AN…My deepest apologies for stalling on this fic. I only have one more chapter in reserve so I need to get my big girl pants on and get to writing. I'd love to hear what you all think of this one—I love writing Merle and I'm wary of making him to fluffy and kitten now he's with the group. If you also like my Merle, and you haven't read it already, I've just completed a Marol/Caryl fic called A Change In Plans. Caryl fans won't be disappointed, that is all I'm saying, though it did awaken me to the potential of Marol!

Part Thirty-One

Her limbs ached. Lori carefully pushed herself up off the ground, her stomach tender, her eyes crusted over from crying through the night, and she succumbed to her body's urgent message that she was suffering. She'd lost her baby. Sure, there were no doctors and their magical instruments that could tell her for certain, but she knew. She'd had enough miscarriages in the past to know that when a clot the size of your thumb, a gelatinous mass rather than just pure blood, tore itself from your body when there wasn't meant to be blood at all, that it wasn't telling anything good.

She felt so ashamed for feeling grief at the loss. Less than a week ago she'd swallowed six or more pills in an effort to be rid of it, wanting nothing more than for the confusion of her womb to do what it usually did since she'd fallen pregnant and birthed Carl, and rid her of the mental anguish of not knowing whose child she carried. Only, she hadn't expected to feel so hollow. Hadn't expected to feel so wretched and broken and certainly hadn't expected to have to deal with it all centre stage to a bunch of people that were strangers to her a couple of months before.

She'd felt their eyes on her all night, despite the excitement of Merle and Sophia returning to them. She'd tried to sleep but the burn of their eyes, their imagined murmurs about poor Lori and that baby that could be either Rick's or Shane's had sent her into such a violent mind spin that she felt dizzy when she finally was able to stand.

The one person who hadn't looked at her—who hadn't watched her for the moment when she'd fall apart—was Carol. A thick, hard tangle of fear had settled in her stomach as she contemplated Carol. She couldn't explain why she'd attacked her like she had. All she knew was that she hurt, that the agony of her loss had clawed at her throat, had settled in her head, wasted away her energy as it shot around her for a place to settle. It didn't find one place—it found every place and the only way Lori felt she could get rid of it was to lash out and make everyone around her burn. Only she hadn't lashed out at Andrea. She hadn't lashed out at Patricia or Beth, or Glenn when he'd found them. No, she'd saved it all up for Carol, the confidante and friend who had supported her in her foolish thoughts about this baby, who'd given her hope and confidence that if she'd had to go through with it, it could be done. Carol, the woman who'd lost her own daughter through no fault of her own but who blamed herself anyway. The one woman who she'd known without a shadow of a doubt that she could make hurt as much Lori was hurting.

Lori moaned at remembering the angry, selfish, bitter bitch she'd been the day before as her baby's life had flowed free of her body, wanted to flay herself for being so unbelievably cruel to her one real friend out of them all. Sophia might be here now but at the time of her words, Carol had been a grieving mother and Lori had no excuse to blame Carol for any of it. No excuse to try to hurt her in any way at all. No explanation other than wanting someone to feel pain like she was.

She needed to make it right with her, as soon as she could.

Merle let Sophia sleep in as the camp slowly started to move. First up had been Daryl—old habits never died, apparently, and Merle grinned. God, he'd missed his brother. Had missed the certainty to life that came with having flesh and blood within arm's reach. What he hadn't liked was the way Daryl had hovered over Sophia's mother, shaking her awake before taking her off towards the stream so she could clean up a bit. It was a strange thing for his brother to do. He'd never seen Daryl say more than two words to a woman before and he'd certainly never touched one unless it was to push them away. Daryl getting chummy with Sophia's mother was not a part of Merle's plan. Now was not the time for Daryl to grow a pair or work out he had softer feelings that he was able to share with others.

Sophia finally stirred when Carl did, sitting bolt upright in fear until she remembered where she was and why there was so much action going on around her. Her eyes went to him first, relief shining in them as she smiled, and then she started looking around for her mother, growing frantic when she didn't see her.

"Don't fret," he told her, launching himself to his feet and going to squat beside her. "She's just gone to get cleaned up before we move out. She won't be long."

Before he'd finished speaking, Carol appeared back in camp, Daryl following like a faithful dog behind her. Merle narrowed his eyes at his brother, taking quick note of the protective stance and the heightened colour of Daryl's cheeks as he shot some barbed comments at the cop that had preceded them back to camp.

When they'd all chased some small portions of food down their throats—thanks to Merle once again having shit stored in his car for this very eventuality—they packed up and headed back to the vehicles. Merle hadn't asked anyone, taking for granted after weeks of practise that Sophia was his responsibility to keep safe, and the pair headed to his car. He turned just in time to see the look of shock on Carol's face and he frowned. Of course, she could travel in someone else's car, but it made no sense for him to drive alone and he didn't think Sophia would have left his side, even if he gave her a shove.

"Merle." Daryl ran over to him, shot a strange look at Sophia then informed him he'd load the bike onto the truck and that he and Carol would ride with them. He shrugged , like he gave a shit what Daryl did with the bike. His little brother's rush to be in the car with his brother and this woman, though, that was starting to make him think, and he didn't like what thoughts were starting to unfurl.

After the bike was safely stowed on the back of Daryl's blue truck and the bottles of water and other things secured around it, the younger Dixon detached the crossbow from his back and effortlessly slid into the passenger seat beside Merle, Sophia already in the back with her mother. Daryl didn't even look back and Merle sat in his seat, satisfied that everything was as it should be. Not that he wasn't going to keep a careful eye on the pair but for now, things seemed tolerable and that would have to be enough for him.

He caught up with Daryl while they travelled, though predictably, Daryl got through over a month of being on the run in a matter of sentences. Not one to mince words, his little brother, and Merle huffed out a laugh of appreciation. He didn't think he'd ever heard Daryl succumb to mindless chatter. Shit like that usually ended up hurting—one way or another.

They'd been on the road for forty minutes when they reached their first hurdle. Cars littered the highway, chaos evident at the landscape of overturned cars, corpses fixed in macabre poses as they sat facing down a monstrosity they had no chance of escaping. The scene was becoming the standard as the cars idled to a stop. Merle wound the window down, waiting for the word from up front about what the plan would be. From where he sat, it looked like it would be impossible to push their way through and his lips thinned. He'd tried to tell them, predicted it would be futile to try and get a caravan of cars through endless interstates and at least two cities to get to Fort Benning. Not everyone would have attempted to make it to Atlanta when shit went down. It was more than a decent bet to think the majority of people would have tried to get to the army base. After all, what really did Atlanta have to offer survivors compared to an Army base with thousands of personnel? Numerous resources.

Shane came jogging up, stopping car by car until he got to Merle's.

"Rick's decided to call it. Looks like the only way we could get to Fort Benning is if we fly, an' you know we ain't doin' that. An' like Merle said before, unlikely there's anyone left there that can help us out anyway."

Daryl squinted as he watched the ex-cop for any sign of discontent at the abandoned plan. "You all right with that?"

Shane grinned, cocky self-assurance at the ready. "Yeah, got to thinkin' about it during watch and figured as much. Thought it was worth a shot and now we've had it. So, we'll try and siphon fuel here—ladies stay in the cars so we can head off soon as we can. Rick's got a map if ya'll want to come out and work out what we try next?"

Merle wound the window back up as Shane walked off, then turned back to talk to Sophia and Carol.

"You do like he said, stay in the car. If biters come along, you'll be fine 'till we make it back."

Sophia nodded before suddenly launching forward and giving Merle a quick hug. "You be careful."

"You too, sugar lump," he sassed then threw the door open and climbed out. "You comin', baby bro or are you gonna sit here and be one with the ladies?"

Daryl rolled his eyes before following his brother, leaving Carol alone yet safe in the car with her daughter.

His good hand stuffed into his pants pocket, Merle surveyed the area around him as he made toward the little gathering at the Cherokee in the middle of their little caravan. Rick was standing over the hood of the vehicle, map spread out and his finger tracing over different options as Glenn and Hershel faced off in opposite directions, keeping watch for anything unexpected.

"Here's Hershel's farm," Rick said as he circled the spot on the map with a red pen. "Here's where we are now." Another swirl of ink on the map. Then he stood, seemingly at a loss, and Merle stabbed at the map with his knife-ended stump.

"There's the prison I mentioned before." He held the tip of his knife against the place on the map and Rick stepped forward to circle it. It was situated right in the middle and to the west of where they were stuck and just looking at it gave Merle a bad feeling in his head. "It's full of walkers. We can clear it, but the Governor knows about it. My gut says it won't be safe. Not for long."

Rick conceded the point with a quick nod and then clenched his jaw, thinking hard. "Then, we keep looking. There's got to be something out there, somewhere safe."

"How long we keep on lookin'?" Daryl asked, making them all focus on the job ahead, of endless running and ceaseless fear.

"As long as it takes," Rick answered, doubts evident in his voice but they all chose to ignore it. "We'll find something, another farm or…"

"There's a Juvenile Detention Centre roun' here someplace," Merle volunteered, and they all looked at him in surprise. "What ya'll lookin' at me like that for? Like it's any fuckin' secret I done time." He can't hold back the hard stare of dislike he aims at Rick, feeling more exposed than he has since he rejoined this group. They'd made their own assumptions about him, he knew, and he was damned if he'd believe they'd ever thought him too good to not have stepped his hairy big toe in just about every prison facility in the state. He felt low, suddenly. Dirty, worthless and that old well of self-hate and dissatisfaction gave a hearty surge inside him. Bad temper rose and he knew with a certainty that if he stayed amongst them, trying to play nice, he was going to say something he'd regret. Do something that would have their guns back in his face and possibly cuffs around his one remaining hand. In order to save himself the hassle, he turned his back and started back to the car. "Let me know what the decision is, Brother. I'm gonna go keep an eye on the girls."

Daryl's eyes narrowed as he watched Merle stomp off. He'd recognised that look in his brother's eyes—it was the one that always came before he'd slip a pill, or load up his needle before sticking it into a vein. It was the face of a brother who was losing his shit and Daryl knew it wasn't the side of his brother he wanted looking out for Carol and her daughter. For all he knew Merle had a new stash hidden in that car, along with all the other useful shit he'd gathered that had now come in handy for the rest of the group.

"We should find somewhere not too close to the populated areas, isolated like the farm is still gonna work out best and give us more chance to run if we gotta. Just need better watch than last time. Need somewhere I can hunt. We'll follow when you head out." Without any warning, Daryl spun on his heel and jogged after Merle, stopping and then following slower when he saw Merle head past Glenn and then further past the car they were travelling in. He caught Carol's concerned gaze as he started jogging again, catching up Merle before he got too far away.

Daryl snatched at Merle's shirt and whipped him around.

"Thought you was headin' back to the car. Last I looked, Carol and Sophia hadn' taken off out this way."

Merle turned on him, his eyes flashing with fury and a pain Daryl had always witnessed but had been thrashed if he'd ever attempted to make conversation about it.

"This ain't gonna work. I can't stay around these people, makin' nice like I'm some kinda stand up citizen. That cop's just waitin' for his chance to finish me off. One fuckin' hand weren't good enough for 'im, he wants the other one, too."

"When you gonna stop quittin' out on me?" Daryl stood his ground, despite the glare Merle directed his way. "Where the fuck you gonna run to, anyway? There ain't nowhere left out there, especially on your own. Don't be askin' me to come with you just 'cause you can't handle a bit of scrutiny."

"You don' know shit, boy," Merle spat, getting angrier and angrier the longer he stayed still. "You've always been the good one—Daryl never done time, Daryl never done drugs, Daryl never stuck it between a woman's legs…why, brother, you're crystal in this environment. You got all them chasin' after you like they is hooked on your ass. That why you'd leave me to wander on my own? You somebody now?"

He doesn't know where it's coming from, but just as Merle's anger escalates, Daryl feels a calmness descend on him and he mellows in the face of his brother's insults. In the face of Merle's attacks. Suddenly he can see it for what it is, Merle's fears that he's never been anybody—never been worth a thing in this life and that not one other human being will see him as anything but a waste of air before he dies.

"That girl thinks your somebody," Daryl points out, his voice gruff but quiet and respectful. "That kid owes you her life and I know Carol thinks you're her goddam hero, so don't go losin' your shit on them now. So what if they all know you did time in juvie? Who you think in this group don't have secrets?"

On closer look, Merle was shaking. Daryl couldn't remember a time when Merle wasn't high or waiting to get high, but now he recognised that it must have been weeks since he'd had anything to take the edge off.

"How long?" He watched as Merle gave in to the weakness of addiction and collapsed into a crouch, his hand clutching at his head, his fingers whitened from the grip.

"Governor allowed 'em to give me somethin' for the pain when I was first taken to Woodbury, but since then? Must be a month. Maybe a bit longer."

Daryl dropped to his haunches beside his brother, his forearms resting on his thighs as he held his hands together, preventing him from reaching out to Merle and having his brother strike out and sit him on his ass. "You keep thinkin' of that girl and what she's been through. You can't be gettin' high right now. You'll put us all at risk, but her…she's countin' on you. You can do this, bro. Everyone'll help. All you gotta do is ask."

Merle's head flew up and his eyes, red and raw with impotent fury and pain, pinned Daryl to the spot. "I ain't never asked no one for nothin'," he growled. "No reason to start up now."

"Ain't never been the dead up an' walkin' around, neither," Daryl countered, a slight grin quirking the corners of his mouth. "First time for all sorts of shit. Like you becomin' a fucking hero as well as a defacto daddy."

Merle snorts then pushes himself unsteadily to his feet, waiting as Daryl did the same and they both looked around them, making sure none of the dead had snuck up behind them while they'd been preoccupied with out of character deep and meaningfuls. Instead, they found Shane jogging up, coming to a stop with a slap to Merle's back.

"That was a great call, man. JDT's or even a Women's Prison. If we can find one they'd make a perfect place to set up—all fenced in, Infirmary, food supplies. Probably not much of an armoury but you never know. In the meantime, Rick thinks we'll look for a house or somethin' till we can find a map or some information on where these places might be situated. Turns out the map Rick found back there is as old as those hills you boys musta hailed from," he joked. Shane was looking excited and Daryl was relieved to see it. If they were all heading for emotional breakdowns he was running for the woods and maybe never coming back.

Merle was still looking pretty rough, choosing not to speak to Shane directly but answering him with a weak shrug.

"Yeah," Shane continued. "Shoulda thought about that Juvenile Detention Centre. Spent a time there myself when I was a kid. Turns out you shouldn't go stealin' your principal's car an' vandalisin' it." He winked at the Dixon brothers then left them to ponder that small bombshell as he returned to the Hyundai.

"That bastard was a mini crim an' he still became a cop," Merle laughed, tickled pink at the irony. "No wonder the world's goin' to shit."