AN: My apologies that this update has taken so long. I got slightly side-tracked on my new Caryl fic—it's almost done, though, so I should be able to get back to this. Also, a little bit of a mental block with this one. Would really appreciate any feedback on it to make sure I'm still on track. Please review!

Also: I DO NOT OWN THE WALKING DEAD. I mostly forget to say that, but it doesn't mean I think I do own it, just that I'm very forgetful. Please don't sue me!

Part Eleven

He wants to go to her so bad it makes his feet itch. Through his socks. Through his damn boots. He can't explain why. It's not even that she is his closest link to Daryl, not that he doesn't plan to press her for stories of his brother when she's in a state fit enough to do so. He's waited so long to hear about Daryl—spent most of his days willing a God that's disappeared from the world to keep the boy safe until he can find him. Now he has his chance and it's not even the first thing on his mind.

Several times through the day he catches himself walking to the building they use as a hospital, and several times he's forced himself to retreat. He doesn't know what the fuck he's doing, why he wants to see her so bad, but he thinks the tingling of his fingers where she'd grasped his hand, and the burned imprint of her lips where she'd kissed his knuckles might have something to do with it. He can't understand how a woman like her can treat a man like him as she has been, but he's not complaining. Not today, anyways.

Phil intercepts him late that first morning and asks him to meet him at Milton's lab. That shitty little nerd is the last person he wants to see. His science experiments that litter the entire space makes Merle nervous in that way that all things he doesn't understand does. Blackie's pet biters are chained up against a pole and Merle stops to visit with them, ignoring Milton as he gets his kicks poking his finger into their jawless mouths, feeling mildly disgusted at the spongy tissue that's left caressing his fingers.

With trepidation, he watches as Phil enters and he gradually stands to attention. He's in no rush to start this little chat, in no rush to show obedience to the sorry prick that has railroaded his life. He knows what this is about, knew an explanation would be expected sooner or later. Looks like the time has arrived and Merle knows a moment of self-doubt about making his bullshit believable, but he has to try—for those women he's brought into this place. The Gov's suspicious already, he can tell, for the glint of evil that he usually is able to mask from the general observer is shining there for anyone who cares to take a look. It's just typical Merle is the only one standing in front of him. Milton is too far away to see, and Merle thinks he'd talk up some excuse for what he observed anyway. That boy isn't too smart when it comes to what is obvious.

"So, Merle. I'm having a bit of trouble explaining to Jody's mother why he didn't return from your hunt." There's a challenge in his voice, a hint of humour and Merle is so consumed with disgust that his teeth ache. Disgust in himself that he was so callous about that kid's death and disgust in Phil for finding any kind of sick leverage from it.

"Kid couldn't even defend himself. The hell was I supposed to do against a herd?"

"You were supposed to bring him back alive," Phil says and the coldness that settles in his gaze is designed to make Merle chill with fear. What it does is piss him off, but he tamps down his initial impulse and tries to look contrite.

"I ain't in the business of performin' miracles. Someone shoulda taught that boy how to attack walkers before sendin' him out there." He wants to say more, say 'fuck you' to their evil leader that cherishes no life other than his own, but Merle clamps his lips tight and wonders when he should start the countdown for when he explodes and challenges this man to the point where he gets his ass killed.

"And so you, what? Lose Jody to walkers then pick yourself up three strays?"

That grates on his nerves something fierce and so he shoves his good hand in his pants pocket so Phil can't see the fist he's formed and is just itching to smash into the cockhead's face.

"Yeah, they know how to handle 'emselves," he can't help but say spitefully. "Kept 'emselves alive out there on their own all winter. Pity Jody got bitten. Coupla women coulda taught him a thing or two."

The Governor's eyes harden and narrow to slits and Merle sees the good sense to shut his mouth. A frisson of fear squeezes his chest and a film of sweat breaks out on his flesh. The fucker must notice because all at once he's grinning, his calculating gaze turning instead to the chained pets.

"Those women certainly bring a new sense of excitement to things around here," he says, taking a step nearer and getting up real close and personal with both Merle and the pets, his finger almost jabbing through shattered jaw and tickling the back of the thing's throat. "You know them?"

Merle holds his ground but even he can feel the nervous twitch in the muscle beside his eye. "Two of 'em. Andrea and Carol."

"They were with the Atlanta group? They know your brother?" The sudden concern was laid on so thick Merle worries he'll never scrape it off. He knows Phil doesn't give two shits about Merle's brother, about Merle ever being reunited with him. He just wants to know that that group is far from here, not a threat and that Merle is as under his brutal thumb as he has been since they rescued him and gave him his life back.

"They did," Merle admits carefully. Last thing he wants is to plant some seed in Phil's head and cause these women undeserved hurt. "Ain't seen my brother for almost a year. Got separated when a herd attacked where they were stayin'. Don't even know if Daryl or anyone else made it out."

He believes Daryl made it, refuses to contemplate otherwise. Hell, if those women could escape a herd of walkers then his own fool brother would have. Daryl is a survivor more than anyone else Merle knows, probably himself included. Took a damn saint to stay with their daddy well into adulthood.

"So you don't have a place to start a search." It's no question and Merle recognises it as the threat it is. Sure there's a place to start a search—he could go back to the farm, take one of the women with him and try and see which way they fled, but before he even has the chance to suggest it, he's shot down. "It's a shame."

Yeah, it's a fucking shame. He wants out of this place, wants away from this psychopath. Merle has rubbed shoulders with some real scary sonsabitches in his time, hell he rode with a whole pack of scary sonsabitches, but Phil has an edge of insanity that even the meanest asshole lacked and this is what makes Merle equally desperate to get away from him and hesitant to take that step. He knows he's not getting out alive. No one ever leaves Woodbury. Those that try are hunted down and killed before they can spread news of the town to outsiders. Phil keeps a tight lid on things as long as strangers don't come seeking what they have, and this is why Merle is in the shit for bringing the women in. If they'd have been men, they'd not have made it through the gate, but women are added pussy, and Phil likes to preen to a captive and gullible audience. Those women aren't going anywhere and Merle feels sick that he's brought them here. He didn't have a choice. Carol was going to die out there if he hadn't brought her to the doc, and the thought of that woman dying after all she's been through just doesn't sit right with him.

When he gets out of there, his feet take him straight to her. He's lost patience with himself, and decides that if he wants to see her, then he ain't a fucking pussy, so he'll goddam see her. He's got shit all else to do, other than go back to his place and kick the shit out of everything in sight because he's been forbidden like a child to go find his own fucking brother. He's steaming mad by the time he makes it to her bedside, and even though the dark girl is still sitting there, chatting quietly between them, the rage falls back to a simmer. It has no place in her presence and he curses himself in his own head for giving a shit.

"Good to see you're awake at last," he says and feels like kicking his own ass. His tone is harsher than he means it to be and Carol frowns at him in surprise. The other one, Michonne, isn't going to leave them alone if he comes across all threatening and for a second he wonders why the hell he wants to be alone with her when he's actively tried to not be alone with any woman in this place.

"Good to see you weren't a figment of my imagination." She beams at him and he stumbles to a halt, wondering if anyone has ever smiled with such happiness to see him in his long life.

"If you thought that, darlin', then you ain't real creative." He's pleased to see he's still got some brains because what he's finding he's struggling with is his breath. It's coming to him patchy, disappearing completely when his eyes are caught in hers, when he registers the exact shade of blue as being somewhat close to the ocean he hasn't seen since he flew over it to serve overseas. That's been a long ass time and yet he still remembers never seeing anything as blue as that expanse of water, the depth of its tones as his body passes over it with a hundred other men about to be deployed. Not until now. Now he sees that depth again, sees the gentle, undulating waves and smells the salt in the air. Shit, he's turning into a pussy right in front of her, and yet he kind of likes the steady throb of blood rushing through his veins, the pounding of his heart beneath his ribcage. With one glance, one smile she's reminded him he's alive and being so in this world isn't always a bad thing. Hell, she's got him thinking he's glad to be alive, just so he could have seen her.

Something passes between her and Michonne and Merle is left standing there like a goddam fool. Blackie eyes him warily and he glares back. His knife is bigger than hers right now so he ain't about to feel threatened by a damn look; he full well knows her sword is locked away at Phil's place and he feels sad for a moment that she's probably never going to get it back, and if she does she won't be alive long enough to enjoy it. Just as he's about to reattach his balls, she stands and even he can appreciate the lithe grace she exudes. If he was any other man he'd be all over it, but he's changed this past year. Living all fucked up and out of control isn't him anymore, isn't how he can deal with all the shit that goes down around this place, and maybe this explains why he's still standing in this room, why his knuckles still throb from the imprint of Carol's lips.

"I'll go and find Andrea so we can discuss how long we are staying."

Carol nods the same minute Merle's eyes nearly bug out of his head. Wait, they're leaving? They don't know they can't leave, that Phil would rather kill them first than let them get out of there and tell others about this secret town.

Michonne tips her head at him in acknowledgement as she walks past, her warrior strength and grace still there even though she doesn't have that fancy sword swinging across her back. She stops right in front of him, stares at him like the message she's trying to convey is the most important one he will ever get in his life, and then she walks away. She's warning him. Fuck, he should be warning them.

"You need time to get better," he splutters the second the door shuts and like a moth to a flame he's at her side, ignoring the chair Michonne had been occupying to sit his ass right down on the bed. He notices straight away that Carol doesn't seem to mind, that the smile that lights up her face appears slowly, almost shy.

"And I have that chance, thanks to you. I don't have the first clue how to repay what you've done by bringin' me here," she says and he almost swallows his own tongue. He hates her gratitude, feels sick about how she'll turn against him as soon as she knows she's stuck here. It only takes him a minute to wonder why they are so hellbent on leaving. On the surface this place seems like a refuge in the middle of a hurricane. It's solace where out in the woods, on the run, there isn't any. He's completely shocked they haven't been seduced by the Governor's irrefutable charms, and he's more than a little bit impressed, too.

"I ain't expectin' anything from ya'll," he tells her, the huskiness in his own voice giving him cause for concern. "You're plannin' on leavin'? Why?"

He sees the storm that drifts across the ocean in that minute and he knows she's been as quick to suss Phil out as he had been, but she has others to support her and build up her confidence that getting out will work for them. Even half delirious from blood loss he'd known his ass was fucked but good once he'd been brought inside these walls. He's never worked out why Phil chose to save him rather than wasting one of those precious bullets by putting it through his brain, thinks it's a mystery that he's never going to know the answer to, as much as that pisses him off.

She looks down and he sees her hands are twisting together; she's a ball of nervous energy and slowly it's passing along to him.

"Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful to you. Bringin' me here saved my life—the girls know that. But…there's somethin' not right here, Merle. There's somethin' not right with that man. The Governor."

He catches himself before he nods, he knows damn well there's lots of fucking wrong with the Governor, but he can't tell her that. Can't tell her anything that will get her and her friends killed.

"You'd really go back out there just because you think there's somethin' wrong with him? You're safer here an' you know it." He can feel that earlier anger rise up inside him again, choking down his finer feelings. He doesn't want her back out there, trying to dodge biters and keep clear of men even more dangerous than Phil can be. He knows it's out there, death is out there for everyone, but this isn't what he wants for her and he can't even explain to himself why he cares.

She ignores his bluster and even though she's still sick, still weak, she launches herself forward and seizes his hand and drags it into her lap, smothering it between the two of hers. He wants to rip it out of her grip, wants to leap off the bed and ask her what the hell she's thinking getting so familiar with him, but the memory of those lips of hers grazing his knuckles makes his knees go weak.

"Come with us."

It's barely a whisper yet he hears it like a scream, the words slamming into his head getting louder and louder. Go with them. Fuck, he can't. He knows, he knows what's gonna happen the second they walk out those gates, and the only way he can protect them is if he's on the team that is ordered to take them down. He has to get away from her, has to stop this insane shit now before Phil works out that Merle might be a little sweet on her, that his tastes delve more to this down-to-earth woman than they do toward Eva, and even he can't explain why that is.

"That ain't gonna happen, sweet cheeks."

He forces himself off her bed, shudders as his palm gets the full treatment of ten sweet digits sweeping against his flesh when he pulls away, and his gut tightens at the changed expression on her face. She looks shocked, she looks fucking wounded, like his refusal to even consider leaving this shitty town is a rejection of her, and as he thinks this, he wonders what it would be like to do the opposite. What it would be like to take her up on the offer, leave this place with her, keep letting her hold his hand and maybe letting it go further—how far would she take it? Suddenly he's dying to know, desperate to know, and is infuriated with himself for being such a pussy. What the fuck is wrong with him, going weak at the knees over a woman? This woman. Jesus fucking Christ, this town has truly screwed with his head and he has no idea if he's ever coming back.

"Merle, wait." She's flinging the covers back and trying to get out of bed and he can see she's not up to it yet, her legs wobbly as she tries to stand, tries to drag him back from the door that he's about to open.

"Fuck's sake, woman. Get your ass back in that bed before you fall on it."

She doesn't listen, of course she doesn't listen. Damn bitch lets herself be a punching bag for who knows how many years and as soon as she's out in the world alone with a coupla women, she suddenly finds her backbone.

"Come back here." Her tone is pure steel and his spine stiffens. Before he even knows he's moved his hand is gripped around her elbow and he's yanked her against him, her body trembling against his chest and her eyes wide, watching him carefully.

"I ain't no dog you can order around, Princess. You wanna leave, then leave, but don't go draggin' me into your stupid, crazy ass plans. I gotta home here. I ain't givin' that up for no piece of ass." Then he shoves her back in the bed, lifts up the blankets and tucks her in so tight he hopes she can't fucking move.

He hates that he's leaving her with a flash of hurt shooting at him from those eyes that are like the sea, but as he flings open the door and sees Phil standing not too far from it, he's suddenly glad he was rough, that he said what he did. He'll have far more chance to save her life if Phil thinks she's nothing to him.

"Everything fine, Merle?" Phil says, that knowing glint shadowing his words, just daring Merle to deviate from his plan, to show disloyalty that would give him no choice but to put him down.

"Everythin's just dandy."

Even if inside he feels like everything is breaking apart.