Playing With Fire

Chapter Thirty

Merle

Suddenly, it was mornin’. Felt like it would be dark forever as Harlow and I kept crammin’ as much as we could into the four duffel bags that were lined up against the wall. There was still a lot we had to leave behind, though. We had enough to last us a few days on the road. After that, it’d be back to survivin’, like it used to be. I just hoped bein’ in Woodbury hadn’t made me too soft. That I’d still know what to do once we got back outside those walls.

Harlow stirred next to me in the bed. She was out almost as soon as her head hit the pillow. It felt like I had spent hours layin’ here, wide awake and goin’ through the plan about a thousand times in my head and searchin’ for everythin’ that could go wrong. It was so simple, though, that it would take one helluva shit show for it to fall apart. The Governor and his merry band of cronies had no reason to think Harlow and I would wanna leave. By the time they realized we weren’t comin’ back though, we’d be long gone. Halfway across the state and they’d find nothin’ but our dust.

“Did you sleep at all?”

I glanced down to see Harlow was lookin’ up at me, her eyes still lookin’ sleepy. I shrugged my shoulders. “Don’t need to sleep.”

She snorted out a laugh. “Yeah okay, Edward Cullen.”

I furrowed my eyebrows together. “Who the hell is that?”

She rolled over onto her stomach and buried her face into the pillow. “You don’t wanna know. Nevermind.” Her voice sounded all muffled. “It was my lame attempt at a joke. Trying not to think too much about today.”

I heard the nervousness in her voice, though she was doin’ a damn good job at tryin’ to hide it. “Ain’t nothin’ to worry ‘bout, sugar. We got it all planned out.” I said quietly. “You know I ain’t gonna let nothin’ happen to you.”

She shifted, sittin’ up just enough to rest her head against my chest. “I know. It’s not so much you I’m worried about. It’s him.”

She spat out the last word like it was the most disgustin’ thing she had ever tasted and I knew she meant the Governor. “Don’t. He don’t gotta clue about this. We’ll be long gone before he even realizes what’s what.”

She let out a long sigh. “You’re right. This is gonna work. It has to.”

“It will.” I gave her a smirk.

She rolled her eyes. “I hate it when you get cocky this early in the morning.”

I laughed quietly, my shoulders shakin’. “Sugar, you couldn’t hate me if you tried.”

“Stop talking.” She mumbled, closin’ her eyes again.

I grinned, runnin’ my fingers through her hair and pushin’ it outta her face before leanin’ down and brushin’ my lips against her temple. She pushed me away, but I didn’t miss the tiny smile pullin’ the corners of her mouth. I felt my chest tighten in a way I wasn’t used to and I knew I’d do anything to make sure I got this woman outta this hell town safe, no matter what it would cost me.

We stayed that way for a little bit longer, the sun comin’ in through the tiny window and growin’ brighter and brighter. Finally, I untangled myself from Harlow and swung my feet over the edge of the bed.

“Time already?” She asked, sittin’ up and pushin’ her long, dark hair back.

“Time already, princess.” I answered, glancin’ at her over my shoulder. She nodded firmly and crawled out of the bed, pullin’ on some clothes that were in a pile on the floor. “You know what to do?” I asked her.

She shimmied into her jeans, remindin’ me of the first time I ever saw her on a side street in Atlanta, wearin’ tight, little jeans and pointin’ a gun right at my chest. “Go about my day like normal, see if I can snag anything from the clinic, and come back here and wait for you.” She said automatically.

“That’s my girl.” I smirked.

She turned and frowned at me. “I don’t like the whole ‘waiting around for you’ part. Feels like I could be doing something more useful.”

“I was waitin’ for you to fight me on that. Listen, sugar, the best thing you could do for us would be to get any medical stuff you can get your pretty, little hands on and come back here and be ready. When we leave, I wanna get the hell outta here as fast as we can truck it.” I said, pullin’ a shirt over my head.

She pursed her lips and looked like she was fightin’ off a glare before noddin’. “Okay.” She finally sighed.

“Okay.” I answered. I grabbed my gun and slipped it into the waist band of my jeans. Harlow was suddenly in front of me, wrappin’ her arms around my waist. She stood up on her tippy toes and pressed her mouth to mine. I pulled her closer and felt her tongue slidin’ across my bottom lip. I groaned, wantin’ nothin’ more than to rip her clothes back off and throw her onto the bed. “You’re killin’ me here, woman.” I said after we finally pulled a part. Her warm hands had slipped under the back of my shirt and were tracin’ patterns into my skin.

She gave me a half smile. “That was a good luck kiss. You can have another when you get us the hell out of here.”

“You got it, sugar.” I leaned down and met her lips one more time before straightenin’ up and pushin’ the bedroom door open. She stepped out into the hall and I followed after her as we headed down the stairs and out into Woodbury.

I blinked in the bright sunlight, turnin’ towards Harlow. She gave me another small smile before turnin’ and headin’ off towards the mess hall where I knew by now she always had her coffee before headin’ to the clinic to look for work to do. I watched her go before lettin’ out a breath and walkin’ away in the opposite direction.

I was headed towards the town’s armory, hopin’ I could find a way to sneak out some more ammo. Maybe another gun or two and some knives. Between the two us, we had next to nothin’ and sure as shit wasn’t about to be caught outside the walls with nothin’ to fight with. The armory was in an old buildin’ that looked like it used to be some sorta hardware store. Metal shelves filled with guns, bullets, knives, grenades…whatever the hell the Governor had been able to get his hands on. I knew he sometimes had someone on duty, watchin’ the supplies but not always. I was hopin’ like hell I’d get lucky and there’d be no one there. If there was, well then I’d just have to come up with some sort of pretty excuse to get myself in there and get what I needed.

“Merle! Hey, Dixon!”

I stopped in my tracks and turned around at the sound of my name bein’ called. I rolled my eyes when I saw that scrawny Milton guy headin’ towards me. He looked ‘bout as scared as a mouse when he came closer, his eyes all wide behind his glasses. Looked like I was gonna eat ‘em alive at any second. I smirked. “What the hell do you want?”

He cowered a little before straightenin’ up. “Governor needs you. Says it’s important.”

I felt a surge of annoyance. Not today. I was all outta favors for him. He owed me one now, and that was my ticket outta here. “Can’t. Go tell him he said I could go out on a run today, look for my brother a little more.”

Milton grimaced. “He knew you’d say that and told me to tell you there’s been a change of plans. You need to come with me. Now.” I tried to stay cool and calm, but I felt the cracks breakin’ and the anger boilin’ beneath my skin was threaten’ to spill over. Milton must’ve sensed this because he was talkin’ real fast again in an effort to keep me contained. “If you just come with me now and get this over with, you’ll probably still be able to go outside the walls today.”

“Can you guarantee that?” I asked, perkin’ an eyebrow at him.

He nodded quickly. “I’ll talk to the Governor. He usually listens to me.”

“You better hope he does today, or it’ll be your ass. Understand?” I asked gruffly. He winced a little, like just my voice was enough to hurt him. That’s what he got for bein’ the Governor’s little messenger boy. I should’ve known somethin’ would get in the way. It was always somethin’. I wasn’t gonna let this stop the plan, though. I’d go see what he needed to get him off my back and then it was back to gettin’ a car and gettin’ the hell outta here. I’d had enough of the Governor gettin’ in my way, treatin’ me like I was another Milton. I sure as hell wasn’t.

Milton swallowed hard. “Follow me.”

I didn’t say a word as he turned quickly and headed off towards the opposite side of town, the side I didn’t really go to all that often since there was nothin’ much there besides a big empty warehouse. The buildings were still all closed up, and there were less and less people as we got further away from the center of the town. Milton looked nervous which made me curious. I wondered what the hell was goin’ on that had him all on edge like this. He carefully pulled open the door to the abandoned lookin’ warehouse and I slipped in after him. It was a big empty space, a lot of concrete and a few dirty windows lined the walls. He kept goin’, though, headin’ down a steep staircase. When we got to the bottom, I saw the Governor leanin’ back against the wall and waitin’.

“Merle!” He greeted, givin’ me one of his cold smiles. Actin’ like it wasn’t just yesterday he had threatened Harlow’s live and killed dozens of innocent men.

I grunted in response, not really wantin’ to waste my words on this sorry sack of shit.

“I’m glad Milton found you. Look, I know you were plannin’ on headin’ to the farmhouse today to look for your brother. I’m sorry, but somethin’ has happened that I really need you for. I’m sure we can work somethin’ else out. Dependin’ on how this goes.” He said.

I gritted my teeth, my fingers clenched into a tight fist. I just needed to get this over with and get back out there. I was leavin’ whether he gave me permission or not, I decided. Enough of this bullshit. “What?” I spat out the word in one breath.

“Yesterday, Martinez happened to come across a pair of survivors raidin’ a drugstore. Judgin’ by the amount of supplies they were gettin’ together, I’d wager they have a pretty good sized group somewhere nearby. I need to know how many of them and where they are. This group is a threat and it needs to get taken care of now.” He said in a low voice, the smile gone.

I wanted to take my knife and jab it through his heart. He had a damn good sized town and it still wasn’t good enough. No doubt he planned on findin’ all these people and killin’ them too. Why he had to get me involved, I still didn’t get. I didn’t give two shits about his plans and what he wanted with these people or this town. I just wanted to get the hell out. “What do you expect me to do?” I asked, not bothin’ to keep the chill outta my voice.

“I expect you to go in there and rough ‘em up a bit. Get them to talk. Do whatever it takes. Martinez is already in there with the other one and it seems like he might be makin’ some progress.” He explained, and as if on cue there was a muffled cry of pain comin’ from the door to my right. I glanced over at it wonderin’ what the hell was happenin’ behind it. When I looked back at the Governor, he was smilin’ again. “Go ahead, take a look.” He said.

I eyed him wearily before my curiosity got the better of me and I was pushin’ open the door to the room. Martinez was hoverin’ over a man who was hunched over in a chair, tied down and lookin’ like he was on the brink of death. “Jesus…” I muttered.

Martinez must’ve heard me because he whirled around and gave me a sick smile. “You wanna turn?” He asked.

I felt my eyes narrow. “Looks like you got it handled.” I said quietly. I watched as he threw another punch and the man let out a grunt of pain. He shook his head and tried to sit up and I felt my mouth fall open when he managed to get his eyes cracked open. I knew that face. Those damn Asian eyes…the pizza boy from Atlanta. What the hell was his name, Glenn? The shock rolled off me as I stood there and stared. First Andrea, and now this kid. What the hell was happenin’?

I suddenly felt the Governor’s hand on my shoulder, steerin’ my from the room before I had a chance to react, although I wasn’t sure what the hell I was supposed to do. I never even really like the kid, but to see him here like that….Christ.

“There’s another one in the next room. Think you can handle that? Martinez has been in there once…I know you’re the man to break ‘em down completely.” He said, pressing his palm on the closed door.

I drew in a breath and nodded, tryin’ not to let it show that I knew who that was. Didn’t know ifit would be good for Glenn or bad. “Whatever you say, Gov. Hope you didn’t fuck ‘em up too bad. Ain’t no good to nobody if they’re half-dead. ” I replied, hopin’ he could feel all that venom in my tone.

I pushed past him and threw open the door to the concrete room, wonderin’ who the hell I would find in here. If there were with Glenn, there was a good chance it was someone else from the Atlanta group. It creaked open before slammin’ shut behind me. It was like a dungeon. Concrete walls, floor, and nothin’ but a set of wooden chairs in the center of the room. I froze, though, when I saw tied to one of the chairs was a woman. Her head hung down and her brown hair spilled over her face so I couldn’t see it. Her ankles were both tied to the legs of the chair, her hands tied behind her back. He hadn’t said it was a woman in here and I felt another surge of bitter anger. No matter how many god awful, shitty things I did in my life and I knew it was a lot, I ain’t ever laid a hand on a woman and I sure as hell wasn’t about to start now.

I let out a sigh and pulled the chair towards hair, spinnin’ it around and straddlin’ it backwards. I rested my arms across the back and looked at her. I didn’t know who she was. Her dark hair didn’t match any of the women I remembered from the group, ‘cept maybe that Lori woman. Hair wasn’t nearly long or darn enough for that. “He sure fucked you up good, didn’t he?” I finally said. “I told him not to. Told him you was no good to me half alive.”

She slowly lifted her head then, raisin’ her eyes to meet mine and Jesus did she look bad. Her skin was all puffy and red, turnin’ harsh shades of purple around her eye where she got hit the hardest. Dried blood still caked her skin and looked matted in her hair a little. How was she still alive? Our eyes met and somethin’ about the dark, chocolate brown color of her eyes sent a jolt through me. Somethin’ about ‘em was familiar after all.

She let out a gasp. “Merle.”

I felt my eyebrows shoot up in shock. How the hell…I leaned forward, tryin’ to see some sorta face underneath all that shit. I suddenly remembered a girl with brown eyes, always hangin’ around Daryl. Always gettin’ under his skin and leavin’ him pinin’ after her like a damn puppy dog and a girl with enough sass to make even make take a likin’ to her. “Holy fuckin’ Jesus Christ. No…it ain’t.” I mumbled, shakin’ my head in disbelief. “You can’t be fuckin’ Charlie.” As far as I always thought, she was long gone. Had been for years. Even then I still let Daryl drag me along to try and find her. Never could get over the pretty lil’ neighbor girl. I always gave him shit for that and now here she was.

“It is, Merle. I swear it.” She said in a quiet whisper, and it looked like it hurt just to get the words out. The corners of her mouth lifted before she was suddenly bendin’ over, wincin’ in pain.

God damn, he really did a number on her. If Daryl saw her now, well I didn’t think there’d be any stoppin’ him from rippin’ this whole town a part and anyone who got in his way. I ran a hand over my shaved head. “What the fuck are ya’ doin here, woman? Do you know what kind deep fuckin’ shit you’re in right now? Christ, Charlie!” I breathed, shakin’ my head. “They sent me in here to rough ya’ up more!” And judgin’ from the shape she was in now, a couple more hits and she’d down for the count. I felt almost sick, lookin’ at her. She made me think of Daryl, and all I could see was this lil’ girl hangin’ around the garage with him and damn…I was more than a little surprised at how angry I was to see her like this.

“Who did? Who the hell are these people? And who the hell is the Governor?” She asked, her eyes wide. She wanted answers, was desperate for them. My mind was workin’ at about a thousand miles a minute as I tried to figure out what the hell I was supposed to do.

“Not someone you wanna piss off, which is a little too late for you.” I said quietly, my eyes roamin’ her bruised face one more time. It was bad, ‘bout the worst I’d seen in a while…includin’ the number I did on Martinez durin’ one of the Governor’s fights. “God damn, I almost didn’t recognize ya’. Christ, I wish it wasn’t ya’, I really do. What the hell were you doin’ with that Asian kid? You know ‘em?” I asked finally, wonderin’ how in the hell these two people from completely separate points of my life had somehow managed to cross paths.

“You mean Glenn? Yeah, I know him. I’ve been with his group for a while now.”

She explained quickly. Her eyes darted nervously towards the door before findin’ me again. “You gotta get me out of here, Merle. Please.” Her voice broke as she begged me.

My mind was reelin’. If she was with Glenn and that group…that meant one sure thing. “So you know where Daryl is then? He alive?” I asked, leanin’ forward even more.

She nodded, her head lookin’ like it weighed about a thousand pounds. “Yes! And he’s probably on his way here right now to kill all these assholes!”

“You need to take me to him. Charie, I need to see my god damn brother.” I said quietly, not quite pleadin’ but almost. After all this time lookin’, this was my chance.

“Then you need to help me get the fuck out of here. Please, Merle. Look at me. If I go one more round with the guy, he’ll kill me.” She whispered, her voice soundin’ even weaker. I knew without thinkin’ about it that I wasn’t gonna leave her here. I couldn’t. Not only because she knew where to find Daryl, but because I couldn’t stand the idea of the Governor killin’ anyone else who didn’t deserve it…’specially not her. Not Charlie.

“I’ll get you out, but you gotta take me to him. And I swear to God, Charlie, if you do me wrong I’ll kill ya. I swear on it.” I hoped from the tone of my voice, she got how serious this was. I was riskin’ everythin’ breakin’ her outta here. This wasn’t gonna be a quiet, clean getaway. Not anymore. Now, it was somethin’ else altogether and hoped like hell we all made it outta those walls alive and in one piece.

“I swear, Merle. I’ll get you to Daryl.” She replied, holdin’ my gaze. “But we have to get Glenn out too.”

I leaned back in the chair and sighed, runnin’ my hand over my face and lettin’ it drop in my lap. “Alright, girl. For some God damn reason, I believe ya’. And I’m gonna git’ you outta here, and I’ll get your damn Asian friend out too…But I’m tellin’ ya’ it ain’t gonna be easy.” I warned her. Pullin’ these two from their jail cells and makin’ a break for it was almost a suicide mission. I knew in my gut that there was no way to do it without some sort of firefight. I’d try, though, if it meant seein’ Daryl again and keepin’ Charlie alive for him.

There was one thing I needed to do first, though, and that was make sure Harlow was safe from all this. The last thing I needed was the Governor or one of his men gettin’ their hands on her and holdin’ her hostage from me. I needed to get her somewhere safe, even though I knew she’d wanna help. I couldn’t risk her life. Not a chance in hell.

“Thank god, Merle. Thank you.” Her soft voice broke through my thoughts.

“Don’t thank me yet, sugar tits. We can’t just fuckin’ waltz outta here. Gimme an hour to get the ball rollin. I’ll come back for you then.” I told her, standin’ up from the chair. It scraped across the floor as I pulled it back.

“What?” Her voice rose in a panic. “No, we need to go now.”

“Honey, we try and go now and I guarantee you we’d be dead in ‘bout five minutes flat. One hour. I’ll come back for ya’.” I promised her. That’s all the time I needed to get Harlow, get her the hell out, and come back for Charlie and Glenn. And hopefully make it outta here alive, that too.

“Can you at least untie me from the chair or something?” She asked, strugglin’ against her bonds.

I bit my lower lip as I eyed the tight ropes on her ankles and wrists. I sighed and knelt to the ground in front of her chair. “Can’t risk it. Anyone comes in here after me and they see it…well they’d be on to us in a second. I can undo your legs but that’s about it.” I pulled the huntin’ knife from the sheath at my hip. I left the blade for my fake arm back in the room. I sawed at the thick ropes with the knife until they snapped and came free. She stretched her legs out in front of her with a groan.

“That’s fine, that’s perfect.” She sighed, and I could hear the relief in her voice clear as day.

I stood up and put the knife back on my hip. I met her gaze and nodded. “I’ll be back.” I said again. “Just don’t do anythin’ stupid while I’m gone.” I gave her one last look, tied in the chair and felt a twinge in my chest at seein’ her that way. I hadn’t thought I cared all that much for her, but I knew deep down I had always been a little soft on her when she was a kid. It was funny, she’d lived next door and been inseparable from Daryl for years that I always knew in my gut they’d end up right back together one day. Just not like this. I turned and left the room, shuttin’ the door behind me. I was glad when the Governor wasn’t there waitin’ for me. Just Milton, his lapdog.

“H-How did it go?” He stuttered.

“She ain’t talkin’.” I grunted as I stalked past him.

I heard him try and say somethin’ else, but I was already gone, halfway up the stairs and headin’ back into town. I didn’t know where the hell the Governor had gone off too, but as long as he was outta sight, I was gonna keep with the plan. The plan that was now happenin’ a helluva lot faster than I thought would happen.

I hadn’t been gone long, which had me thinkin’ Harlow was probably either still in the clinic or wonderin’ around town lookin’ for some sort of job to do just like I had told her. I headed back to the room anyways. That way I could at least grab whatever bags I could and get a car loaded. I knew by now where all the vehicles were kept and I knew it would be easy to get one started, keys or not. I just had to worry about somebody openin’ the gates up.

I took the steps two at a time, my mind still reelin’ from everythin’ I had just seen in the Governor’s secret prison, or whatever the hell that was. I pushed open the bedroom door and froze when I saw Harlow diggin’ through one of the bags. She stopped what she was doin’ and turned around, her face fallin’ when she saw me. I wondered what the hell my face looked like right now anyways. I was tryin’ pretty damn hard not to let anythin’ show. I needed to keep my cool if I was gonna get us, all of us, outta here.

“Merle? What’s the matter?” She said quickly.

I shook my head and moved past her, pickin’ up two of the bags and shoulderin’ ‘em. “Meet me at the gates in ten minutes with whatever you can carry. We’re leavin’.”

“Already?” She asked, her eyes widenin’ in surprise. “I didn’t think you’d get the Governor to get you a car ready this early.”

I was pullin’ open the desk drawers one at a time, makin’ sure nothin’ got left. “He didn’t.”

I felt her hand on my shoulder, tuggin’ me around to face her. “Okay, what the hell is happening? You know better than to keep shit from me, Dixon.” She said heatedly, her face just startin’ to flush red.

I finally let myself slow down for a minute and leaned back against the desk. “Look, I promise I’ll tell ya’ everythin’. Just let me get you outta here first. Okay?” She held my gaze for a long minute, arms crossed over her chest.

She finally sighed in defeat and nodded. “Fine. I’m trusting you, Merle. The second were outside those walls, you better spill your guts.”

I stepped forward, my fingers curlin’ around the back of her neck before smashin’ my lips against hers quickly. “Ten minutes.” I reminded her. I turned and left the room, the straps of the bags just startin’ to cut into my shoulder. I tried to keep my face blank as I headed down the stairs and back outside. I wanted to book it, but I slowed to a walk. Better not to draw any attention. Better to look like I knew exactly what I was doin’, and that what I was doin’ wasn’t anythin’ to be suspicious about.

I made my way to the back lot, surrounded by a chain link fence. The Governor’s usual convoy of vehicles were all parked in a row. The gate was unlocked and wide open. Grand theft auto probably wasn’t a huge problem in Woodbury…least not ‘til today. I found the rusty old pick-up Harlow and I usually took and tossed the duffel bags in the back. When I pulled myself into the cab, I felt around for a key. Under the visor, under the seat, in the glove box…ain’t that lucky, though. One thing to keep the fence open, another to keep the keys in the cars and rearin’ to go. I smirked, though. Who needed keys when you learned how to hotwire a car at twelve years old?

I ducked underneath the steering wheel and started messin’ around. ‘Bout five minutes later, the trucked roared to life. I felt a grin stretchin’ the corners of my lips as I straightened back up in the seat and threw the damn thing into drive. Almost too easy. Everythin’ else that came next would be the hard part. I drove up through the streets and parked at the front gate. No one had even given me a second glance. I jumped out, leavin’ the car runnin’, and saw Harlow makin’ her way over. She gave me a forced smile before dumpin’ her bags in the back with mine and climbin’ in the passenger seat.

“Hey, Crowley! Mind openin’ that gate up?” I yelled up to the watch platform. He leaned over the side and looked down a tme.

“Where ya headed this time?” He asked. Fuckin’ clueless. Had no idea he was ‘bout to do us a huge favor that went directly against whatever the Governor wanted.

“Farmhouse, few towns over. Could end up havin’ to spend the night on the outside.” I yelled back up to him.

He shrugged before motionin’ to a few guys on the street to start pullin’ open the doors. “Better watch your asses out there!”

I jogged back to the truck, my mouth set in a thin hard line and my heart beatin’ just a lil’ too fast inside my chest. Harlow gave me a glance but didn’t say a damn word as we slowly drove through the open doors. Once we were outside, I slammed my foot on the accelerator and the truck shot forward. My knuckled tightened on the steerin’ wheel.

“Okay, so are you gonna tell me what the hell’s happening now?” Harlow finally asked. I didn’t look at her, but I could picture her expression…eyebrows all furrowed together and her mouth in a pout as she eyed me from the passenger seat.

I cleared my throat. “Governor took some hostages. Had Martinez knockin’ ‘em around for information and wanted me to join in.”

“Did you?” Her voice was so quiet, I almost missed it.

“Hell no, Harlow. I wasn’t ‘bout to play his games…” I started off. “Especially when I walked into that room and saw who it was.”

I heard Harlow inhale sharply. “Who?”

“Long time ago, when Daryl was a kid, there was this lil’ neighbor girl that lived next door. Charlie. Two of ‘em were pretty much attached at the hip until she left for school.” I paused to swerve around a downed tree in the road before goin’ on. “Haven’t seen her in years until I walked into that room. So much blood on her I almost didn’t recognize her.”

“Oh God, Merle. We have to go back, we have to get her out!” Harlow said quickly, her hands were pressed over her mouth.

“That’s not it. She was with somebody else, from my old group. Says Daryl is still alive and they can take me to him.” I said. Jesus, I knew what I had to say next and I braced myself for it. Knowin’ Harlow was gonna fight me. “I’m goin’ back for both of ‘em. But I needed to make you safe first.”

I stole a look at her and almost wished I hadn’t. Her cheeks were bright red, her eyes wide. I watched as they narrowed into two angry lookin’ slits before I forced my own eyes back to the road.

“Please tell me you don’t mean what I think you mean. You’re not leaving me out and going back alone.” Her voice had gotten so soft, I almost missed it. Not quiet enough to miss the threat in her voice.

I didn’t say anythin’ at first. Not sure what to say. There was nothin’ I could tell her to make her get it. “I dunno what’s gonna happen when I go back in. If all hell breaks loose, I want you as far away as I can get you.” I tried.

“Merle-“

“Stop, Harlow.” I cut her off quickly, soundin’ a lot harsher than I meant to. “I ain’t about to do anythin’ that might get you killed. I’ll come back for ya as soon as I can.”

“Okay, but what about you? Huh? You think I’m just gonna be fine, sitting around while you go off on this suicide mission!” She was shoutin’ now. The first time she’d raised her voice in me in a long, long time. “You need back up. Let me come!”

“It’ll be quicker if I’m alone. I won’t be able to think right if I got you to look out for.” I reached out between the seats and felt for her knee. “I know I’m askin’ a lot, sugar. But it’s my job to keep you safe and this is how I’m gonna do it. I need you to trust me.” I asked for the second time that day.

She got quiet real quick after that. I slowed down the car, pullin’ it over on the side of the road. When I turned the key in the ignition and shut the engine off, the quiet was the loudest sound I’d heard all day. I was more than a little surprised to see the wetness brewin’ in her eyes when I shifted in my seat to look at her. I’d seen Harlow a lot of different ways, but this wasn’t one of ‘em. And I figured out right away I hated seein’ her like this. I reached across the seat and pulled her closer.

She was stiff and didn’t budge at first. After half a second, though, she was leanin’ against me with her face buried in my shirt and her fingers clutchin’ my shoulders. “I hate this. I don’t want you to do it.” She whispered.

“I know, princess. I have to, though. I wouldn’t ever forgive myself if I left her locked up there. And I know Daryl wouldn’t ever forgive me neither.” I ran my hand down her back, leavin’ my palm pressed against the warm skin beneath her jeans and the hem of her shirt. “Charlie said he’d come lookin’ for her. I wouldn’t be surprised if he showed up there for her ‘fore I even get back.” She pulled back and looked up at me. I brushed a dark strand of hair outta her eyes. “Come on, let’s get this over with.”

She nodded reluctantly, scootin’ across the seat and lettin’ herself out the passenger side door. I followed her after a minute, not realizin’ till just then how heavy I felt inside my chest. I grabbed up the last two bags in the back of the truck, Harlow already shoulderin’ the others.

“You know where we are?” I asked her.

She nodded. “This is the first place where we looked for Daryl. By that creek.” A smile flashed across her lips that was gone almost as quickly as it came. “First time I realized you were capable of being more than just an asshole.”

“First time I realized you weren’t always a snarky bitch.” I shot back. She gave me a halfhearted, playful shove before she strutted past me and headed into the trees.

I didn’t take us too long to find the small, narrow stream. The big boulder was still there, sittin’ half in the water and half out. I dropped the bags onto the grass next to Harlow’s. She had her hands on her hips and was fidgetin’, shiftin’ from one foot to the other.

“I don’t think I can do this.” She blurted out. “I can’t stand here and pretend that this is all fucking okay!”

“Don’t start again, Harlow. I already told ya’ why I need you to stay back.”

She ran both hands through her hair, lookin’ bent outta shape with frustration. And somethin’ that looked a lot like fear. “That’s a bullshit reason. If something happens to you while I’m here, sitting on my god damn thumbs, I’ll lost it. I swear to God, Merle.”

She was pacin’ back and forth, her eyes lookin’ wet with tears for a second time. I stepped her in her tracks by grabbin’ her shoulder. She froze, lookin’ up at me with wide, gray eyes. “I dunno what’s gonna happen when I get back there. All I keep thinkin’ about is that Daryl could show up here for Charlie at any time and I can’t get him back and lose him all over again. I need to at least know you’re safe so we can all get the fuck outta here.”

She started to say somethin’, but I shook my head. What I was tryin’ to say was ‘bout the hardest thing I’d ever said in my entire life. I’d never even come close to the words that were danglin’ on the tip of tongue, tryin’ to get out. I’d come close about a thousand time, but I didn’t think I could. Before I’d met Harlow, I’d never even thought ‘bout what it’d be like, what it’d feel like to care about somethin’ so damn much that it almost hurt.

I licked my lips carefully, lettin’ my hand fall to her hip. “All I know is that you’re the only damn person I’ve ever loved besides my baby brother, and that’s not somethin’ I do easily. I can’t lose either of you. Stay here and wait for me.” I felt outta breath by the time I finished. Harlow looked dazed. I felt a smirk tuggin’ at my lips. Couldn’t help it. I liked knowin’ I could make someone like her speechless.

Then she was pressed up against me, her mouth findin’ mine easily as her arms wound around my waist. I crushed her against me, leavin’ no room for any space between us. Now, this was better than words. I pushed my hand up her shirt and felt the smooth skin along her rib cage and she gasped a little against my lips. Her fingers found their way to my shoulders and gripped my shirt tightly, clingin’ to me like she still wasn’t close enough. It went on like that for a while, feelin’ longer than I actually knew it was. She slowly started to let go, though, uncurlin’ her grip on me as I pressed my lips against hers one last time before steppin’ back.

“I love you, too.” She said, still close enough that I could feel the warmth of her breath against my mouth.

I smiled, tuggin’ at a strand of her dark hair. “And that makes you crazy, but lucky for you I like crazy.”

She laughed softly, but her eyes still looked too sad. “Don’t get yourself killed, Dixon.”

“You know what I say.”

She rolled her eyes. “Nothin’ can kill Merle, but Merle.” She said, although not exactly soundin’ like she believed it.

I swiftly gave her one last, hard kiss. “Be safe, sugar. I’ll be back soon.” I took a few steps back before turnin’ over my shoulder. “Keep that gun in your hands.”

I saw her nod and I took one last good look, her big, gray eyes and long dark hair, pink bow lips pulled down in a frown and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d ever seen anythin’ so damn beautiful. And to think that was mine. I shook my head and forced myself to look away as I headed back to the truck and tried not to think about what I was doin’, and even crazier, what I was about to do.

The quiet was too loud again as I drove back towards Woodbury, feelin’ strange with the passenger seat so empty. It felt like I got back in no time at all. I left the truck parked in the trees just outside of town. I knew my best bet now was to try and find a way to sneak in through the walls, get in and get out by drawin’ the least amount of attention to myself as god damn possible. I took a breath, ready as I’d ever be. I’d done worse shit, crazier more dangerous type of shit, ‘bout a thousand other times in my life. This seemed worse, though.

I kept to the trees, makin’ my way towards the wall but away from the watch platform by the gates. I didn’t think there was a chance in hell this place was as safe as they all though. If there was a way in, I’d find it. And I eventually did. Right near the warehouse and exactly where I needed to be. It was too damn good to be true and that set me on edge and made the hairs on the back of my neck bristle. There was a gap in the sheet metal wall where someone hadn’t secure it enough. Too narrow for a walker, but I wasn’t a walker and I wasn’t as stupid as I looked. It took barely two minutes to pry the gap open just enough to slip on through.

I let out a breath I didn’t even know I was holdin’ when I came out on the other side. Not a soul in sight. I pressed my back against the nearest buildin’, lookin’ ‘round the corner towards the metal warehouse. Still no one. I grabbed that chance by the horns, not knowin’ if I’d get so lucky again. I took off at a jog towards the door of the buildin’ and peeked in through the dirty windows. I dropped back into a crouch.

“Damn.” I breathed. Two guards. Both with loaded guns. I’d have to find a way to take ‘em both out while still bein’ as invisible as I could. Knowin’ full well I was more of a target out in the open like this, turned the door knob slowly and slipped inside. I stayed low to the ground, inchin’ my way further into the room. I peeked around the corner. A single bead of sweat dripped down the side of my face and I wiped it away with the palm of my hand. I knew what I had to do. I just prayed like hell, to whatever the hell God there was, that I wouldn’t get pumped full of bullets. One good thing, I had the element of surprise on my side.

I shot out from behind the wall and grabbed the first nameless guard by the shoulders, pressin’ the blade of my metal hand against his throat. He let out a gargled yell, but I had already pressed the blade into his throat. The other man, who I now recognized as Crowley, whipped around and shot a round of bullets. I pushed the guard in my hands in his direction and it knocked him of balance, the gun flyin’ from his hand and skitterin’ across the floor.

I didn’t waste any more time, hopin’ like hell no one had heard the short round of fire. I picked up Crowley from the ground, blade to his neck while the fingers of my good hand curled into a fist to knock him out cold.

“You best surrender yourself before I shoot you dead right here and now.”

My stomach dropped and my eyes shot up to see the Governor suddenly standin’ on the other side of the room. He had a gun in his hand, Richardson and Martinez on either side. A growl escaped my throat as I pressed my blade into his neck and he let out a girlish whimper and I knew I’d cut his skin.

“You make one more move, Dixon…” The Governor drawled. “I’ll put a bullet in that girl’s head down there. Don’t act like you don’t give a shit. I know you do. I’ll send Martinez down there right now to finish her. Is that what you want?” He cocked his head to the side, remindin’ me suddenly of a deranged, rabid dog.

I was breathin’ hard, sweat clingin’ to my skin. My mind was reelin’, goin’ through option after option but I was slowly seein’ it…I didn’t have any that ended up with both me and Charlie alive. I thought of Harlow then and my chest tightened painfully. I had to stay alive. Even if it meant losin’ this fight and findin’ another way, some other way. Any other way. I looked back at the Governor to see a sick smile on his lips. I narrowed my eyes at him. He knew he’d won. For now, but I wasn’t done playin’ yet. This was just the first round. I pushed Crowley to the ground where he crawled across the room towards the Governor. It would’ve been almost funny in any other situation.

“Who is she? Huh? Who is she that she’s so important enough to make you turn your back on me?” The Governor asked quietly. I lifted my chin up, holdin’ his gaze but not sayin’ a damn word. We stayed that way for a long minute and it felt almost like he was tryin’ to dissect me with his eyes. Finally, he sighed. “Doesn’t matter. She’s dead no matter what.”

He nodded his head towards me and both Martinez and Richardson were suddenly across the room and had me by both arms as I struggled with everythin’ I had to get loose. I didn’t wanna believe he’d really kill Charlie, and Glenn too, but I knew in my gut he didn’t care. Once he got what he wanted from them, he’d throw ‘em both away like trash. He was still talkin’ from behind me as they dragged me from the buildin’ and out into the streets. I knew where they were takin’ me even before we got there. The arena.

I felt myself bein’ shoved to my knees and my hands tied tightly behind my back. I shot out an elbow and felt it make contact with somethin’ and suddenly there was one less pair of hands on me. I tried to scramble to my feet, but somethin’ hit me hard on the back of the head and I was down, my face in the dirt. I felt the ropes on my wrists pulled tighter, makin’ my skin raw. I gritted my teeth, my head spinnin’.

I saw a pair of black boots and knew the Governor was crouchin’ down next to me. “You know, it’s really too bad you decided to stab me in the back. We could’ve done a lot of great things together. Too bad this is how it ends. Seems only right I let you fight till your last breath right here, only this time it’ll be you chained up instead of the walkers and I’ll stand on the sidelines and watch while they tear you to pieces…And then I’ll find that woman of yours and I’ll do the same thing and I’ll make sure it’s painful.”

It was white hot anger, worse than anythin’ I’d ever felt before. I squirmed on the ground, tryin’ to find my footing. It was rage mixed with a sort of helplessness I’d never felt before. It couldn’t end like this, I’d be damned if this was how I went down. The Governor stood and I was pushed back to the ground, his boot hard on my back.

“Governor!” A familiar, shaky voice suddenly called out. I knew it was Milton.

The Governor froze, his heel on my back suddenly lettin’ up a little. “Can’t you see I’m a little busy, Milton?” He hissed.

“W-Well yes, but-“ He stuttered.

“For the love of God, son, spit it out!”

“We think someone’s breached the walls. Well, more like a lot of someone’s.” Milton finally stammered out.

I froze on the ground, hangin’ on to every damn word.

“What are you sayin’ exactly?” The Governor asked and even I could hear the small, tiny bit of fear hangin’ in his words.

“I’m saying that I think Woodbury is under attack.” Milton words trailed off quietly.

I suddenly felt my shoulders shakin’ with silent laughter. It was wellin’ up in me from outta nowhere. The Governor aimed a swift quick at my side and I rolled over onto my back, grinnin’ as I looked up at him from on my back.

“What the hell is so funny, Dixon? You know somethin’ about this?” He demanded, his eyes blazin’.

“If you ain’t scared now, you better start. That’s my brother comin’ and when he sees what you’ve done, you’re gonna be wishin’ you were dead.” I spat out, a smirk stretchin’ the corners of my lips. He looked down at me like I was the craziest piece of shit he’d ever laid eyes on, and maybe I was. But I had a gut feelin’ and my gut was usually always right. Daryl was here.

Come on, baby brother. Time to raise some hell.



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