He was a free man. Again.
A free man with absolutely nowhere to go. No family. No prospects. His own brother had stopped visiting him six months ago after the fight they'd gotten into right in the visiting area of the prison he'd called home for the previous two years. They'd gotten to talking about Merle's plans for when he got out, but it had gone south pretty fast.
Daryl had gotten all high and mighty, telling Merle to get his fucking life together and stop dicking around all the damn time. Kept saying how bad Merle had fucked up over and over again. How he couldn't keep on this way. How he had to grow the fuck up and be a man. Merle asked what his fucking problem was, and Daryl said he was the one with the fucking problem.
Only, it wasn't a conversation. It was a screaming match. One that very quickly escalated into a fist fight.
They'd come to blows before the security guards had pulled them apart. It had all just intensified with the fiery tempers of the Dixon brothers, leaving Merle with a bloody nose and what Merle hoped would be a black eye for Daryl.
Merle knew that Daryl said he wanted nothing to do with him anymore but he didn't believe him for a second, not in the least. It was just the heat of the moment. The intensity of it all had made Daryl say things he didn't mean. Made him say that he didn't want Merle to come home when he got out. Made him say he wouldn't be there to greet him on his first day back out in the world.
But Daryl wasn't there to greet him, or bring him home. Merle rationalized that he never got the message he left. Or perhaps he'd forgotten.
Only, Daryl had never forgotten any of the times before.
It had always been Daryl and Merle against the world, for as long as either of them could remember, and there was no way in hell Merle was letting that stop now.
He made his way over to the only place he knew of as home with what little change he had in his pocket. It was whatever was leftover from the cab fare he'd spent to get as close as he could to the old neighbourhood.
He walked the rest of the way through familiar streets, past the familiar trailer homes that he'd known for so long. He knew Daryl would be there, ready to take him back. Ready to be together again and carry on as they did.
It was all just a big misunderstanding.
Daryl would apologize and Merle would tell him never to speak to him like that again, lest he be itching for a backhand across that mouth of his. And then they'd fall back into their steady routine of unsteadiness. The drugs, the women, the liquor. Merle only fleetingly acknowledged that the fondness he had for those memories – the longing he felt to dive right back into it all – had not a thing to do with Daryl, and everything to do with himself and himself alone.
No, Daryl wasn't his partner in crime, he was his brother's keeper. Always there to pick him up on those mornings after, every single time.
He'd clean him up after a particularly messed up batch of whatever narcotic he could get his hands on. Send the women on their way with some sorry excuse or another. Pick up the empty bottles and wipe up the spills of the liquor that lubricated the entire thing into something of a dream—something fuzzy and hazy that may as well not have even existed. It took Merle away, even for a little while. And Daryl was always there picking up the pieces.
Loyal, unwavering, faithful Daryl.
It was a cool day with Summer being on its way out. Merle walked with his hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans, anxiously approaching the tiny trailer he knew Daryl still called home.
But as he came up to the place he knew to be his brother's, it looked entirely different.
The tiny lawn was mowed and free of the weeds that had never before been taken care of. There were flower beds along the front of the house. The siding was whiter. The windows looked cleaner. There were shutters. And Daryl's truck wasn't there.
Merle's footsteps slowed as he came to stand in front of the driveway, wondering if he was in the right place. He glanced around, noting the familiar homes around him, the familiar curve in the road up ahead. The familiar tree a few feet to his right. This was definitely the place.
He briefly entertained the idea that Daryl had moved, but dismissed the thought as quickly as it had appeared. Daryl would tell him something significant like that. He would never just up and move without a thought of Merle. He'd never leave his big brother behind in the wake of the dust he'd kicked up on his way out.
He just wouldn't do that.
Merle stepped onto the porch – new steps and with a fresh coat of paint – and approached the door hesitantly. He glanced towards the refinished porch swing before he knocked firmly, then took a step back and waited. And then he waited some more.
And when he knocked again, he heard a rustling from around the side of the little house and before he could even think to look in that direction, a form appeared, though it wasn't the one he was expecting.
It was a woman, a very slight woman. She had long, auburn curls and crystal blue eyes, and the heavy garbage bag she was dragging to the front of the house was a stark contrast to the flowery dress and demure sweater she wore over top of it. Her brown shoes looked like ballet slippers.
"Oh, hello there," she said, slightly startled at the sight of his hulking form at her front door. She dropped the bag from her grip and turned towards the stranger.
And simply by the tone of her voice, he could tell she was a quiet one. Shy. Nervous. She was small in demeanor as well as appearance. Like a little mouse.
But she was also beautiful, and a quick glance told him that she wasn't wearing a ring on her finger. Maybe this would be an opportunity. Maybe the world was welcoming him back into its rotation with open arms after all.
"Something I can help you with?" she asked, her mouth quirking upward in a tiny smile of politeness. She was still a bit nervous, that much was obvious.
He felt himself smiling back, genuinely, making his way back down the refinished porch steps to stand in front of her. Looking at her kind face and hearing her kind question with her subtle southern drawl, and feeling no possible way to be rude to this woman. When he spoke again, he surprised himself with the gentle tone he took.
"I think I may have found myself at the wrong house. Sorry to bother you, miss," he nodded at her, and she spoke before he could make a move.
"Who were you looking for? Maybe I can steer you in the right direction?"
Of course he would tell her, he found it almost impossible not to, even though he was almost certain she would not be able to steer him anywhere.
She held a hand up to shield her eyes from the sun as a light breeze blew at the skirt of her flowing dress. The mere image of her didn't fit in this trailer park, not one bit. Neither did the flower beds in front of her home.
"Man by the name of Daryl Dixon," he told her. "Lived here a long time."
"Oh," she responded, looking down for a moment before looking back towards the strange man at her door step. "Well, Daryl should be home any minute now, Mister…" Her voice trailed off as she allowed him to fill in the blank.
"Dixon," he stated, his tone confused. "Merle Dixon. I'm Daryl's-"
"Older brother," she breathed, looking up at him with something akin to awe. Awe and trepidation.
His eyes narrowed and the air around them filled with tension. This woman knew Daryl. Lived in his house.
Daryl should be home any minute now.
He felt like gagging, for some reason.
"And who might you be, darlin'?" he asked, the softness of his voice bleeding away.
"I'm Carol," she replied, extending her hand to him somewhat stiffly. "Carol Sinclair."
He shook it, eyeing her sceptically and suddenly feeling much less friendly than he had just a moment ago.
She paused and tucked a stray curl behind her ear, awkwardly fidgeting under his scrutinizing gaze. "You're more than welcome to come inside and wait for him."
The instant the words were out of her mouth, she regretted them. If Daryl came home and found her alone in their house with his brother, he'd lose his mind. It didn't take a genius to come to that conclusion after the stories he'd told her. And if there was one thing she knew about the man she loved, it was that he didn't take kindly to the slightest threat towards her.
"Thank you, miss. That'd be mighty kind of you." It didn't escape her notice that his voice was dripping with contempt.
"Carol," she corrected gently. "You can just call me Carol. Please."
"Carol, then." His gaze was unwavering, and it had her practically trembling.
He was angry. She wasn't blind, anyone could see that something had struck a nerve.
She hoped Daryl wouldn't be late tonight.
Carol was surprised when he stopped her from picking up the garbage bag again, and instead offered to carry it to the end of the driveway himself. She thanked him though, and he only nodded his head tersely in reply.
Merle followed her inside, making no effort to hide the fact that he was looking around, assessing the place; judging. It had certainly changed, that was for sure. And it was clear that it was because of this woman, this Carol. She'd come into his baby brother's life at some point and made herself right at home.
Photos on the walls, carpet vacuumed and stains removed, surfaces dust-free. Fucking flowers in a vase on the coffee table. A coffee table.
Though Daryl apparently hadn't thought it necessary to mention her. Not once, not any of this. Not even in passing. Not a peep about a woman who had moved into his house and changed fucking everything. A woman who lived there and hung fucking pictures on the wall and put fucking flowers in a fucking vase.
Merle raged silently as it all came crashing down on him, all the reasons why Daryl had torn into him the way he had the last time he'd visited.
Daryl had made a life for himself. Moved on. Moved on so far from where he'd started that he wanted nothing to do with his big brother anymore.
And Daryl thought he was better than the man he used to be. Better than where he came from. Better than Merle.
Carol's voice drifted over to him from the kitchen area, breaking him out of the spell he'd put himself under. "Would you like a beer?"
He turned in her direction to answer in the affirmative but she'd already been walking towards him, holding an open bottle for him. He took it, and nodded his head in thanks before rolling his eyes back to the photos on the wall, landing on one in particular.
A ten-year-old Merle and a four-year-old Daryl looked back at him, sitting in a rickety old boat. Their grandpa's fishing boat. The one person in their lives either of them could count on before he up and died on them when Merle was eleven. The two little boys were smiling. The bigger boy held a fish in one hand and had his arm slung around the smaller boy. It was sunny. You could tell by the way the water glistened in the background, and the squint they both had in their eyes.
Merle remembered that weekend well, almost as though it had happened yesterday. It was the shortest three days of his life, and both boys were filled with dread at the thought of going back home. Home to their angry daddy and drunken, apathetic mama. Merle had held Daryl's hand in the backseat of the car the whole way home.
He hadn't even known Daryl had that picture.
And now his woman had it hanging in a fucking frame on the wall.
He felt like he'd been locked up for a lifetime, coming back into a world that was entirely different from the one he'd left.
He turned his attention back to the little mouse in the flowery dress when he heard her small voice.
She was fiddling with the edge of her sky blue cardigan as she spoke. "Would you like to stay for dinner? Nothing fancy or anything, I was just gonna grill up some hamburgers."
She sounded uncertain – nervous, even – to be asking him this. She'd known about him, that much was clear.
"I'd like that," he responded dully, his eyes travelling down her well-kept form before trailing back to the photo on the wall.
He would never have gone for a woman like her, before. He would never ever have given someone of the likes of her the time of day, simply because of the judgement he knew they'd pass in return. He knew what her type was like, and her type certainly would never consider jumping into bed with a drifter like him. And Merle Dixon certainly had never wasted his time on anyone who thought they were better than him – anyone he may have thought was better than him.
And while she busied herself in the kitchen, he allowed himself to look at the others pictures on the wall. Some landscapes, some scenery, one of the two of them. Daryl and this Carol. And, fuck, they looked happy. He wondered who had taken these pictures. What the photograph of the lake beyond the end of an old dock meant to them. Where was it taken?
His jaw clenched again in anger and frustration as he processed it all. Here was Daryl's new home, though it was his old home, where Merle used to live. But it was clean. Organized. Furnished. It had photos hanging on the wall, a coat rack by the door, and a fucking coffee table with a vase full of fresh flowers on it.
It had a woman who lived here now. And that woman was like no one he'd ever seen his brother with before. No one he'd ever been with himself. She was soft. Pretty. Modest. A stark contrast to his own ripped up and wrinkled clothes, and the filthy mechanic he remembered his brother to be. She was clean, well put-together. She smelled like sweetness, and he didn't know if it was perfume, or if that's just what she smelled like.
She'd offered him a drink and asked him to stay for dinner. Didn't turn him away, though she clearly knew exactly who he was.
He couldn't understand any of it. How she'd found her way to his brother, into his home, inviting people over for dinner, and offering them drinks.
He followed her out the back door, then, and helped her carry the plate of meat as she fired up the grill to make dinner for his brother. For a moment he wondered what she knew about Daryl, how long she'd known him. Maybe she didn't know who he really was. Maybe this was some sort of show, some sort of charade he'd put together for her.
But then he realized where he was. He was in the old trailer home, in the same neighbourhood he'd lived in for years. No, she knew exactly who Daryl was, and knew exactly where he'd come from. She knew about his family, that much was evident from the photo hanging on the wall, and the uneasy disposition she held when he told her his name.
And Daryl was never the type to trick a woman. Never the type to be dishonest, if he could help it. He had too much of a conscience, that one. Ever since he was a boy.
Daryl should be home any minute now.
And he'd be coming home to a hot dinner on the table, and a warm welcome from his little mouse.
And all Merle could see was green, though he had no idea what to call the feeling that was churning inside of him.