick flinch involuntarily. “I cheated on her. I fucked around on my dying wife. How about that, Rick?” Negan’s head fell forward into his hands, as if it was heavy with the weight of his confession.

Rick’s hands tightened into fists as a sudden wave of rage crested in him, raising bile up into his throat. Images assaulted him - Lori and Shane, laughing together, their heads close. Lori’s delicate, beautiful face set and grim, eyes bright with unshed tears as she told him. The birth that went so wrong, so quickly, with blood pattering the floor of the hospital room like rain, its heavy copper stench clinging to him even after the hospital staff ushered him swiftly out the door before whisking Lori away to an operating room that she never returned from alive. And now the man in front of him had named himself a member of their tribe, and he had opened his mouth to say whatever vicious things he could think of when a wet, muffled intake of breath reached his ears.

He realized Negan was crying. Anger bled out of him in an instant, leaving only the deep, sickening ache of sorrow. He walked over to the other man and hesitantly placed a hand on the smooth, supple grain of the leather covering his shoulder. It trembled under Rick’s touch, and he squeezed gently.

“I’m fine,” Negan said, his voice thick. “Fuck. I haven’t thought about any of this shit in a long-ass time.” He scrubbed at his face vigorously, leaning his head back. He dropped his hands and looked up at Rick, the dim overhead light reflecting off his still-wet cheek. “You gonna tell me why you were just looking at me like you wanted to gut me, cowboy?”

Rick felt his entire body jerk in surprise. “What?”

Negan continued to look up at him, head resting against the high back of his chair. His dark eyes were piercing, still reddened from his tears. “I saw that fuckin’ scary-ass look again, sheriff. That baseball bat to the head look. But this time, it was for me. Why? What’d I say?”

Rick wondered, absurdly, if Negan was actually reading his mind, because that’s what it felt like as his dark eyes probed his. “Judith isn’t my daughter.” Rick shocked himself with his admission, and it was like a dam breaking inside of him. “I love her. I would die for her. But I’m not her father. Lori was cheating on me with my ex-partner. They started when I was in that coma, and…they never stopped. She told me the truth just before she died, and…” Rick swallowed hard. “When I look at Judith, I can see him. That’s how I know. She’s not really mine.”

Negan had been staring at him, arms crossed, his dark eyes unreadable, but at this he spoke. “Of course she is. You just fuckin’ said it. You love her, you’ll die for her? You’re her daddy now. That other shit is all ancient history, isn’t it?” Rick met his eyes again, equal parts surprised and touched. “Where is he now? The happy asshole that was tapping your wife?”

Rick cringed a little at that and looked away. “He…left town. I confronted him about what Lori said…asked for a new partner. He didn’t stick around.” Another unwanted memory rose up in his mind’s eye. His fist, raised and slick with blood. Shane’s shocked expression as the blows rained down on his face. Bile rose in Rick’s throat, and he kept his eyes fixed on the ground. He nearly jumped out of his skin when Negan’s fingers brushed his hand where it dangled at his side.

“Okay. See? Ancient history. Cheer the fuck up, sheriff. Life’s a bitch, and then your wife dies.”

Rick was surprised to feel a wry smile tugging at the corner of his lips. “It’s deputy.”

“Cheer the fuck up, deputy. It’s a motherfucking bummer seeing you like this. I didn’t mean to lay all that shit on you about Lucille, and I sure as shit didn’t mean to remind you about…” Negan sucked a breath through his teeth as he trailed off, dark eyes troubled and guilty. “I’m sorry.” Negan shook his head. “Don’t fuckin’ hate me, Rick. I deserve it, but I don’t want you to. I like you too fuckin’ much.” He gave a crooked, vulnerable smile. “I’m a dirty fuckin’ piece of shit cheater, but believe me when I say I’ve been paying for it every day since I lost her.”

“Come on, don’t do that.” Rick’s hand had found its way back to Negan’s shoulder. Negan’s eyes were wet again, and he cleared his throat and looked away. “It’s okay,” Rick offered softly. “And…course I don’t hate you. Why the hell should I? It’s got nothin’ to do with what happened to me.”

Negan smiled again, this time with some of his old smirk coming back through. He rose from his chair, and Rick tried to step back to give him space. His back met the tall metal shelf crammed behind him, and Negan loomed close, almost touching him. “All right, then. Let’s stop talking about our respective motherfucking tragedies. Anyone ever tell you you’ve got some beautiful eyes, Deputy Rick? All big and blue and soulful?”

Warmth touched Rick’s cheeks as the compliment blindsided him, and he cursed himself while praying that Negan didn’t notice his reaction. His hopes flew away as a low chuckle reached his ears.

“You blush real easy, Deputy Grimes,” Negan murmured. Of course, this just caused the warmth to spread, and Rick began to sidle sideways, ready to make his escape. A hand suddenly fisted in his shirt, stopping him. Rick’s startled eyes found Negan’s, glinting with mischief and something else, something that made Rick’s legs weaken. “You get red all over your face and all the way down your neck. Look - “ Negan’s other hand reached out and traced a finger down the hollow of Rick’s throat down to where the flesh disappeared into his collar. Rick was rooted to the spot, and Negan’s eyes never left his. “How far down does it go?”

Rick wondered dimly if you could actually die of embarrassment, and Negan released his hold on him suddenly with a laugh, turning away.

“Goddamn. I’m just fucking with you, Dudley Do-Right. Don’t pass the fuck out in my office.”

Irritation needled through Rick - damn it, did he always have to have the upper hand? Without thinking, his hand shot out and grasped Negan’s wrist, turning the man back towards him. Dark eyes met his again, alive with anticipation.

Negan licked his lips. “What’s the problem, officer?”

Rick leaned forward and pressed his lips to the other man’s. It was gentler than he thought it would be, the way their lips moved together; at least it was, until he felt the barest brush of Negan’s teeth on his lower lip and shivered. He pulled back slightly to catch his breath. “Uh…thanks. For listening.” He smoothed his hand down his shirt. “I need to get back. The babysitter, she…” Rick trailed off, feeling out of words and slightly lightheaded. Had he really just kissed the man?

Negan grinned at him and settled back against the desk, crossing his arms. “Sure, sure. You run on home, deputy. But, Rick…you tell your girl she’s staying late tomorrow with the kids.”

Rick blinked. “What? Why?”

Negan’s eyes flicked to his, knowing as a cat that’s cornered a mouse. “Because you’re coming to my place tomorrow after work. I’m tired of meeting in this shitty office.” He laughed at Rick’s expression. “What? Don’t worry, I’ll feed you.”

“You…you’ll feed me?”

Negan pulled an expression of mock-hurt. “I happen to be a fucking excellent chef. Don’t be so goddamned rude.”

On the way home, Rick huffed to himself while he drove. Presumptuous bastard had practically given him orders about tomorrow. He shifted in his seat at the thought, feeling his stomach tighten in the way it always did when he began to feel aroused. Rick almost groaned aloud at the thought. Aroused. What the hell had happened? One minute they were talking to each other about the most painful moments in their lives, and the next he had his mouth on his, the smell of leather surrounding him. He was always off-balance with that man, and it was leading him…where? To his house, apparently. Was this a date?

I’m just fucking with you, Dudley Do-Right.

Rick chewed his bottom lip. No, he thought. Negan wasn’t just fucking with him. He had opened up to him. Told him things. His hand tingled faintly with the memory of the brush of Negan’s fingers. He had comforted him. He had no idea where this was going, but he wasn’t about to lie to himself and say he didn’t want to find out.

“Uh, Beth?”

Wide blue eyes met his as she shrugged on her jacket. “Yeah?”

Rick drew a breath. “Do you think you might be able to stay a little later tomorrow? Maybe until 10? I might have to work late.” He hated lying to anyone, but lying to Beth seemed somehow worse.

Her sweet smile beamed up at him. “No problem, Mr. Grimes.” She paused at the door and glanced over her shoulder. “Everything okay? You seem kinda…nervous?”

Rick laughed ruefully, running a hand through his hair. “I’m all right, Beth. Just…you know.” He smiled at her, and she smiled back warmly.

“You need to stop working so hard, Mr. Grimes. You deserve to take it easy. Daddy sends his love.”

Rick saw her out as he always did, watching her get into her car and drive away. He stayed by the window a bit, lost in thought, before turning to climb the stairs quietly. Judith was sleeping her crib, her halo of tawny curls framing her still face. Rick felt tears prickle at the backs of his eyes. I love you, baby girl, he thought. The asshole in the leather jacket was right. I’m your daddy now, and the rest is ancient history.

Chapter Text

Negan had not been bluffing. He was a good cook. They were sitting on his couch after dinner, holding beers, the television playing softly. Some old black-and-white show was on - something tense and frightening. The Twilight Zone or something like it.

“I just can’t believe it. Where’d you learn how to cook?”

Negan rolled his eyes at him. “I taught myself how to cook, Rick, it’s fucking easy. I’ve gotta say, your shock is less than fucking flattering.”

Rick laughed. “Sorry, I just never would have pegged you for it.”

“Fuck you, Rick. I’m great at all of that Suzy Homemaker bullshit. I’m a fucking catch,” Negan grinned, taking a long swallow of his beer.

Rick smiled ruefully. “Not me. I’m hopeless in the kitchen. Lori wasn’t much better, but she had it in her head that she had to cook for Carl and me, so she always tried. We always ate everything she put in front of us like it was the best meal of our lives.” Rick thought back to the conspiratorial winks he had shared with Carl on more than one occasion at the dinner table with a pang. They had been a happy family then, or so he had thought.

Negan chuckled beside him. “Yeah, Lucille was a disaster in the kitchen, too. That woman was smart as a damn whip, but she couldn’t fucking boil water.” The expression on Negan’s face grew soft and wistful. Rick settled his empty bottle on the coffee table. Negan looked at him, smiling. “Grab you another, Rick?”

“Nah, I’m all right,” he said, and Negan tipped his head back and finished his beer with a few gulps. Rick found himself watching his throat undulate as he swallowed, and as Negan set his bottle down, he caught him looking. His gaze turned dark and knowing. He slid along the couch, pressing into Rick, who instinctively leaned back, turning his head and feeling heat spread over his face. “Negan…” he faltered, unsure of what to say.

Negan’s arm settled on the cushion behind him, only a few inches away from being draped around his shoulder. “What, Rick? You think I invited your over just to impress you with my cooking?” he asked, his voice a suggestive rumble. Rick stared at the carpet, and Negan tilted his head at him. “Want me to kiss you again, Rick? I only will if you say yes.”

Rick swallowed, fighting his nerves. God, why was this so difficult? The man was breathtakingly handsome, he filled out that leather jacket in a way that was an erotic promise about the body beneath, he was fun to be around, and he was good with Carl. And it was clear he wanted Rick, so why did he feel like fleeing straight out the door and into the night? Because you married your high school sweetheart, Rick, and on top of that it ended really fucking badly.

The silence had stretched on too long, and Negan withdrew his arm, moving out of Rick’s space. “Well, shit, Grimes. I guess I read this shit wrong. Sorry.”

“No, no, you didn’t,” Rick said quickly, reaching out. His hand hovered uncertainly over Negan’s arm, unsure of where to fall, what to touch. “I just don’t know what the hell I’m doing.” Negan’s gaze softened, and Rick felt himself melt a little in those dark, intense eyes. “I do want you to kiss me,” he added huskily, cheeks burning. Negan searched his face, as if trying to find some unspoken final confirmation there. Apparently something he saw satisfied him, because he moved back against Rick, his arms slipping around his waist, tilting his head to meet his lips. The kiss was slow and soft, and Negan pulled back after a moment, leaving Rick’s lips wet and tingling in the cool air.

“I like you, Rick. I like looking at you, and I like talking to you. And you know what? I’d like to fuck you.” He chuckled, low and insinuating. “Oh, you’re gonna wanna let me fuck you, Rick, believe me. I do not disappoint in that department.” Rick may as well have been a statue in his arms for all he was able to move. Negan’s sharp, toothy grin relaxed into a smile, and his tongue poked out to rest in the corner of his mouth as he considered him. “But I think this might all be just a little too much, too soon for you, deputy.” He leaned forward placed a soft, almost chaste kiss on Rick’s lips. He began to stand, but for the second time in as many days, Rick’s hand moved of its own accord to catch his wrist.

“Says who?” Rick’s chin jutted out challengingly even as he cringed and wished for a less adolescent turn-of-phrase.

Negan’s eyebrows shot up. He said nothing for a long moment, probing Rick’s eyes with his. Rick grew apprehensive, his heart drumming in his chest. Negan finally lifted his arm, wrapping it around his neck and gripping the back of his head, his fingers in Rick’s chestnut curls. He rested his forehead against Rick’s, his eyes serious and almost stern. “Listen, Rick. You don’t have to fuckin’ prove anything to me, okay? I don’t want you to do anything you’re not ready for…anything you don’t really want.”

Rick was temporarily stunned by the strength of the tender longing that surged through him at Negan’s words. He lifted his hand and rested it against the other man’s stubbled cheek. “I do want,” he said, his voice strained and breathy. He swallowed. “But I’ve never…been with a man.” It wasn’t a lie, but it did somewhat obscure the truth - he had never been with anyone aside from Lori. Pushing that thought away, he allowed his voice to drop lower. Rick, shy and limited in his experience with lovers as he was, knew that his honeyed drawl had a seductive power. “You’re gonna have to teach me.”

“Well, I’m a real fuckin’ good teacher, Rick.” Negan’s voice sounded as strained as his, and he felt a small thrill of victory before Negan’s lips closed over his and thought fled. A hand pressed flat against his lower back and urged his hips forward, flush with Negan’s, and Rick moaned softly. Their kiss deepened, and Negan tugged lightly at Rick’s hair, maneuvering his head to just where he wanted it as his tongue worked past Rick’s parted lips.

Rick’s hands gripped Negan’s waist, fisting in the soft fabric of his teeshirt, his head swimming. He was trapped in the other man’s embrace, the hard planes of his body a promise of strength that crackled through him, stoking his arousal. He tried to match Negan kiss for kiss, but he was aware of being outmaneuvered, overwhelmed, and he finally had to turn his head to gasp for air. Negan immediately nosed into his neck, pressing kisses over his fluttering pulse.

“Sorry,” Rick gasped out, and Negan’s head snapped up, surprised.

“What the hell for?”

Rick’s hand instinctively wandered up to the back of Negan’s head, ready to urge him back to his neck. “Uh…it’s been awhile. I can’t keep up.”

Negan huffed a laugh and moved his lips to Rick’s ear. “Jesus, sheriff. You sure like feeling bad about weird shit. What the hell makes you think you could keep up with me, anyway?” Negan’s warm breath on the shell of his ear was deliciously erotic, and Rick couldn’t suppress the shudder that ran through him.

“It’s deputy,” he breathed, his voice barely audible, and Negan’s teeth suddenly closed sharply around his earlobe. “Ow!” he protested as Negan snickered in his ear.

“I’m going to fuck you so good you won’t know who the fuck you are, cowboy.” His words traveled straight to Rick’s groin, and he buried his face in the other man’s shoulder, the familiar flush creeping up his neck. He was suddenly jerked forward by the hips, sprawling on his back on the couch with Negan looming above him. The other man stripped off his shirt in one fluid motion and smirked down at Rick. “Fucking take some clothes off, baby. Don’t be fuckin’ shy.” Negan knelt on the couch, half-straddling him, and reached for Rick’s belt even as Rick’s fingers were moving over his shirt buttons. He shrugged it off as Negan jerked his belt free and tossed it carelessly aside.

This was as exposed as Rick had been in a good long while, and he fought the urge to wrap his arms around himself. Negan seemed to sense his sudden hesitation, because he draped himself over Rick and pressed a soft kiss to the sensitive spot just below his ear. His hands wandered down his sides, stroking exposed flesh, and Rick responded with his own exploration, hands sliding up his back. His hand found the back of Negan’s head, and he cupped it, turning his face into his to find his lips again.

Rick felt himself dissolve into the wet exchange of their mouths. For the first time in a long time, his mind was pleasingly blank, a warm expanse of humming static. Nothing drifted through his conscious thought that was apart from Negan’s lips on his face and throat, his hands on his sensitive flesh, his hips pressing his into the yielding cushion below, and his tongue, hot and wet, dancing in his mouth, on his lips, at his throat. Rick heard throaty, pained-sounding moans filling the air between them and realized they were his own.

Negan pulled back, and Rick rose instinctively to keep the contact between them, earning a chuckle. “Rick fucking Grimes,” he breathed, his eyes wandering over his face, “I think it’s time to move this shit to my bed. What do you think?”

Rick blinked up at him, too dazed to form an immediate response. After a moment, he reached for Negan’s belt. The other man’s dark gaze bore into him as he slowly undid it, pulling the leather free and letting it clink to the floor. “Yeah. It’s time.”

Negan’s teeth bit into the flesh of his lower lip hard. “Fuck. You are so fucking sexy. I am going to rip you to fucking shreds.” Rick’s cock ached in response, and he was pulled to his feet. Negan’s hand dropped to his, and their fingers interlaced. He led him through the hall to his bedroom as gently as he would handle glass, and somehow that was the most shocking, most Negan thing he could have done in the moment. He would always be unpredictable, and he would always have Rick on his back foot, that much seemed certain. Rick barely had time to take in Negan’s bedroom before his gaze was filled with the man himself, stepping in front of him. “Baby,” he said softly, his tone serious, “I do or say anything you’re not one-hundred-fucking-percent into, I need you to tell me, understand? Just say ‘stop.’ Can you do that for me?”

Rick felt like something was melting slowly in his chest. Negan’s earnestness tugged at his heart. He swallowed hard. “Okay,” was all he could manage.

Negan leaned forward at that, face inches from Rick’s, eyes suddenly narrow and hard. Rick kept his arms at his sides even as he longed to wrap them around the other man’s waist, sensing immediately that this was some new game. Negan jerked his chin at Rick’s pants. “Take those off.” An order, spoken in a clipped tone. Rick searched Negan’s face for a hint, and Negan gave it to him in the form of a swift wink.

All at once, Rick realized that he trusted the man in front of him to take control of this. Whatever Negan was playing at, he wanted to play, too. “Yes, sir,” he murmured, lowering his eyes. He almost grinned at the shudder that visibly ran through Negan’s body at his words, and he reached down to undo his jeans and slip them over his hips. He stepped out of them, kicking them away along with his shoes, and met Negan’s gaze again.

“Take all of it off, sheriff.”

Rick opened his mouth instinctively to correct him until he caught Negan’s sly look. He thought about it for a moment before lifting his head and looking Negan square in the eye. “It’s deputy,” he said deliberately.

Negan’s chuckle filled the air, more sinister than he had yet heard it. “That,” he paused, letting the emphasis stretch out, “is going to fucking cost you. Oh, yes it is. That smart fucking mouth.” Negan walked slowly around him, and Rick tensed in anticipation as he slipped out of sight behind him. Negan’s hand fisted in his hair and tugged his head back, pulling him slightly off-balance and drawing a sharp, startled gasp out of him. “Take it the fuck off,” he growled in his ear, and Rick complied immediately, pushing his briefs down his hips, his gaze on the ceiling from the angle of his neck. Negan’s chin rested on his shoulder, and the other man hummed appreciatively as he took in the sight of Rick’s hard, flushed cock. Heat crawled across Rick’s face and chest.

He was released suddenly and spun around, shoved back against the bed. The back of his knees collided with the edge of the mattress, and he tumbled back. It seemed to all happen at once: Negan kneeling before him, parting his legs with his strong hands, and then swallowing him in one smooth motion. Every particle of breath left Rick’s lungs in a whoosh as he fell back, arched tight as a bow and trembling. Negan’s tongue smoothed over his length. Rick found his breath and let out a noise that was nearly a scream. Negan pulled back slowly, his wet mouth drawing over the silky flesh, pausing to the lick the soft valley at the tip hungrily.

Negan,” Rick groaned helplessly, writhing. To his horror, he couldn’t stop himself from bucking into Negan’s hot mouth, but the other man didn’t seemed to mind, taking his length back with a low hum that vibrated straight up Rick’s spine. He started a steady pace, alternating smooth swallows with laps of his tongue at the sensitive head. “Negan, I can’t,” Rick whined desperately, teetering on the brink.

Negan released his cock with a pop and licked his lips slowly, smirk blossoming and eyes never leaving Rick’s. “Can’t what? Can’t come in my mouth? Aw, sure you can. Watch.” He swallowed Rick again and bobbed his head over his length once, twice, again, and soon Rick felt like he was shivering into a thousand broken pieces as his orgasm hit him like a truck. Negan swallowed what he gave him, and Rick let out a strangled gasp as every muscle he had tightened impossibly, almost painfully. He came back to himself slowly, his breath heaving like he had run a race. He managed to shoot a glance down to Negan, who was sitting back on his heels and grinning devilishly. “I told you you could, baby.”

Rick’s eyes fluttered shut, and he reached out his arms weakly. Negan laughed quietly from his position between his thighs before crawling over Rick, slipping into his embrace and nuzzling into the sweat-drenched skin of his neck. “I wasn’t expecting that,” Rick confessed hoarsely when he found his voice again. He felt Negan grin against his neck.

“Yeah? What were you expecting?”

Rick chuckled, carding his fingers through Negan’s hair. “I don’t know. I’m in uncharted territory.”

“Not fucking yet you’re not. Do you want to be?”

Rick swallowed, suddenly nervous. “Y-yeah.”

Negan rose to his knees above him. In the dim moonlight, his skin glowed like fine marble. He tilted his head, his face half in shadow. “You don’t sound so sure. You want to call it a night?”

Rick bit his lip, irritation replacing anxiety. “Damnit, Negan, I’m not gonna break.” He reached out and pressed his palm against the bulge in the man’s jeans, cupping him rather roughly. Negan’s head dipped back, bringing his face into the light, and he gave a low, soft moan that was nearly a purr. Rick rose up as best he could, intoxicated with the power he had just discovered. He wrapped an arm around Negan’s waist and pressed his lips to his chest, looking up at him hungrily. “Don’t tell me you’re all talk,” Rick drawled, aware of being the man waving a red flag in front of a bull.

Negan’s head snapped down, eyes gleaming. He tsked, shaking his head. “Riiick. You can’t keep that fucking mouth shut, can you?” His hands settled on his shoulders and squeezed lightly. Then, all at once, Rick was flipped over, Negan’s weight pressing him into the mattress. Rick was taken aback at how quick the man was, and more than a little miffed that he seemed to get the jump on Rick so easily. He was a cop, after all. “Stay,” he growled, and then he was gone, shifting off the bed.

Rick gripped the sheets below him, shivering. He heard the whisper of fabric over flesh as Negan stripped, and he turned his head towards the sound.

Negan grinned at him, gripping the base of his cock. “Oh, Rick. I get it. I do. You want to take it in.” He stroked himself once, lazily, and Rick was aware of his own arousal reawakened and pressing urgently into the mattress below him. “But I fucking told you to stay still. You really want to keep fucking pushing it?” Not waiting for an answer, he turned to rummage in a bedside drawer. He tossed a tube onto the bed and then walked around to the other side, out of sight. Rick resisted the urge to turn his head again, and he nearly jumped into the air when Negan’s hands circled his waist. The other man chuckled, enjoying Rick’s alarm a bit too much. “Just lift your hips, Rick.”

He complied, and Negan scooted two pillows beneath him. Rick relaxed against them, feeling his familiar old traitor flush spread across his face. He was utterly exposed, hips raised in obscene offering. Negan’s hands massaged his lower back for a moment, relaxing him, before moving to squeeze his ass roughly. He parted the smooth flesh, cool air touching him intimately.

“Negan,” Rick yelped, instinctively moving away, against the pillows beneath him.

Negan reached over him to pluck up the tube. “Losing your nerve, Rick? After all that fuckin’ sass?”

“No,” Rick snapped, flushing harder. Negan bent and pressed a kiss in the center of the small of Rick’s back. One hand gripped his waist not ungently, and a slick finger rubbed over his sensitive opening. Rick buried his head in his arms, shivering again.

“Relax, baby,” Negan murmured above him, and the finger slipped inside. Rick moaned into his arms. “Fuck, Rick. You are so fucking tight. Don’t worry, baby, I’m going to work you nice and slow until you’re ready to take every inch of my cock into your sweet ass.” Negan laughed, stroking him from within as he spoke, the words igniting in him and making his arousal throb in response. Negan withdrew slightly, and he felt a second finger press against him. Heart speeding up, he shifted away instinctively, but Negan held firm to his hip. “Uh-uh-uh, deputy Grimes. After all that mouthing off, you fucking take this.”

“Negan,” Rick moaned, coming a little more undone. He couldn’t see him, but he was sure the other man was wearing his wolf’s grin. The second finger pushed in smoothly, and now the stretch stung. He hissed in pain, unable to stop himself. Negan stroked his hip and shifted slightly behind him. Suddenly, the other man’s breath was on him where his fingers were invading him, and a gasp ripped from Rick’s throat as a wet, firm tongue dipped in the valley below. Rick’s hips rocked back of their own accord, but Negan was still pinning him down. His fingers began to work gently in him as his tongue assaulted the delicate flesh it found, dipping down to his balls and finding the base of his cock. Rick felt himself begin to slip back into that delicious, fuzzy haze as his muscles spasmed. He sank his teeth into the flesh of his arm.

Negan scissored his fingers, entreating the muscles to soften. He probed until he brushed over a spot that had Rick letting out a harsh cry. “There you are,” Negan crowed, eagerly attacking. Rick bucked, nearly knocking him off. “Whoa!” Negan laughed wildly. “Fuckin’ rodeo in my bed.”

“Negan, please!”

“Yes,” Negan growled behind him, his voice suddenly gravelly-harsh, “that’s good, that’s real fuckin’ good, deputy Ricky boy. You just beg for it, and maybe I’ll give it to you.”

Rick moaned helplessly, enduring the full assault on his senses and desperately wanting more, more, more. “Negan, please, please, Negan, please,” the words were running over each other, a mantra, and he knew he was going to be dead of embarrassment later, but he didn’t care in the slightest right now. All he wanted was for Negan to tend to the ache inside him, and damn him, the way he was playing his body like a fucking fiddle, he knew that Negan knew how. The man withdrew his fingers abruptly and shifted above him, bracing his thighs against Rick’s, pushing his legs further apart. His arousal, slick with the lubricant, pressed against Rick’s ass, hot, thick, and heavy.

“Can’t fucking say no to you, baby,” he growled, pressing the tip of his cock against his entrance. “Now, be a good boy and let me the fuck in.” Negan breached him, and he gasped, his entire body vibrating like a plucked string. “Relax,” Negan ground out, hands steadying his hips. Rick tried, but the pleasure of being filled and the pain of the stretch of Negan’s cock had him trembling on a knife edge. Negan reached around Rick’s hips and squeezed his arousal gently. “Breathe, Rick.”

Rick breathed in and out like a bellows, fisting his hands in the sheets. He felt impossibly open. Negan was gently working himself into him, sinking forward and easing back again. Rick squeezed his eyes shut, hips and cock throbbing. Negan felt like steel inside of him, and he loved it. He was dimly aware that the other man was keeping up some ongoing filthy commentary above him, but only occasional words like tight-good-hot filtered through the red haze he was lost in.

When he was fully sheathed inside of him, Negan paused, hands wandering over Rick’s back gently. One hand snaked up and wrapped around his neck, squeezing lightly, almost teasingly. Rick shuddered, pinned by Negan’s cock. He rolled his hips back, experimenting, and Negan moaned throatily. “You tryin’ to ride me from underneath, cowboy?”

“Maybe,” Rick managed to gasp out, and Negan chuckled, rocking his hips forward, causing Rick to slide on the sweat-dampened sheets with a gasp.

“I’d say that’s pretty fucking bold for someone who’s never had a dick in their ass before. That is the case isn’t it?” Negan was thrusting steadily now, rocking Rick forward. He dropped his head into his arms and focused on breathing through the overwhelming sensations of being ridden. A sharp slap cracked against his ass, and Rick cried out, more in surprise than in pain. “Answer me, Rick,” Negan said in a mocking, sing-song tone.

Rick tried to glare over his shoulder at him. “I already told you - “ another sharp slap connected, and Rick was sure his face was scarlet. Fuck, that was making him even harder, and there was no hiding that from Negan.

“You’re not answering the question, Rick. When I ask you a fuckin’ question, I expect a fuckin’ answer. That’s just good manners. Do I have to teach you about good manners?” Negan rubbed the warm, reddened flesh where his hand had connected, feeling Rick flinch involuntarily and chuckling.

“I’ve never had a dick in my ass before, Negan,” Rick mumbled against his arm.

“Huh! How about that! Like a virgin, touched for the very first time. That’s you, ain’t it?” Negan was panting, but somehow he still had enough breath to taunt him.

“Yes,” Rick moaned, face pressed into the sheets, pleasure jolting through him with each thrust. “Just shut up and fuck me.” Another blow landed, the searing sting sending a wave of shameful pleasure straight to his cock.

Rude,” Negan snapped, but he complied, lifting Rick’s hips to drive into him mercilessly. Rick muffled his cries in the damp sheets beneath him, back arched, thighs spread almost painfully wide. When Negan reached around his hips and roughly seized his cock, it was over, and Rick felt out of his mind as his release crashed over him, his entire world narrowed down to a pinpoint of red, burning, agonized pleasure.

He was only distantly aware of Negan swearing steadily behind him, hips jerking, as a warm gush filled him. He collapsed forward, dazed and drifting, lying there until Negan gently turned him over. Something soft touched his over-sensitized flesh, and he flinched away before he realized Negan was cleaning him with a towel. He forced heavy eyes open and met the other man’s dark, satisfied gaze. “Jesus Christ,” was all Rick managed, and Negan shook with laughter beside him, pressing a kiss to the wet curls plastered to his temple.

“Yeah, that shit was something else, wasn’t it, cowboy?” he murmured in Rick’s ear.

Rick reached out an arm and draped it over Negan’s taut stomach, eyes drifting closed. A moment later he shot straight up with a gasp, his newly sore muscles protesting the movement. “Shit, what time is it? The kids.” Rick twisted around, searching for a clock, and Negan groaned, snaking up an arm to wrap around his chest and yank him back down to his arms.

“Come on, Grimes, don’t you have a sitter?”

“Sure, but I told her I’d be home by ten,” Rick sighed, rubbing his fingers over the tattoo that crawled across the muscled arm holding him in place.

“Hm,” Negan replied, brushing his lips over Rick’s hair. “Well, you’d better hop in the shower before you run on home, daddy Grimes, because you smell like sweat and come. What’s the sweet little thing watching your kids going to think about that?”

Rick shoved at his arm. “Jesus, really, Negan?” The other man snickered as he wriggled his way out of his arms, staggering a little when he got to his feet.

Negan pointed to the door. “Shower’s in the hall.” He watched Rick with unbridled amusement as he made his way over to the door. “Having trouble walking, there, baby?”

Rick shot a glare over his shoulder, but Negan’s wide-eyed, mockingly innocent expression sent him into a short laughing fit. “Shut the hell up,” he said, stepping into the bathroom.

He made it back to his house five minutes before ten, to his relief. He was sure that what he had just been doing was somehow written all over his face, but if Beth suspected anything, she showed no sign of it. Judith was fast asleep, and Rick gratefully crawled into bed after checking on her, utterly exhausted. His phone buzzed on his bedside table. He reached for it. Sore? The message mocked him in the darkness of the room. Fuck you, he texted back. The phone buzzed again. Next time, cowboy. Rick buried his smile in his pillow. Damn that man to hell, he was sore, and he would probably be limping tomorrow like the punchline of a dirty joke. And the jackass was teasing him in advance about it. And all he could think about was how he had wanted to lay in the warmth of his arms a bit longer.

Yeah. You’ve got it bad, Grimes.

It was raining at noon the next day, and Rick hurried through the chilly damp and slid into the passenger seat of the black car idling in front of the station. Negan looked at him wordlessly, his face blank, and Rick felt a flutter of alarm. Then he reached over and deftly undid the top button of his uniform shirt.

“What the fuck, Negan,” Rick hissed, clasping a hand over his chest and looking around to see if anyone had seen.

“What’s wrong, baby?” Negan grinned at him, head thrown back, eyes gleaming. Those eyes teased him with the knowledge of what they had been up to last night, and Rick blushed hard.

“I work here, Negan. I can’t fool around in the parking lot.”

Negan chuckled and ran a finger down the side of his neck. “Let’s find a fucking parking lot to fool around in, then.”

Rick shook his head, smiling as they pulled out and headed down the street. “I only have half-an-hour for lunch, Negan.”

“Rick, Rick, Rick,” he groaned, “will you fucking live a little? Come on. Let me at least give you a handjob in the diner lot, please.”

Rick’s cock pulsed with interest, and he smothered a groan in the back of his hand. “And get arrested for public indecency? That’s all I need.”

Negan’s hand crept to his thigh and rubbed lazy circles. “Public indecency,” he rolled the words in his mouth slowly, tasting them, a smirk crawling across the side of his face.

“Let’s stick with private indecency,” Rick said, dropping a hand to cover Negan’s and squeezing lightly.

The other man caught his lip between his teeth. “Yeah? Why don’t you call up that sitter of yours and come over again tomorrow? I’ve got a few ideas, and they are all truly, most sincerely fucking indecent.”

Rick swallowed, suddenly feeling shy. “All right.” The car nosed into a parking spot in the diner’s lot. Rick clicked open the door and stepped his foot out onto the pavement before Negan’s voice stopped him.

“Rick, I’ve been meaning to ask…”

Rick looked back at him, and his expression was neutral. Too neutral. “What?” he said warily.

“You still have my handprint on your ass?”

Rick gaped at him, mouth open, immediately flushing scarlet, as Negan doubled over and laughed like a hyena. “You asshole,” he said, and suddenly he was laughing, too.

It was nice.

And as it turned out, it was the beginning.

They fell into a rhythm as the weeks drifted by: he would go over to his house, ostensibly for dinner or a movie, and sooner or later he would end up on his back and moaning with Negan’s fingers inside of him, the man murmuring in his ear, alternating between sweet and filthy words. Sometimes Negan would sneak a touch or a kiss when they were out together during the day, but they largely kept their budding romance to themselves, and Rick liked it that way. He liked having something that belonged only to him. Not that he had much of anyone left to share it with - Tara was his only real friend now. Even so, he guarded their new relationship like a secret treasure, only pulling it out to marvel at when he was alone.

Rick pulled into his driveway. He pulled the keys from the ignition, sighing and leaning back against the seat. It had been an exceptionally boring day at the station, and his shoulders ached from sitting hunched over his desk. His phone buzzed in his pocket, and he pulled it out. Negan. He answered it, a little embarrassed at his own eagerness.

“Hey.”

“Hey, baby. How you doin’? Busy protecting and serving?”

“I don’t know who I’m protecting or serving by sitting on my ass doing paperwork all day,” Rick said drily.

Negan chuckled on the other end of the line. “Poor Deputy Rick,” he crooned into the phone, “why don’t you drive that fine ass down to my place tomorrow? I’ll entertain you. Hell, I’ll even let you protect and serve me.” Negan huffed a suggestive laugh into the phone, and Rick felt his stomach tighten pleasantly.

“Actually, the kids’ll be at their grandmother’s, so I thought you would come to the house for the night.” Negan had never spent the night at Rick’s house. Rick clutched the phone, wondering if Negan understood the weight of the invitation. By the silence on the other end of the line, he did.

“Sure, Rick,” he said finally. “I’d like that.”

Rick had never liked Lori’s mother - not when Lori was alive. The woman was endlessly critical of her daughter, and Rick found himself spending most of his time trying to shield her from her mother’s acid tongue when they were all together. But her daughter’s death had dealt a devastating blow - she seemed to age decades after it happened, shuffling around with a bent back and sad eyes. It seemed that death had tapped the deep wellspring of love she had hidden deep inside her for her only daughter, and it bled right out of her in a gush of anguish, leaving emptiness behind. It hurt Rick to see her that way, and it awakened an affection in him for the mother-in-law he had never loved before. Some of her vitality came back when she was with the children, especially Judith, so Rick made it a point to drop them off for regular visits. He glanced in the rearview mirror, checking on Judith in the car seat. She was gnawing on a cardboard book happily. Rick smiled.

“What’s going on with you?” Carl was looking at him from the passenger seat.

“Huh?” he said, confused. “Nothin’. What do you mean?”

“You’ve been different lately,” Carl said. “Like, happy and stuff.”

Rick blinked at him. Happy and stuff? “I’ve always been happy,” he protested, and he immediately heard the lie in his words. By Carl’s arch stare, he heard it, too. Rick cleared his throat. “I guess I have been in a good mood,” he admitted. Carl watched him for a moment, before turning to stare out the window, apparently finished with the conversation. Rick drove on in silence, lost in thought.

Back home, he turned Carl’s words over. It was obvious to him what was different. Negan. He rubbed at his temples, feeling guilt creep over him. Had he been that glum before? So much so that Carl would notice an immediate difference? The doorbell rang, and anticipation shot through Rick. He walked to the front door, and as he reached for the knob, he saw that his hands were trembling slightly. Stop acting like a damn teenager, Rick, he scolded himself. He opened the door, and Negan was leaning back, flashing his heart-stopping smile.

“Hey, lover boy,” he murmured, walking in and shutting the door behind him. He turned to Rick and gathered him up in a searing kiss. He pressed something cool and hard into Rick’s hand, and Rick glanced down. A key.

“So you can let yourself into my place,” Negan said, kissing the side of his throat. Rick wrapped his arms tightly around his neck, throat suddenly too tight to speak. Negan hummed against his skin. “Kids at their grandma’s, huh?” Rick nodded, tilting his head to allow Negan access to the spot on his neck that made his entire body tingle. “You gonna give me a tour?”

Rick looked at him, surprised. “You’ve seen the house.”

“Not the upstairs,” Negan returned, a glint in his dark eyes.

Rick grinned at him, stepping away and tugging him so that he followed. “Why not just come out and say you want sex?”

“Would that be the gentlemanly thing to do, Rick? I am nothing if not a fucking gentleman.” They paused at the door to his bedroom, and Negan crowded against Rick’s back, leaning forward to speak in his ear, lips barely brushing him. “Now, get in there and take your fucking clothes off for me, baby.”

“Yeah, you’re a real gentleman,” Rick muttered, but he was already moving to obey, stepping through the door and stripping off his shirt.

To his surprise, Negan stilled him with hands on his waist, turning him around. “You okay with this?” he asked softly. “I know you haven’t had anyone else in here since your ol’ lady passed.”

Rick swallowed. Negan had seen right through him, again. “I think I’m okay. At least, I want to be.” He tilted his head up at Negan, smiling with a touch of shyness. “I guess I need your help.”

In answer, Negan stripped off his jacket and shirt, pulling Rick close. “Happy to fucking oblige, baby. You let me know if…” he hesitated, trailing off. “If you need to stop,” he finished, looking down into Rick’s eyes.

Rick’s heart throbbed in his chest, and he realized suddenly that it was with happiness. Carl was right. He was happy and stuff. “Okay,” he whispered, hands falling to Negan’s belt. They made short work of each other’s clothes, and Rick was soon climbing onto the bed, Negan close behind him. The other man gripped his arms, urging him to settle on his knees, moving behind him. He pressed his chest flush against Rick’s back, using his knee to part Rick’s legs further. One strong arm snaked around his waist as the other tangled in his hair. He gave a sharp yank, jerking Rick’s head back and exposing his tan throat.

“That hurts,” Rick hissed, shivering in Negan’s arms.

“I know. You want me to stop?” Negan released his waist and gripped Rick’s cock, stroking lazily.

“No,” Rick breathed, pressing back into the warmth of Negan’s bare skin, “I like it.”

“I know that, too, deputy.” Negan’s lips descended on his neck as he continued to stroke him. He stopped, turning Rick in his arms, and Rick attacked his mouth with a hungry kiss. Negan pressed him back against the bed, and he lifted his legs to wrap around his waist, tongue dipping into the other man’s mouth. Negan suddenly had him by the wrists, and he forced his arms up over his head, into the bed frame. Taking the hint, Rick gripped the metal bars above him. Negan rose to his knees, straddling him, his thighs trapping Rick. There wasn’t enough contact in his position, and Rick tried to writhe against him.

Negan chuckled. “Need something, baby?”

Rick glared up at him. “Don’t be a dick, Negan. Touch me.”

“Ooh, darlin’…no need to be mean about it,” Negan rolled his hips forward, grinding his erection against Rick’s, earning a strangled gasp. He continued to grind their lengths together, smooth skin sliding, and Rick was seeing stars. He distantly heard the sound of a cap being flicked open but felt nothing aside from Negan’s hot, thick arousal dancing with his. He desperately tried to roll his hips up for more contact, and when that wasn’t enough, he released the cool metal bar from his vise-like grip to reach down towards his cock. Predictably, Negan swatted the hand away. “Come on, baby, don’t fucking misbehave. You know daddy’s gonna take care of you,”

Rick groaned, grabbing the metal above him again in defeat. The next thing he knew, Negan was coating his length in something cool and slippery. His eyes flew open and locked on Negan’s in shock. “Negan,” he gasped.

The man shifted over him. “Oh, yes, baby,” he said, teeth gleaming at him in his wolf’s grin, before he slowly sheathed himself on Rick’s cock. Fuck! Everything narrowed down to the soft, hot flesh that surrounded him, and Rick let out a ringing cry, arching up. Negan laughed breathlessly above him as he steadied himself with a hand on Rick’s trembling abdomen. “Whoa, there, boy. Don’t buck me off.” He sank until his thighs were flush with Rick’s, every inch of him swallowed. Rick panted harshly beneath him, and Negan leaned forward, hand sliding up over his chest to settle at his throat. He squeezed lightly, eyes boring into Rick’s. “How’s that shit feel, darlin’?”

“Oh, god, Negan,” he panted, “it’s good. It’s so good. Please…”

Negan laughed, and the feel of it from inside him made Rick’s eyes nearly roll back into his head. “I love it when you ask so nice, Rick.” His hand released Rick’s throat as he straightened, and he rose up slightly before sinking down again, squeezing Rick mercilessly on the way down. It wasn’t long before Negan was moving at a gallop, and Rick’s cries rang in the air. He was tumbling towards his release, and the sight of Negan moving above him, taking his length, skin glowing with the sweat dappled over it from his exertion was driving him out of his mind with lust. Negan reached up and twisted a nipple between his fingers roughly. “Come on, Rick, I can’t keep this up all fucking night,” he cried mockingly, and the man beneath him gave a breathless, strangled gasp. His hands slid from the bed frame and gripped Negan’s thighs, fingers digging into the rippling muscle there, hard enough to bruise. Negan allowed it, chuckling, taking in the sight of Rick Grimes coming apart at the seams beneath him. Soon enough, he was spilling inside of him, hot and deep. Negan rocked his hips, milking him, letting his head fall back with a sigh. After a moment, he slipped off of him, collapsing beside Rick, whose eyes were shut, mouth slack. He pillowed his head against Rick’s bicep, grinning. “Okay there, cowboy?”

Rick cracked an eye open at him. “You’re gonna kill me,” he said weakly, and Negan laughed in delight. Rick took several deep breaths, trying to steady himself. Finally, he managed to roll over Negan, straddling him as he had been straddled only moments ago. The other man watched him through dark lashes, and he licked his lips, scooting back before bending forward to swallow Negan’s still-hard cock.

Shit,” Negan gasped, hand flying to fist in Rick’s hair. Rick swirled his tongue around him, lapping experimentally, and it was all he could do to not force his head down his length and fuck his mouth. He bit his lip and groaned as Rick worked him eagerly, one arm thrown over his eyes. “Jesus, Rick, you do that like you were fucking born to suck cock.” He didn’t need to look down to know that that had earned him an icy blue glare, and Rick’s hand around the base of his cock gave a decidedly ungentle squeeze. “Ow, fuck!” He dissolved into helpless laughter, choking off with a groan after a particularly deep dip into Rick’s hot, wet mouth had electricity shooting through him, up to his head and down to his toes. Rick rubbed his thigh as if to soothe him. He massaged his scalp in response, earning a soft, pleasing hum around his length. “Let me come on your face, baby,” he breathed, and Rick’s eyes snapped up to his, almost comic in their expression of surprised embarrassment.

Rick released him from his mouth, saliva stretching out between his lips and Negan’s cock, a sight Negan took in with avid interest. “Are you serious, Negan?”

He grinned down at him. “Serious as a fucking heart attack, blue eyes. What do you say? You gonna let me?”

Rick was fighting a smile, cheeks red, and he knew he had already won. “Fine, you fuckin’ pervert.”

Negan beamed at him and was up in a flash, pulling Rick off the bed and to his knees, standing over him. He gripped his jaw and tilted his face up, gripping his cock with the other. “You are so fucking sexy, baby,” he growled, “I could fuck you all day. You’d never fucking leave his bed if it were up to me.” Rick blushed harder, the red stain spilling down his throat and chest. His eyes were locked on Negan’s dark ones, and there was no denying the interest in them as they darted to watch Negan stroke himself. “I’m going to paint that pretty face white with my come. You know what? I think you’re going to fucking love it.” He could see Rick’s eyes dilating as he gazed into them, and he grinned in triumph. Rick’s eyes flicked to his cock where it hovered over his face, and he licked his lips seemingly on instinct. That did it, and Negan slid straight off the edge, spilling onto him with a deep groan. His release splashed Rick’s lower face, dripping down his throat and onto his chest. Rick licked his lips clean, earning another groan from Negan.

He grinned up at him, still flushing red. “You liked that, huh?”

“You have no fucking idea, Rick.” He lifted him to his feet, chuckling. “Shit, you’re a goddamn fucking mess.”

Rick shoved at his shoulder. “Yeah, whose fault is that? Come on,” he padded softly to the bathroom, Negan following close behind him. Rick stepped into the hot spray of the shower and tilted his head up, letting it wash him clean. Negan’s hands settled on his waist, and he leaned back against him. “Carl’s asking questions.”

“Yeah? What about?”

“Well, me. He says I’ve been different. I was thinking it’s time I tell him about this.”

“You’re gonna tell him that you’ve been taking it up the ass from his coach? That’s -“ Rick turned in his arms and slapped his shoulder a little more roughly than he had intended, and Negan yelped then laughed hard. “Ooh, deputy…you want to try that a lot lower and little harder? Lord knows I’ve been very, very motherfuckin’ bad. Maybe all I needed was the firm hand of a lawman to set me back on the straight and narrow…” Rick was sure he was scarlet from the roots of his hair to the tips of his toes, but Negan’s filthy words had clearly piqued his cock’s interest. Grinning slyly, Negan wrapped his hand around the silky flesh, drawing a sharp gasp from Rick. “Someone agrees with me.”

“I’m going to tell him we’re seeing each other,” Rick managed. The hand on him stilled, and he was suddenly flooded with doubt. “Are we…is that what we’re doing?” He hated how small his voice suddenly sounded.

Negan pressed against him, kissing his cheek in an unexpectedly tender gesture. “Sure, deputy,” he murmured. “I see you.” He resumed stroking gently, and Rick’s head fell against his shoulder, the hot water beating against his back.

Later, as they stepped out of the shower together, Rick’s gaze fell on Negan’s back as he turned to reach for a towel. He had noticed it before, but it sparked his curiosity anew - he had two black patches, one behind each shoulder, as if he had tattooed a large smudge of ink there rather than any kind of design. He reached out and traced one curiously, and Negan whirled suddenly, startling him.

“Sorry,” Rick said, laughing a little, “I didn’t mean to scare you. What kind of tattoo is that?”

Negan stared at him for a moment too long, and Rick shifted on his feet, suddenly aware of his nakedness. Then Negan grinned his familiar grin and relief flooded through him. He stepped forward and wrapped an arm around Rick’s damp waist. “Let me give you some advice, darlin’,” he drawled, leaning his forehead against Rick’s, “it’s a bad fucking idea to go to an ink shop when you’re hammered, and it’s even fucking worse to go when the stupid bastard doing your ink is hammered.”

Rick laughed, and Negan’s lips closed over his.

Chapter Text

Negan began spending more and more time at Rick’s home, with his children. His skill in the kitchen was a welcome addition to the household, and at night, he lay beside Rick, sometimes winding him up until they coupled as silently as possible, mindful of the kids several doors down, and sometimes just wrapping an arm around him and drifting to sleep with his chest flush against Rick’s back. Rick was apprehensive the first time Negan met Judith - she could be shy and uneasy with strangers, not unlike Rick himself, but she had taken to Negan immediately, reaching her little arms out to him to be held. Rick’s heart somersaulted in his chest as he watched Negan bounce her in his arms, smiling at her as she giggled.

“What are you so surprised about, Rick? Chicks dig me,” he had said with a laugh when Rick shyly commented on how good he was with her. Carl had had what appeared to be no reaction whatsoever, muttering a yeah, okay when Rick clumsily explained that he had started dating his baseball coach. But he seemed to come out of his shell a little more, and soon he was willingly hanging out with them in the living room, arguing with Negan about sports on television while Judith banged blocks together as a staccato accompaniment to their voices. It was nice. It was so nice that it made Rick nervous. He had had nice before, and it had blown up in his face in the most spectacularly ugly way. But looking at his family now, he dared to allow himself to believe that things could be okay. That he could be okay. Please let us be okay.

“Tara wants us to go to brunch with her and Rosita tomorrow,” Rick said one evening, as they sprawled on the couch together.

Negan tipped his head back and gave a full-throated laugh. “Brunch? Fucking brunch? Shit, we are really living that Martha fuckin’ Stewart domestic life.”

Rick smiled at him. “Is that bad?”

Negan slid his hand up his thigh. “No, baby. Sign me up. Let’s go to fuckin’ brunch, then let’s go pick out some fuckin’ curtains or some shit.”

“What’s wrong with the ‘fuckin’ curtains’ we already have?” Rick teased, leaning his head on Negan’s shoulder.

Negan smiled, lips inches from Rick’s hair. “Nothin’ at all,” he said quietly, and Rick looked up at him, blue eyes meeting dark, aware he was not talking about the curtains.

Brunch was a surprisingly massive undertaking - Rick had always thought brunch meant a fancy breakfast, not a double-sized breakfast. In spite of the mountain of pancakes that she had just inhaled, Tara was insisting on pie for dessert, and Rosita was teasing her girlfriend about her seemingly endless appetite.

“Aw, come on! Today’s special! It’s a double date! We have to get pie!” Tara froze, mouth open, flushing pink as she realized what she just said. “I mean…are you, like…? I guess I just - ”

Rick saved her. “Yeah,” he said softly, “we are.” Negan’s arm draped around his shoulders, and warmth spread through him. Rick ducked his head and chuckled, giving Negan a shy, sidelong glance. “I guess we were kind of obvious.”

“No,” Tara said.

“Yes,” Rosita said at the same time. Rick looked at her, surprised. Rosita shrugged, spooning more sugar into her coffee. “I figured you guys were fucking the first time I met you.”

Negan’s laughter rang out, and Rick’s mouth hung open.

“Oh my god, Rosita,” Tara gasped before she dissolved into helpless laughter, holding her stomach. Rosita winked at Rick over her coffee cup, smirking.

“We weren’t,” Rick insisted, face aflame. “Not then.”

Negan leaned forward, dropping his voice to an intimate, conspiratorial murmur. “It’s true. He was a tough nut to fucking crack. I had to pull out all the stops with him.” He regarded the girls across the table with the utmost solemnity. “I had to make him fucking dinner before he let me stick my - ” Rick slammed his elbow into Negan’s ribs, struck absolutely dumb with horror. Rosita spit a mouthful of coffee back into her cup, and now both girls were laughing hard, clutching each other. Rick sat back in the booth, succumbing to the laughter and covering his red face with his hand. Negan pulled him against his side, smirking, lifting his coffee with his other hand. “I’m a real good fuckin’ cook, kids.”

“I bet you are, Negan,” Rosita replied, wiping tears of mirth from her eyes.

Negan was washing up after dinner one night. He had insisted on doing it himself after Rick had practically fallen asleep at the table after working on some all-night shit at the station. What the fuck was going on in this sleepy little Mayberry-ass motherfucking town that could warrant any kind of all-night police activity, though, that was beyond him. He heard bare feet pad into the kitchen behind him. With Rick showering upstairs, he knew it was Carl. He could feel the kid’s eyes on him, and he twisted off the water before turning towards him with a half-amused, half-annoyed snort. His eyes were a different blue than Rick’s - sharper, colder.

“Kid, anyone ever tell you you got a look in your eyes like you’ve got a whole fuckin’ pile of bodies buried in your basement?”

Carl didn’t even blink. “You and my dad, huh?”

Negan laughed, scratching his cheek. “Yeah, me and your dad, for a while now. I know you didn’t just fuckin’ notice, so is this the part where you tell me you’ll kill me if I ever hurt him? Add me to the collection you got goin’ on under the floorboards?”

“Yeah.”

“Duly noted, kid.”

Carl frowned at him, clearly wanting more.

Negan sighed, leaning back against the counter. “I wish I could tell you that I’ll never fuckin’ do anything to hurt him, Carl. I know I don’t want to. But it doesn’t fucking work that way in life, and I have a feeling you know that. Shit happens, and we hurt the people we love even though we never wanted to.”

Carl’s eyes widened briefly. “You love him?”

Negan froze, feeling trapped by his own words. Damn this fucking kid.

Carl nodded, looking satisfied. “Okay.” He turned to leave, walking out of the kitchen towards the living room. He paused in the doorway, shooting a dark glare over his shoulder. “Don’t hurt him, though.”

Negan watched him retreat to the living room, feeling something like pride for the cold little motherfucker. “Not planning on it, son,” he said softly, more to himself than anything. His phone buzzed in his back pocket, and he reached back, still lost in thought. The words that filled the screen jolted him straight back to the present moment, and the hand that was casually resting on the counter behind him suddenly tightened, knuckles turning white.

Need to meet, boss. Riding down to you - Simon. Negan felt his lips pull back from his teeth. Fuck fuck fuckity fuck, he thought, rage surging through him. That motherfucker. Negan could see the back of Carl’s dark head as he sat on the couch, watching television. He stuffed down the fury that had risen in him, fighting for a neutral, everything’s-fucking-peachy tone.

“Kid, I need to head out. We need some shit in the kitchen, and I might swing by the school to grab some paperwork.” Paperwork? That was the lamest fucking lie imaginable - what the fuck kind of paperwork would he have? He was a goddamn gym teacher. Either way, Carl didn’t seem to notice anything amiss.

“Whatever,” he replied, and Negan was suddenly, deeply, profoundly grateful for the apathy of teenagers.

“Tell your daddy I’ll be back soon if he asks, okay?” Negan called, heading out the door. As soon as it closed behind him, the pleasant mask slid straight off his face, and he glowered as he stalked to his car, grimly cataloging the ugly, bloody-ass shit he could do to Simon for his audacity.

Twenty minutes later, he was outside of town in front of a grimy diner. The familiar deep rumble of a flock of bikes floated out through the darkness, and he crossed his arms and glared down the road as floating pinpricks of light turned a corner and into view. He glared until they pulled up and didn’t stop glaring as Simon yanked off his helmet and strode up to him.

“Long time no see, brother.” He grinned at Negan, who fought the urge to punch him square in the jaw.

“Are you fucking serious, prick?” He growled. “What’d I fuckin’ tell you when I left the fucking crew to you? What the fuck are you doing here, fuckin’ tracking me down? Are you serious with this shit?”

Simon had lifted his hands in the air in a gesture of surrender, eyes wide with alarm. “I didn’t mean to piss you off, boss,” he said nervously, “I just wanted to talk to you. Come on, let’s get some shitty diner coffee. Like old times, right?”

Negan smiled at him, and somehow that was far, far worse than the shouting and swearing of a moment ago. “Sure, brother,” he said, his tone suddenly honey-smooth. “Let’s get some fucking coffee.” He slapped Simon’s back and then gripped the back of his neck with vicious strength. The other man grunted in pain as Negan pulled him forward, practically slamming open the doors to the diner using his face. Negan shoved him again, turning away to slide into a booth. When Simon found his feet again, he followed, sliding across from him with a wary look. A young girl in a red ruffled apron, hardly more than a teenager, crept over to them. She had seen the rather dramatic entrance, and her dark eyes were wide with fear. Negan felt a twinge of guilt, and he tried to smooth it over, giving her his most winning smile. “Can you bring us a couple cups of coffee, darlin’? I’d sure appreciate it,” he said softly, giving her a quick wink. She smiled tremulously at him and nodded, slipping away. The other bikers had trickled in, giving them a wide berth. Negan recognized many of the faces, but he wasn’t in the fucking mood to schmooze. By the distance they put between themselves and their former leader, they fucking knew it. Negan leaned back, settling an arm across the back of the booth. “Well?”

Simon leaned forward, expression half-apprehensive, half-urgent. “There’s a crew moving in on our territory. Bunch of fucking weirdos, boss.”

Negan ran his finger on the dingy table and smiled. It didn’t come close to reaching his eyes. “Trying to pull me back in to all that shit, Simon?” he inquired in a pleasant tone.

“Nah, nah…I just want your opinion on how you would handle the situation. That’s all. Just like, uh…a consultation.”

Negan smiled again at that, humorlessly. “Bullshit.” Simon started to protest, and Negan cut him off sharply. “Let me catch you up on me, Simon. I’ve been trying to have some kind of life here.” Negan ran his tongue over his bottom lip, narrowing his eyes and dropping his voice. “I’m fucking a cop.” That had its intended effect. Simon looked as if he had been punched in the throat.

“That’s, uh…well, shit, boss. I’m glad you finally started seeing someone after Lucille, god rest her soul. She must be one hell of a woman.”

Negan threw back his head and laughed. “No, he isn’t.” Simon blinked at him, taking that in.

“You’re fucking a cop,” he repeated slowly, and an amused smile split his face. “Jesus, Negan. You’ve got a brass set.”

“Yeah, well, you know what else? I told him fucking everything.”

Simon gaped at him, swallowing the lie. “No disrespect, boss…but have you lost your entire mind?”

Negan chuckled. “You’re not hearing me, Simon. I’m out. I got a new life, and I promised the new people in that new life that none of the shit from my old life was going to blow back on them. You want to make me a liar, Simon?” Negan’s volume was increasingly steadily, and he was sure that poor girl was never going to come back with any fucking coffee.

Simon was shaking his head back and forth in fearful negation. He swallowed, looking down at his hands resting on the table. “New life, huh, boss?” he inquired quietly. “That’s good. That’s real good. I’m happy about that.” Negan gave him a thin, wry smile. “I mean it,” Simon insisted. “Shit, I love you like a brother, man. You know that.”

“I know. And I really hope that love that you have is what keeps you from trying to bring this shit to my door again, Simon. I don’t ever wanna see the crew down this way. I don’t wanna hear about a Savior so much as sneezing on someone in a fucking twenty mile radius of here. Got it? Because, Simon,” Negan’s voice dropped to an urgent murmur, dripping with a mockery of concern, “if it’s not love that moves you to hear and understand what the fuck I’m telling you right now, then it should be the thought of what I would do to you, even though I love you like my own blood. Like my own brother. Things that would kill me to do, but do them I most certainly motherfucking would. Are we understanding each other over here? We communicatin’?”

Simon swallowed thickly, throat bobbing. Fury had transformed Negan; his eyes spat fire, a snarl sat on his lips, and his face was a cruel mask, faintly inhuman in the sickly fluorescent glow of the overhead lighting. This was the man he had come to see - the devil that had led the Saviors. But he had miscalculated, and Negan’s rage was dangerously close to consuming him like dry kindling. “I got it. Sorry for the misunderstanding.”

Negan settled back, satisfied. He gave a magnanimous wave of his hand. “First one’s free,” he said, showing his teeth in a wolf’s grin.

Later that week, with Rick was working late at the station yet again, Negan offered to drive Carl and Judith up to their grandmother’s home for one of their weekend visits. As much as he enjoyed having the kids around, he was looking forward to having the kind of screaming, headboard-slamming sex that was off-limits with the ankle biters in the house. Screaming, headboard-slamming sex used to be the exclusive domain of Negan’s place for the very reason that it was kid-free, but he was increasingly integrated into the Grimes household - practically living there, really. To his surprise, he really fucking liked that. Didn’t mean he wasn’t looking forward to a little adults-only, triple x time with Rick, though. He felt an actual honest-to-god flutter in his belly when he pulled in to the driveway and saw Rick’s squad car there. Sometimes the sheer strength of his need for the other man surprised even him. You whipped fucking bastard, he berated himself, grinning, doesn’t he just have you wrapped all the way around his dick.

He tossed his jacket on the couch in the living room, making his way to the kitchen. Rick was sorting through an untidy heap of mail. He looked up at Negan and smiled warmly, his eyes narrowing slightly in that way they did when he was particularly glad to see him, and his stomach gave another, more urgent, flutter. So fucking whipped.

“Hey, you. Did you grab the milk on the way back?” Rick gave him a quick kiss, and he groaned.

“Shit. I left it in the car. Can you grab it? Keys are in my jacket.”

“Mm-hm.” Rick put the handful of circulars he was holding aside and made his way to the living room, groping in the pockets of Negan’s jacket. He pulled out the keys, and an old, creased square of paper fluttered to the floor. He picked it up without thinking, glancing over it as he went outside to the car. It was gas station receipt, but it wasn’t local - it was for some place up in Virginia. Rick searched for the date, puzzled. More than a year ago. Well, that made sense. He shoved it into his pocket absently before reaching into the trunk and retrieving the milk. Negan was searching for something in the cabinets when he returned to the kitchen, and he put the milk away before turning back to the mail heap he had been previously trying to tame.

“How long were you living up in Virginia?” Rick called as he dug through the pile of mail on the counter. Silence. He turned around, thinking Negan had left the kitchen without him noticing and was startled to find him standing only a few feet away, staring at him with an unreadable expression on his face.

“Never told you I lived up in Virginia, Rick.”

Rick blinked. “I found a gas station receipt from up there. It was dated more than a year ago, so I figured it was from where you were living before.” Negan stared, and Rick felt his face get hot. “It was in your jacket, Negan.”

Negan scrubbed a hand across his mouth. “You diggin’ through my pockets like a jealous wife, Rick?” The words were teasing; the tone was not.

“You asked me to get your keys,” Rick protested. He felt like he had done something wrong, somehow, and he was caught between irritation and sheepishness. Negan hardly ever talked about his life from before he moved to town - Rick figured the memories were still too painful, what with Lucille’s death and the guilt and shame of his behavior at the end, but sometimes he wondered. He didn’t like how Negan looked at him when he asked questions about it - the way he was looking at him now.

Negan broke the tension, flashing a smile before stepping around him to his back, arms sliding around his waist and holding him close. “Yeah, I lived up there all my life. After Lucille passed, I moved down here. I told you that way back when we met, remember?” He nuzzled into the brown curls behind his ear.

“Mm-hm,” Rick agreed, reaching down and gripping Negan’s thigh with one hand, the other covering his arm where it encircled his waist.

“You’ve been working late almost every damn day. What’s that prick Gregory got you all up to? Polishing his fuckin’ desk?”

Rick snorted. Actually, they were working the Anderson case. The court date was approaching, less than a month away, and they were working with the prosecutor to make sure everything was air-tight. No one wanted Peter Anderson ending up back at home; he had yet to make bail, and things were going well for Jessie and her children. Rick and Tara wanted to keep it that way, and so did the county prosecutor on the case. “You know I can’t talk about official police business, Negan.”

Seriously, Rick? You’re fuckin’ kidding with that shit, right?”

Rick turned in his arms, giving him with a severe look. “No, I’m not fuckin’ kidding. I can’t discuss any of that with family, and I don’t want to, anyway. I don’t wanna bring that shit home, Negan. It’s dangerous.”

Negan groaned, dipping his head back, hiding the jolt that had gone through him when Rick called him family. “You’re fucking impossible.” He gave a resigned, theatrical sigh and began undoing his belt.

Rick stared, lips quirking. The familiar clink and hiss of the belt being shed sent tendrils of arousal snaking through his core. “What are you doing?”

Negan gave him a stern look that made his heart gallop in his chest. “Shutting you up,” he replied, pulling his hardening length free from his pants. “Get on your knees.” Rick remained still, a slow, defiant smile curling his lips. Negan chuckled. “Rick, Rick, Rick…” His hand ghosted over his chest, his cheek, and buried in his curls. Even though he knew what was coming, his stomach tightening in anticipation, he still gasped as Negan forced him forward and down to the floor by the hair. He caught at his legs, bracing himself to keep from tumbling to the ground. “Sometimes I think you like it when I have to lay down the law with you, lawman.”

“Not as much as you do,” Rick shot back, pressing his cheek against Negan’s hip and leaning enough close to his thick cock so that his words touched it as warm breath.

Negan made a noise in this throat that Rick enjoyed immensely. “You’re probably right,” he murmured, and Rick traced him lightly with his lips, reveling in the soft velvet touch of the skin there. The hand in his hair relaxed as he gave in to the teasing. Rick lapped the tip, and Negan hissed a sharp breath through his teeth. He licked his lips before taking him into his mouth, pausing to adjust as Negan’s hips rocked forward. He dug his fingers into the powerful thighs beneath his hands and began a steady rhythm. He was pleased with himself for being a quick study; based on the noises that Negan was making above him, his technique was none the worse for his being a relative amateur. “Damn, Rick,” Negan panted, “it’s always been a fucking fantasy of mine to get blown by a cop in uniform.” Rick managed to glare up at him, and Negan gave a shivery, breathless laugh. “That mean-ass look just makes me harder, baby.” He dipped his head back and closed his eyes, losing himself in Rick’s ministrations. It’s dangerous, he had said. He almost laughed out loud. Baby, you don’t know dangerous. Something moved in him - something dark and hungry. He reached down and pulled Rick up roughly by the arm. Startled blue eyes met his. “Take your clothes off,” he muttered, pushing Rick back towards the kitchen table.

“I thought you wanted to get blown by a cop in uniform,” Rick teased, undoing his shirt.

“I think I’d rather fuck a cop on his kitchen table with his uniform on the floor,” Negan growled in reply, watching him through narrow, darkened eyes. He turned, picking up a bottle of cooking oil and setting it down hard on the table before stripping his pants and shirt off swiftly. Rick eyes shifted to his in surprise, taking in the changing mood. Negan crossed his arms and gave a decidedly sinister smile. He saw a hesitation in Rick’s eyes - oh, Jesus, I really need this, Rick; please don’t tell me to stop now - before he ducked his head and made quick work of the rest of his clothes, red flush spreading across his face and chest the way it always did when Negan had him right in the palm of his hand. “Good boy,” he said, relieved, lifting him onto the table and jerking his hips forward so that he sprawled back. Rick’s eyes fluttered shut as he worked him urgently open, far more roughly than usual, but he knew Rick would take it and like it. The other man made a soft noise in his throat confirming that prediction, and it made Negan's mouth water. When this mood was on him, he felt like he could swallow his lover whole. Hauling his legs up, Negan sheathed himself in him in one smooth thrust, and Rick’s gasp echoed in the silent kitchen. Negan answered him with a pained groan, the tight heat driving him out of his mind with lust.

“It’s okay,” Rick whispered to him after a moment, and that was all the prompting Negan needed. Rick’s legs, hiked up high into the air and trembling violently, bounced with each hard thrust, and it was all he could do to brace himself with his hands and arms against the table beneath his back as Negan slammed into him mercilessly. Negan knew he was bruising him; hell, he was doing it deliberately. He wanted Rick to bear the marks of his passion, as if they were some kind of magic, a hex mark drawn onto his very skin to ward away anyone who would dare do him harm. Ward them away because he was his, and god help anyone who tried to fuck with what was his.

The table beneath them, heavy wood as it was, screeched unpleasantly against the tile with the force of the activity it was made to endure. “Ah-! Negan,” Rick cried breathlessly as Negan brought him to a crescendo with his hand on his cock, warmth spilling between them. A few more brutal thrusts finished Negan off, and his vision went white with the savage pleasure of it. He withdrew from Rick and fell forward, forehead pressed against his flushed, damp, heaving chest. After a moment, he lifted his head to gaze down at the other man, who looked utterly spent, eyes closed, lashes fanned on his cheeks. Negan was marveling at him, at his handsome face with its full, soft lips, all his, when blue eyes opened lazily and locked on him. Negan offered a small, crooked smile, and to his surprise and consternation, he felt his lips trembling.

“Are you all right?” Rick asked softly, brows knitting together, reaching for him.

Negan caught the outstretched hand and kissed it, and in that moment, hearing him ask, he realized how much Simon’s appearance had rattled him. He had brought with him the living memories of his bloody, ugly, brutal old life, and he had brought them nearly to Rick’s door. To Carl and Judith’s door. To his fucking door, his new door, with the family he had found for himself behind it. He pressed his lips into Rick’s palm, collecting himself. “Sure, darlin’. I don’t have any kind of problem that being inside of you can’t solve.”

Rick groaned, rolling his eyes. “You’re a real romantic, Negan.”

“You know what, Rick? I am a fucking romantic. I’m about to cook you dinner. Now don’t you feel like an asshole for taking that tone with me?”

Rick laughed, squeezing Negan’s hand. “Okay, okay. I take it back. As long as you’re cookin’ dinner.” Rick rose up and slid unsteadily off the table. He surveyed himself with a grimace. “I’m takin’ a shower. Since this was all your idea, you can go ahead and clean up.”

Negan barked a laugh and slapped Rick’s ass hard as he walked by him. The other man yelped and glared over his shoulder. “I’m cooking you dinner, Rick, stop giving me that fucking look,” Negan called after him. He could practically hear Rick’s eyes roll in response as he disappeared up the stairs.

Rick spent the next day at the station silently cursing Negan. It seemed that every time he moved, pain would flare in his back, thighs, and in between. I’m going to kill him, he thought, trying to fight the blush that was already spreading over his face at the thought.

“Uh, Rick? Are you okay? You’re kinda all red,” Tara said, looking over a manila folder at him.

Rick scratched his cheek and smiled, hoping he wasn’t turner any redder. “I’m fine. Just tired with all these long days, I guess.”

Tara pushed back in her seat and groaned in agreement. “Do you think we’re ready for this? I mean…do you think this is enough?” Tara asked hesitantly after a moment. “He’s going to jail, right?”

Rick sighed. “That’s the problem, Tara. It could go either way. I’d say this is enough. The truth should be enough. But sometimes in court, shit goes sideways.” He slapped his hand over his mouth in surprise and then laughed ruefully. “I’m sorry. Negan’s a bad influence.”

“He’s a real motherfuckin’ bad influence,” Tara agreed solemnly before breaking out into giggles.

It was another late night. Negan had prowled the house all day, restless as a caged tiger. He wanted Rick by his side, in his line of fucking sight, and he felt like he was crawling out of his skin alone in the damn house. He distantly wondered how long it would be until he felt easy again - fuck Simon and his fucking consultation. How much did the crew know about his new life? Did they know where he lived, where Rick lived? It only took one set of loose lips to put that shit out onto the street. He heard the front door swing open and click shut, and the relief that assaulted him almost brought him to his knees. He practically ran to the front door, and found Rick standing still, glaring at him. He stopped in his tracks. “What?”

“You know what, Negan. Couldn’t hardly sit today.”

Negan stared at him in surprise for a moment, then nearly folded over completely in half, shaking with laughter.

“Fuck you,” Rick snapped, but Negan could hear the smile in his voice.

He was against him in a moment, wrapping his arms tightly around him over his protests, kissing a contrite path up his throat and to the spot under his ear that always made him squirm. “You weren’t complainin' yesterday,” he murmured against his neck, “all I heard were those sweet little noises you make when it’s so good you can't even scream.”

Rick groaned, shoving at him. “You’re making me dinner again,” he said, hiding a smile in Negan’s shoulder. “And you’re picking up the kids tomorrow while I sleep in.”

“Yes, sir, officer,” Negan replied in the meekest tone he could manage, and Rick turned his face into his for a long, slow, loving kiss.

Chapter Text

Weeks stretched on, and Anderson’s day in court loomed closer. Tara was jumpy. Rick caught her staring into space sometimes at her desk, a worried frown tugging down her lips. He could sympathize - he remembered when his first big collar went to court. He and Shane had arrested a man dealing out of a motel room on the edge of town - a huge, hulking man by the name of Dexter who had required both of them working together to subdue and cuff. They had laughed about that later, but in the moment, the huge man tossing them off him like a couple of rag dolls was anything but funny. The law had prevailed on that day in court - Dexter had a record as long as his arm, along with several outstanding warrants. Rick could only hope for that kind of outcome this time around, but as he had told Tara - shit goes sideways sometimes. He had seen it enough times in his career.

At least when they were driving around on patrol, Tara relaxed. She loved to drive, and driving is all they did lately. It had been an exceptionally quiet few weeks even for their exceptionally quiet town. When their radio crackled to life one day as they cruised around the town center, Rick stared at it like he had never seen it before. He and Tara shared a half-surprised, half-relieved look. Finally. Dispatch gave them an address for a distress call, and Rick frowned. It was an abandoned gas station. Kids, maybe.

Tara eagerly turned the car around and sped down the double-lane road towards the outskirts of town. They pulled up to the old station slowly. It was eerie in the wildness of encroaching nature; the concrete lot was shot through with eruptions of yellow, brown, and green where plants had grown through like hands reaching up out of the earth. Greenery crawled up the rusty old fuel pumps. The windows were heavily soaped, obscuring the inside. He stepped out of the squad car slowly, apprehension building. Something wasn’t right. He put a hand on Tara’s shoulder, stopping her from moving towards the double doors at the entrance. She turned, her eyes questioning.

“Just, uh…let me head in first. Cover me, okay?”

“Okay,” she replied, looking at him curiously. The chain lock at the door had been broken. Rick pushed it in cautiously, peering into the darkened interior. He stepped over the threshold, his boot landing with an unpleasant crunch on broken glass. The inside of the station didn’t look much better than the outside; the bare metal shelves were shoved haphazardly this way and that, and several had fallen over each other and lay on the floor like an untidy heap of cards. The cans and bottles underfoot confirmed Rick’s first hunch - some group of people had been here, drinking and smoking pot, and generally speaking, that meant teenagers. He was just relaxing slightly at the thought when a sickening thud echoed behind him, and Tara sprawled forward into his periphery.

Rick moved on sheer instinct, and it all happened in the space of a breath. The click of a hammer cocking was over-loud in the hushed interior of the abandoned station, and Rick dodged and spun as a shot rang out less than a yard behind him. The sound of it was enormous - a thunderclap in his ear, obliterating all other sound and leaving a high whine in its wake. He was only distantly aware of the pain flaring in his arm, and he mentally slammed a door on it. No time for pain. As the gunshot echoed, he finished twisting around, facing his attacker, hand swinging out to seize the barrel of the gun pointed in his direction.

Peter Anderson’s face glowered at him through the dim light that filtered through the murky windows, dust motes dancing in the shaft that illuminated his face. Of course. Using his momentum, he jerked the gun down and away, twisting the other man’s arm and drawing his own tight across his chest to snap an elbow directly into his nose. It cost them both, somewhat - Anderson’s head snapped back, pouring blood, and Rick’s arm was hot agony. He wrenched the gun from the falling man’s grasp and whipped it around, pointing it straight in his face.

“That was a real bad idea, Pete,” he growled, reaching for the button on his radio through the roar of pain in his arm. “Officer down, dispatch.” He looked over at Tara lying crumpled on the floor, and his glare slid back to Anderson. His hand tightened on the grip of the gun.

“You prick,” Anderson spat. The blood flowing thick over his face splattered out with the force of his words, painting Rick’s pant leg in sticky red. “I lost everything because of you.”

Rick barked out a short, disbelieving laugh. “Because of me?” he asked incredulously. “After what you did to your family, you’re gonna sit there and blame me because I’m the one that brought you in?” Something buzzed along Rick’s consciousness - something red and trembling, out of control. He heard the hammer click with no conscious memory of pulling it. “I should end you right fucking now, you piece of shit.” Fear bubbled up in Anderson’s eyes, and Rick relished it, trigger finger itching. Seconds or minutes or, hell, maybe hours passed - Rick couldn’t tell, drawn taut as he was with fury. Tara gave a faint moan from the floor, breaking the spell. Relief flooded through Rick, just as the faint howl of a siren sounded in the distance. He gazed at the man on his knees before him coldly. “You assaulted a cop, asshole. Two cops. You’re gonna rot in prison, and even that’s too good for you.”

Anderson said nothing, staring at the barrel of the gun pointed at his face, but his lip curled.

Soon enough, backup was pouring in, swelling in the small space, but it had felt like an unpleasant eternity of staring into Peter Anderson’s twisted, hateful expression. “EMT,” Rick called, gesturing urgently towards Tara.

Abraham was striding into the building, boots crunching loudly on glass and aluminum. He took one look at the scene before him before launching himself towards Anderson, lips twisted in a thunderous frown, brows heavy. He slammed the man bodily into the filthy floor before cuffing him. “End of the line, nutlicker,” he snapped, and Rick had to fight back a laugh that threatened to escape his throat, one that contained more than a dash of hysteria.

He meant to kill me, Rick thought, marveling at that thought. Had anyone ever hated him enough to want to kill him? Maybe Shane, at the end.

Someone had taken the gun from his grasp, and now a young woman in a deep blue uniform was looking up at him, strands of blonde hair tumbling into her face. “You need to come with us, sir,” she was saying, pushing at the glasses sliding down her nose.

Rick frowned, shaking his head. “I need to stay with Tara.” She was being wheeled out on a stretcher, and Rick started to follow.

The young woman moved, too, keeping step with him. “You’re both going to the hospital, but we need to get pressure on that arm right away, officer,” she said urgently.

At those words, it was as if Rick suddenly remember that he had an arm, and it was on fire. He allowed himself to be packed away in the back of the van. As they rode, the young blonde EMT was gingerly cutting at his bloody shirt with trauma shears, peeling the sticky fabric back. “Oh,” she said in a small voice as she revealed the injury. It wasn’t pretty. The bullet had entered the back of his bicep; luckily, it had blown clean through, but the exit wound was an ugly mass of loose tissue, glistening pink, and thick, oozing, partially-clotted blood. The young woman looked green, and Rick regarded her in alarm.

“Are you okay, Miss…uh…?”

“It’s Denise, and it’s my first day,” the girl replied miserably before bending forward and vomiting into a bucket sitting serendipitously at their feet.

Rick barely had the patience to have his arm tended to - he wanted to know about Tara. Rosita would have heard what happened by now, and his stomach twisted at the thought. She would be out of her mind with worry. When he finally extricated himself from his doctors, he went straight to the floor where they had taken his partner. He found Rosita in the waiting area. Her face, tense and unhappy, relaxed somewhat with relief when she saw him.

“Are you okay? What the fuck happened?”

“I’m sorry, Rosita.” Guilt flared. “We were ambushed by someone we arrested way back when Tara first started. He lured us out to an abandoned building on a call. His court date is in a week, but he must’ve finally made bail.”

Rosita was shaking her head, and she let out a string of what had to be curses. Rick’s Spanish wasn’t up to following them, but he knew four-letter words when he heard them.

“I’m sorry,” he said again, “I knew something was wrong right off, and I - “

Rosita cut him off. “Not your fault, Rick. That’s the damn job.” Tears gleamed in Rosita’s eyes, and Rick instinctively reached out to touch her shoulder, forgetting his injured arm. The pain that flared almost brought him right to his knees. “Shit, you okay?” She was at his side as he bent at the waist, gritting his teeth. “Didn’t they give you something for the pain?”

“They gave me local when they were workin’ on it, but I didn’t let them give me the other stuff,” Rick ground out.

“Oh, shit, Grimes,” she groaned, “you stubborn fuck.” In that moment, she sounded so like Negan in a woman’s body that Rick seized up in a paroxysm of laughter that did nothing for the pain he was riding out. “Look, just go,” Rosita said softly beside him, “go to your kids, or your man, whatever. I’ll let you know what’s going on with Tara as soon as I hear. She’s down getting scans of her head.”

Rick nodded, gently taking her hand - with his good arm this time - and squeezing. She squeezed back, managing a weak smile for him. Later, he stood in front of the hospital’s glass entrance, considering. With Anderson in custody, the kids were safe where they were - there was no point in pulling Carl out of school, and he likely wouldn’t be able to get Judith into her carseat without help.

He checked the time. 11AM. He hesitated for a moment, then dialed Negan’s number.

“Lefty’s escort service. Looking for a good time?”

Rick burst out laughing, cringing as his shoulder protested the sudden movement. “Lefty’s?”

“I knew a pimp named Lefty once.”

“Please tell me they called him that because he was left-handed.”

“Sorry, Rick. They called him that because he got his right nut shot off in a business dispute,” Negan said cheerfully, earning a groan from Rick in response. “Enough about his sleazy ass. What’s up, baby?” Negan’s voice was like lazy, low thunder rolling at him through the speaker, and he could picture him in his mind’s eye, leaning against a wall, wearing his wolf’s grin. Need for him came on so strongly, so suddenly, that Rick’s chest ached.

“Well, uh…I got off work early.” He licked his lips, hesitating. “I know you don’t have to teach again until four today, so I thought…”

“Rick, Rick, Rick,” Negan’s broke in, voice pitched low and insinuating, “are you suggesting a nooner?”

Rick’s cheeks grew hot. “I guess I am.”

Fuck yes. Your place or mine?”

“Yours,” Rick whispered, throat suddenly dry.

“See you there, baby doll.”

The connection clicked off, and Rick stared at the phone for a moment. Why hadn’t he told Negan about the shooting right away? He slid back into his car, wincing at every motion of his arm. He wasn’t sure why he had so immediately needed to see him, speak to him, but he was riding on instinct. He drove gingerly, cursing under his breath at every jolt and jostle. He pulled up to Negan’s driveway and quietly let himself into the house. He walked into the kitchen, boots ringing on the linoleum, and gratefully sank into a chair at the kitchen table. He was suddenly aware of being very, very tired. Adrenaline had wrung him out like a rag, and he leaned his head down on his good arm, closing his eyes. He wasn’t sure how long he dozed, but it was a searing hot stab of pain that shocked him awake. He must have screamed, because the sound echoed in the air as he stared around wildly.

“What the fuck, Rick?” Negan was staring at him, holding his arms up, palms out. In a moment, he pieced it together - Negan had squeezed his shoulders.

“I’m sorry,” he muttered, “I’m hurt, Negan.” He gestured towards his bicep ruefully.

Negan’s brows knit. “Hurt how?”

“I got shot. It went straight through, didn’t hit anything important, but it needed a lot of stitches. And it hurts like a son of a bitch.”

Shock, rage, and concern battled for dominance in Negan’s expression as he slowly dropped his arms. Finally, he pulled up a chair close to Rick and carefully laid a hand on his face, thumb tracing the arch of his cheekbone. His dark eyes felt like a searchlight, and Rick’s pulse sped up. “Is that why you called, baby?” His voice was soft, his touch tender, and Rick melted.

“Mm-hm,” he confessed, dropping his gaze.

Negan leaned forward, lips closing over his in a kiss that was almost delicate. “Damn it, Rick. Stop fucking getting shot. It’s not fucking funny, dumbass.” His tone was still the soft caress it was a moment ago despite his words, and Rick smiled, suffusing with warmth. Negan sighed. “Lemme get you something to eat.” He went to rise, but Rick’s hand shot up and fisted in the smooth, thick leather of his jacket.

“No, Negan…let’s just go to bed.”

Negan’s brows shot up at that. “Well, shit. You did call for a nooner.”

Rick grinned at him, heart still fluttering in his chest. “I did.”

Negan hesitated, tongue at the corner of his mouth. “You sure that’s a good idea, cowboy? A minute ago you almost went through the roof when I touched that arm. You think you can handle all that bumping and grinding?”

Rick shot him a wry look. “If anyone can figure out a position that’s going to work, it’s you.”

“Good fucking point,” Negan replied, holding out his hand. Rick took it and followed him to his bedroom, kicking off his shoes as he crossed the threshold. Negan turned towards him, carefully unzipping his jacket and slipping it over his shoulders. He frowned at the thick white bandage that circled his bicep, reaching out and ghosting his fingers over it. “Any chance you’re going to tell me who fucking did this to you?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Rick breathed, lost in the warmth radiating off of Negan’s body. “Some perp.” Negan frowned harder at him, but Rick took his hand and brought it to the clasp of his belt.

“Aren’t we an eager beaver?” Negan murmured, but he moved just as eagerly, undoing the belt, tossing it aside, and pulling his pants and underwear down in one smooth motion.

Rick stepped out of them, feeling his erection spring free and the cool air of the room touch his bare skin. Negan seized his hips and pulled him forward and flush against him, mindful of the injured arm. Rick shivered at the sensations - the rough fabric of his pants against his legs, the cold metal bite of the belt buckle against his belly, the smooth, supple leather against his chest, and his throbbing, sensitive cock mixed in between the three. He tilted his head, and Negan covered his lips in a hungry kiss. Rick probed his mouth with his tongue, finding Negan’s and sparring.

After a moment of delicious contest, Negan pulled back, looking down at him with half-lidded eyes glazed with lust. He urged Rick gently towards the bed. “Lie down, baby. Make yourself comfortable.” Negan stepped away as Rick complied, settling himself onto the cool sheets of the unmade bed, his injured arm protesting the movements.

He watched as Negan stripped off his clothes, sending him a wink when he caught him staring. He pulled a bottle of lubricant from his bedside drawer and cheekily nestled it between Rick’s legs, against his flushed cock. Rick felt his blush kindle in his cheeks and spread the other man chuckled and carefully slipped into bed beside him.

Negan licked his lips, regarding him for a moment. “Can you turn onto your good side?”

Rick complied, shifting carefully and settling his injured arm in front of him. The soft sound of fabric rustling reached his ears as Negan slipped forward and pressed against him from behind, skin warm and soft on his. Rick shivered as his hot, thick cock pressed against his ass.

“You know what, baby? I think this is gonna work,” he breathed in Rick’s ear.

“Yeah,” he whispered, leaning into the comforting warmth behind him.

Negan dipped his head and warm, wet lips moved on his neck, kissing and sucking lightly. Rick moaned, eyes fluttering shut. Negan’s hand slipped over his hip, and suddenly he was gripping the base of his cock, forcing a harsh cry out of Rick. The shudder of pure sensation that shot through Rick made his arm throb with pain, but damn it if he would let on. The last thing he wanted was for Negan to stop. Negan continued his assault on his neck as he began to stroke Rick firmly.

Rick’s breath sped up as he rocked helplessly into Negan’s hand. He let himself get lost in the steady rhythm as the pain in his arm drifted further away from him. Negan’s body, hard and deliciously warm, was an anchor behind him, and he pressed against him, almost unbearable longing burning in his chest. If he had told himself he didn’t know why his first instinct was to go to Negan after he had been shot, after he had come close to death at the end of the barrel of a gun yet again, he surely knew now. He felt safe in the man’s arms; he felt he could utterly let go and accept whatever he would give him. He felt cherished. “Negan,” he moaned, his voice strained and desperate. He was too close, and he didn’t want it to end yet. “I need you inside of me. Please.”

“Fuck…motherfuck, Rick.” Negan sounded as splintered as Rick felt. “You drive me out of my fucking mind when you talk like that.” He withdrew his hand from Rick’s cock and plucked the bottle where it had fallen beside him. Rick sighed shakily at the loss of contact and the anticipation of being filled. Negan’s fingers soon rubbed at his sensitive flesh, seeking entry. Rick moaned, soft and deep in his throat. “Damn it, Rick, you’re going to fucking kill me,” Negan murmured, his lips hot on his ear, as he slipped inside.

Rick breathed into the sting of it, wriggling against him to take his fingers deeper. “Negan.” It was less than a whisper, the barest puff of breath onto the air. A strangled groan came from behind him.

“You sexy bitch. If you keep saying my name like that, I’m going to come before my cock even touches your ass.” The fingers inside him worked him open with increasing urgency. “So, kindly shut the fuck up.”

Rick laughed breathlessly. The fingers withdrew, and Negan rustled around behind him. One hand slipped around his knee and tugged it, propping his leg up. The hot head of his cock pressed against him a second later, and Rick bit his tongue to keep from moaning again. He shifted back, pressing against Negan as he breached him and sank into his soft flesh. Now he couldn’t hold back, whimpers escaping his throat as he flexed the muscles there, using every trick he knew to draw him in deeper.

Negan gasped behind him and his hand clasped under Rick’s knee again, lifting him up, opening him to his sweet invasion. Rick’s head fell back and found his shoulder, his mouth open. “Ah, fuck, Rick. That feels so fucking good, baby, you feel so fucking good.”

Rick desperately wanted to reach back and touch Negan, squeezing every inch of flesh he could reach, and he cursed the pain in his arm for preventing him. He settled for nuzzling his head against the shoulder behind him and rocking his hips back to meet Negan’s thrusts. His strokes were smooth and deep, and Rick was on fire with the consuming, overwhelming pleasure of Negan’s lovemaking. That’s what we’re doing, Rick thought, amazed. We’re making love. The room was filled with their gasps, the sound of their flesh meeting, the irritable-sounding creak of the bed beneath their bodies.

Rick felt it as Negan drew close to his peak, his thrusts becoming more urgent, and he twisted his head and met his gaze as best he could. “Come inside of me,” he ordered, and Negan did, an expression of shocked surrender on his face that pleased Rick immensely.

He dropped Rick’s leg back to the bed as he spasmed and shook behind him, and his hand descended on Rick’s cock, finishing him in a few harsh strokes. Starbursts exploded in Rick’s vision as his breath stopped dead in his chest, the wave of pleasure crashing over him utterly oppressive. He was nearly heaving, starving for breath, when he came back to himself, sprawled back against Negan’s body with the man’s arm circling his waist tightly. The events of the day hit him as a single blow, and exhaustion settled over him like a thick blanket. Negan was saying something behind him, but his eyes were already sliding shut, closing out the waking world and the dull throbbing in his arm.

Negan pulled the covers over Rick, who didn’t even stir. He had absolutely fucking conked out immediately, which was gratifying. Negan knew he was a damn good lover, but it was nice to have a little fucking confirmation from time to time. Nothing like someone knocking the fuck out immediately after he made them come to boost his ego. He found himself leaning over Rick and stroking the chestnut curls. Rick almost always looked worried to some degree in his day to day life - hell, on his own with two kids for as long as he had been, he had had plenty to worry about - but when he slept, every anxious line was smoothed out. He looked younger. He looked peaceful. It made Negan’s chest ache, and he straightened up, rubbing his jaw.

He turned and made his way back to the kitchen. As soon as he stepped onto the linoleum, an insistent buzzing started up from Rick’s phone, abandoned on the table. He went for it largely without thinking. Rosita was calling, and Negan only hesitated for a moment.

“It’s Negan, darlin’. Rick’s asleep. Got something to tell him?”

“I was just calling about Tara. Her scans came back fine, but they’re keeping her under observation as a precaution. They’re pretty sure she has a concussion from that pendejo.” Rosita’s tone was venomous.

“Which pendejo was that, exactly?”

Rosita hesitated. “He didn’t tell you anything, did he?”

“No, and I’d really like to know what the fuck happened. It sounds like Tara’s in a fucking hospital, and my boy has an arm out of commission. They get in a firefight at the fucking Mayberry corner mart, or what?” Negan had a feeling that Rosita would tell him everything - she didn’t strike him as someone who stood for that thin blue line bullshit, and although Rick fucking Grimes might be too stubborn to ever breath a word of his precious official police business, Tara was a different story. She confided in Rosita, Negan was sure of it, and he allowed the prickle of irritation that came with that thought - fucking Rick, he should trust me with this shit.

“It was that wife-beating piece of shit Anderson,” Rosita said immediately, “he made bail, and he fucking jumped them. Can you believe that shit? He jumped them, and he hit Tara in the head with his piece and shot Rick.”

Something ignited inside of him, and the world glowed red. “Motherfucker,” he growled into the phone, and Rosita scoffed in agreement. “Where is he now?”

“State prison outside of Atlanta. But who the fuck knows, the dumb-ass judge set a new bail. A big one, but he could get out again. It’s all fucked up.” Rosita sighed, suddenly sounding exhausted. “Look, can you tell him that if he’s up to it, Tara wants him to visit? She’s been asking for him.”

“I’ll tell him,” Negan replied mechanically, mind miles away, in a state prison outside of Atlanta.

“Okay. How’s Rick? He was hurting pretty bad when he left the hospital. He didn’t want to let them give him any stuff for the pain.”

Negan groaned. “Fucking figures. He’s still hurting, but he’s pretending he isn’t. I put him to sleep, at least.”

“Oh, yeah?”

Negan could hear the hint of a smile in her tired voice. “Yeah,” he drawled, letting the innuendo settle into the cracks of the word, “honey, there’s no pain a good fuck can’t help. You remember that when you take pretty little Tara home with you.”

Rosita laughed. “You’re too damn much, man. I’ll see you guys later, okay?”

“Yeah. Give your girl a kiss for me. Don’t fucking skimp on the tongue, dollface.”

After they hung up, Negan sat, staring into the nondescript white wall of the kitchen, humor slowly fading from his eyes. He set the phone down and rose, moving silently to the bedroom. He stood over Rick’s still figure for a moment, eyes slowly trailing over the outline of his body under the dark covers. His gaze rested on his bandaged arm. It was sodden now over the bullet wound, an ugly crimson-brown.

His nails bit into his palm, and he turned towards the closet, opening it soundlessly. He knelt, feeling around for the slight gap in the old wooden floor. Finding it, he lifted a panel free. Among the items lying in the dark recess beneath were several black flip phones. He chose one, carefully returning the plank of wood. He paused in the doorway of the bedroom, looking over his shoulder at his sleeping lover.

Lover. Love.

He turned and slipped away, making his way into the dank, crowded basement. This shit needed to be settled, and it needed to be settled right fucking now, before anyone else got hurt. He dialed and waited.

“Get Simon,” he snapped at man who answered. “It’s Negan.”

“Uh, the boss is out,” came the hesitant reply.

Rage simmered in him. “I don’t care if he’s out, in, wherever the fuck he is. Fucking get him on this fucking phone in five minutes, or I will personally fucking gut you while your mama watches,” he growled. There was a tiny part of him that protested - why terrorize the sad sack left with the task of playing secretary? - but a larger part of him enjoyed pouring some of his rage, his fear, over the unlucky man unwittingly standing in his way. Sure enough, Simon was on the phone in less than five minutes.

“Everything okay, boss?” he asked, a nervous edge to his voice that pleased Negan’s violent mood.

“Does Axel still run the Georgia state lock-ups?”

“Uh,” Simon was clearly taken aback, “yeah, yeah. He does.”

“I need to talk to him. I’m calling in a personal favor.”

The line was silent, and Negan’s nerves frayed further. “Are you fucking jerking off over there? Get me his goddamned motherfucking number, Simon.”

“If there’s something you need done, Negan, we can fucking do it for you. Always.”

Negan exhaled through his nose. “I don’t want it done through the Saviors, Simon. I don’t want people thinking I’m back in. I’m not back in. Axel owes me one, and it’s time for me to call it in.”

“Okay,” Simon said slowly, “I’m sending it your way, boss.”

The phone buzzed in Negan’s hand, and he glanced at the text. “Good,” he said. He scratched his jaw. “Forget about all this. Like I said, it’s personal.”

“Well, hey, man…you need us to take care of personal shit, you let us know. We got your back.” Simon said.

Negan knew that he meant it, and it tugged at him a little. “Thanks,” he said, frowning a little at the taste of the word in his mouth. He was going soft for sure. Sighing, he dialed the number Simon provided. It took a bit of arguing and a good deal of threatening before he was on the phone with Axel himself.

“Negan!” a deep voice boomed on the other end of the line, and Negan held the phone away from his ear with a wince. Axel was a big, Santa Claus-looking motherfucker with a jolly attitude to match. Negan had always liked him. “How are you, you little sonofabitch? Ah, god love ya. I lit a candle for your little Lucy the other day, son.” Negan swallowed the lump that formed at his words. “Hey, the boys say you’re out of the life. That true?”

“Yeah. I’m out.”

“That’s good, boy,” he said, his voice suddenly wistful, “you don’t want to die on the inside like I’m fixin’ to. I hope it sticks.”

Me too, Negan thought grimly. “I got a favor to ask, old man. Personal. Nothing to do with the crew.”

“Anything for you, boy-o.”

“It’s a hit.”

“I figured as much, what with you being so eager to get a hold of me. Did you really tell Andrew you would strangle him with his own guts?”

Negan ran his tongue over his teeth and grinned. “Too much?” Axel’s big belly laugh rang over the other side of the line, and suddenly Negan missed it a little - his old life, its brutality along with its strange brotherhood. He shook his head, trying to focus. “There’s a guy, would have gotten there today, name of Peter Anderson. He’s a pissant, but he’s a dangerous pissant, and he put his hands on some of my fucking people.”

Axel grunted. “That’s too goddamned bad for him. Bad shit happens to pricks who fuck around with your people, am I right, kid?”

“Very bad shit,” Negan said quietly, “and today, it’s gonna be courtesy of you. Take care of him, but first make him feel it. Deal?”

“Son,” Axel said, his tone suddenly grandly genteel, “you got yourself a guar-an-tee.”

When Negan returned to the bedroom, he was startled to find Rick awake and propped up on a few pillows, but he smothered it quickly and flashed him a dazzling smile.

“Sleeping beauty! I thought I fucked you into a coma.”

Rick smiled back, and his cheeks turned pink. Fuck, that never failed to make his dick twitch. “I guess you did. I’ve been asleep for more than an hour.”

Negan sat next to him on the bed, placing a gentle hand on his arm. “Gotta change this bandage soon, baby.”

Rick grimaced. “Yeah.”

Negan kissed his shoulder before dropping his head to place another kiss over the thick scarring of his old bullet wound, and Rick’s other arm slid around him, pulling him closer. He grinned into the warm skin beneath his lips. “You gunnin’ for round two, Rick?” he breathed, and Rick kissed his temple. Warmth flooded Negan’s chest. He looked up into Rick’s eyes and was immediately arrested by the soft affection in his gaze. The asshole that dared to fucking try and take you from me is being ripped apart as we speak, Negan thought, and a vicious satisfaction tingled through him. “Rosita called. Tara’s scans were fine, but they’re keeping her at the hospital. She wants to see you. What do you think? Want me to bring you over there?”

Rick’s gaze grew regretful. “I didn’t even tell you about Tara,” he said quietly, “I was so…” he gestured, at a loss for words.

“I get it,” Negan said gently. After a pause, he added, “Rosita told me everything.” Rick frowned, sitting up straighter at that. “But I wish it had been you. How long did you think you could keep it a secret that fucking Anderson shot you?”

“It’s not a secret, Negan, it’s just not for you to worry about.”

Fuck that,” Negan spat with more venom than he had intended. Rick flinched slightly at the sudden violence in his retort, and regret flooded him immediately. “Rick, I’m on your side. You’ve got to fucking tell me what’s going on with you so that I can fucking be on your side.” Rick set his jaw in that familiar stubborn way, and Negan wanted to shake him, injured arm and all.

“You’re a civilian,” he said quietly, “and I don’t want to put you in any danger.”

Negan laughed; he couldn’t help it. He tilted his head back and gave in to the fucking absurdity, the irony, as Rick stared at him, confused. “Ah, Rick, Rick, Rick,” he sighed, “let’s not fucking argue about it now. What do you need from me?”

Rick blinked and ducked his head, as if shyness had suddenly come over him. “Could you take me to see Tara? And then help me get Judith from daycare? I’m going to need help with her, my arm bein’ the way it is.”

Negan traced his forefinger across Rick’s jaw, resting it at his lips. “You got it, baby. See? You gotta let me fuckin’ help you.”

Rick was giving him that look again, that melting look, and his heart skipped in his chest. “Thank you,” he said with such soft sincerity that Negan couldn’t think of a single mocking or innuendo-laden reply.

As they approached the glass entrance to the hospital, Negan’s skin began to crawl. He hated hospitals, fucking hated them, and he had to fight the urge to turn around and walk straight out of the goddamn building when they arrived. Gritting his teeth, he followed Rick into an elevator. He stared into the floor, and he could feel Rick’s eyes on him.

“Everything okay?” He asked quietly.

“I hate these goddamn fucking places,” Negan muttered. An elderly couple riding the elevator with them shot him disapproving looks, and Negan fought an insane urge to lay into them with his choicest French. Rick’s hand touched his, grounding him again. They stepped out onto the fourth floor together. Negan followed close behind Rick as he kept his eyes trained on his own boots, as if not looking around at his surroundings would save him from the rush of ugly memories that threatened to spill over and drown him.

“I’m going to try and find Rosita,” Rick said. He gestured at a half-open door. “Tara’s in there. I’ll be there in a minute.”

Negan stepped through the door, bracing himself. A wave of nausea hit him as he took in the sight of Tara lying pale-faced on a hospital bed, lost in a tangle of lines and thin blankets, her dark hair a halo over her pillow. If he squinted, he could be looking at Lucille again. He shoved that thought away viciously. Not fucking now. He stepped over to the side of her bed. Tara’s eyes fluttered open, and he smiled gently at her.

“Hey, there, baby girl,” he said softly, “I heard you got a knock on that pretty little head.” Tara’s eyes filled with tears as she smiled at him. Sympathy for her choked him for a moment. “Honey, don’t cry. You hurtin’? I sure hope they’re giving you that top shelf shit.”

Tara gave a tiny laugh. “They are. I’m pretty loopy most of the time.” She sniffled. “I’m sorry, Negan. I never even heard that guy behind me. He brought us there to kill Rick, and I was totally useless.”

Negan stared down at her in surprise. “He got the jump on you, honey. It fuckin’ happens. You can’t blame yourself.” A single tear rolled down her cheek. Negan found her hand with his. “Cut that shit out right now,” he said gently.

Tara lifted her free hand to brush the tear off her face. “Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Okay.”

Impulsively, he bent over and kissed her smooth forehead. When he straightened, Rosita and Rick were in the doorway. They wore twin looks of soft gratitude, Rick’s eyes on him almost dreamy, and he leaned back with a wry smile, feeling somehow like he had incriminated himself.

“Still tryna move in on my girl, cabron?” Rosita said, settling down on Tara’s other side.

Negan chuckled. “Can’t fucking help myself. I mean, look at her. So fuckin’ cute.” Rick sat beside him, and their fingers interlaced, palms pressed together.

“Rick,” Tara began in a small voice, “I’m really sorry about today.”

Rick blinked at her, taken aback. “What are you talkin’ about, Tara?”

“Anderson. I didn’t have your back like I was supposed to.”

Rick was shaking his head vigorously. “Tara, it’s not your fault. Don’t think that for a second. That kinda thing happens to all of us, no matter how good or careful we are out in the field.”

“That’s what I fucking told her,” Negan and Rosita said together, and their eyes met, amused. Rick smiled at Tara and reached his good arm out to clasp her shoulder. Before he could speak again, the door swung open and banged on its hinges.

Abraham stood in the doorway, looking back and forth at Tara and Rick. He broke into a broad grin. “Kids, I have the most de-fucking-lightful news for you.” They stared back at him blankly. “Anderson’s dead,” he announced, grin stretching a little wider on his face.

Rick broke the silence first. “What? How?”

“Good ol’ fashioned prison yard shanking. It was a supremely unpleasant pile of donkeyshit to look at when all was said and shanked, or so I’m told.”

Laughter rippled from Negan, and Rick turned his pale face to him. “Well, well, well. Doesn’t that just tickle your dick?”

Abraham beamed appreciatively. “That it does, sir.”

“Guys, come on,” Tara found her voice, “I mean, he was terrible, like really terrible, but god…he was murdered?”

“Save it, mama,” Rosita said sharply. “That asshole got what was coming to him.”

Abraham touched the brim of his hat to her. “Sure as shit, ma’am. I gotta get back to the station. I just wanted to stop by and deliver the good news myself.” He regarded Rick and Tara, both looking pale and serious, in contrast to Rosita’s grim satisfaction and Negan’s apparent glee. “Well, some of us think it’s good news. Cheer up, boys and girls. Justice was served, as far as my ass is concerned.”

The door clicked shut behind him, and Negan leaned back in his chair, putting a hand at the small of Rick’s back. “That’s that,” he said, and Rosita’s eyes shifted to him thoughtfully for a moment.

Tara was looking at each of them, eyes huge in her face. “I can’t believe it,” she said, “he’s dead? Like dead?”

“With no expense to the taxpayer,” Negan said cheerfully. Rick and Tara looked at him. “What? I’m a taxpayer; I can be fuckin’ happy about that.” Rosita hummed her agreement.

Rick shook his head as if trying to clear it. “Well, that’s not the way this kind of thing usually ends,” he said, “but it’s all over now. Maybe you should get some rest, Tara. I’m sure Gregory will be by sooner or later to deliver some kinda speech.”

Rosita rolled her eyes. “That asshole windbag doesn’t care about you guys. He won’t fucking be here unless there’s a camera crew behind him.”

“I know that’s right,” Rick said wryly. He rose, Negan following him. “You call us if you need us, Tara.” She nodded, still looking dazed. Negan winked at her before following Rick out of the door. Outside, they paused. Rick was staring into space.

Negan cleared his throat. “While we’re here, we’re gonna get a doctor to look at you again.”

Rick looked at him, startled. “What? I don’t need that. They discharged me earlier.”

Negan was shaking his head. “They can change the fuckin’ bandage, and they’re gonna give you some goddamned pain meds to take home.” Rick began to protest, and Negan cut him off sharply. “I don’t wanna fuckin’ hear it, Rick. Just go sit in the damn waiting room for a minute. I’ll handle this.”

“Oh, yeah? You mean you’re gonna grab a doctor and swear at ‘im until they do what you tell them to?” Rick replied skeptically.

Negan huffed a laugh. “You know me too well, baby.” Rick looked as if he wanted to protest further, and Negan suddenly stepped forward, into him, cupping his face in his hands. “Go on,” he said softly, face inches from Rick’s, “let me help you.”

Rick swallowed, protests dying on his lips. He nodded reluctantly before turning away with a sigh.

Negan stood in the hallway for a moment, scanning around for an unfortunate medical professional to pounce on. A hand touched his arm, and he turned.

Rosita was standing behind him, her eyes sliding around, checking to see if anyone was in listening distance. “You did this,” she said quietly, “I don’t know how, but I know you did.”

Negan gazed into her lovely, dark eyes, turning her words over, calculating. “You think so, darlin’? I sure wish I could take credit, but - ” he began mildly, but Rosita suddenly stepped forward and wrapped her arms tightly around his neck, startling him into silence.

Good,” she said fiercely in his ear. She stepped back. “I’m not gonna ask; I don’t wanna know. But thank you.” Before Negan could respond, she had turned on her heel and disappeared back into Tara’s room.

Negan gave a low whistle, rubbing his jaw. Sharp as a jackknife, he thought. She would have made a damn good Savior.

Back in the car, Rick was freshly bandaged. The prescription he had grudgingly accepted was folded in his front pocket. They were on their way to Judith’s daycare, and Rick had been silent the entire ride, gaze somewhere far away. Negan felt anger simmering in him. Rick was acting like something bad had happened. Fuck that shit.

“The hell’s going on in there, deputy? You thinkin’ real hard on all this for some reason?”

Rick frowned at him. “This kinda thing don’t happen every day, Negan.”

Negan licked his teeth, glancing over at Rick. “Yeah? And how do you feel about that? Knowing Anderson’s a fuckin’ stain in a prison yard?”

Rick shivered, turning his head away. “Don’t be like that, Negan. A man’s dead. Murdered.”

Negan glared. “No, Rick,” he said, “no fucking way, Jose. You’re not weaseling out of this. Answer the fucking question: how do you feel right now, right fucking now, knowing that that motherfucker is dead? Tell me the truth.” Something crackled in the air between them, and Rick kept his face turned towards the window. “Look at me,” Negan snarled, trying and utterly failing to control the anger boiling over in him. I did it for you, you self-righteous prick.

Rick was staring at him, eyes wide. “What’s wrong with you?”

Negan felt some of the anger bleed out of him at that. His shoulders slumped. “What’s wrong with me?” He clicked his tongue between his teeth, fingers gripping wheel. “You got shot today, Rick. That’s what’s wrong with me.” He could feel Rick’s eyes on him, and he was suddenly afraid to turn his head and read the expression there. He reached over and placed a hand on Rick’s thigh, gently, a silent offering.

Rick’s hand closed over his, thumb stroking him lightly. “I feel…relieved,” Rick said finally. “Satisfied.”

Dark gratification spread through Negan. “I know you do, Rick. I know your secret. Remember, killer? Why you became a cop?” Rick’s hand withdrew abruptly from his, and he knew that had been a step too fucking far. Hell, he knew that as he had said it, and he had said it anyway. He was just resigning himself to a helping of that grade-A, Grimes-style silent treatment when Rick spoke again.

“I had a gun on him at that gas station. While we were waiting for back up. I thought about just shootin’ him. I guess I almost did.” They turned into the daycare parking lot, sliding into a free space. Negan turned to Rick, who was facing away again. “Could you go get her, please?” Rick whispered, sounding forlorn.

Guilt flooded Negan. “Yeah. I got her,” he grunted, sliding out of the car. He returned shortly with Judith in his arms, avoiding looking at Rick, sensing that he wanted some kind of privacy. He buckled her up in her car seat as she chattered. Her baby talk was evolving, getting more and more sophisticated by the day. It was a hell of a thing to watch happen: a baby turning into a tiny little person.

“I want my bunny!” she cried plaintively. She squealed in delight as Negan produced it from the heap of toys in the car, kissing her nose.

“There’s your bunny, Princess Judy,” he said.

“I’m Princess Judy!” she cried in such a haughty, queen-of-the-castle tone that Negan couldn’t help but laugh.

“You know it, darlin’,” he said, shutting the door and making his way back to the driver’s seat. If Rick was registering their conversation, he showed no sign of it. They drove on in silence, Negan letting Rick have his space. He knew he pushed too damn hard sometimes, loathe as he was to admit it. The last thing he wanted was to push Rick too far, push him away. The thought left him cold. They pulled into the driveway, and Negan pulled the keys out of the ignition, the car falling still and silent under them. He sat there for a moment, head against the seat behind him, suddenly tired.

“Daddy!” Judith chirped conversationally from the backseat. They both twisted around to look at her at once. Rick froze, staring at Negan, a look in his eyes like he had been stripped raw. Negan broke the silence that stretched between them first.

“I love you,” he said urgently, “you’ve gotta fuckin’ know that by now. I love you.”

Rick nodded, and tears sprang up in his eyes, to his surprise. “I love you, too,” he whispered, throat aching with the effort of keeping the tears from spilling.

“Love you!” Judith echoed happily from the backseat, shattering the tension, and both of them were suddenly overcome with laughter. Judith beamed at them, well pleased with herself and her handiwork.

Chapter Text

Rick’s arm healed well and quickly - so quickly that his mandatory three weeks off to recuperate became its own source of frustration. Sitting around the house alone bored him to death, and he complained to Negan, Carl, and even Judith almost daily about his forced exile from the station.

“My arm is better. It’s been better.” They were sprawled on the couch in Negan’s house. Thursday nooners at his place had caught on as a damn good idea - one good thing to come out of that chaos. Peter Anderson and his unpleasant end had otherwise faded to a footnote in their lives, to Rick’s relief. There was no tense repeat of his odd little standoff with Negan in the car from that day, although they had come close when Carl pried the story of the shooting and its strange aftermath from Rick that night.

Good,” Carl had said in response to Rick hesitantly explaining that no, Anderson would not be an ongoing problem for them because he had died in prison, and Rick was dismayed at the satisfied smirk that marred his son's face. The one that was immediately mirrored in Negan’s, who met his eyes from across the table.

“It’s not good,” he had immediately countered, heart sinking, and he could see Negan fighting an amused smile. He glared at him, and Negan stood up, moving around towards Rick’s side. He patted Rick’s good shoulder as he left the kitchen, and Rick could feel the condescension in it. The following lecture about the rule of law was wasted breath. Rick could see the defiance, the rejection of his words in Carl’s eyes, and he gave up halfway through and told him to go to his room, which Carl did with the air of someone indulging a maniac. Rick stalked into the living room, but as he stood over Negan, the other man lifted his eyes to him, and the expression there was so disarmingly wistful that the angry words died in Rick’s throat.

“You’re a real good daddy, Rick. You’re raising him right.” For the second time that evening, Rick shelved a lecture. He sank down beside Negan, leaning into his waiting arms with a sigh. And that was the last of it. The arm healed, time crawled on, and Rick grew restless in his over-long and forced convalescence.

Now, sitting on the couch at Negan’s place, Rick was stretched out, back against Negan’s chest as he rubbed Rick’s shoulders, working the tight, tense muscles there. In spite of how good that felt, it was doing nothing to derail the well-worn rant, determined to have its full, petulant course. “Gregory just doesn’t like having any reminders that police work isn’t about standing around in a pressed uniform with a shiny badge, ready to get your damn picture taken. Sometimes you have to do some actual police work. Sometimes you get shot, too.”

Negan made an angry noise in his throat. “No more getting shot, Rick.”

Rick couldn’t help but laugh, lolling his head back on Negan’s shoulder. “Alright, if you insist.”

Negan leaned his head down to his ear. “I’m glad the arm is better,” he murmured, warm breath touching Rick and making him shiver.

He caught the shift in his tone and smiled in anticipation. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. Now I can fuck you how I want to again.” Negan dipped his head and closed his teeth over Rick’s neck suddenly, sharp pressure right over the pulse. He held it for a second, and Rick’s breath was suddenly loud in his own ears.

“How’s that?” Rick asked, daring the man with his teeth on his throat.

He released him slowly. “Hard,” he growled in his ear, and the edge of menace in it shot straight to Rick’s groin. Negan’s hand slid around his waist and palmed his growing erection, and he chuckled darkly. “Yeah, honey. Gonna ride you hard and put you away wet. What do you say, cowboy?”

“I say that I’m a little surprised to hear that, because today you sent me a text right after you left the house. You remember what that said?”

Negan threw his head back and laughed. “Yeah, that’s right. I said I was looking forward to you fucking me for once instead of making me do all the damn work. Working all day and then fucking you all night, while you sit on your ass at home eating bonbons.”

Rick reached back and slapped at Negan’s shoulder, chuckling. “I’m not eatin’ any damn bonbons. Do you see me eatin’ bonbons over here?” Negan huffed a laugh and kissed Rick’s throat where he had had his teeth a moment before. “Yeah, so, what happened to that?”

“Tonight,” he entreated, “tonight you work me that sweet, quiet way you do. Fuck, Rick, I don’t know - I could eat you alive right now. Don’t you wanna bounce around on my dick when you know you can scream as loud as you want? I know how much you love to scream for me.”

“Yeah,” Rick breathed, and he felt Negan’s triumphant smirk against his neck. He rose suddenly, out of Negan’s arms, and turned to face him, grinning at his surprised expression. “But you’re gonna have to work a little harder for it than that, Negan.” He backed away as Negan rose slowly, eyes suddenly alight with dangerous mischief.

“Damn, Rick,” he said appreciatively. He took a step, and Rick fell back one. “You really are itching to get back into things. You wanna play a little cops and robbers?”

“Mm-hm,” Rick managed, feeling his legs already start to tremble with adrenaline mixed with arousal.

Negan licked at the corner of his mouth, tongue sliding over his teeth. “Well, I’ll tell you what, officer. Give up now, and I’ll go easy on you. You make me fucking chase you, well…” Negan tsked and shook his head slowly, “you’re fuckin’ in for it.” Rick held his gaze for the space of a second before he whirled and darted down the hall. Negan’s hands were on him before he got to the end - that man was fast, and he never made it to the end of the damn hallway, no matter how many times they played this particular game. He was spun and roughly shoved against the wall, Negan’s body trapping him, wrists pinned by his head. “Too easy, Rick,” he breathed, before swallowing his lips in a hard, hungry kiss.

One knee slid between his legs, and he whimpered, rocking against it. Negan chuckled into his mouth before he was spun around again, face pressed into the wall with one arm twisted behind his back. Negan nuzzled the back of his neck, gentleness a contrast to the brutally tight grip he had on him. That dissonance of vicious and sweet was Negan, and Rick moaned helplessly at the assault on his senses. Negan wrapped a hand around his throat and gave a brief, tight squeeze before pulling him away from the wall and shoving him forward so that he staggered down the hall. As soon as he regained his feet, Negan had him by the neck again, and his hand flew up instinctively to seize his wrist with a gasp. Negan stilled, grip loosening immediately. “Whoa. You all right? Too much?”

Rick shook his head as best he could, relaxing into the warm, hard body behind him. “Just startled,” he said with a smile, “easy on the neck, honey. I ain’t got but the one.” Negan’s hand dropped away immediately, and he pressed kisses to the side of Rick’s throat in contrition. Rick made a small noise of protest. “I said easy, not stop.” Negan laughed against his throat and gripped his arms, marching him forwards and into the bedroom. He gave him a shove towards the bed. Rick had just enough time to catch himself from falling over it and turn around before Negan was on him, hands on his belt. As it fell to the floor, his hand flashed up to Rick’s neck again, encircling it, his grip careful, gentle this time.

He held Rick at arm’s length. “Clothes, Rick.”

Rick felt Negan’s gaze scorching him as he undid his shirt and pants, pulling them off rather awkwardly with Negan holding onto his throat. He stood, naked under his scrutiny, predictable flush creeping across his skin.

Negan’s hand loosened and slid down to Rick’s chest, his touch caressing and almost delicate. Rick gasped as the soft touch was suddenly replaced with a sharp push that sent him sprawling onto the bed. “Ass up, deputy.” Rick moved backwards on the sheets, watching as Negan stripped off his clothes. He tossed his clothing aside carelessly and regarded Rick with a snort. “Darlin’, you don’t want to make me ask twice.”

“Was that you askin’?” Rick returned, furrowing his brow at him in mock-confusion.

Negan dipped his head back and expelled a loud laugh, shaking his head slowly. “Rick,” he sighed, “when I’m done with you, even thinkin’ about walking is going to hurt.”

“Hm,” Rick rumbled, looking down. “Is it too late to give up? You said you’d go easy if I did.”

“Way too fuckin’ late, blue eyes.”

Rick crawled over onto his hands and knees, leaning down and pillowing his head on his arms. “Good,” he sighed, as he felt the bed dip behind him. Slick fingers pushed into him without warning, and he moaned faintly. A hand at his waist steadied him.

“You’ve been a real handful today, Rick,” Negan murmured above him as his fingers probed and stretched inside him. “I’d punish you, but I think you’d like it too fuckin’ much.” Rick smiled into his arm, eyes drifting shut. He concentrated on the pleasure of Negan’s questing fingers, and when he pressed against that delicious spot, he stifled his cry into his arm. He waited until Negan withdrew his fingers and replaced them with the hot tip of his cock, coated with lubricant and sliding over his entrance, before hooking a leg around Negan’s waist and flipping them both around swiftly. He straddled Negan, grinning, who was gazing up at him with shock and amusement joining the lust in his gaze. “You sneaky little bitch,” he growled, and he was about to say more when Rick rose up on his knees, taking Negan’s cock inside him with a single, smooth motion. “Oh, fuck,” Negan hissed, his head snapping back, brow furrowing.

Rick watched him hungrily, taking in the appealing sight of him lost in his pleasure. He slid his palms up his heaving torso, rocking on him. “Good boy,” Rick grunted, laughing at the glare that blazed up at him.

Negan bit back a pleased grin, letting Rick keep control for a bit. Just for a bit. He let himself enjoy Rick moving above him, around him, sweat glistening over the hard muscles that rippled with his exertion. It was sweet, it was hot, and it made his eyes want to roll back into his damn skull, but he needed something else to slake the thirst inside him now. He rose up and seized Rick by the hips, who tensed in wary anticipation, blue eyes hungry for him. He flipped him over, yanking him up to his knees before sinking his length up to the hilt inside him in one hard thrust. He slammed his hips against him, his pace brutal, and Rick muffled a scream into his arm. “Oh, no, no, no,” he hissed, seizing Rick by the hair and jerking his head up, away from his arm, “you let me hear it, Rick.”

A particularly hard thrust straight into the sensitive spot deep within him forced another long, echoing cry from his throat, and Negan laughed savagely behind him. Rick was only distantly aware that he was screaming his lover’s name, deep in the thick, throbbing heat of pleasure as he was. When he came, he couldn’t breathe, and he thought he might actually faint as spots danced before his eyes. The first thing he became aware of when his mind and body stopped vibrating out of control was Negan’s fingers stroking tenderly through his hair. He let out of faint moan, and Negan huffed a long, exhausted breath in response.

“Ho-ly shit,” Negan breathed beside him, “is the fuckin’ house still standing?”

Rick laughed weakly. “I don’t know. An’ I can’t feel my damn legs.”

Negan pressed his face into the back of his shoulder, and Rick could feel him grinning. “You get pretty wild when you’re all cooped up, cowboy. Maybe I should tell that bag of shit Gregory you need a few more weeks off.”

I get wild? The hell’s your excuse?”

Negan laughed, his chest shaking against Rick’s back. “Just followin’ your lead, baby.” He dropped his voice, mimicking Rick’s thick, honey-sweet Georgia drawl. “‘You’re gonna have to work harder for it than that, Negan.’ Jesus Christ, you know how to wind me up.” He kissed his shoulder and shifted beside him, moving away to leave the bed. Rick made a small noise of objection in his throat. He reached out and managed to catch Negan by the arm. Negan chuckled and leaned back over him, breath fanning out over his skin. “Need to go, honey.” He kissed Rick’s cheek gently. “Some of us have to work.”

“You asshole,” Rick replied in a tired whisper, fighting a grin. He heard Negan pad away, and the sound of the shower hissing to life a few moments later. He had to admit, it was nice not having to drag himself back to work after that type of exertion, and he let himself doze while Negan showered. He woke with a slight start to the sight of Negan retrieving clothing from every corner of the room and smiled.

“I’ll pick up Judith,” Rick said, stifling a yawn in his hand.

“Yeah?” Negan replied, furrowing a brow as he held up one sock, its mate nowhere in sight. “I’ll wait for Carl at the school and drive ‘im home, then.”

“Nah, you don’t have to. He’s going to be studying over at Enid’s again.”

Negan paused and looked up from pulling on his boots, shooting Rick a sly look. “Studying, huh?” he drawled, voice thick with innuendo.

Rick answered him with a groan. “Don’t, Negan. I don’t wanna think about it - I don’t need another thing to worry about with him. What do you know about this girl, anyway? I never met her.”

Negan was pulling his jacket on, grinning. “Enid? Love that kid. She’s a fuckin’ firecracker. She jumped the school fence to go play hookey once - it’s a motherfuckin’ eight-foot fence; you’ve seen it. Little miss bad-ass climbed over it like a goddamn cat. Principal just about shat himself when he found out.” Negan snickered at the memory as Rick propped himself up on his elbow to stare at him in wide-eyed dismay. Negan caught the look and laughed again. “Aw, c’mon, Rick. She’s a good kid. Just because she gets in a little trouble don’t mean she’s not a good kid.”

“Like Carl?” Rick offered wryly.

Negan leaned over him, hovering inches from his face. “Like me, Rick,” he said, breath ghosting over Rick’s lips. He kissed him roughly and with a wink, left.

Rick let himself bask in his afterglow, curled up in Negan’s bed, for a bit longer. The sheets were in desperate need of changing after what they had just been up to, and since he had nothing better to do - he cursed Gregory again - he decided to take care of it now. He left his warm cocoon reluctantly and stripped the sheets, tossing them into a heap. He walked over to the closet to retrieve another set. They sat on the top shelf, and he stepped forward into the small space to stretch up and reach them. Rick gasped, jerking his foot back. It felt like something in the depth of the closet had bit him. He lifted his foot - the front of his white sock was torn and dabbled with crimson.

What the hell? He got on his hands and knees and peered into the darkness below the hanging clothes. He carefully reached in and moved what looked like an old comforter aside. He stared at what he revealed, not quite understanding what he was seeing. It was a baseball bat, lying in the back of the closet. Nothing strange about that, except for the barbed wire wrapped tightly around the entire length of the shaft. Ice slid down Rick’s back. He scooted back, suddenly wanting to get away from it. He slid over a faint gap in the wooden floor, feeling it catch beneath his knees. He stared down at it, and his heart bounced every which way in his chest. No. It can’t be. It took several tries to pull the board up with his shaking hands, and he sat, staring down at what he had uncovered.

A handful of nondescript flip phones. Five or six guns, all with the serial numbers filed off. Two wicked-looking hunting knives and a handful of switchblades. A battered notebook with names, dates, and numbers that meant nothing to Rick. He reached into the recess slowly, grasping the end of a piece of stiff-looking black fabric that peeked out from underneath the weapons and tugging it free. It was a patch, the kind you would see sewn on a jacket. It was the image of a skull with a barbed wire halo. Another one caught his attention, and he pulled it out. Saviors, it read in white script.

At the very bottom, face-down, was a photo frame. Rick flipped it over slowly, knowing what he would see, horrified that he was seeing it here for the first time, keeping such dark company. A beautiful, black-haired woman smiled up at him, mischief in her eyes. The glass over the photograph was broken as if with a single, strong blow, cracks fanning out like a spiderweb across the woman’s lovely face. Rick carefully replaced it along with the wooden panel. He leaned against the frame of the closet for a long, long time.

How do you feel, right fucking now, knowing that that motherfucker is dead? Negan had asked.

Rick stood slowly, feeling suddenly very separate from his body, from the entirety of the corporeal world. He was floating somewhere above it all, and in that blank, white, psychic space, he was buffeted at all sides by whirling thoughts.

Guns. Knives. Patches. Names and dates and numbers. You diggin’ through my pockets like a jealous wife, Rick? Peter Anderson, knifed to ribbons in a prison yard, not hours after he tried to shoot him.

He had been with Negan for more than half a year now. The man was practically living with him, raising his children with him. And he had failed to get any but the barest details of his past - what the hell kind of cop was he? Every once in awhile, he would try to find out more, and then what would happen? He would end up on his back, Negan pounding into him, knocking conscious thought out of him completely. Every damn time. Stupid, he cursed himself viciously. He had just trusted Negan. Completely. From the first time he had allowed him to take control of him, his body, he had trusted him so utterly, never dreaming that he was anything other than what he said he was.

Rick ran a hand over his mouth, staring down at the wooden panel with its little gap yawning between it and the rest of the knobbled floor. It was just a tiny chasm, hardly noticeable from this distance, but Rick felt like he was plunging straight into it, falling with no sense of when he might slam into the bottom.

He hadn’t been back inside the school in a long, long time. There was no need. Carl had been true to his word, all that time ago - there was no more trouble. Not after he started confiding in his charming, rough-around-the-edges baseball coach - the one that cozied up to his father so quickly, so effortlessly. Foul mouth, rough touch, heart of gold - isn’t that what Rick had told himself? He gave a bitter laugh, and it echoed in the quiet hallway. Luckily, there was no one to hear him. It must’ve been between classes, and Rick was grateful for that small stroke of luck. He slipped into the gym. Empty. Lucky me, Rick thought. Lucky, lucky me. Negan looked up from his desk as he stepped into the office and clicked the door shut behind him, surprised. He rose immediately to walk over to Rick, looking concerned.

“Everything okay, baby?” Rick’s hand flew up and straight out, palm coming into contact with Negan’s chest, keeping him from approaching any closer than arm’s length.

“What the hell is all that under the floor of your closet, Negan?”

Negan froze, and the speed of the shifting expressions on his face - shock, anger, defiance, shock again - would have been comical under other circumstances. His gaze slid over Rick, who stood his ground, eyes hard. Negan licked his lips slowly, letting the silence between them grow, warring instincts in him. “It’s shit from my old life,” he muttered finally. “Before I moved down here.”

“I figured that much, Negan. But what kind of old life was it that you’ve got a whole pack of goddamn,” Rick’s voice dropped to a near whisper, “goddamn guns with the serial numbers filed off? That’s…that’s…” he gestured wildly, utterly at a loss.

Negan regarded him, expression closed off. “That’s some outlaw shit, right, officer?” He finished for him. He crossed his arms, and in that moment, he realized that a part of him had known that this was coming. Every day he got closer to Rick, Rick got closer to him and his ugly little cache of secrets, the remnants of his bloody past. This shit with Anderson…well, he had went and shown his hand a little. Enough that Rosita had seen it. Rick, though…he looked at him, his drawn expression, his eyes swimming with a dozen conflicting emotions. Blindsided. He swallowed down the bile that crept up his throat. “Yeah, Rick. It is. I was in an MC up in Virginia.” He took in Rick’s uncomprehending expression and sighed. “A biker gang, Rick.”

Rick glared at him. “That’s not funny, Negan.”

“Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t,” he replied drily.

When he said nothing further, Rick’s exasperated stare turned to shock. “A gang?”

“There isn’t an MC out there that likes being called a gang, but to be honest, I never fuckin’ understood that. If it quacks, it’s a fucking duck, ain’t it?” Rick stared at him like he had never seen him before, and Negan scrubbed at his face, fighting the panicked rage rising in him. “That shit’s all behind me, Rick. I’m out clean. I blacked out my ink. You saw it.”

The black patches behind his shoulders. Blacked out gang ink, of fucking course. How could he have failed to put that together? He was a damn cop. Rick put his head in his hands, feeling like he was sinking into quicksand: hot, suffocating, itchy. “You told me you were a mechanic,” he said accusingly, the heel of his hands pressed into his eyes.

“I was, Rick. I had a day job. Jesus, you know how many criminals have gone down because of the goddamn shitting IRS? You don’t have an official income with a nice, neat paper trail, tax bastards start asking questions.”

“Criminals,” Rick echoed. “Holy fuckin' shit.” He stared around him, suddenly, almost wildly. “How the hell did you get hired here? At a school?”

Anger buzzed like a swarm of bees around Negan at that, and he was able to answer calmly only after a struggle with himself. “I don’t have a record, Rick.” Can’t have a record if the law can’t get nothin’ to stick. You gotta know that, Deputy Grimes, he nearly added, but he knew that was not going to help anything right now. Rick stood stock still, face covered. Negan reached out slowly, and when his fingers brushed his arm, Rick leapt back like he had been burned, dropping his hands to stare at him with wild eyes. It was betrayal that Negan saw in their depths, and rage bloomed in him alongside sorrow, hot and cold at the same time. Before he could speak again, a shrill ringing startled both of them. Negan froze, throat working. “I have a class, Rick,” he said quietly. “Tonight, I’ll ex- “

Rick spun on his heel and fled. There were kids starting to trickle into the halls, and he swept by them, hoping to god he didn’t look like he felt. He shot out of the doors of the school and nearly tripped over himself running to his car. His hands trembled on the wheel. He half-expected Negan to chase after him, and his slamming heart slowed somewhat when he realized that he wasn’t. He started the car, willing himself to relax, and pulled out from the school lot. He turned the car towards the station. He would fist-fight Gregory if he had to - he needed to know more.

The station was largely empty when he arrived. Gregory was absent, to his relief. The state he was in, he didn’t know what he would do if the officious little man tried to interfere, and it would be nice to continue to have a job. Abraham was sitting at his desk, munching on a donut. Rainbow-colored sprinkles were caught in his red mustache, a sight that would have made Rick smile if he didn’t feel like he his body was being turned completely inside out and exposed to open air. A thought struck him, and he walked over to the man, who stood and slapped his shoulder.

“Rick! Here for a visit? Shit, you should be on a lawn chair drinking fucking margaritas right now, friend.”

Rick smiled weakly at him. “Uh, I was just driving by and thought I would…would stop in.” The excuse sounded pathetically thin to his own ears, but Abraham didn’t seem to pick up on anything out of the ordinary.

“Donut?” he offered, sweeping his hand towards the open box filled with frosted pastries.

Rick shook his head, stomach doing a queasy flip. He took a deep breath to steady his voice. “You trained up in Virginia when you were in the service, didn’t you? Outside of DC?”

“That I did.”

Rick hesitated. “You ever…you ever hear of a biker gang that called themselves the ‘Saviors’?”

Abraham leaned back in his chair. “Oh, hell, yeah. I had a buddy in ATF. That’s the top of the goddamn outlaw food chain up in those parts.”

“What can you tell me about them?”

Abraham looked at him curiously. “Why?”

Rick struggled for a plausible lie. “I heard about ‘em…uh, on television, and I got curious. We don’t get that kind of heat around here, you know.”

“That’s for damn sure. We got crime, but not of the organized variety, thank Christ and his mama.” He tipped his chair back and put his feet on his desk. “Well, to make a long story short, they ran guns. Slippery as fuck. The shit ATF tried to throw at them slid straight off. They did keep the other crews in line, though, so the feds and the local PD never rode ‘em that hard - ‘necessary evil’ type of shit, that’s what my buddy used to say. You haven’t seen shit fly until you’ve seen a full-on, balls-to-the-wall gang war, and these guys had their shit locked down so tight there was never war. Nobody would fuckin’ dare; they would piss when they saw Saviors comin’. Especially the leader, you’d better fuckin’ believe it, boy. The fuckin’ feds were scared of him. Like this one time, there was this other crew that was runnin’ around, real fucked-up motherhumpers, called themselves the ‘Claimers’ or some weird shit.” Abraham scratched his belly, relishing the telling of the story. “The leader of the Saviors had a real bug up his ass about those guys. They say this sick cat had a baseball bat wrapped up in barbed wire - real brutal-ass shit. Word was he rounded up every last member of that other crew and beat their heads in with his fucked up bat. Only one guy got away, and he stayed the fuck away. The feds were happy as flies at a shit-eating contest about that one, lemme fuckin’ tell ya. Saved them the trouble.”

The cut on Rick’s toe ached unpleasantly. A baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire. Unnecessary. Showy in its menace, its excess of cruelty - almost decadent. Like Negan himself. A horrible suspicion was rising in him as Abraham was talking, and now it began to congeal into certainty. “Did your friend ever see him? Meet him? The leader.”

“Naw, that crazy motherfucker was a fuckin’ ghost. No one even knew his real name; they all called him ‘the Devil.’ I don’t know if it was him or his crew or people on the outside that first started calling him that, but it stuck. And this fuckin’ guy, he got his crew doing this thing - they would collar one of these guys, one of these Saviors, and they would say, ‘we want to talk to the Devil,’ meaning the leader, right? And those pricks would answer back, ‘I’m the Devil.’ Every last one of ‘em would always say the same damn thing, like it was a damn cult. It was some profoundly creepy-ass shit.” Abraham leaned back and grinned, like he had finished telling a particularly frightening ghost story by the campfire. He looked at Rick, seemingly waiting for an acknowledgement.

“Yeah, that’s…that’s somethin’,” Rick croaked out.

Abraham gave him an odd look. He let his chair fall forward with a bang, dropping his legs and leaning forward. “Everything okay there, Rick? You know…” he scratched the back of his head. “I know this ain’t your first rodeo as far as takin’ a bullet on the job, but if you need somethin’, you know…” he struggled for something, fumbling through the unfamiliar emotional labor. “Well, you just ask. You know. For you, the kids, and that, uh…that boyfriend of yours with the jacket. I’m uh…you know. I’m right here.” He stopped, his ruddy face looking ruddier than usual.

“Thank you,” Rick managed, feeling both touched and confused. He had thought his camaraderie with his fellow officers long dead, after what had happened with Shane. Abraham nodded, looking relieved to be done with all of that. Rick started to leave, but he paused before he took more than two steps. His defenses weren’t just down; they had been obliterated. The way he was just now, a walking exposed nerve-ending, he just couldn’t leave it alone. He turned and walked back to Abraham, who looked up in surprise.

“You know what I did to Shane, don’t you?” Rick demanded huskily.

Abraham leaned back, looking warily thoughtful. “Yeah,” he paused for a long moment and then leaned forward suddenly with the air of someone who was about to make an important pronouncement. “Listen, Rick , we might not be fishin’ buddies or any of that shit, but we worked together a while now. I know you pretty well. You’re a good man. A good cop. I ain’t gonna try and judge what went down with him. Hell, I don’t know the details of the damn situation, and they ain’t any of my business to know anyhow. But knowin’ you, I’m guessin’ you did less than most men woulda done for whatever it was between you. Maybe if you were someone else, Shane wouldn’t have walked away. In the end, what the hell else matters? He left on his feet.”

Rick stared, thoughts roiling, surprised and also suddenly very sad. “Thank you for that, Abraham,” he said quietly. He turned and left, feeling eyes follow him. He drove home mechanically, moving on pure instinct. He made a careful inventory. Judith at daycare. Carl “studying” after school at Enid’s. That left him alone in the house, waiting for Negan. Waiting for the rest of this seismic shift, this earthquake that was so clearly not close to being done yet. What’s going to be left in the rubble? When all’s said and done? he wondered. He felt like he was being gutted in slow motion, and perversely, the part of his mind that didn’t get the damn memo actually wanted Negan in that moment, wanted to turn to him in his distress.

It’s happening again, a grim voice spoke from the back of his mind. Lori’s face rose up before him - white to the lips in the hospital bed she would never leave. Her quiet confession had sparked an earthquake, too, and it had swallowed everything. He shoved that memory away viciously, pulling into the driveway. As he got out of the car, nausea assaulted him, and for a moment he was sure he was actually going to be sick. After a few deep, trembling breaths, he straightened slowly and walked into his home to wait for the shaking to stop.

It actually took time - fully five minutes at least - of standing at the front door for Negan to gather the nerve to open it and step inside, and there was a part of him that found that pretty fucking funny. He was afraid, and the memory of his old self mocked him for it. The Devil had no fear. Not after Lucille’s death wrung every drop of human feeling out of him. But it had all come trickling back, little by little, just in time for him to mortally wound someone else just like he had her, someone else he loved with everything that was left of his burned-out, blackened wreck of a heart, and that struck him as very funny, indeed. Rick was sitting on the couch, back ramrod straight. His serious, pale face was expressionless, and he remained still as a statue as Negan walked into the living room, trying to mask the dread that clutched and strangled him. He dropped his keys onto the coffee table with a loud, harsh jangle.

“Here we fuckin’ go,” he muttered, crossing his arms.

That seemed to bring Rick to life, and he glared up at him with a cold fury. “You weren’t just in the gang. You led the gang. Am I right? You’re the…you’re ‘the Devil,’ Negan?”

Shock turned his blood to ice, but it never touched his face. That’s what you get for falling for a cop, you stupid fucking shit-for-brains. Negan tilted his head, eyes cold and black. “Oh, sure. We’re all the Devil, Deputy Grimes.”

A harsh laugh erupted from Rick as he stood and walked around the coffee table. “Yeah, I heard about that. It’s a cute trick. But I wanna know if I’m talkin’ to the original.” He stood, glaring. Negan’s expression didn’t flicker. Rick shook his head in disbelief. “The kind of power you got…you put a hit out on a guy in a state prison? And he’s dead in less than an hour? It’s you. I know it was you. And I know you’re the guy they were callin’ ‘the Devil.’”

“Sherlock fucking Grimes,” Negan drawled. “You’ve been busy, haven’t you? Did some police work? Did a little investigatin’ today? Shiii-et. Not bad for a small town cop.”

Rick kicked off a shoe and pointed to the blood-specked sock. “I found the fucking bat, too, Negan.”

There was a flash in his eyes, too fast for Rick to catch - regret? concern? - before something slammed shut in them. “Looks like she gave you a little kiss, Ricky boy. What’s wrong? I thought you liked a little bite in your kisses. Like this mornin’.” Negan grinned at him.

Rick stared, disbelieving. How could he stand there, so still, so calm, and talk as if this was some new twist in a kinky game they were playing at together? As if he hadn’t played him for an utter fool - the cop with a biker kingpin in his house, in his bed, sheathed inside his body in the dark of their shared nights? The audacity of it choked Rick, shredding the composure he was trying so desperately to maintain. “I let you near my children,” he hissed.

Negan briefly looked as if he had been slapped, and suddenly his face twisted with a rage Rick had not seen before. When he spoke, it was with a controlled effort. “Careful, there, Rick. I’ve been a lot of fucked up things, but never in my fuckin’ life have I been a danger to kids. So you just put that one the fuck away before you piss me off.”

“Oh, am I offendin’ you? Really? I heard about the shit you did, Negan. What you did to that other gang - the ‘Claimers’? You beat them all to death with that - that thing in the closet - is that true?” Negan glared wordlessly. “You fucking answer me, Negan!”

The other man tilted his head back, his smirk cold and full of contempt. “That’s right. I beat their heads in. Every last one of them I could get my hands on. Nothing left of them from the shoulders-up but fuckin’ strawberry jelly.” Negan tsked, tongue between his teeth. Horror spread through Rick, crawling over him like icy fingers. “Good thing you didn’t have to see it, honey. Would’ve given a fine upstanding Southern gentleman like yourself the vapors for sure.”

“Don’t you call me ‘honey,’ you goddamned monster,” Rick said raggedly, and something flashed again in Negan’s eyes. “Why’d they all have to die like that? Because they were edging you out of guns? That seem like a reasonable way to settle a business dispute to you?”

“You don’t know shit about shit, Rick,” Negan seethed, “these fuckers weren’t a business problem. They didn’t run guns. They ran people. They were traffickers. They snatched up runaways and desperate kids and sold ‘em to the highest fucking bidder.” Rick thought he had reached the limit of the stomach-roiling horror this conversation could awaken in him; he was wrong. He stared at Negan, feeling breathless with rage and confusion and very, very close to being sick. Negan caught his uncertainty and gave a harsh laugh. “Oh, Rick, Rick, Rick, you were not expecting that. But you still wanna be angry, huh? Yeah, I can see that. ‘Cause you’re so righteous.”

Rick swallowed, feeling the atmosphere in the room shift, growing heavy and stifling. He had never seen Negan like this - fury had utterly transfigured him, twisting his handsome face into a cold, cruel mask, eyes aflame, dangerous. His entire body thrummed with some violent energy, rolling off him like heat off a furnace. In that moment, Rick did not know him. Negan took a step forward, and Rick fell back, hand instinctively twitching at his waist towards a weapon that wasn’t there. Negan saw, and he laughed. Rick flinched. Even the laugh was different, and it hit him like a fist.

“Ooh, too fuckin’ bad, officer. You’re missin’ your piece.” Negan clicked his tongue, tilting his head and giving him a look of mock-sympathy. Rick felt numbness spread through him. His mind raced. It occurred to him that he might be in danger - real danger. From the beginning, being with Negan had always been a flirtation with danger: he remembered the way he had gripped the baseball bat he held as Peter Anderson shouted in his face that day that seemed so long ago now - the day their paths first crossed. But Rick had never doubted that that promise of danger, even outright violence, was within his power to keep at bay. He had let him take it to their bed, for god’s sake. But this was completely different, and Rick felt the full force of his naive miscalculation as the man he was in love with stood in front of him, mocking him openly for lacking a weapon to protect himself. From him.

Something in the deepest part of Rick’s heart, battered and bruised into silence as it was over the course of this angry reckoning between them, lifted its head now and protested all of it, all of this. The memory of Negan pressed against his back in their shared bed, his warm, hard body feeling like a safe haven behind him, rose up in his mind, and Rick felt his lips want to tremble. He mastered himself with an effort.

“Why are you angry at me?” Rick asked quietly. “You tell me you’re a criminal, that you’ve killed people, and you’re angry at me? Are you gonna, what…hit me, Negan? Is that where this is all goin’?” The sound of his own voice, strained and weakened, made him cringe. He saw it yet again - the flash in Negan’s eyes, almost too swift to catch, but this time Rick was looking carefully. It was a wild hurt; dangerous in its desperation.

Negan stood silently, arms crossed, the air around him throbbing with his rage. “I told you, Rick,” he said finally, “I’ll never put a hand on you that you don’t ask me for. And fuck you,” that cracked out like a whiplash, “for suggesting otherwise.” A sudden change came over him, faster than the time it took to blink: his arms uncrossed and fell to his sides, his stance relaxed, and an unpleasant smile, more a sneer than anything, curled his lips. Rick moved further back from him with wary uncertainty. “Aw, Rick. What’s the goddamn point? I’ve got your fuckin’ number, honey.” He spat the endearment at him, lips lifting in a snarl around it, and Rick flinched. “You love squirmin’ on my dick more than anything, don’t you? The devil’s dick. Like you actually give a fuck about all that other shit. How long do you think you’ll go before you’re begging me to put my bloody-ass murderer’s hands all over you again, Captain fucking America? Not too fuckin’ long, I’ll bet.” Negan grinned, pleased with the result of his words. Rick was staring at him, more rage than anything now, and the uncertainty in his eyes was delicious. “You know, getting to fuck you six ways to Sunday, deputy - a pillar of manly virtue such as yourself, getting you to fall to your fucking knees and beg for my cock - it’s actually been worth dealing with your goddamn snotty-ass kids.”

Get out,” Rick hissed, a live wire of sudden, crackling fury. Negan laughed at him, eyes alight with cruel satisfaction, before he turned and sauntered from the house that Rick had already started thinking of as theirs.

Chapter Text

“You and Negan are fighting,” Carl said, one morning. It wasn’t a question; it was a statement of the obvious conclusion to objective facts. Negan hadn’t set foot in the Grimes house for more than a week. Before that…well, Rick had trouble thinking of a recent night that they had spent apart.

“Yes,” Rick replied slowly.

Carl was waiting for more, head tilted at him.

He picked that up from Negan, Rick realized. That thought felt jagged in his mind. “It’s…it’s grown-up stuff, Carl.”

The look Carl shot him in response was pure, adolescent scorn.

“All right, all right,” Rick sighed. “I’m not sayin’ you wouldn’t understand. I just mean…it’s something private between us.”

“Gross,” Carl responded archly, and Rick wanted to laugh, but he couldn’t manage it. Not the way he was feeling. Carl hesitated for a moment, looking at him appraisingly. “Are you okay, Dad?”

“I don’t know,” he said. His own honesty shocked him, and he scrubbed his face with his hands. He heard Carl walk up beside him.

“It is gonna be okay,” he muttered. He squeezed Rick’s shoulder tightly before turning and leaving the kitchen, practically fleeing from the honest emotion of the moment. Rick stared after him, watching him lope away, dark hair spilling past his shoulders. Jesus, Rick thought. When did he get that tall? When did he grow up and start trying to take care of me? Guilt choked him at the thought.

While Carl grew wary and protective in Negan’s absence, Judith began to fuss. Rick didn’t allow himself to believe that Negan was the cause until one day, a full week after their nauseating show-down in the living room, Judith told him herself. He was picking her up from daycare, and she wriggled in his arms as he carried her.

“Where’s Daddy?” she whined as he buckled her in to her carseat.

“I’m right here, sugar. Daddy’s here.”

Judith looked at him, her little face screwing up in frustration. “Not you, Daddy. Where’s Daddy?”

Rick blinked down at her in shock. Oh my god, he thought, feeling breathless. She’s talking about Negan. Resentment and longing battled fiercely within him, and he didn’t know how long he stood there. “It’s okay,” he heard himself say. He picked up her stuffed bunny toy and handed it to her. She took it, but her unhappy pout stayed. Rick kissed her honey-colored curls. “It’s okay, Princess Judy.” Her little hands clung to him for a moment, and he fought back rising tears.

A defiant little voice in the depth of his heart had begun to reproach him almost immediately after his confrontation with Negan - for god’s sake, the rival gang he had ended so brutally had been human traffickers. He had nearly shot Peter Anderson in the face for less. Who was to say what he would have done in Negan’s position, if he had lived his life? Especially since he was right about Rick, right from the beginning. He had a bloody, violent, vengeful streak in him. What happened with Shane had proven that definitively.

His righteous anger pushed back, of course, and it pushed back hard - Negan had lead an honest-to-god biker gang in a way so brutal that he had become a dark legend to both sides of the law. He had been a killer, a gun-runner, a criminal. But Rick had never known him as any of those things, and the distant bogeyman that had been conjured up by Abraham’s story and the material fact of the horror-show of a baseball bat thrown in the back of his closet couldn’t overwhelm his own memories of the man and his actions.

How many times had Rick watched him bouncing Judith in his arms while she squealed in delight? Yelling good-natured teasing during baseball practice at Carl, who would dramatically roll his eyes while a smile hovered at the corners of his mouth? He had essentially taken on sole responsibility for feeding them; Rick hadn’t touched a pan in months - you’re better in the bedroom than the kitchen, baby, Negan had told him once with mock-solemnity. Rick had slapped his shoulder in reproof and then kissed his smirking lips. Negan had stepped into his life, his family, so smoothly and comfortably, taking care of Rick in a way he had never allowed with anyone else. He couldn’t possibly be the man in that story; not anymore.

Or maybe he was just making excuses because he was in too damn deep with him. He was in love with him. He was no less in love with him than he had been before he had found the last remains of his blood-soaked past buried in his closet, and he knew it. He couldn’t even try to kid himself there. The horse was well out of the barn.

Rick wanted his offended sense of right and wrong to stand, to give him the strength to not be the one to go crawling back first. But it had cracked and crumbled to pieces, the evidence of his own children’s sadness over the loss of Negan’s presence in their lives dealing the decisive blow. He knew that Negan hadn’t meant his final, parting thrust of the knife that day about them - he couldn’t have. The evidence of their day-to-day life defied it. That, at least, was no real reason to stay away.

Still, he hesitated. Some of it was wounded pride, of course - his own pride in his work, in his identity as a cop, and in himself and his capabilities. The thought of “the Devil” under his nose, under his body, while he remained in blissful ignorance in spite of the insidious march of evidence about his old life that Negan inadvertently revealed still galled him. But more than that, he wondered how close that life still followed him, and whether it was close enough to lead to his children.

Later, he let himself into Negan’s home and sat down at the kitchen table to wait. He had to step over the remains of a few of the other chairs, wood splintered and broken. He made a conscious effort not to think about it - the amount of force it would take to shatter the sturdy wood like glass. He wasn’t afraid; not really. Negan was no threat to him. He knew that, in the cold light of day. He hadn’t known it during their confrontation a week ago; he couldn’t think straight with the way Negan had seemed to scorch the air around him in his fury. Are you gonna, what…hit me, Negan? The memory of the bone-deep hurt that had flared up in his eyes at that reproached him bitterly. Negan had lied to him, but never about that.

Rick leaned forward on his elbows, letting out a long, slow sigh. He could wait. Judith was at daycare; Carl would be going to Enid’s. He allowed himself a small smile - he was living a strange little echo of the events of last week. He was calm while he was sitting there and stayed calm when he finally heard the front door swing open and slam shut, but when Negan himself stepped into view, his heart leapt in his chest, sending out nervous flutters in every direction. He saw Negan’s arm flash behind his waist before he registered that it was Rick in his kitchen, reaching for a weapon that wasn’t there, and Rick almost smiled. Negan had taunted him for doing the same thing the last time he saw him. The man stared at him for a moment, and Rick dared to hope that he would offer something first.

“You really think that’s a good idea, deputy? Sneaking up on me? People have ended up in a bad fucking way trying that shit.” Negan said finally.

Rick’s heart sank a little in disappointment at that, but he met his cold gaze without flinching. “Don’t talk to me like I’m supposed to be scared of you, Negan. I’m not.” Negan’s lips pulled back from his teeth in a sneer, and Rick jumped to interrupt whatever ugly thing he was planning on saying. “There’s too much between us for that.”

Negan glared, but something briefly surfaced in his eyes. Something honest and uncertain.

Rick stood slowly. “I’m gonna talk,” he said quietly, “and I need you to listen.”

Negan watched him warily, crossing his arms. Rick drew a breath to speak, but the words froze instantly in his throat.

After a long moment, the corner of Negan’s mouth twitched. “Good talk, Rick,” he muttered drily.

“Carl and Judith miss you,” Rick heard himself say. It wasn’t at all what he had been planning to say, but there it was.

Surprise flashed across Negan’s face at that, and something else, something only there for a moment before it was chased away. Maybe sadness.

Rick drew a breath and dug into the wound a little. “You know. My goddamn snotty-ass kids.”

That broke through whatever barrier was up, and Negan dropped his head back and groaned, shoulders slumping. “Come on, Rick. You know I didn’t mean that shit. I was just trying to - I love those fucking kids,” Negan said, a broken note surfacing through his angry tone that squeezed Rick’s heart in his chest and toppled the last defense that stood in him. Words flooded out like water from a burst dam.

“I know,” Rick broke in urgently. “I know you never wanted to hurt them. Or me. I know everything you told me about how you felt was the truth. I know you’re telling the truth about wanting to leave it all behind you. And I know that this thing with Anderson - whatever you had to do to get it to happen, you did it for me. I know that.” He couldn’t look away from Negan’s eyes, which were pained but still wary - a tiger eyeing the creature that came to free his paw from a trap. “That’s not why I’m…I’m scared of this. It’s because it’s dangerous, Negan. The life you had. Why do you think I never wanted to talk about work, to bring bein’ a cop home?” He drew a breath. “Cops and robbers. Either side of that coin can kill you. It almost killed me. Couple times, now.”

“Rick,” Negan began, and Rick lifted both hands, pleading silently. If he was interrupted now, he wasn’t sure he would ever be able to get it all out - every bit of the poison that still pooled in the deepest, most secret part of his heart.

“Negan, I got…sick, kinda, after Lori died. In the head, I mean. I started thinkin’ I could see her, talk to her, just like she was actually there, actually real, in front of me. Everything felt like a dream that I didn’t even know I was lost in. I think the only thing that saved me then was Carl and Judith needin’ me. But I’m afraid. I’m afraid if it happens again, if I lose someone I love again, that I won’t be able to come back from it. And Judith - “ Rick’s voice faltered, suddenly thick with tears. He lifted a hand to cover his eyes as they welled up and spilled, hot and fast, down his face, “she’s only a baby. She deserves so much better. I can’t let her down like that, I can’t…”

Negan was on him suddenly, jerking him into his arms, overwhelming him with his touch - his hands roaming, body pressed up against his, lips at his ear.

Something wounded and defiant rose up in Rick, but it just wasn’t strong enough to get him to pull away from the embrace. He wanted it too much, in spite of everything.

“Shh. It’s all right, baby.” Negan’s words caressed his ear. “Come on. Everything’s gonna be fine.”

A sob racked through Rick’s chest as he pressed his face into Negan’s hard shoulder.

“Don’t fucking…don’t be upset because of me. Come on, darlin’, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I love you. Give me a kiss.”

The near-panic in his voice drew Rick in despite himself, and he sucked in a shaking breath before turning his face slightly to nestle against Negan’s cheek. He kissed the rough stubble there lightly, hesitantly, mind still whirling.

“Say you forgive me,” Negan whispered. “You know I didn’t mean a damn thing I said to you that day.”

Rick’s lips moved against where they still hovered against the scrape and scratch of his unshaven face. “Okay, okay. I forgive you.”

Negan lifted his hand, rubbing at the wetness on Rick’s cheek.

Drained, he rested his head against Negan’s shoulder. “Is it safe?” he asked, his voice barely more than a breath.

“I will never let anyone touch you, or Carl, or Judith. I will fucking shred anyone who tries to hurt you,” Negan growled in his ear, and Rick shuddered in his arms. Negan froze, sensing that he had said something not quite right. “Rick, I’m sorry,” he said, “I swear I’m not that person anymore. Not like I was. Listen, I…” he paused, trailing off. He said nothing for a long moment, stroking Rick’s cheek. With a sigh, he urged Rick back down into the chair he had been sitting in before, sinking to his knees before him. “I’m gonna tell you everything,” he said slowly. “No more secrets. You’re gonna know me, and when you do, when I’m done with what I have to tell you…you may not want me near you or the kids, ever again.” He looked down, mouth twisting. “That’s what scares me.”

Rick touched his face. “No more secrets,” he echoed quietly.

Negan drew a breath, eyes locked on his. “You already know who I am - who I was. You know about some of what I did. Thing is, the Claimers were different, Rick. I told you what they were, and I’m not sorry about killing them or how I killed them. But I wasn’t fuckin’ Batman out there - that’s not how it was with everyone. Most of the time, it was just fuckin’ business - dealing with other crews no different than us. When another group would try to move in on us, I would round ‘em up and kill one or two of ‘em to send a message. Just at random. I mean, we were all fuckin’ outlaws, no saints mixed in, I guess, but I didn’t know anything about the people I killed. What they deserved or didn’t. They were just fuckin’ collateral in a negotiation.” Negan sighed, looking far off into the distance, as if he could see into straight into days gone by. “And it worked - we held onto our territory, and nothing ever got out of hand.” Negan paused for a long moment, staring into nothing.

“And?” Rick prompted softly. His eyes slid up to his, and their black depths spoke of agony. Rick reached out instinctively, brow furrowing in concern, but Negan caught the hand before it could reach his cheek.

“After Lucille died, I…I fuckin’ lost it, Rick. I started looking for reasons to fuck people up. Cut ‘em, burn ‘em, kill ‘em every which way I could think of. Guys from other crews, my own people - I didn’t give a fuck. The things I did. I was creative with that shit. One day, I looked around, and I realized that everyone was terrified of me. Absolutely shitting themselves if I so much as looked at them. People I had thought of as my family, hard as that may be for you to believe. We had a code, and we were in it together. And I saw what I had become in their eyes, how I made their lives a living hell, made ‘em live in constant fear…and I liked it, Rick.” He swallowed, as if trying to force down the shame. “I liked it. I liked being the Devil, and that’s what finally stopped me.”

“Yeah, it all went to hell after she died, huh? I know it.” Rick’s voice was a pained whisper, and Negan’s head shot up to look into his eyes.

He had expected to see horror there, and the sorrowful understanding he saw instead felt like a hot knife in his chest. He dropped his head, feeling tears sting his eyes, unable to look at him. He found his voice again with some difficulty. “Lucille…she had a wild fuckin’ animal inside of her. Just like you, Rick. Fuck with her, and she’d rip you apart with her teeth and wipe her pretty red mouth on a hanky when she was done. But she wasn’t cruel. Not like me; not like the way I got. She never would have fucking touched me if she had known me the way I was then.” Negan dared to tilt his head up and look at Rick again. “You wouldn’t have, either, honey,” he said quietly. “So I got the fuck out and tried to put it all behind me. For her. When she died, she made me promise I would stay alive for her. I did, but not like she meant. I knew if I kept on the way I was going, I would end up dyin’ in some fucked-up, bloody-ass way, knowin’ that I had become the worst version of myself that I ever could be. Someone my girl wouldn’t have been able to love.”

Rick’s hand moved over Negan’s cheek, and he flinched at the sudden contact before leaning into it, closing his eyes. “There’s something about me I have to tell you, too, Negan,” Rick murmured, and Negan gave a tired laugh.

“We just spillin’ all our guts out onto the floor here, Rick?”

Rick nodded slowly, eyes solemn. “Yeah. No more secrets.”

Negan turned his face into Rick’s hand, kissing the palm. “What could you possibly have to tell me, darlin’? Honest, good, kind man like you?” Negan’s eyes found his, a little of his old humor creeping back. “You cheat at bingo at the old folks’ home once?”

Rick swallowed thickly and closed his eyes. Somehow it was easier to speak this confession, one he had never made to anyone else, in the darkness behind his lids. “The man…my friend, the one who was with my wife? I nearly beat him to death.” Rick felt Negan shift slightly and look up at him. He imagined he looked startled. “I confronted him right after Lori died, about what she told me, and he…he said some nasty things. Then he said something about taking Judith and leaving town.” Rick faltered, the words sticking in his mouth and throat. “I wish I could say ‘I don’t know what came over me’ or whatever bullshit people say after they do something like that, but it would be a lie. I remember everything. I could have stopped myself, but I didn’t. I left him in the dirt, bleedin’, not carin’ at all if he lived or died.” Rick let out a shaky breath. “He never pressed charges, and the department hushed it up. It was the only…only time the old sheriff ever bent the rules for someone. I think I broke his heart. He retired right after that.” Rick leaned forward and buried his face in Negan’s shoulder, a fresh wave of tears swelling and choking him.

Negan’s hand lifted to cup the back of his neck tenderly, stroking the brown curls there.

“So, the thing is: I’ve done things, too,” Rick whispered into his shoulder, “and I guess I’ve got no right…” His throat tightened, and he broke off, closing his eyes.

Negan continued to stroke the hair at the back of his neck, his arm wrapped firmly around his waist, steadying him. “Baby,” he said gently, “don’t go thinking that compares to the shit I’ve done. No fuckin’ way. You’re gonna be okay.”

Rick looked over at that, eyes gleaming with tears. “I need you to be okay, too, Negan. With me. I can’t go back to doing this alone.”

Negan moved his head to the other man’s, pressing their foreheads together. “Anything for you,” he said quietly, the simple truth of his words searing them both. Anything.

Rick wound his arms around Negan’s neck. “Okay,” he replied. He rose from his chair and took Negan’s hand, tugging him up to stand. He turned and walked, leading him towards the bedroom.

When Negan realized what he was doing, he stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “Rick,’ he faltered. “You don’t…you don’t have to do that.”

Rick smiled at him, slowly, brow knitting. “I know. Tell me if you need to stop.”

This was different than anything that had come before, Negan realized. It was ceremony, solemn and silent. Rick knelt over him, spread out on the bed they had shared so many times together. Negan’s breath caught in his throat as Rick sheathed himself on him, skin whispering against skin as he slid against his body.

Rick’s head dipped back as he sank onto Negan, and with the ecstasy that settled on his handsome face, he was transfigured. He was an archangel moving above him, his body an instrument of the grace he was granting him, and Negan felt tears pool and threaten to spill as his hands fisted in the sheets. He was afraid to touch his lover, to break the spell of whatever ritual they were playing out with their bodies. He felt hands settle softly on wrists before gently tugging them up. Rick spoke only with his heated, urgent gaze, settling Negan’s hands at his waist.

They moved together, bodies rocking like boats in a calm sea, eyes locked, and the tenderness of it was somehow painful, raw - like an exposed nerve stroked over and over again.

For once, Negan was silent. He touched Rick reverently, every part of him that he could reach - hands wandering up his sides, down his belly, over his thighs. He wrapped a hand around his hard, hot length, and the breath left Rick in a warm, soft gust. Negan rose up to sitting, unable to help himself, needing to try and get closer to his lover. He drew his legs up, thighs bracing against Rick’s back. Rick responded immediately, arms sliding over Negan’s shoulders to hook around his neck.

Negan worked him slowly with his hand, just how he knew he liked it, and he could both see it in his clouding eyes and feel it in his shivering body that Rick was coming close. He reached out a hand to caress his cheek, eyes never leaving his for a moment.

Rick shuddered from the top of his head to the tips of his toes as he peaked.

Whether it was due to his eyes, filled with love and hunger both, still steadily locked onto Negan’s as he came or the physical fact of his body tightening around his aching cock, Negan followed him. Everything went hazy for a moment, and Negan was conscious of the utter loss of control in that. He came back to himself having fallen to his back, Rick draped over him. He waited, aware that it was not for him to speak first.

Rick lifted his head to gaze down at him. “Okay?”

Negan swallowed, feeling small beside the enormity of his love for the man above him. “Okay.”

They picked up Judith together, and her happy squeal at the sight of Negan brought Rick, battered as he was after the emotional exhaustion of the day, very close to more tears. He scrubbed at his eyes, faintly annoyed with himself, and he caught Negan looking at him over Judith’s head, an amused smile on his lips. He couldn’t help but smile back, a trembling, nervous happiness beating around his chest like a small bird. Judith painstakingly recounted a story about a waffle taking some kind of journey down a syrup river that she had been read that day while Negan interjected appreciative commentary at key moments, and Rick watched them in the mirror, heart aching.

“She called you ‘Daddy’ the other day,” Rick said later, after they had put her down for her nap.

Negan’s eyes snapped to his. He rubbed his mouth. “Holy shit,” he said finally, sounding awed.

“Did you want them? Kids, I mean,” Rick asked. They were in the kitchen, and Rick set two glasses down before turning to rummage in the cabinet for the bottle of whiskey stashed there.

“Yeah,” Negan said softly behind him. “Me an’ Lucille, we both did. But we always thought we had all the time in the world for it, and it turns out we didn’t.”

Rick set the bottle down and leaned over to kiss the top of his head gently. “Oh, shit,” he gasped suddenly, lips still in Negan’s hair, and the other man looked up at him, eyes alarmed.

What?”

“Just remembered I forgot to buy milk,” Rick said sheepishly, and Negan nearly fell from his chair laughing.

“Jesus Christ, Rick, you scared the shit out of me. I’ll get the fucking milk.” He rose, chuckling, and caught Rick around the waist, drawing him in for a kiss.

Rick flushed. “Thank you,” he murmured, and Negan’s eyes bored into his.

“Anything for you, baby,” he answered gently. “Even the fucking milk.” He pressed a kiss to his cheek before walking off, still chuckling, and Rick leaned his palms against the table with a shaky exhale.

The day hardly seemed real. It was so much at once, and he knew the hard work of reconciling all of this, of learning to live with it all, was ahead of them. He supposed it wasn’t fair to drink without Negan, especially after sending him off on such a mundane errand, but he really, really wanted some whiskey. He poured himself a finger and turned to lean against the sink, sipping it slowly, lost in his drifting thoughts. He heard the front door open softly and click shut. He frowned. What’s he doing back so soon? he thought. He turned around to ask him that, and when he saw who was standing there, the glass nearly slipped from his suddenly nerveless hand.

“Sorry to, uh, just walk on in, Rick, but I guess you never changed the locks,” Shane said. He rubbed at the back of his head, a gesture Rick had seen a hundred thousand times.

He wanted to scream, cry, and laugh all at once. Of course. Of course this is how today ends. Shane was thinner than when he had left. His eyes looked sunken, and he gave off the general appearance of a man who had not been living a wholesome, happy life. A thick, white scar marred his tanned cheek. Rick stared at it. The memory assaulted him - swinging his fist into that spot again and again, his wedding ring tearing into the flesh. Bile rose in his throat. “What the fuck are you doing here, Shane?” The calm in his own voice shocked him.

“It’s been almost three years, Rick,” Shane replied huskily, fingers drumming nervously against his thigh.

“It has,” Rick agreed, “but that don’t answer the question.”

Shane scratched at his head again, looking down. “I’m livin’ up in Macon now,” he said finally. “Doin’ some private security work.”

Rick remained silent, his gaze cold.

Shane’s eyes grew suddenly hard with the realization that pleasantries would not find purchase in his former friend. “I’m here to see Judith. She’s my daughter, Rick. I got every right.”

Rick smiled slowly at that, rage unfurling in him. “You always had nerve, didn’t you, Shane? Showin’ up here out of the blue after all this time, tryin’ to tell me about your rights.” Rick shook his head, still smiling, feeling himself close to the edge of something dark and infinitely dangerous. “You got no rights, Shane. Not to her. Not to be here, in my goddamn house.”

Shane jutted his chin out at him. “Yeah? What are you gonna do about it, Rick? You gonna finish it this time? Because if you want to stop me comin’ for my family, you’re gonna have to kill me.”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? You’d like for me to kill you and go down for it. Get locked up; lose the kids.” Rick laughed. “Fuck, Shane. Was that always the end game with this? You burn yourself to the ground, so you want me in the ashes with you?” Rick shook his head. “You don’t have a family, Shane,” he said, voice barely above a whisper, “you threw that all away with what you did to us, and the way you ran away after. You did. Don’t you dare try to put it on me.”

“You’re the one that ran me outta town, Grimes.”

Rick scoffed. “Ran you outta town? Naw, I never had that kinda power. You ran away all on your own. Like the coward I know you are, deep down inside.”

Shane swallowed, and Rick could see the sorrow, the longing blooming in his eyes. “I never wanted to hurt you, Rick.”

“You shut your fucking mouth,” Rick seethed, white-hot with fury.

Shane shook his head slowly. “I mean it. You were my best friend. My brother. I - “

“I swear to god, Shane; don’t you dare. I don’t wanna hear that shit.”

“Judith is mine, Rick! You can’t keep her from me just because you hate me! You gotta let me see her! She’s all I got; I got nothin’ else left!” Tears tracked down Shane’s tan cheek, and Rick felt it - the barest, faintest twinge of answering sadness for the man he had once called a brother.

He drew a slow, deep breath. “Shane,” he began, and everything else he might have said fled his mind in an instant, because he heard the distinct sound of a gun being cocked to his right. He snapped his head towards the source, heart freezing in his chest.

It was Carl. He had appeared silently, seemingly out of thin air. Rick’s service revolver was gripped tightly in his hands, and he was pointing it unwaveringly at Shane.

A chill crept through Rick slowly, moving through every fiber inside of him. “Carl,” he said cautiously. “You need to put that down.”

Carl’s eyes flicked to his. “He’s come for Judith, hasn’t he?”

Rick froze, a horrified realization trembling on the edge of his mind. “What? What do you mean? Why - “

“I know the truth, Dad. Everyone does,” Carl snapped, cutting him off, and it hit Rick like a punch in the gut, “they didn’t try to hide it.”

“Carl,” Shane said, entreating, “it wasn’t like that. It was my fault. Your mom - “

Don’t you fucking talk about my mom,” Carl hissed.

Rick stared at him, feeling his blood turn to ice in his veins. He’s going to shoot him, he realized. That’s how this is going to end. That’s how my best friend is going to finish destroying my family.

“What the shitting fuck is going on in here?” Three heads whipped around to the source of the interruption. Negan was standing in the archway of the kitchen. He rocked back on his heels and took in the scene before him. No one spoke. He strolled casually into the kitchen, passing within inches of Shane. “Who’s this asshole?” He tossed the question over his shoulder as he reached Rick’s side, wrapping an arm around his waist.

“Who the fuck are you?” Shane spat back.

Negan grinned wolfishly, teeth flashing, a warning there. “I’m the guy banging Rick.”

“You are not,” Shane returned, incredulous.

“He is,” Carl said coolly, grip on the gun never loosening.

Negan glanced over at him. “Kid, did you swipe your daddy’s service piece? Oh, shit,” he laughed, and Rick glared at him.

“Negan, there isn’t a damn thing that’s funny about this.”

“I don’t know if there’s anything that’s funny about this because no one’s told me what the fuck is going on. Who is that asshole?” Negan asked plaintively.

Rick jerked his head towards the figure at the other end of the room. “That’s Shane.”

“Ah-! That’s Shane,” Negan said, tilting his head, appraising the pale man. “Shane, I don’t think the Grimes men want you in their fucking house. Carl over there sure doesn’t. It’s a good thing he loves his daddy more than he hates you, or he probably would have put a few bullets in you already. That would cause one big fucking ass-ache of a situation.”

Carl blinked, and the gun lowered imperceptibly as Negan’s words settled in.

Rick cleared his throat, leaping to take advantage of the momentary reprieve. “Shane and I are gonna go outside, and we are gonna talk. Then he’s going to get in his car and drive away. That’s how this is going to go,” he said firmly. He walked forward, putting himself between Carl and Shane, grabbing his former partner tightly by the arm.

“Hold on there, deputy,” Negan called, strolling forward. He threw Shane into the wall in a single twist of his wrist, and Rick stepped back, surprised.

“What are you doin’, Negan?”

“I’m going to search him for weapons, dummy. Christ, what kinda cop are you?” Negan leaned in close to the back of Shane’s head, just behind his ear, as he patted up the man’s sides. “Touch him, and I’ll break every bone you have before I kill you,” he said under his breath, his words only for Shane. The man jerked in surprise and stared over his shoulder at him. When he was satisfied he wasn’t hiding anything, he stepped back and nodded at Rick.

The two men left, Rick still hovering between Carl’s line of sight and Shane. Their footsteps faded, and the front door swung open and slammed shut in the distance. Carl stared after them, gun still pointed at the spot where Shane had been.

Negan walked over to him. He held out his hand, palm-up. “Give me the piece, kid. You did good. It’s all gonna be okay.”

Carl’s lips trembled, and he hung his head. He handed Negan the gun slowly, and a dry sob escaped his lips.

Negan wrapped an arm around his shoulders and squeezed him roughly. “You’re gonna be okay, son,” he insisted, and he was shocked to feel a hot sting in his own eyes as he watched the tears slide down Carl’s face.

Outside, Rick sank into the grass and leaned back on his arms. He and Shane had done this a thousand times in their long friendship, lazing around in the Georgia sunshine together, talking about what kids talk about, then later what teenagers talk about, then even later what men talk about.

Shane stood next to him a moment, no doubt a bit surprised, before he sank down beside him, legs sprawling out the way they always did. Shane always took up a lot of space. “Since when do you drive stick, Grimes?” Shane asked, and Rick almost smiled. Nostalgia for the old days of their boyhood friendship, when Shane would rib him endlessly, hit Rick hard.

“Just since I met him, I guess.”

“You sure about him? He seems like trouble.”

You have no fucking idea. Rick smiled coldly. “He’s great with the kids. I love him. And it’s none of your fucking business.”

Shane ducked his head. “Yeah. Okay.” There was a beat of silence before Shane started in, the familiar stubborn note back in his voice. “Judith is mine. I wanna see her.”

“She’s not yours, Shane,” Rick replied softly, “maybe she is by blood, but that’s not what matters. You left town, left her behind. I raised her on my own. Fed her in the middle of the night. Changed her. Rocked her to sleep. I loved her. So don’t say that she’s yours, when you know that she isn’t.”

Shane bowed his head. “I still want to see her,” he said in a broken voice, “I wanna get to know her.” A pregnant silence stretched out between them, and Shane turned his head away with a bitter laugh. “I know,” he said, scrubbing at his mouth, “I know you’re never gonna fuckin’ let me. I know it was crazy to come down here. I just…” Shane faltered, trailing off into silence. He hung his head again, and out of the corner of his eyes Rick could see every new line on his former friend’s face.

Rick was silent for a long time. “You can see her,” he said finally.

Shane’s head snapped around, and he stared.

“You can see her,” Rick repeated, reading the disbelieving look in Shane’s eyes, “but you have to earn it, Shane. You can’t just show up here whenever you feel like. If you want to see Judith, you call me. We’ll set a time and a place, and I’ll bring her there. No more than once a month. And Shane,” Rick fixed him with a cold stare, “if you show up once drunk or high, or you show up lookin’ like you’ve just been drunk or high, this all ends. And if you want to see her then, you’ll need to go through court, get testing, drag her through the ugliness of that.”

“Are you serious?” Shane demanded.

Rick gazed up at the sky, sunlight burning his eyes, turning his vision white. “I’m serious. Now get in your car and drive away. We’re done for today, and I don’t want you around here anymore.”

Shane sat beside him for several moments longer before slowly clambering up.

Rick kept his gaze on the clear blue sky as he listened to the sputtering of a battered old engine as it roared to life and faded away, into the distance.

He found Negan with a glass of whiskey in hand when he returned to the kitchen, and the other man lifted it in a wry salute.

“To you, darlin’. That was a helluva thing. You all right?” He pushed a glass towards Rick and poured him a drink.

“Yeah. I’m all right. Where’s Carl?”

“In his room.” Negan leaned against the counter, capping the bottle. “You’re not gonna come down too hard on him for this, right, Rick?”

“I’m not?” he asked acidly.

“He was tryin’ to protect you.”

Rick felt a flash of frustrated anger. “That can’t be the excuse for doing horrible shit all the damn time, Negan,” he snapped. Negan lowered his head, the blow landing, and Rick felt an immediate stab of guilt. He stepped forward and slipped his arms around his waist, leaning his forehead against his. “We’ve all gotta try and be better than that,” he murmured.

Negan’s gaze on his was rueful. “I don’t know if I am better than that, Rick. That’s the fuckin’ truth.”

Rick sighed, feeling suddenly drained. He didn’t want to take another ride on this merry-go-round of a conversation, so he kissed him instead, slow and soft. When he pulled away, he caught sight of Carl standing in the archway, silent as a mouse, and he startled in Negan’s arms.

“So you’re not fighting anymore?” Carl asked, eyes sliding between them.

Negan gestured between Rick and himself, eyebrow arched. “Kid, does this look like fighting?”

“What were you even fighting about?”

Rick opened his mouth to deflect the question, but Negan cut in. “I did some bad shit before I met you all, kid.” He hesitated. “I didn’t tell your dad the truth about that. I figured I could hide it, and I couldn’t. Real bad fuckin’ decision - tryin’ to lie about the serious shit always is. Trust me, it all has a way of blowing back on you. I knew that, but I made a stupid fucking decision anyway. Your dad….he had to decide whether he could live with it or not – the shit along with the lyin’ about the shit.”

Rick was staring at him.

“What? He’s gonna be a man before you know it, Rick, you don’t think he deserves to know about what’s going on in his own house?’”

Rick rubbed his mouth and sighed. “I guess you’re right.”

Negan looked between them. “Well, I’m goin’ upstairs. Have fun with this fuckin’ conversation.” He took his glass and left, leaving Carl and Rick standing on opposite sides of the kitchen table.

Carl nodded towards the whiskey. “Can I have a drink, too?”

“Absolutely not,” Rick shot back, eyebrows halfway up his forehead.

Carl smiled at him, and he realized he had fallen for a joke.

He smiled back at him, unable to help himself. “Carl, what the hell were you thinking?” he asked gently.

Carl stared at the table, jaw set. “He thinks he can come in here, after what he did, and try to mess up our family even more,” Carl hissed.

The venom in it surprised Rick all over again, and he realized for the first time that he had never fully realized how much Carl knew about what had happened leading up to and in the wake of Lori’s death. He realized the degree to which he had underestimated him, and it left him feeling ashamed. “Carl, I’m sorry,” he said quietly, “I thought that…you didn’t know. I didn’t want you to know.”

Carl gave him an exasperated look, tears shining in his eyes. “I”m not an idiot, Dad. I heard things. I saw things. Just because you never wanted to talk about it doesn’t mean none of it happened.”

Rick lowered his head. “I’m sorry,” he said again softly. “No more secrets, Carl. I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”

“Is he gonna try and take Judith?” Carl demanded, and the way his voice broke on the question pierced straight through Rick’s heart.

“No, Carl. He isn’t. He wanted to see her, and…I told him that he could. Once a month.”

Carl’s shocked eyes glared over the table at him. “Are you nuts?” He asked, disbelief in every word. “He doesn’t deserve to see her! He doesn’t deserve to see any of us!”

“It’s not about what he deserves, Carl,” Rick replied, leaning forward and gazing into his son’s eyes, silently pleading with him to understand what he was about to try and explain to him, man to man. “It’s about…mercy. It’s about tryin’ to see people as who they could be, not as who they’ve been. If we can’t do that for each other, then none of us can ever be better than the worst thing we’ve done in our lives. Is that really the world you want to live in?”

Carl swallowed, looking down, no doubt lost in the memories of his own missteps and failures. “I guess not. But…” he struggled, uncertain.

Rick walked around the table and put an arm around his shoulders. For once, Carl didn’t shrug him off. “Do you trust me?” Rick asked quietly.

Carl’s shoulders slumped, and new tears sprang into his eyes. He nodded wordlessly, and Rick wrapped his arms around his shoulders. His only son. Carl hugged him back hesitantly, and Rick fought a laugh that suddenly threatened to burst from his throat. It was the most affection Carl had shown in ages, and it had come at an absurdly steep price.

Rick cleared his throat. “You know that you’re in a pile of trouble right? You can never, ever, ever touch that gun. Any gun. You understand?”

“Yeah,” Carl muttered. He peeked up at Rick. “Can I still go over Enid’s after school?”

“No way. You’re grounded. For a long time. I don’t even know how long.” Carl was scowling, and Rick grinned down at him in response, affection bubbling in his chest for the sullen boy he loved so much. “She can come over here sometimes, though. Okay? I wanna meet her.”

“Okay.” Carl twisted away from Rick’s embrace, apparently having had his fill of their shared moment. He turned away to retreat to his room, but he stopped before he went more than a few steps, hesitating. “Everything okay between you and Negan now?”

Rick ran a hand across his mouth. “…Yeah. Like he said, he uh - he made some mistakes in the past.” Rick cringed inwardly a little at the understatement. He had appreciated Negan’s instinct to be honest with Carl, even saw the wisdom in it, but that didn’t mean he was ready to give a full account of the gruesome details. Not now, maybe not ever. “But like I was sayin’, I believe in who he could be. We’re working it all out.”

“Good,” Carl said slowly. He looked like he wanted to say more, and Rick filled the space for him.

“I know you missed him this past week. I know you like having him be a part of this family. That’s…” Rick looked down, fumbling shyly for the right words, “that’s a big part of why I love him, Carl. The way he is with you two.”

Carl gazed at him for a moment, eyes soft and older than his years. Then his lip twitched. “Whatever,” he said, disappearing up the stairs.

As Rick entered his bedroom, he found Negan sprawled and lounging on their shared bed, hands folded behind his head.

He looked up at Rick and gave a soft chuckle. “You poor fuckin’ sap. That parenting shit sucks, don’t it?”

Rick smiled at him. “It does. You know it does. You’ve done enough of it yourself lately.”

Negan shrugged but looked almost shyly pleased at that.

“I’m serious, Negan. I don’t know what I woulda done without you today. You got through to Carl when he had that gun on Shane.” Rick shuddered, lifting his hands to his face. “Jesus. Can’t believe that happened.”

Negan rose up, settling his hands on his knees. “Is that guy gonna be a problem, Rick?” He asked softly.

Rick looked at him, and there was an grim, unspoken question in his dark eyes. “Negan,” he said warningly, throat tightening in dismay.

Negan smiled, eyes still hard. “I’m askin’ you, blue eyes. No more doin’ shit on my own, but if you have shit you want done, well - “

Rick held both hands up, stomach sinking. “No,” he said firmly, fighting the rising tide of alarm.

Negan nodded slowly. “Okay, Rick,” he said quietly, “your word is law, honey. I mean that. I’m all yours now, I swear to you.”

Rick dropped his hands slowly, hesitant relief spreading through him. Negan held out an arm, and Rick crawled into bed beside him, leaning into his shoulder with a sigh. “I told him he could see Judith. Once a month. If he calls first to set it up, and if he stays sober,” Rick said, and he felt Negan rear back and stare down at him.

“Seriously? I thought you hated that prick? You gonna let him see your baby girl now, just like that?”

Rick nodded, searching for the words to explain. “I realized it today, as it all happened - I just don’t hate him like I used to,” Rick said slowly. “Shane…he took so damn much from me. He took all the love and friendship out of my life, both what I had with Lori and what I had with him. He left me tryin’ to be two parents at once with no one to lean on, no one to talk to. No one I could be myself with - just be Rick.” Rick rubbed his eyes and swallowed. “It was suffocatin’, and there were times when I thought I wasn’t gonna make it. I hated him for doing that to me, leaving me so close to failing at being there for the kids. Hated him with everything I had.”

Negan stared down at him, silent, taking in every word, every gesture.

Rick dropped his hand from his face and looked at him. “But that’s all changed now,” he said quietly. “I have those things again. I have you. I have friends; good friends. It doesn’t change what he did, but it doesn’t…it’s not raw like it used to be. So it’s easier for me to be better, more generous than I have been. Then I ever thought I could be, with him.”

Negan turned to face him more fully, cupping his face in his large hands. He gazed into Rick’s eyes for a moment, face set and solemn. “Fuck you, Rick Grimes,” he murmured, and Rick snorted a surprised laugh. “You’re gonna make me fuckin’ cry.” He tilted his head and captured his lips, and the kiss spoke for him - it was slow, it was loving, and it was damn near worshipful.

Chapter Text

Negan knew, of course, that things could never be quite the same. The truth had opened up yawning sinkholes beneath their feet, and they would have to build over those unless they wanted to plunge straight in again. It would take time, and the end result would not be the same. The latter was all right, but the former drove him out of his mind with frustration. He wanted this shit in their rearview mirror; he wanted it there yesterday.

They would be in the middle of something ordinary, and suddenly Negan would feel it: blue eyes on him, appraising, intimate and distant all at once. At first, he would let it go without any acknowledgement, determined to allow Rick to take the lead on working through all this shit, to take his time. He didn't want to fucking push. Bad shit happened when he pushed; he had stepped in it enough times to know that about himself, and he was damned if he would jeopardize the fragile pardon Rick had granted him. Just the thought made him ill. But he was too impatient to continue to forbear all probing, despite his best intentions. They were putting away groceries one day, and he felt it at the back of his neck - that look.

“What is it, Rick?” he muttered. “You’re thinkin’ about something. Share with the class.”

“It’s nothin’,” Rick returned, looking back down to the brown paper bag he was digging through.

Negan exhaled slowly through his nose, willing himself to stay calm. “It’s not nothin’,” he said quietly. “Just ask what you wanna ask. Come on.”

Rick leaned back, regarding him hesitantly. “How many people have you killed?”

Negan frowned, pulling a few cans from a bag. “How many did I kill personally, or how many did I have killed?” As soon as the words left his mouth, he cringed. Shit. That sounded full-on fucking crazy. He froze with one hand on a loaf of bread. He was afraid to turn his head towards Rick. He didn’t want to see what might be in his eyes. There it was again - fear. He hated feeling fear. Many of the worst things he had done in his life had been to obliterate it - raze anything or anyone who might be a threat to him or his people right to the ground. But now, it seemed to be the ransom demanded of him for the return of love into his life, and he had no choice but to pay.

“Never mind,” Rick said finally. Negan turned toward him slowly, forcing himself to meet Rick’s eyes. They were solemn. Rick gave him a weak smile as he walked up and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Never mind,” he said again, angling his head up to kiss his cheek. Negan caught him tightly around the waist, pressing him to his chest. Rick leaned into him silently for a moment, letting him cling. “You mind finishing up here?” Rick asked softly. “I wanna go check on Judith. She might be up from her nap now.”

“Sure, honey,” Negan managed, his voice tight.

Rick kissed his lips gently and stepped away. Negan watched him disappear up the stairs and then placed both palms on the table, letting his head fall forward as if the weight of it was too much to manage. He wondered if they would ever be completely out of the minefield that had bloomed under their feet the moment Rick had understood the full, grisly facts of his past. Now that it was in the open between them, reproach followed closely on Negan’s heels, born largely from his sense of himself through Rick’s eyes. He didn’t care about that, of course - he was willing to embrace a little penitent self-scourging if that was what kept Rick by his side. Hell, living with a daily reminder that he should feel guilty about the things he’d done was far, far less than he deserved, and he knew it. His guilt wasn’t going to bring any of the sorry bastards he killed back to life, that was for damn sure.

Some of the last ugly remnants of his fiendish pride still protested, but he had that well in hand now. He had let it possess him once, that awful day that Rick had unearthed his secrets, and the memory of the vicious things he said still smoldered like coals in his heart. Never again, he told himself. No more fucking things up, Negan. For fuck’s sake. No more pissing on the people that love you just because you can’t handle your fucking feelings. Lucille hadn’t deserved it for her crime of getting sick and dying, and neither had Rick for his crime of being scared of him while all that shit was hitting the fan. They had both forgiven him, and somehow their mercy hurt, even more than their anger or disappointment.

His phone buzzed in his pocket, breaking through his thoughts. He reached for it absently. He thought it was the school or hell, maybe even Tara or Rosita. It wasn’t. The message that greeted him was from his past life, the wrong life, and it felt like a kick to the gut. I have news, it read. He knew the number - it was a phone he had given her for this purpose. There was only one reason she would contact him. She was too careful, too conscientious for anything else - a woman of her word through and through.

Rick returned holding Judith. He handed her to Negan with a smile that made his heart throb. “She’s askin’ for you.”

Negan grinned and lifted her high up into the air as she giggled. “Here’s my girl! How was the royal nap, Princess?” When he settled her against his shoulder, she leaned towards his ear and covered her mouth with her tiny hand, the picture of intrigue.

“I want a cookie,” she said in a conspiratorial whisper, and Negan shook with the laughter that immediately overcame him. He felt sudden tears sting his eyes, and he tried to turn away to hide them from Rick. He was too late for that.

Rick sidled up to him, wrapping one arm around his waist and placing the other against Judith’s back. He smiled up at him, slow and warm, before leaning into his other ear. “Love you,” he murmured. “And you’re feeding her too many sweets. That’s why she always waits to ask you.”

Negan struggled for something light, something teasing, and felt himself fall short. He disengaged himself wordlessly and walked over to Judith’s highchair, gently placing her into it.

“Negan?” Rick said softly behind him.

He gave Judith a cookie from the jar on the counter, which she attacked with relish, before turning around and putting his hands on Rick’s waist, tugging him out of Judith’s earshot. “I just got a message, Rick,” he said quietly. “It’s from the person I trusted the most in the crew. Someone who was family to me. She…she’s the one who pushed me to get out when I did. Told me to stay totally clear of all that shit after taking off. She would never contact me unless it was a big fucking deal that I needed to know about.” Fear rose up in Rick’s eyes, and it made Negan want to crawl out of his skin. “Honey, it’s okay. You’re safe. I’ll never - “

“I’m worried about you, Negan, not us. If you thought we were in danger you wouldn’t be standin’ here, all calm, waitin’ to tell me about it - I don’t know what you’d be doing, but you’d be tearin’ somethin’ up. This person, she contacted you because she thinks you’re in danger - that about it?”

Negan scratched his cheek, a little taken aback. It still startled him on occasion just how easily Rick could read him. “Yeah,” he said finally, “probably. Thing is, Rick, family is supposed to be off-limits. Outlaw code.” He smiled faintly at the look on Rick’s face. “What? That surprise you? We got rules, darlin’. Not that I haven’t crossed paths with people who would sink that low and lower, but when I did, I usually made it a point to kill ‘em.” Rick lowered his gaze, and he felt a tired little pulse of sadness. “Sorry,” he added after a moment. “I know you don’t like to hear about that shit.”

Rick sighed. “Negan…” he began. He fell silent, still looking at his feet.

After a moment, Negan leaned into him and kissed his forehead. “I need to go talk to her. I’ll be back.” He tried to move away, but Rick’s hand on his shoulder stopped him.

“Alone?” Rick said, frowning. “You shouldn’t be - “

“Rick, no,” he snapped, and instant shame flooded him at the way Rick flinched back, alarm, offense, and anger crossing his face in rapid succession. He immediately wrapped an arm around him and cupped his cheek, trying to soothe away the lash of it. “Darlin’, you belong here with them, not out fuckin’ around in that outlaw shit with me. I don’t need to tell you that. Don’t worry about me.” Rick pressed his lips together. Don't you fucking fuck this up, Negan, he cursed himself. “I’m sorry,” he said softly. There was an ugly little fragment of his former self, buried deep in the darkest corner of his mind, that sneered at all the apologies, but he crushed it under his heel without a second thought.

Rick exhaled, expression softening, and shook his head. “I’m just worried, honey,” he said finally, and Negan saw it in the brief downward flicker at the corners of his mouth and in the crease of his brow - fear and sadness, hand-in-hand.

Negan kissed his forehead, his lips, as if trying to chase away the unhappiness there. “Don’t worry about me, baby. Haven’t you heard? The devil looks after his own.” He had hoped that would get a smile, but Rick just looked pained.

“Don’t say that, Negan - “

“All right, all right, I’m just fuckin’ around, baby, okay? Don’t be so damn serious, officer.” He squeezed Rick’s side, and he got the tiniest, barest glimmer of a smile in return. He drank it in.

He waited, arms crossed, leaning against the hood of his car in front of the same grimy diner where he had met Simon more than a month ago. It felt like so much fucking longer, with everything that had happened after that day. A bike rumbled up to the empty lot and slid in beside him. A small figure leapt off of it, pulling off her helmet as she dismounted. At the sight of the familiar silver-grey hair, Negan’s heart twisted in his chest.

Carol had been his most trusted lieutenant and the closest thing he had had to real family in the Saviors. He had been raised in the life, and his blood relations were long dead. Carol had come up with him, one of the few constants in a chaotic life where comrades and mentors were claimed right and left by prison, death, or the former shortly followed by the latter. He had tried to make her his successor when he stepped away, but she refused. She had been too fucking smart for that; he realized it now. All that power just led straight to hellfire - it had started dragging him down, nurturing an ugly blend of cruelty and pettiness in him, the day he took the crown, even before Lucille’s death sent him hurtling straight into the abyss that he had lost himself in for a good, long while. Besides all that, Carol had always been something of a lone wolf.

She walked up to him, and they stared at each other for a moment, the air between them thick with memories. Negan moved first, stepping forward and crushing her against him, lifting her clear off her feet. She laughed and squeezed him around the neck with her arms. She patted his shoulder and gave a slight sniff.

“Good to see you, kiddo,” she said.

“You, too, darlin’. How’s Sophia?”

“Tall. Beautiful. Talking about going to college. You wouldn’t recognize her anymore.”

“Shit. Time fuckin’ flies, don’t it?”

“Yeah. It really does.” She turned towards the double-doors at the entrance and gestured for him to follow. He outpaced her easily with his long legs and opened the door for her with a wink and flourish of his hand. She reached up and smoothed the collar of his jacket as she passed, something she had done a thousand times, and nostalgia squeezed his heart in a vise. They slid into a booth, and soon two steaming cups of coffee sat in front of them. The terrified looking girl in the red apron had been replaced by a beaming, pretty woman with glasses in her mid-thirties who frankly looked far too put-together to be working in the disreputable surroundings. Negan supposed that even the seedy little dives at the edge of this town couldn’t escape the pull of its bucolic wholesomeness completely.

“I heard you’re an honest-to-god cougar now,” Negan said, shooting her sly wink. “That true? You find yourself a boy toy?”

Carol smiled at him over her coffee, arching an eyebrow. “He’s a tracker. I needed his help with a few things, and…I like him.”

“He’s a tracker,” Negan crowed, grinning filthily at her, “what’s he track? Hold on, I know.” He made a show of raising his finger into the air, as if he had just completed a brilliant deduction. “He tracks that sweet milf pussy, don’t he?”

“Negan, I’m going to slap you right across the mouth if you don’t cut it out,” Carol returned patiently, and he chuckled.

“Joke’s still on you, girl, you know I love it when beautiful women slap me in the face.” He leaned forward over the table, smile fading. “So, what’s the fuckin’ news? Lay it on me. Happy as I am to see you, I know this shit’s gotta be serious for you to be here.”

Carol nodded, eyes going hard. She went straight to the point - a quality Negan had always admired in her. “Joe’s been spotted in Tennessee. And he’s been doing some drinking and some talking. Saying he’s going to kill the devil.”

Negan leaned back, and the rage that welled up inside him was mixed with an exhilaration bordering on glee. Joe’s escape from the hellish retribution Negan had rained down on the Claimers had always galled him. “That stupid motherfucker,” he breathed in a soft, wondering tone, “I really thought he’d get the fuck out of Dodge permanently. I guess I’m gonna get to take him apart after all.” He froze suddenly, reality hitting him like a dash of cold water in the face. “Fuck,” he hissed, “that sick fucking rat bastard. You think he knows where I am now? About my - “ Negan choked on his words. About my family?

As usual, Carol seemed to read his mind. “My intel says that he knows you left the Saviors and went down to Georgia. He knows the town, Negan. Beyond that, I can’t say.”

He tossed his head back and groaned, cold fear trickling in and joining the crackling fury. “It’s the shit with that guy I had done in the state lock-up, right? That’s what put me back on the fucking radar.”

Carol shook her head. “I don’t know, Negan. Maybe, maybe not. I think he was probably trying to track you before that.” Her eyes on his were almost stern. “Listen, I’m taking care of this. I’ve got my eyes and ears out there, and that guy, the tracker? He’s on his tail. If he crosses state lines, I’ll hear about it within fifteen minutes. If it comes to that, you need to go into lock-down.”

“My family needs to go into lock-down. I need to go find that motherfucker and fucking finish him,” Negan growled. He looked up at her and caught the soft look in her eyes. He ducked his head slightly, feeling a blush start to burn in his cheeks.

“Your family?” She said softly. “You gonna tell me about them? All Simon said was ‘he’s fuckin’ the five-oh.’” She dropped her voice in a mimicry of Simon’s gruff tones, and Negan scoffed.

“Makes it sound like I’m fuckin’ the whole goddamn sheriff’s department.”

Carol shrugged. “Knowing you…” she trailed off, giving him an arch look.

“Real funny, doll,” Negan drawled. “but it’s just the one.” He sighed slowly, slumping back against his seat. He had wanted to tell her, he realized. He had for some time now. He had wanted her to know his new life, but he had also wanted to keep her advice and stay away from his old one. Not that he had done a good job of that when all was said and done. “Yeah, my boy, he…” Negan trailed off, pausing for a moment, his gaze moving out into the distance. “Blue eyes, smokin’ body, Southern charm just oozin’ out ‘im - not that fake-ass dandy bullshit, the real thing. The kind where he don’t know he has it. He still blushes when I fuck him, and you know I’ve fucked him up, down, and sideways, so it sure as hell ain’t with the novelty of it. You get to thinkin’ he’s just a big, easy swallow of sweet tea, but you see someone try to fuck with him? Then he’s all teeth.” Negan licked his lip slowly, tongue resting in the corner of his mouth, eyes almost dreamy. “And if someone tries to fuck with one of his kids?” He gave a long, sliding whistle, like a warning siren. “Ho-ney, then it’s all over but the clean-up in aisle four.” He looked up at Carol, and the gentle happiness for him that he saw in her eyes choked him. “I don’t deserve any of it,” he said, his voice suddenly tight. “The shit I tried to pull was fuckin’ crazy, Carol. I was playin’ house like it would never catch up to me. But it did. Of course it fucking did. He found out everything, and he’s fuckin’ giving me a chance. I don’t deserve him.”

She reached out and touched his hand. “It’s not about what you deserve, honey. You know that. You just go ahead and ride off into the sunset.”

Negan sighed shakily through a weak smile, rubbing his mouth. “I don’t know if that can even happen. All that shit I did before I walked away, Carol, it’s just hanging in the air between us. And now Joe is - “

“It’s gonna happen,” Carol interrupted, and suddenly her kind blue eyes were hard as flint. “It’s gonna happen, Negan. And Joe is going to die, like he should have that night in the warehouse with the others.”

He smiled slowly at her. “There she is,” he said softly. “That’s why you were always my number one, darlin’. But what about you? You gonna quit the life, too? Ride into the sunset with the milf tracker? Maybe ride off on the milf tracker?”

Carol huffed at him, shaking her head. “I don’t know. But we’re gonna finish this first.” She scooted from the table. “Like I said, the second he crosses the state line, I’ll know. And then we’re gonna take care of this.” She paused, standing beside him, hand on his shoulder. “Go home,” she said softly. “Go home to Mr. ‘Southern charm’ and don’t worry about this until it actually becomes a problem. Trust me, Negan.”

He looked up at her, his smile equal parts gratitude and affection. “I do.”

Negan couldn’t stop checking the doors and windows. He wandered around the house, needing to lay eyes on Carl and Judith every so often as if to be reassured that they were still there. He knew it didn’t make any damn sense - they weren’t going to disappear into thin air, but he recognized the distinctive brand of paranoia. He had seen it in other parents; hell, he had seen it in Rick plenty of times.

He could allow himself to appreciate the dark humor in it - he thought of those children as his now, this was his family, and the price of that was him going out of his mind with impotent terror at the thought of a threat hovering out there, beyond his immediate power to crush. He had the family he had always wanted, something that fate had stolen from him with Lucille, and loving them opened up new, terrifying vistas - ways of being torn apart beyond anything he could have imagined. The brief, hot surge of gleeful anticipation he had experienced at the thought of getting to fucking finish that piece of shit Joe had only lasted the space it took for him to remember their faces.

He thought about his cache of weapons and gritted his teeth. Rick would never allow any of that shit in the house, he was sure of it. Especially not with Carl’s tendency to fucking help himself to firearms. He could feel Rick watching him throughout the rest of the day, taking note of his anxious prowling. By unspoken agreement, they did not discuss it or Negan’s visit with his former lieutenant until they went to bed that night.

Rick clicked off the beside lamp before he slipped under the blankets beside Negan, nestling against his shoulder. In the moonlight, his blue eyes were the color of slate. “Well?” he asked quietly. “What was it?”

“You remember what I told you about the Claimers?” Negan asked, wrapping an arm around Rick.

“Yeah. They were…they were traffickers, you said. You took ‘em out.”

Negan sighed. “I did. With one notable fuckin’ exception. The evil motherfucker who called the shots, piece of shit by the name of Joe, somehow he caught wind that we were gonna move on them. He took off, and as far as we could tell, he didn’t stop runnin’ until his ass was in fuckin’ Guadalajara. Figured he’d never be stupid enough to try and come back. The target on his back ain’t got an expiration date, and he knows it.”

Rick twisted in his arms to look up at him. “But he’s back now?”

“Yeah,” Negan said. He shifted, gathering Rick up tighter in his embrace, gripping the back of his head gently. “But we’re ten steps ahead, baby. There’s no reason to worry.”

“No?” Rick asked, muffled against his shoulder.

“No,” Negan whispered back, running his fingers through his curls.

Rick was silent for a moment. “I hate this,” he sighed, finally. He rose up on his arms to hover above him, looking into Negan’s eyes. They were utterly black in the dark of the room. “Someone wants to kill you.”

Negan smiled ruefully. “A lot of people want to fuckin’ kill me, honey. Ninety-fucking-nine percent aren’t stupid enough to try it.”

“But this guy is the one percent?” Rick asked, and his voice was so hoarse and pained that Negan’s heart twisted in his chest.

“Baby, that’s not the fuckin’ problem with this guy. Remember what I told you before, about family bein’ off-limits? Because of the code? This guy…he doesn’t have any fuckin’ code. The shit he did. Evil shit. I know I’m bad, Rick, but there’s bad and then there’s in-fucking-human. This guy would go after you to fuck with me, you’d better fuckin’ believe it. That’s the shit that I can’t let happen.” He swallowed thickly.

“What do we have to do?”

The question and the tone it was spoken in, so grim and matter-of-fact, caught Negan momentarily off-guard, and dread immediately pooled in his gut. “We aren’t doing anything, Rick. This is all my shit, and I’m the one that’s gonna handle it.” Negan felt Rick draw a breath, no doubt to start in on something, and he rushed to fill the space first. “He’s in Tennessee right now, but my top girl’s tracking him to see if he’s gonna try and cross the state line. If and when that happens, you and the kids need to hole up somewhere right away. There’s gonna be a whole fuckin’ pile of Saviors between you and the door. That shit-stain would never even get close.”

Rick gazed down at him steadily in the dark of the room. “Negan,” he began, but he was cut off again.

“Rick, please,” he said desperately, “don’t fuckin’ say it. You can’t get tangled up in this. You have to fuckin’ listen to me and lie low if it comes to that, okay?”

“Negan,” he said again, an edge in his voice that warned him not to try and interrupt a third time, “you’re tellin’ me that this guy’s got no code, that he’s the kinda man that would go after family to hurt you. That means that my kids are in danger here. I can’t just sit and do nothin’.”

Guilt tore at Negan from the inside like a belly full of glass. “Yeah,” he answered hoarsely, “but you’re all in danger, Rick. That’s why you all have to get underground if this shit hits the fan. The part where we go out and kill this motherfucker, you gotta leave that to me. You wouldn’t wanna leave Carl and Judith on their own. You’d wanna be the one protecting them, right?” That was manipulation at its cheapest and most transparent, but it worked.

Rick frowned above him and nodded reluctantly. “I guess you’re right about that.”

Negan felt himself sag against the pillows behind him, nearly limp with relief. “I brought all this crazy shit into your life,” he whispered, and the shame that burned through him was nauseating. “How can I ever make it right, baby?” He was surprised by the dry laugh from the man above him.

Rick reached down and seized his wrist, bringing his hand up to the thick scar below his shoulder. “I was livin’ a dangerous life before I met you, Negan. Still am, carryin’ the badge. You’re just more of the same.”

Negan snorted, looking up at him. “Are you fuckin’ comparing me to the bullets you took, Rick?”

He looked surprised at that, and even in the dim moonlight Negan could see a flush creep across his face. “I didn’t mean it like that, honey,” he murmured, sounding abashed.

Negan chuckled, running his thumb over the rough scar. “Why not? It’s pretty fuckin’ spot-on if you ask me.”

Rick was shaking his head. “It’s not, Negan. You’re not some...some bad thing that happened to me.”

“Oh, yeah? That how you felt when you found that shit in the closet? When I got in your face and said all that horrible fuckin’ shit to you that day?”

Rick’s jaw set in that familiar stubborn way. “Negan, don’t. I…” he trailed off, and his eyes grew distant. “I never got to tell Lori this,” he said in a hushed tone, “because of how she was taken from me so quick. That was one of the things that was the hardest for me to take, after she died.” He swallowed, and the soft light filtering in from the window reflected off the sudden wetness in his eyes.

Negan stroked his thumb where it still laid over the scar, confused at the sudden shift in Rick’s thoughts. “What do you mean, baby? Tell her what?”

Rick smiled at him and covered the hand with his own. “I never got to tell her that I would never change anything that happened between us. Even with the way it ended - all the bad things that happened. If I could go back and change it, make it so that we were never together, I wouldn’t. I really wish I could have told her that.”

Negan stared up at him, feeling awe touch him as he realized where Rick was going - what he was about to say.

“It’s the same with you, Negan, and this time I do get the chance to say it. Yeah, some bad things happened with us. More bad things could still happen. But I wouldn’t go back and change anything; wouldn’t change us. It’s - it’s real important to me that you understand that.”

There it was, yet again. A mercy that hurt, salvation and scourging all at once. “Rick, don’t. Fuck, you’re too - too fuckin’ sweet to understand what you’re saying. You were right before. I am just a bullet that got stuck in you. Of course you would be better off if I had never - “

Rick reared back, expression freezing over. “I’m a grown man with two kids, Negan. Of course I know what I’m sayin’. Don’t talk to me like I’m a lovesick kid - my head is screwed on a hell of a lot straighter than yours.”

A shocked laugh erupted from Negan, and he fell back helplessly against the pillows, shaking with the force of his mirth. “Oh, shit,” he said finally, when he got control of himself, “you put me right back in my fuckin’ place, didn’t you? Fuck, Rick, is it fucked up that it makes me hard when you’re so goddamned mean to me? Because it does.” He gave a sly smile, looking up through dark lashes.

The corner of Rick’s mouth quirked up. “Good,” he said, “because I’m tired of talking.” He shifted and rolled, pulling Negan on top of him. He reached up and caught his jaw roughly. “I love you. I wouldn’t go back and change any of this, because I love you. Now make me come so I can go to sleep. You bein’ an asshole got me all wound up, as usual.”

Negan gave a low, soft whistle. “Yes, sir, officer.” He made love to him just like that, with him on his back, knees drawn up to his chest. He wanted to look at his face, into his eyes, as the earth shook and shivered beneath them.

A week passed by with no further developments. Then another. The first few days after the meeting with Carol were the worst - Negan felt like some predatory animal in a zoo, wandering through the artifice of his day-to-day life when all he wanted to do was find the threat to his family and eviscerate it. His nerves were on a hair-trigger, and he found himself getting out of bed two or three times a night to prowl the house, checking the locks, turning over potential scenarios in his mind. Rick found him in the kitchen one night, testing the edge of a knife on his finger.

Negan looked up at him as he padded softly into the kitchen, frowning. “Didn’t mean to wake you up, Rick.”

Rick leaned against the back of a chair and sighed. “Negan, what are you doin’?”

Negan slid the knife back into the block, shaking his head. “Losing my fuckin’ mind, baby.” He looked over the table at him. “You got anything other than your service revolver in the house?”

Rick stiffened. “You mean like a pack of guns buried under the floor I never told you about? No, I ain’t got that,” he said coldly, and the way Negan had been feeling - every nerve vibrating like a plucked string - he almost, almost lashed out. He felt something ugly rise up in his throat and bit it back with a supreme effort, staring down at his feet and willing the aggrieved anger to fade.

Rick was by his side in a moment. “I’m sorry,” he said. He touched Negan’s cheek, and he looked up from the floor, meeting Rick’s soft, regretful gaze. “I’m sorry, that was, uh…” Rick shook his head, dropping his gaze.

Negan put his hands on Rick’s hips with a sigh, drawing him close against his body. “Not as sorry as I am, darlin’. I got that kind of thing comin’. I know it.”

“No,” Rick said quietly, looking back up and locking eyes with Negan. “I’m not gonna throw this shit in your face for the rest of our lives, Negan. I won’t. I know it’ll just tear into what we have, little by little, if I do.”

“Rick, don’t.” Negan heard the dismay in his own voice. “I don’t care if you get up every morning and tell me that I’m a fucking piece of shit for lying to you the way I did as long as you lie down next to me again at night. I swear.”

Rick sighed, brow furrowing. That ain’t true, Negan, he thought to himself. You wouldn’t be able to stand it forever. You’re too proud for that, and eventually you’d bite back. Then we’d be right back to where we started. He couldn’t bring himself to say any of that out loud - it certainly wouldn’t help matters, anyway. And the panicked despair he sensed in Negan the moment he raised the specter, however hypothetical, of their bond crumbling broke his heart in two. He ran a hand through Negan’s dark hair, pushing it back from his forehead. “No. That’s not how it’s gonna be. I promise.” He shot him a smile that was half-shy, half-teasing. “I guess I’ll slip sometimes, though. I’m only human.”

Negan crushed him against his chest suddenly, and his grip on him was painful. “I love you so fucking much,” he whispered hotly in his ear, and Rick shivered.

“I know. I love you, too,” he said with some difficulty, as Negan was squeezing the air from his lungs. He managed to disengage and step back, holding out his hand. Negan took it, and Rick led him back to bed. Rick tugged him against his chest as they slipped under the covers, and Negan allowed himself to be wrapped up in his arms, burying his face in his shoulder, running his lips over the rough, raised tangle of scar tissue just below his collarbone.

...

The message came a full three weeks after his conversation with Carol. It came when Carl and Judith were up at their grandmother’s house, and Rick and Negan were curled up on the living room couch together. Negan pulled out the phone that was buzzing in his pocket and glanced down at the screen.

Rick saw the immediate darkening of his expression, and he could feel the color drain from his own face. “It’s him, isn’t it?”

Negan looked up at him, and his eyes blazed so fiercely that Rick nearly flinched back. “Time for me to finally finish this shit, baby.”

Rick swallowed, mouth suddenly dry. “I have to go up and get Carl and Ju - “

“No, no, no,” Negan interrupted, holding up an imperious hand. “They’re exactly where they should be. Out of town. I’m going to send my top girl and her best people there, and they are going to lock that house the fuck down, Rick. No one’s getting near Carl and Judith. And you need to get to the station, where you’re going to be ass-deep in cops.”

Rick stared at him. “I’m not gonna do that, Negan, I - "

“Damn it, Rick,” he snapped, “will you fucking listen for once? Go the fucking station now.”

Rage flared up, chasing away the initial chill of fear, and Rick reared back from him. “Stop trying to order me around, Negan,” he hissed, “I’m not one of your - “

“I’m not, I’m not,” Negan cut in desperately. The affronted anger in Rick’s eyes had brought him immediately back to himself. He bowed his head and scrubbed a hand over his mouth, fumbling for the right words. “I’m not ordering you around, Rick. I’m asking you to please just fucking trust me. Trust that this is the right way to play this. This is all my shit, okay? I know how to handle it, I swear to you.” He slid forward on the couch and caught Rick in his arms. Rick resisted for a moment, shaking his head, but Negan darted his head in to kiss him, hard and desperate. When he pulled his head back, the fearful uncertainty in Rick’s eyes cut him. “Please trust me. I know I haven’t given you any good fucking reasons to do that, but please trust me, baby.”

Rick closed his eyes for a moment. “You’re sending people to the house?”

In response, Negan tapped the phone in his hand and hit the speaker button as it rang. “Carol,” he said after she answered with a terse greeting, “I got the message. I’m gonna give you the address where the kids are at right now. You take five or six of your best, and you circle that house. No one gets in. No one gets close. The fucking mailman gets stopped at the perimeter.”

“Consider it done,” Carol said immediately on the other end of the line.

“Carol?” Negan hesitated, his eyes on Rick, trying to find the words to communicate the enormity of the faith he was putting in her and coming up short.

“No one’s getting past me, Negan,” Carol said slowly, after a moment of silence. “Not to hurt kids. You go ahead and tell him that.”

Rick looked down at the phone in faint surprise and cleared his throat. “Actually, I can hear you. Thank you, ma’am.”

Negan would have laughed if the situation weren’t so fucking serious. Even now, Rick couldn’t seem to help but be a perfect fucking Southern gentleman, and it made Negan want to bend him over the couch right then and fucking defile that gentility. Now was not the goddamn time for that particular urge, though, not that little Negan ever seemed to get the goddamned memo. He gave Carol the address and clicked off the connection, eyes never leaving Rick’s. “I need to go,” he said quietly. “So do you. I’m gonna finish this, honey. I swear. Go down to the station.” He could see the protest rising in Rick’s expression, and for a moment his heart froze over with foreboding. Then Rick closed his eyes, sighing.

“Okay,” he said, resigned. “Okay. I’m going.”

Negan was on him again, nearly smothering him with kisses before pulling him to his feet and yanking him forward, across the living room. He picked up his gun in its holster as they crossed the entryway, pushing it into Rick’s hands. He marched him out the door and to his car, practically shoving him into the driver’s seat. “Don’t you fucking step a foot out of that place until I tell you to, Rick.”

Rick glared at him, starting the car, but he could only sustain it for a moment. “Just be careful, Negan,” he said tightly.

Negan leaned through the window and caught his lips again. He kissed him until he couldn’t, forced to pull back to suck in a breath. “Yeah, honey. Don’t you worry about me. I already told you - the devil looks after his own.” He stepped away from the window, motioning Rick on. He drove off after shooting him one last glare with those beautiful eyes that Negan never grew tired of looking into, regardless of whether the look turned back on him was loving or angry. Relief spread through him as the car turned out of sight.

Carol and her people wrapped around the kids. Rick at the station.

He turned slowly towards his own car where it sat, black and gleaming, in the driveway, and he felt something, someone, unfurl in him. As he had told Rick, it was time to finish this. He slid into the driver’s seat and glanced in the rearview mirror. An old friend sat in the backseat, thorny silver glinting in the blazing, mid-morning sunlight. She was sitting patiently, and she was waiting for her last meal.

Negan waited on the grass at a turn-off from the interstate. He had left his car parked at the roadside, and he stood several yards into the scraggly brush that stretched on towards the distant line of trees. Trucks rumbled and shrieked as they sped past him, belching great gusts of hot air at his back.

He couldn’t pretend he wasn’t looking forward to this. That was his whole fucking problem, the root of all the wrong turns he had ever made. He had loved the constant bloody brawl of his life in the Saviors, and it had loved him right back. But that love had been dwarfed by what he felt for Lucille - his love for her had obliterated everything that dared to challenge it, even the dark joy he took in ruling his underground kingdom. It was that love that saved him from the hell that he had been lost in after her death. The memory of her and what he had promised as she lay dying turned the cruel exhilaration of being a Devil among men to ashes in his mouth and sent him away from it all, down to Georgia, to a job coaching baseball in a sleepy little town where the second great love of his life was waiting.

So it was no surprise to him that, even as he relished what was before him, his thoughts were largely occupied with Rick and the kids. He knew Rick must be climbing the damn walls - hell, he was sure he would be nearly rabid with frustration in his position. That was why he needed to get this done and get it done quickly - no playing with his food this time around. Not while the center of his universe was waiting and worrying in a sheriff’s station miles away. He was going to enjoy killing Joe, no fucking doubt about that, but not as much as he would enjoy returning to Rick’s arms.

A distant rumble broke through his thoughts, and wistfulness hit him with surprising strength. He knew the rugged, roaring symphony of a flock of bikes when he heard it. He squinted down the highway and saw them: a scattering of black smudges gliding towards him and coming into sharper focus as they approached. Soon they were pulling up around him, black-clad figures dismounting while he surveyed them lazily. They gave him a wide berth, and he allowed himself a coldly satisfied smirk. The shadow of his former self, of the Devil, had been roused in him as soon as he watched Rick drive off to safety, and their fear pleased him.

Simon was striding up to him, helmet in hand. He held up a hand, and Negan grasped it briefly, allowing the friendly greeting. “We got ten minutes, boss. Joe bribed a trucker for a ride, and we’re gonna cut them off right here.” He gestured towards the men and women around them, standing warily off into the distance. “You want to say a few words?”

Negan shot him an amused look, arching an eyebrow.

Simon shrugged, smiling. “You know. For old times’ sake.”

Negan scratched his cheek, snorting. “Old times’ sake, huh?” He stared out at them thoughtfully, and then he abruptly strolled forward towards the assembled Saviors. He was both amused and darkly gratified at how they scattered nervously before him. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he yelled, enjoying the way several of them flinched. He paused, grinning, slowly running his eyes over the throng before him. “I never thought I’d see any of you sorry-ass motherfuckers again. But there’s some old shit that needs to be shoveled, so here I fucking am. What else is there to say? Try not to get killed out there, boys and girls, and by that I mean: don’t fuck this up, and I won’t have to kill you.” He couldn’t help it; he dipped his head back and laughed at the way the color fled from the drawn faces around him. Oh, fuck, did he ever miss fucking with people like that. He turned and walked back towards Simon, mirth fading from his face. “I’ll pull out in front,” he said, “and you take care of the rest.” His dark eyes were cold. “I’m serious, Simon. We need to get this guy. No fuck-ups, or you might not be goin’ home with everyone you rode out with.” You might not be goin' home at all if this shit goes sideways. Negan knew he didn't have to speak the threat out loud. Simon had known him long enough to understand it implicitly.

“No fuck-ups, boss,” Simon returned grimly. He waved his hand at the crowd behind them. “Look alive, kids! It’s show time!”

Negan walked back to his own car, sliding in the driver’s seat. He pulled slowly to the side of the road, watching idly in his mirror as Saviors scrambled back onto their bikes. It was far from his first rodeo, and despite how personal this all was, he was utterly calm. Hiding in the back of a truck? Fucking amateur hour. This shit was as good as ended.

It wasn’t long before he saw it - the truck matching the description Carol had given floating down the road in the distance. Simon gave a thumbs-up, and Negan pulled out slowly. He merged into traffic, slowing down and switching lanes until the truck was rumbling right behind him, all the way on the right side of the highway. He could see the flock of bikes crowd up behind the truck, moving into position.

Simon gave the signal, and they glided forward, surrounding the truck like a pack of ravens. It honked and swerved, but they forced it to the side of the road steadily as Negan stayed in front, boxing it in. They pulled off together, Negan angling the car to prevent the truck from trying to wiggle through. They forced it to a slow stop on the grassy patch on the side of the highway. Simon was already climbing up the side of the cab, reaching in the window, grinning widely at whoever was behind the wheel. Negan reached in to the back seat of his car and grasped the handle of the bat. He drew it out, hefting it slightly in his hand.

He paused for a moment, and suddenly Rick’s face rose before him, blue eyes swimming with worry. He pulled his phone out and tapped a quick message - Got the truck - before shoving it back in his pocket. Hopefully that would soothe him until he could get back and soothe him properly. He slid out of the car, swung the bat up to his shoulder, and strolled to the back of the truck, walking past the cab without sparing the driver a glance. He didn’t give a fuck about the driver. Not right now. Two Saviors were cutting at the chains that held the truck’s door down with bolt cutters, and he leaned back, dark anticipation crackling through him as the wire bit into his shoulder where the bat rested. The last chain slithered to the floor, and the truck’s rear door yawned open.

The back of the truck was empty. The Saviors gaped into it, staring at each other, then back into the empty truck, and then back at each other in a way that might have been funny if Negan wasn’t suddenly possessed by a sickening fury. He gripped the handle of the bat with vicious strength, the flesh of his palm aching with the force of it. He turned abruptly, and the Saviors before him leapt away. He loped up to the driver’s side of the truck, and Simon stared down at him from his perch.

“Joe’s not in the truck,” he said pleasantly, and the color drained from Simon’s face. “So you need to figure this shit out, friend. Remember what I said. I’m going to have a little chat with the driver in the meantime. You go get some good news for me, Simon. Oh, you’d fucking better.”

Simon leapt down hastily, keys to the truck in his hand, and Negan walked around to the passenger's side. He climbed slowly into the cab, shutting the door behind him and propping the bat against it. The man behind the wheel was middle-aged, skin bronzed and wrinkled from a life of driving, and his greasy dark hair poked out from beneath a blue cap. He was staring at Negan with the eyes of a trapped animal.

Negan smiled his most winning smile. “What’s your name, friend?”

“Jim,” the man answered in a fearful grunt.

“Jim. Jim, you gave a ride to an acquaintance of mine by the name of Joe.” Negan paused. “True or false?”

The man wet his lips nervously. “T-true.”

Negan clapped his hands, and the man leapt nearly out of his seat. “Good! See! That’s very good. We’re off to a good start here. Now, Jim, this is important. This man was supposed to be in your truck, and it gave me and my people quite a fuckin’ shock when we opened it up and saw that he was gone. He snuck out somehow. He figured we’d be on his tail, so that sly little motherfucker gave us the slip.” Negan sucked a breath through his teeth. “That really pisses me off, Jim. Really, really does.” Negan fell silent, staring out the front window of the truck. He could practically feel the man vibrating with terror beside him. “Where did he go, Jim?”

“I don’t know. He didn’t tell me nothin’, I swear.”

Negan sighed, hanging his head. “You know, Jim,” he said regretfully, “that’s the wrong fucking answer.” He plucked the cigarette lighter from the console and slammed it directly into the man’s cheek. The flesh sizzled immediately. He held it steady, frowning, as the man twisted and howled. “Okay!” he yelled, pulling the burning metal away from the blistering flesh. “Let’s fucking try this again, Jim!”

“Please, I don’t know,” the man sobbed, “he said he was going to kill the devil. That don’t make no sense.”

Negan snorted. “What else did he tell you?”

“He didn’t. He didn’t tell me anything, he just gave me the money and told me what to do. Oh,” the man’s reddened eyes met Negan’s eagerly, “he said he was going to one-six-six-six. He kept sayin’ that and laughin’, going on about how it was perfect. I don’t know what that meant,” he insisted, lips trembling.

Negan leaned his head back against the seat, delight spreading through him like something warm and sweet, and a smirk curled his lip. “I’m sorry I burned you, Jim,” he said. He could feel the man’s wary, disbelieving stare on him. “I am,” he insisted, “but I felt like I had to. Does that make me a bad person, Jim? Doin’ bad shit when it feels like you have to do it? I mean, it did make you talk.” Negan sighed. The man looked at him with a mixture of fear and bewilderment. “Never mind, Jim, I’m just shootin’ the shit here. You need to listen real good, now, because I’m going to tell you how this is gonna go. You’re gonna drive to the hospital, and you’re going to say you were jumped when you pulled over for a rest. It was three men wearing masks, lookin’ for money. Here’s the fuckin’ kicker: you’re not gonna get robbed. You get to keep the money Joe gave you. Those guys that jumped you, they couldn’t find anything. One of ‘em got mad and burned you. Sick motherfucker, right? Then they ran off. You don’t know who they were. You can’t identify ‘em. You never got a good look. Now, someone asks you about Joe, well, you never saw him. You definitely never saw me. Those fine people out there? Never fuckin’ saw ‘em. Got it?”

The man nodded so hard his cap nearly flew off. “Yes. Yes, sir, I understand.”

Negan hummed approvingly, head still lolling on the seat behind him. There was a time when he would have shot this man, this loose end, without a second thought for the crime of seeing his face and walking away with the ability to identify him. Or maybe just out of pique, for his having cooperated with Joe, although he certainly knew nothing about the man that had paid him for passage. This was no outlaw sitting beside him - this was an unlucky man who accepted a shady offer for the money. Everyone needed money. It was nothing that should cost him his life, but there was a time not so long ago when that was the price Negan would have demanded be paid.

That was then. Now, not only did he not want to kill the man shaking in the seat beside him, but he had also seen the pink plastic charm bracelet wrapped around the base of the rearview mirror as soon as he slid into the cab. A child’s pink plastic charm bracelet. A low drone of guilt had started and had not relented throughout this entire little conversation, and now that it was done Negan felt the entirely alien urge to try and make it right.

“I know you understand, Jim,” Negan said quietly, “so I’ll tell you what. You keep your word, and in six months time you’re gonna wake up one mornin’ and find double what Joe paid you tucked under the seats in your cab. That’s for your trouble today.” He clicked his tongue between his teeth, struggling with the unfamiliar work of trying to apologize. “And because I burned you. I gotta stop fuckin’ burnin’ people. I know that shit ain’t right. Okay?”

“Okay,” the man said warily. Negan clapped him on the shoulder, and he jumped again, nearly clean off his seat. Negan couldn’t help but grin. Rick and his sense of justice, his goodness, may have burrowed deep under his skin - deeper than he realized until just now - but a tiger doesn’t shed its stripes, and when people reacted to him like he was Freddy-fucking-Krueger he got a hell of a kick out of it. Couldn’t fucking help it. He slid out of the cab, chuckling to himself.

One-six-six-six. That was his house. Joe was right. It was perfect. That’s why he fucking picked that house; it was his own sick little joke. The kids were buttoned up tight at grandma’s, Rick was in the station, and Joe was in the Devil’s den. You stupid motherfucker, he thought, dark glee rising in him.

Chapter Text

Rick was praying he could slip into the station unnoticed - he was a bad liar, particularly when he was wound up, and now he was wound up tighter than he ever had been in his entire life. The last thing he needed was for Tara or Abraham to ask what he was doing at the station on one of his off-days - the entire, insane story was liable to come tumbling out. Rick almost laughed aloud at the thought.

Tara, you remember when you teased Negan about his jacket? Asked him where the motorcycle was at? Well, thing about that is…

Rick knew the hilarity he was feeling at the thought was a close associate of hysteria, and he gritted his teeth, glaring at himself in the rearview mirror as he pulled into the station. He twisted the keys and yanked them out of the ignition. He sat for a moment, trying to control the sickening fear roiling in him. “You stop it,” he hissed at his reflection. After all, he agreed with Negan and his evaluation of the situation in front of them, albeit grudgingly. This was the best way to do this - with him, along with Carl and Judith, off the playing field. He could hardly traipse around Georgia in an entirely extra-legal pursuit of a fugitive - he was a cop, for Christ’s sake.

He supposed he should be disappointed with himself, at the failure of his faith in the rule of law, that he had not even tried to suggest turning the matter over to the county sheriff’s department, but he was no fool. Maybe he could be naive at times, and he certainly had blinders on when it came to his loved ones. Negan was the prime, shining, top-of-the-damn-list example of that, although he was far from the first person he loved to have deceived him - that dubious honor had gone to Shane and Lori, tied for the silver medal of making a fool out of Rick Grimes. But he wasn’t about to be a fool about this. A man like Joe didn’t belong in a county lock-up, babysat by county deputies used to the revolving door of drunk-and-disorderly. And the truth was, Rick didn’t want him behind bars - he wanted him dead. He wanted the threat to his family completely neutralized, due process be damned. He supposed that should bother him, but he couldn’t muster in himself even the pretense that it did.

Of course, perhaps the biggest reason he had dismissed the thought of turning the matter over to the law before it was even fully formed in his mind was because there was no damn way to explain it. Not without inviting questions into their life, into Negan’s old life, and he wouldn’t allow it. Negan was his now; that was the decision he had made the day they reconciled. The memory of it heated up Rick’s cheeks - taking Negan inside him to the hilt, riding him as Negan gripped his hips and thighs like a drowning man clinging to a life preserver. Mine, he had thought, gazing down at him. Good, bad, I don’t care. I don’t. This man is mine. Never mind the rest of it; it was as simple as that.

Tara was shuffling through some papers as he sidled up quietly to his desk, and she flashed him a happy smile. “Rick, hey! What are you doing here?” she called out cheerfully.

Rick winced and lifted a conspiratorial finger to his lips, and Tara slapped a hand over her mouth, eyes sheepish over her hand. “Just came in to, uh…take care of a few things. Not supposed to be here when I’m off,” he said, smiling at her.

“Don’t worry,” Tara whispered. “I’ll hide you from Gregory.”

The moment the words left her lips, the man himself poked his head out from his office, frowning. Rick bit back an instinctive groan. “Rick,” Gregory called in a faux-friendly tone, displeasure written all over his face. “Hello, hello! I do admire your work ethic! Of course, as you know, we’re not funded for overtime. So…” he pulled a face of exaggerated regret, and Rick fought the urge to walk over and smack it off of him.

“I’m not lookin’ for overtime, Gregory,” he said in the most patient tone he could muster. “I just had…” he racked his mind. “I had some cleaning to do. You know. My desk. It’s…” He gestured, feeling himself flush. “It’s not police work. Just cleanin’.” Goddamn, he was a bad liar. Worse than that, the truth was humiliating - Negan had sent him here for protection. It galled him, and just now, it seemed absurd. Gregory was useless. Tara was capable and brave, but she was a rookie with barely a year on the job. Besides, Rick had come to think of her as the kid sister he had never had, and the thought of her tasked with shielding him from the kind of fiend he conjured up in his mind from Negan’s story was horrifying.

There were other deputies milling around the department, and Rick looked at each of them in turn, guilt swelling up in him. No one here had signed up for this insanity. Rick didn’t realize how far he had lost himself in his thoughts until a hand on his shoulder made him jump.

It was Tara, and her kind brown eyes were concerned. “Everything okay?” she asked softly. “You kind of went to Mars for a second there, dude.”

He smiled up at her wanly. “Yeah. Course it is. It’s just that the kids are at their grandmother’s, and Negan’s off runnin’ errands, and I didn’t want to sit around the house alone.” That was a pretty good lie, actually, but telling it to someone as sweet and genuine as Tara made him want to throw up. Gregory had disappeared back into his office, thankfully.

“Oh, well, don’t worry! I’ll keep you company!” Tara said with a grin as she made her way back around to her desk. “Until Negan gets back, I mean. You’re kind of a lost puppy without him, huh?” she teased, eyes sparkling at him.

He gave a half-laugh, half-groan. “He’d get a hell of a kick out of hearing you say that, so please don’t.” He smiled at her, even as his heart fluttered anxiously. For all his worry about his colleagues, he knew it was unlikely that the fight would ever come to the station. He was not the one in danger, and neither were they.

Negan was the one in danger. He opened a drawer at the side of his desk and made a pretense of ducking his head to examine what was inside to hide his expression. Just the thought of something happening to him, or worse, of outright losing him made his mind feel fuzzy at the edges. He hoped, he prayed that the Devil - almost supernatural in his menace, seemingly aloof from earthly harm or reprimand - was still alive in him for this, and he felt the full force of that irony. He knew he was going to be in hell until Negan was back in his arms.

And he was, for every second of the hours that passed until his phone buzzed in his pocket. He yanked it out, and it nearly flew out of his nervous hand and across the floor as he did so. Got the truck, it read. Negan had told him that Joe was hiding in a truck to get to Georgia. The plan was to find it, find him, and now it was done. The relief that flooded through him turned his legs to water. All of a sudden he had to get out of the station. He had to. He needed to be alone to suffer the aftershocks of all this - the sudden absence of fear was almost as disorienting as the initial, hot surge of it when he had first seen Negan’s expression grow thunderous, staring down at his phone earlier this morning. He stood, grabbing his keys, and Tara looked up at him with a smile.

“All done?” she asked, and her guilelessness squeezed his heart. He stepped around to her side of the desk and briefly took her hand. She blinked up at him, looking both surprised and pleased.

“Yeah,” he said, giving his partner his warmest smile. “All done.”

Rick stepped across the threshold of his home, clicking the door shut behind him and leaning against it for a moment as he rubbed a hand over his eyes. He unclipped his holster, gun tucked inside, and placed it on the small table in the entryway. He trekked through the living room wearily, stripping off his jacket and tossing it, with his keys, onto the coffee table before making his way into the kitchen. He was pulling his phone from his pocket, intending to check it for more messages.

A grey-haired man with affable blue eyes was sitting at the table facing the archway to the living room, leaning back with an ankle casually balanced against his knee. He looked for all the world like he was lounging on a park bench, completely at ease, with every right to be just where he was, and Rick’s first confused instinct was to apologize. Then, all at once, everything shifted into focus.

“You’re Joe,” Rick said. It wasn’t a question. He placed the phone slowly at the edge of the table and took a slow, careful step back.

The man grinned at him, and he lifted the hand that was resting just out of sight below the table. He was holding a pistol, and he scratched his temple with it. “I’m a little surprised, Officer Grimes. I truly did not think you would know me, but since you do, I guess you know that I’m a friend of Negan’s.” The man leaned back further in his chair, still smiling. “And I understand that you are a friend of his, too.”

Rick’s jaw tightened. “There’s no point in playin’ games. I know that you’re no friend of Negan’s, and I assume you know that I’m more than his friend. What are you doin’ in my house?”

The man rapped the gun on the table in front of him in apparent glee, cackling. “Goddamn! You know, boy, what I had heard was that ol’ Negan was playin’ house with a cop that didn’t know better. An’ I thought, man, that boy is mean as a rattlesnake. Imagine him pulling the wool over the eyes of a fine, upstanding man of the law like that! He’s the kind that would get a real big kick out of it, yessiree. But now I’m thinkin’ that maybe you know all about him, and it’s you that’s getting your kicks. You a groupie, officer? Oh, Negan always had those lining up out the door, I’ll tell you.”

Rick exhaled slowly through his nose. He was calm. He had already made a mental checklist - the gun was sitting uselessly in its holster on the table in the entryway, the knives were in the drawer behind Joe himself, and he supposed he wouldn’t get far against a gun swinging the chair in front of him. That left words as his only available weapon - he could try and draw this out, but he supposed Joe wouldn’t sit idly chatting while Negan pieced together what was happening and kicked in the door. What Rick needed was for Joe to make the mistake of getting too close. He needed either to make him angry or to make him believe that Rick was not a threat. “What are you doin’ in my house?” he repeated softly, keeping his tone light and curious.

The man smiled pleasantly up at him again. “Well, now, come on, officer. I’m here to kill you. You gotta know that.”

Rick nodded agreeably. “Sure. But why? You got away. Why would you come back here? Negan knew you were comin’ as soon as you got close. All of the Saviors are on your tail, and god knows who else besides. Negan does seem to have a lot of connections.” Rick quirked his head at him, crinkling his forehead as if puzzling something out. “You’re never gonna get away again. This is a suicide mission. Why go on a suicide mission, Joe?”

The man’s pleasant mask was cracking at its edges. He scratched at his temple again with the gun. “You know, son - I guess I gotta apologize.” The man gave an exaggerated shrug. “I assumed you were gonna be some small-town, redneck cop, you know, too much of a corn-fed dumb-ass to realize whose cock was down your throat.” He looked up at Rick swiftly, searching for a hint that the blow had landed, but Rick merely smiled blandly down him. He chuckled. “Just goes to show you, it’s important to never make assumptions. Well, officer, since you’re not as dumb as you look, I guess I might as well tell you. We’ll be getting to know each other pretty well over the next few hours, so why not start here? I’ve had this little cough, see, for a while now. And, well - a man likes his smokes. Is that a crime? For a man to like his smokes?” He knocked on his chest with the butt of the gun. “Cancer, Rick. Can I call you Rick? I got the cancer, Rick! Ain’t that a son of a bitch? Lung cancer, inoperable, they said.” Joe leaned back in his chair with a genial smile. “I feel pretty good aside from the damned cough, but I only got a year or so left. You know, I coulda been livin’ that year out in style if it weren’t for ol’ Negan. Instead, I’m livin’ like a rat in a hole. A rat that’s always lookin’ over its shoulder for a big, mean, nasty ol’ cat. So I got to thinkin’ - Joe, I said, Joe, what would make you happy? What would you like your last act on this earth to be? Well - ”

“You wanna kill him,” Rick interrupted, his patience worn thin. “I got it.”

The man slapped the table again and laughed boomingly. “Aw, no, Rick - don’t you know? That boy has the devil’s own luck. Between you and me, I think he’s damn near unkillable. People better at killin’ than me have tried. No, I figured I didn’t have a real shot at doing that. I just want to give him something to remember me by when I’m gone. That’s why I’m gonna kill you.” He raised a hand. “Well, not right away, of course,” he amended. He shifted forward in his seat and looked up at Rick eagerly, as if he had suddenly remembered something. “Hey, Rick, that reminds me - where are the kids at? The ones in those nice pictures on the wall? They on their way home, or do we have to pick ‘em up?”

Rick felt his face contort despite his best efforts to keep control, and Joe sneered at him, eyes alight with malicious triumph. It’s okay, Rick told himself, because he doesn’t know where they are. Negan was right. They’re safe out of town. Negan was right about him not leaving the goddamn sheriff’s department, too, but there was no point thinking about that now. “They’re not here,” Rick said quietly. “You’ve got me, an’ you can go ahead and kill me, but you’ll never get to them.”

Joe sighed, rolling his eyes theatrically. “Rick, that’s what they all say. You’re gonna tell me where they are - not right now, but eventually, after I work on you for awhile. Then we’re gonna get the family together, and you’re gonna live long enough to watch me rape that boy of yours.” He laughed uproariously at Rick’s expression. “What’d you think, officer? That it was gonna be you? Nah, Rick, you’re too old for me.”

Fury, nausea, and terror all crowded in on Rick at once, suffocating him. He knew he would never tell this man where to find his children, no matter what hideous things he was planning on doing to try and make him, but just the thought of the obscenity of him existing in the same world as Carl and Judith completely disoriented him in the moment. Just for the moment, but it was enough for Joe to think that he had him.

Rick heard Joe rise from his chair and walk towards him, and he knew that this would be his only chance. He waited until he could just see the gun at the edges of his vision before flashing forward, turning into the man and twisting the wrist holding the gun. It went off, angled harmlessly away, and Rick kicked in at the man’s knee. He grunted and went down hard, managing to take Rick with him. Rick slammed his shoulder into Joe as he landed, knocking the wind from him, before gripping his wrist and slamming it into the hard tile floor again and again until the gun skittered from his grasp. He was just rearing back to make the space for a punch when he was suddenly flipped onto his back, his head slamming against the tile hard enough to make his vision fuzzy and his teeth ache in his mouth.

Joe had his arms pinned, and Rick twisted, trying to get purchase. The other man grunted with the effort of keeping him down, and suddenly his neck was within inches of his face. Within reach. Without thinking, Rick darted forward and sank his teeth into the flesh, grinding them together, feeling thick and gristly tissue give. The man gave a high, floating scream, blood bubbling out of his throat and pattering over Rick’s face like rain. He pulled his head back, teeth still buried deep in the other man’s throat, mouth filling with the hot, coppery tang of blood. Joe’s throat tore like paper, the sound of it loud and hideous in Rick’s ears. He kept pulling, kept tearing, until the man was nothing but a weight above him. He turned his head and spat out a sticky mouthful of blood and tissue, pushing the man off of him. He rolled onto his back and lay there for a moment, overcome by the adrenaline still screaming through him, his heart pounding against his ribs like it was trying to break free.

He felt half-disembodied - part of him was the shaking, blood-smeared man lying on the cold tile, and part of him was standing several feet away, marveling at the grotesque tableau. He rolled over to his hands and knees and then stood on unsteady legs. He looked around the kitchen and saw his phone still perched on the other end of the table. He crossed over to it, slipping a bit on the slick wetness of the blood beneath his feet. He picked it up and dialed Negan, his fingers leaving sticky, damp red smears on the phone’s smooth surface.

Get to the house,” he said when the call was answered, blood still thick in his mouth. The phone slid out of his hand and clattered to the floor. He sat down. He looked at the body at his feet. The man’s throat was an vile mess, sinews wet and exposed. His eyes bulged as if in disbelief. Rick smiled slowly, with satisfaction.

He waited patiently, with no real awareness of the passage of time, until he heard the roar of a sorely taxed engine and the shrill screech of tires. The front door crashed open, and steps banged through the house.

Negan stood in the arched entry to the kitchen, white to the lips. His eyes bounced between the blood-spattered corpse at Rick’s feet and Rick himself, and when he darted into the kitchen, he slid and nearly fell on the blood-slicked tile. He seized Rick by the shoulders, yanking him up and into his arms, nearly ripping his shirt at the seams in the process. “Jesus fucking Christ, Rick. Are you hurt?” When he didn’t immediately respond, Negan shook him hard by the shoulders. “Are you hurt?”

Rick blinked up at him almost sleepily, as if he had suddenly awoken to his presence. “No,” he answered, wrapping his arms around Negan’s waist and resting his head against his shoulder. “Not really. This is the guy?”

Negan looked down at what had once been the leader of the Claimers. “That’s the fucking guy,” he muttered, fear buzzing through him like a swarm of stinging wasps. “Rick, I am so sorry. I am so fucking sorry. I thought we had him, then he wasn’t in the truck where he was fucking supposed to be, then I thought he was going to the house. My house. Jesus Christ, how the fuck did he know to come here?”

“It’s okay,” Rick said into his chest.

“It’s not okay,” Negan said raggedly, “he came here to fucking kill you. I promised you this shit would never happen.” The roar of motorcycles echoed through the kitchen, and Rick could see a flock of bikes pull up through the living room window.

He touched Negan’s cheek gently. “It is okay, Negan. I took care of it.” He glanced down at the man sprawled at his feet. “He came into our house and threatened our children,” he said matter-of-factly, as if by way of explanation.

Negan was looking at him, taking in the blood in his mouth and on his face, slowly piecing it together. “Did you…did you rip his throat out? With your teeth?”

Rick’s blue eyes met his calmly. “He said he would rape Carl in front of me,” he said, and Negan’s stomach twisted in on itself in horrified rage. At the same time, he felt a slow wave of wary admiration for the man in his arms move through him. He had been right about Rick, way back from the beginning. He was not a man to be fucked with. That sick motherfucker Joe had walked straight into the fucking lion’s den, and the lion had torn him apart with his teeth. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw black-clad figures crowding into the kitchen. Every one of them was staring down at Joe’s remains.

It was Simon who finally broke the silence. “Well, shit, boss. What’d you do to him?”

Negan squeezed Rick against his side. “It wasn’t me,” he said simply. Nearly a dozen pairs of eyes fell on Rick, and he seemed to become aware of their presence all at once.

“Get this the fuck out of my kitchen,” Rick snapped, gesturing towards the body. His lips pulled back in an angry snarl as he spoke, revealing the grisly sight of blood between his teeth. Negan couldn’t help the bolt of pride that shot through him at the surrounding Saviors’ expressions - they looked about ready to piss at the sight of Rick.

“Get the circular saw, Mark,” Simon said hastily, and a handsome, well-built young man retreated in the blink of an eye.

Rick grimaced. “Saw?”

Simon shrugged. “It’s easier to get the body out that way, friend. Nice little bite-sized pieces.”

Negan leaned down towards Rick’s ear. “You need to give me those clothes and get in the shower, Rick. We’ve got to make like this never happened.” Rick looked up at him. “Crew’s gonna take care of it,” Negan said quietly.

Simon signaled to the remaining men. “Get the stuff, boys,” he barked, “it’s time for a clean-up.” They scattered instantly like startled birds.

Rick was already stripping off his bloody shirt and pants, tossing them in a wet pile next to Joe’s corpse. The sight of his bare body, corded with muscle, never failed to make Negan harden, and he swore the blood painted across his face and throat just heightened the arousal. Goddamn, Negan, you’re a sick fucking puppy, he thought to himself, fighting an urge to run a hand down Rick’s chest that was wildly inappropriate to both the situation and the setting. “Go on. I’ll make sure this gets done,” he said softly. Rick nodded at that, turning and disappearing up the stairs.

Simon was staring at him when he turned back. “That’s him, huh, boss?”

“That’s him.”

“He tore this shitkicker’s throat out with his teeth, right?”

“That’s fuckin’ right.”

Simon cocked his head, and an amused smile snaked across his face. “Kinda figures that’s the guy you’d shack up with, man.”

Negan glared. “Don’t fucking forget it, Simon.”

Simon held up his hands and turned away, still smiling. Mark was loping back, saw in hand. Simon slapped him on the shoulder, and he nearly tumbled forward with the force of it. “Throw down some plastic and fucking get to it, kid!”

Mark looked green, and Negan leaned against the doorframe, grinning at him. He almost felt sorry for the kid. Almost.

Rick sat at the edge of Carl’s bed. He had gone there to wait after he had showered and scrubbed every trace of Joe’s lifeblood from his body. Saviors were crawling around the house, eradicating all traces of what had just transpired. Tampering with evidence, he thought wryly, but he didn’t give a damn about that. Not now; not for this. The memory of Joe’s threat still sat in his mind like acid, bubbling and burning its way through him. He had never thought the taste of another man’s blood in his mouth could bring such a savage joy to him, but it had the moment it had registered on his tongue. He dared, he dared to threaten his children in that vile, unspeakable way, and now he was dead by his hand. That was right. That was good. He was too far in his own thoughts to register the voices fading from downstairs, but when a familiar heavy step approached the door, he looked up eagerly.

Negan stood in the doorway, his dark eyes soft as they fell on him. “Saviors’ housekeeping service - results guaran-fucking-teed. The secret’s in the bleach,” he intoned like a late night infomercial. “I guess we could have tried to go legit with that one.”

Rick smiled at him and held out his arm invitingly. “Maid service, huh? White aprons and everything?”

Negan laughed, but it was a weak echo of his usual full-throated mirth. He sat beside Rick, winding his arms around him and pressing him tightly against his chest. Rick’s arm slid around his neck, and Negan bent his head to touch his lips to the sensitive skin just behind his ear. “Baby, baby, baby,” Negan sighed, “you sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah,” Rick said softly. “At least I will be, as soon as we get the kids.”

Negan hummed softly in agreement, rubbing circles into Rick’s back, brows knit.

Rick leaned back and looked at him. “Are you okay?” He lifted a thumb to smooth across Negan’s forehead, as if trying to erase the lines there from his pained expression.

Negan snorted softly, shaking his head. “No. No fucking way.” He breathed a wry laugh as tears sprang to his eyes. “That was way too fucking close, Rick, and I am not okay with it.”

Rick shook his head, hand sliding up the back of Negan’s neck and into his hair, urging his head down to his shoulder. “S’alright, honey. It’s done with. You were right, I never should’ve left the station. I just figured…I don’t know. I thought it was safe. I never thought for a minute he would be here, in the damn kitchen.”

“You definitely never should have left the fucking station, Rick, for fuck’s sake,” Negan said irritably, and Rick huffed a laugh.

“Yeah, well. Like I said, it’s done. Let’s go get Carl and Judith, and then you can make us all something to eat.”

Negan let out a laugh into Rick’s shoulder, and Rick was relieved to hear something closer to Negan’s old self in it. “Seriously, Rick? You’re thinking about eating? In that kitchen? You are one cold-ass motherfucker.”

Rick smiled ruefully. “Maybe. I think I might be a little shell-shocked. It doesn’t seem like all of that was exactly real.” He turned his head and kissed Negan’s temple.

“I’m sorry,” he muttered against Rick’s shoulder. The guilt sat like like a blade in his stomach. “I am so fucking sorry, Rick.”

“I know,” Rick breathed, lips in his hair. “But it’s gonna be all right. Come on, you drive. Take me to ‘em, honey. I need to see ‘em, hold ‘em.”

Negan kissed his shoulder and rose, tugging him up. “Yeah. So do I, baby.”

As they turned into the shady, picturesque little tree-lined street where Lori’s mother lived, Rick frowned. “Are they gone already?” he asked, and he was surprised at Negan’s sudden bark of a laugh in response.

“Come on, Rick. You’re a cop. Look closer. What’d you think, they would roll up in this Stepford-ass burb on their bikes, popping wheelies down the street?”

Rick shot him an annoyed look, although he felt a touch of sheepishness at that. He looked around again, and he did see it this time - cars parked around the perimeter of the house, drivers idling - an obvious stake-out to a trained eye. There were two women standing in front of the sidewalk, laughing and chatting. He assumed they were neighbors, but as Negan’s car nosed forward and rolled to a halt at the edge of the sidewalk, their eyes both flicked towards them, alert. Rick started. “Wait…them, too?”

“Mm-hm,” Negan responded, “and the one on your right is Carol.”

Rick’s head snapped back to the two women in shock. He didn’t know what he was expecting out of Negan’s “top girl,” but he wasn’t expecting that. The slim woman with her halo of silver hair and delicate features looked like someone who would be sitting across from him at a PTA meeting. He stepped from the car slowly, and Negan strolled past him. He clapped the other woman, pretty and young with tightly coiled dark hair, on the shoulder and leaned over to speak to Carol, gesturing back towards Rick.

“I’m heading in to check on ‘em,” Negan tossed over his shoulder with a forced nonchalance, and Rick’s heart warmed in his chest. He needs to see that they’re okay, he thought. He knows they are, but it doesn’t feel real until you actually see them. The silver-haired woman was approaching him. She held out her small hand.

Rick took it, giving her a shy smile. “Thank you for protecting my children. I can’t thank you enough for it.”

“My pleasure, Rick. I have a little girl myself,” the woman answered. She smiled up at him, eyes crinkling. “I have a feeling you want to ask me about Negan.”

Rick ducked his head. “Well, I…I wanted to meet you. Negan said you’re like family to him.”

Carol was nodding gently. “He was the person I was closest to in the world for the longest time. He killed my husband, you know,” she said, and Rick’s eyes snapped to hers, wide with horror. “It was the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me.”

“It…what?”

Carol smiled. “Oh, it’s a cliche. Believe me. I’m sure you’ve seen it a hundred times in your line of work. My husband used to beat me. Then our daughter started growing up, getting pretty, and Ed got a look in his eyes around her. It was only a matter of time.” Her frank blue eyes on him were arresting, and Rick couldn’t look away as pity and horror welled up in him. “Like I said, it was the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me. For us. And it was more than the law ever would have done, no offense to you personally, of course.”

Rick looked down, swallowing hard. “You’re right about that,” he said quietly. “Our hands are tied nine times out of ten.” Jessie Anderson’s lovely face rose before his mind’s eye. Negan had taken care of that, too, and apparently it hadn’t been his first time ending that sort of man.

Carol quirked her head at him. “You having a hard time with all this?” she asked softly. “With what he used to do? Who he used to be?”

“I-I was. At first. But I know him. I know how he’s been with me, with my kids. That other guy…he doesn’t seem real.” Rick shuffled his feet, glancing at her uncertainly. “You knew him back then,” Rick said hesitantly, “and you still care about him, so…”

She nodded slowly. “So that other man, he had to have something in him worth loving, too? Well, yeah. Of course. He tried to burn it, bury it, smash it up, but his heart was always still there, deep down. A lot of the things he did, even some of the worst things - he did them to protect the people that looked to him for it. That’s why I never lost faith in him, even during some dark times. And they were dark times after Lucy passed. He lost his way for a long time.” Her eyes met his. “You know about all that, I guess.”

Rick nodded slowly. “He told me.” He passed a hand over his eyes. “Am I bein’ crazy?” he demanded suddenly. “Are my children gonna be safe with all this? That’s the only thing, the only thing that I…” Rick choked off as his throat tightened and hot tears stung his eyes.

Carol looked at him, her eyes soft and solemn. “There’s no such thing as safe,” she answered gently. “Not really. Being alive is a dangerous thing to be. Maybe there are more people out there that would want to try and hurt him by coming after you and yours. Then again, there’s a lot of people, probably more than you think, who are looking out for him out of loyalty or even love - like me. And then there’s even more people than that who are scared out of their minds of him and would never say boo in your direction because of it.” She shrugged, smiling. “Maybe that all makes you more safe, maybe less, maybe it’s a wash - who knows?” She looked into Rick’s eyes, gaze suddenly sharp. “Do you understand that he loves you?”

“Yes,” he whispered, throat dry. “I love him, too.”

“Then you should understand what that means. No one protects what he loves more fiercely than Negan.” She stopped, considering. “Well…maybe that’s you, too. Maybe that’s why you boys fell in love. I think you understand each other - at least, I know you must understand him a little better now, after what just happened.” She gave a slow, soft smile. “I heard what you did to Joe. Oh, he deserved that. He richly deserved that.”

“He threatened my children,” Rick said, and her cool blue eyes met his with perfect understanding.

“I know, my dear,” she replied simply.

Carl wrinkled his nose the moment he stepped into the kitchen. “Why does it smell like bleach in here?”

Rick’s expression was almost comic in its dismay, and Negan stepped in to save him. “We did some cleaning, kid. What do you think, it’s all sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll when you kids are out? Being an adult fucking sucks.”

Rick groaned and pressed a hand over Judith’s ear. Luckily, it was well past her nap time, and she was already dozing in her father’s arms. “Seriously, Negan?”

He walked over with a sheepish laugh. “Oh, sh- uh. I’m sorry, Princess Judy. Guess daddy’s gonna have to wash my mouth out with soap.” He dropped a lecherous wink at Rick, who blushed immediately.

“Oh, my god, gross,” Carl groaned, shooting up the stairs and into his room.

Negan chuckled, leaning in and kissing the top of Judith’s head. Rick watched him, and when Negan looked up he was caught and held by the soft, loving look in the clear blue depths of his eyes. “I, uh…” Negan faltered. He scratched at his jaw. “Guess I’ll start dinner.”

Rick wordlessly leaned in and pressed a kiss to his cheek. He lingered for a moment, lips hovering over the dark stubble, before carrying Judith up to her bedroom. That’s where Negan found him later, when he went upstairs to collect them for dinner. Rick was walking the small room, rocking her gently in his arms as she slept, nose buried in her honey-colored curls.

Negan leaned against the doorframe, smiling fondly at them. “You know how fucking cute you are sometimes, Rick?”

Rick huffed a soft, amused breath. “I used to do this all the time with Carl,” he confessed softly. “Babies got a smell to them. I don’t know how to describe it. They smell like…I don’t know, like how a soft blanket feels. I could never get enough of it.” He walked to Judith’s crib and gently laid her down in it. She made a sleepy noise before settling, lifting her chubby fist to her face.

Negan stepped up behind Rick where he stood gazing down at her. He put hesitant hands on his waist, and his heart gave a pleased, happy flutter at the way Rick immediately relaxed back against him, as if on pure instinct.

“Thank you,” Rick said softly.

Negan turned his head, staring down at him in surprise. “Huh? For what?”

Rick turned in his arms. “For the crazy way you’ve been acting the minute you found out they might be in danger.”

Negan lowered his gaze, guilt creeping back through him. “Rick, it’s my fault in the first goddamn place that - “

Rick lifted a hand and put it over Negan’s mouth. “Shh,” he whispered, shaking his head slightly. Their eyes met, and the air between them throbbed. The man in Negan’s arms had him in thrall, and they both knew it. Rick let his hand fall away slowly from Negan’s lips before closing the distance between their mouths for a slow, breathy, languid kiss. He nestled his face into the juncture of Negan’s neck and shoulder when they finally broke for air, and Negan pressed his lips into his curls.

The sound of a throat being cleared in the doorway caused them both to turn their heads towards the source. Carl stood, arms crossed. “Are we gonna eat?” he demanded, the barest touch of an adolescent whine in his voice.

Negan chuckled softly, resting his chin on the top of Rick’s head where it still rested against his shoulder. “Sure, kid. Soup’s on. Knock yourself out.”

Carl began to turn away, but he paused, hand on the doorframe. “Is everything cool?”

Negan squeezed Rick against him. “Everything’s cool. Right, darlin’?”

“Everything’s cool,” Rick echoed softly, glancing up at Negan.

Carl still hesitated, hovering. “You guys are cute,” he blurted, the words rushing out of him as if he was trying to spit out something quickly before it choked him. “Like, together. When you’re not being gross.” He turned and retreated down the stairs to the kitchen before either of the men could react. Rick listened to his son’s fading footsteps, too touched to speak.

“Holy shit,” Negan said, a little amazed. ”Fucking teenagers. We’re cute, he says.”

“When we’re not bein’ gross,” Rick corrected, and they both muffled their laughter so as not to wake Judith.

...

Later than night, Negan was uncharacteristically silent and withdrawn as they got ready for bed. Rick watched him thoughtfully as he went through his familiar nighttime routine. He let him have the space he was taking and made no comment. He went off to check on Carl and Judith, lingering with them awhile. When he returned, Negan was sitting on the edge of the bed, gaze on something far away.

Rick walked over slowly until he stood a few feet in front of him. “You got doubts?” he asked softly, head tilted almost down to his shoulder.

Negan looked up at him, surprise written on his features. “About what, darlin’?”

“Us,” Rick answered, and Negan’s eyes blazed up at him in horrified shock.

Fuck no, baby. Course I fuckin’ don’t.”

“Good. ‘Cause neither do I.” He caught him there - Rick saw the uncertainty flash up in his eyes, and it tore at his heart. “I’m all in, Negan.”

Why?” Negan demanded suddenly, eyes pained. “With everything you know? Everything that’s happened? With what happened today? Baby, do you think I lied to you about me because I wanted to fuckin’ hurt you? Make a fool outta you?” He shook his head, hard. “I did it because I figured you would never - “ he broke off suddenly, feeling himself draw dangerously close to tears.

Rick drew closer to where he sat, settling down beside him and sliding his hand up his arm. “That’s all in the past, Negan. That’s where it belongs. In the past. We’re not livin’ in the past.” He ran his other hand up over Negan’s shoulder. “We gotta move on now. Build a new future. Keep our eyes forward and leave all that other shit behind us. An’ I do mean all of it. We both have shit that we need to let go of.”

Negan slid an arm around Rick’s waist, drawing him closer. “It doesn’t always stay behind us. That’s the fuckin’ problem.”

“Yeah. But that’s okay. If it won’t stay dead and buried - if it rises up on us and comes knockin’, well, we - “

Negan interrupted, unable to help himself. “We have to rip its throat out with our teeth?” Rick shot him an annoyed look, and Negan chuckled. “Too soon? Because fuck, Rick. I knew you weren’t someone to be fucked with, but that shit is serious even by my standards. You know you scared the shit out of a pack of fuckin’ hard-ass criminals today, right?”

“I was gonna say that we have to face it together,” Rick said, refusing to be distracted by the teasing. He traced Negan’s cheekbone with his thumb. “Okay?”

Negan swallowed and nodded, gazing at Rick as if he were the only thing worth looking at in the world. “Fuck, baby. I love you so fucking much.”

Rick flushed a little, pleased as he always was when Negan spoke to him in that honest, utterly unguarded way. “I love you, too.”

Negan moved in and captured his lips in a long, searing kiss before pulling back and regarding him with mischief in his eyes, tongue between his teeth. “So…you gonna fuck me tonight or what? Because I would really like that.”

Rick snorted and hung his head. “Negan…don’t tell me all that gruesome shit earlier turned you on.” Negan gave a hangdog shrug, and Rick shook his head slowly at him, fighting a smile. “You’re impossible,” he murmured. He let his hands fall to Negan’s waist, fingers sliding into the waistband of his boxers. “But I can’t say no to you, baby.” He allowed the smile to blossom with that, a faint touch of shyness there, as Negan bent his head and covered his lips with his own.

They stripped each other eagerly, hands wandering, caressing, squeezing. Rick was stealing his breath away with his kisses as he gently pushed him to lie back on their bed. He sank down into the mattress slowly, careful not to break the seal of their mouths as Rick collapsed on top of him. Negan arched into his lover as their tongues danced slowly. Rick drew back, releasing Negan's lips with a soft, wet noise. He tugged Negan by the bicep, urging him over gently. He settled on his stomach, pillowing his head on his arms as Rick draped his warm, hard body over him. Negan ground back against the cock pressed against his ass, and Rick responded with a delicious moan. Slick fingers probed gently over his opening, and Negan tried to rock back against them and take them in.

“Shh,” Rick’s lips brushed over the shell of his ear. “Slow down.”

Negan groaned as Rick’s fingers rubbed and teased at him. “Oh, baby, please. Don’t be mean. Give it to me, come on.”

“I’m not being mean,” Rick said softly, the hint of a smile in his voice. “I’m just takin’ it easy.” A single finger slipped into him, softly stroking, and Negan let out another rumbling groan that felt like it was being pulled out from deep inside of him. This was how Rick turned him inside out: having his steady, slow, sweet way with him until Negan felt like a shaken champagne bottle ready to burst, long before Rick was ready to let him. He writhed and pleaded to no avail; it felt like an eternity of gently teasing fingers until Rick’s hard, thick cock was blessedly deep in him, stroking the sensitive flesh inside. He tried to be good, he did, but Rick’s relaxed, unhurried pace was driving him wild with desperation. He managed to wrap his leg around Rick’s, his ankle sliding over his calf. He reached behind him and tangled his hand in Rick’s hair, tugging lightly, earning a soft chuckle. “Negan, you’re impossible,” his lover breathed into his ear, “do you always have to try and take over?”

“I”m not, I’m not,” Negan gave a whispered protest, expelling a soft puff of laughter, “I just need to touch you, baby. Just let me touch you.” He reached back and slid a hand slowly up the other man’s thigh, feeling the muscles rolling there as Rick moved against him.

Rick answered him with a throaty moan directly above his ear that set every nerve in him on fire with lust. “That’s real sweet, honey.” He punctuated that with a slow grind of his hips that tortured the sensitive spot deep within, and Negan slammed his face into the pillow beneath him to muffle the low whine that escaped his throat. There was the barest hint of sadistic satisfaction in the quiet laugh above him, and he reached back and slapped Rick’s thigh high up where it curved into his backside, relishing the wanton noise Rick made in his throat in response.

“You little bitch,” Negan gasped as soon as he caught his breath, and there was no mistaking the warm affection in his tone. “You love winding me up this tight, don’t you? You want me begging you to let me come, huh? I knew you had it in you, Rick, deep down under that good ol’ Southern boy routine. I knew it right back when we first met. You know I wanted to fuck you from the first day we met, right? Yeah, darlin’,” Negan turned his head to the side, giving Rick’s wandering lips better access to his neck, licking his lips slowly as Rick’s languid thrusts rocked his body against the damp sheets. “I thought about you on your knees for me the whole ride home from the game. Nearly drove off the damn road a few times.”

“That’s real romantic, Negan,” Rick mocked gently, nosing into the space behind his ear.

Negan chuckled, squeezing the flesh of Rick’s thigh where he was still gripping him. “Did you think about me, baby? Before we got together and you had the real thing? You ever close your eyes at night and imagine me all the way up inside you? Or swallowing your cock? Hmm?”

Rick dipped his head, teasing Negan’s ear with the barest brush of his lips. “Yes,” he whispered heatedly, and a shudder went through Negan’s entire body.

“Yeah. I know you did, baby. I know it.” Rick was stroking him deep inside so good, so right that he was hardly aware of what he was saying, just that words continued to spill from his lips. He let out a breathy, desperate sounding noise that was almost a sob as Rick gave another slow, grinding thrust that sent shockwaves of pleasure all the way through him, shaking him apart. “You’re gonna fuckin’ kill me, Rick. Have a little goddamned mercy.” He hardly recognized the trembling, breathless voice as his own.

“Uh-uh. I learned from the best,” Rick murmured in his ear. “No mercy, honey.” He kissed Negan’s stubbled cheek gently as he moved inside him, and Negan buried his face in the pillow again, trying to endure the sweet torture without screaming. When Rick finally finished him, his cheeks were wet, and he hardly knew where he was. It was always like that when Rick made that soft, meandering love to him, and he rolled into the other man’s arms, burying his face in his neck, shaking as he floated slowly back down to earth.

Chapter Text

Rick stopped to pick up groceries on the way home from the station, the pleasant buzz of anticipation making light work of the chore. Occasionally, Rick’s early days at the station synced up with Negan’s early days from school, and today was one of those days. Rick supposed it was a touch undignified at his age for him to be so eager for the times when he and his boyfriend got to be alone in the house - he was a teenager about it, really, usually half-hard before he even walked through the front door. Of course, Negan was far worse - sometimes he leapt on him like an animal on its prey the moment he crossed the threshold. He had dragged him to the floor once and taken him right there in the foyer. Rick fought a smile at the thought as he loaded the car. Truth be told, that was along the lines of what he was hoping for today.

The three months that had passed since Joe’s gruesome death on his kitchen floor had been some of the happiest of his life. They were actually doing it - they were actually moving on from all the shit they had been through. They saw each other; they knew each other. They were a team now, with no more secrets or lies left to trip them up. It wasn’t perfect, of course. They did have setbacks, but for the first time since he had unearthed the truth about Negan’s past, Rick felt that their bond was completely unimpeachable. The utter trust he had had in Negan was back in full bloom.

And yet, there was a shadow that moved through Negan now and again. He could see it in the way he looked at him when he thought he wasn’t watching - sadness and uncertainty in the dark pools of his eyes, lodging in Rick’s chest like a hot knife. He knew that Negan was uncertain of him; he was waiting for the other shoe to drop, fearing the rejection it might herald. Rick could understand it given the enormity of what Negan had been hiding, but he had come to terms with all that. He had made his decision; there was really only one that his heart would ever let him make. He tried to show Negan that - to show him his devotion in a hundred unspoken ways, but something stubborn and sad lingered in him and occasionally made itself known. Rick could only hope that whatever leftover doubt was plaguing him would fade as the reality of their life together going forward settled in.

Back at home, he found Negan sprawled on the couch with his boots propped up on the coffee table - a habit that Carl was picking up, to Rick’s exasperation. Negan’s gaze on him was predatory the moment he stepped through the door, but he made no move to rise. He just winked at Rick as he passed through the living room with grocery bags in each arm, and Rick scoffed at him and shook his head in response, fighting a smile.

“Feel free to get up and help me anytime, Negan, instead of lying on the damn couch all day doing nothin’,” he tossed over his shoulder as he made his way to the kitchen. He heard Negan immediately leap up and follow him, and he grinned. Baiting him was too easy.

Nothing? Baby, I’ve been hard at work all day, plannin’ our anniversary like the romantic motherfucker I am.”

Rick laughed, flushing slightly, as he set the grocery bags down on the table. “What, another one?”

Negan chuckled, leaning against the table and facing Rick. “Our real anniversary.”

Negan had surprised him a little over a month ago on the anniversary of the day they first met in the fateful aftermath of one of Carl’s baseball games. Remembering significant dates was never one of Rick’s strengths, so he had been utterly bewildered when he came home that day to find the table set for two and no kids in sight. He had melted like an ice-cream cone in summer sunshine once he put it together. That lasted until Negan presented him with an elaborately wrapped gift that turned out to be an old copy of Penthouse from god-knows-where. Negan laughed uproariously at the scarlet that had immediately bloomed in Rick’s cheeks once he realized what he was holding, and Rick responded by rolling the magazine up and raining blows down on him with it. Negan found this turn of events very intriguing, and Rick had ended up braced against the wall, legs around Negan’s waist, gripping his broad shoulders as his lover drove relentlessly into him.

Rick felt his cheeks burn at the memory. “Okay, our real anniversary. What’re you plannin’?”

“Well, to start with, I got you the weekend off.”

Rick stared at him in disbelief. “How the hell did you swing that?”

“Well, I told Gregory you’re gonna be out of town for your poor old Uncle Dale’s funeral. He was out on a hunting trip and got torn apart by a bear or somethin’ - it was some gruesome-ass shit. They found his guts on one end of the forest and the rest of him on the other.” Negan shook his head as he pulled an expression of mock-solemnity, eyes sparkling with mischief. “So be sure to look real fuckin’ sad tomorrow about it. Fuckin’ bear attack. Crazy shit, man.”

Rick hung his head and groaned, half-amused and half-horrified. “Negan, you can’t just invent family to kill every time you -“

“And I talked to Lori’s mama. She’s gonna take the kids for the weekend. So I’m gonna have you all to myself.”

Rick glanced up at that, and the wolfish smile Negan had for him kindled a sweet, hot ache between his legs. “You are, huh?”

Negan moved around the table slowly, and Rick fought to keep his expression neutral as his heart began to gallop in his chest. “Yeah, darlin’. I am. I’m gonna fucking wreck you. That’s what I’m plannin’. Hell, I think I’ll start now, since we have the house to ourselves for a few hours.” He caught Rick in his arms and dipped his head down, sinking his teeth into the juncture of Rick’s neck and shoulder hard enough to earn a sharp gasp. Negan slid a hand down his back and pressed, grinding their hips together.

Rick moaned faintly. He wanted to lose himself in Negan’s embrace - he was very eager to see what Negan had in mind, and he had a few ideas of his own to suggest, but a bothersome little doubt had surfaced that he needed to settle first. “Wait, baby, wait,” he whispered in Negan’s ear, and the other man cocked his head back, licking his teeth and grinning.

“Wait for what? I got a long list of depraved shit to do to you before the rugrats come home, Rick. We really need to get cracking here.”

Rick looked up at him, smiling, but his blue eyes were serious. “Are you sure you wanna celebrate this weekend, Negan? We can wait a week or somethin’.”

Negan gave him a bewildered stare. “What? Why?”

“Because of what day it’s gonna be. Is it okay with you? I mean, that our anniversary is the same day…” he hesitated, gesturing weakly.

“The same as the day that Lucille died?” Negan asked in surprise. His heart throbbed in his chest as he gazed down at Rick. The man in his arms looked anxious and unhappy, and it was all on his behalf. Sometimes Rick’s thoughtfulness overwhelmed him, leaving him with nothing to say, and he was a man who always had something to say. When that happened, all he had left to communicate with was his touch. Luckily, he was pretty fucking good at communicating with his touch. Negan kissed him, softly at first but with increasing urgency, trying to pour all of his gratitude into it. When he pulled back, it was with a flash of his teeth in a grin. He had recovered, and he was ready to tease. “Well, it’s not the same day. It’s the day after.”

Rick stared up at him, confused. “What? What are you…” he trailed off and then flushed. He reached up and slapped at Negan’s shoulder. “Seriously, Negan? I’m counting from the day I first kissed you.”

Negan dipped his head back and laughed. “Aw, Rick, you fuckin’ sap. No, baby, no - our anniversary is the day I first put my cock in you. Non-negotiable.”

“Jesus,” Rick groaned. “Either way, Negan. It’s not like I went to your place thinkin’ we were gonna have sex. You had just told me about all of it, and I…when things started happening, I didn’t even think.”

Negan was shaking his head. “You really tryin’ to find a way to feel bad about that, Rick? Because of Lucille? Come on, baby.” Negan’s eyes on him were soft. “First of all, she wouldn’t have minded. Hell, she would have gotten a kick out of it. That woman was a goddamn nympho. She rode me into the ground, and that is not a figure of fucking speech.”

A laugh escaped Rick in spite of himself, and he pressed his face into Negan’s chest.

Negan kissed the top of his head, raising a hand to brush over his neck. “Second…hell, Rick, you know. Judith’s birthday is the day her mama died. Shit happens the way it happens.”

Rick looked up at him, and his eyes were solemn. “Yeah. I know it does.”

Negan gave him a rueful smile “Okay. No more guilty bullshit, Rick. Got it?”

Rick nodded, swallowing and ducking his head. Negan’s fingers slid over his throat and under his chin, tilting it back up. Their lips met again in a slow waltz, and Rick melted into it, hands fisted in Negan’s jacket. Negan caught Rick’s lip between his teeth, and all gentleness in the kiss evaporated suddenly. Rick found himself lifted off his feet and up into Negan’s arms, and he wrapped his legs tightly around his waist and squeezed him between his thighs. Negan made a pleased sound into Rick’s mouth, pulling back to look at him. His dark eyes were darker with the burgeoning arousal, and he grinned up at him, all teeth.

“Where do you want it, Rick? On the kitchen table? Against the wall? On the coffee table you get so pissy about me putting my feet up on?”

Rick cleared his throat, dropping his gaze. “I put the squad car in the garage.”

Negan groaned, and Rick could feel his cock twitch against him even though his pants. “Holy fucking shit, you fucking slut. You want me to fuck you on the hood or in the backseat?”

At that, arousal roared up and spread through Rick like wildfire, leaving nerves twitching and blood pounding in its wake. “Hood,” was all he could manage to get out, and Negan immediately spun around and walked them to the small door that led to the garage as Rick clung to his shoulders. The next thing he knew, he was being roughly deposited on his back on the hood of the squad car as Negan stripped him in record time. He heard the click of a plastic cap flipping, and he laughed helplessly as Negan hauled one of his legs up and tossed it over his shoulder.

“The fuck’s so funny, Rick?” Negan’s fingers pressed into him, smooth and deep, and Rick gave a whimpering gasp amidst his laughter.

“You,” Rick moaned, writhing against the warm metal beneath him, wrapping his other leg around Negan’s waist. “You keepin’ lube in your fuckin’ jacket. Which one of us is the slut, again?”

“I have to be ready for you, Mr. Fuck-me-on-the-hood-of-my-cop-car. Fuck, Rick. My dick could fucking cut glass right now.” The winding fingers pressed hard into the spot Negan had memorized, and Rick cried out, the sound echoing throughout the closed space. The smell of exhaust lingered in the air, and as Negan reached up and slid his free hand over Rick’s neck and jaw, the scent of leather joined it. Rick closed his eyes, savoring the acrid mix. He flexed his leg, digging into Negan’s back and trying to drag him closer. Negan chuckled above him. “Slow down, Rick. You’ll get it when you’re good and ready.” His fingers crushed against his sweet spot again, and Rick arched completely off the car beneath him, eyes squeezed shut, lips parted, lost in the white-hot pleasure of it.

“I’m ready,” he gasped out desperately as soon as he was able to form words again.

“Mmm. Not yet,” Negan said darkly above him, smirk sliding across his face “Not done making you dance, Rick.” He continued his assault, and Rick clutched helplessly at the metal beneath him as if trying to sink his fingers into it for purchase.

Negan,” he nearly screamed, and his legs tightened around his lover’s body, practically crushing him where he leaned against the hood of the car.

“Fuck, Rick, are you trying to break me in fucking half?” he asked hoarsely above him. The sound of his zipper reached Rick’s ears, and the anticipation felt like an actual fire between his hips. Negan rubbed the head of his cock over his entrance, and Rick trembled out of control, breath heaving. Negan slid his free hand slowly up his shaking chest and cupped his cheek. His dark eyes burned into him. “Say my name again, baby. Come on. Let me hear it.”

Rick obliged immediately, nearly chanting in his eagerness to please his lover. “Negan, Negan, Negan.” He lifted a hand and clasped it to Negan’s where it rested on his cheek. “Please, Negan, I need you inside of me.”

Negan made a low, rumbling, gratified noise in his throat. “I love you so fucking much,” he ground out, and he punctuated that by thrusting straight into Rick, who would have screamed if all breath hadn’t immediately fled him. Negan’s breath hitched above him, and his fingers bit into Rick’s hip. The tight, yielding heat was heavenly, and Negan had to brace a palm against the hood of the car so as not to fall the fuck over with the sudden trembling weakness that overtook his legs. He bent over like that for a moment, panting, before he straightened and slid off his jacket. He lifted Rick in his arms and tossed his jacket down on the hood of the car behind him. He settled him back down on it, gently.

Rick sighed at the cool touch of the jacket’s lining against his back. The smell of leather - something he associated almost exclusively with his lover now - surrounded him. His entire body was throbbing around Negan’s cock, hard as steel and sheathed deep inside him. “God, Negan,” he breathed. “You feel so good. Baby…” He rolled his hips, and Negan groaned deep in his throat above him. “Come on. Make love to me.”

Negan gave a breathless chuckle as he tugged at Rick’s hips, angling them up slightly. “You wanna make love or you wanna fuck?” he asked, the insinuating rumble in his voice sparking a shiver down Rick’s spine. “Because I was fixin’ to fuck you, officer.”

Rick felt the familiar heat spread across his cheeks and sweep down his throat as he met Negan’s burning gaze. “Then do it,” he whispered, letting his head fall back, relaxing against the car beneath him as best he could.

“All right. You better fucking hold on, then, cowboy.” Negan withdrew almost completely before thrusting back into Rick, thoroughly enjoying the sound Rick made in response. He set a swift, hard pace. Negan knew the angle he had on him was driving the head of his cock relentlessly into his sensitive spot, and he drank in the sight of Rick thrashing and gasping beneath him with each thrust. He slowed down after a moment, amused at the way Rick immediately whined in protest. “Look at you, Rick,” he growled above him through panting breaths as he rocked him slowly into the hood of the car. “Getting your ass fucked on your own squad car. I’ll bet none of your buddies at the station have a single fucking clue about the kinky shit you’re into.” He watched, pleased, as Rick’s flush deepened and the corners of his mouth twitched.

“It was your idea the first time,” Rick managed to say between the breathy gasps Negan was wringing out of him.

Negan leaned over him, grin sharp and eyes searing. “It was,” he whispered in agreement, mocking him lightly with his serious tone. “But you really took to it, baby. Although I think you like it best when we get your cuffs out. Fuckin’ bring them into the mix. Just like the first time.”

Rick muffled a low moan into his knuckles, and Negan pulled the hand away with a warning tsk.

“Come on, Rick. How many times do I have to tell you? Fucking scream for me.” He sped up again, holding Rick’s hips steady as he slammed into him. Rick acquiesced immediately, and his loud, harsh cries rang in Negan’s ears. Negan felt himself hovering at the edge of his release, and he gripped Rick’s cock, stroking firmly until he dragged his lover right over the edge with him. He struggled to stay on his legs as orgasm screamed through him, and he let out a stream of hissed curses. He was dimly aware of Rick’s come dripping over the hand he had on his cock. As soon as he broke the surface of the pleasure that had tried to drown him, he locked eyes with Rick, sprawled and shaking beneath his body. He lifted his hand to his lips and licked it clean, grinning down at Rick around the fingers in his mouth. He thought it was impossible, but Rick actually turned redder.

“Oh, my god, Negan,” he whispered with a weak laugh. “Let me up. Your jacket.”

Negan stepped back and helped him to his feet. “Not the first time we’ve gotten come on this jacket, darlin’. Not the last, either, I’ll bet.”

Rick swayed on his feet slightly and sagged into Negan’s arms. Their lips crashed together as Rick staggered, and they exchanged a wet, exhausted kiss. Rick pulled back slowly, shuddering as he tasted himself on Negan’s lips. He surveyed the scattered clothes around them and sighed. “Clean up’s the worst part.”

Negan chuckled and slapped his ass lightly. “I got it. Go make yourself decent to pick up the kids. You get to tell Carl that he’s going to his grandma’s this weekend and can’t hang with his lady friend.”

Rick pressed his face into Negan’s shoulder and groaned. “Great.”

“Just explain that we want to be alone to have fucking insane sex. He’ll understand.”

“I don’t think I will, Negan,” Rick responded drily. He slipped from Negan’s arms and moved towards the door, still a bit unsteady on his feet. A dark chuckle reached him, and he paused with his hand on the doorknob, shooting a glare over his shoulder.

Negan was wearing his wolf’s grin, predictably, and it never failed to make his legs weaken. “Limping already, Rick? Jesus, try to take it like a man. I haven’t even gotten started with you yet.”

“Fuck off,” was the best retort Rick could manage on short notice, and he smothered a laugh in his hand as he disappeared through the door.

They drove the kids up Friday evening. Carl had not been happy about the impromptu arrangement, as was expected, but he was somewhat mollified by Negan’s promise to take him out for driving practice the next week. Rick was more than happy to let him handle that. He had tried to take Carl driving once, and once was enough for a lifetime as far as he was concerned.

When they returned, they went straight to Negan’s place. They tended to find themselves there when their kids were away. Maybe it was just the strangeness of being in the house without them that always led them to one-six-six-six, or maybe it was the sense of freedom, the disinhibition, conferred by a space that was only ever for them. Rick mulled it over as they put fresh sheets on the bed together.

“You ever think of just selling this place? You don’t live here anymore.” Rick tucked the edge of the sheets under the mattress.

Negan laughed. “I know I don’t, but I kind of think of it as our fuckpad. We always end up here when the kids are out, having some truly motherfuckin’ epic sex. We’ve done shit here that would make a porn star blush. I don’t know what it is about this place, if it’s black magic or what, but I’m damned if I’ll let it go.”

Rick burst out laughing, covering his face. “Damn. I was kinda thinkin’ the same thing about it.” He walked over to the closet to grab a spare blanket. As soon as his foot landed on the loose floorboard, he paused, moving back from it instinctively. Negan walked up behind him, hands sliding around his waist. They stared down at it together - the board that didn’t quite lie flush with the others. “It’s none of my business,” Rick said hesitantly, and Negan squeezed his hip.

“My business is your business, baby. What is it?”

“The picture,” Rick said softly. “The one of…of Lucille. Don’t you wanna…put it up, maybe? In our house?”

Negan rubbed his mouth and sighed, leaning his forehead down on Rick’s shoulder. “You must think I’m fucking crazy,” he said quietly. “Throwing her picture in with all that other shit. Truth is, for the longest time, I just couldn’t fucking look at it. At her. Every time I did, I felt like I was gonna lose my mind completely.”

Rick turned in his arms, his eyes soft and sympathetic. “Is that how it still is?”

“No,” Negan said slowly. He slid a hand up Rick’s back caressingly. “No, it’s not like that anymore. It’s like you were saying before, when that shit happened with that dude Shane…all that horrible shit doesn’t feel as bad as it used to, because I’ve got you now.” The corner of Negan’s mouth turned up in the barest hint of a smirk, but his eyes on Rick were reverent. “I still feel it, but I don’t feel like I’m gonna drown in it. Because you won’t let me.” The look Rick was beaming up at him was nothing short of adoring, and Negan almost had to look away. He cleared his throat. “See? I listen to you sometimes. When I’m not trying to figure out the fastest way to get you to bend over somethin’ for me.”

Rick leaned in to kiss him softly. “Asshole,” he whispered against his lips.

Negan flashed a grin down at him in response, stroking the curls at the back of Rick’s neck. “You want me to get rid of the rest of it, though, huh?” Negan asked quietly. “The guns and shit.”

“I’m not gonna ask you to get rid of it,” Rick said slowly. “It just ain’t my call, Negan. But if you’re gonna keep it in the house, you should at least keep it locked up. A loose floorboard ain’t a sophisticated security system.”

Negan ran a hand through his hair and gave a sheepish laugh. “You tryin’ to give me some outlaw pointers, Officer Friendly?”

Rick gave him a look. “And…you should get rid of the guns. I feel like I shouldn’t have to tell you that you havin’ a goddamn stockpile of illegal guns puts me in a hell of an awkward position.”

“I’ll do whatever you tell me to, Rick,” Negan answered softly. “Ball’s in your court.” He tightened his arms around him, lips sliding in his hair. “Whatever you need, I’ll get it done.”

“Thank you,” Rick breathed against his neck, and Negan found his lips in a flowing, gentle kiss. When he pulled back, Rick’s eyes were half-lidded. “Aren’t you sweet,” he said, voice barely above a throaty whisper. “I love it when you’re sweet. I love it when you throw me around and pull my hair, too.” Negan startled, and his eyes filled with shocked amusement. Rick smiled slyly, eyes glinting. “Have you forgotten how much I love that?”

“How the fuck could I forget that, Rick? Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”

Rick answered him with a slow wink.

“Damn,” Negan said under his breath, cock surging immediately with interest. He leaned back and surveyed Rick, who looked back at him with eyes narrowed in unspoken challenge. Negan tilted his head and gave him a devilish grin. In less than the time it took to blink, Rick was spun around and slammed against the wall, hands twisted behind his back.

“How are you that fast, Negan?” he managed, stomach tightening with arousal. Negan huffed a laugh in his ear, reaching up to wrap a hand around the back of his neck and press him further into the wall.

“Practice,” he purred. “I got lots of practice getting the upper hand, Rick.” He reached between Rick’s legs, squeezing him roughly through his jeans. Rick gave a strangled moan against the wall, and Negan’s chest thrummed with satisfaction. He pressed himself against Rick, lips on his ear. “Take your clothes off right fucking now,” he hissed. He slapped Rick’s ass hard, earning a sweet, breathy noise, before he stepped back, releasing his wrists. He watched Rick fumble with his clothes as he stripped off his own shirt and tossed it aside. Rick was bare-chested, hands on the waistband of his jeans, when he hesitated. He shot a mischievous look over his shoulder at Negan.

A smirk blossomed on his face as Rick’s gaze, brimming with playful insolence, fell on him. “Rick. You got a real fuckin’ problem following directions, don’t you? Take those off.”

Rick turned slowly to face him, leaning back against the wall, splaying his palms flat behind him. “Make me,” he sighed with a faint smile, eyes already clouded over thickly with lust.

Oh, hell, yes, Negan thought, mouth nearly watering at the prospect. “Make you,” he said thoughtfully as his hands fell to his waist. He undid his belt and slid it free, doubling it slowly in his hands. “I don’t know, Rick. You really think you can take it if I do?”

Rick’s eyes flicked from the belt back up to Negan’s face, and he chewed on his lip for a moment. It was there on cue, heralding surrender - the familiar red flush that bloomed in his cheeks and flowed down his face and throat, spilling onto his chest. “Yeah, I do. Show me what you got.”

“God, I really fuckin’ hope you’re about to fight me,” Negan breathed, and then he was on him, twisting him around and slamming him into the wall again. Rick did fight him, nearly working himself free, but Negan had the upper hand naturally conferred when your sparring partner wanted you to subdue them. Negan was able to pin him to the wall with his powerful upper body, hand clamped on the back of his neck.

The leather cracked against Rick’s ass and thigh, and he gave a husky cry that just about lit Negan’s dick on fire. “Fuck, Negan,” he gasped, his voice shivering and desperate, almost a whine.

“Is that a ‘fuck yes’ or a ‘fuck no’? Talk to me, Rick,” Negan growled in his ear, caressing him where the blow had landed.

“Yes, yes, please,” he moaned, and Negan grinned as he nosed the sweat-slick skin just below his ear. He knew that this was a side of Rick that his friends and acquaintances would never guess at, and the fierce, possessive joy he felt at the way Rick trusted him with it, putting himself in Negan’s hands without reservation, never dimmed no matter how many times he took him this way.

Negan pressed a hot trail of kisses up his neck. “You know what to say if you change your mind,” he murmured gently in his ear before striking him again and again, the blows ruthless. He did not stop until the timbre of his lover’s cries shifted from mostly lustful to mostly pained. He yanked Rick’s hands behind his back, winding the leather around his wrists and buckling it tightly. Rick leaned back against him, his breathing ragged. Negan’s hands wandered over his backside, still clad in his jeans, and gave a sadistic squeeze to the flesh he had just laid leather against moments ago. Rick whimpered low in his throat, the sound pained and wanton all at once, and it stoked the fire that burned through Negan’s hips and thighs. “Oh, my god, you sexy bitch, you fucking love it, don’t you?” Negan snarled in his ear as he stripped the offending fabric of Rick’s jeans off roughly, dragging his boxers with them. He helped Rick step shakily out of them before trapping him against the wall again with the weight of his body. Negan buried his hand in Rick’s soft brown curls and jerked his head back, angling his ear to his lips. “Well?” he murmured, his warm breath fanning over Rick’s cheek. “Do you? Tell me you love it.”

“Y-yes,” Rick sighed shakily, wriggling back against his lover.

Negan couldn’t help himself - he slapped his bare ass hard, grinning as Rick gave a loud cry that was nearly a wail. “Damn fucking right you do.” Negan reached back to the bedside table and retrieved a bottle of lubricant, coating his fingers and cock as Rick shivered against him. He kissed Rick’s cheek with gentle affection as he slipped his hand between their bodies, rubbing his fingers over his entrance, teasing the soft flesh there.“You gonna behave next time, darlin’? Fuckin’ do shit the first time I tell you?”

Rick’s eyes fluttered shut as he grinned. The cool touch of Negan’s slick fingers on him contrasted deliciously with the hot throb of his backside from the strapping he had just taken. “Not a chance, honey,” he whispered.

That was exactly what Negan was expecting, and he scoffed in Rick’s ear, amused. He slid his fingers roughly into him, taking in the way Rick’s breath caught in his throat and his thighs trembled. “Damn. How about that? You’re a fuckin’ handful, Officer Rick. Won’t take the bit, huh? Good thing I know just how to handle you.”

Rick muffled a moan into the wall as Negan’s fingers danced inside him, working him open and winding him up just right. Negan’s hand gripped his jaw, and he jerked his head towards him, turning him until their eyes were locked over Rick’s shoulder. In a moment, Rick felt Negan’s cock pressing insistently against him. Negan’s eyes pinned him, searing, without a hint of mercy in their laughing dark depths. Rick felt a delicious shiver slide through him, and he moved slowly against the other man, trying to take his length inside him.

Negan hissed between his teeth, holding himself steady so that he breached Rick as the other man pushed back against him. A shivering gasp flew from Rick’s lips as his lover’s cock parted him. Negan rocked forward, sinking in deeper, dark eyes burning into blue as he drank in every shift and flutter of expression on Rick’s face and in his eyes. He slapped Rick’s ass again, hard, when he was up to the hilt in him, savoring the way it made his lover’s eyes swim with lust. “Happy fucking anniversary, baby,” Negan whispered. The smirk that curled at the corner of his mouth was razor-sharp, and Rick gave an eloquent whimper, eyes locked on his.

Rick was getting that look, that far-away, dreamy look he always got when he let Negan take him this far out. He bent his head, nuzzling into the fingers that still gripped his jaw and mouthing them lightly. “Negan,” he breathed against them, softly, pleadingly.

It occurred to Negan that there was no sweeter sound in the world than his name on Rick’s lips in that desperate, undone, lost way, and he leaned forward to bestow a gentle kiss as Rick trembled in his arms. In the midst of it, Rick’s teeth nipped sharply at his lips, and he shuddered, pleased. That’s my boy. “Hold on, baby. I’m not near done with you yet,” he murmured, a sharp edge of warning in his voice. He underlined the threat by grabbing a handful of Rick’s ass and squeezing the reddened, sore flesh as he withdrew slowly only to thrust back in, hard, smooth, and deep. Rick gave him a low, soft whine in response that went through him like an electric shock, leaving nerves frayed and twitching in its wake. “Fuck, Rick,” he hissed, snapping his hips against his lover urgently, “you’re gonna fucking kill me. You know you’ve got me, baby, don’t you? You’ve got me on my fuckin’ knees, Rick.” He rained kisses on the back and side of his neck. Rick was making soft, breathy sounds with each hard thrust that rocked him against the wall, and each one went straight to Negan’s cock. He dropped his hands to Rick’s wrists and untied them, letting the belt clatter to the floor.

Rick’s hands were on him immediately, reaching back hungrily and touching every inch of Negan they could reach. Negan gave a dark chuckle as he enjoyed the eagerness for a moment. Then he wrapped a muscled arm around Rick’s waist and dragged him back a few steps before gripping his shoulder to bend him over. He was gratified when Rick yielded immediately, spreading his legs wider and bracing himself against the wall. Negan rewarded his obedience by wrapping a hand tightly around his throbbing cock. Rick screamed, arching, and Negan’s self-satisfied laughter rolled over him. All of his senses were filled with Negan - his laughter in his ears, the faint smell of leather that always seemed to cling to him, the lingering taste of him on his lips, his eyes blazing down at him, his hard cock buried deep.

“That’s it, baby, you let me hear it,” Negan growled above him, and he held Rick’s hard cock loosely in his fist as he slammed into him, his thrusts merciless against the already sore flesh of his backside. Rick let out a sobbing cry as the pleasure took over completely. He was sure he would be on the floor if it weren’t for Negan’s grip on him; his legs felt like water, and every last particle in him quaked in time to Negan’s thrusts. He moaned as he felt Negan burst, hot and wet, inside him. Negan gathered him up in his arms until Rick’s back was flush against his chest. He worked Rick with his hand even as he continued to spill into him, and as Rick teetered on the edge, he was distantly aware of Negan’s come dripping slowly down the inside of his thigh. That was the final push, and his orgasm clamped down on him so hard it felt like he was being crushed flat into a tense, vibrating sheet of delirious pleasure. His legs gave completely, and Negan clutched him, holding him up for a moment before giving in and sinking to the ground with Rick held clumsily in his arms.

Rick’s heart was trying to leap straight out through his chest. He managed to turn over in Negan’s arms and press his damp face into the man’s neck, feeling the answering wild flutter of his pulse. “Jesus Christ,” Rick whispered into his wet skin. “That was good, baby. That was real good. You turn me inside out.”

Negan gave an exhausted laugh beneath him as he stroked the back of Rick’s thigh. “Right back at you, darlin’. I mean, fuck, Rick. I’m gasoline, and you’re a lit fuckin’ match.” His hand moved over the warm, reddened flesh of his ass soothingly. “This okay?”

Rick grinned, lips against his skin. “Mm-hmm.”

“Just remember that you begged me for it when you can’t fuckin’ sit right. Don’t go getting pissed at me the way you do.”

Rick laughed into his neck. “You goddamn bastard. Don’t pretend it don’t make you laugh thinkin’ about it.”

“Aw, Rick. You know I don’t love turning your sexy ass red half as much as you love me doing it.”

“Yeah. I know,” he mumbled shyly against his neck, and Negan sank his hand into his hair, tugging his head up so that he could kiss him. Their mouths moved together, lazy and wet, and Rick wriggled against the warmth of Negan’s bare body as if he was trying to get even closer. “We really need to shower,” Rick whispered when they finally had to break away for air, and they both gave in to the sudden paroxysm of helpless laughter that gripped them at that.

Later, after a shower mostly spent clinging to each other and kissing hungrily under the soothing spray of hot water, they returned to the bedroom to get ready for the night. Rick rummaged around in the dresser to find something to wear to bed. There were hardly any clothes left there, and he settled on a white teeshirt that he assumed was Negan’s. He looked up and caught the other man staring at him in the reflection of the mirror hanging above the dresser, and his heart sank a little in his chest. That stubborn little shadow was back, creeping over his lover right now, bringing a wistful sadness to his face that sparked an answering ache in Rick.

He turned and walked over to Negan, standing between his knees and putting his hands on his shoulders. “You still got doubts, don’t you?” Rick asked softly.

Negan’s gaze snapped to his in surprise, and then he laughed weakly. “Baby, baby, you know I don’t.”

“You do, honey. Not about the way you feel or what you want. You got doubts about the way I feel. What I want. Even though we’ve talked about it, and I’ve told you how I feel a hundred times now. You think I’m gonna change my mind on all this, don’t you? Every once in a while, you look at me, and I can tell that’s what you’re thinkin’. I hate it, Negan,” he said, sadness welling up in him. “I hate it, because I love you, and I don’t want you to think anything else. Please, honey.”

Negan gave him a soft, pained smile, and his eyes gleamed suddenly with unshed tears. “I’m just scared that one day it’s gonna hit you who you’re shackin’ up with, Rick. And then you’re gonna throw me the fuck out, which is probably the right fuckin’ move here, if we’re all being honest.”

Rick sighed, and it was like all of the strength fled him with his breath. He sank slowly down until he was sitting on Negan’s knee, falling against his chest and into his arms. “Okay, enough. On Monday, you’re pickin’ me up from the station during lunch. We’re goin’ down to the courthouse, and we’re gonna make it official.” Negan stared at Rick, who smiled serenely back at him. “Then you’re gonna stop lookin’ at me like I’m a bomb about to go off any minute, ‘cause I’m real goddamned tired of it.”

When Negan spoke, his voice was hushed, incredulous. “Rick, are you…are you fuckin’ serious?”

“Yeah. I’m fuckin’ serious.”

“Just like that? What about…what about Carl? Don’t you think we should - “

“I already talked to Carl about it a while ago. He said ‘whatever’ and went back to playin’ video games on his phone. I think that’s his blessin’,” Rick said, smiling faintly at the memory. Negan continued to stare at him, eyes wide with shock. Doubt slithered through Rick suddenly, clutching at his stomach with icy fingers. “Unless you…I mean, if you don’t wanna - “

Negan’s mouth slammed against his so hard his teeth ached with the impact, and he was momentarily breathless under the assault. “Jesus Christ, Rick,” he whispered against his lips when he finally released them, “of course I want to. You’re everything I want in the goddamn world.”

Rick smiled shyly at him, warmth spreading through his chest at that. “Good, ‘cause that woulda been embarrassin’ for me. I’ve never had a marriage proposal turned down before. Now I’m two for two.”

Negan kissed him again, more gently this time. He cupped Rick’s face in his hands as he pulled back, his eyes probing and intense. “Why, Rick?” he whispered, voice pained. “Why do you love me like this? Why are you so fuckin’ good to me? You must have figured out that I don’t deserve it.”

Rick looked into the dark eyes, glimmering in the soft light from the bedside lamp. “Negan,” he whispered, “to be honest…it’s because you’re so good in the kitchen.” The other man exploded into laughter, falling back and dragging Rick with him. Rick wrapped his arms around him, grinning, hand tangled in his dark hair. Negan trembled against him, not with laughter now, and he felt the sudden wetness against his neck. Rick tightened his arms around him and kissed the top of his head. “Shh,” he soothed. “You’re okay.”

After a moment, Negan raised his head. “Yeah,” he said, voice thick with tears. “I’m okay, Rick Grimes.”