Playing With Fire

Chapter Thirty-Four


I was surprised at how much I liked Charlie without really even knowing her. She smiled a lot. Even with all the shit she had been through the past couple of days, she still found that sort of strength in her which I personally knew was hard to do. I had never been good with friendships. I hated the small talk that generally had to take place in order to get to the friend part and I hated feeling obligated to give up my weekends off to hang out with other people. I caught myself thinking, though, that if the world hadn’t gone to shit and I had somehow met Charlie, I might have liked being her friend.

We spent most of the walk around the perimeter fence in silence, which was fine with me, only really talking when my curiosity had gotten the better of me and I had to ask about Merle. I wondered what it must have been like to know him before all of this. I had a hard time imagining a younger version of him, but it was almost even harder to imagine him existing in a world that hadn’t decided to end in a zombie apocalypse. He seemed almost built for that type of crap.

We were almost back to the gate when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye, all wrong to be a walker. I slowed to a standstill, waving Charlie over to the fence. “Isn’t that Rick?” I asked. I hadn’t spent a whole lot of time with him, but the dark beard and tan colored clothing was familiar even from here. I looked back at Charlie just in time to see the worry on her face. Something about it wasn’t right, but I didn’t think it was my place to really pry.

Charlie spoke up, though, explaining without me even having to ask. “Ever since Lori died, he hasn’t been right.”

“Was that his wife?” I asked. I remembered earlier that morning Beth telling me how Rick’s wife had died giving birth. No wonder. I couldn’t blame him. A loss like that was bound to send anyone off the deep end.

She started calling his name. He looked right at us, but didn’t say a damn word to acknowledge that he’d heard us. Instead, he just walked right into the woods and out of sight.

“What the hell.” I said, wondering exactly what kind of business the guy had out past the fences anyways.

“I hope he knows what he’s doing out there because I sure as hell don’t. Come on.” Charlie muttered, shaking her head.

We turned our backs on the trees and headed back towards the gate, where I could see Merle and a few others working to get rid of the walkers that were crowding too close to the chain link fence. Daryl suddenly stepped away and made his way over to us.

“How’s it lookin’?” He asked.

I waited while Charlie answered. The fence had seemed fine to me, but I knew it wouldn’t stop the Governor from breaking in here if he really wanted to. The man was sadistic and cruel. When he did come, though, I hoped like hell we could hold him off. I wanted nothing more than to see him fall, to watch him die. I know how cruel that sounded, even in my head, but I didn’t care. He’d hurt too many people and I’d be damned if he came in here and tore apart any more lives. For Christ’s sake, they had a baby here. That child deserved more than to lose everything at the hands of someone so evil.

Frantic shouting suddenly pierced through my thoughts like a bullet and I turned abruptly to look back up at the prison. The little boy I had met the other night had rushed outside and looked upset about something. Charlie and Daryl didn’t hesitate, immediately taking off and sprinting back towards the prison. I hung back, waiting for Merle and the boy I now knew to be Charlie’s little brother, Gabe.

“What’s he yellin’ ‘bout?” Merle asked as he reached my side.

I shrugged my shoulders as we all broke into a jog. “I dunno. Can’t be anything good, though.”

We made our way up the gravel driveway, finally slowing to a stop as Daryl and Charlie were following Carl inside.

“What’s going on?” Gabe asked, beating me to the question.

“Somebody else got into the prison. That’s all I know.” Charlie said, her eyes wide with worry.

“Where’s my dad?” Carl piped up.

I met Charlie’s gaze and knew better than to say anything. He was too young to bear all this weight on his shoulders. “He’s still busy out at the fences. He’ll be back soon.” Charlie said, the tone of her voice too soothing to be telling the truth, but the kid didn’t need to know that right now. Daryl held open the door wider as Charlie and Carl moved inside and the rest of us followed behind.

In the middle of the room were two new faces, looking anxious. In fact, everyone looked anxious. They were both black, a man and a woman. The man’s shirt stretched across his broad chest and I wondered how he could stand the heat with that blue beanie on his head. The woman hovered uncertainly behind him, her hair falling in perfect ringlets around her face.

“Listen, we don’t want no trouble. We were just trying to get away from the biters, saw a hole in the wall and came inside. Then your boy found us wanderin’ around the halls.” The man had been in the middle of saying when we walked in. “It looks like you got a good set up here. Please, let us stay. We’d be more than happy to pitch in, do whatever it takes for you to trust us.”

I watched as the woman folded her arms over her chest, and it looks almost like she was trying to hold herself together. They must have gone through some hard times on the outside. I could tell by the looks on both their faces that they had recently lost someone. “Don’t make us go back out there.” She said.

I looked back at Glenn and hoped like hell he’d agree to take them in. It would be cold to throw them back out there, where we all knew life was nothing but running. If we threw them out, we’d almost be as bad as the Governor. Although we wouldn’t killing them directly, it’d be our fault if they did die.

“What’re your names?” Glenn finally asked.

“I’m Tyreese. This is my sister, Sasha.” The man answered.

“We’d have to run it by the leader of our group. I can’t say anything for sure until then.” Glenn said.

I chewed my lower lip. Glenn had to know that was a bad idea. Although I hadn’t been here long enough for my voice to really matter, I knew from what I had seen today that Rick was in no shape or form to be making decisions. His head wasn’t in the right place.

The back of Merle’s hand brushed against mine and I looked up at him, catching his eye. “We can’t let Rick turn them out.” I whispered quietly. “They won’t last with just the two of them.”

Merle shook his head, looking away. “Ain’t our decision, sugar.” He said under his breath.

Hershel’s oldest daughter, Maggie, stepped forward and her voice pulled me back into the tense conversation. “We don’t really know when he’ll be back.”

I suddenly heard the shuffling sound of feet behind me and whirled around to see Rick there. I hadn’t heard the door open. Who knew how long he had been standing there, listening. “I’m right here.” He said loudly. I stepped to the side as he brushed past us. His eyes looked dazed, glazed over. Even if he was here, I knew his mind wasn’t. At least not fully.

“You must be the one in charge.” Tyreese’s voice was friendly, but careful. “My sister and I, we’re lookin’ for a place to stay.”

“Well find another place. We already got enough mouth to feed as it is.” Rick turned to face them. He was slouching, hands hanging at his sides. He looked like a man defeated. No doubt totally different from the man who had handcuffed Merle to rooftop months ago to protect others.

“Rick…” Charlie’s quiet voice suddenly spoke up.

My eyes jerked back to her and I almost moved to pull her back, not wanting Rick to lash out whatever he was feeling towards her. Daryl took hold of her arm before I could and tugged her back, shaking his head. Our eyes met for a fleeting second, confirming this was a dangerous version of the Rick he knew.

“We’re no strangers to hard work. We can go out and get our own food. We can help to keep this place safe, whether it’s from walkers or another group. Anything to contribute.” Tyreese spoke up in his deep voice.

“No.” Rick didn’t miss a beat as he began pacing back and forth in front of the pair, which did nothing but make them look even more nervous.

“Please. It’s just us now.” Sasha begged him, her voice wavering. I felt my fingers curling into fists. I couldn’t take the pain in her voice, I couldn’t take the pleading. There was no reason for us not to take them in. I had to remind myself again, though, that as the newcomer I didn’t have a say in any of this. But it appeared no one else did either.

“No.” Rick repeated, shaking his head.

Hershel took a step towards Rick on his crutches. “Let’s talk about this, Rick.” He said quietly.

Rick cut him off before he could say another word. “No, no talkin’. We’ve been through this before. We can’t take any more people. We just got three new ones.”

I felt Gabe shift uncomfortably next to me and I put a hand on his shoulder. He had a guilty look on his face, like it was because of him these two people wouldn’t get to stay. “Stop, Gabe. This has nothing to do with us. Look at his face. He’s out of his damn mind.” I said quietly.

Gabe didn’t say a word, but swallowed hard before nodding. I let my hand fall back to my side.

“We took in Charlie, remember? Look how much good she’s done the group, Rick.” Carol’s soft, voice spoke up from the opposite corner of the room. “She’s proved that there are still good people out there.” I saw Beth standing next to her with the baby, her eyes wide.

“That’s different.” Rick said bluntly. “I can’t be responsible for any more people.”

“You turn us out, and you are responsible.” Tyreese said, voicing exactly what I had been thinking in my head. If we turned them out and they didn’t make it, well that was on us. Rick had to know we needed these people. We were a small group compared to Woodbury. Plus, we couldn’t exactly count Carl, Hershel, or Beth and the baby. We needed help and Tyreese and his sister were offering just that in exchange for a safe place to exist.

I watched as Hershel cornered Rick, talking to him quietly. Rick looked pale and unsteady. Losing his wife had done more of a number on him than I would ever know. Maybe more than any of us would ever know. Everyone looked at him with so much respect, though. I had to wonder what type of man he had been before all of that. Charlie was pulling Carl to the other side of the prison, where the others were standing close together. We followed after them.

Just as I thought things were simmering down, though, Rick had suddenly snapped. He was screaming at the top of his lungs, his voice echoing off the walls. I furrowed my eyebrows in confusion, watching as his eyes stared in horror at the catwalk over our heads. He was tugging at his hair, moving back in forth in a jagged pattern. I was suddenly pressed behind Merle and couldn’t see whoever it was that spoke out, trying to calm him down. It didn’t do anything good, though, because when I looked around Merle, I saw the pistol in his hands.

“Get out! What are you doing here?”

“Okay, okay!” I heard Tyreese’s voice saying loudly. “Ain’t nobody need to get shot. We’re goin’. We’re leavin’.”

Merle still wouldn’t get out of my way and I rolled my eyes a little as I gently shoved him to the side. I didn’t need him to protect me, not when there were other people who needed it like Carl or little Judith. Merle caught my eye and I just shook my head, looking back across the room just in time to see Glenn hurrying Tyreese and Sasha outside and away from the chaos. When the door echoed shut behind them, Rick finally stopped yelling. He was panting heavily, his shoulders heaving up and down. He turned abruptly, disappearing through a gated door on the other side of the room. We all stared after him, every single face a look of shock.

“Looks like Officer Friendly’s on some kinda bender.” Merle said, his voice the first to break the silence.

I shot him a glare, smacking the back of his arm. Rick’s son had seen and heard enough. He didn’t need the extra commentary from Merle.

“Just shut up, Merle.” Daryl said.

I looked over at Beth to see her pressed up against the wall, looking terrified. I brushed past Merle over to here. “You okay?” I asked.

She nodded quickly and I peered down at the baby in her arms to see her big blue eyes staring back at me. God, didn’t Rick understand that his kids needed him? That he had this beautiful baby girl relying on him?

“What do we do now?” Beth’s timid voice wavered.

I stood up straighter, waiting to see who would step forward and take control. It was Glenn, the bruises on his face even more prominent in the light streaming from the window. “I think it’s time to realize that Rick’s out of commission as far as leadership goes. I think we have to just let him ride this out on his own. We have other things to worry about if we’re going to keep this place safe. Tomorrow, we start making a plan. With or without Rick.”

“I think Glenn’s right on this.” Hershel added, hobbling forward on his crutches. “I think its best Rick steps down for a little while. Glenn and Daryl are more than capable of handling things.”

Daryl’s face was hard, but he nodded.

“I suggest we all start thinking about what we’re going to do tomorrow.” The older man sat himself down at a table.

I leaned back against the wall, shaking my head. “Those people are as good as dead.”

“Don’t let that hang over your head, sugar. Ain’t nothin’ ya’ could’ve done.” Merle said quietly from next to me.

I leaned into him, allowing his arms to pull me into his chest. “I can’t help it. I have a personality flaw that makes me want to save everyone. Remember?”

I heard him chuckling, the sound like a deep rumble in his chest.

“I feel bad for his kid…to have to see his dad lose control like that.” I frowned, finding Carl’s small form from across the room. Charlie had disappeared suddenly from next to his side and I realized Daryl was gone from the room as well.

“The kid’s gonna be fine. He knows he’s gotta be.” Merle said and I wondered if for a second, he was thinking back to how life had been with his own father.

I sighed. “I hope so.”

The rest of the day unfolded quietly. Everyone still seemed on edge from Rick’s breakdown. He still hadn’t come back from wherever he had disappeared to, but no one seemed in a hurry to go and find him. Maggie and Glenn left on a run, hoping to find weapons and ammo although I had no idea where they expected to go. Most places that carried that kind of stuff had been wiped clean during the first couple weeks of the outbreak. Any weapons you came across now were usually the ones that had been left behind by those who hadn’t made it.

Hershel had come up with the idea to load some supplies onto one of the prison busses in case we had to make a quick getaway. In case, when it came down to it, we couldn’t fight back. I helped Beth carry boxes of canned goods between the prison and the bus while Merle and Daryl got caught up talking about the best way to defend a place like this.

I still didn’t think they all understood what they were up against. Not everyone in Woodbury was able to fight, but their number were still a lot higher. There also no choice with the Governor. If he wanted people to fight, they would fight whether they wanted to or not because the alternative was never good. When I looked at Beth and Carl, at Judith, I felt an aching in my chest. They were young. They were all good people. They didn’t deserve whatever the Governor had planned for them.

Maggie and Glenn finally came back late in the day, empty handed. Just as I’d expected. They’d combed all the nearby towns but hadn’t had any luck. Daryl had shown me the armory and it wasn’t much. At this point, though, we’d just have to make do with what we had and hope for the best. I just hoped that when the Governor came, I’d be the one to shoot a bullet right into his skull.

“You alright, sugar?” I heard Merle say quietly.

I sighed. “Just thinking too much.” I looked up, surprised to see the room had emptied out while I’d been sitting alone, lost too deep in my own thoughts. “Where’s everyone else?”

Merle chuckled. “Already turned in for the night, I’m guessin’. Big day of Governor schemin’ tomorrow and all.”

I made a face. “I can’t think about that anymore. That’s what I’ve been doing all day it feels like.”

Merle scooted his chair closer to me and I suddenly felt his hand on my knee as he leaned in close and pressed his lips to the spot just below my ear. My body let out an involuntary shiver. “Why don’t ya’ let me take your mind off it for a while then, huh?”

“Merle, not here.” I murmured, thinking about how we were sitting out in the open where anyone could walk in at any time. Instead of pushing him away, though, I was tilting my head back as his lips trailed further down my neck.

“Then let’s get outta here.” He said, a mischievous smile on his lips. He stood up abruptly, pulling me to my feet.

I expected us to head back into the cellblock, to our own little room, but instead he led me outside into the dark night. I couldn’t tell how late it was, but it was still warm and the humid air wrapped around me like a blanket. “Out here?” I heard myself ask.

Merle looked over his shoulder at me with a smirk on his face that made me want to rip all my clothes off right then and there. “Course out here.”

“But what about whoever’s on watch?”

He chuckled. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so damn worried.” I could hear the grin in his voice. “I saw the Asian kid come out here, headed right for the tower. Tower can’t see over here.” He was leading me around the far side of the building. I stumbled after him as my eyes still adjusted to the dark. The only light came from the impressive scattering of stars, and the moon that hung low in the sky.

We had left the gravel path behind and instead I felt soft grass underneath my boots. Merle slowed to a stop before settling himself on the ground, pulling me down next to him. I leaned back on my hands, craning my neck as I looked up at the sky. “So...” I said, a smile tugging at my lips. “Is this your big plan? Dragging me outside away from prying eyes so you can take advantage of me?”

“Didn’t put up much of a fight.” He grinned.

I gave him a coy smile as I moved closer to him and climbed into his lap, my knees resting on the ground on either side of his hips. His arms automatically wrapped around my waist and I could feel his fingers slipping underneath the back of my shirt. “Maybe I like it.” I shrugged as I slid my arms around his neck.

“Maybe you’d like it even more if I got you outta these damn clothes. Huh, sugar?” He said, giving me a wicked smile that made my heart thunder inside my chest.

I felt him pushing my shirt higher and higher, the warm air suddenly hitting my exposed stomach as I lifted my arms and Merle pulled off the shirt completely. He tossed it on the ground, wasting no time in running his fingers over the skin of my stomach and up my rib cage. I felt my breath suddenly hitch in my throat as his hand crept underneath the fabric of my bra. He leaned in and pressed his lips to the spot between my neck and shoulder that always drove me crazy before pushing his hand up further, his thumb gliding across my nipple.

A small, little gasp escaped my lips as I closed my eyes. “For the love of god, Merle, just take the damn thing off. Please.” I murmured.

“I dunno, I kinda like seein’ you get all worked up like this.” I heard him say, sounding almost gleeful. I opened my eyes again to see him still smirking at me. I knew he liked it, seeing how easily I turned into putty when he touched me.

I perked an eyebrow. “Oh yeah? Well, I can play that game too.” I said. I pressed my lips to his, my tongue sliding over his bottom lip before he pressed his mouth harder against me and deepened the kiss. I pushed myself closer to him, grinding my hips into his and smiled against his lips when I felt how much he wanted me right through the fabric of his jeans. When I forced myself to pull away from him, he let out a low growl of disapproval. “See?” I said, my smile growing.

“I’m gonna make you feel so good, sugar.” He suddenly said in a low whisper. The combination of his voice and those words leaving his mouth almost sent me over the edge but I fought against it, brushing my lips slowly over his before pulling away.

“Then do it.” I challenged with a sly smile, surprising myself by the pure seductive tone of my voice, one that I knew for sure I had never, ever heard come out of me in my life.

He grinned devilishly before he was reaching around behind me and undoing the clasp of my bra. He slid the straps down my shoulders and added it to the growing pile of discarded clothing on the ground next to us. Merle suddenly bent his head and I felt his mouth gliding over my chest, sucking and nipping at my bare skin and a quiet moan escaped me.

It seemed suddenly unfair, though, that I was the only one without clothes on and I gently pushed Merle back before my fingers grabbed the hem of his shirt and tugged it up and over his head. I pressed myself up against him as our lips met. I loved the feeling of his warm skin against mine as his hand trailed up my back and his fingers tangled in my hair. I was reminded of the first time we had slept together and how even then, he seemed to just know exactly what I liked and what I wanted.

I felt my back suddenly hit the ground as Merle shifted so he was lying on top of me, in between my legs. He propped himself up on one elbow, our mouths still moving together with a frantic purpose as he worked to undo the button on my jeans before tugging down the zipper. I groaned against his mouth when I felt his hand in between my thighs, rubbing me deliberately and slowly through the fabric of my panties. I started tugging at my jeans, lifting my hips as I struggled to pull them off. I needed them off now. Merle was smirking as he helped me remove the last of my clothing, boots and all.

I arched my back, letting out a whimper when I felt his hand back in between my legs again. His lips trailed down my neck, over my chest, my hips, my stomach. I swore to god I felt him everywhere all at once. I pulled at the grass with my hands, wondering for a second if I was just going to come undone right there and done. I heard the sound of his belt coming off and propped myself up onto my elbows, struggling to catch my breath. Before I could really think about what I was doing, I sat up and pushed him onto his back, taking back control. If he was surprised, he didn’t show it, just smirking at me as I helped him pull off the rest of his clothes.

I ran my hand down his bare chest and over his torso, feeling the hard muscles underneath his skin. I realized that in all the time I had spent with Merle, despite the fact that I was crazy about him, I never once asked how old he was. I knew he was older by the lines around his eyes, the faint wrinkles in his forehead. His body was still strong and lean, though. I could see the sinewy muscles of his arms and shoulders and thought I had never seen anything sexier.

I crawled over top of him, kissing his jaw. I could feel his hand on the back of my leg, his thumb stroking my inner thigh. I found my way to his lips, my mouth moving slowly against his. I finally pulled back, though, sitting up. I shifted so I was on my knees, straddling his waist. His hand made its way to my hip, his fingers digging into my skin with anticipation. I smirked a little, wondering how long I could keep him waiting, begging for it with his eyes but I knew even I wouldn’t be able to make that last. Merle let out a barely audible gasp as I slowly lowered my hips onto him and he slid inside me. I couldn’t stop the moan that made its way past my lips and when I opened my eyes again the first thing I saw was Merle watching me with a look in his eyes that made me cheeks flush even more than they already were. I started moving slowly back and forth, rocking my hips against his. I could feel the heat of his arm resting against my leg, his other hand still gripping my hip tightly as I rode on top of him.

“Harlow.” He suddenly groaned, his head falling back against the ground.

I could feel my legs trembling, my breath starting to leave me in heavy pants as I moved my hips faster. I leaned forward to brush my lips against his as I pressed up against him. When I straightened back up, Merle was suddenly sitting up with me. His arm went around my middle, pulling me closer against him until we were barely centimeters apart and I could feel his warm breath hitting my lips. I wrapped my legs around his waist, cupping his face in my hands as I kissed him hard. I couldn’t remember ever wanting someone like this, or being with someone who could make me feel anything this intense, like my entire body was made of electricity.

Merle suddenly took control, grabbing my waist and guiding my hips against his. I felt a shudder rip through me and I moaned against his mouth. My fingers gripped both his shoulders tightly as I felt that familiar white hot heat inside me starting to grow, like I was going to shatter into a million pieces at any second. I could see the sheen of sweat that had started to form on his shoulders and chest, the muscles in his arms stretched taught as he held on tightly to me, moving me up and down against him.

My breath caught in my throat when I felt his mouth underneath my jaw, trailing over my neck and that was when I knew I was done. My nails dug into the skin of his shoulders. His name escaped my lips in a ragged whisper.

“That’s it, sugar.” Merle suddenly whispered into my ear, his voice low and husky.

I wasn’t sure if it was hearing that that finally put me over the edge, but I felt myself come undone. I clung tightly to him, burying my face into his shoulder to suppress the moan that slipped out past my lips. I struggled to catch my breath, brushing my lips over the stubble of his jaw. I was still trembling when I finally felt Merle shudder against me, breathing my name against my skin as he pulled me tightly against him until he finally let out a long breath and pulled me to the ground next to him.

I laid on my back, my heart still pounding, still struggling to get my breathing back to normal. I looked over at Merle to see him resting on his back, eyes closed with one hand behind his head. “Holy shit.” He muttered. He finally opened his eyes, looking over at me with a smirk. “God damn, woman.”

I smiled at him, moving closer to rest my head on his chest. I could hear his heart pounding still. “Agreed.” I murmured, turning my head to brush my lips over his shoulder. He wrapped his arm around me, holding me close to him. “I love you, Merle.”

To my surprise, he let out a quiet laugh, the sound rumbling through his chest. “I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of hearin’ ya’ say that.” His ran his thumb over my bare shoulder. “I love you too, princess.”

“Is that nickname ever going to get old?” I asked, pushing his arm off as I sat up to look at him.

“But it suits you so well.” He grinned. I rolled my eyes and he pulled me back down, holding me against the warmth of his chest.

It got quiet after that and I let myself forget about the fucked up situation we were facing, with both the Governor and with our new group’s leader who clearly was starting to crack under the pressure. Eventually, the night started to get colder and I was shivering against him, goosebumps prickling over the skin of my upper arms. Merle had reluctantly sat up then, handing me my clothes from the pile next to us. We got dressed quietly, Merle waiting as I laced up my boots before standing, brushing my hands on the back of my jeans.

As we headed back inside the prison, I was more than a little surprised when Merle reached for my hand. I tried not to show how surprised I actually was, fighting back the smile I felt pulling at the corners of my mouth. I had never pegged Merle as a hand holding type of guy, but then again I hadn’t thought he had a nice bone in his body before all of this.

When we finally reached the door, he tugged me to a stop and backed me up against the cement wall. I wrapped my arms around his waist as he pushed my dark hair out of my eyes. He leaned forward and kissed me more softly, more sweetly than I would have ever expected from a man as rough and rugged as Merle Dixon. I felt suddenly more at peace than I had in years, like this had been exactly what I had been waiting for. I wondered how the hell it was even possible for me to feel this way about a redneck asshole I’d met during the zombie apocalypse, but more importantly I was extremely glad it was happening at all and that if I had to do it again, I knew this was exactly where I’d end up every single time.


The mood in the room was tense, even before Glenn had started to speak. Rick had returned from wherever the hell had disappeared to the night before. He had wondered into our meeting a few minutes after we had already gathered, but didn’t say a word. Instead, he sat at the back of the group with a faraway expression…like he was there, but not really.

“But how do we even know he’s going to attack? Maybe he’s too intimidated to really come after us.” Beth suddenly said, shrugging her shoulders. I could tell she didn’t really believe what she was saying, even if she desperately wanted to.

Merle scoffed from next to me. “Trust me, honey, he ain’t intimidated. Once he knows where we are, there ain’t much we can do from stoppin’ him. He’s comin’. It’s just a matter of when.”

I nodded my head. “Merle’s right. The Governor’s too proud to just let us go on existing. He needs to make a point and the best way to do that is to wipe us off the map.” I said.

“He’s smart, too. He’ll come up with something that’ll throw us off. It won’t just be an old west shoot out.” Michonne added, in her low, quiet voice.

“Then I guess we should spend what time we have getting this place ready.” Hershel sighed. “We worked on the fences yesterday, but I bet there’s more we could do.”

“We should put some weapons around on the outside…that way if he catches us off guard all the guns won’t be in here where we might not be able to get them.” Maggie suggested, arms crossed over his chest.

“That’s a good idea.” Glenn agreed. “And maybe we should decide on a place for everyone to be. Everyone should know where to go.”

“Glenn and I can be in one tower. I know Charlie is a good shot. She should be up in the other one.” Maggie said.

“I’ll go up in the tower with her.” Daryl offered, but Glenn was already shaking his head.

“No, I think we need you and Merle, and Michonne on the ground. Rick, too. You four are probably the strongest we have.”

“I don’t know how I feel about that.” I caught myself saying before I could think better.

All eyes turned on me, including Merle’s. “I’ll be fine, Harlow. You don’t gotta worry about me.” He said in a low voice.

“If Daryl can’t be in the tower with me, then I want Gabe up there where I can keep an eye on him.” Charlie was saying over everyone else. Her younger brother, who was seated on the floor near me feet, started grumbling under his breath.

“Now come on, people. Ain’t no reason to be arguin’ and gettin’ upset about this. Who knows where we’ll all be or what we’ll be doin’ when this Governor character finally shows up anyways.” Hershel said. Everyone immediately lowered their voices out of respect for the older man. “I think, though, that I should stay in here with Carl, Beth, and Judith. A one legged man isn’t gonna be much help, but I can get the busses ready in case we need to get out of here fast.”

“That’s good. Thanks, daddy.” Maggie said quietly.

Carl looked like he wanted to argue about being stuck inside, but thought better of it when Daryl, of all people, shot him a warning glare. “We should get to hidin’ those weapons now.” He said.

“I was thinking we could maybe reinforce the catwalk outside. There’s still some pieces of sheet metal lying around outside.” Carol said, hands on her hips.

“That’s a good idea. Why don’t you take someone to help you?” Hershel nodded.

“I’ll help.” I offered, shrugging my shoulders.

Carol gave me a kind smile. “Thank you, Harlow.”

I nodded. “Sure.” I was starting to feel antsy and knew I’d feel better the sooner I got moving and started doing something productive. Carol started heading towards the door.

I turned to lean into Merle, brushing my lips against the scruff on his cheek. “Don’t wait up.” I said smirked as I pulled away. I felt his hand trailing down my arm before I turned and walked away, jogging to catch up with Carol.

She was waiting for me by the cellblock door and smiled when I finally caught up to her, pushing open the door and stepping out into the bright sunlight.

“Beautiful day.” She said, squinting her eyes in the sudden bright light.

I nodded. “Hopefully it stays that way.” I followed her around the side of the building, where a few pieces of sheet metal were leaning up against the wall. “What do you think they used this stuff for?” I asked curiously.

She shrugged her shoulders. “Don’t know. Pretty convenient of them to leave it lying around for us to use though.” I let out a laugh and she gave me a small smile as she grabbed a piece and headed towards the metal stairs that led up to the narrow catwalk that connected the two different cellblocks.

I grabbed another piece, dragging it behind me as I followed after her. It took both of us to get both sheets up the stairs and I could already feel the sweat forming on the small of my back, making my shirt stick to my skin. I propped one of the sheets against the metal fencing that also served as one of the catwalk’s walls before standing back with my hands on my hips. I could see the others in the yard, placing weapons in some of the towers and behind some of the overturned vehicles that still filled the prison yard. I spotted Merle easily with his broad shoulders and shaved head, his fake metal arm glinting in the sunlight.

“You know, he’s a lot different than the man I knew back in Atlanta.” Carol suddenly said. I glanced over at her and she had a knowing smile on her face, having just caught me ogling Merle even from this distance. “I think it’s pretty safe to say that it’s you that caused that change. You make him a better man.”

I couldn’t fight the smile that was suddenly tugging at my lips. I didn’t know if she was right or wrong, but I knew that I liked hearing that. “He was a good man before. I just think he hid it pretty well under all that arrogant ruthlessness.” I said, my grin growing. “I can’t take all the credit. I just softened him up a bit.”

Carol let out a laugh. “Well whatever you did, it’s a good thing.”

I opened my mouth to say something else, but a shot suddenly rang through the air and stole the words from my mouth. Carol and I both froze, staring at each other with wide eyes. In that quick moment, I think we both knew it wasn’t an accident. A shot fired by mistake by one of our people. As if to prove that point, another shot shattered through the silence followed by another. We both dove behind the sheet metal, crouching behind its safety.

I saw the blood drain from Carol’s face, her eyes widening in horror. Her lip quivered. I furrowed my eyebrows to ask if she was okay, but instead I followed her gaze. Down, down, down until I was looking at my side and the redness that was quickly staining the white fabric of my shirt and growing bigger and bigger with every second.

“Harlow.” Her voice shook.

She sounded far away as I pressed my hand over the wound in my side and grimaced when intense burning pain shot through me, making me grit my teeth. My head was spinning, my breath coming out in labored breaths. I pulled my hand away. It was wet and sticky with my own blood. My own blood. I blinked hard, not wanting to believe that this was actually happening.

“Oh god.” I gasped. I fell to my knees before crumpling to my side and Carol suddenly was pulling me into her lap, yelling loudly. She was yelling so loud, but I couldn’t understand what she was saying. It sounded almost like an echo, coming from somewhere miles and miles away. I clutched my side, my eyes wide as I looked up at Carol.

“Hold on, just hold on.” I finally heard her saw, bending her head closer to me.

Merle. I needed Merle. I didn’t know if he could help, but I knew that seeing him would just somehow make me feel better. Maybe feel like this wasn’t actually happening. I took in a breath and it scared me how shallow and rattled my own breathing sounded. I grasped at Carol’s hand, my fingers still slick with blood. “Merle.” I finally managed to get out.

She nodded hard, her lips pressed together in a hard line. “I’ll get him, honey. Just hold on.”

I was vaguely aware of the sound of gunshots popping over and over again, coming from all directions. I felt blackness pressing in on the corners of my vision and I fought as hard as I could to stay awake.

Stay awake. Awake. Awake. I kept reminding myself. Needed to stay awake.

I needed to see him.

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