A/N – This is the final chapter of Debts and Regrets. I apologize for not warning you last chapter that there was only one left, but I actually didn't realize it until I started writing Chapter 42 that it was in fact the end. We've almost come full circle. Unexpected Allies was about a separation and then a reunion, and here at the end of Debts and Regrets, we've concluded with a reunion as well. I feel like there's a symmetry here that I like, and I want to let it end when it can end well. Plus I have another WIP (Breaking Apart) that I'd like to get working on again and bring to a conclusion. Hope you like! Please read and review.
Their group had shrunk in size, but somehow it remained no less strong than it had ever been. Those that were left with Carl and Sophia – T-Dog, Glenn, Maggie, and Michonne – were delighted that Merle, Lori, Carol and Daryl had all survived. Their reunion was the balm that soothed the still-raw loss of all those who were no longer there. It took some convincing to get Douglas to let them in, to let them stay. But it became clear very quickly that Douglas' reign over the small safe zone that was Alexandria was waning.
It took three months for Douglas to lose his mind… it was gradual and he was so good at hiding it that his own people didn't even realize until only days before the breakdown that quickly robbed him of his title as leader and gradually robbed him of life. Aimless and without a leader at the helm, the town turned to the only men who had survived the world around them and managed to thrive at the same time, and T-Dog, Merle, and Daryl took over the role of leader collectively. Neither of them felt better suited to the task over the others, so they shared it, relying on each other as they'd done – sometimes begrudgingly – since the storage facility.
They all still felt the sting of all that they'd lost but time moved forward and they thrived in the safe zone. It had been more than a year since their reunion now. In fact, one year and four months. Daryl was standing in the doorway to the house that he and Carol and Sophia shared, a cup of coffee in his hand. He was domesticated in some ways now, and although he would never admit it, he liked every minute of it. He still went on hunts for meat, still cursed like it was going out of style, but he liked the feel of Carol in his arms each night, and the smile that Sophia bestowed each morning when he came to sit at the breakfast table. They were his family, and he would cherish that for as long as he was granted the opportunity. Nothing could be taken for granted in this world, and Daryl would be damned if he didn't take heed of that.
He and Merle got along better now – less fighting for the sake of fighting at least. They felt more like brothers now than Daryl could remember in all the years growing up. Daryl still felt jealousy sometimes when Sophia picked Merle over him occasionally, choosing to go and train with the smaller kid-sized crossbow that they'd picked up for her rather than go on a hunt with Daryl. And when she was angry with Daryl for some reason, it was Merle that she still went to. But Carol told him that it was normal, that it was good that she had Merle too. They were a family; they were at their best that way, their strongest.
Today had been Sophia's birthday, or at least the day they'd decided to celebrate it as such. No one was sure of the actual date anymore, but time marched on in the safe zone and with safety came the need for the occasional celebration. Sophia was fourteen now and there'd been a party in the town green for her. Daryl had been hunting almost non-stop for three days to prepare, and Carol had managed to scrounge up a sausage maker on her last trip to town. With the deer meat and a smattering of other small game that Daryl was able to get, she'd formed sausage links that they'd barbequed and served to all who came. Sophia had been so happy, smiling as people told her how pretty she looked in the dress that Merle had found special for her. No one knew where he'd found it, just that he'd brought it back to Alexandria with him one day all wrapped up with a bow. The wrapping was just plain brown paper, but the bow had been purple and sloppily tied by Merle himself. Sophia had made him wear it for the whole day on his head and he even did it without complaint. The whole affair had made Daryl laugh so hard that his sides ached.
There had been one comical moment during the barbeque. Carl had approached Sophia, his hands concealing something behind his back. Daryl had narrowed his eyes, watching the boy closely; Merle at Daryl's side, his eyes practically slits in his face the way he was glaring. Carl was oblivious, and clearly so was Sophia as she watched Carl approach and gave the boy a bright smile. Carl had smiled back, and then moved his hands to his front to offer her the flowers that he'd picked and tied together as a present. Sophia had giggled, almost squealed with delight at the flowers, before leaning in and placing a chaste kiss on Carl's lips.
"Fuckin twit," Merle had muttered under his breath.
"Ass-kissin' little shit," Daryl had muttered at the same time.
Carol had come up between them then, placed an arm around each of them, all of their eyes fixed on sweet Sophia, a smile as wide as the sun on her face as she laced her fingers in between Carl's and the two moved off go swing on the swings. "Oh boys, she's growing up you know… this is normal."
The look that had earned her from them both made her laugh loudly before she shook her head and realized that the two Dixon brothers were clearly lost causes when it came to her daughter.
A loud noise from across the street grabbed Daryl's attention away from reflection on the day's events. He took another sip of his coffee and watched the scene unfold. Lori was hefting a basket overladen with clothes, it looked heavy, so heavy that she was practically wadding as she heaved it up in her arms and moved towards the house that she had taken with Carl across the street. Merle was jogging up to her from behind, shaking his head to himself and clearly muttering under his breath angrily.
"Ya crazy broad, jus' fuckin' give it 'ere to me!," Merle groused as he came astride Lori and reached out with his arms for the basket of clothes that weighted down Lori.
"Screw off, Merle! I'm fine with it. I've got it. Go find someone else to piss off with your bullshit," Lori griped right back, jerking the basket away from his grabbing reach and continuing her path to the door.
"Fuckin' give it to me!," Merle muttered obstinately, reaching for the basket yet again, the fingers of his one hand almost grabbing the handle of it, only to have Lori suddenly turn and face him. They'd reached the house by this point. He was standing on the second step of the stairs to the door, and she towered over him slightly standing on the top step. Her eyes were narrowed, glaring, and she shoved the basket at him petulantly – but not handing it to him, instead, she bumped him with the overloaded basket, knocking him down and back a step as he caught his balance.
"I said I've got it! Go! Find someone else to pester, you ridiculous man!" She spun on her heel, somehow seeming graceful even with the bulbous basket in her skinny little arms. She struggled only momentarily with the doorknob, the heavy basket wedged between her hip and the wall of the house, and then the door was creaking open and Lori was struggling with the basket inside leaving Merle in her wake. Merle's face was stunned as he watched her and then his shoulders straightened, his face clouding over and he moved forward following her into the house, the door slamming with a bang behind him.
"Are they bickering again?," Carol said from the hallway behind Daryl and he turned to look at her. He gave her a knowing smile.
"Must be Tuesday," she remarked, her face spreading into a bright smile.
"Laundry day…", both Carol and Daryl said in unison before both grinning widely. Daryl stepped up to face her as she bridged the gap into the doorway, the sun warm on her face and making her eyes sparkle as she gazed at him.
"I love you," they both said at the same time and they kissed sweetly, Daryl's arms encircling Carol and pulling her into him, one of her hands coming to rest on the back of his neck, her fingers lacing into the length of his still somewhat overgrown and choppy brown hair.
They were lost in the feeling of their sweet kiss and embrace and didn't notice that Sophia and Carl had approached the house; hands still gripped together, standing on the walkway and watching Daryl and Carol. Sophia nudged Carl with her elbow and smiled at him.
"Life's pretty good here, isn't it?," she said softly and Carl smiled.
"Happy birthday, Sophia, happy birthday," Carl said softly in response and nudged her back.
A/N - I hope you've enjoyed Debts & Regrets. I'm sorry for the spotty updates at times. I hope to be more stable in the updates of my future works. I really appreciated all the wonderful reviews and hope that you liked this final installment of the Unexpected Allies/Debts & Regrets universe.
If anyone might be interested in learning more about this universe later on, I'm considering writing a short fic (maybe a few chapters) that would focus on the gradual Merle and Lori pairing (with cameos from the others of course). Please let me know if that's something you'd be interested in reading. :)