Title: Brother's Keeper

Rating: M

Summary: Randall wasn't lying when he said his group wasn't far off. The day after the farm falls, they make it there, and Merle is with them.

A/N: From TWD kink_meme . . . probably going to continue this at some point, but not sure where to take it so bear with me! Hope you enjoy this much anyway, thanks for reading!

xxx

He took a long drag from his cigar, breathing in the smoke and the scent, letting it warm his chilled body as he stared into the distance; there was an orange glow a couple hundred yards away, hard to tell just what it was exactly, but it sure looked like a fire. A big one. He exhaled sharply, watching the smoke that swirled from between his lips disappear with the breeze; then, smacking his lips loudly, he turned and started walking back. His long, lean legs were weaker than ever before, and he cursed to himself as he stumbled over a tree branch, knocking the toe of his boot into it and having to reach out with his hand to steady himself before he toppled over. His stomach had long ago stopped grumbling at him, and at first he was grateful, but now he was thinking maybe that wasn't such a good a sign . . .

"Jack!" he yelled, his rough voice breaking the uncomfortable silence. "Get your ass out here an' check this out." He stopped just short of the tiny campfire, and the four men surrounding it; the eldest of them, a white-haired, bearded black fellow glared up at him through tiny, dark eyes.

"The hell you yellin' for?" he demanded.

Then Jack came out of his tent, a 6"5 bear of a man with broad shoulders and a thick waist to match; his black beard was long and scruffy, and standing out against his leathery, tanned skin were startling gray eyes. "What's goin' on?" he drawled, somewhat lazily, bringing a mug up to his lips.

"Looks like we got somethin' goin' on . . . over there."

Jack squinted as he got closer, tossing the now empty cup aside and folding his arms across his wide chest. "We're in farm country," he said, thinking aloud, "looks like somebody's farm just went up in smoke . . . we'll go in the mornin', see if there's anythin' left." He jerked his thumb over his shoulder, back toward the fire. "I want two men on watch, fire that size . . . gonna be drawin' Walkers from all over the fuckin' place. Louis, Nate, you two first." He looked at the man with the cigar. "Merle, you 'n me'll check it out tomorrow."

Merle Dixon pinched his cigar between his fingertips and nodded silently, he dropped the spent cigar and smashed it into the ground with his boot, then began walking away from the group, and the warm fire. He'd only joined up with them a week ago, when they stumbled upon him after the truck he'd taken from Atlanta brought down on the side of the interstate; he was swearing at the smoking engine when Jack pulled up in his Ford, and told him to hop in the back. Merle was feverish and exhausted, the stump where his hand should have been throbbing mercilessly and probably clouding his decision making skills; so he climbed in, and collapsed against the tailgate as they drove off, going nowhere.

Jack was the unofficial "leader" of the group, and Merle decided that was okay, for the time being anyway; he recognized the older man, they'd grown up in neighboring towns and went to the same high school centuries ago. After a brief, stilted conversation, it turned out they both did time in the military, Jack in the Army and Merle in the Corps. Both so they could avoid doing time in prison. Laughter ensued after that revelation, and Jack shared the stash he'd been keeping in a tattered old rucksack, and Merle shared the story of how he ended up stranded in Atlanta.

A few nights later, Tony and Dave disappeared into the little town that was just a few miles away, and when they didn't return a few of the others guys went off in search of them; Merle remained behind, sitting at the base of a tree and watching them all. Foolish, he decided, risking their lives for a couple of stupid fucks from Philly. And sure enough, out of the six men who went off on the "rescue mission", only two returned. That was enough of that, Jack had declared, deciding right then and there that if your luck went South that was just too damn bad, they couldn't afford to keep losing people.

That was just fine by Merle.

He sank down onto the ground slowly, knees cracking, hips aching, and cursed his age that was catching up to him so much faster nowadays. Goddamn, everything hurt. He stared down at his stump, rueful, observing the bloodied bandage wrapped around it and trying not to focus on the pain radiating from it. The image of Officer Friendly flashed before his eyes, and the rage that always accompanied it nearly blinded him, flushing his skin and burning him hotter than any fever.

A shot rang out, too close for comfort, and his attention snapped in the direction it had come from; though it was hard to tell amidst all the trees, he was certain it was behind him somewhere, maybe only a hundred yards away. The shot was followed by a few more, then the rumbling of an engine, until finally all the sounds faded away and there was just silence again. Merle brought his thumb to his mouth, chewed on it, trying to place the familiar sound of the engine; sounded like a bike, he realized, and what kind of fool would be tearing up the woods before the sun came up, on a bike?

He thought back on his own bike, left behind in the quarry, and wondered whether it was still there or not . . . whether the whole group was there, or not. His little brother. Daryl said he was going off on a hunting trip right before Merle left with the others to go to Atlanta, and though he'd never admit it, the thought of Daryl being out in the woods with no one to watch his back had Merle on edge the entire trip. Right up until he got handcuffed to a fucking roof, of course, then his attention was focused solely on that.

His eyes were growing heavy, and he rested his head back onto the tree behind him, not the most comfortable of pillows but not the worst either; the world around him went back as he let his eyelids drift shut, and though sleep didn't come easily, it came eventually. He slept lightly, the slightest noises waking him from a nightmare-plagued slumber, his one hand grasping wildly for the knife tucked in his belt. And so it continued, the rest of the night, until morning came and Jack strode over, adjusting his baseball cap.

"Ya' ready?" he asked.

Merle grunted his reply, fighting the urge to yawn as he pushed himself off the ground and onto his feet; he looked across the field, where the fire had burnt bright only hours before. Smoke was still rising toward the sky, but whatever had been burning was reduced to nothing but debris now, and anyone who might've been inside . . . Merle licked his dry lips, wiped his dirty face with the palm of his hand. He vaguely heard Jack's voice talking to him, but it didn't register 'til he felt cool steel press against his bare arm and looked down to see the .45 being offered him.

"Ya' think I'm goin' anywhere with nothin' but a cripple with a knife to back me up?" Jack said, incredulously.

"I'm better with this knife an' one hand," Merle shot back, "then your two hands an' that pea-shooter." He looked down at the 9mm on Jack's hip. "I know the way you Army boys shoot."

"Go fuck yourself," Jack snarled, shoving the .45 into Merle's grip and walking off toward his truck, his body tense.

Merle chuckled darkly, following behind the other man, staying back a few steps; he hopped into the passenger side of the F150, and smirked even more when Jack glowered at him. "Ya' wanna have it out now or when we get back?" Merle challenged.

"I should've left you in the fuckin' highway." Jack threw the truck into drive and eased off the brake.

Merle laughed louder. "Ya' stupid shit," he said, "ya' probably should have . . . but ya' didn't. And another thing." He paused, his face suddenly growing serious. "Ya' get the bright idea of leavin' me behind on McDonalds farm, just forget it . . . I ain't cuttin' off my other hand. Hell, I ain't gonna cut off your hand, neither. Get me?"

Jack scoffed, but remained silent so Merle assumed he got the point, and fell silent himself; the truck rumbled as it crossed over the rough terrain, hitting bumps and holes hidden in the high grass of the field, nearing closer to the charred remains of what looked like was once a barn. They parked a little ways off from the barn, both sliding off their seats and beginning to trek toward the smoke, all without saying a word. Some of the wood was still smoldering, tiny flames lapping away at the blackened lumber; the scent of death was overpowering, and it was easy to see why, as corpses littered the ground. An RV was burnt nearly beyond recognition, what was left of it covered in blood and gore. Merle stepped over the body of a Walker, an elderly woman missing one eye and half her jaw, an arrow through her brain.

An arrow.

Merle's stomach tightened, and sweat began to break out on his skin as he continued his way through the disaster; the macabre scene didn't bother him, he'd never had a weak stomach, but someting was making the bile rise in his throat and his gut twist. He couldn't shake the feeling, no matter how hard he tried, and it was all too recognizable; the same feeling he had when he'd return from school, or a stint in juvie, to find his father passed out and Daryl missing. Sometimes the boy would turn up in a few hours, sometimes Merle would have to go looking for him; he'd be hiding in the woods behind the house, or under his bed, in the closet. Always with that same, terrified look on his young face. It had killed Merle to see him like that, and after too many times to count, he'd determined that he would have to toughen up his baby brother for the day he couldn't come to his rescue and make it all go away . . . he'd have to learn to survive on his own.

Why the hell was he thinking about Daryl right now?

"See anythin'?" he called to Jack, who was casually walking over to the RV and peering inside. The man's face contorted with disgust, as he replied: "Naw man, not so far."

"House didn't burn," Merle commented, gesturing the farmhouse that still stood tall, untouched. He didn't wait for Jack to catch up before he walked briskly up the steps, avoiding the mangled body of a blonde woman, and onto the porch, looking around every corner before he passed by it, but not seeing any signs of the Walkers that had been here the night before. Until he entered the house of course, then suddenly, there they were.

The first was a heavyset man wearing overalls, and Merle took him out with a knife through the bottom of his chin, shoving him aside just as a young woman lunged at him, mouth agape, tongue lolling sickeningly. His knife thrust down through the top of her head as easily as it would cut through paper, but got stuck coming out and he found himself being taken to the ground by the third Walker. He gasped painfully as they hit the hardwood floor, his body pinned beneath the football played sized Walker, squirming and struggling until he finally got ahold of the .45 he'd stuck in the back of his pants. He turned his head away and closed his eyes as he put the barrel to the Walkers head and pulled the trigger, sending brains and blood raining down on his face before the Walker fell to the side.

"Goddamn," Merle breathed, sitting up slowly as Jack came racing into the house.

"What the fuck, Dixon?"

"What's it look like, genius?" Merle growled, standing; he grabbed his knife and yanked hard, finally freeing it. "Told ya' my knife would do just fine."

"Didn't seem to work for that guy." Jack nodded toward the last Walker.

"Yeah, well . . . " Merle shrugged, not sparing the Walker another glance. "I'm gonna check out the kitchen."

"Lemme know if ya' find any Wheaties," Jack replied, "nothin' good outside, far as I can tell." He looked around the house, his expression only mildly interested as he took in the clothes still hanging on the coat rack, the cups sitting on the kitchen table. "Looks like whoever was here left in one hell of a hurry."

Merle checked the kitchen quickly, pleased when he did find some food they could bring back to camp, though not enough to last them very long; he went into the living room, muttering about blankets to help them through winter. Jack opened the refrigerator, grinning as he took out the bottle of orange juice and began to gulp it greedily. "Y'know," he said, "ain't no reason we can't hold up here 'til the cold season's over. We're gonna need some kind of shelter."

Merle didn't answer. He was too busy staring at the shirt, a plaid sleeveless shirt draped over a chair, near the fireplace; it was as familiar as his own, and suddenly it was all too clear where his sense of dread had been coming from. Daryl was here. He knew it beyond a shadow of doubt, his brother was here.

"You see anythin' else outside?" he asked, forcing his voice to remain calm. "Anything?"

Jack thought for a moment. "Looks like they lost some people," he answered, finally, "there was a lil' graveyard. Fresh graves."

Merle's blood ran cold, he ignored Jack's surprise shout as he burst outside, desperate to know the truth; he came upon the new graves and froze in place, staring at them so hard he was sure he'd be able to see through all the dirt. Jack jogged up beside him, a little out of breath, face flushed and eyes flashing. "What's come over you?" he snapped, "actin' like a damn fool runnin' around . . . "

"My brother," Merle said, coldly. "He was here." He nodded toward the house. "That was his shirt inside."

"Your . . . brother." Jack sighed, removed his cap and ran his fingers through his thinning hair. "Guess ya' wanna know for sure, huh."

"You head on back to camp," Merle said, "this ain't your business." He began to roll up his sleeves, moving awkwardly as it was difficult to do much of anything with his stump. "Bring the boys back here, if ya' want. Doubt they'd bitch 'bout sleepin' in a real bed."

Jack watched him intently, then put his cap back on and pulled it low on his head. "You're a crazy som'bitch, Dixon," he muttered, turning and walking away before Merle could reply.

Not that he wanted to anyway. Merle ignored Jack's words and began searching the farm for something, anything, he could use; he found the shovel laying beneath a tree, near an empty clothesline. He drove it into the ground with his one hand, then stopped on it with his foot, digging it in deeper before he pulled it out, removing just a bit of the dirt that was covering some poor bastard a couple feet below. He kept going, and going, sweat pouring down his face and chest, his breaths growing more ragged; by the time Jack and the others arrived, he was finally getting somewhere. He caught a glimpse of a hand, pale and dirty; beneath the Earth was a little girl, too little, but not Daryl.

The relief he felt was intense, but short-lived. He moved onto the other grave.

The day went on in a blur, the men continuing to scavenge, Jack every now and then coming over to watch Merle for a few minutes before going on his way again; and all the while, Merle dug, sometimes dropping to his knees and tearing at the dirt with his hand. Another body was revealed, a woman in a dress. And then another, a young man, a farmboy. And then the last grave . . . an old man, his gut tore to shreds, a bullethole in the middle of his forehead.

Not Daryl.

Merle sat back on the ground, panting heavily, sweat burning his eyes; he stared at the mess he'd made, the graves uncovered, the dirt strewn about. Daryl wasn't there.

So where was he?