I'M BACK! Hope no one hates me. Work is stupid and I have to do lots of it lately.
"Got a question for you, Yank," Merle said as they walked.
"Should I be nervous?"
"Nah. Not unless yer a pussy."
"We both know that's not true. Okay. Go for it."
"Why'd ya stick with me?"
"In the beginnin'."
"It was you or certain death," Sinclaire answered honestly. "I figured that I could always push you to the zombies if I needed a quick getaway."
"Sounds about right," Merle said, absurdly proud of her for being so damn practical. "Just so ya know, I thought about pushin' ya too. But then who woulda unzipped me?"
"This is what kept me alive?" she asked dryly. "A butterfly flaps its wings and halfway around the world...I'm unzipping your fly."
"About right. Anyway, I wasn't talkin' about-"
"Hey," Lori called. "Sinclaire and...um...Merle."
"What's up?" Sinclaire asked.
Lori was practically wringing her hands. She looked like she was going to cry.
"You saved Carl."
Before Merle could say what he obviously wanted to say, Sinclaire punched him in the kidney and he had to catch his breath.
"It was no big deal," she said.
"Rick said that Daryl told him that Merle said that you nearly died."
Sinclaire felt briefly like she was back in highschool, but she untangled the sentence after a second and shrugged. "Merle was there," she said simply.
"Anyway," Lori said, clearly out of her depth. "Thanks."
"Anytime," Sinclaire said.
"Fuck that," Merle said over her words. "Keep an eye on the damn kid."
"I...I will," Lori said, before turning and walking away.
"You jackass. That could have been a kodak moment."
"Guess I don't handle compliments real well," Merle drawled.
"Hey," Daryl said, giving them both a grin. "Get him straightened out?"
"Yep," Sinclaire said. "Did you think I wouldn't?"
"Shit," Merle said. "I beat her up."
"Right," Daryl said dismissively. "Everybody knows Yank can kick yer ass."
"Hey!" Merle barked. "I can beat her up right here in front of everybody if ya want."
Sinclaire put her fists up and raised an eyebrow. "Let's go, redneck."
Daryl snorted and got cuffed across the back of the head for it. It obviously didn't hurt though, because he laughed before going back to his crossbow.
"What are you doing?" Marie asked in interest.
"Restringing it," Daryl said.
"Because if I don't, it stops workin'. It stops workin' then I die. I don't wanna die."
"No one can blame you for any of that," Marie said. "Can I watch?"
"Why not?" she countered.
He shrugged and she sat down beside him, watching him take the bow apart. Sinclaire watched for a second or two but when Zeke got bored and began to antagonize Bowhunter she scooped up the little black cat and followed Merle to the edge of the ravine.
"You don't have to end it all just because I beat you up."
"Don't bug me," he answered. "I'm doin' some bitter contemplation here."
"Bitter contemplation?" she asked in shock.
"Yep," he said, relishing the words and her expression. "We still ain't been down to see them houses."
"That's because people live in them," Sinclaire pointed out.
"Yeah. You haven't seen the smoke?" She frowned and shifted Zeke to her shoulder when he started chewing the buttons on her jacket.
"What smoke? They burnin' 'em down?"
Merle looked indignant. "No," Sinclaire said soothingly. "I guess they've got fireplaces. Don't all rich people have fireplaces?"
"How the hell would I know? Ya kept draggin' me to the damn library instead of doin' somethin' worthwhile-"
"Hey! Without the library you wouldn't have known the meaning of bitter contemplation."
"Ya know the one thing that'll make me feel better?" he asked.
"Do I want to?" she asked warily.
"Sure ya do."
"Well...I don't really know how I can help you with that. All the Harry Potter in the world won't help me regenerate that hand."
"That's a damn shame. But I reckon I could make do with an automatic transmission."
"Nobody has one of those."
"Plenty on the road. Jesus, I think fuckin' my brother's dumbed ya down."
Sinclaire punched him in the arm. "I could knock you off into the river with no problem," she informed him.
"Least then I'd get to see them houses." He slung his arm over her shoulders. "Ya like me too much to hurt me, Yank."
"I don't think it would hurt you," she argued. "The water looks pretty deep to me."
"Hurt my feelin's though," Merle said with a grin.
"Well, we can't have that. We both know how very sensitive you are."
They dropped by the fire to explain their intentions, talked down arguments from Daryl and Rick about the stupidity of the plan, and headed out, each carrying a gas can and siphoning equipment. Pretty much every car in the yard was out of gas.
"Although," Sinclaire said. "This is a pretty stupid idea."
"Ain't neither. Anyway, ya stood up for me with Rick and Daryl."
"Well sure. We're a team. But I'm clearly the brains."
"What's yer problem with it?"
"The weather's warming up."
"Thought that's what ya wanted."
"The warmer the weather, the more active the zombie. At least that's the hypothesis. I'm not eager to test it."
"Ya got guns and so do I. Ain't seen a herd..."
"Since yesterday," she pointed out dryly.
"Yeah, but that was the first one in a long time. Anyways, feels damn good to be outta that camp."
Sinclaire couldn't argue that. It felt good to let her jacket hang open, even if that did mean that Zeke's claws dug into her shoulders because he couldn't ride in the front of the jacket anymore. Merle wasn't wearing his jacket, just a long sleeved shirt that she had a feeling wasn't his. It fit a little tight. It might have been Bowhunter's. It looked better on Merle.
"What ya lookin' at, Yank?" Merle drawled and she jerked her gaze up to his face.
"You stole that shirt." It was all she could think of to say.
"Damn right I did," he said. "Ya expected me to go through the whole winter in nothin' but a wife beater?"
"I got you a jacket."
He raised an eyebrow. "Daryl hates this shirt anyway," he said. "He's allergic to sleeves."
"I'd noticed that."
They glanced around the highway. "Any particular make and model?" she asked.
"Somethin' expensive," Merle said predictably. "Where ya headed?"
"That way." Sinclaire pointed.
"Ya didn't learn nothin' from them horror movies did ya? Yer gonna stay right here where I can keep my eye on ya."
Sinclaire fanned herself. "You're so romantic."
"Hell, ya ain't seen nothin' yet."
Merle cupped his hands to the glass of a Jeep. "Fuck."
"I think that everything you want is probably going to be a stick shift. Men and their phallic tendencies and all."
Merle didn't ask, because he could feel that she wanted him to.
"What about this?" she asked sometime later when she'd nearly lost Zeke twice and she could hear an alarming growl coming from a car to her left. "It's a Subaru. 4 wheel drive, automatic and big enough to sleep in if you had to. It's also unlocked."
"Okay," Merle said after a moment. "It'll do." He opened the door and reached down, pulling several wires free.
Sinclaire leaned against the door to keep an eye out. The car shivered when it cranked up and she heard Merle say "Fuck yeah!"
"Full tank?" she guessed.
"Yep. Get in, Yank."
"Why do I have to be your crash test dummy?"
"Just get that pretty ass in the seat."
"I had no idea you had such flattering things to say about my ass." Sinclaire walked around and hopped into the car. Zeke climbed over the headrest and into the backseat, where he prowled around busily.
"Be an idiot not to see it." Merle put his foot on the brake and edged the car into gear with his right wrist. At least it wasn't too sensitive anymore. "It's a damn fine ass." He checked the rearview and then realized how stupid that was. There wasn't likely to be anything behind him. He pulled onto the road.
"Where are we going?" Sinclaire asked when he didn't turn toward the bar.
"Fer a drive," he said as he tried the radio. There was nothing but static. Neither of them were too disappointed. It was what they'd expected. "All right with ya?"
"Sure," she said, rolling down the window a bit to get a breeze going.
Merle headed up the mountain road because he knew at least that it was clear.
"What're ya lookin' for?" he asked as Yank busied herself by examining the car.
"Well you never know," she said, as she popped open the glove box. "There could be all kinds of valuable things in here. People probably packed all the things that they didn't want stolen. Like..." she pulled out a hard plastic case. "This!" She opened it with a flourish and then sighed. "Okay. This is just cds. But you know that I'm right."
"Be nice to have some music anyway," Merle said.
"I don't see any country," she said after a quick glance through the case.
"Yer forgettin' which brother ya got here. Daryl's the country fan."
"What do you like?" she asked in surprise.
"Rock." He said it like it should have been obvious.
"Oh. Well, they've got that in spades."
She slid a cd in and they wound their way up the mountain at a speed that probably should have scared her. It didn't. It was nice to feel the wind in her face and to be a passenger for the first time in a long time. She'd closed her eyes when she felt the car slowing down.
"What are you..." she trailed off as he pulled onto an overlook. "Wow."
They looked out over what once been the a town. The trees were still stripped bare from winter so the view was unobstructed. Sinclaire knew that it had probably looked like this last year too. That it was only the fact that she knew that everyone was gone that made it creepy. She found herself leaning toward Merle a bit anyway though.
"Wonder how many people there really are left?" he asked after several long moments of silence.
"I don't know. We're in the minority for sure though." Sinclaire glanced around and then stepped out of the car.
"Where the hell ya goin'?"
"I just want to look."
She felt the breeze tug at her jacket and she pulled it a little closer around her.
"A little. It's not bad. I can hear some of them down there." She pointed down the side of the mountain and Merle nodded.
"Take 'em a hot minute to get up here though," he said.
She nodded and sighed. "I guess we'd better get back in the car anyway. I've had enough near death experiences for the week."
"That reminds me," Merle said as they got back into the car and locked the doors. "Hey! Stop that ya little shit." He reached back and scooped Zeke up to stop the kitten from continuing to shred the upholstery on the back seat.
"He's not a little shit," Sinclaire crooned. "He's my baby!"
"Don't ever do that again," Merle ordered. "Anyway, what I was talkin' about earlier. About why ya stuck with me. I didn't mean in the beginnin'."
"Oh?" Sinclaire wondered if he was aware that the back of his neck was starting to turn red. What the fuck? Was he actually embarrassed?
"Yeah. I mean after we met up with Rick and them. Regular people. People who didn't never knock ya down or threaten ya or nearly get ya killed."
"Are you feeling insecure?" she asked in a saccharine sweet voice.
"Go to hell," he said amiably.
"I stuck with you because I...well..." she took a deep breath. "I needed to know that I could still stand by someone."
"What's that mean?"
She drew her legs up and rested her chin on her knees. "I ran out on all of them. Just left them there."
"Who?" Merle asked in confusion.
"Who?" he repeated.
"You killed him! You should remember!"
She punched him in the arm and it stung. He also saw that her eyes flashed dangerously so he said, "Shit! Sorry. I just didn't remember his name is all. I killed him cause he was gonna try and kill ya though so that oughta mean somethin'."
"It means a lot," she said. "But it doesn't change the fact that I left when they needed me."
"Thought ya were over that."
"Well I'm not."
They contemplated the setting sun for a while.
"Ya oughta be."
"Cause ya ain't the only one that deserted are ya?"
"It's a little hard to tell. I wasn't there."
This time he punched her in the shoulder.
"Smartass. What I'm sayin' is that ya left and yer alive. Ya wouldn't have been if ya'd stayed. Ya couldn't've done nothin' to save 'em. But...ya saved me."
She didn't know what to say. He was looking at her in a kind of weird sideways way that he'd never looked at her before. It reminded her suddenly of Bowhunter when he was being especially awkward.
She opened her mouth, trying to figure out what to say, when something hit the side of the car with a thud and a groan. Merle flicked the headlights on and Sinclaire saw a zombie trying to crawl up the hood.
"Motherfuckin' sonsabitches," Merle muttered as he cranked the car. "Guess we oughta head back. My brother ain't used to sleepin' by hisself no more."
The zombie fell when he backed up and Sinclaire gritted her teeth when he put the car in drive again and ran over it before leaving.
"Better'n leavin' him there," Merle said. "Ya ain't got a single humane bone in yer body do ya?"
"I have at least one!" she said indignantly. "I saved you. Zipper issues and all."