Playing With Fire

Chapter Nineteen


“No signs of infection. Your leg’s healing up pretty nicely actually.” I gave the man lying in the hospital bed a small smile as I finished changing the bandages on his leg. “You feeling alright?” Richardson nodded, but didn’t say a word. I eyed him wearily for a moment before patting him gently on the knee and sitting back in my chair. “You still don’t want to share with me what really happened?”

“Nothin’ happened. It was an accident.” He answered automatically. He turned his head away from me, pressing back against the pillow. “I need to rest now.”

I sighed, standing up from the chair. He still refused to speak to me honestly and would probably never admit to anyone how that gunshot wound had really happened. At least not while the Governor was still around. Just the thought of his name caused an unpleasant taste to form in my mouth.

“Okay, I’ll be back to check on you later. Dr. Waters is right next door if you need anything.” I said quietly, pausing by the door. Richardson’s head was still turned away from me and he didn’t say a word. I shook my head and left the room, shutting the door behind me.

I peeked my head into Dr. Waters’ office. She was sitting at her desk, immersed in a book with her back to me. I decided not to disturb her from a rare moment of peace and let myself out of the Woodbury clinic through the front doors. It was still early morning, the sun hovering low in the sky behind the tall brick buildings. If it hadn’t been for the ominous looking wall that scarred the quaintness of the town, it would have been almost easy to pretend that this was just a normal day in a normal world. Only there were so many things wrong both inside and outside the town that there was no way to pretend normalcy was still a thing at all. At least not for me.

I turned my back on the wall, headed towards the wide brick building that now served as the mess hall, having once been the town’s only restaurant back in the day, as I was told by Milton. The door to the makeshift cafeteria was propped open by a heavy looking rock and I could hear the sounds of chatter and of silverware clinking against plates. I avoided the food line and headed straight for the coffee. It was a miracle they even had coffee here, something I hadn’t seen once after all this end of the world shit happened. It was a small luxury I allowed myself to enjoy, even if it was probably the worst tasting coffee I’d ever had.

I poured some of the murky brown colored liquid into a plastic cup, tendrils of steam rising from the top. I took a tentative sip and the scalding coffee burned the tip of my tongue. I made a face, but I was too impatient to wait for it to cool down. I took another hot sip as I headed back out onto the streets forcing a smile and a nod to anyone I made eye contact with. Despite the growing amount of time I was spending in Woodbury, I was still a stranger to almost everyone. Which was fine by me.

I just barely stepped out onto the sidewalk when I was knocked sideways as someone walked past me. My coffee sloshed over the side of the cup, burning my fingers. I dropped the cup to the ground quickly, my hand burning. “Son of a bitch!” I shouted, cradling my seared fingers close to my chest. I whirled around, looking for the culprit and of course I was unsurprised to see Merle Dixon standing there with an amused expression on his rugged face. I narrowed my eyes. “Are you blind, asshole? You burned the shit out of my hand!” I reached out to shove him with my uninjured hand but it was like trying to move a mountain. He didn’t budge.

“Whatsa matter? You want me to kiss it and make it better?” Merle asked, giving me one of his infamous smirks. “Not my fault I didn’t see ya’…maybe you should be more careful, sugar.”

I shook my head, fuming. I bent over and picked up the empty cup I had dropped and crumpled it up in my hand. “You’re an ass.” I said through gritted teeth.

“You like it.” He taunted me, his blue eyes still dancing with amusement. I caught a few of Woodbury’s townies staring, no doubt nosy about the exchange that was happening between us. I bit back the salty cuss words on the tip of my tongue and rolled my eyes.

“In your dreams.” I couldn’t stop myself from muttering it as I stalked past him, wanting desperately to do nothing more than run my fingers under cold water and then beat the crap out of Merle Dixon. To my surprise, he fell into step with me.

“Aw come on, don’t be mad. It was an accident, princess.” He said in his low gruff voice. I turned my head to look at him and was surprised to see what appeared to be as close of a look to sincerity as he could muster. I bit my lip, fighting back the urge to spit more hateful phrases at him and nodded once. He gave me a small half grin. “That’s my girl. Can’t stay mad at ole’ Merle for long.”

I shook my head, but couldn’t fight the tiny smile the stretched my lips. “Don’t test me.” I warned him. I noticed then, that he was carrying something in his hand. It looked almost like a metal sleeve, with leather straps. I stared at it curiously. “What the hell is that thing?”

The grin was wiped from his face, his features rearranging into grimness. “Ain’t nothin’.” He muttered. “Just a lil’ gift from the Governor.” It was impossible to miss the way he spat out the Governor’s name, his skin flushing red. Something had happened between the two of them and I was guessing it wasn’t good.

“Looks a little kinky.” I commented, raising both my eyebrows. I expected Merle to jump on that, turning it into something sexual and inappropriate directed at me, but all he did was lift the corner of his mouth in a barely there forced smile. “What he do to you?” I asked hesitantly.

Merle shook his head, but didn’t answer right away. We reached the tall, ivy covered brick building where are rooms were and he surprised me by holding the door open for me. I disappeared inside and he followed after me. It wasn’t until we were halfway up the stairs that he responded. “Just went back on a little deal he made with me. Nothin’ to worry your pretty little head about, sugar.”

I sensed there was more to the story than that but didn’t want to push a big, angry man like Merle Dixon when he was already half way to pissed off it seemed. I nodded instead, stopping off at the small little bathroom to run my hand under the freezing cold water. Merle didn’t head straight to his room like I expected him to, instead lingering outside the door. He leaned against the frame heavily, watching as I let the cool water soak over my red, burned skin. I felt strangely self-conscious and I shifted uncomfortably. “I’m not mad anymore.” I said, attempting to break the unusual silence. “I know it was an accident.”

“I need to ask ya’ a favor, Harlow.” Merle said suddenly, catching me completely off guard at the sound of my actual name leaving his lips.

I nodded, turning the water off before angling my body to face him. “Okay…” I prompted him, unable to hide my suspicion. What the hell could he possible want from me?

“Governor gave me permission to go out on a raid, there’s some stuff I need to find. Crazy enough, yer’ the only one in this whole damn town I trust enough to watch my back. I want you to come with me.” He said, staring at me with probably the most serious expression I had ever seen him wear.

I narrowed my eyebrows. “That’s pretty cryptic, don’t you think? What kinda stuff are you looking for?”

He shook his head. “Ain’t nothin’ bad…I’ll tell ya’, just not right now. Just gimme yer’ word that you’ll come with. Unless yer to chicken shit to go outside the walls without the Governor and his lil’ band of merrymen.” He added tauntingly.

I rolled my eyes. “Chicken shit my ass. I’ll come with you. It’ll be like a vacation to get away from the man for a few hours.” I sighed. “When can we go?”

“Soon as we can. Tomorrow I was thinkin’.” He pushed himself away from the door frame. “Sound good?”

I nodded slowly, a little unsure of why I was so quick to agree to a solo mission with Merle, but something in my gut prompted me that I needed to do this. “Yeah, sounds good.” I murmured.

“Alright then, sugar. If that hand gives you any more trouble, my offer still stands…” He said with a smirk, suddenly back to the Dixon I was used to. He took a few steps backwards, headed towards his room.

“Yeah, I don’t think you kissing my booboo will make it better.” I grinned, crossing my arms over my chest.

“Course it won’t…but I can think of a few other things that might make ya’ feel real damn good.” He said in a husky voice. I felt my cheeks flush pink, which totally uncharacteristic of me…in any situation. Before I could even stammer out a reply, Merle was chuckling, opening the door to his room. “Have a nice day, sweetheart.”

He shut the door to his room, leaving me standing just outside the bathroom door wondering why the hell, I was willingly volunteering to be alone with that man outside the Woodbury walls where anything could happen.

There was a loud pounding coming from the other side of the door. I groaned, rolling over onto my back and propping myself up onto my elbows. It was still dark, but I could tell from the chirping of birds outside the window it was early morning. I winced as the pounding came again.

“Hold on!” I called out loudly, wondering who the hell had ordered me this unnecessary wake up call. I rolled out of the body, ungracefully, and stumbled through the darkness to the door. I tugged it open to come face to face with a grinning Merle, flashlight in his hand. I groaned, leaning against the door jamb and running my hand over my tired face. “What the hell do you want?”

“Good mornin’ to you too, princess.” He said cheerily. “Didn’t forget about your promise already, now did ya’?”

“You mean you want to go out now? This early?” I asked in surprise. “I thought you meant maybe in a few days, at a reasonable time of day!” I exclaimed.

“Hell no, sugar. The sooner the better. Already secured us a nice lil’ vehicle and supplies…thanks to our gracious and mighty Governor.” Merle answered, his words dripping with sarcasm. I watched as his eyes flickered down the length of my body before traveling back to my face. “I ain’t one to complain, that’s a nice lil’ outfit ya’ got on but ya’ might wanna put some more clothes on for this. You can wear those tiny lil’ shorts for Merle anytime though, darlin’.” He smirked, nodding down towards my pajama bottoms with a wicked glint in his eyes.

I felt my cheeks tinge and I narrowed my eyes at him. “Kindly fuck off while I change.” I quipped back, shutting the door in his face. I could hear his raspy chuckles from the other side of the door as I quickly swapped my sleeping clothes for a pair of jeans and a gray colored tank top, along with my tattered and dirty combat boots. I pulled back my dark hair into a ponytail and secured my gun and hunting knife at my hip before opening up the bedroom door and seeing Merle casually lounging against his closed door across the hall from mine. “Remind me again why I agreed to do this?” I asked, crossing my arms over my chest. The sun was starting to rise, filling the narrow corridor with a soft yellow glow.

“Because deep down inside, you know you can’t resist all my charm.” He replied with a lopsided smile. “Now come on then, ain’t got all day.”

I was fairly certain charm had nothing to do with. If anything, I was curious about what it was Merle was so set on searching for. Obviously it was something important. Another part of me, though I wasn’t ready to fully admit it, felt we had some sort of unconventional, deranged partnership. We had gotten this far together and he had been right the other day…we were the only people we could rely on in this little town that was definitely not what it seemed.

I followed Merle down the steps to the front door, heading out into the muggy morning. There wasn’t another soul in set as we headed together quietly towards the front gate. When we got closer, I could see a jeep parked in front waiting for us. To my utter distaste, the Governor stood beside it, waiting. He gave us one of his ultra-charming smiles as we got closer and I forced one back.

“Mornin’. See you had no trouble convince Harlow here to join you on your mission.” He called out.

Merle shrugged his burly shoulders. “Was no trouble at all. Anythin’ to spend some quality alone time with ole’ Merle. Ain’t that right, sweetness?”

I rolled my eyes. “Something like that, sure.”

The Governor didn’t look amused throughout this entire exchange. In fact, I got the strangest feeling that he had been hoping I wouldn’t have come along, and that maybe we had both changed our minds about leaving behind the safety of Woodbury for a few hours. “Be careful out there. Merle already knows I advised him against risking both your lives for this, but it’s your decision. There’s a day’s worth of supplies in the back. Gate closes at sundown for the night so let’s hope you make it back before then.” He said, a smile on his face that clearly did not match the threat behind his words.

“We’ll be just fine, Gov.” Merle answered without missing a beat. He side stepped the Governor and hopped into the driver’s seat of the jeep, turning the engine.

The Governor turned to me. “I don’t know what he might have said to get you to stand behind him on this, but you don’t have to follow him. You’re both valuable assets to Woodbury. I’d rather you not risk your lives.”

I didn’t like being referred to as an ‘asset’ for anything or anyone. I smiled coolly. “See you in a few hours.” I followed Merle’s lead and brushed past him, hoisting myself into the passenger side of the jeep. Merle gave me a tiny smirk before putting the jeep into drive. The gates that led out of Woodbury, into the real world, slowly began to open. We accelerated forward and within in moments, were speeding away from the town towards whatever it was Merle was so keen on finding. We drove in silence for a few minutes as I stared out the window, watching the scenery flash past.

“So are you going to tell me what it is we’re trying to find?” I asked, perking an eyebrow.

Merle shifted in his seat, giving me a quick look before turning his eyes back on the road. “Somethin’ important.” He answered gruffly.

I clucked my tongue. “That’s not helpful. How am I supposed to help you look when I don’t even know what it is we’re trying to find! Merle, you dragged me out here because you said you trusted me. Let me trust you…tell me what it is you’re looking for.” I said earnestly. I watched as he chewed his lower lip for a moment before we were suddenly pulling over to the side of the road.

“I remember seeing a stream here before…any source of water is a good place to start.” He answered, side stepping the question.

“Really? You wanna play that game, I’ll just sit in the car the whole time while you have the time of your life out there alone.” I shot back, turning in my seat to face him.

Merle turned the keys in the ignition and the jeep filled with silence. His gray blue eyes bore into mine for a long moment before he finally sighed. “We’re lookin’ for my brother. Daryl.” He said before turning and getting out of the car, shutting the door.

I sat there for a moment longer, surprised. I knew he cared about his brother. What surprised me was his complete commitment to searching for someone despite having no idea if they were alive or dead, or even knowing where to start. It was blind faith. Completely. And for some unknown reason, I found myself admiring that. Maybe because I didn’t have that sort of faith. I followed him outside of the car and moved to stand by his side at the edge of the tree line we had pulled up next to.

“That’s a damn good reason to be out here, Merle.” I said quietly. “You know I’ll do anything I can to help you find him.” He didn’t say anything back, but I didn’t expect him to.

“Last place I saw Daryl was in Atlanta…might take a while, but I figured I’d start lookin’ closer to Woodbury and then branch out closer to the city and where we had the camp. Doubt he and his group are still there, but this way I won’t miss anythin’.” He said in response.

I nodded slowly. “Sounds like a plan to me. Shall we?” I gestured towards the woods.

Merle brushed past me, his shoulder gently bumping into mine as he led the way. I followed on his heels, hand on the hilt of my knife and keeping my eyes peeled for danger. We were quiet as we walked through the trees, leaves and twigs crunching underneath our boots. I could hear the quiet babbling of the stream Merle had mentioned, the sound getting louder and louder as we got closer. He suddenly knelt to the ground, tilting his head to the side as he examined something in the dirt. I hovered close behind him.

“What is it?” I asked quietly.

“Footprint.” He grunted, standing to his feet. “Old though, too big to be Daryl’s. Always been a shrimpy, skinny lil’ bastard.” He brushed his hands on his pants and looked around. “Let’s get closer to the stream. Might be more prints.”

I nodded, following after him. “How’d you learn to track? I didn’t see anything back there…just some twigs and stuff.” I asked curiously after a moment.

I saw Merle’s shoulders gently shake as he chuckled. “You gotta learn to use those pretty eyes of yers’ a lil’ bit better, woman.” He turned and smirked at me over his shoulder. “My daddy taught me, ‘fore he became a good for nothin’ drunk.”

“My dad taught me how to fish when I was a kid. Never how to hunt or track, though. I was always too skiddish when it came time to pull the trigger.” I admitted.

“How the hell did ya’ become a medic if you were squeamish ‘bout killin’ animals? Hell, how did you survive all this time?” Merle asked, sounding surprised.

“I outgrew it, I guess.” I shrugged. “I don’t know…there’s a big difference between saving a life and taking one. Out here, though, it’s all about survival. None of that other stuff matters.”

“Ain’t that the damn truth.” Merle sighed. He slowed down to a stop as we emerged from the trees. A pretty good sized creek wound its way across our path, moss covered rocks scattered across the bank. A huge boulder sat halfway in the creek and halfway on shore. I climbed on top of it, folding my legs underneath me as Merle knelt down at the bank looking for tracks.

“What’s your brother like anyways? Is he an arrogant asshole, like you?” I asked with a smirk.

“Well he sure ain’t as big of a bitch as you are.” Merle shot back, glancing at me sideways before cupping his hands in the creek and splashing the water over his face.

I rolled my eyes. “Come on, seriously. What’s he like?” I asked curiously, wondering if the other Dixon was anything remotely like this one. I couldn’t imagine two Merle’s roaming around the world. One seemed like enough.

Merle sighed, sitting back on his heels. “Daryl’s a good kid, always has been. I practically raised him when we was growin’ up. Always been stubborn as hell, but he’s also a whole helluva lot smarter than me. Which is how I know he’s still alive somewhere out here.” He paused for a second. “I guess he’s a lot like me…softer though. Kid used to act like a damn woman sometimes, with all this sensitive crap. Must’ve got that from our mama.”

“I see that in you too, though. Sometimes.” The words left my mouth before I could stop them and Merle shot me a look. I shrugged. “It’s true! Especially now, with the way you talk about your brother. You act like a badass, but you gotta soft side in there.”

Merle chuckled. “Yeah, keep tellin’ yourself that princess.”

I smiled softly, shaking my head. He could deny it all he wanted, but I had seen that softer side more than once. Most of the time it was gone within a second, and I’d only catch just a glimpse of what was underneath that rough exterior. I was starting to believe Merle Dixon was a little more complicated than I originally though. There were multiple sides to this man, even if he didn’t see them himself. I stood up from the rock, brushing my hands on the back of my jeans. “Ready to move on?” I asked.

Merle nodded, standin’ to his feet. “We can keep followin’ the stream for a while. Might find somethin’. Try not to be so damn loud this time, though. Sounds like a gotta god damn elephant followin’ me around.”

“Ass.” I muttered, hopping down from the boulder. Merle gave me a smirk before turning on his heel and starting off. I shook my head at his retreating back, a small unexplained smile tugging at my lips.

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