Disclaimer: The Walking Dead and its characters (including bits of a deleted scene used here) do not belong to me.
She used to wonder, sometimes, what would happen if –
Once. Only once, she'd gotten so far as to creep into the kitchen under the blanket of a glowing moon, her feet peeling gracelessly from the linoleum with every sinful step.
Finding the cold steel of the handle, Carol had drawn it back merely inches, its weight falling uneasily onto her fragile fingers. She'd chilled at the whine of metal as it scraped against the block, louder than a scream inside the silent house. Body frozen, her thoughts raced ahead to after –
After, with the bloody sheets and sticky knife. After, with Sophia sleeping in the very next room. After -
And the world had tilted cruelly underneath her stilling feet.
She'd crawled back into bed beside him, her hand cold and empty from all she failed to do.
"Brought you some food."
Roused from a drifting half sleep, Merle pushed himself upright at the quiet intrusion. "Ah," he swallowed. Play nice. "Thank you."
"Figured you're a part of our family now." Pulling back against a mocking smirk, Merle accepted the tray. When the woman didn't immediately turn to leave, he motioned her awkwardly to a bench at the side of his cell. To his amusement, Carol accepted the wordless invitation almost eagerly. Angling herself toward him, she hunched her shoulders against the cold cement. "It's not much," she offered, "but given what we've had, it's a lot."
Taking his place on the cot, he studied her. For sure he should know this one. Most of these people turned tail to run as soon as they were left with him. Not her. She just gave a wry smile and leaned back to take in the filthy ceiling. "I should have been dead several times over."
"Ain't that the truth for us all." He agreed easily to her unusual declaration, but refused to give her the reprieve of breaking his gaze.
Giving no sign of discomfort at the scrutiny, she lowered her eyes to inspect her hands. "I think part of the reason I'm not is...is because people underestimate me." She looked up quickly before offering her plea. "Don't underestimate me."
"I've seen you making the rounds, trying to play nice." Behind her, Daryl's quiet footfalls approached from the stairs. "But if you screw this up, mess with Daryl," Merle's eyes flickered briefly to his brother's watchful figure, and she paused as if waiting for his full attention. When his gaze returned to the woman before him, she finished her threat. "I will slit your throat while you sleep."
Her last words had been nothing more than a whisper, too soft to be heard outside the suffocating cell. They hung in the air between them, ominous like silent lightning on a still summer night. Merle stared at her for seconds more, searching for what he'd obviously missed. He tried on a half huff of a laugh, but it died quickly under her steady gaze.
She stood abruptly. "Enjoy your food."
And then she was gone, Daryl's hovering form disappearing shortly after. Rising again from the sagging cot, Merle crossed the cell and stood at the edge of his territory, leaning out against the iron bars.
"Hm," he exhaled to the empty hall.
So that's how it was.
And unsteadily he wondered what it was that made his stomach clench.
Through the dusty light of the late afternoon sun, Daryl watched his brother sleep. Sprawled on the worn mattress and covered in a thin sheen of sweat, it was easy enough to believe that this was just another day in the rotting trailer they'd shared before the world went to hell. Just another afternoon of Merle sleeping off whatever he'd gone and done the night before. With a resolved sigh, Daryl reached down to remove the tray of food Carol had brought in earlier. Just another day picking up Merle's leftover shit.
"These people got you playin' busboy, little brother?"
The sudden vice grip on Daryl's wrist surprised him. With a jerk, he fought off the reaction while an empty cup slid dangerously close to the edge of the tray. The fingers ensnaring his wrist loosened as the dishes rattled back to a steady silence. "Jesus, Merle," he hissed.
The ancient cot groaned under the shift in Merle's weight as he released Daryl's arm and rolled himself forward with a painful grunt. "Shouldn't sneak up on a man like that."
"Thought you were asleep."
"Thought wrong," came the mumbled reply. Scratching his cheek almost carelessly with the blade, Merle eyed the tray still clutched in his brother's hand. "Clearin' plates and doin' dishes, are ya?" His lip curled into a lazy smirk as he righted himself, planting both feet on the gritty floor. "Women's work."
"Just takin' them to get cleaned." Daryl turned to leave.
Merle sniffed, the sound too percussive against cement walls. "Mmm." He stretched his neck and thought for a moment. "Now, that's too bad. I was hopin'..." He let the sentence die and scrubbed one lazy hand over his face enjoying the burn of stubble against his skin.
Daryl's feet stilled outside doorway of the cell, just as Merle had known they would.
"I was hopin'," he continued, "that little mouse what dropped 'em off might come back. Pick up those...dirty dishes." He grinned a suggestive smile at the rise in Daryl's shoulders, then stood and took a few slow steps forward as his younger brother turned. Letting his boots scrape along the floor, he caught the smaller man's eye. With a knowing expression, Merle continued. "She and I, we had ourselves a real nice talk earlier." He draped his arm easily from the iron bars, fixing Daryl with a searching gaze. "A real nice chat." He waited, but it didn't take long.
"The hell'd you say to her?" The words streamed out through narrowly parted lips before Daryl could even consider them.
So it went both ways. Wasn't that interesting.
Pulling his face into a practiced innocence, Merle pretended to inspect the leather straps binding what was left of his arm. "Why, I didn't say nothin' out of line, little brother. We just had ourselves a conversation." He laughed at the narrow accusation in Daryl's eyes. "Don't get like that! Mouse was just tellin' me how things run around here. Fillin' me in on what I missed. Givin' me the, ah," he paused to consider his words, "the lay of the land, so to speak."
"Stay the hell away from her."
"She came to me, boy." Merle tilted his head. "Or is that your problem?" Off Daryl's flashing eyes, he allowed himself a wheezing chuckle. "Well, maybe it is. What do ya know? Ain't such a pussy after all." The humor drained from his face. "But in case you didn't notice, these friends of yours got me set up down here in a cage. One of 'em came to me. I was just bein' sociable. Just like we talked about."
"How 'bout you just shut the hell up?"
"Whoo-ee!" Merle let the grin widen across his face once more as the sound echoed damningly through the cavernous hall. "Damn! These people sure have done some number on you! 'Specially that one." He gestured his blade at Daryl's chest, then rubbed a thumb lazily over his lower lip in contemplation. He let his head fall to the side as if studying this new version of his brother. "Hmm. Got some backbone now, don't you, boy? I almost like it." He nodded slowly. "I almost do. Saw you watchin' us when she came in here. Now, you tell me, little brother," he leaned in close to Daryl and waited.
After a moment, Daryl's head inclined forward, too, and Merle smiled at the victory.
"Why was that?" he whispered. "You watchin' me, or were you watchin' her? You protectin' her from the Big Bad Wolf? 'Cause I'm thinkin' maybe it should go the other way around."
Watching carefully, Merle could just detect a muscle twitching in confusion. "Just stay away from her," Daryl repeated as he backed away.
"Happy to," Pleased with his discovery, Merle turned on his heel and crossed the few steps back to his cot. He sat heavily, then leaned back and settled himself on the flattened pillow. "Wouldn't want to wake up dead 'cause that mouse got it in her head I'm some sort of threat to you." He licked his lips of a wolfish grin and closed his eyes. "Best not underestimate her, baby brother. Little mouse has some teeth when it comes to you."
Daryl found her in the kitchen, scrubbing away at the remnants of their latest meal with a scrap of cloth and cold water that smelled of the same soap she used on their clothes. He watched her from the other side of the door, unseen. Watched the rhythm of her hands as she scrubbed the graying dishes into what passed for clean.
"Here," he finally offered, placing the tray on the countertop just beside her. "From Merle's cell."
She looked up at him, gave him that quick smile, that one that always looked like maybe, and thanked him for the dishes. "You didn't have to do that." Carol swirled the cup and bowl into the water. "I could have gone back after them."
Shoulder twitching in a reflexive shrug, he watched the last of the thin layer of soap bubbles disappear and tried to work out exactly why he hadn't let her do just that. "Don't matter none."
Bowl and cup quickly scrubbed, Carol removed her knife from its place on the edge of the counter beside her and swirled it under the cloudy water. Satisfied, she set it out to dry, then reached for a rag and dried her hands. The water stilled in her washing tub, its oily surface shimmering slowly to a reluctant halt. "Well, he must've liked it. There wasn't a drop left in that bowl." She smiled softly to herself and began to dry the stack of plates with the same grimy rag. "Course, we're all about half-starved so I'm not sure my cooking had anything to do with it."
She looked up as she finished speaking, not toward Daryl, but straight over the counter, unseeing, and stared somehow past the empty shelves and prison walls. He pictured her then, the way it should have been, washing dishes in a polished clean kitchen in a quiet little house. Pausing in her work to take a brief look out a sunny window into a green yard bordered with flowers. Smiling as a little blonde girl ran laughing through the neatly trimmed grass. He wondered what she'd think of as she looked out that window. He wondered what she thought right now.
She lowered her head back to the murky water in the tub, and his spell was broken. "There something else you wanted, Daryl?"
Mutely, he debated what to say.
She spoke easily while polishing the last of the water from a bowl. "I only ask because it doesn't seem like you. Picking up dishes to return to the kitchen. Not that it wasn't nice." She fixed him with a teasing smile."Thought maybe you just wanted an excuse to come see me." Laughing gently, she lowered her eyes to her task once again, giving him the illusion of privacy to respond however he would.
He fidgeted for a moment, unsure how to ask. Unsure what to ask. Wondering what his brother had seen looming on the horizon that just wouldn't come into his narrow view. Wondering why her last words had hit him sharply, like an arrow finding its mark. He inspected the reddened skin around a fingernail while he finally chose the words. "Earlier, when you two was in his cell," he bit his cheek, "what'd he say to you?"
"Merle?" She smiled a look of surprise and reached for another plate. "Very little, really." Her water-wrinkled fingers rubbed tiny circles with the cloth. "For as much as he blusters, he's the quiet type when you get him alone."
Daryl scoffed in gentle disagreement before biting at the skin that just never seemed to smooth. He eyed her for a second more, his gaze sliding to the beads of water on her knife, shining like constellations in the sky. Swallowing, he pushed out the words. "What'd you say to him?"
"Oh, nothing, really. Just told him how things are around here. How things'll be." She squinted as she picked up her knife, polishing it gently with the rag. "It's good to have expectations. That way you don't underestimate things. Underestimate people." She shrugged harmlessly. "Thought I'd help him along with that."
"Givin' him the lay of the land," Daryl muttered, his brother's words coming back a little too easily.
She placed the rag on the counter and inspected both sides of her knife one last time before smiling softly and sheathing the weapon at her waist. "Something like that, I suppose." Turning toward him, she pressed her hands on her thighs, face drawn seriously toward his own. She took a heavy breath before speaking. "I want this to work, Daryl," she stated, her words falling heavily off the ledge between them. "Merle and everything else. Nothing's like it was before all this, and I just...I want it to work." She fixed him steadily with those eyes.
Wondering, always wondering, he waited long seconds before succumbing to a quiet nod. "Me, too."
Something like relief flitted across her features before she offered him that smile one more time. "Anyway, thanks for the dishes."
Her fingers, burning hot despite the icy water, trailed on his arm as she brushed steadily out the door.
Alone in the quiet, he was left to wonder.