AN: Hola! This story is an older one of mine which I've taken the pains of re-writing because, while I love the tale, I originally wrote it when I was in my early teens and the writing was what I would now consider abysmal; I've trimmed off all of the fat (it was originally 100 chapters long and almost 400,000 words long, can you believe?!) and is now way more concise. The story is now the redemption arc that I originally wanted to tell.
Anyway, now that I've bored your heads off, I do hope that you enjoy this tale. The premise is simple; what if Rick had allowed Merle to come back to the prison after his escape from Woodbury rather than sending him off into the wilderness?
Glenn slammed the door of the vehicle shut as he collapsed into the driver's seat. At his side, Maggie looked to him questioningly.
"He's coming back with us," Glenn spat. "Merle Dixon. At the prison. In our home."
Maggie didn't say a word. She stared out of the passenger window, where the two Dixon brothers were climbing into the second car with Rick and Michonne. Merle looked smug, like the cat who'd eaten the canary, the way he always did. She hated that look. She remembered the exchanges the two of them had endured only days before and shivered.
The pair were quiet on the drive back to the prison; low on gas, the two cars drew to a stop on an abandoned highway and began to siphon from the nearby cars. Many of them had already been drained, being this close to the prison. Most had been looted, too, though Dixon had managed to salvage a packet of crumpled-up cigarettes from somewhere. Noticing Glenn's stare, he offered him the packet. Glenn sharply declined and Merle shrugged.
"Just being friendly."
Glenn shook his head, angered by his nonchalance. "We are not friends."
"Never said we were, China Town. Just trying to keep the peace."
Glenn was affronted. "Keep the peace, after what you did-?!"
"Let's not do this now," Rick interjected from the car window. "Let's get home, then we can sort this mess once and for all-"
A scream. Short and sharp, but enough to set the whole group on edge. Definitely human, definitely female. Glenn immediately let go of his discrepancy with the eldest Dixon in favor of finding the source.
"It came from somewhere on the other side of the bridge," Glenn detected, "if we're quick we can get there."
"Don't bother," Merle said, shrugging his shoulders. "It'll all be over by the time you reach 'em anyway."
Glenn was not listening; he was already on his way, jogging between the cars. Daryl opened up his door and followed out after him, crossbow in hand, ignoring the dismissive insults from his brother which followed after him. He caught up with Glenn at the other end of the bridge, at the edge of the forest; there was no sign of any life in amongst the trees, only a Walker shuffling far in the distance, and another with it's head caved in a little further in. Daryl approached it and found that the damage was fresh; the brain matter was wet and red, the creature's head split in two like a fallen coconut, hit with something heavy and narrow.
"There's someone close," Daryl muttered. "The blood's still running. They can't have gotten far."
A rustling through the trees; someone was moving about in the outskirts, too speedily to be a Walker. Trying to be quiet, Glenn realised; trying to sneak away. Glenn spotted the figure through the leaves, and held up a hand.
Without a moment's hesitation the girl broke into a sprint.
"We can help you!" Glenn called after her, as she darted deeper into the woodland.
"I've heard of being on the hunt for some action but this is a lil' extreme," Merle called, approaching the two with his cigarette held between his teeth. He caught a glimpse of yellow hair as the girl rushed away; she had a dark blue rucksack and a hefty weapon in one hand.
"Should we go after her?" Glenn asked.
"She look like she wants us to go chase her down?" Merle quipped, tapping ash. The girl looked back over her shoulder to see if they were chasing after her, lost her footing on a tree root, and stumbled right to the ground. Merle chuckled.
"Not the sharpest tool in the shed, it'd seem."
Glenn took the opportunity to jog over to her. She loudly warned him to back off, scooting backwards in an attempt to get away; she seemed unable to get back up on her feet, her ankle twisted at an awkward angle. The leaves around her rustled agitatedly as she moved.
"Stay back," she warned, as though she had any chance of defending herself, trying again to get to her feet and failing; she arched her back, her rucksack weighing her like an overturned turtle. There was fright in her voice. "Please, please, just stay over there."
"Okay." Glenn raised his upturned hands in a show of peace. "I'm not going to hurt you."
The girl jutted her chin over his shoulder, gesturing to the two Dixon's, the younger of whom was approaching.
"What about your friends?" She gritted her teeth, bracing against the pain in her foot.
"They're fine," Glenn said. He was talking to her as though she were a wounded animal, though more of a house cat than a tiger. "Are you out here on your own?"
"No," she said, but Glenn knew from her diction alone that it was a lie. "I'm with a group. They're in here too, somewhere. With guns."
"They've got guns and they've let you have nothing but a rusty old crowbar?" Merle quipped, within ear shot now. "Some friends."
The girl gritted her teeth. "If you're looking to rob me, don't bother. I've got nothing worth taking."
Merle thought of a quick jape in retaliation but for once held his tongue.
"Don't mind him," Glenn interrupted. "You can trust us."
The girl almost laughed through the pain, one hand gripped around her ankle now.
"...Yeah. Look, no offence, but no happy story has ever begun with a girl alone in the woods with three armed men."
"Ain't that the truth," Merle said, and Daryl told him to shut up. Glenn continued to reason with the girl, but through her fright and pain she was having none of it; if she had a gun with her, Merle was certain that she would be pointing it at the three of them. Merle saw that things were going no where, so stepped in and gave it to her cold.
"Listen, Blondie. You've got no reason to trust us, sure. But you're going nowhere on that leg without our help."
He took the last drag of his cigarette, stamped it out in the ruffage.
"Even if we are the psycho-murderer-rapists that your paranoid little head is probably paintin' us as, we're the only psycho-murderer-rapists offering you a hand."
He held out his own.
"Take it. I've only got the one."
The girl stared at his hand for a long while. She pondered his words, and begrudgingly realised that he was right. If she was jumped by one of those dead things in this state, she was dead. At least she stood a chance with these people- and that's what she needed to take, to stay alive. A chance. She took the hand, and Merle pulled her to her feet.
"Atta girl. What's your name?"
"Laurel," she answered, allowing Daryl to assist her on her other side. "Where are we going?"
"Let's not get too ahead of ourselves here. You're supposed to say, 'pleased to meet you, what's your name, mister?'"
Laurel pursed her lips. She didn't like this guy, he gave her the creeps. Him and his silent greasy-haired friend. Instead she turned to the first man she'd spoken to, the only one of the three who seemed reasonable.
"Where are we going?"
"We've got a group back this way," Glenn explained as they left the forest, "we heard you scream. They're waiting for us to come back."
Laurel's throat tightened. "All guys?"
"No, women too. My girlfriend is there. You'll like her."
Laurel relaxed a little at the thought. As she hobbled back on the the bridge, it became increasingly difficult to weave between the cars with both Dixon's for support, so she attempted to hobble on her own. By the time the rest of the group were in sight she was in biting pain.
Rick got out of the car the moment he spotted the four figures approaching. He saw the way the girl was struggling to walk and touched his fingers to his knife holster.
"Has she been bit?"
"She fell," Glenn answered, helping the girl the last leg of the way. The stopped short of him, eyes locked on one another. "This is Laurel."
Rick glanced her up-and-down. "You checked her for weapons?"
"The girl had a crowbar," Merle said with a raised brow, "she was all wound up like a spinning top, if she'd had a gun on her, pretty sure she'd have been pointing that at us instead."
Rick was not satisfied with that answer. He had the girl outstretch her arms as he frisked her down, quickly and efficiently, the way he'd been taught in the academy. Merle smirked.
"You always get the fun jobs, Rick?"
Rick scowled. He turned to the girl and asked her if she was alone.
"I lost my people a week or so back," she answered, this time honestly. A sadness crept into her voice. "We were holed up in a factory since the start of all this... things went sour, I was the only one to get out alive. Thought I'd head towards the city- that's where you find civilization, right?"
"The only thing you'll find in Atlanta is corpses," Rick answered her. "The cities are overrun. Staying rural is the only way of staying alive."
"Oh," Laurel said. There wasn't much else to say. She's expected at least the inner city to be strong, fortified. There was silence for a long time until Glenn spoke.
"We should be getting back. The others will worry."
"Others?" Laurel said, unsure whether that made her feel hopeful or more nervous.
Rick studied Laurel for a long while. Then he asked,
"How many of the dead have you killed?"
Laurel scratched nervously at her forearm. "Not many. I've never had all that many run-ins with them. Someone else used to take care of that stuff."
Rick tilted his head. "How many people have you killed?"
Laurel looked stricken.
"Why would I want to kill people?"
There was another long pause before Merle chucked.
"Sweetheart, you must not know many people."
"You can come back with us," Rick decided, nodding, though he did not seem happy even with his own decision. "You can accept the hand we're offering you, or you can stay out here- makes no odds to us if that's what you choose. But we have a safe place, good people... If you want it, you can have that, too. Would you like that?""
The girl seemed to struggle inwardly for a moment longer, then gave a slow nod.
"Yeah. I think I would."
Rick motioned to Daryl. "Blind-fold her until we get there. We're not taking any chances."
"Hey, what?" Laurel said, pulling back from Daryl as he took his bandanna from his back pocket.
"We don't want you seeing our camp before we know we can trust you." He thought of Randall and sighed. "We've made mistakes before. We won't be making them again."
Laurel seceded and Daryl wound the bandanna gently over her eyes; she didn't resist, but stood tense throughout the process and remained so as she was lead to the back of the vehicle that Michonne was driving. As they reached the cars, Rick pressed his hand firmly into the girls' shoulder and leant in close. She flinched a little as he spoke.
"Try anything, you're the one who's gonna loose. We clear?"
The girl swallowed. "Crystal."
Rick pressed his hand to her shoulder approvingly before removing her rucksack from her back and helping her to navigate her way inside the back of the car.
"Safety first," Merle japed, sliding in beside Laurel and plugging in her seat-belt. She shuffled away uncomfortably, ensuring that they were not touching. Merle sucked his teeth at her, but said nothing; he was happy, for the first time in a while. The rest of the group were exhausted, but with his brother at his side and the nightmare of Woodbury behind him, Merle felt more alive than he had in months. Then he caught sight of the way that Asian kid was looking at him through the window, and his mood soured.
"You best tell your chinky friend to stop looking at me like I just shit in his cereal," Merle warned his brother. "You just wait till we get to that prison, I'll kick his ass all the way back to China Town."
"He's Korean," Daryl rasped.
"Like I care which way his eyes slant. Hey, maybe that's the problem; he's not looking at me funny, he just can't help the coin-slot-eyes look."
No one laughed but Merle.
"Is he always this polite?" Laurel said sourly, appalled by the man's behavior.
"You should probably keep your mouth shut, sweet thing," Merle said. "Come on Darlena, rev up, let's get out of this shit hole before the Biters come down on us."
Daryl let out a sigh and started the beaten-up car as Rick climbed into the passanger's seat. The engine groaned to life, and the survivors coarsed their way back through the dust of the bitter road.
Carl had been sat outside the prison cell for quite a while now. The young woman that had been brought to the prison was locked inside, and he'd offered to keep an eye on her. She was still blindfolded, motionless but for picking at her broken fingernails, a nervousness to her movements. Carl doubted she even knew he was there. She was in her early twenties, her hair a yellowy-blonde mess of tangled curls. She wasn't fat, but she certainly wasn't thin either, which was irregular; all the women Carl knew now were underfed and sinewy, strong in their arms; they looked like survivors, like fighters. This girl had a womanly softness to her that suggested a somewhat comfortable life, and she wasn't as unwashed as the people he spent his days with.
Someone whispered his name. Carl looked up to see Beth, stood atop the steps at the end of the cell block. She came closer and pulled him a little out of earshot of the girl.
"Stop staring," Beth whispered. "It's rude."
"I'm supposed to be watching her. Besides, It's not like she can see me."
"Maybe not, but she isn't deaf."
Beth wandered if their new arrival was scared. She certainly would be in the same situation, not being able to see in a place full of people she didn't know. Heck, for all this girl knew, they could be monsters. Beth thought of Jimmy for the first time in a long time, and felt a dull sadness wash over her. He had always said that when things got worse and food got scarce, it wouldn't be the dead ones you'd need to worry about anymore, but the living. Beth thought of the Governor and knew that he had been right.
Beth turned as footsteps neared; Rick emerged at the top of the staircase, keys in hand. Beth excused herself as the older Grimes unlocked the cell, gesturing for Carl to join him. The girl shifted, edging back onto the bunk slightly as the two entered. Rick knelt down before her, unsure of what to say. The more people he brought in, the more at risk they were; Axel, Merle, and now this girl, all in the space of a few days. It was a drain on resources.
Laurel cleared her throat.
"So do I talk or are you gonna? Because If I'm supposed to be doing the talking, I've gotta tell you, I really don't know what to say."
Still no word from Rick.
"...Can I at least take this off my face?"
Rick tugged the blindfold down around the girl's neck. Her eyes were a warm brown, a dark contrast to her sunny yellow hair. She gave both he and Carl a weak-willed smile. Neither returned the gesture. Rick explained the situation to her; she was weaponless, injured. Harmless, it seemed. He was blunt with her. If she was monitored closely and knew that leaving wasn't an option, maybe this could work. And if any other group members surfaced, he's put a bullet in her skull and there's. Problem solved.
"You'll stay in here for the night," he continued. "Then you can meet the rest of the group, and we'll see how things progress. I'll have someone come and see to that leg."
Laurel smiled. "Thank you."
"Don't thank me yet," Rick murmured back at her, handing Carl the keys. As he locked the door, the girl spoke again, a sad smile on her face which didn't reach her eyes.
"I'm Laurel, by the way."
Carl looked up at her for a fleeting moment and nodded. "I'm Carl."
"That your Dad?"
"Carl," Rick called before he could answer, gesturing for his son to follow after him. Carl gave the girl a quick glance before following out after his father, leaving Laurel alone with her thoughts.
"What'you think of that girl, then?" Merle asked his brother as the two lingered in the courtyard, Merle down on his knees inspecting the motorcycle Daryl had kept hold of since Atlanta. Daryl shrugged, shouldering his crossbow.
"She'd have died out there." It was as simple as that. "Ain't no two ways about it. She's not a fighter. She's barely even a survivor. Alone, no weapons or food or nothin'... if we'd have left her out there it'd be the same as killing her straight."
"I was looking more for a rating out of ten, but whatever."
Merle rubbed at the paintwork on the side of the motorcycle, trying to plaster down a Schutzstaffel sticker, placed beside a vibrant red logo which read 'SSMC'. He kissed the side of the bike and let out a sigh.
"I've missed this fucking thing. Good to see you've been looking after her like she was your own, little brother."
"She was my own, 'til you decided to make her yours."
Merle laughed, picking the edge of one of the supremacist logos rubbed against the dark paintwork. "The stickers, right? Well, you got a fair deal for her."
"$200 bucks? You call that much a fair deal, the way you and your friends bashed her up?"
"Got her fixed, didn't I? And I wouldn't call them friends, neither. I never had no friends."
"Maybe it's time you make some. These people are a good, more than can be said for the assholes you've been hangin' around with. They'll treat you right if you treat them right. Might even be able to talk Glenn around."
"You ain't gonna talk that not-so-mellow-yellow anywhere. He's made up his mind about me, and it ain't gonna change. Can't blame him for it, neither."
Merle didn't say anything for a long time after that. It made Daryl uncomfortable, because Merle didn't run out of words, not ever. Hell, if you could get him to shut his mouth for a damn moment it was a down right miracle. Merle not talking was like the sun not setting.
"What happened out there?" Daryl asked eventually, the question that had been clawing at the back of his brain since he'd learnt that his brother was still alive. "With Maggie and Glenn?"
"I didn't do nothin' to her if that's what you're thinkin'," Merle seethed, watching the gates glow in the sunset. "I didn't touch her, and if she says I did she's a lyin' bitch."
"I know you wouldn't. But they don't. Hell, I gotta live with you being a dumb-ass, but they won't put up with your shit." Daryl smacked the back of his neck as a critter buzzed by. "Damn 'scitos. You comin' inside?"
Merle watched his brother's back a moment as he came up to the motorcycle, wiping his thumb over some smudge of dirt obscuring the glassy surface of the left mirror. The shine of those feathered wings on his little brother's vest was damn near blinding.
"You go ahead," Merle drawled, looking down at the ground to avoid the glare. "I'll be right on in."
"Yeah, well when you do, don't you talk to no one till I'm with ya," Daryl instructed, imagining in his head all the things that could go wrong if his brother decided to open up that big mouth of his.
"Don't you worry, lil' brother."
The older Dixon smiled and pressed a finger to his lips, cold eyes watching the furnished sky.
"I won't say a word."