Playing With Fire

Chapter Twenty-Six


I woke up the next morning twisted in the white bed sheets, one arm dangling over the side of the bed. I tried to blink the sleepiness from my eyes as I looked at the small beam of sunlight that was filtering in through the window. I was surprised at how much I did not want to move from this spot. Most mornings it only took me a minute to force myself up and out of bed. This morning, though, was different. There was only one explanation behind the sudden contentedness that I was feeling.

I felt an uncontrollable smile tugging at the corners of my lips and I buried my face into my pillow. Who would've thought Merle Dixon would be the one to make me feel like blushing little school girl with her first big, real crush. I rolled over, expecting to see Merle still lying next to me, fast asleep. My smile fell, though, when I saw that the space next to me was empty. I sat up, tugging the sheet over my chest and leaned over the side of the bed. His clothes were gone too, though mine were still scattered around the room and obvious evidence to what had happened between us just a few hours before.

I felt my brow furrow. I couldn't believe I hadn't woken up when he got out of bed. I was normally such a light sleeper. It didn't take much more than a creepy floorboard or a rustling sheet to wake me up. Apparently not this time, though. At some point, Merle had found his way out of the bed, into his clothes, and out the door. I could feel the happy feeling inside me slowing deflating, like a punctured balloon. I didn't want to admit it, but I was so hoping he would still be next to me in the morning. For many, many, many reasons including that I liked the feeling of his warmth next to me, that I was honestly hoping for some hot morning sex or at least kissing, but mostly for tangible proof that he had meant what he had said last night. Without him there to remind me, I felt a little bit unsure.

I didn't have any reason to believe he was making things up just to get me into bed. Merle had always been pretty blunt and to the point with me. I shook my head. No, there was no way he had lied or changed his mind. I heard the way his voice sounded last night when he said my name. I saw the way he looked at me and felt the gentleness in the way he touched me. Nothing had changed, I reassured myself. There could have been at least a hundred different reasons as to why Merle had crept out while I was still asleep. I wasn't going to let myself get all worried and pessimistic about nothing. Not when I had been such a fantastic mood not even ten minutes ago.

I swung my legs over the side of the bed and stood to my feet, letting the sheet fall to the floor. I gathered up my clothes into my arms and tossed them into a sack with the rest of my dirty laundry, while simultaneously trying not to blush as I thought about how it had felt when Merle had removed each and every piece of clothing from my body the night before. God, I wouldn't make it through the day if I couldn't get control over my own thoughts.

I did the best I could to push Merle to the back of my mind as I dressed myself in clean clothes and headed down the hall to the bathroom to put myself together. I hoped like hell I didn't run into anyone in the hallway because I was pretty damn sure it was obvious by my hair and the goofy, blissful look on my face that I had had wild, awesome sex the night before. Luckily, the hall was empty and I made it to and back from the bathroom without any serious issues.

I ran hand through my long hair as I headed down the rickety staircase, pulling it back into a low ponytail as I headed outside. I forced a smile and nod towards a familiar Woodbury face as I made my way down the sidewalk and towards the mess hall. It was a beautiful morning, still early but already warm thanks to the bright, unrelenting sun that hung in the middle of a cloudless blue sky. I caught myself humming under my breath after a few minutes and forced myself to stop with the giddiness because I could see it getting real embarrassing quickly. The people in this town knew by now that I was by no means a humming, smiley person.

I had barely stepped foot into the mess hall when I heard my name being called. I peered around the room, puzzled, until I saw Crowley jogging his way towards me from across the room.

"Hey, Harlow." He smiled. His eyebrows knit together as he studied my face. "You look…unusually cheerful."

I realized I was smiling again for no reason. Well, I knew why I was smiling but no one else needed to know that. Apparently I was not as subtle as I was trying to be. "Oh! Yeah, I'm just…I am just so excited to eat breakfast. Anyways, you need something?" I switched topics quickly, hoping he would just brush over my extremely lame reply.

If Crowley noticed my oddness, he didn't act on it. "Actually, I was just about to head over to your room. We need to make a run for food supplies this morning and I was hoping you'd take over my spot on watch. Unless you have something else to do in the clinic." He asked, pushing up the sleeves of his navy colored shirt.

"Oh, sure. I don't have anything else going on. That would actually give me something to do for a while." I replied with a nod. Something else besides let myself continue to overthink last night.

"Great, thanks. The shift starts in about half an hour." He pointed towards an old, round clock on the wall over the door. "Just show up then."

"Okay, no problem." I assured him. He was already out the door, though, giving me a halfhearted wave over his shoulder.

I turned back around and headed towards the coffee. It actually hadn't been so bad the past couple of weeks. Either that or I was starting to just get used to how awful it really was. Either way, it was worth the caffeine. I filled up a glass mug to the top with the steaming hot liquid before sliding into a seat at one of the plastic square tables. The room was mostly empty. I had figured out most people got there early before all the good breakfast rations were taken. I didn't care so much as long as I got coffee. I had never been much of a breakfast person anyways.

I took a careful sip of the coffee, and it burned down the back of my throat. Now that I was finally out of the bedroom and in public, my thoughts started to turn away from Merle and to the reason I had even sought him out last night at all. I cringed a little when I remembered the severed heads and the caged up zombie in the Governor's apartment. I wasn't sure how I would be able to look at the man, let alone how I would act around him. I was probably the only person in town who knew those secrets and I was pretty sure he would be more than just a little pissed if he found out about that. I hoped Merle had meant it when he said we'd leave Woodbury as soon as we could. I wasn't sure how long I could sit around, drink coffee, and go about my business pretending like everything was okay and like the man running this town wasn't a complete monster.

Crowley had said they were going out on a run. I was sure the Governor would be going to. I wasn't sure if it made me feel better or worse that he would be out of the town for a few hours. Better in the sense that I wouldn't have to worry about running into him. Worse, though, because I worried about what he was capable of outside the walls where there wasn't a town full of people to stop him. Merle would probably go with him. This made my stomach turn upside down. He usually always went out on the runs. I knew that I didn't have to worry about him acting on any of the disturbing information I had shared with him last night. I just had to worry about the disturbed man leading them.

I glanced up at the clock and gulped down the rest of my coffee. I would have plenty of time to sit around and think while I was on watch. Which was probably not such a good thing. I stood up from the table, dumping my glass in a dirty dish bucket before weaving my way through the mess hall and out the heavy wooden doors. As I got closer to the wall, I could see the usual convoy of vehicles lined up and ready to go. Martinez was lounging against the side of a rusted pick-up truck and sneered when he caught sight of me, turning his back and pulling himself up into the cab. I rolled my eyes. The feeling was mutual.

Suddenly, Merle appeared around the other side of the truck and I almost stopped dead in my tracks. I was almost ashamed at how much my stomach fluttered when I saw him, my pulse definitely jumping. I smoothed down my ponytail and immediately wanted to kick myself for feeling so self-conscious. Obviously it was the first time I had seen him since the night before and all I could think about was 'oh god, what do I do'. Besides feel like an idiot because I couldn't remember another time in my life when I felt so shy and unsure of myself in front of any man.

I tried to act normal and headed towards the watch platform. I tried to keep my eyes straight ahead, but couldn't help myself. I stole a glance at Merle and my stomach dropped when I saw he was staring right at me, a very obvious and sexy smirk on his lips. I felt my cheeks flush red. To me, the smirk on his face was a neon sign that said 'I saw you naked last night'. I couldn't help but smile right back, though, as his eyes continued to follow me across the short stretch of road. I heard Martinez suddenly shout his name through the cracked window and Merle glanced towards the truck before turning back to me. He gave me a quick wink before pulling open the passenger side door and disappearing inside. I swallowed hard and turned back to the ladder, hoping my knees didn't give out before I made it to the top. That was the moment that I knew I had it bad.

I made it to the top of the platform and sank down into one of the dark green colored folding chairs. There was the sound of metal scraping against concrete as the two huge doors were pulled open. Slowly, the short line of vehicles drove through the gap in the gate and out into the world. I watched as the Governor's jeep disappeared from view, the truck with Merle and Martinez in it close behind. I suddenly realized I was perched on the edge of my seat and I let out a sigh, sinking back and forcing myself to chill out once the entire conga line of cars was out of sight.

I tried to occupy my time by imagining what it would be like to drive out of the gates, but not come back. I had spent so much time on the run, going from place to place, that Woodbury had seemed like a sanctuary at first. Now, though, I was more than willing to face the dangers outside the walls than stay here under the watchful eyes of the Governor. I knew he couldn't keep his secrets forever and I had a gut feeling that sooner or later, all hell would break loose in his neat little town. I didn't plan to be around for it.

I wasn't sure where Merle and I would go, but it didn't matter. I knew we were both more than capable of surviving. Hell, the man had cut his own hand off to save his life. Maybe we would eventually find his brother out there. I would be more than content to travel the state from corner to corner to help them reunite. I was curious about the other Dixon, more than I ever let on to Merle. He made it sound like his brother was so much different than he was. I didn't think Merle realized he was just as capable of having the soft, gentile emotional side he described his brother as having. I was willing to bet the two were more like than even he knew, although it was hard for me to imagine a pre-apocalyptic Merle at all. He seemed built for this sort of stuff. Like the end of the world was his calling. Maybe it was like that for a lot of people. If you couldn't find your niche in the real world, maybe it was because you were meant to find it here when the rest of the world couldn't. I suddenly found myself thinking how glad I was that Merle was who he was. If he wasn't, he might not have been able to do what he did on that roof top. Which meant I never would have had the chance to rescue him.

I breathed a long, happy sigh of relief when someone finally came to take my place almost four hours later. I felt drained as I climbed down the ladder. It was hard for me to sit still for that long with absolutely nothing to do but stare over the wall and wonder where the hell the Governor was with Merle, among other things. About a million other things. With everything that happened in the last twenty-four hours, I was shocked my head hadn't detached itself from my shoulder yet and tried to roll away.

I knew part of the reason that taking watch had felt so long today was because I had to do it alone. Not that I was a huge people person, but the time seemed to go by so much faster when I was forced to make conversation or ignore someone who would not stop trying to make conversation when I clearly wasn't interested. For the first time in a very long time, though, I felt the urge to talk to someone. The only problem with that, though, was I couldn't exactly discuss about the things I wanted to talk about most. Merle was the only person I trusted to talk to about the Governor and there was no one in this town I could talk to about Merle. I definitely couldn't talk to Merle about Merle. Even so, I found myself making a beeline straight for the clinic and the one person in this entire God forsaken town that I could stand.

"Hi, Harlow. Need something?" Dr. Waters asked, leaning back in her desk chair. I stepped into the room she used as her office, sinking down into the one empty chair in the corner.

"I was hoping you could give me something to do. Before I go insane." I sighed, cracking a small smile.

She chuckled, shaking her head. "You know as well as I do that work here happens few and far between. Probably should consider that a good thing." She swiveled in her chair until she was facing me and perked a dark eyebrow. "You trying to take your mind off something?"

Was I that obvious? I gave her a sheepish look. "Maybe. I don't know. I just need something to do, even if it's just for a little while."

Dr. Waters eyed me with an amused expression and I shifted uncomfortably under her gaze. "Are you worried about your man out on that raid? He's done it a million times before. Nothing for you to worry about." She said it so casually, like this was a topic we covered on a regular basis. My eyes were wide, though, as I stared at her in surprise. Of all the days for her to make the assumption that Merle was "my man", she had picked this one.

"What? You mean Merle? No…he's not…He and I aren't anything." I stumbled through the sentence unconvincingly. I had no idea what we were. He had made it seem last night like he wanted to be something, but I was totally unsure of what that was.

"Oh please, honey. I see the way you two look at each other. You don't have to pretend for my sake." She clucked her tongue, standing up from her chair and bustling into the next room. I followed after her, taking a deep breath.

"I didn't know I looked at him a certain way." I mumbled, watching as she swept through the patient room, rummaging through the cupboards for something.

"Of course you didn't." She said in a matter of fact tone. "I know the look of someone smitten. I've seen it about a hundred times. I knew it was only a matter of time before it happened, after the two of you showed up here. You can't work that hard to save a man's life and not feel something for him. No matter how big and bad he tries to act."

I felt my lips automatically curve upwards in a smile, although I didn't have a thing to say back to that. When I had first stumbled upon Merle in Atlanta, I had been half tempted to just shoot him on the spot for being an ass. I hadn't expected to lay eyes on him again, let alone let myself go on a wild goose chase all over Georgia trying to keep him alive. I couldn't pinpoint a particular moment in time when my feelings had turned from dislike, disgust, and annoyance to the radically opposite where he was all I could think about all the time. All I did know what that it had happened and there was little I could, or wanted, to do about it now.

"That's the look. Right there." Dr. Waters' voice broke through my thoughts and I rolled my eyes, my cheeks tinged pink. "Anyways, you want something to do? I have an eight year old kid coming in to get his stitches out in fifteen minutes. Fell out of a tree a few weeks ago trying to impress a girl. Think you can handle it?" She asked, brushing past me back into her office.

I didn't answer her, too caught up in the fact that it had been she had known even before I did how I felt about Merle. I smiled a little, shaking my head, not sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing. Just glad it was a thing at all.

It was still light outside when I was finally dragging my feet up the stairs to my own room. After taking care of the little boy in the clinic, who grilled me with about a thousand questions on how stitches worked, Dr. Waters and I ate dinner in the mess hall together. I had been hoping to finally catch Merle, or least find out if they had finally gotten back but no such luck. I wanted to see him again so badly, yet a part of me was still anxious as hell about how to act after what had happened between us. Mostly because I had woken up alone and confused, without Merle there to assure me that nothing had changed.

I reached the landing and turned into the narrow hall. My eyes flickered towards my door at the very end and I faltered. An all too familiar figure was leaning up against my closed door, arms crossed over his broad chest and a crooked smile on his lips. I fought to control the smile as I made my way towards him, slowing to a stop when I finally reached the end of the hall.

Nothing was said at first, as his blue eyes flickered from my face, down the length of my body to my boot clad feet, and back up. I felt almost like a magnetic tug pulling me towards him, but I forced myself to stay rooted to my spot.

I cleared my throat. "Well?" I asked, raising my eyebrows.

Merle's smile morphed into a broad grin. "Woman, you've been on my mind all damn day."

I felt my pulse suddenly pick up speed. Exactly what I had needed to hear all day. That he had been thinking about me just as much as I'd been thinking about him. I felt the small pocket of doubts I'd been harboring in the back of my mind slowly melting away. "Is that so?" I asked, taking a step forward and wrapping my arms around his neck.

"You bet yer' ass, sugar." The huskiness in his tone sent a chill down my spine as he suddenly brushed his lips against mine, his arms snaking around my waist and his hand sliding underneath the back of my shirt. "I've been thinkin' about getting' you outta these clothes since I saw you this morning." He growled into my ear before his lips glided over my neck and I shivered, my mind suddenly blank.

I fumbled with the key in the lock on my door, very much aware of how easily he made me lose control as his fingers toyed with the waistband of my jeans. I finally got the door open and we stumbled inside. I barely had time to think before Merle had me pressed up against the closed door, his mouth moving against mine slowly and deliberately. Totally different than the fervent, hungry way we had kissed last night, and I couldn't decide which I liked more. My head was swimming, all coherent thought completely out the window. My hands slid over his shoulders, down his muscled arms and over his chest were I grabbed the front of his shirt, pulling him even closer.

We went on like that for what felt like forever before Merle completely surprised me by being the first to pull away. I opened my eyes to see his own deep blue ones watching me, a cocky grin stretching the corners of his lips.

"What?" I asked, uncurling my fingers from his shirt and moving my hands to rest on his waist.

"Just thinkin' 'bout how I could get used to this…this whole gettin' to touch you whenever I want thing." He replied in his raspy southern drawl.

I made a show of rolling my eyes, which made him chuckle. "Oh really? What makes you think I'll allow that?" I asked, a small smile on my lips.

"Just a feelin'." He said, a look of amusement in his eyes. Then, as if to prove a point, he leaned forward and pressed his lips against my neck, in the space just below my ear. I shuddered, my body giving away the fact that he knew what I wanted. It was almost annoying how quickly I became putty in his hands.

He was wearing that infamous smirk when he pulled away, and I was more than little aware of the warmth in my cheeks. I suddenly felt completely self-conscious as he studied my face, tucking a strand of stray hair behind my ear as the amused look in his eyes faded into something more serious.

"You okay, sugar?" He asked quietly. Right away I knew he was asking if I was still freaked out by what I had seen the night before in the Governor's secret room.

I let out a sigh, shrugging my shoulders. "I'll feel better once we're out of here…but for now, I'm okay."

"Good." He nodded. He pulled himself away from me, striding across the room to look out of the small window. "Doesn't seem to have a damn clue that you were sneakin' 'round his place. If he did, I'm pretty damn sure he'd be tearin' this town apart tryin' to find out who it was."

I grimaced, sitting down on the edge of the bed and unlacing my boots. "Hopefully it stays that way."

"I think we'll be long gone before ya' need to start worryin' 'bout that, princess." Merle said over his shoulder.

I paused in the middle of tugging off my boot. "So you're still gonna find a way to get us out of here?" I asked.

He pivoted around, eyebrows furrowed together. "What? Ya' think I made that up? I said I'd get ya' outta here and I will. You don't gotta worry."

I went back to pulling off my boots, tossing them off the end of the bed. "No, I know…I guess when I woke up and you were gone this morning, I just sort of wondered-"

Merle had crossed the room before I had even finished my sentence, crouching in front of me, his hand resting on my knee. I stole a glance at his face and tried to fight the urge to smack the amused looking expression off his face. "Don't tell me you were actually worried I'd already changed my mind, 'cause I'm not goin' to."

I felt fidgety and I hated that. I hated that he turned me into this self-conscious, bubbling idiot when I was normally someone who was so put together and totally in control. Why did he make me feel so vulnerable? He went on when I didn't answer right away.

"Woman, you know how hard it was for me to get ya' to stay? You have any idea how hard it was to be pinin' after you like some sort of sad, god damn puppy dog? I already told ya' what I want and I'll be damned if I let ya' walk around thinkin' otherwise. You got that?" He said in a low voice, raising both eyebrows.

I tried not to let it show how relieved I was to hear that. Instead, I cupped his face between my hands and leaned closer. "You're pretty sexy when you get all demanding and sappy at the same time." I teased.

He chuckled, his hand sliding over my knee and up to rest on my thigh. "You better watch yourself, sugar."

"Why? What are you gonna do about it?" I challenged, leaning back on my hands.

His lips curved into a sly smile, and the look in his eyes sent a flurry of butterflies rocketing around inside my stomach. The next thing I knew, Merle was hooking my legs around his waist as his pushed me back onto the bed. His lips were crushed hard against mine as I fought to pull his shirt over his head, his skin hot underneath my fingers. It was so easy for me to get lost with him. Merle pressed himself harder against me and I closed my eyes, letting myself forget that all this was happening in a tiny room in a small town in the middle of the apocalypse.

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