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The holiday season was not being kind to Rick Grimes.

He just didn’t understand- Judith had never, never done this before, not even when she was a baby. She’d been an unnervingly quiet child, never prone to the kind of ear-splitting shrieks and cries that Carl had been bent on in his first few months. But here she was now, screaming until she was red in the face while they sat waiting at the airport. People nearby had begun looking less concerned and more annoyed by the weary-looking father who was clearly too incompetent to soothe his shrieking daughter.

“Jude- Judith, sweet pea, what’s wrong? Does your head hurt?” Rick pressed the back of his hand to Judith’s forehead, searching for a fever that wasn’t there. He angled his shoulder toward her, like somehow he could muffle the sound. Beside him, feet kicked up on their suitcases, Carl gave a derisive snort.

“Like that’s gonna help.”

Rick felt a pulse of frustration that he had to force down. He’d had to deal with a higher-than-average amount of teenage snark this last week, and the last thing he needed was his fifteen year old acting out like his two year old.

To be fair to Carl, it didn’t help. Rick could still feel the judgmental eyes of other holiday travelers boring into his back. If he could place bets, he’d wager that Carl had his hood up and knees raised to block his face. I’m not associated with them, he was surely thinking. Never met them before in my life.

“Judith, you’ve gotta tell me what’s wrong, alright? What do you-”

There was a hard jab to Rick’s back, and his head whipped around, ready to tell Carl that if he wasn’t going to offer advice then he should keep his commentary to himself- only to find himself staring up at a lanky leather-clad man who had that devil-may-care look on his face that set Rick’s teeth on edge and told him that whatever was about to come out of this man’s mouth wasn’t going to be particularly polite or well-meaning.

“Look, buddy, somebody’s gotta ask- is that actually your kid you got there? ‘Cause the way she’s carryin’ on like that, people are gonna think you snatched her off her real daddy.”

It was nothing short of a divine miracle that Rick didn’t lunge at the man where he stood half-cocked and tilted back like a stiff wind could knock him over. As it was, Rick’s voice was a low, dangerous hiss between his gritted teeth.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” He saw Carl perk up in his peripheral vision, probably about to make a mad dash out of the terminal if Rick and this interloping asshole caused a scene. Carl could be embarrassed by him all he wanted, Rick decided- there was no way he was rolling over and taking what this fucking guy had to dish out.

“Seriously, Curly Sue, do I need to call the fuckin’ TSA out here? I mean, Je-sus, that kid is not havin’ whatever it is you’re giving her. You ever think about trying benadryl? I heard that shit works miracles. Knocks 'em out-” Asshole Guy made a popping noise for dramatic effect, "-like that." He looked Rick up and down, taking in his wrinkled shirt that had been shoved in the bottom of his suitcase for three days, his wild hair from the nap he’d managed to take during their first flight of the day from Montana to here in Kentucky. “Don't take this the wrong way, 'cause I'm sure you're a real looker when you don't look like you've been sleepin' in the gutter, but you're a goddamn mess. Your old lady fly the coop for the holidays? This your first Christmas havin’ to do the dirty work?”

Rick saw red. He was out of his chair in an instant, toe-to-toe with this rude, arrogant stranger who felt the need to insert himself right in the middle of Rick’s family matters. For his part, Asshole Guy looked utterly unruffled by Rick getting up in his face. Probably, Rick thought, because he was the type of person to invoke such a strong negative reaction in strangers on a regular basis.

“Don’t you ever act like you know shit about me or my family.” He could hear ringing in his ears he was so angry- the man had hit a little too close to home, though not in the way he thought. He dug deep for an ounce of composure, pulling out his cop voice in hopes that he could regain a sense of dignity. “I think you ought to move along.”

The man reared back mockingly, and Rick desperately wanted to smack the cocky smirk off his face. “Well, excuse the fuck out of me. I was just sayin’ what the rest of these fine folks are too nutless to say- your fuckin’ bundle of joy’s about to give us all icepick headaches. Seriously, I was just about to drive a pen into my ear canal and hope for the best. We were all rootin' for you the first few minutes it was goin' on, but it's been a solid twelve now, and I can't fuckin' take it. I know you’re not about to get on the plane and let her scream like a goddamn banshee.”

Rick was tried. He, Rick and Judith had spent the last week with his parents, who, though well meaning, were not the easiest people to be around, especially so close to Christmas. Carl had been speaking to him mostly in monosyllables because he was pissed about spending his winter break in the middle of nowhere with his family instead of going on a parent-free ski trip in North Carolina with his friends. And Judith was still crying like Rick had dumped her favorite stuffed animals into a lake.

And then there was this jackass.

“I’m doin’ everything I can. You think I don’t want her to stop more than anyone?”

Asshole Guy shrugged dramatically. “Shit if I know! I just assumed that you’d be a little more competent at takin’ care of your own damn kid, but clearly that’s my mistake-”

“You’re gonna want to go back to your seat now,” Rick growled, cutting him off. He felt like his blood was boiling, rage making his skin prickle with heat. He abhorred people that assumed he didn't know how to deal with his own children. He had gotten more than his fair share of judgmental, pitying looks in the last year, and he'd had enough. “This ain’t any of your business.”

“I think after fifteen minutes of slasher-level screaming, it’s just about everybody’s business.”

It was at that point that Rick seriously considered slugging a complete stranger in the face in the middle of a crowded airport terminal three days before Christmas. His only saving grace was the intercom blaring to life above them.

“Attention passengers of flight six-sixteen to Atlanta. Unfortunately, due to inclement weather, this flight has been cancelled. We apologize for any inconvenience. Please see the gate agents for ticket refunds and lodging information. We hope you have a very happy holiday season.”

For a moment, Rick and the man could only blink and process what they’d just heard. Judith was still bawling, but she was much less vocal than the hundred-odd furious travelers who were now shoving their way up to the front desk for their turn to shout at the poor gate agents.

“Just fucking great,” Asshole Guy snapped, throwing his arms up in the air. He gave Rick one last glare, like somehow Rick had willed the flight to be cancelled out of sheer spite for him. “At least I won’t have to hear your kid blowin’ a fuckin’ gasket for an hour.” And with that, he stomped away back to his lone bag, leaving Rick to once again deal with his miserable children. He sank back down in his seat, one hand stroking Judith’s curly hair.

“Hey, sweet pea. Jude- daddy’s gotta go talk to the airplane people, okay? Looks like we’re gonna be stayin’ here for the night.” He half-expected more tears, but to his surprise, Judith’s sobs trailed off into weak sniffles.

“We’re not riding on the plane?”

Rick shook his head tentatively, praying this newfound quiet wasn’t short-lived. “Not tonight, Jude. Sounds like it snowed back home and the plane couldn’t get here.”

Judith smiled brightly through her teary eyes. “Good! I don’t wanna get back on the plane.” Her chin wobbled, and Rick felt a pulse of panic.

“Why not?”

“I had a bad dream that a plane t-took you away,” she whimpered, fat tears spilling down her rosy cheeks. “I don’t wanna get on one again.”

Oh, god. That was a problem for another day. At least he knew why she’d been crying since they’d gotten to their gate. Rick sighed and kissed the top of his daughter’s head. “Nobody’s gonna take me away, Jude. We were all gonna get on the plane together. Remember how you got cookies and apple juice on the last one? And we watched Finding Nemo?” For about the hundredth time, but that was neither here nor there. It was a welcome break from her Frozen phase, anyway.

“We’re seriously staying the night here?” Carl complained over Rick’s shoulder. “You promised we’d be back by tomorrow afternoon so I could go skating with Sophia and Ben. You already made me miss the ski trip-”

Carl,” Rick warned, feeling that icepick headache that Asshole Guy had mentioned coming on. “I can’t control the weather. I’m gonna go see about where we can stay tonight. Watch your sister.”

An angry mob had already formed around the front desk. Rick watched haplessly as furious, frustrated people ranted to the exhausted gate agents who were doing their best to accommodate all of the stranded passengers. He caught snippets of conversations- Can’t fucking believe this! and You’re seriously telling me there’s not another goddamn flight to Atlanta tonight? and If you think we’re staying at a fucking Motel 6-

Rick wondered if any of these people understood that the gate agents weren’t in control of the plane or the snow.

He kept surreptitiously glancing over at his kids. At least Carl wasn’t taking his attitude out on Judith- he had his sister in his lap and looked to be playing a game on his phone with her that was making her laugh.

Count your blessings, Grimes. He may be pissed at you, but at least he’s a good older brother.

It was almost fifteen minutes later when a gap appeared- after several people stormed away from the desk muttering curses- and Rick was able to squeeze in. The young woman at the desk looked tired, dark circles beneath her eyes and hair unkempt like she’d been running nervous fingers through it.

“Sir, once again, we apologize for the inconvenience, I know this is a hectic time of year-” she began, but Rick waved her off, offering a kind smile.

“It’s alright. Ain’t anyone’s fault. When’s the next flight to Atlanta?”

The woman looked visibly relieved by the lack of anger. “Not until tomorrow at ten a.m.- most of the ice is supposed to have cleared off by then. Conditions are still poor, though, so it’s possible it will be delayed or pushed back…I have a full flight itinerary here if you’d like a copy.” She slid a piece of paper across the desk to him. “If you’d like, we can transfer your tickets to the next available flight.”

Rick nodded. “That’d be great. And for tonight…”

“Your luggage will be available for pickup in baggage claim, and there are a few nearby motels with shuttle service to the airport. They’re quite busy at the moment, but there should be some rooms left if you’d like me to check.”

“I’d appreciate it. It’d be me, my son, and my little girl.” The woman was on the phone in seconds, making arrangements for a double room at the closest motel. With the bus schedule and a three tickets booked for the next morning at ten, Rick headed back to wrangle his children back through the airport.

This is fine, he thought. We’ll still be home by tomorrow afternoon. Carl won’t be pissed at me until the new year. This will give Judith more time to get over her fear of flying. Everything will work out.

He should have taken Asshole Guy’s constant presence throughout the airport as a bad sign. There he was on the escalator, in line for the shuttle, and then sitting on the bus a few rows in front of Rick, Carl and Judith.

He definitely wasn’t thrilled when Asshole Guy got off the shuttle at the same motel they would be staying at, but hey- in all likelihood, they wouldn’t see him again unless Rick was particularly unlucky and they went to get ice at the same time.

Rick and his children were the last ones off the shuttle because he and Carl had to maneuver their luggage out from behind an elderly couple’s massive suitcases and half-dozen gift bags. By the time they got into the motel lobby, Rick was ready to collapse onto the nearest bed, questionable stains and lumpy mattresses be damned.

The inside of the motel was decorated for the season, albeit in the most listless way possible. A single scraggly plastic tree stood in a corner, looking like it had seen close to a decade of unboxing and re-boxing, and it was decorated with lights that had more burnt-out bulbs than lit ones. Sprigs of fake mistletoe hung limp from the ceiling, and at the front desk, speaking to a lean man dressed in black, the single bored-looking clerk wore a dingy green elf hat that made Rick want to ask him if he needed a new job.

If the interior of the lobby wasn’t a bad sign, the voice of the man in black berating the desk clerk was.

“The fuck do you mean you double-booked my room? You’re seriously telling me that there’s nowhere else in this rat-infested shithole for me to stay than-” At the sound of the front door closing behind Rick’s family, Asshole Guy whipped around, face red and eyes narrowed, and Rick very nearly turned around and walked out. Maybe he could find a twenty-four hour diner that would let Carl and Judith sleep in a booth if Rick kept buying coffee.

“Oh, you have got to be fucking kidding me.” Rick’s eye twitched, and he was sorely tempted to clasp his hands over Judith’s ears. Asshole Guy whirled on the clerk. “Tell me this isn’t the guy you double-booked me with.”

The clerk, a man with long, lank blonde hair and a permanent uninterested look in his eyes, glanced over Asshole’s shoulder to look at Rick. “Name?”

“Grimes- Rick Grimes,” Rick offered weakly. The clerk tapped away on the ancient computer in front of him, but Rick already knew what he would say next. Call it a hunch, call it extraordinarily bad luck, but when the clerk looked back up at him with a weary sort of consternation, he wasn’t even surprised.

“Sir, I’m sorry, but it looks like your room has been double booked.” Asshole Guy let out a bellow of frustration, and the clerk continued. “’Fraid we’re full for the night. Lots of flight cancellations. And as I was just tellin’ this man, I called around and the other motels with shuttle service are booked up as well. Best I can do is offer the room free of charge-”

“You’re damn right you will!” Asshole Guy cut in.

“-and send some extra pillows and sheets your way. It’s a double, so I guess it could be worse?”

Rick had to hand it to the clerk- he truly didn’t seem shaken by the situation at all. Strangely, it made him feel more calm. Maybe it was the sleep deprivation.

“Could be worse? Are you fucking-”

“Sir, this is a motel. People are trying to sleep.” Rick was sure that the clerk was about to get slapped. Beside him, Carl gave a snort of laughter that made Asshole Guy cut his eyes back at them.

“You think this is funny, kid? Hope you like snoring, because let me tell you, it sounds like a fuckin’ foghorn when I sleep.”

Rick was dangerously close to throttling the man, but Carl piped up first. “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure to tell Judith to start crying every time you start snoring. That’ll wake you up, right?”

“Carl,” Rick warned, one hand on his son’s shoulder, eyes locked onto Asshole’s. “It won’t be a problem. It’s one night. I’m sure everyone’s tired.” He raised his eyebrows in challenge, daring Asshole to continue to make a scene. Get yourself kicked out of here. Go on. I’d love to see it.

After a long, tense moment of loaded silence, Asshole Guy rocked back casually, a less-than-friendly grin spreading across his face. “Sure, Rick Grimes,” he drawled in a mockery of Rick’s accent that made him inwardly cringe, “no fuckin’ problem.”

The clerk- Dwight, his nametag read- handed them each a room key and sent them on their way, no doubt relieved to see them go. They were a rather ragtag group trudging their way to room 107, which had a stunning view of the Hardee’s across the street.

Rick couldn’t say the room was nice, but it was clean and didn’t reek of cigarette smoke. Carl and Judith immediately sprawled across the bed closest to the bathroom, dropping their bags in the corner. Asshole guy parked his bag next to his bed and began to root through it while Rick untucked the starchy sheets from the mattress and helped Judith wiggle beneath the covers. The alarm clock on the bedside table read 10:37- way past her bedtime, that was for sure. Rick had no doubt that she’d be asleep before eleven. Carl was blessedly self-sufficient, phone plugged into the wall to charge, headphones in and fingers tapping away on the screen, no doubt telling Sophia and Ben about tonight’s change of plans.

He did feel bad about Carl missing his friends, though he felt no guilt whatsoever about putting his foot down about the ski trip. As he’d told Carl over and over, two eighteen-year-old ‘chaperones’ that would most likely spend their time mooning over each other didn’t make him feel safe letting his fifteen-year-old stay in another state for five days. He couldn’t fathom what had made Carol say yes to Sophia going.

Behind him, Asshole Guy made a noise of disgust. “Ho-ly shit. There’s a half can of French onion dip in here.” Rick turned around to see the man waving the plastic tub he’d pulled out of the mini fridge. “And- Jesus Christ on a cracker, there’s lunch meat. Anybody needs a midnight snack, there’s ham and dip.” He slammed the door to the fridge shut and shook his head. “Un-fucking-believable.” He straightened, and Rick saw what he’d pulled out of his suitcase- a half-empty bottle of rum. Good lord. “I’m gonna go find the ice machine,” he muttered, and off he went, bottle in hand.

Please don’t let him come back here completely shitfaced, Rick pleaded.

With Judith already soundly dozing and tucked in amongst pillows and her favorite stuffed rabbit, Rick decided a hot shower would do him well. He felt thoroughly gross after the last long flight from Montana that morning, and he smelled like airplane peanuts and sweat.

The bathroom looked to be an exercise in how much one could fit into the smallest possible space while still calling it a bathroom. The toilet practically touched the shower, and Rick had to back himself into a corner in order to close the door. Miraculously, the water ran hot, though the shower pressure was something like a mild spring rainshower. It got the job done, though, and fifteen minutes later, Rick felt significantly refreshed. The tiny room was so damp and foggy that he could feel the water clinging to his skin even after trying to dry off, so he simply wrapped a towel around his waist and stepped out.

Asshole Guy was back, laying out across his bed and flicking through tv channels. His eyes flicked over to Rick for a moment and then bounced back a second later, lingering. “Goddamn, Grimes.” He let out a low whistle, and Rick felt his cheeks burn. “You know, maybe bein’ roomies ain’t the worst thing to happen.” His gazed roamed wolfishly over Rick’s body, raking down his thighs where the short towel stopped well above the knee, then roaming back up to his bare chest. “You cold? Looks like your nipples could cut glass.” He smirked, and Rick tried to level him with a glare that was undercut by the color rising in his face and chest. He clutched the towel around his waist and hastily rooted through his bag, pulling out a clean pair of sweats and a t-shirt before retreating back into the steamy bathroom, ears burning. Thank god Carl had his headphones in.

When he stepped back into the room, the tv was off and Asshole was sitting at the end of his bed. He gave Rick another once-over before looking him in the eye again. “Nothin’ on but reruns of reality tv and shitty made-for-tv Christmas specials. If you try to turn on some shitty Hallmark movie about angels and Christmas miracles, I’m gonna lock you out of the room. Don’t think I won’t.”

Rick snorted. “Figures you wouldn’t like that sort of thing.”

“Figures you would.”

Rick’s jaw twitched. “I don’t, actually.” The last thing he wanted to watch right now was some soppy, romance-drenched story of holiday cheer. He really didn’t want to see how miserable this night could be.

“Hm,” Asshole hummed, “is it ‘cause I was right? Your ol’ lady ditched you?” Rick swallowed hard, blurring eyes falling to the floor. He wasn’t going to cry in front of this rude stranger. He wasn’t. “Aw, shit. Look, buddy, I didn’t mean it like that. I was just bustin’ your balls a little.” Surprisingly, Asshole sounded genuinely remorseful. “Shit’s rough. This your first Christmas on your lonesome?”

Rick blinked rapidly against burning eyes. “She didn’t ditch me,” he managed to get out. Unconsciously, he rubbed at the empty place where his wedding ring used to be. It was at home now, tucked away in a little box with Lori’s. He’d worn it for so long, but lately it had gotten to the point where seeing it on his finger was more bitter than sweet.

Fuck,” Asshole murmured. Rick couldn’t look at him, but suddenly he was up and opening the door. “C’mon. Take a walk with me. The pool’s actually not half bad.”

Rick had no idea why he’d followed the man, but here he was, dressed in sweatpants and a jacket, sitting poolside in a rickety plastic chair while Asshole poured him a couple fingers’ worth of rum into a plastic cup and nudged it across the table toward him.

“Drink up, Grimes. Nothin’ better to cure the holiday blues than rum.” Asshole took a long swig directly from the bottle for himself. “I make a mean hot ‘n buttered, but we don’t even have a goddamn microwave in that shithole room. “I’m Negan, by the way. Don’t know if you ever caught that.”

“Negan,” Rick repeated, trying out the strange name on his tongue. He took a sip of the rum, and the slow burn of alcohol began to dull the ache in his chest. “I’d say it’s nice to meet you, but…” he gave a weak, hangdog smile, and Negan chortled into the bottle.

“Well, fuck me. Same to you, asshole. Ain’t like this is how I wanted to spend my night, either.” He was smiling, though, looking Rick over with curious hazel eyes. “So she didn’t ditch you.”

Rick downed the rest of his drink, and Negan topped him back off. He didn’t know if it was the alcohol or the lack of sleep or the hollow, lonely ache in his chest, but suddenly the words spilled off his tongue. “She passed away in January. Drunk driver.” Rick closed his eyes, remembering it all like it had happened today instead of nearly a year ago- how he’d been called to the scene and Shane had tried to hold him back so he didn’t see. How he’d fallen to the pavement and curled into a ball, sobbing in his partner’s arms in full view of the rest of the sheriff’s department. How Carl had gone shocky and still when he’d told him, how Judith hadn’t understood until a day or two later when her mom never came home.

“Fuck,” Negan muttered. “Jesus fuckin’ Christ. That shit’s fucked up one side and down the other, ain’t it?”

Rick swallowed hard. “Yeah.” He traced the rim of his cup with a fingertip. “Yeah, it is. And it doesn’t help when assholes like you assume they’ve got my life figured out in a glance.”

Negan had the decency to look properly abashed. “I’ll give you that one since I fuckin’ brought up your dead wife. I deserve it.”

“Yeah,” Rick snapped, “you do.”

“Shit never gets any easier,” Negan said, and there was a particular brand of sorrow in his voice that Rick recognized immediately. “Been three years for me, and I still cry like a little bitch every year. Christmas, birthdays, our anniversary. One time in the middle of an ice cream shop because I remembered how she always let me have the cherry off her sundae ‘cause she didn’t like ‘em.” Negan’s voice was thick with melancholy, and Rick’s hostility melted away like snow in the warm morning sun.

“What was her name?” Rick asked, because he knew better than to offer up an apology that always felt empty, no matter how well-intended. In lieu of answering, Negan rolled up the sleeve of his turtleneck, exposing the black script inked across his forearm. “Lucille,” Rick read, a familiar sadness looming as he followed the lines of the tattoo.

Negan rolled his sleeve back down. “Yep. Married for twenty-one years.” He took another drought and then offered up the bottle to Rick, who took a drink right from the bottle. “Atta boy.”

“Lori and I were married twenty-three years, but I’d known her since I was sixteen.” And been smitten since the day I met her. 

Negan chuckled. “High school sweethearts? I should’ve fuckin’ guessed.”

Rick kicked the man beneath the table. The alcohol was making his head swim blissfully, and across from him, Negan laughed like he and Rick were old friends teasing each other instead of relative strangers who had been at each other's throats earlier that evening. “You’ve gotta stop makin’ assumptions. You know what they say.”

Negan leaned forward on his elbows and gave Rick a winsome smile. “Well, I think I’ve already made enough of an ass out of myself tonight that you can overlook it. You weren’t high school sweethearts, then? You didn’t let her borrow your letterman jacket and split milkshakes at the malt shop?”

Rick shook his head, remembering his early days with Lori with fondness. “Nah. I never had the guts to ask her out then. My friend Shane always used to tell me I was about as smooth as a country road.”

“Christ, you’re southern as shit.”

“Look at that, you finally guessed somethin’ right,” Rick smirked around the rim of the bottle.

“That one was a dead fuckin’ giveaway from the second you opened your pretty pink mouth.”

Despite the cool December air around them, Rick felt himself growing warm beneath the collar of his jacket. It had been a long while since he'd had someone speak to him with even a hint of flirtation.

“Anyway,” Rick went on, trying to ignore the pleased flutter in his belly, “we didn’t get together until we both graduated. Been with her ever since.” Sadness crept in again, and Rick glanced out at the still water of the pool to blink back the tears that had welled up. “Seems like every day there’s somethin’ that I’ve gotta learn how to do without her. I knew Christmas was gonna be hard this year, but Christ.” He shook his head and batted away a tear clinging to his lashes. “She always used to string the lights on the tree, had all these ornaments that she loved and wanted in the front. She couldn’t bake for anything, but there was this one sugar cookie recipe that had been her grandmother’s that she got perfect every single time, and then me and Carl would help frost ‘em. When I went to unpack the stockings and saw hers, I lost it. Started bawling in front of the fireplace. Guess I just ought to be grateful that the kids weren’t home to see it, but I know Carl can tell how fucked up I am.”

There was no one part that was the worst thing about losing Lori, but seeing how much it impacted Carl was certainly high on the list. And knowing that Carl was old enough to see exactly how fractured his father was…some days, he didn’t know how to shoulder it all.

A warm hand closed over Rick’s own, and he blinked through teary eyes in surprise at the sight of Negan’s hand atop his on the table. “Shit’s fucked, Rick Grimes,” Negan said gently. “Makes me feel like a real jackass for ridin’ you earlier.” Rick spluttered and Negan tipped his head back to howl with laughter. “About your kid screamin’ her head off in the airport.”

“Oh.” Rick’s face reddened. “Yeah, that. Glad you understand you were bein’ a jackass.”

“If it makes you feel any better, I’ve been told that I come across as an asshole by a whole lot of folks. I think it’s just a part of who I am.” Beneath the table, Negan’s ankle rubbed against Rick’s. “Nothin’ personal.”

Rick decided he would blame the rum for the way felt oddly warm and fuzzy at the playful touches. And for the way he leaned into them, returning the gestures, soaking them up like a dry sponge.

There was a rush of cool air, and then Negan was standing, hopping on one foot, and Rick was worried he was going to topple into the doubtlessly frigid pool. “The hell are you doin’?” Negan was pulling off his boots and socks, leaving them in a pile beside the table before rolling up the legs of his jeans.

“Come dip your toes in the water with me, Rick.”

“It’s about cold enough to snow, so I think I’ll pass.” He couldn’t help but snicker when Negan plopped down on the edge of the pool and dunked his feet unceremoniously into the water. Rick watched the shudder ripple through the other man, the way his shoulders tensed up to his ears like they were trying to lift him out of the pool.

“I-I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, Grimes,” Negan retorted, his voice an octave higher. “Feels like a goddamn tropical beach. If you close your eyes and ignore the reek of chlorine, it’s paradise.”

"You're a terrible fuckin' liar." Rick glanced down at his own beaten-up cowboy boots, positive he’d regret following Negan’s lead the second he took his shoes off.

He did it anyway while Negan whooped obnoxiously- so loud that Rick was sure that Dwight was going to come out and tell them to get out of the pool. The water was indeed freezing, and Rick’s toes curled so hard they cracked. Negan kicked his feet, the water rising and swirling around their calves, the glow of the pool lights painting them in turquoise. Between where they sat, Rick’s fingers itched to inch toward Negan’s. Just because he’s warm. Warm and maybe he’s not as much of an asshole as I thought.

“For what it’s worth, I like your kid. Anybody that ain’t afraid to take a swing at me has my undying respect.” Rick smiled to himself, glowing with pride. “And your little girl’s cute as a goddamn button when she’s not trying to bust a lung.”

“Would you believe me if I told you she doesn’t actually do that very often? She told me she was just scared of the plane.”

Negan nodded sagely. “Ah, well that I can forgive. I mean- I guess I should have been able to forgive a baby no matter what,” he hurried to add when Rick gave him a sideways look. “But I get bein’ a nervous flyer. I’ve never been a fan of it myself. I was planning on popping a couple Benadryl and praying they kicked in before takeoff.”

Rick found it vaguely amusing that the man getting in his face earlier would have been shaking in his boot on the flight. “You didn’t strike me as the anxious type, but I guess I should take my own advice about assumin’ things.” Negan kicked water up to Rick’s knees in retaliation, making him yelp at the icy water. Now he was curious, though. “So where were you headin’?”

“Home,” Negan said simply, and then, when sat Rick waiting patiently for the rest- “I was coming back from my sister’s. She and her wife live up in Colorado, short drive away from the mountains. She usually comes to keep me company right before the big day, but I really just needed a change of scenery this year, you know? Bein’ holed up in my rat’s nest of an apartment all alone sucks serious balls this time of year.”

Rick knew the feeling all too well. It was his own rationale for hauling the kids up to his parents’ for a week. “Doesn’t really fix it though, does it?” he mused, dragging his fingertips through the water to create tiny whirlpools. “Bein’ around other people- it helps some, but it also just reminds you of past years, when everything was alright.”

“It’s like I said, Grimes. Shit’s fucked.”

Soft clouds of breath swirled around them, stark against the pitch black of the light-polluted city sky and then whispy and pale until it rose and faded away. Rick just kept watching the other man breathe in and out, head tilted back, long lashes and high cheekbones catching Rick’s eye. The winter chill was beginning to creep in through the thick, alcohol-induced fog he’d been swimming in- his nose was numb, his legs stiff with cold beneath the water. The only warmth that touched him was at the very tips of his fingers, where Negan’s hand was pressed against Rick’s own.

A question burned on Rick’s mind. He knew why he was heading back to Georgia- his kids were used to spending Christmas there. Carl always hung out with Sophia after they opened presents, Judith was looking forward to opening her gaudy purple-and-green stocking on Christmas morning and checking if Santa had come. They had always spent Christmas at their house ever since Carl had been born, and sometimes in the wake of a massive upheaval it was best to let some things remain the same.

“Why’d you leave?” Rick asked, curiosity and rum loosening his tongue. “You got more family in Georgia? Someone to go home to?”

Negan’s answering smile said it all- it was too hollow for anything else. “Nah. Just me, myself, and I. No place like home for the holidays.”

Rick’s fingers curled around the other man’s, warmth somehow finding a home there.

It was past two in the morning when they finally stumbled numb-footed into the motel lobby in search of heat and a place to discard the now-empty bottle of rum.

Shh- oh, shit-” Negan dissolved into laughter that he was barely able to smother with his hand when they caught sight of Dwight slumped over the front desk with his head pillowed on his forearms, mouth open as he snored with much greater volume than Rick would have expected. His elf hat had gone miserably askew, the only lights on were the shoddy lights on the tree, and the whole scene made Rick think of sad little overworked elves up at the North Pole. “Looks like Dwighty-boy conked the fuck out. Can’t say I blame him. Who’d bother breaking in? If we weren’t staying here for free, I’d be flyin’ the damn coop. Fuckin’ Oscar Meyer in the fridge.” He shook his head.

“Gimme that,” Rick murmured, taking the empty bottle from Negan and creeping over to the trash bin beside the front desk. “I don’t trust you not to wake him up.”

“That’s a good instinct, Grimes. I was just about to hock the fuckin’ thing across the room like I was goin’ for the half-court shot.”

Rick pinched the bridge of his nose and tried desperately not to dissolve into laughter. He placed the bottle gently into the bin and hoped that Dwight’s boss didn’t decide to make a late-night call.

“I got a first name, you know,” Rick joked, strolling back to where Negan was leaning against the wall. “Ain’t a hard one to remember, either.”

Negan’s white teeth flashed in the dim room, his face lit with the overpowering red of the Christmas lights. “Oh, I remember, Rick.” His eyes flicked up for a moment, then back down to Rick’s face and he did a filthy thing with his tongue that could have been completely innocent if he hadn’t just said Rick’s name like that. “Looks like I finally got my Christmas miracle,” he noted, and Rick cocked his head, following Negan’s gaze up, up to see-


Rick’s face grew hot when he laid eyes on the mistletoe perched above them. A Christmas miracle, or perhaps another unfortunate twist of fate, depending on how he looked at it. Rick was caught between the two, but then Negan’s warm palm cradled the side of his face, thumb stroking over the beard stubble that was more grey than brown these days, and Rick’s breath caught in his chest.

Rick Grimes,” Negan breathed quietly, like he wasn’t sure what to make of it either. If he was going to say anything else, it was lost in the moment that Rick leaned up and pressed his lips to Negan’s. Rick’s first kiss in almost a year was wind-chapped and rum-soaked, and it made him weak in the knees. Negan’s back hit the wall and he wrapped Rick in his arms to bring him with him. Rick licked into his mouth, suddenly so eager for more that he burned with it, and Negan’s responding moan into his mouth only made him want more.

Rick wasn’t sure how long they stayed like that, intertwined and rocking subtly against each other, but when Negan finally broke their kiss, Rick felt lightheaded in an entirely new way, warm all over, and Negan’s chilly hands were underneath his t-shirt. Warm lips brushed against his earlobe.

“How deep a sleeper is your kid?”

“Carl’ll sleep through the end of the damn world,” Rick answered, shocked at his own boldness. He knew exactly where Negan was nudging them, and he let the other man tug him back outside into the brisk wind and into room 107, where Judith was still snoozing soundly and Carl had finally discarded his headphones in favor of sleep.

I shouldn’t be doing this, Rick thought, exhilarated and terrified and full of a wild, burning want that he’d thought was long extinguished in him.

“Hope these beds don’t creak too much. That’ll be an awkward breakfast buffet with the neighbors,” Negan whispered, stripping the blankets down and wriggling beneath them, pulling Rick in with him.

“Can’t believe you really think this place has a breakfast buffet,” Rick retorted quietly between heated kisses, and Negan laughed against his neck, sending a shiver down his spine.

“Tell you what, Rick.” Negan sucked hard on the sensitive spot just above Rick’s collarbone, stretching the neck of his white tee to get at more skin, and Rick’s hips rocked forward of their own accord, his cock hard and hot and tenting the front of his sweatpants. “If there isn’t, I’ll buy you and the rugrats Hardee’s for breakfast.”

Rick shoved Negan’s shirt up, mouth ravenous as he kissed his way up the man’s belly and chest, the coarse hair tickling his nose. “I’ll hold you to that.”

Before tonight, Rick had never kissed a man. He’d never kissed someone he barely knew, and he’d certainly never fallen into bed with someone he’d just met, never let them take his clothes off with eager hands that wandered over every inch of exposed flesh, never let them leave deep red hickeys from chest to throat so that he’d remember them for days to come, never let them take him in hand and leave him a desperate, tender mess.

He couldn’t seem to keep his mouth off of Negan. One of his hands was between their legs where they were entwined beneath the starched white sheets, helping Negan jerk them off together, slow at first and then building speed as they both grew frantic in their search for release. Negan was only quiet in the sense that he kept his running commentary and throaty curses to a whisper while they worked themselves over.

Fuck, Rick. Oh, darlin’, you know just how I like it. You a fuckin’ mind-reader, Curly Sue? Oh, Jesus-

“Shut up, Negan,” Rick grinned, swallowing his words in another wet kiss. His cock was hard as steel, dripping down their hands and making the slide of hot flesh against hot flesh that much more velvety-smooth and perfect. Negan’s free hand reached around Rick’s waist and grabbed a handful of his ass, giving him a half dozen greedy squeezes as they rocked against each other.

Rick came with the heel of his hand pressed to his mouth to muffle the near-wail of pleasure that accompanied his orgasm. Negan kept working them in his fist even when Rick’s own hand stuttered, and seconds later he followed Rick’s lead, spilling over their cocks and kissing Rick so hard that his teeth ached, and Rick loved every second of it.

They managed to scrape together enough good sense to haphazardly pull on their clothes again before falling asleep, legs tangled together.

Dad? What the hell...?”

Goddammit. Of all the days for him to decide to wake up before noon.

“Watch your mouth,” Rick muttered sleepily, stirring at the feeling of a warm arm around his waist. He opened his eyes to the sight of Carl staring down at him in horror, eyes darting from him to the man cuddled up against his side.

“Mornin’ to you too, kid,” Negan grunted into Rick’s shoulder.

“I- alright. I can’t look at this.” Carl turned away, hair matted up in the back. “You forgot to set an alarm last night. Our flight’s in an hour.”

“Shit!” Rick sat bolt upright and scrambled out of bed. Much to his surprise, his head wasn’t pounding.

“Watch your mouth,” Carl griped, and Rick didn’t have the time or energy to get onto him for the sass. He tossed clean clothes at Carl, found his least rumpled pair of jeans, and started shoving all of the toys Judith had pulled out of her backpack back into zippered pockets.

“Also there’s no breakfast here,” Carl added.

Rick cast a sideways glance at Negan, who still looked half-dazed on the bed they’d shared. “Negan’s got that covered.”

Hardee’s biscuits were actually pretty damn good, Rick had to admit, and they had enough time while waiting for the shuttle to grab their breakfast to go.

They made it- miraculously- to their gate with seven minutes to spare, and had to awkwardly squash into their seats among people who’d had enough presence of mind to set alarms. Between Rick promising her that they'd sit together on the plane and Carl reminding her of the free cookies, Judith seemed to have gotten over her fear of flying, which Rick was endlessly grateful for. 

The whole flight back to Atlanta, Rick thought about Negan. About what last night had meant, if anything at all. About that sad look in his eyes when he’d mentioned going back home for the holidays, and about how Rick understood why he’d chosen to fly back to an empty apartment instead of staying with his sister and her wife.

They were an odd foursome walking in silence together to baggage claim when they landed. Rick kept sneaking glances at Negan, wondering if the man’s uncharacteristic quiet was from a lack of sleep or the same strange loss Rick was feeling.

It was one night, he reminded himself. One night in a shitty motel room because our flight got cancelled. He could live halfway across the state. He could have just been looking for a distraction. He could never want to see you again.

He kept thinking about that hollow smile and how sometimes it was easier not to be around people who hadn’t lost so much of themselves. He thought of all the couples he was friends with and how it sometimes hurt to be around them, like their happiness was the sun and he couldn’t look directly at it.

He wondered if it was like that for Negan, too.

Bags parked on the curb, cold hands in pockets, and Judith perched on Rick’s hip, the four of them stood outside the airport, cars rushing past them to pick up holiday travelers. Rick kept fumbling with his car key between his fingers and Negan kept looking anywhere but at him.

“You need a ride?” Rick offered, and Negan shook his head, dark hair still askew from that morning.

“Called a cab back in the terminal. It’s just about here.” Maybe it was just wishful thinking, but Rick swore he sounded regretful. When he gave Rick one last smile, it was genuine and sad in a way that Rick felt all the way down to his bones. “It was real nice meetin’ you, Rick Grimes.” He nodded at Carl. “You too, kid. And you, even though you’ve got a mean set of lungs on you,” he added, wiggling his fingers at a giggling Judith.

“You too,” Rick replied, his voice softer than he’d meant it to come out. More vulnerable.

Behind them, a cab pulled up right as Negan’s phone buzzed.

“That’s my ride.”

“Right,” Rick said, because what else was he going to do?

He figured it out once Negan got three steps away.

“You know, Carl always goes to the movies with his friends Christmas evenin’,” he called, heart on the line. Negan stopped in his tracks, hair ruffled by the crisp wind. “I always make too much ham and mashed potatoes. We never eat it all. If you wanted to…I’d like to see you again.”

It occurred to him that if Negan turned him down that it would be rather humiliating in front of Carl, who clearly already thought his father had lost his mind last night.

When Negan turned around, the smile on his face was anything but empty.

“Rick fucking Grimes,” he beamed, “it would be my honor.”