"We could burn it down." Glenn received not the first dirty look of the night for that suggestion.
"What would be the point o'that, Jackie? Whole place might catch alight and then we're right back to nothin'." Merle sat back in his chair, stretching his arms up in the air and then relaxing them behind his head. Carol was watching and expelled a little sigh of relief that he'd detached the knife or poor Andrea sitting next to him might have been slashed in the face.
"Well how do you propose we take out two hundred walkers closed up in a hall?" Glenn prodded, his eyes burning with resentment. Seemed like every idea he came up with was shot down in flames—it didn't matter that this was only his second idea. The first one had been practically bounced out the door by Daryl before it had even fully left his mouth. Carol felt sorry for him. Usually he was really smart when strategizing, but this time, Carol just couldn't see a viable option, no matter who suggested it.
"Don't rightly know," Merle at least had the decency to admit honestly, and Glenn seemed to let some of the tension roll off his back. "We could make something like a cattle run out the door, stand behind the fencing and kill them as they come out."
"It's hundreds of walkers, Merle. Don't you think that could get out of control real quick?" Shane asked, though it was obvious he was trying to imagine the idea in action.
"Shit, it could all go south with only ten walkers. We make it maybe ten feet long, place our people all around it, stab the pricks in the head until it's done. Have someone near the door to try an' push 'em back and lock 'em back in if it looks like there's too many."
That sounded extremely dangerous to Carol. "And then what?" She'd been quiet up until now, listening with a growing sense of alarm as they first revealed the existence of this place, then the walkers in the main building, and now the plan to get rid of them and move them all in. Every set of eyes turned to stare at her, even her own daughter and lover, like she was being slow in the head. Maybe she was. Pregnancy could mess with a person's processes, she knew that, but it seemed pretty obvious to her that this situation could well be beyond them.
"Then….we move in. Play happy families," Shane told her, speaking to her like she was a child.
She tutted at him irritably, glaring at a few others that weren't so quick to hide their incredulous expressions at her supposedly stupid question.
"Oh really? That sounds like a whole lot of fun," she deadpanned, waiting for the penny to drop, and when it never did she huffed in disgust. "Seriously, you boys are all about the killin', but what do you plan to do to dispose of two hundred walker carcasses?"
"Burn 'em," Daryl told her, slowly. "Like we always do."
"Burn 'em?" Her eyes shot wide open as she stared him down, suddenly wondering if he was as intelligent as she'd always pegged him as. A quick glance around the table and she was thinking maybe Andrea and Lori were starting to get where she was coming from.
"Burn 'em where, exactly?" Lori asked, and Carol gave her a wink, wishing she could hug her instead for backing her up.
"I dunno," Daryl grumbled, quickly getting impatient with the conversation. "Outside the wall somewhere, I guess."
"Outside the wall?" Carol repeated, and for a second she pondered the likelihood that she really was starting to sound stupid. It was time to slap them over the head with the obvious. "Let's think about that for a second, Daryl. You burn a pile of two hundred bodies outside the wall, that's a pretty impressive fire. That's also a pretty impressive smell and pretty revolting ash that ends up all over our new little community. If you take it into the woods, you risk the trees catching fire and burning out your entire hunting ground. You burn these things anywhere near to where we're going to be livin', you're ringing a dinner bell to all walkers that can see it and you're lighting up a beacon to any other survivors in the area to just come on in and try to take what we just took. Am I paintin' the picture bright enough for you?"
Rick cleared his throat nervously, shared a glance with Shane and Merle, and she just barely caught them smirking. If she wasn't working herself up into a tizzy she might have slapped all three of them.
"Yeah, yeah, okay. I see your point." Daryl's grudging acceptance was tainted with a smidgeon of humour and indulgence and Carol felt her blood pressure rise. She couldn't quite explain why she felt so angry, but it could have something to do with the fact that she already felt like her life was in danger just by being pregnant and now Daryl was going to be knee deep in trying to evacuate a pipe dream by killing a walker army the likes they'd never seen before. There were two hundred possible chances for it all to go spectacularly wrong, leaving her with a broken heart, a fatherless child, and possibly Sophia without either of them.
"Oh good," she said cattily, her eyes darting around at everyone as a lump grew in her throat. "Being that I'm stupid and all." Before anyone could respond, Carol was out of her seat and retreating like her ass was on fire to the room she'd claimed as theirs, slamming the door behind her and wedging a chair under the door handle for good measure.
Her misery seemed to burst open the second her body collided with the bed and Carol buried her face into her pillow to try and muffle her cries. She was so sick of feeling vulnerable. For months now it had been physical—at the mercy of her husband's violent temper, then left cruelly to defend herself and Sophia against the walker scourge that was leaving them very few places to go. She'd so very nearly failed at that one, losing Sophia for so long she'd thought she was dead. Had known it like she'd known her own name. Sophia had been bit, and had run away to die. There was nothing that could possibly leave her more vulnerable than that. Until she'd fallen in love with Daryl and foolishly fallen pregnant at the end of the world when she was at the latter end of her childbearing years with no medical intervention in continued existence. The weakness she felt now was ferocious in how it did a number in her head. Ferocious in how it made her knees buckle and her heart cry out for something she wasn't sure she could ever have.
She hated that she could never feel certain. Not certain how Daryl felt about her, not certain about her place in this group, not certain that she'd survive another day out there in this new, dangerous world let alone if she made it through her pregnancy. She wanted so very much to hold this baby in her arms and she felt so stupid for thinking so far ahead when the baby was barely bigger than a peanut. It may never even make it to the size of a walnut for all she knew and already she was thinking of clothes, names, feeling her baby's flesh warm against her own.
Not that any of it would matter if Daryl ended up dead just so they'd have a safer place to stay.
She felt emotionally exhausted and the tears just wouldn't stop flowing. Feeling like she had no choices left, Carol gave into the hollow feeling in her heart and sobbed helplessly into her pillow.
Daryl sat at the table, staring at the spot where Carol had disappeared, and looked completely shell-shocked. "The hell just happened?"
Andrea rolled her eyes at him. "Really? You can't tell she's terrified?"
"Terrified of what? Ain't nothin' more than we've faced before. 'Least now we got us a real chance at a life." He was honestly bewildered why Carol wasn't the one jumping for joy at his discovery. The day when he'd found the place, he'd been slapped with an overwhelming change to his life. He'd been forced out of his comfort zone of holding everyone at arm's length and found out that the one woman he'd ever considered taking a risk on was going to be permanently glued to his side with his own baby bouncing on her hip. His own reckless actions in a moment of pure fear, when his adrenaline had been pumping furiously through his body, had made him a pappy, and while his first response had been to run, and run hard and fast and as far as he possibly could, all he'd really wanted was to be with Carol and to keep his little family safe. Next thing he'd almost stumbled blindly into the stone wall that was literally the answer to all their prayers. Now she was going batshit crazy and making him look like a dumbass to the rest of the group. And she'd done all that because she was afraid?
"You're actually serious, aren't you?" Andrea almost lit up, an amused smile on her lips, her eyes glistening with mirth, and Daryl's mouth cracked around a grimace. "Do you have any idea how crazy this sounds? You guys are going to march in there armed with, what? Crowbars and pitchforks, and take down up to two hundred walkers, some of who are kids, and you think Carol's crazy for being scared that it could all go wrong and she's left a single parent?"
"Well, what the fuck do you suggest? We keep our asses on this farm and let another herd come in and kill us off? I know it's a damn risk, but it's one we gotta take."
Andrea leaned across the table, all remnants of humour wiped clear from her face. "She's pregnant, Daryl. All this, with you, it's new to her. She's afraid of losing you, and pregnancy hormones would be making it worse. No one is saying that this place you found isn't perfect and we should do everything we can to take it, but cut her some slack, why don't you?"
"I'll go up and check on her," Lori offered, reaching out and grasping Daryl's hand in a quick, reassuring squeeze before he had the chance to flinch away and snatch his hand out of hers. Compassion seemed to flow from her gaze before she left the table, her hand gently caressing Rick's shoulder as she walked past him and headed up the stairs.
"Are we all goin' there to kill these walkers?" a small voice asked and everyone turned in surprise to see Beth, wide-eyed and shaking.
"No," Shane answered her. "Daryl, Rick, Merle, Glenn, Maggie, Andrea and I will go back to the commune and clear the hall, and then we'll come back and get ya'll when it's safe."
"And what if walkers come through here while ya'll are gone? Who's gonna protect us if we're here on our own?" Beth pointed out another flaw to their plan, the only firepower being left behind being Hershel.
"Glenn and Maggie stay," Rick decided on the spot, nodding to the couple who at first seemed hesitant to agree but who finally settled with a quick nod. "We'll set up a plan and a way to find each other if something like that happens. It'll be fine, Beth. This will work."
The discussion continued through the night with the kids getting up and leaving pretty soon after Lori had left the table, going off to find something entertaining for them to do, and as the plan seemed to develop with more and more loopholes, based more on drive and determination than actual foolhardy skill, the women got up and left them to it as well. Daryl watched Merle as his brother seemed fascinated by Andrea and Patricia as they headed off together, a frown settling in deep creases around his eyes. Beth scrambled after them, Shane's head turning slightly as he watched her leave, then concentrating once again on their plan. Daryl was sick of watching. He just wanted to go talk to Carol and find out exactly how much shit he was in. Wanted to know if he'd be sleeping on the floor, remembering what it was like to dream about touching her rather than having the right to just do it. It didn't look like he'd get the chance to talk to her for hours yet, so Daryl sighed, sat back and tried to think of a plan that would keep all their asses safe.
Andrea took over watch as Hershel beat a path to the kitchen, eager to hear the developments about the commune. Patricia watched him walk inside, and then observed Andrea as she wandered off the porch to do her first lap around the property. Without a single weapon in her hand, she sat in the swing seat on the porch and tried not to think too deeply about her life.
The night seemed menacing, for some reason. She couldn't explain it, couldn't shake it, this feeling of being watched. She felt like there were eyes in the woods, quietly observing her for some purpose she couldn't ever comprehend.
Sitting alone, she felt afraid. Even though the house was filled with people and Andrea was patrolling the perimeter, she felt like something wasn't quite right. The air around her felt stifling, like it wasn't hers to breathe. There was something out there that just fed this reality of the unnatural—it was creepy and as the sensation of it sank into her bones, her blood chilled in her veins and her skin erupted in goosebumps. She stared out at the woods, trying to see if there was anything moving amongst the trees, if the subtle whispers of the wind was hiding a secret too sinister for her to comprehend, and then she nearly jumped completely out of her skin as someone sat down beside her and the metal seat creaked and groaned under their weight.
He'd washed up before dinner, she knew, having caught the subtle whiff of the plain soap they'd all been using as she'd dished up his plate. So far, though, Merle hadn't made any effort to speak to her, let alone seek her out. She was so shocked now that he sat beside her that she didn't think she'd be able to speak.
"Whatcha lookin' at?"
Patricia chanced a glance at him, feeling sick and nervous for reasons she couldn't explain. She'd been a married woman, for Heaven's sake. It didn't make sense for her to feel all tongue-tied around a man, especially a man like Merle.
"Not sure," she finally choked out, still feeling that unsavoury sense of unreality travelling across her flesh and leaving tiny prickles behind. "Something don't feel right."
"That'd be the world full of biters," he suggested, grinning like a little boy.
Patricia immediately relaxed, sitting back in the chair and automatically kicking the chair into a swing. Merle wasn't ready for it, his large body jolting at the sudden motion before he calmed his way into the slow rocking motion, his own, longer legs keeping it going after Patricia's first kick had started to slow to a stop.
"Shouldn't you be inside helpin' with the plan?" She cocked her head to the side and drank him in. He was so strong, probably in ways she'd never even considered, and yet she knew his past and how weakness dotted its way through it.
"They're doin' nothin' but talkin' round and round in circles. A man needs to relax a little before bed otherwise that twisted shit runs around on repeat in his head. Last thing I need before we tackle a million walkers is nightmares about it all going to shit." He stretched, popping a muscle in his neck. Patricia could hear the creak of his bones settling back into position as he relaxed further into the seat and she could see the sleepiness that was adding a droop to his eyelids.
"You know, the first time I heard of Merle Dixon was on a pill bottle. Your havin' the clap saved T-Dog's life. That must make you feel pretty good." She was doing her best to hide a grin, looking down at her lap as he jerked upright and blustered.
"My dick's helped solve a lot o' problems in its time, darlin', but I ain't so sure I'm happy it saved the life of that prick that caused me to cut off my own hand," Merle growled, and Patricia was left up in the air as to whether he was pissed that his meds had saved T-Dog from succumbing painfully to infection or if he was in high spirits from managing to get his dick into a conversation with a woman. "An' just for the record, those pills were leftovers. I got rid of my affliction before the biters came a callin'."
Patricia giggled, quickly covering her mouth and trying to hold it in. "That's good to know."
"You best be makin' sure everyone knows that bit of truth," he warned, but she could plainly see his eyes were sparkling with fine humour now. "I should slap that boy silly for tellin' ya'll what that was for."
"There a reason why everyone needs to know you're free of sexually transmitted diseases, Merle?"
He stopped the chair from swinging, leaned forward with his elbows braced against his knees and then slowly turned his head to stare at her.
"It took the world goin' to shit for my baby brother to get his ass into gear and find himself a woman. I ain't lettin' the same circumstance of fate deprive me of the same." He winked and then, as Patricia sucked in a breath to process what he might be implying, he launched himself to his feet and was gone.
That unnerving feeling of something being off in the world was now completely forgotten.
"Carol? It's Lori. You wanna talk about it?" Lori tried the door handle and frowned when she found it jammed. Trying to shove the door a little, she quickly realised Carol had shoved a chair under the knob and her lips twitched. She had a funny feeling Daryl was going to be in for it tonight if she didn't get to run a bit of interference first. "Honey? You need to open the door and talk about this. I promise I know exactly how you're feelin'." And she did, Lori realised. That fear of watching your man as he left your side to enter into a dangerous world—she'd been living with it for at least fifteen years now, ever since Rick was first given a gun and put in charge of keeping the town under control and the people safe. Walkers just exacerbated the original fear, but it had always been there at some level or another. It never left, it never allowed her to relax and breathe a deep sigh that everything was going to be okay, because as soon as she did that he'd be out there again, and these days he didn't even have to leave her side for him to find danger. Death and horror sought them out without them even having to move.
She hadn't heard Carol's silent steps as she'd walked to the door, but un-wedging the chair made some noise and Lori was ready for it when the door swung open and she was allowed to see Carol's tear-ravaged face.
"Oh, Carol." She enveloped the woman in her arms and squeezed her tight.
"I'm just being stupid," Carol said, pulling away and wiping her wet face. "This place they found, we have to try and take it. It's too perfect not to."
Lori pulled her over to the bed and together they sat on the edge, the brunette holding Carol close with an arm slung around her shoulders. They sat together in silence, heads together as Carol slowly started to breathe in a more regular pattern, a calmer pace, and Lori started telling her what it was like to be an officer's wife, what it was like to leave your husband in a hospital bed, knowing he was fighting to come back to them right up to the moment that walkers took to the streets and attacked everything she knew.
"I'm always scared," Lori revealed, the pain of the truth pushed down so deep by now that it was barely noticeable to others. "I'm always wonderin' if this is the day he won't come back. When we first met Daryl at the quarry, I'd never have picked him as the type to drop everything to keep a woman safe. I thought he'd be more like Ed, but I'm so happy to be proven wrong. He's doing everything he can to keep you safe, to provide a good life for you an' the baby."
"I know." Carol took a deep, shuddering breath, her body shaking against Lori's. "I'm still tryin' to blank out these images of dying—mostly it's me." Lori watched helplessly as Carol dissolved into tears once again and she rushed to hug her tight. "What if I don't make it and I leave Sophia and a baby behind? What hope does Daryl have then? What about any of you? God, this is just so…I don't know what to do?" The calmness of a moment before evaporated into thin air, Carol's breaths becoming raspy and spasmodic as she tried to force herself to not panic. Lori could see it was already too late.
"Sssshhhh," she soothed, her hand sweeping large, hypnotising circles on her back. "You know Merle's already picked out a name for this baby. I think you'll agree it's a good one."
It did the trick, Carol pulling away with a horrified expression twisting her face. "Oh my God, there's no way I'm letting Merle name my baby. I don't think I can even let Daryl. He'd pick something crazy like…like…Asskicker or something."
Lori laughed and the bed jiggled beneath them. "You are so close an' you don't even know," she revealed with a wink. "Merle suggested Badger. Badger As-salaam Dixon. Bad Ass for short."
Carol was totally still, not moving or uttering a sound for several minutes, her gaze unwavering with Lori's. Then she slumped, shaking her head and the hint of a smile graced her lips, transforming her face. "You cannot be serious."
Lori's head jerked up and down, her grin wide. "You shoulda heard some of the names Shane suggested when I was expectin' Carl. Badger's pretty good compared to something like Peabody."
"He didn't." Carol choked on a laugh.
"Oh, he did. Rick was almost with him when he suggested Ulysses." She joined Carol in a giggle. "These are Dixon boys," Lori reminded her with a gentle shove with her shoulder. "Daryl might really love the name Badger."
"Over my dead body."
It was entirely inappropriate, considering Carol's fears of exactly that, but Lori snorted. "We just better make sure that don't happen or this poor child is in for a life of hell raisin' thanks to its daddy and uncle Merle."
The atmosphere duly lightened, Carol stood, grasping Lori in a fierce hug before letting her go just as abruptly. "Thank you. I feel so much better now."
They sat there, side by side, quietly thinking over the dangers that awaited them outside the house, at the compound, in just trying to live through every day. It was stressful, but Lori knew it was survivable. She'd been doing it for years, and she'd done it when she'd thought Rick was gone for good. The pain had been excruciating, the fear almost insurmountable, but with Shane, with friends, she'd gotten through it, and should the worst happen again, she knew Carol would too.
"You wanna go see what the kids are up to?" There wasn't a whole lot for kids to do when they were on the run for their lives every other day, but Lori at least had learned that they needed to be kept an eye on to keep them out of trouble. Between the pair of them, Carl and Sophia had shot themselves into more trouble than the rest of the group combined.
"Knowing those two, they'll be schemin' up something they shouldn't," Carol joked, and together they the room, intent on hunting their offspring down.
"Has anyone seen Beth?" Maggie stood in the doorway, hands on her hips and watched everyone shake their heads as they sat relaxing around the main room before settling down for the night.
Shane walked in through the back, stopping as a room full of eyes turned to him.
"You seen Beth?" Maggie repeated, starting to worry when he replied that he hadn't.
"You checked inside?" he asked, having his own suspicion of where she could be. "I'll go take a look outside. Maybe she went to check on the chickens or the garden or something."
"No worries." He wasn't sure why he'd taken it upon himself to keep an eye on Beth. Something about her behaviour the other night had worried him and when he observed everyone in the group, Beth seemed to stand too often alone. She didn't talk much, didn't draw attention to herself, and he'd noticed one time too many that she appeared to become almost invisible. Whether it was by choice or accident, he didn't know, but he didn't think disappearing could be a good thing.
He went first to the place by the house where he'd found her before, a frown settling on his face when she wasn't there. He was starting to worry now. It was dark, Rick was guarding the front of the house while Merle was out back and neither of them had seen her. He quickened his pace as he started checking out all the little shadowed nooks around the place she might have gone for a bit of privacy and his heart started to race the more of them he found empty. He was really starting to hope Maggie had found her in the house because if she was missing, they couldn't do anything about searching for her until the sun came up.
The last place was the hen house, and she wasn't there either. Shane hadn't felt so frantic since the day Carl had been shot, and that had been one seriously draining day. He was about to run back to the house to see if her sister had found her when he noticed something odd sticking out from behind a tree just beyond the chicken coop. As he neared it he realised it was her shoes, and as he broke into a run and rounded the tree, his knife in his hand, there she was, slouched uncomfortably against the tree.
He dropped to his knees, straight away going to the pulse in her neck and nearly collapsed with relief as it jumped against his fingers.
"Christ, Beth. You scared the livin' shit outta me."
She jerked awake, startled by the hissed words so close to her ear. He quickly covered her mouth to prevent a scream, but her eyes understood immediately the lack of threat and she relaxed.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, blue eyes remorseful. "I musta fallen asleep."
"I ought to tan your hide," he chuckled, grabbing her hand and yanking her up with him as he stood. She stumbled against him, knocking him back a step before he steadied them. A zapping, electric shock jolted through him when her hands settled against his pecs and he sucked in an amazed breath.
"I'm so sorry," she said again, the apology falling to the side as his brain tried to catch up to the feel of this girl in his arms. He was dazed, letting his grip on her arms go slowly, but quickly replacing it on her hips.
"It's nothin'. Just next time tell people where you're goin' and try not to prop yourself up like walker bait." His throat felt tight and his voice was coming out all wrong, like it was sandpapered down to its roughest, most raw natural state. He wanted to kiss her—the impulse was so strong he felt staggered. He couldn't, though. Getting involved with Beth would stir up a whole world of trouble that none of them were ready to deal with, let alone Shane himself, and yet he couldn't move. Couldn't loosen the grip he had on her hips, couldn't stop himself from pulling her closer, but as a sound from the house broke through the night and sanity was squeezing back in, she took the decision out of his hands and stepped forward, placing her sweet, soft lips against his.
AN…I already replied to a couple of reviews but thought I'd answer the rest here for now.
Lori: I can't tell you how very much you made my day. It is a tremendous compliment to say an Aussie girl writes a good Merle. Thank you!
HGRHfan35: THANK YOU! When I wrote that chapter I was giggling all the way through. Not a huge response on the humour of it so I was feeling seriously discouraged. Thank you for finding it amusing! The condition of the animals etc. will come out in due time ;)
Criminy Jickets: Sadly, this story will have to end sometime. I know, it will be heartbreaking, LOL, but it simply can't go on forever. With luck I'll have other fics you like as much so the depravation won't be so severe! And, here's the next chapter ;)
Itsi3: ;) Thanks for reading!
Axelrocks: Firstly, I love you for finding my attempt at humour actually funny, LOL. I was losing hope that anyone did! I think Michonne is nasty, or cruel, LOL. I like the idea of Merle calming the hell down and having actual friends. He had the potential…I think. I give full credit for Badger to ImOrca. It's really starting to grow on me!
Hiatus80: You're starting from scratch so you won't see this for ages, but, it's great to have you along for the ride!