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Ghosts That Keep Me

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He’d been clear in his instructions.

The kid’s still gotta be here. I think he wanted to go down with the ship. Search the place, find him, tie him up. Don’t kill him.

The explosions were loud and hot, and Negan decided he’d head to Rick’s place to hang his feet up while he waited for his men to accomplish their task and bring the boy to him. Or for Rick to show up, whichever happened first. Finding Carl was the most likely, though. He figured it wouldn’t take too long. The kid was fast, but he couldn’t outrun the forty or so soldiers Negan had brought with him, especially not with the destruction going on all around him. They’d corner Carl sooner or later, and then he’d have nowhere to run. He’d have no other back up, either, since it appeared he’d stayed behind by himself, acting as the solo captain for a sinking boat. It made Negan smile. The kid had major balls and continued to impress him. He couldn’t imagine Rick doing what his son was doing right now. The boy had gotten all of his people to safety without breaking a damn sweat. He was leadership material at its finest, and would make a perfect lieutenant for Negan someday.

It had only been a good ten minutes or so when the static on his walkie comes through.

“Negan, sir, we’ve got the boy, but….”

Instead of the glee he should feel, Negan detects the hesitant, almost somber tone of his lackey, and frowns. He opens his mouth to ask what’s happened when the voice comes again.

“You’re not going to like it.”

The first thing that comes to Negan’s mind is that Carl is either seriously injured -- which, if so, he was going to let Lucille go to town on whoever the hell had hurt the kid -- or he’s putting up one hell of a fucking fight. Honestly, Negan hopes it’s the latter. He wants to see the ballsy ass little shit come in here ready for a brawl. He enjoys building up Carl’s rage, enticed by the hatred he sees in the kid’s eyes whenever the teen looks at him. Negan knows that he should be ready to pummel the brat as soon as his men bring him in for the stunt he’d just pulled at the gates. He’d jerked Negan around like a damn dog on a leash, toying with his emotions, manipulating him. He hadn’t thought the kid could be capable of that. Clearly, he’d underestimated him. Carl was an even bigger badass than he’d thought.

Negan’s affection for him must be obvious if the boy used it against him and had been winning him over. He cursed. If it was that obvious to the kid, was it even more obvious to his men, who’d he explicitly told not to kill the teen on sight?

The front door swings open, followed by what sounds like a minor scuffle, and Negan hurries into the hallway, swinging Lucille around with ease in an attempt to startle the kid. “Well, alright, you little asshole , we have some things we need to discuss --”

The words die in his throat.

He knows something is wrong with Carl the minute he sees him. The kid is not even fighting back. In fact, he looks as if he can barely stand. Negan looks him over from the distance and doesn’t see any noticeable injuries. His hair is shielding his face, which is angled downward to the floor. It sends off alarm bells in Negan’s head. He exchanges a look with the man holding Carl up, who shakes his head at him.

Negan’s gaze goes back to Carl, eyebrows furrowed quizzically.

“Hey. Kid. Carl . Look at me when I’m talking to you or I swear I will beat your ass.”

The boy lazily raises his head and Negan feels his heart drop out of his chest. The teen’s skin is clammy, there’s a redness around his eyes that hadn’t been there before, and his single eye is dilated. He looks fucking sick . Bewildered, Negan approaches the boy and places a hand on his forehead and immediately recoils. He’s burning up.

Carl is languidly staring up at him, and in a way that he doesn’t like. There is no fire in his eye, no spark of life at all. The kid looks as young as he really is, and almost impossibly younger. He thinks he can see the child Carl probably used to be: innocent, fearful, and vulnerable. Negan jerks his head dumbly. If he was this sick, why had anyone allowed him to come out here and confront the Savior leader, much less let him out of bed? He thinks back to the conversation they’d had not even an hour ago, and how the boy had practically pleaded with him to kill him. What the fuck was going on?

“Oh, kid… what’s wrong with you?”

Carl gives a small, rattling exhale and shakes his head slowly. There are dirty tear tracks mingling with the sweat on his cheeks. “I wasn’t playing you.” It looks like it’s taking every bit of energy the boy has left to even speak.

Slowly, Carl’s shaking fingers pull up the hem of his shirt and exposes his stomach. The red that Negan sees across the boy’s pale flesh is nothing compared to the red that he sees when Carl looks at him again. The resignation on his features is something no one, especially a 14-year-old boy, should be wearing.

Realization hits the older male, then, the impossible truth. The boy was dying. From a fucking walker bite. He was really dying, there was no way around it. There was nothing that could be done. Negan doesn’t even realize that he’s sunk to his knees and pulled the boy close to him until he feels the child’s shuddering heartbeat against his own. “God damn it. God damn it, kid. No. Not you.”

Any of the anger he’d had at him from the kid fucking around with him earlier dissipates. He gently eases the young man down onto the floor, leaning him against the wall. His men seem to realize that they are no longer needed and leave Negan alone with the dying boy.

“Would you have done it?” Carl croaks after a long moment. “Would you have killed me, when I asked? Could you… would you do it now?”

Anger replaces Negan’s sorrow. “Fuck you, kid,” He growls, and he hates the way his voice cracks. “It wasn’t supposed to go like this. You’re not supposed to go like this.”

Carl laughs, humorless. “It was always gonna go like this. Walkers didn’t stop being a threat just because we all wanna go to fucking war.” He takes another long, painful breath. “In the end, I guess I didn’t end up being the badass you thought I was.”

Sorrow is an emotion that Negan hasn’t felt in a long, long time. Not since Lucille. He doesn’t have much empathy to spare nowadays, not with the world in the state that it is in, and not if he intends to keep people in line. Keeping people safe didn’t exactly align with being nice. But he’d be damned if he didn’t say that the dying child before him hadn’t wormed his way into Negan’s cold heart. This boy, the son of his enemy, had grown to mean something to him. He could’ve taught Carl in another life. He could’ve been the son he’d never had. It’s only now that he realizes how attached he is to the teenager, and how different he wishes things could be.

Carl’s shallow breathing snaps him from his reverie, and he watches as the boy’s chest rises and falls with too many seconds between them, like he’s having trouble getting air into his lungs. His eye is closed, and sweat has matted his hair and he is starting to smell like death. He doesn’t have too much longer, Negan knows. For a moment, he considers it, just taking Lucille and smashing the boy’s head in quickly so he doesn’t have to suffer like this. But it’s not fair to him, or even to Carl’s family.

He can’t even bring himself to be angry at Rick right now, either, who is going to have to bury his only son. Negan knows he’s an asshole, but he isn’t heartless. This was going to decimate Rick, even more than it was affecting him.

“Hold on for a little longer, Carl,” Negan finds himself trying to comfort the boy. “Your dad… I’m sure he’ll be back soon. Don’t you want to see him?”

Carl’s lips twitch a little, and Negan’s heart clenches. “Yeah… and Judy. Michonne. Everyone. But they’re…” He breaks off his sentence, opening his eye to look at Negan again, and the man understands. Carl is not going to tell him where they are, even if it means missing out on seeing his family one last time.

He tries to ignore the guilt swelling in his gut about that, too. If this war hadn’t happened, would Carl not have been bit at all?

Wordlessly, he reaches for his walkie, and sighs before he clicks it on.

“People, we’re clearing out. We’ve accomplished what we needed to here. This shit hole is in shambles and they have nowhere to go. So head the fuck out and I’ll meet you at the gates in five minutes.”

There’s a barrage of “yes, sirs” and he clicks it off again, running his hand down his face. Carl’s looking at him in confusion.

“Why are you…?”

“This is the only reprieve your people are getting from me. Tell them that for me when you see them.” He stands up and reaches down to easily scoop the boy into his arms. He is surprisingly lighter than expected. Carl gives a small whine of protest, but doesn’t try to stop him. Even through his clothes, Negan can feel the heat emanating off of him. “Just so you know, you’re still a fucking badass, Carl. Even like this. But don’t let your pride deprive you of seeing them one last time. I’ll take you to them, and that’s it. You just point me in the right direction.”

Carl sighs, but nods. He is so tired, but he needs to stay awake. He needs to hang in there long enough to see his family for one last time. He can’t let himself go without them. “There’s a manhole, near the cemetery, just past the solar panels. They’re all down there, they’ll be able to get me if they hear me. Just leave me there.”

Negan can’t help but smile, even if it doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “No shit? You got everyone outta here by doing that? Resourceful little shit, aren’t you? You’re the only person I can think of to ever outsmart me. And I’m damned proud of you for it.”

He thinks he feels Carl laugh against him, but the boy’s face is buried in his jacket as he clings to what he has left of life. Carl tells him where to go and they finally reach the sewer. Negan sets Carl down as kindly as he can, watching the way the boy’s face scrunches up in pain and how he lays his head against the cool grass as if it provides him relief. And maybe it does. Maybe the kid is soaking up every second he has left on this earth, the feeling of the world he shouldn’t have to leave all around him.

It makes Negan irrationally angry again.

Carl Grimes deserved a better fucking ending than this.

None of this is fair, kid. You know that.

And he guesses that yeah, Carl really does .

Placing a hand on his shoulder, Negan tries to take in the fact that this is the last time he will ever see Carl alive. Wetness is pricking at his eyelids and it takes everything in him not to actually cry.

“I’m so sorry , Carl,” He murmurs. “Truly. I am. I’m so fucking sorry.” There are things he wanted to say to the kid, but there is no time. Not if he intends to deprive Carl of his, and he doesn’t.

Carl stares at him again, and there is finally no hatred in that blue iris, only exhaustion and a desire for peace. “Thank you for bringing me here,” He whispers. “You should go. I’m gonna yell for them in a minute.”

“Yeah.”

Negan begins to walk away, stops, and throws the boy a glance over his shoulder.

“Goodbye, Carl.”

He resumes heavy steps, feeling like something is tearing his heart in two. He doesn’t glance back, though, not once. He reaches the gates with dry eyes and an angry thin line for lips and he finally hears Carl’s shout. Negan slams his truck door and as they pull away from the Safe Zone, he thinks he remembers Carl bidding him farewell, too.