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Negan chewed on his thumbnail. "These sheets are nice." He pulled his hand back, furrowing his brow as he studied his skin in the dark. "Not what I expected."

By the bedroom window, Rick fixed the curtains. "You've said that before." He glanced at Negan, then walked across the room. He hovered next to the door, head tipped to the side. Negan watched as Rick listened, eyes closed.

"And I mean it every time I say it," Negan whispered. He sat up in bed, his body immediately protesting. Holy fuck, did he want to stay, but Rick would say no. It was against their better judgment. He wasn't even supposed to be here. Negan stood, collecting his clothes. He hopped, wiggled, as he stepped into his pants. "We good?"

Rick stayed there for a second more, nodding as he stepped back. "I don't hear anything," he murmured, walking over to stand in front of Negan. He zipped up his pants, did the button, while Negan pulled on his shirt. His fingers were warm, touch careful. Negan didn't want to leave. He couldn't tell Rick that.

Negan lowered his hands and held Rick's face. He kissed him, hot, breathy. Rick dug his nails into Negan's hips, holding him closer for a moment. Just a moment. Pulling back, he brushed his nose against Negan's. His eyes were closed, but Negan watched him, almost going cross-eyed. "Gotta go," he said, strained. He swallowed.

Rick moved away from him, going to the bed. He ran his hand along the sheets, trying to smooth them, and fixed the covers, as if Negan was never there. Never on his back, on his hands and knees, bunching up the covers to muffle his moans. "We're almost out."

Negan blinked, giving Rick a look. He grabbed his jacket, slung across the arm of a chair, Lucille propped next to it. "Yeah…"

"Lube," Rick said, matter-of-fact, pillow in his hands. "If we run out, it'd be… it'd be hard to do all we'd—"

"—I'll get more," Negan said, shrugging on his jacket.

Rick set the pillow back, all fluffed and not so flattened from Negan's head. "You will?"

"Yes." He wasn't going to tell Rick how fucking hard it'd be to get it. The Sanctuary might have some somewhere, but there was no guarantee. He'd find some, though, just to see Rick flush when he hit him in that sweet, sweet spot again. Negan reached behind him, touching Lucille's handle and dragging her to his side. "Get me a pack of cigarettes."

"Does it have to be full?"

"There's gotta be at least five in the pack."

Rick slowly nodded. He looked back at the bed, and Negan could practically hear the gears in his head turning. He squeezed Lucille, chewing on the inside of his cheek. "What?" Negan asked, a little more bite than he intended.

"People are talking," Rick started. Negan lifted his hand, shaking his head. Rick narrowed his eyes. "Negan—"

"—you've said that before." He got a better grip on Lucille, not yet ready to swing her over his shoulder, and walked over to stand in front of Rick. He looked down at him, and Rick met his gaze. "People are always going to fucking talk."

Rick was quiet, eyes still narrowed, lips together. He nodded again. "Cigarettes."

Negan lifted his hand, touching Rick's cheek, running his thumb along his jaw. "Lube."

"And everything else we owe you."

Anger bubbled in his gut, though it wasn't as strong as it once was. Before, Rick could spit fire and Negan retaliated, bringing it and more. As this progressed, whatever it fucking was, the anger, the annoyance, dulled. Other emotions flared. Emotions Negan didn't want to acknowledge.

"Half," he started. "Just owe half. Like always."

Rick raised his hand, brushing Negan's away. "Shouldn't be."

"We doing this now?" Negan muttered.

"Yes." Rick breathed in, head tilting to the side. "My deal is still on the table."

"There is no deal." Negan grimaced. "Officially."

Rick huffed, looking away. "My people want this to end. Soon. Understand?" He looked back at him. "This isn't fair."

Negan had lost count how many times Rick had told him that, how many times he had snarled and told Rick it wasn't the time.

"It's not the fucking time," Negan said. "My men don't want to make a fucking deal."

"What about you? You don't want this to stop?"

Negan touched Rick's face again, fingertips pressing into his cheekbone. Rick stayed still, eyes not wavering. Negan wanted Rick to hate him, and maybe that's what Rick told his friends, the others in this community. But the way Rick looked at him, kissed him, touched him, breathed against his skin—no, he didn't hate Negan. In the beginning, he did. They both did. Not now.

"I don't want this to stop," Negan whispered.

Rick rolled his eyes, smiling. "That's not what I meant."

Negan kissed him, a quick nip to Rick's lower lip. "I know."

"Answer the question." Rick let his hand rest on Negan's side. He pressed his lips to his cheek, lingering.

"I don't know," Negan said, looking ahead at the wall. He rubbed his thumb against Lucille, wetting his lips. "My men don't want to make a deal," he repeated. "They want to keep fucking fighting."

Rick ran his hands up Negan's back, pressing him closer, in an-almost hug, as he kissed his neck. "That doesn't seem wise. Strategically."

Negan smirked, setting his hand on Rick's shoulder and pushing him back. "Talking with you about this doesn't seem wise. Strategically."

Rick sighed. "Worth a shot."

"Still people on two different sides of a war, Rick." Negan shrugged, lifting Lucille to rest on his shoulder. "I really gotta fucking go now."

"Don't get caught, sewer rat," Rick said, walking with Negan to the door. "I mean it."

"I won't," Negan started, and Rick reached up to grab his face, pressing a bruising kiss to his lips. He stayed there, one second, two, three, and pulled back, running his thumb along Negan's lip. They caught eyes, and Negan roughly swallowed. It was dark in the room, but Rick's eyes were darker. He had to get outta here.

And he did. Negan quietly moved through Rick's house, holding in his breath until he was outside. He walked behind houses, like Rick had showed him that first time, and ducked into the sewers.

Fucking sewer rat, Negan thought, dragging Lucille along the walls.

*

It was two in the morning when Negan returned to the Sanctuary. He knew it was that late, because that twitchy, tall guy was on watch. He never said anything to Negan when he opened up the gates. They rarely made eye contact, and when they did, he quickly looked away. Negan didn't even know his name.

Walking down the corridors, Negan relished in the quiet. He stepped carefully, Lucille dangling right above the floor. There was a rush as Negan glanced at each closed door he passed, in being out this late, in almost being caught. If someone were to open the door and spot him, what would they even say? They wouldn't be here if not for Negan. He was entitled to a nighttime stroll.

But he wasn't out for a nighttime stroll, and anyone who popped their head out could see that. His hair was disheveled, shirt untucked, and he was sure Rick had left behind something darling on his neck. Bastard.

Negan stood in front of his door and stuck the key in, twisting, turning. A door down the hall opened, and Simon stuck his head out. It happened quickly: Negan met his eyes, half-narrowed, and Simon, quiet, sleep-addled, stared, and then ducked back into his room. The door shut, and Negan lingered with the key in the lock. He waited for a second more before doing the same, opening the door just enough to slide inside.

He leaned against the door, breathing carefully. Too much of a fucking rush. Negan glanced around his room, dark, the curtains drawn shut, and tightened his hold on Lucille. He drummed her against the floor. "Simon," he murmured under his breath.

Negan dropped his jacket in a nearby chair, propped Lucille next to the nightstand. He stared at his bed, covers smooth and straight, as he kicked off his boots. Once or twice, he had imagined Rick in his bed, rolling around until the sheets were around them, off the bed. Rick didn't need to be here.

He crawled underneath the covers and laid in the middle of the bed. The clock on his nightstand ticked, but it long stopped giving him the correct time. Still, Negan stared at it, seeing eight-fifteen.

With Rick's scent heavy on his skin and clothes, preserved within his cocoon, it was almost like Rick was there. It was the closest Negan would ever get to having Rick in his bed.

*

He didn't visit Rick every night, but the mornings after those nights he did, he was always refreshed, in a good mood. If he were watching himself go about his day, he would definitely guess that he got fucked the night before. He would be right, but he hadn't spent a night with his wives for weeks. He dropped in on them, occasionally, and they didn't seem to mind his absence. Negan didn't care.

Downstairs, he walked amongst the workers. They were nervous, stumbling over their tasks. They were within their right to be. Negan had made them watch some fucked up shit.

He tried to seem disinterested as he hovered over the bins of items. Negan'd be damned if Rick got those cigarettes, and he didn't hold up his end up the bargain.

And everything else we owe you.

Negan wrinkled his nose and turned away, squeezing Lucille until his hand hurt. He moved through the small crowd, workers shrinking away when he got close enough.

He hated that Rick could get under his skin. He shouldn't be thinking about what Rick wanted. What about his people? They came first.

Rick's voice bounced in his head, drawling about unfairness, what was right and wrong, everything that went against what he and his men discussed behind closed doors. Negan didn't want to think about the end of this war. There would be peace. He was sure of that. But he wasn't sure who would be there to see it. Negan would, of course. He wasn't going to die until he was fucking ready.

But Rick?

Negan paused in his walk, halfway up the stairs, Lucille knocking against the rails. No, no, he couldn't think about that. He'd think about Rick and… whatever they had when he was dead.

Another squeeze. He continued upstairs.

There was chatter in the meeting room, light on, the door cracked but not fully closed. Negan stood some feet away, head cocked to the side. He could hear all of them: Simon, Dwight, Gavin, and Regina. Doing their best to whisper, be nonchalant, Negan had to wonder why they didn't close the door.

"—goddamn stalemate, that's what this is. Something's gotta give."

"Yeah, Dwight? Got any suggestions? You know we're all ears."

"I don't think—"

"—Gavin—"

"—I'm serious. We shouldn't be—"

"—hey now. There's nothing wrong with some… healthy discussion. We're discussing things. Nothing has to happen. Got it?"

Silence. Negan smiled to himself.

"Alright… Now, Dwight, did you have something in mind?"

"No. I've just heard people talking."

"I think we should make a move. Do something. We're wasting time and resources fucking around like we are."

"Great idea, Regina. Tell Negan we're wasting time. I'm sure he'd love that."

"Fuck you, Simon. You're thinking the exact same thing. We all are. You're just too far up his—"

"—hey. There's no need for that." A chair dragged across the floor. Only one chair. Negan pursed his lips and looked down at Lucille, tapping his thumb against the curve of the handle. The pause lingered, and then, "It's true that… something needs to be done," Simon started. "But what? Who knows."

"You know what," Regina muttered.

There were a grunt of approval. Possibly from Dwight. Negan turned slightly, pressing his forehead to the wall.

"That is being considered," Simon replied after another quiet moment. "We can't be in goddamn limbo forever. It's not fair. These other communities need to learn their place, and they will never know it if we don't teach them. And, unfortunately—"

Negan pushed off from the wall, moving toward the room.

"—they won't know it—"

He held out Lucille, pushing open the door.

"—unless—"

"What the hell's going on here?" Negan asked, plastering a smile on his face. At once, four faces met his, each with varying degrees of smothered nerves. The door hit the wall, and Negan lowered his arm, letting Lucille dangle between his fingers. He took another step into the room, walking to the table, where Simon sat at the head. "Did we have a meeting that I forgot about?"

Simon stood, shaking his head. "Nah, I asked Gavin and Regina to come. They had some concerns at their outposts. Wanted to run them by me."

Negan raised his brows, crossing his arms over his chest. He shifted his weight, turning toward Regina and Gavin. "Really. Anything I can help with?"

Regina, stone-faced, shook her head. Gavin stammered, "No, Simon pretty much covered it."

"Well," Negan said slowly, smiling again. "I'm glad I got a right-hand man that knows his shit." He glanced at Dwight, who was glaring at a spot on the table. "Dwighty boy. You got something to say?"

Dwight shook his head, too. "Heard some of the workers talking. They don't like these extended hours."

"That's the cost of war. You tell them that, Dwight?"

"I did."

"Good. Then we don't have any more problems." Negan lowered his arms, still smiling. His goddamn cheeks hurt. He waved a hand. "Thanks for stopping by." Regina and Gavin exchanged looks, before nodding and turning away. Dwight followed, and Negan watched them. From the corner of his eye, he could feel Simon's uneasy glance. When Simon moved, a step away from the table, Negan shook his head once. "Nope. I need to talk to you." He turned his head, just as Dwight shut the door behind him.

Simon scratched the back of his head, sighing. "Yeah? What is it?"

Negan stood in front of him, head tipped back enough to stare. Simon seemed relaxed, at ease, a quick and seamless transition. He wet his lips and loosely gestured at the table. "That's my seat," Negan said.

Simon raised a brow, looking over his shoulder, as if he had to make sure Negan was right. He was. Simon looked back at him. "It is."

Adjusting his grip on Lucille, Negan walked past him. "I'm glad you know that." He stood by the window, narrowing his eyes against the light. "For next time," he added, softer, watching the workers in the yard, the walkers chained to the gates. "When you gather my lieutenants without me."

"That was nothing, Negan. Little stuff. Doesn't matter."

"What happens at my outposts doesn't matter, Simon? Is that what you're telling me?" He turned his head enough to have Simon in his periphery. "People are a resource. Without them, this world we're building will go to shit."

"That's not what I meant."

"People are fucking unhappy," Negan murmured.

"People are talking," Simon said. Negan closed his eyes, Rick's voice echoing. He squeezed Lucille again, lifting her up. Negan let his chin rest on her, skin scraping against barbed wire. "I saw you last night," he said, after a couple seconds. "It wasn't the first time."

Negan opened his eyes and looked back out the window. A car was leaving. "What are you going to do about it, Simon?" he asked.

It was quiet. Negan stayed by the window, listening as Simon walked across the room and left. He heard the door shut behind him, the steps leading away from the room. Negan breathed in, lowering Lucille. He slowly turned, looking at the empty room.

All of the chairs were pushed in, except for his. Pushed aside as Simon stood when he walked in. Negan tightened his hold on Lucille, jerking out his leg to kick the chair. The sound reverberated off the walls, in his head, only increasing as he twisted to bring Lucille down onto the table.

*

People talking meant that it was practically common knowledge that Negan and Rick were fucking. Or maybe Negan was just reading too much into the glances he saw, the grimaces, the head shakes. The war wasn't ending because Negan didn't want to face his feelings for Rick.

Okay, that last one was only in his head.

His lieutenants knew. They were conspiring against him. They had skirted around the subject but it was there. The intent. It made Negan sick.

He wanted to see Rick. There was a run to Alexandria that he would have loved to go on, but he stayed back. He was antsy, and as he watched Simon leave with a truck full of men, Negan realized he probably should have gone to keep up appearances. He couldn't stop fucking up.

I saw you last night. It wasn't the first time.

Negan's throat hurt from growling and yelling into his pillow.

What was Simon going to do about it? He would be nothing without Negan. All of them would be nothing.

Pick yourself up, Negan. Get your fucking shit together.

He went downstairs, gliding between workers, checking bins, avoiding gazes. Nothing, nothing, nothing.

Three days. Negan lasted three days before he crept out of his room, Lucille tightly in his grip. He walked on the tips of his toes, shooting Simon's closed door a glare as he left.

The halls were quiet. There were a few people on watch, but they didn't look his way. It was nearing one in the morning, a bit later than he usually slipped out. The usual guy was at the gates, staring down Negan as he sat in his truck, waiting to be let out. The guy said nothing, opened the gates, and looked away when Negan drove past. They never held eye contact for long.

Negan chewed on his thumbnail, elbows digging into the steering wheel. His head was racing, and his stomach was doing flips. He drove just a bit faster.

Rick had said his people were talking. They needed to talk. Negan didn't want to talk.

As he walked through the sewers, it took all of his willpower not to slam Lucille against the walls.

Negan carefully tapped his fingers against Rick's bedroom window. He waited a few seconds before doing it again. "Come on, Rick," he murmured.

It took several more seconds for the curtains to move and for Rick to show his face. He looked down at Negan, brow furrowed, and pulled open the window. Keeping quiet, he helped Negan climb through, just as he had done countless times before.

Negan stood in the center of the room, Rick shutting the window. He stared at the bed, the tossed-back covers. Negan wet his lips. "Sorry I woke you," he said.

Rick touched Negan's arm and turned him around. Negan looked down at him, brows raised. He only had on a pair of boxers, and his hair was stuck up on one side. He was awake, though, eyes determined. Negan opened his mouth, ready to say something, maybe apologize again, and Rick stretched up, kissing him before he had a chance to speak. Negan melted embarrassingly fast, lifting a hand to hold Rick's face. He dragged his thumb across his cheekbone, and he might have imagined it, but it felt like Rick was melting, too.

"I don't care," Rick breathed out. "That you woke me." He shook his head, wetting his lips, and lowered his hands, dragging down Negan's jacket zipper.

"Yeah?" Negan murmured. Lucille slipped from his fingers, dropping onto the floor as he shrugged out of his jacket.

At the clang, Rick winced, lifting his hands to press his fingers to Negan's lips. "Shh," he cooed, smiling. "Shh."

The jacket fell to the floor, too, and Negan wrapped his arms around Rick. He slid his hands down his back, pressing kisses to Rick's fingers, biting at the knuckle on his middle one. On the tip of his tongue was I missed you, did you miss me? Instead, he whispered, "I'll be quiet."

They walked backward to the bed, Rick sitting on the edge of the mattress as he undone Negan's belt. Negan peeled his shirt off and let it drop with the rest of his things. He looked ahead at the wall, tipping side to side as he toed off his boots. Rick kept steady hands on his waist, leaning in enough to leave soft kisses against Negan's stomach. He wondered if Rick could feel the butterflies. Shit. Not now.

Rick tugged Negan's pants down with one hand, the other cupping his front. He squeezed, and Negan closed his eyes. Breathing in, he started to shake his head. "We gotta," he started, grimacing. "Rick, I—"

"—it's okay," Rick murmured, pulling his underwear and the rest of his pants down. Negan stepped out, running his hand through his hair. "I could only find two."

Negan stared at the wall, blinking, a shiver running down his spine as Rick touched him again, a dry, slow drag of his palm. He swallowed and looked down at him, resting a hand on his shoulder. "Huh." Negan pushed him against the bed and climbed over him.

"Cigarettes. I know we said before—you can have the two. I'll still give you the rest when I find more." Rick looked up at Negan, arms out to his sides, fingers absently curling around empty air. "I don't care if you didn't bring any lube."

Negan bit the inside of his cheek. He stared at Rick's mouth. "You're rambling."

"Sorry."

"Don't apologize," Negan said against Rick's lips. He closed his eyes and lingered there, relishing in that steady pressure. He didn't want to move. Slowly, Rick did, parting his lips to deepen the kiss. It would be easier to push everything out of his head and just get off with Rick. Why else did he visit him in the dead of night?

Negan pressed the pads of his fingers to the side of Rick's face, pulling back enough to look down at him. He couldn't stare at Rick for long, those caring, prying blue eyes. Negan shut his eyes again. "Simon knows," he whispered.

Without missing a beat, Rick touched the nape of his neck. "Carl does, too," he whispered back.

Though Rick said it with ease, concern knotted in Negan's stomach. "How does he know?"

"How does he know?"

"He fucking saw me come back. That last time." Negan swallowed, managing to hold Rick's gaze. "It wasn't the first time."

Rick absently rubbed a line against Negan's neck. "After you left, I stayed in the kitchen. Sorta lingered by the window and watched you go," he said, voice as soft as his touch. Negan glanced at the spot next to Rick's head. Carefully, he moved to lay his head down, hand resting on Rick's chest. "I turned around," Rick continued, "and he was standing there, in the room with me." Eyes on the ceiling, Rick then turned to stare at Negan. "He didn't say anything. I didn't know how long he'd been standing there. But he, he didn't look angry."

"Yeah?" Negan managed, frowning.

"Yeah." Rick squeezed, hand still on the base of Negan's neck. "He left before I did. I couldn't say anything either. Scared, I suppose." He cleared his throat. "But, uh, when you didn't show up during that last visit, after your people left, he… I think he connected the dots."

Negan closed his eyes, lips to Rick's shoulder. "Smart little shit."

"Yeah," Rick said, smiling.

After a couple seconds, Negan opened his eyes. Rick was staring at the ceiling again. Negan lifted his hand from his chest, pressing fingertips to Rick's lips, touch light as he traced over the skin. "My fucking lieutenants want me dead. Or at least out of the way." He wrinkled his nose, pulling Rick's lower lip down. "I can't let that happen."

Rick kept still, only looking at Negan from the corner of his eye. "Should you be talking about this? With me? Doesn't seem like a good idea. Strategically." He smiled.

Negan pulled his hand back and smiled, too, despite the fear numbing him. He tried to smother it. Rick helped. "Fuck you, Rick. Strategically. You strategic my ass."

They laughed, soft chuckles contained in the room, amongst themselves. Rick leaned in, giving Negan a kiss, lingering, lingering, until, "You're scared."

Negan looked away. He reached out, tucking his fingers into Rick's underwear. "Gotta get these off."

"I would say that you're scared of dying, but I think you're more scared of losing control. Of your men, your people. Everything."

He sighed. "Rick," he murmured. "You shouldn't be saying that shit to me."

Rick huffed. "You could try to be a little more threatening." Negan glared. Rick covered his eyes. "Can't do it," he said. "Not here."

"Where?" he asked. Negan touched Rick's wrist, pulling it away.

"Out there."

Negan rolled his eyes. Rick smiled again, just the slightest curve of his lips. He lifted his hand, cupping Negan's cheek. His touch was warm, comforting. "This is the most we've talked," Rick murmured. "Since we've, well." He wet his lips. "You know."

Negan started to nod. He watched Rick for a moment before looking down at a spot on his chest. Trying to get his head working, his breathing less labored, Negan thought of what to say next. He could say nothing. He should say nothing. This didn't mean shit. Nothing did. Instead, the words that were on the verge of spilling from his lips earlier found themselves there again. This time, he didn't hold them back.

"I missed you," Negan said. He hesitated in meeting Rick's eyes, but when he did, his breath hitched in his throat. The look Rick was giving him wasn't even remarkable. He had seen it many times on nights like these. It was expected, it was—"Oh," he muttered.

Rick stretched up, ghosting a kiss along Negan's lips. He didn't smile, giggle like they had been. The tip of his tongue prodded against the bow of his mouth. "Yeah," he breathed out.

Negan touched Rick's neck, his shoulders. He pulled him closer, properly kissing him, and rolled onto his back. Rick pressed against him, lowering his hands to shove aside his boxers. Negan wanted to smile, give him a "there you go". He only managed the smile.

Hand to Negan's chest, Rick moved away, stretching to reach the night stand. Negan leaned in, pressing kisses to Rick's neck, shoulders, the underside of his arm. He nipped at the skin, Rick jerking back. Negan raised his hand to block Rick's elbow. "Hey."

"Don't do that," Rick said, laughing. He stretched again, grabbing the lubricant and squeezing it.

Negan skimmed fingers up Rick's back. "We don't have to do that," he murmured. Once, he wouldn't have believed he'd ever say that.

Rick shook his head and flipped open the lid. "We still have some," he whispered back. "And I wanna. I missed you, too."

Negan carded his fingers through Rick's hair, bringing him in for another kiss. "You asshole," he said softly.

Rick shifted, lowering a hand to spread Negan's legs. "Negan," he said.

"Fuck me." Negan closed his eyes, nose to Rick's cheek. He couldn't look at him. He listened, shivered, hitching a leg around Rick's hip. Tipping his head back, Negan snuck a look at Rick. He wasn't looking at him either.

*

Negan liked to tower over Rick, but there was something about being eye-level with him, both sated and heavy-lidded, that made his chest flutter—more than it usually did around Rick. He wanted to sink deep into the bed, under the covers, and stay with Rick. Rick and the comfort he gave in his eyes and smile. But he couldn't.

He leaned in, enough to brush his lips against Rick's. "Tomorrow," he started, "well, shit, today. Whatever." Rick smiled. "I'll talk to my lieutenants. Mention that deal."

Rick ran his fingers down Negan's chest. "Thank you."

Sighing, Negan closed his eyes. "Don't fucking thank me yet."

Rick kissed Negan's cheek, hand resting on the back of his head. "You should go," he muttered. "It's late."

"Early," Negan mumbled.

"Early," Rick repeated. He rubbed the brim of Negan's ear. "It's almost morning. Gotta drive back too."

Negan opened his eyes, frowning. He stared at Rick, taking in the lines on his face, around his eyes, the exhaustion, and something else. Though Negan didn't say anything, his own face must have done something, as Rick shook his head and turned onto his back. "Don't do that."

"Do what."

"Make that face." Rick rubbed his eyes.

Negan looked at Rick for a moment longer before glancing away, sitting up in bed. His body betrayed him like it always did, but Rick was right. He should go. Negan, chewing on the inside of his cheek, looked down at the sheets. He rubbed his palm against the material, trying to stifle the sentiment clouding his head. Hell, he had already told Rick he missed him, how he didn't want this to stop. How could he make this worse?

"I don't want to leave," Negan said, staring at the sheets. "I gotta, but I don't want to."

On his back, he felt Rick's fingers, a gentle pressure. "You gotta," he murmured, the unsaid sentiment shared.

Negan looked over his shoulder, catching Rick's eyes, and they smiled. He turned enough to grab Rick's hand, pulling those fingers close to kiss. "Just fucking think, babe. Next time you see me, shit's gonna be different."

Against his hold, Rick curled his fingers. He propped his head up with a fist and quirked his brow. "That a good thing?"

Negan narrowed his eyes and leaned in, burying his face in Rick's neck. He blew a raspberry, and Rick squirmed, laughed, and swatted at him. "Stop, stop, you're gonna wake someone up."

He bit down on Rick's chin, fingers knotting in his hair. "Be quiet, then."

*

The clock in Rick's room worked. This was the latest he'd ever left Alexandria. The sun would be rising in a few hours. He could make it back before then.

God, Rick's goodbye kisses were so fucking sweet. As he drove, Negan absently touched his lips and hummed softly.

Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a cabin. Negan slowed down the truck and glanced in the rearview mirror. He must have passed it dozens of time, to and from Alexandria—hell, this was a main road. Some of his men should have done a run, looted the damn thing by now, but it still looked tempting.

He pulled the truck off to the side of the road, killing the engine. Grabbing Lucille, a gun, a quick walkthrough was all he was going to do. If he found anything useful, it might assuage any concerns. Not that there should be any fucking concerns. And maybe, just maybe…

Lucille in his left hand, gun in his right, Negan pushed the door open with his shoulder. It slowly swung open, allowing enough space for him to slip inside. In and out, that was all he needed.

The place didn't look all that deserted. It was empty, but it still held that roomy, eerily comfortable feel that cabins gave. The bed looked like it hadn't been slept in for days, weeks, so that was a good sign. Negan started to poke around as thunder rolled.

He found some cans of food in the cabinets, beans, corn, and boxes of stale cornflakes. There were batteries, tools, dry-rotted rubber bands that snapped as soon as Negan stretched one to test it. He dropped it with a grimace, a small whelp across his fingers.

In the bedroom, there were clothes, extra sheets. Maybe his men didn't sweep through this place after all. "I should make them do a run," Negan mumbled, balancing Lucille on the bed, as he let the gun rest on the nearby nightstand. He opened a dresser, shoving aside more clothes, and sucked in a breath. "Holy fuck."

Negan fumbled with the tube of lubricant. "Oh, fuck." It was practically full. Christ, Rick was going to love him.

He pressed his thumb into the corner of the package, sharp edge to his skin. Love.

Since he was alone, Negan didn't mind that his eyes began to burn.

He turned away, roughly rubbing at his face. "Shit, okay, enough of that." Clearing his throat, he stuck the lube into his pocket and zipped it closed. Negan picked up Lucille, twirled her once, and grabbed his gun. He glanced toward the window, seeing it start to rain and something else.

It was just a flash of movement, but it was enough. Negan narrowed his eyes, tightening his hold on Lucille. Couldn't have been a dead one. Fucker was way too fast for that.

Negan stepped out of the cabin, carefully shutting the door behind him. He tried to make as little noise as possible, as he walked from the cabin, around the corner. The drizzle cooled him down.

At the back, there was nothing. Negan, flexing his fingers against his gun, frowned. He lowered it, just a bit, and looked to the side, further into the woods. He wasn't scared, hell no, absolutely not. Just a trick of the eye.

Negan heard the click of a gun.

He spun around, gun raised, too. At the sight of his attacker, Negan faltered. He expected, fuck, what did he expect? Someone from Rick's fucking group, the widow's. Not a goddamn Savior.

Negan held his gaze, and didn't dare look away.

The man held his gun in two hands, though it wasn't because he was shaking. Better aim, whatever. Negan breathed in, raising an eyebrow. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" he asked, voice lowering. He gestured with his gun. "Put that shit down. What are you going to do? Fucking shoot me?"

The gun stayed. He narrowed his eyes at Negan, lips pressed together in a grimace.

"Not even going to give me anything?" Negan asked, carefully taking a step backward.

"You should have seen this coming," he said, shaking his head a bit. He swallowed, getting a better grip. "After everything you've been doing."

Negan glanced down, seeing a walkie-talkie clipped onto his belt, a thigh holster for a knife. "Came fucking prepared." He cocked his gun, nodding his head back. "Equipment wise. Still not giving me shit in the talking department."

He stepped forward, distance closing. Negan instinctively stepped backward again, squeezing Lucille. For a second, he wondered if he could swing, knock the gun out of his hands. He didn't. "A lot of people want you dead," the man finally said.

"And they send you?" Negan asked, laugh bursting out before he could help himself. "The guy who fucking opens the gates?" Another step back, feet dragging. "Who put you up to this, then, huh? Can't imagine you got the fucking idea yourself."

At that, he faltered, too. "You don't know my name?"

Negan furrowed his brow. "What? That's what you're fucking concerned about?" He laughed again, gun lowering. "Shit, man, if that is fucking news to you, that is your—"

He fired, quick, without thought, and Negan felt his head snap back as he fell, landing on the damp grass. For a moment, Negan saw black, nothing, stars, bright lights, a mix of things. There was a streak of hot metal, it felt like, burning a hole in his cheek. His face was warm. It was wet. Rain was on his skin.

His gun was on the ground, Lucille rolled some feet away. Negan opened his eyes and let out a rattled breath. He heard nothing. Lifting a heavy, shaking hand, he touched his cheek and felt moisture, a groove, a goddamn crevice where a bullet had dragged across his skin. It was deep, but Negan didn't think there was a complete hole. He pulled his hand back, seeing blood coat his gloved fingers.

Clenching his fist, he struggled to sit up. His head was pounding, as if the bullet pierced his forehead and jumbled around his fucking skull. Negan bent his legs and blinked hard, trying his best to ignore everything. He looked ahead, and saw no one. Not even Gate Guy. Did he fucking hit and run? What a fucking loser.

He tried to stand, but it felt like his heart was beating in his cheek. Once on his feet, Negan fell to his knees, hands dropping to catch himself, but slid against the wet grass. He thudded his head against the ground. He cursed, yelled, lifting his hand again to cradle his cheek. He didn't let himself rest; digging his elbow into the ground, he dragged himself forward, knee bending as he pushed up.

"Shit."

Negan looked up, grimacing as he met Gate Guy's eyes. He held a shovel. Negan wanted to laugh. He wanted to vomit. He bent his other leg, boot planted on the ground as he stood again. "What the hell do you think you're gonna do with that?" he asked, words slurring, tilting his head to the side. Blood trickled down his cheek, his lips. "You thought you fucking killed me, didn't ya?"

Just like he had shot, he swung the shovel toward Negan without any thought or readying. Negan let gravity take over, knees buckling and ducking under the shovel as it came his way. He mustered enough strength to launch himself forward, wrapping his arms around the man just as he toppled. Negan's forehead knocked against his collarbone, the shovel handle digging into his sternum.

Under him, he felt the man struggle. Negan, straddling him, looked down at him and saw blood smeared across his face. He lowered his hands, putting all of his weight on his torso. "My fucking men need to," he started, clawing at the holster, his knife, "fucking, fuck, get someone fucking competent," he spat out.

Negan stuck the knife in between the man's ribs, leaning forward to maintain eye contact. Not breaking it, not now. He twisted the knife, feeling the tension, the jerking. The man wasn't fighting anymore. His nose wrinkled, but that only pulled at the skin on his face. When the man stopped moving, Negan yanked out the knife. He stared down at the red blade, the traces dripping down his fingers. A drop fell from his nose and landed on his knee.

He stayed there, sitting on the man's chest, and breathed. In the squabble, he had barely noticed his cheek, his goddamn fucking bullet wound. Now, though, in the moment of reprieve, it fucking hurt. Negan tipped his head back, toward the sky, shoulders heaving. It was still raining, a drizzle. He let his head drop forward, then, pushing his hand through his hair. Negan wet his lips, tasting iron, and shifted, leaning to stick the knife in the man's temple. One quick stab, yank. He would leave him there. Let the dead ones fucking gnaw at him until he was a weird-ass pile of bones.

"A shovel," Negan muttered, slowly standing. "Gonna fucking bury me?" He brought his foot down, smashing his heel into the man's face. The skin broke, blood running out. Negan pressed his fist to his cheek. He kicked at the man again. And again. And again. "Everything I done," he breathed out. "What have I done? I haven't fucking done anything! What have I done?! What have I fucking done?!" After one kick, Negan stumbled, his feet sliding against blood-and-rain soaked grass. He fell, half on the man, half on the ground, the knife dropping from his fingers.

"Goddamn it," Negan said, rolling onto his back, his side. The grass, mud, clung to his skin. "What have I fucking done?" He turned onto his stomach, glancing at the Savior, his would-be assassin. I gotta, I gotta

The walkie crackled, a voice breaking through the quiet woods. "Jack? What's up?"

Immediately, Negan laughed. "Jack!" He stretched out an arm, unclipping the walkie from his belt. Negan gripped it in his hand, lying on his back again. "What should we tell them, Jackie?" he asked, looking over at him. A mess of a face blankly stared back. Negan raised a brow. "Huh." Again, he rolled, digging his elbows into the ground as he army-crawled the few feet it took to get to Lucille, his gun. He used Lucille as a cane, her barrel sinking into the ground from his weight. Once standing, he stayed still for a couple seconds, hoping the world would stop spinning.

It didn't. He didn't think it would.

Negan tucked his gun behind him, dragging his feet as he picked up Jack's gun, the shovel. He stuck the gun with his, the cool metal stiff against his back. He tried to hold Lucille and the shovel both in a hand, the walkie in the other. It crackled again, but no one spoke. Just a mistake.

He took his time to walk back to the front of the cabin. His head felt heavy, like fucking lead was between his ears instead of a brain. His heart was still beating in his fucking cheek. From the corner of his eye, he spotted a dead one on the other side of the road, through the trees. It was alone, dragging itself, groaning. It hadn't seen Negan.

When he breathed in, it was a rasp.

Negan opened up the truck's door, leaning to drop everything in the passenger's seat before climbing in. He sat there, leaned back, and peeled the gloves off his hands. Raising a hand, he touched his cheek and pulled back to see blood. With his other hand, he pulled down the visor, and flipped open the mirror.

It looked as bad as it felt. There were blades of grass, a small smear of mud, across his face. Negan tipped his head to the side, lips parted, and pressed his tongue against the inside of his cheek. He watched as the skin stretched, wound moving as if it breathed, and fresh blood trickled down his jaw. If he pressed hard enough, he thought he could see the tip of his tongue show, tasting the hint of fresh air behind all the blood.

"Cool," he choked out, snapping the visor closed. He should probably be dead. If his head was turned just a bit, if he was standing closer, if, if, if.

Negan started up the truck, pressing his lips together as his eyes began to sting, the familiar sensation from the cabin more welcome now than before. In his lap, the walkie spoke, "Jack, is it done?"

He turned the truck around and slammed on the gas pedal, racing down the road. Negan cleared his throat, picking up the walkie. He hesitated before pressing his thumb against the button. He held it there for a couple seconds, then dropped it back into his lap. "Not now," Negan muttered, rubbing his palm against the steering wheel.

*

Negan pounded his fist against the horn. He waited a couple seconds, silence hanging with an awkward stickiness, and then hit the horn again. He saw as the man on watch disappeared, possibly to open the gate or fetch someone. At the moment, Negan didn't care which he did. He punched the horn.

What was he doing here? Blare, blare, blare.

The screen on Alexandria's gate was yanked open. Negan immediately let up, hand to his chest as he saw a couple people in front. He zoned in on Rick, the others not mattering in the slightest. Rick exchanged a look with those next to him before opening the gate. He slipped outside and marched over to the truck, to Negan. He had a hand on his gun. Negan roughly swallowed.

Not turning his head, Negan reached out to grab the walkie, weakly grasping Lucille's handle. Rick looked angry. He stayed seated, tipping his chin up once he got closer. His cheek still thumped.

Just a few feet away, Rick stopped in his tracks. His eyes were wide, the slight grimace gone, and then he hurried over, tugging at the car door. "What the hell happened to you?" he asked, touching Negan's shoulders, his chest. He tried to touch everything, and Negan let him.

"I need a little fucking help," he said, sliding out of his seat, leaning into Rick's supportive hold. An arm around his shoulders, the other dangled, Lucille bumping uncomfortably against his legs. Negan met Rick's eyes, and oh, they were shining. He shook his head, kicking his leg out behind him to shut the car door. He slumped, but Rick held him up, hands firm. God.

Rick took a step back, guiding Negan to the gate. "Who did this?"

Negan shook his head again. He squeezed his eyes shut, fingers tightening against Rick's shirt. He wanted to fall down. Negan hummed, digging his feet into the ground, planting himself. He wouldn't fall.

"Fine. Are you alone? Were you followed?"

He opened his eyes, focusing on the grass. Half-heartedly, he pressed the walkie to Rick's chest. "Wasn't followed," he managed. He rolled his shoulders back, straightening up, and tried to meet his eyes again. Rick hadn't looked away. The look on his face, Negan knew the best course of action was to reassure Rick. He wet his lips, tasting blood and blood. "Got a surprise for you," he said, wiggling his brows.

Rick let out a sigh, a hint of a smile, and looked over his shoulder. "Tara! Wanna give me a hand?" When he looked back at Negan, his smile was gone, replaced with the stony expression he held earlier.

Negan stared at the scar on Rick's nose. "Mad at me," he murmured. He meant it to be a question, but his voice was flat, dull. Negan stepped back, and Rick gave a small shake of his head. He clipped the walkie on his own belt. Negan sharply breathed in. "What then?"

A woman had come to Rick's side—Tara. Rick pulled Lucille from Negan's fingers, sliding his arm around his waist, just as Tara did the same on his other side. "Wasn't supposed to be like this," he said softly.

"Shit's different," Negan said, spit collecting in the corners of his mouth.

Tara jostled him as they walked, not bothering to look at him. "Hey, buddy? Stop talking. You got shot in the face."

Negan blinked at her, and he wanted to laugh, give her a "Yeah? Did I?", but his lips didn't want to cooperate. So, he rolled his head on his shoulders, kept his eyes ahead, and dragged his feet as they walked into Alexandria.

*

Rick's house was more welcoming during the day. The occupants, however, weren't.

A small audience had gathered outside Rick's bathroom, just to see the man of honor. Negan grimaced as Rick scrubbed at his face, getting the mud and grime off of his skin, away from his open wound. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Tara had remained, Carl behind her with his own grimace, and another woman. Though Negan didn't know her name, he recognized her face from that long night months ago, and her eyes were still just as angry. Negan held her gaze for just a moment, but it was enough to raise the hair on his arms. He flicked his eyes back up at Rick, who seemed to be in his own world, roughly wiping at his face like an overzealous mother.

"What's this asshole doing here?" she asked.

"Rosita," Carl mumbled.

"Asshole got shot," Tara answered.

"Why is he here though?"

A sharp pain rose up, and Negan moved away from Rick's hand. He shot him a glare, and Rick knitted his eyes and looked back.

The voices by the door dropped to whispers.

"Did he say—"

"—no. No, he didn't."

Negan lifted a hand and took the washcloth from Rick. Once the ratty thing left his hands, Rick blinked and turned around. "You know anything about this?" he asked, gesturing behind him, at Negan.

Rosita wrinkled her nose. "Excuse me?"

"I'm asking if you… heard anything. Recently. About—"

"—some secret conspiracy to kill him?" Tara asked.

Rick waved a hand. "Yeah."

"Stop," Negan said, standing up. Looming behind Rick, he hovered by the sink, balling the washcloth in his fist. "It wasn't any of your guys."

Rick looked over his shoulder, turning slightly to face him. Negan looked past him, catching Rosita's raised brow, Tara's worried look, and Carl's damn stink eye. None of them said a word. Pursing his lips, Negan pivoted on his heel, hand pressed to the sink's edge to balance himself. Negan looked in the mirror, tipping his head from side to side. "Wasn't any of your fucking guys," he said, lowering his voice. Negan leaned in, glancing down to refold the washcloth, and raised it to dab at his cheek. "And I don't want to fucking discuss it with anyone whose name is not Rick Grimes." Chancing it, he poked his tongue against his cheek again. Still hurt like a fucker, but at least it wasn't throbbing as much. Negan covered the wound with the washcloth, holding it there.

In the mirror, he saw half of Rosita's face. She rolled her eyes and left his line of sight. "Hope that doesn't get infected," she said. Tara trailed after her, and Carl moved in her spot, leaning against the doorframe.

He sighed, looking over his shoulder at the kid. "I know it can be a little confusing. You're a Grimes, too. But I just want your daddy here."

"You had a shovel in your truck? They weren't able to use it?"

Rick lifted a hand, shaking his head. "Carl, don't."

Negan looked back in the mirror, lowering the washcloth. Most of the blood was gone, but his skin was still pink, pink, pink. "Kid's right," he said. He glanced at Carl, narrowing his eyes. "Now get the fuck out."

Carl pressed his lips together in an attempt to hide the smile on his face. He ducked his head and walked away. With his absence, Rick leaned over to shut the door. He stayed there, fingers around the doorknob, his other hand pressed to the door. Negan watched his reflection in the mirror. There was more distance there. "Hey," he muttered.

Rick's fingers curled against the door. "Hey."

The walkie crackled and then, "Jack, I'm going to need that fucking progress report."

"It was one of your guys."

"Did you get any sleep?" Negan asked, still staring at Rick's reflection. "After I left. I wasn't gone long, so. I don't fucking know."

"Negan."

"I found a cabin, Rick. I went inside, and I don't think anybody's ran through it. Maybe one of your people did and left it be, but I think that's fucking unlikely. Or it's been run through and someone's moved in. And they weren't there when I was. Who fucking knows." He lifted his hand, tugging at the zipper on his jacket pocket. "But I found this in one of the dressers in the bedroom." Negan took out the tube of lubricant, glaring at Rick's back in the mirror, hoping he'd turn around. The couple seconds felt like minutes, but Rick slowly dropped his hands and faced him. He chewed on the inside of his cheek, walking over to Negan, hand outstretched. Negan turned, too, and passed it over to him.

Rick stared at it, thumb pressing against the corner of the package, like Negan had back in the cabin. He breathed in, wetting his lips as he looked up at him. Rick smacked the lubricant against his palm and shrugged, half-shook his head. "I haven't gotten you any more cigarettes."

Negan gave a small smile. "I haven't been gone long," he whispered.

Carefully, Rick leaned in, pressing his lips to Negan's lower one. He lingered there, nothing more, nothing less, and when he pulled back, the sound of their lips disconnecting sent shivers down Negan's spine. He smiled some more, not minding the way it pulled at his skin. "That was hot," he said.

Rick rolled his eyes. "That was nothing."

"Hot."

The walkie crackled, but no voice spoke. Negan glanced down at it, frowning. Rick followed his gaze, free hand reaching up to scratch the back of his head. "So, Jack shot you?"

"My men want me dead."

"Who ordered it? Could have just been a small group of people."

"They still want me dead."

"I know. But it's something to think about." Rick set the lubricant on the countertop and took the washcloth from Negan. He turned on the faucet and ran it under the water. Negan watched as the water collecting at the bottom of the sink turned red, brown.

"He said a lot of people. Before he shot me. Didn't say who put him up to it." Negan frowned. "He opened the goddamn gates."

Rick set the washcloth aside, water turned off. He opened up the medicine cabinet, eyes scanning over the small collection of bottles. Negan stared at the side of his face. "Do you know who ordered it?"

Negan turned to lean against the sink. He let his arms hang at his sides, as he listened to Rick grab a bottle and pop open the lid. He thought of his chair, at the end of a battered-up table, pushed aside when he walked into the room. "Yes," Negan said.

"Okay." Rick pressed a pill to Negan's hand. "Take that."

Negan rolled it in between his forefinger and thumb. "I don't want to take your fucking medicine."

Rick huffed. "Now you don't?"

Glaring, Negan tossed the pill into his mouth and shoved Rick aside. He turned the water back on and dipped his head down to get a mouthful. Swallowing, Negan lifted his hand to press his palm against his cheek. He stepped back as Rick moved back to the medicine cabinet, pulling down a package of gauze and medical tape. Negan furrowed his brow. "That Carl's?"

"Yes."

"Rick, I don't—"

Rick picked up a small pair of scissors. "Sit down."

Negan sat, eyes again narrowed as he tipped his head to the side. Rick cut out a square and placed it against his cheek. "Hold that there," he said, leaning just enough to grab the tape.

At his waist, the walkie spoke, "Helloooooo, anyone listening, or am I just waving my dick around?"

Negan sucked in a breath and reached out, grabbing the device from Rick's belt. Rick cursed, frowning as he ripped the tape with his teeth. "Stop moving."

"Don't talk," he told Rick, rubbing his thumb against the button as he stared at the floor. He waited for Rick to tape down one side of the gauze before holding down the button. "Simon," he said, smiling, head tipped back, hoping it would make him sound more joyful, happy, enthusiastic, what the fuck ever. "I've been hearing a lot of fucking nonsense. What the hell's going on?" He lowered the walkie, and with it, his smile. He leaned his head back to the side, as Rick taped down the rest of the gauze. Negan pressed his elbows against his knees, shaking his head. "Asshole," he breathed out.

Rick put everything back in the medicine cabinet, glancing over at Negan at the expletive. "It was him."

Negan turned his head away.

"He saw you."

"Negan!" Simon said, a similar smile in his voice. Negan gripped the walkie. "What the hell's going on with you, my friend? We've had people out looking for you."

Negan pressed his lips together. He sighed, lifting a hand to push his hair back. "I'm gonna fucking kill him."

Rick crouched, leveling with Negan. He rested a hand on his knee, squeezing. "Okay."

He set his hand on top of Rick's and took a steadying breath, pressing the button. "Shit, really? No need to send in the goddamn cavalry." He laughed. "Saw a fucking cabin that we haven't swept through. When I get back, I'll send a team out." Negan watched Rick. "Thanks for looking out for me, Simon. You're my top guy for a reason."

Rick bowed his head, listening, absently rubbing his thumb into Negan's kneecap. The moments before the walkie crackled again were long, dragging.

"No problem, boss."

Negan turned over the walkie in his hands. He shrugged, lifting the hand that didn't have the walkie. "That's it."

Rick hummed. He stood, using Negan's legs as support. "How are you feeling? I've been shot before but never. Well." He gestured at his face.

Negan laughed, this one more genuine. "I'm feeling fucking fine. Better than ever." He stood, too, clipping the walkie on his belt before looking at Rick. Rick, arms over his chest and head tipped back, didn't look convinced. At all. Negan frowned, looking away, not the mirror. He didn't want to look at himself. "Rick, I. I've been meaning to talk to you about something that, fuck, that I wasn't fucking planning on until you were dead. Or I was. Whichever came first."

Rick raised his brows. "Not gonna tell me something until one of us dies? Theatrical."

"Shut up," Negan breathed out, faintly smiling. He felt Rick's hand on his face, his cheek, and Negan stared.

"Stop smiling so much," Rick said, smiling, too. He ran his thumb down a strip of tape. "You're making the tape peel up."

Negan wanted to smile again, he needed to, but he pressed his lips together, trying to smother it. Rick dragged his thumb across each piece of tape, his linger smile carefree, breathtaking, beautiful. Negan loved it. He loved—

"I love you, Rick," Negan said, sighing after. He shook his head, still fighting the instinct to grin. "I have for a fucking while. That's what I never wanted to tell you. Maybe after all this, but I thought we'd die, so I was in the fucking clear."

As he talked, Rick continued to smooth down the tape, though Negan knew it didn't need to be. He watched Negan, brows furrowed, lips slightly pursed. His expression didn't change at Negan's absolutely heartfelt confession. His touch grew softer. Rick lowered his hand, resting it on his hip. He wet his lips and tipped his head to the side. "It's out now. What do we do about that?"

Negan wished Rick would touch him again. He looked down at him, blinked, and then narrowed his eyes. Do? Tell me you love me, too. Negan glanced away, at the corner of the sink. He loosely curled his fingers into his fist.

"You should rest some, before you head back. Twenty minutes." Rick set his hand on Negan's arm, pulling him to the door. He opened it, and continued to pull, guide, Negan toward his bedroom. It was a Pavlovian reaction to seeing that bed—Negan felt like tossing and turning.

"Twenty minutes," Negan repeated, eyes falling on Lucille leaned against the bedpost. Rick's hand left him, and Negan kept walking over to the bed. He crawled on, flopping onto his back. Negan stared up at the ceiling, roughly swallowing. "How am I supposed to fucking rest?"

Rick squeezed his thigh. Negan looked down at him, eyebrows raised. Rick wasn't smiling, but his eyes held that amused glow as if he was. "I love you, too," he said, soft, a whisper. Negan wanted to bottle it up and wear it around his neck.

"Say that again," Negan muttered, voice coming out breathier, and not caring at all.

Moving closer, Rick leaned in enough to let their noses brush. "I love you," he repeated, softer still, each word said definitively, measured, carefully. They were heavy, and Negan slowly stretched up to kiss Rick and take some of the weight off. They could share.

Like in the bathroom, it was a simple press, Negan's lips to Rick's lower one. Rick squeezed Negan's thigh again, and Negan found himself turning, parting his lips, tasting Rick's tongue, those words—

"Rest," Rick said. He stepped away, hands at his sides.

Negan watched the fingers on his right hand rub together. He hummed, settled back against the bed, and smiled. "Yes, sir."

"I'll be in the kitchen. Twenty minutes."

"Twenty minutes." Negan pointed at Rick.

Rick left, cracking the door behind him. Negan let his hand fall against the covers and turned on his side. He stuck an arm under the pillow and pressed his cheek to the corner. There was a faint pulse. Negan held the pillow closer.

*

Those twenty minutes gave him the most relaxed sleep he had in a while, but he couldn't linger any longer. He had shit to do.

Despite Rick not physically being in the room, Negan could feel him everywhere. He pulled himself out of bed, covers dragging, and stretched to prod fingers at Lucille until she leaned into his touch. She was more like a cane as he left the bedroom, dangling in his fingertips, ready to plant into the ground if he needed support. She had been in the dirt too many times. He had, too.

Negan walked down the hallway, glancing in each room as he passed. It was quiet, Carl and Judith seemingly gone, off somewhere else. Rick was in the kitchen, though, like he said.

He was sitting at the table, staring at the nearby window, chin propped up with his fist. The other hand was below the table, and Negan saw he was still rubbing his fingers together, absent, mind leagues away.

He hooked a foot around a chair's leg and pulled. As it raked across the floor, Rick lowered his hand, blinking, looking over at Negan. He dropped in the chair, Lucille in between his legs, and nodded his head back. "You were right. Fucking needed that nap."

Rick smiled, patting his palm against the tabletop. "I was right?"

Negan grinned. "Oh yeah."

"How's your… face?"

"I don't feel anything. Don't want to feel anything. Not now." Negan shook his head. "Got shit to do."

Rick held his chin up again, this time more awake. He chewed on his lip. "You really gonna kill him? Your top guy?" His voice was a bit teasing, quiet, like they were exchanging secrets—strategizing. "You sure that's the right call?"

Negan wrinkled his nose. "He has it coming." In the back of his head, he heard Jack's voice. He lifted a hand to rub his ear.

"You gonna make it?"

Negan frowned, lowering his hand.

"You already said all you wanted."

"I'm not gonna fucking bite the big one. Even after what I said. Shit doesn't work like that. I am not fate's bitch." Negan shifted in his seat, sliding to the edge, closer to Rick. "I won't be. I fucking refuse."

Rick watched him and slowly nodded. He glanced at his nails, biting at his pinky. "You never know," he muttered.

"Rick Grimes," Negan started, reaching under the table and grabbing his hand. He pulled, yanked, and squeezed his fingers. Immediately, Rick squeezed right back, turning to properly face him. "You know me," he said, softer. "I will crawl through the fucking dirt to get back to you. Again."

Rick dropped his hand against the table, a small smile on his face. "I know you had limited options on where to go, but… I do appreciate that you came here."

Negan lifted their hands out from under the table. He pressed a kiss to Rick's knuckles. "Like you said, Rick. Where else could I fucking go?"

In the perfect position, Rick pinched Negan's nose. Negan shook his head, Rick holding on. A smooth transition, Rick lowered his hand and leaned in, kissing him, whispering, "I don't want you anywhere else but here."

Negan hummed, wetting his lips, their proximity letting him skim along Rick's. "I want you on this table."

Rick smiled and stood, looking out of the window again. "I'll walk you out."

He stared at Rick, bouncing Lucille against the floor once, twice. He stood, too, setting his hand on Rick's back as he walked past. "Don't have to do that, Rick." Negan felt Rick's hand on his wrist, a quick squeeze. He looked over at Rick, catching those blue, blue eyes.

"Negan," Rick started.

"Don't say anything," Negan said. Rick let his hand drop, lips pressed together. He nodded. Negan lifted Lucille to rest on his shoulder. "Rick," he said, turning and walking out of the house.

Negan managed to stroll through Alexandria, only a few pairs of eyes lingering, and climbed into his truck. The shovel, his guns, were still in the passenger seat. He dropped the walkie next to them and carefully propped Lucille up.

"Hey."

Turning his head, he looked at Rick. Negan gave a small smile. "Hello there."

Rick lifted up a smashed cigarette pack, shaking it. "Only have the two. I want you to take them already."

Negan slouched in his seat, rubbing his nose. "Because of my fucking face?"

He gave Negan a look. "That wasn't the agreement."

Negan touched the steering wheel. "No, you keep them. I've already taken enough."

"That so?"

Negan glanced ahead, back at Rick. "Things are gonna fucking change. I said that."

Rick cocked his head to the side, a small smile on his face as he squinted, nodded. "You did." He looked into the pack, fishing out one of the cigarettes. "Just take one, then. For the road."

Negan pressed down on the corner of his bandage. He looked between Rick and the offered cigarette. Then, he shifted, leaning out of the window. Rick's smile grew, and he slipped the cigarette in between his lips. He dug in the pack again, plucking out a beaten-up Zippo lighter. Rick flicked it, lighting up the end.

Negan lifted a hand to hold the cigarette steady, straightening up once it was lit. He slowly exhaled, smiling at Rick. "Thanks."

Rick turned the pack over in his hands. "Don't come back so soon," he teased.

He let the cigarette dangle from the corner of his mouth, as he started the truck. "Will fucking do."

*

There was someone new at the gates. He didn't recognize the guy. Negan's throat tightened.

He made it inside all the same and turned to park the truck next to the other cars. From his side mirror, he saw people approaching. Negan grabbed the shovel and tossed it further into the truck. As it settled with a clang, Negan stepped out of the truck, clipping the walkie to his belt, Lucille in hand, to meet Arat and Dwight. They stood there, staring. Dwight had a small grimace. Arat paled.

Negan raised a brow. "I'm back," he said, soft, singsong. He glanced behind him and grabbed the two guns. Turning back to Arat, he handed over one and kept the other, the one that he picked up next to dead fingers. He stuck it behind his waistband. "The people that were looking for me, they make it back yet?"

Dwight nodded. "Yeah, almost fifteen minutes ago."

Negan smiled. "Good." He felt eyes on him, his face, the back of his head, all around. It made his skin prickle. Negan looked past Arat and Dwight, scanning, searching. He nodded his head at Arat. "You got anything on now?"

Arat shook her head. "No. What do you need?"

Negan leaned to the side, head tipped back. "You, there by the gate! Get the fuck over here."

The guy immediately shuffled over, head down low. Negan turned, a slow pivot on his heel as he waited for him to come. On the stairs, a hand on his hip, the other on the railing, was Simon. His lips were pressed together in a firm line, brows furrowed, expression hard. Negan narrowed his eyes. Simon let go of the stair railing.

"Yes, sir?"

Negan looked away, breathing in. He stared at the new Gate Guy, giving him a quick once-over. He poked his tongue to the inside of his cheek, regretted it, and did the other side. "What's your name?"

He had brown eyes, a crooked nose, soft dark hair, the start of fresh stubble. "My name?"

Negan blinked. "Yes, your name. Tell me your name."

"Paul—Paulie, Negan, sir."

He raised a brow. "Paulie?"

"Yes?"

Negan gave a small smile. "Nice to meet you, Paulie." He looked to Arat. "I'm not sure if Simon passed along the message. I found a cabin on the way back. Main road. Didn't look like we've been through it. Take Paulie and Dwighty here. Check it out."

Arat tapped her thumb against the gun. She glanced over at Dwight, who hesitated, but gave a nod. "Alright. We'll go." Arat nudged Paulie. "Get us a car ready."

Negan lifted a hand, just as Paulie moved past him. He grabbed his shoulder, turning him back toward him. "Use the truck. And be careful. Fucking dangerous out there," he said, the tape pulling at his skin as he smiled again. Paulie stared at the bandage on his face. From the corner of his eye, he saw Dwight duck his head down and walk to the cars. Arat lingered. Negan watched Paulie, wetting his lips. "You know anything about this, Paulie?" he asked, leaning in.

Paulie shook his head, eyes wide. "No, sir. Sorry, I. No."

He squeezed Paulie's shoulder, a bit harder than intended, judging by the slight wince on his face. Negan lowered his hand, tipping his head back. "Didn't think you did. Get the hell out of here. Find me some good shit."

Keeping quiet and only giving a nod of his head, Paulie left, belatedly trailing after Dwight. Negan stared for a moment before looking back up at the stairs. There was no one there. Negan wrinkled his nose and looked over, Arat still there, awkwardly holding the gun he gave her. "What?"

"Simon," Arat started. "Simon… passed along the message."

Negan pressed his lips together. "Simon," he said slowly. "There's a shovel in the truck. Know what I'm talking about?"

Arat looked away.

"Arat…"

"It was just talk," she said, head tilting to the side. "thought it was just talk. You know how people talk. Especially these guys."

He grimaced. "I fucking do." Negan perched Lucille on his shoulder. "Get outta here, Arat," he said, softer.

"Negan—"

He walked off, eyes set on the stairs, the door up above. He wondered how far Simon could have gone.

"My top guy," Negan murmured, tossing the door back and going inside.

He moved through the crowd of workers, eyes again falling on him. He didn't want this. He didn't want any attention, not now. Negan grimaced and turned his head, his own eyes finding Simon's retreating back slip upstairs. It was magnetic. Simon couldn't hide. He was lucky the fucker was tall. Negan flexed his fingers, tightened his grip on Lucille, and continued his trek, hoping the expression on his face kept anyone from approaching him.

Upstairs, down the hall, around the corner, and Negan heard the door shut. He stopped outside of it and rapped his knuckles against the door, staring at the doorknob, watching, waiting. It slowly turned, and without raising his hand, Negan wedged Lucille in the gap between the door and the frame. Only raising his head then, Negan met Simon's eyes, the small grimace, furrowed brow. He smiled, finding it easy, as he pushed, the door opening more. "Mind if I pop in? Have a little chat?"

Simon stepped back. "Not at all."

Negan lowered Lucille and walked in, turning enough to close the door behind him. "Cool."

It was quiet, the sound of the door closing the only thing breaking the silence. It rattled in his head. Negan ran his thumb across his forehead, pressing his lips together as he turned to face Simon. He didn't look at him, but the room: the chair in the corner, the sparse bookshelf, the shitty television, the unmade bed. Negan sighed, lowering his hand, and tilted his head to then look at Simon. "It's been a while since I've been in here," he said.

Simon sniffed.

"Same fucking bed covers."

"We don't have much variety."

Negan narrowed his eyes, Lucille absently swinging in his hold, lightly bouncing off his leg. "I have a question for you, Simon, and I'm going to need you to be fucking honest. Not just as my right-hand man, but as my friend." Simon raised his brows, shifting his weight to the other leg, hands resting on his hips, his posture open, waiting. Negan slowly smiled. "You like what you see?" he asked softly, beginning to sway in his spot, taking a step closer. Simon stayed still, looking down at Negan and chewing on the inside of his cheek. Negan quirked his own brow, lifting his hand, fingers slightly curled. He gestured at himself. "Do you, Simon? I mean, I most certainly would, but then again, you might not." Negan dropped his hand, his expression. "You might have liked to see me… a little less present. In your face. Alive."

Simon, whose eyes were trained on his face, at first reluctant to waver, did as he looked at the bandage on Negan's face. Negan watched as he was examined, almost feeling the drag of his stare as it traced along each piece of tape, the stretch of gauze. Negan smiled again, Simon flicking between the bandage to his lips and back to his eyes. "Oh yeah," he muttered. "Definitely don't like what you see."

Simon breathed in, sliding a foot back, leaning, creating some distance. Negan straightened up, rolling his shoulders. "You gonna fucking say anything to me?" Negan shook his head. "That asshole you sent after me didn't talk much either."

After a couple seconds, Simon lifted his hands, palms up. "I have nothing to say." He looked Negan over, staring at his waist, his belt, the walkie clipped to it. "You've heard enough."

Negan pressed his lips together, forcing a smile. "You're not gonna talk yourself outta this one? Explain what the hell you were thinking when you thought you could fucking murder me?"

His hands found his hips again. Simon looked down at the ground, back at Negan. "You… fraternizing with the enemy was putting the Sanctuary at risk."

"This place was safe. It always has been."

"We needed to deal with those people as quickly and as permanently as we could. We needed to move on to bigger and better things. This goddamn stalemate was doing us no favors." Simon paused. "Everyone except you."

Negan breathed in, adjusting his grip on Lucille as he stepped closer. Simon didn't move. "We've reached a deal," he said. "Your little stunt today might have lost us that deal." Negan raised Lucille, leaving her inches from Simon's face. His dark eyes glanced at the bat, just for a second, then he was back at Negan again. "Do you know what that fucking means, Simon? You might have compromised this place. Because I know," he started, voice lowering to a whisper. "If I was tossed in some shallow grave, if I didn't show up to Rick's front door to fuck and get fucked in a few days, he would have marched an army here." He smiled. "Because you're fucking right, Simon. This arrangement was doing me great favors. You've seen Rick." Negan pressed Lucille against Simon's chin, his eyes widening, his back stiffening to try and move away, slow, an attempt at subtlety. "And we've talked. Strategized. Things are fucking aces now."

"Well," Simon breathed out, still trying to lean away from Lucille's touch. He narrowed his eyes as Negan inched the bat closer and closer. "If things are aces, then what are we doing here?"

Negan pulled Lucille back, leaning away, rocking on his heels. Distance grew between them, and he watched as Simon visibly relaxed, shoulders dropping. He watched him for a moment and gave a small shrug. The bandage felt heavy, binding. "Things are aces between me and Rick. As soon as I talk to my lieutenants, get them on board, which they will be, things are fucking aces with them, too. But, Simon." Negan shook his head. "What you did, I would have at least fucking respected it if you were the one who pulled the goddamn trigger." Negan squeezed Lucille, lips pressed together in a tight smile. "But you didn't." He pulled his arm back, and as quick as he could, struck Simon across the face with Lucille. Simon twisted at the smack and fell to the ground, hands to his face with a muffled shout.

"Fuck!" Simon curled in on himself, head bowed. Negan watched as blood dripped between his fingers. He adjusted his grip on Lucille, shifting his stance. Simon shook his head. "Shit!"

"Put your fucking hands down. I want to see your face."

Slowly, Simon did. He lowered his bloody palms and turned his head, looking up at Negan. His cheek was scratched to hell, skin dangling here and there, blood flowing freely, and speckled across his face. Negan huffed out a laugh. "It's not a fucking bullet. And not the fucking iron. Stand up."

Simon hesitated, but he pushed himself from the floor. He stood, stretching, making himself as tall as he could be, which was just a couple inches taller than Negan. Negan stayed put, keeping the distance between the two. "You got a nice wet kiss from Lucille," he said. "You should be thankful. Lucille only kisses people who really fucking deserve it." Keeping his eyes on Simon, Negan lifted the bat, turning the bloody side toward him. "Say thank you," he murmured, studying Simon, the still-prideful demeanor he held, even with his face open and bleeding. Negan had wallowed in the dirt. His hold wavered, just a bit.

Simon didn't look at the bat. He looked past it, at Negan, eyes narrowed in contained anger. Anger that had no business being there right now. He swallowed, tipping his head to the side, and glanced at that fucking bandage on his face. Negan felt exposed, like Simon could see through the gauze, see the wound on his skin that had threatened everything he had, everything he could have had. It was raw and hurting, as if Simon dug his finger in and yanked. "Thank you," he said, each word pointed, eyebrows raised, sincerity superficial.

Negan breathed in and pulled his arm back again, swinging Lucille at him. This time, Simon could react, but it was fruitless. His hands lifted to protect his face, and barbed wire caught on fingers and sensitive skin. Simon yelled, and his knees buckled. As his hands lowered a bit, just a bit, Negan swung again, harder, this time colliding with Simon's face. He heard bone crunch, and Simon fell onto his side, head banging against the floor. Negan grimaced and took the two strides to stand, crouch in front of Simon. He reached out, hand smearing the blood and broken skin and tissue as he pulled Simon's hair. Simon's eyes widened, and he sputtered, bubbles coming out of the corner of his mouth.

"What have I fucking done?" he asked, voice barely above a whisper. Simon looked at him, trembling, his head struggled to stay up. Negan gripped his hair.

"S-Saw… Saw…" Simon managed, eyes closing.

Negan leaned in, nose to nose. "You're a goddamn fool. But I suppose I am, too." He tugged at Simon's roots, snarling. "I took a fucking chance and fraternized. I fraternized behind my people's backs and did nothing to stop this fucking war. But, oh, it was so fucking good, Simon. You know what I'm talking about, don't you?" Negan dropped his hand, Simon letting his head fall to the floor with little resistance. "I'm making it right," he muttered, slowly standing, hand lifting to tear at the gauze on his face, Rick's hard work. "Look at me, Simon," he said, tossing it aside.

Simon gurgled, rolling his head on the ground, looking up at Negan. He jerked, coughing, spitting blood. Negan tipped his head to the side, putting on a grin. "Keep looking," he said, holding Lucille in both hands. "Do me that last respect."

Negan brought Lucille down again, and again, and again. His ears rang, his hands hurt, and Simon didn't stop looking.

Sometime during, Lucille dropped from Negan's fingers, rattling against the floor with a loud clang. He breathed in, out, heaved, and squeezed his eyes closed, trying to quell the stinging. Negan lifted his hand and wiped his eyes, rubbing the back of his wrist across his face. He looked down at his skin, the sleeve of his jacket, and saw red. Negan stared at Simon, and couldn't tell where it came from. Not exactly.

Negan pressed his lips together and picked Lucille up, grip weak, and shook his head. "Had to," he muttered. Told him I would. Negan grabbed his ripped-away gauze, feet from the puddle that was Simon's head. Negan folded it one-handed and held it to his face. He gave Simon another look before taking a step back, one more, and sticking Lucille under his arm to fumble with the doorknob.

Negan walked down the hallway, feet dragging. He was heavy, gross, tired.

He met a worker on the stairs. She looked at him with wide eyes, frozen. She started to dip to her knees, but Negan waved his hand, the bandage quickly becoming more red than white around his fingers. "Don't. Don't do that. I've got something for you to do." He wet his lips, squinted. "What's your name?"

Her eyes stared at his cheek. He didn't blame her. She swallowed and stood a little taller. "Tammy."

"Tammy," Negan repeated. "Cool. I need you to gather your best friends and go down this hallway."

*

Arat. Dwight. Paulie. Tammy. Charlie. Doug. Katelynn. Jackson. Mikayla. Mikayla's little brother Brian. Caroline. Caroline's girlfriend Rebecca. Caroline's girlfriend's mother Stephanie. Paige. Adam. Chris. Samson. Connor.

The walkie at his waist crackled. "He's here."

Negan looked away from the factory floor, standing up straight but keeping a hand on the railing. He unclipped the walkie, thumb rubbing against the button before pressing. "Keep him there." Negan lowered the walkie and looked back at the workers, furrowing his brow.

Samantha—Sam. Mason. Freddie. Jonathan. Jonathan's boyfriend Steffon. Jonathan's boyfriend's kid Jamie.

"Got it."

Negan clipped the walkie back to his belt and went down the stairs. He moved through the crowd, shoulders rubbing against a worker or two. They didn't flinch. They didn't move away.

There was the usual bustle in the courtyard. Negan looked to the gates, where they parked their cars, and saw Arat crouched to be eye-level with a driver. Negan hummed, lifting a hand to touch his lips and the other to grab the back of Paulie's neck.

Paulie turned, looking up at Negan with raised brows. He said nothing, expression expectant. Negan jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "Go check on Luís. He looked like shit."

"Okay."

Negan squeezed his neck, then patted his shoulder. "Thank you," he said, continuing his walk across the yard. Arat stepped back, and the car door opened. Out stepped Rick, looking like the most gorgeous thing he ever saw. Negan hated how his breath hitched, but he was glad he was still some feet away.

"I can take it from here," Negan said, stopping next to the front of the car. "Thanks, Arat."

Arat glanced between the two of them and nodded. She walked away, heading back to the fence. Negan watched her for a moment before looking over at Rick, staring at those beautiful eyes he hadn't seen in days. Negan wet his lips and stepped closer. "How was the drive?"

Rick tipped his head back, hands on his hips, and studied Negan. He had a small smile on his face. He looked rested, happy, well. "It was fine," he said, his tone amused. "Quiet."

Negan wanted to touch him. "Good. You look good, Rick."

The smile grew. "Put that bandage on in the dark? Kinda crooked."

Negan smiled, too. "Yeah." He rocked back on his heel, nodding his head to the side. "Let's walk."

He didn't know where they were going, but they started along the perimeter, side-by-side. Their knuckles brushed, and when Negan looked to Rick, he was staring at the fence, a chained-up dead one, a worker, not him. "Where's, uh—"

Negan sighed, shaking his head. "She's resting. Had a rough couple of days."

Rick looked at him, then, reaching out to touch, grab Negan's arm. It made Negan stop walking and turn toward Rick. "How are things?" he asked.

"Around here? Fucking great." Negan furrowed his brow. "A lot more quiet. Slow. That's kinda the fucking point, though, right? Peace and shit?"

Rick lowered his hand, fingers gliding along the back of his wrist. "How are you?"

Negan looked away, raising a hand to scratch his face, fingers finding tape. He dropped his hand and Rick's lifted, thumb pressing down on the corner he upraised. Negan stared at him, and Rick stared at his face, focused on his task, and waited for an answer. Negan shrugged. "I'm okay."

Rick kept quiet, smoothing down the other side of the bandage.

"It's taken me awhile to fall asleep the past few nights," Negan muttered. "But I do. And… I'm trying to fix things around here. Everyone working together is one thing, but I need, I need to." Negan frowned. "I got a fucking bullet in my face because I didn't know someone's fucking name. So, I'm trying. You know, to learn the workers' names. Give them more shit. Don't overwork them. I dunno." Negan shrugged again. "Try to be less of a fucking dick."

Rick looked up at him, another smile on his face. "Okay." He glanced around, pushing his hair behind his ear. Negan was seconds away from running his fingers through those curls. Rick looked back at him. "Okay. Take me inside. Let me see what you're doing here."

The factory floor was never a remarkable place, and he knew that, but walking through it with Rick, he felt self-conscious, too open. Like his pet project was being analyzed, evaluated, and if Rick didn't like what he saw, he'd turn his back on this whole thing. Negan wouldn't have cared before.

They were quiet as they moved through. From the corner of his eye, he saw Rick look around, gears in his head turning, blue eyes searching. Negan tried to keep his attention ahead, toward the stairs and up to the landing. He saw Paulie crouched next to Luís, holding a water bottle steady as he drank.

Up top, Negan mirrored his position from earlier: leaned against the railing, recounting names. Rick stood next to him, fingers wrapped around the railing. He was close. Negan glanced at Rick, absently running his thumb against his lower lip. "So?" he asked, voice low.

Rick didn't look at him right away. He continued to watch the floor below, beginning to slowly nod. "Okay," Rick said. He looked at Negan, then, shrugging. "We can't all be farmers."

Negan bowed his head to hide his smile, rubbing the back of his head, his neck. He straightened up with a sigh, shaking his head. "Fuck you, Rick," he said, setting a hand on his shoulder, sliding to touch in between his shoulder blades, and then he turned Rick around, pushing him away, to the door. "Lemme show you my favorite place here."

There were a few people walking along the hallways, but at this point, Negan didn't care. He grabbed Rick's wrist and tugged him along, hurrying, hurrying. Rick was here.

"Negan, stop." Rick laughed.

"No can do, Rick. You have no fucking idea," he started, letting Rick's hand go and spinning around. "How long I've waited to have you in my bed." He walked backward, giving a grin. "Too fucking long." They passed Simon's room. Negan didn't look at the door. Rick was oblivious, a smile on his face, too.

"Say that a little louder," he teased.

"Everyone knows," Negan said, and damn, wasn't that a weight off his chest. He stopped by his door and fumbled with the lock.

Rick stood next to him, leaning against the wall. "I know. Say it louder."

Negan opened the door with a small kick and leaned in, kissing Rick, as sloppy and wet as he liked. Rick lifted a hand to press fingers to the side of his neck, keeping him there for a moment longer. By his touch, his kiss, he knew Rick missed him, too.

Negan hummed and looped an arm around Rick's waist, pulling him in. They laughed as they stumbled inside, the door flying shut with another kick. Negan left kiss after kiss along Rick's face, his neck, his hands trailing down his sides and squeezing whatever he could. Rick squirmed against his touch, arching into him, and Negan huffed, teeth to the brim of Rick's ear. "Too fucking long," he breathed out. Negan looked down, plucking at the buttons on Rick's shirt. He glanced at him, seeing Rick look around the room. He smiled softly. "Like it?"

Rick nodded. "Oh yeah." He looked to the couch, where Lucille rested, and set a hand on Negan's arm. Rick turned, then, getting a full view of the room, the amused expression on his face remaining. Negan stepped back and let him look, thinking the sight all-too right with Rick standing with his hands on his hips and shirt unbuttoned. "Very you," Rick said, looking back at Negan. "That animal head there when you got here?"

"Yes."

"Now, why don't I believe you?" Rick asked, sticking a hand into his back pocket. "I can't stay long," he said, head tipping to the side. "But I brought a couple things with me."

Negan looked behind him before sitting down on the edge of the bed. "You're all I fucking need, Rick."

Rick tossed the tube of lubricant at him, Negan catching it with a laugh. "You maniac," he said. "Never mind, this definitely fucking helps things."

"And," Rick said, taking out a cigarette packet. He shook it, raising a brow. "Seven cigarettes. Two more than you asked. Well, technically three, since you took that one before." He tossed it at Negan, and Negan caught it, then threw it over his shoulder.

"Forget that right now, you fucking amazing man. You can't fucking stay long, and I'll be damned if I don't get to have you in my bed." Negan held out his arms, fingers curling, beckoning. "Please, baby."

Rick pressed his lips together, smothering the grin Negan could see forming. He walked over to Negan, fingertips touching Negan's, and grabbed his hands. Rick pulled him closer, dipping down enough to leave a kiss on the bridge of his nose. "Good things are starting here," he whispered, pushing on Negan's shoulders. Negan laid back, arms outstretched, as he watched Rick move on top of him. "They are."

"They'll get better," Negan muttered, raising a hand to push Rick's shirt off his shoulders, down his arms. He sat up, enough to help Rick pulled off his jacket, lift his shirt. Negan touched Rick's back, fingers gliding over the notches in his spine.

Rick leaned in, nose to nose, biting back another smile. "How do you want me?"

Negan wrapped his arms around Rick and rolled them over, crawling up, Rick dragging himself, until they were in the center of the bed. Negan settled in between Rick's legs, toying with his belt as Rick sat up to pull off his shoes. "Wrapped so tight around me, I can feel those fucking thighs against my waist when I'm in bed alone tonight and rubbing one out."

"I think I can do that," Rick said, lowering his hands to undo Negan's pants. Then, it was a race to finish undressing, to have each other gasping, panting, wanting more, more, more.

Negan, face buried in Rick's neck, rocked against him. He was drooling. "Fuck."

Rick squeezed his thighs against Negan's waist, heels digging in. "Yeah."

*

Rick didn't belong here. Gray factory walls didn't suit him. Bright, fresh, blue and green, Rick wore Alexandria well. It would be selfish to ask Rick to stay, to even stay just a bit longer. So, Negan told him that, as he buttoned up his shirt. "You don't need to be here," he said. "I want you here, but that doesn't fucking matter." He sighed, shrugged, lowering his hands. "It's cool."

Rick gave Negan a look, standing from the bed and going over to the counter. "When did you decide that? 'Cause earlier you were practically frothing at the mouth over me being here."

Negan looked away, rubbing his face to hide the blush. Rick couldn't see, though. He was rifling through the things on the countertop, bandages, pills, cream. "After I, uh, got that shit outta my system. I guess." He waved a hand. "You can still come visit, or what the fuck ever."

The faucet ran, and Negan watched as Rick wet a washcloth. He didn't say anything, and as he came back to sit next to Negan, dumping everything on the wrinkled covers, he remained quiet. Rick only stared at Negan, eyebrow quirked and a small smirk on his face, and started to carefully take off Negan's bandage. It pulled at sweaty skin, and Negan winced.

"Okay," Rick said. "I hear you." He lifted the washcloth and began to dab at his skin, gentle, gentle. Negan stared at him. Rick held the cloth to his cheek, palm cradling his face, and looked back at him. "Does it still hurt?"

Negan reached out, picking at Rick's shirt. "Nah, it doesn't."

"But…"

He leaned in, kissing Rick, hand sliding to hold onto his waist. Rick wrapped his arm around Negan's shoulders, his hand still keeping the washcloth in place. Negan didn't protest, appreciating the cool pressure combating the sickly sweet warmth creeping back up. Negan squeezed his eyes shut as he leaned their foreheads together. He wasn't clutching Rick's shirt. He fucking wasn't. "I'm gonna miss you," he said, and because he felt Rick start to pry his fingers away from his shirt, added, "asshole."

Rick laughed, head tipped back. Negan smiled and leaned in, pressing lips to Rick's neck, feeling his laughter. He stretched out his tongue, drawing a line from his throat to chin, shivering at the bristle of facial hair. Rick hummed and squeezed Negan's shoulder. "I'm the asshole," he said, still smiling. Negan doesn't remember one time Rick didn't look amused today. God.

Negan breathed in and leaned away, creating space. They needed space. Negan did. He nodded. "Yeah, you're the asshole."

Rick took away the washcloth, shaking his head, smiling. "You know," he started, picking up the small tube of antibacterial cream. "You can come visit, too. It works both ways."

The cream was cold. Negan closed his eyes. "When are you free?" he muttered.

Rick kissed him, the smallest of kisses, a soft press, and Negan could feel his fucking smile. "I'll call you."

Negan opened his eyes and met Rick's grin. He rolled his eyes and sighed, slumping forward, forehead against Rick's, again. "Rick."

"Straighten up. I'm not done here. Don't want it crooked."

Negan hummed this time and straightened out his back, eyes narrowed as he watched Rick's playful expression. He couldn't look away.

*

He was at Alexandria's gates. He wasn't sneaking in. He didn't even have a fucking hole in his face. He was invited, welcome.

Negan stood, Lucille loose in his grip, Arat by his side, as the gate opened. First, he saw Carl, perpetual scowl and crossed arms. What a great welcome. Then, he saw Rick, next to his son, hands on his hips and looking like he had been waiting for ages. What a great welcome.

He propped Lucille up on his shoulder, glanced at Arat, and looked to Rick. "May we come in?"

Rick looked just as well-rested now as he did the last time Negan saw him, and the time before that. And the time before that. Nothing to stress about now. He nodded and took a step back, more symbolic than anything else. "Come on in."

Negan and Arat walked in together, and as the gate closed, Negan felt safe.

The walk through Alexandria was quiet. Negan could hear birds chirping. Fucking birds. He couldn't remember a time where he had walked through this place, at any time of the day, and felt welcome. Well, as welcome as he can be. But it was a slow process. Here he was.

Carl went down a road, away from their small group. Negan snuck a glance at Rick. Rick shook his head. "Don't make that face."

"What fucking face?"

Rosita approached them, hair tied back and a gun strap over her shoulder. She nodded her head at Arat. "You ready to go? Or did you want to wait for a bit?"

Arat shook her head, hand lowering to tap her gun, the knife, the walkie on the other side of her waist. "No, we can go." She looked up at Negan, tossing her hand over her shoulder, thumb pointing at Rosita as she began to walk backward toward the gate. "I'm—"

Negan waved his hand. "Go ahead. Tell me if you get into any shit."

"We won't," Rosita called.

Negan pointed at her.

"Let's go inside," Rick said, nudging Negan as Arat went to join Rosita. "Carl went back to Michonne's. She's watching Judith. Well, not really watching. More like hanging out."

Negan watched Rick, following, smiling softly as Rick lead him into his house. "Tell her you were gonna be busy?" Negan stood in the kitchen, breathing in, listening to the front door close. He lowered Lucille and glanced over his shoulder, staring at Rick, leaned against the door, palms still pressed to it. Negan wet his lips, raising his brows. "Hm? Rick?"

Rick tipped his head to the side. "That's healing nicely."

"Gonna be a bitching scar. No one's gonna mess with me."

"Yeah," Rick breathed out.

Negan bit back a smile, lightly tapping Lucille against the floor. He slowly turned to Rick, swaying in his spot. "You think it looks bitching? Hot? You think I look hot, Rick?"

Rick, the jackass, dragged his eyes down Negan, then back up. The corner of his mouth raised. "You were already hot."

"Wow," Negan said, lifting his hand to touch his chest. "I'm really touched."

"I love you," Rick said, not missing a beat, like he hadn't heard what Negan said.

Rick looked beautiful in this light. Negan dropped Lucille, letting her roll on the floor, and lifted his arms, crooking his fingers. "Come here," he muttered.

Rick pushed off from the door and walked over to Negan, almost at a march. He set his hands on Negan's waist, and stretched up, Negan lowering his hands to touch Rick's face, his neck, and they kissed and kissed and—

Rick squeezed Negan's sides and grinned. "I found more lubricant."

Negan arched into Rick, grabbing his shoulder. "Oh, I love you."

*

Rick had his face buried in Negan's crotch before he could properly lie down on the bed. He held onto locks of hair and squirmed. "Holy hell, Rick," he breathed out. "Missed me that much, huh?"

Hands on Negan's thighs, Rick stayed where he was, head bobbing, tongue lolling against Negan's cock, not needing any words at all to answer his question. Negan tightened his hold on those curls and groaned. "Damn, honey, I missed you, too."

Rick popped off and pulled himself up, a hand dropping to palm Negan's front, not stopping the contact. He smiled down at Negan and kissed him, all tongue and laughter. "Yeah," he said. "Missed you that much." Rick wrapped his fingers around his cock, giving a slow pump. Negan felt like he was going cross-eyed. "Wanted to taste your cock as soon as I saw you," he whispered.

Negan tipped his head back, eyes squeezed shut, groaning, exaggerating about half of it. "Fucking Christ, Rick."

Rick laughed again.

There was a moment of reprieve when they kissed again, and Negan began to paw at Rick's clothes. Rick swatted Negan's hands away and started to pull off his clothes, leaving Negan to stare as he did the same.

"You're gorgeous," he muttered.

Rick leaned in, nose gently resting against Negan's cheek, his rough, healing skin. Negan blinked and stayed still, absently touching Rick's sides. Rick was quiet, softly breathing, and Negan looked up at the ceiling. He ran his fingers up Rick's back, goosebumps, goosebumps.

"I'm here," Negan added, because that seemed like a good thing to say.

Carefully, Rick tipped his head, brushing a kiss along the edge of his scar. "Good," he said. "I want you to fuck me."

Negan held the back of Rick's neck and kissed him, breathing out, "Stay on my lap."

They didn't rush. They weren't quiet. They were alone, no one sleeping down the hall. Negan couldn't wait to see the bruises on Rick's hips.

Rick left Negan lying there after, pulling on his clothes and giving him a smile over his shoulder. Negan returned it. He was rooted to the bed.

Rick stood, underwear on and his button-down hanging loose on his shoulders, and crouched to pick up the walkie. He turned it over in his hands. "Must be going okay."

Negan wet his lips and roughly swallowed. His throat was dry, tight. He glanced at the window, curtains pulled closed but sunlight still coming through. Slowly, he breathed in. "I don't want to leave," Negan said. He looked at Rick, sitting up, nodding. He thought back to the times he had expressed the same sentiment, despite knowing better. Rick knew better, too. He couldn't. They couldn't.

Still, Negan shrugged, smiling again. "I'm staying."

Rick watched him, rubbing his thumb against the walkie's edge. Negan counted the seconds he was quiet, each one making his heart beat faster. He remembered how his cheek throbbed as if his heart was there, it being torn open. What have I fucking done?

Rick nodded, too. "Okay." He walked over, setting the walkie on the nightstand. "You're staying." Smiling, he looked at Negan. "Welcome home."

Negan lurched forward, wrapping his arms around Rick's waist. He pressed his face to his stomach, squeezing his eyes closed. "Welcome home," he breathed out, laughing. "Rick."

The way Rick dragged his fingernails along Negan's scalp reminded him of raindrops. He remembered pulling himself from the mud, it caking his face, the blood, the warm blood. Negan pulled back, staring at Rick's abdomen, thumb sliding across the tender skin on his hip. "Thank you," he muttered.

Rick touched Negan's cheek, fingertips gently skimming scar tissue. Negan lifted his head and met Rick's equally gentle smile. "No need to thank me," he said.

Negan laid back, blowing a raspberry. "Now all that mushy shit's out of the way"—Rick smiled, rolling his eyes—"we should fuck again. Housewarming gift."

Rick laughed, shaking his head. "That's not how it works." He slipped off his shirt anyway, crawling into bed. Rick pressed up against Negan, who smiled again, knees pressing into Rick's sides. "But okay."

Negan cradled Rick's face. "I'm never leaving," he whispered, more of a reassurance than demand.

"You don't have to," Rick said, leaning forward to press his lips to his cheek, lingering.