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Merle's Salvation

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Since escaping Atlanta Merle’s brain had drifted in and out of clarity and he wondered in moments of lucidity how he’d survived this long, given the state he was in. He woke in odd places that he didn’t remember walking through or to, or past, and thanked his instincts and a lifetime of living off the land for keeping him alive. All he could think about was Daryl, and his drive to find him was strong, but he knew he couldn’t survive much longer. He'd lost a lot of blood and hadn't had a substantial meal since before leaving for Atlanta with the others. He'd caught and ate a few squirrels (raw, which he wasn't fond of, but a man’s gotta eat) but it wasn't even enough for a child to live off for long, let alone a fully-grown man of Merle's size and tenacity.

The time between escaping Atlanta and now had been rough, between the shock of cutting off his own hand and going through withdrawal, starvation, and suffering from heatstroke and dehydration, he was in immense amounts of pain. He found himself blacking out with no recollection of time between waking as he kept moving when he was in a blackout state, evidenced by how he woke in a completely different place to the one he last remembered. This time around he came to under a tree, gazing blearily up through the canopy at the sun’s rays, vaguely taking in the beauty of the light and how it illuminated the leaves far above him. He breathed for a minute, preparing himself for the wave of pain that would soon catch up. It slammed into him hard, leaving him gasping as his arm throbbed and his head pounded, and he sat up, rubbing his eyes and gritting his teeth as it warred up and down his spine.

“Fuckin’ hell” he groaned.

He took in the rest of his surroundings, noting a small, shallow creek. He tried to shake his dizziness off, making his way to kneel at the water’s edge and cupping water into his hand to drink. He drank and drank, relishing the coolness of the water trickling down his dry throat, soothing the soft tissue. Once satisfied he splashed water over his face and neck, over sunburn and the line of blistered skin along his hairline, washing away sweat that beaded back up immediately. He gathered more water, bringing it to his eyes and blinking through it, trying to wash away the gritty feeling in them and sat back just to breathe, trying to gain purchase on his surroundings and make some sort of decision as to which way he should head next. He was shaking badly, from the hunger and pain and withdrawal so he brought his limbs closer to his body, trying to minimise the tremors so he could focus.

He heard rustling and looked across the stream, noticing a flash of blue through some bushes and frowned, trying to focus on the colour and gauge whether he should be running. Suddenly a girl burst through the bushes, stopping dead in her tracks, looking back the way she’d come from and breathing fearfully, sniffling. She continued to look back to where she came from while Merle stared at her, squinting curiously. It suddenly clicked who she was and Merle was astonished, gaping at her for a second.

“Sophia?” he rasped questioningly, looking at her confusedly, hoping that she wasn’t just a hallucination; that was the last thing he needed right now.

She whipped around to face him, looking terrified for a few seconds before relief flooded her face and she ran towards him with tears in her eyes, sloshing through the shallow water and kneeling in front of him, wrapping her arms around his neck, face pressed to his throat. He was stunned momentarily before he settled on patting her back in a way he hoped was comforting. He looked around and saw no trace of the rest of the group through the trees.

“Where’s your momma, sweetheart?” he asked softly, pushing her away just enough to consider her eyes “where’re the others?”

“I got separated from them, there was a herd on the highway and I ran off and Rick found me and told me to stay put but I got scared,” she whimpered “I ran away and now I can’t find my way back!”

She pressed her face into his chest, arms wrapping around him again as she sobbed. He returned the hug hesitantly and rubbed her back, murmuring comforting words and wondering briefly where this instinct was coming from. He remembered her mom and dad, remembered how Ed treated his wife and daughter, and chocked it up to feeling a bond towards Carol and Sophia. He and Daryl had noticed Ed’s behaviour immediately, the despondent look on Carol's face, Sophia's shy nature.

Merle had blocked Ed a couple of times when he’d started advancing on his wife, giving him a cold, angry stare that had made Ed falter, but the others hadn’t caught on and Shane had yelled at him for disturbing the peace. He and Daryl knew abuse well, their father had been an abusive asshole too. His scars itched at the memory of his father and he shook it off, not wanting to waste brain power on that monster.

“Why’d you move from the quarry?” he asked, sitting down more comfortably on the forest floor and letting her cuddle up to him and sob, he figured she was glad to see an alive, familiar face “how long have you been alone?”

“We were attacked, Amy died and Jim got bit, and… and my daddy died,” Sophia said, lip wobbling.

Merle nodded as he listened to her story, brow furrowed.

“We went to a laboratory and had lots of food and hot showers but the man that let us in was crazy and blew the building up and Jacqui stayed behind and died” she continued, “I’ve been alone for a few days, I’ve been so scared, I miss my mom.”

Merle nodded contemplatively, taking in their surroundings, trying again to figure out which way to go. His brain was sluggish but he figured out which way was North quickly, thankful that it was one of his talents.

“Tell you what, I'm gonna get’chu back to your momma” he said with a smile, trying to look reassuring despite knowing he looked like death “they wouldn’t have gone far, sweetheart. I bet they’re searching for you right now.”

“Thank you, Merle” she said, smiling broadly and hugging him again and he was stunned that she knew his name; the children had been warned away from him very quickly.

They got up and walked, with Merle struggling to stay conscious all the while, but he pushed on, resting against trees as his brain threatened to fade in and out, just to get his bearings back. They stopped just before nightfall and Merle set up a fire with Sophia’s help under his instruction, drinking water from a nearby stream and feeling slightly better. Everything in him hurt, his stump was a constant, searing pain and his skin burned painfully too, his eyes felt swollen and he felt weak and heavy. He knew he sorely needed substantial sleep, but worried about walkers getting them if he did and decided to try to keep himself awake through the night, Sophia tucked safely into his side.

Hours passed with Sophia sleeping beside him, breathing softly against his ribs as he watched the fire burning lowly, enjoying her company. It was easier to focus with someone else with him, with a purpose other than to just keep moving and hope to find Daryl. Hours later he felt an odd kick in his chest and felt his body and legs jerk, frowning weakly at the uncontrolled movement. Sophia woke with a jolt and sat up sleepily to look at him.

“What’s wrong?” she asked softly.

He vaguely heard Sophia’s worried shriek as his body went into violent convulsions and then he heard, saw and felt nothing for a while. He came to with Sophia’s concerned, frightened face in his vision and he was troubled that he had no idea how much time had passed. Her hand fell to his chest, pressing gently at his sternum as she met his eyes concernedly. He sat up, groaning softly at how much his body was aching, at how much more exhausted he suddenly felt.

“You started seizing” Sophia said fearfully “you didn’t stop for a couple of minutes.”

“Are you sure it was a seizure?” he asked, finding it difficult to articulate his words; his tongue felt thick in his mouth.

She thought for a second before nodding and he frowned at the thought of having a seizure and the prospect of it made him worry. He'd never had seizures before and he racked his brain for causes, determining that it could be the blood loss or withdrawal, or both. He realised that he was doubly lucky to not have been eaten alive, given that he'd likely been having seizures since he left Atlanta. He settled her down again, apologising for scaring her and she tucked against him once more, infinitely trusting. He smiled at the thought that she was still so affectionate and trusting despite her father.

He and Daryl had lost all sense of trust in other people early on in life, Merle as early as eight. They'd learnt to depend only on each other and rejected any help others offered, wary and damaged, fully believing that kind gestures were hurtful ones in disguise. Merle had never been particularly affectionate, he would touch Daryl’s shoulders and back casually but never lingered in his affections. The most affectionate he got was when he would loop an arm around Daryl’s shoulders and walk with him while they talked. Daryl liked to hug and was sensitive and kind, but he respected Merle’s space and never asked anything of him that would make him uncomfortable because he was also very sweet.

Expressing emotion made Merle uncomfortable, he’d had crying beaten out of him early and supposed that he’d never recovered from it. There were things their father had done to him that he’d never be able to tell Daryl about and he often regretted not being able to meet Daryl’s needs for affection and closeness. He sighed at the thought and realised that this was his turning point, this was where he could redeem himself and be the brother worthy of the status Daryl held him to, worthy of Daryl’s love and affection.

He struggled to keep awake until the sun rose, exhausted to the bone, silently promising Carol that he'd return her little girl safely and Daryl that he'd be a better brother.

Chapter Text

Day broke and they set off once more, drinking their fill of water from a nearby stream before heading towards the highway (Merle hoped). The terrain was hilly and tough to traverse so it was slow going and Merle found himself needing to pause to catch his breath more often than he liked. Sophia kept pace with him easily, sticking close to his side. It reminded him of when he and Daryl would go into the forest in their childhood, Daryl following him like a shadow, eager and boisterous.

His skin felt tight, dry and itchy, yet he was sweating profusely, perspiration beading over his brow faster than he could wipe it away and running down his face. His shirt stuck to his back unpleasantly and he regretted wearing jeans, the rough denim was irritating, grating on his hypersensitive nerves. His joints ached and he felt raw in every way; vulnerable in a way he only remembered feeling as a child.

The first 72 hours of going through withdrawal, alone to boot, had been much, much rougher, but the withdrawal was still hard and he was trying not to scare Sophia. He’d been an addict for a long time and had gone through withdrawal in the past but none of his past experiences compared to this. He supposed that everything else was worsening his symptoms.

“So, tell me more about this crazy guy with the laboratory” he rasped, wanting to keep the both of them occupied with conversation, “did you say he blew it up? That’s crazy, huh?”

They were in no way similar and he was trying his best to keep her mind from wandering to panic so he opted to listen as she talked instead of talking to her. He figured it wasn’t appropriate to talk about the drugs and sex and alcohol that’d taken up most of his life, nor the abuse and frantic survival of his childhood.

“We were driving for a bit after we left the quarry and ran out of food and fuel” she started, “we found a big building with a checkpoint. There was so much yelling, everyone was fighting.”

“The CDC?” he asked, turning his head to look at her.

“I think so, it was getting dark and everyone was panicking and he let us in” she said, “his name was Doctor Jenner. We had to do blood tests for him to trust us.”

“Ugh, blood tests” he muttered, wincing.

She giggled before continuing “we had so much nice food and the adults had alcohol and Carl and I had soda. Then we had hot showers and slept for the night.”

“Bet that was nice” he smiled, feeling his stomach gripe at the mention of food, his skin itch under the film of dirt and sweat and blood.

“It was!” she said excitedly, hopping over a log after him, “we woke up in the morning and had more food. The adults were hung over.”

He grinned, meeting her eyes and shook his head, tutting exaggeratedly and she smiled broadly at that.

“He showed us a video of his wife turning into a walker in a machine that showed her brain” she said.

He turned to nod interestedly at her with an “oh?”, listening intently.

She continued past that nugget of information without elaborating and he filed it away as a question to ask Daryl later. It seemed like important information and he hoped it would shed more light on the outbreak.

“Then Dale asked about the clock on the wall counting down time and he said it was how long the generators had left” she said, “but it was actually how long it was until the centre would blow up. He locked us in with a metal door.”

Merle shook his head disapprovingly, pursing his lips.

“That outta be scary, hmm?” he said empathetically, surprising himself.

She nodded, squeezing through a bush after him.

“Shane and Daryl tried to get through the door with axes, but Doctor Jenner said it was too strong for even a rocket launcher” she said, “Daryl threatened him with an axe and Shane threatened him with a shotgun.”

He exhaled amusedly at that, imagining Daryl going on a rampage with an axe.

“My mom and Rick pleaded with him and he opened the door” she said, “we all ran and escaped through a window that Rick blew up with a grenade. Jacqui stayed behind and Andrea tried to too, but Dale convinced her to leave.”

“Wow” Merle said, a little breathless from their trek, “what a story.”

She smiled shyly at him and he smiled back lopsidedly. They continued along, crossing the terrain slowly but surely. Merle kept an eye out for squirrels and rabbits but saw no sign of tracks. He hoped they’d find the highway before nightfall; he couldn’t handle another night of no sleep. Finding a car and sleeping in it was their best bet, he rationalised. It was better than sleeping on the forest floor unprotected.

They were following a shallow creek when Merle felt that strange kick in his chest again, frowning as he collapsed to the floor as his legs gave out. She stopped to look at him as he fell, and the breath was knocked out of him as he hit the forest floor and he went into convulsions, hearing her gasp as he blacked out again.

This time when he came to she had rolled him on his side and was perched next to him, waiting for him to come around. He groaned softly, sitting up slowly.

“Another seizure?” he asked.

She nodded and said “yeah.”

“Christ” he muttered.

He rubbed his eyes, almost completing the gesture with his right hand before remembering to use the other. He stood up, shaking off dizziness and fighting down exhaustion; they had to find the highway soon. He knelt by the edge of the creek, drinking water from it until his throat had stopped tacking dryly as he swallowed.

They headed off again and came across the highway a few hours later and Sophia recognised it as the road she’d run away from, pointing in the direction the group had been heading before having to stop and get out. They followed the highway for a little while, stumbling upon the mess of cars that had caused the group to stop. They stood in place and looked around a little, surveying the area for any sign of the group.

“This is where we stopped” Sophia said, pointing, “I ran out over there. The RV was right here.”

Merle nodded, exhaling wearily. There was no sign of the cars the group had been using, nor his bike, but he noticed relatively fresh tyre tracks leading South. They’d moved on and he had no doubt that they’d be close-by, looking for her. They wouldn’t have just left her.

Not like they left you, his father’s voice taunted in the back of his brain, you stupid, worthless fuck.

He broke from his reverie as his stomach rumbled loudly and Sophia giggled. Hers rumbled almost in reply and she giggled again, smiling timidly up at him. He managed an amused huff through his nose.

“Let’s see if we can’t find some food, huh?” he said with a smile, “they probably picked the place clean but it’s worth a shot.”

They followed the road up for a little while, checking cars for scraps of food and water. They only came up with two cans of beans and a few breakfast bars, packets of nuts and a few small bottles of water but gladly ate and drank what they found, deciding to leave the cans of beans for later. Despite being on the verge of starvation he recognised the importance of rationing food, they didn’t know how long they’d have to go without food after this.

Merle found a small spool of wire and a pair of wire cutters and pocketed them, deciding that it’d be a good idea to set up a few rabbit traps when they picked somewhere to stay the night so they might have a feed in the morning. He found a sheathed hunting knife tucked under the back seat of a four-wheel drive and slotted it into the back of the waistband of his jeans. He searched the same car, hoping he could find a gun and came up with nothing, muttering curses under his breath so Sophia wouldn’t hear.

He searched a few more cars, hoping to find a gun or another weapon, before he swayed dangerously on his feet, his brain faltering as he heard white noise; he knew he needed some sleep. He deliberated for a few minutes, blinking hazily. He didn’t want to leave her unprotected, couldn’t leave her unprotected. He stopped and knelt in front of her, gripping her arm gently and looking into her eyes seriously.

“Sophia, I need to get a couple hours’ sleep, okay?” he said softly, “I haven’t slept properly in a long time and I need t’get mah strength back.”

She nodded, understanding, and he smiled, patting her shoulder and setting to finding a car that didn’t have dead people in it. They came across a Jeep on the outer edge of the group of cars where the guard rail had a gap, with a clear path to the side of the highway under some trees. Merle went to the driver’s side, peering inside and discovering that it was clear of dead and intact. Miraculously the door opened and he sighed a “yes” in relief, reaching over to disengage the handbrake before turning the steering wheel towards the tree line.

“Stand back, sweetheart” he said, looking at Sophia.

She stepped away and he planted his feet and braced himself as he leant hard on the doorframe, pushing with all his weight, gritting his teeth and grunting. The jeep rolled a little before he had to stop to catch his breath. One wheel was now on the slight slope down to the trees and he knew that it would be easier to push once it was on the slope completely. He braced himself to push again, feeling Sophia tuck herself in front of him, hands braced on the frame too. They pushed together, straining hard, and the jeep’s front wheels both rolled onto the slope. They paused, breathing hard before making a final push and then the jeep was on the slope. They pushed it down the slope until the front of the jeep was nestled against a tree, enveloping the car in shade.

He helped her into the passenger seat, shutting the door behind her when she was settled. Merle clambered into the back seat, wincing and hissing when he banged his stump on the upholstery, clutching it to his chest until the pain died down a little. Sophia had been eyeing it since they’d been reunited and seemed to work up the courage to ask him about it.

“What happened to your hand?” she asked softly, head propped against the driver’s head rest as she stared at him with soft doe-eyes, innocent and wide.

He pursed his dry, cracked lips and looked at his stump before saying “I had to cut it off, got handcuffed to a rooftop and left behind. Cauterised it with an iron steak weight.”

“Oh…” she said, looking at his face, “is that why you’re sunburnt?”

He nodded, swallowing dryly and licking his lips, twisting the limb back and forth, noting the tinge of blood and pus soaking through the cloth he’d wrapped around it and the smell it was starting to emit. He was scared to take the cloth off the end of it until he was coherent enough to tend to it, but knew that the longer he left it the more chance he’d have to cut more of it off and he dreaded that. He knew it was already infected and hoped he’d get back to the group and the Oxycycline in his stash to fight it off because he knew he wouldn’t survive a blood infection. He’d looked at it briefly before finding Sophia and it wasn’t pretty then and it likely wasn’t pretty now.

“They went back for you with your brother” she said, voice sweet in his ears, “Theodore said that it was his fault, but he’d chained the door shut so they knew you would be alive. You were already gone before they got there.”

Merle stared at her, processing the information slowly. They’d gone back for him. They hadn’t just left him for dead. He smiled at her reassuringly when she started looking concerned. He lifted his hips with a grunt and removed the knife from his pants and the wire and wire cutters from his pocket, giving them to her to put on the driver’s seat.

“Stay here, okay? Wake me if you get scared or if there’s a herd coming, we’ll set off tomorrow” he said, “don’t run off or nothin’, I’m here, I’ll protect you, I promise.”

“Okay, Merle” she said with a smile.

He rolled over so he was facing the backrest and drifted off nearly immediately, harsh features smoothing out as he relaxed. Sophia waited patiently while he slept, watching their surroundings diligently for any sign of walkers.

He woke a few hours later, rolling over with some difficulty, groggy and sore and spacey. He blinked it away gradually, hoping his head would clear a bit. He was beginning to recognise this feeling as the after effect of having a seizure and groaned softly. His nose was sore now too, having been mashed against the seat back. He touched it gingerly, discovering that it was bruised but not broken, blessedly.

“You had another seizure” Sophia said sympathetically from the front seat, picking at the stitches in the upholstery.

He nodded to indicate that he’d heard her, rubbing his eyes and sighing. He was still exhausted but felt a little livelier. He looked up through the window, seeing that daylight was receding and it was on the cusp of dusk; he decided now was time to set up traps if they wanted food in the morning. He groaned, sitting up and looking out the window, checking for walkers before opening the door and getting out slowly.

“I’m just gonna set up some traps, okay?” he said softly, “try to catch us some food for the morning.”

She nodded interestedly, opening her door as he closed his.

“Can I help?” she asked, “can you teach me?”

He hesitated for a second before smiling and nodding and helping her out, shutting the door softly. She handed him the knife, wire cutters and wire with a grin and he pocketed the wire and wire cutters, sliding the knife into the back of his waistband. They went five minutes into the forest, gathering a few thick, y-pronged branches along the way before Merle stopped, noticing rabbit tracks. He tucked the branches under his armpit, pulling the wire from his pocket as he crouched down and unspooled it while she knelt near him, watching him interestedly.

“Okay, so we’ll wrap this wire around my thumb” he said, handing the wire to her and extending the digit, “just leave a tail.”

She took the end of the wire and wrapped it around his thumb, doubling it back so there was three inches of extra wire left over.

“Now twist the tail around the bottom of the loop” he said, removing his thumb.

She twisted it tightly before looking up at him for his next instruction. He clipped the wire further into the spool so the wire she held was a loop with a couple of meters of tail.

“Now pull this end through the loop” he said, holding the end he’d clipped, “till the noose is about the size of my fist.”

She did as he said, peering up at him expectantly, eyes bright with excitement. He remembered teaching Daryl this. He’d held the same expression as Merle had taught him, and he remembered him hollering excitedly with a grin when they’d found a rabbit in the snare the next day. He smiled, shaking the memory off.

“Now we’ll set the branches up” he said, struggling with them for a little before giving up and just dropping them on the ground.

He dug his fingers into the earth on either side of the path, making two six-inch-deep holes, wide enough to fit the branches he’d collected. He inserted the branches prongs-up, packing dirt around them and making sure they wouldn’t budge before he put another branch between them, pressing it firmly into the divot of the prongs. When he was satisfied, he turned back to her.

“Okay, now we’ll set up the wire” he said, “let the noose hang and wrap the end around this top branch.”

He positioned the noose half a foot off the ground and she wrapped the end tightly around the branch until there was a little tail, which she wrapped around the wire hanging down. He nodded, filling the space around the noose with two large branches that reinforced the vertical branches, before packing the space left with foliage. They sat back to look at their snare appreciatively and he reached over to pat her on the back briefly.

“Lookit that” he said softly, “well done.”

It was an echo of what he’d said and done to Daryl and she grinned up at him, just like Daryl had. His heart ached, he was missing his brother dearly, desperately. They searched for more trails, setting up three more traps before they ran out of wire and were losing daylight. They headed back to the jeep, sticking close together as they walked as quietly as they could. They reached the jeep and clambered in just as the sun was sinking over the treetops over the highway. She sat in the front and turned to look at him as he climbed into the back seat, locking the door behind him. She did the same, reaching over to lock the driver’s side door as he locked the other back door.

He opened a can of beans and encouraged her to eat her share first. She hesitated, looking at him uncertainly before eating half of the beans quickly. He figured then that Ed probably withheld food from his wife and daughter, putting himself first and not caring if they ate enough or not. She handed him the rest of the beans and he ate them ravenously, wiping his mouth with his vest when he was done, regretting it a little at the feeling of dried blood rubbing on the sensitive skin of his mouth. He stashed the hunting knife in the foot well nearest where his head would lie so it was within reach before he laid down on his back with a sigh and stared at the roof of the jeep, stump cradled to his sternum.

“You should get some more sleep” she said quietly.

He nodded, eyes sliding closed as he swallowed dryly. They slid back open and he turned his head to look at her tiredly.

“You need to sleep too” he said softly, “we’re going to be walking all day tomorrow.”

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“First, we’ll check the traps after dawn and eat some rabbit hopefully” he said, scratching his neck, “then we’ll check some more cars and head South, follow their tyre tracks.”

She nodded enthusiastically, eyes lighting up.

“They’re close, Sophia” he said softly, “you’ll see your momma soon.”

She smiled, “thank you, Merle.”

He smiled back, sitting up so the space behind her seat was unoccupied.

“You get some sleep, I’ll take first watch and then we can swap” he said, “it’s safer for someone to keep a lookout.”

She agreed after a few seconds of deliberation, pulling the lever to adjust her seat-back to lie down. She curled up in her seat, gazing at him for a minute before she dozed off. He was plunged into near darkness as the sun finally disappeared over the horizon, glad the moon was bright and full, bathing the area in cool light. Sophia breathed softly in her sleep and he was glad that there was some noise to focus on, the jeep was dead silent otherwise.

The silence was broken by a sudden bout of rain, which lasted for a few hours. He enjoyed the drop in temperature it brought, pressing his forehead to the window, soothing his burnt skin. She seemed to wake like clockwork six hours later, sitting up and bringing the seat-back back upright. She gazed at him in the moonlight, searching his face quietly.

“Your turn” she said with a yawn, “I’ll wake you after dawn.”

“Okay, sweetheart” he rasped as he laid down, “remember, wake me if you get scared or if there’s walkers. Don’t go running off.”

She nodded, smiling and he smiled back before rolling over and falling asleep, stump cradled between his chest and the seat back.

Chapter Text

Merle stirred when a small, gentle hand shook him, and peered back over his shoulder to look at Sophia. He rolled over and gazed up at her dozily before closing his eyes as he yawned and stretched, joints popping, making him wince.

“Mornin’” he said, voice gravelly, face stretching into a smile.

“Morning” she said, smiling back.

He sat up with a grunt and rubbed his eyes before he looked out the window. It was early, just after dawn and the area was bathed in soft morning light.

“Let’s go check our traps” he said, reaching for the knife and slotting it into his waistband.

She climbed out of the jeep enthusiastically and held his door open for him. Merle struggled out of the back seat, cursing his age, and they set off on foot, Merle feeling a little better after a decent, uninterrupted sleep. They checked the traps, finding that one had been obliterated by walkers and that the other two were disappointingly empty. Her face fell dejectedly and he was quick to reassure her, patting her shoulder gently.

“Sometimes it can take a while to catch rabbits,” Merle said quietly, “they’re crafty. Nothin’ wrong with our traps, okay?”

She nodded with a smile, and they turned and headed back to the highway, weaving their way between cars, looking inside them for things that could be useful, all the while stepping over corpses and junk. All of the cars were picked clean, with no weapons, food or water to speak of, much to Merle’s frustration. They found a car with various supplies left neatly on the hood; water and juice and various packaged and canned goods, as well as a blanket and a flashlight. He eyed the windscreen blearily, noticing streaks of white paint had run down it. There had been some sort of message written there; the edges of some letters had remained but it was illegible, washed away by the rain.

They sat on the hood of the car for a while, drinking the water and splitting the juice, some crackers and a can of food between them before they left the highway, following the tracks, now made faint by the rain. They brought the rest of the food with them, as well as the empty bottles of water, the blanket and flashlight, intending to make use of them later. Merle used the blanket as a sack, wrapping the items in it securely before hoisting it over his shoulder, ignoring the wet patch it soaked through the back of his shirt.

They followed the tracks for five minutes before they too, like the message on the car, disappeared. Merle cursed under his breath, pausing to think and look around from where he stood, trying to see if they had remained intact further along the road.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

He pursed his lips before saying “the rain has washed away the tyre tracks.”

Her lip wobbled at that and she looked deeply upset, tearing up with a sniffle. He set the sack down, kneeling in front of her and taking her hand. She looked into his eyes, hers wide and teary.

“We’ll find 'em, honey,” he said, “they can’t be far.”

She managed a smile, wiping her tears away with her free hand. He squeezed her hand gently before standing and letting go, instead rubbing her back briefly. They set off again, dipping into the forest when they spotted walkers heading towards them along the highway. They continued through the forest from then on, keeping a close eye out for walkers and any tracks to tell them anything about the others’ whereabouts. He had no doubt that they’d made efforts to find her, he knew they’d be nearby, they would have had to have made more tracks.

Hours later they came to a deep-set clearing with a few pools of water, surrounded by sheer cliff faces. Merle considered the slopes, trying to gauge if they weren’t as steep anywhere that he could see. He chose a spot with dirt and foliage instead of wet rock and moss, figuring they’d have a better time of climbing with some grit under their shoes.

“Looks like we have to climb this cliff, sweetheart,” he said, “jus’ gonna… catch mah breath for a bit.”

He considered the area again, looking for a place to sit, and spotted something against a log in the water, walking over to it and discovering that it was a doll. He looked at it, turning it over in his hand curiously.

“My doll!” she said, rushing to his side.

He handed it to her, smiling when she hugged it to her chest.

“Must’a got washed down stream and ended up here” he said.

They made their way to the base of the dirt cliff, peering up the slope. He sat himself down on a log with a heavy sigh, preparing himself to expend more energy than he had left. He went to rub his eyes, catching himself as he tried to use his stump hand, swapping it for the other. It was going to be hard to unlearn using his dominant hand. He was relatively good at shooting with his left hand already and thanked hindsight for that; at least he would be able to defend himself in that regard. He took in his aches and pains, cataloguing them, rubbing the edge of the cloth around his stump, itching to take it off.

He rested for ten minutes before hoisting himself to his feet with some difficulty, eyeing the cliff and trying to figure out the logistics of climbing it one handed and with a sack. He tied it to a stick, forming a bindle, stabilizing the end of the stick by pressing it against his torso with his right forearm and shrugging, supposing that it’d have to do. Merle pointed out footholds that looked strong, as well as vines and roots that would hold them up, and suggested she went first so his weight wouldn’t loosen vines or the dirt before she could climb. They started up the cliff, gripping onto roots and foliage to ease the way. She had an easier time of it, young and uninjured. Merle was much worse off and she climbed ahead of him effortlessly, outpacing him easily. He focussed hard on maintaining his footing and his grip, checking her progress every now and then, encouraging her as she climbed.

More than halfway up the cliff he felt the kick in his chest again, heart sinking as he realised exactly what it meant now, and dropped the bindle, hearing it tumble to the bottom of the cliff. He managed to think ‘why now?’ and voice an “ung” before he pitched into another seizure and rolled all the way back down the cliff, landing hard, blacking out and convulsing at the bottom. He came around on his side with her sitting next to him, gently stroking his cheek. He gritted his teeth in pain, his stump felt like it was on fire and his body was aching and bruised. He’d hit his stump badly on the way down and the cloth around it was now soaked through in bloody patches and covered in dark, thick mud. There was a burning in his side and blood in his eyes from a gash on his head and he blinked through it, dazed.

Delirious from pain, he sat up, clutching the stump to his chest and hissing through gritted teeth. It slowly ebbed and he turned his head to look at her tiredly as it reached a manageable level. She was frowning concernedly at him and he hoped she hadn’t hurt herself getting back down to him.

“You 'kay?” he asked quietly, feeling blood trickle down his face.

She nodded before saying “you’re bleeding.”

Merle touched his fingers to the gash on his head, fingers covered in blood when he pulled them away to look at them. He gritted his teeth, lifting his arm and pulling his vest aside to look at the source of pain in his left side, discovering that a thin, sharp stick had pierced all the way through his torso. She eyed it nervously, eyes welling with tears. He gripped it, testing the give as he pulled on it, wincing at the gritty drag. He shrugged his vest off, laying it across his lap before gripping the stick again tightly, crying out in pain as he removed it from his side in one slow-going, grating pull.

“Christ” he panted, dropping the stick.

He wrapped his vest around his waist to bind the wound, thankful when Sophia’s gentle hands helped him to pull it tight. He lay down on his back to recuperate and sighed exhaustedly, looking up at the top of the cliff they’d just come back down.

His heart thudded painfully in terror as he saw his father standing there, glaring down scornfully, eyes piercing and furious. Those eyes often haunted Merle in his dreams; when he saw them in his reflection.

I always knew you was worthless, he hissed, but his mouth didn’t move, lookit’chu, lying in the dirt, like a used rubber.

Merle was silent, rooted to the spot, paralysed with fear.

I tried to make a man out of you, Merle, he continued, eyes hard, should’a known that would never happen. Always told your ma you should’a been drowned at birth.

He could feel his heartrate picking up, chest aching at the cruel words. He’d heard them all before, and then some, but it was still a source of pain.

You deserved being left behind, and you deserve to die here, he barked, I don’t know what you expect will happen when you find this group ’a yours. Why would they want you back? They left you behind and only came back when Daryl asked them to.

He knew that was likely the case. The group had no reason to come back for him but for Daryl. They hadn’t cared that he was left like a trapped animal, fighting desperately against the cuff around his wrist. No-one but T-Dog had spared him a second glance as they’d left him behind; not even a second thought.

Even then, they gave up quick, huh? They weren’t far from you, they just didn’t bother, he spat, they barely checked around, because you’re not worth the trouble. Not even to Daryl.

Merle knew he was trembling, tears threatening to well in his eyes.

You gonna cry? I thought I beat that out of you, he laughed cruelly, you’re a pussy. You fucking faggot.

He flinched at the insults, they weren’t new to him but they still hurt. His weakened physical state made him weaker mentally and emotionally and he found himself feeling more sensitive than he usually allowed himself to be.

You’re worthless, Merle. No-one’s ever loved you. Daryl doesn’t love you.

Tears spilt at that, running down his temples and into his hair; into the gash on his head. He knew it wasn’t true, knew that Daryl loved him just as Merle loved Daryl, but it didn’t stop it from hurting. It’d always been something that niggled in the back of his mind, something he questioned in times when he was feeling low. He wasn’t a good brother and he didn’t know why Daryl loved him so much, often felt he didn’t deserve it, that Daryl would be better off without him. His throat and chest burned with emotion he rarely allowed himself to feel, usually quashing it with anger, but he was too exhausted to do that now. His heart was thudding painfully against his ribs and he knew he was sobbing silently, chest juddering. His father’s laugh reverberated in his ears, harsh and loud.

He slammed back into reality with a jerk at the touch of a hand on his sternum, and Sophia’s concerned face swam into his view. He gulped air and his eyes went wide as he gasped breathlessly, not realising that he’d stopped breathing. Her other hand came to rest on his cheek delicately, grounding him. Her voice pierced the veil, calling his name softly. He gazed up at her, brain latching onto the sight of her face. He was still petrified, unable to move or speak but slowly his heartrate calmed as he breathed harshly, tears slipping down his face freely. She said nothing about them, wiping them away gently and letting him come down at his own pace patiently, taking his hand and squeezing it softly. Finally, his heart rate had slowed and his breathing was evening out when he could finally speak.

“Ha-hallucination” he stuttered.

She nodded, understanding, before asking “what’d you see?”

“M-my father” he breathed, squeezing her hand weakly.

She seemed to put the pieces together and smiled at him.

“He’s not here” she said softly.

He nodded, letting those words permeate his mind and calm him down. Eventually he had the strength to sit up, feeling her hands touch his back as she tried to help him upright. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and then the meat of his thumb when they didn’t feel dry enough, sniffling, throat clicking as he swallowed. He was trembling a little, overwhelmed at the rush of emotions he’d just gone through and he sighed shakily before looking up at the cliff. Will had disappeared.

“Let’s try this again” he said determinedly.

He stood with difficulty, clenching his teeth at the pull in the wound on his side. Merle heard noise, the cracking of leaves close-by and was immediately on edge, eyes darting about the area. They were dragging, clumsy footsteps and he tensed as he realised that it was walkers. He hadn’t dealt with walkers since leaving Atlanta, always somehow missing them, or avoiding them like on the highway.

“Stay close” he said softly to Sophia, drawing her closer with a gentle grip on her shoulder, moving her behind him so she was between him and the cliff.

A walker stumbled through a bush to his left and he judged it, studying its movements. It was wearing a blue plaid over shirt and white long sleeved shirt with work pants, lips gone from its face in a grim, permanent smile, skin yellowed and dried out, and moved quickly, closing the distance between them steadily.

He reached for the knife and frowned, patting his waistband when he couldn’t find it, looking around the forest floor and spotting it a few meters away. He stumbled over to it, unsheathing it and hobbling back to Sophia to shield her again. He caught movement to his right in his peripheral vision and turned his head to see another walker appear, moving just as quickly as it spotted them. This one was dark skinned and wore jeans and a blue over shirt over a greying tee, eyes yellow and piercing, skin sunken over its skull. Sophia cowered behind him and he heard her whimper.

“Shh, it’s okay,” he soothed, “it’ll be fine, I’ll protect you.”

He watched the first walker as it descended on them, grabbing his shirt with strength he hadn’t anticipated and jerking him away from her, wrestling him to the floor. He found himself on his back, teeth gnashing in his face and he rolled the walker underneath him, straddling it. The knife sunk through the walker’s head and Merle stabbed again and again, ensuring that the walker was no longer moving before whirling to face the other as it advanced on Sophia.

She screamed, moving away from it and tumbling backwards over a fallen log with a terrified shriek of his name. Adrenaline spiked through him and he scrambled to his feet and ran, wrenching the walker back by the back of its grimy shirt. It turned on him quickly, fingers scrabbling at his shirt and digging into skin. The knife sunk into its head easily and he stabbed it multiple times before he pushed the corpse away from him, panting hard.

“Sophia?! Sophia, are you okay?” he called, voice panicked as he moved to clamber over the log to her side, breathless as he knelt beside her.

She nodded from her place on the floor, staring up at him, eyes wide.

“Were you bit?” he asked, hand coming up to pat her cheek concernedly, “talk to me.”

She shook her head and stammered out a “n-no… I’m okay.”

“Jus' shaken?” he asked.

She was in shock, nodding, taking his hand when he proffered it to help her up. They got to their feet and he grunted softly when she barrelled into him, wrapping around his waist in a tight hug. He hugged her back after a moment of hesitation, wincing at the pressure on his wound.

“Oh! Sorry!” she said, remembering his injury.

“It’s fine, sweetheart” he said.

They drew away from each other and Merle walked over and removed the knife from the second walker’s skull. He cleaned it in one of the pools before wiping it dry and sheathing it, returning it to its place in his waistband, adjusting it as it pressed against a newly forming bruise. They made their way to the base of the cliff once more, side by side. He eyed the sack, deciding ultimately to leave it behind, so they picked out a can of food and split it between them and he hurled their water bottles up to the top of the cliff before they started the climb again. They made slow progress, the skin of their hands becoming raw from gripping at vines, foliage and roots, from digging into rough, damp dirt.

They reached the top of the cliff, Merle sighing in relief and fatigue and rolling away from the ledge. He propped himself up against a log to catch his breath, head tipped back as he breathed, pulse thrumming in his ears. When he looked back down and took in their surroundings he frowned curiously at the sight of tracks, eyes following their path, distinguishing where they had come from and where they lead. They were unaffected by rain, so they were fresh.

“Look, horse tracks,” he said, pointing, “fresh, too.”

She frowned at them too, looking confused.

“Looks like they head that way,” Merle said, pointing deeper into the forest “definitely saddled. It had a rider. They stopped right here to look down.”

“What does that mean?” she asked.

“We’re gonna follow where they came from,” Merle said, “there must be a farm nearby.”

She nodded eagerly, looking hopeful and they rested for another minute before standing, collecting their water bottles and starting to follow the tracks. Merle realised that whoever had ridden through must’ve been through not an hour before; the tracks were clean, with no degradation around the edges. The path they followed was hilly and winding, well covered by the canopy above. He found himself having difficulty breathing and needed to stop and rest often, taking sips of water. He was completely wiped out from the climb, and everything else prior, he supposed. He had no idea where he had been getting his energy from beforehand but knew that his body was now rapidly going into shutdown. His heart was struggling and his brain was threatening to send him into blackout, and all he could do was focus on getting Sophia to the others.

They came up over a hill and saw a farmhouse and a barn in the distance, looking oddly pristine. He was immediately suspicious of it. Life had taught him not to take things at face value, to regard everything or anyone that was too nice with an air of distrust. Instinct told him to steer clear of the farm and he was about to disregard it and avoid it completely when he spotted the RV. He sighed in relief, knees threatening to give out as he faltered in his steps.

“Look, Sophia” he said, pointing.

“The RV!” she said excitedly, “we found them!”

“Home stretch, sweetheart,” he rasped, smiling softly, “we’re nearly there.”

They headed towards the farm house with purpose, watching the others and waiting for them to notice them. He saw Dale and Andrea at the RV, the glint of sunlight hitting a scope, while the others were milling around in the shade. Officer Friendly and Shane were speaking to Glenn and some stranger over the hood of a car. Merle’s eyes scanned the group for the only person he wanted to see and he sighed in relief when his eyes landed on him. Daryl was off to the side, alone, and Merle’s heart ached yearningly at the sight of him.

He had no idea how long it’d been since he’d seen Daryl, but he’d never been happier to see him. They were inseparable when they were together, and he knew that they’d be even more so from now on. She took his hand as they strode towards the farm, and he smiled back at her when she grinned up at him excitedly, pulling him along gently.

Chapter Text

Andrea spotted movement on the horizon, grabbing the binoculars from beside her and peering through the lenses. She stared in wonder at the sight of a man and child moving towards them, hand in hand. Andrea grabbed the rifle beside her, lying down to steady the scope and clicked the sight to zoom in and waited for the glare to clear. She nearly dropped the rifle upon seeing Sophia, then panned up and across to see Merle, much, much worse for wear, but alive. She made an excited sound, banging her hand on the top of the RV and drawing everyone’s attention.

“It’s Sophia!” Andrea exclaimed to the others, pointing, “and… and Merle!”

Everyone made a mad rush towards the two after a few dumbfounded seconds, staring in the direction she was pointing and laying eyes on the two of them. Merle saw the group running towards them so he let go of her hand, encouraging her to run to meet them. He lacked the energy to do the same, so he ambled forward slowly. Daryl hoisted Sophia up onto his hip and everyone ran to surround her, greeting her excitedly, expressing how worried they’d been, how they’d looked for her every day. Carol took her from Daryl as she reached them, hugging her tightly and spinning her around before falling to her knees and sobbing in relief. Another round of excited murmurs started and Merle realised that, like the others, Daryl was more concerned about Sophia’s safety than his.

See, I told you he doesn’t love you, his father sneered in the back of his brain, go on, go back into that forest and die.

His heart clenched in his chest in hurt but he smiled lopsidedly back at her when she smiled at him over her mother’s shoulder. It was getting hard to breathe and he could feel his body finally shutting down, giving up. He felt eyes on him, saw Daryl’s face scrunch in concern as he swayed dangerously, feeling the world spin before he collapsed to the floor, too exhausted to hold himself up any more. His breath was knocked out of him as he landed on his front heavily, blackness enveloping his vision as he heard Daryl shouting his name.

The others cried out in surprise and alarm as Merle crumpled with a thud and a rustle of grass and Daryl ran to him immediately, Rick and Shane following with an “oh, shit!” after a second of stunned silence while the others stayed back, watching concernedly.

“Merle…” Daryl breathed worriedly, rolling his brother’s unconscious form over onto his back.

Merle’s head lolled to the side lifelessly and Daryl gripped his face in his hands, stroking his cheekbones and temples with his thumbs anxiously, trying to coax him awake. Merle’s eyes rolled open briefly, dazedly meeting Daryl’s matching blue pair before they rolled wildly as he fought to stay conscious. He groaned as he felt fingers at his throat, checking his pulse, which thrummed unevenly as his heart struggled in his chest.

He felt arms crossing his back and hands pulling his arms around two people’s shoulders, careful of his stump, and felt himself being lifted between them and carried. He tried to walk with them, to take in his surroundings blearily, but had to shut his eyes as he was struck with vertigo.

“It’s okay, you don’t have to walk,” Shane said softly into his ear, “we’ve got you.”

Merle lost consciousness once more with a sigh, the two men bearing his weight easily between them as he slumped, boneless. Everyone watched as Merle was carried away, taking in how beaten up he was, the copious amounts of both dried and fresh blood that covered him. The gash on his head, his blood-soaked side, his missing hand; he’d been through hell.

Rick and Shane brought him to Hershel as quickly as they could and he had them take him upstairs to one of the bedrooms, placing him on a large bed. Patricia and Maggie immediately set to removing his socks and shoes and the leather cuff on his left wrist.

“I’ll get some’a his clothes” Daryl said, running off to his tent after casting one last glance at Merle.

Rick watched over Hershel’s shoulder as Merle struggled weakly against the women’s hands, moving in and out of consciousness sluggishly, not cognizant enough to parse anything happening but enough to know that he didn’t like it. They heard him mewl as the cloth around his stump was accidentally tugged, shrinking away from their hands and rolling onto his side, clutching the stump protectively against his chest.

“We have to soak that off,” Hershel said, walking to Merle’s side, “Maggie, Patricia please get a tub of salt water and some water for him to drink.”

The women left the room and Shane and Rick sat Merle up so Hershel could gently set to inspecting him as they waited for Daryl, Maggie and Patricia to return. Shane knelt behind Merle on the bed, hands gentle on his shoulders, making sure he wouldn’t tip over. Hershel dragged a chair over and sat in front of Merle, taking in the sight of him.

“What’s his name?” Hershel asked.

“Merle” Shane said, frowning concernedly when Merle made a weak noise in answer, head rolling backwards.

Hershel nodded and set to looking at him, undoing the vest tied around Merle’s waist, discarding it to fall to the floor before lifting his shirt to look underneath at his torso. Merle had lost a drastic amount of weight from the stress his body had been put through and was verging on skeletal, ribs and hipbones jutting from beneath his pallid skin, stomach beginning to concave.

“He’s very malnourished, I can see all of his ribs,” Hershel said, “skin is pale, starting to grey. Wound in his side, seems to go all the way through.”

Gentle fingers touched the skin around one side of the wound, following Merle’s ribs to touch the other side of it, noting the dark bruise stretching up Merle’s opposite flank. He pressed on ribs, testing the give of the skin there, deciding not to comment on the mess of scars on his torso or the way Merle flinched away from his touch instinctively, intercostal muscles contracting under the skin twitchily. Satisfied with his inspection, he looked at Merle’s face, fingers gently but briefly brushing skin.

“Gash on his head. Severely sunburnt,” he noted, “lips are chapped and bleeding. High temperature, heatstroke.”

He cupped Merle’s face in one hand and gently lifted an eyelid with the thumb of his other hand, inspecting his eye. Merle’s eyes opened at the contact and he blinked at Hershel confusedly, face scrunching in discomfort as he tried to move away from his hands with a weak grumble.

“Sockets sunken, irises hazy,” Hershel said, pinching the skin of Merle’s hand and seeing that it didn’t spring back, instead maintaining the shape he’d pinched it in, “severe dehydration.”

Merle tried to focus on Hershel’s face, eyelids drooping as his brain tried valiantly to keep him conscious. Hershel gripped Merle’s jaw softly, lifting his head, and Merle’s eyes snapped open as he flinched at the touch. His eyes met Hershel’s dazedly, pupils constricting and dilating sluggishly, and Hershel waited for him to focus before speaking.

“Merle, my name is Hershel,” he started kindly, but loudly enough that it permeated the thick fog in Merle’s brain, “we’re tending to your wounds. We have some water for you to drink.”

Merle’s brow creased and he nodded sluggishly before he drifted again, slumping back against Shane’s hands. Daryl returned with fresh clothes, panting with exertion from running, depositing them on the bedside table just as Maggie and Patricia returned. Hershel took the water and coaxed Merle awake, bringing the glass to his mouth and encouraging him to drink, tilting his head back carefully and supporting it in his other hand. Merle drank thirstily and quickly, trying to take the glass from Hershel but finding himself too weak to lift his arm. Hershel set the glass aside before bringing the salt water tub onto his lap.

“I’m going to soak the cloth on your arm off the wound” Hershel said.

Merle looked at him blearily before looking at the tub, swaying against Shane’s hands.

“One of you might want to steady him,” Hershel said, noticing how unstable he was, “give him something solid to lean against.”

Daryl jumped at the chance, climbing onto the bed and settling in behind him. Merle caught sight of him as he approached and watched him dazedly, staring at him almost in wonder as Daryl slotted his legs around his hips.

“Daryl” he said airily, smiling at him hazily as he cupped Daryl’s cheek uncoordinatedly in his palm.

Daryl smiled back, taking the hand in one of his own and squeezing it briefly, bringing his other hand to rest on Merle’s uninjured side. Merle melted into him with a frail sigh, pressing his face into Daryl’s throat, nose against his jugular. Daryl was struck by Merle’s rare show of affection and smiled at the contact, wrapping his free arm around Merle’s waist and squeezing gently. Hershel let the brothers sit like that for a moment before gripping Merle’s injured arm lightly. Merle extracted himself from Daryl’s throat at the sensation of his stump arm being gripped and pulled, watching as Hershel brought his arm towards the tub gently. Hershel frowned at the arm, noting just how much of the bandage was soaked through with pus and blood.

“How did you lose the hand?” Hershel asked, turning the limb over to examine it.

Merle swallowed dryly before saying “I… cut it off with a saw… hacksaw… cauterised it with an iron steak weight.”

Rick looked away guiltily, remembering the sight of the severed hand, the trail of blood, the skin-and-blood encrusted iron, the lingering smell of burnt flesh. Hershel nodded, lips pursed.

“How long ago was this?” he asked.

Merle shook his head unsurely, swallowing dryly.

“It’d be around ten days now” Rick said quietly at Hershel’s side.

Merle recoiled at the sound of Rick’s voice and raised his head to look at him, only now realising he was there. He had a sudden moment of clarity, eyes focussing on Rick and narrowing, piercing and deadly.

“You!” he hissed, eyes igniting with hurt and anger, “you left me to die!”

Fury gave him strength and he twisted his hand out of Daryl’s grip, drawing his fist back clumsily, intending to punch Rick. Daryl dodged the elbow as Merle drew it back and quickly gripped his wrist hard, wrenching it to Merle’s centre and squashing it against his sternum, using his other hand to tip Merle’s head back against his shoulder, hand around his throat.

“Fucking stop it, Merle” Daryl growled lowly into Merle’s ear, squeezing the column of muscle in his grip warningly.

Merle sat, squirming wrathfully in his hold, eyes intense and stormy as he glared at Rick, panting from exertion, before slumping against his brother, exhausted. He looked away from Rick with a sulky huff and Daryl’s hand left his throat, brushing it softly in a brief apology before sliding down to rest over his heart, pressing firmly but gently. He softened his grip on Merle’s arm, grasping his brother’s hand and feeling Merle squeeze back weakly. Hershel smiled bemusedly.

“Let’s get this cloth off,” Hershel said, “take a look at it and fix this up.”

Merle nodded before the limb was dipped in the water in Hershel’s lap, and he bared his teeth at the pain. The water immediately started to discolour, turning milky and then muddy. Hershel frowned, lifting the stump to inspect it before submerging it again.

“Maggie, Patricia, I need another tub or two for this,” he said “Patricia, please get my kit and Maggie, painkillers and antibiotics please.”

Hershel turned back to the wound, tugging gently at the cloth, feeling it give way a little. Merle winced, hissing as the cloth peeled away and raw flesh hit salt water, squeezing Daryl’s hand. Hershel looked up to get Merle’s consent before tugging at the cloth, pulling it away from the wound entirely and letting it sink to the bottom of the tub. Merle went rigid against Daryl for a moment, teeth bared as he gritted out a noise of pain, squirming.

The women returned quickly with two tubs, Maggie with pain killers and antibiotics and Patricia with Hershel’s kit. Hershel lifted the stump out of the water, frown deepening at the sight of greening pus over dark, red burns. The smell and the sight of it was horrendous and everyone gagged slightly, turning away. Maggie swapped out the tub for a fresh one before going to the bathroom and depositing the contents of the dirtied tub down the drain, discarding the soiled cloth.

“Good god” Shane said, gagging.

Merle started to breathe heavily at the sight of the stump, panic filling him. It was very infected and Merle knew that he would have to have more taken off the end of it. The memory of the saw was still fresh and he became filled with dread. Daryl slid his free hand up Merle’s shirt to rest once more over his heart, stroking the skin with a thumb as he shushed softly into Merle’s ear, trying to calm him down, glad that Merle couldn’t see his horrified expression.

Maggie handed water, painkillers and a dose of antibiotics to Daryl, who tipped them into Merle’s mouth, one after the other, getting him to drink water between them so he wouldn’t choke. Hershel submerged the stump in the fresh tub to soak as they waited for the pain killers to kick in. Merle drank the water proffered to him, sighing at the relief on his throat and slowly relaxed, slumping against Daryl, blinking groggily at his stump.

After giving the pain killers time to set in Hershel lifted the stump back out of the water, laying it on some gauze he’d placed across his knee when Maggie took the tub off his lap. He pulled on some gloves and Patricia handed Hershel a scraper from his kit and he raked it over the surface of the pus lightly, trying to see how deep it went. Merle’s eyes slammed shut as he tensed, screaming through his teeth, jaw clenching, fighting the instinct to kick. Daryl held him still as Hershel gently scraped layers of pus away, dabbing at the fluid with a wet wad of gauze, replacing the wad with a new one every time he wiped pus away.

Merle was sweating profusely by the time he’d managed to clean a section of pus away to reveal the wound underneath, red and enflamed and raw. Hershel could see the tip of Merle’s radius through the mess of burns, stark in contrast to the surrounding flesh.

“The stump isn’t looking good, Merle. It’s badly infected. I have to cut more off, it doesn’t seem salvageable,” Hershel said, “the burn goes down to the bone and it’ll never heal properly unless there’s flesh over it.”

“Hell no!” Merle rasped and started to hyperventilate at the thought, “no, I can’t! Not again!”

Merle’s eyes were wide with terror and he shook his head as he started to struggle in Daryl’s hold again, heart thundering wildly beneath his ribs. He maintained a panicked mantra of “no” as Daryl tried to shush him calmingly, brushing his thumb up and down his sternum, feeling terrible for restraining his brother when he was so frightened but knowing that it was necessary. The others watched on sympathetically, hearts aching at the raw fear in Merle’s eyes. Merle was rapidly spiralling into a panic attack, gasping for short, strangled breaths of air, trying to curl into a protective ball as he stared at the stump, tears threatening to spill.

Rick felt even worse for having left Merle behind. He’d been out of control but he’d never deserved this.

“Merle. Merle, hush now. Let’s continue soaking it in salt water for a few days, see what happens, but it’s something I’d like for you to think about, I won’t do it unless you say so,” Hershel said kindly, squeezing Merle’s knee pacifyingly, “it is, however, something you cannot consider lightly or disregard. This is badly infected, and from what I can see, you’re too weak right now to fight the infection and it will spread faster than you can heal.”

Merle calmed slowly as Hershel’s words sunk in and his gasping breaths turned into shaky inhales and exhales. He nodded fervently, almost hysterically at Hershel, grateful that he was being given a choice, even if he didn’t have much of one; the outcome would be the same. He’d already gone through it once and he was nowhere near ready to go through it again, though he knew he would have to, regardless, if he wanted to survive. Daryl’s grip on him lessened the more he relaxed and Merle settled against him once more, quaking bodily and squeezing the hand in his feebly as his fear dampened.

“First, let’s get you clean, patched up and into fresh clothes and then you can get some sleep and have a nice meal,” Hershel said, “take a bath, clear off the grime, and I’ll clean your wounds some more and bandage you up before you sleep.”

Merle nodded wearily, blinking tiredly as Hershel patted the stump dry with gauze, pressing and lifting the fabric so it wouldn’t agitate the raw flesh.

“I’ll help him get clean,” Daryl said, voice rumbling against Merle’s back, “bath still works, right?”

Maggie nodded, saying “I’ll start running one and get’chu a towel.”

She took the clothes on the side table with her to the bathroom, smiling at Merle kindly as she left. Merle managed one back, albeit weakly, while Daryl nodded his thanks to her.

“We have aloe for the sunburn, but the main thing is for you to keep drinking water, eat and rest,” Hershel said, “I want to hook you up to an IV to get you hydrated faster. I’ll hold off on a blood transfusion for now, but I suspect you will need one.”

Merle nodded in understanding.

“We won’t be starting dinner for a while, so you’ll have a few hours to sleep, but we’ll make sure you’re well fed,” Hershel said, “don’t hesitate to tell me if you’re feeling unwell, Merle.”

Merle smiled and nodded before weakly saying “thank you, Hershel.”

The older man smiled warmly, eyes crinkling at the corners, and squeezed Merle’s shoulder in a fatherly gesture that made the corners of Merle’s mouth turn downward so harshly that he had to bow his head to hide it. When he was young he’d dreamed that his own father would do that, tell him he was proud, that he loved him; but it had never happened.

Daryl seemed to sense his sudden distress and Merle shivered happily, memory dispelled, as Daryl’s hand pressed firmly over his heart and he squeezed him tightly, face pressed between his shoulder blades, hand in his own. He caressed the hand in his; he was back where he belonged, with his baby brother.

Chapter Text

Hershel left to check on Carl and look Sophia over while Rick and Shane helped Daryl get Merle into the bathroom, setting him down on the toilet before leaving the brothers to it. Daryl turned to look at Merle when they were finally alone, kneeling in front of him to press a lengthy kiss to his forehead, stroking the base of his skull softly with a thumb. Merle smiled and closed his eyes at the affectionate contact, looking tired and pale and thin. Daryl pulled back and they considered each other for a minute; their father’s voice in Merle’s head waning.

“I’ve missed you so much, been so worried bout’chu,” Daryl said, “we came back for you, but…”

He trailed off, eyes drifting to Merle’s stump. Merle’s mouth quirked remorsefully at Daryl’s troubled expression.

“M’sorry you had to see that,” Merle said, “I was desperate, Daryl. I had to get off that rooftop. I had to get back to you, baby brother.”

Daryl nodded, smiling, “I know. I’m just glad you’re alive.”

Daryl turned to check the level of the water in the tub, shutting the taps off to stop the flow of water before turning back and looking at Merle’s clothes, filthy and bloody. Merle looked down at his clothes apprehensively before he gripped the hem of his shirt, trying to lift it but struggling with the cloth, overtaxed muscles uncooperative. Daryl patiently took over, gripping the bottom of Merle’s shirt, pulling it up and over his head and depositing it on the floor, glad Merle’s shirt was sleeveless and didn’t require too much manoeuvring of his brother’s limbs to remove it.

There was a quick knock at the door and they turned to look as it swung open and Maggie stepped inside, a clean towel over her shoulder. She and Merle’s eyes met briefly before hers dropped to his torso and she blinked at the scars there, horrified, gasping in shock. Merle flushed at the prospect of being seen, eyes going wide as he gawked at Maggie and reached for his shirt to cover his chest and hide his scars away.

He instinctively used his right arm and banged his stump on the edge of the sink in his hurry, leaving a damp, red smear on the porcelain. Agony burst through him and he clutched the damaged limb to his sternum, squeezing his eyes shut and baring his teeth as he cried out. He let go of the stump in favour of fumbling blindly for his shirt, thankful when Daryl quickly pressed it into his hand so he could hide the worst of his scarring, holding the cloth over himself as a buffer.

He sensed his brother shift to shield him, blocking Maggie’s view of him with his own body and felt a surge of pride and affection at Daryl’s protectiveness. It was an odd feeling, being the one that needed protection, Merle was usually the one throwing himself in front of Daryl to protect him.

“I’m so sorry! I should’ve waited,” Maggie said, eyes wide, “here’s your towel, I’m so sorry!”

She left, shutting the door, gushing apologies before leaving quickly down the hallway. Merle slumped, letting the shirt fall to the floor again with a soft rustle. Daryl turned back to look at him and his eyes immediately landed on a giant scar that bisected Merle’s chest diagonally from shoulder to ribcage. Their father had gotten angry over running out of whisky and had beaten Merle bloody, screaming that he’d stolen it.

Merle noticed him staring and looked down at his body, at the purple web of scars covering him, at the raw wound where his hand should be, mouth quirking despondently as he hung his head. Daryl knew how he felt, both brothers hated being seen shirtless. It was different between them, they were comfortable with seeing and being seen by each other, but strangers were another thing. The origin of their scars was immediately apparent, and strangers loved to pry, to ask questions, to make assumptions.

Merle started to tremble and sniffled, wiping his nose with the back of his hand and swallowing thickly, throat tightening as he became upset despite his attempts to shove it down. Daryl noticed his distress, brow furrowing concernedly at Merle’s rare display of upset. He’d always had his suspicions that Merle was more self-conscious than he let on and this was confirming it. He shushed him softly, hand coming to rest on the side of Merle’s neck, stroking the skin under his ear fondly with his thumb for a second to get his attention.

“Let’s get you in the bath,” he said tenderly, trying to distract Merle from his thoughts, “think you can stand so I can get your jeans off?”

Merle looked at him, eyes meeting his brothers’ as he nodded, lifting his arms to rest over Daryl’s shoulders, mindful of his stump. Daryl’s hands secured themselves around Merle’s hips and he stood with him, allowing him to get a tight grip and solid footing before letting his hips go. Daryl’s fingers sought the zipper of his brother’s jeans, pulling it down and popping the button before parting the fly. He then gripped the hem of Merle’s jeans and underwear and tugged them down to mid-thigh, chuckling softly when Merle gasped and his face reddened at being exposed.

Merle was shaking with exertion by the time they were at his ankles so Daryl guided him to sit back down before he pulled them off over his feet; disregarding his brother’s nudity. Daryl helped him stand again and get over to the bath, arm braced across Merle’s scarred back, hand cupping his ribs. He kept him steady as he lifted one foot then the other into the bath and Merle sank into the warm water and moaned softly as he relaxed, enjoying the sensation on his skin. Merle’s head fell back as his eyes closed and he brought his stump to rest on the side of the tub, remaining hand covering his privates.

“Don’chu fall asleep on me” Daryl teased, voice soft.

Merle’s eyes cracked open and he smiled with a weak chuckle. Daryl smiled back, grabbing a few washcloths and dipping them in the water before wringing them out and setting them over the side of the tub.

“Head or body first?” Daryl asked, cupping water in his hands and letting it go over Merle’s skin.

“Body” Merle said softly, grunting as he sat up with his brother’s help.

Daryl buffed a damp cloth with soap before setting to cleaning Merle’s back in gentle circles, scrubbing grime away and revealing cream white skin and a lattice of dark, purple scarring. Merle gathered water in his hand, splashing his face and neck with it clumsily before rubbing his tired eyes. Daryl scrubbed diligently, rinsing and reapplying soap to the cloth as he went, ending his cleaning at Merle’s lower back, careful of the darkening bruise decorating his right flank.

Daryl grabbed a clean cloth and moved on to wash Merle’s arms and sides. Merle’s right arm was cleaned cautiously, stump avoided entirely, before his remaining hand was scrubbed spotless, over his split knuckles and between his fingers, where dirt had gathered and stuck stubbornly.

Merle lifted his arms, one after the other, limbs shaking with exertion as he allowed Daryl access to his ribs and armpits, squirming at the sensation of the cloth on sensitive skin. His injured side was cleaned carefully, Daryl loath to touch the wound, so he moved instead to Merle’s front, guiding him to lean back against the tub wall once more. Merle sighed and eyed him, remembering the past, their childhood.

“I used to do this for you,” Merle said quietly, “‘member that?”

Daryl snorted an amused laugh through his nose, nodding as he started running the cloth in gentle circles across Merle’s sunburnt collarbones, sloughing dried blood away. Merle was gazing at him affectionately with a small smile and Daryl returned the look whole heartedly; it wasn’t often that Merle looked at him like that. Daryl couldn’t remember when the last time was that they’d had a moment like this, or when Merle wasn’t high. He liked how clear his brother’s eyes were, coherent, barring the obvious exhaustion.

Daryl scrubbed Merle’s front clean, stopping as he dipped below Merle’s navel, hearing his brother’s breath hitch and feeling him tense. Instead of pushing it Daryl opted to move on and scrub his legs, moving quickly to Merle’s feet, chuckling deviously as Merle flinched away from the ticklish sensation with a weak complaint. He stopped quickly, grinning at his brother and handing him a clean, soap buffed cloth so he could scrub his own private parts clean as Daryl washed his hair.

He helped Merle sit up again before cupping water in his hands and wetting his hair, gently massaging soap over his scalp, mindful of the blisters on his hairline, before washing it away, making sure none got in his brother’s eyes. Lastly, he helped Merle lie back again before he got a fresh cloth and wiped his face clean, clearing grime out of the creases of his face gently, mindful of the burnt skin. When Daryl was finally finished, he sat back and crossed his arms over the tub, resting his chin over his arms and taking in the planes of his brother’s face.

“D’you wanna shave tomorrow?” Daryl asked.

Merle nodded tiredly, eyes drifting to him lethargically. They considered each other in silence, just enjoying each other’s company, identical sets of eyes meeting. After a minute of inaction Merle’s hand came up out of the water, airing dry for a few seconds before coming up to cup Daryl’s cheek, thumb swiping across his cheekbone fondly.

“Thank you, Daryl” he murmured tiredly.

Daryl smiled, eyes welling with happy tears, putting his hand over Merle’s. Merle smiled back, a slow, sincere stretch of his mouth; Daryl’s favourite smile. Daryl let his brother rest for another minute before he helped him out of the bath with some difficulty, sitting him back down on the toilet. Daryl drained the bath and cleaned the sides of grime while Merle towelled his bottom half dry. Daryl helped towel his top half dry before helping to reclothe him, pulling fresh, loose clothes over Merle’s battered form. Daryl brushed his cheek before he left to get the others, retrieving Shane to help get Merle to the bedroom, given Merle’s understandable attitude towards Rick.

Merle looked up at them listlessly as they entered the room, making to shift forward so they could access him better. He felt that kick in his chest again and his face fell as he realised what was about to happen, and in front of Daryl as well. He wished he could warn them, but could only manage an “ung” before the seizure started and he blacked out completely. Daryl and Shane shouted out in concern as his eyes rolled back and he pitched forwards, starting to convulse on the tiles. Hershel appeared at the door, taking one look at Merle before pushing them aside.

“Don’t restrain him,” he said softly but firmly, moving closer to Merle, “it’s a seizure.”

Hershel folded up the towel that Daryl had discarded over the side of the tub and put it under Merle’s head then stepped back, timing the seizure with his watch. Daryl bit at his thumb, staring nervously at his brother’s quaking form.

“Has he had seizures before?” Hershel asked.

“No, not that I know of” Daryl said, eyes never leaving Merle.

Blessedly, the shuddering stopped after two and a half minutes and Hershel rolled Merle into the recovery position before stepping back. Another minute passed and Merle came to with a groan, eyes sliding open as he frowned. He focussed on the others and attempted to sit up, crumpling to the floor again as his arm gave out, huffing in frustration as his limbs refused to cooperate. Hershel nodded to Shane, who moved forward, sliding an arm under Merle’s legs and placing Merle’s good arm around his neck before sliding his other arm under his back and lifting him up, bridal style.

Merle tried to feel angry about being carried like a damsel in distress or a child, opening his mouth to protest the motion, but blacked out at the sudden change in elevation, going limp in Shane’s arms. Shane carried him into the other room and laid him on the bed carefully before stepping back to watch Daryl and Hershel. Rick had seen them exit the bathroom and enter the bedroom and walked briskly down the hall to join them in time to see Daryl pulling sheets over his brother’s legs before turning to look at the others.

“He should be okay, Daryl,” Hershel said, “the seizure could have been caused by a lot of things. Heatstroke and blood loss come to mind.”

Daryl nodded jerkily, picking up a tube of aloe that had been placed on the bedside table and squirted a dollop onto his hand before rubbing it into the skin of Merle’s face, chest and neck. Hershel moved the chair to the side of the bed Merle’s injured arm lay on and lifted a tub of salt water onto his lap before he submerged the limb, watching pus lift from the wound, softened by the steam of the bath.

He took the opportunity to scrape at the pus lightly while Merle was unconscious, tutting and shaking his head as he noted how deep the wound went. The wound was cleaned and the others looked on in equal parts interest and disgust at it as Hershel worked and slowly the underlying flesh was revealed, raw and bloody and enflamed.

Merle slowly came to, peering up at Hershel and Daryl curiously. Daryl propped him up a little, putting a pillow behind his back. Merle blinked lazily, looking around the room, in a daze. Hershel got his attention by gripping his shoulder gently and Merle looked up at him enquiringly, eyes bleary.

“You’re waking up after a seizure in the bathroom,” Hershel said, “do you know my name?”

“Hershel” Merle said plainly, tongue thick in his mouth.

“And his?” Hershel asked, pointing at Daryl.

“Daryl” Merle smiled.

“And his?” Hershel pointed at Rick.

“Rick” he gritted though his teeth.

“Good. Now, is there anything else you need to tell me?” Hershel asked warmly, “anything else that could have caused this seizure?”

Merle pondered the question, considering everything that had happened in the time between leaving for Atlanta, being left on the rooftop, cutting his hand off, wandering the forest and arriving at the farm house.

“I’ve… been going through withdrawal” he suggested lowly, fingers seeking the edge of the blanket over him.

“Withdrawal from what?” Hershel asked.

Merle didn’t reply, opting instead to look away, looking down abruptly as he pursed his lips ruefully, fidgeting with the fabric in his hand, shame suddenly flooding him. It was a new experience, this shame, and he suspected that it was because he’d never been sober for this long before. He’d never realised how selfish and stupid he was being, how much it hurt Daryl.

Part of why Merle had such a hard time getting clean was because Daryl was the only one who’d ever cared enough to ask him to stop, the only person who’d ever given a shit about him. Neither of their parents had cared and Merle had fallen into the dark underworld of drugs easily, craving acceptance and affection in all the wrong ways. Daryl had been smart enough not to follow him down that rabbit hole.

“Merle, withdrawal from what?” Hershel asked again, “look at me.”

Merle felt like a child, expecting to see disappointment and anger in Hershel’s eyes when he looked up, swallowing anxiously. He only found kindness and patience there and was struck by how differently Hershel’s children must have grown up; if Maggie’s eagerness to help her father was any indication. He realised that Hershel was everything that he and Daryl’s father should have been. That they’d needed.

“Crystal meth… ecstasy…” he said, “pain killers… alcohol.”

Hershel nodded and said “thank you, Merle. Now, were you having seizures before this one?”

“I started having them after I cut my hand off, but I was alone so I thought I’d just been passin’ out,” he said, “Sophia said I had a few since I found her in the forest.”

“How many?” Hershel asked.

“I think a couple a day at least” Merle said, unsure.

“Anything else I should know?” Hershel asked, ever patient.

Merle hesitated, pursing his lips.

“I dissociated a lot before I found Sophia,” Merle said, “woke up in places I didn’t remember going. It was like blacking out, but I was still moving.”

Hershel nodded, humming, brow creased in interest, so Merle continued.

“I hallucinated just before we found the farm today,” Merle swallowed, recalling the hallucination, goose-bumps breaking out over his skin, hairs on the back of his neck standing on end, “I seized while climbing up a cliff and fell down and when I lay back to get my bearings…”

He trailed off and saw Daryl’s face scrunch in worry in his peripheral vision, and Merle knew that he knew what (who) he’d hallucinated. Hershel smiled kindly at him, reaching a hand out deliberately slowly in Merle’s vision and setting his hand on his knee gently.

“We’ll keep track of the seizures, they’re likely a combination of your drug dependency, heat stroke and blood loss,” Hershel said, “you should drink some water and get some sleep, we’ll bring you dinner.”

“Thank you, Hershel” Merle said with a smile, settling into the bed.

Hershel smiled back, gently rubbing burn ointment into the wound at his wrist before layering it with gauze then wrapping a bandage around it, securing the bandage with tape. He cleaned and stitched the wound on Merle’s head, wrapping a bandage around his head before moving to treat the wound on his side.

“I need this off so I can reach the wound on your side better” Hershel said, gesturing to his shirt.

Merle hesitated, reddening at the idea of being seen shirtless, glaring at Rick and Shane as they stared. They didn’t budge, unaffected by his gaze and he begrudgingly allowed Daryl to pull his shirt off, revealing his body. He ignored their stares, focussing instead on Hershel’s gentle hands as he turned Merle towards him to look at the wound.

“Here, lie on your side” Hershel said, coaxing him gently.

He lay down as instructed, so his back was now to Rick and Shane, whose silence spoke volumes as they gaped at his ruined skin. He could practically feel the hot glare Daryl cast at them, daring them to say something as he moved to protect Merle from their view like he had done with Maggie in the bathroom.

Hershel cleaned the wound quickly, sterilising it and flushing it clean before stitching it shut and taping gauze over the entry points. Daryl helped him sit up and a bandage was wrapped around his torso, compressing the wound a little. Merle lay back down on his back with a sigh, feeling much better than he had an hour ago, clean and comfortable.

Hershel produced an IV bag, a tube and a needle and Merle shuddered at the sight of it, cringing away; he didn’t like needles. Hershel smiled reassuringly at him as he wiped the crook of his right elbow with a swab of cotton doused in rubbing alcohol, thumbing at a vein there until it rose a little, hindered by how dehydrated Merle was.

Hershel attached the IV to the drip tube and hung it on the bed post before attaching the needle and turning to Merle. Hershel gripped his arm gently, rotating it so the crook was facing upwards and pulled it straight before setting the needle against it. Merle looked away, shutting his eyes and trying hard not to panic.

“Just a bit of pressure,” Hershel warned, and Merle gasped and winced at the sensation of the needle slipping into his vein, toes curling, “this’ll make you feel a lot better, Merle.”

Hershel taped the needle down to Merle’s arm and waited until the IV was running steadily before he, Rick and Shane left. Daryl stayed behind, speaking in soft, low tones with his brother until Merle drifted off into sleep, curled up on his good side, stump arm cradled on a pillow. Daryl sat by Merle’s side for another hour, stroking his forehead until Merle slowly settled and his brow unfurrowed, breathing evening out and deepening.

Daryl reluctantly left Merle alone, tucking the blanket over him before he went outside to get some fresh air, deciding to organise their tent and get it ready for when Merle inevitably grew sick of being confined inside the house. He was nearly overwhelmed when the others surrounded him as he walked out the door, asking after Merle.

T-Dog was itching to see him, to apologise, and the others expressed relief that he was alive, wanting to see him too. He nodded at them, waving them off and murmuring maybe laters and we’ll sees until they let him be, returning to what they’d been doing beforehand. Only Carol and Sophia remained behind and he paused in his step to listen.

“Can we bring him his dinner later?” Carol asked softly, “I want to thank him myself for saving my little girl.”

Daryl hesitated for a second before smiling and nodding with a soft “sure.”

Sophia smiled at him from her mother’s side, hugging her doll to her chest with one arm, other hand clasped in her mother’s. The gave their thanks before they too went back to what they’d been doing.

Daryl turned on his heel and approached he and Merle’s tent, a broad smile crossing his features. His brother was back.

Chapter Text

Daryl started setting Merle’s bedroll out, intending to wad extra bedding around the sides of the cot so Merle would be more comfortable and could support his stump as he slept. In his motions, though, he found multiple baggies of drugs strewn throughout Merle’s belongings and decided then and there to strip the tent completely. He knew it would hurt to see Merle yearning for the drugs, desperate for them, but he hardened his heart, and made the resolute decision that under no circumstances would he ever allow Merle to start using again.

He stripped the tent bare to its bones, turning everything inside out and upside down, piece by piece. Everything inside the tent ended up crammed to one side of it so Daryl could sort through the whole lot thoroughly and ensure that he hadn’t left any drugs unfound, planning to sort his checked pile on the other side of the tent. It was draining, but Daryl was determined to find every baggie, every pill.

He was so focussed on his task that he nearly jumped out of his skin when Shane and Rick stuck their heads inside the tent, Rick calling his name as they approached. He looked up at them, sitting back on his feet and sighing in exhaustion from the persistence of his search and from the heat of the tent, dropping the rucksack he was currently rummaging through onto his lap.

“Hey, I’m just gettin’ the tent ready for Merle,” he panted, wiping his brow with the back of his hand, “he’s gonna get sick of that bed real quick. He don’t like being cooped up… or coddled.”

Rick and Shane looked at each other, then took in the state of the tent, items of clothing and bedding strewn about haphazardly, sorted into two distinct piles either side of Daryl. Shane quirked an eyebrow questioningly.

“Redecoratin’?” he asked jokingly, an amused smile spreading across his face.

Daryl shrugged and pursed his lips, looking back down at the rucksack and spotting a small pocket he’d nearly overlooked. He dug his fingers into the pocket, retrieving a small baggie of blue meth. He sighed, holding the baggie up to look at it in the light that shone through the space between Rick and Shane’s shoulders. He tossed it into the ever-growing pile he’d made, heaped up in an old sack he’d found half-buried nearby.

He intended to burn the sack of drugs in the forest, well away from the camp and the others. Merle had been the one to teach him how to track people and animals alike, and Daryl was under no illusions that Merle would track his footsteps and find the drugs if he just buried them. He looked up at the pair apprehensively as they eyed Merle’s stash, faces astonished and more than a little impressed.

“Tryin’ to find all’a his drugs,” he said, “he’s real good at hidin’ things.”

The pair eyed the pile of drugs for another moment, noticing the size difference between Daryl’s ‘checked’ and ‘unchecked’ piles before returning their gazes to him. Daryl hesitated, not wanting to bear all and reveal just what he and Merle had been through as kids, but they had to understand his brother to be able to accept him into the group.

Merle was a very difficult man to get close to, to bond with, but once Merle let someone in he was extremely protective of them, almost to the point of having no self-preservation. Daryl had lost count of the amount of beatings Merle had taken for him over the years, all without hesitation. Merle had never held the beatings against him, had easily taken it in stride and Daryl suspected that Merle had felt he deserved the beatings more than Daryl. He knew that Merle was more than capable of love, he just had a hard time showing it.

“He just… needs a little forgiveness, is all… a little patience and understanding…” Daryl said quietly as he fidgeted with the fabric of one of Merle’s old, worn shirts, trying to make them comprehend what he was getting at, “he’s not a monster, I promise you. He’s just… a very damaged man. He’s so much more than he appears to be.”

The pair looked at each other, to the pile of drugs, and then to the floor before returning their gazes to him again, seeming to have come to an agreement. They both remembered the sight of the skin of Merle’s ruined back, had also seen the ends of Daryl’s own scars peeking out from his clothing and had quickly put two and two together.

In their field of work, they’d seen numerous accounts of child abuse and could only imagine what the Dixon brothers had gone through in their childhood. Merle’s behaviour had suddenly made a hell of a lot more sense and while it didn’t excuse his actions, it brought to light exactly why the brothers were so different to the rest of the group.

“Want some help?” Shane asked, “we’re kinda pros at this.”

Daryl was stunned for a second before he smiled, nodding his thanks and moving over so the other two men could fit inside the tent with him. They both stepped inside, taking their places on the floor and setting to work. Slowly they worked through the brothers’ belongings, adding to the piles as they went, sure to be thorough. They got through just over three quarters of the unchecked pile before tiring and deciding to turn in for the night as they began to lose daylight.

“I’ll pick this back up in the mornin’,” Daryl said with a sigh, “wanna keep an eye on Merle overnight. Won’t need the tent till after tomorrow probably…”

“We’ll help out again if you’d like,” Rick said before gesturing toward the drugs, “you gonna bury ‘em?”

Daryl shook his head, sorting pain killers and antibiotics out of the pile and setting them aside to pack up and give to Hershel.

“Naw, he’ll track my footsteps and find ‘em,” he said, “gonna go deep in the forest and burn ‘em. Ain’t takin’ no chances. Thanks for yer help, I’ll meet up wit’chu for dinner.”

The two ex-officers nodded, smiling as they left with companionable claps to Daryl’s shoulder. Daryl smiled after they left, packing the painkillers and antibiotics into a plastic bag and putting it in his pocket. He gathered the remaining drugs, shaking his head at the sheer amount of them and took the sack into the forest, making good ground before stopping nearly a kilometre in.

He cleared away dead leaves and branches and set the sack down, covering his face with his shirt before setting the sack alight with a match. He watched it burn, feeling guilty and relieved all at once. It felt like betrayal, in a way, to burn Merle’s drugs without his consent or knowledge, but he knew that it was necessary.

He would deal with Merle’s ire later, would help him through his withdrawal, and would ensure Merle knew that he had a support system and that he wasn’t alone during it. Daryl knew that Merle had an especially hard time staying clean. He silently promised him that he’d help him avoid relapsing and make more of an effort to ensure that Merle knew that he was loved.

The sack of drugs burnt quickly and Daryl waited till it was burnt off until he stomped out the stray embers, ensuring he wouldn’t set the forest ablaze. He tossed dirt over the scorched sack, stomping it a few more times for good measure before he turned and walked back to camp, dropping into their tent and collecting a fresh pair of clothes. He walked to the house to wash himself of the acrid smell of burnt meth and ecstasy and to replace his clothes.

He washed himself quickly, scrubbing off the pungent smell before drying off, heading downstairs and depositing his clothes in the dirty clothes pile to be washed in the morning. He gave the painkillers and antibiotics to Hershel before he went back upstairs again to sit with Merle, poking his head into the room and gazing fondly at his sleeping form, still curled in the same position. He shut the door behind him, watching Merle silently for a minute before moving closer.

Merle was a contrary creature while asleep. In waking he was loud, brash, and in constant motion, larger than life, but in slumber he was near silent, snuffling quietly as he breathed, unmoving and unbelievably unimposing. He’d never dreamed that he’d ever see Merle look so breakable. Without all his waking bravado, he looked smaller and much more fragile; especially now that he was missing a hand and had lost a significant amount of weight.

Daryl pulled the chair up beside the bed, reaching over and stroking Merle’s forehead gently, smiling tenderly when Merle’s eyebrows rose and he hummed softly, chasing the hand as it left when Daryl sat back to look at him. Merle was rarely openly affectionate, and Daryl knew that it was because of their childhood, and that Merle equated touch with pain; a result of their father’s methods of raising them. Love made Merle uncomfortable, but he had his own way of showing Daryl his feelings.

Daryl’s eyes fell to Merle’s hand, enamoured by the way his brother’s fingers curled gently as he relaxed in sleep. He reached out after a moment of hesitation, taking the appendage in his own and swiping his thumb over the knuckles a few times before pressing his mouth to them. Merle’s fingers flexed in his grip, thumb mirroring his movements unconsciously. Daryl drew back and rested his head against his outstretched arm, eyes fixated on Merle’s hand for a while before drifting to Merle’s face.

Merle’s eyes rolled under their lids frenetically, his brow and lip twitching every now and then as he dreamt. Daryl smiled at his brother’s sleeping face, tilting his head and daring to reach forward with his other hand and cup Merle’s cheek in his palm. He sat for a few minutes, stroking Merle’s cheekbone with his thumb, smile widening when Merle nuzzled his cheek into his palm. He sat like that for a while, just watching his brother’s features as he slept, appreciating the experience.

Daryl jerked in surprise as someone knocked on the door, and sat up to see Maggie open it slowly and walk through it. He removed his hand from Merle’s face carefully and rose a little, just enough to reach over Merle and tug the blanket up, covering his back up to the nape of his neck, hiding him from view. She smiled at him before her eyes raked over Merle’s silhouette, an unreadable look crossing her face.

“Dinner’s ready,” she said softly, “we made stew.”

He nodded with a muttered “thanks” and she left with one last glance at Merle.

Daryl sat for another minute before standing to leave, hesitating before grazing his mouth against Merle’s temple, nose brushing his hairline. Merle sighed at the contact, fingers curling around his in an almost imperceptible squeeze and Daryl’s heart swelled happily. He removed his hand from Merle’s grip reluctantly, taking his pulse briefly at the wrist before walking around the bed to leave, shutting the door silently.

Daryl walked downstairs to join everyone in the dining room, listening as they talked, recounted stories and told jokes throughout the meal, forgetting the outside world for a while. Slowly, everyone finished up and Daryl caught Carol and Sophia’s eyes before going to the kitchen to give his bowl to Lori to clean. He gave his thanks to Patricia, Maggie and Beth for cooking before he dished up a bowl for Merle, grabbing a spoon and a glass of water and putting them all on a tray.

He handed the tray to Carol when he returned to the dining room and the mother and daughter stood to follow him upstairs, leaving the others to continue in their stories and laughter. Merle was on his side with his bare back to them and Daryl cursed himself when he saw that the sheet covering Merle had dropped around his waist again. Carol gaped at the older Dixon’s disfigured back, looking at Daryl, horrified.

“Don’t mention ‘em” Daryl said lowly, grateful when Carol nodded, complying.

Daryl went into the room first, gripping Merle’s shoulder gently and saying his name quietly into his ear before rubbing a hand up and down his ribs to coax him awake, careful of his wounded side. Merle was warm, but not clammy, and colour was returning to him slowly, skin losing its pallor; Daryl was pleased at the change. Merle snuffled and his eyes slid open as he peered over his shoulder at him sleepily. He smiled slowly and stretched his back, arms and legs leisurely with a series of pops.

Merle rolled onto his back with a yawn and then a sigh as he relaxed into the bed, face peaceful and open. He flushed as he realised Carol and Sophia were in the doorway, good arm coming up to cover the scars that criss-crossed his chest, and Daryl helped tug the sheet up over Merle before Carol and Sophia came closer.

“You’re okay!” Sophia smiled, climbing onto the bed beside Merle to hug him gently, arms wrapping around his neck.

“Sure am, sweetheart” he said, voice gravelly, and he returned the hug with a smile, good hand rubbing her back.

Sophia broke the hug and climbed off the bed before Carol put the stew down on the bedside table and moved closer. She adjusted the tray, eyeing him before turning to face him with a soft smile.

“How’re you feeling?” she asked, eyes and voice soft.

“‘Bout as good as I look” Merle joked, smiling lopsidedly, still looking tired and a little wan.

“We brought you some dinner,” she said, “you must be starving.”

“Certainly am,” he rasped, nodding, “thank you.”

She moved closer, leaning over him and Merle flinched away as she came uncomfortably close, anticipating pain, eyes squeezing shut, fist clenching and moving to protect his face instinctively. She hesitated as he recoiled, waiting for him to open his eyes again before she continued, and he was dumbfounded into stillness when she pressed a brief kiss to his temple. He blinked, stunned, cheeks and ears burning. He couldn’t even remember his own mother doing that.

“Watch out, I got stitches” he mumbled, suddenly very focussed on watching his fingers as they started picking at the blanket over him.

“You need to know something,” Carol said softly, “you did more for my little girl this past week than her own daddy ever did in his whole life.”

Merle tensed even further at the praise, fighting the sentiment with every cell in his body. His father laughed loudly in his head, taunting him, and his brain flooded with self-deprecation. He felt entirely undeserving of her kind words. Merle’s instinct was to deflect and he acted on it, throat tight, chest aching.

“I didn’t do anything the others wouldn’t have done” he muttered.

“I know,” she said plainly, sincerely, “you’re every bit as good as them. Every bit.”

Merle swallowed thickly, eyes burning as tears welled up, unbidden, and he blinked them away harshly. He’d never been told that he was good. He saw the devil in himself sometimes and it was easy to play into it and embrace it. He didn’t feel that he deserved compassion. He had always been the black sheep, the outcast, unworthy of affection or kindness.

“Thank you for saving my little girl, Merle,” Carol said, “for keeping her safe, for getting her back to me.”

Merle nodded briskly, picking at the blanket anxiously, unable to meet her eyes. She seemed to understand his inner turmoil, smiling at him. Daryl patted his uninjured side before he helped him sit up and propped him up with a pillow, sitting him against the headboard so he could eat, and Carol picked up the stew, moving to hand it to him.

Merle took the bowl from her eagerly, setting it in his lap before realising that he had no way of holding it while he used the spoon. The drip in the crook of his arm meant that he couldn’t cradle it there, and his side was tender so he couldn’t just bend down. He faltered, feeling a rush of frustration and embarrassment before Daryl, bless him, picked the bowl up out of his lap without a word. Daryl sat on the bed with him, pressed close, and Merle watched him stir the stew.

Daryl smiled at him, eyes soft and so fond that Merle felt his heart beat faster, brain tingling with a rush of dopamine. There was an odd expression on Carol’s face too, one that Merle had never seen directed at him. He’d seen it on his mother’s face, directed at Daryl, but that expression was never meant for him. It was tender and loving and it made him acutely uncomfortable, made his skin itch, made his eyes water. He looked away from her, unable to stand that gaze, feeling entirely unworthy of it.

He looked up again, breaking out of his reverie as Sophia took his hand, squeezing it gently before letting it go and letting Carol do the same, taking it in both of hers and lifting it, massaging the palm briefly with her fingertips and the top with her thumbs. She was smiling at him, that discomforting expression still etched into her face, eyes affectionate as they took in his features silently.

He felt something stir in his chest and worried for a second that another seizure was coming, but he smiled back at her uncertainly as it dulled. She gave one last squeeze to the appendage before setting it down against the bed gently, brushing a hand over his forehead before he could turn away. Sophia giggled as he reddened again, and he felt a little better. The mother and daughter left, shutting the door behind them softly and heading downstairs to join the others.

Daryl held the bowl out in front of him, encouraging Merle to take the spoon himself, chuckling light-heartedly when Merle’s coordination was off and he struggled with the utensil. Merle was only able to eat a few mouthfuls before he became drained, spoon drooping in his grasp as he struggled to lift his arm and maintain his grip.

Daryl pulled the bowl away, setting it down between them before carefully adjusting how Merle sat and sitting back down with him so they faced each other, pressed thigh to thigh. Daryl picked the bowl up again, gathering a spoonful of stew and offering it to Merle, holding it in front of his face patiently.

“Thanks, Daryl” he said quietly before taking it into his mouth.

Merle finished the stew, careful not to eat too quickly after going without substantial food for so long, not wanting to make himself sick. Daryl leaned over him when he was done, putting the empty bowl down on the tray on the bedside table with a soft clunk.

Merle rubbed his stomach with his remaining hand, sighing serenely and sinking into the bedsheets, relaxed and content. Daryl offered him water and he drank gratefully, handing the glass back to him after he’d gotten his fill and Daryl shifted so they were sitting side by side against the headboard.

Hershel entered the room with a soft knock at the door, greeting them warmly. The older man detached the IV bag and its drip tube, leaving the needle line in Merle’s arm in case they needed to use it again later. Merle was grateful; while the needle was uncomfortable in his arm, the discomfort of another going in would be worse.

The brothers lapsed into companionable silence for a while, just enjoying each other’s company, pressed together closely.

“M’gonna stay here with you tonight,” Daryl said eventually, breaking the silence, “keep an eye on you.”

“Sleepover, huh?” Merle snickered, happiness blooming in his chest when Daryl laughed.

Merle turned his head to face him, frowning concernedly when Daryl refused to meet his eyes, instead looking resolutely at his hands, which were fidgeting with the hem of his shirt. Merle nudged him with his elbow carefully, mindful of the needle in his arm. Daryl looked over at him, lips pursed, and Merle raised a questioning eyebrow in response.

“I… I’m strippin’ the tent,” Daryl said hesitantly, broaching the subject, “I’ve gone through more than half of our stuff already.”

Merle had a feeling that he knew where this was going and his face went blank, instinctively and uncontrollably. He saw Daryl bristle nervously at the change in his facial expression before he squared his shoulders bravely.

“I’m getting rid of the drugs,” Daryl said plainly, maintaining eye contact, “I don’t want you taking them anymore.”

The part of him that had been itching for the drugs since he’d been left behind flared up angrily, sudden and toxic, an inferno blazing across his amygdala. However, a larger part of him, a muddled, hazy mix of thankful, relieved and fond, won out as Merle forced the anger down, realising that Daryl only meant to protect him. It was no small feat for him and he saw relief wash over his brother’s face as it dissipated, then pride as he conquered it. It was something he’d never achieved before; anger had always won.

“Thank you, Daryl,” he said quietly, and he was surprised that he meant it, “really.”

“I’m gonna help you through this,” Daryl said softly, reaching up to pat his shoulder, “I believe in you.”

Merle swallowed, astounded by the conviction in Daryl’s voice and he removed his brother’s hand from his shoulder, clasping it in his own with a smile.

They started up conversation again, natural and easy, coming to them like they’d never been separated. Merle grew tired so Daryl helped him lay down on his side once more and he settled into the bed with a deep sigh. Daryl sat against the headboard, running fingers through Merle’s hair briefly, nails scratching at his scalp in steady circles for a minute before he withdrew his hand. Merle looked up at him, blinking tiredly.

“You should get some sleep too,” Merle said, “you look tired, Daryl.”

Daryl seemed to hesitate before nodding, knowing that Merle was right. He climbed off the bed, walking around it to turn the lights off, kicking his shoes off as he returned to his side of the bed. He lay down beside Merle, pulling the blankets up over them, laying on his side to face his brother, waiting for his eyes to adjust in the dark so he could see him.

“I’m sorry, I haven’t been a good brother,” Merle said suddenly, “you deserve better.”

“You’ve always tried to do right by me, Merle,” Daryl smiled, “I just wanted my brother back, and here you are.”

Merle looked away, nearly imperceptible in the darkness but he looked back quickly, swallowing his pride and his discomfort. Daryl took in Merle’s face, noticing the hesitation in his eyes, in the purse of his lips and the clench of his jaw. The reluctance seemed to dissolve as Merle gathered his thoughts, eyes darting over Daryl’s face from feature to feature.

“I love you, Daryl” Merle said softly, genuinely, eyes glinting affectionately in the dark.

The younger Dixon was stunned and it must have shown on his face because Merle looked away again, flustered. Daryl was still for a second, tears welling up and heart pounding in his chest as he let the phrase and the sound of his brother’s voice reverberate through him, committing it to a special part of his memory so he’d never forget it.

Daryl shifted forward with a shaky exhale and pulled Merle toward him so they were pressed chest to chest in a gentle but firm hug, ignoring the way Merle tensed at the touch. Merle had never said those words before, had probably never heard them directed at him either. He buried his face into Merle’s shoulder, breathing in his scent, grounded by the feeling of Merle’s heart beating against his chest.

“I love you too, Merle” Daryl said into his ear, sincere and a little breathless.

Merle swallowed thickly and tucked his face into his brother’s throat, enjoying the warmth there as he wrapped his good arm around him. He didn’t have the strength to feel self-conscious about it as he broke down, choking up as he started to weep quietly into his brother’s skin. Daryl rubbed gentle hands up and down Merle’s back, feeling Merle shudder against him, sobbing, warring between craving and rejecting his touch.

Merle hadn’t cried since he was six years old. It was cathartic and he felt raw; more vulnerable than he’d ever felt before in his life as Daryl shushed him, muttering it’s okays and I love yous into his hairline, holding him while he wept, thumb brushing his ear.

Merle quieted down after a minute and they lay together in silence, Daryl’s fingers stroking at the base of his brother’s skull and between his shoulder blades while Merle’s brushed the nape of his little brother’s neck. Merle started to drift off to sleep and woke himself up enough to draw away from his brother, already missing his warmth as he put distance between them. Daryl looked at him, concerned, shifting back to give Merle room.

“I might seize in my sleep,” Merle clarified, voice rough, “don’t wanna hurt you, baby brother.”

Daryl smiled, understanding, happy to take his brother’s hand instead, thumb brushing rhythmically over his knuckles. Merle squeezed his hand faintly, smiling contentedly. He blinked at him sleepily before his eyes drifted shut and his hand went lax in Daryl’s.

“G’night, Dar” Merle murmured as he dropped off.

Daryl watched Merle sink into a deep sleep, face relaxing, and he soon found himself following suit.

“G’night, Mer” he sighed, relishing the feeling of his brother’s fingers curling around his own.

Chapter Text

Daryl woke gradually to the slow, steady, circular brush of Merle’s fingers on his wrist and sighed. He opened his eyes, taking in Merle’s face as he watched the play of his fingers on his little brother’s wrist. He smiled when Merle’s eyes drifted to meet his own, smile widening when Merle blinked dozily at him, eyes half lidded, a slow, broad smile creeping over his face.

“Mornin’” Merle said softly, voice raspy.

Daryl couldn’t help but grin at Merle’s sleep-rough voice, at the way he looked in the morning light filtering through the curtains. At the way Merle’s fingers continued to brush his wrist.

“Mornin’” he replied, shifting his hand to brush Merle’s wrist in return with his thumb.

The skin there was soft and pliant, still sleep-warm, and he felt Merle shiver at the contact, eyes fluttering closed. They laid there for a long while, lazy and content, enjoying the quiet and the way the sunlight cast a soft glow throughout the room. Merle dozed and woke a few times, taking naps between bouts of soft conversation, still drained from the past ten days’ journey, weakened by his injuries.

As Merle dozed again Daryl mused that they hadn’t shared a proper bed since they were kids, and had certainly never had the luxury of a lie in. Their parents had been too poor (or neglectful, his brain supplied) to afford two beds for their sons, so they had slept together on a ratty, single bed mattress in their dingy, poorly lit room until Merle had left home. They’d shared everything as kids and it came easy to share everything now, weapons, food, kills.

Merle was quite a lot older than him, had been well into his teens before Daryl had started school, had practically become an adult before Daryl had even started puberty. He had taught him every survival skill he could, had taught him how to track and hunt and clean kills, to cook, to purify water for drinking. Merle had even taught him how to determine the direction of North from the angle of the sun, how to get home if he got lost.

His eyes drifted to Merle’s bare front, taking in the scars that he had seen innumerable times before, but had never failed to cause a heavy feeling in his gut. They’d patched each other up multiple times over the years, though less and less frequently as they grew older and as Merle flitted in and out of juvie, then jail, then as he disappeared on benders, high out of his mind. Daryl had been left to patch himself up on his own, but then he supposed Merle had too, before Daryl had been born, he’d been all alone.

There were scars on Merle’s torso that Daryl hadn’t heard the story of, that Merle had never been comfortable with sharing the origin of, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. Merle’s scars drifted much further south on his body than Daryl’s did, dipping well below his belt line, and Daryl had never known what to make of that information. Some of Merle’s scars alluded to deep wounds that hadn’t healed properly, had likely been reopened multiple times, ignored and left to heal without much needed medical aid. Their father had had a penchant for beating his sons in the same spot, over and over again, a sadist to the core.

Daryl’s eyes drifted to his brother’s face when he made a small noise, watching as Merle’s brow spasmed and furrowed and he mumbled in his sleep, muscles bunching and trembling under his skin as he dreamt. His eyes travelled rapidly under the lids, darting feverishly under the thin skin there.

“No...” Merle murmured, “no...”

Daryl’s skin broke out in goose bumps at his brother’s fearful tone, heart sinking. Merle was prone to nightmares, often woke in a cold sweat, breathing hard, eyes wide and suspiciously teary, though he had always rolled away, wiping his eyes, so Daryl could never be sure.

“No… don’t hit him,” Merle whined, voice going high at the end, “don’t… don’t hurt him… please…”

Daryl’s mouth quirked in upset at realising that Merle was dreaming about him; their father hitting him. Merle had always been his protector, had always put on a brave face for him, even when the skin of his back was being split by a belt, his face bruised by a fist, his ribs broken by a well-placed boot to the side. Daryl had been forced to witness Merle being subjected to horrific beatings, often as a result of his own misbehaviour, but Merle had never held it against him, had offered his own skin in his place without hesitation.

Daryl had also never seen Merle cry before the night prior. His brother had always been resolutely blank faced throughout whatever punishment their father had dealt out. He had never truly considered the toll the abuse, and Merle’s stubborn indifference to it, had taken on his brother’s mental health but it was painfully obvious now just how much it had affected his psyche.

He didn’t know how he’d never seen it. How he’d never seen how quickly Merle dissociated when faced with any emotional connection. How Merle deflected any kindness shown to him. How Merle purposefully sabotaged any liking someone had taken to him by ramping up his bad behaviour. How Merle disguised all of the above with toxic, rambunctious bravado, loud and mean and rude; everything that he wasn’t in private.

The Merle that Daryl knew was nearly completely the opposite when they were by themselves. He was sensitive and preferred to keep to himself, to while away time on his own. Merle was also much, much smarter than anyone realised or gave him credit for. People expected the street-smart side of Merle but nearly no-one knew that Merle was an avid reader, that he loved books, would get lost for hours on end in a story.

Merle was also good with his hands, performed maintenance on guns and cars and his bike regularly and professionally, despite never having been formally taught how to. He’d taught himself through trial and error and through reading, curious and adaptable, learning all on his own. Daryl had no doubt that had Merle had the chance, had he been nurtured and supported, he’d have become an excellent mechanic.

Instead, he had been neglected and mistreated and had so easily written himself off as a failure, too young to understand that it was not him that was the problem. Merle had learnt to hate himself, had resigned himself to the fact that he was innately bad and had been born that way. And the rest was history.

“I’ll be good… please… I’ll be good…” Merle whimpered, a tear running over the bridge of his nose to drip to the bed, “please, don’t hurt him…”

Daryl’s eyes were suddenly wet so he wiped them with the back of his free hand, maintaining the steady brush of his thumb over Merle’s wrist with the other, knowing it was better to let him go through it than to wake him. It was hard to watch Merle while he was under the clutches of nightmares, in a practised hush borne from not being allowed to make noise as a child.

Merle settled once more, brow unfurrowing as he sighed and the dream passed. He slept peacefully for a while, and Daryl found himself drifting to thoughts of their childhood at the sight of Merle’s face, appearing younger in sleep. He ruminated on better times, the good times, back when Merle would take him fishing, take him hunting. Merle teaching him how to shave. Merle teaching him to ride a bike, drive a car, ride a motorcycle. Merle presenting him with his first crossbow and teaching him how to load and shoot it. Their first drink together.

His reverie was broken by Merle moaning an unintelligible noise, sudden and loud, eyes rolling open and looking at him for scarcely a second before they rolled back in their sockets. Merle started convulsing and Daryl sat up and put space between them, moving away quickly to give Merle room. He remembered Hershel keeping time of the seizure in the bathroom so he started a count in a whisper, voice shaky.

The seizure was vicious and seemed to go on for an eternity as Merle’s movements shook the bed and rumpled the sheets. Merle slowly came down from the seizure and once he was still Daryl took the time to rush downstairs to find Hershel, bringing the older man back upstairs with him after Hershel requested Maggie bring a tub of salt water and his kit for him. Hershel sat in the chair beside the bed and took Merle’s pulse at his good wrist, counting the beats for a silent few minutes.

“How long did the seizure last?” Hershel asked, looking to Daryl.

“Three minutes,” Daryl said, “twenty-six seconds…”

Hershel nodded, smiling warmly before turning back to Merle and carefully lifting an eyelid, watching Merle’s pupil’s response to light, turning his head back and forth with his other hand before shutting it again gently. He then pressed the back of his hand to Merle’s forehead, then his throat, feeling his temperature and the clamminess of his skin. Daryl sat on the side of the bed opposite Hershel and took his brother’s hand, fingers seeking the pulse point.

“His pupils are sluggish and his pulse is weak,” Hershel said, “he has a bit of a temperature, might be the beginning of fever.”

Daryl’s lips pursed at the mention of fever while Hershel set to inspecting Merle’s stump, unwrapping bandages and lifting gauze to peek underneath. It looked significantly worse than it had the night prior and Hershel shook his head at its rapid deterioration as Daryl stared at it, lost and fearful. The gauze was already soaked through with pus, the wound beginning to darken around the edges as the infection ramped up in its intensity, rearing its ugly head.

“This seizure lasted longer than the one he had last night,” Hershel said, “the infection is getting worse very quickly.”

Daryl’s face crumpled and he started to chew at the tip of his thumb fretfully. Hershel reached across, patting his knee, trying to pacify the younger Dixon. Maggie entered the room with the tub of water, setting it on her father’s lap before opening his kit on the bedside table, ready to hand him his equipment as he asked for it. He slipped gloves on and took tweezers from Maggie.

Hershel pulled the bandages away completely, depositing them at the end of the bed before gingerly removing the gauze with the tweezers, noting the way it had gummed to the wound with pus. He removed the gauze, turning the limb over carefully and inspecting the spread of the infection, tutting softly at the sight of slough surrounding the wound. Merle’s radius had peeked out of the end of the wound another half a centimetre and the ulna was making its presence known, pushing through the pus dampened flesh.

Hershel submerged the limb, prying gently at the surface of the slough until it lifted, taking the flesh underneath with it in chunks. He removed the limb from the water, setting it down on gauze before trying again to remove the slough, dampening it little by little with a fresh wad of gauze each time he wetted it. Slowly the slough softened enough for Hershel to scrape it off without taking good flesh with it and the older man meticulously cleaned it as best as he could.

Hershel sat back, shaking his head as he looked at the limb, at the bones sticking through burnt, enflamed flesh, at blood and pus seeping anew through to the surface. Daryl’s eyes flooded with tears at the sight of it and he chewed his thumb anxiously. Hershel gently patted the wound dry with wads of gauze before he dabbed ointment over the burns meticulously. He then layered gauze over the wound and wrapped it once more in clean bandages before turning to look at Daryl.

“I’ll take another look at his stump later,” Hershel said, “let him rest, we’ll bring up breakfast in twenty minutes with more antibiotics and pain killers.”

Daryl nodded and whispered his thanks, continuing to chew on his thumb. Hershel squeezed Daryl’s shoulder, then Merle’s knee. He left with Maggie and they took the tub and kit and dirtied medical supplies as they left the room. Daryl looked at his brother again and noticed that a light sheen of sweat had broken out over Merle’s brow, beading over the skin to run down over his temples.

Daryl picked Merle’s shirt up and moved to lay back down again carefully, tentatively taking Merle’s hand in his as he looked at his face. He dabbed sweat away periodically with the shirt, mouth quirking worriedly as Merle started to pant, eyes rolling agitatedly under their lids. Merle was burning hot, skin twitching with minute shivers.

Merle woke fifteen minutes later, opening his eyes slowly to consider Daryl for a minute before clarity came to him and he smiled, squeezing his brother’s hand. Daryl smiled back, lip wobbling as he fought back his upset. Merle caught it anyway and gave him a questioning look, brow furrowing.

“You had a seizure,” Daryl said, “the infection is getting worse.”

Merle’s eyes drifted to his freshly bandaged stump and looked at it miserably, turning it this way and that. It dropped back to the bed as he became too exhausted to keep it up. He swallowed dryly, tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth briefly.

“Someone will be bringing you breakfast soon,” Daryl said, “do you want some water?”

Merle nodded, eyes closing as he frowned, spine arching briefly as he became agitated by the fever. Merle removed his hand from Daryl’s grip as he rolled onto his back, making a noise of discomfort. He continued to shiver and sweat, breathing quickly and heavily, head rolling restlessly as his distress didn’t abate. Daryl climbed off the bed, walking around it to pick up the glass at the bedside table, leaving the room quickly and running downstairs to fill it with water.

Daryl bumped into Maggie and Hershel in the kitchen and smiled at them. He smelt the oatmeal and honey before he saw the two bowls of it, stomach rumbling at the smell of it, inviting and warm. He filled the glass in his hand, drinking it quickly before refilling it to take it up to Merle, pausing to talk to Hershel.

“He’s awake, but he’s really uncomfortable,” Daryl said, “he’s beginning to sweat and pant.”

Hershel nodded, lips thinning. He picked up the oatmeal, his kit and the painkillers and antibiotics and Daryl followed him upstairs, nodding to Maggie as they left. Merle was staring at the ceiling when they entered the room, sweating profusely as he shivered, chest rising and falling rapidly. He didn’t seem to realise that they were there, eyes unfocussed.

“Merle” Hershel called quietly, setting the oatmeal down on the bedside table.

Merle didn’t respond so Hershel moved closer, placing a hand over Merle’s sweat-damp forehead, the skin there burning hot. Merle took a few minutes to respond to the touch, eyes sliding slowly to look up at Hershel. He blinked listlessly, swallowing dryly as he pressed further into Hershel’s palm, the flesh feeling cooler than his own.

“Would you like some water?” Hershel asked softly.

Merle nodded weakly and Hershel and Daryl helped him sit up, propping a pillow behind his back. Hershel helped him drink, bringing the glass to his lips and regulating his intake so he wouldn’t choke, giving him doses of painkillers and antibiotics between mouthfuls. Merle drank the whole glass down thirstily and Daryl ran downstairs to fetch another, filling a jug while he was at it and bringing that with him as well. When he returned Merle had a thermometer under his tongue and was staring vacantly at the bedsheets.

Hershel offered Merle more water as he removed and read the thermometer, taking the glass away when Merle was satisfied and handing it to Daryl to put on the bedside table. Daryl peered at the thermometer with Hershel and they both frowned at the reading of 103. Merle was oblivious to their concern, eyes tracking apathetically around the room in slow sweeps, sweat running down his face and gathering in the dip of his collarbones to trickle down his sternum. Hershel set the thermometer down, picking up a bowl of oatmeal and turning back to Merle.

“Merle, we have breakfast for you” Hershel said.

He repeated the statement when Merle gazed at him, uncomprehending. Merle’s eyes fell to the oatmeal before drifting back up slowly.

“Thank you” he said raspily.

He reached out with his right arm, the limb hanging in mid-air before Merle slowly remembered that he couldn’t use it. He sighed, retracting the arm before reaching out with his left hand, taking the bowl from Hershel’s grip and setting it in his lap. He struggled with the spoon for a second before gathering a spoonful to bring to his mouth, wincing as he pulled on the stitches in his side as he bent down.

Daryl moved to sit at his side, taking the bowl out of his lap and holding it, taking the spoon from his grip after another mouthful, when his brother began to shake from exertion and from the shivers that wracked him. Merle relaxed, going nearly boneless after a few mouthfuls, calmed by the warmth and the sweetness of the oatmeal, weighty but not heavy in his stomach. Hershel smiled kindly at the pair before standing to leave.

“Let me know of any changes,” Hershel said, “I’ll be back to check on you soon, Merle.”

“Thank you, Hershel” Daryl said softly, meeting the older man’s eyes.

Merle nodded his thanks around a mouthful of oatmeal, already looking more alert, eyes clearing slowly of their haze and they too met Hershel’s before the older man left. Merle ate steadily, still hungry, and lay down once he was finished, sighing contentedly and curling up beside Daryl as he set the empty bowl aside and took his turn to eat. Merle’s hand came up to rest on Daryl’s chest as Daryl lounged, fingers stroking at his shirt-covered sternum.

Daryl ate his oatmeal slowly, appreciating the hint of sweetness that the honey brought to it and the warmth it left in his chest. He sat contentedly beside his brother, enjoying the sunlight seeping into the room and the play of Merle’s fingers on his chest, the emotional bond they were building. He set the bowl aside, stacked in Merle’s, when he was finished, shifting to lie down beside his brother with a deep sigh.

Merle yawned, peering up at him sleepily before he smiled and moved closer of his own volition, pressing his forehead to Daryl’s ribs, good arm coming up so his hand rested over Daryl’s heart. Daryl took the appendage in his own hand, squeezing it and delighting in the drowsy squeeze he got in return as Merle dozed off again.

Chapter Text

Merle’s fever slowly abated, giving his overheated, overtaxed brain a much-needed respite for a little while. It was short lived, however, lasting for only a scant twenty minutes before ramping up again, sudden and vicious, leaving Merle trembling and whimpering in his sleep. Daryl stroked a palm affectionately over his head, trying to calm him a little as he shook through it, sweating and panting as his skin heated up rapidly.

After a short cycle of fitful sleep Merle’s eyes rolled open and then went wide, his mouth opening in a soft gasp and then snapping shut with a click of teeth. He wrenched his hand from Daryl’s and shifted away gracelessly, weakly, rolling away and onto his back, breathing strained and frantic. His fist clenched in the sheets, twisting agitatedly in the linen.

Daryl was about to ask him what was wrong when he pitched into ferocious convulsions yet again and Daryl’s stomach dropped. Another seizure, within an hour of the last, was surely not a good sign, he thought as he shifted away to give Merle more room. He started another count, watching his brother’s body jerk fiercely, tears welling up in his eyes. The bed squeaked as Merle’s weight shook it, floorboards below complaining at the movement.

The seizure subsided and Merle relaxed once more, dozing off again peacefully. Daryl’s throat clicked as he swallowed and he wiped his eyes dry before climbing off the bed and walking out the door, heading downstairs to find Hershel conversing with Rick and Shane. They turned to acknowledge him, finishing up their conversation before looking at him expectantly.

“Merle just had another seizure,” Daryl said, trying to will his voice not to crack, “lasted about the same as the last one.”

Hershel frowned concernedly, looking to the floor, thinking, before leading Daryl down a hallway, trailed closely by Rick and Shane. On the way Hershel collected a face cloth and dampened it with water, wringing it out before they headed upstairs. They walked into the room and saw Merle resting on his back on the bed, visible down to mid-thigh, having kicked the sheet off in an unconscious attempt to cool down.

Hershel moved closer, lifting an eyelid gently and pulling his hand back when Merle’s eyelids slid open and he turned his head to look at him, eyes unfocussed and half lidded, only somewhat aware. Hershel smiled at him, using the damp cloth to sponge sweat away from Merle’s burning forehead and then the side of his neck, under his ear, feeling Merle’s Adams apple bob against his wrist when he swallowed. A light sheen of sweat covered him, collecting in the dip of his sternum, the hollow of his throat, and his eyes slid closed at the touch of the cool material against his skin.

Hershel sponged the cloth over his forehead carefully a few more times before putting it aside and taking his wrist gently. Merle’s eyes slid open once more, watching Hershel’s fingers as they sought the pulse point there, pressing lightly. Hershel counted the beats there for a few minutes before sitting back and taking Merle in with his eyes, roving over him quietly. He retrieved the glass of water from the bedside table, filling it from the jug, watching Merle lick his lips thirstily as he eyed the glass.

Daryl helped his brother sit up and Hershel helped him take a drink of water, nodding encouragingly when Merle requested more. Merle denied a third glass before he started staring emptily down at his legs, blinking frequently, pupils blowing out large. His hand clenched and unclenched spasmodically, stump shifting restlessly, mindlessly, and Hershel frowned, calling Merle’s name softly. Merle was very slow to respond to his name, turning to face him lethargically.

Merle’s head quivered as he trembled minutely, staring in Hershel’s general direction, gaze blank, and Rick and Shane’s skin broke out in goose bumps. His mouth dropped open a little, tongue tracing the backs of his teeth for a while as his mouth caught up with his brain, opening and closing irregularly. They realised that he was chewing on his tongue lightly, completely unaware that he was doing it. His eyes fluttered shut and then open again and suddenly there was clarity in them.

Merle made a series of garbled, nonsense noises in place of words and frowned before trying again with the same result, slurred and heavy. Rick and Shane stared apprehensively, faces displaying their concern. He made an upset noise at not being able to articulate what he wanted, disconcerted and a little desperate, and Daryl instinctively moved closer to comfort him, rubbing his back, other palm coming to rest over his brother’s heart. Merle’s hand came up to cover his, natural and automatic, fingers dipping into the cup of his hand to caress his palm.

“It’s normal to have difficulty speaking after a seizure,” Hershel said reassuringly, “and it’s normal to feel upset and frustrated, take all the time you need Merle, it’s okay, there’s no rush.”

Merle nodded and fell silent, leaning against Daryl and gathering his thoughts, testing the movement of his tongue silently over vowels and consonants. He slowly regained some of his faculties and looked up at Hershel to try again.

“I need help to the bathroom,” he said, slurring over his words, cheeks flushing with shame, “please. I can’t do it by myself.”

“Of course, Merle” Hershel said warmly.

Hershel moved away and Shane moved closer while Daryl helped Merle swing his legs over the bed, voicing his concern when Merle tried to stand, his legs shaking in exertion before they gave out. Shane caught him easily, bringing him up to stand, bearing his weight effortlessly on his own. Daryl took Merle’s other side and they supported him between them as they helped him to the bathroom, mindful of his wounds, the needle in his arm.

Shane lifted the toilet lid and they shuffled slowly to stand Merle in front of the toilet before Shane handed Merle to his brother and left them to it, shutting the door behind him with a parting smile. Merle’s arms rested over his brother’s shoulders and Daryl’s hands sat on his waist, supporting his weight as they stood. Daryl looked at Merle expectantly and Merle looked away self-consciously, flushing with humiliation, feeling awkward that he needed help with this.

Merle’s hand drifted between them and he plucked shakily at the drawstring of his pants, fingers clumsy and weak. Daryl noticed his struggle and reached down to pull it undone with ease, smiling when Merle huffed, frustrated with his uncooperative body, putting his arm back over Daryl’s shoulder for support. Daryl hooked his thumbs in the waistband of Merle’s pants and pushed them down over his hips, which were leaner than they should have been, had ever been.

Daryl lowered Merle slowly to sit on the seat before smiling at him and turning around, busying himself with looking at the wall while Merle relieved himself. They’d camped and hunted together since they were kids, for thirty-odd years, and so they never got a shy bladder around each other. Merle was glad for that because he’d needed to take a leak since he’d woken up. He was thankful that he hadn’t pissed himself during his seizures.

He remembered wetting the bed as a child and subsequently being beaten black and blue for it. The beatings had only made it worse as he developed night terrors and it’d turned into a vicious cycle until Merle had finally stopped out of sheer force of will. He remembered his father’s enraged face so vividly, the way he bared his teeth, spittle flying from his mouth as he yelled, the hatred in his eyes. He heard his name being called, muted and garbled, like he was underwater.

He didn’t realise that he was hyperventilating, hallucinating, and lurched back into reality when Daryl’s hands were on his cheeks and his worried face was swimming into his vision in place of their father’s angry one. He focussed on Daryl’s eyes, full of such concern and tenderness that he could never have mistaken them for their father’s. They all shared the same eyes, but Daryl’s had never shown that anger towards him, the absolute loathing he’d seen in them every day, that he saw in his own in the mirror.

Not yet, you stupid faggot, his father laughed, he’ll realise soon enough how worthless you are.

Merle’s lip wobbled and he let out a huffing sob, tears rolling down his face, unbidden and unwelcome. He focussed intently on Daryl, eyes darting from feature to feature, trying to ground himself as their father burgeoned in the back of his brain, bullying his way in and barbing relentlessly at the hate circuit of his brain. Self-loathing ramped up, dark and heavy, fierce and unyielding. Daryl’s thumbs brushed his cheekbones and he felt a little better as Daryl spoke, voice soothing in his ears.

“You okay?” Daryl asked, voice soft and concerned, eyes so full of genuine care that Merle’s heart hurt.

Merle sighed shakily, nodding as he swallowed dryly, hand coming up to wipe his eyes dry with the meat of his thumb. Daryl smiled and pulled back to give him space, seeming to understand, ever patient and sweet. Merle felt a surge of affection towards him and realised that there was no reason to keep this from him.

“I was hallucinating…” he said quietly after a second of hesitation, “saw dad... heard him too…”

Daryl’s eyebrows raised a little in surprise, at his answer or at his openness, Merle wasn’t sure. Daryl smiled, hands moving to cup his jaw, then his neck.

“Been hearing him a lot lately…” Merle mumbled, eyes dropping to the side to stare at the tiles, “he tells me I’m worthless.”

“He ain’t here, Merle,” Daryl said tenderly, “he can’t hurt us no more. You ain’t worthless, you never have been.”

Merle smiled wobblily, letting out an unsteady breath, and Daryl smiled back warmly before turning away again with a pat to his knee, standing and moving away to give him room again. Merle finished up, turning to flush the toilet with a wince at the pull on the stitches in his side before letting Daryl help him up. He put his arms over Daryl’s shoulders and Daryl’s hands fixed around his waist and they stood together.

Daryl made sure that Merle had solid footing before he reached down and pulled Merle’s pants and underwear up over his hipbones, tying the drawstring loosely before securing his hands back around his brother’s hips. They turned and Merle washed his hand in the sink with Daryl’s help before they repositioned themselves so they had an arm around each other, Daryl’s around Merle’s waist and Merle’s good arm over his shoulder, secured by Daryl’s other hand around his wrist.

They made their way out of the bathroom, shuffling slowly as Merle’s legs trembled under his weight, threatening to give out. Shane met them halfway, supporting Merle’s other side with a smile to the brothers and they moved together to the bedroom. Merle sighed as he settled back into the bed, eyes sliding closed briefly before they opened again to watch Daryl as he climbed onto the bed beside him, sitting by his side.

Merle smiled at his brother fondly before he felt a wave of fatigue, humming softly as he dropped off into sleep, loath to do so, but helpless to the pull of it. After a while Rick and Shane left with quiet goodbyes and Hershel and Daryl watched Merle silently for a while longer, monitoring the gentle rise and fall of his chest.

“He had a hallucination in the bathroom…” Daryl said softly after a while, quickly, like he was ripping off a band-aid, “our father… he told him he was worthless.”

Hershel peered caringly, curiously, at him, nodding his appreciation at Daryl’s openness, smiling in a way that made Daryl’s chest ache. Hershel seemed to understand immediately and they lapsed into silence again, companionable and easy.

“I think you should go and get some air, take a walk outside for a while,” Hershel said to Daryl after a minute, voice fatherly and kind, “maybe have a nap in your tent, eat some fruit. Maggie picked some peaches.”

Daryl’s eyes slid to his brother’s unconscious form and he opened his mouth to voice his objection but Hershel held up a hand to silence him.

“Please, Daryl, get some air, at least for half an hour,” Hershel said, touching his knee, “I’m going to be right here with him and Maggie and Patricia are nearby. He’ll be safe, I promise you.”

Daryl stared at his brother, lips pursed as he wavered, wholly opposed to leaving him, especially since he was so unwell. He looked back to Hershel and decided after a few seconds of searching his kind face to put his trust in him. He nodded, acquiescing, and climbed off the bed before walking around to the other side of it to leave. Hershel smiled up at him as he walked around, nodding his approval.

Daryl paused as he passed, eyeing Merle’s sleeping form for a hesitant second before moving to his brother’s side, cupping the side of his neck in a palm and pressing his lips to his forehead with an accompanying stroke of his thumb under his ear. Merle’s lips quirked unconsciously into a smile at the contact and he leant into his hand and Daryl couldn’t have felt embarrassed about the kiss if he tried.

He withdrew, just as quickly as he’d approached, and made for the door, pausing with his hand on the frame before turning back and catching Hershel’s eye.

“Please let me know if anything happens,” Daryl said, “I’m gonna finish stripping the tent, get it ready for him.”

Hershel nodded, smiling kindly, and Daryl left, moving down the stairs slowly, yearning badly to be back by Merle’s side, but knowing that Hershel had a point. He needed a little break. Daryl stepped outside, squinting at how bright the sun was but enjoying the heat on his skin, the fresh air in his lungs.

He and Merle thrived outside, loved the smell of fresh air, the feeling of the sun on their skin. He took a deep breath and stretched before heading towards their tent, nodding with a small wave back when T-Dog waved at him across the way friendlily.

He set to sorting through their belongings once more, thorough and careful, discarding the drugs he found into an old shirt that he didn’t mind burning with them. Rick and Shane showed up halfway through his search and together they conquered the pile of possessions, chatting idly throughout in a way that Daryl found, surprisingly, that he didn’t mind.

Rick and Shane followed him into the forest and together they watched the drugs burn up, covering their faces with their shirts as they stood at a distance from the acrid smoke the fire produced. Daryl kicked dirt over the residue of the fire once it had burned out, burying the charred remains of his shirt and the paraphernalia that had ruled (and ruined) Merle’s life for decades.

They headed back to the farmhouse together, joining the others and enjoying the fresh fruit that Maggie had picked. A while later Maggie came up to them and they turned to look at her as she approached. She smiled softly, reassuringly, but there was a small amount of apprehension in her eyes that made Daryl nervous immediately.

“Hey, your brother just had another seizure,” Maggie said, “he’s sleepin’ again now. His pulse is okay but the fever’s comin’ back pretty awfully.”

Daryl’s chest clenched hard, face dropping worriedly at her words and he moved towards the house quickly, heart thudding painfully in his chest at the thought of Merle in danger. He thundered up the stairs and into the bedroom, eyes searching for his brother immediately, alighting on his restless form. He could hear Maggie, Rick and Shane following him, running up behind him.

Merle was sweating heavily, streams of sweat pouring off his face into his hairline, pooling in his sternum to run down over his ribs. His chest heaved as he panted hard and fast, gasping for air, throat rasping dryly. His eyes moved rapidly under their lids, agitated and frantic.

“No, no!” Merle whimpered, “no… no!”

He moaned, head tossing from side to side and Daryl broke out of his spell, moving closer swiftly to sit on the bed beside his brother, brushing his forehead with a palm. Merle whined at the touch, arching into the coolness against his forehead, beginning to mutter lowly, the noise nearly inaudible.

Daryl shushed him softly, stroking his forehead as he looked at Hershel anxiously.

Chapter Text

Hershel held Daryl’s gaze calmly, maintaining eye contact for a few seconds before looking to Merle’s stump. He gripped the forearm gently, feeling the muscles under his hold twitch agitatedly at the contact as Merle’s overstimulated nerves shot agony up to his brain. Merle whimpered, arm twitching in Hershel’s soft grip as he tried to pull it away weakly.

Hershel waited for Merle to settle down again before gently unwrapping the bandage from around the arm, tutting and shaking his head at how damp the cloth was; already soaked through with pus. He retrieved tweezers from his kit and lay gauze underneath the limb before gingerly lifting away the gauze he’d layered over the arm as he’d dressed it; similarly saturated with pus and tinges of blood.

Daryl swallowed anxiously at the sight of the limb as it was revealed and saw Rick and Shane’s eyes widen at the sight of it, saw Maggie tear up and Hershel’s lips purse. The remaining carpal bones that had been hiding in the mess had pressed their way to the surface and were pulling the wound taut as they tried to escape alongside his ulna and radius, the heads of which were now both visible and were stark against the ruined flesh surrounding them.

Pus oozed steadily from the surface of the wound, beading up through the raw flesh and making it shiny and slick. It appeared to throb with Merle’s pulse, swollen and reddened and undoubtedly tender. Hershel dabbed moisture away, drying the wound as best he could with as little pressure as he could. Merle gave a distressed whine despite the gentle contact, brow furrowing deeply, remaining fist clenching.

He kicked out unconsciously and Shane immediately climbed onto the foot of the bed, holding Merle’s legs down by the shins with a light grip. Merle made a high, panicked noise at being held down, and shuddered as he tried to move away from the touch, fighting against the hands around his shins weakly. Shane looked alarmed and looked to Daryl, who was just as startled by the noise; at a loss for what to do.

“His nerves are overstimulated so his brain is sending a pain response with every touch,” Hershel explained calmly as he pulled the last of the gauze from the wound, “the fever is making him confused, he doesn’t know what’s happening.”

Shane let go of Merle’s legs, careful not to jostle them, sitting back to look at him, relieved when Merle relaxed again. Daryl withdrew his hand too, heart clenching in sympathy when Merle tried to chase it with a whimper as it left his forehead.

Merle’s eyes slid open, finding Daryl instantly and he reached out clumsily, hand coming to rest on his brother’s cheek. His pupils were blown wide, blue irises nearly overtaken with black, and Daryl’s skin broke out in goose bumps at the awed, dazed affection in them. They drifted over his face aimlessly for a while, silently and slowly, before Merle spoke.

“Daryl…” Merle mumbled fondly, tongue heavy, “my baby brother…”

Merle’s fingers brushed his jaw as he stared at him, thumb stroking uncoordinatedly on his cheek. It lasted for mere seconds before Merle became too drained to hold his arm up and Daryl cupped Merle’s hand against his face and moved closer as his brother’s arm went limp. Merle stared at him dazedly, blinking lots, a mellow smile crossing his face. It was disconcerting to be the subject of such vacant observation but he smiled back none the less.

A switch seemed to flip on in Merle’s brain and his gaze drifted numbly to the ceiling before he started looking around the room, eyes landing on Shane, then Rick, then Maggie, and finally Hershel, who smiled at him kindly. Merle managed a weak smile back before trying to lift his head to see what Hershel was doing to his arm.

Daryl let go of his hand and propped him up a little, putting a pillow behind his back so he could lean against it. Merle’s eyes roved over the wound dimly and he pursed his lips at the sight of it, turning it over to look at the underside; at the way the infection was steadily spreading up his arm.

“Not looking good,” he said plainly, emptily.

“No, it’s not” Hershel agreed, dabbing fresh pus away.

Merle sighed shakily, rubbing his eyes and pinching the ridge of his nose, wincing when Hershel dabbed at the wound with antiseptic, wiping excess away with fresh gauze. Merle looked back at the stump as Hershel layered it with clean gauze and wrapped it in a bandage. Hershel retrieved the thermometer and put it under Merle’s tongue, nodding approvingly at the result of 98.

“You seem a lot more alert this time around,” Hershel said conversationally, looking closely at his pupils, which had gone back to almost a normal dilation, “your fever has subsided for now, how are you feeling?”

“Weak,” Merle breathed, “tired…”

Hershel nodded, smiling thinly as he prepared his next words carefully. Merle knew what was coming and held his gaze bravely.

“The stump needs to be amputated, Merle,” Hershel said, firmly but not cruelly, “it’s deteriorating faster than anticipated.”

Merle’s lips thinned into a tight line as his eyes dropped to look at the mattress. He was silent as he reached out and grasped the sheet he’d kicked off, pulling it back over himself with a wince at the pull on his stitches. He could practically feel Daryl’s eyes on him, the desperate pleading in them. The others were looking at him expectantly and he hiked the sheet up higher, covering his chest self-consciously.

“I…” he said quietly, hesitantly, “I’m not… ready.”

He felt Daryl bristle beside him, upset and anxious at his answer, saw Rick and Shane rub the backs of their necks, saw Maggie tear up and Hershel’s lips thin. He shook his head, setting his jaw as he studied Hershel’s eyes, needing to get his point through.

“I’m not ready to go through that again,” Merle said, voice wavering, “it was agony, like no other pain I’ve ever experienced.”

“You can’t win against this infection, Merle, even with the antibiotics. It’s spreading faster than you can fight it,” Hershel said, voice calm, “this is a very bad infection. You’ll die if you leave it much longer.”

Merle breathed out shakily before swallowing.

“I know…” he said faintly, “just… give me a little more time, please...”

Hershel’s eyes glinted compassionately as they moved over his face, considering him.

“I’ll give you another hour to think about it,” Hershel said as he stood, “I’d like to be able to give you a choice, Merle, but this is the only course of action that we can take.”

Hershel left with Maggie, who smiled kindly at him, and Rick and Shane took their leave too with friendly smiles of their own. When they were alone Daryl turned on him heatedly, staring at him pointedly, eyes bright with frustration and unshed tears. Merle met his exasperated gaze tiredly, smiling weakly.

Daryl didn’t return the smile. Instead, his brow furrowed further and he glared at his brother as if that look alone could change Merle’s mind. The glare diminished slowly into a sad, pleading gaze, and Daryl let out a shaky sigh as he sought out Merle’s hand, eyes dropping to the appendage before he took it in his own.

“I can’t lose you, Merle,” Daryl said softly, “please let Hershel help you…”

Merle’s heart clenched at Daryl’s devoted stare and he had to look away from him, feeling undeserving of Daryl’s dedication to him.

“Can you get me some water?” Merle asked, changing the subject.

He heard Daryl huff beside him, exasperated, felt his eyes darting over his face, teary and imploring. Daryl squeezed his hand regardless, affectionate and slow, before letting go and getting up, climbing off the bed.

“Of course” Daryl said quietly.

He picked up the jug and the glass, tucking them in the crook of his elbow before leaving Merle alone in the room, pausing at the door to look at him with a parting smile that Merle returned tiredly. Daryl went down the stairs and wiped his eyes with his free hand as he descended, finding them suddenly damp at Merle’s reluctance to let Hershel save his life. He was upset at Merle’s decision, had been upset at most of Merle’s decisions in his life, but this took the cake.

He understood why his brother was averse to the idea, understood that the prospect of ad hoc surgery was terrifying, that the thought of enduring that pain again was petrifying, but he desperately wished that Merle would realise the importance of going through with it. How close he was to succumbing to the infection.

Daryl filled the jug with water, drinking a few glasses himself before topping it up and making to return to his brother. He walked up the stairs slowly, trying to think of something to say to make Merle change his mind, to at least consider the operation.

He paused in front of the door, steeling his face before opening it and setting the jug and glass down on the bedside table, refusing to look at Merle. He caught himself, realising that it was childish and that Merle had every reason to be reluctant about the surgery, that he was scared and in pain and felt helpless. He rationalised that his sudden cold demeanour was probably making Merle feel bad about himself too, was probably making him believe that what their father said was true, so he looked up.

Merle was staring forward into space, pupils dilated to the very edges of his irises, leaving barely a millimetre of blue visible. He was silent and still, face slack and eyes unfocussed, mouth open slightly, hand limp in his lap. Daryl’s eyes widened before he frowned and touched his brother’s shoulder, calling his name softly, shaking it roughly and calling his name more forcefully when there was no response.

“Hershel!” Daryl hollered loudly, voice apprehensive.

Hershel appeared through the door a minute later, looking worried.

“What’s happened?” he asked, eyes darting between the brothers as he shifted closer.

“He’s gone blank,” Daryl said, breathing faster as he began to panic a little, “I left him for a minute to get him some water and came back to this...”

Merle was still blank faced, eyes staring emptily forward. Hershel frowned as he noticed that Merle had suddenly broken out into a sweat again and was shivering as the fever returned, rapid and ferocious. He quickly inserted the thermometer into Merle’s mouth under his tongue, ready to pull it away if Merle started seizing, waiting for the result before pulling it out to read it, shaking his head.

“He’s developed a very dangerous fever,” Hershel said, “he’s at 107.”

His fingers found the pulse in Merle’s uninjured wrist, measuring his heart rate for a minute before he withdrew, quickly shifting Merle to lie down flat. Daryl moved closer to help him, watching worriedly, looking between Hershel and his brother anxiously. Merle’s eyes flooded with lucidity, going half lidded as he blinked sluggishly. He focussed on Daryl before he swallowed dryly and reached for him with a whimper before his spine arched off the bed in a violent jerk.

Merle started to convulse, shuddering hard and making the bed creak. Daryl clasped his head in his hands, fighting back tears while Hershel watched his brother sympathetically, mouth a thin line. Rick and Shane peered into the room, frowning worriedly at Merle’s shuddering form. It was disturbing to witness.

“The stump needs to go, Daryl. This is the infection reaching his brain and making it swell, his brain isn’t getting enough oxygen now,” Hershel said with finality, over the din of the bed complaining, “this is his fourth seizure in as many hours and it will only get worse if I don’t do something. He will die, Daryl, he’s not strong enough to keep this up, not after what he’s been through.”

Daryl’s fingers clutched hard around his skull before he looked up at Merle’s quaking form.

“God, Merle” he moaned, distraught.

Merle gradually stopped seizing, sweating profusely and shaking badly, tremors wracking his body. His eyes slid open, finding Daryl’s immediately, and he reached for him, uncoordinated and weak, panting. Daryl grasped his hand in both of his own unhesitatingly and brought it to his mouth, pressing his lips to the knuckles, uncaring what the others thought or how much Merle would rib him for it later to save face. If he remembered it at all.

“The stump needs to go, Merle,” Daryl said, eyes hard despite the tears in their corners, “please… it’s badly infected, it’s spreadin’ to your brain. You can’t keep this up.”

Merle gazed at him unsteadily, still breathing heavily, frowning at seeing his brother upset. He tried to pull him closer weakly and Daryl came to him easily, drawing him up into a hug. Daryl made an upset noise at how limp Merle was as he was lifted, head lolling back briefly until Daryl cupped the back of it with a broad hand and supported it. Merle turned his head to press his face into Daryl’s throat, humming happily at the coolness of Daryl’s skin compared to his own.

“Please Merle,” he whimpered into his shoulder, “I just got you back.”

“Okay, Daryl,” he mumbled softly into Daryl’s throat, nodding against his skin, “okay.”

Hershel went into action immediately, calling Patricia and Maggie for assistance. The metal table Carl had been on days prior was wheeled in and Daryl, Hershel, Shane and Rick gripped the corners of the sheet under Merle, moving him onto the table. Towels and gauze were laid down under Merle’s stump while Hershel put gloves on and unwrapped the bandage, removing gauze deftly, and Merle looked around, eyes enquiring.

Daryl put a pillow under his head, trying to make him a little more comfortable while he was still conscious. Merle looked up at Daryl, frowning perplexedly, and he realised then that Merle was dazed, oblivious to what he’d just agreed to. His heart dropped at that, knowing that Merle definitely wouldn’t want to do this.

“Merle, do you know your blood type?” Hershel asked, taking Merle’s attention from him.

Merle shook his head, mouth quirking, eyebrows rising.

“You don’t know?” Hershel asked.

Merle shook his head, frowning before staring up at Daryl, as if he held all the answers he needed. Daryl locked eyes with his brother, trying to smile reassuringly, glad when Merle smiled back, face soft.

“We can’t do a transfusion then,” Hershel said, “it’s up to him to pull through this.”

Daryl’s head jerked up at that to look at Hershel, mouth dropping open and he shook his head, heart sinking.

“What, why?” he asked, “we’re brothers, we’re blood, we should be close enough, right?”

Hershel shook his head, “it’s too risky, Daryl. If your blood types are not compatible it could make him very sick. The blood could clot in his veins and cause renal failure, or he could go into shock.”

Daryl sat back, going pale at the prospect of that and Merle squeezed his hand, sensing his distress and trying to soothe him, cooing inarticulately at his side. Daryl smiled at him, eyes watery.

“Glenn and I can go to the pharmacy and look for blood tests,” Maggie suggested, eyeing Merle.

Hershel hesitated for a moment before he nodded insistently, waving a hand at her, “go, go! Rick, get the bedside table please.”

Maggie bolted out the door and downstairs to find Glenn. Patricia appeared at Merle’s side, holding a rolled-up face cloth. He looked at her, opening his mouth when she pressed the cloth to his mouth, letting her put it between his teeth as he made an inquisitive noise. She retrieved another, wetting it and placing it over his forehead as Rick placed the table beside Hershel.

Hershel rolled his medical tools out on it and Merle turned his head to face the noise curiously, eyes alighting on the glinting metal of Hershel’s scalpel. His pupils dilated, then constricted as he quickly pieced together exactly what was happening. His head jerked up so he could look at Hershel, eyes going wide with terror.

Merle made a frail, questioning noise, stifled through the cloth, but its intent was clear as day. The hand in Daryl’s tightened and he shifted a scant inch away from Hershel, shaking his head fervently in protest.

“Sorry Merle, we don’t have any anaesthetic,” Hershel said softly, “I’ll work as quickly as I can, you’ll feel better in no time.”

Merle squirmed, trying to get away, strident noises of protest muffled by the cloth. Daryl hated himself as he straddled his brother’s waist and held Merle’s forearms down, pressing them to the table, knowing Rick and Shane were doing the same with Merle’s legs. Merle struggled against them, weak and caged, looking up at Daryl with such fear and betrayal that his chest hurt.

Merle seemed to realise that his struggle was fruitless and quieted down, looking away with a huffing, whimpering sob, breathing hard through his nose, eyes clenched shut, tears escaping from the corners of his eyes to trickle over the ridge of his nose and to the table. Daryl relinquished Merle’s hand to grip his brother’s face in his hands instead.

“Shh, look at me,” he cooed, stroking his cheekbones with his thumbs, “Merle, look at me.”

Merle obeyed, locking eyes with him, trembling, eyes filled with frightened tears, and Daryl felt his heart break. To their side, Hershel affixed a tourniquet around Merle’s bicep, pulling it tight, and Merle lurched, trying to move away with a muffled cry, breath hitching as he made a shrill, terrified noise that juddered in his chest.

“Hey, hey, you’re gonna be fine,” Daryl said, keeping a hand on Merle’s cheek and seeking his hand with the other, squeezing, “it’ll be over ‘fore you know it, you’re gonna feel so much better after, and I’m gonna be right here wit’chu when you wake up. I promise, Mer.”

Merle froze to the spot, petrified for a minute before he nodded jerkily, eyes wide and damp with fear, squeezing Daryl’s hand irregularly, fearfully. He startled, huffing a terrified breath through his nose when Hershel pressed the scalpel to his forearm, the metal bitterly cold against his skin.

Hershel pressed down firmly and sliced through the ruined flesh and Merle’s eyes slammed shut, his head jerking back as he screamed through the cloth. He kicked under Rick and Shane’s grips, rearing under Daryl’s weight, gripping Daryl’s hand hard enough that the bones there creaked under the pressure. Daryl ignored the pain, knowing Merle was going through much, much worse.

He spoke soft reassurances to him throughout, stroking his cheek as he tried to distract him at least a little from the pain. Despite the tourniquet the wound bled profusely, staining the towels beneath it with gore. Merle passed out as Hershel cut down to the bone, blessedly out cold for when the bones of his arm were broken and trimmed down so the skin could be sewn over it neatly, carpal bones plucked free and discarded.

Hershel ended up taking another two inches off the stump, neatening the edge of it so it’d be easier to affix a prosthetic over the end once it was healed. He left two flaps of skin, one along the top and one along the bottom of the arm so he could sew them shut together over the end, leaving no underlying flesh exposed.

He took away infected flesh in chunks, discarding it in his surgical tray, tutting at the sheer amount of it and how far it had spread in such a short time. Hershel cleaned the wound with saline and sutured it shut with a neat line of stitches, rubbing antiseptic cream over the wound and layering gauze over it before bandaging it loosely. Patricia stripped the bed and made it again with fresh sheets as Hershel finished up, preparing it for when Merle was out of surgery.

Hershel sat back, motioning that he was finished, and Daryl climbed off his brother so that he and the others could lift Merle back onto the bed, pulling the dirtied sheet out from under him carefully and settling him into the linen. Hershel pulled off his gloves and cleaned his hands and arms of blood, drying off before pressing the back of his hand to Merle’s forehead.

He drew away, hooking another IV bag into the needle at Merle’s arm and starting the flow. Merle was pale and still, breathing shallowly, still sweating profusely, minute tremors wracking his body. Daryl pulled the sheets up, tucking them around Merle gently, propping his stump up on a pillow and setting his good arm over his chest.

A while later Maggie thundered up the stairs with blood test kits, bursting into the room and wrestling them out of the backpack Glenn had stuffed them in, handing them to her father. One of Merle’s fingers was pricked and the blood that welled up sluggishly was swirled on the four circles of the test and they waited for the test result patiently, Daryl’s hand finding Merle’s and squeezing tenderly.

“O negative” Hershel said when the test was done, apprehension in his voice.

“Is that bad?” Daryl asked worriedly as he picked up on the tone, looking between Merle and Hershel.

“It means that he can only take the same blood type,” Hershel said, lips pursed, “O negative or nothing.”

“Test mine,” Daryl said sharply.

He carefully removed his hand from Merle’s and held it out to Hershel, settling his other hand in Merle’s palm immediately, sad when his brother didn’t react. Daryl’s finger was pricked and the blood given the same treatment and he waited with bated breath for the result.

“O negative,” Hershel said, smiling at him, “those odds are low, Daryl. It’s a miracle that you’re the same blood type.”

Daryl sighed in relief and nodded, rolling up his sleeve and proffering his arm. Hershel reached for the infusion tube and Daryl climbed onto the bed next to his brother, settling beside him. The needle slipped in easily and they waited until there was a steady flow of blood before the other end was inserted into Merle’s good arm. Hershel pulled the chair around and sat so that he and Daryl were on either side of Merle.

There was a bout of silence as everyone relaxed after the stressful experience they’d just gone through, watching Merle sleeping peacefully.

Everyone but Hershel and Daryl left, leaving to wash up for dinner and get ready for bed. Hershel stayed for a few hours, watching Merle carefully, keeping an eye on the transfusion and removing the needle when Daryl had given a safe amount of blood. He shook his head bemusedly when Daryl protested, demanding that he be allowed to give more, and Hershel promised he could give again soon enough.

Merle’s fever broke halfway through Hershel’s vigil, his face relaxing and he sighed as it passed. Hershel and Daryl sighed in relief too, watching as the redness left his cheeks and a healthier colour slowly came back to Merle’s face. Hershel stood, rubbing his eyes.

“Come and get me if the fever flares back up,” he said softly, “if there’s a change or he wakes up.”

Daryl nodded, settling into the bed so he was more comfortable.

“Keep taking his pulse, let me know if it weakens,” Hershel said, “I’ll come back in an hour to check on him, see if he needs another transfusion.”

“Thank you, Hershel” Daryl said softly.

Hershel took his leave then, leaving the Dixon brothers alone, and Daryl immediately shifted closer to his brother, curling up beside him, taking his good wrist in a light grip and finding his pulse; a calming, rhythmic throb against his finger pads.

Chapter Text

Hershel returned an hour later as promised, stirring Daryl from his thoughts. He’d been watching his brother carefully, studying his face for signs of discomfort or waking, for any sign of the onset of fever or seizure, but Merle was mostly still, almost eerily so. He didn’t react to any of the tender squeezes Daryl gave his hand, or the gentle caresses over his forehead, and Daryl found himself miserable at Merle’s non-response.

Merle drifted sporadically in and out of mild fever, eyes darting agitatedly beneath their lids and Daryl kept watch attentively, calling Hershel whenever the fever seemed to spike and left Merle sweating and trembling. The fever brought nightmares and Merle whimpered, brow scrunching, head tossing from side to side. Daryl tried to calm him, brushing a palm over his forehead, glad when it seemed to bring Merle some relief and he relaxed.

Rick and Shane flitted in and out of the room every few hours, asking after the older Dixon, watching over him restlessly and speaking softly with Daryl before taking their leave. Lori poked her head in curiously, smiling at Daryl as she met his eyes, face going soft as she noticed the brothers’ connected hands. Daryl shifted closer to his brother protectively, curling around him, and she left with an understanding smile.

Carol brought the brothers dinner on a tray with Sophia by her side, and they both smiled at the older Dixon’s sleeping form. Sophia’s face crumpled in upset at Merle’s shortened stump and she stroked the bandage gently with her fingers. They took turns squeezing Merle’s hand before taking their leave, Carol smoothing a hand over his forehead as she withdrew, smiling softly at the way he mumbled inarticulately at the contact.

Daryl ate distractedly after they’d left, eating one-handed with the bowl in his lap so he could maintain the grasp he had on Merle’s hand. Merle didn’t stir at the smell of food like he usually would and Daryl’s lips pursed in upset. Merle hadn’t eaten since the morning and needed nourishment to recover. Daryl mused briefly that he probably weighed more than his brother now. Merle had always been a large man, both in stature and personality and Daryl was struggling to come to terms with his weight loss.

Maggie came upstairs later with a tub of warm water, a few cloths and a towel, and she and Daryl made quick work of cleaning Merle of his fevered sweat. Daryl patted him dry gently as Maggie disposed of the tub, returning to take the dishes away, smiling sincerely when Daryl apologised that one bowl was uneaten.

Hershel returned before turning in for the night, detaching the IV bag, checking Merle’s vitals and his response to light before leaving the brothers for the rest of the night, encouraging Daryl to alert him if Merle’s condition changed. Merle slept through the rest of the night and Daryl let himself drift off beside him, reassured by Merle’s pulse thrumming steadily under his fingertips.

Chapter Text

Morning broke, filling the room with a soft light and calming warmth and Daryl let himself enjoy it as he watched his brother doze. He perked up as he heard Merle take a deep breath in through his nose, letting it out slowly as he woke.

Merle’s eyes fluttered open and he turned his head to look at him, blue eyes clear and cognizant, glinting as a slow, tender smile stretched across his face. Daryl smiled back, eyes welling with relieved tears which fell when Merle gave his hand a gentle squeeze.

“Mornin’” Merle said softly, voice gravelly.

“Mornin’” Daryl whispered back.

He swiped his thumb over Merle’s knuckles and cupped Merle’s cheek with his free hand, stroking his cheekbone with his other thumb, chuckling when Merle flushed and he blinked at him, dumbfounded.

Daryl sat up, grinning and pressing a swift kiss to Merle’s temple before he reached over him to take the glass of water from the bedside table. Merle sat up with Daryl’s help, taking the water from him gratefully and drinking it down eagerly. Daryl refilled the glass with the jug until Merle waved him away with his stump, his thirst quenched.

Merle winced as the stitches in his stump twinged, baring his teeth and making a noise of discomfort as he inspected it, turning it over curiously, noting just how much more of it was missing. Snippets of memory came back to him and he pursed his lips, remembering being held down, excruciating pain.

He looked back at Daryl and saw him looking at the stump miserably, so he got his attention with a gentle squeeze of his hand. Daryl’s guilty eyes met his and Merle smiled reassuringly, hoping Daryl knew that he didn’t hold anything against him.

“M’sorry, Merle,” Daryl said, “shouldn’t’a held you down like that...”

“S’alright, Daryl,” he rasped, “y’had to do it.”

“You didn’t want to, Mer…” Daryl whimpered, voice going high in upset.

Merle shrugged affably and burrowed closer, lying down on his injured side carefully and wrapping his stump arm gingerly over Daryl’s torso and resting his cheek on Daryl’s shoulder, much to Daryl’s surprise and delight. Daryl looked down at his brother’s face to meet his eyes and smiled, huffing a laugh through his nose, his free hand coming up to cup his brother’s face, thumb stroking his temple.

Merle took a deep breath in and sighed just as deeply, chest filling and emptying against Daryl’s side. The younger Dixon knew then that all was forgiven and his heart swelled happily. Daryl settled in more comfortably and they lay for a while in silence and savoured the peace and quiet, enjoying each other’s company and the tender physical contact that they’d both been starved of their entire lives.

The silence was broken by a knock at the door and Merle drew away, rolling onto his back so he could look at whoever was at the door. Hershel entered and smiled warmly at them, followed closely by Maggie. Merle smiled at them, sitting up with minimal help, thanking Daryl when he stuffed a pillow behind his back.

“Mornin’,” Merle rasped.

“Good morning,” Hershel said kindly, “you’re looking much better today, Merle.”

Merle nodded, “feelin’ it too. Thank you, sir.”

Hershel waved him off modestly and pulled the chair around to sit by his side, taking his pulse and checking his response to light before looking at the cut on his head and the wound in his side, nodding approvingly at their progress healing. He pinched the skin on the back of Merle’s hand, smiling approvingly when it sprung back immediately and he smoothed the skin with a thumb before checking the needles in the crooks of Merle’s elbows.

“Are they uncomfortable at all? Hershel asked, thumbing the surrounding skin gently.

Merle pondered the question, looking at the needle in his right arm, swaying woozily at the sight of it, and he suddenly became acutely aware of how they felt, sitting in his veins, feeling a wave of nausea that he swallowed down before looking up at Hershel.

“Not comfortable,” Merle said, voice a little strained, “but they don’t hurt.”

“Well, you’re much more hydrated now,” Hershel said, watching his face intently, “I think we can take them out.”

Merle sighed and nodded gratefully. Hershel slipped gloves on, gently manoeuvring Merle’s right arm and straightening it before removing the tape and grasping the needle, pulling it out carefully. Merle shuddered at the sensation, forcing nausea down and grimacing, turning his head away.

Hershel held a cotton ball to the needle site, stemming the blood that beaded there, pressing firmly for a few seconds before securing it with another strip of tape. Merle’s other arm was given the same treatment and Merle sighed when Hershel was done, relaxing back into the pillow behind him as Maggie left to dispose of the needles.

Hershel filled the glass with water again and offered it to him, smiling approvingly when he drank eagerly. Maggie returned with two bowls of oatmeal, handing them to Daryl on a tray and Merle nodded his thanks, vocalising it as she handed them over and again as the father and daughter left. Merle ate hungrily, alert enough this time to appreciate the honey in the oatmeal.

The brothers conversed for a while, joking and reminiscing. Merle started to laugh again, grinning broadly, and Daryl’s heart swelled happily at the return of Merle’s sense of humour. They lounged on the bed relaxedly for a while before Hershel returned once more, checking Merle’s pulse and his response to light again. He seemed to approve, smiling softly, eyes twinkling kindly.

“You’re on the mend, it would seem,” Hershel said, “it was lucky we amputated the limb when we did. I don’t think you would have survived the night otherwise, Merle. You were having seizures every hour.”

Merle nodded, understanding, swallowing tensely. He had a very vague recollection of the day prior, remembered Daryl’s anxious face swimming into view a few times, remembered feeling a thick, dark fog in his brain, feeling exhausted and anxious. He hadn’t realised just how bad the infection was, how close he’d come to dying.

He was brought from his reverie by a large, warm hand settling gently on his shoulder and he fought down the urge to flinch away, instead looking up to meet Hershel’s kind eyes.

“I’ll check the stitches tonight, see how it’s looking,” Hershel said softly, “in the meantime is there anything that you need? That would make you more comfortable?”

“I’d like to go outside” Merle said, eyes drifting to the window.

“I think that’s a great idea,” Hershel said with a smile, patting his shoulder before withdrawing, “it’ll do you some good and you can join us at the table for dinner.”

Merle smiled at the older man and Hershel nodded a farewell to the brothers before standing and leaving. Merle bristled excitedly, looking at his brother, eyes bright with happiness and Daryl smiled fondly.

“Y’wanna shave first?” Daryl asked, eyes drifting over his face.

Merle scrubbed a hand over his beard and nodded, letting Daryl help him swing his legs over the bed and pull shoes on his feet and a shirt over his head. Daryl helped him to stand with an arm around his waist and supported him as they walked to the bathroom, sitting Merle down on the toilet.

“Be back in a minute,” Daryl said, “gonna get your kit from the tent.”

Merle nodded and waited patiently for Daryl to return, picking absently at the bandages on his head and around his stump as he took in the bathroom curiously. Daryl returned with Merle’s shaving kit and the chair from the bedroom, laying Merle’s shaving kit out on his knee before setting to work.

Daryl buffed shaving cream onto Merle’s cheeks, smiling as he let an amused snort through his nose at the picture his brother made. Merle looked at him, quirking an eyebrow, and Daryl smiled, heart aching fondly. The corners of Merle’s mouth twitched into a smile and Daryl laughed as he dotted a glob of cream onto Merle’s nose.

“Hey!” Merle said, voice higher than usual, eyebrows creasing in mock exasperation.

Daryl chortled, tossing his head back briefly before looking back to Merle’s amused face. Merle’s eyes were half lidded in the way they got when Merle was particularly proud of the response he got from Daryl. Merle was fun in private, had a sense of humour that Daryl loved dearly and that he wished Merle would exhibit in front of other people instead of the racist, sexist persona he put on.

Daryl picked up the razor and took Merle’s chin in a soft grip as his chuckles ebbed, and he steadied himself, revelling in Merle’s small, affectionate smile as he pressed the razor to his cheek, taking hair away with neat, even strokes. Merle had been the one to teach him to shave and Daryl had watched him shave plenty of times so he knew how Merle liked to keep his facial hair. He worked diligently to replicate it, pleased when Merle’s eyes fluttered shut at the contact, trusting and calm and patient.

For a while there was complete silence but for the rasp of blades taking away hair, the clink of the razor in the sink as Daryl rinsed it. Daryl sat back and wiped excess cream away, trimming the rest of Merle’s beard meticulously with scissors before he rinsed his face gently with a warm cloth. He sat back and encouraged Merle to look at himself, heart fluttering happily when Merle grinned, eyes crinkling at the corners as he admired Daryl’s handiwork before turning to his brother to speak.

“Thanks, Daryl,” he said warmly, “y’did a good job...”

Merle turned back to the mirror and the smile faded from his face slowly as he traced his eye sockets and cheekbones curiously with the pads of his fingers, tracing the hollows of his cheeks, the line of his jaw, taking in just how gaunt he was. Daryl’s hand squeezed his shoulder, bringing him back to reality and making him smile again.

They stood again and headed down the hallway, taking the stairs slowly and pausing at the bottom when Merle became winded and had to catch his breath. He was stronger than he’d been the day prior, but was still very weak and clung to Daryl tightly, but Daryl didn’t mind.

They stepped outside and Merle squinted at the light assaulting his eyes, raising his stump arm to cover them until they adjusted to the glare, sensing Daryl do the same beside him. They stood for a minute on the porch and Merle took in the sun as it touched his skin, closing his eyes and sighing, relishing the warmth that spread over him, the fresh air in his lungs. He shivered happily and heard Daryl chuckle at his side.

“C’mon, let’s set you up in the sun for a while,” Daryl said, smiling.

The brothers made their way down the stairs of the porch onto the grass, ignoring the others as they watched them from afar curiously, and headed towards their tent before lying down on the grass together in the sun, splaying out as they lay side by side, the skin of their arms brushing.

Merle stump came up to rest on his sternum as the fingers of his remaining hand played with the grass beneath him, and he enjoyed the texture against his finger pads, sighing and letting his eyes drift closed as he savoured the sun on his face, the wind brushing through his hair.

Their breathing synchronised as they lay together contentedly, silent and still for a while before Daryl reached over and brushed his brother’s fingers with his own tentatively, caressing them enquiringly, unsure as to whether Merle would be comfortable with such public affection.

Merle took his hand unabashedly, smiling and sensing Daryl grinning next to him as their palms pressed together and their fingers entwined.

Chapter Text

Merle hadn’t realised that he’d drifted off until he eased into waking slowly, drifting calmly to the surface as his brain came back online. He was filled with a bone-deep warmth that spread from the top of his head to the tips of his toes and he took a deep breath in as he let himself drift in it for a while.

He cracked an eye open hesitantly, squinting into the glare of the sun before turning his head to look at his brother, who looked to be in the same state he’d been in, dozing lazily. Merle admired the sky and the clouds for another minute before sighing and attempting to sit up, the motion rousing Daryl from his sleep. Daryl sat up immediately, looking at him concernedly, hands coming to pat at his torso as he checked that he was okay.

Merle chuckled, swatting the questing hands away gently before he rolled onto his side and propped himself up on his good arm. Daryl’s hands returned, smoothing over his back to help him sit up, firm but gentle between his shoulder blades and against his ribs. Daryl inspected his face, frowning a little and Merle quirked an eyebrow at his expression.

“You’re getting sunburnt again,” Daryl fretted, “I shouldn’t’a fallen asleep, sorry Merle.”

Merle chuckled, smirking, and Daryl punched his shoulder exasperatedly. He let Daryl help him to his feet and they stumbled over to the shade together, laughing when their legs didn’t want to cooperate. Daryl deposited his brother against a tree, gripping Merle’s face between his hands and pressing their foreheads together briefly before drawing back to look at him, enjoying the contact as Merle’s hand came up to cup his cheek, fingers slotting around his ear and thumb stroking his cheekbone. They stayed like that for a minute before Daryl withdrew.

“I’m gonna go fix up the tent” Daryl said softly.

Merle nodded, blinking tiredly up at him and Daryl smiled, patting the side of Merle’s neck and then his uninjured side gently before he pulled away. Daryl walked to the tent and climbed inside, kicking clothing aside and unzipping the sides of the tent so he could see Merle through the mesh, smiling amusedly as his brother looked around interestedly for a minute before he dozed off again against the tree.

He set to work, organising their belongings once more into bags and setting out their cots, padding the sides of Merle’s cot and making a depression on each side of it in the blankets so that Merle could rest his stump in them whichever way he lay. He looked over at his brother every few minutes, making sure that he was okay, glad when Merle continued to sleep peacefully.

Daryl finished up quickly, clearing the floor and making sure everything was at least semi neat before leaving the tent to join his brother again. Merle woke as he approached and peered up at him blearily, blinking slowly as he smiled up at him lazily. Daryl sat beside him with a grunt and a sigh, smiling when Merle rested his head against his shoulder, hand seeking his own.

“You all done?” Merle asked, jaw cracking as he yawned.

Daryl nodded, letting out his own yawn. They sat for a few minutes quietly as Daryl pointed out the barn, the horse stables and the chicken coop before he helped his brother up and guided him to their tent. They stepped inside and Merle immediately lay down on his cot on his front, nestling into the sheets, careful of his wounds as he settled in, stump immediately sinking into one of the hollows that Daryl had crafted. Daryl snickered, stroking his brother’s back as Merle sighed deeply, relaxing at the familiarity of the tent and all its smells.

Daryl pulled his brother’s shoes off, setting them at the foot of his cot as Merle pulled his legs up onto the cot, shuffling forward to settle in more comfortably. Merle rolled over onto his side to face Daryl as he shuffled closer and smiled up at him, shuddering when Daryl stroked a gentle hand up and down his side. They were silent for a few minutes but for the slide of Daryl’s hand on Merle’s shirt, before Daryl withdrew, turning to one of their bags and unzipping it.

He pulled out one of Merle’s books, smiling affectionately when he saw Merle’s eyes light up. Merle had probably read the same four books a dozen times in the past two months but he never seemed to tire of them and Daryl made a mental note to collect whatever books he could find in later supply runs and give them to his brother.

Merle took the book from him, struggling to open it to the place he’d stopped reading before holding it open and beginning to scour the page, eyes searching to find the spot he’d left off at. Daryl patted Merle’s sternum gently before he moved away to lay down on his own cot, watching Merle pore over the pages like he’d never read them before, eyes flicking over the words with practised ease.

They were quiet for a while as Merle read, Daryl watching him with a fond smile. Ten minutes later Merle rolled over onto his front, propping the book open atop his pillow and holding it open with his hand as he read, stump lying comfortably by his side, nestled between in one of the dips carefully.

Eventually Merle became tired and he bookmarked the page he was on before shutting the book and sliding it under his pillow. He collapsed into the sheets with a soft thud, sighing into his pillow before turning his head to look at Daryl with a dopy smile before his eyes slid shut and he fell asleep.

Daryl huffed amusedly through his nose at his brother’s relaxed face, grinning as Merle snuffled softly, breathing steadily as he dozed. Daryl draped his own blanket over his brother, not wanting to wake him to fish the sheets from beneath him. Merle’s brow furrowed periodically as he dreamt and he made quiet noises in response to whatever was going on in his brain and Daryl watched him for signs of seizure or nightmares, relieved when Merle slept on peacefully.

Merle slept for an hour and a half before he woke, rolling onto his back sluggishly as he woke, breathing in deeply as he drifted to the surface. His eyes fluttered open, searching the tent briefly to land on his little brother and Daryl smiled at him, propping his head up on his fist as he rolled onto his side. Merle smiled back before stretching cautiously, wincing as his joints popped and his spine cracked and his stitches pulled slightly with the stretch of his skin.

“Hey…” Daryl said softly.

Merle’s smile widened and he murmured a greeting back, rolling onto his side and mirroring his brother’s position, blinking contentedly at him, fidgeting with the edge of the sheet over him. They lay for a while, conversing quietly, Merle shifting to lie on his back when holding his head up with his arm became too tiring.

They were interrupted by the sound of footsteps approaching and Daryl peered through the mesh of the tent over the shape of Merle’s chest. Merle turned his head to look through the mesh too, spotting Shane approaching with broad strides, waving with an accompanying smile. Shane ducked to peer into the tent, stepping inside when the brothers ushered him in in a synchronised nod.

“We’re dishing up lunch,” Shane said, “you’re welcome to join us.”

Merle looked away uncomfortably, nodding and scratching listlessly at his sternum as he peered outside, eyes falling on the group as they gathered around the fire and whatever food they’d scrounged together. Daryl noticed his discomfort and smiled at Shane apologetically. Shane smiled back, eyeing Merle uneasily, mouth opening tentatively before he spoke, throwing caution to the wind.

“Everyone’s glad to hear that you’re okay, Merle,” he said softly, “they’d all like to see you...”

Merle’s eyes darted over to him, wide and surprised, before they skittered away again and his face scrunched up in discomfort and scepticism. He nodded to indicate that he’d heard him as his heart thudded painfully in his chest at the thought of people other than Daryl caring about his wellbeing. He wanted to believe Shane but all his past experiences were making him dubious.

“We’ll join y’all at dinner,” Merle said, eyes guarded as they drifted to meet Shane’s, “I’m too tired right now.”

Shane nodded and smiled and Merle started when he patted his shin in a parting gesture, left breathless by the unexpected contact. Shane withdrew his hand as Merle looked up at him, an odd expression crossing his face, one that Merle had trouble deciphering. It was short lived, gone as quickly as it came, before Shane smiled reassuringly, nodding before taking his leave, striding away towards the others.

Merle could feel his brother’s eyes on him and swallowed thickly before looking at him, meeting his gaze. Daryl smiled, eyes twinkling, and Merle felt better, managing a smile back.

“I’ll go get us some food,” Daryl said, patting Merle’s chest gently before he left, “be right back.”

Merle watched him leave, peering through the mesh after him as he walked toward the others. He lay back and gazed at the roof of the tent, rubbing his sternum absently as he waited for his brother to return.

Daryl returned five minutes later with two plates of food and sat down on his own cot, setting one plate to the side before turning his attention to the other. They lapsed into easy conversation as Daryl set the plate down in his lap and set to cutting the food up, shredding the meat and slicing the vegetables into bite sized pieces as Merle watched hungrily.

Once finished Daryl set the plate aside and moved closer, helping his brother sit up and propping a pillow behind his back, making sure he was comfortable. Daryl reached over to pick the plates up off his cot and Merle shifted his legs over to make room as Daryl moved to sit on the cot with him, handing him his plate of food and a fork wordlessly.

Merle nodded his thanks and set the plate on his lap before picking up the fork, orienting it in his hand clumsily before prodding uncoordinatedly at a piece of meat. Daryl observed his struggle and smiled amusedly at his attempts, but encouraged him all the while as he ate his own food, humming positively whenever his brother took a successful bite.

Merle picked up the unfamiliar movements swiftly, and was soon eating like he was born left handed, much to Daryl’s surprise, despite knowing that Merle adapted very quickly to things. The brothers finished their meals and Daryl set their plates down on the floor outside before lying down on his own cot on his side as Merle shifted to mirror him.

They lapsed in and out of easy conversation as the day wore on, and slowly dusk came upon them, plunging the brothers into near darkness that was only dispelled by the light of the moon, which bathed the grass outside and the interior of the tent in a soft blue light. They were quiet as they enjoyed the sounds of the outdoors and the cool night air against their skin and in their lungs, the crackle of a campfire in the distance.

They heard a different set of footsteps approaching and looked to the mouth of the tent just as Rick peered inside, smiling at them and gracing them both with a nod each. Daryl smiled back at the sheriff but Merle didn’t return the sentiment, still entirely untrusting of the man. Rick brushed off Merle’s stoniness and stepped inside the tent, kneeling between them before speaking.

“Dinner’s being served up,” Rick said softly, “come join us if you’re ready...”

The brothers nodded, agreeing that they’d make their way to the house and Rick smiled and patted Daryl’s shoulder before turning to the older Dixon and nodding amiably at him before leaving. Daryl waited for a few seconds before speaking.

“You ready?” Daryl asked.

The question hung there for a few minutes as Merle debated whether he was ready to face the others in the state he was in, before he nodded, shifting on the cot and trying to sit up, wincing at the pull of stitches in his side. Daryl was beside him immediately, helping him sit up before helping him swing his legs over the side of the cot, setting his shoes in front of him.

Merle slid his feet into the shoes, reaching out instinctively with his right arm, huffing in frustration and withdrawing the limb before reaching out with his left hand and pulling on the tongues of the shoes, tugging on the laces before sitting back as he realised that he had no idea how to tie them one handed. He floundered, lips pursing in upset as he made eye contact with Daryl.

“Don’t worry, you’ll get it,” Daryl said, tying the shoes deftly as he spoke, “y’can practise when you feel better.”

Merle felt a warm swell of affection in his chest and smiled as his spirits lifted at Daryl’s positivity. Daryl had always had a way with words around him, knew exactly what to say and how to say it to avoid setting off Merle’s short temper; knew how to bring his mood up when he sunk to a low point.

“Thanks, Daryl” he said softly.

Merle mused that Daryl deserved far more praise for putting up with him, for caring about him despite all his wrongdoings and despite the fact that he had never been a good brother. He felt an intense surge of self-loathing before Daryl looked up at him and smiled brightly, eyes glittering fondly, and the self-hatred dissipated slowly.

Daryl stood and held a hand out, which Merle took, letting his brother help him stand up and they made their way to the house at a slow, leisurely pace, pausing to appreciate the night sky before heading inside. The others looked up as they entered the room, their conversation dying off naturally as they observed the brothers. Merle was immediately uncomfortable with their gazes, acutely aware that he looked dangerously frail; like a gust of wind would blow him over; and he tried to squash it down, determined not to let it affect him.

The brothers sat down at the table side by side and Merle looked around at the others hesitantly, feeling himself quickly becoming overwhelmed. Daryl seemed to sense his distress and sought out his hand under the table and squeezed it reassuringly, dispelling the anxious pressure that had begun to bloom in Merle’s chest.

Merle looked down at their joined hands then looked back up at his little brother’s face before smiling softly and squeezing his hand back.

Chapter Text

The brothers were set up in the middle of the table, much to Merle’s discomfort, and were central to everyone else, stuck in the middle of conversation that neither of them knew how to add to. The others threw Merle glances every now and then, though some seemed to have trouble meeting his eyes, specifically Glenn, Andrea and T-Dog.

Glenn was brave enough to smile, albeit awkwardly, at him when their eyes met, but bristled uncomfortably at Merle’s gaze before his eyes skittered to his food or to the elder Greene girl. Andrea was in a similar state, staring at him when she thought he wasn’t looking, eyes darting away swiftly when he caught her ogling him. T-Dog was especially antsy and had an odd expression on his face whenever he looked at him, was quick to look away when Merle’s eyes met his over the table.

Merle was edging towards becoming offended at their actions before he realised that they felt guilty and he was left a little baffled by it, deciding to ponder on it later with Daryl’s counsel. He began to feel more comfortable as time went on, soothed by Daryl’s presence and the steady stroke of his thumb over his knuckles.

His stump was hidden away under the table, resting over his thighs limply as he tried not to move it and risk pulling his stitches. The wound had begun to ache awfully in the past few hours and it was getting hard to ignore. He pressed it against his thigh gently, wincing at the sharp twang that raced through it as he tried to ease the duller pain. Hershel noticed his discomfort and left the room, returning to give him pain killers and antibiotics.

Merle eyed the pills uncertainly, prodding at them with his thumb and inspecting them before glancing at Daryl unsurely. Daryl had made his stance on his drug usage clear and relapse was a slippery slope, one that Merle had had plenty of problems with in the past. Daryl seemed to war with the thought for a moment, not wanting him to suffer but also not wanting to set him spiralling into relapse.

“They’re non-addictive,” Hershel said with a warm smile, voice quiet under the din of the others’ conversations, “they may not be as strong, but they’ll take the edge off.”

Merle gazed at the older man for a moment, considering him quietly before smiling and saying a thank you. He tossed half of the pills into his mouth, swallowing them down with water before downing the remaining pills with another mouthful. Daryl refilled his glass from a jug in the centre of the table and he nodded his thanks at him, smiling.

Maggie and Patricia started to place food in front of people, setting side dishes in the centre of the tables as they made the rounds. Patricia put a plate of chicken and vegetables down in front of Merle and he smiled gratefully up at her when he noticed that she’d cut up his food before serving it, glad that he wouldn’t have to ask for Daryl’s help again, especially in front of everyone.

His left hand felt unwieldy and heavy as he ate and he found himself dropping food back onto the plate, losing all of his earlier progress as his nervousness made him clumsy. The others had enough tact to ignore it, or at least not mention it, and he quickly regained his confidence, skewering food easily and eating ravenously.

The others made easy chatter around him, laughing and reminiscing and before he realised it he was drifting, disassociating. He stopped eating as he did so, going still and silent as he floated through a fog, vaguely recognising that the others had finished their food.

He felt an elbow in his side and looked up at the source questioningly, jerking back into reality with a soft gasp. Daryl looked at him concernedly for a second before he nodded his head towards Dale and Merle’s eyes drifted to the older man. Dale was looking at him expectantly and he realised that the older man had said something to him and he’d been too out of it to realise.

“Sorry, pardon?” Merle asked, voice rough, “I was in my own world.”

Dale grinned at him, unoffended by his prior non-response, ever cheerful and friendly.

“I said that it’s good to see you alive, Merle,” Dale said warmly, “we were very surprised when you came over that hill with Sophia.”

Merle managed a weak smile, nodding as he turned his attention back to his food, prodding at it distractedly. He was very hungry, but there was a building pressure in his chest that made him lose his appetite, his father’s voice ramping up in his brain again, drowning everything else out as he taunted him.

Daryl’s hand came to settle on his knee and he looked up at him enquiringly before Daryl gestured towards his plate of food, silently prompting him to eat. Merle smiled at him and dug back in, eyes downcast as he tried to ignore their father’s voice.

Time went on, with the others making light conversation that neither Daryl nor Merle took much part in, but listened to none the less. Soon enough their attention was on Merle, something he’d been expecting but found himself wholly unready for, and Shane spoke, breaking the nervous silence that the others had lapsed into as they’d tried to figure out how to broach the subject.

“So, tell us about Atlanta,” Shane said, “how’d you survive?”

The others perked up interestedly at that, their eyes landing on him and Merle froze before his eyes dropped to his nearly empty plate and he prodded uneasily at a piece of chicken with his fork. Merle hesitated before speaking, lips pursing nervously.

“I don’t remember a lot, was delirious for most of it…” he said quietly.

There was silence as they waited patiently for him to start talking and he hunched in on himself, becoming anxious and feeling cornered. Daryl’s hand found his knee under the table and he relaxed a little at the contact, trembling as the hand tightened reassuringly. He put his fork down quietly before taking the hand in his own and squeezing his thanks into it.

“I remember being on the roof and looking over the ledge and then I just… lost it… it’s like a fog, I heard gunshots… saw blood…” Merle said, trailing off as the memory fogged over, “I remember hearing yelling, hitting someone, being punched, then next thing I knew I was being handcuffed.”

A strange expression crossed Rick and Shane’s faces and they looked at each other briefly before returning their eyes to him and Merle brushed it off, figuring it was a “cop thing”.

“Then everyone was running away off the rooftop, yelling, panicked,” Merle said, “T-Dog came back, tried to get me free but he dropped the key. Then I was alone.”

His brow furrowed as he searched his brain for memories.

“It was so hot up there,” he said, swallowing, “was thirsty and hungry. Then it was dark and I was freezing.”

His eyes drifted as he sifted through the memories he could recall, wandering to the side dejectedly at the memory of being left behind, the pain he’d felt in his chest at realising that he had been left for dead.

“Started coming down from my high, started hallucinating… remembered all the… shitty things I’ve done…” he continued quietly, “came back to reality and the geeks were trying to get through the door.”

He breathed out shakily, steeling himself before continuing.

“I looked over at the tool bag on the floor and saw the hacksaw… pulled my belt off and set to getting it,” he said and he could feel himself dissociating, staring blankly off to the left, “fished it towards me and tried to cut the handcuffs and the pipe, but it was too blunt and the geeks were getting louder… had to get off the roof so I… cut my hand off…”

Daryl squeezed his remaining hand, bringing him back from the fog of dissociation, and he jerked, turning to face him, eyes wide. He settled quickly when he realised it was just Daryl and squeezed the hand back gently.

“Picked up a wrench and ran off the rooftop… killed a few walkers… found a kitchen…” Merle said, “figured that the only way I’d live through it was if I cauterised it…”

He remembered the searing pain that’d shot up his spine and the wooziness that’d ramped up with it, remembered swaying on the spot before collapsing to his hand and knees and curling up in a ball, stump clutched to his chest. He drew his hand from Daryl’s grip and gripped his stump under the table, stroking a thumb up across his stump lightly as it ached at the memory.

“Busted out a window, climbed down a fire escape and ran into the forest,” Merle said, “tried to head towards camp.”

He sighed, wanting to look away from his lap, from his food, anywhere but the other’s faces. He wanted to be back in the tent, talking with his brother, reading, doing anything but this, being anywhere but here. He sought Daryl’s hand with his own under the table again and relaxed slightly as Daryl took it unhesitatingly, massaging his palm with his thumb.

“I don’t know how long it took me, could have been days… but when I got to camp everyone was gone…” Merle said, “I must have figured something had happened… don’t remember it but I must’ve followed your tracks…”

He trailed off, trying to gather his thoughts, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.

“I don’t remember anything else… between finding Sophia and coming here it’s just a blur…” he said, slumping back in his chair, exhausted, “I guess I just got lucky.”

The others stared at him for a while longer, processing what he’d said.

“Thank you for sharing,” Shane said, “it must have been hard, surviving like that, being left behind.”

Merle wanted to deflect, to shrug and say he deserved to be left for dead, but stayed still, squeezing sporadically at his brother’s hand as he warred with his father’s voice in his head, screaming that he was worthless and that he deserved it.

“I’m sorry you were left behind, Merle,” Rick said, meeting his eyes determinedly, voice so sincere and full of guilt that Merle had to look away, swallowing thickly.

 “There was panic and it was over so quickly that we didn’t even realise until it was too late” Rick continued, “it never should have happened and I’m so sorry.”

Merle felt his eyes well up with tears, much to his mortification, and, not wanting to relinquish Daryl’s hand, wiped them away with the bandages around his stump, revealing it for the first time since they’d sat down. The others’ eyes were drawn to it immediately and he saw Rick’s lips purse, saw his eyes tear up at the sight of it. Merle swallowed his pride, thinking for a few seconds on what to say.

“You came back for me…” Merle said softly, meeting Rick’s eyes, “thank you…”

Daryl smiled at him, squeezing his hand approvingly at his words. The room was silent for a while before chatter picked up again slowly, easily, as everyone started to get ready to leave the room and go about their routines once more.

Merle finished the rest of his food and thanked Patricia and Maggie again as they collected the plates around the table and they smiled friendlily at him, making him wonder what he’d done to deserve such kindness, to deserve their care.

They don’t care about you, faggot his father hissed they pity you, you fucking idiot. You ain’t worth any kindness.

Merle looked away from them, eyes falling to his lap before he looked back up to meet Daryl’s eyes when he gave a questioning squeeze to his hand. Merle smiled lopsidedly at him and Daryl seemed to realise that he’d heard their father again and smiled back reassuringly, turning towards him and bringing his other hand up to pat at his uninjured side. Hershel approached them as the others filed out, smiling at them kindly as they looked up at him.

“Come, I want to check your stitches before you go to bed,” Hershel said with a smile and a pat to the elder Dixon’s shoulder before turning to walk upstairs.

The brothers followed the older man upstairs to the bedroom that Merle had spent the last few days in and Merle sat on the bed with a grunt, watching Daryl leave briefly to retrieve the chair and his kit from the bathroom, having left them in there earlier. He leant into Daryl’s side when he sat beside him, sighing quietly as Hershel pulled the chair up in front of Merle and sat before taking his arm gently.

Hershel checked the needle marks at the crooks of Merle’s elbows, humming approvingly before he unwrapped the bandages around the stump carefully, revealing the wound and the neat line of stitches that bound it shut, stark black against Merle’s skin. Merle looked at it interestedly, inspecting the tidy stitches that Hershel had sealed his stump with, impressed. It was a much better sight than it had been, the burns and the infected flesh removed to leave smooth skin in its stead.

“It’s looking much better, Merle,” Hershel said, prodding gently at the skin around the stitches with a gloved finger, “a little swollen, but that’s to be expected.”

Merle nodded, turning the stump over in Hershel’s grip so they could both look at the underside of the seam.

“The stitches should be able to come out in a couple of weeks,” Hershel said as he rubbed Vaseline into the stitches gently, “I’ll check the dressings twice a day and change them as needed.”

“Thank you, Hershel,” Merle said, watching as Hershel redressed the wound with gauze, “if there’s anything I can do to repay you and your family…”

Hershel waved him off, smiling amicably as he unfurled a bandage and started to wrap it around the stump.

“Later on you should wear a sock over it to protect it if you find or make a prosthetic,” Hershel said, pinning the end of the bandage down with tape, “it’ll be tender for a while, and may bruise easily, so make sure you protect it and keep it warm.”

Merle nodded, twisting the limb and inspecting Hershel’s handiwork before smiling and extending his hand and Hershel took it in a warm, firm grip and they shook hands briefly before withdrawing.

“Could I sleep outside tonight?” Merle asked, “in the tent?”

Hershel considered him for a second, eyes roving over his face.

“I suppose that you’re close-by,” Hershel said, “if there are any problems, Daryl, come and get me.”

Daryl nodded at his brother’s side, agreeing, and Merle grinned, glad that he’d be able to spend the night in more familiar surroundings. Hershel left, bidding them goodnight, and Daryl gathered Merle’s kit before moving to support his brother as he stood.

The brothers made their way outside, taking in the night air with twin breaths. Rick waved them over as they walked across the grass and after a brief look at each other they made their way over to join the others around the fire. Daryl set Merle down in front of the fire before running off to their tent to put Merle’s shaving kit away.

Sophia voiced her delight at Merle joining them, moving to Merle’s side to hug him gently around his waist and he smiled down at her, hugging her back briefly with his stump arm before she withdrew and returned to her mother’s side.

Daryl returned quickly, slotting himself to Merle’s side and letting him lean against him, a warm, solid weight and he smiled as Merle settled, nuzzling further into him. Merle’s eyes travelled blearily around the circle, taking in everyone’s faces before slipping closed wearily.

Time passed quickly as the others lapsed into easy conversation and Merle dozed off in front of the fire, swaying a little as his body fought to stay upright. Daryl moved closer, wrapping an arm around Merle’s waist and encouraging him to lean against him more.

Merle’s head came to rest against his brother’s shoulder and he sighed contentedly at his warmth, happiness blooming in his chest as Daryl’s hand stroked his side.

Chapter Text

The others watched Merle as he dozed off, smiling softly at the picture the brothers made, at Daryl’s hand stroking up and down his brother’s side rhythmically, affectionately. They sat together for a while as Daryl listened to the others’ conversations, joining in tentatively and laughing at their jokes, smiling down at Merle as he huffed soft, amused laughs every now and then, half awake.

An hour later Daryl decided that they should get some shuteye and shook Merle gently until he hummed questioningly at him.

“We should get you into bed,” Daryl cooed into his ear, “you look tired.”

Merle nodded blearily, pressing further into Daryl briefly before letting his brother help him stand. The others bid them goodnight and Merle waved tiredly as they walked away, his brother’s arm secure around his waist as they hobbled to the tent together, Merle half asleep against his brother.

They reached the tent and Daryl pulled Merle’s bedsheets down before he deposited his brother carefully on his cot, laughing as Merle settled in, face down, with a sigh. He pulled Merle’s shoes off and smiled at him as he shifted closer and Merle turned his head to look at him.

“How do you feel?” Daryl asked as he pulled the sheets back up over him.

“I feel good,” Merle said, smiling tiredly, “I had no seizures today.”

Daryl smiled, raising a hand to rub circles into Merle’s upper back.

Daryl removed his shoes and climbed into his own cot and then it was quiet but for their breathing and the rustle of sheets as they wound down for the night. Merle fidgeted for a while, gazing at his brother uncertainly before seeming to come to a decision.

He sat up with a grunt, waving Daryl off as he made to help him, lying back down with an enquiring look instead as Merle got to his feet shakily before making his way over to him on exhausted, wobbly legs. Daryl watched him approach concernedly, curiously, and beamed, lifting an arm and the sheets to make room when Merle settled carefully on his side into the cot beside him.

Merle huddled in close, wrapping his stump arm over his brother’s torso and resting his head on his shoulder and Daryl smiled, manoeuvring a hand between them so he could take his brother’s own, bringing the other up to stroke at Merle’s hair and brush his temple with his thumb.

“Cot’s a bit small for this, huh?” Daryl asked softly, jokingly, finding that he didn’t mind even one bit.

Merle nuzzled closer and mumbled inarticulately in response, apparently disagreeing, and Daryl chuckled lowly, pressing his nose into his brother’s hairline before pushing a brief kiss to his forehead. Merle pressed his face to his throat in response and smiled against his skin with a sigh, sending warm, damp air flowing across Daryl’s neck.

They drifted off like that, pressed close together, comforted by each other’s warmth and by the sound of each other’s breathing.

Chapter Text

Daryl drifted into consciousness slowly and smiled as he recognised Merle’s warm weight against his side. His brother breathed slowly, calmly, against him, chest filling and emptying rhythmically against his ribs as he slept on, sending gushes of warm air over his collarbones. Daryl’s eyes fluttered open and he sighed at the soft light filtering into the tent, at the cool morning air against his face.

He much preferred waking up like this, outside rather than inside. Outdoors the air was fresh and crisp and was much more satisfying to breathe in, indoors the air became stuffy and too warm for his liking. He found that he preferred being outdoors anyway, the indoors felt cramped and claustrophobic and he knew that Merle felt the same; their childhood home hadn’t been much of one and they’d instead spent most of their lives outside.

He hazarded shifting, moving his head slightly so he could look at his brother and he smiled, bringing a hand up to brush a thumb over his temple. Merle continued to sleep, stump arm thrown over Daryl’s waist, his good arm between them, their hands still clasped together between his stomach and Daryl’s hip. Merle’s brow spasmed intermittently against Daryl’s jugular and he murmured, making little noises every now and then as he dreamt, and Daryl smiled amusedly.

Eventually Merle woke, snuffling sleepily into his brother’s skin before raising his head and looking around blearily. His eyes met Daryl’s and he smiled lazily at him, irises glinting in the morning sunlight filtering into the tent.

“Mornin’” Merle rasped, swallowing dryly and frowning at the tack of his tongue against the roof of his mouth.

“Mornin’,” Daryl said back, “you thirsty?”

Merle nodded, licking his lips as he tried to gather saliva to wet his mouth and ease the dryness of his throat.

“Lemme up, I’ll get you some water,” Daryl said, sitting up with a grunt when Merle withdrew his stump from his waist.

Daryl threw the blankets off himself and crawled out over Merle’s legs carefully before sitting on the edge of the cot and pulling the blankets back up over his brother. Merle shifted to lie on his back and groaned as he stretched out on the cot, spine cracking and the joints of his arms and legs popping at the motion, making him wince at the sounds. Daryl chuckled and pulled his shoes on, giving a parting pat to Merle’s chest as he stood.

Daryl stopped outside the mouth of the tent and stretched as he took in the landscape, noticing that some of the others were already awake and were milling around the camp. He made his way towards the house, taking in the sun as he walked, tilting his head to the sky to let the sun warm his face. Daryl filled a jug with water and filled a glass, downing it and refilling it before making to head back to the tent.

He heard his name being called as he passed the house and turned to face the sound to see Hershel on the porch, looking at him expectantly. The older man ushered him over and Daryl made a beeline for him, greeting him as he approached and receiving a warm greeting in response.

“How are you, Daryl?” Hershel asked, eyes glinting kindly.

“Good, thank you” Daryl said in reply.

“And how is your brother this morning?” Hershel asked, “how did he sleep?”

“He’s great, more alert today,” Daryl said, grinning, “he slept through the night, no fever, no nightmares or seizures.”

“Excellent,” Hershel said, eyes crinkling at the corners, “it seems that he’s healing well.”

“Yeah,” Daryl agreed, “thanks to you.”

Hershel shrugged, smiling and patting the younger Dixon’s shoulder.

“Breakfast will be ready soon,” Hershel informed, turning to go back into the house.

Daryl nodded, thanking the older man before turning and heading back to the tent and back to his brother with the water, waving at the others as he passed their camp.

Merle was asleep again when he returned to the tent, lying on his back with his head turned to the side, limbs akimbo under the sheets, thumb pressed lightly to his bottom lip. Daryl snorted amusedly at him and Merle’s eyes rolled open blearily, drifting around the tent to finally come to rest on him. Merle smiled softly and Daryl couldn’t help but smile back as he stepped inside.

Merle sat up, rubbing his eyes with the heel of his palm, as Daryl sat beside him and handed him the glass of water. Merle thanked him before swallowing the water down thirstily, asking for more immediately and drinking that down too.

They talked for a while before Daryl went to retrieve breakfast, returning and sitting against his brother’s side as they ate. They finished their food quickly and sat for a minute before deciding to warm themselves in the sun, and Daryl helped Merle pull his shoes on before they headed outside to lie on the grass.

They sunned themselves on the grass in silence for a while, enjoying the warmth on their skin, the breeze and the sounds of the outdoors until Daryl started to worry about Merle getting sunburnt again and decided to herd him inside, brooking no argument when Merle objected, frowning.

“You can read in the sun later” Daryl promised, knowing it’d appease him.

Merle paused mid-argument, pursing his lips before agreeing and Daryl laughed, helping him up before leading him back inside the tent and depositing him on his cot. Merle retrieved his book from under his pillow and rolled onto his front, propping the book open on his pillow and supporting himself on his forearms as he began to read.

Daryl occupied himself with whittling arrows, glancing over at his brother every now and then as they passed the time in silence, content to just be. Merle looked at him every so often, meeting his eyes and smiling at him and Daryl would feel a flutter in his chest at the affection there.

An hour later Merle became tired and rolled onto his back, dropping off to sleep once more, and Daryl took the opportunity to wander outside and join the others at their camp.

Not long after he joined them Andrea approached him and Daryl turned to look at her when she sat next to him, wringing her hands uncertainly.

“Hey, I want to do something for your brother,” she said quietly, “apologise for the whole… Atlanta thing… I was wondering if you could suggest anything.”

Daryl hesitated at her query, eyes flicking towards the tent before darting back to her.

“Well… he likes books,” Daryl said with a shrug, “he reads a lot.”

She was surprised by that information, eyebrows raising in surprise, and immediately felt guilty for assuming that Merle was a one-faceted being, that he didn’t have hobbies and interests like everyone else. There were apparently many things that they didn’t know about the elder Dixon. Daryl picked up on her surprise and bristled at the thought of her assuming that his brother was illiterate, but he forced it down, deciding instead to try to get her to understand.

“He’s so much more than he lets on, Andrea…” Daryl said quietly, “he’s not a monster. He just… it’s hard for him to open up. We had a rough childhood…”

She thought that information over, realising that Merle’s behaviour, while not justified, was now very understandable. Her heart ached at the thought of the brothers growing up being abused, at the thought of Merle protecting his brother at all costs and losing his way in the process. At how it had likely been the root cause of Merle’s toxic behaviour and had probably pushed him into using drugs.

She decided then and there that she would make more of an effort to get to know him better and to make him realise that they weren’t out to hurt him.

“Thanks, Daryl,” she said softly, “I’ll see what I can find.”

He nodded, smiling, and she turned and left, making her way to the RV and gathering her belongings so she could look through them. She laid the books that she and Amy had brought with them out on the table, scouring their covers and trying to recall what each book was about as she stuffed the rest of her belongings back into her rucksack.

She flicked through them, trying to think of one that she thought Merle would like before realising that she didn’t really know him at all. The Merle that she and the others knew was a deep-seated front, a character he played to protect himself. Her eyes alighted on The Case of the Missing Man and she smiled, reaching for it and reading the blurb before packing her stuff away and making towards the brothers’ tent, waving the book triumphantly at the younger Dixon as she passed, receiving a grin in response.

She found Merle on his back on his cot, stump arm resting on his chest, the other beside his head, fingers curled relaxedly in sleep and she smiled at the picture he made before walking a little way back and making more noise as she returned to the tent. Like she’d expected, the noise had woken him and she saw him blink lazily before stretching, breathing in deeply through his nose.

He relaxed into the cot before he peered up at her, eyes half lidded, fingers coming to scratch lightly at his sternum as he eyed her curiously where she stood outside the doorway. The corner of his mouth quirked and she felt a surge of strange new affection towards him, smiling at him as she moved into the door of the tent, bending down so she could fit through it.

“Hey,” she said softly as she stepped inside, “feeling any better?”

His mouth curled into a slow smile in response and he stretched again, nodding, and she laughed through her nose, affection growing even further in her chest at his relaxed face. She remembered what she’d come to the tent for and moved closer, looking at the cover of the book briefly before speaking.

“This is not that great, but uh…” Andrea said softly.

He watched her silently, blue eyes considering her every move, and she held the book out to him, moving to sit on Daryl’s empty cot. He reached out and took the book from her after a second of hesitation, gazing up at her before examining the front cover, then the back. She sighed as he flicked through the pages quickly, brow furrowing slightly as his eyes roved over the text.

“What, no pictures?” he joked, smiling lopsidedly, eyebrow quirking cheekily.

She let out a soft, melodic laugh and he chuckled in response to her amusement, a deep rumble in his chest.

“Thank you” he said softly, tucking the book down the side of his cot to read later.

She eyed him for a few silent moments, lips pursing as she pondered over what she wanted to say and he waited patiently, admiring the way her eyes glittered, how her hair caught the light. He’d never taken time to appreciate the little things when he was high and was now noticing that everything seemed more vibrant.

Before, all of his attention had been on getting his next fix, but he felt things more acutely now, loved the feeling of the sun on his skin, the sensation of fresh air entering his lungs, linen against his skin. The feeling of his brother’s warmth against him, his heartbeat against his fingertips.

“I wanted to say that I’m sorry you were left behind in Atlanta… I don’t expect you to forgive us… but…” Andrea said, trailing off briefly, “if there’s anything I can do…”

His heart thudded painfully in his chest, clenching hard, and his face fell, emotional walls coming up. He raised his hand swiftly to gesture for her to stop, shaking his head.

“Naw, I deserved it…” he mumbled, “m’sorry I was bein’ such an asshole. Shouldn’ta said the things I said. Did the things I did.”

She swallowed guiltily, eyes welling with tears as her eyes dropped to his stump. His eyes followed hers to look at the damaged limb and he began to fidget with the bandages around it anxiously, lips pursing in upset, throat going tight.

“No-one deserves being left like that, Merle,” she said, voice wavering in upset, “it must’ve been horrible.”

He shrugged, immediately deflecting, on instinct.

“I deserved it…” he said softly.

He couldn’t look at her, at her pretty face, and flinched away instinctively when she moved to touch him, breath hitching in his chest. A strong wave of empathy flooded through her at his regression, at the way he’d recoiled, like he’d expected her to hit him, and she waited for him to relax a little before setting her hand over his, over his stump.

She smiled at him when he looked up, at a loss for words when she saw that his eyes were welling with tears. He smiled thinly, lip quivering faintly, and took her hand, moving it away from him before letting it go, the movement gentle and slow, not meant to offend her.

“Thanks for the book” he said, eyes skittering away again, refusing to meet hers.

She opened her mouth to speak, to reassure him that he had never deserved being left to die on the rooftop, no matter how much of an asshole he had been, but he rolled over to face away from her, bringing his stump to his chest and cradling it there in a soft grip, fingers loose around it. He curled bodily around the damaged limb protectively, stroking the bandages around it delicately with his fingers as he made himself as small as he could, an instinctive motion learnt from years of abuse and having to make himself scarce.

Her eyes watered as she looked at his back, at the way he stroked the stump limb despondently, at the way he stared vacantly forward, eyes going blank as he withdrew. She left quietly with a sad smile at his back, pausing outside the mouth of the tent to look back at him once more before walking away quietly. She spotted Daryl with the others by the RV and figured it’d be a good idea to inform him of Merle’s emotional state so he could help cheer his brother up.

“Hey,” she said, wondering how to broach the subject.

Daryl picked up on her hesitation immediately, turning to look at her, brow furrowing as he straightened up, giving her his full attention.

“Hey, what’s up?” he asked.

“I’m sorry, Daryl, I upset him…” she said, “I started talking about Atlanta, saying I was sorry that he was left behind, but he shut down… Started saying that he deserved it…”

Daryl shook his head, tutting and muttering his brother’s name exasperatedly as he stood up. He smiled reassuringly at her and patted her shoulder awkwardly before bidding everyone goodbye and walking briskly towards the tent and back to his brother.

Merle’s back was to him when he entered the tent and Daryl frowned worriedly before climbing onto the cot with him unhesitatingly, slotting himself between the tent wall and Merle’s front so that they were facing each other. Merle was staring blankly into space, down at his stump, so Daryl took his hand gently in both of his, stopping him from picking dejectedly at the bandage around it, and brought it to his mouth to press his lips to the knuckles.

Merle looked at him, eyes focussing sluggishly on his face and Daryl smiled, bringing one of his hands up to cup his face. Merle let out a shaky breath as he shifted forward, nuzzling into Daryl’s chest and clutching his hand to his sternum. Daryl urged him closer, hand leaving his cheek to stroke at his back before coming to cup the back of Merle’s skull instead, cradling his brother’s head against his chest as Merle burrowed further into him.

Merle struggled to breathe, inhaling and exhaling shakily as he tried to calm down, to come back from the precipice of panic that he was currently teetering on. Daryl squeezed his hand and breathed against him in deep, easy breaths that Merle found himself copying and slowly he calmed down, soothed by Daryl’s fingers stroking rhythmically against the base of his skull and the beat of his brother’s heart against his ear.

Chapter Text

They lay together for a long while in silence before Merle felt strong enough to withdraw from Daryl’s embrace, to look him in the eyes. Daryl smiled at him, ever his sweet baby brother, and he smiled back, the corners of his mouth quirking briefly before his mouth thinned to a line again.

“I’m sorry I’m like this…” he mumbled, eyes dropping to look at their hands.

 “I love you just the way you are” Daryl said, shaking his head.

Merle’s breath hitched and he felt his heart flutter. He didn’t think he’d ever get used to hearing those words, didn’t think he deserved them, especially from Daryl. His brother picked up on his internal dilemma and squeezed his hand before speaking again.

“You’re worthy of love, Mer…” Daryl said, “I don’t know the extent of what he did to you, or said to you, but he’s wrong.”

Merle swallowed thickly, throat going tight, and curled his fingers in Daryl’s grip, looking down at their joined hands, unable to stand the earnest glint in his brother’s eyes.

“I was so angry when they told me that they’d left you behind in Atlanta…” Daryl said, “was ready to go and get’chu on my own. But they volunteered to come with me… Rick and T-Dog and Glenn…”

Merle looked back up at his face, eyes burning with unshed tears, and he jumped at the unexpected contact when Daryl raised his other hand to touch his stump ever so gently, shuddering at the feeling of Daryl’s fingers stroking the limb.

“People care about you…” Daryl continued, “let them care, let them see the you that I see…”

“I… I’ll try…” Merle said softly.

Daryl pressed a kiss to his forehead and he closed his eyes, opening them once more when Daryl withdrew. Merle let his eyes flick across Daryl’s features, taking him in, before letting a smile spread across his face slowly. Daryl smiled back and Merle shifted closer, wrapping his good arm over his brother and burrowing into a close hug once more, stump arm between their chests in Daryl’s gentle grip.

They lay there for a while longer and were broken from their reverie by soft footsteps and couldn’t find it in them to part from each other, so Merle opted to bury his face into Daryl’s chest instead. Daryl smiled at his brother before lifting his head to regard Shane as he ducked his head into the doorway of the tent, eyes roving over the brothers as a grin crossed his face.

“Afternoon” Shane said cheerfully.

Merle felt Daryl nod at the other man and withdrew from Daryl’s chest to twist and look at Shane over his shoulder, smiling when Shane nodded in greeting at him. He withdrew from his brother to roll onto his back and felt Daryl prop himself up on an elbow beside him.

“We’re starting lunch soon,” Shane said, “if you want to join us.”

“Thanks” Merle said, stretching and nodding, voice strained at the movement.

“We’ll see you by the RV then,” Shane said before turning and leaving.

The brothers set to getting up, sitting on the cot together, pressed side by side, arm to arm, thigh to thigh. Merle hadn’t realised the importance of physical affection like this before, had never realised how nice it was. He found himself craving this closeness with Daryl, found it easier as each day passed to give his affection freely and accept Daryl’s in return.

A few minutes later they were visited by Hershel, who smiled warmly at them and entered when Merle nodded at him, gesturing towards Daryl’s empty cot for him to sit. Hershel entered the tent, sitting on Daryl’s cot and considering the Dixon brothers, eyes glinting kindly.

“How are you today, Merle?” Hershel asked.

“Great,” Merle said, “I have more energy today and I didn’t have any seizures or nightmares last night.”

“Excellent, I’m glad to hear it,” Hershel said, “now, I would like to check your stitches, so come and see me in the house when you can.”

Merle nodded, agreeing, and Hershel left with twin pats to their knees and an earnest, fatherly smile that made them both feel warm inside, an odd, unfamiliar sensation that left them looking at each other, dumbfounded, as Hershel left.

“Wanna wash up while we’re there?” Daryl asked, breaking the silence and receiving a nod in response.

The brothers made their way to the house after gathering fresh clothes for Merle to change into and found Hershel in the upstairs bedroom with his kit already laid out on the bed, fresh gauze and bandages placed neatly on the linen. Merle stripped his shirt off and sat on the bed, patiently letting Hershel inspect the stitches in the cut on his head and the sunburn over his brow.

He lay down when Hershel was done, rolling onto his side so that he could examine the sutures sealing the hole through his side. Hershel hummed positively at his progress healing and rubbed Vaseline into the sutures gently, moisturising them before dressing his side again, deciding to leave the gash on his head open to the air for a while.

“The stitches in your head will be able to come out in the next few days,” Hershel informed, “and the ones in your side will come out not long after.”

Merle sat up again with Daryl’s help, allowing Hershel to run gentle fingers over the array of cuts and bruises littering his body, the needle marks from his IV and the blood transfusion. Hershel tested the give of the skin over his ribs and hipbones with his fingertips, nodding positively at the scant amount of weight he’d regained.

“You’re healing slowly but surely, but you still need to gain a significant amount of weight back,” Hershel said, smiling, “I recommend bedrest for a while longer, conserve your energy, drink lots of water.”

Merle nodded in agreement, allowing Hershel to take his stump arm in a gentle grip and unwind the bandages from it, revealing the neat sutures beneath. Hershel’s fingers were gentle on what was left of his wrist, encouraging him to turn his arm so he could scrutinize it, remoisturising the sutures before closing the same dressing over it.

“It’s looking good, Merle, it’s healing nicely,” he said, “the stitches should be able to come out in a couple of weeks.”

“Great, thank you” Merle said, smiling at the prospect.

Hershel smiled back as he packed up his kit before making to leave, shaking his head affectionately as Merle touched the stitches in his head and Daryl smacked his hand away, making his brother laugh.

The brothers made their way to the bathroom and Daryl left to get a few washcloths and a towel, returning quickly and laughing when he saw that Merle was nodding off on his place on the toilet. Merle perked up, grinning up at him when he entered the room again and Daryl set to filling the sink with warm water.

Daryl wet a cloth and wrung it out, buffing soap into it and handing it to his brother so he could start washing himself while he prepared another one. Merle set to washing his neck and chest and flinched when Daryl pressed the other cloth to his ribs, carefully avoiding the wound in his side. He tittered at the ticklish sensation, watching amusement cross Daryl’s face at the noise, hearing him snort amusedly.

“Don’t!” Merle squeaked, laughing harder and trying to squirm away when Daryl continued the motions, “stop it!”

Daryl let up with a deep chuckle and Merle settled, grinning and setting to washing his face as Daryl urged him to turn around so he could clean his back. They made quick work of it and Daryl towelled him dry and helped him to pull a fresh shirt on before they left the house, making a brief trip to the tent before leaving again to meet up with the others.

The brothers joined the others near the RV, sitting down around the camp fire and settling in to eat lunch. Andrea eyed Merle cautiously from her place near Dale, looking uncomfortable and hesitant to say anything to him. He smiled shyly at her and felt a little better when relief washed over her face and she grinned at him. She’d obviously felt guilty about upsetting him, and his chest became tight at the thought of her caring, despite him not deserving it. He felt Daryl’s presence beside him and shook the thought off as he remembered his words in the tent.

Food was handed around and the Dixon brothers ate as they listened to the others talk, Daryl participating in the conversation every now and then and Merle made an effort to do the same, relishing their pleased reactions when he joined in. They finished up and Daryl patted him on the knee, saying he’d be back, as he made his way to Rick and Shane when they waved him over, intending to ask his opinion on something that they’d laid out on the hood of a car.

Merle watched his brother speaking with the two officers and jumped a little when someone settled in next to him and turned to look at them, finding that it was T-Dog that had sat down next to him. The other man smiled at him uneasily, eyeing him uncertainly, eyes drifting to his stump before snapping back up to his face sheepishly. They sat for a few seconds in silence, considering each other, and Merle let the corners of his mouth rise into a smile, watching with some wonder as T-Dog’s eyes lit up.

“How are you, man?” T-Dog asked.

“Better” Merle replied, shrugging.

They lapsed into silence and he studied the other man, eyes roving over him and coming to rest on the bandage on his forearm, peaking his curiosity.

“What happened to your arm?” he asked.

T-Dog looked at the bandage for a second, looking surprised that Merle had asked, before speaking.

“We were surprised by a herd on the highway,” he said, “I sliced my arm open on the door of a car.”

Merle’s face scrunched uncomfortably at the thought of how if must have felt and T-Dog smiled amusedly at his expression before continuing.

“I’d be dead if it weren’t for your brother,” he said, “I couldn’t even think straight. He killed a few walkers and stacked one on top of me and we hid under them until the herd passed by.”

Merle stared at him, blinking interestedly, enraptured by the story, mouth quirking at hearing what his brother had done. T-Dog paused for a second, stroking the edges of the bandage as he thought.

“I developed a pretty serious blood infection,” he continued, “the antibiotics you had stashed away saved my life…”

Merle’s eyebrows raised interestedly and he nodded, watching as T-Dog’s eyes drifted to his stump before darting away. He had noticed that the others avoided looking at it, eyes skittering away when he noticed them staring, as if they thought that it would anger him. He supposed that they had every reason to think that and decided that it was something they’d all have to work through, resolving to make the first step.

“You can look at it,” he said, surprising himself with how softly he spoke.

T-Dog looked into his eyes for a few more seconds, as if making sure he had permission, before they fell to the stump once more and studied it curiously. Merle turned it this way and that so the other man could look at it before bringing it to his chest, cradling it there and rubbing his thumb over the stitches that lay underneath the dressings.

“Must’ve been awful…” T-Dog said, unsure what to say.

His stump ached at the memory of the hacksaw and he nodded as he looked away uncomfortably, eyes roving over the field he and Sophia had emerged through.

“We heard that you nearly didn’t make it…” T-Dog said, following his gaze.

“Yeah… it was close, apparently,” Merle said, “wouldn’t have made it if Hershel hadn’t amputated more…”

He turned to face him again and T-Dog’s eyes tracked over his face, taking in his gaunt features before dipping to drift across his body in a way that made Merle bristle uncomfortably. The other man noticed his discomfort and stopped, meeting his eyes instead.

“I’m glad you’re okay, Merle. I was so relieved when you came over that hill…” T-Dog said, “I’m sorry about what happened on the rooftop. I should have handled the situation better.”

“Naw, I said things I shouldn’t have…” Merle said, “I’m sorry I was being such an asshole…”

T-Dog’s smiled at his apology and they sat in silence for a minute, T-Dog’s face going solemn as he paused, thinking about what to say, and Merle waited patiently for him to speak.

“It was honestly an accident,” T-Dog said quietly, “I didn’t mean to drop the key.”

Merle stared at him, face going blank, and he could see T-Dog fighting the instinct to flinch away from him, expecting a brawl. He had allowed anger to consume him for decades, and was pleasantly surprised that he felt none of it now.

“I know…” Merle said simply, nodding, eyes dropping to his hand as his fingers brushed the limb gently.

T-Dog relaxed, eyeing his stump for a few more seconds before looking at his face, waiting for Merle to look at him. Merle looked at him guardedly, eyes tracking over the features of his face as he waited for him to speak.

“I should’ve stayed with you…” T-Dog said, holding Merle’s gaze, “you shouldn’t have been left alone up there.”

Merle’s chest tightened and his eyes skittered away, seeking Daryl, his rock, for support, before darting back to T-Dog. He smiled wobblily, feeling his eyes burning with the threat of tears as he breathed out shakily through his nose.

“You were the only person who even gave me a second thought…" Merle said, “you came back... you… tried to help me. Even after what I said and did…  and you came back to try and save me. That’s more than anyone’s ever done for me. Thank you.”

T-Dog’s eyes were warm and caring, and shone as he smiled, and Merle was stunned when the larger man shifted to face him, the movement intentionally slow so as to not startle him, and offered out his left hand. Merle froze, staring at the extended hand for a second before smiling and taking it in his own in a firm grip that T-Dog matched, his palm warm against his own as they shook hands.

T-Dog relinquished his hand and they spoke for a little while longer before he left to speak to Dale, patting Merle’s back jovially in a parting gesture. Daryl finished his conversation with Rick and Shane and returned to Merle’s side, sitting beside him so they were knee to knee, and took his hand.

“Proud of you” Daryl murmured.

Merle sighed, letting those words sink in before he looked into his brother’s eyes.

“Love you” he said softly.

“Love you too” Daryl said without hesitation, smiling affectionately.

Merle smiled back, feeling his heart flutter at his brother’s words and the sensation of his thumb caressing his knuckles.

Chapter Text

The brothers sat with the others for a while longer before feeling the lure of the tent and its peace and quiet, deciding to bid the others farewell for the time being to seek solitude. They made their way to their tent, arms around each other’s shoulders as they walked, and stepped inside before collapsing onto their respective beds. Merle pulled the book he’d been reading out from under his pillow and began to read, eyes roving over its pages with practised ease while Daryl took up cleaning his crossbow.

An hour later Merle finished his book and sighed as he shut it and reached over to put it atop his rucksack, before lying back on his cot and looking up at the roof of the tent. He turned his head to look at his brother and Daryl smiled over at him, receiving a smile in return. Merle burrowed under his sheets, rolling onto his side and watching his brother tinker with his crossbow for a while before drifting off into sleep.

Daryl huffed a laugh through his nose. Merle had never been one to sleep much, had often had a lot of trouble sleeping, and it had only gotten worse when he’d started taking drugs. Daryl remembered waking up as a kid and seeing Merle wide awake, staring at their door, keeping vigil in case their father came in. His older brother had just smiled at him and urged him to go back to sleep. He remembered how it often got so bad that the skin under Merle’s eyes became bruised, after days of not sleeping, of being under constant stress. It was good to see him sleeping, good to see his face so relaxed.

The relaxation was short lived as Merle slipped into a nightmare, brow scrunching, lips pursing as he maintained his practised quiet. He whimpered, fingers clenching in the sheets and Daryl put his crossbow down and got up, moving to his brother’s side and kneeling next to his cot. He cupped his brother’s face gently in one hand, slotting the other into Merle’s own, gently encouraging him to release the grip he had on the sheets.

Merle’s eyes darted rapidly under his lids and he huffed for breath, heartrate picking up as the nightmare gripped him further and pulled him under. He remained eerily still, but for his heaving chest and the movement of his eyes, the clench of his fingers around his brothers’ own.

“No…” Merle moaned, “please, no…”

Daryl’s heart clenched at the terror in his brother’s tone and he began to stroke Merle’s ear with a thumb, his knuckles with the other, the movements meant to soothe his older brother. He sat patiently, watching his brother struggle with the nightmare, and waited for it to pass and for Merle to wake. His touch seemed to calm Merle a little, but he continued to struggle under the hold of the nightmare.

“Don’t…” Merle whimpered, “please… don’t…”

Daryl felt his face crumple at Merle’s words. It was always hard to hear his brother remembering his abuse, recalling some horrible, old memory from the depths of his brain. It made his own scars itch in sympathy, and he could only imagine what Merle was reliving because his brother had never told him about what had happened to him as a child.

“Don’t hurt me… I’ll be good…” Merle whispered airily, tears slipping from his closed eyes, “please… I’m sorry… Daddy, don’t hurt me…”

Daryl’s breath hitched at the mention of their father, at how earnest Merle had been in saying ‘Daddy’. He wiped Merle’s tears away gently before continuing to stroke his ear with his thumb, watching Merle’s brow spasm as the nightmare ramped up.

“Please, stop… it hurts…” Merle whined.

Merle squirmed, face scrunching before his eyelids flew open and he gasped, his pupils constricting as they adjusted to the light. His eyes focussed on his brother’s face and Daryl smiled reassuringly as he recognised him, shaking off the confusion that nightmares brought. Merle’s eyes darted over his face from feature to feature and he tightened his grip on Daryl’s hand, willing his heart rate to slow, his breathing to even out. Daryl’s thumb stroked his ear while his fingers stroked the back of his skull, a slow, rhythmic motion that Merle found comforting.

Daryl noticed that Merle was trembling ever so slightly, his pupils constricted to pinpricks with fear, breaths coming out in quick puffs of air. Slowly Merle calmed and he smiled, hesitating before he pulled Daryl closer by the hand and Daryl climbed onto the cot with him, wrapping an arm around him and pressing close. Merle pressed his forehead to his sternum, nose settling into the soft space beneath his breastbone. Daryl remembered laying like this with Merle as a child, when he had been scared he’d always ran to his big brother and Merle had held him like this. It was odd to have their roles reversed, but he’d be lying if he said he minded.

Daryl curled protectively around his older brother, his back to the tent door, with Merle pressed closely to his chest. They lay in silence for a few minutes as Merle willed his heartrate to slow and his breathing to level out, for the lingering terror to subside as it zipped across his brain. He tilted his head up to look at Daryl’s face when he no longer felt like he was about to spiral into panic again.

“Thanks Daryl…” Merle said quietly.

Daryl smiled down at him, pulling him closer.

“What were you having a nightmare about?” Daryl asked quietly, “wanna talk about it? Seemed pretty rough…”

Merle swallowed thickly and pursed his lips, pressing his forehead to Daryl’s clothed collarbone and rubbing his thumb over Daryl’s. They’d never talked about the full extent of their abuse to each other, had seen each other beaten and had heard the abuse hurled at each other, but they’d never spoken about what had happened to them in private. Merle didn’t know how to bring it up, had always feared telling his brother in case it changed how Daryl saw him.

He felt his lip wobble at that thought and was mortified when a sob tore its way from his throat. Daryl was immediately pulling back to look at him, eyes wide and concerned and Merle clenched his fist in his younger brother’s shirt, burrowing into him as the dam broke and he started to cry, hiding his face against Daryl’s chest. Daryl just wrapped his arms around him and held him tighter, bringing one arm to rest in the dip of his brother’s spine so he could cup the back of his skull while the other wrapped around his waist.

Merle took sharp, painful breaths that bordered on hysterics as he expressed his pain, fighting for air as his body quaked. Daryl just cooed in his ear and shushed him softly, stroking his hair and rocking him in soothing, rhythmic motions, and slowly Merle calmed again, huffing wetly into Daryl’s shirt as he came back from the brink of panic once more.

He sniffled, nuzzling Daryl’s breastbone before pulling back and looking up into his brother’s matching eyes, breathing out shakily before managing a smile, which became more honest when Daryl smiled back affectionately. Daryl wiped his eyes dry gently with his thumbs before cupping his face and pressing his forehead to Merle’s. Merle gripped one of his wrists gently, sighing at the contact and the feel of Daryl’s pulse.

He burrowed into Daryl’s chest again, pressing his ear over his heart so he could hear his heartbeat, shutting his eyes at the sound of the steady thrum beneath his brother’s ribs. He listened to it for a while, reassured by the sound and the knowledge that his brother was alive. He gathered his thoughts, ruminating on his nightmare before deciding to tell a different story, not quite ready to tell Daryl his secret just yet, fearful of his reaction. He hesitated, mouth opening and closing, unsure on where to begin, before everything came out in a flood.

“When I was six… he got home from the bar one night and sat on the couch…” Merle said softly, fidgeting with Daryl’s shirt, “yelled at me to go get him a beer ‘cause a game was on…”

Daryl listened intently, nodding and stroking his back gently with a hand.

“I looked in the fridge… and there was nothing in there… not one beer,” Merle said, “I checked the kitchen, nothing… I didn’t know what to do…”

Daryl remembered the feeling of dread that set in whenever they failed the tasks their father set them, be it bringing him a beer or cooking him dinner on a whim.

“I just… started crying… I couldn’t help it, I was so scared…” Merle continued, “and he must’ve gotten impatient ‘cause ‘fore I knew it he was storming into the kitchen, yelling about how useless I was.”

Daryl recalled that the feeling of dread was quickly replaced by sheer terror when their father had stomped into the room, his footsteps echoing through the thin walls and making the floor shake. He’d always been frozen solid with fear and Merle had always stepped in front of him when he’d been around, refusing to budge from their father’s warpath and taking Daryl’s punishments for him.

“He grabbed me by the forearm and shook me, slapped me in the face, told me to stop crying…” Merle said, rubbing his right forearm, where an old scar sat, just a few inches below the bend of his elbow, “he hauled me up and my arm snapped and just… agony washed through me.”

Daryl frowned, seeking the arm in question with a hand and brushing his thumb over the scar gently, watching as Merle tracked the movement with his eyes.

“It was the first time he’d broken one of my bones…” Merle said quietly, “I started screaming and he just… yelled at me to shut the fuck up, to stop being a pussy, and started beating the shit out of me…”

Daryl remembered how big their father had been, especially when he was very young, he’d seemed impossibly large to him as a child. He remembered the size and the strength of his arms, how big his hands were. He and Merle were both of a height to him now, but back then they had been dwarfed by the monster that was Will Dixon.

“Ma must’ve heard me ‘cause she came through the door…” Merle said, “she didn’t do anything. She just turned on her heel and left, like he wasn’t trying to beat me to death.”

Daryl pursed his lips at learning that information. It had always been clear that they viewed their mother differently and he’d never understood why Merle didn’t love her as much as he did, but it was starting to make sense now. She’d known about the abuse and had done nothing to stop it, had done nothing at all to protect her sons.

“I woke up in bed the next day, could hardly open my eyes, my face was so bruised…” Merle said softly, “walked myself to the hospital, told them I fell down some stairs… they probably didn’t buy it but I couldn’t tell them the truth… all I could think about was how angry he’d be if I did. How he’d probably kill me if he found out.”

Daryl found himself mourning for the child Merle had been, could only imagine how alone Merle had felt. It was no wonder that Merle was the way he was now, having been betrayed and abused by the very people who were meant to love him most.

“They set my arm and put it in a cast… gave me a sandwich and a lollypop and told me to ice my face and my ribs…” Merle said, “I walked home and just lay in bed all day, feeling sorry for myself and avoiding him. Ma didn’t even look in on me. Didn’t say nothing, even when he screamed at me for bloodying the kitchen floor and demanded I clean it up.”

Daryl frowned at how unfair that was.

“I never cried from that day forward. Until now…” he said quietly.

He laughed self-deprecatingly, huffing a wet laugh through his nose and Daryl shifted to grip his stump gently, stroking the bandages reverently with his fingers and feeling Merle shiver ever so slightly.

“Maybe if I’d have been brave enough to speak up we wouldn’t have had such shitty childhoods…” Merle murmured, watching the play of Daryl’s fingers over the damaged limb, “would’ve actually made something of myself... would’ve given you a better life…”

“Ma never did anything?” Daryl asked.

“She never loved me…”  Merle said, voice wavering in upset as he curled in on himself, “neither of them ever did...”

Daryl felt his heart clench painfully at the resignation in Merle’s voice, and knew that saying that they did would have been lying and would only hurt his brother further. Their mother had taken a liking to Daryl only because she didn’t have to deal with him crying and screaming, had only been around for when he was being cute.

Merle had been the one to look after his baby brother, had been the one to change him, feed him, comfort him, everything that their mother had neglected to do for him and had continued the trend with Daryl. Merle had been forced to be his mother, his father and his brother, all at such a tender young age.

I love you, Merle,” Daryl said, pulling his brother closer and nuzzling against him, “I couldn’t have asked for a better brother.”

Merle’s breath hitched as Daryl squeezed him tightly, eyes watering at his words and how adamant he was in saying them. He’d never get used to it, Daryl’s infinite adoration, his loving words, though it was getting easier to accept them as the truth the more Daryl said them.

“We made it, didn’t we…?” Merle asked, peering up at him enquiringly, seeking affirmation, “I raised you okay, right Dar?”

“Yeah, you did good, Mer…” Daryl cooed, eyes crinkling at the corners as he smiled.

Merle smiled back, shifting closer again and pressing their foreheads together briefly before resting his head against Daryl’s chest with a sigh as he settled. Daryl wrapped his arms around him, chin coming to rest on the top of his head as he curled around him, hands coming to stroke his back in long, even strokes that made him tremble.

“Love you, baby brother,” Merle murmured, fingers splaying over Daryl’s heart.

“Love you too…” Daryl said warmly.

Chapter Text

Eventually Merle pulled away and retrieved the book Andrea had given him, pulling it out from the side of the cot he’d stashed it down and holding it aloft between them. Daryl looked at it interestedly, taking it from his brother briefly to inspect the cover and read the back before handing it back to him.

“Andrea gave it to me…” Merle said.

Daryl smiled, watching Merle thumb at the pages distractedly, no doubt enjoying the sensation of the pages fluttering against his thumb.

“Wanna help me collect sticks for bolts?” Daryl asked, “then you can read in the sun for a while.”

Merle nodded, nuzzling his cheek against Daryl’s shoulder once more before drawing away and waiting for Daryl to get up. Daryl rolled out of the cot and stood, pulling his shoes on and helping Merle do the same before helping him upright and slinging an arm around his waist.

They walked outside and ventured into the forest together, talking as they collected an armful of long, straight sticks each before they returned, collecting Merle’s book and sitting against a large tree together in the sun, Merle propped against Daryl’s side. Merle didn’t open the book for a while, opting instead to sit and watch Daryl whittle, to enjoy the sun and the almost eerie tranquility of the farm.

He gazed over at the others, finding Andrea looking in their direction, and raised the book, waving it at her and receiving a bright smile and a wave in return. He grinned, ignoring the way Daryl laughed and elbowed him in the ribs, turning to shove him half-heartedly before pulling him close and settling against him again as he opened the book and began to read.

He quickly became enraptured by the story and got lost in it, so much so that he didn’t notice Glenn approaching until Daryl was shaking him by the shoulder to get his attention. He jerked in surprise at being shaken and looked up at the younger man as he approached.

“Hey…” Glenn greeted quietly, shuffling awkwardly as he faltered at Merle’s gaze.

“Hey…” the brothers echoed, smiling.

Glenn approached them with a basket and Merle considered him, noticing the way the younger man eyed him uneasily. Glenn fought his unease and knelt beside the brothers with a smile, offering the basket out. Merle peered inside and saw that it was nearly filled to the brim with peaches, and his mouth watered at the prospect of eating one.

“Do uhh… Do you want some peaches?” Glenn asked.

“Thank you” Merle said softly, putting the book down over his knee.

Glenn looked surprised for a second before he smiled and shifted closer so that the brothers didn’t have to reach too far to take from the basket. Daryl picked a few, intending to keep some for later, and bit into one, humming at the taste and looking at Merle as he took a bite of his own. Merle’s eyes slid shut at the taste, and he moaned softly. Daryl chuckled and Merle eyed him as he chewed on his bite, enjoying the mirth in Daryl’s eyes.

Merle studied Glenn and noticed an odd nervousness about him. The younger man kept avoiding their eyes, kept eyeing the barn almost guiltily. Merle narrowed his eyes at him and Glenn smiled nervously before he glanced at the barn again, his eyes drawn to the building, practically like a magnet. Merle followed his gaze, staring in the direction of the barn and observing how Glenn became more nervous the longer he stared.

Daryl noticed Merle staring and did the same, eyes drifting to rest on the barn, and Glenn only became more antsy, his panic becoming more apparent as the seconds passed. Merle’s eyes darted to look at the younger man and he narrowed them, eyeing the younger man suspiciously, and Glenn smiled nervously at him.

“What’s so interestin’ about the barn?” Merle asked, raising an eyebrow.

Daryl’s interest was piqued now too, and he was gazing at the younger man alongside his brother, twin sets of eyes boring into the nervous young Korean.

“N-nothing!” Glenn said shrilly, “there’s nothing weird about the barn!”

With that the younger man stood, bidding them goodbye as he hurried away, casting nervous glances back at them and at the barn. The brothers looked at each other, looking to the barn once more before returning their gazes to one another. Merle pursed his lips, shrugging at his brother before returning his gaze to the barn thoughtfully. He took another bite of his peach, chewing it and swallowing before talking.

“I nearly actually led Sophia away from here…” Merle said softly, “if I hadn’t spotted the RV… we would have kept moving.”

Daryl frowned at that, looking to his brother for an explanation, encouraging him to elaborate.

“The farmhouse… the barn…” Merle said, gesturing, “they made me uneasy. They were too… perfect.”

Daryl looked around and found that he agreed with Merle’s observation, could see where he was coming from. The farmhouse and its surrounds were pristine, almost eerily so, unspoiled by the carnage that everywhere else was marred by.

“Well, I’m glad you stopped” Daryl said.

Merle smiled and finished his peach, licking his fingers clean of its juices and wiping his face with the back of his hand. Daryl shook his head with a smile at his sticky face and stood with a pat to his knee before he stalked to their tent. Merle watched him rummage around for a second before he returned with a few cloths.

“I’m going to get some water” Daryl said softly, “be back in a minute.”

Merle watched after him as he left and picked up the book again when Daryl was nearing the house, holding the book open with his elbow as he read as he waited for Daryl to return. He put the book down again as Daryl returned with water, dousing the cloth with some water before gesturing for Merle to hold his hand out.

“Rick and Shane are planning on teaching the others to shoot tomorrow,” Daryl said conversationally, taking Merle’s hand and beginning to clean it gently with the cloth, “you should give shooting with your left hand a go.”

Merle watched as his brother cleaned his hand, his motions gentle and meticulous.

“Do you think they’ll trust me with a gun?” he asked softly, eyes drifting to the group guiltily.

Self-hatred flared up as he was flooded with memories from the rooftop. The last time he’d fired a gun he’d gotten himself handcuffed and left to die. Daryl paused in his ministrations and looked at him, eyebrows creasing in the middle concernedly.

“They want to give you another chance, Mer…” Daryl said as he started up again, “Rick insisted that you join in.”

Merle smiled at that, felt hope bloom in his chest and hesitated before nodding his agreement. Daryl smiled, pressing the cloth into his hand and encouraging him to wipe his face clean.

The brothers moved into the shade after a while, having had their fill of the sun, and Merle read for a few more hours, completing a couple more chapters before looking up and noticing that the sun was beginning its descent. Daryl looked at him as he looked up and smiled, nudging him companionably with his knee.

“Is it good?” Daryl asked, nodding at the book in his hand.

Merle smiled and nodded, noting his page number and putting the book down before stretching, groaning at the satisfying pull of muscle and sinew. Daryl grinned at him, adding the newest bolt to his pile before shifting and linking his arm around Merle’s, cupping his stump in his palm. Merle considered him, his eyes soft and fond as Daryl matched his gaze and stroked the damaged limb affectionately.

Daryl looked over at the group, gathered around the RV, and eyed them curiously.

“Looks like they’re getting ready for dinner” Daryl said softly, nodding over at them.

Merle followed his gaze and saw the others walking around together, could see Lori with Maggie, Patricia and Beth inside the kitchen, could see Rick and Shane talking to Hershel on the porch and Andrea and Dale speaking with Glenn and T-Dog around the fire they’d built.

He found himself wanting to be a part of it and got Daryl’s attention, gesturing over to the group with a nod, revelling in Daryl’s surprised expression and the way his brother helped him up eagerly. They made their way to their tent and Merle stashed the book away down the side of his cot as Daryl bundled up his bolts and put the peaches away.

They strode over to the group together and Merle felt warmth spread through his chest at the way they made room for them in the circle. It was odd, being accepted, but he found himself liking it a lot, and smiled, looking around briefly before returning his gaze to his brother.

Conversation continued through the group and he smiled fondly when Sophia approached him, grinning from ear to ear, and sat beside him, edging up close and pressing against his side. She began to talk, excitedly, animatedly, and he listened intently, charmed by her enthusiasm and invested in her stories. Sophia spoke to him for a long while and he found himself sharing easy conversation with her. He hazarded a glance at Carol and flushed at the affectionate smile she was throwing his way, at the fondness in her eyes, and smiled back before returning his attention to Sophia.

Eventually Carol ushered her away and he patted Sophia’s shoulder as she moved to re-join her mother, chuckling as she threw her arms around his neck and hugged him before prancing away and sitting beside her mother. Daryl’s knee brushed his and he turned to consider him, smiling past him at T-Dog and Glenn as the four of them began conversing.

Merle noted interestedly that Carl had ventured outside the house and was sitting near his parents beside Sophia and Carol and was talking to the young girl animatedly. He made eye contact with the young boy and smiled, nodding at him in greeting, glad when Carl beamed back and returned the gesture. He’d not heard much about what had happened to Carl and was curious about the square of gauze taped to the boy’s chest and decided to enquire about it later.

They made their way inside, sitting around the table as food was handed around and everyone sat, making quiet, easy conversation as they ate, laughing and making jokes. Merle listened intently to their conversations, joining in every now and then and finding himself enjoying being included. He mused that this was what having a family was meant to be like.

Eventually everyone finished eating and wound down for the night, making their way outside to sit around the fire for a while as the night came to an end. Eventually the brothers made their way back to their tent, laughing and pushing each other playfully, much to the others’ amusement.

They entered the tent and sat on their separate cots, pulling their shoes off and changing into clean shirts as they talked. Merle sighed as he lay down, peering over at Daryl as he did the same in his own cot. He smiled over at his brother and closed his eyes tiredly, knowing that Daryl was doing the same a few arm lengths away.

He didn’t realise he’d slipped into a fitful, nightmare filled sleep until he jerked awake with a start, eyes searching the darkness before finding Daryl’s concerned, sleepy face above him. His brother’s hands were gentle on his ribs and brought him back to reality quickly.

“Sorry for waking you…” Merle murmured, rubbing his eyes one by one, feeling guilty for interrupting his brother’s sleep.

Daryl shook his head magnanimously and chuckled, pressing a drowsy kiss to his cheek before climbing into the cot beside him. Merle smiled at his brother’s sweetness, at how warm he was from sleep, and adjusted his position so Daryl could fit on the cot more comfortably, allowing him to pull him into his arms.

“Another nightmare?” Daryl asked, voice husky from sleep.

“Yeah…” Merle said softly, shivering at the memory of the nightmare he’d had earlier, inspiring Daryl to pull him closer.

Merle settled against his brother and Daryl began stroking his back with his fingers, tracing the scars they both knew lay beneath his shirt, smiling when Merle shivered at his touch. Daryl pursed his lips, considering something, and Merle waited patiently, focussing on the way Daryl’s chest rose and fell as he breathed, letting the motion calm him.

“I never thanked you for protectin’ me…”  Daryl said softly, “when we was kids...”

Merle froze, eyes flicking away from his brother’s face, hand coming up to pick at the bandages around his stump.

“I should’a been around more…” Merle said softly, “shouldn’t’ve left you alone with him…”

Daryl shook his head, stroking his brother’s cheek gently.

“You did more than you ever should’a had to…” he said softly.

Merle smiled unsurely and fidgeted with the sheets uncomfortably before he drew away, putting space between them as he propped himself up on his elbow, supporting his head with his palm. He saw concern cross Daryl’s face, saw the worry and a flicker of hurt as he withdrew from his embrace.

Daryl felt a loss at the sudden lack of Merle’s warmth and itched to press closer again, but stopped himself when he saw the haunted expression on his brother’s face, saw that Merle was having trouble meeting his eyes. Merle fought through it and considered Daryl’s matching pair for a while before speaking.

“The story I told you earlier…” Merle started quietly, “it wasn’t what I had the nightmare about…”

Daryl looked at him, waiting patiently for him to continue, and Merle was relieved to see no ill will in his eyes.

“It was worse…” Merle said softly, a poor warning for what was about to come out of his mouth, but a warning none the less.

Daryl eyed him steadily, guardedly, nodding to encourage him to continue. Merle knew that he still wasn’t ready to tell him, could feel his heart starting to race already, but knew that it was time that Daryl knew. He was glad that they were no longer touching, could feel a knot of nausea forming in his stomach. He’d kept this secret for close to five decades and knew that it was a major factor in his inability to open up.

He had no idea where to start, how to start, and took a breath in before letting it out shakily, deciding to broach the subject like he was ripping off a band aid.

“Did he…” Merle started, swallowing as he paused to steady himself, “did dad ever… touch you?”

Confusion crossed Daryl’s features and he shook his head, eyeing Merle’s face concernedly as his heartrate picked up at the insinuation. Merle smiled relievedly at Daryl’s answer, but there was a sadness in his eyes that made Daryl’s heart hurt, made his heartrate pick up even more as what Merle had asked sunk in.

“He… he used to… touch me…” Merle said, confirming Daryl’s fears, his eyes skittering away to gaze at the space between them, “when Ma… wasn’t in the mood…”

Daryl’s heart sank and his eyes went wide as he realised exactly what Merle was saying, and floundered for a few seconds, speechless. He’d never even considered the possibility that Merle had been abused in other ways and his heart broke for his brother.

“He… he molested you?” Daryl asked, trying to find the right words to say and willing his voice not to waver or crack.

Merle froze at the term, his eyes darting between each of his brother’s and Daryl swore that he could see him scrutinizing his intentions, weighing up whether he was forming revulsion towards him. Merle swallowed before he gave a sharp nod and his eyes flicked away, welling with tears, and Daryl couldn’t help the shaky breath that broke free from him.

“Oh, Merle,” Daryl said softly, “I’m so sorry…”

Merle fiddled with his collar, wiping tears away with his bandaged stump. Daryl bristled at the thought of Merle being so betrayed, at the thought of their father abusing him in one of the worst ways imaginable.

“I’ve never told anybody before…” Merle said softly, stroking his stump with his fingers gently.

Merle was looking at him with big, unsure eyes and Daryl’s heart clenched painfully in his chest and he itched to pull his brother into his arms again. He knew that it’d taken Merle a lot to tell him, could see nervous energy zipping behind his eyes, an underlying air of distrust in those baby blue eyes.

“Thank you for opening up to me, Merle…” he said, smiling, wanting to convey that he was honoured that Merle had trusted him enough to tell him.

Daryl watched his brother’s fingers as they brushed his stump, and he longed to take his hand, but he wasn’t sure if Merle would appreciate being touched, especially when he was in such a fragile emotional state after telling him this deep buried, long kept secret. He felt guilty for ever thinking badly of Merle’s aversion to being touched. It made a lot of sense now.

Merle looked up at him again, a faint smile crossing his face as he took in Daryl’s features. Daryl smiled back and gladly made room when Merle moved into his space so they were side by side, pressed ribcage to ribcage. Gradually Merle felt himself calm down, his body pressing more against Daryl’s as he relaxed against him once more. Daryl welcomed the contact, letting Merle take all the time he needed, and they lay for a while in companionable silence before Merle spoke.

“You… you don’t think differently of me now, right?” he asked, voice quaking, and Daryl could feel his heart thundering beneath his ribs, could feel him trembling ever so slightly.

Daryl could only imagine the terror that Merle was feeling, at being judged after laying his soul bare.

“No, Mer, never…” Daryl reassured, his words sincere.

Merle relaxed slightly at his brother’s reaction, at his easy acceptance, and smiled at him, the corners of his mouth trembling, his eyes shiny with unshed tears. He shifted closer again, wrapping an arm over Daryl’s waist tentatively before nuzzling in close. Daryl pulled him closer readily, pliant and infinitely willing.

“Thank you” Merle whispered, his breath shaky.

Daryl smiled down at him and Merle settled more comfortably against his chest, shivering as he started to rub his back gently with one hand as he cupped the back of his head lightly with the other. Daryl began stroking the base of Merle’s skull with his fingers, smile widening as he felt Merle’s fingers begin to stroke at his chest and they were quiet for a while, just enjoying the simple physical contact.

Daryl remembered a song that Merle used to hum to him when he’d been sick or scared and began to hum it, enjoying Merle’s happy shiver in response and the way his brother melted against him, lulled by the noise reverberating through his chest.

He felt Merle drifting off against him, comforted by the warmth of their shared body heat, and smiled at his brother’s relaxed face as he allowed himself to close his eyes and follow suit.

Chapter Text

Merle woke first, eyes sliding open as he sighed through his nose, enjoying how quiet it was outside and how warm the tent was, heated by the morning sun. Daryl was still asleep, breathing quietly, and Merle was content to press his ear to his chest and listen to the beat of his heart for a while as he waited for him to wake too.

He thought over the events of the previous night and swallowed thickly, feeling emotion well in his chest at how easily Daryl had accepted his story, at how it’d changed nothing between them, at how Daryl hadn’t changed his opinion of him. He felt like a huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders, felt unbelievably light and relaxed, it was an odd sensation. He looked up at Daryl’s face, taking in his features, so akin to his own, yet not as worn or aged, and smiled fondly.

Eventually Daryl roused, squeezing him a little tighter as his brain came online, unconsciously recognising his presence. His eyes slid open and he smiled when Merle looked up at him, his expression fond and wholly open. Merle yawned quietly before he shifted and sat up, rubbing his face. One of Daryl’s hands came to rest on his ribs, supporting him as he sat up, and Merle huffed a laugh through his nose at the ticklish contact, his skin hypersensitive from sleep, intercostal muscles jumping at the touch.

“Mornin’” Merle said, chuckling and batting at Daryl’s hand when he dug his fingers into his side amusedly, affectionately.

“Mornin’” Daryl said, relenting and sighing as he relaxed back into the cot, “sleep okay?”

Merle nodded, stretching and yawning again before removing Daryl’s hand from his side, lacing their fingers together loosely instead. Daryl relaxed when Merle didn’t reject his touch and sighed softly in relief, glad that he hadn’t overstepped a boundary and made Merle uncomfortable. They stayed like that for a while, speaking softly and making jokes before they got up and put their shoes on, preparing for the day, and Daryl smiled brightly when Merle stood and walked on his own, much stronger than he’d been in the days prior.

They left the tent and made their way to join the others for breakfast near the RV, gratefully taking the oatmeal offered to them before sitting side by side on the grass in the sun. Merle noticed that Daryl was still a little reluctant to touch him and knew that he meant no ill will and was just trying to make sure he was comfortable, but it began to grate on him. He pressed his knee to Daryl’s, encouraging his touch and receiving a bright, pleased smile in return and more of Daryl’s thigh pressed against his own.

Merle let his eyes roam over their surroundings, enjoying the sun and the way it hit the grass and the trees, bringing out their colours. The others conversed quietly between themselves and he found himself slowly zoning out, ignoring the noises they were making as his eyes wandered.

He was jerked back into reality when Daryl nudged him in the ribs gently with his elbow, getting his attention, and he turned his head to look at him, raising an eyebrow enquiringly at his brother. Daryl shook his head good naturedly at Merle’s absentness, smiling amusedly, his eyes glinting fondly.

“Wanna go for a walk after this?” Daryl asked around a mouthful of oatmeal, gesturing toward the line of trees with his spoon.

Merle smiled at him and nodded enthusiastically, swallowing his mouthful before readjusting the bowl in the crook of his right elbow and scraping another spoonful of oatmeal from his bowl and into his mouth. They sat, content to sit thigh to thigh as they listened to the others talking, partaking in the conversation every now and then.

They finished breakfast before standing to go for a walk around the farm, walking close to each other, Daryl’s arm around Merle’s waist and Merle’s around his brother’s shoulders. The older Dixon leant into his brother’s side as they walked, smiling when Daryl immediately linked his left arm with Merle’s right, careful of his stump and the small bruise in the crook of his elbow, a reminder of the needle that’d been in his vein two days prior.

Daryl slowed their pace and they walked leisurely along the edge of the forest, peering through the foliage interestedly, yearning to weave through the trees and explore. Daryl looked at his brother enquiringly, gesturing towards the forest with a jerk of his head, asking him wordlessly if he would be up to walking through the forest for a while. When they’d ventured into the forest to collect sticks for crossbow bolts Merle had gotten tired quickly, exhausted by traversing the uneven terrain.

Merle considered it for a moment before agreeing with a smile and he allowed Daryl to lead him into the forest. They walked for a while before stopping and taking a few moments to pause and take it in, breathing in the deep, earthy smell of the forest in long inhales, listening to the distant sound of birds and other forest creatures. It felt like coming home and Merle shivered happily, feeling Daryl do the same against his side.

They continued, with Daryl leading his brother, trying to choose the least difficult path to traverse so that they could draw out their walk for as long as possible but Merle eventually became too tired to continue, his breathing becoming laboured, beads of sweat breaking out over his brow. He slowed their pace to a crawl, and eventually had to stop for a few minutes, smiling at Daryl apologetically as he tried to catch his breath. Daryl only smiled back amicably and waited for him to recuperate before he started to lead him back toward the farm.

They turned their attention to the others as they crested the hill Merle and Sophia had come up over, taking long, easy strides towards them, matching each other’s pace easily. They peered over at them interestedly as they approached the farm, watching as they gathered near the RV, depositing a collection of weapons and empty bottles and cans onto the hood of a car in preparation for shooting practice.

Merle felt equal parts of excitement and trepidation pooling in his stomach at the thought of firing a gun. It’d gotten him into a lot of trouble in Atlanta, had resulted in the loss of his hand, but it was also something that he’d always enjoyed and he figured that it would be a challenge now; shooting with his non-dominant hand. Hershel was on the porch, waving and gesturing them over as he spotted them, and they knew that he wanted to check on the elder Dixon brother. They made their way forward to meet him, gesturing with waves to acknowledge that they’d seen him and were on their way over.

Merle leant on Daryl a little more, grinning when Daryl hauled him closer, squeezing him with the arm around his waist and pressing his forehead to his temple, chuckling airily in his ear. He pulled back to look at Daryl’s face, his eyes drifting over his brother’s features fondly before he brought his hand up to cup Daryl’s jaw, patting it softly before he stroked his ear with his thumb. Daryl smiled at him, his eyes glinting delightedly at Merle’s display of affection and how Merle flushed a little with a small, affectionate smile.

Chapter Text

They entered the house, greeting Patricia, Maggie and Lori with courteous nods and small smiles before they headed upstairs to meet Hershel. The older man was in the process of rolling out his kit as they entered the room and they smiled at him when he turned to look at them.

“Good morning,” Hershel greeted warmly, “take a seat, Merle.”

He gestured to the bed and Merle sat, running his fingers over the bandages around his stump gently, grimacing a little as a spike of pain rushed up his spine. Hershel noticed the movement and Merle’s expression and watched him quietly for a second before speaking.

“Does it hurt?” he asked softly.

Merle looked up at him and pondered the question, brushing his thumb over the bandages around it, over the neat line of stitches beneath.

“It just aches mostly… Sometimes there’s pain, but it’s bearable…” he said, shrugging, “it flares up every now and then…”

“I’ll look at it in a minute,” Hershel said, smiling kindly, “it’s probably just healing pains.”

Merle nodded and smiled and Hershel turned his attention to the stitches in Merle’s forehead, brushing them with his fingers softly and testing the skin around it gently. He prodded carefully, checking the give and the bind of the scar before he came to a decision.

“It looks like these can come out,” Hershel said, “this may feel a little uncomfortable.”

The older man coated the stitches with Vaseline, rubbing it in gently with gloved fingers before withdrawing, wiping the gloves clean, and picking up a small set of scissors. He cut the sutures in even motions before tugging them out of Merle’s forehead carefully with tweezers, and Merle shut his eyes and winced at the feeling of the threads running through his skin before slipping out. It was an uncomfortable sensation and it made goose bumps rise on his skin, made him shudder a little, but it was a relief when they slipped free. Daryl watched interestedly as Hershel worked, admiring the new scar quietly.

Merle let out the breath he didn’t realise he was holding as the last of the stitches slipped from his forehead, opening his eyes as Hershel withdrew, spreading Vaseline over the new scar before discarding the stitches on a wad of gauze. Merle reached up to touch the fresh scar gently with his fingertips, feeling the smoothness of it, and looked up at Hershel, feeling something bloom in his chest at the older man’s kind, caring smile, and smiled back shyly.

“Can you take your shirt off, please?” Hershel asked softly.

Merle bristled a little, freezing briefly, and steeled himself as he removed his shirt, setting it aside before returning his attention to the older man. Hershel noticed his trepidation and was deliberately slow in his movements as he reached forward to touch him, his eyes drifting over Merle’s torso clinically. Despite the man’s clear, friendly intentions, his skin jumped at Hershel’s gentle touch and the older man waited patiently for him to get used to the sensation before resuming his inspection.

He swallowed anxiously as Hershel tested the new accumulation of fat around his ribs and hips with his fingertips, and shook the memory of wandering, unwelcome hands off, determined not to let it take over. Hershel kept the contact short and analytic and nodded approvingly at Merle’s slight weight gain, finding the flesh to be slightly more adipose, and his ribs and hips to be slightly less prominent.

“You’ve gained a good amount of weight back,” Hershel said, “but like I said yesterday, you still need to gain quite a bit more weight, your ribs and hipbones are still quite prominent.”

Merle nodded, peering down at his ribs and hips, taking in the way the bones pressed through his skin. He couldn’t remember ever being this thin before and it was a little scary to see his bones through his skin. He swallowed, bringing his hand up to touch his collarbones and ribs, running his fingers over the hard crops of bone. It made his scars more apparent and he suddenly became very self-conscious of them, acutely aware of the blemishes littering his skin.

His hand came up to cover his torso instinctively, stroking at the large scar bisecting his chest with his fingers dejectedly. The scars on his back itched, and his throat tightened in upset, clicking when he swallowed, his eyes wandering miserably to look anywhere but his brother or Hershel.

He was brought back by Daryl’s hand on his side, jerking back to reality and looking at his brother, feeling a little lost and worthless. Daryl recognised his inner turmoil and smiled at him, maintaining eye contact as he shifted closer and began brushing a hand up and down his ribcage soothingly, patiently. The hurt in his chest dulled and he smiled back at his little brother before looking at Hershel, and was surprised to see an odd spark of anger in the older man’s eyes. He immediately started to shut down, his smile faltering before falling, and Hershel was quick to dispel the anger from his eyes, filling them with kind warmth instead and smiling reassuringly.

“I’m not angry at you, Merle” Hershel clarified, his voice calming and even, “I’m angry that your father did this to you.”

Merle’s eyes widened as he realised that Hershel absolutely knew about their father and he smiled hesitantly, his face contorting uncertainly. Hershel, ever patient and kind, waited for Merle to process the information, for him to relax, his facial features smoothing out.

“Let’s take a look at your side,” Hershel said warmly, gesturing for him to lie down.

He lay down and rolled to face away from the older man so that Hershel could look at his injured side, at the healing bruising on his flank, and settled in, propping his head up on his stump as lightly as he could, before giving up and lying down flat, pillowing his head on his bicep.

Hershel examined the sutures in Merle’s side, noticing that the dermis around the stitches was still tender and a little swollen and red. He pursed his lips thoughtfully before inspecting the stitches on the other side of the wound, nestled under Merle’s ribcage.

“We’ll leave these in for a little while longer…” Hershel said decisively, “the wound is still a little fresh, but you’re healing nicely.”

Merle nodded and sat up when Hershel withdrew to give him room, turning to face the older man as he swung his legs over the edge of the bed. Hershel took his stump arm in a gentle grip and unwound the bandage slowly, eyeing the limb as it was slowly revealed. Hershel’s hands were gentle on the injured limb as he turned it this way and that, inspecting the wound closely. Merle watched Hershel unsurely, swallowing, his throat clicking, still so unused to such gentle contact from men other than Daryl.

The stitches were dark against his skin, which was enflamed and sore, but the wound looked a might better than it had four days ago. Merle looked at it interestedly, impressed by the rapid improvement. Hershel seemed to be thinking the same thing, smiling warmly at him before speaking.

“This is healing very nicely, Merle,” Hershel said, “it’s showing vast improvement.”

Daryl beamed at Merle’s side, eyes roving over the healing seam of Merle’s stump, over the stark black sutures that stitched it shut neatly. Hershel flushed the wound lightly with salt water and coated it with antiseptic carefully, making sure it got into every nook and cranny in the sutures and letting it seep into Merle’s skin. Merle smiled at his brother, shuddering a little when Hershel rubbed Vaseline into the stitches. The limb was bandaged up once more, wrapped securely, and Merle turned it back and forth, appreciating the older man’s neat handiwork.

“Thank you, Hershel…” he said, his fingers encircling the truncated wrist lightly as he held the limb against his sternum.

“You’re welcome,” Hershel said, smiling warmly, “do you think you need something for the pain?”

Merle pondered the question, gauging the pain he’d been feeling since the surgery.

“Maybe just when it ramps up…” Merle said, “seems to happen in the morning mostly…”

Hershel nodded in agreement before he left the room with his kit and a reminder to Merle to keep his fluids up, leaving the brothers alone in the room. They lapsed into silence as Merle rubbed the stump limb with his thumb idly, staring vacantly off into space out the window. He felt Daryl shift closer, sitting beside him on the bed, pressing against him so that they were thigh to thigh, facing each other. Daryl’s hand joined his own, cupping his stump gently while his other hand cupped his elbow, and Merle looked at him, taking in his facial features and smiling softly.

“What’re you thinking about?” Daryl asked softly.

In the past Merle would have shrugged, deflecting, uncomfortable with sharing his thoughts and feelings. Even though it was still a little daunting, he was finding it a lot easier to open up to Daryl and decided to continue the trend.

“I don’t feel like I deserve the kindness Hershel and the others have shown me…” he said, sighing self-deprecatingly, “I don’t feel like I deserve forgiveness or kindness... not after everything I’ve done.”

Daryl let go of his elbow to press his hand to Merle’s chest instead, spreading his fingers over his heart, and Merle’s breath hitched at the gesture, his heart skipping a beat. He felt his face break into a broad smile that stretched slowly and lazily across his face and saw Daryl’s eyes light up, sparkling with affection.

“Of course you do, Mer…” Daryl said softly, sincerely, “everyone makes mistakes…”

“Well, I’ve made a whole lotta them…” Merle murmured, his eyes skittering away.

“And I love you just the same…” Daryl said, “you deserve a second chance…”

Merle looked at him, their eyes meeting once more, and Daryl moved closer, wrapping his arms around his brother in a hug that Merle returned with a sniffle, his breath hitching in his chest again. Daryl buried his face in his neck, nuzzling him gently and breathing deeply against him, sending warm gusts of air flowing over his collarbones. Merle froze at the sensation, suddenly acutely aware that he was shirtless and Daryl’s hands were settled over some of the most prominent scars on his back.

His brain lurched into a memory, of having his legs kicked apart, hands on his back, forcing him to bend over, fingers digging into his hips. Another memory surfaced, of a much heavier body pressed against his own, pinning him down, breath on his throat, a tongue against his collarbone-

He fought it down desperately, not wanting to scare his brother, and Daryl noticed his anxiety, moving his hands, skating them up the planes of his back so that his wrists curled over Merle’s shoulders, his fingers squeezing his trapezius muscles.

He withdrew so that Merle could see his face, shifting to cup his neck with his hands, and Merle relaxed a little, eyes searching Daryl’s own. The memories and the terrified rigidity of his body abated and he calmed again in Daryl’s embrace, pressing his forehead to his brother’s and closing his eyes.

“A memory?” Daryl asked quietly.

Merle nodded, and a few seconds later Daryl released him with a smile and a pat to the side of his neck. Merle reached for his shirt and slipped it back on, maintaining the press of their thighs and feeling one of Daryl’s hands settle on his knee, making him smile.

They made their way outside, arm in arm, pausing on the porch to take in the sunlight and to look around the farm.

Daryl turned his head to look at him, nudging him gently with his elbow, and Merle grinned at him, adjusting his arm so it lay around Daryl’s shoulders, before pressing his forehead to Daryl’s temple, nuzzling him affectionately.

Chapter Text

They walked together to join the others as they set up the firing range, meticulously placing bottles and cans along one of the fences that bordered the farmhouse. The others greeted them, turning to watch them as they approached, and Merle found himself smiling at them, enjoying the positive attention. They seemed genuinely pleased to see him, seemed sincere in their efforts to include him.

He felt a pang of feeling in his chest, felt his eyes water and his throat tighten. He’d been treated as an outcast his entire life, often shunned for no reason but his reputation, the words of others, and the assumptions of strangers. He’d been abused throughout his life, kicked when he was down, and he’d become a prickly asshole to protect himself. He knew that it didn’t do him any favours, acting the way he did, but it was so ingrained as a defence mechanism that it was near impossible for him to shake. But these people seemed to be warming to him, had forgiven him for his transgressions, despite everything, and seemed more than willing to bring him into the fold.

Daryl noticed him becoming distant, lost in thought, and brought him back to reality with an arm around his waist, one hand squeezing under his ribs, the other set into a broad palm that thumped affectionately against his chest. Merle shook himself off and smiled at the others, showing his teeth in a broad grin, and felt happiness bloom in his chest when they responded in kind.

The Dixons sprang into action eagerly, helping the others set up the makeshift firing range. They clowned around as they worked, laughing and pushing each other playfully, playfighting and wrestling each other as carefully as they could, chasing each other, laughing boisterously, much to the others’ amusement. Merle was elated, feeling fantastic; it felt good to run, to feel endorphins rushing through his blood stream.

He quickly became exhausted and had to call a truce with his brother, panting and bending at the waist, hand on his knee as he tried to catch his breath. Daryl stood by his side, rubbing his back and panting along with him, grinning from ear to ear, his eyes sparkling jovially and Merle grinned back, wrapping an arm around Daryl’s waist as he straightened up again.

They joined the others at the fence once more, having run off as they playfought, and listened while Rick and Shane laid out instructions and safety measures before handing out the guns. He and Daryl decided to share a gun, having a lot of previous experience in using guns, and Daryl encouraged him to go first, pressing the gun into his hand enthusiastically.

The gun felt good in his hand as he tested its weight, turning it this way and that to inspect it, taking in its make and calibre. It was pleasantly heavy in his hand and he found himself practically vibrating with excitement, fingers flexing around the grip. He raised it and aimed at the target, adjusting his stance and looking down the barrel before cocking the hammer, moving his finger to rest along the barrel before moving to curl around the trigger.

The rush that went through him as he fired the gun was phenomenal. Pleasure tingled across his brain for a few seconds afterwards and he traced his shot, feeling adrenaline course through him, setting his nerves alight. Daryl patted his back with an excited laugh, marvelling at his shot, and Merle felt a rush of dopamine flow through him. He’d hit the bottle square in its middle, had shattered it with his first shot, and he grinned triumphantly at Daryl before taking a few more shots, knocking cans and bottles from their perches with ease.

Merle turned and winked at his brother, receiving a laugh and an arm around his waist, a brief squeeze, and a few pats to his ribs before Daryl withdrew. He held the gun out to Daryl, who took it from his hand eagerly, focussing down the sight and mimicking the stance Merle had taken before he started firing. Merle watched him fire a few rounds before looking around and watching the others shoot. They’d seemed to pick the exercise up quickly under the instruction of Rick and Shane, improving with each shot they took.

He watched Andrea shooting beyond the line of bottles and cans and traced her shots to a ‘NO TRESPASSING’ sign in the distance. She’d hit the space in the letter ‘O’ with three shots and he nodded at her, raising his eyebrows in an impressed sweep and receiving a smile in return. Rick and Shane approached her, speaking to her softly, and she gestured out to the sign. Shane raised the binoculars to his face, peering through them before turning to consider Rick, whose eyebrows shot upwards, impressed.

Daryl handed him the gun and Merle raised it again, catching Andrea’s eye before aiming for the sign to hit the hole in the ‘R’, re-aiming to hit the hole in the ‘P’ too before lowering the gun and putting the safety on. She laughed, raising her hands and clapping, astonished. Rick and Shane sidled up to the brothers and Shane looked at the sign through his binoculars, whistling, impressed, before handing them over to Rick to look as well. The ex-officers peered at Merle with amazed expressions plastered on their faces and he shrugged modestly.

“Military training…” Merle explained quietly.

“Still impressive!” Shane said.

Merle smiled timidly, nodding his thanks and handing the gun to Daryl so that he could have another turn. Merle, Daryl, Rick, Shane and T-Dog all coached the others on their shooting, giving them tips and adjusting their stances and their grips until they were hitting their targets consistently and felt more comfortable with their weapons. Shooting practise went on for a while before slowly dying down, the others now feeling more confident in their abilities, and everyone made their way back to the RV, Merle trailing behind.

Merle found himself overheating unexpectedly, wiping sweat from his brow and panting as he tried to cool down. He suddenly felt weak, felt his knees starting to wobble and felt himself starting to get light headed. He searched for Daryl, seeing him talking with Rick and Shane a few meters away, and realised that he couldn’t focus enough to call out, to alert his brother.

He sunk to the floor, feeling his legs give out as he made his descent, depositing him to the floor, and breathed out shakily, reeling in abrupt confusion. There was a cacophony of worried noises near him and suddenly hands were on him, patting at his sides and shoulders before coming up to cup his face and tilt it upward. He tried to focus on the person’s face, but they were nothing but a blotch of confused colours, though he knew instinctively that it was Daryl, and tried to relax, to come back to the surface, to focus.

He felt his legs jerk, and his heart sunk as he felt that awful kick in his chest. He made a panicked noise, worried that he would hurt Daryl, before his body tensed and the world went black.

Daryl’s heart sunk and he teared up as Merle went into convulsions for the first time since the surgery, letting go of his face and moving back to give Merle room as he fitted, kneeling close-by so he’d be ready to help once the seizure abated. He looked up at the others, gazing at Rick and Shane imploringly, watching as Rick took off in a sprint to get Hershel. Shane ran to the RV, returning with a blanket, which Daryl rolled up and put under Merle’s head.

Rick returned with Hershel in tow as the seizure subsided, and Daryl moved to roll Merle onto his side, carefully putting him into the recovery position before looking up at Hershel, noticing the others staring worriedly, having formed a loose circle around them.

Carol was holding Sophia close, her daughter plastered to her hip, watching worriedly. Andrea had her hand over her mouth and tears in her eyes, her breath hitching a little in upset as she eyed Merle’s limp form. T-Dog was staring, agape, at the brothers, his mouth opening and closing in shock. Dale stood beside the darker skinned man, watching worriedly, his eyes full of concern. Lori’s eyes were wet and she held on to Carl tightly, the young man watching nervously but attentively, his eyes wide. Glenn’s lips were pursed, his brow furrowed in unease as he swallowed thickly. Rick and Shane stuck close-by, their faces determined, ready to spring into action when they were needed. Hershel moved closer, kneeling by Merle’s side, and Daryl secured his attention on him before speaking.

“This is the first seizure he’s had since before the surgery…” Daryl said, “I thought he was out of the woods…”

Hershel smiled understandingly, reassuringly, checking Merle’s airway with a quick swipe of his fingers through his mouth, before taking Merle’s good wrist and counting the beats of his heart, timing his pulse. He moved on, satisfied with Merle’s pulse, and lifted Merle’s eyelids gently, one after the other, examining his pupils before letting Merle’s eyes fall shut again. He brushed a hand over Merle’s forehead before turning to the younger Dixon.

“It’s probably from a combination of exhaustion and heat, Daryl,” Hershel said comfortingly, “he’s still recovering, and likely just pushed himself too hard. We should move him into your tent once he wakes up, let him rest…”

Daryl’s heart ached at Merle’s wet, raspy, laboured breaths and turned his attention to his brother when he shifted, fingers curling irregularly as his eyes rolled open, drifting sluggishly. Merle stiffened and moaned quietly and Daryl moved closer, tilting his head sideways and moving into Merle’s field of vision, waiting for him to focus and respond. Merle’s eyes wandered aimlessly, his tongue tracing the backs of his teeth as his brain slowly came back online.

Merle swallowed, his brow scrunching perplexedly, frightenedly, before his eyes finally focussed on Daryl’s face. He made a high, confused, whimpering noise, brow creasing further, and Daryl smiled, running a hand over his brother’s forehead gently and cooing at him softly. Merle relaxed and sighed, closing his eyes and slipping into unconsciousness once more, going limp, and Daryl stroked his forehead a few more times before looking up at the others.

Shane and Rick moved forward to help, eager to assist, lifting the elder Dixon between them and carrying him to the tent, careful not to jostle him too much. They deposited him carefully on his cot, making room so that Daryl could assist, moving Merle’s legs and covering him with his sheets. Daryl knelt beside the cot with a sigh, brushing a hand through Merle’s hair before turning to the other two men and thanking them. Rick and Shane smiled, taking one last glance at Merle before leaving the tent, insisting that Daryl seek their help if he needed it.

A while later Merle woke again and looked around confusedly, blinking away his light-headedness and pressing his palm to his pounding forehead with a groan. Merle whimpered, confused and scared, his thoughts a mess, his body thrumming with a bone deep ache. Daryl appeared at his side, one hand settling on his chest and the other settling on the top of his head as his worried face swam into view.

“Hey, it’s okay…” came his brother’s voice, low and soothing, “shh... it’s okay, Mer…”

Daryl brushed a gentle hand over his forehead, cooing softly at him and gradually Merle calmed, regaining his ability to focus. Merle smiled reassuringly at him, glad when Daryl’s features smoothed out, losing their upset scrunch. He gathered his thoughts, fighting through the muggy fog hanging over his brain.

“Seizure?” Merle asked, throat dry.

Daryl nodded, stroking a thumb over his breastbone and a palm over his head, and Merle sighed, relaxing, glad that Daryl was by his side. He swallowed again, trying to gather saliva into his mouth, and his brother noticed, smiling understandingly before he moved away for a few seconds to retrieve a glass of water and offer it to him. Daryl helped him to sit up, bristling in upset as Merle’s exhaustion ramped up, his eyes shutting in a slow, fatigued blink.

His eyes opened again and Daryl helped him take a drink of water, encouraging him to slowly drink as much as he could. Merle rejected a third glass, grimacing and sitting back against the pillows that Daryl had stacked behind him before considering him. Daryl reached out once more, hand coming to rest on his sternum, thumb sitting centred along the crest of bone in his brother’s chest.

“I’m sorry, Mer…” Daryl said, eyes shiny with upset, “I pushed you too hard on the walk… n’ when we was play fightin’…”

“It’s okay, Dar…” Merle said, hand coming to rest over Daryl’s on his sternum, “I should’a known my limits… shouldn’t have pushed myself… this isn’t your fault, baby brother.”

“I should’a noticed you struggling…” Daryl said, his voice going a little higher pitched as he spoke, shaking his head, “you collapsed, Merle… you started seizing…”

“Shh, it’s okay…” Merle said softly, shushing him gently and cupping his face in his lone hand as he shook his head.

Daryl pursed his lips, disagreeing but relenting, before smiling and moving closer. Merle shifted over to make room for Daryl as he climbed onto the cot with him and they ended up lying down together, pressed close, with Daryl on his side, one of his hands settled on Merle’s breastbone and the other between them, fingers entwined with Merle’s own. They lay for a while in silence, enjoying the physical contact before Daryl spoke.

“How do you feel?” Daryl asked softly.

Merle sighed through his nose, searching for the answer and finding himself feeling pained, exhausted, and hungry. His stomach growled and he was glad when Daryl’s eyes lit up with mirth, a grin finding its way on to his features.

“Tired… sore…” he said softly, “hungry...”

Daryl snorted, raising himself up on his elbow and shifting, removing the hand in Merle’s and bringing it up to stroke over his brother’s forehead tenderly. Merle took the hand on his sternum in his own and ran his thumb over the knuckles.

“Lunch’ll be ready soon…” Daryl said quietly, eyes darting over Merle’s face, “Hershel’s going to bring you painkillers... look you over…”

Merle smiled and nodded, rolling onto his side and burrowing closer, settling his forehead against the column of Daryl’s neck and nuzzling softly. Daryl pulled him closer, cupping the back of Merle’s skull with one hand and rubbing his back with the other, his elbow pressed flush to Merle’s ribs, and Merle reciprocated, curling his stump arm over Daryl’s waist with a dozy sigh.

Daryl squeezed him gently and Merle hummed contentedly, letting himself succumb to the clutches of sleep.

Chapter Text

Merle was woken by soft voices speaking over him and took a deep breath in through his nose, nuzzling against Daryl’s throat before raising his head to look around, opening his eyes blearily. Hershel smiled at him over Daryl’s chest, and he smiled back before he sat up, feeling Daryl’s broad palm pressing against his ribs, helping him to sit up.

“How are you feeling, Merle?” Hershel asked kindly.

Merle considered him drowsily, eyes drifting thoughtfully around the tent as he thought over his answer.

“I feel okay…” he rasped, “just tired and sore…”

“That’s to be expected,” Hershel said, smiling.

Daryl rolled off the cot to make room for the older man as he moved closer, brandishing a small torch before shining it in each of Merle’s eyes, watching his pupils constrict. He repeated the motion a few more times, testing Merle’s response to light, before clicking the torch off and setting it aside.

“Your right pupil is a little slow to constrict, but that should clear up in the next hour or so…” Hershel said, “I’ll check on you again before you go to sleep tonight, check your stump and change your bandages.”

Merle nodded, blinking wearily before rubbing his eyes, trying to scrub the lingering glare of the torch away, blinking until it subsided and looking around blearily as it cleared.

“How would you rate your pain?” Hershel asked.

Merle thought his answer over, tracing the backs of his teeth with his tongue as he thought over his answer.

“About a six…” Merle said, “it’s more of an ache than a sharp pain.”

“Does it feel like you pulled the stitches in your side?” Hershel asked, eyeing his shirt, “it doesn’t look like it’s bleeding, but I’d like to check just in case I have to re-stitch it.”

Merle lifted his shirt up to reveal the stitches, looking down at them and curling forward to get a better look before Hershel motioned for him to lie down. He lay down on his right side, his back to Hershel and his brother, and lifted his shirt, holding it so that Hershel could inspect the wound. Gentle fingers touched his skin, testing the give of the scar and inspecting where the stitches had held it together before withdrawing.

“They’re still intact, from the looks,” Hershel said, “we should be able to take them out tonight.”

Merle grinned excitedly over his hip at Daryl, who grinned back just as enthusiastically, patting his calf. Merle tugged his shirt back down before rolling onto his back, relaxing back into the cot with a sigh before smiling up at the older man, and Hershel smiled back, letting the moment hang in the air for a minute before speaking.

“Have something to eat, drink some water, and relax for the rest of the day…” Hershel said kindly, “just take it easy, Merle… you’re still recovering, your body was pushed to its limit and you need to let yourself mend. You very nearly died, it’s going to take you a while to heal.”

Merle agreed, nodding groggily, and sat up with Daryl’s help as Hershel stood with a parting pat to his shoulder, eyes glinting friendlily as he left the tent. Merle took the glass of water that Daryl offered him gratefully, drinking it down and accepting a few more glasses before waving him off. Daryl knelt beside the cot, reaching up to cup Merle’s face, stroking his cheekbone affectionately with a thumb and Merle smiled, covering his brother’s hand with his own and nuzzling against it.

Rick appeared at the tent door, smiling kindly as he entered the tent, eyes going soft at the brothers’ closeness. Merle felt his ears go red, felt his face growing hot, but didn’t move away, instead letting Daryl revoke the contact as he pleased.

“Hey…” Rick said quietly, “how’re you feeling, Merle?”

“Been better…” he huffed, sighing and smiling tiredly.

Rick snorted a laugh, but there was no ill will behind it. He shifted closer, kneeling beside the cot, at Daryl’s side, his face going solemn as he thought.

“I’m sorry, Merle…” he said, looking at him miserably, “we should have noticed that you were struggling…”

Merle smiled amiably, shaking his head.

“Naw, it’s okay…” he said softly, “it happened pretty quickly. Couldn’t’a done anythin’…”

Rick smiled lopsidedly, still looking miserable, but accepting Merle’s words.

“Lunch is just about ready,” he said, “I’ll bring you both a plate…”

“Thanks, Rick” Daryl said, smiling.

Merle nodded gratefully, smiling too, and Rick stood, patting the brothers’ shoulders briefly before withdrawing and taking his leave. They listened to his footsteps as he left and Daryl immediately reinitiated contact, setting a hand over Merle’s stump and squeezing his knee with the other. They spoke softly to each other as they waited for Rick to return, conversation coming easily to them, and Rick returned quickly with three plates, stepping into the tent.

Rick handed them their plates and smiled as they echoed their thanks, watching as Daryl helped Merle swing his legs over the side of the cot so that he could sit upright, before sitting beside him, pressing close to his side, receiving a smile from his brother.

“Mind if I join you?” Rick asked quietly, looking between the brothers imploringly.

“Sure” Merle said affably, gesturing at Daryl’s cot with his stump.

Rick nodded his thanks and sat down, tucking into his food as he watched as Daryl began to cut Merle’s food up for him, cutting the meat into bite-sized pieces. He saw a small amount of embarrassment on the older Dixon’s face at needing assistance, but the younger Dixon showed no sense of being inconvenienced, jumping at the chance to help.

Daryl finished cutting up his brother’s food and set Merle’s plate on his lap, handing him his fork before tucking into his own food and watching Merle do the same enthusiastically. They ate in silence for a few minutes, letting themselves enjoy the meal, before Merle decided to ask about Carl’s injury, having pondered on it for a while and become very curious about it.

“So, what happened to Carl?” Merle asked, his eyes roving over Rick’s face.

Rick paused for a few seconds, swallowing, the fear of losing his son still a little raw.

“He was shot…” Rick replied.

“Shot?” Merle asked, eyes going wide.

“Yeah… Patricia’s husband, Otis, he was huntin’ a deer and the bullet went through it and hit Carl…” Rick said.

“Jesus…” Merle said, “I’m glad he’s okay.”

Rick smiled at Merle’s genuine concern for his son and nodded his thanks at his well-wishes and Daryl beamed at his brother’s side, proud as could be.

“Then… what happened to Otis?” Merle asked, “I ain’t seen him?”

“He and Shane went to a high school that was turned into a FEMA shelter to look for medical supplies…” Rick said, “Shane said that Otis said he’d cover him as they escaped and fell behind, got overrun.”

Merle chewed his food thoughtfully.

“What happened to Shane’s hair?” he asked.

“He was real upset by Otis’ death,” Rick said, “he shaved it all off that night.”

“Naw, there’s a patch of it ripped out…” Merle said, “on the right side of his head...”

“Maybe it fell out from stress,” Rick said, shrugging, “I don’t know.”

Merle looked at his brother dubiously, but Daryl just shrugged. Merle couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something more to it that Shane was hiding and was reluctant to shrug it off, but did so anyway, cataloguing it in the back of his brain for later.

They finished their lunch quickly, making easy conversation and laughing as they ate, and once they were done Rick bid them farewell, taking the brothers’ plates with him as he left with a broad smile. Merle sighed contentedly after Rick had left, rubbing at his full stomach and relaxing into the cot, swinging his legs up onto the mattress once more.

Daryl propped pillows up behind Merle’s back before retrieving the sticks he’d been working on, setting to carving them into bolts as he sat in the entrance of the tent, flicking the remnants out the tent door. Merle slowly becoming more cognizant and wakeful the longer he sat and interacted with his brother, watching him as he whittled, and a short while later Daryl suggested that he read, gesturing towards Merle’s pillow, where he knew the book that Andrea had given him was stashed, and Merle agreed, retrieving the book eagerly.

He began to read, opening the book on his lap and letting himself become lost in the story once more, picking up where he left off with ease. He looked up every now and then to look at his brother, smiling when Daryl seemed to have the same idea and their eyes met. He continued to read for a few more hours before marking his place and snapping the book shut, sliding it under his pillow once more before stretching, groaning as his muscles burned pleasantly with the motion.

“You okay?” Daryl asked.

“Yeah, just gotta go take a leak…” Merle replied.

Daryl moved to help him put his shoes on before standing and letting Merle lead, stepping out of the tent door and onto the grass carefully, breathing in a lungful of fresh air. Daryl followed him, and they made their way into the forest, dipping into the tree line, and Merle undid the tie of his pants and relieved himself against a tree as Daryl waited patiently, looking out into the forest.

“Should go huntin’ once you’re better” Daryl said.

“Yeah, we should…” Merle agreed, shaking himself off.

He tried to tie his pants back up one-handed, quickly becoming frustrated, and let Daryl take over and tie them for him, flushing embarrassedly. Daryl was unperturbed and did it without hesitation before wrapping an arm around his shoulders as they walked back towards the tent. They stepped into the tent together and Merle settled onto his cot once more, letting Daryl pull his shoes off before he lay down, throwing an arm over his eyes and sighing exhaustedly.

He heard Daryl rummaging around, then felt a hand on his knee, and moved his arm to look up at his brother, raising an enquiring eyebrow. Daryl brandished the peaches he’d stashed away and snorted amusedly at the way Merle’s eyes lit up as they alighted on them. Daryl handed one to him and Merle nodded his thanks before he bit into it eagerly, savouring every bite and enjoying the rush of sweetness that burst across his tongue, watching as Daryl did the same.

Daryl took the pits when they’d finished and left to dispose of them, returning a minute later with a wet cloth and more water. He wiped Merle’s sticky face clean before turning his attention to his hand, cleaning the palm and between his fingers with affectionate care, and Merle drank the water proffered to him before settling back into the cot tiredly.

Merle dropped into sleep without meaning to and woke a few hours later, discovering that Daryl had bundled blankets over him. He looked around and noticed that it was getting dark and that he was alone in the tent and stretched, groaning as his spine popped in the movement. He yawned and rolled onto his front, sliding his arms under his pillow and burying his face in it, nuzzling into it with a sigh. He lifted his head and turned it to the side when breathing became too difficult, looking over at Daryl’s empty cot and roving over it with his eyes. He groaned, propping himself up on his elbows and rubbing his eyes with his fingers before rolling over, sitting up and reaching under the pillow to retrieve his book.

He read for a while, squinting a little in the low light, until his attention was caught by approaching footsteps. He looked up as Daryl entered the tent, carrying two plates of food, grinning broadly, and Merle grinned back, marking his place in the book before closing it and putting it on his pillow before swinging his legs over the cot to make room for Daryl to sit beside him, hip to hip. Daryl put the plate on his lap, the food already cut up, and Merle dug in ravenously.

“You’re nearly done with that, huh?” Daryl asked, gesturing toward the book.

Merle nodded, swallowing his mouthful before speaking.

“Yeah, it was good…” he said thoughtfully, “maybe Andrea will lend me another one…”

“I’m sure she’d love to…” Daryl said, nudging him encouragingly, and Merle smiled at him.

They spoke quietly between themselves as they ate and ventured outside when they’d finished, deciding to go to Hershel so that he could check on the older Dixon. They made their way to camp slowly, waving to the others as they passed them and giving Lori their empty plates before entering the house and greeting Hershel, Patricia and Maggie.

Hershel lead them to the room upstairs and Merle sat on the cot, waiting for the older man to begin his examination. Hershel tested Merle’s response to light first, nodding approvingly when both pupils responded well, then asked Merle to lie down. Merle stripped his shirt off and lay on the cot, letting the older man inspect his side, prodding lightly at the scar, pulling it taut and testing its stretch before humming in approval.

“These can come out now, Merle…” he said, amused by Merle’s excited glance at his brother.

Hershel moisturised the stitches, rubbing Vaseline into them gently before picking up a small set of scissors and cutting the sutures carefully. He picked the sutures out of Merle’s side with tweezers, depositing them onto a square of gauze as he did so. Goosebumps broke out over Merle’s flesh at the sensation of the stitches slipping out of his skin, and he shuddered a little. Hershel finished pulling the stitches out and rubbed the new scar gently, massaging Vaseline into it and smoothing the bumps the stitches had made before letting Merle sit up. Merle grinned at being able to move properly, and stretched, testing how the new scar shifted as he moved.

Merle held his stump out and Hershel unwrapped it, revealing the sutured wound beneath. The wound looked good, it was still a little red, the edges of the scar purpling as it healed, but it was healing well. Hershel inspected it closely, leaning in to look at it before withdrawing to wipe it with gauze and saline solution, careful to clean underneath the line of sutures, mindful of pulling on the stitches. He flushed it with a stream of saline, patting it dry with gauze before moisturising it with Vaseline and re-wrapping it once more in clean bandages.

“The stump is looking great, Merle,” Hershel said positively as he bundled up the dirtied bandages for washing, “it’s healing very nicely.”

Merle smiled, touching the end of his stump reverently, ghosting his fingers along the seam of stitches under the bandages before extending his hand for Hershel to shake. Hershel smiled back as he shook the elder Dixon’s hand, patting the top of it gently with his other hand before releasing it and patting his shoulder.

“Thank you, Hershel…” Merle said softly, “for everything...”

“Just take it easy tomorrow, Merle,” Hershel said kindly, rubbing his shoulder, “I’m not saying that you should be bedridden, just try not to exert yourself too much.”

Merle nodded, and the three bid each other goodnight before the brothers made their way downstairs and to their tent, waving the others goodnight as they passed. They walked with their arms around each other’s shoulders, Merle leaning against his brother as exhaustion set in, Daryl supporting him as they navigated the yard.

Merle fell into Daryl’s cot, letting Daryl remove his shoes before he lay down and Daryl climbed onto the cot beside him without hesitation, plastering himself to Merle’s side and smiling at him. Merle smiled back, rolling over so that he was on his side, and wrapped an arm over Daryl’s stomach before rolling over even further, onto his front. He shifted even closer and his top half ended up propped up on Daryl’s front, his head against his chest, over his heart. He sighed, moving his hand to rest over his brother’s sternum before stroking slow, gentle circles there over his shirt with his fingers. Daryl wrapped his arms around him, practically vibrating with affection.

Merle watched his fingers as they played over Daryl’s shirt, the movement rhythmic, calming to both of them. Daryl began to reciprocate, rubbing at a spot on Merle’s back in small circles with his fingers, almost questioningly, testing the waters, and when Merle didn’t object, those fingers found a scar unerringly, massaging it gently. Daryl continued to touch him tenderly, and Merle felt his past, his pain, melting away, ever so slowly, soothed by his brother’s loving touch, swallowing thickly and sniffling as he started to tear up, trying and failing to wipe his eyes discreetly. He was overwhelmed by the emotions that flooded through him, and Daryl noticed and cooed at him, curling around him further, enveloping him, his breath ruffling his hair as he spoke softly in his ear.

“It’s okay, Mer…” he murmured.

Merle tilted his head to look at him, smiling wobblily up at him, and Daryl smiled back, relaxing back into the cot before moving onto another scar and giving it the same gentle treatment, rubbing in light, circular motions. Daryl started to hum that song again, an old song that Merle had made up as a method of self-soothing long before Daryl was born, and had hummed to him when they were kids. Daryl had always liked it, had listened eagerly whenever Merle had started to hum it, and it had become commonplace in their routine.

After every encounter they’d had with their father, every time he had hurt them, they’d run to each other and they’d hide in their tiny, shared room, taking refuge from their abuser. Merle would wait until the dead of night, when their father had gone to bed or collapsed in a drunken stupor, before he’d start to hum, soothing hurts and dispelling fears. Merle was always closer to the door, his back to it as he curled around his brother, cocooning him as he hummed quietly.

Their roles were reversed now, and Merle closed his eyes, sighing quietly, contentedly. Daryl continued to move from scar to scar, their positions on the planes of Merle’s back etched into his memory, finding each one with ease, stroking and rubbing the sensitive flesh. Merle recalled the origin of each scar as it was touched, be it from a fist, or a belt, or from the edge of a stove.

Daryl slid his hand up the back of his shirt to touch his scars skin-to-skin, and Merle gasped quietly at the sensation, goose bumps breaking out over his flesh. He was hit by a strong wave of emotion and found himself weeping silently as Daryl touched him tenderly, soaking his brother’s shirt and chest with tears. Daryl didn’t seem to mind at all, humming all the while. It was therapeutic, and he relished the contact, the sensation of Daryl’s fingers and the vibrations through his chest.

Daryl left no scar untouched, paying plenty of attention to every last scar on his back before withdrawing his hand and smoothing Merle’s shirt down, settling the fabric into place carefully over his torso before setting his hand over a shoulder blade. Merle shifted for the first time in almost an hour, tilting his head to look at his baby brother, and smiled, disregarding the wetness of his eyes. Daryl wiped the tears away gently with his thumb and flashed an accompanying smile, his own eyes full of a soft fondness.

“Feel better?” Daryl asked warmly.

Merle nodded wholeheartedly, feeling lighter than he’d ever felt before.

“Thank you, Daryl...” Merle breathed.

Daryl grinned at him, eyes shining cheerfully, and he wriggled beneath Merle, shifting into a more comfortable, horizontal position without disrupting him. Merle let his brother move him, content to lie where Daryl wanted him to, and sighed as they found a comfortable position.

“Love you…” Merle whispered into the dark.

“Love you, too…” Daryl said tenderly, chest vibrating against his ear.

Daryl’s arms tightened around him, elbows framing his rib cage, one hand finding its place to rest lightly on the side of Merle’s head while the other rested between his shoulder blades. Merle returned the hug, shifting and cupping one of Daryl’s sides with his remaining hand and pressing his stump to his other side, completing the embrace.

Daryl sighed, and Merle felt his chest empty beneath him before filling once more. Daryl started to hum again softly, rubbing Merle’s back in a rhythmic motion, stroking his hairline with a thumb, and Merle drifted off to sleep, soothed by Daryl’s low drone, his touch, and the warmth of his body.

Chapter Text

Merle woke with a slow, deep inhale through his nose, and sighed, emptying his lungs before starting to breathe naturally. He shifted a little and let his eyes open slowly, looking around and considering his empty cot, his shoes at the end of it, and the door of the tent, before his eyes drifted to ponder the warm object his head was settled on. He discovered that it was Daryl’s shirt-clad chest, and lifted his head slowly to look up at his brother, who was reading one of his books, the paperback propped lightly between his shoulder blades. Daryl’s attention turned to him as he raised his head and he smiled at him, marking his place with his thumb and brushing his free hand through his hair.

“Mornin’” Daryl said fondly.

“Mrn’n” Merle mumbled back, the noise near-nonsensical gibberish that made Daryl chuckle.

Merle snorted at Daryl’s amusement, nuzzling his sternum with his nose briefly before attempting to sit up, and Daryl set the book down carefully, moving to help him and shifting so that Merle could sit beside him. Merle rubbed at his face, blinking dozily and sighing through his nose and Daryl gazed at him tenderly. Merle smiled at him, a slow pull of the corners of his mouth, his eyes half-lidded, and Daryl smiled back, enamoured by Merle’s sleep-rumpled visage. The older Dixon rested his head on his brother’s shoulder, and Daryl sought his hand with his own, squeezing it fondly.

They sat like that for a minute before they parted, albeit briefly, when Merle climbed over Daryl to retrieve his book from his cot, only to return immediately, crawling back over him and sandwiching himself between Daryl and the tent wall once more. Daryl smiled as Merle burrowed against his side and started to read, face relaxing as he lost himself in the words on the pages. Daryl did the same, picking up his book and finding where he had left off before starting to read again. He’d decided to read one of Merle’s favourite books, one Merle had read a hundred times, but he himself had never bothered to read until now. He didn’t enjoy reading as much as Merle did, but understood why his brother did.

Merle repositioned himself after a while, his hand cramping with the effort of holding the book in one position. He wriggled, shifting and sitting up with Daryl’s help, and pulled his knees up to prop the book open on them, holding it against them with his stump so he could continue to read as he rolled his good wrist, opening and closing his hand, trying to alleviate the cramp between turning the pages.

Daryl started to develop a headache and put his book down, deciding to watch Merle instead, taking in his features and the little behaviours he displayed unconsciously when he was captivated by a book. Merle would chew on his lip or stick his tongue out a little, would pull faces in response to what was happening in the story and Daryl found it infinitely endearing how expressive Merle’s face was, how much of a bookworm he was, how relaxed his face was when his attention was elsewhere.

Merle must have felt his gaze because he looked up at him, eyes wide and a little dazed after coming out of his story world, and focussed slowly on his face, smiling at him and wriggling closer, snugging more firmly against his side before returning his attention to his book, and Daryl smiled back, his chest filling with warmth. He raised a hand slowly, burying his fingers in Merle’s hair gently, and stroked his scalp in soft circles, pleased when Merle melted against him, closing his eyes briefly before starting to read again, practically purring at the attention. Daryl felt incredibly content, happy to just watch Merle read quietly, his brother tucked securely against him, a warm weight against his side.

A short while later Merle finished the book and closed it with a sigh, running his fingers over its cover reverently before setting it down and gazing at Daryl, who smiled at him before smoothing his hand through his hair, settling the strands into place. Daryl wrapped his arm around his waist and Merle turned towards him, curling into his side and relaxing against him.

“How was the book?” Daryl asked quietly.

“Really good,” Merle said, smiling, his eyes glittering with the post-reading cheerfulness he always felt after finishing a book, no matter how many times he’d read it.

Despite his propensity for reading, Merle had never been particularly good with words, and although he had an expansive vocabulary, he wasn’t one to use it. It upset Daryl sometimes, but it was a harsh reminder that Merle was incredibly emotionally stunted, and Daryl couldn’t fault him for how he had developed under the wrongdoings of their father. He knew that his brother was intelligent and that he likely often had something profound to say, but he held himself back, and Daryl resolved help Merle to learn to express himself more healthily, to stop shutting down.

Merle was assessing him curiously, silently, his eyebrows creased in concern, and Daryl realised that his internal dialogue must have shown on his face. He smiled reassuringly, massaging Merle’s side with his hand and feeling him shiver at the sensation.

“You gonna ask Andrea if she’ll lend you another one?” Daryl asked.

Merle pursed his lips and Daryl frowned a little at his reluctance, tilting his head to better consider Merle’s face as he mulled over the question.

“Y’really think she wouldn’t mind?” Merle asked self-consciously, looking up at Daryl, his eyes wide and imploring.

“Naw, Mer…” Daryl said encouragingly, “I’m sure she’d love to.”

Merle nodded, smiling, reassured a little, and Daryl’s heart ached for him. Merle had been taught early on in life that he wasn’t allowed to ask for anything, to want or need anything, and it’d made him fiercely independent and unbelievably resourceful, but it was incredibly damaging.

They got out of bed, changing into fresh clothes and dipping into the forest to relieve themselves before joining the others for breakfast. They were greeted warmly, and Sophia ran over to Merle, babbling excitedly and hugging him briefly, making him smile, before she returned to her mother’s side. Merle sat beside Andrea and turned to face her, faltering at the tender expression on her face, and he flushed a little, smiling shyly. Apparently, she’d found his interaction with Sophia cute.

“Thank you for the book…” Merle said softly, fiddling with the bandages around his stump self-consciously, “I really enjoyed it.”

“You finished it already?” Andrea asked, surprised.

Merle nodded, smiling uncertainly, insecurely. He’d always been a quick reader, had had to finish books as quickly as he could as a child, lest his father find him reading and take the book from him and burn it, calling him all sorts of names and slapping him in the face, kicking him in the ribs. He looked away as his brain flooded with memories, and felt Daryl take his hand, stroking his knuckles with his thumb.

Andrea watched, confusion and worry flickering over her face as Daryl talked Merle down, speaking quietly into his ear. She realised that Merle’s reaction wasn’t because of something she’d said, that it was likely because of a memory he’d dredged up, and wondered if either of the brothers had ever sought psychological help for their issues, but doubted it.

Merle calmed, breathing in and out shakily, focussing on Daryl’s touch, his voice, and once the panic had subsided Merle looked at Andrea and tried to smile reassuringly, apologetically. She smiled back, trying to look encouraging, but he flushed with shame and faltered, his eyes flicking away.

“I’m glad you enjoyed the book, Merle…” she said softly.

He looked at her once more and smiled hesitantly, glad that she hadn’t been put off by his oddness. He jerked a little and grunted when he felt Daryl jab an elbow into his side and turned to look at him, frowning and opening his mouth to cuss at him, until he noticed Daryl’s pointed look, and pursed his lips, knowing that Daryl only meant the best and was only trying to encourage him. He smiled at his brother and turned back to Andrea, noticing her amused expression, the way her eyebrows raised enquiringly.

“I was wonderin’ if you’d lend me another one…” Merle asked quietly, his heart beating faster as his stress mounted.

“Of course, Merle, absolutely!” she said enthusiastically, “come see me later and you can look through them.”

“Thanks, Andrea…” he breathed, beaming excitedly, his relief nearly palpable.

She nodded before turning to talk to Dale, and Merle turned back to his brother, grinning triumphantly. Daryl grinned back, nudging him in the ribs encouragingly before linking their arms together and beginning to stroke his stump lightly with his fingertips, unaffected by his disfigurement.  Merle sighed happily, dopamine flooding through him at his brother’s gentle, affectionate touch.

Chapter Text

Carol made scrambled eggs for breakfast, plating the food and handing it around, and Merle thanked her as she handed him his plate before tucking into it hungrily, ravenous, his body still exhausted from his seizure the day prior. He was content to look around the farm, over the fields, at the barn, and around at the others as he ate, grounded by Daryl’s thigh against his own, the warmth of his hip against his. Merle looked around the circle inquisitively, his eyes tracking curiously from person to person as he determined what each of them was up to.

Andrea was sharpening her knife methodically at his side, her motions smooth and efficient. Shane was brooding by himself, shovelling eggs into his mouth, glancing in Rick’s direction moodily. The Grimes family sat together, and he watched Rick staring into space for a second before Lori noticed her husband’s distant mindedness and buried a hand in his hair, pressing a kiss to his cheek and pressing her forehead against his temple before they drew back enough to consider each other and smile. Carol had finished dishing out breakfast and was making positive, encouraging remarks on some of Sophia’s drawings as she ate, and Merle’s chest filled with warmth at their mother-daughter bond, at Sophia’s enthusiasm. T-Dog was eating his breakfast steadily and smiled at him as he met his gaze, eyes glittering happily when Merle smiled back and gestured friendlily with his fork.

His attention fell on Glenn and he watched as the younger man gazed over at Maggie, who was standing on the porch, glowering in his direction and shaking her head. Merle perked up interestedly, sensing that something was amiss, and watched as Glenn turned his head to look at Dale, who was giving the younger man a pointed look and nodding. Glenn started fidgeting nervously, and Merle was immediately intrigued, looking between them interestedly. He raised an eyebrow when Glenn looked in his direction to be free of Dale’s gaze, and smirked, snorting amusedly when Glenn faltered and looked away. He turned his gaze to Dale, who smiled kindly and shrugged, and Merle smiled back, relishing the way the older man’s eyes shone warmly at his response. His attention returned to Glenn when the younger man looked away, rubbing his face and putting his hands in his pockets, faltering awkwardly as he avoided eye contact with everyone, seemingly having taken Maggie’s side.

Merle’s attention shifted to Sophia as she finished her breakfast and made her way to his side, and he shifted, making room for her to sit pressed against his other side. He watched as she showed him her drawings and listened interestedly as she spoke, nodding and giving encouraging responses to her stories and explanations as she flicked through each of them. She revealed her final drawing and his heart fluttered elatedly as he realised that it was a drawing of them, side by side in a field, holding hands and smiling. He grinned, praising it delightedly, his eyes going soft, and looked up at Carol, chest tightening at the adoration on her face, and he flushed, smiling back, resisting the urge to look away.

Sophia gathered her drawings, hugging him briefly before moving to sit beside Carl and show him too, receiving awed remarks from the younger boy, and Merle overheard them making plans to draw together after lunch. Daryl nudged him, smiling softly, eyes sparkling, and wrapped an arm around him, kneading his side before stroking his thumb over the new scar there, and Merle smiled back fondly. Daryl drew away again, respecting his space, and Merle was struck by the fact that his brother was so attuned to his needs, had known, without being told, that he wasn’t up to extended bouts of public affection just yet.

Merle became lost in thought, poking at his breakfast distractedly as he listened to the others conversing quietly, not processing the words, and a while later Daryl nudged at his side with an elbow, and he looked at him with an enquiring smile, shaken from his thoughts.

“Wanna go for a walk?” Daryl asked, “jus’ a real short one.”

Merle liked the sound of going for a walk and nodded, scraping the last of his eggs into his mouth before handing Daryl his empty plate to stack on the rest of the dishes. They stood together, catching everyone’s attention with their movements.

“We’re gonna go for a walk,” Daryl said, “thanks for breakfast, Carol.”

“My pleasure,” she said, smiling softly before continuing in a mothering tone, “take it easy, Merle...”

Merle flushed and nodded, and they walked away in the direction of the forest, walking along its edge for a while in slow, steady strides, dipping into it every now and then to look at plants and wildlife. Despite the easy pace, Merle’s brow started to bead with sweat, his breathing becoming laboured, his body overheating, and Daryl noticed immediately and slowed their pace even further, leading him back towards their tent. Daryl settled him against a tree in the shade, pressing the back of his hand to his forehead, and Merle watched him as he left to get him some water.

He let his eyes wander as he waited for Daryl to return, looking out over the farm and taking in the scenery, observing it dazedly. His eyes were drawn to the barn and he paused on it, gazing at the doors, the roof, taking it in. There was still something about it that made him anxious, cautious, but he couldn’t figure out why. The farm had turned out to be great, Hershel and his family were wonderful, but he still couldn’t shake it.

He didn’t hear Daryl approach and was broken from his thoughts by Daryl’s pleasantly cool palm brushing gently over his hot forehead, and smiled up at him, closing his eyes and enjoying the sensation. When he opened his eyes, he saw Daryl smiling at him, his eyes soft, and he felt his heart melt when Daryl pressed a damp cloth to his forehead. Daryl handed him a glass of water and he drank it eagerly, sighing serenely as it soothed his parched throat.

Daryl continued to give him water and dab at his skin with the cloth, cleaning sweat from his brow and neck and helping him to cool down, and before long he felt normal again. Merle’s attention drifted back to the barn, and Daryl snickered amusedly, continuing to pat at his skin with the cloth, smiling all the while, entertained by his brother’s distractedness, and he let him stare for a bit before following his gaze curiously and speaking.

“You keep lookin’ at the barn…” Daryl said pryingly.

“There’s jus’ somethin’… off… about it…” Merle mumbled, his attention still on the barn, “n’ Glenn was real antsy about it when I asked...”

Daryl paused, looking between him and the barn.

“Wanna go check it out then?” Daryl asked.

Merle tore his eyes from the barn to look at him and pursed his lips, considering it before he nodded, and Daryl helped him to stand. They made their way over slowly, pausing a few feet away, cautious and curious, and stood together for a minute, just inspecting the outside.

“G’wan then…” Daryl insisted, nudging him with an elbow before gesturing at the barn obligingly.

Merle was hesitant, but didn’t know why, and took a second to gather himself before stepping forward, approaching the barn slowly. He peered inside and felt his heart thud painfully, starting to race fearfully as his eyes fell on a dozen or so walkers stumbling around inside the barn. He backed away instantly, tripping over his feet, and Daryl moved to catch him, stopping him from falling, helping him upright and looking at him concernedly.

“It’s full of walkers…” he breathed.

“What?” Daryl asked alarmedly, eyes going wide.

“It’s full of walkers, Daryl!” he said in an urgent whisper, gripping Daryl’s arm and trying to pull him away, “the barn’s full of walkers!”

Daryl eyed the barn before stepping forward boldly, looking through the slats and stepping back just as quickly as he had, returning to his side, and they stared at the barn for a minute, a little shell shocked.

“Holy shit…” Daryl said, eyes wide, “we have to tell the others…”

They exchanged a look before they took off at a run towards camp, watching the others perk up as they approached, immediately on edge at their urgency. Rick and T-Dog stood as they advanced, Shane stepping forward to receive them, immediately concerned at the urgency in their approach.

“Whoa, whoa,” Rick said, “what’s going on?”

“The barn… is full of walkers” they panted in tandem.

They took a second to catch their breaths, leaning on each other, and everyone looked up from their breakfasts, startled, and stared at them, their faces contorting in mixed reactions of seriousness and troubled disbelief. Glenn sighed relievedly, and Merle realised that this is what he’d been hiding, and that Maggie must have told him not to say anything. Rick and Shane looked at each other before striding towards the barn together, and everyone followed, dropping what they were doing to trail behind them.

The group approached the barn cautiously, standing a good distance away from it, and watched as Shane advanced, shuffling closer before peering inside cautiously through a gap in the boards. The group was on edge, the ex-officer pair and the Dixon brothers prickling with protective energy, putting themselves instinctively between the group and the barn. Walkers made everyone antsy, especially since they’d been practically living with them for more than a week now. They’d been right under their noses, not a stone’s throw away from where they slept, and with Merle, T-Dog, and Carl hurt or recovering, it was a terrifying thought.

Shane was suddenly walking away from the barn, scoffing angrily, and Merle bristled, preparing to shield Daryl as the other man advanced towards Rick, irritated and tense.

“You cannot tell me you’re alright with this…” Shane growled, walking past Rick.

“No, I’m not,” Rick snarled back, “but we’re guests here. This isn’t our land.”

“God, this is our lives, man!” Shane said, his voice going loud.

“Lower your voice!” Glenn said nervously.

Shane stalked around like a caged lion and Merle watched him guardedly, likening the behaviour to the way their father would lurk around the house, picking fights. Daryl squeezed his shoulder, noticing him becoming distant and helping him to maintain his grip on reality, and Merle squeezed back, thanking him silently.

“We can’t just sweep this under the rug…” Andrea interjected, agreeing with Shane.

“It ain’t right…” T-Dog said, “not remotely.”

Shane paced to stand to Rick’s right before speaking again.

“Okay, we've either got to go in there, we've got to make things right, or we've just got to go…” Shane said agitatedly, “now, we have been talking about Fort Benning for a long time, no-”

“We can’t go!” Rick hissed, interrupting him, extending his hand and stopping him talking.

“Why, Rick, why?” Shane asked flatly, posturing.

“Merle is still recovering… he collapsed yesterday, for god’s sake…” Rick said, “he will not survive on the road in the condition he’s in.”

“Okay…” Shane scoffed, frustrated, his hands steepled together around his nose.

“He nearly died!” Daryl added, defending him, “he was having seizures every hour a few days ago!”

“And he’d be recovered by now if you stopped pushing him!” Shane said.

Daryl was stunned and stared at him wrathfully for a second before advancing on him.

“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about!” Daryl said, gesturing angrily with an arm.

“Now I’m just saying what needs to be said, here!” Shane said, beginning to ramble.

“Alright… alright…” Rick said calmly, putting himself between the two men, “Shane- Shane- Shane, stop!”

Merle couldn’t process the rapid, rambling words that Shane was spouting, knew that they were less than friendly towards him, but couldn’t focus on anything but the other man’s cold, angry eyes. He’d seen that anger many a time before in his father’s eyes and was immediately thrown into a memory, of those cruel, blue eyes glaring at him, burning into him.

I told you so, you stupid faggot, came his father’s hateful voice, sudden and unbidden, they should just leave you to die, you do nothing but slow them down and take up their rations. You’re nothing but a burden to them.

Shane stepped forward and he flinched a little, arms coming up to protect himself at the violent intent in the other man’s eyes, preparing to take the beating he was due, steeling himself to protect his little brother from their father’s wrath at all costs.

Suddenly Daryl was reversing their roles, brimming with protective energy and moving Merle behind him, putting himself between his brother and Shane, ready to fight the taller man. Rick slotted himself between them, bracing against both of their chests with his forearms.

“Don’chu start nothin’!” Daryl growled menacingly, standing up taller and advancing warningly, “you touch him, I’ll kick the shit out of you!”

“I’ll beat your ass! Don’t come at me, man!” Shane yelled back, “I’ll beat your ass!”

Suddenly everyone was arguing, Glenn and Lori shoving Shane back while Carol and Andrea pulled Daryl away, separating them, and Daryl fell back to Merle’s side easily, his hand landing over his heart, bringing Merle back into reality with a quiet gasp. Rick stood in the middle of it all, holding his arms out, separating the two men.

“Back off!” Rick said sharply.

“Keep your hands off me” Shane warned Lori, pointing a finger in her face.

Merle felt Daryl slot against his side again, glaring at Shane as the ex-officer started to wander away angrily.

“Now just let me talk to Hershel!” Rick said loudly, outstretching a palm to hold the other man off, “let me figure it out.”

“And what are you going to figure out?!” Shane bellowed, stomping closer again.

“Enough!” Lori yelled, shoving at Shane’s chest with both hands.

“If we're gonna stay, if we're gonna clear this barn, I have to talk him into it,” Rick hissed, “this is his land!”

“Hershel sees those things in there as people… sick people…” Dale interjected, arms outstretched, trying to be the voice of reason, “his wife, his- his- his stepson…”

“You knew?” Rick asked.

“Yesterday. I talked to Hershel…” Dale said plainly, eyebrows raising and mouth pursing.

“And you waited the night?” Shane asked accusingly, turning on the older man irritably.

“I thought we could survive one more night,” Dale said sharply, unaffected by Shane’s ire, glaring pointedly in his direction, “we did.”

There was a second of silence and everyone just breathed, looking around at each other.

“I was waiting till this morning to say something,” Dale continued, “but Glenn wanted to be the one. Merle and Daryl found out before he was ready to.”

“The man is crazy, Rick,” Shane said, voice gradually rising in volume as he spoke, “if Hershel thinks those things are alive or no!”

“Just let me fig-” Rick said over him, pausing when there was a commotion behind the barn doors.

Everyone stepped back as the walkers suddenly started bashing on the barn doors, shifting the large wooden doors with their weight, making them creak as they snarled through them. Merle moved in front of his brother, reaching behind himself and pressing his palm to Daryl’s chest, throwing all self-preservation out the window in a move to protect him. Daryl moved forward so they were side by side, showing his willingness to do the same, to protect him, and Merle’s heart fluttered happily at the gesture.

The walkers calmed slowly, stopping their barrage on the barn doors, and everyone looked around at each other. Shane scowled before striding away angrily and they watched him leave, noticing the tension in his broad back, the tightly clenched fists by his sides, and Rick turned to Merle as the other ex-officer disappeared.

“Are you okay?” he asked, moving a little closer, present but not oppressive.

Merle swallowed, his eyes flicking away uncomfortably as the others suddenly turned their attention on him, their eyes full of concern. He nodded hesitantly, knowing that his response wasn’t entirely genuine, and felt Daryl squeeze his hand comfortingly. The others made their way back to camp, towards the RV, lost in thought. Rick and Carol lagged behind to make sure the brothers were okay, receiving reassuring smiles.

They decided wordlessly that they wanted to be alone, and escaped to their tent, stepping inside and sitting together on Daryl’s cot. Merle turned to his brother, shifting closer to him and pressing against his side more firmly, smiling when Daryl rubbed his back before wrapping his arm around his waist, stroking a hand up and down his side. They sat like that for a long while, deep in thought, mulling over the events of the day silently.

Their attention was caught by Shane returning to the barn and the Dixon brothers watched from their tent as he circled it, looking it up and down before testing the give of the boards, of the chain and padlock, of the board across the doors acting as a draw bar. They watched the ex-officer jump back as the walkers bashed on the door, reaching for his gun but finding himself unarmed, and Daryl snorted amusedly, Merle snickering beside him.

The brothers were now a little wary of the other man. Merle didn’t know what had happened, this change in behaviour seemed sudden to him, and he could see that Shane was slowly losing his mind. Rick and Shane had seemed close, almost like brothers, and he wondered what had happened between them, what had happened to Shane in such a short period of time.

Merle felt fingers slide into his hair and shivered as Daryl’s nails scraped over his scalp in light circles. He smiled contentedly, closing his eyes and melting further into Daryl’s side, arching into the contact when Daryl rubbed at his ribcage lightly with his other hand. He opened his eyes after a few minutes, turning his head to look at his brother, finding Daryl peering at him fondly, the corners of his mouth lifted in a loving smile, his eyes sparkling with affection.

“You okay?” Daryl asked softly, breaking the silence for the first time since they’d retreated to the tent.

Merle nodded, pursing his lips.

“I jus’… feel like a burden…” he admitted with a sigh, “can’t do nothin’… all I do is take up rations…”

Daryl was taken aback by his words and blinked at him for a few seconds before smiling and pulling him closer with the arm around his waist.

“You ain’t a burden, Merle… everyone wants you here…” Daryl said devotedly, stroking a hand over his forehead.

Merle smiled wobblily, showing his thanks at Daryl’s kind words, at how he could read him so well, by melting into him and seeking his free hand with his lone one, resting his head on his little brother’s shoulder. He looked at his face, focussing on his features for a few moments before he pressed a peck of a kiss to Daryl’s cheek, on a whim, feeling like it was the right thing to do. He felt Daryl’s face break out in an ecstatic grin as he pulled away, and flushed, smiling shyly as Daryl tilted his head to look at him.

“Thanks, Daryl…” he said tenderly, considering his brother’s matching eyes, “I needed to hear that…”

Daryl beamed, pressing a lengthy kiss to his forehead, and Merle let his eyes slide shut, only opening them when Daryl pulled away with one last parting peck, smiling goofily at him. He felt a wave of affection flood through him and smiled giddily, leaning in and nuzzling the join of Daryl’s collarbone and shoulder with his nose, turning his body and pressing his front to Daryl’s side before tipping him backwards with his weight, shifting them into a horizontal position on the cot. Daryl laughed, pulling him closer readily, and Merle grinned, his breathing a little laboured with the effort it’d taken to topple him, despite Daryl humouring him. He sighed happily, closing his eyes and letting himself relax against his younger brother, feeling weightless and free.

“Love you, Dar…” he sighed, gazing up at his brother.

“Love you too, Mer…” Daryl breathed.

Merle closed his eyes and Daryl smiled indulgently as Merle dozed off, his face smoothing out completely, fingers relaxing into a gentle curl, his breathing levelling out and deepening. He shifted, making himself comfortable, before reaching down the side of the cot and finding the book he’d been reading, opening it to the page he’d been on and finding where he’d left off. He held the book open with one hand and stroked between his brother’s shoulder blades with the other distractedly, savouring the way Merle’s chest filled and emptied slowly against his side.

Chapter Text

Merle woke to the sensation of fingertips stroking his bare skin under his shirt, tracing his scars and rubbing them lightly. He raised his head to look at Daryl, who smiled, pausing briefly before continuing when he didn’t object. He felt a little breathless at Daryl’s touch, and shifted to put his ear over his heart, listening to the rhythmic thrum under his ribs, letting the sound calm him, and placed his hand on Daryl’s chest, stroking over his sternum with his thumb, enjoying the quiet moment.

Daryl finished his ministrations and stroked his thumb over the fresh scar on Merle’s side before withdrawing his hand from up his shirt and bringing it up to rest on Merle’s forehead, stroking the new scar there gently. He shifted and pressed his lips to the scar, cupping Merle’s face and stroking his temples with his thumbs before sitting up straight and taking his hand, and Merle sighed, tilting his head to look up at his brother again, smiling up at him contentedly.

He rolled onto his back beside Daryl with an exhalation, chest blooming with affection when Daryl squirmed an arm under him to cup his neck, caressing the skin under his ear with a thumb in long, rhythmic strokes. He was exhausted, and realised that he may have pushed himself too hard running from the barn, that the stress of dealing with Shane had likely exacerbated it.

They lapsed into silence for a few moments and Merle sighed, his hand resting over his sternum, fingers stroking up and down the crest of bone softly. His chest was a little tight, his muscles tense, and he took stock of how his body felt, registering that he was beginning to feel like he was drifting, his brain struggling to function, and he realised that it was the onset of seizure making him slow. He tried to relax, to stave it off, but it continued to shove at his brain. Daryl noticed his distantness and shifted, propping himself up on an elbow, looking at him concernedly, and Merle smiled up at him serenely, relaxing and accepting the fact that he was about to have a seizure. He writhed, eyes rolling uncontrollably to the side, and had the cognizance to pat Daryl’s knee to warn him before he started fitting.

Daryl’s heart sunk as Merle started to seize, and he rolled off the cot to give Merle room to fit, sitting down on the tent floor and starting a count, his back against his own cot so he could watch over his brother. The seizure was short lived and relatively tame, only lasting a minute and a half, and Daryl was relieved when Merle stirred nearly immediately with a snuffling breath, brain coming back online quickly. He moved closer, kneeling beside the cot and stroking at Merle’s skin gently as he waited for him to rouse again.

Merle opened his eyes with a sigh, licking his dry lips, and watched as Daryl’s concerned face swam into view. He smiled reassuringly, reaching up uncoordinatedly to cup Daryl’s face, stroking at his cheekbone with a thumb, before trying to sit up. Daryl immediately helped him up and handed him some water, supporting his grip with hands around his own, and Merle drank thirstily, easing the dryness of his throat. Daryl hovered worriedly at his side, fingers brushing at his skin, and took the empty glass from him when he was done, putting it aside. Merle was touched by the fact that, once again, Daryl was attuned to his needs, had known without a word what he’d wanted.

“M’okay, Dar” he reassured raspily, closing his eyes as Daryl’s fingers brushed at his face.

Daryl nodded, placated, his eyes losing a little bit of the edge of worry that danced through them. Merle reached up and took Daryl’s hand, giving it a gentle squeeze before bringing it to his mouth and brushing a kiss over his knuckles. Daryl smiled tenderly, bringing his other hand up to brush over his forehead gently.

“Think you need Hershel?” Daryl asked, eyes tracking over his face.

“Naw…” Merle muttered, shaking his head, “was pretty mild… can tell him later…”

Daryl nodded, leaning over to grab the empty glass before standing and exiting the tent, leaving Merle by himself. He returned quickly with a pitcher full of water and a glass of juice, and helped him to sit up and drink it, smiling at the pleased noise Merle made at the taste. Merle felt better with some sugar entering his system, and smiled, patting the space on the cot beside him, and Daryl settled in next to him eagerly, entwining their arms.

They sat in silence for a while, pressed together companionably as Merle mulled over his thoughts, putting them in order as the post-seizure haze cleared from his brain, and once he was cognizant they started up conversation and spoke for a long while.

“You should borrow another book…” Daryl suggested, stroking at his stump with his fingertips and looking at him with a tender expression.

Merle smiled, nodding his agreement, and Daryl beamed at him approvingly, patting his forearm before shifting to get off the cot and help him up.

The brothers made their way to join the others once more, standing on the outskirts of the group and watching them for a while before Daryl stepped into the fold, patting his brother’s arm encouragingly before approaching Rick. Merle stayed where he was for a moment, waving at Andrea timidly from a distance before approaching her with a shy smile when she waved back.

“Hey…” he greeted softly.

“Hey…” she replied warmly, her eyes glinting, “wanna look through my books?”

He nodded eagerly and followed her into the RV, waving at Sophia as he made his way up the steps. He looked around the interior of the RV briefly as he stepped inside, taking in his surroundings before turning his attention to Andrea, who smiled at him, gesturing at the booth, and he smiled back as he slid into it, sitting down and waiting patiently as she rummaged through her belongings.

He peered into the duffle bag on the table curiously, taking note of all the guns inside, before she moved it off the table onto the opposite seat and piled her books in front of him on the table instead, and he marvelled at them before picking one up and reading the back. She slid into the booth beside him and he continued to peruse her collection interestedly, reading the blurbs and cataloguing them in his brain. He felt her eyes on him and looked up at her, flushing a little at her amused face, the fond sparkle in her eyes.

“You really like books, huh?” she asked in a soft, teasing tone.

He felt his cheeks redden, his ears burning, and smiled timidly, nodding and turning his attention back to the books. He could feel her eyes on him, could feel her watching him, and suddenly he was speaking without thinking.

“They were the only thing I had before Daryl was born…” he said, “used to steal ‘em from the library…”

He glanced up at her to see her reaction and saw her smiling, her eyes soft, so he continued.

“Had ta’ read ‘em quickly cause my dad would…” he trailed off, eyes flicking away self-consciously, “he’d beat me if he caught me… burn ‘em… didn’t want no fag- uhh… he- he didn’t approve.”

Her eyes filled with sadness and he smiled reassuringly, shaking the memory of it off and replacing it with the knowledge that Daryl approved wholeheartedly.

“Daryl thinks it’s sweet…” he said, “so I try to think about that instead.”

She was silent for a moment, nodding in agreement before speaking.

“It’s so nice to see that you and your brother are so close…” she said quietly, “you obviously really love each other…”

Merle smiled, nodding, but frowned concernedly when he saw her eyes flood with tears, filling with pain.

“Amy…” she started, swallowing thickly, “it was her birthday when she…”

She trailed off, sniffling as her eyes welled with tears, and his throat went tight at that information.

“I was never around, you know… I always promised I’d be around for her birthday. But I always missed it… I was always too busy or away at college parties…” she continued, “and she’d call, all excited, and I’d always say that I’d make it home… and I really always meant to, but I never made it past that phone call…”

He blinked at her, his heart aching at the guilt in her tone, at the regret in her eyes. He’d felt that same pain, that sense of failure, of not trying hard enough, of not being good enough for Daryl. It wasn’t a good feeling. He pursed his lips, nodding and looking around thoughtfully, pondering their similarities regarding their relationships with their siblings, before returning his attention to her.

“I brought her a mermaid necklace back from Atlanta…” she said, “they were her favourite… I wanted to give it to her on her birthday… make it right this year… but…”

There was a long silence and he swallowed thickly. He couldn’t even imagine the pain of losing Daryl, couldn’t bear to think of it. She heaved a rough, painful sob and wiped her eyes and it spurred him into action, hesitating for only a second before he turned to her and opened his arms, offering her a hug silently. She was surprised, stunned for a few seconds before she took him up on his offer, burying her face in his chest and sniffling as she wrapped her arms around his middle, moving in close.

“I’m so sorry about Amy, Andrea…” he said quietly, stroking at her hair, his voice a low rasp, sincere and earnest, “she was a good kid...”

He didn’t know how long they sat there, with Andrea crying into his chest, but he found that he didn’t mind. He’d never been one to tolerate crying in the past, but the past week had been a much-needed learning experience and he was beginning to appreciate emotions; his own emotions, others’ emotions. He also wasn’t much one for physical affection, in any way, shape, or form, but found himself appreciating it more by the day.

He let her cry her heart out, stroking her hair and back gently as he tried to soothe her, hoping that it was comforting. He’d never been good at comforting people, had always either frozen up or gotten angry and made things worse. He realised now that the anger had come from being resentful of them for being comfortable enough to express themselves, resentful of them for having a support network that allowed them to express themselves where he’d had none. All he’d gotten were hurtful words and broken bones, countless scars and a lifetime of emotional trauma.

She slowly calmed, turning her head and pressing her ear over his heart as she sniffled, wiping tears away with a hand, and eventually she pulled away, her fingers trailing wisp soft over his ribs and sternum as she withdrew, before she cupped his ribcage gently with her hands. He shuddered a little as her fingers unintentionally found his scars, setting his nerves alight and making his brain kick into high alert. It was still very unwelcome, the touching of his scars, and he only liked Daryl doing it, and she seemed to notice, drawing away slowly.

“Sorry, I’ve made a total mess of your shirt…” she said, laughing tearily.

He looked down, seeing the dark patch of wetness that had soaked through it, and shrugged amicably, smiling. She laughed again, wiping at her eyes, trying to clean up her face and make it less apparent that she’d been crying, and he waited patiently for her to compose herself enough to speak.

“Thanks, Merle…” she said softly, smiling.

He nodded, smiling back before looking away bashfully at the attention, turning his attention to the books once more. He rifled through them again and chose one, intrigued by the blurb, and held it up for her to look at it. She nodded approvingly and smiled at him as she slid from the booth, and he slid out behind her before making his way to the door, immediately searching for Daryl. His eyes alighted on Daryl across the camp, talking to Rick, and he let out a sigh before returning his attention to Andrea.

“Thanks for letting me borrow another book, Andrea…” he said softly.

“Thanks for letting me cry on you,” she laughed.

He laughed airily through his nose before speaking.

“Any time…” he said quietly, sincerely.

“Thanks Merle…” she said, her eyes warm, “seriously, feel free to come and borrow a book any time.”

He nodded, glancing at the cover of the book that he’d chosen before looking back up at her. She reached up and squeezed his shoulder before stepping back inside the RV, leaving his side to place the bag of guns back on the table and rummage through it. Merle gazed at her for a second before tucking the book under his arm and making his way out of the RV, smiling at Dale as he passed the other man, receiving a smile and a pat to the shoulder in return.

He made a beeline for his brother and Daryl saw him approaching, wrapping up his conversation with Rick before turning and walking forward to receive him with a smile. Merle took his brother into his arms as he reached him, taking Daryl by surprise, and the younger Dixon rolled with the impromptu hug, grinning as Merle nuzzled his face into the crook of his shoulder, bringing his hands up to rub at Merle’s broad back, sweeping languorously over the planes of muscle. The others looked at them with warm expressions and Daryl flushed at their attention, burying his face into Merle’s shoulder, nuzzling him back.

Merle seemed to snap out of his reverie and pulled away, clearing his throat nervously and smiling, looking down bashfully, and they linked their arms together, bidding the others farewell before making their way back to their tent, and fell into Daryl’s cot together, Merle pressed to the tent wall. He held the new book out and Daryl took it from him, reading the title and then the back, before giving it back to him with an approving nod, and Merle smiled before leaning over him to put the book on the floor beside the cot, Daryl’s hands cupping either side of his ribcage as he leant over him, thumbs kneading the muscles there gently.

Merle shifted so he wasn’t squashing Daryl underneath him, settling against his side instead and wrapping an arm over his waist. Daryl shifted an arm around him, coming to rest along the divot of his spine, his elbow resting between his shoulder blades, crooking so he could brush his belly with his fingers. Merle tensed at the contact, his heartrate increasing, and Daryl stopped immediately, bringing the hand to rub his ribs instead and murmuring an apology. Merle relaxed, nodding against his chest, and closed his eyes, dropping off nearly immediately. Daryl smiled, all worry from touching Merle wrong gone as Merle drifted off to sleep against him, and he let himself follow suit, sighing as he dropped off.

Merle woke, feeling the urge of a full bladder and looked up at Daryl, at his relaxed, sleeping face, and smiled indulgently before climbing over him and rolling off the cot carefully, intent on not waking him. He stepped outside quietly, stretching with a soft groan before heading towards the forest, and he walked for a short while, stepping carefully over sticks and logs before stopping to relieve himself against a tree with a sigh. He did up his pants as best he could one handed, tying the drawstring in a loose, uneven knot and huffing in frustration.

He was so engrossed in tying his pants that he wasn’t watching where he was stepping and gasped as his footing gave way under wet dirt, sending him gracelessly to the floor. He rolled down a small slope, ending up on his back, and stared up at the sky for a few moments, a little stunned and winded from his fall, before laughing at his own misfortune and sitting up with a wince. He gathered his bearings, finding himself at the edge of a small creek, and looked around briefly to find where he’d come from, before getting to his knees in preparation of standing up.

He noticed a flash of colour in the mud and perked up interestedly, shuffling closer to get a better look. There was a little salamander, bright red and cute as hell, writhing merrily in the mud and Merle grinned, eyes glinting excitedly as he recognised it as a mud salamander. He scooped under it carefully with his hand, picking it up out of the mud, and made his way back to camp, careful of the tiny creature in his hand.

The others seemed concerned by his muddied state, approaching him worriedly, but he waved them off, telling them he was fine, before ushering Carl and Sophia closer with his stump, kneeling to their level as they reached him.

“Look, look,” he said softly, looking between the children excitedly.

His fingers unfurled slowly, revealing the tiny, bright red salamander, squirming happily in his muddy palm. The children looked at it in wonderment, eyes wide and inquisitive, wholly intrigued, and Merle smiled at their curiosity.

“It’s a mud salamander,” Merle informed, stroking it gently with his thumb, “inn’it cute?”

They made excited noises, kneeling to get a better look, careful to not disturb the critter, and marvelled at it for a while, attracting the attention of the others, who all gazed interestedly at the tiny amphibian. Merle began to rattle off information about it, and was touched by how interested the others were in hearing him speak.

He looked up at the tent and watched as Daryl burst from it, looking around frantically for him, and caught his eye before ushering him over too. Daryl threw his hands up above his head in an exasperated gesture, and Merle smiled mischievously and winked at the children at Daryl’s frustration, receiving giggles from them in response. Daryl made his way over, frowning curiously, and when his eyes alighted on the salamander he grinned, kneeling beside him and cupping both of his hands under Merle’s, the pads of his fingers brushing his brother’s knuckles.

“Should go put it back…” Merle said, and Daryl smiled, helping him to stand with a gentle grip on his elbow.

They walked to the muddy creek bank where Merle had found it and Merle deposited it back where it had been, and they watched it wriggle back into the mud merrily. They turned to consider each other, and Daryl’s eyes met his own before drifting down his torso, taking in his dirtied state.

“You’re all muddy, Mer…” Daryl tutted, shaking his head.

Merle looked down at himself before grinning impishly in his direction and Daryl huffed a laugh, wrapping an arm around his shoulders, tugging him closer. Merle wrapped his arm around his waist in response, pressing his forehead to Daryl’s temple before pulling back and grinning at him, his eyes roving over his face lovingly.

“Let’s get you cleaned up, bro…” Daryl said softly, linking their arms together before leading him back towards their tent.

Chapter Text

They made their way towards the tent together in leisurely strides, arm in arm, and Merle’s heart fluttered with affection when Daryl started to stroke his bandaged stump with a thumb. They talked as they made their way there, laughing and jostling each other gently as they joked, and stopped outside the tent as they reached it.

“Stay out here, don’t want you getting everything muddy…” Daryl tutted, shoving him playfully with a grin.

Merle grinned back impishly, pausing before pressing his muddy hand to the centre of Daryl’s chest, leaving a mucky handprint there with a chuckle that rumbled from deep in his chest. Daryl’s mouth dropped open in an outraged gasp, his eyes going wide, and he looked down at the handprint before looking back up at him.

“Merle!” he screeched exasperatedly, his voice going high.

Merle only laughed harder, his grin widening, and he held his stomach as he laughed, bending at the waist, watching as Daryl shook his head, trying and failing to suppress a smile. Daryl shoved him again gently before stepping inside the tent, retrieving fresh clothes for the both of them before stepping back outside, setting the clothes down, and returning to his brother’s side. They playfought for a few moments, wrestling with each other carefully, chuckling and shoving each other playfully, before Daryl helped Merle to sit down, and stripped his muddied socks off, tossing them to hit him in the chest, much to Merle’s amusement.

“Can’t have you tracking mud through the house, bro…” he said softly, and Merle nodded, smirking.

Daryl pulled fresh socks onto his feet and slotted his shoes on before tying them, helping him to stand again before they made their way to the farmhouse. They stepped inside, greeting Hershel, Patricia and Maggie as they stepped into the kitchen, and Merle flushed, smiling shyly when they all froze and Hershel raised an eyebrow at his muddied state, eyes drifting over him before he shook his head good-naturedly, mildly exasperated. Maggie laughed through her nose at the mess on him, concealing a smile with her hand, and Merle grinned, inspiring her to move her hand and laugh properly.

“I suppose your dressings needed changing anyway,” the older man said amusedly.

Merle nodded, looking down at the bandage, which was blessedly unmuddied around his stump, and only moderately dirty around his forearm. Hershel stood, gesturing for them to sit at the table, and the brothers moved to sit down as he left the room to get his kit. Patricia rushed to get a sheet to cover Merle’s chair, and he nodded his thanks at her as she covered it, sitting down with a sigh and picking at the tape holding the edges of his bandages down, huffing as he struggled with it.

He smiled gratefully when Daryl moved to help him, picking the tape off gently before beginning to unwind the bandage from the stump, careful not to let mud get on the limb, his movements almost reverential; slow and gentle. Eventually the limb was exposed, and they peered at it for a moment, Merle swallowing at the sight of it. He still hadn’t come to terms with it and he supposed it’d take a long while to adjust. The wound was still stark against the cream white of his skin, but was noticeably less red, and had faded to a light pink colour around its edges. Daryl was tempted to say that it was a pretty colour, but upon seeing Merle’s dazed expression and the way he was looking at the stump, he decided to hold his tongue.

Hershel entered the room with his kit, gaining the Dixon brothers’ attention, and gave them a fatherly smile as they looked up at him, receiving shy smiles from the brothers in return. He sat opposite Merle at the corner of the table, placing gauze down on the wooden surface before encouraging Merle to hold the stump limb out. Merle offered it out unhesitatingly, and Hershel took the limb in his hands, gentle and caring, turning it in his hold so he could inspect the sutures.

“It’s looking very good, Merle, it has a nice colour to it,” Hershel said warmly, “it’s healing nicely, and the inflammation has gone down a lot, even since yesterday.”

Merle smiled brightly, looking to Daryl to share his elation, and Daryl grinned back.

“I think we’ll bandage it for now, consider letting it air tomorrow for a while,” Hershel continued as he rubbed Vaseline into the sutures, “might do it some good to breathe.”

Merle nodded his agreement, and the older man layered the stump with gauze before starting to wrap it in fresh bandages. Merle looked to Daryl, noticing his pointed look, and was confused for a moment before he realised what Daryl was trying to convey.

“I had a mild seizure this morning…” he said quietly, watching Hershel work.

The older man paused in his motions and looked up at them, his eyebrows raising at what Merle had said, listening intently.

“It only lasted a minute or so,” Daryl added, “and he woke up immediately, so we thought it wasn’t really worth worrying you about.”

“Hmm, that’s not too worrisome, I suppose,” Hershel said before continuing his work, “but please do let me know about the seizures. It’s important that I check up on you afterwards, Merle. Just to make sure everything’s okay.”

They nodded, understanding the older man’s worry, and Hershel smiled at them before finalising his work dressing the stump, taping the end of the bandage down. He patted Merle’s forearm kindly before squeezing his shoulder and standing, reaching over to squeeze Daryl’s shoulder lightly as well before leaving the room with his kit and the dirtied bandages.

The brothers made their way upstairs to the bathroom and Merle sat down on the toilet lid, watching Daryl as he filled the bath with warm water, soaking a few cloths before wringing them out and setting them aside on the lip of the tub. Daryl left the room and returned with a chair, shutting the door and setting the chair beside the tub before stripping his shirt off and letting it fall to the floor. He helped Merle to stand and strip out of his shirt, pants and socks, depositing them on the floor with his shirt, and looked away as Merle stripped his underwear off, chuckling when Merle flushed.

Daryl helped Merle into the tub, settling him into the warm water, enamoured by the way Merle sighed and closed his eyes. He picked up one of the cloths and buffed it with soap, getting Merle’s attention and waiting for him to look at him before handing it to him. Merle smiled at him and started to wipe his skin clean, and he smiled back as he prepared another cloth, his eyes never leaving Merle’s face. He used the new cloth to clean himself first, wiping away the small mess that Merle had left on him before rinsing the cloth, re-soaping it and starting to clean his brother.

Daryl washed Merle’s back first, where mud had seeped up his shirt as the hem had moved when he’d fallen, careful of the yellowing bruise that had decorated his flank since his fall nearly a week ago. He scrubbed circles over his ribs, happy to see that the adiposity of Merle’s torso had improved, and gave in to the urge to pinch him, adoring the surprised, indignant squeak Merle made. Merle smacked his hand away with a giggly “no!”, and Daryl grinned at him, smoothing a hand over the spot he’d pinched apologetically. They lapsed into silence, cleaning Merle of gunk in a tandem effort, with Daryl rinsing and wringing and re-soaping their cloths a few times, shaking his head good-naturedly at the mess Merle had made.

Finally Merle’s body was clean, leaving only his face and hand dirty, and Daryl picked up a fresh cloth before turning to Merle, who smiled at him placidly. Daryl took his brother’s hand in one of his own gently, squeezing it tenderly before lifting it up, waiting for Merle to settle his elbow over the lip of the tub to prop it up, before starting to clean it. Daryl washed his hand clean of mud, fingers gentle on sensitive skin, careful to get the webbing between his fingers clean, to scrub the lines of his hand of dirt, and Merle took the time to consider his face, eyes taking in his features lovingly.

“Shouldn’t’a wandered off like that, Mer…” Daryl said quietly, swiping the cloth over his finger pads, “I was really worried…”

Merle chuckled, grinning, but his face fell when Daryl didn’t share his mirth, and instead started to scrub harder, despite the appendage being clean.

“You didn’t even put shoes on…” Daryl said, “could’a gotten hurt…”

Merle smiled lopsidedly, feeling chided and a little guilty, and eased his hand from Daryl’s grip before reaching over to cup his face in his palm, tilting his head up to look at him. The younger Dixon paused in his ministrations, looking into his brother’s matching eyes, his own a little wet from upset. It still made Merle a little breathless, realising that Daryl cared so much. Their parents had never even questioned his whereabouts. He’d been free to roam, to get himself into trouble, to be coerced and groomed and abused by people much much older than him.

“M’sorry baby brother…” he said softly.

Daryl smiled, all transgressions forgiven, and he smiled back softly, stroking his cheekbone with his thumb. Merle flinched a little as Daryl flicked water in his face playfully, then grinned, hauling him closer into a hug, making Daryl laugh softly. Daryl dropped the cloth he was holding into the water and buried a hand in his brother’s hair, stroking his scalp and wrapping his other arm around his waist, squeezing him gently, and they stayed like that for a moment, chuckling quietly against each other’s skin, before they parted. They eyed each other for a few moments before Daryl was leaning forward to clean Merle’s hair, cupping water in his hand and releasing it over his head, using his other hand as a barrier to protect his eyes from the dirty water as it ran down his face. Once his hair was wet, Daryl massaged soap into it, cleaning away mud and grime until it was clean, squeaking under his fingertips.

Daryl picked the cloth back up out of the water and rinsed it, wringing it out before buffing it with soap again, his eyes focussed on his features, and shifted a little closer before setting to cleaning Merle’s face. He swiped the cloth over Merle’s cheeks in short strokes, cutting through the mud in gentle motions, and Merle sighed, shutting his eyes as Daryl swiped over his forehead, over his jaw and cheekbones, down his neck. It was very soothing, Daryl’s gentle touch, and Merle had no doubt that he’d be able to doze off like this, could feel his brain going muzzy with how calm and warm he was. Daryl chuckled softly, breaking Merle from his reverie, and Merle opened his eyes to consider him hazily.

“What?” Merle mumbled quietly.

“You got mud in your ears…” Daryl replied affectionately, shaking his head.

Merle grinned, cringing a little when Daryl swiped the cloth through the fold of his helix, relaxing when Daryl deemed the ear clean, and he let his brother turn his head, his grip gentle on his jaw, to inspect his other ear, giving it the same treatment. He melted when Daryl stroked the skin behind his ear with the cloth, shivering at the touch, and could practically feel Daryl’s grin at his reaction. Daryl cleaned his neck and under his jaw, eyes roving over his face lovingly, and Merle realised that he couldn’t remember their mother doing this for him, and felt a surge of sadness, which Daryl picked up on, pausing in his motions.

“What’chu thinkin’ ‘bout?” Daryl asked.

Merle was quiet for a few moments, opening his eyes once more to consider his brother’s face, pursing his lips and sighing.

“Ma never did this for me…” he said quietly.

Daryl didn’t reply, but nodded, his eyes going sad, and started to wipe at his face again distractedly. Merle smiled at him reassuringly, the moment of sadness gone, and took his arm, pulling him closer gently before pressing his mouth to Daryl’s cheek, flushing a little. Daryl smiled and returned the gesture before pressing their cheeks together, nuzzling briefly before pulling away. Daryl helped him out of the tub, wrapping him in a towel and letting him dry himself as he drained the bath and wiped the sides of mud, making sure it was clean for its next use. Daryl pulled his shirt on before helping Merle to dress himself, careful not to jostle Merle’s freshly bandaged stump, and patted at Merle’s ribs with an affectionate smile when his brother was finally dressed again.

They left the house, depositing their dirty clothes on the pile for cleaning before joining the others, reaching them as lunch was being dished out, and sat down, smiling and returning the greetings the others gave them. They ate eagerly, listening to the others speak as they sat pressed knee to knee, before retiring to their tent, their arms around each other, laughing jovially as they joked. They fell into Merle’s cot together with twin sighs and Merle immediately dropped off into sleep, much to Daryl’s amusement, and Daryl picked up his book, stroking his brother’s neck and back as he started to read.

A few hours later Merle woke, and they emerged from the tent, looking around for the others and finding them gathered near the porch. They exchanged a look before making their way over at a leisurely pace, and reached the others just as Andrea and T-Dog joined the group.

“Do you know what’s goin’ on?” T-Dog asked.

“Where is everyone?” Andrea asked, matching his stride.

“You haven’t seen Rick?” Glenn asked.

“He went off with Hershel,” she said, “he was supposed to be back a couple hours ago.”

“Yeah he was,” Daryl said, brow scrunching in worry, “what the hell?”

They lapsed into silence, thinking on their predicament, on the walkers in the barn, and their gazes fell on Shane as he approached, a shotgun in his hand and a duffle bag of guns at his waist.

“What’s all this?” Daryl asked, approaching him and pointing at the bag.

“You with me, man?” Shane asked, his voice level.

He extended the shotgun towards Daryl, who eyed him warily before he took it from him silently, falling in line and cocking it. Merle felt his face go passively blank as Shane stalked towards him, then past him.

“Yeah,” Shane said, “time to grow up.”

Shane walked towards the porch, loading a pistol and speaking over his shoulder.

“You already got yours?” Shane asked Andrea, looking around at the others.

“Yeah…” Andrea said before continuing unsurely, “wh-where’s Dale?”

“He’s on his way” Shane said lowly.

“Thought we couldn’t carry…” T-Dog said enquiringly.

“We can, and we have to,” Shane replied.

He came to a stop and looked around briefly before continuing.

“Now look, it was one thing sitting around here picking daisies when we thought this place was supposed to be safe, but now we know it ain’t,” he said, pausing and looking around before approaching Glenn with a shotgun, “how about you man, you gonna protect yours?”

Glenn hesitated, looking at Maggie before looking back at Shane and taking the gun from him, avoiding Maggie’s eyes.

“That’s it,” Shane said approvingly, “can you shoot?”

“Can you stop?” Maggie asked heatedly, “you do this, you hand out these guns, my dad will make you leave tonight.”

“We have to stay, Shane,” Carl said, making his way down the stairs.

“What is this?” Lori asked, approaching swiftly after hearing the commotion, her eyes wide as she looked around at the others, her eyes stopping on Shane.

“We ain’t goin’ anywhere, okay?” Shane said, “now look, Hershel… he’s just gotta understand. Okay? He… well, he’s gonna have to…”

Shane looked around at them for a few seconds before approaching Carl and continuing.

“Now, I want you to take this…” he said, kneeling in front of the Grimes boy and offering him a pistol, grip first, “you take it, Carl, and you keep your mother safe. You do whatever it takes, you know how. Go on, take the gun and do it.”

“Rick said no guns,” Lori hissed, putting herself between Shane and her son, “this is not your call. This is not your decision to make.”

Shane looked up at her furiously, his mouth tight with rage, and Merle got ready to move between them if he became violent.

“Oh shit…” T-Dog said, drawing everyone’s attention to the fence line, where Rick, Hershel and Jimmy were herding walkers with snare poles.

“What is that?” Shane said lowly, before repeating it louder, “what is that?!”

Shane started to run towards them, the others following suit, and the Dixon brothers shared a quick glance at each other before following, catching up to them as they reached the gate.

“What the hell are you doing?!” Shane yelled, pushing the gate open and running up to them.

“Shane, just back off” Rick said.

“Why do your people have guns?” Hershel asked angrily.

“Are you kidding me? You see?” Shane bellowed, circling them, “you see what they’re holding on to?!”

“I see who I’m holding on to!” Hershel said.

“Naw, man, you don’t!” Shane said.

“Shane, just let us do this, then we can talk” Rick said, trying to be the voice of reason.

Daryl aimed his shotgun at the walker that Rick had in his snare, walking with it as it moved, wary and on edge.

“What do you want to talk about, Rick?” Shane yelled, dodging one of the captive walkers’ arms, “these things ain’t sick! They’re not people! They’re dead!”

Shane continued to circle them and yell, ignoring Rick’s furious expression.

“Ain’t gonna feel nothin for ‘em ‘cause all they do, they kill! These things right here!” Shane bellowed, “they’re the things that killed Amy!”

Andrea froze at his words, at the mention of her sister, before she nodded her head in agreement, her face solemn.

“They killed Otis!” Shane continued, “they’re gonna kill all of us unless we do-”

“Shane, shut up!” Rick roared, interrupting him.

Shane went quiet before starting to speak again at a lower volume, turning his attention to Hershel.

“Hey Hershel, man, lemme ask you somethin’…” Shane said, pulling a pistol from the back of his pants and checking it as he continued, “could a living, breathing person, could they walk away from this?”

“No!” Glenn yelled, crying out in fear and flinching as Shane fired three rounds from his pistol into the walker Hershel had captive, making it growl agitatedly.

“Stop it!” Rick shouted, staring his partner down angrily.

“That’s three rounds in the chest. Could someone who’s alive, could they just take that?!” Shane persisted, disregarding everyone else, pointing at the walker, “why is it still coming?”

He fired another two rounds into its chest, right into its heart.

“That’s its heart, its lungs,” Shane yelled, “why is it still coming?”

He fired another three rounds into it, making it stagger and grunt at the impact.

“Shane, enough!” Rick roared.

“Yeah, you’re right, man…” Shane said levelly, approaching the walker, his eyes hard and focussed, “that is enough.”

He shot the walker in the head and everyone reeled back in shock, stunned by what Shane had done, and they watched as Hershel fell to his knees with the walker, dropping the pole, his face falling in dismay. There were a few tense moments where everyone stood, motionless, before Shane was walking towards the barn.

“Enough of this! Enough living next to a barn full of things that are trying to kill us! Enough! Rick, it ain’t like it was before,” Shane yelled, staring back at the group, beginning to gesture wildly as he continued, “now if y’all want to live, if you want to survive, you gotta fight for it! I’m talking about fighting, right here, right now.”

Shane took off at a run towards the barn, and Merle felt his breath catch in his throat as he realised that he was intent on breaking it open and releasing the walkers.

“Take the snare pole!” Rick yelled immediately, watching him as he ran, “Hershel! Hershel, take the snare pole. Hershel!”

“Rick!” Lori shrieked worriedly, eyeing Shane as he reached the barn.

“Listen to me, man, please!” Rick said desperately, “take it now! Hershel! Take it!”

Their attention turned back to Shane as the other ex-officer picked up a pickaxe and started to smash at the lock of the barn door with the head of it, hollering.

“No, Shane! Do not do this, brother!” Rick yelled, “please!”

“Come on!” Shane bellowed, riling the walkers up, slotting the spike of the pickaxe under the bolt of the door and prying it off at the screws.

“Don’t do it!” Glenn yelled.

“Shane!” Rick called desperately.

“Rick!” Lori screamed, gripping her son’s shoulders and angling herself so she was between him and the barn.

“Please!” Rick beseeched.

Shane removed the plank of wood holding the doors shut and tossed it away before bashing on the doors and yelling, getting the walkers riled up, before backing up and taking his hand gun from the back of his pants.

“Come on!” Shane taunted.

“Shane, do not do this,” Rick yelled, “this is not the way! Please!”

“Get behind me” Lori said to her son, pushing him behind her.

“Come on…” Shane growled, his gun pointed at the barn door.

The doors creaked open and Merle’s heart sunk at the sheer number of walkers that poured out of the barn, and he watched as first Andrea, then T-Dog joined Shane to form a line, raising their guns and firing alongside him. Daryl left his side to join the line and he watched him as he began to fire his shotgun into the walkers as they approached. Merle felt a bit dazed at how quickly everything was happening, and looked around at the others, watching Glenn approach the eldest Greene girl, his face scrunched in upset at betraying her and her father’s wishes. She was crying, her hands on her father’s shoulders as they watched walkers pile from the barn only to be slaughtered.

“Maggie…” Glenn whimpered apologetically, his throat tight.

“It’s okay…” she said, just as choked up, and nodded her understanding before looking away from the slaughter.

At that, Glenn ran forward to join the others, firing into the crowd of walkers, and Shane turned to look at his partner, his eyes burning with rage, before he shot the walker Rick had captive in his snare pole in the head. The walker dropped to the floor, lifeless, and Rick dropped the pole, staring angrily at the other ex-officer. Carl ran forward, his mother close behind him, and Rick extended a hand, stopping his son. Lori wrapped around the young boy, taking them both to the floor and holding him in her arms behind Rick.

“Stay back!” Rick said to her anxiously, gesturing for them to stay where they were, before turning back to the carnage.

Merle’s chest hurt; it felt like such a betrayal, going against Hershel’s wishes, and despite not participating he felt infinitely guilty as he saw the Greene man shaking his head, eyes damp with tears, beside himself with grief. Rick didn’t partake either, and they watched the slaughter continue, watched the others mow the walkers down as they continued to pile out of the barn, until finally there was quiet as the gunfire ceased, broken only by the sound of insects in the distance. There was nothing but silence for a minute and everyone looked around at each other, ruminating on what had just happened, a little shell shocked, and Dale finally joined them, mouth agape in horror as he looked around at the bodies.

Their attention turned back to the barn at the sound of growling breaths and watched in shock as a little girl, no older than twelve, emerged from the barn. She looked uncannily like Sophia and Merle had to look away, and saw Daryl do the same, saw Lori and Carol hug their children tighter, saw Rick look down, breathing shakily. The little girl stepped over corpses as she approached, her gait uneven and clumsy like a newborn giraffe, and she growled as she neared them. Carol started crying, squeezing her daughter tighter, and Lori held Carl close, speaking softly into his ear as the boy whimpered and started to cry.

Rick finally moved forward, walking between Shane and Andrea to intercept the girl, drawing his gun and aiming it at her. He stopped, eyeing her for a moment before firing, sending her head back with the force of the bullet, and they watched her crumple to the floor. There was silence but for Carol’s soft sobs, and Merle watched as Andrea moved to check the barn before returning, nodding to indicate that it was empty. Lori carded her hand through her son’s hair and everyone looked around at each other, a little dazed. Hershel’s hands were over his mouth in shock, and Beth started sobbing, trembling in Jimmy’s arms. Suddenly the younger Greene girl was stepping forward, walking around them on her way to the pile of walkers.

“Shh, shh, shh…” Rick said, trying to intercept her, “wait, wait…”

She pushed his hands away and made her way to the pile, searching for a specific walker, and stopped when she found who she was looking for. She moved a walker off the one she was intent on and knelt next to the dead woman, shaking her shoulder before rolling her onto her back and shifting so the walker’s head was on her lap.

“Ma…” she sobbed, and Merle’s heart clenched in sympathy.

The walker’s eyes shot open and it snarled, hands coming up and clenching at her throat, her arms and wrists, burying themselves in her hair, anywhere they could find purchase. She immediately started screaming in shrill, terrified noises, and the others sprang into action. Shane grabbed the young woman around her waist, Rick helping him by gripping at her arm and pulling, while Glenn gripped the walker’s arms, trying to pry its hands off her as it continued to try to bite her.

T-Dog kicked the walker in the head, effectively getting its attention away from Beth, and it began to growl and snarl at Glenn, struggling against him and trying to bite him instead. Beth flung herself into Hershel’s arms, crying loudly as Andrea ran to the barn and picked up a scythe, running behind the walker and swinging it, piercing through its head with the blade, rendering it into stillness once more. Glenn dropped the corpse, and the others gathered around, nothing but the noise of Beth’s sobs filling the air, and Jimmy walked to Beth’s side with Hershel, supporting her with her father as her knees went weak.

Hershel, Maggie, Patricia and Beth began to walk away, back to the house, Beth between Hershel and Patricia as they walked, supporting her as she continued to sob quietly. Shane trailed behind them, stomping along close behind, stewing in what he wanted to say, and Rick and Glenn followed, ready to mediate. Merle was glad when Daryl slotted himself against his side, entwining their arms and helping him to remain standing. He felt weak and drained, and was glad when Daryl led him away to their tent quietly, and they settled into Daryl’s cot together, Merle sandwiched between the tent wall and his brother, tucked firmly against Daryl’s side.

A few hours passed before Daryl decided that it’d be a good idea to check what was happening outside of their little bubble, to check what the others were up to, and got up, patting his brother’s side reassuringly and promising a speedy return, before leaving the tent. Merle retrieved his new book, examining the front cover and reading the blurb a few times before opening it to the first chapter and starting to read, quickly becoming captivated by the narrative, slipping easily into the story world and losing himself in it.

A few chapters into his book Merle heard footsteps approaching, and looked up as the other person approached, ready to receive them.

“Hey…” Carol greeted kindly, poking her head through the tent door.

“Hey…” he replied softly, marking his place and putting the book down beside his pillow before rolling onto his side, propping himself up a little on his elbow, on the edge of the cot.

She stepped into the tent, sitting opposite him on his cot and looking at him tenderly and Merle flushed a little, smiling at her lazily.

“While Sophia was missing… Daryl… he brought me this…” she said.

She brought his attention to the Cherokee Rose in her hand, kept in a makeshift vase fashioned out of a beer bottle, and he took it from her when she held it out to him, eyeing it curiously and inspecting the petals. He tucked the bottle into the crook of his elbow, in his stump arm, before stroking the flower’s petals with his fingers in feather soft touches, enjoying the silky texture against his fingertips.

“He said he believed that this one bloomed for my little girl…” she said softly, “told me the story behind them…”

Merle nodded as he remembered the story behind the flowers, and could just picture his brother bringing it to her, telling her the story to try to lift her spirits, and gave it back to her with a smile, revelling in the way she smiled back warmly before looking at the flower with a soft expression, stroking the petals with her fingertips.

“He’s always been so sweet…” he said fondly.

She smiled broadly before her face fell thoughtfully, and she looked down at the flower, pondering something. Her face went soft, her eyes filling with a small amount of sadness and he frowned concernedly, propping himself up further and reaching over the space between them to touch her hand comfortingly. She jumped a little in surprise, but smiled and took his hand in her own and looked back up at him, gazing at him for a while, and he waited patiently for her to speak, brushing her thumb with his own.

“That little girl…” Carol said, “in the barn… that could have been Sophia…”

His heart sunk at the thought, and he swallowed, the corners of his mouth turning downward in upset as he nodded, looking away as he composed himself before gazing at her as he waited for her to speak again.

“That could have been Sophia’s fate…” Carol said softly, trailing off, and he supressed a shudder at the thought, “I wanted to thank you again… for saving her… for bringing her back to me…”

He smiled and nodded at her and watched her eyes light up at his response, saw that she was itching to move closer and hug him, but respected his space and his aversion to touch all the same. He mulled it over for a second before opening his arms and offering her a hug, and she was stunned for a few seconds, gawking at him before smiling broadly and moving to hug him around his middle, kneeling in front of the cot. She rested her head on his shoulder and squeezed him gently, rubbing at his back with her hands, and he tucked his chin over her shoulder, squeezing her back. It was an awkward position, with Merle mostly horizontal, but neither of them seemed to mind.

“You’re sweet too, Merle…” Carol said against his skin, and his heart raced at her words, “Sophia adores you… She and Carl can’t stop talking about the salamander you showed them…”

He laughed uncertainly, automatically rejecting the idea in his mind, and she pulled away to look at him concernedly, putting space between them, her eyes searching his face. He flushed a little at her scrutiny, looking away nervously, scratching his cheek anxiously, trying not to think too much about her eyes on him.

“You don’t believe me when I say that…” she said in an upset whisper.

He shrugged self-consciously, before deciding to give her the truth, smiling lopsidedly and shaking his head.

“Why?” she asked softly, no judgement in her tone.

He was silent for a few moments, pondering the question, pondering his answer, before he spoke.

“Weren’t never told I was good… or…” he mumbled, shrugging apathetically, willing his voice not to crack and willing his eyes not to water at the emotional pain that flared up, “or sweet… weren’t never told by anyone that they… they loved me… ‘cept for Daryl…”

The corners of her mouth turned downwards, her eyes wet with upset, and he smiled, reaching over and patting her knee hearteningly, trying to bring her mood back up.

“S’alright, Carol… s’in the past…” he reassured, his voice quiet, “Daryl loves me… n’makes sure I know it… m’gettin’ better.”

She smiled at him, wiping her eyes as tears escaped and rolled down her face.

“I’m glad to hear that, Merle…” she said softly, “you deserve to be happy, to feel loved…”

He smiled wobblily at her words and nodded his thanks at her, and they considered each other in silence for a few moments before starting to speak again on lighter topics, Carol returning to sit on the cot opposite him. They spoke for a long while, and Merle found that it was nice to just make idle conversation. She was easy to talk to, friendly and warm, and he found that he really enjoyed her company. He’d never really spoken to Carol before Atlanta, and had been practically bedridden for the past week, and it was refreshing to speak to her, to listen to her talk about her daughter and her life before the apocalypse.

She was midway through a sentence when he felt that awful tell-tale kick in his chest, felt his legs jerk, and his face fell as he realised what was about to happen. He quickly rolled onto his back, praying that he was lying on the cot enough to not fall off as the seizure hit, breathing fearfully. She faltered in her words, trailing off as he went limp, immediately aware of the change in him, and moved closer, kneeling beside the cot and setting her hand on his chest, her eyebrows creased in concern.

“Merle, what’s wrong?” Carol asked concernedly.

Merle wished he could reply, wished he could warn her and alleviate her worry, but could only muster a nonsensical noise before he was going into convulsions, his eyes rolling back and his teeth clacking as his jaw snapped shut.

Carol gasped, moving back to give Merle room as he started to fit violently, her eyes welling with tears. She started a count and immediately went to find Daryl, leaving the tent and looking around for the younger Dixon. She spotted him standing with T-Dog and Dale and approached him, trying to school her features, trying not to worry him, but he picked up on her anxiety immediately, turning away from the other men to give her his undivided attention.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, brow furrowing anxiously, “is Merle okay?”

“He’s seizing,” she said softly, and followed him when he immediately started toward the tent at a brisk pace.

Merle was still seizing when they reached him, and Carol teared up again, crossing her arms over her chest and covering her mouth with a hand anxiously at the short, laboured breaths he was taking as his lungs were compressed by the motions he was forced into. The seizure was violent, making Merle’s body thrash in vicious, uneven spasms, and Daryl knew that this would mean complete exhaustion for Merle when he woke up, another half a day in his cot. Daryl knelt beside his brother, reaching over and taking the book from beside Merle’s head, putting it on top of Merle’s bag carefully before adjusting the pillow under Merle’s head.

Merle continued to seize for another two minutes before falling eerily still, his breath coming in wet rattles, and Daryl took his chin in a gentle grip and opened his mouth, peering inside and swiping his fingers through it, just like he’d seen Hershel do, clearing Merle’s airway of spit and blood. Merle had bitten his tongue hard as he’d began to seize, and had caused it to bleed, and Daryl gripped a corner of the cot’s sheet and wiped Merle’s mouth and chin clean gently, careful to clean the corners of his mouth. Merle’s breathing evened out, his throat now clear, and Daryl moved to roll him into the recovery position, frowning in upset at how limp he was, and fluffed his pillow before sitting back on his heels, looking up at Carol imploringly.

“Did you time it?” he asked a little breathlessly, and she nodded, “how long did it go for?”

“Nearly four minutes…” she said softly.

Daryl pursed his lips and shook his head, reaching up to stroke over Merle’s clammy forehead before shifting to caress the creased space between his brother’s eyebrows with his thumb. Merle slowly relaxed, his brow unfurrowing, and Daryl swapped hands, starting to stroke his cheekbone instead with a thumb, cupping Merle’s face with his palm. Carol hesitated before kneeling beside the younger Dixon and reaching out to touch Merle hesitantly, setting a gentle hand on his shoulder, stroking up and down his arm.

They sat like that for a long time, stroking at the older Dixon’s skin gently, encouraging him to wake, to come back to the surface, but Merle didn’t rouse, and Daryl only became more worried as time went on and Merle didn’t stir. Carol stayed for a while, her hand never leaving Merle’s arm, but eventually she decided to leave, worrying about her daughter, and she stroked Merle’s side gently before standing to leave, squeezing Daryl’s shoulder with a parting goodbye and a wish that Merle would wake soon.

An indeterminate amount of time passed, with Daryl completely focussed on Merle’s face, his worry mounting as Merle continued to show no signs of waking or consciousness. He searched his brother’s face anxiously, desperate to find anything that showed signs of life, a twitch in his brow or lip, a change in his breathing, but none came. He was so focussed on Merle that he didn’t hear Lori when she approached the tent, and jumped when she started calling his name from outside the doorway. He looked up at her as she peered inside, before returning his attention to Merle, shifting to sit up a little straighter, settling a hand on the side of Merle’s neck gently, stroking the soft patch of skin under his ear with his thumb.

“Listen, Beth’s in some kind of catatonic shock,” Lori said from the doorway of the tent, “we need Hershel…”

“Yeah…” Daryl said distractedly, watching his brother’s unconscious face.

“So I need you to run into town real quick and bring him and Rick back…” she said softly, watching his motions and processing his non-response before getting his attention again, “Daryl…”

He looked up at her again briefly before turning his attention back to Merle.

“Merle had a really bad seizure and he hasn’t woken up yet…” Daryl said, “I can’t leave him…”

Lori pursed her lips, seeming to want to argue, but forced it down, and Daryl knew that she was remembering the stress that had come from watching Carl having a seizure and that she understood his worry. She smiled softly, understandingly, moving closer to kneel next to him, and he was stunned when she carded a hand through Merle’s hair gently. She smiled at him, brushing a hand over Merle’s forehead and through his hair once more before standing and leaving, and he smiled back as she left, turning back to his brother and stroking at Merle’s side.

Another few hours passed, the sky outside gradually turning dark, and Daryl started to become numb and restless with worry, his fingers stroking everywhere they could over his brother’s still form, trying to coax a response from him. He shifted, taking a pillow from Merle’s cot and settling it under his knees before shuffling closer and setting his elbows on the edge of the cot, leaning forward so he could see Merle better in the dark. He took his brother’s hand in his own, squeezing the lifeless appendage before leaning over and pressing a kiss to its knuckles, supressing a sob at the way Merle’s digits gave way underneath his lips. He found Merle’s stump with his other hand and covered it with his palm, stroking soft circles over his wrist over the bandages. He leant down and pressed a careful, gentle kiss there too, over the bandages right at the end where they hid the healing wound, sighing shakily.

He was broken from his thoughts by the sound of fast footfalls, and looked up as Carol peered inside the tent, looking anxious.

“We can’t find Lori, and the others aren’t back yet either…” Carol said, a little winded from running.

“She must’a gone off lookin’ for ‘em…” Daryl said quietly, his eyes drifting to the side as he vaguely recalled the conversation he’d had with Lori.

“What?” she asked.

“Yeah, she asked me to go…” he replied, looking back at Merle, “but Merle needs me…”

“And you didn’t say anything?” she asked reproachfully.

He looked up at her and she immediately felt guilty for what she’d said, for the tone she’d used, when she saw that he had tears in his eyes. He swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing spasmodically, his throat clicking harshly, before he turned back to look at Merle’s face, tears rolling down his face to drip onto their joined hands. He let out a shaky sigh, lifting Merle’s hand and leaning down to press another kiss to his brother’s knuckles, tears running down his face to pool between their fingers and trickle down Merle’s wrist. She pursed her lips before moving forward, kneeling next to him and setting her hand on the side of Merle’s face, stroking his cheekbone with her thumb.

“He still hasn’t woken up?” she asked, her tone softer than before.

Daryl shook his head with an upset whimper, sniffling, blinking harshly, his breath hitching as he tried to reign in his upset. She moved closer, nodding her understanding and brushing a hand over Merle’s forehead, noting the lingering clamminess of his skin, his short, airy breaths. She understood Daryl’s upset after a few minutes of looking at Merle. There were no signs of life in him, he was limp and pale, still completely unresponsive to their touches, and she had to swallow her own upset.

She spent a few moments stroking Merle’s forehead before making to leave, needing to tell the others about Lori leaving to find Rick, and Daryl looked up at her as she stood, taking over from her and beginning to stroke Merle’s forehead gently.

“I have to tell the others about Lori…” she said softly, “I’ll come back with some water and food…”

“Thank you…” he sighed, and she nodded with a soft smile.

“I hope he wakes up soon, Daryl,” she said softly, “let us know when he does…”

He nodded, and she left with a pat to his shoulder and a smile, which he returned weakly, before returning his attention to his brother once more, wiping his eyes with his free hand, dabbing away tears. Carol returned a short while later with a plate of food, a jug of water and a glass, and he thanked her profusely as she left, taking the time to drink a few glasses and eat his dinner distractedly, before he settled into his vigil again, waiting anxiously for Merle to wake, watching diligently for signs of consciousness.

Merle finally woke hours later, in the dead of night, and Daryl’s heart clenched, soaring elatedly when he opened his eyes, relief flooding through him, making him sigh and thank a god that neither of them believed in. Merle looked up at him vacantly, his eyes unfocussed and uncomprehending, his pupils blown wide enough to cover the blue of his irises. Merle chewed on his tongue for a while, staring at him blankly before a small moment of clarity came to him and he made a confused, whimpering noise, eyes tracking around the tent sluggishly before falling on him again. He cupped his brother’s neck in his palm, stroking under his ear.

“Shh, it’s okay, Mer…” he cooed soothingly.

Merle melted into his touch, his eyes fluttering shut, and buried his hand in his shirt clumsily, uncoordinatedly, pulling him forward weakly, recognising him instinctively through the thick fog of his brain. Daryl went willingly, climbing into the cot with his brother and cradling him in his arms, smiling when Merle snuggled up to him muzzily, his movements slow and unsteady. Daryl cupped Merle’s face in his hands and leant down to press a kiss to his forehead, enamoured by the contented whuffling noise Merle made in response, by the way Merle’s hand came up, unsteady but purposeful, closing gently around his wrist, thumb stroking his pulse point.

They lay together for a long while as Merle slowly recovered, becoming more cognizant and alert as time passed, and Daryl encouraged him to take small, careful sips of water, hands guiding the glass to his mouth cautiously. Merle shook and jerked minutely, brain firing confused signals to his limbs, and he was content to cuddle up to his brother, to focus on the familiarity of his smell and his warmth as he recovered.

Finally, his body started to cooperate, his brain recuperating, and he tilted his head to consider his brother’s face in the dark, searching his features with newfound awareness, and Daryl looked down at him, squeezing him gently before starting to speak.

“You had a seizure… a really bad one…” Daryl said quietly, eyes roving over his face, “you were out for six or seven hours…”

Merle swallowed nervously, nodding, recognising that it likely wasn’t a good sign for him to have been unconscious for so long after a seizure.

“Hrshl?” he asked, tongue still uncooperative and clumsy.

“He ain’t come back yet…” Daryl shook his head, “he left the farm without telling anyone… Rick and Glenn went to find him...”

Merle nodded understandingly, settling his head against Daryl’s chest again, and burrowed closer with a sigh.

They lay in silence for a while as Merle waited for his brain to recuperate, and took stock of how his body felt, noted the minute trembles that continued to surge through him every now and then. He felt weak and sore, could feel his body aching, his brain protesting being awake, but he felt restless and tense, and sleep eluded him despite his exhaustion. He tilted his head to search his brother’s face, pausing and feeling guilty at the worry on display there. Daryl stroked at his skin restlessly, entirely focussed on him, hyperaware of his every move, and Merle could feel how tense Daryl was, how high strung he was.

“Dar?” Merle broke the silence, his voice displaying his exhaustion.

Daryl looked down at Merle, heart melting at the tired but earnest expression on his brother’s face.

“Mm?” Daryl responded in a soft hum.

“Hum for me?” Merle asked quietly, his voice a weary rasp, his eyes wide and imploring.

Daryl paused as Merle’s words set in and his chest went tight, going warm with affection, and he nodded and smiled down at him before cupping his face in his hands and pressing a kiss to his forehead. Merle’s hand came up to cup the side of Daryl’s neck briefly, his movements still clumsy, but ever so gentle and loving, before returning to rest on his chest, fingers stroking his sternum. Daryl hugged him gently, waiting for Merle to settle, to rest his ear over his heart and to relax before he started to hum that decades old song, enjoying the happy shiver that went through his brother.

A while passed and Daryl continued to hum, starting to stroke at Merle’s back, hands sliding up his shirt to stroke at his brother’s skin, to caress his scars, making Merle tremble again. Merle started to hum along quietly, his exhaustion evident in the way he’d stop and start in his humming, sighing tiredly, his fingers losing their rhythm against Daryl’s sternum, taking pause before starting up again sluggishly. A while later Merle arched and shifted against him, burrowing closer and sighing as he finally relaxed.

Daryl felt Merle’s breathing even out, felt his pulse slowing in preparation of sleep, and smiled as Merle drifted off, revelling in the way his brother went boneless against him. In the way he whuffled quietly against his skin, in the way he made little peeps of noise every now and then. Merle’s fingers twitched in his sleep, his face forming fleeting micro-expressions, displaying signs of life that hadn’t been there after the seizure, and Daryl sighed in relief and closed his eyes, letting himself drift off too, stroking Merle’s scars gently as he drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

Day broke and Merle woke to see the sunrise, peering out through the tent window at the soft peach-orange of the sky as the sun climbed over the horizon. He marvelled in the beauty of it, of how peaceful it was in their little bubble, with Daryl breathing softly beneath him, his body a pleasant source of warmth. He was content to lie there, quiet and placid as he waited for his brother to wake, stroking at Daryl’s chest softly with his fingertips. The day prior slowly came back to him in pieces, and he realised that he couldn’t remember a large chunk of time after the slaughter at the barn, only vaguely remembering talking to Carol, waking and talking to Daryl.

A short while later Daryl woke with a deep inhale, looking down at him, and Merle smiled up at him, closing his eyes when Daryl cupped his face in his palms and pressed a kiss to his forehead, his fingers digging into his skin just a little too hard. Merle winced a little, grumbling out his discomfort, and Daryl noticed that he was being a little too rough, and stroked the skin of his cheeks with his thumbs apologetically before caressing his ears, the nape of his neck. Merle enjoyed his touches, closing his eyes and sighing serenely as Daryl touched his skin, before tilting his head to look up at his brother again, smiling softly.

“Morning…” Daryl breathed, smiling back.

Merle watched the word form on his brother’s lips, heard it as it left his mouth, but it took a while to percolate through his brain, and Daryl frowned with how long it took him to reply. Merle tested the movement of his tongue, tracing the backs of his teeth and licking his lips before speaking.

“Mrn’n” he mumbled, tongue a little uncooperative.

Daryl’s face contorted in worry, and one of his hands came up to brush through Merle’s hair before falling to his face, palm coming to rest on Merle’s forehead. He lifted each eyelid in turn with his thumb, inspecting his pupils, and found that they were blown wider than normal, were slow to respond to light. Merle’s face scrunched in discomfort and he moved his face away from the contact with a huff, setting his head against Daryl’s chest, his ear over his heart. He continued to peer up at him, eyes tracking languidly over his face, taking in his features blearily. Daryl smiled apologetically, stroking the side of his neck affectionately before finding his pulse with his fingers, counting the beats for a minute before shifting to cup Merle’s face instead.

“You okay?” Daryl asked quietly, brow creased in concern.

“Mm…” he hummed positively, shifting and nuzzling his face into his brother’s throat.

Daryl’s arms came around him and squeezed him around the waist, pulling him closer so he was lying on his chest, and Merle didn’t have the strength to protest, not that he’d want to anyway. He tilted his head to watch Daryl’s motions as he shifted beneath him, reaching over the side of the cot to bring a glass of water up from the floor. Merle licked his lips as his eyes alighted on it, and Daryl smiled, bringing the glass to his mouth and tilting it cautiously so that Merle could take careful, measured sips. He finished the glass eagerly, and Daryl shifted to pick the jug up from the floor, refilling the glass and setting the jug back down before offering him more water. He finished half of the glass before waving Daryl off, and he watched as Daryl drained the rest of it before setting it down beside the cot, stroking between his shoulder blades all the while.

“Thanks, Dar…” he breathed as Daryl turned back and resituated himself.

He felt Daryl hum his response, heard it resonate through his chest, and sighed contentedly, settling against Daryl once more. He set to stroking at Daryl’s chest with his fingertips, sliding his hand up Daryl’s shirt when he felt the urge to caress his skin, and felt warmth bloom in his chest when he felt Daryl shudder, when he felt his brother’s breath shake in response to the skin to skin contact, and grinned up at him, smile broadening when Daryl squeezed him briefly.

They lay there for a good while, stroking at each other’s skin, and Daryl started humming quietly, smiling when Merle started humming along intermittently as his brain phased in and out of lucidity in uneven pulses, sending him drifting into and out of light sleep. Daryl encouraged him to take sips of water each time he came to, and watched his brother become more aware as time went on and his focus improved.

Footsteps sounded outside the tent as Merle drifted back into consciousness again, the bubble popping, and he felt Daryl shift beneath him to look up at the person as they poked their head in. He didn’t make to move, entirely content to remain as he was, with Daryl’s pulse thrumming against the tip of his nose and his cupid’s bow.

“Hey…” came Carol’s soft voice, “how is he?”

“He jus’ woke up… seems alright…” Daryl said, stroking at his back, “but he’s not very alert… we really need Hershel…”

Merle could hear the upset in his tone, could feel the clench of his throat against his face, and cooed at him in nonsensical babble, fingers brushing him in a clumsy attempt to soothe him. He knew Daryl was smiling, felt his brother’s chest judder amusedly, and smiled back, nuzzling at him, uncaring that Carol was witnessing it. Merle jerked as another set of hands were suddenly touching his back, and squeaked, cringing away instinctively, and the hands withdrew immediately, hovering over his back. He lifted his head to look at her, considering her muzzily and she smiled at him, lowering her hand slowly to settle between his shoulder blades, stroking up and down his spine, and he smiled back lazily, shivering when Daryl’s hands settled on his ribs and caressed his sides.

He started to feel better, becoming more cognizant as time went on, and he shifted, trying to get up, and they helped him to sit up on the cot, helped him to drink some water. Carol left briefly and brought them breakfast and juice, leaving them alone with a smile and well wishes. Merle tried to eat on his own, managing a few bites of oatmeal, but found that his hand was uncooperative, shaky and jerky, his brain still struggling to make connections, and set it down in his lap dejectedly. Daryl was watching him and put his own breakfast down unhesitatingly, moving forward and picking Merle’s bowl up before shifting to feed him. Merle felt a rush of emotion, his lips pursing in upset at having to be helped again, at the fact that Daryl was so willing to drop everything to help him. He felt his eyes well with frustrated tears and wiped them away roughly with his stump, sighing shakily and looking away.

“Hey, hey… what’s wrong?” Daryl asked softly, reaching out to settle a gentle hand on his side, rubbing up and down tenderly.

“S’just… I hate being like this…” Merle started, pausing and sighing before continuing, “you shouldn’t have to take care of me…”

He looked up at his brother’s face and found Daryl smiling softly, his eyes warm with affection, his head tilted in endearment.

“I want to take care of you, Mer… you’re my brother, and I love you…” Daryl said quietly, locking eyes with him, “I’ll always be here for you, Mer… always…”

Merle’s lip wobbled at that and he couldn’t supress the soft, shaky sob that tore its way from his throat, but he smiled at him anyway. Daryl looked surprised for a second, staring at him concernedly, before he seemed to realise that Merle wasn’t upset, and he put the bowl down before moving forward and drawing him into a hug, cradling him in his arms. Merle returned the hug, squeezing back tightly, rubbing his hand up and down his back, and he buried his face in his brother’s shoulder and closed his eyes, soothed by Daryl’s warmth and his scent.

“You’re going to get better real soon… you’ll learn how to do everything yourself, one handed…” Daryl said softly, “you won’t need my help any more soon… don’t be embarrassed to ask for help, Mer…”

Merle swallowed thickly, nodding his head against Daryl’s shoulder and breathing in deeply through his nose before he withdrew to look at his brother’s face, meeting his matching eyes and smiling. Daryl withdrew too, fingers trailing softly over his back and then ribs to rest at the base of his ribcage, stroking gently at the sensitive skin.

“Thanks, Dar…” Merle said, reassured and heartened by his words.

Daryl smiled back broadly and brought his hands up, trailing whisper soft touches up Merle’s sides before cupping his neck in his hands, bringing him forward to press their foreheads together, closing his eyes. Merle followed suit, shutting his eyes contentedly, and they sat like that for a moment before Daryl’s hands travelled upwards once more, cupping his face in his palms and stroking his cheeks with his thumbs. Daryl pulled away a few moments later, picking Merle’s breakfast up again and stirring the oatmeal briefly before shifting to feed his brother once more. Merle eyed him uncertainly and Daryl paused, blinking at him and raising a questioning eyebrow.

“Can we eat outside?” Merle asked quietly, already knowing Daryl’s answer.

Daryl was openly hesitant, his face betraying his aversion to letting Merle out of his cot, out of the tent, his aversion to letting him walk around, and Merle was quick to continue before Daryl could vocalise his objection.

“Please?” he asked, “jus’… jus’ under a tree or somethin’...”

Daryl eyed him, tense with hesitation for a few moments before he sighed, relenting, and smiled as he nodded his head, putting the food down in preparation of helping Merle up. Merle smiled broadly and shifted forward to hug him, pressing his forehead to Daryl’s temple, nuzzling him gently before pressing a brief kiss to his cheek.

“Thanks, Daryl…” he said softly.

Daryl sighed good naturedly, pressing his mouth to his hairline in response before withdrawing and helping him to swing his legs over the side of the cot, pulling his shoes on and tying them before shifting to help him stand, bearing the brunt of his weight as he stood on shaky, unsteady legs. They made their way outside slowly and Daryl deposited his brother against a tree, making sure he was comfortable before going to retrieve their breakfasts. Merle breathed in the fresh, outside air in deep inhales as he waited for Daryl to return, feeling his brain finally returning to clarity with the help of fresh air against his skin and in his lungs.

He smiled at his brother as he returned, and Daryl noticed the change in him, noticed how alert he was, how steady his gaze was, and Daryl grinned, handing him his plate before sitting down beside him. Merle’s hand was still shaky, and he gladly let Daryl spoon oatmeal into his mouth, listening to him as he spoke, nodding interestedly and letting himself get lost in Daryl’s words. He eventually finished his breakfast, sighing serenely and relaxing against the tree, taking small sips of juice, and he could feel his body recuperating, greedily taking hold of the nutrients he’d ingested and putting it towards getting everything functioning again. He watched Daryl eat his own breakfast, listened as he continued to talk, even through mouthfuls of oatmeal, and felt content, smiling tenderly at Daryl as he spoke animatedly.

Slowly Merle’s limbs stopped shaking, regaining their strength, and Daryl grinned relievedly at him, ducking over to the tent and returning with peaches, encouraging Merle to eat and drink. Merle peered out over the farm as he devoured two peaches and drank a few glasses of water, his eyes tracking over the grass, taking in the light of the morning sun. Daryl wiped his face clean with an old shirt that he wetted with some water from the jug, before giving his hand the same treatment, and he massaged his hand affectionately for a little while, squeezing his fingers lovingly. Daryl let his hand go and he smiled at him as he lay down on the grass with a sigh, peering up at the canopy of the tree above serenely before shutting his eyes. He felt Daryl lie down beside him, close enough to feel the heat of his body, and rolled towards the heat, pressing against Daryl’s side with a sigh. Daryl’s arms came around him and he opened his eyes, peering up at him with a smile that Daryl returned lovingly.

Merle peered up at Daryl, smiling tenderly before reaching up and cupping the side of his neck with his hand, thumb brushing his pulse point, eyes watching the movement. Daryl smiled back, taking the hand and bringing it up to his mouth, pressing his lips to the knuckles softly and huffing a laugh at the way Merle flushed. He squeezed the hand in his and continued to stroke the nape of Merle’s neck, meeting his brother’s matching eyes adoringly.

They lay underneath the tree for a good while, content to lie together in silence. Merle’s fingers stroked at Daryl’s sternum, rising and falling with his breaths, his stump between them, cradled safely between their ribcages, while Daryl’s fingers caressed the nape of his brother’s neck idly, his other hand rubbing between his shoulder blades. It was cosy, and Merle’s chest filled with warmth, a satisfied smile spreading over his face. Their gazes drifted over the farm, enjoying the tranquillity and the way the morning light filled the area, bathing it in soft yellow.

They turned their attention to the others and saw that they had congregated around the camp, under the shade of a tree near the RV and were conversing as they got ready for the day’s events. Merle tilted his head in their direction, receiving a pondering purse of lips from his brother before he nodded, and he shifted and sat up. Daryl sat up with him, watching him as he made to stand, legs only shaking a little as he supported his weight.

“Wait, wait!” Daryl warned worriedly, standing quickly and moving to support him, “please don’t overdo it, Mer…”

Merle smiled at him warmly as his brother entwined their arms and tucked firmly against his side, and Daryl smiled back before pressing a kiss to his cheek. They made their way to the farmhouse slowly, arm in arm, and waved at the others as they approached. Merle flushed, a little overwhelmed, when they expressed their relief that he was okay, nodding his thanks at them. He sat down on the steps of the porch as they reached it, and sighed tiredly, smiling as Daryl took his place beside him, knee against his. Carol fussed over him for a little while, bringing him juice and water and little morsels of food, and he realised that she was mothering him, was concerned about his wellbeing, and felt his throat go tight. He took what he was proffered, nodding gratefully and thanking her.

Daryl left his side to talk to Shane and T-Dog, patting his ribs lovingly and smiling back at him as he left, promising to return soon. Sophia approached him, grinning broadly and saying his name excitedly, and he melted at how eager she was to see him, at the way she hugged him briefly before pulling away, respecting his space. She situated herself beside him, producing new drawings, and he listened to her for a while, looking at her drawings interestedly, nodding his appreciation, commenting positively on them and listening to her stories. He looked up as Carl approached him, smiling shyly, and he sought Lori, meeting her eyes, and he smiled at her as she nodded her assent, smiling softly at them. He smiled at the young boy encouragingly, urging him closer with a gesture of his stump, and Carl grinned boyishly at him, running to sit on his other side. Carl produced his own drawings, and Merle flipped through them, making positive comments on them and listening as the young boy talked.

The children talked excitedly about the tiny mud salamander he’d brought to camp, begging him to show them more critters, and he chuckled, smiling kindly, promising to teach them more about wildlife when he was better. They voiced their delight, grinning at each other excitedly and bidding him goodbye with gentle, synchronous hugs before they ran to their mothers, recounting Merle’s promise to them excitedly, before they were running off to play. He watched them play, smiling warmly, and looked up when Carol and Lori approached him, sitting beside him on the porch as they watched their children play, and he flushed when they thanked him, smiling and nodding when they gave him their blessings to teach their children. He listened to them talk for a while, joining in the conversation, finding it easier to contribute as time passed and he became more comfortable.

He looked up as Daryl called his name, gesturing for him to come over and join them, and he hoisted himself up, legs shaking a little under his weight, vision going fuzzy at the rush of blood away from his brain, making him feel faint, and he swayed woozily, clutching at the banister. That sent Daryl running to his side immediately, apologising and saying his name over and over again, clutching at him worriedly as he helped him to remain upright, hands patting at his torso anxiously. Merle bounced back quickly, shaking his head dazedly as his brain came back online, and he smiled, thanking Carol and Lori before shaking their hands off uncomfortably, shuddering as they brushed his scars under the fabric of his shirt.

Daryl lead him away, thanking Carol and Lori over his shoulder as they made to join Shane and T-Dog, and the Dixon brothers ended up huddled around a map with them, eventually joined by Andrea as they planned out how to go and find Rick, Hershel and Glenn. The others listened eagerly to the brothers’ suggestions, and Merle felt an odd warmth at being needed, at having his opinion heard and respected, at being regarded as an equal, and he found himself grinning from ear to ear.

They looked up as a red car tore its way up the dirt road to the farm, stopping right in front of the porch steps, and they stood, walking forward to receive Rick, Hershel and Glenn as they stepped out of the car.

“Dad!” Carl called out, immediately running forward to hug his father.

Rick embraced his son, cupping his skull in a gentle hand, before moving to hug his wife, and Merle watched as Shane circled them, noticed the hard look in his eyes. He shifted aside as Maggie ran down the steps, bypassing her father and running straight to Glenn.

“You’re okay…” Maggie sighed relievedly to Glenn, moving to hug him.

Hershel turned away from Maggie, having turned to face her, expecting a hug, and locked eyes with Patricia as he approached the house.

“Patricia, prepare the shed for surgery” Hershel said, walking past her, up the steps and into the house on his way to get his kit.

Maggie looked after Glenn concernedly, frozen in place as he walked away. Merle’s attention snapped back to the Grimes’ when Lori started to speak.

“Are you hurt?” Lori asked her husband.

“No, but what happened to you?” Rick asked worriedly, pulling back to look at her and inspect the cuts on her face.

“I was in a car accident” Lori said quietly.

“Accident? How?” Rick asked, peering at her intently.

“I… went looking for you” Lori said stiltedly, looking at him defiantly.

“Snuck out on her own… I brought her back” Shane said.

“Are you crazy? You could’ve-” Rick exclaimed worriedly, but not angrily.

“Who the hell is that?” T-Dog interrupted, pointing to the car and the occupant in the back seat.

The others turned their attention to the car interestedly, their eyes falling on the young man in the back seat, blindfolded, his head tilted back and to the side as he fought unconsciousness. Merle frowned, his lips pursing.

“That’s Randall…” Glenn explained, his mouth tight.

T-Dog exchanged a quick look with Dale before Merle, Daryl, Andrea, Dale, T-Dog and Carol were moving closer to get a better look at the young man, surrounding the left passenger side of the car. There was a flurry of movement as they transported the young man to the barn for surgery, and the Dixon brothers stayed behind at the farm house, making their way inside to sit at the table together as they waited for Hershel to return. The others filed into the house as well, sitting around the table with them and they all made idle conversation as they waited for an explanation from Rick. Rick joined Hershel at the barn, and returned close to an hour later, addressing them from the foot of the table.

“We couldn’t just leave him behind…” Rick explained, “he would have bled out… if he lived that long.”

“It’s gotten bad in town…” Glen added quietly, and Maggie looked at him worriedly.

“What do we do with him?” Andrea asked, shaking her head questioningly.

Hershel entered the room, drying his hands on a towel, having just cleaned up after the surgery in the barn, his shirt spattered with a small amount of blood.

“I repaired his calf muscle as best I can, but he’ll probably have nerve damage…” Hershel said, “won’t be on his feet for at least a week…”

“When he is, we give him a canteen, take him out to the main road, send him on his way…” Rick said decisively.

“Isn’t that the same as leaving him for the walkers?” Andrea asked.

“He’ll have a fightin’ chance…” Rick replied.

“Just gonna let him go?” Shane asked, “he knows where we are.”

Shane’s eyebrows raised argumentatively, and Andrea turned her head to Rick for answers, apparently agreeing.

“He was blindfolded the whole way here,” Rick retorted, “he’s not a threat.”

“Not a threat? How many of them were there?” Shane asked snidely before continuing, “you killed three of their men, you took one of em’ hostage, but they just ain’t gonna come looking for him?”

“They left him for dead,” Rick said snappily, “no-one is looking.”

“We should still post a guard…” T-Dog suggested.

“He’s out cold right now… will be for hours…” Hershel said softly.

“You know what? I’m gonna go get him some flowers and candy,” Shane said sarcastically, striding petulantly around the room and scoffing, “look at this, folks, we back in fantasy land!”

Merle flinched a little as the other man passed him, seeking Daryl’s knee with his hand to ground himself, and Daryl shifted closer to him, taking his hand instinctively, and Merle relaxed, soothed by his brother’s unerring presence.

“You know, we haven’t even dealt with what you did at my barn yet…” Hershel said, following the other man, voice uncharacteristically harsh.

Shane turned and raised his eyebrows challengingly, posturing himself intimidatingly and stepping forward to meet the Greene man impertinently as he continued to speak.

“Let me make this perfectly clear once and for all. This is my farm... now I wanted you gone,” the older man continued, staring Shane down unflinchingly, “Rick talked me out of it, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. So do us both a favour. Keep your mouth shut.”

Hershel stared at him pointedly and Shane held his tongue, eyeing the older man for a few tense moments before sighing loudly and stomping away, rubbing at his scalp agitatedly before shoving the screen door open and storming outside and down the steps. Hershel turned back to face the group, shaking his head and sighing, and Rick stepped forward to speak to him.

“Look, we’re not gonna do anything about it today…” Rick started, “let’s just cool off…”

Merle watched Andrea as she looked down thoughtfully before leaving the room to follow Shane, and his heart sunk a little at the look on her face. She was siding with Shane, and he didn’t know what to think about that. He glanced at Dale, who seemed to be thinking the same thing, and he smiled back when the older man smiled lopsidedly, shrugging. He’d seen Dale having words with her, and realised that it may be an ongoing issue.

The brothers watched as the others left the room to return outside, filing out the front door slowly. Carol squeezed Daryl’s shoulder as she passed them, and gave Merle’s shoulder the same treatment, cupping the back of his neck with her hand and brushing the base of his skull with her thumb, smiling when he flushed, but didn’t cringe away. The Dixon brothers stayed behind, remaining seated at the table, waiting patiently to talk to Hershel, and they smiled up at him when he smiled at them warmly and sat down at the table with them, clasping his hands together, his elbows resting on the table.

“How are we today, boys?” he asked kindly, eyes sparkling caringly.

“Good,” Merle said quietly, smiling softly.

Hershel was informed otherwise by the unimpressed glower and the elbow to the ribs that Daryl threw in his brother’s direction, and was immediately concerned, and shifted closer, his brow creasing worriedly.

“Did something happen while I was gone?” Hershel asked.

Daryl swallowed and nodded, recalling the panic he’d gone through, the sight of Merle’s lifeless form, and Merle looked down shyly, squeezing his brother’s hand in an attempt to soothe him.

“He had a seizure yesterday and didn’t wake up for six or seven hours, maybe longer…” Daryl said quietly, massaging Merle’s hand in response, “he was still struggling this morning, seems alright now, just a little weak.”

“Let me get my kit” the older man said, and Merle tried not to worry about the concern on his face.

Hershel left the room and returned quickly with his kit, sitting down opposite Merle before opening it and finding his torch. He raised a hand slowly, lifting Merle’s eyelids gently with his thumb as he shone the torch in each eye, testing Merle’s response to light. He was silent as he did so, moving between each eye multiple times as he inspected them carefully. He put the torch down, sighing quietly before moving closer, taking Merle’s good arm and taking his pulse at the wrist, counting the beats for a minute before looking up at the younger Dixon.

“How long did the seizure go for?” he asked.

“Carol said it went for about four minutes…” Daryl replied quietly, and the older man nodded, pursing his lips in thought.

“Did he have another seizure without waking first?” Hershel asked.

“No…” Daryl said, frowning as he thought, “he just took a long time to wake up.”

There was silence for a little while as Hershel thought, pondering over the information he’d been given as he took Merle’s pulse again, and the Dixon brothers waited patiently for him to speak.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t here when it happened…” Hershel said softly, looking first Merle, then Daryl in the eyes.

The brothers smiled understandingly, and Hershel smiled back, finishing taking Merle’s pulse.

“I think it was likely caused by stress and exertion. It seems to be the pattern in the seizures you’ve had after the surgery…” Hershel said, and Merle nodded his understanding, “just take it easy, Merle… let yourself recover. Eat and drink as much as you can… stay in bed as much as possible, try to get your strength up.”

Merle nodded, scratching distractedly at his stump, and Hershel smiled amusedly as Daryl swatted at his brother’s hand, stopping him from scratching, and took the appendage in his own instead.

“If he has a seizure, or if there’s any onset, come and get me…” Hershel said softly.

The older man stood, rolling his kit up and tucking it under his arm before giving the brothers parting pats to their shoulders and leaving the room. Merle smiled when Daryl linked their arms together and they headed outside towards their tent. They entered their tent and settled into Merle’s cot immediately, pressed close together, ribcage to ribcage, hip to hip, Merle’s head pillowed on Daryl’s bicep. They lay in still silence for a few moments, letting out twinned sighs, before Daryl shifted, reaching over the side of the cot and retrieving their books silently. He held Merle’s book out to him, and his heart melted as Merle grinned and his eyes lit up animatedly, excitement evident in those baby blues. Merle took the book from him and stroked the cover before looking at him again, eyeballing the book Daryl had before smiling softly, and Daryl smiled back.

Daryl got up briefly, helping Merle to sit up before propping him up with his pillow, and retrieved his own from his cot, taking his place beside his brother once more. He chuckled when Merle squirmed against him to get comfortable, and smiled lazily at him as he opened his book to the page he’d left off. Merle pressed his forehead to Daryl’s temple, nuzzling him gently before pulling back to consider his face with a soft smile, and Daryl smiled back, pressing a couple of kisses to Merle’s temple in return, nose brushing his hairline.

“Love you…” Merle sighed, melting into the contact.

“Love you too…” Daryl murmured into his ear before pressing a final kiss to his cheek.

They began to read together, splayed out over Merle’s cot, pressed side to side, close enough to feel each other’s chests expanding and contracting as they breathed, and neither of them could think of a place they’d rather be.

Chapter Text

They read together for a long while before Merle drifted off into sleep, book slipping from his fingers to drop onto his chest, making him jerk awake with a jolt and a surprised grunt, his brow creasing perplexedly. Daryl smiled amusedly at him, chuckling quietly as he put his own book down and shifted to pick the book up off his brother’s chest, marking the page he was on before leaning over the side of the cot and putting the book on Merle’s bag.

He turned back to look at Merle, heart melting at the lazy smile on his brother’s face, at the affection in his eyes. He settled, and Merle squirmed closer, rolling onto his side and curling his stump arm over his chest, pressing his front to Daryl’s side and his face to his throat. Daryl felt him take a deep breath before sighing against him, sending warm air flowing down his neck and across his collarbones. He wrapped an arm around Merle, rubbing up and down his side as he picked his own book back up and started to read again.

He started to hum quietly, rubbing Merle’s side distractedly as he read, and Merle melted against him, whuffling contentedly against the column of his throat, fingers of his remaining hand brushing at his ribs. He felt Merle’s brow relax against his throat, felt him go limp as he drifted off into sleep, and continued to hum, enamoured by the feeling of Merle’s heart beating evenly against his ribs.

Merle slept for a few hours, making peeps of noise against Daryl’s throat occasionally, eyebrows twitching as he dreamt, much to Daryl’s amusement and endearment. He woke with a snuffle, eyes drifting open, and he drew back to look at his brother before he withdrew, rolling onto his back. He stretched, back arching and limbs shaking, and Daryl snorted an amused laugh through his nose and smiled at him as he relaxed, settling into the cot with a deep sigh.

Merle’s stomach rumbled, and Daryl laughed at the way he flushed, his lone hand coming up to rub at his stomach as he smiled sheepishly. Daryl leaned over the side of the cot and put his book away before turning back to his big brother, patting his chest and pressing his mouth to his cheek before he rolled off the cot. He stretched as he stood, groaning at the pull on his muscles, and Merle smiled up at him affectionately, face soft. Daryl put his shoes on, sitting on Merle’s cot as he tied them, and smiled when Merle shifted to press his forehead to his thigh, moving a hand to card his fingers through his brother’s hair, scratching his scalp and making Merle shiver.

“I’mma go check when lunch’ll be ready…” Daryl murmured, cupping Merle’s face and smiling when Merle nodded and covered his hand with his own, “be back soon…”

Merle watched his brother leave, listening to his retreating footsteps, and sighed, letting his eyes slide shut for a few moments. He took stock of how he felt, how his body and brain felt, and found that he was still exhausted. He let his eyes flutter open and looked around the tent sluggishly, taking in his familiar surroundings. He stretched again before shuffling to the edge of the cot, reaching over the side and picking his book up before rolling onto his stomach and propping himself up on his elbows, book propped open on his pillow. He read while he waited for Daryl to return, blinking sleepily as he read, dozing off as his brain gave in to his exhaustion.

Daryl returned not long after with two plates of food, and chuckled amusedly at finding Merle asleep again, and he looked at him fondly for a few moments before moving to put the plates down on his own cot. He shuffled over to his brother quietly, sitting on the edge of the cot and rubbing at Merle’s back, coaxing him awake, and Merle blinked up at him groggily, smiling as he recognised him, and he lay there for a few moments, enjoying Daryl’s touches, his stomach rumbling at the smell of food. Daryl helped him to sit up and handed him a plate of food, watching him affectionately as he started to shovel it into his mouth eagerly. Merle was much more alert than he had been upon waking in the morning, his eyes shining with clarity, and Daryl was glad that Merle was okay.

Merle finished his lunch quickly, drinking a few glasses of water as he ate, eyes directed outside as they roved over the farm, taking in anything he found interesting, and Daryl was enamoured by him. He finished his own lunch and took Merle’s plate, stacking it on his own and putting them on the floor before reaching into his bag and pulling the last of the peaches from his stash.

He got his brother’s attention and gave one to him, watching as his eyes lit up and he grinned, nodding his thanks, and he nodded back, biting into his own peach. Merle ate his peach slowly, savouring the taste of it, and Daryl moved to sit beside him on his cot, linking his arm with Merle’s stump arm. Merle smiled and shifted closer, entwining their arms more tightly and pressing his knee to Daryl’s, and the younger Dixon grinned.

They finished their peaches and Daryl cleaned Merle’s hand and face with a t-shirt dampened with water before he made to leave the tent again, leaving to give the plates to Lori and dispose of the peach pits. Daryl returned quickly, and found his brother reading again upon entering the tent, much to his amusement, his chest blooming with loving affection.

“You’re already nearly done with that, huh?” he asked from the doorway of the tent.

Merle jumped a little, having been completely immersed in his book, and looked up at him before grinning and nodding. Merle put the book on his lap before shifting over and patting the space on the cot beside him, smiling up at him softly, and Daryl picked his own book up before settling in beside him. Merle curled into him, cuddling up to his side, before opening his book and starting to read, and Daryl followed suit.

A couple of hours later Merle finished his book and shut it with a sigh, setting it down on the cot before rubbing his eyes with his hand, yawning tiredly. Daryl gave in to the urge to cup the side of his neck and stroke the lobe of his ear with his thumb.

“Was it good?” Daryl asked.

Merle nodded, blinking tiredly at him, continuing to yawn, and Daryl smiled, stroking his forehead gently before retrieving the book from the cot and setting it aside. He turned back, and Merle snuggled up to him once more, and he buried a hand in his hair, scratching his scalp and tugging lightly on the strands until Merle whined his annoyance.

“Y’need a haircut, Mer…” he chuckled, cupping his face gently, “n’ another shave…”

Merle blinked at him sluggishly before nodding, fighting his exhaustion, and Daryl started to hum quietly, coaxing him to sleep. It worked like a charm, sending Merle dozing off against him again nearly immediately, and Daryl smiled, pulling him closer. He continued to hum and began to read once more, stroking Merle’s side gently and enjoying the way his brother’s chest rose and fell rhythmically against his side.

Chapter Text

Merle slept for a few more hours before waking with a deep inhale and a whuffling sigh, blowing warm air across Daryl’s throat and collarbones. He opened his eyes, blinking tiredly as he yawned, and his eyes fell on the page Daryl was on, taking in the words and reading along with him, waiting patiently when he finished the page and Daryl was still reading.

“Can see why you like this book so much, Mer…” Daryl said softly, noticing that he was reading along.

Merle smiled up at him, glad that Daryl was enjoying the book; it was one of his favourites, one he’d been reading since he was a teenager, and read almost religiously every few months. Daryl finished the chapter he was reading, marking his page and closing the book with a sigh, before leaning over the side of the cot and putting it on his bag. He turned back, smiling at his brother, and he shifted so he could settle Merle against him again, having dislodged him a little in his movements.

They talked for a while, Daryl playing with his brother’s hair and scratching at his scalp, enjoying the way Merle’s eyes would flutter shut at the sensation. His hair was starting to curl dramatically, as it did when it got longer, and Daryl giggled, taking pleasure in the way it’d bounce back when he straightened it and let it go. He’d never been allowed to touch Merle like this, and Merle had certainly never grown his hair this long willingly, hating it long, hating the way it curled, but Daryl loved it, loved the texture of it against his fingers. Merle raised his hand with a disgruntled noise, covering Daryl’s hand so he couldn’t pull his hair anymore, and Daryl chuckled, stroking his scalp apologetically.

They lay together for another hour, with Merle dozing intermittently, slapping half-heartedly at Daryl’s hands when he started pulling on his hair instead of playing with it, Daryl chuckling at Merle’s annoyed noises and returning to running his fingers through it. Merle enjoyed the contact for a short while before they were rolling out of the cot, Merle grunting with effort and making his brother laugh. They made their way outside and sat under a tree, enjoying the fresh air that entered their lungs and caressed their skin, and sat for a good while, Merle resting his head on Daryl’s shoulder, dozing intermittently in the sunlight.

A while later Daryl woke Merle with a gentle nudge, revelling in the huffy sigh Merle gave, the way Merle nuzzled into his shoulder affectionately before tilting his head to look into his eyes, irises a shining azure. Daryl was struck by how clear they were, how captivating they were, compared to how they’d been manic and hazy when he’d been using, and couldn’t help the grin that spread over his face at the thought of Merle clean, and Merle smiled back, eyes drifting over his face. They stood once more, with Daryl supporting his brother as they got up, and Daryl retrieved Merle’s shaving kit from the tent before they were heading toward the farmhouse and towards the bathroom. They greeted the others, waving at them as they passed, before disappearing into the house and traipsing up the stairs.

Daryl sat Merle down on the toilet and rolled Merle’s shaving kit out on his lap before reaching forward to buff shaving cream on his cheeks. He daubed a glob on Merle’s nose with a rumbling chuckle, and Merle laughed, shaking his head good naturedly and smiling. Daryl wiped the blob off, swiping it instead onto Merle’s cheek, and he started to shave Merle’s face gently, careful in his motions. Merle smiled at him when their eyes met, face going soft as he searched his brother’s face fondly. Merle tilted his head as Daryl needed, lifting his chin so he could shave his throat, and he was struck by how safe he felt despite having the most delicate of skin exposed.

They looked up when Rick appeared in the doorway, and Merle peered up at the other man, watching as his face went soft, doubtless at the picture they made together, Merle covered in shaving cream, Daryl grooming him carefully. Rick leant against the doorway, eyes drifting between them as he watched Daryl shave his brother’s face, a smile spreading over his features at the way Merle flushed, his eyes darting around the room timidly.

“Hey” the other man greeted from the doorway, smiling.

“Hey” the brothers replied in tandem, smiling back.

“I heard that you had a really serious seizure while we were out…” Rick said quietly, meeting Merle’s eyes, “are you okay?”

Merle felt his heart skip at the fact that Rick cared, at the concern on the other man’s face, and felt his eyes water and his breath catch as he was overwhelmed with emotion. He took a moment to compose himself, looking away and focusing on the bathroom tiles for a few seconds, before he turned back to face Rick, smiling and nodding. It was still such an unfamiliar feeling, being cared about.

“I’m doing a lot better now… taking it easy…” he said, before continuing on quietly, “thanks Rick…”

“Good, I’m glad to hear it…” the other man said, smiling, “if you need anything just ask, okay?”

Merle smiled, nodding his agreement and his appreciation, and Rick let them be, leaving the room and walking down the stairs to join the others outside. Daryl rinsed Merle’s razor in the sink before cleaning the rest of the cream off his face and patting his skin dry, pressing a kiss to Merle’s cheek once Merle was clean. He felt Merle’s face contort into a broad smile, felt his cheeks crinkle with mirth, and he felt warmth bloom in his chest at his brother’s response, drawing back to look at Merle’s face.

Merle smiled at him lazily, raising his hand to cup the side of his neck, and Daryl covered the hand with his own before retrieving some scissors. Daryl had seen Lori cutting Carl’s hair, and she’d made it look easy, but he had no idea where to start with cutting Merle’s hair. Merle seemed content to let him play with it for a while, practically vibrating with how content he was and with how much he enjoyed the touch, eyes drifting shut and face relaxing. Daryl pondered over it for a long while, hesitant to cut Merle’s hair, and eventually Merle seemed to realise his reluctance, his eyes drifting open, hazy and unfocussed, to consider his face.

“Wa’s wrong?” Merle asked quietly.

“Dunno how to cut hair…” Daryl said.

Merle huffed an amused laugh through his nose, a grin spreading across his face slowly. Daryl cupped his face in his hands, stroking his earlobes with his thumbs as he pressed a kiss to Merle’s forehead. Merle gave a contented hum, wrapping his hand around one of Daryl’s wrists, and he shuffled closer, pressing his forehead to Daryl’s sternum, and Daryl grinned, wrapping his arms around him and tucking his chin over his head. Merle was like putty in his arms, pliant and affable, quiet against his chest, and Daryl became concerned. He withdrew a little, only enough to look at his brother’s face, and found that Merle was a little pale.

“Hey… hey,” he called quietly, shaking Merle gently when he didn’t respond, “hey Mer, y’okay?”

Merle’s eyes drifted open again, meeting his matching pair wearily, and he nodded before burrowing into his chest again.

“Mm…” he hummed softly, “jus’ tired…”

“Want to go back to the tent?” he asked quietly, rubbing his back.

Merle nodded against his chest.

“I’ll cut yer hair later this week, when you feel better” Daryl said softly, carding a hand through his brother’s curls.

Merle nodded his agreement against his sternum before drawing away and sitting up straighter, blinking hazily at him. Daryl helped him to stand, wrapping an arm around his waist, and they made their way downstairs, pausing briefly on one of the steps as Merle caught his breath. Merle only seemed to struggle more as they walked outside, feet going leaden as he grew tireder by the second. Daryl’s brow creased in concern and he hurried their pace, only to reach the others faster. Daryl waved Rick over and the other man rushed to them, immediately recognising that Merle was struggling, and that Daryl was straining to keep him upright. Rick plastered himself to the older Dixon’s side immediately, wrapping an arm around his waist and wrapping Merle’s arm over his shoulders.

They made their way to the Dixons’ tent slowly, pausing when Merle continued to struggle and weaken, starting to walk again when he would grunt and soldier on. They reached the tent and settled Merle into his cot, Daryl stripping his shoes and socks off before covering him in sheets. Daryl and Rick smiled tenderly at the whuffling sigh Merle gave as he relaxed, rolling onto his side to face them, eyes opened to slits as he peered up at them tiredly, bundled in sheets.

“Thanks, Dar… thanks, Rick…” Merle mumbled from the cot, curling in on himself slightly before he dropped off into sleep.

Rick smiled in the older Dixon’s direction, face soft, and Daryl was struck by how much the other man cared about them, and had a sudden thought about moving their tent closer to the others’ camp. He shook himself from his thoughts when he realised that Rick was looking at him, a soft smile directed his way, and he moved to shake his hand to show him his gratitude. Rick left the tent, promising that dinner was going to be made soon, and that he’d bring them their food when it was ready.

Daryl sat down on the edge of Merle’s cot once Rick left, reaching over to card a hand through Merle’s hair, enjoying the way Merle arched into the contact unconsciously, smiling tenderly at Merle’s sleeping face. He shifted to his own cot, sitting with his back propped against his pillow as he started to read, deciding that it was a good idea to get some reading in while the sun was still up. Merle tossed and turned as he slept, the movements uncharacteristic of him, and Daryl looked over at him every now and then between pages. He watched him for a solid minute when Merle rolled over with a whimper, fingers flexing in the sheets, before he burrowed into the cot further, huffing a sigh. Merle settled again, falling into the stillness that Daryl was accustomed to, and Daryl relaxed as Merle calmed, becoming immersed in the book once more as it came to a close slowly, the plotline falling into place as he reached the end of the book.

He jumped when Merle was suddenly squirming into the cot with him, fingers curling in his shirt as he snuggled up to his side, and he smiled, raising an arm to let Merle squash himself against him, snuffling softly. He adjusted his grip on the book so he could hold it in one hand, and buried the other in Merle’s hair, scratching lightly at his scalp, and Merle shivered against him, humming happily. They lapsed into easy silence for a while until Merle spoke, eyes tracking over the page Daryl was on.

“Enjoying the book?” Merle asked quietly, his voice rough from sleep.

“Yeah, Mer, m’nearly done with it,” Daryl said, “might have to read another one…”

Merle smiled up at him languidly, cheeks pink with sleep warmth, eyes shiny and coherent, and Daryl felt his heart clench with affection, felt his own face break into a loving smile. He marked his place, put his book down and pulled his brother closer, pressing kisses to his forehead and making Merle hum contentedly. Merle wrapped more tightly around him, squeezing him gently, and Daryl squeezed him back, revelling in Merle’s dozy sigh as he relaxed and dropped off into sleep again.

Chapter Text

Merle slept until Rick approached the tent with their dinner, rousing at the smell of food, and Daryl laughed, patting his brother’s side amusedly as his brain came online. Rick smiled at them as he entered the tent, handing them their plates before leaving with a friendly goodbye, a gesture that they returned as they started eating eagerly.

“M’gonna have to go huntin’ soon…” Daryl said conversationally, “gonna need more meat, prob’ly runnin’ low by now…”

Merle nodded, his eyes roving over his face as he chewed his mouthful of food, before he swallowed it.

“Can I go with you?” Merle asked, his eyes wide and imploring.

“When you’re better…” Daryl promised with a soft smile.

Merle pouted, looking away, and Daryl nearly laughed at the expression, the corners of his mouth twitching. He curled an arm around Merle’s waist and pulled him closer, pressing his nose to his temple, forehead snug to the side of his head, and Merle smiled and huffed a laugh, wrapping his stump arm around his waist before bringing another forkful to his mouth.

They finished their food and Daryl set their plates on the other cot before returning to take his place beside Merle again. Merle settled against him immediately, snugging up against him before sighing contentedly, chest filling and emptying lazily. Daryl smiled broadly, looking down at his brother’s face as Merle stared into space drowsily, remaining fingers playing over his chest, heart thumping against his ribs. Daryl brought a hand up to card through Merle’s hair, delighting in the way Merle’s eyes slid shut and he shuddered, before moving the hand to Merle’s side, stroking firmly at his ribs.

“What’chu think about moving the tent closer to camp?” Daryl asked quietly.

Merle peered up at him, eyes darting over his face thoughtfully before looking away. He looked a little reluctant, avoiding Daryl’s eyes and chewing on his lip, and Daryl waited patiently for him to reply, stroking his side gently. He took the time to consider his brother’s face, the new fat that had collected on his cheeks, and appreciated the welcome adiposity of his torso as he massaged his ribs. Merle was slowly on the mend, looked much healthier than he had when he’d come over that hill just under a week prior, a shell of himself.

“S’probably safer, right?” Merle asked, looking up at him and breaking him from his thoughts.

“N’we wouldn’t have to be real close…” Daryl said, nodding, “could still have our privacy…”

Merle hummed thoughtfully, pondering once more, and Daryl was glad that he was considering it.

“What’chu think?” Daryl asked, nudging him gently.

Merle looked up at him again, meeting his eyes.

“Maybe next week…” Merle said softly, smiling.

Daryl smiled back, nodding and giving his side an affectionate squeeze, and saw something in Merle’s eyes that made him concerned, made him shift and take a better look at him. Merle was restless, his toes curling and fingers clenching, and Daryl finally recognised it as pain.

“You hurtin’?” Daryl asked.

Merle froze and pursed his lips, avoiding his eyes, but Daryl was having none of it, nudging him and raising his eyebrows challengingly. Merle sighed and nodded, fingers closing around the forearm of his stump arm.

“Yer stump?” Daryl asked, leaning in worriedly, “y’okay?”

“Jus’ aches a bit…” Merle replied, wincing and hissing as it ramped up, fingers clamping hard on the arm, and Daryl moved to pry his fingers from the limb.

“It just ain’t been this bad before…” Merle continued, gritting his teeth, “been achin’ for a while...”

“Why didn’t you say somethin’?” Daryl asked, stroking the stump gently, trying to soothe the pain.

“Didn’t want to worry you…” Merle said softly.

“Y’should tell me, Mer…” Daryl sighed.

“M’sorry baby brother…” Merle mumbled, nodding his head and flushing.

“I’ll go get Hershel…” Daryl said, “get’chu some painkillers…”

Merle smiled and nodded his thanks.

“Why don’t’chu read?” Daryl suggested, swiping his thumb gently over covered stitches, “might take yer mind off it?”

Merle smiled, moved by how much Daryl knew him, and nodded, cradling his stump when Daryl rolled out of the cot and stood, slotting his shoes on before leaving with a pat to his knee. Merle watched him leave before tugging his bag closer to rummage through it and choose a book, picking one at the bottom of his pack, eyes roving over the cover before he began to read. He read for a little while, losing himself in the book quickly, shifting it uncomfortably in his grip a few times. He realised that there was an odd lump in the middle of it, and frowned, marking his place before shaking the book, rustling the pages and trying to get whatever it was free.

Something fell in his lap, a flash of blue, weighing only a few grams, but it felt like a sack of lead had dropped on his thigh, and his face fell, his heart stopping and his stomach churning. Part of him screamed for it, blood burning with agonised want, but the other, larger part of him knew that if he started using again he’d never come back; that Daryl would be so disappointed. He sat, frozen in place, and stared at the tent door, determined to not even look at the baggie, barely breathing, body aching as his muscles locked tight.

His fingers found the baggie, rolling the crystals inside it between his finger pads and he shook his head, heart working overtime as his stress mounted, and he felt himself starting to hyperventilate. Everything in him burned for it, burned for him to dump it in his palm and snort it until his brain was buzzing with endorphins, until his emotions were dulled and blunted, but thoughts of Daryl stopped him, kept him from bumping the whole bag and sending himself into oblivion.

What felt like an eternity later Daryl appeared at the door with Hershel in tow, smiling broadly at him before noticing the pallor of Merle’s skin, that he was frozen in place, petrified.

“Mer?” Daryl called worriedly, moving closer immediately and fussing over him, hands cupping his face, “Mer, what’s wrong?”

“Get it away from me…” Merle gasped breathlessly, eyes watering as he tried desperately to focus on Daryl’s face, on his hands, anything but the crystal meth between his fingers.

Daryl looked him over confusedly and finally noticed the baggie in his grasp, gasping and taking it from him quickly.

“Oh Mer, I’m so sorry…” Daryl apologised, pocketing it, “I’ll strip the tent again tomorrow...”

Merle couldn’t help the hungry look he threw towards the baggie as his eyes alighted on it, but he forced himself to look at Daryl’s face, to focus on him and only him. Daryl stayed where he was and let Merle gaze at him as he grounded himself, meeting his eyes and waiting until the tension left his body. Merle pressed their foreheads together, closing his eyes and sighing as he finally relaxed, and Daryl pressed back, putting all his love and support into the contact.

They withdrew after a few grounding moments, and Hershel smiled at them from the doorway of the tent when they looked up at him. He shuffled into the tent and unwrapped the stump gently, inspecting it by torchlight and noting its colour before deeming that Merle’s nerves were just sensitive while they were healing. The Dixon brothers nodded, looking at each other relievedly at the news. Hershel looked between them, smiling fondly, before leaning forward to pat Merle, then Daryl on the knee. He gave Merle pain killers, leaving some with Daryl for when it ramped up again, before wishing them goodnight and making to leave, receiving thanks and goodnights from the brothers.

When they were alone again Daryl turned to his brother, patting his side and promising a quick return before darting outside and into the forest to dispose of the meth, cursing himself quietly as he watched it burn. He returned quickly, sitting beside Merle immediately and wrapping an arm around his shoulders. They sat in companionable silence for a short while, just listening to each other breathe before Daryl broke the silence.

“M’so proud of you, Mer…” Daryl said softly.

Merle smiled at him, eyes crinkling at the corners before his face fell as he drifted into thought. Daryl watched him think sullenly for a few minutes before he slid his hands upwards, touching Merle’s upper back gently and considering him imploringly. Merle’s mouth twitched at one corner, raising for scant milliseconds before Merle was looking at him guardedly.

“What would you have done if I’d…” Merle asked, trailing off, unable to entertain that train of thought without a spike of want zipping through him.

Daryl pursed his lips, obviously not wanting to entertain the thought, and shifted closer

“I would’a been disappointed…” he admitted, shrugging, “but I would’a helped you get clean again…”

Merle nodded, the corners of his mouth tugging southward as his chest tightened. He looked away, feeling worthless for even having considered using again, but Daryl got his attention, taking his hand and squeezing it gently. He squeezed back and looked up at him, trying to smile and only managing a wobbly grimace that Daryl’s eyebrows creased at. Daryl brought his hand to his mouth and pressed a kiss to his knuckles, looking him in the eyes as he did so, and his breath caught in his chest at the tender expression on his brother’s face.

“I love you, Mer, no matter what…” he said tenderly.

Merle’s lip quivered, his eyes watering, and he wiped tears away roughly with his stump. Daryl quickly gripped the limb in a gentle hold, and Merle huffed a laugh, smiling as tears rolled down his face. Daryl shifted even closer, pressing a kiss to his cheek before tugging him into a hug, and Merle sighed contentedly before settling into the embrace, letting Daryl roll them into a horizontal position and throw the sheet over them.

“I love you too…” he mumbled into Daryl’s collarbone.

He felt Daryl’s chest go tight, felt his breath catch, and was touched that Daryl was similarly affected by affection. He felt Daryl’s hands cup his ribs, rubbing up and down gently, squeezing at his sides carefully, and felt his chest vibrate as he started to hum. He let the sound wash over him, let the warmth of his brother’s body and the familiar smell of him permeate his senses, and drifted off into sleep.

Chapter Text

The next week passed by in a blur, with Merle mostly confined to his and Daryl’s cots, and he dozed intermittently, waking feeling rested and healthy, but tiring easily and requiring little but sleep and food as he recovered. The first few days passed without much issue, with only a little amount of complaining from Merle, but Daryl knew it would only get worse as time went on. Merle was a very active person, needed to be mentally stimulated consistently, and Daryl knew that he was going to go stir crazy being confined to the tent.

By the third day Merle had taken to gazing outside the tent, pouting sulkily as he watched birds and critters scurry about and watched the trees as they swayed in the breeze. He’d changed cots every now and then sullenly, trying to find new scenery to gaze at, and Daryl could practically see his unused energy racing beneath his skin as he longed to do something, anything to occupy himself. He'd read his books and had become bored of them for once in his life, had become bored of doing nothing but reading, sleeping and eating. Daryl understood Merle’s impatience and couldn't really fault him for it, but Merle making a healthy recovery was more important than curing his boredom.

The fourth day saw Daryl ceding and allowing Merle to leave the tent and sit outside in the sun. The grin his brother had given him had made his heart soar elatedly, the glint in Merle's eyes so bright and full of life that his chest had ached. Merle had practically flown out of the cot at the news and Daryl had had to stop him, had had to remind him to take it easy. Merle had allowed him to pull socks and shoes onto his feet, waiting mostly patiently on the cot as Daryl tied his shoes, and they'd made their way outside to sit under a tree in the sun, side by side.

By the fifth day Merle had started pushing boundaries, and had snuck from the tent to go and join the others at their camp while Daryl’s attention was elsewhere. He’d walked up with a broad smile, and they’d greeted him warmly, smiling back as he’d parked himself next to T-Dog, and warmth had bloomed in his chest at their friendly reception and the way they had accepted him into the fold without a second thought, at the way they included him more than happily. Daryl had stormed over the second he’d noticed him missing, had had every intention to give his brother a piece of his mind, but upon seeing Merle laughing and conversing with the others so easily and animatedly, he’d softened and joined them instead.

Day six and seven were much the same, but with Daryl escorting Merle over to the others willingly. He’d settled him between different people each time they’d ventured over, and had coaxed Merle back to their own tent when he noticed that he was becoming fatigued. Daryl had taken Lori aside discreetly and had asked for tips on the best way to cut hair, had seen amusement in her eyes at the question. She’d glanced at Merle knowingly, taking in the length of his hair and the way it curled, wild and untamed like the man himself, and had given Daryl tips on how to cut it, disclaiming that she’d only ever cut Carl’s, and occasionally Rick’s hair before.

There was talk of the boy in the barn throughout the week, ideas thrown back and forth on how best to deal with him, and eventually the group came to the decision that Rick and Shane would take Randall to a location far away from the farm and let him go. Hershel had said that his leg was healing well and that he'd at least be able to hobble, but the brothers couldn’t help but feel some sympathy for the boy. Merle knew acutely what it felt like to be left behind, abandoned and left to die, and what they’d decided to do was very akin to that; it wasn’t likely the boy would survive on his own.

The new week saw Rick and Shane getting ready to set out and find somewhere to drop Randall off, arming themselves and dragging the boy outside before binding his hands and feet together, stuffing his ears with earbuds, setting loud music to play through them and covering his head with a sack, before stuffing him into the back of an SUV unceremoniously. The others watched the two officers leave, waiting until the SUV disappeared before they started to go about their day, doing chores and eating lunch.

Daryl waited until mid-afternoon to cut Merle’s hair, sitting him down outside their tent a few hours after lunch and stripping his shirt off, wrapping a towel around his shoulders and keeping him occupied with a peach as he worked. Merle’s eyes slid shut as he cut his hair, enjoying the feeling of Daryl’s fingers tugging gently at it, and Daryl wondered with an indulgent smile whether he could get Merle to sleep just by massaging his scalp. He became more confident as he worked, realising that he was fairly good at cutting hair, and eventually finished up, sitting back with a sigh and carding his fingers through Merle’s trimmed locks, brushing his ear affectionately.

“All done, Mer…” he said softly, breaking Merle from his trance.

He brushed hair off of Merle’s bare, scarred shoulders, wiping it away with a damp cloth so he wouldn’t be itchy later, and squeezed the muscles there affectionately, earning a soft groan from Merle at the contact. He grinned and continued to squeeze there, massaging gently, and revelled in the way Merle practically turned to putty, melting into the contact. Merle turned to look at him after a while, giving a soft smile that he returned without hesitation, and Daryl brandished a mirror he’d borrowed from Andrea and handed it to his brother, waiting with bated breath to hear Merle’s feedback.

“Looks great, Dar, thanks…” Merle said quietly after a few moments’ inspection, smiling approvingly.

Daryl grinned at him, glad that his brother approved, and slung an arm around his shoulders, pressing a kiss to his cheek, his nose brushing his ear. He revelled in the chuckle Merle gave, in the way Merle’s chest rumbled with mirth, the way his fingers found his wrist and encircled it gently. Merle shifted so he could hug him, their chests pressing together, and buried his face in his neck briefly before withdrawing and pulling his shirt on, his skin flushing in a way that made Daryl’s heart melt.

Their attention shifted, snapping in the direction of the farmhouse, and they watched as the SUV Rick and Shane had left in tore up the road. They exchanged a brief look before they were standing and making their way to the farmhouse to meet them, discovering Randall still in tow in the trunk, blindfolded and bloodied and dirty, finding Rick and Shane in a similar state. All three men were spattered with blood and guts, a sure sign that they had fought walkers, but there was a tenseness between the two ex-sheriffs, and it was immediately obvious to the Dixon brothers that they'd been in a fight. Shane had a cut at his temple and one on his nose, as well as a split lip, and Rick was sporting similar injuries to his face, as well as a bruised torso, evident in the way he held himself gingerly. They all waited, watching as Randall was taken back to the barn and locked in, before Rick and Shane returned to recount their experience, gathering everyone for a talk, their faces grim.

“He said that he went to school with Maggie,” Rick started, looking around the group, “we couldn’t leave him there. Not with the chance that he knows where we are.”

Merle nodded his agreement tentatively and sensed Daryl doing the same beside him.

“He could find his group…” Rick continued, “bring them here, and we can’t risk that.”

A short glance around at the others saw pensive, troubled faces, and Merle tensed as what Rick was saying sunk in, and he gazed at his brother, could feel the upset rising off of him. A sudden sense of protectiveness surged through him, instinctive and powerful, and he knew that Daryl was feeling the same protectiveness towards the group, and felt a rush of pride go through him at the notion.

“We don’t know how much he knows, and it seems the safest option is to kill him,” Rick said sullenly, and it was evident that killing the boy was the last thing he wanted to do, “but we’ll think about it for a few days, discuss it as a group and see if we can come to a decision.”

That earnt the ex-sheriff a disapproving look from Shane, but Merle nodded along with the others, agreeing that it was something that needed to be considered thoroughly, even if Shane’s mind was set. The group slowly disbanded, murmuring amongst themselves thoughtfully as they went back to what they’d been doing before Rick and Shane had returned, until only the Dixon brothers remained, with Daryl waiting to talk to Rick.

“Merle and I can talk to Randall,” Daryl suggested quietly, his words ominous and full of hidden meaning, “see how much he knows.”

Merle raised an eyebrow at him, he hadn’t expected to be volunteered, certainly hadn’t anticipated what Daryl was suggesting, but agreed anyway, nodding his head and looking to Rick for approval. The ex-sheriff agreed after a few moments of thought, nodding his thanks, and smiled, reaching over to pat each of them on the shoulder friendlily before he was making his way to the tent Lori had strolled into.

The brothers made their way to the barn together, speaking to each other softly on what they planned to say. Daryl stopped and turned to Merle before they entered, giving him a reassuring smile and squeezing one of his shoulders before cupping his neck with a hand affectionately. Merle returned the contact with a smile, patting Daryl’s ribs, fingers brushing his torso as Daryl moved away, turning to unlock the barn door and step inside. Merle swallowed and rubbed his face apprehensively, his trepidation mounting, a bad feeling rising in his gut, and he steeled his face before following his brother inside and shutting the door behind him.

Chapter Text

Merle watched as Daryl punched the younger man, sending him sideways to the floor, and flinched, quickly masking it behind cold, practised indifference. He inspected his fingers, aiming to look bored and dismissive outwardly, using the motion to avert his eyes from Randall’s bruised face, feeling himself tensing up gradually. The boy was whimpering, crying in pain and Merle fought back another flinch as Daryl sent a fist across his eye, already swollen and bruised. Daryl hit him again and Merle looked towards the barn doors stoically, fighting down terror.

He’d been exposed to all kinds of violence his entire life, had committed heinous acts of violence and seen and endured far, far worse, but seeing Daryl like this… hearing the sound of Daryl’s fists hitting someone’s flesh…

“I told you…” Randall whined.

“You told me shit!” Daryl growled, lunging forward to pick the younger man up by the collar of his shirt and shove him against the wall of the barn into a sitting position.

“I barely knew those guys!” Randall continued shrilly, “I met ‘em on the road!”

“How many in your group?” Daryl asked.

The younger man started to breathe heavily, reluctant to answer, and Daryl postured impatiently, rocking slowly from one foot to the other before reaching for his knife, not breaking the unblinking stare he was directing at their captive. He gripped the knife in a tight fist and removed it from the sheathe, the noise loud in the closed barn. Randall raised his head at the noise, eyes alighting on the knife and he pushed himself against the barn wall, brow creasing further in fear.

“Uh… no- no- no- no- no- no- no- no- no- no-” Randall rambled desperately, “come on man…”

The younger man cried out in fear as Daryl brought the knife down between his legs, plunging it into the floorboards with a resounding thud.

“How many?!” Daryl snarled, spitting, face only a half meter away from Randall’s.

“Uh, thirty--” Randall said “thirty! Thirty guys.”

“Where?” Daryl asked plainly.

“Uh…” the younger man said, looking away, still reluctant to give up information.

Daryl scowled and gripped the bandage covering Randall’s wounded knee, ripping it off in a sharp, vicious motion and making the younger man scream in pain.

“I don’t know, I swear!” the younger man cried, “we were never any place longer than a night!”

He took in a shaky breath and held it as he froze, terrified, as Daryl pressed the tip of his knife to the wound at his knee.

“Scouting?” Daryl asked menacingly, his eyes piercing and focussed, “planning on staying local?”

“I- I- I don’t know,” Randall stammered, his brow creasing beseechingly, his eyes pleading, “they left me behind!”

“Did you ever pick off a scab?” Daryl asked, continuing to stare at him as he dug the knife a little deeper.

“Come on, man!” Randall said shrilly, “I’m- I’m trying to cooperate!”

“You start real slow at first…” Daryl continued lowly.

“No!” Randall pleaded desperately.

“Sooner or later you’ve just gotta rip it off,” Daryl said ominously, piercing blue eyes boring into the younger man’s face, mouth tight with anger.

“Okay! --  okay…” Randall yelped before stammering, “the- they- they- they- they have weapons-- heavy stuff, automatics…”

Daryl adjusted the grip he had on the younger man’s knee and Randall’s panic ramped up.

“B-but I didn’t do anything!” he whined.

Daryl move his face dangerously close to Randall’s, his attention fixed intently on his face, pinning him with his eyes.

“Your boys shot at my boys, tried to take this farm…” Daryl said, voice gradually rising as he continued, “you just went along for the ride? You’re trying to tell me you’re innocent?!”

“Yes!” Randall yelled, breathing heavily, taking a second to think, “these- these people took me in! Not just guys, a- a- a whole group of em’!”

Daryl pulled the knife away in a jerky motion before he stood, staring down at the young man, face impassive and hard to read.

“Men and women… uh… kids too, just like you people!” Randall continued, and Merle saw Daryl’s face going soft with compassion, “thought I’d have a better chance with em’ you know?”

Daryl shifted from foot to foot, listening to the younger man as he spoke, and Merle could see him buying in to their captive’s story. Daryl had always been sweet, had never liked witnessing violence or causing pain, and Merle could see this going wrong quickly, especially when Randall continued to talk.

“But… we’d go out, scavenge… just the men…” Randall said.

The younger man looked down at the floor, searching for a memory. Daryl turned to look at his brother and Merle met his eyes briefly, remaining silent and stoic as he had the entire time, before he returned his gaze to Randall as he kept telling his story.

“One night… we- we found this little campsite…” Randall said, looking up at Daryl, “a man and his two daughters… teenagers, you know? Real young… real cute…”

Merle’s chest tightened at the insinuation in his eyes and in the tone of his voice at the last words, and he bristled, knowing his face was impassive and stony but feeling his unease building. He saw Daryl’s face go hard with the realisation, saw his eyes go icy cold, and watched as he turned to look at the other man, slow and with the promise of violence, all prior softness and compassion lost, gone. Randall shook his head before continuing.

“Their daddy had to watch while these guys- they…” he trailed off, panting, “and they didn’t even kill him afterwards! They just- they just made him watch… as his daughters…”

The barn was quiet but for Randall’s panting breaths. The young man was looking at the ground, as if he was visualising what he was talking about, and Merle felt sick. His brain flooded with a memory and he felt the ghostly sensation of unwelcome hands on his hips, fingers digging into his hipbones hard and leaving ugly bruises on his tender young flesh. Another memory, a hand around his throat, sour, alcoholic breath spitting horrible, hurtful words and threats of violence in his face, teeth breaking his skin, his father’s hateful blue eyes filling his vision, his angry voice booming in his ears, searing pain tearing its way up his spine, the ceiling rocking above him as he-

“They just- just- just left him there…” Randall continued, pulling Merle from the traumatic memory.

Randall panted for a few seconds, continuing to stare at the floor before realising that he likely wasn’t making his case any better and was likely only pissing Daryl off further. Merle hazarded a look at his brother, could only see his profile, but the cold rage in his blue eyes was piercing and he had to suppress a shiver. Randall looked up and saw Daryl’s face and faltered again, shaking his head as he realised that his story hadn’t been received very well by either of the brothers.

“No, bu- bu- but I didn’- I didn’t touch those girls!” Randall stammered, shaking his head as he spoke, “no, I swear I didn’t tou-”

Daryl’s face scrunched with anger and he wound up, tight like a spring before he kicked the young man hard in his injured knee with an angry grunt. Their captive yelped and gave a juddering cry, but neither of the brothers had sympathy for him now.

“Please… please,” he begged breathlessly, crying, “you’ve gotta believe me, man…”

Daryl stared him down, eyes cold and full of hatred, and Merle suppressed another shudder. He’d never seen Daryl’s eyes go cold like that before, and it was utterly terrifying. He knew that Daryl hated the boy in that moment, hated what he’d allowed the men in his group to do to those girls, and knew that Daryl was likely drawing on the story he had told not long ago, tapping into the fact that their father had been no different.

“I’m not like that… I ain’t like that…” Randall pleaded from his place on the floor, “please… please, you gotta believe me…”

Daryl was shifting back and forth on his feet and wound up for another kick, grunting with the effort of it as he kicked Randall’s knee again, making him scream. He swung his fist downwards with a grunt, hitting the boy in his swollen, bruised face and the younger man cried out, whimpering. Daryl continued to beat the boy, making angry noises as he did, and Merle felt his body go tight as a bow string as the memory of their father’s angry fists flooded his brain.

He had to leave, feeling his chest going tight, his throat closing in sheer panic, and burst from the barn in a daze, tripping a little on the grass as he staggered away from the doors, hearing them creak shut behind him. He had no determined direction to head and stumbled aimlessly away from the barn, thoughts muddled and ears ringing, lungs burning for air but unable to take a good breath. He stumbled into the forest blindly, pulse thudding loudly in his ears, heart racing in his chest.

Daryl straightened up, rubbing his bloodied fist to ease the ache that came with hitting bone, the pain that came with split knuckles, and turned to look at his brother. Merle was gone, and Daryl looked around the barn briefly for him before sending a parting look to Randall, still crumpled on the floor, crying, before walking out of the barn door.

“Mer?” Daryl called as he looked around outside, worry creeping in.

He saw the others, still gathered around their camp, and decided to ask if they’d seen him, turning to lock the barn before walking towards them briskly. They were talking about something amongst themselves but stopped and eyed him enquiringly as he approached.

“Boy there’s got a gang… thirty men...” Daryl filled them in, “got heavy artillery and they ain’t looking to make friends.”

The others looked at him, faces serious.

“They roll through here, our boys are dead…” Daryl said, “and our women, they’re gonna… they’re gonna wish they were…”

“What did you do?” Carol asked softly, glancing at his knuckles.

“Had a little chat,” Daryl said plainly, before addressing his main concern, trying to ignore the disappointed looks that Carol and Dale gave him, “y’all seen Merle? He was with me in the barn, but he’s disappeared.”

“He ran off?” Rick asked concernedly, stepping closer.

“Yeah… the kid said some things that would have upset him,” Daryl said, “I didn’t hear him leave… I’ll go check the tent, have a look around…”

“I will too,” Rick said, and the others nodded that they’d do the same, and Daryl was grateful that they were so invested in his brother, “we’ll meet back here in five minutes.”

Daryl nodded and jogged toward the tent, calling Merle’s name as he neared it, looking around as he approached, hoping to see Merle somewhere nearby, parked under a tree or sitting outside the tent, but there was no sign of him.

“Mer?” he called softly, peeking his head in through the door before repeating his brother’s name, “…Mer?”

Merle wasn’t in the tent and Daryl pursed his lips worriedly, backing out of the tent and making his way into the forest behind it instead, dipping into the tree line shallowly and looking around. He became more worried as the minutes passed, and made his way back to the others, hoping that they’d found him, that Merle had just had to take a minute, that he was safe.

“You find him?” T-Dog called as he approached.

Daryl shook his head, pursing his lips, chest tightening further with worry. He joined T-Dog, Dale and Andrea, and looked up as Rick approached them, heart sinking ever further as Rick shook his head and pursed his lips.

“He ain’t in the house…” Rick said softly.

“He’s not in the RV…” Andrea added.

“Oh god, Merle…” Daryl moaned, tugging at his hair as he began to stress.

“Hey, we’ll find him,” Rick said soothingly, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder, “he can’t have gotten far…”

T-Dog, Dale and Andrea nodded their agreement, and Daryl smiled, nodding, trusting them to help him find his brother.

“What do you remember?” Rick asked.

“Not a lot,” Daryl replied, “one minute he was there, the next he was gone…”

Rick pursed his lips and looked down thoughtfully.

“He must have slipped out when my attention was on the kid…” Daryl whimpered, “oh god, Merle…”

“Let’s check around outside the barn,” Rick said, “see if we can find any clues on which way he went.”

Daryl nodded, taking a shaky breath in and letting it out, trying to maintain a level head. Panicking would do them no good with finding Merle.

They made their way to the barn, circling it before standing outside the door, and they looked around briefly before Daryl searched the ground for any signs of where Merle might have gone. He noticed scuffs in the grass, signs of stumbling, panicked steps, boots ripping up the grass, and started to follow the trail, eyes completely focussed on the floor. He knew immediately that Merle had no set destination in mind and was wandering in a blind panic, his steps irregular and motiveless.

The others followed him quietly, not wanting to get in his way or disturb the tracks, and watched him as he worked. The trail led them between the trees and Daryl’s chest tightened anxiously as they went deeper and deeper into the forest. He was grateful that his brother had taught him this skill, had made sure that he'd honed it well and that he'd learnt all the necessary skills for survival.

They wandered for a long time, following the trail before Merle’s tracks suddenly became confused, overlapping each other, and Daryl realised that Merle had backtracked and changed direction a couple of times, wandering unthinkingly in muddled circles.

“He’s backtracked a bit…” Daryl said quietly, looking around at them, “he’s scared… confused… might be trapped in a memory.”

The others looked equal parts surprised and concerned at that, but didn’t pry, and he was glad; Merle would open up when he was ready.

“So, should we split up?” Rick asked softly, “call out if we find him?”

Daryl nodded and knelt to point out Merle’s tracks and to give the others a general direction to follow, and they set off, promising to call if they found Merle, and return if they didn’t find him within a five-minute window.

T-Dog followed his path diligently for a long while, trying not to stray too far from it, and his heart raced when he noticed new tracks. He quickened his pace, eyes roving over the forest floor, and his chest filled with relief as he spotted Merle. He was sitting against a tree with his knees to his chest, rocking himself back and forth, and T-Dog sighed in relief at finding him safe. He was covered in mud, cuts and bruises littering his skin, and he was obviously in a state of distress, but he appeared to be unbitten and uninjured.

“I found him!” T-Dog called back over his shoulder into the forest, hoping the others would hear.

He heard relieved noises somewhere in the forest behind him, a cry of relief from Daryl, fast footfalls as the others rushed to him, and he turned his attention back to Merle. He didn’t seem to have heard him at all, had continued to rock himself quietly, and T-Dog could see minute tremors wracking his body, could hear him mumbling to himself as he approached. T-Dog stepped forward, standing in front of him for a minute, before kneeling before Merle and calling his name softly as he reached out to put a gentle hand on his shoulder.

Merle flinched violently as someone touched him, and flailed a sloppy punch at them, hitting them in the stomach and hearing them grunt in pain and surprise. Pain seared its way down his arm and his panic mounted, making him cry out and clutch at the limb before he was struggling to his feet and taking off running. He heard voices and footsteps behind him and ran harder; if he stopped, daddy would hurt him, daddy would be so angry, he had to hide.

He tripped on a root and fell, his hands coming out to support him and he cried out as blinding pain seared through him. He rolled onto his back, delirious with pain and fear, and struggled to his knees, stumbling and pressing himself against a tree, praying that Will would pass him by, squeezing his eyes shut, panting, struggling to breathe.

“Merle!” came his brother’s worried voice from right in front of him.

He plummeted back to earth with a jolt and gasped, breathing heavily as his brain caught up with reality. Daryl was kneeling in front of him, eyes wet with tears, filled with worry, and Merle felt guilt surge through him as their eyes met. He swallowed, Adam’s apple bobbing sporadically, and eyed his brother, letting the image of him seep into his brain, willing himself to calm down.

“D-Dar?” he rasped.

“Yeah, Mer…” Daryl said softly, “it’s me...”

He looked around, noticing that Rick, T-Dog, Dale and Andrea were standing in a circle around them, keeping a little distance to give him room to breathe. He flinched violently as Daryl touched him, skin jumping at the contact, and he pulled away immediately with a frightened noise, shoulders hunching up around his ears. Daryl frowned and withdrew, hand hovering between them, but he gave Merle space, and Merle felt guilty. He’d made so much progress.

“M’sorry Mer,” Daryl said, raising his hands apologetically, “m’sorry…”

He sat there for a long while, staring at his younger brother as his breaths evened out. Once he’d calmed he looked down at himself, taking in the mud covering him and the cuts and bruises that littered his skin, taking in the new pain at the end of his stump, and his heart sunk. He inspected the limb, eyes watering with his upset, and sobbed silently as he noticed blood tinging the bandages, seeping through the once-white cloth. He’d meant to have gotten the stitches out in a few days’ time, Hershel having said that it was nearly fully healed. He held it to his chest, looking up at his brother, and whimpered. Daryl’s eyebrows creased in sympathy, but he smiled reassuringly, and Merle calmed a little at the gesture.

Daryl waved the others off, thanking them for their help, and they turned to return to camp, bidding them quiet goodbyes as they left, granting the Dixon brothers their privacy. Merle continued to sniffle from his place on the floor, curling in on himself painfully tight, and Daryl sat in front of him, waiting patiently. Merle knew that his brother was itching to touch him, to comfort him, and felt guilty again.

“Let’s get’chu in the bath…” Daryl said softly after a while, “get’chu some food… see Hershel…”

Merle whimpered and nodded, getting to his feet slowly, stumbling unsteadily and trying to ignore the heartbreak on Daryl’s face when he wouldn’t let him help him up. They made their way to the farm together slowly, Daryl sticking close to his brother’s side and speaking in soft, reassuring words, helping Merle to remain calm as he trembled, quaking with pain and lingering fear.

Chapter Text

Merle sat in the warm bath, chin tucked over his knees and arms wrapped around his legs as he held them to his chest, and looked up when he heard a knock at the door, watching as Daryl entered the room with an armful of fresh clothes. Daryl smiled tenderly at him, and Merle felt the corners of his mouth tug downwards harshly in upset, felt his eyes well with burning tears, and turned his head away with a harsh, painful sob, unable to look at his brother’s loving face.

He heard Daryl shuffle closer and continued to sob as Daryl knelt beside the tub, depositing the clothes on the toilet lid. He flinched and hunched in on himself when Daryl’s fingers brushed his bare shoulder, and made a high, fearful noise that juddered in his chest painfully, flushing with shame after it’d escaped his mouth. Daryl withdrew his hand but stayed close and Merle knew that he only meant the best, would never hurt him, but the memory of Will’s unwanted touch and the sound of Daryl’s fists hitting Randall were too fresh in his mind.

“I’m sorry…” he heard himself whimper airily, “I-I’m s-sorry…”

He couldn’t stop apologising, couldn’t stop shaking, could only vaguely hear Daryl cooing soothingly in his ear, and developed hiccups as he devolved into hysterics, and his breath hitched as he spoke, making him stammer harshly.

“Shh…” he heard Daryl coo, “s’okay, Mer…you’re okay…”

He let the words wash over him, let them permeate his thoughts, lulled by the timbre of Daryl's voice, and turned his head to look at his brother, feeling tears escape and trickle down his face, feeling his breath hitch, his chest juddering as he sobbed. He focussed on Daryl’s face, taking in his features with haunted eyes, ignoring the way his own body shuddered with sobs. Daryl raised his hand again slowly and Merle watched it as it neared him, noticed the split knuckles, watched as it landed on his shoulder, and flinched at the touch, but didn’t shy away.

Daryl was still smiling at him softly, head slanted a little to match the tilt of his head, infinitely patient and understanding, and he felt his brow scrunch as he continued to cry, upset ramping up at Daryl’s gentle touch, feeling completely unworthy of Daryl’s love. Daryl rubbed his back all the while, starting to hum that old song quietly, letting him express himself, and eventually he exhausted himself to the point where he couldn’t do anything but stare into space, tears trickling down his face silently.

A few minutes later Daryl shifted, catching his attention, and Merle watched him mutely as he picked up a cloth and wet it with the water in the bath, the movements intentionally slow and deliberately performed in his vision. Daryl buffed the cloth with soap and started scrubbing gently at his good arm, coaxing it from the tight clench he had it in around his knees, and Merle slowly let go of them, letting his brother clean him. He fought down the instinct to slap Daryl’s hands away, to flinch away, to run away and never look back, and sighed shakily, extending his legs and granting Daryl more access to his body when the cloth quested toward his chest. Daryl smiled his thanks and continued to clean him, humming all the while, and Merle shut his eyes, let the sound wash over him, let his muscles relax.

Daryl was gentle, buffing at his skin in loving circles, and Merle opened his eyes to watch his face as he worked. Daryl was focussed on scrubbing him clean, but looked up intermittently to meet his eyes with a soft smile, and slowly Merle felt the muscles of his face relax from the anguished clench they’d been in. His body followed suit, relaxing gradually, and he sighed, continuing to watch Daryl, reminding himself over and over again that Daryl was the one touching him, not a stranger, not their father; this was Daryl, his baby brother.

Daryl moved to clean Merle’s hair, cupping water in his palms and letting it go over his head carefully, making sure it didn’t run over his face or into his eyes. He rubbed soap through his hair, pulling at the strands gently and massaging his scalp, smiling when Merle’s eyes fluttered shut at the sensation. Daryl couldn't bear to see Merle like this, so upset and lost, and took his time, letting Merle enjoy the moment, letting him relax into near-bonelessness for a while before moving on.

Merle opened his eyes when Daryl nudged him gently, meeting his eyes before Daryl was moving closer and beginning to wipe at his face, gently cleaning it of grime and dirt and tears. The skin of his face felt tight, his eyes swollen and sore, but Daryl’s touch was gentle and loving, and Merle hiccupped a sob. He let out a shaky breath and started crying anew, but Daryl just shushed him gently, cooing at him as he swiped the cloth over his cheekbones. Daryl cupped his neck in his palm when he didn’t settle after a few minutes, stroking his ear gently, humming softly as he continued to wash him with his other hand, and Merle’s eyes slid shut as he let the noise calm him again.

Merle hadn’t had a seizure in four days, had been well on the mend, and they both knew that too much stress would likely cause another seizure and set Merle back a few days in his recovery. Daryl continued to scrub at his brother’s skin until Merle was completely clean, before he was sitting back to look at him, smiling, and Merle managed a weak smile in return. The tub drained around him when Daryl reached in and pulled the plug, leaving him shivering in the cold air, and Daryl was quick to wrap him in a towel, squeezing his shoulders gently before helping him out of the tub.

He sat on the toilet, waiting patiently as Daryl patted him dry and continued to hum quietly as he pressed at his skin with a soft, fluffy towel. His stump was throbbing harshly, a sharp pain shooting through it every now and then, and he couldn’t help but cradle it to his chest, wrapping his fingers around the wrist and squeezing, trying to soothe it. Daryl pulled clean underwear and warm, baggy pants onto him, leaving him shirtless so that Hershel could look at the cuts littering his skin, and pulled socks and shoes onto his feet. His motions were gentle, almost reverent, and Merle’s body warmed slowly, his chest filling with its own warmth as Daryl sat back to smile at him. He managed a watery smile back and felt the warmth in his chest burn hotter at the relieved expression on his brother’s face, at the fond sparkle in his eye.

“Let’s get Hershel to check you over…” Daryl said gently, “get’chu some food… get’chu into your cot…”

Merle nodded, the corners of his mouth lifting, and he reached out hesitantly before settling his hand on Daryl’s chest, shifting so it cupped Daryl’s neck, and then his face. He took in his brother’s features and felt his body relax, comforted by the sight of Daryl, by the tenderness in his eyes.

“Thank you, Daryl…” he said, voice rough, throat raw.

Daryl moved closer nearly imperceptibly slowly, fingers brushing his skin gently, skimming up his body innocently, and Merle fought the shudder that threatened to course through him. Daryl pressed a kiss to his forehead and Merle shut his eyes, letting out a quiet, shaky sigh, tears welling up in his eyes again. Daryl shifted and dotted slow kisses on his temples, then his cheeks, and the dam broke once more, leaving Merle huffing airy sobs into his brother's collarbones when Daryl pulled him closer. The hug was gentle and comforting, but even so, Merle’s body twitched with the overwhelming urge to pull away, and Daryl let him go as he pleased, fingers lingering on his elbow. 

They made their way to the bedroom and Merle sat on the bed as Daryl went to retrieve Hershel, fidgeting agitatedly with the bandages around his stump until Daryl returned and took his hand, distracting him by brushing his knuckles with his thumb. Merle allowed the contact, forcing down his initial fear response, and squeezed Daryl’s fingers instead, heartened by the affectionate smile that spread over Daryl’s face. Hershel came into the room not long afterwards with his kit, smiling at the brothers warmly before pulling a chair over to sit in front of the elder Dixon.

“I’m glad to see that you’re okay, Merle,” Hershel said warmly, “I hear that you had everyone quite worried.”

Merle looked to the floor, eyes averted with guilt, and Daryl was quick to reassure him that the others held no ill will towards him.

“S’okay, Mer…” he said softly, “they’re just glad you’re safe.”

Hershel nodded his agreement, his eyes full of fondness, and he set a reassuring hand on Merle’s knee. Merle jerked bodily, not expecting the touch, his breath hitching, his face contorting in fear as he went rigid under the older man’s touch, alarming both Hershel and Daryl with how violent his reaction was. Hershel withdrew slowly, maintaining an air that Merle’s reaction wasn’t wrong and hadn’t put him off, and he waited for Merle to relax, for his muscles to loosen from the tight lock they were in. Daryl breathed rhythmically by his brother’s side, in and out, in and out, and Merle copied him, breaths slowly evening out and allowing him to calm.

“Sorry, I should have asked if it was okay to touch you,” Hershel said quietly, “my apologies, Merle.”

Merle nodded his acceptance of the apology, swallowing, shivering a little in the aftermath of adrenaline that had shot through him.

“May I remove the bandage and look at your stump, Merle?” Hershel asked.

“Yes” Merle croaked, nodding agreeably.

Hershel reached forward, his motions deliberately slow, and took Merle’s stump arm in a gentle grip, turning the limb slowly to find where the bandage was fastened so he could pick it free. He unwound the bandage carefully, mindful of the way Merle winced as the bandage shifted, of the way he hissed at the tack of dried blood as it pulled on his skin. He finished unwrapping the bandaged limb, setting the cloth aside, and tutted concernedly at the sight of blood, and Merle looked away from it while he leaned in to take a closer look.

“You’ve torn a few of your stitches…” Hershel said softly, “we’ll have to restitch them…”

Merle swallowed nervously, the noise loud in the quiet room, and Hershel watched him patiently. Merle’s throat juddered in upset and he looked away again, eyes burning as tears welled up.

“I’m sorry…” Merle choked out.

“It’s okay, Merle, only a few are torn. The rest of it still looks very good” he said kindly, “we’ll get you fixed up and you can sleep.”

Merle eyed him for a few moments before nodding, and Hershel smiled and started to cut the stitches, the sound loud in the small room. Merle shuddered at the sensation, wincing as the stitches slipped free from his skin when Hershel removed them. He was trembling a little, muscles twitching with the urge to pull away from the older man’s touch, and Hershel noticed, peering at him concernedly. Merle looked away, flushing, and Hershel allowed him to withdraw, to recuperate and prepare himself for touch again.

Hershel waited, infinitely patient, for Merle to be ready for touch again, and smiled when Merle offered the limb to him with a smile, one that was less unsure than its predecessor. Merle hissed in pain as Hershel restitched the scant inch of the wound that had reopened, tensing and arching away as the needle pierced his flesh and bound it together. Hershel sat back once he was finished, giving a pleased hum at the state of the rest of the scar and the way it’d healed into a pale pink.

“It’s healed excellently, Merle,” Hershel said softly, “it’s a nice colour and the scar is smooth.”

Merle finally looked at the limb, eyes raking over it briefly before he was looking away again, and Daryl worried a little about his brother’s reaction to it.

“Thank you…” Merle said quietly.

“You’re more than welcome, Merle,” Hershel said warmly, reaching over slowly to pat Merle’s shoulder.

Merle allowed the contact, didn’t flinch from it, and Daryl was pleased, a blossom of hope growing in his chest that this was just a minor setback and that the past two weeks of Merle’s recovery, both physically and mentally, weren’t for naught. The older man redressed and re-wrapped the limb gently and carefully before he checked the cuts on Merle’s torso, deeming them shallow enough to leave to heal on their own, and left the room and made his way down the stairs, leaving the brothers alone once more.

Daryl pulled a shirt onto Merle’s form, appreciating how he filled it much better than he had two weeks prior, and sat back to smile at him. They took some time to sit together quietly, Daryl’s thumb rubbing soothingly over his brother’s knuckles, and slowly Merle felt better, felt more human, felt more worthy. They stood and made their way out the door and paused when they found Rick coming up the stairs to meet them.

“Hey,” Rick greeted softly, “I’m so glad you’re okay, Merle.”

Merle nodded, eyes drifting to the floor, and Daryl squeezed his hand comfortingly, giving him the strength to look back up at Rick.

“I know you’re not feeling very well,” Rick continued kindly, “but would you join us in our discussion about what to do with Randall? It needs to be a group decision and we’d appreciate your input.”

Merle swallowed and looked away nervously, spotting the group down the stairs, gathered in a circle in the living room. He mulled it over for a bit before nodding, and Rick smiled, thanking him softly and leading them into the room. The Dixon brothers hung around near the front door, Merle situated between his brother and the door, so they could leave if it became too much.

The others looked up at him and he had to look away in shame at the concern on their faces. Rick noticed and diverted their attention onto him instead, starting the discussion and commanding their attention, and Merle was grateful. Merle wanted to shrink behind Daryl, muscles bunching preparatorily, and Daryl’s fingers brushed his wrist, reassuring him and giving him the strength to remain where he was.

Carl entered the room, receiving a pointed look from his father, and Merle watched the boy stomp away huffily, smiling a little at the boy’s attitude. There was silence as the weight of the situation began to sink in; they were deciding on whether or not to execute someone, after all.

“So, how do we do this? Just… take a vote?” Glenn asked softly, breaking the silence after a few minutes.

“Does it have to be unanimous?” Andrea asked.

“How about majority rules?” Lori suggested dully.

“Well, let’s… let’s just see where everybody stands…” Rick said, “then we can talk through the options…”

“Well, where I see it…” Shane said plainly, “there’s only one way to move forward.”

Shane looked to be completely on board with the idea, and Merle wasn't the least bit surprised.

“Killing him,” Dale barked, brow furrowed, “right? I mean, why even bother to take a vote? It’s clear which way the wind is blowing.”

“Well, if people believe we should spare him…” Rick said, looking around, “I wanna know.”

“Well, I can tell you, it’s a small group--” Dale said defeatedly, “maybe just me and Glenn.”

There was a silence as Glenn eyed Dale, gathering the courage to speak, and he looked away, avoiding the older man’s disappointed expression as Dale realised that he didn’t agree.

“Look, I-- I think you’re pretty much right about everything…” Glenn said, “all the time, but this--"

“They’ve got you scared!” Dale exclaimed.

“He’s not one of us!” Glenn argued, gesturing to the others, “and we’ve-- we’ve lost too many people already…”

Dale looked around the group, lost, before his eyes paused on Maggie.

“How about you?” Dale asked her, “do you agree with this?”

“Couldn’t we continue keepin’ him prisoner?” Maggie asked dully.

“Just another mouth to feed” Daryl murmured.

“It may be a lean winter” Hershel said.

“We could ration better” Lori retorted.

“Well, he could be an asset,” Dale suggested, looking around for anyone to agree with him, “give him a chance to prove himself.”

“Put him to work?” Glenn asked.

“We’re not letting him walk around…” Rick said. 

“We could put an escort on him” Maggie suggested.

“Who wants to volunteer for that duty?” Shane scoffed.

“I will” Dale said firmly.

“I don’t think any of us should be walking around with this guy” Rick said.

“He’s right,” Lori agreed, “I-I wouldn’t feel safe unless he was tied up.”

“We can’t exactly put chains around his ankles,” Andrea said, arms crossed, “sentence him to hard labour.”

“Look, say we let him join us, right? Maybe he’s helpful, maybe he’s nice,” Shane said, “we let our guard down and maybe he runs off, brings back his thirty men.”

Merle felt his heart skip in terror and swallowed, squeezing his forearm nervously, soothed a little when his brother’s fingers brushed his elbow gently.

“So the answer is to kill him to prevent a crime that he may never even attempt?” Dale asked, “if we do this, we’re saying there’s no hope. Rule of law is dead, there is no civilization.”

“Oh my God…” Shane said irritably, turning away and dragging a hand over his shaved head.

“Could you drive him further out?” Hershel asked, “leave him like you planned?”

“You barely came back this time…” Lori said, shaking her head, “there are walkers, you could break down, y-y-you could get lost.”

“Or get ambushed” Daryl added quietly.

“They’re right,” Glenn added, “we should not put our own people at risk.”

“If you… go through with it…” Patricia started quietly, “how would you do it? Would he suffer?”

“We could hang him, right?” Shane said nonchalantly, shrugging with a hand, “just snap his neck…”

“I thought about that…” Rick said, looking out the window, “shooting may be more humane.”

Merle’s heart sunk the more they spoke about it and he saw Daryl was much in the same position, shifting uncomfortably.

“And… what about the body?” T-Dog asked hesitantly, shifting uncomfortably, “do you bury hi-”

“Whoa, hold on, hold on!” Dale interrupted, “you’re talking about this like it’s already decided.”

“You’ve been talking all day, going around in circles,” Daryl said, gesturing a circle with his hand, “you just wanna go around in circles again?”

“This is a young man’s life! And it is worth more than a five-minute conversation!” Dale said loudly, and the brothers looked at each other briefly, watching as the others looked around guiltily, “is this what it’s come to? We kill someone because we can’t decide what else to do with him?”

Rick frowned, and Merle watched as the others mulled Dale’s words over, unable to look at the older man or meet his eyes.

“You saved him! And now look at us,” Dale continued, “he’s been tortured… he’s gonna be executed…”

The others still couldn’t meet Dale’s gaze, and Merle knew that they were listening now, were actually considering it instead of acting on blind fear.

“How are we any better than those people we’re so afraid of?” Dale asked, wringing his hat between his hands.

There was a moment of silence and Merle watched as Maggie’s face crumpled and she nodded, looking at her father.

“We all know what needs to be done…” Shane said, raising his eyebrows, his stance unchanged.

“No, Dale is right. We can’t leave any stone unturned here,” Rick said, “we have a responsibility-”

“So what’s the other solution?” Andrea interrupted.

“Let Rick finish…” Lori tried to interject.

“We haven’t come up with a single viable option yet,” Andrea continued, and Merle didn’t miss the way she leaned towards Shane, nor the way he jerked his head in agreement, “I wish we could.”

“So let’s work on it!” Dale said irritably, looking at Andrea exasperatedly.

“We are-” Rick started.

“Stop it! Just stop it. I’m sick of everybody arguing and fighting,” Carol said, “I didn’t ask for this. You can’t ask us to decide something like this. Please decide-- either of you, both of you-- but leave me out.”

“Not speaking out, or killing him yourself,” Dale said, gesturing frustratedly, “there’s no difference.”

“Alright, that’s enough,” Rick said, “anybody who wants the floor before we make a final decision has the chance.”

Patricia and Maggie sat down, gazes resolutely on the floor, and Hershel’s head remained bowed. T-Dog looked at Shane and Andrea, and Rick looked to his wife, then the Dixon brothers, and there was nothing but deafening silence. Dale wrung his hat between his hands, eyes desperate.

“You once said that we don’t kill the living” Dale said, outstretching a hand to Rick beseechingly.

“Well, that was before the living tried to kill us…” Rick said.

“But don’t you see? If we do this, the-the people that we were--” Dale said, “the-the world that we knew is dead!”

He looked at Rick pleadingly.

“And this new world is ugly. It’s… harsh! It-it-it’s survival of the fittest,” he continued, “and that’s a world I don’t wanna live in, and I don’t- I don’t believe that any of you do. I can’t!”

The others still wouldn’t look him in the eye, gazes stuck to the floor.

“Please…” Dale said, voice shaking with emotion, “let’s just do what’s right.”

There were tears in his eyes and Merle felt his heart thud painfully when their eyes met.

“Isn’t there anybody else who’s gonna stand with me?” Dale asked, arms outstretched.

Merle raised his hand after a few heartbeats, a tiny form of agreement, which earnt him a smile from Dale, one that made his chest warm slightly, made the terror abate just a little.

“Y’all gave me another chance… so why not him?” Merle said quietly, heart skipping when everyone’s eyes were suddenly on him, “his group’s actions aren’t his... he was adamant that he had no part of it…”

Daryl seemed surprised, but raised his hand as well, agreeing with his brother without question upon hearing his opinion.

“They’re right…” Andrea said, nodding, and Dale’s wet gaze whipped to her as Shane’s face contorted into blatant disappointment, “we should try to find another way.”

 “Anybody else?” Rick asked, looking around the group.

They were all steadfastly silent and Merle realised that the vote still stood at four to eight with one undecided, and his heart sunk.

“Are y’all gonna watch, too?” Dale asked, shaking his head mockingly, “no, you’ll go hide your heads in your tents and try to forget that we’re slaughtering a human being,” he sighed heavily, “whoa, I won’t be a party to it.”

Dale strode towards the door, pausing between the Dixon brothers to address Daryl.

“This group is broken…” Dale said, patting Daryl’s shoulder, and Merle wondered what that meant.

They all filed out of the house, making their way to their camp, and the Dixon brothers made their way towards their own tent slowly, mindful of Merle’s exhaustion. They made it to the tent and stepped inside together, and Merle sat on his cot with a quiet sigh, shifting malleably as Daryl helped him to take his shoes and socks off, setting them at the foot of his cot. Daryl smiled at him as he sat opposite him on his own cot, and Merle smiled back.

Maggie approached their tent not long later with their dinner and glasses of juice, smiling at them and handing them their plates, setting Merle’s juice beside his cot wordlessly.

“Thanks, Bo-Peep…” Merle said, looking up at her with big blue eyes, surprising both Daryl and Maggie with the pet name, seemingly coming out of the blue.

She stared at him for a moment before she laughed, repeating the name and saying she liked it, and Merle grinned at her reaction, face creasing with mirth. Daryl was glad to see some of Merle’s humour returning, and smiled too, eyes glittering fondly. She settled a hand on Merle’s shoulder, squeezing it briefly before she was leaving and bidding them farewell.

Merle struggled with his food for a while, taking a few exhausted bites with much difficulty before Daryl was putting his own food down and planting himself on the cot beside him, taking his plate from him and gathering food onto his fork before turning to feed him. Merle felt another rush of emotion, his lip wobbling and his eyes welling with tears, and he couldn’t supress the rough sob that ripped from his throat. Daryl looked horrified for a second, staring at him concernedly before putting the plate down and slowly drawing him into a hug.

“Hey, hey… s’okay, Mer…” he cooed softly.

Merle wiped roughly at his eyes as tears flowed freely down his face to fall on Daryl’s shoulder. He buried his face there, sobbing harshly into Daryl’s shirt, and burrowed into his brother, craving comfort. Daryl rubbed his back, shushing him quietly, whispering soothingly into his ear, pressing gentle kisses to his temple, to his jaw, to his cheek. Merle slowly calmed, hiccupping into Daryl’s shoulder, shaking minutely as his exhausted body struggled to cope with the rush of emotions. He pulled back, wiping at his eyes and swallowing with a click of his throat, before looking at Daryl, who smiled encouragingly, fingers tracing his ribs, eyes tracking over his face, filled with affection.

“I hate being like this…” Merle whimpered, “you shouldn’t have to take care of me…”

“Shh, s’okay, Mer,” Daryl murmured, “I want to help you…”

Merle smiled wobblily, wiping his eyes again with his stump as they watered. Daryl took over for him, cupping his face in his hands and wiping his tears away with his thumbs gently. Merle melted into his touch, his eyes fluttering shut, and his hand came up and encircled Daryl’s wrist gently, fingers resting lightly over his pulse point, thumb stroking at the underside of his wrist. His stump arm came up too, instinctively, and Merle sighed when it didn’t make contact, moving it to rest against his brother’s ribcage instead.

“Thanks, Dar…” Merle said, and smiled, meeting Daryl’s eyes.

Daryl fed him, patient and kind, and ate his own food afterwards, watching Merle as he drank his juice before setting their empty plates outside and returning, lying down on his own cot with a sigh.

“I’m proud of you for speaking up,” Daryl said, turning onto his side to look at him, “I know it was hard for you.”

Merle smiled half-heartedly at him.

“He’s just a kid…” Merle said quietly, ruminating on just how young Randall was, “n’he said it weren’t him who...”

Daryl nodded, agreeing, and Merle’s smile broadened.

They lay in their own cots for a good while, speaking to each other quietly across the gaping space between them, and slowly the sun set, sending darkness over their tent. Not long after, Daryl was sitting up with a grunt and pulling his shoes towards him from the foot of his cot.

“Where you goin’?” Merle asked quietly, watching his brother.

“It feels wrong to not be party to it…” Daryl explained, pulling his shoes on.

Merle was shocked that Daryl wanted to watch the boy be executed, and he frowned.

They sentenced him, Dar…” Merle said, “it weren’t you. You voted against this. You don’t gotta…”

“I should still be there,” Daryl said, “I just- I just have to, Mer…”

Merle pursed his lips, knowing that Daryl didn’t want to see this, didn’t want to be a part of it, but he knew that Daryl had a strong sense of moral right and wrong, that he felt that this was the right thing to do, and that he wouldn’t be budged.

“Okay, Dar” he said after a few moments, voice a whisper.

“I’ll be back soon…” Daryl said softly.

Merle nodded, smiling up at him, and reached out to squeeze his hand gently as he made to leave, feeling Daryl squeeze his hand in return as he smiled back. Daryl stepped forward, leaning over him and pressing a kiss to his forehead, and Merle fought back a shudder, instead forcing himself to indulge in the affectionate gesture, forcing himself to forget the sensation of Will’s hands and instead replace it with Daryl’s touch.

He brought Daryl’s hand to his chest, going a little breathless with affection and feeling his heart thud merrily when Daryl’s palm flattened over it, thumb caressing the ridge of bone in the centre of his chest tenderly. Merle mirrored the gesture, planting his palm gently over Daryl’s own heart, smiling when Daryl used his free hand to cover his as he pressed another kiss to his forehead.

“I love you, Mer…” Daryl said, breath dancing over his skin and making goosebumps rise on his flesh.

“I love you too, Dar…” Merle breathed, peering up at him and meeting his brother’s matching eyes as he withdrew.

Daryl’s hand shifted from its place over his hand to cup his face lovingly, thumb stroking at his cheek, before the younger Dixon was turning to leave with a tender squeeze to his brother’s side with his other hand, palm brushing down his chest and across his ribs. Merle watched him leave, smiling at his retreating form, before settling back into the cot again with a sigh, his eyes sliding shut and his hand coming to his chest to replicate the motion that Daryl’s thumb had brushed over his sternum.

Chapter Text

Merle jerked awake to the sound of terrified screams, his heart pounding and stomach sinking as he realised that it wasn’t the lingering memory of a dream, and instead was coming from somewhere nearby. He rolled out of his cot, clumsy from sleep, and ended up on his knees on the floor before he was stumbling upright, fumbling in the dark for his torch. He turned it on unsteadily, setting it on the floor next to his pack before he was fishing his hunting knife from it, tucking it into his belt before gripping his torch and rushing outside.

He stumbled out of the tent barefoot, pausing to listen for a second before he was running hard in the direction of the screams, heart hammering against his ribs, praying that he’d make it to whoever was screaming in time to help them, praying that it wasn’t Daryl making those noises. He could hear the others, could see flashlights and lanterns in the distance as the others made their way into the dark. His eyes alighted on the source of the noise and his heart fell as he realised that it was Dale, pinned underneath a walker, its fingers digging cruelly towards his stomach, its teeth in his face. He started running harder, pushing his body to take him faster, driven even further when Dale let out another scream, now thick with agony.

Merle threw his torch to the floor, shouldering the walker off of Dale with an oomph and sending it to the floor before he was straddling it, panting hard, pinning it with his elbow as he fumbled his knife from his belt. He avoided the teeth gnashing in his face, ignored its bloodied fingers as they dug into his ribs, and plunged his knife into its skull, letting it crumple to the floor, lifeless, before scrambling off it and stumbling to Dale, kneeling at his side. He panted heavily, exhausted from the sudden burst of movement, and looked up at the sound of fast, sprinting footfalls, and met his brother’s eyes as he approached. He felt Daryl’s hands brushing his back and shoulders as he checked him over, looked up to see his face creased with worry, and groped for one of Daryl’s hands, squeezing at it reassuringly, too out of breath to speak.

Dale was making pained noises, and Merle set his hand on his shoulder when he tried to sit up, pushing him back to the floor gently to wait for Hershel to check him over. He took another look at the older man, noticing the shock in his eyes, the deep gouges in his stomach where the walker’s fingers had dug in, and muttered a breathless curse before he was standing up unsteadily and jumping, waving his arms, watching Daryl twinning his movements at his side.

“Help, over here!” they screamed into the night, watching the sway of lanterns as the others ran to meet them, “help, run!”

“Where?!” came Andrea’s worried voice, “who is it?!”

“Hang in there, buddy…” Merle said through his panting breaths, kneeling again at Dale’s side, “you’re alright...”

“Who is it?!” Andrea shrieked as she approached.

Rick and Shane reached them first, immediately going to Dale’s side, faces going lax with shock.

“Oh my god…” Rick panted, kneeling and touching Dale’s forehead.

“Rick?!” came Lori’s panicked voice from the distance.

“Alright, just listen to my voice,” Rick said softly, cupping the older man’s face in his hands, “listen to me, alright? Just listen to me… alright?”

Dale stared up at him, eyes wide with pain, and groaned loudly.

“Okay, hold on now…” Rick soothed before turning to yell, “get Hershel!”

Andrea fell to her knees beside Dale, touching his arm as her eyes welled with tears.

“He needs blood,” Rick said over his shoulder, “we gotta operate now.”

“Hang on Dale,” Andrea said tearfully, “hang on…”

Dale looked up at her, eyes still wide with shock, and nodded, groaning in pain.

“Listen to me… come on-- just listen to my voice… alright? please…” Rick said calmly before turning his head to yell, “Hershel! We need Hershel!”

Glenn and Lori reached them, gasping in shock, and Maggie, T-Dog, Carol and Patricia followed, forming a circle around the group, faces falling in upset.

“Oh, God…” Lori breathed, “is he okay?”

“Look at me…” Andrea said to Dale, squeezing his hands.

“Dale, we’re gonna help…” Rick said, “we’re here… just hold on, please, hold on…”

Hershel reached them, and Merle felt a rush of relief at the older man’s presence.

“What happened?” Hershel asked.

“What can we do?” Rick asked desperately.

“Dale, it’s gonna be okay” Glenn reassured.

Dale continued to breathe heavily, groaning in pain every now and then, and Hershel knelt by his side to inspect his stomach, brow furrowed in concentration. Merle noticed that Carl had made his way over to them and was staring at the walker with wide, terrified eyes, watched the boy’s face crumple as he went to Lori’s side, whimpering into her chest as she pulled him into her arms.

“Can we move him?” Rick asked.

“We need to get him to the house,” Hershel said, “I need to operate right now.”

Rick and Shane lifted the injured man between them, careful not to jostle him too much, and started towards the house with Hershel, Maggie, Patricia and Andrea following them closely. The others stayed behind in a close circle, nervous and on edge, watching as they took Dale to the house, letting the situation sink in for a few minutes before they were making their way back to camp. Daryl helped his brother to his feet and they started to make their way to their tent, keeping close to the others as they returned to camp.

Merle was still panting, exhausted, and only made it halfway to camp before he lurched a little as his consciousness waned, and had to lower himself to the ground as his legs went weak and his vision went fuzzy. Daryl was on him immediately, patting at his skin gently, cupping his jaw in his hands, and Merle batted the hands away as he felt his legs jerk and his chest kick before he blacked out and a seizure started.

The others gave worried noises as Merle started fitting, and stepped back a little to give him room, watching over him as he seized. It was short, lasting less than a minute, and Daryl let out a relieved sigh when it subsided, eyes sliding shut and head tilting skyward. He rolled Merle onto his side into the recovery position, listening to his breathing, stroking gently at his side. Merle’s eyes rolled open not long after, studying him dazedly, blinking at him sluggishly, before shutting again as he drifted into sleep, exhausted.

Daryl looked up at the others, and T-Dog stepped forward immediately to assist him, gathering Merle into his arms and sitting him up, and Daryl wrapped around Merle’s other side to lift his brother between the two of them. He felt a wave of gratitude go through him at T-Dog’s willingness to help; Merle had struck T-Dog in the gut when they’d found him earlier in the forest, the motion panicked and mindless, and T-Dog had wheezed for a good ten minutes afterwards, a new bruise decorating his middle, but the other man seemed unphased. Daryl made a mental note to remind Merle to apologise to him in the morning; though he knew that it was on Merle’s mind already, had seen the way his brother had looked away in shame when he’d seen T-Dog holding his stomach during the meeting earlier.

Daryl left Merle under the care of the others at their camp while he and T-Dog went to move the Dixon brothers’ tent, Daryl having made the executive decision to move their tent closer to camp. The unthinkable had happened to Dale; no one had expected anyone to be attacked in the safety of the farm, and Daryl supposed that they’d gotten careless, had let themselves get too comfortable. Daryl chose a spot not too far from camp, well within eyesight and shouting distance, shaking his head when the others insisted that they move even closer. He and Merle both liked their privacy, and he knew Merle wouldn’t appreciate being too close, despite how much he’d opened up to the others lately. Everyone had really warmed up to his brother, and it showed in how Merle interacted with them. Merle had even begun to accept small touches from the others, a brush of fingers on his arm, a pat to the back, a squeeze to his shoulder, and he’d returned their touches timidly.

Once the tent was set up they retrieved Merle and settled the older Dixon into his cot on his side, resting his stump on a pillow, and Daryl pulled socks onto Merle’s feet before tucking sheets and a blanket, proffered by Carol, around him. Merle shifted in his sleep, snuggling into the blanket and burying his face in it, huffing placidly into the soft, squishy fabric, before settling it under his chin, squirming under the sheets until he was comfortable, and settling. They both watched Merle’s face for a few moments, appreciating the visual when he relaxed, features smoothing out as he sighed, dropping into deep sleep. Daryl turned to look at T-Dog, taking in the soft expression on the other man’s face and feeling his chest flood with warmth.

“Thanks, T…” he said, meeting T-Dog’s eyes when he turned to look at him.

“Ain’t a thing, man…” T-Dog replied quietly, smiling broadly, “any time...”

T-Dog gave a gentle squeeze to Merle’s blanketed shoulder, grinning when Merle mumbled inarticulately in response, before turning to the younger Dixon and patting his back. Daryl offered his hand, smiling when the other man took it, and shook his hand firmly, nodding his thanks. T-Dog relinquished his hand and turned to leave, stopping in the doorway of the tent to speak to him once more before he left.

“We’ll let Hershel know Merle had a seizure once he’s done with Dale,” T-Dog said, “you just look after him, okay?”

“Okay…” Daryl agreed softly, nodding, “thanks.”

He watched the other man as he left before sitting on his own cot with a sigh, peering over at Merle’s sleeping face and smiling tenderly at him. Merle was relaxed, breathing steadily and rhythmically, chest rising and falling freely, and he was relieved that he seemed to be okay. Daryl rubbed his face before retrieving a book from Merle’s pack to read while he waited for his brother to rouse, choosing another of Merle’s favourites, kicking his shoes off and settling into his cot before opening the book and starting to read.

Merle woke in his cot, his eyes rolling open listlessly, and he spent a few seconds gathering his thoughts before he looked over to see Daryl lying on the opposite cot, reading quietly by lamplight. He gazed over at him for a while, eyes raking over his form, and he smiled before clearing his throat. Daryl looked over at him, his eyes lighting up as he realised that he was awake, and he marked his page and set the book down before shifting to kneel beside his cot, taking his hand and squeezing it.

“Hey, how’re you feelin’?” Daryl asked softly.

“M’okay…” he replied, voice a little rough.

Daryl smiled at him, raising his other hand to brush his forehead gently as he started to massage circles into the back of his hand with a thumb.

“Good…” he said tenderly.

Merle smiled back up at him tiredly, eyes tracking over his face sluggishly, taking in the worry that creased his face, and he squeezed his hand, trying to alleviate some of that worry.

“Want some water?” Daryl asked, continuing to stroke his forehead.

Merle nodded, swallowing dryly, and let Daryl remove the hand in his own to retrieve a glass of water from beside the cot. Daryl helped him drink, tilting the glass for him, carding his fingers through his hair and scratching circles in his scalp as he drank a few glasses. Merle recovered from the aftermath of the seizure quickly and felt better within minutes, enjoying the sensation as Daryl continued his gentle, affectionate touches. He reached out and cupped Daryl’s ribs, rubbing up and down his side gently, smiling when Daryl shuddered.

“Y’should get some sleep…” Daryl said softly.

Merle nodded, smiling, but flinched when Daryl made to climb into the cot with him, brain flashing danger, breath hitching fearfully; and guilt coursed through him, his lungs feeling like they were being crushed with how tight his chest went when Daryl’s face fell, his eyes full of sadness. Daryl was quick to hide the expression, replacing it with a smile, but Merle could see the loss in his eyes as he pulled away, withdrawing slowly. Daryl brushed his forehead with a hand, rubbing at his ribs with the other, before he was moving to lie in his own cot.

“Night, Mer…” Daryl said quietly, sweetly, pulling sheets over himself.

“Night, Dar…” he murmured in response.

Merle curled up on his side on his cot, his back to Daryl, and pulled his sheets up more, tugging until they covered his shoulders. He could feel eyes on his back, could feel his brother’s sadness seeping across the space between them, and felt guilty that he was essentially giving Daryl the cold shoulder. They’d slept pressed together every night for two and a half weeks, had spent nearly every waking moment together, and he felt a huge loss at the lack of contact, but knew he wouldn’t be able to stand it right now.

He drifted into a fitful sleep, tossing and turning, waking only a few hours later, and rolled over, peering through the darkness at Daryl, taking in his sleeping face, the crease of his brow. He pursed his lips and pondered over his thoughts for a few moments before getting up silently, careful not to make a noise and wake his baby brother. He watched over Daryl for a few minutes before stepping outside the tent, wandering away a few feet and peering at the others’ camp before sitting against a tree, enjoying the silence.

A long time passed, with him just sitting in silence, arms wrapped around his knees, head resting on his kneecaps. The night air was crisp, and he enjoyed the way it felt against his skin, the way it felt in his lungs. He heard motion at his side, and looked up to see Daryl approaching him, rubbing his eyes tiredly.

“You okay?” Daryl asked quietly, giving him a little space as he sat beside him.

He nodded, and they sat together in silence for a long while, Merle finding himself soothed by the sound of his brother’s breaths by his side, and his eyes slid shut tiredly. He felt Daryl’s gaze on him, felt his warmth travelling across the space between them.

“Y’should get some more sleep, Mer…” Daryl said after a few heartbeats.

He turned his head to look at him and nodded, and they stood together, returning to the tent, Daryl entering first and lying down on his cot on his back, turning his head to watch him. Merle stepped inside and stood in the middle of the tent, thinking for a moment, and Daryl observed him silently, enquiringly. Merle rubbed his face as he came to a decision and moved closer to Daryl, settling into the cot beside him silently, quaking a little. Daryl didn’t make to touch him, though he trembled at his proximity, itching to pull him closer.

Merle gradually inched closer, ever so slowly allowing more of his body to fit against Daryl’s, until his chest was flush to Daryl’s side, his head nestled on his chest. He relaxed at his brother’s welcoming warmth, at the familiar smell of his skin, at the relief and comfort it brought, and slowly he felt the lingering sensation of his father’s unwelcome hands disappear completely, replaced instead, finally, by Daryl’s welcome touch.

His exhaustion mounted, and he sighed, crawling over his brother so he was closest to the tent wall before wrapping his good arm over Daryl’s waist, careful of his new stitches as he tucked his stump between their bodies. Daryl wrapped him in a soft hug, squeezing him gently, pressing his mouth to his hairline, and Merle felt him smile against his skin, felt him sigh relievedly, rustling his hair with his breath.

“I’m sorry, Dar…” he breathed, and he felt Daryl squeeze him tighter, “m’sorry...”

“Ain’t got nothin’ to be sorry ‘bout, Mer…” Daryl replied lovingly, his voice warm.

Merle tilted his head to look up at him, smiling wobblily as his eyes welled up again, and Daryl pressed a kiss to the centre of his forehead, smiling back. Merle shivered, fingers seeking his brother’s torso, curling into Daryl’s shirt and clenching tightly before relaxing, his fingertips tracing his ribs instead. They were quiet for a few more moments, enjoying the easy closeness and gentle touches, before Daryl was speaking.

“Get some sleep, Mer…” Daryl said tenderly against his brow, “you’ll feel better in the morning…”

Merle nodded and let his eyes slide shut, pressing a kiss to Daryl’s cheek before nuzzling into his brother’s throat and taking a deep breath in through his nose, letting the smell of Daryl seep into his senses. Daryl’s hand began to brush rhythmically up and down his back, and he started to hum, the noise quiet in the small tent, and Merle let the sound wash over him for a while before he felt the pull of sleep burgeoning at his brain.

“Love you, Dar…” he sighed against Daryl’s jugular.

“Love you too, Mer…” Daryl breathed back.

Merle smiled, focussing on Daryl’s heartbeat thrumming under his skin and the vibrations going through his chest, and dropped off into sleep, feeling Daryl’s hand lose its rhythm as he followed suit.

Chapter Text

Merle woke to the sound of Daryl’s heartbeat thudding rhythmically under his ear, and he let the sound wash over him for a moment before opening his eyes and tilting his head to look up at his brother’s face. Daryl melted at whatever he found in his expression, and Merle felt him shift against him, hooking him closer with an elbow, and smiled indulgently when Daryl pressed his mouth to his forehead. The tender moment lingered for a few minutes before they were interrupted by the sound of approaching footsteps, and the brothers looked up as Hershel peered inside their tent.

“Morning, boys,” Hershel said kindly, and something in Merle’s chest warmed at his choice of words, “how are we today?”

“Good, thank you,” Merle said quietly, shivering as Daryl rubbed his back with a broad palm, “how’s Dale doin’? S’he okay?”

Hershel set his kit down on the floor as the brothers sat up, and Daryl relocated to the opposite cot to give Hershel room to look his brother over.

“He’s in a bit of shock, and his wounds are deep, but he’ll recover… it would seem that you reached him just in time,” Hershel said with a smile, and Merle sighed in relief, nodding, “I was told that you had a seizure last night… how’re you feeling this morning, Merle?”

Hershel moved to lift his eyelids gently, shining a flashlight into them in turn, watching the way his pupils reacted to the light.

“I’m alright,” Merle said, blinking away the light as Hershel shifted to take his wrist, fingers pressing to his pulse point, “a little achy, and my sides are sore.”

“From the seizure?” Hershel enquired, drawing away, satisfied with his pulse.

“Yeah, and the walker scratched me,” Merle said, hesitating for half a second before lifting his shirt to show the older man his torso, dried blood tacking the fabric to his skin, “doesn’t hurt too much, just stings a little.”

Daryl’s eyes went wide, mouth dropping open at the sight of his brother’s sides, and he moved closer as Hershel did the same, inspecting the scrabbling marks the walker had dug into Merle’s ribs. Hershel rushed from the tent, leaving the brothers to argue, and retrieved a small tub of warm, soapy water and some gauze to clean the cuts.

“Why didn’t you say somethin’!?” Daryl shrieked, “Merle!”

“What?!” Merle replied shrilly as Hershel pulled his shirt off over his head, “s’just scratches, Daryl!”

“S’more than just goddamn scratches!” Daryl growled, shoving his shoulder before looking at the gouges again and sucking a hissing breath in through his teeth, “fuck, Merle...”

Merle opened his mouth to argue, but instead hissed when Hershel pressed a dampened wad of gauze to the cuts, gritting his teeth at the sting. He gazed down at himself, looking at the scratches, and realised that they went much deeper than he had thought, had left scores of skin missing from his sides. Hershel cleaned the gouges thoroughly, wiping away blood and sterilising the wounds, and Merle shivered at the attention, avoiding his brother’s gaze as Daryl continued to glower at him and consider his new wounds with a sad, worried expression.

“These are deep, Merle,” Hershel said, “this walker did a number on the both of you.”

He looked at Hershel’s face and swallowed at his reproachful expression, heart hurting at disappointing both Daryl and the older man. His lip trembled, and he looked away, eyes watering, and he let Hershel move him as he wanted, staring into space at the tent wall. He could feel Daryl’s eyes on him, could feel his disappointment resonating across the space between them, and he wilted, shoulders drooping.

“You need to get it through your head that we all care about you, Merle,” Hershel said.

Merle nodded hazily, and slowly the world became awash with white noise. He felt himself go numb, could feel the tug of stitches being sewn into his skin, but didn’t feel much pain, ears ringing and brain going fuzzy at the thought of disappointing them. He felt like he wasn’t in his body any more, floating, weightless, and he heard garbled noises, could feel hands on him, but ignored them, content to stay in his bubble where everything was a void, and nothing hurt.

He was brought back by gentle hands cupping his face, by his brother’s voice calling his name, and focused on Daryl’s concerned visage as he resurfaced, swallowing, Adam’s apple bobbing, a stray tear trickling down his face. Merle met Daryl’s eyes, and wiped the tear away roughly with his stump before looking around, feeling a little dazed, meeting Hershel’s eyes when his gaze fell on him.

“There you are…” Hershel said warmly, “welcome back, son.”

Merle’s face crumpled, and he choked out a harsh sob at the word ‘son’, trying to curl in on himself, and Daryl cooed at him, pulling him closer gently, shushing him as he drew him into his arms.

“It’s okay, Mer,” Daryl crooned, “shh, I’m here.”

Merle trembled, whimpering, and burrowed into his body, and Daryl settled them to lie horizontal on the cot, allowing Merle to nestle as deep as he wanted to against him, starting to rub his back again lightly. Daryl looked up at Hershel, thanking the older man for his work as he packed away his kit, and Hershel smiled kindly at him before leaving.

Merle let his brother’s touch soothe him, eyes sliding shut at the attention, and he shivered as Daryl’s fingers started to stroke his scars in gentle caresses. A short while later the digits were moving to brush the divots in the small of his back, the gesture questioning and cautious, and Merle mulled it over for a moment before nodding against Daryl’s side, shivering when his hand slid up the back of his shirt. Daryl’s fingers traced his scars with practised, reverent ease, and he started to hum, started to rock him as he continued the slow, methodical motions, and Merle found himself shivering uncontrollably, sniffling quietly into his brother’s shirt. Daryl took his time with his touches, letting Merle break apart against him, trying to reassure him with his touch, and Merle slowly relaxed, tension seeping from him and leaving him boneless.

Daryl finished his ritual, withdrawing his hand from up Merle’s shirt and settling the fabric back over his form before moving his hand to instead rest at the nape of his neck, massaging circles into the base of Merle’s skull with his fingertips. Merle sighed, opening his eyes to finally tilt his head and look up at him, and Daryl smiled at him, eyes full of love, making Merle smile back tenderly. Daryl shifted, rolling onto his side, and wrapped around him, sighing deeply when Merle snuggled into his chest, and they lay like that for a long while, breathing quietly against each other, until Merle’s stomach rumbled loudly, making Daryl chuckle and Merle flush.

“Let’s go get some breakfast…” Daryl breathed into Merle’s hairline.

Merle nodded, squeezing him briefly before they were parting reluctantly and climbing out of the cot, and Daryl pulled his own socks and shoes on before kneeling to help Merle with his.

“Y’should talk to T-Dog” Daryl suggested gently as he tied Merle’s shoelaces.

“Yeah, I need to apologise to ‘im…” Merle said quietly.

Daryl nodded, smiling, and when Merle didn’t reply he looked up, saw his brother’s face clouded with self-deprecation, and reached up to cup Merle’s face in a palm, tilting his head to look at him.

“He doesn’t hold anythin’ against you, Mer,” he said kindly, “he understands.”

Merle nodded, giving a half-smile, and Daryl gave an affectionate pat to his calf before standing and offering a hand to help him up, and they walked outside arm in arm, making their way towards camp.

Andrea stood and walked over to them briskly as they approached, throwing her arms around Merle’s neck and pulling him into a hug as she reached him, making him grunt in surprise. He felt her arms move to wrap around his back, squeezing him tightly, and flushed dark when she pressed a kiss to his cheek, much to his surprise. He hugged her back after a few moments of stunned inaction, arms coming around her and holding her close.

“Thank you…” she breathed into his shoulder, “we would have lost Dale if you hadn’t had been there in time…”

He looked away bashfully at her praise, and agreed to go and see the older man after breakfast, smiling at her when she drew back to look at his face. They continued to camp and joined the group, and Daryl made his way to Rick when he waved him over, squeezing his brother’s shoulder before leaving him to join the sheriff. Merle watched after him, waving at Rick when the other man waved in greeting, smiling in return when Rick grinned at him. He looked around the group, eyes alighting on T-Dog, and he paused, feeling anxiety welling deep in his chest, and looked away, shivering uncomfortably, before making his way over to the other man.

“Hey man, how’re you feelin’?” T-Dog asked softly as he approached.

There didn’t seem to be any ill will in his eyes and Merle felt his chest tighten at the warmth in them, felt his throat close around a swallow.

“I’m okay, I… I’m so sorry I hit you,” he said, “I didn’t know where I was, and…”

He trailed off and T-Dog smiled at him understandingly before speaking.

“Hey, it’s all good, Merle,” the other man said affably, “I’m just glad you’re okay. We were worried when Daryl said you’d disappeared.”

Merle smiled, a weight lifting off his shoulders at T-Dog’s unhesitating acceptance of his apology, and he offered out his hand, smile broadening when T-Dog took it without hesitation, shaking it with a firm grip, everything forgiven.

Daryl made his way to his side and they sat together, accepting their breakfasts from Lori with twin smiles and ‘thank you’s, and Merle ate his breakfast quickly, taking another helping from Lori eagerly with a grateful smile. They joined in on the others’ conversations, saying their part and listening in, Merle laughing along, boisterous and loud, and Daryl’s heart melted at the fast return of Merle’s sense of humour.

Once they were finished Daryl helped Merle to his feet and they went for a short walk around the farm, side by side, talking between themselves, and as they looped back Daryl filled Merle in with what Rick had discussed with him before breakfast.

“He wants us to go out and check the perimeter n’ the fences,” Daryl said, “me, Shane, T-Dog and Andrea. Make sure it’s safe.”

Merle pursed his lips at the mention of Shane, and Daryl smiled reassuringly, wrapping an arm around his shoulders and pulling him closer. Merle nodded, stopping them and turning to consider Daryl’s face, and he drew his younger brother into a hug, squeezing him gently before turning his head to speak into his ear.

“Be careful, baby brother… come back, okay?” Merle said, pressing a kiss to his temple before tucking his chin over his shoulder, “I love you, Daryl…”

“I’ll be back ‘fore you know it, brother,” Daryl said warmly, drawing back to consider his face, “love you too, Merle.”

Daryl pulled him into another hug, rubbing his back gently, and he felt Merle shiver and smile against his throat. Merle watched his brother as he climbed into the bed of a blue pickup truck with T-Dog, waving them off and watching as they drove down the road until they disappeared, before turning and joining the others at camp, sitting in the sun against a tree. Carl and Sophia gravitated towards him immediately, and he watched them as they drew, smiling at them and making enthusiastic remarks as they showed him their drawings eagerly, grinning at him, and he felt his chest warm, felt a sense of belonging wash over him, and smiled.

Chapter Text

Merle sat with the children for a long while and watched them as they drew, moving them out of the sun and into the shade after half an hour so they wouldn’t get burnt. He watched as they drew him with each of them, holding their hands in his lone one, as they drew him with the salamander and finally as they drew him with Daryl. His face broke into a grin, overjoyed that they drew him the happiest when he was with his brother, and Sophia folded her drawing carefully, sliding it into his pocket, making his heart melt.

A short time later he decided to go and see Dale, bidding the children farewell as he hoisted himself to his feet, taking a few steadying seconds when his blood rushed from his brain at standing too quickly, his eyes rolling wildly as he teetered on the edge of consciousness. Rick was at his side immediately, ready to support him with a hand on his shoulder, and Merle smiled gratefully at the other man, reaching to pat his shoulder in thanks as he shook the dizziness off, revelling in the soft smile he got in return.

He ventured into the house, greeting Maggie and Patricia as he came inside, pausing briefly to make small talk with them in the kitchen before he made his way upstairs to find Dale. He knocked as he reached the door, turning the handle and opening it enough to peek inside, and froze upon seeing not Dale, but Beth, curled up on her side on the bed, her back to him, and he swallowed nervously. He hadn’t seen her since the disaster at the barn, hadn’t heard much about her, but he noticed that she looked very frail. She turned to look at him over her shoulder, breaking him from his thoughts, and he smiled softly at her.

“Sorry, I was lookin’ for Dale” he said quietly.

She nodded in understanding, and he paused, considering the blank, haunted expression on her face. It wasn’t suited to someone so young, and he realised suddenly that he’d spent a good portion of his life with the same expression on his own face. It hit a nerve, reminding him that his life hadn’t been fair, and before he knew it he was talking.

“Mind if I sit with you for a spell?” he asked.

Something changed in her eyes, and she smiled faintly, and he took it as a cue to step inside, moving closer slowly, quietly planting himself in a chair at her bedside, mindful not to sit too close. She rolled over to face him with a weak smile as he approached, and he smiled back, shuffling a few inches closer, eyes taking in her face.

“You’re Beth, right?” he asked.

She nodded, and he was glad that she was receptive to his company.

“I’m Merle” he said, gesturing to himself with his stump.

“Nice to meet you…” she said softly, her voice sweet.

“How are you?” he asked quietly.

“I’m okay…” she said, and he knew that she was lying.

“Y’wanna talk to ol’ Merle about it?” he asked, one side of his mouth lifting in mirth.

Her mouth mimicked his half-heartedly, lifting in one corner, and he smiled broadly at the response before his face fell to a more serious expression.

“M’sorry about what happened at the barn, honey,” he said softly, “n’ with your momma… me n’ my brother lost our momma when we was kids too… house fire…”

Her eyes welled with tears, and he felt his own throat go tight upon seeing her upset, knowing exactly how she felt as her eyes drifted dejectedly. His eyes dropped to the bed spread, and he was stunned to find one of her wrists bandaged, quickly realising that she’d likely cut herself, had tried to end her life. He recalled that in times of desperation and depression in his younger years he’d felt the lure of suicide, when he hadn’t felt worthy of life or had felt that life was too cruel and meaningless. He’d gotten close to ending his life many times, and he shuddered to think of it now, to think of what it would have done to Daryl.

He understood what drove people to suicide, how it felt to feel so hopeless, and he also understood that shame wasn’t a good motivator, that confronting her about it was likely to make it worse, so he chose to level with her instead.

“I had a rough childhood. I’ve had a long, painful life…” he said quietly, trying to put his thoughts into words, “and I was lost for a long, long time… I spent forty years letting myself spiral out of control. N’I’m only jus’ gettin’ better now.”

Her blue eyes drifted to consider his face, wide and curious, and he took a deep breath before continuing.

“There were times where I didn’t want to go on either…” he continued, “life seemed empty and unnecessarily cruel…”

She nodded, agreeing, and he felt her connect to him.

“It just felt pointless, going on…” Beth finished softly, “like nothing would ever be good again.”

He nodded, pursing his lips sympathetically.

“What kept you going?” she asked quietly.

“My baby brother…” he said, smiling at the thought of Daryl before his eyes drifted ponderously, “I could have spent forty years letting him love me…”

He looked into her eyes, connecting with her before he spoke.

“Don’t let this destroy you, honey…” he said softly, “your family loves you.”

She gave a whimpering sob, her face crumpling, and he felt his face contort into something apologetic and sympathetic. She was suddenly in his arms, and he shifted to hold her more securely, wrapping his good arm around her back to cradle her head to his chest as his stump supported her waist. She sobbed into his chest, and he held her as she wept, letting her press her ear over his heart.

“M’sorry honey,” he said, stroking her hair, his voice a deep rumble through his chest, “I didn’t mean to make you cry…”

She continued to sob quietly into his chest, pulling back a while later, and he was glad to see her smiling.

“Thank you…” she said airily, wiping away a tear, “I needed to hear that...”

“Any time, sweetheart…” he said.

“I made my choice…” she said, “after I cut myself… I realised that I wanted to live.”

He grinned at that, overjoyed that she wanted to continue living.

“That’s great, Beth” he breathed.

He sat and talked with her for a little while longer before he stood, reaching over to pat her forearm as he left, heading out into the hall and smiling at her before shutting the door behind him. He continued down the hallway, moving on to the next bedroom, and knocked before opening the door, finally finding Dale.

Dale looked up at him as he entered, smiling radiantly at his presence, despite his pain, and Merle smiled back before stepping inside, shutting the door behind him. He noticed the bandages wrapped around the older man’s stomach in wide bands, and felt his own gouges sting in sympathy.

“How’re you feeling?” he asked, pulling a chair up to sit beside the bed.

“I’m in a lot of pain, but I’m alive,” Dale said brightly, “thanks to you.”

He reached over and set a hand on his forearm, and Merle allowed the contact for a few moments, covering the hand with his own and patting it as he smiled.

“Close call, huh?” Merle said, eyes tracking over the bandages at Dale’s midsection.

“Very,” Dale sighed, relaxing back into the bed, “another inch and it would have gotten through to my intestines, so Hershel says.”

Merle swallowed, stomach roiling a little at the thought, and he shook the nausea off. He’d never been particularly squeamish of guts, but the thought of anyone suffering such a horrible end made his stomach turn and his heart race.

“Well, I’m glad you’re okay,” he said softly, smiling when Dale gave a dazzling, bright smile in response.

“How’re you?” Dale asked, “I heard you had a seizure after they took me away.”

Merle blinked at him for a second, surprised he’d asked.

“M’okay,” Merle shrugged, “was a mild one, really.”

“Good,” Dale nodded.

“Walker got me good, too,” Merle said, lifting one side of his shirt just enough to expose the gauze taped over his ribs.

Dale winced sympathetically and then tutted at him light-heartedly, and Merle smiled cheekily. They spoke for a while before Merle was bidding him farewell, feeling the need to spend some time alone, and he shut the door behind him before making his way back downstairs. Hershel stopped him as he passed through the living room, pressing a bottle of pills into his hand, and Merle read the label, recognising them as the strong antibiotics he’d had stashed in his bag, looking to the older man for clarification.

“I want you taking antibiotics for these cuts,” Hershel said, “I’ll clean them again more thoroughly later.”

Merle nodded and smiled, pocketing the bottle.

“Thanks…” he said softly, heart racing at the fondness in Hershel’s eyes.

He walked outside, pausing at the base of the porch stairs to catch his breath and take in the sunlight, tilting his head skyward and closing his eyes as he enjoyed the warmth of the sun on his face. He took a moment to breathe, taking in a deep lungful and letting it out serenely before opening his eyes to look towards camp.

He went to he and his brother’s tent and retrieved a book from his pack before making his way back outside, sitting beneath the same tree he’d sat under with Carl and Sophia, positioned half in the sun and half in the shade. The others left him alone, apparently sensing his need for space, and he smiled gratefully at them before starting to read, losing himself in his book.

He read for a long while, only resurfacing when Carol brought him water and some juice, and he thanked her, shutting his book and setting it aside to take each glass from her one by one and set them down. He sipped at his juice and smiled as she sat beside him, smiling back as she inched in close and started up conversation.

They spoke for a while, and looked up as Daryl, T-Dog, Andrea and Shane returned in the blue pickup, and Merle grinned broadly, relieved at finding all of them alive and well, judging by the easy pace they were driving at as they came up the road. He shifted, allowing Carol to help him to stand, and they walked to join the others as they waited for the four to reach camp.

Daryl jumped from the bed of the pickup as soon as they stopped, and stepped forward to meet Merle half way as he came in closer, grinning and laughing when Merle kissed his cheek and pulled him into a tight hug as he reached him. Merle smiled into his brother’s shoulder and allowed his body to relax against him as Daryl hugged him back enthusiastically, rubbing his back firmly with his palms, and they stood like that for a few moments before Merle was drawing back to look at his face fondly.

Rick rallied everyone together and they congregated around the blue pickup, encircling the vehicle and waiting for the ex-sheriff to address them. Merle smiled broadly when he noticed that Beth had made her way outside, had showered and gotten dressed and brushed her hair, and he met her eyes when she looked at him, revelling in the smile she flashed in his direction. She waved at him, and he waved back shyly, flushing a little when Maggie smiled at him, nodding her thanks, and he nodded back and smiled as Daryl started rubbing at his ribs affectionately.

The conversation turned to securing the farm, and Daryl, Shane, Andrea and T-Dog recounted their experience of driving around the farm that morning, recounted the state of the fences and how many walkers had made their way onto the property.

“Maybe we should move everyone into the house,” Hershel offered, “it’ll be safer that way.”

Everyone fell silent at the suggestion, pondering Hershel’s proposal, and Rick broke the silence after a few moments.

“It’ll be tight…” he said tentatively, “seventeen people in one house…”

“Don’t worry about that,” Hershel said, “with the swamp hardening, the creek drying up…”

“With fifty head of cattle on the property,” Maggie added, “we might as well be ringing a damn dinner bell.”

“She’s right,” Hershel said, “we should have moved you in a while ago.”

There was a moment of silence before Rick was ushering everyone into action.

“Alright, let’s move the vehicles near each of the doors, facing out towards the road,” he said, “we’ll build a lookout in the windmill, another in the barn loft, that should give us sightlines both sides of the property.”

He avoided Shane’s gaze and paused to think, lips pursing a little before he continued.

“T-Dog, you take the perimeter around the house,” he said, “keep track of everyone coming and going.”

“What about standing guard?” T-Dog asked.

“I need you and Daryl on double duty” Rick said plainly.

“Gotcha…” T-Dog agreed before making his way to his assigned post.

“I’ll stock the basement with food and water,” Hershel said, “enough that we can all survive there a few days if need be.”

“What about patrols?” Andrea asked.

“Let’s get this area locked down first…” Rick said, “after that Shane’ll assign shifts while me and Daryl take Randall offsite and cut him loose.”

Rick eyed Shane hesitantly, and Merle knew that this would be the start of an argument when he saw Shane’s face go dark.

“We’re back to that now?” Shane asked, unimpressed, voice flat.

“It was the right plan first time around,” Rick said, “poor execution.”

“That’s a slight understatement” Shane said.

“You don’t agree, but this is what’s happening,” Rick said, moving closer to his partner, “swallow it. Move on.”

“You know that Dale being attacked, and the prisoner, that’s two separate things, right?” Shane asked him quietly after a pause.

Rick shifted, looking at him critically.

“You wanna take Daryl as your wingman, be my guest” Shane concluded, refusing to make eye contact.

“Thank you” Rick said before stalking away, hands on his hips.

“You got it…” Shane said, sniffing derisively before looking at Lori and quickly looking away again at her unimpressed expression.

They got the vehicles together, packing everything from camp away to bring everything into the house. Merle helped to move stuff inside for a while, taking things from people on the porch and moving them into the living room, eager to be useful. He paused after a while when he became tired and started to pant, conceding with a little cajoling from his brother when he noticed he was struggling.

“Ain’t much left to bring in, Mer,” Daryl said, “jus’ relax, si’down.”

Merle pouted, but sat down on the porch stairs, and Daryl huffed a laugh through his nose, moving closer to card a hand through Merle’s hair, nails scratching gently at his scalp. Merle shuddered at the sensation, and Daryl smiled when Merle leaned over to butt his forehead against his thigh, scratching circles into his brother’s scalp for a few more moments before he was setting off to get more stuff.

Merle watched as the last of the stuff was brought in and smiled up at Daryl as he pulled up to the house and dropped off the last of their belongings inside. Daryl returned to the porch, taking Merle’s hand and ushering him onto the back of the bike, enamoured by the way Merle’s face lit up excitedly, the way he climbed onto the back of the bike without argument. Not three weeks ago Merle would have refused to be on the back of the bike, would refuse to “ride bitch”, but now he climbed on with no reservations, wrapping his arms around Daryl’s waist.

Merle felt the bike purr to life beneath them, and grinned from ear-to-ear about being on the bike again, hollering elatedly as they took off, revelling in the power of the engine. He enjoyed the wind in his face as they rode around the farm, squeezing his brother’s torso tightly, tucking his chin over his shoulder and laughing gleefully in his ear.

Chapter Text

They pulled up to the front porch after a short ride, joining the others inside for lunch, and they all sat around the table in the dining room, talking amongst themselves as they ate. Merle took the antibiotics Hershel had given him after he’d eaten, before he and Daryl were making their way outside again to help fortify the farm as the others brought the last of their belongings into the house, organising sleeping areas and making living spaces for everybody. Rick laid out a plan, and the Dixon brothers made to repair the shack as Shane collected planks of wood to make a lookout at the windmill, loading them into the back of the SUV before driving away.

Merle held the ladder as Daryl climbed up onto the roof, handing him a tool bag and then a few planks once he was up there, before stepping back so he could watch him as he worked, nailing planks of wood over the small window of the loft. He quickly became distracted, eyes roving out over the farm as he took in the way the sunlight hit the grass, the sound of birds in the distance. He heard his brother’s voice calling his name above him, and looked up inquisitively, smiling at Daryl’s fond expression at his distractedness.

“Mer,” Daryl repeated himself softly, “can you pass me more planks?”

He nodded and shuffled over to the pile of planks they’d gathered, taking a few slats and tucking them under his stump arm before carefully climbing a few rungs of the ladder and handing them up to Daryl, not wanting to have to make Daryl stretch too far to reach them.

“Thanks” Daryl said, dragging them onto the roof and moving to hammer them over the window.

He climbed back down, stepping back to watch Daryl again, raising an eyebrow as he heard movement inside the shack, and he eyed the door curiously, moving forward quietly to peer inside through one of the slats. Randall was making muffled, pained noises, trying to work his hands out of the cuffs behind his back, using the noise Daryl was making as cover, and Merle pursed his lips.

“Hey,” he called, “don’t hurt yourself, kid.”

The young man froze, making a frightened noise as he turned his head to face him, following the sound of his voice. Merle felt for the kid, knew that he was terrified and that the unknown was making him antsy; which was understandable, given that they’d planned to and had almost killed him only the night prior. He remembered the fear he’d felt on the rooftop as night had fallen, remembered the overwhelming darkness, the unknown gnawing at his brain and making his heart beat faster and his chest go tight, and they did the same now, making him freeze.

He was brought from his thoughts by a hand on his shoulder, and jerked violently, sucking in a startled breath and whipping around to face the source of the touch, eyes wide. Daryl looked at him concernedly, and Merle smiled reassuringly, reaching to pat at his ribs affectionately, and Daryl smiled back, moving closer so they were pressed side to side before wrapping an arm around him.

“I’m all done,” Daryl said, “c’mon, let’s go find Rick.”

Merle let Daryl lead him away, throwing a glance back at the door to the shack before setting his vision forward as they made their way to the house to find Rick.

“What was that all about?” Daryl asked.

“Hmm?” Merle hummed, eyeing him enquiringly.

“You spaced out,” Daryl prompted, “you’re really distracted today.”

“Oh… uh, I was thinking about…” Merle said, trailing off a little, “I was thinking about Atlanta… being on the rooftop…”

Daryl stopped and turned him bodily so they were facing each other, hands on Merle’s shoulders as he considered his face, brows creased concernedly.

“S’just… I didn’t know what was going to happen to me…” Merle started, “it was so dark, and I couldn’t move… I just, I feel for the kid.”

Daryl’s eyes roved over his face, and Merle sighed, looking away, feeling self-conscious, but Daryl brought his attention back to him, cupping his face in his hands, and Merle smiled when he pressed their foreheads together, lifting his hand to wrap his fingers around Daryl’s wrist. They stood like that for a moment before Daryl drew him into a hug, pressing a kiss to his cheek as he squeezed him tightly. They stood in an embrace for a minute, breathing together and taking in the outside air before they were drawing away without a word and making their way to find Rick, Daryl’s arm around Merle’s shoulders.

They met with Rick on the back porch, and he and Daryl bent over a map as Merle took a seat on the banister, spacing out again for a while as Rick and Daryl talked, looking out over the property and taking in the afternoon sun. His attention shifted to them as they seemed to come to a decision, and he started listening to their conversation, eyeing the map curiously as Rick pointed out an area to drop Randall off.

“Take him out to Senoia… hour there, hour back, give or take,” Rick said, gesturing flippantly, “we may lose the light, but we’ll be halfway home by then.”

“This lil’ pain in the ass’ll be a distant memory,” Daryl replied, smiling half-heartedly, “good riddance.”

Daryl took his place beside Merle, sitting on the banister and wrapping an arm around him, fingers digging into his ribs affectionately, thumb stroking his side, and Merle leant into the contact, settling his hand on Daryl’s knee.

“Carol’s puttin’ together some provisions for him,” Rick said, “enough to last a few days…”

Their attention moved to Shane as he drove up the road in the SUV, and they watched him for a few moments before Rick’s gaze was falling on Merle.

“What you did last night…” Rick said, looking at him with a softness in his eyes, “thank you.”

“Weren’t nothin’…” Merle muttered, his eyes darting away as he flushed at the praise.

The moment was interrupted as Shane pulled up in the SUV, and Rick patted Merle’s shoulder friendlily before turning to Daryl to speak to him.

“So you good with all this?” Rick asked, gesturing with the map.

“I don’t see you and I trading haymakers on the side of the road,” Daryl replied, shifting to squeeze Merle’s shoulder, “nobody’d win that fight.”

They looked behind them as Shane strolled towards the porch, and Merle glanced at his brother as he turned to look at him, and they shared a look before they were standing, Daryl tossing the map onto the table in front of Rick before linking his arm with Merle’s.

“Gonna go see Hershel…” Daryl said quietly, “c’mon, Mer.”

They left Rick with the other ex-sheriff and made their way inside to find Hershel, detouring through the kitchen first and talking with Maggie and Beth for a short while before making their way upstairs. They found Hershel with Dale and watched with equal parts curiosity and sympathy as Hershel tended to the other man’s tattered stomach, wincing at the sight of the stitches holding the deep wounds there together.

Once he was finished tending to Dale’s injuries Hershel shifted to check on Merle in another room, cleaning the gouges again, disinfecting them thoroughly but gently. Merle allowed the contact, sitting patiently as he worked, and watched interestedly, taking notes on how the older man sterilised the scratches, disinfecting underneath the stitches with great care. The wounds were covered once more with gauze, taped to his sides, and Merle smiled at the older man as he sat back, finished with his work.

“Alright, all done…” Hershel said warmly, “did you take your antibiotics today?”

Merle nodded, and Hershel smiled approvingly, patting his knee before standing and leaving the brothers alone. Merle pulled his shirt back on and stretched his spine, wincing at the way it popped and sighing at the relief it brought before he was standing and following Daryl outside, bidding Dale farewell as they passed his room.

They met Rick outside, and Merle stuck close to Daryl as they prepared the blue pickup to take Randall away, helping Daryl to load bottles of water into a milk crate and the supplies Carol had packed for the boy into the bed of the truck. They looked up as T-Dog approached a short while later, smiling at the other man as he rounded the bed of the truck.

“Only got so many arrows” T-Dog said, proffering a gun in Daryl’s direction.

“Is that Dale’s gun?” Daryl asked, taking it and inspecting it.

“Yeah,” T-Dog replied, moving to the back of the pickup, “said you should take it just in case.”

“Wish I knew where the hell mine is…” Daryl said, slotting the gun into the back of his pants.

T-Dog shut the tailgate and tested its give, and Merle pursed his lips, trying to remember where he’d last seen Daryl’s gun.

“Ready?” came Rick’s voice from behind them.

The brothers looked over their shoulders at him briefly, and Daryl turned back, tossing the last few bottles of water into the milk crate before picking up his crossbow from the bed of the truck, preparing to get in the passenger seat and leave.

“Yeah,” T-Dog said, “I’ll get the package.”

He strode away, and Merle watched him disappear around the side of the house before turning back to his brother with a smile as he put his crossbow in the footwell of the passenger seat. Daryl smiled back, turning towards him and reaching out to squeeze his shoulder, and Merle reached out to pat his ribs before drawing him into a hug.

“You be safe, Dar…” Merle said softly into his ear.

“I will, Mer…” Daryl promised, rubbing his back, “you stay out of trouble too.”

Merle let his brother go, eyes roving over his face before he looked around, flushing when he met Rick’s eyes, finding a soft expression on his face.

“You keep him safe, Officer Friendly…” he said playfully, smiling.

Rick smiled back, laughing, and reached a hand out to pat him on the back lightly, the contact brief and friendly, and Merle barely bristled.

“I will, Merle,” he said, voice warm, “I promise.”

Merle smiled at him thankfully, nodding his gratitude, but his face fell in alarm as T-Dog came around the corner at a run, and he straightened up, turning bodily toward the other man, making Rick and Daryl follow his gaze to the other man as he approached.

“What’s wrong?” Rick asked, face going serious.

“He’s gone!” T-Dog said, panting hard, “Randall’s gone!”

They looked alarmedly between themselves for a millisecond before they made their way towards the tiny shack they’d secluded the boy in, running past the others as they went, drawing their attention and prompting them to follow. Word didn’t take long to travel, and soon enough everyone was congregated around the shack, looking around worriedly.

“What’s wrong?” Maggie asked as she reached them.

“Randall’s missing” Glenn said.

“Missing?” she asked, “how?”

“How long’s he been gone?” Hershel asked.

“It’s hard to say…” T-Dog said.

“The cuffs are still hooked,” Rick said, stepping out of the shack and peering back inside, “he must’ve slipped ‘em.”

“Is that possible?” Carol asked.

“It is if you’ve got nothing to lose” Andrea said, stepping outside to join them.

“The door was secured from the outside…” Hershel said, closing and opening the door to demonstrate the lock.

Merle’s instincts were going haywire and he felt his brain trying to connect the dots desperately. None of this made any sense, nothing was adding up, and he started to wonder if this was his fault.

“Rick! Rick!” Shane’s voice boomed from the forest, and they all turned to find the source of the noise.

Shane emerged from the trees, a gash on his nose leaving his face bloodied, and they were immediately on edge, walking towards him, concerned.

“What happened?” Lori asked.

“He’s armed!” Shane bellowed, “he’s got my gun!”

“You okay?” Carl asked shrilly.

“I’m fine. Little bastard just snuck up on me,” Shane said, “he clocked me in the face!”

“Alright, Hershel, T-Dog, get everybody back in the house,” Rick ordered, springing into action and turning back to the group to face them as he spoke, “Glenn, Daryl, come with us.”

Daryl immediately loaded his crossbow and Merle started fidgeting nervously as he stepped forward to join Rick and Glenn.

“T, I’m gonna need that gun” Shane said, pointing at the pistol in T-Dog’s hand as he approached.

“Just let him go,” Carol spoke up, hands on her daughter’s shoulders, “that was the plan, wasn’t it, to just let him go?”

“The plan was to cut him loose far away from here,” Rick said, “not on our front step with a gun.”

T-Dog handed the gun over to Shane, and Daryl, Rick, Shane and Glenn started to head toward the forest.

“Don’t go out there,” Carol pleaded, “you don’t know what can happen!”

“Get everybody back in the house,” Rick said over his shoulder, “lock all the doors and stay put!”

“Let’s go, go, get in the house” Andrea said, leading Carol and Sophia back towards the house.

“Maggie, Maggie, go, go” T-Dog said at the same time, turning her gently and leading her away as she itched to follow Glenn.

Merle stood where he was, stuck in place, frozen with worry as he watched the four men start to walk into the forest, keeping his eyes on Daryl’s back until he disappeared, and he swallowed nervously, feeling anxious, that feeling of wrongness itching at his brain. He felt a gentle hand on his back and looked around to see that T-Dog had returned to his side.

“C’mon man, let’s get back to the house” T-Dog said, and Merle followed.

Merle hesitantly trailed the others back to the house at a slow, unsure pace, looking over his shoulder a few times uneasily, and eventually T-Dog coaxed him inside.

Hours passed, and the sky went dark, and Merle peered outside through the window blinds frenetically, wandering around the house and looking out each window, becoming more and more anxious by the minute. He started to chew on the end of his thumb, a habit he’d scolded Daryl for for years, and the others tried to calm him despite being on edge too, tried to keep his attention elsewhere and soothe his fears, but he couldn’t help but squirm anxiously, couldn’t help but itch to go out and find his brother and return him to safety.

“I’m going after them…” Andrea said finally, standing up from her place beside Beth on the couch.

“Don’t, they could be anywhere…” Lori said, “and if Randall comes back, we’re gonna need you here.”

Merle looked up when the door opened, and his chest flooded with relief when Daryl walked through the doorway, Glenn in tow. Daryl looked around the room, taking a quick head count, and he walked to Merle’s side with a smile, squeezing his shoulder, and then his hand, taking his thumb away from his mouth with an amused look. Merle held his brother’s hand, squeezing it nervously, calming when Daryl’s other hand settled on the side of his neck, thumb massaging the dip at the base of his skull affectionately.

“Rick and Shane ain’t back?” Daryl asked.

“No…” Lori said tightly, stress mounting.

“We heard a shot?” Daryl queried.

“Maybe they found Randall” Lori suggested.

“We found him…” Daryl said.

“Is he back in the shed?” Patricia asked.

“He’s a walker” Daryl said.

Merle frowned at that, turning to look up at Daryl concernedly, and there was a second of silence in the room as it sunk in.

“Did you find the walker that bit him?” Hershel asked.

“No, the weird thing is…” Glenn said, “he wasn’t bit…”

“His neck was broke” Daryl said.

Merle’s frown deepened, and he thought over that titbit of information, eyes shifting thoughtfully, roving around the room and finding the others’ expressions were just as grim.

“So he fought back…” Patricia clarified.

“The thing is, Shane and Randall’s tracks were right on top of each other…” Daryl said, “and Shane ain’t no tracker, so he didn’t come up behind him. They were together.”

Merle pursed his lips, eyes roving over Daryl’s face as Lori stood and approached him.

“Would you please get back out there, find Rick and Shane, and find out what on earth is going on?” Lori asked pleadingly.

“You got it…” Daryl said.

“Thank you…” Lori said back.

Merle was struck with panic again and his heart lurched painfully, and he tightened his grip on his brother’s hand as Daryl made to move away. Daryl paused and bent down to speak into his ear, squeezing his hand and his shoulder comfortingly.

“Don’t worry, Mer…” he said softly, “I’ll be right back.”

Merle let him go, and Daryl strode towards the door and then outside, Glenn and Andrea close behind him. They were gone for but a minute before they were coming back inside, looking troubled, and Merle frowned, moving to step outside with the others, heart sinking at the sight of hundreds of walkers littering the lawn. Lori rushed upstairs to find Carl, and the others moved a little closer to one another, shifting uneasily. Merle took Daryl’s hand, receiving a squeeze in response, and they looked at each other nervously before turning their vision back to the herd, trying to think up a plan.

“Patricia, kill the lights…” Hershel said quietly, and she went inside to turn the lights off.

“I’ll get the guns” Andrea said, turning and pushing past everyone to make her way inside.

“Maybe they’ll just pass like the herd on the highway,” Glenn said a little breathlessly, “should we just go inside?”

“Not unless there’s a tunnel downstairs I don’t know about,” Daryl said, “herd that size’ll rip the house down.”

“Carl’s gone,” Lori said breathlessly as she reached the porch.

“What?” Daryl asked disbelievingly.

“He- he was upstairs,” she said, hands on her chest, her eyes wide with panic, “I can’t find him any more…”

“Maybe he’s hiding” Glenn suggested, trying to calm her.

“He’s supposed to be upstairs,” she said, “I’m not leaving without my boy.”

“We’re not- we’re gonna- we’re gonna look again,” Carol stammered, leading her back inside, “we’re gonna find him.”

Carol and Lori disappeared back inside as Andrea returned with the duffle bag of guns and set it out on the floor, and Maggie grabbed two shotguns, handing one to Glenn.

“Maggie-” he started.

“You grow up country, you pick up a thing or two” she explained.

Daryl rummaged through the bag and handed Merle a pistol, looking into his eyes as he took it, and Merle returned his gaze, trying to put all of his affection into it.

“Ain’t got the numbers, it’s no use…” Daryl said, eyeing the herd.

“You can go if you want” Hershel said.

Daryl looked at the older man incredulously, silent for a few seconds before speaking.

“You gonna take ‘em all on?” he asked.

“We have guns. We have cars” he said, cocking a shotgun.

“Kill as many as we can,” Andrea agreed, buckling a pistol harness around her torso, “then we’ll use the cars to lead the rest of them off the farm.”

“Are you serious?” Merle asked, deadpan.

“This is my farm,” Hershel said, face serious, “I’ll die here.”

“Alright…” Daryl said, accepting the older man’s words, “it’s as good a night as any.”

Merle nodded in agreement and watched as Daryl jumped over the banister, following him afterwards, only stumbling a little as his feet hit the ground. They ran with the others as they made their way to the vehicles, and he climbed on behind Daryl on his bike, wrapping his arms around his waist as he took off. They drove, and Merle took shots at walkers as they passed, hearing Andrea and Glenn doing the same in the vehicles behind them as T-Dog and Maggie drove.

Merle looked around, heart sinking at discovering the barn in flames, and he pointed out the burning building to Daryl, who nodded before steering towards it. Daryl pulled up to the fence and started shooting, and together they picked off walkers as they approached, calm and collected, but there were too many to keep at bay and soon the walkers were upon them, and so they took off again, just as the herd knocked over the fence. They pulled up next to the RV, where Jimmy was firing out the window into the herd.

“Yo! Must’ve been Rick or Shane who started that fire. Maybe they’re trying to get out back!” Daryl yelled over the noise of the bike, over the sound of gunfire and flames, “why don’t you circle around?”

“Got it!” Jimmy affirmed.

“Go!” Daryl yelled back.

They took off again, making their way over to the house, circling around and joining Hershel where he stood his ground with a shotgun, hearing gunshots in the distance as Glenn and Andrea continued to pick walkers off. Merle climbed off the bike, patting Daryl’s back as he did so, and moved to Hershel’s side, firing into the crowd of walkers as Daryl made to circle the farm again.

He heard a shrill scream from around the side of the house, and glanced at Hershel before he ran to inspect the noise. He found Sophia, cornered by a few walkers, and rushed forward to protect her, shooting the walkers before taking her hand and leading her away as another group lumbered towards them. He turned, and suddenly Carl was in his sights, cornered against a tree, gun shaking in his hand, and Merle ran to him, shooting the walkers before stepping forward and kneeling beside him.

“Where’s your dad?” he asked over the noise.

“He was with Hershel,” Carl said, voice high with fear, “I heard Sophia screaming and I ran off to help!”

Merle nodded and stood, and he lead them around the house, killing walkers as he went, and paused for a second to take in the absolute chaos that had broken out over the farm as it came into full view. He felt his pulse race even faster, his heart working overtime and sending adrenaline through him, and he immediately started searching for Daryl, skimming the environment, but he saw nothing through the dust and the multitude of shambling bodies.

He heard the bike roar to life over the noise, and peered in the direction of the sound, relieved to see Daryl on the bike, heart faltering as he stopped, surrounded by walkers, then lifting again as Carol climbed onto the back of the bike and they started to drive away, narrowly missing being grabbed. They disappeared into the dust kicked up by the chaos, and Merle felt his heart sink at the realisation that he may never see Daryl again.

He shook himself off, knowing that he had to focus on right now, and skimmed the farm for vehicles, finding none, and cursed softly, breathing hard, stress mounting as he considered all their possible options. The house was dark, and the barn was alight, and he hoped that the others had made it out safely. The walkers noticed their presence, snarling at them as they started to make their way towards them in lumbering steps, and he sucked in a grounding breath, knowing he’d have to mourn being left behind and the loss of his brother later as he turned to the children.

“We gotta go,” he panted, ushering them back into the forest, “now. Let’s go…”

The children followed him unquestioningly, tiny fingers gripping at the hem of his shirt as they stuck close to his sides, and they moved together, dodging walkers as they ran for their lives, breaking for the tree line and disappearing into the forest.

Chapter Text

Panic struck Merle as he ran with Carl and Sophia in tow, making sure that they stuck close to him, wishing that he could take their hands or carry them, but knowing that he couldn’t do either. They dodged walkers as they ran, dipping into the forest as they made their way in the general direction of the highway. It was dark and the children were terrified, and Merle’s heart sunk at the thought of never finding the others again.

He wondered how he could protect two pre-teens and see them through to adulthood on his own, how he could teach them the skills to survive alone after he died. Food was scarce, and now, being a seizure prone, one-handed cripple, it was only going to be harder to hunt and forage to survive. He didn’t have the best temper, wasn’t made to raise children, had gotten lucky with raising Daryl, but they seemed to trust him completely, practically sticking on top of him as they ran.

They took pause when they found a clearing, keeping low to the ground, keeping as quiet as they could as they caught their breaths, and Merle rubbed his face, looking around, completely lost in the dark. He led them deeper into the forest as walkers began to approach, and they followed unquestioningly, quiet despite their obvious distress.

They walked for what felt like hours, tripping and stumbling in the dark, unsure where they were and what direction they were heading. He fell to his knees, panting exhaustedly, hand coming out to catch him as he collapsed, and the kids stopped, staring at him worriedly, and he cursed his body as his brain lurched and his chest clenched. His eyes rolled back as he pitched into a seizure, jerking violently on the forest floor for a few minutes, the children watching on nervously until it abated.

He came to not long after, looking up at their worried faces. He tasted blood, felt a nick in his tongue from where he’d bitten it, and swallowed the mouthful of blood that’d pooled behind his teeth before letting his eyes slide closed blearily.

“Jesus…” he groaned, sitting up and feeling their hands on his back as they helped him upright.

“You okay?” Carl asked quietly, rubbing his back gently.

“Yeah, bud,” he rasped, “I’ll be okay.”

He allowed himself to rest for a couple of minutes before he was standing, forcing his exhausted body to his feet to move them along, but they tugged on the hem of his shirt, making him pause, and he stopped at their insistence, looking at them enquiringly.

“Let’s stop for a bit,” Sophia said, “you need to recover…”

He was still panting, and nodded, allowing himself to sit on the forest floor once more and attempt to recuperate. They were silent, listening intently to the sounds of the forest, heads turning at every noise, every crack of a stick, every rustle of a leaf. He pursed his lips, rationalising something, and turned to speak to them softly, his voice firm.

“If I seize again, and there’s a herd,” he said, face serious, “you leave me behind, okay? You take my gun, and my knife, and you go.”

They were hesitant, looking at each other, upset by the thought, but they nodded hesitantly regardless, and he smiled at them. They sat for another half an hour on the floor, letting Merle catch his breath and shake off the seizure, only making to move along at the sound of approaching walkers, unsteady gaits and growling breaths unmistakeable. He got to his feet quickly, helping the children up before bending to speak to them in a hushed tone.

“We need to go,” he said, “it ain’t safe here…”

“Wh-what about my mom and dad? What about Sophia’s mom?” Carl asked, “they’ll go back for us!”

“We can’t go back, Carl,” Merle said decisively, looking at the young boy’s face sympathetically, “not right now, it’s too dangerous, I’m sorry...”

They both started to cry, sobbing quietly, and he patted both of their shoulders placatingly as he waited patiently for them to process their grief, his eyes watering sympathetically. They eventually regained their composure and he stood, leading them away, trying to stick to clearings so he could see a little better in the moonlight as he sought safety.

He brought them to a halt a few hours later in a small glade, sighing tiredly, and decided that it was time they stopped for the night. He knelt to their level, looking them in the eyes before speaking.

“We’ll stay here tonight…” he said, “head off again in the morning, head towards the highway…”

They were noticeably upset, their eyes damp with worry and fear, and he smiled reassuringly.

“I saw your momma get on the back of my bike with my brother…” he said to Sophia before turning to Carl, “your dad likely went with Hershel and your momma probably got out with Beth and T-Dog… they’ll be fine… we’ll find them…”

They seemed to be at least a little comforted by his words, managing small smiles, and he smiled back, settling against a tree and sitting down with a grunt. They sat down on either side of him, tucking themselves against his sides, Carl on his right and Sophia on his left, and he felt a surge of protectiveness go through him at their trust in him.

“We’ll find them…” Merle said softly, “I promise, I’ll try my hardest…”

Carl shifted against him, little finger jutting forward determinedly from his closed left fist as he stared up at him, and Merle eyed it confusedly before looking to his face for clarification.

“Pinky promise?” the boy prompted, face firm.

Merle huffed a laugh through his nose and gave a small smile, nodding as he shifted to wrap his own finger around the boy’s, the digit large in comparison, and he replicated the motion when Carl shook his hand with it. Carl let go with a smile, apparently satisfied, and curled into his side, burrowing under his arm, wrapping his arms around his waist and pressing his face to his ribs with a sigh. Merle looked down at him, face displaying his surprise, and he found himself smiling softly, raising his hand to brush over Carl’s hair soothingly before wrapping his stump arm around him.

He turned his head to look at Sophia, smiling kindly at her for a moment before lifting his other arm to invite her to do the same against his other side, and she burrowed into him immediately. He rubbed her back, revelling in the way the both of them relaxed against him, before settling the arm around her as well.

“Get some sleep, I’ll keep watch…” he said softly, “we’ll move on in the morning…”

They nodded, and he waited patiently for them to fall asleep, breathing in and out deeply, trying to maintain an air of calm. He knew that Sophia could feel his heart thundering restlessly beneath his ribs, knew that he wasn’t fooling her with this farce of calm, and he smiled when she took his hand and squeezed it, swallowing thickly as his throat went tight and emotion welled in his chest.

It took them a long time to fall asleep, understandably upset and on-edge, but they finally dozed off against his sides, and he sighed, settling in for a long night of keeping watch, praying that Daryl was safe and that they’d find each other again.

Chapter Text

Morning broke and Merle blinked tiredly, watching as the sun rose slowly, casting light through the small glade they’d made their little camp in. He took note of the way the shadows fell, determining the direction of North and getting his bearings before planning their path towards the highway in his head. He looked at the kids, nestled against his sides, fast asleep, and was loath to wake them, but knew that they needed to move along; the others couldn’t wait for them forever, no matter how much he knew they wished they could.

They roused when he stretched widely, lifting his arms up and out, arching his back, filling his lungs with the crisp morning air and letting it out with a deep, long sigh. He settled his arms around them once more briefly, squeezing them against his sides lightly, careful of the gouges in his sides. They sat for a few moments, and he felt them snuggle in closer before withdrawing to look up at him. He smiled at them, rubbing their sides briefly before speaking.

“C’mon, kiddos, let’s go…” he said quietly.

They stood together, the children helping him up when his legs wouldn’t cooperate, and he stretched again, grunting as his joints popped, before he was leading them away in the direction of the highway. They walked at a steady pace, slowing when they became tired and stopping to drink from a stream when they happened across it.

They reached the highway half a day later, panting with exertion and searching anxiously for any sign of the others. They were nowhere to be seen, but there were fresh tyre tracks leading South, and Merle huffed frustratedly, looking around, trying not to let his desperation show. He led the children to the Jeep that he and Sophia had taken refuge in, wrenching the door open and searching their surroundings quickly for walkers before getting to work.

They clambered inside, Carl into the back and Sophia into the front, and they watched him curiously as he lay down in the footwell, face below the steering wheel. He pulled the cover to the steering column off with some difficulty, grunting with the effort, and pulled out the wires behind it, inspecting them before cutting the red and black wires with his hunting knife. He looked up briefly and shifted, moving one of his knees to let more light shine inside so he could see what he was doing, and noticed Sophia and Carl’s curious, interested faces in his peripheral vision.

“What’re you doing?” Carl asked entrancedly.

Merle turned his head to look up at Carl, finding the young boy’s face between the seats, his eyes shiny with curiosity and a little mischief.

“I’m hotwiring the Jeep, bud,” he said, stripping the insulation from the battery wires as carefully as he could with his teeth, turning his gaze to the copper, “gotta get it runnin’ without the key.”

They shifted closer to watch as he worked, careful not to be in his way or block his light, eyes wide with wonder. He remembered teaching Daryl this; he’d held the same expression, hollering excitedly with a mischievous grin when Merle had got the car working. His throat went tight with the thought of losing Daryl again, so soon after finding him, and he shook his head, clearing the thought away, needing to focus on right now; he’d reminisce when he found Daryl again.

“Okay, I’m gonna touch these two wires together,” he said, “and that should start it.”

He struggled to hold both the ignition and battery wires in one hand, segmenting them between his fingers and manipulating them with his thumb. He touched the exposed copper wires together and the engine rumbled to life, making the Jeep shudder, and the children made excited, elated noises, making him smile amusedly. He twisted the wires together before sitting up with a grunt and standing up, stretching his muscles and rubbing his back, alleviating the discomfort from being in such an awkward position.

“That’s so cool!” Carl said excitedly from the back seat.

He snorted a laugh, meeting the boy’s excited gaze, and smiled at them as he climbed into the drivers’ seat, wrenching the steering wheel hard from side to side until the steering lock broke. He disengaged the handbrake and reversed back up the slope they’d pushed it down, cranking the air con to cool them down as quickly as possible. They were all panting, overheating in the sun, and Merle sighed in relief as the air con sent cool air over his face. They drove for a while, keeping an eye out for any sign of the others, for any deviation from their paths, and Merle followed the trail of tracks they’d left diligently.

Hours later the trail went cold and Merle pulled over and hopped out, looking around, trying not to look too desperate or afraid, for Carl and Sophia’s sakes. He stood with his back to the Jeep for a while, hand on his hip as he fought down his fear and the tears that threatened to burgeon to the surface as his throat went tight, Adam’s apple juddering in his throat, teeth gnawing at the inside of his cheek. He regained his composure, giving a shaky sigh, and got back into the Jeep silently and took off again, following the road.

A short while later he felt a strong surge of fatigue tug at his brain, his body exhausted of energy and adrenaline, and made the decision to pull over and stop in the shade, engaging the handbrake. They peered at him curiously, and he looked at them, smiling apologetically as he carefully untwisted the wires to shut the Jeep off, before he tilted his seat back a little, so he lay more horizontal.

“Sorry kids, I need a break…” he said, rubbing his eyes tiredly, “I just need a couple hours of sleep, okay?… then we’ll press on…”

“Sleep, we’ll keep watch…” Sophia replied softly, and Carl nodded his agreement.

He nodded his thanks, reaching over to pat her shoulder, then reaching behind him to pat Carl’s knee, before turning back and curling in on himself. He dropped off quickly, surrendering to sleep, trusting the children to trust him and keep him safe, and woke a few hours later, sighing tiredly before opening his eyes, and he looked around, smiling first at Sophia, then Carl, before yawning and stretching, grunting as his back popped. He took in their surroundings for a brief moment before reaching between his knees and touching the wires together again, coaxing the Jeep back to life before starting to drive once more.

Slowly night approached, and Merle became more and more agitated and stressed as they lost the daylight, desperately searching for any sign of the others. He could feel utter hopelessness welling inside him, could feel it choking him, feel it making his chest go tight and his heart sink. He gripped the steering wheel tight, the skin covering the knuckles of his single hand turning white with strain.

The children slept as he drove, their faces relaxed in sleep, and he used his time alone to express himself, allowing himself to worry, to grind his teeth, to grip at the steering wheel until his knuckles cracked, turning white, and the muscles of his forearm ached. He allowed tears to slip down his face, covered by the darkness, sobbing his heartbreak quietly into the cold night air. The moment passed, and he wiped his eyes with his bandaged stump, feeling a lot of relief after allowing himself to cry, and thanked his absent brother for teaching him to express himself, eyes briefly rolling skyward as he sighed, feeling marginally better for it.

Hours later, in the black of night, the Jeep died, running out of fuel and coming to a shuddering stop, and he stared disbelievingly at the dashboard for a moment, giving a low, frustrated growl. Rage spiked inside him and he thrust his door open and stepped out of the Jeep, shutting the door harder than he’d intended, startling the kids awake, before striding a short distance away, kicking a few rocks into the tree line.

“Fuck!” he yelled into the night air, clenching his fist, wishing he could do the same with the other, “FUCK!”

He reigned in his anger, remembering absently that noise drew danger, his jaw snapping shut so hard his teeth clicked. He spent a few minutes pacing back and forth irritably, brain processing wildly, and slowly it dawned on him that it was absolutely hopeless, finding the others, and finally felt all of his energy drain from his limbs. He collapsed to his knees on the floor, ignoring the pain that went through his legs, and buried his face in his forearms, curling in on himself as he was overwhelmed with upset. He knelt for a few minutes, his back to the Jeep, and rubbed at his face, trying to soothe the overwhelming pain inside him.

He stood after a short while, wiping his eyes and rubbing his jaw, and trudged back to the Jeep sullenly, eyes downcast. He pulled the door open calmly, climbing into the driver’s seat, eyes still averted. He stared steadfastly forward for a few moments before turning to look at the children, heart clenching and throat going tight at the uncertainty and the distress on their faces, and he swallowed painfully before speaking.

“I’m sorry… I… I didn’t mean to lose my temper…” he said softly, shame welling hot in his chest.

“It’s okay…” Sophia said, smiling affably.

“Yeah, it’s okay, Merle” Carl agreed.

They leant forward in tandem to touch him, tiny hands settling on his shoulders as they smiled at him, and he smiled back wobblily, glad that they’d apparently forgiven him. Emotion welled up, quick and hot, tears filling his eyes, and he had to look away and compose himself, unable to look at their earnest faces.

“It’s not, kiddos… it’s not okay…” he said, voice cracking, “I’m sorry, it won’t happen again…”

He took a shaky breath in and let it out, letting his chin drop to his chest, and they sat in silence for a while. His chest heaved in an aborted sob and he gasped as he fought it down, wrestling it into submission successfully. It burned in his chest, and it felt inherently wrong to stop himself from emoting, but he felt like he had to remain strong for the children in this difficult time. They continued to touch him, hands brushing his back and shoulders, and Merle squeezed Sophia’s hand when she took his gently.

“The Jeep’s dead… I lost the trail…” he said, swallowing hard, “they’re gone…”

His breath quavered as he exhaled, and he looked at them, his face open and sincere. They were upset, understandably, their faces crumpling with fear and sadness, and his heart hurt.

“I’m sorry,” Merle said quietly, breaking the silence, voice cracking, “I-I’m sorry...”

His heart skipped when Sophia burrowed into his side, arms wrapping tight around his waist, and he smiled wobblily when Carl’s arms wound around the seatback and his hands pressed to his chest in a pseudo-hug. He wrapped his stump arm around Sophia as he took both of Carl’s hands in his own, squeezing both of the kids gently, and they were silent for a long while, embracing each other in the dark.

“We’ll wait out the night in here…” he said softly, breaking the silence, “head off on foot in the morning.”

They agreed unquestioningly, and he sighed, shutting the car off and sitting still for a moment before opening his door and moving to climb into the back seat with Carl, positioning himself between them when Sophia did the same, climbing in beside him. They settled in for the night, the children snuggling into his sides to ward off the cold, and Merle sighed, wrapping his arms around them and preparing for a long night of keeping watch.

Chapter Text

A month passed quickly, with the trio constantly on the move, finding it difficult to set up a camp for them to stay at in the long term, much to Merle’s frustration. They were lucky to find a few cars along the way, untouched and dotted with useful items; fresh clothes, blankets, backpacks, bottles of water and small amounts of food. They slept when and where they could, napping in cars and in small clearings on the forest floor, with Merle keeping watch as the children slept and Carl and Sophia returning the favour when he needed to rest. He only slept when he needed to, too anxious to leave them alone and unprotected, despite their protests and their worry about him not sleeping enough.

Merle’s seizures continued to occur occasionally, sporadic and irregular, and they took everything out of him, leaving his overtaxed body exhausted, yet he pushed on for the children’s’ sakes, determined to keep them safe. They had a few run ins with lone, roaming walkers that Merle dealt with easily with his knife, but they were otherwise blessedly unthreatened by walkers, dodging them easily and avoiding large herds. They learnt early on that the walkers tended to congregate around the highway, so Merle quickly established the road as a no-go zone and they only ventured onto it when they thought they might find supplies in the abandoned cars there.

They washed themselves when they could in streams and lakes, rinsing off days of grime and sweat, taking turns to bathe quickly as the other two kept watch, and Merle was glad for their routine and the privacy, feeling uneasy about them seeing his scarred body in detail. They took the time they could to also wash their scant amounts of clothes, buffing them clean, wringing them dry and laying them out atop large rocks and over branches to dry in the sun and in the breeze, waiting patiently for them to dry before packing them away and continuing along in their journey. He continued to take his antibiotics, and kept his wounds clean, grateful that they’d been mostly healed before everything went to shit, and he was glad when they healed completely, leaving only scar tissue and sutures.

His stitches started to itch like crazy, well past the time that they should have been taken out, but without scissors he was in a bit of a rut as to how to remove them safely. The stump had started itching first, a niggling, annoying prickle of sensation that buzzed up his forearm and up to his brain, and he bore it for a while, occupying himself with keeping the children fed and safe, but then his sides started to do the same and slowly he lost his resolve. The stitches kept him awake at night with how itchy and irritated they were, and he’d considered asking one of the kids to help, to take a knife to the sutures, but he didn’t want to traumatise them with his deformity or the horrific scars littering his torso, so he soldiered on. He became irritable and cranky, and tried his hardest not to snap at them as he waited for it to pass, proud of himself when he managed to keep his temper under control.

He decided in the dead of night one night that enough was enough, he was being driven crazy by the itch, and he waited until the kids were asleep before he was moving a short distance away from them and unwrapping the stump. He moved into the low light of the campfire, squinting in the dark at the stump limb, and swallowed at the sight of it before removing his knife from its holster. He held the tip of the knife inside the flames to sterilise it, waiting until the blade turned a glowing red before removing it from the fire. He shuddered as he was hit with the memory of cauterising his stump, remembering the iron steak weight he’d used, how it’d glowed the same red when he’d held it to the burner, how he’d had to force his body to cooperate as it had tried to pull the limb away from the source of the agonising pain coursing through him. He shook the memory off with a trembling sigh, taking a deep breath in as he returned to the present, filling his lungs with fresh air and bringing himself back to reality.

He waited for the blade to cool down, carefully testing its heat on his collarbone every now and then until he deemed it cool enough, before gently easing the tip beneath the first few stitches on his stump. He winced as the stitches pulled on the sensitive new skin, and quickly realised that it wasn’t going to work with the knife, so he conceded with a grumble, putting it back in its holster at his hip before attempting to cut the stitches with his teeth. It was as much of a failure as his last attempt, albeit more short lived, and he gave a frustrated sigh before rewrapping the stump, rubbing it to try and alleviate the itch a little. He returned to the children once more, yawning as he took his place between them, smiling indulgently as they rolled into him instinctively, huffing sighs against him as they settled again.

A few nights later they sat together, wrapped in blankets, warming themselves around the low fire Merle had constructed on the forest floor, and he started to rub idly at his stump and ribs, growling to himself lowly in frustration as it only made the itch worse. He couldn’t be rough with them, feared ripping the stitches out and causing more harm to the delicate new flesh, so the best he could do was rub them until they let up. He hadn’t slept at all in the previous three days, had tossed and turned and had taken to pacing about quietly, trying not to worry the children as they slept. He drifted into his own muddled thoughts, a little delirious from exhaustion, and was only brought from his reverie when Sophia caught his attention with a hand on his shoulder, making him jump a little at the contact before he was eyeing her enquiringly.

“Are you okay?” she asked, “you’re a bit out of it…”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he said, smiling tiredly, “just ain’t been able to sleep…”

With that he gave a frustrated grunt and tried to rub the itch from his ribs.

“You keep itching yourself…” Sophia said, eyes roving over him, watching the motion of his hand, “are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah sweetheart, I’m fine,” he reassured, smiling, “s’just my stitches are overdue to come out n’ they’re itchin’ somethin’ fierce…”

“Should we take them out?” Carl asked, brow furrowing.

Merle eyed his stump, turning it over contemplatively. He hadn’t taken much of a look at it beyond checking that it wasn’t infected and in trying to remove the stitches, but he knew for a fact that it was ugly, a mess of burns with a nasty, long scar, and he didn’t want to expose them to it.

“Naw, should be okay…” Merle said, “I don’t want to scare you with it… it ain’t pretty, kiddos…”

“We’re not scared of it, Merle…” Sophia said softly, and Merle saw a lot of Carol in her.

“Yeah, we’re not scared,” Carl said as he nodded his agreement, “and scars are cool!”

Merle disagreed with the boy’s statement immediately at a core level, and had to fight a wave of self-conscious anger down, pursing his lips. In his experience scars were not a badge of honour, nor something to show off or brag about, but instead were a narrative of his violent, traumatising upbringing, carved permanently into his skin. He’d spent most of his life unable to look at himself, unable to look in the mirror, unable to open up to others; not even his brother. He jumped as Sophia put a placating hand on his knee, and looked up at the pair, looking at Sophia’s apologetic expression, and Carl’s confused one. Merle blinked at them for a moment before smiling unsurely.

“I don’t have scissors neither…” he said softly, “tried to take my knife to ‘em, but it didn’t work…”

Sophia frowned, eyes drifting about thoughtfully before she was standing and moving to retrieve her pack, and Merle watched her curiously as she rummaged through it, face screwed up with concentration. A few moments later she grinned, brandishing a small pair of scissors from a compartment in the bag, and he smiled back in return, watching her as she returned to her place, sitting in front of him.

He blinked at her for a few moments, brain going haywire with self-consciousness, but he rationalised that they needed to trust each other and rely on each other and took a grounding breath in before starting to unwrap the stump, revealing his skin as he went. He paused when the last few wraps remained and looked at them, gauging their reactions to see if they were going to object, before he was stripping the rest off, revealing the stump limb. They eyed it curiously before moving closer, and Merle let them look, peering at it interestedly himself in the light of the fire.

The burns weren’t as bad as he initially thought they would be, most of the worst of them having been removed by Hershel when he performed the surgery back at the farm house. Instead, the long scar there was a fresh, delicate pink, and Merle was immediately fascinated by it, appreciating the contrast of the stitches against the fresh flesh. He was relieved that despite being a little red from irritation and a little raw from rubbing, it appeared to be perfectly healthy and showed no signs of infection.  The children appeared unaffected by his deformity, seemed more curious than disgusted, and something lifted in his chest at their acceptance.

Sophia took the limb between her hands gently, and he hunched over a little to bring it to her level and make it easier for her to hold, maintaining his position for a few minutes before he was conceding and moving closer to her when his back started to hurt. She was gentle with her movements, turning it in her hands and inspecting the way the sutures crisscrossed through his skin, before she was setting to work, settling the arm over her thighs. She slid one of the scissor blades underneath the first stitch, careful of the way it pulled on the new, sensitive flesh of the scar, watching his reaction and making sure she wasn’t hurting him. She snipped through each loop, slowly making her way from one end of the scar to the other, before she was carefully prying the strands loose from where they sat beneath his skin.

It was a slow process, and Merle sighed in relief as the tension was released from the end of the limb, the stitches having pinched his flesh together tightly. Finally, the stump was free of sutures, and Merle shuddered a little when Sophia brushed her thumb over the scar gently, checking below the surface for any strands she may have missed before deeming her work complete. He withdrew the limb from her lap and brought it up to look at it, inspecting the tiny holes where the sutures had looped the wound together, before smiling appreciatively at her.

He hesitated, but ultimately decided that it was also time that the stitches in his sides were taken out, and shifted closer, stripping his shirt off in one deft motion and settling it across his thighs. He turned so she could see the gouges in his sides in the firelight, lifting one arm after the other so he could look at them himself, taking in how they’d healed. He caught a glimpse of Carl’s face, saw poorly disguised shock there as the boy’s eyes roved over his back, and flushed self-consciously, turning his head so he couldn’t see the boy’s face. He brought his knees to his chest and hunched in on himself, settling his forearms over his knees and his chin over his arms, pretending to himself that it was so Sophia could get better purchase on the stitches.

Sophia said nothing and started to gently cut the stitches in his sides, pulling the strands from his skin with tiny fingers under Carl’s watchful, curious eye, and Merle shuddered, eyes drifting shut at the sensation of the threads slipping through his skin. The fire warmed his back, though he was glad the rest of him was covered in a blanket as the night chill made its presence known. He was tense, very uncomfortable and self-conscious about having his scars exposed, and he tried not to ruminate too much on how he could feel Carl staring at them, boring holes into his skin. He turned his head to look at the children as Sophia moved to his other side, to consider the concentration on Sophia’s face, and the curiosity on Carl’s, and he was relieved that Carl no longer appeared to be horrified. He knew the boy had questions, could see it in the purse of his mouth and the concern on his face, and he was grateful when Carl had the tact not to ask.

He sat patiently under Sophia’s gentle ministrations, and she eventually finished her handiwork, running gentle fingers over the smooth, new skin of his scars, feeling for any stitches that may have been left under his skin. She kept the contact short and light for his comfort, which he was infinitely thankful for, before withdrawing and putting the scissors away. He turned to look at her over his shoulder, smiling gratefully, and inspected each of the new scars before twisting and reaching behind him to squeeze her hand.

“Thanks, sweetheart…” he said quietly.

She smiled back, squeezing his hand back with a nod, and he let her go after a moment, shifting to pull his shirt back on, feeling much more comfortable for it. He let her rewrap his stump in a fresh bandage, protecting the delicate flesh from the world once more as Carl brandished a sock and handed it over to him, and Merle smiled his thanks at him as he rolled it down his forearm. He’d taken to wearing a sock over his stump to protect it and keep it warm, finding it didn’t ache as much with pressure on it, and he was touched that Carl seemed to have noticed the habit.

He rubbed his sides through his shirt, then rubbed his stump, and sighed in relief as the itch finally abated, before yawning and stretching, rubbing his eyes before blinking tiredly. The children shifted closer to him as he tucked his blanket around himself, curling into his sides, and he felt himself slipping into sleep, letting himself drift, confident in the knowledge that they’d keep him safe.

Chapter Text

Weeks and then a month passed by in a blur, with seemingly endless days of walking, of scavenging and hunting squirrels and rabbits, and Merle led the way in their journey, trying to follow the course he thought that the others would have gone, to think about where they would have decided to travel, to follow them there, but it seemed to be to no avail as they found no sign of them, even months later.

As time went on the children became more and more comfortable with him and started asking him to tell them stories, started asking him questions about himself and the world before it ended, and it took him by surprise every time. Merle had forgotten that children were full of questions, had forgotten all about Daryl’s curious nature as a child, but it was coming back to him frequently now in flashes, a bittersweet series of memories. Daryl was always Merle’s first thought upon waking and his last upon falling asleep, and his heart hurt with how much he missed him.

It started off with them asking innocent questions like his age, and his birthday and his favourite foods, and slowly evolved into more complex, involved questions that made him think, and sometimes into ones that made him uncomfortable, but he did his best to answer regardless. It helped them to bond, learning about each other, and Merle found himself becoming closer with the children faster than he ever had with people other than Daryl, and it made him happy.

--

“What’s your favourite colour?” Carl asked him one day as they walked, jogging up to his side and keeping in step with him.

Merle slowed his pace so the boy wouldn’t have to race to keep up with him, and pondered the question, realising that he’d never actually been asked it before, even as a child.

“Hmm, probably blue…” he said, peering down at him, “what’s yours, bud?”

“Blue’s my favourite colour too!” Carl replied excitedly, smiling so broadly that Merle couldn’t help but smile back at his enthusiasm.

Sophia was plodding along behind them, looking exhausted, and he made a point to slow down even further until she caught up to his other side, not wanting to tire them out too much. They’d been walking nearly every day lately, stopping only to sleep and eat, to rest when they couldn’t possibly take one more step, and he could see that it was taking a toll on them, could feel that it was taking a toll on his own body. He found himself hoping now more than ever that they’d happen across something a little more permanent soon, hoped that they could set up camp and stay put for a few days at least and rest.

“Sophia, what about you, sweetheart?” Merle asked, “what’s your favourite colour?”

“Purple!” she replied with a bright smile after thinking it over for a moment, and Merle nodded, smiling back.

They walked together for a few minutes in silence, taking in the fresh air and the sounds of birds and other wildlife in the distance, enjoying the sun as it warmed their faces, before Carl was breaking the silence once more.

“What’s Daryl’s favourite colour?” Carl asked.

Merle’s mood dipped dramatically, going more sombre at the mention of his brother, and he paused at the question, ruminating on all the memories he had of Daryl and coming up with nothing.

“I don’t know, bud…” he said quietly, smiling faintly, “I’ll have to ask him when we find the others again.”

--

They seemed to like to listen to him, loved to hear his stories when they sat around the campfire on nights that Merle deemed it safe enough to make one, and it warmed something in his chest every time they settled in front of him eagerly. The children would lay on their fronts on the floor before him, their faces cupped in their hands, eyes wide with wonder as they listened to him intently, and it felt good to be wanted. Daryl had always loved his stories, had always looked up to him and had always seen the best in him, and Merle was always struck with nostalgia at the memory of Daryl’s enamoured face.

“What kind of work did you do before the world ended?” Sophia asked one night as they watched Merle skin a rabbit they’d caught that afternoon.

He looked up at her, pausing briefly to think before continuing to skin the rabbit under their watchful eyes; they had expressed an interest in learning how to skin their catches, and Merle tried to do it slowly, so they could watch his motions and learn from him.

“Daryl and I drifted around a lot… didn’t have ‘jobs’ really, but we were pretty good mechanics,” he said, “used to fix people’s cars from home when we needed the money.”

He chose to leave out being a drug dealer as well, chose to leave out anything unsavoury he’d done in the past.

“Before that I was in the military for a while” he continued, snorting a laugh at the way Carl lit up at that, giving an excited noise.

He decided to leave out the fact that he’d been dishonourably discharged for punching a sergeant, and started to prepare a stew, cooking the meat in a pot they’d taken from an abandoned shack they’d happened across a week and a half prior. The children watched interestedly, listening as he talked them through the steps and gave tips on how to make the stew taste better, teaching them what he’d do differently if they had the ingredients for it. He missed fresh vegetables something fierce, missed cooking with onions and carrots and potatoes, but they made do with what they could. They ate, appreciating having a cooked meal instead of heated up canned food, and finished their dinners before sitting back with satisfied sighs, sitting around the campfire in companionable silence.

“What were you doing when the outbreak started?” Sophia asked after a short while, wiping her mouth clean with the back of her hand, “was Daryl with you?”

Merle paused in his motions in poking the fire, eyeing her quietly as he conjured the memory forward, remembering it like it was yesterday.

“Daryl and I weren’t actually together before everything happened,” Merle said, gazing into the fire as he remembered day one of the outbreak, the panic he’d felt, “when I realised that things were going down I dropped everything and went and found him.”

He told them the story about how he’d been alone in town, buying Daryl some bolts for his crossbow and stocking up on ammunition, when he’d heard alarms and screaming. He’d finished his purchase and wandered out to the street, unprepared for the carnage that he witnessed when he set foot on the pavement. People were running and screaming, others lay dead on the floor, and his heart had raced. It didn’t set in for a few minutes, what was happening, his brain slowed and dulled with drugs, but then he’d witnessed someone being knocked to the ground and eaten by a group of people, and he’d sprung into action, running to his truck and driving away to find his brother.

He’d driven like a mad man to the house they’d shared, searching the house frantically before finding his brother missing and discovering a note in the kitchen, saying that Daryl had gone hunting and would return in a few days. His blood had run cold and he’d sobered up considerably, thanks to the adrenaline that had spiked through him, and he’d taken off at a run through the forest, following his instincts to find his brother while he was on his hunt, following his tracks.

Daryl had thought he was on a bad trip, and Merle couldn’t blame him for thinking that with the way he’d burst through the trees screaming his name. He’d hardly taken a breath in explaining what he’d seen, and Daryl had humoured him, smiling his endearment, in the way he always had when Merle was telling stories, ushering him back to the house to let him sleep off his high under his watchful eye. Daryl had quickly learnt that Merle wasn’t hallucinating or making up stories when they had come across a living dead man on their way back, had cried out in alarm when the man had lunged at them, trying to bite them, and Merle had knocked the man down, killing him swiftly and protecting his brother from harm.

They’d ran to their house, turning the TV on to listen to the news, learning more about the outbreak before they were setting to gathering weapons and food into bags, packing a tent and blankets into Merle’s old truck before driving away, deeper into the forest. They’d lived rough their entire lives and had adapted to living in the apocalypse seamlessly, living like nothing had changed, until one day Merle was nearly bitten and they’d been shaken to the core.

“A week later we found your group,” he said softly as he finished the story, smiling back as they smiled up at him.

--

Nearly two weeks later Merle had been making rabbit stew again and looked up as Sophia plonked herself down in front of him, cradling her chin in her hands and peering up at him with big blue doe eyes. He smiled at her, turning to smile at Carl too as Carl copied her, looking up at him with wide, curious eyes, and he observed them enquiringly, stirring the stew as he waited patiently for their next question.

“Did you ever get married?” Sophia asked out of the blue.

His eyebrows shot upwards as the question took him by surprise, and he gazed, wide eyed at her, before he snorted a laugh at the question, finding it absurd.

“Naw, sweetheart,” he replied, smiling lopsidedly, “I never got married.”

“Why not?” she asked curiously.

Merle turned away as he pondered the question, testing a mouthful of the rabbit stew and chewing thoughtfully on it before he started to push the contents of the stew pot around uncomfortably, avoiding their enquiring eyes.

“I never found anyone that could stand me, I guess…” he said, chuckling a little, “can’t blame ‘em really...”

“Why?” Sophia asked, “you’re really nice.”

“Yeah!” Carl agreed enthusiastically.

Merle blinked at them, confused by their praise, before he realised again how much he’d changed since then; how much he’d grown as a person.

“I-I wasn’t a good person. I was selfish and cruel…” he said, looking away, “kept hurting people n’pushin’ ‘em away… Daryl was the only one who could stand me.”

They peered at him confusedly, apparently unable to imagine him differently to how he was now, and he felt a surge of both shame about the person he had been, and pride for himself in being able to change himself for the better, to become who he was now.

“I was addicted to drugs for most of my life,” he said with a deep sigh, “I didn’t really think about who I was hurting…”

“Drugs?!” they screeched at the same time, faces contorting in horror, making Merle wince internally, remembering why he’d chosen not to talk about that particular aspect of his life.

“Yeah…” he said, shame bubbling to the surface and making his chest go tight, “I stopped using them when I was left in Atlanta...”

They looked horrified and a little afraid, and his heart sunk as he slowly came to the realisation that he desperately wanted their approval, not this wary, uncomfortable, awkward silence.

“I’ve changed a lot since then,” Merle explained softly, “Daryl really helped me come out of my shell and heal. I don’t feel like I need them to function anymore. I-I’m better now.”

They were still staring at him uneasily, and he felt his heart sink even further, felt his mouth go tight as his lips pursed, so he nodded, accepting their rejection and forcing his feelings down, finding it easy with all the years of practise he’d had. He dished their dinner into bowls and handed them to them wordlessly with a tight smile, and they took the food without question, tucking in ravenously. He forwent eating, his stomach feeling like it was filled with lead as he became upset, and he tried to bury it down deep so as to not distress them further.

He could feel himself slipping into his usual self-loathing thoughts and wished that Daryl was with him, to reassure him and set him straight, but it only reminded him further that Daryl was gone. He stared into the fire as they ate, letting himself get lost in his thoughts, squeezing at his stump arm idly, and he jumped at the touch of a hand on his forearm. He looked at the source, a little dazed, and peered at the kids enquiringly, taking in their concerned faces.

“Are you okay?” Sophia asked.

“Yeah, sweetheart” he mumbled, “m’fine...”

They stared at him, faces unconvinced, and he smiled, avoiding their eyes.

“M’gonna get some shuteye” he said quietly before moving away silently and curling up on his side on the other side of the campfire, his back to them.

He couldn’t sleep, his heart racing and his chest tight with upset, but he was glad he didn’t have to see their horrified faces any more. It was cold, and he shivered a little in the chill, nullified only a little by the warmth of the fire at his back and the blanket over him, but he decided that it was preferable to their rejection. He could feel their gazes on his back, burning hot through his shirt like they could see all of his failures, etched into his skin, and his eyes burned with tears.

Half an hour passed with Merle being unable to sleep, steadily spiralling into panic, becoming tenser and tenser by the minute, and he flinched when they were both suddenly moving to either side of him, snuggling up to his sides. He was immediately flooded with warmth, both from their body heat and at the fact they’d both accepted and forgiven that he’d been an addict, and were wordlessly providing him comfort, recognising his distress.

--

By the next day everything was back to normal, the children treated him no differently than they had before, having had time to process that piece of his past, and he had a bit of a bounce in his stride as they walked. They paused at midday, stopping to rinse themselves in a stream and eat lunch, and Merle left his stump unwrapped, deciding to let it air for a while.

“How’d you lose your hand?” Carl asked, peering at the limb.

Merle stared at him for a second before turning his gaze to the stump limb as well, chewing his mouthful of food before beginning to speak.

“I had to cut it off,” Merle said, muscles shifting in his forearm as he tried to flex his absent fingers, “back in Atlanta…”

“Why?” Carl asked.

Merle hesitated, not wanting to demonize the boy’s father in front of him, but not knowing how else to answer his question.

“Your dad handcuffed me to a pipe…” he said quietly, “they left me behind... I didn’t have a choice…”

Carl looked upset at that, lips pursing and face crumpling at the thought that his dad would leave someone for dead.

“Why’d he do that?” he asked, “why’d they leave you?”

“I was high and I was putting everyone in danger, so he cuffed me…” he said, “we were nearly overrun, n’they had to leave… T-Dog came back and tried to uncuff me, but he dropped the key…”

“Couldn’t you have waited?” Sophia asked, “they went back for you...”

Merle shrugged a little, examining the stump in the sunlight shining through the canopy above them, as he wondered how things would have happened differently if he’d have waited to be rescued.

“I can’t really say, sweetheart… I’d waited a while already,” he said, “I had heatstroke, might’a died if I’d’a stayed in the sun much longer.”

She frowned, still not understanding.

“I didn’t know if they’d be coming back… for all I knew they’d died trying to get out of Atlanta…” he continued, “I was delirious, couldn’t really think straight, n’ there were walkers bangin’ at the door, so I just…”

He raised the stump, smiling remorsefully.

Carl still looked a little crestfallen at discovering that his father had been one of the reasons Merle had had to mutilate himself, and Merle pursed his lips.

“I forgave him, Carl, and I don’t blame him for doing it…” he said softly, rubbing gently at the end of the stump limb, “I would have done the same to protect everyone…”

They were silent for a while as it sunk in, with Merle smiling at Carl reassuringly, glad when the boy’s face relaxed from its dejected scrunch.

“Did it hurt?” Carl finally asked, eyes wide and curious.

Merle turned his attention to the boy, one eyebrow quirked in confusion, and he balked a little when Carl made a gesture at his stump.

“Of course it fucking hurt” Merle said with an amused snort.

He didn’t quite catch himself in time to stop the swear, receiving a light smack on the arm from Sophia as both of the children giggled.

“Sorry kiddos” he apologised, chuckling.

They were still giggling, and he smiled, glad they’d found it amusing.

“Yeah, bud, it hurt a lot…” he said softly, and they left it at that.

--

One night, a few weeks later came the night that Carl asked the question Merle had been dreading, causing his heart to race and his stomach to go heavy the second the words had left the boy’s mouth. He’d tried to prepare himself for it, to rehearse an answer and steel himself, but all his practise was for nought as he quickly started to panic.

“How’d you get the scars on your back?” Carl asked.

Merle spent a long time just staring into the fire, swallowing sporadically and trying to push his terror down. He wasn’t comfortable talking about them, even with Daryl, because they brought up memories better left buried, memories that made the scars burn like his skin had split into fresh wounds. His body started to overheat from the stress as memories flooded back to him, sweat running down his back in rivulets, hands shaking and heart pounding. He finally brought it under control, shivering as the night chill cooled the sweat covering him.

“My dad did that, bud…” he finally replied, his answer clipped and terse, “he used to hurt my brother and I.”

The boy’s eyes went wide with shock, as though he couldn’t possibly fathom a parent hurting their children in such a way. Merle was glad that Carl had never been exposed to the sort of physical and verbal abuse that he and Daryl had been, that he hadn’t been a witness of domestic violence like they had been. He remembered then that Ed had been a piece of shit too, and that Sophia had likely witnessed and experienced her own fair share of abuse, and he smiled at her in a way he hoped was comforting.

“Why-” Carl started in another question, but stopped when Sophia stepped in, shaking her head at him and making him realise that his questions were making Merle uncomfortable.

Merle was grateful for it and smiled at her as she distracted the boy, receiving an understanding smile back, before he was excusing himself and promising to return quickly. He ambled to a nearby stream, half in a daze, and stripped his shirt off, kneeling at the bank before bringing handfuls of water to his skin and washing the sweat away. He scrubbed as best he could, getting himself clean, before standing with a sigh. He let himself air dry for a few moments, shivering a little in the cool breeze and breathing in the night air before he was pulling his shirt back on.

He walked back to their little camp, finding the children huddled together, speaking softly to each other, and smiled at them as he approached before joining them, sitting a little distance away from them and joining their conversation. An hour later Merle felt better, and they settled together for the night against a tree, the children either side of him as they prepared to sleep, and he sighed contentedly at the moment they shared.

“I’m sorry your dad hurt you and your brother…” Carl said quietly, yawning tiredly.

“Thanks, bud…” he replied softly after a few moments, warmth blooming in his chest.

Carl’s arm tightened around his waist in a brief hug, and Merle returned the gesture gently, ruffling the boy’s hair before rearranging the blankets around them and settling his arm around him again. The children dropped off into sleep against his sides and he smiled indulgently, watching the fire burn.

Chapter Text

As time went on they became even more at ease with each other, became more attuned to each other, and it warmed Merle’s heart that they liked him so much. They’d all changed a lot over the last handful of months that had passed, both physically and psychologically, and Merle was relieved that they had all become very comfortable with each other.

Both of the children had grown a surprising amount, had gotten taller and definitely looked older, and Merle hoped that the life they were living wasn’t aging them too quickly. They were all thinner, had lost weight steadily without a stable source of food, and Merle more often than not gave them much more food than he took for himself. Sophia would notice, giving him a sad look after eyeing his portion, but he’d do nothing but smile and gesture for her to eat.

Sophia cut Carl’s hair every few weeks when they had a place to stay for a few days, having watched Lori do it every now and then, and Merle would smile at the picture they made, at the boy’s trust in her. They had become fast friends since meeting at the start of the apocalypse, had been nearly inseparable at the farm, and he was glad that they got along. Merle had decided to let his hair grow out, and it was now a good two inches long, curling dramatically into tight ringlets. He had grown a beard for the first time in his life and it felt strange on his face, had itched like mad when it first grew in, but was now a pleasant warmth on his face, protecting him from the elements, and he had no doubt it’d be invaluable in the upcoming winter months.

Life continued as normal, as normal as it could be, and they found more luck as time went on, seeing less walkers and sometimes stopping for days at a time in one place to rest and regroup. He warned them against becoming too comfortable and losing their edge, but despite Merle’s best efforts to keep them vigilant, they all became lax. They had gotten too comfortable, and though they hadn’t forgotten that there was danger, they hadn’t been as vigilant as they should have been, and Merle would blame himself later for the incident.

--

He jerked awake at the sound of the kids screaming and was immediately on edge, sitting up, brandishing his knife from its holster at his hip and getting to his knees in one fluid motion. His eyes darted around before falling on them, five meters away, and his heart sunk at finding them cornered, being backed up steadily against a tree by two walkers. His heart hammered in terror when one of the walkers reached them, then stopped dead in his chest when he saw bony, dead fingers wrapping around Carl’s wrist, and he felt a surge of dread go through him at the terrified, juddering scream the boy let loose.

He sprung into action, running to them at full tilt, uncaring of his own safety as he first shoved one walker to the floor and then pushed the other away and pinned it to a tree with a roar. He buried his blade in its skull with a grunt, turning and dislodging the knife from its head in the same breath as whipping around and moving to kill the other. He flung himself towards the second corpse as it tried to get up and straddled its waist, swinging his knees over its torso and pinning it with his weight. he brought the knife up in a high arc then brought it down with a growl and enough force to embed the knife through its skull and into the dirt below with a wet crack.

He panted, scrambling off of the walker to kneel on the floor beside it, hand on his knee as he collected himself, and he took a few panting breaths before looking up and meeting the children’s eyes. They were both wide eyed with terror, faces pale and mouths ajar with the panicked breaths they took. He turned to face them bodily, shifting towards them on his knees as he caught his breath and waited for some of the adrenaline coursing through his veins to wear off.

They were clutching at each other tightly, arms wrapped around one another, and he could see that they were shaking with fear, so he shuffled closer on his knees and held his arms out to them, offering his comfort. They stepped closer immediately, burrowing into his chest, and he pulled both of them against him, feeling infinitely guilty for leaving them alone and unprotected. He knew that he was human and needed sleep, that this was just an unfortunate circumstance, but he couldn’t help but feel guilty. They clung to him and he breathed shakily as it set in just how close he’d been to losing them, so he squeezed them to him tighter, rubbing their backs and cupping the back of Carl’s head.

“You okay, kiddos?” he asked breathlessly, breaking the silence, and they nodded against his torso.

Their hands fisted in his clothes, tiny fingers brushing at his ribs, at the base of his neck, and he squeezed them to him even tighter, trying to dispel their fear. They shook against him, trembling like leaves, and he continued to hold them, his breathing evening out to a rhythmic in-out-in-out, shushing them gently as he tried to calm them down. He held them until they stopped trembling, until they stopped taking shaky, aborted breaths, until he could no longer feel the wetness of tears soaking into his collar, before he drew back a bit to consider their faces.

“What happened?” he asked softly, careful to keep his tone unaccusatory, his eyes drifting between them.

“We were playing snap,” Sophia said, and her breath shook with her upset, her eyes filling with frightened tears again, “we weren’t paying attention, and...”

He looked around and took in the carnage, saw playing cards scattered all over the forest floor, and swallowed at the realisation that the walkers had been but a few meters away from them before he’d been woken. They’d come far, far too close.

“They snuck up on us,” she whimpered, “we didn’t see them until they were really close…”

He nodded, brow creased in understanding and sympathy, and he took one of her hands in his and squeezed it reassuringly, thumb brushing the back of her hand gently.

“Shh, s’okay, sweetheart…” he said, voice low and calm.

“We’re sorry…” Carl hiccupped, in a similar state to the girl, eyes wet with fear, “we should have been paying attention...”

“S’okay, bud…” he said, relinquishing Sophia’s hand to card his hand through the boy’s hair, wishing he had both hands so he could comfort them at the same time, “it’s over now… I’m here, you’re safe…”

He smiled reassuringly, drawing them in again for another hug, revelling in the way they sought him for comfort, inching even closer and pressing against him readily, and kept the contact brief before he was drawing back to look at them again. His eyes skittered nervously over their arms and legs, over any skin he could see, looking frantically for bites and finding none.

“Were you bitten?” he asked, dreading the answer but knowing he needed to ask.

The children checked their arms and legs quickly for bites, then their torsos, before they were shaking their heads, and he sighed in relief, eyes rolling skyward. He checked himself for bites, realising that he wouldn’t have felt a bite with the adrenaline that had coursed through him, and was relieved to find only shallow scratches on his forearms. He rubbed his face, the texture of his beard on his fingers calming him a little, before rubbing his eyes with a sigh.

He sat for a moment, just rubbing his eyes, before he was moving to retrieve his knife from the second walker’s skull, pulling it out with a slick noise and wiping it clean on the dead man’s clothes. He returned it to its sheath, slotting it in the waistband of his pants, before he was sitting back on his heels and looking at the kids again.

“We should move along…” he said quietly, “set up camp somewhere else tonight.”

They nodded their agreement and he shifted and stood to walk to his bedding, brushing his sheets clean of the leaves and dirt he’d kicked up in his rush, before folding them up, grabbing his bag and stuffing the sheets inside, zipping the bag up with a little difficulty. The children did the same near him, gathering the small number of belongings they’d taken out and putting them back in their bags before zipping their own packs up. He’d made a rule that they only took out what they needed, in case they needed to run, and it was proving important now, and he knew that his lesson was setting in as they looked around the forest floor at the dead walkers.

He looked around, tilting his head curiously, as neither of them had moved to pick up the cards from the floor, so he set his bag against a tree and moved to pick them up, kneeling and starting to gather them. He cleaned them of mud and leaves, and some of blood and brains, counting them as he picked them up and making sure he collected all fifty-two of them, and he smiled as the children knelt to help, counting their own piles. He handed his pile to Sophia with a smile, watching as Carl did the same and as she slotted them into her bag, before he was retrieving his own bag, slinging it over his shoulder.

“Let’s go” he said softly, and they followed him unquestioningly.

They walked for hours and hours, until the sun set on the horizon, wandering far away from the dead walkers until they came across a flat, circular clearing, and Merle stopped with a bone deep sigh, letting his bag drop to the floor as his exhaustion mounted. He stalked about the clearing, looking around and checking how well protected they’d be and if it was a viable place to set up camp for a few days, and found that it was well enclosed, sheltered from wind and the elements. He sighed upon finishing his inspection, deeming it a good place to stay, and scuffed a spot in the dirt, marking the best place to make a fire. He wanted nothing more than to sit down and relax, to take the weight off his swollen, painful feet, but he knew that they needed to get a fire going if they wanted one for the night.

“We’ll stay here the night, maybe even for a few days hopefully,” he said quietly with a smile, “looks nice and enclosed, and we have a good vantage if anything happens.”

The children nodded, faces lighting up at the thought of resting for a few days, and he chuckled to himself before looking around again.

“Let’s collect some sticks, kiddos,” he said, “get a fire goin’.”

His smile broadened when they sprung into action eagerly, and the three started to look around the clearing, collecting sticks of varying sizes as well as dry leaves to use as kindling, and stones to use as a fire barrier. Merle set to making a campfire, smiling at the children when they moved to help him, arranging stones in a circle and setting down kindling inside it before stacking sticks in a tepee shape over top. He’d taught them this early on, knowing that it was important for them to know, especially during winter, and he was glad that they’d picked it up so easily.

He retrieved their scuffed box of matches from his bag, tutting at how few matches they had left, and decided to keep them for winter, when it would be harder to find sticks dry enough to create a tinder from. He sighed, pulling his knife out and collecting two pieces of wood from the pile, and created a split in one with the blade before setting to whittling the other to a point, holding it awkwardly between his thighs. He could feel their eyes on him and looked up to smile at them as he whittled, grunting a little with the effort it took.

“Here’s another lesson for you both,” he said, “starting a fire without matches.”

That piqued their interest, and they moved a little closer to watch as he finally whittled the stick to his liking, setting the knife aside before putting the stick with the groove between his thighs and supporting it with his stump. He settled the point of the one he’d whittled into the slit he’d created in the other, before beginning to push the tip up and down the groove rapidly, trying to produce a flame from the friction. Five minutes later he was about to give up, when he felt something in the wood give, and ramped up his efforts, giving a triumphant cry when the wood caught fire.

He set it inside the kindling carefully, blowing on the embers until the kindling was ablaze and the wood was crackling, and grinned up at the children as they gave victorious cries, clapping. He put a few more pieces of wood in the fire for good measure before he was moving back, sitting down on a fallen log with another deep sigh and rubbing his aching shins before setting to removing his boots with a groan.

They were finally able to relax after a long day of walking, and settled down, forming into a group, with the children on either side of him, pressing against his ribcage. He smiled and wrapped his arms around them, pulling them a little closer as they all sat, gazing into the fire, his thumb moving up and down in steady strokes on Carl’s upper arm, his stump rubbing gently at Sophia’s side. They’d stuck close to him all day, had been practically on top of him since they’d left, and he realised that they were probably still shaken by what’d happened earlier.

They settled into an easy, comfortable silence, and Merle took the quiet moment to think, to mull over the events of the day. It finally set in that if the walkers hadn’t gone for the children and had gone for him instead, he’d either be dead or infected by now, would be fighting down a fever and delirium, would be making a desperate last push to find the others before turning.

“We could have died today,” he said quietly, pausing for a moment and staring into the fire before continuing, “so, starting tomorrow I’m going to teach you both how to survive in case I die.”

Their eyes went wide and filled with upset tears, and they looked at each other over his chest before looking back up at him, breaths going shaky at the thought of him dying, and he smiled reassuringly at them, shushing them gently.

“I know you don’t want to think about it…” he said softly, rubbing their sides, one with his hand and the other his stump, “but this is the reality we live in now, kiddos… I could die, we could be separated…”

They both started to tremble against him, chests hitching with quiet sobs, and he pursed his lips, regretting making them upset again, and started to shush them, cooing gently and waiting for them to calm before he was continuing.

“I just want you to be prepared, is all,” he continued, more tactfully than he had been before, “I don’t plan on dyin’ any time soon, n’ I promise I’ll never leave you… okay?”

They nodded against him, looking up at him with wide, innocent eyes, and he hugged them closer.

“Why don’t you both get some sleep, kiddos?” he suggested, smiling at them, “s’been a long day…”

They nodded, yawning, and set to getting their bedding out of their packs, setting their sheets out on a flat section of the forest floor near to the fire and climbing into their beds. They settled quickly, exhausted to the bone, and looked over at him, and Merle smiled over at them, shifting to get more comfortable against the log with a sigh. The children dropped off to sleep and Merle settled in for a long night of keeping watch, retreating into his own thoughts while keeping an ear out for danger.

He thought about Daryl with a wistful smile, as he always did when he was alone, trying to conjure up the image of his brother’s face. He worried about forgetting Daryl’s face and wished he had a photograph of his baby brother, wondered if Daryl thought about him too, and then smiled as he realised that he most definitely did. It brought warmth to his chest, knowing Daryl loved him just as much as he did, and he hoped they’d see each other again.

He came back to reality, brought back by his body trembling, shivering a little in the cold, and pulled his bag closer to him, pulling one of his sheets out and wrapping it tight around his shoulders. He sighed as it warmed him a little and shuffled closer to the fire quietly, not wanting to wake the children, and warmed his lone palm and his stump near the flames. Winter was fast approaching, made its presence known more and more each night with how cold was getting, and Merle hoped they’d find shelter soon, rubbing his beard as he started to stress over it a bit.

He shook himself off with a sigh, deeming it something to think about another day, and looked into the fire, watching the flames dance as he started to hum that old song to himself softly, thinking about his absent brother and wondering if Daryl was doing the same somewhere else.