Daryl sat straight up, his brain going from dead sleep to painfully, fully awake.
"Daryl! Get your ugly ass out here!"
That sounded like…like Merle. Merle was home.
He didn't know quite what to make of that. He'd expected his brother to be in the pen for another six months and now suddenly he was back. Part of him was terrified but the rest of him? Well, the rest of him was still that same goofy kid who idolized his big brother.
He shot out the front door and down the wobbly front steps, drawing up short in front of the mass of solid muscle standing in the yard. Merle looked like a machine. No fat, no mercy.
Merle smacked him on the shoulder hard, pulling him into a rough hug, and Daryl couldn't help but flinch at the stifling pressure of his brother's arms around him.
A throaty giggle reached his ears and it was only then that Daryl noticed the two women leaning against a beat-up red Camaro a few feet away. Merle caught him staring.
"Brought home some friends, baby brother," Merle grinned at him, wiggling his brows as he took a step back to give him an appraising look, "Got skinny since I left. Daddy ain't been feeding you?"
Daryl felt his stomach turn as the moment he'd been dreading arrived. He'd had his doubts before but suddenly, it was clear to him that he'd done wrong by not trying to tell Merle. He'd put it off until it was too late and then he'd just been worried about surviving. Well, he couldn't put it off any longer. Time to man up.
"Daddy, uh...Daddy's gone," he mumbled, unable to meet his brother's eyes.
"Well, where the fuck did he go?"
Daryl shrugged, gaze flicking back towards the girls in time to see one pass a half-full bottle to the other.
"I mean...he's gone. He-he...died."
Merle took a step back as if Daryl had shoved him. When he didn't speak, Daryl looked up to see his brother's eyes burning holes right through him.
"He died? When? What the fuck happened?"
Daryl swallowed hard, his mind instantly returning to that morning two years ago when he'd walked through the door after a night of hiding out in the woods and found his father motionless on the couch, dull eyes staring straight up at the ceiling. He'd already been cold to the touch.
"Don't know. Drank himself to death, I reckon. Been about two years now," Daryl answered quietly, fighting the urge to cower as Merle loomed towards him.
"And you didn't fucking let me know?" Merle growled, jerking Daryl up by the front of his shirt, "Didn't want me at his funeral or what?"
Daryl shook his head, clawing at his brother's hand to remain on his feet, "There weren't no funeral, Merle! No money for one. I didn't know how to get ahold of you...didn't know how to get a letter to the prison or nothing like that."
Merle spat on the ground by their feet and shoved Daryl away from him, "You never do anything right, boy. What would you do without ol' Merle, huh? I don't know how the hell you survived by yourself."
Daryl felt that old familiar sting, as real as if he'd been slapped, and clenched his jaw to hide any sign of emotion. Any sign of weakness. He knew that would only earn him a black eye.
"Fuck," Merle growled again, dragging his fingers over his close-cropped scalp as he crossed the yard to tear the bottle out of one of the girl's hand, "So Daddy's gone, huh?"
Daryl nodded and Merle tipped the bottle back, draining it before tossing it away into the tall grass with a hiss.
"I bet, deep down, you was glad about it. Weren't you, boy?" Merle's smile was sudden and devious and it made Daryl back away towards the trailer, fully aware of what a smile like that meant.
Merle turned towards the girls, turning on the charm, "Daryl didn't like our daddy much, you see. Hell, guess he had every right not to like him. I took a lot of punches from the old man in my day but by the time little Daryl came along, the son-of-a-bitch had gotten into whittling."
His words were heavy in the silence. The girls looked confused, glancing at one another and then back to Merle and shifting their weight awkwardly from foot to foot.
"Meaning he liked to play with his knife," Merle clarified, turning back to his brother with gleaming eyes, "Ain't that right, little brother? Hell, you didn't kill him did you, Darlena?"
Daryl felt the impact of his words like a punch to the nose and backed farther away, stumbling over the bottom step before turning and heading for the safety of the trailer. He couldn't believe Merle was bringing that up. Not now. Not in front of these strange women. Not when they'd never even discussed it with each other.
He couldn't stand it. Couldn't stand to hear Merle making light of the hell of their childhood. Couldn't stand the way those two women looked at him with sympathy. With pity.
He slammed the door behind him but it didn't stop the sound of Merle's laughter from invading the trailer, from ringing in his ears and making him feel like he was going to throw up. The anger was building up inside him, festering in his gut and turning into rage.
He heard Merle's heavy footsteps coming up the stairs and that rage exploded out of his fist and into the wall, leaving a gaping hole in the flimsy faux wood paneling.
"That's it, boy. Let it all out! Tear this shit hole down," Merle cackled, leaning in the doorway and digging a can of Skoal out of his back pocket.
Daryl turned towards him slowly, sniffing and wiping his nose on his sleeve. He could smell the tobacco from across the room, sweet and earthy. The smell of it always took him back to a day when he was just a kid and Merle had given him his first chew. He'd promptly swallowed it and it had made him sick as a dog. Merle had laughed for days about that and told everyone they knew. But still, he'd taken care of him while Daryl was puking his guts out in the woods.
"Hell, just don't cry about it like a little pussy," Merle rolled his eyes, cramming a pinch of the tobacco inside his lip.
Daryl swallowed that lump in his throat, flexing his aching knuckles. Merle eyed him, reading him as if he knew his every thought. And he probably did, Merle had always had a way of knowing what people were thinking. He got it from their father.
The thought of Merle knowing everything that was in his head made sweat pop out on the back of Daryl's neck, trickling under his collar uncomfortably and making him squirm. The stale, hot air in the trailer only made it worse.
"C'mere. Let me clean up your hand and then I'm taking you out," Merle led him to the kitchen, scrounging around for a towel, "One of them girls is yours, little brother."
Daryl looked up in surprise, flinching as Merle grabbed his hand and examined the split skin, "N-no, no I don't want-"
"Shut up, Darlena. It's about damn time you got your dick wet. People are gon' start thinking you're some kind of freak. If they don't already," Merle snorted, reaching out to turn on the faucet.
Nothing happened and he glared back at his brother, "What the fuck?"
Daryl shrugged, "Couldn't pay the electric bill. Been shut off for a long time."
"God Almighty," Merle sighed, "You been boiling that creek water like I taught you, ain't ya?"
Daryl nodded, watching uncertainly as Merle licked the corner of the towel and dabbed away the streaks of blood on Daryl's knuckles.
"There ya go. Good as new," Merle tossed the towel and wrapped his arm tight around Daryl's shoulders, rubbing his knuckles roughly against his brother's scalp as he led him towards the door.
Daryl wasn't sure if Merle's embrace was meant to be friendly and reassuring or if it was meant to keep him from escaping. It sure as hell felt like the latter. He tried digging in his heels and ducking out from below his brother's arm but Merle wasn't having it.
His brother grunted and tightened his grip, "Now, now, little brother. Let's not keep the ladies waiting anymore."
Daryl realized there was no escaping the situation. Dread formed a hard knot in his chest, sinking into the pit of his stomach like a lead weight.
"I-I don't want to. I don't know what to do," Daryl confessed under his breath, chewing his bottom lip as they marched through the growing darkness.
Across the yard, he could just make out the silhouettes of the two women. The bobbing tips of their cigarettes glowed orange. He could smell the smoke.
"You just follow my lead, little brother. You know ol' Merle will always take care of you."