Author's Note: And again I say: Wow! You-all liked the babies, and the whole set up they've got going here. Which is just fantastic, because I was seriously wigging out about it. This chapter is short, I know, but I wanted to get it posted because it might be a few days before I can get sixteen finished.
Also to the guest reviewer who said that Will was Merle and Daryl's father's name: That may have been the case in the video game (I think it was in the game) but it's never been said in the show, and that's what I'm taking as canon for this story. Here, their father's name was Luther, or 'Lute' for short, and Will is named after his uncle Merle.
They ate rice with tomatoes and boiled crawfish, Daryl, Will sitting on his lap, Beth, little Maggie, Judith and Maggie taking up the table, the others spread out around the yard. Food was served in earthware bowls, cracked but still glazed dark red, brown and green. Spirit seemed to soak into the group from Georgia as the day passed the hours and little by little, everyone began to relax and become reacquainted with one another.
Daryl didn't fail to notice that Merle was the only one that hung back, separating himself from the group, even as they began to heat water and as Glenn helped Daryl bring the tub down from the house. He was different, it was occurring to Daryl; this behavior was so unlike Merle, who, back in the day, would have been jostling for the first and best of everything.
He and Beth took Maggie and Will up into the house, and then helped his old group carry buckets of water, walking that trail probably twenty times before everyone had had a chance to get clean, and scrub at their clothes. They strung sopping garments to dry in the air just as the sun was beginning to go down, and Daryl headed up to the house to be with his family before it was time to put the kids down for the night.
Little Maggie was tucked into her bed, underneath a light sheet for the warm summer night, a quilt that Suzy had sewn by hand folded at her feet. Daryl sat on the floor next to her, book in his lap, while Beth was on the sofa, nursing Will. He was halfway through reading to Maggie about Max and the wild rumpus in Where the Wild Things Are, when there was a short knock on the hatch. Daryl saw Beth cover herself and Will's head with a thin blanket just before Merle poked his head up into the house.
Merle paused and looked around for a moment, before turning his attention to Daryl and clearing his throat roughly. "A word, little brother?"
Daryl had been expecting this, or something like it, and nodded shortly. "In a minute. Gotta finish up here." He flapped the pages of the book, and Maggie giggled tiredly.
Merle's eyes went narrow but he didn't say anything else; just nodded shortly and climbed back down the ladder. He finished the story, kissed Maggie's forehead and then crossed the room to Beth. She turned her face up to him, and Daryl kissed her, slow and long, one hand petting the soft hair on Will's head, the other on the curve of Beth's neck.
"You alright?" she asked when he pulled back.
"We'll find out."
The yard was lit with a few kerosene lanterns, shining dirty yellow in the darkness. Daryl could see the shadowed shapes of the Georgia group sleeping on blanket-pallets on the ground; Rick, Carl and Judith grouped together, Glenn and Maggie a few feet away from them. He found Merle sitting on top of the table, feet propped on a chair. He shoved off as Daryl approached.
"Let's go down by the water," Daryl said, already headed toward the gate. "Don't want to wake the others." Merle jerked his head in a nod and followed.
The moon was reflected and rippled on the surface of the water, silver half-circle turned to green from the algae and other plant life. The only sound was the crickets and locusts setting a steady din of background noise; birds that lived in the trees and bushes quiet for the night. Daryl set on a fallen log back from the muddy shore, but Merle continued on down. His brother fished a stone from the mud and sent it skipping across the surface of the swamp water; disturbing the peace as always. When Merle spoke, his tone was one of confusion, turning his voice into a dusty, hoarse thing.
"You're not like the Old Man was," he said, still facing the water. This was at least classic Merle; couldn't let anyone see something like his confusion, or such a weak thing as talking about real shit.
"Thanks," is all Daryl comes back with, but he knows where his brother is coming from. It was a conversation they'd had before, in the early morning hours after the buzz of a good drunk had started to fade and they'd be laying around Daryl's living room, pizza crusts scattered over the scarred coffee table. They both always assumed that they'd be terrible parents, living by example.
"Didn't we promise?" Merle was saying, mind obviously in the same place as Daryl's. "We said, the both of us, after we were finally out of that fuckin' place, we said we'd never have kids. Wasn't worth the risk. What happened to that?"
Daryl thought that he was the only one who had probably ever seen his brother like this, and the only one who ever would. "Beth happened to that," he said, feeling like a sappy piece of shit while he did. But it was the truth. It was Beth that had busted through all of the bullshit, starting back when she'd literally dragged his ass from death's door.
"Pretty little thing," Merle finally turned his back on the water and sat next to Daryl, arms on his knees. The cap that covered his stub glinted in the moonlight. "I'll give you that. You save her, or somethin'? You always did want to be a fuckin' hero."
Daryl shook his head, laughing with a snort. "She saved my ass." Merle snorted then. "No, for real. I'm not talking about anything sappy," though she did that too, "I got grabbed by some asshole and his group. I was probably only a coupla days away from kicking it when she busted in and rescued my sorry ass." He kicked at Merle's boot. "And I wanted to be a hero when I was five, asshole. You're the one had me convinced that I could fly."
"Didn't think your dumbass would actually jump off the roof," Merle shoved him back.
"I was five, dickhead," Daryl said, picking at a piece of tree bark. "Hey, Merle?"
"I'm glad you're not dead."
"Shut up. I always knew you were soft, but that girl turned you into a straight up pussy." Merle rubbed the back of his neck, clearly embarrassed over the whole conversation. "You don't deserve her, you know that, right?"
And there's where people didn't get Merle. He wasn't being cruel, he wasn't trying to be deliberately mean, though he had his moments of that too. Merle just said what he thought, no matter the consequences. His brother may be an asshole who spouted racist bullshit that Daryl knew he didn't really believe, but he at least he was honest- most of the time.
"I know. But I lucked the fuck out and I'm not about to screw it up. I'll go to my grave keepin' them."
When he crawled into bed next to Beth a little while later, she was barely awake but pressed further into him when he curved his body around hers.
"Everything alright?" her voice was sleep filled and rough.