Hey there y'all, here it is at last, the final chapter of Doghouse. Not much to say except that I hope I haven't made Merle too tame. He's struggling with change; but if he wants to stay with Team Grimes, (or more accurately, stay with Daryl, who wants to stay with TG), some change on his part is necessary.

Disclaimer: Obviously I don't own The Walking Dead because if I did MERLE WOULD STILL BE FUCKING ALIVE!

AND SO WOUD MILTY!

To AMC: "and the horse you rode in on."

TWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTW DTWDTWDTWD

DAY SEVEN

It was cold out in the yard and even Daryl had abandoned his usual Second Amendment rights for a long-sleeved jacket. Rick was handing out the daily duties, and had teamed Merle with the Junior Sheriff for walker duty again. Merle couldn't figure out why Rick kept partnering him up with Carl. He would've thought Officer Friendly would want to keep Carl away from Merle as much as possible, figuring he would be a bad influence. Maybe it was Merle's superior walker killing skills he wanted the kid to pick up, or maybe there was some other reason. Merle could think of several, but they were all contradictory of each other. Regardless, despite not knowing Rick very well yet, Merle knew he was up to something; he was never more up to something than when he didn't seem to be.

Merle didn't like Dudley Do-Right much, and couldn't help holding the whole missing-hand thing against him, but was starting to develop a grudging respect for him. Damned if he would admit it though. Hell Rick must have something for Daryl to be BFF with him; Daryl would never have followed that prick Shane like he did Rick. At least the man had sand.

Once Team Grimes dispersed to get on with their tasks, Merle hung back a little. Rick was busy re-tying his bootlace, and looked up, squinting into the pale sun a little, as Merle loomed over him.

"Was there something else Merle?"

Merle contemplated saying no and walking off, but curiosity overcame him. "How come you ain't said anything to me about Carol?"

"Carol? Why would I say anything about Carol?"

"Well hell pretty much everyone else here has. Mostly along the lines of 'man the fuck up'."

Rick stood up, and shielded his eyes, looking at Merle with a rumpled forehead. "It's none of my business Merle. You're a grown man, and I'm not your Aunt Abby. If you want to screw up the best thing you've had in probably ever, that's your choice." Rick looked over to the fence line. "Carl's waiting on you." Rick nodded and walked off to his own duties.

Well if that don't beat the Dutch.

TWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTW DTWDTWDTWD

Merle was quietly contemplative while he and Carl took out the walkers along the fence line. Usually Merle liked to taunt them, something along the lines of, "Come on Gorgeous, come and get a taste of ole Merle here. STAB There ya go now! What, you want some too? Was that yer Momma? You're nearly as goodlookin as she was; howsa about a threesome?! There y'are! STAB Sweet, weren't it!"

But today he couldn't help thinking about what Rick had said. Damn these goddamn do-righters. They were turning him soft. Soft as mush. He'd be wearing white shirts and riding a bicycle next.

There was a gap in the stream of walkers so Carl and Merle made their way along the fence-line, heading for the next cluster, who seemingly hadn't noticed them yet.

Carl spoke up, swinging the piece of rebar in his hand back and forth as they walked along.

"So you haven't made it up with Carol yet?"

"Listen kid, what did I tell you about that being none of your beeswax?"

"Yeah, I know. I just hate to see Carol looking so sad. She's such a good person."

"Well it's up to her if she wants to make it up." Merle was carefully off-hand.

"But… didn't you… I mean." Carl broke off suddenly, clearly thinking the better of pursuing that line of inquiry, despite his puzzlement.

"What?" Merle was mildly curious to see where Short Stack was heading with this. He couldn't remember much of what he'd been like at Carl's age, apart from a seething mass of fight and hormones, and never able to tear his eyes off the front of Mary-Lou Pickett's blouse (girl had a rack on her). But he knew it had to be real different for Carl; different folks and background, raised with different values, and then there was that whole end of the world thing going on as well. Sometimes it was hard to tell what way the kid was gonna jump.

"Nothing."

"Aw hell spit it out before you explode."

Carl re-arranged his hat a little, took a deep breath, made sure he was out of arms' length, and spoke up. "I was always taught, if you're the one at fault… Shouldn't you just apologise? Isn't that the manly thing to do?"

The manly thing to do. Hell no wonder Rick didn't feel the need to weigh in. Replica-Rick here was doing it for him. Carl was a chip off the old block alright. It was a sad day when Merle Dixon was being schooled in the masculine virtues by a fuckin thirteen year old.

"I ain't 'pologising. Man's got his pride."

Carl took a few quick strides further away from Merle and muttered, almost to himself, "Well that's kinda dumbass."

"Say what?! If a man don't got his pride, he don't got nothin." Just as well the kid was out of reach or Merle mighta clipped him one.

"I get that. I do. But… well, it seems to me if you have too much pride, then you "don't got nothing" either."

Merle narrowed his eyes. Where was the kid going with this? "How do you figure that?" He was genuinely curious.

Carl stopped and stood his ground, and when he answered he seemed to be developing his answer as he went, feeling his way along. "You want to be with Carol, and she wants to be with you, and all that needs to happen is for you to say sorry to her. But you won't, 'cause you're too proud, so you're not with her. So you've got nothing."

Merle said nothing for a moment, reining himself in. One part of him wanted to smack that smartmouth kid down real hard, backhand him straight across the chops and make him bleed for thinking he could talk to Merle Dixon like that. Another part couldn't help but admit the kid had an unassailable chain of logic going on. Outa the mouths of babes.

Merle's silence clearly didn't act as any kind of warning for Carl, because he continued, thinking aloud, "But if you just said, "Carol, sorry for being such a dumbass", she'd get what she wants, and you'd get what you want. It'd be a win-win scenario. Wouldn't it?"

Merle was starting to regret ever teaching the kid that expression.

"Kid it ain't that simple. Or that easy." Not if you were Merle fuckin Dixon, anyways.

"Yeah it is. If you want it to be." Carl encouraged him.

"No it ain't."

"Yeah it is."

"No it ain't".

Carl smiled a little under his hat at the schoolyard retorts they had going on all of a sudden.

"Yeah it is."

Merle was about to respond but instead what came out of his mouth was, "Hey watch it! Walker!" Carl had inadvertently moved a little too close to the fence, and in the course of talking with Merle had turned to face him, putting Carl's back to the fence. Merle jerked him away roughly and Carl tumbled to the ground. With one powerful slash Merle took off the decomposing arm that a walker had managed to get through a small hole in the fence to claw at Carl.

Carl's hat had fallen off and he quickly crawled after it along the ground to grab it, while Merle rammed his bayonet into the walker's head.

After that, by unspoken mutual agreement, their conversation focussed on mending the hole in the fence and taking out the rest of the walkers that had shambled over alerted by the fracas.

TWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTW DTWDTWDTWD

Merle sat in the shaded corner of the yard waiting for lunch to be ready, sipping on some water, and wishing there was ginger beer. Hell, any beer, really. The day had heated up real fast, and putting down walkers was thirsty work.

Beth came out of the prison and looked around, clearly searching for someone. She nodded politely but distantly to Merle and then made her way down the steps to join Hershal at the bottom. Hershal was comfortably ensconced on the bottom step, picking over sunflower seeds in a bowl, an old straw hat covering his white locks.

"Daddy? Have you seen Maggie?" She dipped her hand into the bowl of cleaned seeds to grab a couple and Hershal smacked lightly at it.

"We won't have any crop next year, and no sunflower oil, if you eat all the seeds now." That had been one of Carol's ideas, to plant sunflowers for next year for the crop of seeds. As well as a food crop, they could make sunflower oil, and that had many uses besides just a cooking oil; making soap and ointments for starters. They had to begin making themselves self-sufficient. Merle imagined the outer field covered with a vast array of yellow-headed flowers, their faces turned up to the sun. Had to admit, it would look better than walkers.

"Sorry Daddy, "Beth said easily, with a cheeky smile, eating the seeds she had pilfered. "Maggie?"

"She and Daryl have gone out already." Merle knew Hershal didn't like Maggie going out on the back of the bike with Daryl, but even Hershal conceded that they got the supply and scouting runs done fast and efficiently, and despite having two people on the bike, it used less gas than any of the other vehicles.

"Did you tell her what I wanted her to pick up for me?"

"Oh... I'm sorry Junebug, I clean forgot. They'll have to get it next time."

"That's OK Daddy. It can wait."

Yeah, looks like it'll have to, 'Junebug'. Merle wondered idly what she wanted. Probably some girly shit like lipstick or friendship bracelets. Damn, two "sorry's" in two minutes. These people seemed to find apologising downright easy, as if they were saying nothing more charged than "pass the salt".

Maybe it came easier with practise.

TWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTW DTWDTWDTWD

A goat. Daryl and Maggie had come back from the supply run with a fucking live nanny goat tied down over the gas tank. Merle had been thinking about how good it would taste made up into goat chilli, but apparently there were other plans for it.

At supper that night everyone was a little excited by the acquisition of their first piece of livestock. It was just about all they could talk about.

"I know she won't be much use yet, but we can fatten her up on the grass and once we find a billy-goat and get her in kid, then there'll be fresh milk every day." That was Maggie, typical farm girl, thinking about the practicalities. She and Beth were squeezed in elbow to elbow on the other side of the table, flanked by Rick at the top end and Hershal at the bottom. Opposite Hershal, and next to Merle, Daryl said little, focussing on his food like usual, but it seemed to Merle he had a goofy little smile lurking. On Merle's other side Carl was chowing down like there was no tomorrow, typical teenage boy, all hollow legs and bottomless pit that he called a stomach, but he was following the conversation closely.

"And then we could make cheese!" Beth said excitedly.

"And yoghurt would be nice too," Carol chipped in from the head of the table.

Merle didn't want to rain on their parade, partly because all of that fresh dairy food sounded real good compared with the powdered or vac-packed milk they'd been living off lately, but also because it was fun to see the women all cranked up and glowing about something for a change. But there was that whole "once we find a billy-goat" part to achieve yet.

"Ice-cream," Carl said around a mouthful of food.

"Hell yeah!" Daryl opened his mouth at the table for once for some other reason than to shovel in grub.

Even a misanthrope like ole Merle enjoyed the feeling of camaraderie that was prevalent that evening. He looked across at Beth, her eyes alight with pleasure, such a pretty thang, and then flicked a quick glance up the table at Carol, who bore a small but warm smile.

Well hell. Maybe sometime he could give that whole apology thing a try. Start with something small. He'd all but apologised to Michonne a few weeks back, hadn't come right out and said the word "sorry" but close enough, and it hadn't made his balls shrivel up and fall off. And he did owe Beth one, technically speaking, for being a jerkoff to her at the firing range. She didn't seem to have held a grudge, but she'd been even more wary around him than usual.

"Hey Goldilocks," he said, looking straight at Beth, diving right in, "guess I owe you an apology."

Beth had a mouthful of food (good timing Merle, he congratulated himself), and was too well-raised to say anything back with her mouth full, so settled for an inquiring, "Hmm?"

The others went quiet, and Rick looked at him real closely. Hershal serenely carried on eating.

"Yeah. Your shooting's comin' along just fine. I had no call to talk to you the way I did the other day. I was just in a snit about something and took it out on you."

Merle could feel everyone trying to act normally.

That hadn't been too hard at all, actually. Still, not like it was about anything important. He didn't have much invested in it; no skin off his nose to put a smile back on the girl's face.

Beth had swallowed her food, and, despite being clearly disconcerted, replied politely, "Uh… that's all right Merle… We all have our bad days." She smiled a little, albeit uncertainly, but it was made up for by the way some of the warm glow remained in her eyes from the conversation about the damned goat.

Well that was damned forgiving of her. Seemed like forgiveness came as easy as apology, for some, anyways. Sure would be nice to see a similar glow on Carol's face.

Fuck. In for a dime, in for a dollar.

Before he could lose his nerve, which would be a fuckin unusual experience for Merle Dixon, he turned to face the head of the table.

"Carol," Merle said, his voice raspier and much deeper than usual. He paused a moment until he was sure of her attention. She looked his way inquiringly.

He steeled his gut, forced himself to it, and said, "I'm sorry."

There. It was out there. He waited for that old familiar stick-in-his-craw feeling to move up his gut and choke him; waited for rage to surge over him and poison to spill out, to make him want to break every bit of furniture in sight and then a few heads besides. Prepared himself to do his damnedest to rein it in.

Huh. Didn't happen.

Sure, his stomach muscles were taut, and there was a kind-of bad taste in his mouth, but it wasn't too bad, just like he'd swallowed down a mug of coffee too far and got to the bitter grounds. He could deal with that.

The others were mostly rigid with shock, but Carol looked at him and replied mildly, "Alright Merle," and gave him a little nod. "Thank you," she added, like it was no big deal. But a little happy smile edged quickly onto her face, and when she looked down at her food she was regarding it with much more fondness than a plate of vegetables merited.

Merle swallowed hard. He'd put that look there, and with just a couple of words. He went back to eating his supper, as low-key as Carol was being, but every time he sneaked another look at her, she had that frickin aura about her. And on the couple of occasions that she caught him looking at her, there was a glimmer in her eyes that threatened to burst right out into a shine.

"Any dessert?" Carl said matter-of-factly, pushing his empty plate away from him and placing his cutlery on it a little untidily.

"Why yes Carl, there is, plums and whipped cream," Carol replied. Merle wasn't sure why he thought Carol had actually had no plans for dessert, and had decided on the spur of the moment to serve one up.

"Yumm!" Carl's thoughts echoed Merle's own. Plums, huh?

"Well don't get too excited Carl, it's only tinned cream but it's better than nothing," Carol replied with an indulgent smile.

"Much better than nothing," Rick answered. "I don't know how you do it Carol, but you certainly manage to keep us all well fed. When I remember how it was last winter… I'm just grateful for the good luck we've had lately."

There were murmurs of assent around the table.

Fuck, any minute now someone was gonna start singing "We Are the World." Merle guessed he could tolerate it for now. Since there were plums on the horizon.

TWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTW DTWDTWDTWD

In the general hubbub after supper, as people stacked plates and sorted cutlery and the like, Carol drew Merle a little aside.

"Think you could help me out in the pantry later?"

"Guess I could do that."

"Nothing better to do, huh?" Carol lightly tickled the palm of Merle's hand with a couple of fingers.

"That's right."

"Better than listening to Daryl's bitching, right?"

"Marginally, yeah."

Carol raised her eyebrows at that, but knew he was teasing her. She ran a finger up the inside of his arm. The feeling went straight to his groin and he had to hold back from crowding her in front of everyone.

TWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTW DTWDTWDTWD

Merle got to the pantry before Carol did and paced about impatiently. He'd considered pulling out the blankets and pillow that Carol had left there from their previous trysts and setting them up, but knew from experience that no matter how much of a sure thing a woman was, they didn't like it to be taken for granted that they were gonna screw ya. 'Sides, Carol would probably want to talk and shit, before they could get down to it.

He heard her closing and locking the outer door, then her light footsteps across the floor. He'd been planning on jumping her the moment she walked in, but instead when she opened the pantry door, smiled at him and stepped inside, he found himself leaning casually against the far wall of the pantry, displaying his physique to best advantage.

"Hey you," she said softly, and turned the lock on the door.

"Hey yerself." Well that was downright erudite. Tough. Let her do some of the work for a change.

Carol rested her back against the pantry door.

"Well you certainly managed to surprise me, Merle Dixon. I was beginning to think you would never apologise."

Merle raised a shoulder in a nonchalant shrug, and replied gracelessly, "Guess the lack of squeeze was getting to me."

Apart from raising one eyebrow, Carol ignored that, as well she might, and continued, "Don't think I have no inkling of how hard that was for you. And don't think that I'm intent on making this harder for you," Merle wished she'd stop talking about things being hard, "but you knowthat the apology is only half of the equation."

Merle tilted his head slightly and looked at her a little coldly. How was she going to string him along now? "What the fuck you talking about woman?"

Carol moved over to stand closer to him. Normally he'd be happy with that, taking it for his cue, but having placed himself on the far side of the room so that she'd have to come to him, he was now feeling a little blocked in. He reached out and pulled her over so that she had one shoulder to the wall, like him, facing each other, and then let go of her. His eyes roamed her body. He was keen to get on with it, but it seemed like there was a little something else going on first, and damned if he wasn't feeling a mite…uncomfortable. Couldn't understand why he hadn't just jumped her.

"I'm talking about respect, Merle. Or perhaps more accurately, disrespect."

Oh hell. His mind jumped back to the argument that had started off this whole contretemps, and what he had said to her. And especially, what she had said to him, before stalking off. He knew that now, more than anything, was make or break time. He considered his words carefully; no point saying the wrong thing and fucking it up now, after screwing himself up to the sticking point of having made the apology. But this was Carol, and nothing less than honesty would do, either.

"I don't mean to disrespect you Carol."

She nodded encouragingly; his tone made it clear there was more to come.

"But you know what I am. Can't guarantee I'll never do it again." That was as open as he'd been with a woman in a long, long time.

Now her nod was understanding. But she wasn't running for the hills, and that was a good sign.

Carol moved in closer, pressed her soft body against his, damn she smelled good, and replied, "Fair enough."

With a little smile she ran her hand up his arm. He quickly wrapped it around her waist, and moved hard up against her. Her hand continued up to his face, and she gently stroked the back of her fingers against his stubbled cheek. There was a mischievous light in her eyes, and the way she moved against him, it was clear she'd been missing the squeeze too.

Carol continued, "Now shut the fuck up and kiss me."

Merle obliged.

TWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTWDTW DTWDTWDTWD

THE END

Hope you all enjoyed coming along for the ride with me.

Don't worry, I haven't abandoned Plum Crisp. Doghouse just took over a bit for a while.

Do feel free to leave a review.