It was all over. The war was over and they won – and the word was bitter in Rick’s mouth. Yes, they could’ve lost more people, but they already lost so many already. And Carl wasn’t even a victim of the war. But it was all over, and Rick didn’t have to lead the charge anymore. He dragged himself to the lonely tree and sat underneath it wearily, allowing all the strings and tension that pulled every muscle in him taut to snap as he sagged against the trunk. The bark was rough against his back through his sweat-soaked shirt and his eyes stung with tears. He could barely see, vision fuzzy from lack of sleep and those tears that were always just on the fringes.
Unseeing, Rick didn’t notice the sunlight stream through the broken stained glass and stain his face with the same blue, or the dappled shadow of the sunlight through the leaves that also cast a green shade over his sallow skin. Unhearing, Rick muttered to himself about wrath and mercy, Siddiq’s words beating against his brain, and Carl’s letter memorized and imprinted on the inside of his eyelids every time he closed his eyes. There was a swirl of other people’s voices, too. Morgan’s about Dwayne. Carol’s warnings to Henry. Michonne’s comforts. Negan’s taunts. Maggie’s screams. So many others. Words meant to hurt or to heal, but in the end, Rick focused on Carl’s voice.
What Carl had said at his end broke Rick’s heart, and Carl’s death broke the rest of him until he was a shattered soul that only knew how to lash out and hurt others. He had scraps of tenderness left in him to cradle Judith in his arms or give Gracie a bottle or kiss Michonne or receive a hug from his family – but those were brief moments that had overwhelmed him, and he withdrew with his dominant hand shaking and seeking out either his hatchet or his pistol. He felt like jagged edges before, and now he just felt like a raggedy old doll withering away. But Carl’s letter applied the first balm to the ache inside him. He had a feeling it would never go away because he still carried so many aches from others, like Lori and Sophia and Hershel and Glenn and, and, and…
Rick did what Carl wanted. He didn’t kill Negan even if it would’ve been the easy thing to do and what everyone wanted him to do. Negan was alive. So, lungs heaving, Rick collapsed back against the tree and wailed into the air. He didn’t care if walkers from miles around could hear him, and he didn’t care who saw him at his lowest; he was done.
As it was, Rick had only let out a few sobs before he felt hands grasping at his arms and shoulders. In a blind panic, he fell to the side, jerking away from the touch and rapidly blinking the tears out of his eyes. It was Michonne, and he could see her mouth moving – talking – before he registered the words.
“Rick! We need to get back.” Her hands grasped at him again and pulled. He felt like lead in her arms.
“No,” he croaked and sniffed. Couldn’t anyone understand that he just wanted to be left alone?
“Rick, we have to. Negan is going to die out here if we don’t make it back.”
Slowly clarity filtered through the fog of his grief. “What?” Rick swiped at his eyes. “Ain’t anyone helpin’? Siddiq?”
“Siddiq can only do so much, but he lost a lot of blood. He needs a transfusion.” Michonne started saying other things, but Rick’s heartbeat was so loud in his ears. He followed her to where he left Negan, and the three of them struggled to carry him to the Hilltop.
The man was a little heavy, but not as heavy as Rick thought he would be. Negan was all long legs and arms, and he never once stirred and his coloring was terribly pale against the shiny black of his leather jacket. Siddiq kept careful pressure on his neck, trying not to choke, but scarlet leaked through his fingers and around his palm, dripping down Negan’s neck towards his ears. Rick shifted his grip to better support Negan’s skull, cautiously tipped his head, but afraid to crease his neck too much. Rick’s clumsy hands with numb fingers ended up sticky with warm blood that he constantly swept away only for more to replace it. Rick smeared blood on Negan’s forehead for the trouble, without meaning to, trying to keep Negan’s hair out of his eyes even though they were closed.
Time passed slowly so long as Rick kept stumbling along with his eyes trained on Negan’s face. He barely noticed how much his feet hurt by the time they made it back inside the Hilltop. Of course, he was surprised when Maggie didn’t put up a fight of keeping him outside the walls or refusing supplies, but she was inconsolable herself, being led to the big house by Jesus. Ezekiel was the one to lead them, Carol at his left-hand side with Daryl and Morgan a couple of steps behind her. The Saviors had followed them. Tara and Alden holding the babies with the Oceanside women and other survivors behind them stared in confusion and listened as Ezekiel explained, repeating Rick’s words more or less with that artful grace Rick felt he lacked.
But Rick hardly registered any of that as he, Michonne, and Siddiq wrestled Negan’s body into the house. Rick was confused as to why they were going to the house instead of the medical trailer where they treated their wounded, and when he asked, Siddiq called back, “There are other wounded – lesser injuries mostly. He needs to be inside and kept away while I work on him.”
Once inside, they headed for the small room – almost a linen closet – that had an adjacent bathroom. It smelled clean, and then it smelled like iron and sweat as they spilled blood over clean hardwood floors and finally set Negan’s body on a small rolling bed. This had been someone’s room once. They were probably dead now.
“He needs blood. Michonne, go to the trailer. I need you to get bandages, antiseptic, the needle and thread and suture and –” Siddiq continued listing off supplies, and Michonne nodded because after all this time she was familiar with all that. Rick felt useless, hands hovering in the air over Negan’s body. Hershel said something about his blood type, asking what it is and when Rick turned his face to answer, it was Siddiq talking to him. No snowy white, thick beard framing a grim, weathered face with kind, bright eyes, but dark hair sticking to the forehead of a young, brown face with wide doe-like eyes. Rick didn’t understand.
Eventually, Siddiq pushed him away and Rick was in a daze as he watched. He looked on as Siddiq pushed the needle through his skin. He could smell cleaning chemicals as Michonne and a Hilltopper Rick didn’t know came back to clean away the blood everywhere. Rick just stood there, observing everything without taking any of it in.
It wasn’t until someone brought Rick a chair beside Negan’s bed to sit that he started listening again. “He should be able to make it. Maybe there will be damage to his vocal cords, but only temporary. It wasn’t that deep of a cut, but it was messy,” Siddiq was explaining as he wiped his hands on an already filthy towel. “What did,” he addressed Rick this time, “what did you use to slit his throat?”
“Piece of glass,” Rick muttered, his voice rusty from disuse. He found himself reaching for Negan’s hand, only to stop once he saw the mangled leather. “He hurt his hand. Can you fix that?”
“Yeah, lots of Saviors did. Negan was lucky not to be one of the ones who lost any fingers.” Siddiq pulled up a chair beside Rick as he gingerly lifted the wrist of Negan’s injured hand for inspection. “He’s wearing too many layers – and he needs fresh clothes. Will you help me with that?”
Together, the two men stripped Negan down, replacing them with a soft, white t-shirt and pair of grey sweatpants that Michonne had the forethought to bring with the other medical supplies before she left to attend to other business. Siddiq’s hands were clinical, caring but carefully separated as well, not touch overly tender. In comparison, Rick felt like he was remaking Negan, molding him into something less intimidating and softer. Or maybe he only seemed that way without his jacket or since he was asleep. Rick tried not to let his touch linger, but it felt like his own hands, shaking as they were, were also too curious. The first thing Rick noticed – as he always had to now – was that Negan didn’t have any bites or scratches; Rick was glad.
What took up the majority of Rick’s attention after that were Negan’s several tattoos. The old Rick Grimes, who had eyes trained to pick out specific markings from his training at the police academy, noted them while the more inquisitive side of Rick wondered what the tattoos meant – or if Negan was even the kind of guy who had to have a meaning for them at all.
As they used some spare, damp towels to clean away the dried, sticky blood, Rick slowly realized that for him to follow Carl’s letter, he needed to humanize Negan. This wasn’t just the monster who bashed in heads; this was a man. He was someone from before, probably a normal someone. Someone who never killed or handled a gun. Someone who paid taxes, commuted to work, maybe came home to a wife and kid. And as Rick’s eyes drifted lower down Negan’s body, he saw an ugly scar along the bottom left of his ribcage where he’d probably been stabbed, but then just above his right hip was a clean, simple line of silver from old surgery – like a removed appendix. Just like Rick had the scar across the bridge of his nose from the Governor, Negan had a similar scar on the outer part of his cheekbone on the right side of his face. Maybe as long as a fingernail, but still, Rick knew it was from the old world. Maybe he got it when he was a kid and he fell off his bike. Rick couldn’t pull his mind away from building Negan’s past life until the man was fully dressed again, and when Rick sat back down and looked up and down Negan’s body again, he saw his feet were bare. Rick’s gaze dropped to his own beat-up boots.
This time when Siddiq reached for Negan’s injured hand again, Rick watched him unwrap the bandage going up his forearm. “Doesn’t appear to be sprained or broken,” Siddiq mused aloud. “Not sure why he had that.” Underneath it was another tattoo, but it didn’t look sentimental. Not a name. Just an object. Siddiq bypassed it without another thought as he cut away the remains of Negan’s leather glove, which he dropped on the floor with a wet plop. “Superficial wounds. Looks worse than it is. That’s good. That glove must have taken the brunt of the damage, though it does look like he has a second-degree burn from the gunpowder. Most likely will leave a scar, but I’m not sure about that.” Taking his time, Siddiq cleaned away the old blood gently and applied numbing ointments and expired anti-biotics. Rick appreciated that he didn’t say anything about this being a waste of supplies.
Some time during, Rick spaced out, and he didn’t pull back into himself again until he felt fingers start to undo the buttons of his shirt. He blinked, and there was Siddiq in front of him, between Rick’s chair and Negan’s small bed, impeding the view. “What are you doin’?”
“You’re bleeding. You need stitches. Why didn’t you tell me you were hurt?”
"Didn’t matter,” Rick grunted, and didn’t so much as wince when Siddiq slid the clean needle into his skin. “Doesn’t hurt anymore.”
He felt Siddiq’s warm hands graze over his stomach and flutter around his hip like butterflies. It was a pleasant sensation to be touched, and Rick realized now that he ached for it. Looking over Siddiq’s shoulder as the doctor bowed his head down to closer inspect Rick’s injury, Rick stared at Negan’s sleeping face. He was handsome.
“When is he gonna wake up?”
“I’m not sure. He might stay asleep for a while – trauma induced coma or some such. These days, it’s not unheard of for some people to run themselves into the ground and even something like say, a stab wound in the abdomen that missed vital organs, can be enough to tip people over the edge to sleep for a week.”
Ignoring Siddiq’s pointed words, Rick asked, “Will he be in pain?”
Siddiq paused though his hands didn’t. “Do you want him to be?”
“No,” Rick answered honestly, without any hesitation.
“Good, I’m glad you said that. I’m supposed to be a doctor. I’m supposed to ‘above all else, do no harm.’ I understand that nowadays that’s a lot to ask for, and it is hard to do, but I was hoping that since your war has ended, I can do what I was meant to do and I can put that all behind me.” Siddiq’s voice was soothing as he continued on. “That being said, the Hilltop doesn’t have a lot of pain medication. And since Negan lost a lot of blood, I was hesitant to give him too much. He will probably wake up sooner than we’d all like because of the pain. I can give him more pain medicine, though, when he’s awake. Don’t worry.”
Rick hummed and only knew Siddiq was finished when he started to button up Rick’s shirt again after he made no move to do it himself. Siddiq tipped his head at Rick, suddenly bashful, and excused himself. “I have to go check on my other patients now.”
Nodding in understanding, Rick took a cursory glance at Negan’s freshly wrapped hand before he reached across Negan’s body for the other hand. And it was only then he noticed that Siddiq had hooked Negan up to a blood bag after they had changed him. It unsettled Rick that he was so unaware, and dimly he wondered who volunteered to give their blood to Negan. Unsure if he should take Negan’s other hand now, Rick settled for placing his hands on the small edge of the mattress. It was a narrow bed, and even though Negan wasn’t that broad, if he rolled over, he would fall off. Rick decided to lift the railing on the hospital bed to prevent that, and then wrapped his fingers around the cool metal as he settled down to wait. What he was waiting for – Negan to wake up, someone to come fetch him, Siddiq to come back – Rick wasn’t sure. But all he could do now was wait.
For the first time in a long time, Rick dreamed. He dreamed that he was walking through farmland – amber waves of grain – and even in his dreams, his boots were old and weathered and ready to fall apart at the seams. There was no scent, not even of fresh dirt in his nose, and there was nothing but blue sky above, not a cloud in sight. It seemed like light poured in from all directions. Even as Rick looked, not having to squint his eyes at all, he couldn’t find the sun. Light just existed, and came from everywhere, and it was neither warm nor cold. But Rick felt warm from the inside.
He walked, only knowing to go forward even if he didn’t know what lies ahead. Walking did not tire him, and the grain tickled at his palms as he curiously ran his hands over it. The grain was as soft as feathers, rolling from some unfelt wind.
Soon, Rick was joined by someone else in the field. Michonne took his right hand, and she was radiant with her beautiful smile that Rick felt in the deepest depths of his soul. On her hip, she had Judith, a blonde mop of curls on her cherubic toddler face. Her eyes were curious, and when she smiled, she had a new tooth beginning to grow in. No one said a word or had to say anything. When they continued to walk, Michonne was in step beside him, neither leading nor trailing after the other. It felt right.
Eventually, on the ever-approaching horizon, shapes began to materialize. At first there were dark spots that wriggled distantly, but soon Rick could see that it was a herd of deer. It used to be that they would be considered a pest in a farmer’s field, but Rick didn’t think they were out of place at all. He and Michonne came to a stop a little way off from them because they couldn’t walk any further, and it didn’t alarm them at all. Then Rick saw amidst the field of deer Carl, who was walking from buck to fawn to doe to offer seed straight from his hand.
“Carl,” Rick spoke for the first time, and though he whispered it, Carl heard and looked directly at him. He had both of his eyes, and his hair was pulled out of his face. Carl lifted his hand and waved with a small smile, but didn’t move from where he was.
Rick lifted his free hand – his left hand – to wave back. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Michonne shift her hold on Judith to do the same, coaching Judith to wave at her brother.
From Rick’s left, he heard a voice croon, “Bye, kid.” When Rick looked, it was Negan, and he was barefoot in his white t-shirt and grey sweatpants. His throat was unmarked, and he had a plaid shirt tied around his waist, swaying with the invisible wind that rolled the grain. Negan waved at Carl with a closed-lip smile, genuine and unaggressive, meant to be friendly.
When Rick looked back at Carl and the deer, they were gone and it was birds flying up into the blue sky. They flocked in a tight circle going up, up, up as they went further out and away until they were nothing but black specks, and then nothing. Rick sighed, and felt a gentle pressure on his left hand when Negan laced his own fingers through it. Again, he turned to look at Negan.
With expectant, gentle eyes, Negan was already staring at him. He swept his thumb over the back of Rick’s hand. He still had his silver wedding band from Lori, but that didn’t make the presence of Michonne or Negan any less intimate than what it was. Negan asked, “Where to next?”
And then Rick woke up.
Even though he was exhausted, Rick’s instincts screamed at him to wake up when he felt eyes on his skin. He lifted his head from Negan’s stomach and looked at the man, who was still asleep. Then he looked ahead, and it was Maggie standing there with Lucille in her hands, lifted like a batter getting ready for the first pitch. It was dark outside, probably the middle of the night, and while Rick’s body ached all over, he forced himself to rise to his feet, a protective hunch in his stance as he splayed one hand out in the air over Negan’s sleeping figure. “Maggie…” Rick spoke softly.
“Why didn’t you just let him die?” Maggie’s voice was ragged as if a thousand shards of glass slit her throat. There were no tears in her eyes now, but they were red-rimmed, and Lucille trembled slightly. “It could’ve all been over. We would have won. Glenn,” her voice choked on the name as if it was ash in her mouth, “Glenn would’ve had his revenge.”
“I don’t think,” Rick carefully began, “Glenn would’ve wanted revenge. That’s what you wanted.”
“Want,” Maggie corrected him, “I want it. I still want it. Glenn would’ve wanted it if it was me that died.”
Rick didn’t dare to disagree. “Maggie, I had to keep him alive. I have to save him for Carl.”
“And I have to kill him for Glenn!” Maggie didn’t bother keeping her voice down anymore. She shifted her grip on the back and glanced away from Rick down at Negan. “I had Daryl go get the bat. It’s justice this way. I was gonna drag him out tomorrow and kill him in front of anyone but I can’t wait anymore. I already waited too long because of you, and I’m not waiting any longer for something like hanging gallows.” Maggie’s eyes were piercing in the dark. “You remember my daddy’s farm? We were gonna hang that boy in the barn. You were going to.”
“And I didn’t, because my boy was there.” Rick leaned further over Negan’s body, prepared to dash in and take a blow from Lucille at any moment. “We can’t be judge, jury, and executioner like that.”
“You wanna rebuild the world? That’s exactly what we have to do.”
Realizing that he wasn’t getting through to her, Rick grasped at something to talk about. “You mentioned the farm. Do you remember what brought us there? Carl got shot, he was dyin’. I was goin’ to lose him, but I didn’t. I almost lost him so many times – and when I finally did lose him, it was from a walker. Not a man, but a monster.”
“You want to talk about monsters, Rick?” Maggie’s voice was a lance of accusation in the dark, no mercy or remorse in her tone even if it wavered with emotion. “I watched my daddy get his fuckin’ head chopped off. He was executed by the Governor, a man who molested me and had my husband beat up. Would you have given him the same chance you give him?” She pointed Lucille at Negan’s face without looking at him, arm outstretched all the way so that all she had to do was sway forward and the bat would knock against Negan’s mouth in a barbwire kiss.
“No,” Rick admitted, “No, I wouldn’t have, but he was crazy, Maggie.”
“And Negan ain’t?!”
“No, he ain’t. I know he ain’t,” and Rick really could say that with confidence. He may be off-balance, but he wasn’t crazy and that was what made him formidable. He rationalized what he did, but his mind could change. Rick knew that in the warehouse when they had to chance. Negan may have named a bat, but somewhere underneath all the leather and sharp smiles there was a man that Rick intended to find and drag to the surface again.
Purposefully and slowly, Rick slowly lowered his hand to Negan’s chest, rising and falling under his palm. Negan’s heart beat was strong and reassuring; he had a heart after all. “Maggie, the dead are the real threat. Walkers. People can work together and we can rebuild with that common enemy. Some people just need to be reminded of who they are, that they are people. I can teach Negan how to be a human being.”
Maggie’s pinched face slowly relaxed, and all the breath was expelled from her lungs in an almost sob as she let Lucille fall limp in one hand. “I don’t care, Rick.” She shook her head slowly from side to side, tears glistening in her wide eyes. Rick was reminded of how young she was, how she was pregnant, how she was so in love Glenn. Her shoulders rolled in a barely-there shrug. “I just don’t care. I want revenge.”
Crossing over to her side of the bed, Rick wrapped his arms around her, and she let him, limp to his touch, not showing how it affected her. Rick glanced at her middle, not yet a curve in sight, and then hugged Maggie tight anyway. He had his dirty hand on the nape of her neck, and nudged his nose through her hair as he murmured, “You’ll get reconciliation, Maggie, I promise. I…I’m sorry.”
At first, she only let him hug her, and then she returned the embrace, burying her face in his chest as she softly wept. Lucille knocked against their legs because she didn’t let go, but neither one cared, unable to feel her barbs through the fabric of their clothes. Rick held her until her tears abated, stroked his hand through her hair as he thought about how her father should be here for this, for his first grandchild, how Glenn should be there for his family. But as Rick’s eyes dropped to where Negan’s prone figure, Rick found he didn’t regret keeping him alive at all.
When Maggie finally pulled away, she rubbed the back of her hand over his nose. “I don’t want him here. As soon as Alexandria is fit to have him, he’s gone. But while he’s here, he’s gonna be in handcuffs to that bed. I’ll have Jesus find some in the morning.” She took a step away from Rick towards the door, distancing herself from Negan. “Oh, and I’m keeping Lucille.” There was an unspoken, In case you ever change your mind, but Rick heard it all the same.
After Maggie left, closing the door behind her, Rick went back to his chair to sit again. He sighed and rubbed at his tired, stinging eyes. Slowly, he started to realize he was hungry, but he’d just have to wait until breakfast. Negan couldn’t be left alone, for his own protection.
Sometime while Rick was asleep, Siddiq came back and unhooked the needle from Negan’s arm, seeing as he had his full blood transfusion. Rick reached across Negan’s body for his uninjured hand and took it, pulling it across Negan’s middle. Just like in his dream that was fading from his memory by the second the longer he lingered on it, Rick was the one to rub his thumb over the back of Negan’s hand, back and forth.
Sleep came for Rick again, and he pillowed his face on Negan’s stomach, still holding that hand. Just as the last tethers of wakefulness left him, Rick swore he felt Negan squeeze his hand twice – and then he was asleep again.