"Just let me come, Merle. I won't be no trouble."
"You'd be nothin' but trouble." Merle's voice rasped from behind his turned back, too intent on hastily packing canned goods from the pantry into his leather saddlebags to be sidetracked with conversation.
"Aw, Merle! Who is this cutie? You didn't tell me you had a little brother."
Daryl started at the emergence of the girl he hadn't realized was in Merle's room. A shock of black hair dusted her shoulders. Her blue eyes were ringed in a heavy layer of black and her lips were a startling shade of red. She sat down the overstuffed duffel bag she'd carried out with her to bend over and coo at him, "Hi honey, I'm Jessica. What's your name?"
Daryl silently evaluated Jessica with hard eyes before turning back to his older brother, "I can back you up, Merle; make sure you don't get into any tight spots."
Merle trotted out of the kitchen, satisfied with the haul he'd scrounged up. He slung the saddlebag over his shoulder with a grunt, freeing his hands as he sidled up behind his accomplice.
"Oh, I've got a few tight spots in mind." he murmured, not to Daryl but to her. She shot up with a squeal and dissolved into giggles, giving him a light shove that he rolled with, disappearing backwards out of view through the open door of his bedroom with casual aplomb.
"Merle, don't do that in front of the kid, you pervert!" she scolded him, but it was clear from the levity in her tone she was anything but angry with him. Daryl glared at her, the obvious reason Merle was intent on up and leaving them out of the blue and wouldn't pay attention to a word he was trying to say.
"You know, maybe we could bring him along, Merle. I'm real good with kids… I mean… all that stuff you been tellin' me about your Dad…"
Merle's lighthearted demeanor faded when she brought up his father. Daryl felt his brother's gaze flick over to him quickly, but he was ready and immediately looked down to avoid eye contact. Some things you just don't talk about. He didn't look again until he heard her cry out, not pain but alarm. Merle had cuffed her on the back of the head roughly.
Daryl stiffened and shrank back from the unexpected outburst, "I thought I told you that stuff don't go beyond you and me. Like this wasn't hard enough, now you go puttin' ideas in his head. We're gonna have a hard time keepin' a low profile as it is. Nobody's gonna buy us with a kid that young. Don't be stupid!"
Her jaw hung open like it had been unhinged. Then something must have switched on because she launched herself at him, slapping furiously at his chest and face, "Don't you talk to me like that, you asshole, and don't you ever put your hands on me!"
"Christ almighty… " Merle groused. He caught her by her wrists and pulled her to him, "I'm sorry, baby, I'm sorry. Shhhh, shhh, shhh…. Hey c'mon now, calm down. Let's just get out of here with what we got while we can, huh?"
He kissed at her face forcefully. At first she twisted wildly and turned her face away trying to escape his grasp, but after a moment, she stilled and grudgingly accepted the affection. Satisfied that she'd been defused, he released her and stepped back. His hand ran through his sandy blonde waves as he tried to regain his bearings and assess their progress. It reminded him that Daryl was still standing the two of them watching from the hallway.
"'Sides, baby Daryl over there still wets his bed, ain't that right Daryl?"
"No." Daryl muttered quietly. He had, in fact, wet his bed three months ago. Of course, that had been after their father had socked him so hard the room had spun. He'd blacked out and was later informed that Merle had found him on the floor and carried him to his bed like a sack of potatoes. He'd slept for two days afterwards. It had hardly been his fault. Merle knew that, and Daryl though it was a damn cheap shot; but he couldn't figure any way to make mention of that without being called a pussy, so he stewed silently.
Jessica wasn't impressed with Merle's juvenile attempt at humor anyway. She exhaled impatiently and headed for the door, "I'll be outside on the porch when you're ready." She announced icily.
"Whew, kid. Take it from your big brother, bitches live to make you sorry…" he looked to Daryl for validation, but Daryl was glaring with peculiar intensity down at his shoes.
"Aw hell Daryl, ain't no call for sulkin'. You're too old for that shit. Nut up and leave that mess for the womenfolk." He said, bitterness creeping into his tone as he gestured towards the door, "You know I'd like to take ya with me if I could… It's complicated. And anyway, I need you to do somethin' for me…"
The pup was playing it cool now, glancing up at him with guarded eyes, "What?" Merle wordlessly took stock of the boy's more collected carriage, approving of the needed adjustment. Simpering in this household was as good as painting a target on your back, "Well, you know with me gone you're gonna be the man of the house. I'm gonna need you to keep an eye on things around here… take care of your Ma. You know how she is, runnin' that damn fool mouth. I imagine this will set her off. I figure you're big enough to take over for me for a little while, give your big brother a rest."
He swallowed and nodded in reply. Merle had spent the last summer at the boxing club. Not only had he shot up like a weed, he'd put on a good 50 pounds of muscle. Since then it had only taken one spectacular fight for Merle to keep Pop from raising a hand to anyone else in the house. His very presence in the house had been a deterrent. Daryl wasn't going to have it quite so easy.
Never one to politely wait out contemplative silences, Merle socked the lanky youth on the arm. It didn't hurt, but it was enough to send him stumbling backwards a step before regaining his balance."
"You ain't scared now, are ya?"
The question wasn't a question at all, it was a challenge. Showing fear meant a thrashing on principle. Daryl glared back at him, rubbing the sore spot on his arm and hating how you could never anticipate Merle. He'd switch from best friend to bully in the blink of an eye.
"Oh, what's the matter now Darylina, cat got your tongue?"
"What's that? I can't hear you, Boy. Shit, you must be shakin' in your boots, ain't ya?"
"Shut up, Merle." Daryl gritted through clenched teeth, he curled his trembling hands into fists and raised them warily in front of him, ready to defend. Merle laughed heartily at this.
"You're all right, Kid." he allowed, ruffling his younger brother's hair.
"Yeah." Daryl replied, cautiously relaxing his arms back down to his sides.
Merle crouched down and clapped a hand on his shoulder.
"Hey, don't you go getting' yourself all bent up over this now. This is temporary. You just gotta stick it out a little bit longer while I get some shit together for us. Stayin' here and rulin' the roost is gonna make you tough and mean, just like me. It'll be good for ya.
Merle reached a hand into his pocket and held it out to Daryl. Daryl outstretched his hand and Merle deposited a grubby set of keys with a Ford logo into it.
"The truck's yours now. I want you to have it. I popped the hood a few weeks back hopin' it was just a corroded connection, but I'm pretty sure the starter's shot. You can mow Widow Thompson's lawn for the scratch to buy a rebuild if ya want. Or hell, rebuild it yourself if ya got the patience. Lord knows I ain't. There's some manuals tossed in the back of back of my closet somewhere. Couple skin mags, too, so don't say I never gave ya nothin'."
Daryl nodded, overwhelmed by the gesture. The ancient Ford F-250 may not exactly be in working order, but it was still a hell of a leg up. He didn't make any more arguments as Merle stood up and hefted the bags he'd packed to leave. He just watched and clutched the Ford keys in his hand so tightly they dug an angry red mark into his palm.
Halfway through the door, Merle hesitated and turned back, "I'll see you again Daryl, real soon. You and me are gonna ride together, so be smart. Don't get your ass in a sling over some small-time shit rootin' around in the old man's shed. You stay sharp and watch yourself 'til I can spring ya. You got me?"
Daryl nodded mutely, and watched Merle disappear through the doorway of their childhood home for the last time.