"Judge gave me five years."

The baby blues that matched his own flicked up momentarily before falling back to study the dirty linoleum that lined the kitchenettes floor. The already hunched shoulders pulled a bit tighter, a bit lower, while the ducked head drooped a little more. A quick nod from his baby brother was the only acknowledgement he received.

Merle felt like a royal twat.

"Parole in three for good behaviour," Merle continued.

Both Dixons snorted. Merle and good behaviour didn't exactly belong in the same sentence.

"'kay Merle." His little brothers voice was light and soft, the mark of a child who'd spent too long trying to avoid notice.

Merle studied the small frame in front of him. Daryl had always been a scrawny kid, but now Merle could make out the outline of his ribs clearly beneath his threadbare shirt. His arms and legs were twigs, looking ready to snap at the least provocation. Merle wondered briefly when the last time that Daryl had eaten was. He vaguely remembered giving Daryl a sandwich yesterday morning that he'd swiped from the corner store in town. Other than that, Merle didn't know. There was certainly a marked difference between Daryl and the other rounded, bouncing 8 year olds that Merle saw around school on the few occasions he'd bothered to pick his kid brother up from school.

Like clockwork, Daryl's dirty hand made its way to his mouth. His small thumb was sucked on for just a moment before he remembered himself, drawing it out until just the thumbnail rested between his neat, white baby teeth. It was a nervous habit that at 8 he'd already picked up. Daryl had learnt the hard way that chewing his thumbnail was much more acceptable than sucking on the finger that held it. The stains from his Pa's fingers were only just fading from his body.

Merle wouldn't lie. Sometimes when he'd had a sniff, or a little too much drink, he'd been known to swing a little too enthusiastically at his little brother, but never to the same extent as their Pa. The difference was that Merle knew when to stop; Pa didn't.

Again, Daryl's eyes flickered up to meet Merle's. For once they didn't immediately dart away, but held his big brothers. With his face directed towards Merles, Merle could make out the healing split lip, the fading bruise around dull eyes and the scar that ran through his right eyebrow, courtesy of an early meeting with their old man's heavy hands. He couldn't believe he was leaving his brother alone with the wandering eye and quick fists of their Pa.

"Don' worry Merle. 'll be a'right." The voice was solemn, without inflection. Too dead for his age.

All Merle could hear was an accusation. 'Why are you leaving me? Who's going to stop Pa now?'

"Yeah, 'll be a'right," Merle echoed.

Merle had never doubted his own words more.