Playing With Fire

Chapter Twenty-Five


I could already see the deep purple color of a nasty bruise startin' to show underneath my eye, the skin already swollen and puffy. Wasn't pretty, but my mug wasn't much to look at to begin with. I took the cold cloth I had brought back from the bathroom and pressed it against the tender skin. Damn, that had been one mean right hook, but ole' Merle had shown him in the end. Poor son of a bitch.

I stepped back from the old mirror that hung on the wall, a jagged crack runnin' right through the middle of it. Other than the black eye, I was in pretty good shape. No broken bones or stitches this time. Looks like I wouldn't be needin' a visit to the clinic after all. Probably a good thing 'cause I was pretty damn sure Harlow would've flipped her lid if I'd shown up there all bloody and beat to a pulp. She had been pissed as hell last time…and now here I'd gone and done it again. I supposed it was a good thing she wasn't talkin' to me, otherwise I'd be in for at least one hell of a lecture.

I tossed the damp cloth on the desk and moved to the small, square window next to the bed. The streets were pitch black outside and empty. I pressed my forearm against the wall beside the window, leanin' into it. I'd be damned if I'd ever say it out loud, but I'd almost take one of Harlow's know-it-all lectures if it meant she'd be talkin' to me. When she'd told me she needed time to figure her shit out, I didn't think it would take this long. What the hell was she tryin' to figure out anyways? She knew I wanted her…wasn't a god damn secret. And I was pretty damn sure she felt the same way. So what was there to figure out? I scowled at the window and turned my back on it. And here I was, a damn idiot waitin' around for her. I was almost as bad as Daryl and his pinin' after that little neighbor girl, Charlie.

That was probably the only reason I'd even agreed to another one of the Governor's fights. I needed somethin' to get my mind off her and it'd worked for a while. It's hard to think 'bout much of anythin' when you're too busy tryin' not to get beat to death. Of course that hadn't stopped me from scannin' the crowd for her. She hadn't been there. Hadn't really expected her to be. She made it pretty damn clear she hated the fights, just like she hated the Governor. Then there was the whole pointless exercise of her tryin' to keep her space from me. I shook my head. I didn't think I'd ever understand women. Harlow was the only one I'd ever even tried to understand, but so far that done a whole lotta nothin' for me.

Suddenly the door to my room was thrown open and Harlow was stormin' inside, lookin' about as angry as a damn hornet. My eyebrows shot up and I didn't bother tryin to hide the fact that was surprised as hell to see her. She stood in the doorway for a second, her eyes quickly scannin' my face. I could tell she was wound up, somethin' mighty big agitatin' her. Seein' me suddenly just seemed to make her more pissed. I forced myself to give her a grin, but before I could even get a word out, she had marched right up to me and placed both hands on my chest, givin' me a hard shove backwards.

"You asshole, Merle!" She shouted, takin' a step back. I watched as she crossed her arms over her chest, seethin'. "You know I hate that fighting shit and you said you wouldn't do it anymore!"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa. Take a breath, princess." I shot back, feelin' a sudden stab of annoyance. First time she was speakin' to me in days, and this was what I was gettin'? Then again, hadn't I just been thinkin' somethin' like this would've been better than nothin'? I looked down at Harlow who still glarin' up at me. "I don't remember makin' any damn promises, sweetheart. Ain't none of your concern now anyway."

"Ain't none of my concern?" She repeated, her big ole' gray eyes wide. "Well, that's real freaking nice." She shook her head before takin' a seat on the edge of the bed. I felt somethin' in me start to deflate as I watched her face fall. There was somethin' else goin' on here. She turned her eyes back on me and I could tell somethin' had scared her good. "Look, I'm sorry…I-I didn't think I'd need this much time, but I just hate it when you fight. It scares the hell out of me and now something else happened and this place isn't good, Merle. I need to get the hell out of here."

I leaned back against the desk, crossin' my arms over my chest as I watched her. I couldn't remember ever seein' her like this. She was tough as nails, nothin' had ever rattled her cage before. She twisted her hands in her lap. "Harlow, what the hell happened? What's got you so spooked?" I asked quietly.

She took in a deep breath, avertin' her eyes to the scuffed up wooden floor. "I broke into the Governor's apartment. I saw something there."

I felt my eyes grow wide. "Ya' did what now, sugar? You best be hopin' the Governor doesn't find out you were in there!" I pushed myself off the desk, runnin' my hand over my shaved head. "Jesus, Harlow. Why the hell would you do a thing like that?" I asked. She was just askin' for trouble. More than trouble. If she would've had got caught…I let the thought trail off. I didn't wanna think about it.

"Listen, Merle! I said I saw something there…he's…he's not right, okay?" She snapped at me.

I felt my shoulders sag a little as I studied her face. Girl was more than just a little freaked out. I sank down onto the bed next to her, wonderin' what the hell I was about to hear. "What did ya' see?"

She closed her eyes tight for a minute before opening them again and drawin' in a deep breath. "He has a room in his apartment that's locked. I opened it and…God, Merle. He had severed heads in these giant aquariums on the wall! Like he's collecting them! Dozens of them!" She said hurriedly, her eyes movin' towards the door every couple of seconds as if to make sure no one was on the other side listenin' in.

"You're fuckin' with me." I said quietly, although I knew damn well Harlow wasn't one to make up stories. Especially not somethin' like this. "That's some sick, twisted shit."

"That's not even the worst of it!" She went on, shiftin' on the bed to face me. "He has a walker locked up in there. This is going to sound completely insane, but I'm pretty sure it's his daughter…she has clean clothes on, her hair looks brushed. He's keeping her in there, like a pet!" She spat out this last part, soundin' disgusted.

I let out a long breath. "Damn, I always knew there was somethin' off about him. Didn't think it was anythin' this wacked out." I had heard of people who couldn't kill off a turned loved one. Pretty damn hard to pull the trigger on someone you used to know. Ain't ever heard of someone actually keepin' a turned family member locked up, like they might just get better any damn time. "He ain't right." I murmured.

"The people of this town think he's something he isn't, Merle. They all look up to him like he's some sort of savior. They have no idea what he's hiding in the apartment." Harlow said quietly, shakin' her head. "I don't know who those severed heads belong to, but I'm willing to bet those are the people who have stood up to him or pissed him off. He's the type of man who takes what he wants, does what he wants, and doesn't care how it gets done." She went on. "He's insane…that makes him even more dangerous."

She couldn't have been more right. The Governor had lost the battle against the end of the world already, he just had no idea he had lost. "Ya' don't gotta be afraid of him, Harlow. I'm not gonna let anythin' happen to ya'." I finally said after a long moment had passed. I watched her carefully, wonderin' what the hell was goin' on inside her head. It was hard to ignore how much I wanted to reach over and touch her, pull her closer. Comfortin' was never somethin' I was good at, or ever really believed in but now it was all I wanted to do for her.

She didn't say anythin' at first and I gripped the edge of the bed in one hand, waitin' for her to finally look at me. "I can't stay here." She finally said, her voice just barely more than a whisper. "We have to go."

"Go? Where the hell would we go, Harlow?" I asked, shakin' my head. I was strugglin' to form thoughts around the idea that she wanted to go, but she wanted me to go with her. "We can't just leave right now, in the middle of the night. He'd send someone after us and we'd be dead not even fifty feet from the wall. You saw what was in that apartment…Harlow, you know what that man is capable of."

"Well, I can't stay here anymore!" She hissed, standin' up from the bed. She placed her hands on her tiny hips, lookin' more determined than I'd seen her in some time. "I'm going. With or without you. Tonight." With that, she turned on her heel and threw open the door and I followed after her.

"Harlow, I'm not gonna let you go and get yourself killed!" I watched as she forced the key into the lock of her door and it swung open on its squeaky hinges. "I'll get you outta here, but not tonight."

She threw me an irritated look over her shoulder. "I'm going tonight and you can't stop me." She shot back. I jumped back as she pushed the door shut and it closed in my face, not for the first time. I stared at it, shakin' my head. Couldn't stop her? To hell with that. I stormed back into my room across the hall and grabbed the chair from the old desk. I dragged it behind me out into the hall and set in the doorway of my room, where I could sit and keep watch on Harlow's door. If she tried to leave, well I'd be here to try and stop her. I couldn't explain what that woman did to me, how she irritated the hell out of me, but still made me wanna do anythin' I could to keep her safe. But I'd be damned if she walked out of here without me.

For the next hour or so I could hear her bangin' around inside the room, slammin' drawers and such as the floor creaked underneath her with every step. Sounded like a god damn tornado was rippin' through her bedroom. I pictured her on the other side, throwin' all her belongings into that tattered backpack and makin' it look like she'd never even been there. If that woman thought she was leavin' here without me...well, I wasn't gonna let her run off and get herself killed. Not now, not ever. And if she were to try and sneak out of Woodbury in the dead of night…that had suspicious written all over it and I knew in my gut the Governor wouldn't let her run off that easily. Especially knowing what I did now.

"God damn it, Merle. What the hell has gotten into you?" I muttered under my breath, shakin' my head. That woman had really gotten under my skin in a way I wasn't at all prepared to deal with. She was all I could think about, day or night. Even when we were in the same room it wasn't close enough. It took everything in me not to pull her closer until there wasn't any more space left between us. I couldn't ever remember feelin' so protective over someone, besides Daryl. The idea of her bein' somewhere I wasn't, where I couldn't protect just about drove me crazy in the worst way.

I leaned back in the chair, crossin' my arms over my chest as I settled in to wait. It wasn't long before it got quiet and I couldn't hear her movin' around behind the door anymore. My muscles were startin' to feel stiff and tired from sittin' still too long. I ran a hand over my shaved head before shiftin' in the chair and tryin' to get more comfortable. Damn that woman better hurry up.

That was when I noticed the door knob slowly twistin' as Harlow pushed open the door. I straightened up in my chair, watchin' as she budged it open just enough to slip outside into the hall with her backpack on her shoulders. That dark colored hair of hers was draped over the side of her face like a curtain as she shut the door behind her. She didn't notice me. I cleared my throat and she jumped about a foot in the air before whirlin' around, pressin; her back up against the wall.

Her eyes, which had been frozen wide with surprise, narrowed when she finally saw me. "What the hell, Merle! You scared the crap out of me!" She hissed, placing a hand over her chest. "What are you doing out here?"

I shrugged my shoulders. "What's it look like, princess? I'm tryin' to keep ya' from leaving." I said quietly.

I saw somethin' flicker behind her eyes, the look on her face softenin' for just a second before the walls were back up. "I already told you I'm leaving whether you like it or not. You can come with me, but I'm not staying here."

I forced myself up from the chair. "God damn it, woman! Why the hell do you have to be so stubborn?" I said in a harsh whisper. "I told ya' it ain't safe to leave right now! Just wait and I'll take ya' myself."

She was shakin' her head before the words had even left my mouth. "No! I need to get out of here! Why the hell can't you just let me go?" She cried.

I let out a frustrated growl. "Come on, Harlow? Ain't it obvious? Why else why I be tryin' so god damn hard to get ya' to stay?" I asked her, taking half a step towards her, where she was still pressed up against the wall.

I watched as her eyebrows furrowed together. "What, are you trying to tell me you actually care about what happens to me?" She asked, soundin' like it was the craziest damn thing that she'd ever heard in her entire life. "Just don't, Merle. We both know I'm nothing special to you. Just another woman on one of your lists." She added softly.

I shook my head. It bothered me that she thought like that. I knew, better than anyone, that I was bad at first impressions. That I had given her every reason to turn and run from me from the moment we met. But now, well I couldn't bear to let her go. At some point, Harlow had done the impossible and now I was all tangled up in feelings I didn't think I'd ever be able to feel for any woman.

"Harlow…" I said quietly, lettin' her name settle in the air between us. Those gray eyes of hers flickered to meet mine and we held each other's gaze for a long moment. I knew she was waitin' for me to say somethin'. For me to admit why I couldn't let her walk out of here without me. I licked my lips, wonderin' why it was so god damn hard to just say everythin' I already knew. For her, though, I was more than willin' to put myself in that place. To admit that I was feelin' things that were out of my control and hope to god she'd take my word for what it was. "Harlow," I tried again. "You ain't just another woman to me and I'll be damned if I let you leave here without me. And I know it ain't the easiest thing to believe, woman,but wherever you are that's where I need to be too."

I felt out of breath after I said it, like gettin' those words off my chest was the hardest thing I'd ever done. Killin' walkers, fightin' for my life...those things were easy. Those things weren't anything compared to admittin' to a woman that I needed her around. A few seconds of silence passed, but it felt like a life time as Harlow just stared at me as if wonderin' whether this was really happenin' or not. Finally, though, I heard her take in a breath before steppin' closer and closin' the space between us.

Her lips were warm against mine as her arms wound their way around my neck. I cupped the back of her neck with my hand, her skin soft against my calloused fingers. I breathed in her scent and wound my fingers in her hair as I felt her tongue slide along my lower lip, beggin' for entrance. I smirked against her mouth and pressed her up against the wall.

She suddenly detached herself from me, though, and I let out a grunt of disappointment. She stared at me for a long, silent moment before finally lettin' out a sigh. "I'll stay…if you can swear to me you mean every damn word of what you just said, and that we get out of here the first chance we have." She said, lookin' up at me earnestly.

I straightened up, my fingers tugging' gently at the hem of her tank top. "I swear to you, woman. On my life." I said. "I meant every damn word and I'll do everythin' I can to keep you safe."

Her eyes swept my face, no doubt lookin' for any sign that I wasn't bein' honest. After a quick second, though, her eyes found mine again and she gave me a small smile. "Well? You gonna invite me inside or what?"

I grinned broadly. "Sugar, you don't know how long I've been watin' for you to say those words."

I heard her laugh against as I grabbed her hand and pulled her into the bedroom, leavin' the desk chair out in the hall way as I kicked the door shut.

The door slammed shut behind us, rattlin' in the frame. I hardly noticed, though, too wrapped up in the pretty lil' thing who had her arms snaked tightly around my neck. I had been with plenty of woman but this time it didn't feel like all the others. I felt on fire, like her fingertips were trailin' flames wherever they touched me.

Our mouths moved furiously against each other's as my hand slowly crept up the back of her shirt, her skin hot against my palm. I pushed her tank top up further and further until finally I couldn't stand the thin layer of fabric bein' between us and broke away from her for just a second to tug it off and toss it somewhere over my shoulder. I pressed my lips hard against hers again before trailin' my hand up and over the small of her bare back and findin' the clasp of her bra and unclippin' it with barely three tries. I slipped the straps over her shoulders, trailin' kisses down her neck until I reached her collarbone. I heard her breath hitch in her throat and my lips curved upwards in a smirk as I pulled back to look at her…and damn, she was perfect.

Her cheeks were flushed a brighter red than I'd ever seen as she gave me a small, teasin' smile and ran her hands up my arms until her fingers curled around my shoulders. "Well, you got the top half of me undressed." She said in a voice barely above a whisper, pressing her lips close to my ear. An involuntary shiver went through me and my eyes fluttered shut as her hands slipped under my shirt. "Not bad for a guy with one hand."

My smirk grew into a full on grin. "We ain't even at the best part yet, princess."

I didn't give her a chance to say anythin' else, kissin' her hard on the mouth and pullin' away only long enough to tug my on shirt off and add it to the growing pile of clothes scattered at our feet. I grabbed her by the waist and pulled her closer, the feelin' of her bare skin brushin' against mine almost too much but still not enough at all. I wanted more of her, I needed it. I scooped her up, my mouth never leavin' hers as I took the short couple of steps to the bed and we tumbled onto it.

I was hyperaware of the sound of my heart, thumpin' behind my ribcage, almost as loud as the heavy breathin' between us. I rolled off her to the side, my hand slidin' over her chest, over her ribcage, over her flat stomach, until I found the waistband of those tight, little jeans that always hugged her just right.I fumbled with the button as I felt her fingers explorin' my chest and her lips warm against my shoulder. Finally, though, I was peelin' 'em down and off her perfect, long legs and my hand slid over her thigh. A quiet, barely there moan left her lips and all it did was fuel me more.

I started workin' on the button of my own jeans but Harlow's hands were suddenly there as she brushed mine away. She gave me another coy smile as she effortlessly undid the clasp. Seconds later, there was nothin' else between us but a tiny, barely there pair of pink cotton panties.

I struggled to pull myself out of the moment for only a second, my hand on her hip and the rest of our limbs all tangled up. I swallowed hard as I looked at her, really looked at her. "You're god damn beautiful…you know that?" I asked, my voice comin' out huskier than I expected. She smiled, her cheeks already too pink for me to tell if she was blushin' or not. I bent my head and brushed my lips gently against hers as that final and last piece of thin fabric between us was finally takin' off and disappeared over the side of the bed.

I deepened the kiss, spearin' my tongue into her mouth as my hand trailed down her side and stopped to trace shapes and patterns on the inside of her thigh. I could feel the heat almost radiatin' off her as she pressed herself up against me. I could feel her hands on my everywhere, fuelin' the fire that was buildin' and buildin' somewhere deep inside me. She let out a gasp as my fingertips finally found their way to the warm folds between her legs. God, she was so damn wet. I moved my fingers in slow, deliberate circles, her soft moans almost drivin' me over the edge.

A low, hungry growl escaped my lips before I could stop it as I rolled on top of her and her body shuddered underneath me. Her hands scaled over my shoulders and down my back as her lips latched onto my neck. She parted her legs even further and pushed her hips up against me. It was all the permission I needed. I slid inside her in one thrust, and I let out a groan as her hands suddenly gripped the back of my shoulders tightly and her nails dug into my skin.

I couldn't remember the last time it had felt so good to be inside a woman and I wondered for half a second how somethin' so damn perfect had ended up underneath me. I pulled back before buckin' my hips into her again, not botherin' to be gentle. She let out a cry I just barely heard over the sounds of my heavy breathin' and I could feel her own hot breath against my neck. I bent my head and pressed my lips roughly against hers.

Her hands grasped at my waist, pullin' me deeper inside her and I could feel her growin' tighter and tighter around me each time I dove into her. Everythin' felt intensified, and I swore I could feel her hands and lips all over every part of me. That all too familiar heat was pullin' at my core, growin' and growin' from inside the pit of my stomach. I knew I wasn't gonna last much longer. She raised her hips slightly, findin' her own rhythm and meetin' me with every back and forth.

"Merle…" She whimpered into my ear. Hearin' my name from her lips in that sort of way sent me over the edge. Harlow suddenly shuddered underneath me, her nails diggin' into my back as she buried her face into my neck and let out a muffled cry. It was quiet for long minute as we both struggled to catch our breath. I brushed my lips over her forehead before rollin' over and collapsin' onto my back, my chest still heavin' up and down. I was surprised when Harlow suddenly curled herself into my chest. I smirked. Didn't really take her for the cuddlin' type. I felt her shoulders shakin' underneath my arm and realized she was quietly laughin'.

"What's so damn funny, sugar?" I murmured, glancin' down at her.

"Nothing really…Just thinking about how a couple of months ago, this was the absolute last place I ever wanted to be with you." She shifted and gave me a grin.

"I knew it was only a matter a time. Probably got pretty damn exhaustin' tryin' to resist me all the time…ain't that right, princess?" I chuckled, absentmindedly trailin' my hand down her bare shoulders.

"Keep tellin' yourself that, Dixon." She sighed, slingin' an arm over my chest and nestlin' closer. I let out a laugh.

It got quiet again pretty quick, and not too long later, Harlow's breathin' got slower and deeper. She was asleep. In the darkness, I could just barely make out her sleepin' form, but I could feel how warm she was pressed up against me. For the first time in my life, I couldn't help but think that I was one lucky son of a bitch.

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