Playing With Fire

Chapter Twenty-Two

Merle

I had never been a one woman type of man. I didn’t see the point in all of that, not when there were so damn many of ‘em out there. I knew what I wanted and I knew just how to get it, exactly when I needed it. Never saw any reason to get all tied down. Which was exactly why I was so god damn frustrated. This was the first time in my life that a woman was keepin’ me awake at night, just by thinkin’ about her. God damn it, Harlow.

The room was pitch black. I could just barely make out the fuzzy outlines of the other pieces of furniture in the room. Outside the window, I could hear the crickets chirpin’ away. It’d be mornin’ before I knew it and I wasn’t gonna be any sort of useful if I didn’t get some damn sleep. My eyes found the door on the other side of the room. It was just last night that I was out in that tiny hallway, with Harlow pressin’ herself up against me.

I groaned inwardly. Damn it, I had to stop. I wasn’t supposed to be thinkin’ about her like this. The girl was fine as hell, couldn’t deny that. She made it too damn easy for me to get under her skin. All I ever planned on doin’, though, was just havin’ some good ‘ol fashioned fun with her. Just like I said to her earlier, ain’t nothin’ wrong with two people tryin’ to have a good time at the end of the world. I was startin’ to wonder, though, if I really believed that. A part of me was wonderin’ if I was lyin’ to Harlow when I said that…and lyin’ to myself at the same time. Hell, I wouldn’t say no to hookin’ up with her. But I was just as fine with spendin’ time with her doin’ anything at all. That was a problem I wasn’t used to havin’. Seemed like the girl was gettin’ under my skin just as much as I was gettin’ under hers. I scowled, wishin’ it was just as easy to turn my head off as it was to shut my eyes.

I must’ve finally fallin’ asleep at some point, though, ‘cause the next thing I heard was birds makin’ all sorts of racket outside the window. I could tell it was early mornin’ by the dullness of the light, leavin’ the room still a lil’ bit shadowy. I let out a groan as I sat up, swingin’ my legs over the edge of the bed. I pulled on whatever clean clothes I could find, before grabbin’ my gun, bag of supplies, lil’ Merle, and leavin’ the room. It was quiet in the hallway. I glanced sideways at Harlow’s closed door as I walked on by. I was sure she was behind it, still sleepin’. Maybe dreamin’ up more ways she could avoid me.

I stopped at the bathroom for a quick second, splashin’ a handful of cold water on my face before headin’ down the stairs and outside. The Gov had assured me there’d be a car waitin’ on me, and that whoever was mannin’ the gate would let me out without a problem. I still didn’t pretend to understand his endgame. Hard to trust a man like that, though, no matter how helpful he tried to come across as.

Sure enough, though, there was a rusted, blue pick-up truck parked out in front of the gate. I tossed my bag into the bed of the truck, before comin’ around to the driver’s side. I froze, though, when I saw Harlow leanin’ up against the door. She didn’t say anythin’ when our eyes met, just crossed her arms over her chest.

“Didn’t think you’d be gracin’ me with you presence this mornin’, princess.” I finally said. It was an understatement to say I was surprised to see her there. Didn’t think she’d be so quick to spend any amount of time with me alone…not after the last two days. I wasn’t ‘bout to complain, though. Not when I’d been up half the night thinin’ ‘bout her.

She shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe you shouldn’t think so much then.” One side of her mouth curved upwards in a smile that went just as fast as it came. “Let’s get the show on the road, Dixon.” She pulled open the door and hopped inside, slidin’ over to the passenger seat. I climbed up inside after her, turnin’ the key before wavin’ up at the guards to let us through. The gates slid open slowly and we drove on through.

“So, where are we headed this time?” She asked. She cranked down the window, danglin’ her arm outside.

“Few miles outside that creek we found a few weeks ago. Found a map at the library the other day and I think we’re gettin’ pretty damn close to where the group Daryl and I were with set up camp.” I said, rummagin’ through my pocket before I pulled out a winkled, folded up map. I passed it across the seat to her.

“Sounds like a good plan.” She murmured, as she unfolded the map. I glance sideways at her, watchin’ as she trailed a route on the paper with her finger.

“What made ya’ decide to come along?” I asked, curiosity gettin’ the best of me.

“Well, somebody’s gotta watch your ass out there.” She answered quietly. I stole a look at her to see she was wearin’ a smirk on her lips.

I grinned. “And what? I suppose that somebody’s gotta be you, right? You worried ‘bout me, all alone in the woods out here?”

“I think we both know I’m pretty good at saving your life.” She pointed out, settin’ the map down on her knees.

I sighed. “Guess I can’t argue with that, sugar. Maybe one of these days I’ll get to save yer’ ass and then we’ll be even.”

“Don’t get your hopes up, Dixon. I’m a big girl, I can handle myself.” She shot back. I kept my eyes on the road as we rounded a curve, but I could only imagine the smug look she was wearin’ on that pretty face.

I chuckled. “Sure are pretty damn sassy today, princess. Better watch yerself.”

“I think you secretly enjoy my sassiness.” She pointed out. I could feel her eyes on me as she swiveled in her seat.

“Ain’t no secret, woman. I just ain’t sure you wanna repeat of what happened the other night.” I glanced over at her just in time to see her blushin’. A part of me liked knowin’ how easy it was for me to get her to do that…the other half of me wondered what went through her head when she thought about that kiss anyways…and still another half wonderin’ if I’d ever get to do it again.

“Merle…” She warned, all playfulness suddenly gone from her voice.

“I get it, I get it.” I said, shakin’ my head. “I won’t bring it up anymore…I have a feelin’ you’ll give into me sooner or later anyways.”

I wasn’t lookin’ at her, but I could almost sense her rollin’ her eyes. “Are we almost there?” She finally said, quickly changin’ the subject.

“Gettin’ close.” I replied, fightin’ the smile tuggin’ at my lips.

We rode the rest of the way in silence, Harlow studyin’ the map closely. We finally reached the spot I had circled on the map and I pulled the car over. We were parked on the outskirts of a small, abandoned town. One I remembered hittin’ with Daryl one other time, tryin’ to find supplies. If he had been here since we were separated, I’d find a sign. I stepped out of the truck, shuttin’ the door quietly behind me. Still could be walkers anywhere.

Harlow went around the front of the truck and stood next to me. “Do you think he’s still with the others? I mean, the rest of the group that you were with?” She asked quietly.

I shrugged, headed off towards the town center. “Dunno. A part of me wants to think he left those assholes after what they did to me. Another part of me, though, knows he’s too smart to go off on his own.” I said. “We hit this town on our way to findin’ the camp we were at. If he left, with or without the others, chances are they stopped here to pick up any supplies we might’ve left behind.”

“Makes sense.” Harlow said, nodding slowly. She stepped over a fallen lamp post, her boots crunchin’ on the shards of glass. “How long were you with that group?”

“Few months? Found ‘em outside of Atlanta. Figured it was safer to move as a group. Turned out they was all a bunch of assholes anyways.” I grunted. I slowed to a stop outside the door of the town’s only pharmacy and peaked my head in through the door. It was quiet, but that didn’t mean nothin’. “Keep your eyes peeled.” I murmured to Harlow. We moved into the store.

“You know, when I ran into you in Atlanta that day, I was looking for my brother too.” She suddenly said as we combed through the store.

I looked over my shoulder at her, surprised. “Didn’t know you had a brother.”

“Yeah, he’s older. In the military. He was stationed overseas before all of this started, but before that he lived in the city. Checking out his apartment there was my last ditch effort of finding him, in the off chance he had somehow made it back to the states…” She said. “It was stupid of me, really, but I had to try. You know?”

I nodded, slowin’ to a stop. “I know. He’s yer’ family.” I sighed. “Doesn’t look like there’s much here. Let’s move on.” Harlow led the way out of the pharmacy and I followed after her closely. It was one of the first times she had said anythin’ to me ‘bout her life before this. ‘Bout her family. I wondered what the hell it was that made her suddenly want to share all that. “You close with yer’ folks?” I asked.

Harlow slowed down until we were walkin’ side by side down the sidewalk. “Sort of. They both died a while ago. Cancer.” She explained. “My mom and I were closer than I was with my dad. He was a military guy, too. He was always really hard on me…wanted me to go into the army like my brother did, but I just couldn’t do it. I know he cared about me…I know he loved me, but I always think he was disappointed in me for that. Like I was too much of a coward.” She admitted, chewin’ on her lower lip and lookin’ far away.

“You ain’t a coward.” I said. “When you almost shot me, in Atlanta, the first thing I thought was that you were some sorta badass. A woman all on her own, not afraid to pull the trigger on any dumbass that gets in her way.” I smirked.

She rolled her eyes, but let out a laugh all the same. “You were delirious. I almost thought I should kill you out of mercy.”

I chuckled. “Bet yer’ real glad ya’ didn’t, though.”

“Maybe, maybe not.” She shrugged, givin’ me a small smile.

I opened my mouth to say somethin’ smartass back, but forgot everythin’ I was ‘bout to say when I suddenly saw the walker. The dead walker with the arrow stickin’ out of its skull. It hung halfway out of a broken storefront window, danglin’ on its stomach. I quickened my pace, leavin’ a confused Harlow in my dust.

I knelt down in front of the walker and carefully tugged the arrow from its skull, holdin’ it in front of me. “Son of a bitch.” I said under my breath.

“What is it?” Harlow asked curiously, kneelin’ down on the concrete next to me.

I showed her the arrow. “Crossbow arrow. Same kind Daryl used to have.” I explained in disbelief, shakin’ my head. “I’d bet my ass this is one of his. Too much of a coincidence not to be. Not a whole lot of places you can find this kind.”

“That’s good then, Merle! That means he might’ve come through here!” She exclaimed, a smile on her face.

“Who the hell knows when, though…but I’ll take this as some kinda sign. I knew that asshole was alive out here somewhere.” I grinned. I glanced over at Harlow and she grinned right back. “It’s a damn good thing I have so much self-control, otherwise I don’t think I could stop myself from kissin’ you right now.”

Her gray eyes widened. “Merle…” She said quietly, her voice trailin’ off. I could hear the warnin’ there, but just barely.

Which was why I didn’t stop myself from reachin’ out and brushin’ her bangs outta her eyes. I waited for her to swat my hand away or snap at me to back off. Neither one came, though. I leaned in closer and felt the warmth of her breath. Half way there, couldn’t stop now. I was about to brush my lips against hers when suddenly, she turned her head and instead I got her cheek.

“We should, um…we should probably get goin’.” She said quietly, lookin’ down at the ground.

I sighed before reluctantly pullin’ away. “You always been this way, sugar? Can’t be an easy thing, denyin’ yerself of what ya’ want all the time.”

She finally lifted her head, lookin’ at me from underneath her long lashes. “What makes you think I even know what I want?”

I held her gaze for a long moment before standin’ to my feet. “Well, good thing I got time.” I smirked. Let’s get movin’ then.” I held out my hand to her and she hesitated before takin’ it and lettin’ me tug her to her feet. “Still got plenty of daylight left.”

She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “Listen, Merle, I-“ She said slowly.

I shook my head. “Nothin’ to say, sugar. Come on.” I brushed past her, headed back for the parked truck. I unzipped the bag I had in the back and carefully tucked the arrow inside, keepin’ it as a reminder to myself that Daryl was still out here somewhere.

I knew it was bold as hell to try and put a move on Harlow at all, considerin’ how she reacted after the first time. Seemed like it was worth a shot, though. I had gotten pretty damn close before she pulled away, which was made me think, maybe she wasn’t as against the idea as she thought she should be. There had to have been some sort of reason the girl wouldn’t let herself get any closer to me than she already was. It was just a matter of figurin’ that out.

Harlow sat down on the truck’s bumper, stretchin’ her long legs in front of her.

“Think we should search the woods around here next? We might find something else that got left behind.” She asked.

I nodded, leanin’ back against the truck. “Probably a pretty good idea.” I watched as she tugged out the band that had been holdin’ her long hair back before twistin’ it back up into a ponytail again. She glanced over her shoulder and caught me starin’. “You shouldn’t look at me like that.” She muttered, turnin’ away again.

“I ain’t lookin’ at you like anythin’, sweetheart. Just lookin’ is all.” I drawled, givin’ her a lopsided smile. Couldn’t help that she was so damn nice to look at. Couldn’t really help much about anythin’ I thought about her at this point.

She stood up from the bumper, turnin’ to look at me with her hands on her hips. “Well how about you stop looking at me at all, and we get back to looking for your brother.” She said, raisin’ an eyebrow.

“Whatever you say, sugar.” I shrugged. I headed around the front of the truck, towards the tree line on the opposite side of the road. I could feel Harlow at my heels and slowed down until we were walkin’ side by side again. She didn’t say anythin’, but I couldn’t help but wonder just what the hell went on inside that head of hers anyways.



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