For the most part everyone kept to their side of the Freeway. Alexandria, Hilltop and the Kingdom to the North, Rae and her Savior's to the South. Everyone with the exception of Daryl, who was already waiting for her when she arrived at the usual spot.
"Hey," she said, letting go of the tension she'd been carrying in her shoulders and like clockwork Daryl dug into his pocket for a packet of cigarettes and his lighter. There was no doubt that Rae would take one and then they would lean against the faded white fence and enjoy each others company in a whirl of smoke and silence like old friends.
Maybe by now they were old friends although their first meeting after Negan's arrest hadn't gone so smooth. Back then Rae had been reeling, wracking her brain and searching her conscience for an answer to a question that could have changed everything. To rescue Negan or accept his fate? Some of the Saviors had wanted to wage a war to get him back, others had simply wanted to stay alive. In the end she'd chosen the latter but the day she'd spotted Daryl stalking her through the garden of this old abandoned house she'd had war on her mind.
Rae had ambushed him besides the very fence they leant on with every intention of 'making him pay' except making someone pay for something that wasn't their fault wasn't exactly Rae's style. In fact it was the exact kind of thing that started wars and got people thrown into makeshift jail cells. Not to mention it was cruel and despite the shitty hand the world had dealt Rae she didn't want to be cruel, even if being cruel was sometimes far easier than being kind.
In hindsight Rae realised Daryl had let her catch him that day but she'd never asked him why or if he'd been afraid she'd hurt him. Regardless, letting Daryl return home had helped her take back some of the control Rick Grimes had stolen and in the end it had helped sway her decision towards peace.
And that was how the meetings started. They would meet every other week, leaning against the fence that was as unremarkable as the house it surrounded but over the past couple of years it had become as familiar as the well worn lines in Daryl's leather vest. It felt like even the trees recognised them as they stopped their rustling and settled down to listen in silence.
"Ezekiel wants to know if he can send you another horse," Daryl began, flicking a flurry of ash to the ground.
"The first one was too much," she replied and Daryl shrugged, rolling his cigarette between dirty fingers before taking a long thoughtful drag.
"It's his way of keepin' peace between all y'all," he said eventually and something inside Rae snapped.
"I can keep the peace without bribery!"
Daryl paused, his narrow eyes scrutinising her as she tried to hold onto indignation even if she didn't really feel that offended. No, it wasn't offence that bothered her it was betrayal. Every charity from Ezekiel felt like a betrayal to Negan and her friendship with Daryl was already a betrayal she could hardly stomach when she thought about it too long.
"I think ya should take it," Daryl insisted quietly and Rae knew, regardless of what she thought, he'd be bringing the horse to her anyway.
It was like that with Daryl, he'd show up with things she hadn't asked for and leave her with no choice but to accept them. A deer at Christmas, some antibiotics when Grandma Ellie was sick, one of two stray puppies he'd found. Zuzu had been pleased with Banjo, who was now as big as a pony, Grandma Ellie not so much.
Rae sighed, changing the subject to something she could be proud of. Something she'd done with nothing but sheer determination. "The crops are good, the summers barely started and we're already up on last year's yield."
Turning the Saviors into farmers hadn't been easy and Rae's hands bore the signs of hours and hours of hard work but bringing the fields around Grandma's house back to life had given her an indescribable feeling. It was much more than hope. It was as if she could see into the future and almost reach out and touch it.
"That's good," Daryl replied, the almost invisible hint of a smile creasing his cheeks and Rae couldn't help but grin in return. He knew how much she'd struggled to keep things going with the Saviors and her people and if his reply sounded condescending it wasn't. Daryl was a man of few words which was part of the reason she liked him.
"Can I ask ya somethin'?" he said when their cigarettes were crushed into the ground and Rae nodded, curious. Afterall, Daryl was a man of few words and that meant he didn't ask many questions. "How come ya never ask me 'bout Negan?"
The colour drained from her face as quickly as her stomach turned over which was her usual reaction to the sound of Negan's name and the exact reason she never volunteered it.
For Rae, who had slept in the very cell which held Negan, it wasn't difficult to imagine him there. His wings clipped, the space barely big enough to contain his personality. Nor was it difficult to picture the soft tawny colour of his eyes when he smiled, how the warmth of his touch had made her shiver or how it had made her feel when he said 'I love you'.
Rae swallowed the lump in her throat, looking at anything but Daryl. "If there was news I know you'd tell me."
The fence creaked as Daryl shifted his weight beside her and the uneasiness Rae felt at the mention of Negan's name began to increase with every heartbeat. "Has something happened?" she asked, barely able to take another moment of not knowing.
Daryl said it so plainly Rae wondered why he hadn't said it sooner and why on earth they'd sat through an entire cigarette like it was any other day but her anger was fleeting leaving behind the hollow confusion of shock.
A thousand questions swirled around her head, she seemed to have a hundred things to say but all she could repeat was "escaped" like it was the first time she'd ever heard the word.
"If he comes your way-"
"I'm not gonna hand him over to you if that's what you think!"
"If he comes yer way... keep him close," Daryl's eyes levelled on her, his words unexpected. "Yer gonna need him."
Now Rae was even more confused, her heart still thundering. "Is this about your people who went missing?"
"They ain't just missing. They're dead. There's people out there, The Whisperers, an' it ain't gonna be long 'fore they find all ya'll."
"I should get home," Rae mumbled, her thoughts consumed with Negan as she turned to walk away but Daryl stopped her, his fingers firm and rough against her skin. His touch startled her, not just because it was tight enough to leave a bruise but because Daryl never touched her or even made a motion to. He merely looked and she'd caught him looking more than once.
"I wanted him to stay in that cell forever," he said, his voice strained, "but I knew ya didn't."
Rae cocked her head to one side, a small spark of realisation dancing on the outskirts of her mind, "did you help him escape?"
"I'll bring ya that horse," Daryl replied, ignoring her question as he climbed onto his bike. "Ya should get home 'fore dark," he warned and with a kick of his foot to start the engine he was gone.
Rae found herself staring at the outline of the tree's, unable to shake the sudden feeling she was being watched. It was stupid really but she'd spent so much time thinking about Alexandria that she'd almost forgotten there could be others. But of course there were. There would always be others. The prospect troubled her but not enough to keep her from thinking about Negan.
Negan was free and even if his freedom had been what she was waiting for it seemed to have arrived so abruptly that she felt unprepared. Would he look for her? If he did what would he say? What would she say?
Rae often wondered if Negan thought she'd given up on him even if he'd been the one who'd asked her to stay away. Their last moment together felt both recent and long ago at the same time. If she closed her eyes she could replay every nuance right down to the way his skin had smelled but she could barely remember the drive home from the clearing. Simon had been by her side and he'd stayed there ever since, a constant shadow of unwavering support. What would he and the Saviors think of Negan's return? So many questions and all of them whirled tirelessly as she hurried home to Grandma's.
If Negan was looking for her, Rae decided he'd probably start there but first she'd take a small detour for a forgotten friend.
Negan didn't quite understand why Daryl had decided to let him out of his cell but he guessed it didn't really matter. He'd done his crime and by fuck had he done his time. 24 hours in a cell gave a man enough time to think and he'd become a goddamn expert in thinking.
He'd thought about Lucille, the Saviors, Rick, but most of all he'd thought about Rae. Dear God he'd fantasized over every last inch of her creamy white skin, tormenting himself with thoughts both explicit and mushy enough to make him want to throw up and give himself a short hard slap in his soppy face.
Today was the moment he'd been waiting for, the start of his new life, his third life. His first had been Lucille, the first woman he'd ever loved. His second had been with the Saviors, where he had loved nothing more than he loved himself. His third would be with Rachel Honey, if she'd still have him.
But despite all the excitement Negan couldn't escape the reality that two years was a long time and in between all the fantasising had been the nightmares. He'd imagined Rae moving on, finding comfort in another man's arms and telling him to fuck off if they ever had the chance to meet again. Negan swallowed hard, if he dwelled too much on those kinds of ideas then it would make his nerves creep into his asshole, stopping him from doing what he wanted to do and he wasn't going to turn back now. He hadn't spent two years turning into a complete pussy even if he was a little softer around the edges.
When the matchstick fort finally came into view Negan stopped in his tracks. The sun was hanging low in the sky and in its wake it cast a hazy glow which seemed to find every crack between the wooden beams, lighting the fort up like St Peters gates. It was more beautiful than he remembered but more than anything it felt like coming home in a way that the Sanctuary never had.
"Jesus," he said, finally exhaling the breath that had caught in his throat. This was real. With one slow swipe Negan palmed the scruff that covered his face and thought about freshening up but it was too late.
The sound of someone approaching through the fields of corn caught his ear and he braced himself, questioning if walking right up to the Honey House had been a wise idea or just plain stupidity. Negan knew the answer to that but waiting a second longer than he'd had to hadn't seemed like much of an option when he was picturing long legs and soft red hair.
With his breath back to being trapped in his throat and nothing but the clothes on his back he stood on the dirt road like a lonely traveller watching as Rachel Honey stepped out from the corn in a moment that he knew he'd never forget.
Even in the twilight he could see the way her freckles polka dotted across her cheeks and rich redness of her hair as it tried to escape her ponytail to dance with the breeze. If he'd thought the house had looked beautiful it wasn't anything compared to the way Rae looked to him now.
At the sight of him her eyes lit up in surprise while her lips pursed in the most kissable way, the exact way he'd imagined them.
"Red," he said, rolling the word off his tongue with the care of a man who'd barely spoken these past years.
"Negan," Rae whispered back, the softness of her voice barely carrying over the breeze but it was enough to make his chest fill with warmth and his arms fill with longing.
Yet despite the overwhelming desire he had to scoop her up he remained rooted to the spot, neither of them daring to make the next move, both of them barely breathing. Eventually Negan couldn't help but chuckle a nervous laugh hoping it would crack the tension that lingered in the air or help him ignore the way his palms slicked with a layer of sweat that couldn't quite be blamed on the heat of the day.
Rae met his nervous laugh with her own and with one step forward she held Lucille out in front of her. "She's a little rusty but I kept her for you."
Negan felt even more unsure of what to do next. For all his fantasizing he'd never imagined this and with hesitation he accepted Lucille, his finger grazing against Rae's for a moment as brief as a heartbeat but long enough to make sure his heart was thundering in his chest.
The weight of Lucille in his hand was as familiar as his own dick but this time it was different. The wire was rusty, the wood dirty and by all accounts she was a goddamn mess but it didn't bother him like it might have done because by all accounts she was just a bat. That's all she'd ever been.
Negan swung her three times and on the third he let her slip through his fingers to hurtle into the corn. The truth was Lucille was gone and it had taken Negan a long time to accept it and the cell had given him the time to do just that .
There was no warmth or life to be found in a baseball bat but there was warmth and life in Rachel Honey and he'd been so cold he thought he might freeze over. So what was he waiting for? She was here and he didn't want to waste another second.
She didn't fight him when he pulled her close and she didn't protest when his thumb brushed under her chin to tilt her face to his.
"I haven't changed my mind about you, Red," he admitted with a smile and before she could say a single word he kissed her. He didn't want to give her a chance to say something that might spoil this moment and Negan wasn't the kind of man who could easily put his feelings into words. So he put them into a single kiss. He kissed her with his entire body, pressing her against him, enveloping her into his arms and claiming her lips as his tongue explained all the things he could never say.
"Tell me you haven't changed your mind about me," he said, hoping he hadn't sounded as desperate as he felt.
Rae's fingers skirted over his leather jacket, curling into his lapels. "I haven't," she whispered, giving his jacket a tug and it was all the signal he needed to kiss her again. It might not have been poetry but it was love.
Part of Negan wanted to take Rae and run away for a night away from prying eyes but the other part of him couldn't truly feel at ease until he walked into the fort and faced whatever would come next. He knew there were a lot of people who hated him and he was uneasy at the prospect of what they might do.
With Rae at his side the gates opened easily although he could almost hear the uncertain whispers of the people manning the wall. He even recognised a couple of them from the Sanctuary and with that came an unexpected rush of pride.
Rae had done it. She'd taken his people and made them her own. Not only was he proud of her but he was grateful. He'd hoped she'd help the Sanctuary recover from the mess he'd tangled it in and she hadn't let him down.
As they walked through the courtyard Negan noted it was just as lush as he remembered and it was still bustling with people only this time it wasn't just women. There were men, kids, even a dog was bounding between the vegetable boxes..
But despite the happy bustle of a thriving community Negan's nerves began to tap a rhythm into his chest because no matter if they were man, woman or child they all looked at him in the same way.
It was the kind of way motorists looked at a car crash on the freeway. Curiosity, disbelief and the unsavory knowledge that you probably shouldn't stare too long. He kept his head high, it hadn't been too long ago that some of these people had knelt in fear at the sight of him and if they smelled blood they'd probably eat him alive.
He glanced at Rae, finding shelter in the way she smiled at him and when she offered her hand to his he took it. To everyone watching it was a sign of acceptance and any uncertainty they had towards Negan was trumped by the respect they had for Rachel Honey. Although Rae wasn't the only Honey he had to impress. Negan had no doubts about that.
By now Grandma Ellie was standing on the porch looking as feisty as he could remember her and Negan couldn't help but grin. The idea of losing Rae to another man hadn't been the only nightmare that had plagued him and he was pleased to see the oldest Honey alive and no doubt kicking.
"Grandma Ellie," he said, hoping the hard line of her lips would curve into a smile and thanking god when they did. Even if it was a small smile.
She put her hand on her hip, the hint of disapproval in her eyes as she looked him up and down, "you have the look of a man who's been dragged twice through a hedge backwards."
Negan held back a chuckle, his hand once again rubbing across his scruff, "yes, ma'am."
"Well," her eyes showed a smirk that didn't quite make it to the rest of her face, "you better get yourself cleaned up and… welcome home, Negan."
Her words hit him in an unexpected way. He wasn't going to shed a tear and didn't feel like he needed to. That wasn't his style but he could feel her acceptance hitting him right in the chest and her kindness choked him enough that all he could do was smile.
"I'll see you inside," Rae said, letting his hand loose and hopping up the steps to follow Grandma into the house.
Negan supposed they needed time to talk and he would let them have it. After All, this was Rae's world and he was willing to do whatever it took to be a part of it. He wanted to give her everything he could with the exception of one thing.
Negan would never ask Rae to be his wife. He'd been married more times than any sane man should and he didn't want to add her name to the end of a very long list. She was a Honey just like her Grandma and in this matchstick fort, with the hubbub of life, laughter and a dog barking, he wanted to be one too.
This took a longer than expected to finally be published but sometimes life gets in the way of writing. I hope you all enjoyed it. I'm gonna miss writing for Rae and Negan. Maybe one day I'll add a little more but for now, thank you for following their journey and this story 3