Before Merle even managed to plunk himself down in the chair next to Joe Don, Andrea's nervous system had instantly ramped up to full-blown panic. "Merle, you son of a bitch!" she screamed at his receding back, struggling futilely against the chain binding her, her movements frantic. "You can't do this, goddamnit! You hear me? Get back over here and let us go, you bastard!" The shackle cut into her wrist as she squirmed and bucked like a rabid animal; she felt the blood dribble down her hand and drip from her fingers, but she didn't care.
The sound of Rick's voice rasping her name from somewhere close behind her brought an immediate measure of calm to the pending volcanic eruption in her head.
"Andrea," he said again, and she closed her eyes and let his voice wash over her, tried to hold on to the sound of it, long after the wind had carried it away.
Rick reached blindly behind himself, groping for a piece of Andrea to grab on to. His fingers connected with her arm, and he moved his hand down its length until he felt her fingers beneath his. He wrapped her hand with his own, linking their fingers together, and tracing reassuring circles gently across the back of her hand with his thumb. "It's going to be okay," he soothed, without any trace of uncertainty.
Andrea sighed and tried to draw strength from their physical contact. When she spoke, she sounded dejected and morose, even to her own ears. "Rick, listen, the group can't afford to have you lame, so you're going to take off my hand, okay? Just do it quick, and if we're lucky, I'll pass out and not have to feel any of it."
She heard Rick draw a breath, knew he was gearing up for a protest, and she opted to cut him off. "We're not arguing about this Rick; it's done, alright? I can shoot just fine with one hand, and we only need to free up one end of this chain to get out of here. You lose your hand, and that'll puts a way bigger hole in the group's security than losing mine would. And-"
"Andrea," Rick managed to interject. "I appreciate the offer, but it's not-"
Now fully ensconced in lawyer mode, Andrea refused to let him finish. "Damnit, Rick, I don't want to argue about this. Don't make this a "white-knight-saving-the-damsel" thing, for Christ's sake. I'm not some shrinking violet. We do what's best for the group as a whole, right? Well, this is what's right. So let's just fucking do this and get it over with." Having completed her rant, she felt short of breath, and concentrated on regulating her breathing as she squeezed her eyes shut. When she realized no response was forthcoming from the Sheriff, she cracked one eye open and cleared her throat. "Rick?"
"Just wanted to make sure you're finished," he drawled dryly. "Are you?"
Andrea chewed her lower lip, thrown by Rick's apparent serenity. "Unless you're about to argue with me, then yeah, I guess I'm done," she grumbled.
"Good," he declared, sounding a little too cocky for Andrea's liking. "Because now it's my turn." His long inhale was exaggerated and deliberate. "First of all, do you really think Merle would be satisfied with you losing your hand? He wants to see me suffer, not you. You think I'll just lop your hand off, and he'll let us go? Because I'm betting that if I cut off your hand, Merle'll just tie us back up again and make me cut off my own too."
Andrea slouched slightly, recognizing the truth behind Rick's words. How had she not thought of that? She bristled and begrudgingly replied, "Okay, fine, maybe you're right about that. But I won't just sit here and let you-"
Rick silenced her by clearing his throat. "I thought you said you were done," he reminded her, sounding almost amused despite their desperate situation. He heard Andrea mutter some obscenities, and couldn't help but smile. "What I was getting to," he continued, lowering his voice so that she had to strain to hear him. "Is that backup is on the way."
Behind him, Andrea's eyebrows shot upwards, and she immediately tried to mask her surprise, worried that Merle might grow suspicious. "Backup?" she hissed over her shoulder.
"Yup," Rick confirmed confidently. "Glenn, Daryl, and T-Dog should all be here soon. I left a trail for them. Listen for an owl hoot: that's the signal that they're about to start it up."
"An owl hoot?" Andrea whispered, shaking her head with disbelief.
"T-Dog says it works in cartoons," Rick returned, squeezing her hand comfortingly.
She quickly smothered a giggle, then instinctively scanned her surroundings, looking for any sign of their rescuers. She caught a glimpse of Leroy peering around a corner of the barn at them. Seizing the opportunity, she offered him a kind smile. Realizing he'd been spotted, then man quickly turned and disappeared out of sight, but his retreat was a split-second too late: Andrea had seen him smile back.
"I think Leroy might be looking to switch sides," Andrea murmured softly over her shoulder. "He just smiled at me."
"Who the hell is Leroy?"
"Third guy in Merle's group," she replied to Rick. "You didn't see him when you got here?"
He shook his head before he remembered that Andrea couldn't see him. "No," he said. "That Joe Don scum picked me up at the church and brought me back here. I only saw Merle for a few seconds when we got here, before Joe Don beaned me and I passed out." He sighed. "Wish I could've seen you before I got all trussed up here." Rick had to force himself to ask his next question, terrified of the answer, but needing to know. "Did any of those guys… touch you?"
She felt Rick's hand tighten considerably around hers as he asked. "No," she quickly informed him, hearing him exhale with relief behind her. "I think Joe Don was looking to, but Merle stopped him before he could get anywhere."
"Thank God," he muttered softly, though he was still itching to take a close look at Andrea, examine her with his own eyes for any injuries. Goddamn, I just want to look at her for the sake of seeing her, he thought to himself. Still, he told himself, now was not the time to bask in hopeful yearnings. "They took my Python," he told her. "Any idea where they might have stashed something like that?"
"No. I didn't see much of the inside of the barn," she said. "I was locked in this little room for most of the time." Hearing Rick cuss, she hurriedly told him, "It really wasn't that bad, I promise."
"Would you tell me if it had been?"
Andrea smiled to herself: even when he couldn't see her, he could read her like a book. "Yes," she lied.
The Sheriff snorted derisively.
To keep Rick from dwelling on the matter, Andrea swiftly changed the subject. "What do we do when we hear the signal?"
"We distract Merle and that other idiot so the boys can move in without being noticed." The confidence in Rick's voice was unmistakable.
"Hmm," Andrea mused, casting about for an idea as to how she might accomplish such a thing. "I'll tell you right now, I could put Joe Don out of commission for a couple of hours if I flashed him." The suggestion was deliberately ridiculous, an attempt to remind the Sheriff that she was the same woman she'd always been, undamaged and strong.
The tactic seemed to work: she heard a low chuckle from the other side of the pump. "Don't even think about it," he growled, and she closed her eyes and pictured the smile he had to be wearing: the curve of his lips under all that stubble, the unintended sensuality inherent in his slow, enthralling grin were forever tattooed on her brain.
"How do you figure we'll get out of these chains once our backup arrives?" she asked.
"I'm hoping maybe we can find some bolt cutters or something in the barn," Rick offered. "Which means we're gonna have to play defence until someone frees us up." He twisted his head in her direction. "You got anything over there you can use as a weapon?"
Andrea reluctantly drew her fingers from Rick's and ran her hand in a sweeping semi-circle over the ground around her. She came up empty, finding nothing but gravel and a few tiny pebbles. "Nothing," she informed her fellow captive, bringing her hand back to his, already in need of his touch once again.
"Damn. Alright, I think we can-"
A low hoot stopped Rick mid-sentence. In perfect unison, he and Andrea each took a long, deep breath. Jaw tensed in a hard line, the Sheriff gave her hand one final squeeze. "It's go time," he said.