He heard the faint click of a distant door being swung open, and he smiled.
Negan lived for these days. Days with no excuse - no meal to be delivered, no tin bath tub to be dragged out, no plausible deniability at all. Just Rick, slipping down to his basement prison to spend time with the man he had defeated but couldn’t seem to stay away from.
His first thought was to stay reclining on his bed in an attitude of unconcerned ease with a book in his hand, but he had nowhere near the self-control for that. He was up on his feet in an instant, wrists threaded casually through the bars of his cell as he leaned against them - he thought - fetchingly.
“Here he is,” he rumbled as Rick’s boots appeared at the top of the stairs, “the warden. To what do I owe the pleasure, darlin’? I guess I’ve been a good boy, to finally deserve a visit from my favorite sheriff.”
Rick was nearing the bottom of the stairs, and he looked a little surprised at that. “What are you talkin’ about? I'm here all the time.”
“Sure, Rick, when you have to take care of your puppy. Feed me, check me for fleas, change my newspaper. You haven’t been by just to pet me for weeks.”
Rick sank into a nearby stool and shot him an amused look. “Pet you? You think I wanna pet you, Negan?”
“Sure, Rick. It’s not like you’re immune.”
He tilted his head at him, a smile forming on his full lips. A smile that said yeah, I guess I’ll bite. “Immune to what?”
“Panty-dropping charm,” Negan said seriously, leaning his head on the bars. “I’ve been fucking soaking you with it. I shoot it from a fucking hose.” He leaned back and reached lazily down to his crotch, miming waving his dick at the man in front of him like a porn star going for the money shot.
“That’s real charmin’,” Rick said drily, nodding towards Negan’s hips. “You don’t see my panties droppin’, though.”
Negan chuckled, leaning against the bars again. “Only in my dreams, sexy warden.”
Rick looked down, and Negan was pleased to see the beginnings of a flush above the stubble on his cheeks.
“So what’s the news? How’re things top-side?”
Rick hesitated a moment before answering. “A few people are sick,” he sighed. “It’s that time of year. I just hope it ain’t gonna be bad this time around.”
“No shit? No wonder my throat fucking feels like sandpaper.”
Rick’s eyes went wide and alarmed, and Negan couldn’t help but chuckle.
“What’s wrong, baby? You think big, bad Negan can’t handle the sniffles?”
“Not worried about the sniffles,” Rick said, a little sharply, “worried about shit that’s worse. We still ain’t got much in the way of medical care. No hospitals. Shit,” he went on morosely, “we really gotta prioritize clearin’ a hospital. There's bound to be meds and supplies left.”
“Easier said than done, baby. Hospitals…they were overrun first. Shitty fucking place to be when it all went down.” He couldn’t suppress the bitter note in his voice, even knowing that it left him wide open for the inevitable follow-up question. What do you know about it, Negan? That question didn’t come, though, because suddenly Rick looked solemn and a little pale, his eyes drifting to the ground. “What’s wrong, sheriff?” he asked gently.
“Nothin’,” Rick said unconvincingly.
Negan frowned. He was about to press, but he was entirely distracted by the sight of Rick’s eyes rising back up to meet his. They were luminous even in the muted light of the underground prison, as if they were lit from within.
“You need to tell me if you start to feel worse,” Rick said quietly. “Okay? Don’t be stubborn about it, Negan.”
Warmth spread through Negan’s chest, and he pressed himself forward, as if he could pour himself right through the bars and onto the man sitting only a few feet away but utterly out of his grasp. “You know what, warden?” he murmured, holding Rick’s eyes. “I think I’m starting grow on you.”
Rick smiled at him, but it was small and sad. “Guess so.”
He was growing on Rick, all right.
The sheriff was cold and distant in the early days of Negan’s captivity, and Negan hadn’t helped his own case. He would sink his teeth right into Rick’s vulnerable spots every time he saw him, savaging him with his words. He wondered, frankly, why the man ever came down to him at all, given the reception Negan gave him. He could have sent someone else. He asked him that once, in those ugly, first days, when the stitches were still in his throat. Rick was setting down a tray of food for him, jaw tensed and eyes down.
Because you’re my responsibility, Rick had spat before turning away.
And that was so fucking like him.
As time went on, Negan found his anger and resentment dwindling down to nothing. Rick was the only constant left in his life, the only familiar face to comfort him, and he found himself more and more in awe of the man. Not just because he had managed to unseat him from his bloody, hard-won throne, although that was pretty fucking impressive, but because of his steadfast commitment to being the better man, to his responsibility. He never had Negan hurt or humiliated in any way; he kept him fed and clean and comfortable.
If he was being honest with himself, Negan had suspected before the war was even over that Rick was the one who deserved to win. But it was in his long captivity that he became sure of it. Every time the man brought him food from his own table, every time he appeared with an armful of extra blankets on a cold night, every time he presented Negan with small comforts - books, a small journal, the occasional candy bar - Negan knew the truth.
Rick Grimes, with his impractical, improbable nobility, deserved to lead what was left of the broken world, and Negan was falling in love with him.
He began to meet him with purrs instead of growls, honey instead of poison. Hey, sheriff. What’ve you got for me today? You cook that yourself, honey? Fuck, you sure know how to spoil a man.
Funnily enough, it all seemed to get under Rick’s skin in a way that even his most vicious volleys never did. He downright fled from it at first, but he eventually began to linger, curiously, as Negan did what he did best: talked.
Baby, are you in some kind of rush? Come on, Rick, sit down for a little bit. Just keep me company for a while. Just wanna talk. Make this poor jailbird happy. That’s it. Sweet of you, darlin’, to sit here a little with me. Makes my goddamn day to see your pretty face, Rick. You’re so goddamn cute when you blush. Of course you’re blushing, you fucking liar, I’m looking right at you. Look at it, going right down your neck. How far down does that go? Oh, come on, Rick, stay there. Tell me about what’s going on with you. How’re things in the precinct, honey?
And Rick would stay. He began to confide in Negan. Seek out his advice. Smile at his jokes. Turn that beautiful shade of dusky pink when Negan managed to say just the right thing, and Negan felt some of the purest, sweetest triumph of his life when he did. Rick began to open to him, softly, shyly, like the petals of a blossoming rose.
It wasn’t perfect: their history, littered with bodies, still rotted between them. There were days when Rick’s eyes were cold and his words were colder. There were days when Negan found his old entitled rage rising in him, spilling past his lips in little licks of fire.
But there was growth, all right.
That night, Negan’s throat went from sandpaper to broken glass. Shit, he thought, as he coughed into his sleeve, cringing. That fucking sucks. Better ask Rick if he can spare some meds tomorrow.
The next day, he woke up, and something was wrong. The bed felt like it was rolling and pitching under him, and every time he tried to open his eyes, the world seemed over-bright and oppressive. He heard something whimpering and tossed his head restlessly. There’s an animal down here, he thought confusedly. It’s hurt.
It took him a while to understand that the whimpers were his own. His entire body ached in a way that it never had, and he couldn’t stop his shaking. He felt like each individual bone was individually broken, their splinters shredding his insides.
He kept fading in and out, in and out, and sometimes he faded in to a nightmare. The dead surrounded him, and not the dead that still walked. The long dead; the twice dead. The really most sincerely dead, and Negan figured that meant there was an excellent chance that he was dead, too, and he was finally in the hell he always knew he was bound for.
He saw his own grandmother, who had died when he was six, sitting by his side and combing out her long white hair. It fell out in clumps when the brush touched it, but she kept humming and brushing, eyes blank.
He saw dead Saviors by the dozens in various tableaux; crawling on the floor, sobbing, laughing, fighting. He saw men he killed mixed among them.
He waited for Lucille, but she never came. Of course not. Why would she be visiting him in hell?
And he was wet. He was soaked to the skin, and he shifted against sheets that felt sodden. He shook and shook, and when he tried to breathe, it felt like a rock was crushing his chest.
Dead people don’t breathe, he thought confusedly. Why am I? Before he could ponder that too deeply, he was fading away again, and he welcomed the darkness.
When he next opened his eyes, the room was a little less crowded. There was only a single man standing at the foot of his bed, fixing him with a furious glare. He had watched that man shove the barrel of a gun into his own mouth and shoot his own brains out the back of his head way back in the early days of the walking dead. He had leapt towards him when he realized what he was planning, but he had been too late, and he had ended up splattered with grey matter for his trouble.
“Why the fuck are you haunting me, you stupid prick?” he slurred at him. “I didn’t fucking kill you. I was gonna s-stop you.”
That seemed to start up a whispering all around him. His heart skipped in his chest and then began a panicked thrum against his ribs. Who the fuck else is in here? He tried to turn his head, but it just made everything shift and twist. The man’s eyes were still on him. Why was he so goddamned angry?
“I didn’t kill you!” he screamed hoarsely. “I tried to save you! Fuck you!”
“Negan, calm down,” one of the voices whispered, and his entire body jerked in surprise. This one sounded so much closer, and it sounded like…
“Rick?” he whispered dazedly. A cool hand rested lightly on his forehead, and his entire body seized up and shuddered painfully.
“You’re sick, Negan.”
He gave a wheezing laugh that felt like it tore out a piece of his chest on the way past his lips. “Yeah, sheriff. All the best people think so.”
The cool hand moved over the burning skin of his forehead and pushed into his hair. It was good and gentle, so naturally it couldn’t be real.
“You can’t be here,” he groaned. “You don’t belong here.”
Belong where, Negan?
He wasn’t sure if he actually heard the words or if they just bubbled up in his mind.
“In hell,” he croaked, eyes falling shut again.
But Rick was still there when he opened his eyes. He was sitting in a chair beside his bed, with no bars between them, and Negan felt awe touch him.
“Are you real?” Negan whispered, gazing up into those achingly beautiful eyes. “Please be real.”
Rick tilted his head in that way he had, expression growing soft. “‘Course I am, Negan. I’m right here. You’re all right. You’ve just got a real bad fever.”
“I don’t know,” Negan said fitfully. “I don’t know, Rick. There’s people in here who aren’t here.”
“It’s the fever,” Rick said, as gently as he had ever spoken to him. “It’s just the fever, Negan.”
“Yeah,” Negan whispered, eyes falling shut. “I know it is. It’s just the fever, showing you to me. You shouldn’t be here, and you’re not.”
“Negan,” Rick sighed beside him. He took a cool, damp washcloth from the bedside table and wiped his face gently, and fuck that felt good. It felt like heaven on his overheated, prickling skin. “I’m here, Negan.”
“I’m here, too, Negan.”
Negan’s eyes flew open in shock. “Lucille?” he croaked.
He could hear her, and not the way he usually heard her, with her voice rising up from the depths of his own mind. He heard her as if she were speaking, as if she were alive.
“Look at you, asshole. You finally ended up in fucking jail. That’s what my mom said - ‘you’re gonna marry that trash? He’ll end up in jail. You mark my words, Lucille.’” Her laughter pealed out, warm and alive, alive, alive, and he was flooded with the agony of knowing that she wasn’t. The flood filled him up to the brim and ran from his eyes, and he sobbed out his grief.
“Negan, stop.” Rick’s voice sounded so strange and far away, but his hands were heavy and real on his forehead, his shoulder. “Please, you need to stop. You can’t breathe right, and you can’t be cryin’ on top of it.”
“Make it stop,” he nearly shrieked. “Please! I’m sorry, I’m fucking sorry, just make it stop!” He was so fucking hot, so stiflingly hot, and that made much more sense when he saw that the room was on fire. Flames erupted from the ceiling and walls, roaring for him.
“Here it is, baby,” Lucille said cheerfully. “Here it finally is. Here’s that hellfire. Hot enough for you?”
He clawed at his chest and throat. It was so suffocatingly hot. He gripped at the collar of the soft cotton teeshirt he was wearing and tore convulsively, feeling it give with a satisfying rip.
“Negan!” He could hardly hear Rick over the roar of the flames and Lucille’s wicked chuckling in his ear. “Negan, calm down!”
He jerked as something cold splashed his face and chest, spluttering a little. He felt the damp, sweat-soaked sheets being pulled away.
“God, you’re burning up.”
Of course I am, Rick, he wanted to reply. The fucking room is fucking on fucking fire. That’s what fire does. It burns you up.
“It’s that hellfire, Negan,” Lucille giggled. “How’s it feel, daddy? How’s it feel?”
He was hit with another cold splash, and he shuddered, moaning pitifully through choked sobs.
“How’s it feel, daddy?” Lucille moaned, and he was suddenly shaking so hard his teeth chattered in his head. That’s how she had always sounded when she rode him, her dark curls bouncing all over her shoulders and draped almost coyly over her full, soft breasts. She was a violin, and he was the bow that drew out that achingly sweet tumble of low, trembling notes. “O-hh-hh, daddy, how’s it fe-el?”
“I’m sorry,” he sobbed, and he wasn’t sure who he was talking to or what he was apologizing for. He supposed he could have been talking to any one of them - Lucille, Rick, the murdered men that still popped suddenly into his line of sight every so often like hateful jack-in-the-boxes. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Please, I’m sorry!”
“Shhh. Stop that. You’re all right,” Rick soothed, and he was suddenly much closer, almost in his ear. “Shh. It’s just the fever.”
A cloth wiped at his face and chest. Its soft touch soothed his hot, aching skin, but only for a moment. He tried not to, but he moaned helplessly again, tossing his head like a frightened horse.
“Shhhh. I know.” The cloth smoothed down his neck to his shoulder. “You’re all right, Negan. ‘Course you are. You’re not gonna let something like this take you down, are you? Nothing takes you down, remember? Not you.” Rick sounded forlorn, and Negan tried to break the surface of the confusion and the horrible, shaking, shuddering pain that had gripped his mind and body.
Why do you sound so sad, Rick? he wanted to ask. Why are you so sad?
“I’m not sad,” Lucille chirped, “I’m gonna light my cigarette on your pyre, lover boy.” It occurred to Negan right then, through his fever-addled brain, that he was hallucinating. Lucille wasn’t this fucking mean. She wouldn’t laugh at him while he burned alive, even if he did suspect that he deserved it. She had loved him, though he was certain he never deserved that. He felt his limbs go slack with relief.
“It’s just the fever,” Rick said again, as if he had heard Negan’s thoughts and was agreeing with him. “Just the fever. You’re all right.” He said it a little more firmly this time. It was like Negan’s body responded to the suggestion, because he faded into a relatively calm doze as Lucille fell silent.
That was the end of the worst of it. He never saw dead people anymore, anyway, even though his body continued to feel aching and broken. But when he opened his eyes and saw Rick, sitting beside him, he felt clear enough to know he was looking at the real thing.
Which begged an immediate question.
“Why the fuck are you here, honey?” Negan rasped. “Isn’t this shit contagious?”
Rick pressed a cool glass of water to his lips, and Negan drank thirstily, flinching as his throat burned. He settled back on the pillows with a sigh. He thought Rick was going to outright ignore the question, but the man finally answered him with a faraway look in his eye.
“I figured I couldn’t get it.”
Negan gave a weak chuckle. “Love the optimism, baby.”
Rick gave him a faint smile, but it didn’t touch his solemn eyes. “Before we came to Alexandria, we were at a prison. Pretty funny, I guess, to feel safe in a prison, but I did feel safe back then. I thought we were gonna stay there forever.” He licked his lips and looked away.
Negan watched him, mesmerized. Rick hardly ever spoke to him about his life before they had crashed up against each other like the forces of nature they both were.
“There was a sickness that came,” he continued softly. “It was the flu, but it was killin’ people. A doctor we had there explained it to me. There’s been outbreaks before - bad ones. Pandemics. Virus mutates real fast, so there’s always a new one around the corner. And it’s deadly, because as your body tries to fight it, it can go overboard and kill you. On top of that, it leaves you wide open for other infections to get into your lungs. We lost…a lot of people.” Rick was silent for a moment. “I think the flu is what’s going around Alexandria right now, although not as bad as what we had at the prison. You’re the one that had it the worst. Me…I figured I’ve already been exposed, so I came down here to look after you.”
“That’s the dumbest fucking thing you’ve ever done,” Negan said wonderingly. “You couldn’t be sure you weren’t gonna catch this shit again. It mutates, right? Jesus, Rick.”
Rick looked down at him, his eyes a little wide with surprise. Then they crinkled as he smiled. “Well, I took my chances.” He picked up the glass of water at the bedside table and pressed it at Negan again. “Think you can swallow some pills? I’ve had to give you medicine for the fever through an IV, but we ain’t got much of it.”
Negan glanced down at his forearm and was surprised to see the small tube taped down there. “Nurse Rick,” Negan leered, taking another long, grateful sip of the water. “Yeah, I can swallow.”
Rick shot him an impatient look, reddening. “Be serious, Negan. I’ll be right back with some things. Try and rest.”
He got up and moved away, and he left the cell door wide open after him. Negan took that in for a moment in near-disbelief, feeling something knot up painfully in his chest, before he closed his eyes and sagged against the pillows.
Rick returned shortly with a tray. There was a small bowl of soup and some crackers, and Rick insisted that he try and eat after swallowing down a few pills.
“I don’t know, honey. My throat is fucking kill me.”
“Negan, you’ve been too sick to eat for days. You’ve got to try and get something in you.”
It was on the tip of his tongue - you’ve got something I’d love to get in me, Rick, but it ain’t soup and crackers - but the man’s earnest expression checked his irreverence. “All right, all right, Nurse Rick. I’ll be a good boy for you.”
“Good,” Rick said, cheeks a little pink.
He did manage to finish the food Rick brought him, although every swallow pained him. Afterwards, Rick gathered his toiletries and set them on the bedside table.
“I guess you want to freshen up a little. You’ll feel better after you do.”
Negan grinned at squeezed some toothpaste onto his toothbrush. “What, no sponge bath? What kind of a nurse are you?”
“You already got one,” Rick said, a little arch. “When you were out of it.”
Negan groaned around his mouthful of foam. “You fucking kidding me? That’s a fucking tragedy. Holy shit.”
Rick laughed. He took the comb and tugged it through Negan’s dark strands, and Negan shivered a little, eyes drifting half-shut. Rick caught his ardent gaze and turned pink again. He cleared his throat and set the comb down before reaching for Negan’s water glass from the bedside table. He took a sip before offering it to Negan to rinse with.
“You’re really fucking sure you’re not going to catch this shit, aren’t you?” Negan laughed, spitting a mouthful of minty, bubbly water into the now-empty bowl beside him.
“Cocky bastard,” Negan smirked, setting the cup aside.
“Mm-hm,” Rick hummed in agreement. “Sometimes. Watch.”
At the first touch of Rick’s hand on his cheek, Negan went utterly still with wonder. Everything that flowed from that point seemed like pure hallucination - the softest, sweetest, most dizzyingly, deliriously lovely one he had throughout this entire ordeal. Rick turned his face with gentle fingers and pressed his soft, full lips to his. There was a simple intimacy to it - the single, slow press of barely parted lips - that was absent from any kiss that Negan had given or taken in a very long time. It hit him like a drug - hurtling through his veins and setting fire to every fiber of him as it raced crazily around and around his suddenly shaking body.
Oh, fuck, he thought, awed. Oh, fuck. So that’s what it feels like to take a hit of Rick Grimes.
Rick was smiling at him faintly, a little shyly. “See? That’s putting your money where your mouth is. I’m immune.”
“I’m not,” Negan whispered hoarsely. “Kiss me again, Rick. Please?”
The smile melted from Rick’s lips, leaving them a little slack and unsure. His eyes drifted down to Negan’s mouth and grew a little hazier before he bent forward again. Negan was ready for him this time, and he met him with a wet caress, trapping his plush bottom lip between his gently. He kissed it again and again, and then he kissed the corners of his mouth. Rick’s lips fell open in invitation, and Negan met his tongue almost delicately in his warm mouth.
“Ooh, honey,” Negan breathed against his lips, fingers skimming Rick’s jaw, “honey, you taste as sweet as you look. You be careful, sweet thing, or I’ll lick you up like the mouthful of honey you are.”
Rick’s expression was caught between uncertainty and want, his brow softly furrowed and his eyes half-lidded and sensuous. He swallowed and gathered himself a little, tilting his head and smiling. “Guess you’re feelin’ better.”
“Thanks to you,” Negan said firmly and with sincerity. “You’re good to me, honey. God knows you don’t have to be.”
Rick shook his head a little, eyes drifting away. “Negan…don’t.”
He smiled wryly. “Don’t what, Rick? Tell you you’re right? That you’ve been right? That you’ve always been right about everything? Most people like hearing that kind of shit.”
Rick lifted his gaze back to him, and his eyes were solemn and sad and fathomless as the deep ocean.
Negan shifted, leaning forward a little, drowning in those eyes. “I thought I was doing what I had to, and I was wrong. I was very fucking wrong, and I made this world worse by being in it.” He felt bitter tears sting his eyes and forced a smile. “Shit. The truth fucking hurts.”
“Where is this coming from?” Rick whispered.
Negan sighed and stretched a little, rolling his shoulders. “I thought I was dead,” he confessed. “When I was off my nut with that goddamn fever. I saw all these dead people, and I thought, well shit. I’m in hell. Finally. This is it.” He bent forward, folding his hands in his lap. He felt suddenly small and shamed. “I don’t want this to be it, Rick,” he sighed. “I want…fuck. I know I can’t take back the things I’ve done, but I don’t want the horrible shit to be the last thing I did in this world. I want a chance to do some shit to balance it out. Not just for me. For…” For you. He stared at his hands, aware that he had exposed every bit of the grief and remorse that had been slowly festering at the heart of him. There was no pretending, no glib remarks, no smooth deflection that he could hide behind now. He knew that, and it made him afraid.
A warm hand crept over his where they lay clasped in his lap. “Of course this isn’t it,” Rick said softly, so softly his words were hardly more than a breath. “Of course not. Not for you, Negan. Not you. You’ll come back from it. I know you will.”
Negan clutched at the hand draped over his. “Because of you,” he said urgently, eyes pleading with Rick to hear him and understand the enormity of his gratitude. “It’s thanks to you, Rick. You…y-you…” Fuck, it had to be the remnants of the illness making him so fucking weepy. His vision blurred for a moment, and he blinked the offending tears away hard.
Rick’s other hand made its way to Negan’s cheek, and Negan sighed and leaned into its cool touch. “It’s all right,” Rick murmured. “You’re all right.”
Negan lifted wet eyes to his. “You kissed me,” he said softly, still a little awestruck.
Rick smiled weakly. “You kissed me back.”
“Of course I kissed you back, baby,” Negan said, the corner of his mouth curling in a sly little smirk. “But now it’s my turn to ask: where did that come from?”
“Just like you said,” Rick murmured. “I…I saw this thing kill people, Negan. When you kept getting worse and worse, I thought…” Rick looked down, and his voice faded until it was barely audible. “I was afraid you’d die, and I realized how much I didn’t want you to.”
“I don’t want me to, either,” Negan replied, “but if it takes a brush with fucking death to get a little action from you, Ricky, hell. I’d say it’s worth it.” Feeble but emboldened, he slipped his arms around Rick’s waist and gave a little tug, urging him forward and onto Negan’s bed.
“Negan,” Rick protested faintly.
“Just - just lay here for a while, Rick. Next to me. Let me just - that’s it baby. Let me hold you a little.” Negan had pulled the other man down to nestle beside him, arms wrapped around his chest. “Just for a little while. You’re immune, remember?”
Rick laid his head on Negan’s chest. “No,” he sighed. “I’m not.”