A/N - Hello again everyone! This just kind of popped into my mind and I wanted to write it. Hope it came out okay! Oh and I should mention, if it seems a little vague on some details, it's deliberate. :) Thanks for reading!
One Shot - The End isn't Always the End
She walks the two miles outside of town to visit the gravesite. She always comes alone on her birthday. The others don't like it, but they know there's no talking her out of it. She's as stubborn as he ever was when it comes to stuff like that. It's been two years since Merle died; Sophia is twenty-eight now and not a day goes by that she doesn't miss the man who was as much a father, a protector, and a friend to her than anyone over the last sixteen or so years.
She moves through the woods, ever light-footed, just like he taught her, even though her gait is slow and somewhat cumbersome. She's nearly eight months pregnant, skinny as a rail with a beachball of a belly. She keeps one hand on the hilt of the knife that sticks out of her belt – ever ready for danger – and the other hand rests gently on the curve of her stomach, every so often feeling the slight movement of the baby beneath. She's sure it's a boy this time. She plans to name him Merle.
She reaches the gravesite at almost noon. Her stomach growls and she's hungry. She spreads out the blanket in her bag, pulls out the sandwiches she prepared for her lunch, and eases herself down on the ground with some effort. She almost laughs as she grunts from the exertion of it, she's awkward and unsteady, and she knows Merle would be laughing as well.
He'd laughed at her plenty when she was pregnant the first time, waddling unsteadily and always displaced that she could no longer hunt. An inconvenience, she'd called it – although certainly not one that she would ever erase. She has a two year old daughter that waits back with her father in Alexandria; Sophia calls her Dixie – short for Dixon, Dixon Smart. There's an irony to the fact that she married Billy Smart, a boy not much unlike Merle Dixon and his ragtag brother, her still-devoted stepfather, Daryl. Merle, of course, never approved of Billy any more than he'd approved of anyone else that she'd dated and loved. But he never could speak against her on anything. Oh sure, he'd grumble under his breath all the time, he wasn't one for hiding his displeasure with anyone. But he'd loved her more than he could ever say, and her happiness was one of the only things that ever truly mattered to him. The day she'd told him she was pregnant with Dixie had been one of the best in Merle Dixon's life and he had told her as much.
Sophia smiles now, remembering. She looks at the wooden cross that marks the place where they'd buried him, tears shining in her eyes. Two years without Merle. Merle who'd never met Dixie, but who'd loved to talk to the child while she was still in utero, his hands tentative on Sophia's belly, giving Sophia a look of skepticism when she'd first told him to talk to it – to her. She couldn't shut him up though, not after the first time, when he'd said only two words and Dixie had delivered a swift kick to the palm of his hand, causing him to snatch it back with a scowl. Merle who'd died saving Sophia, his last act, one he'd even told her he'd never regret. It feels like a lifetime ago. So much has changed, and somehow so much has remained the same.
Alexandria is a booming little town now; new people join them nearly every day. There's at least five other towns in the vicinity, and an open trading system that keeps them all fed and clothed and mostly comfortable. Daryl still hunts, and her mom still cooks. The walkers are still an issue, but less so than they'd been two years ago when Merle had been alive. And there's still men – and women too – who refuse to adhere to the new standard of society, who want to tear asunder the balance that the others fight so hard to keep. But Sophia's group, Sophia's family, are always sharp, and always on the ready. Merle would be proud.
"You'd be proud, Merle," she says in the silence that surrounds her, not even the chirping of birds to ruin the moment, and her voice is thick with emotion. She takes a bite out of her sandwich, chews thoughtfully and keeps her eyes on the crudely etched name on the cross. She'd put it there herself, tears streaming down her face, sobs wracking her body, Billy's hand warm on the small of her back even as she'd ignored him, hated him for the situation, but loved him all the same.
Her mom and Daryl had grieved too over the loss of Merle, but not like Sophia had. There was no one left to call her 'Phia… the nickname just didn't work without Merle around to say it.
A twig snaps and Sophia's head turns quickly, her hand gripping the knife, nearly pulling it free before a shape steps forth from behind a tree.
"Sophia…," his voice is deep, soft, and recognition burns through her brain.
"Carl," she says, a smile crossing her lips as she moves to try to stand up. He steps forward and grabs her arm, helping her up before she can protest, because he's Carl and he's just like that. Carl doesn't live in Alexandria anymore, but instead at another small community called the Hilltop. They're exes, have been for years now, but the word doesn't share the same connotation that it probably did way back before when Sophia was too young to even really know what being an "ex" meant.
She hugs him once she's on her feet, because while she doesn't often think of him, it's still so good to see him when she does. His body is warm and strangely familiar, like a blanket that you only take out once a year. He steps back when she releases him and smiles sweetly, just a curve of one side of his mouth and Sophia grins.
"I should have known you'd be here," they both say at the same time and then they laugh.
Carl ducks his head slightly, gives her a sheepish look and then says, "I'm sorry… I should have remembered. It's your birthday, isn't it? You always come alone on your birthday, and here I am interrupting."
Sophia gives him a thoughtful look, shakes her head, "no, no, you're not. It's as much your place as it is mine," she casts a glance at the second cross that sticks up beside Merle's – Lori's name scratched in the center by Merle's own hand, a braided circle of dried flowers hangs over one arm of it. The fact that the braid is still intact after all this time speaks volumes of the love of the man who'd made it. She still remembers the day that Merle gave it to Lori, placing it upon her head like some kind of crown. 'S' not a wedding, he'd said, grumbling anxiously, I ain't the marryin' type.
"Still…," Carl said and Sophia waved whatever he meant to say off. She motioned to the blanket, the backpack that held her remaining snacks – she was always starving these days.
"Come on then, can't let you go hungry. I've got a spare sandwich. You're welcome to it."
She's halfway to sitting on the ground again when he speaks, "wouldn't Bill mind?"
She loses her balance, her ass landing on the hard packed earth a little too hard and she huffs out an annoyed breath before she looks up at him, standing at the edge of the blanket looking at her earnestly. He had to ask, she knows he did. She smiles at him. "Billy likes you Carl, always did… you never had to leave."
Carl shrugs, sinks down to sit at the other corner of the blanket facing her. "Worked out better this way," he says lightly, "didn't it?"
She gives him a rueful grin and mirrors the shrug that he just gave her. "Suppose it did." Her words are simple, honest, and she knows Carl wouldn't expect anything less from her. It's who they all are now. There's no time for lies, no time for complicated.
Somewhere Merle and Lori are watching the two of them, sitting on that blanket, Sophia with her rounded belly, Carl with a shiny new gold ring on his left hand – just two weeks married to a sweet girl named Rebeca – both comfortable and comforted as they chat easily about their lives, their loved ones, sharing a lunch on a blanket lain atop two graves. Sophia is sure that Merle is laughing, probably choking from the humor of it, Lori glaring at him and Merle waggling his eyebrows at her until she gives up and laughs as well.
Sophia smiles, tuning out Carl's cheerful tone for just a moment, and looks up between the branches above them into the bright, blue sky. She misses him, Merle, the man who is so very responsible for her still being alive, the man who found her on that highway, took care of her and brought her back to her mom; the man who never gave up on her, and gave her all she needed and so much more. The baby kicks and she looks down at her belly, rubs the place that smarts slightly from the kick and thinks, we did all right, Merle, didn't we?
Sure did, 'Phia, sure 'nough.