Even once they found the prison, Carol stays on laundry duty. She leaves one of the laundry carts sitting in an empty cell for everyone to dump their stuff in and twice a week she pushes it down to the laundry room. They don’t keep the generators on long enough to run the dryer so she fashions a clothes line across the room and hangs everything to dry overnight. The next afternoon she takes it all down, folds it and returns it, and she never gets anything mixed up.
It makes Daryl crazy.
To begin with, he has things he would rather be doing during the couple hours of power every night than sit around listening to washing machines. He doesn’t think Carol notices that he drifts along behind her, keeping quiet and out of sight as she and the laundry cart go squeaking down the hallway. Even when he paces in front of the door during the rinse cycles, she never looks up from whatever book she’s pulled from the prison library. It doesn’t occur to him to go in and sit with her.
What he’s doing is stupid and knowing that and being unable to stop makes him even angrier. He sharpens the knife that never gets any use, works on turning scraps into arrows, and gets more and more bored as time goes on. The serial killer has given him something to do, but with so many extra bodies around, he isn’t even guaranteed a watch. Not that it’s particularly helpful when none of them knows who they’re watching. Prisoners, newcomers. Could be Carl cutting off girls heads for all anyone knows. So Daryl watches Carol. He doesn’t know who they need protection from, but he knows who he wants to protect.
After he’d moved her stuff out of her cell at the ass-end of the hallway and back to a safer place (something he still couldn’t believe he’d gotten away with) Daryl thought she’d reconsider her new solitary streak. But Carol kept slipping away from the rest of them. She did her part, worked hard, but she didn’t join in the group chats at the end of the night. It was when Lori asked him to keep an eye on Carl for a minute and Carol was nowhere to be found that Daryl realized the two of them were pulling in opposite directions. He was a regular damned joiner and she was apart. It worried him, though he couldn’t say exactly why.
It’s been a good fifteen minutes since the washers stopped agitating behind the door and Daryl gets to his feet. As soon as he hears Carol slam the heavy door to the closet that holds the detergent, he’ll be off down the hallway, the opposite way that she’ll travel and she’ll be none the wiser. Instead, he hears the turning of the dial and a rush of water.
“Son of a bitch.” A second load. The woman is doing a second load of wash. There has to be 8 fucking washers in the room. Why wouldn’t she run two of them at the same time? “Fuck.” Another forty-five minutes and the power’ll be cut and he’ll have wasted all of the night light sitting outside a goddamn door. Fuck again.
While he’s pacing and cursing and thinking about just leaving her there alone for who knows what, the door inches open. Before he can think of an explanation, Carol says, “Don’t you have something else to do?”
“What?” It’s all he can think of to say.
“You’re out here all the time for no reason, pacing and fussing. It’s driving me crazy. You can come in and keep me company if you want but otherwise I think you need to go someplace else.”
Daryl sputters, stops and starts before he finally says, “Someone’s gotta keep an eye on you. Running off alone all the time.”
“I don’t run off anywhere. I’m doing laundry.” Folding her arms, Carol leans against the doorframe, looking at him with a gaze that is part humoring him and part exasperated. “Everyone knows where I am.”
“Yeah, everybody including the sick fuck who just killed two people two days ago.”
“Nobody’s coming after me,” she says. “And even if they were, I can look after myself for an hour. It’s nice that you’re worried, but-”
“I ain’t worried about you,” he snaps. “I just don’t want to get stuck wasting my time on another search that ends in a dead body because someone else was too fucking stupid to stay put.”
It’s almost the truth, but it’s truth that’s meant to hurt her. Daryl means it, he means it with all the anger coursing through him that she’d actually chastise him for being worried about her. In the back of his mind though he can feel a twinge that’ll turn into guilt in a few hours. Using one of his worst memories to conjure hers, hurting himself to hurt her. It’s sick.
Carol looks like she’s been slapped and he’s just angry enough to be satisfied. She takes a shaky breath but when she speaks her voice doesn’t sound hurt but angry, “Get out of here, Daryl. Stop “keeping an eye on me.” I can take care of myself.”
Ducking back into the laundry room, she slams the door.
* * *
Afterward, he avoids her partly because he feels like he might kill her and partly so she won’t get the chance to snap at him again. He didn’t like it the first time.
But in a group of 16, it’s only a matter of time and he finally runs into her when he drops by the cafeteria for a water. She doesn’t see him at first. She’s having a friendly conversation with the fucking arsonist. Except that she isn’t. When he looks twice he can see the strained smile, her crossed arms, the way she’s folding into herself like she wants to disappear. The guy leaning across the table, leading with a toothy smile and laughing too hard. He hasn’t seen her look that way in a while, protecting herself from someone, and Daryl’s jaw clenches.
Then she looks at him and it takes longer than a passing glance and something changes on her face when she sees him. It’s expectant or just hopeful. He should call her or go to her or do something to pull her out. And he wants to. He wants to walk over, put hands on the table, lean over to look her in the eye and ask, “You alright?” He wants the firebug to interrupt him so he can growl, “Wasn’t talking to you.” Daryl wants it to escalate into something physical so he has an excuse to hurt the guy who’s scaring her and so he can feel like he’s making a difference again. Being stuck in one place, being stuck safe; it isn’t the place where he fits. He wants to fight. To defend.
He wants to hurt her more.
Daryl turns away, gets his water, walks out. Leaves her there. Nothing’s gonna happen anyway. Not like they’re alone. “Here’s your space,” he thinks, feeling vindictive and making himself sick at the same time. Stupid. He isn’t out the door before he wants a do over.
* * *
He wants a do-over even more a few days later when most of them are gathered in cafeteria. The scream paralyzes all of them. A second later the door slams open and Andrea bursts through it, dripping blood and shrieking. Everyone takes a step back before anyone takes a step forward. Gary the Arsonist chases her, practically frothing with menacing delight and holding a kitchen knife in his hand. He follows Andrea even as she clears two of the tables, hunting her like he’s unaware of the crowd he finds himself in.
Daryl’s ashamed to admit that he recoils. The man’s insanity throws him. He’s not prepared for it. By the time he checks his hip and finds he has a knife but no gun, curses, and decides he has to do it any way, someone else has already moved. Carol has already moved.
He sees her out of the corner of his eye, raising a tray over her head and headed for the psycho. He can’t yell at her without drawing attention to her and anyway he doesn’t have time. She brings the plastic tray down hard on the hand holding the knife and somehow that tiny woman hits him hard enough to knock the weapon loose. Daryl expects her to freeze. Now what are you going to do, sugar? But Carol knows what she’s going to do. The tray’s on the floor and she’s digging into her pockets for what? A knife. His knife. A fucking boy scout toy he gave her to make her feel better that he never planned on her having to use.
She struggles to open it just long enough for Ugly to regroup. He catches her wrist with one hand, wrenches it, forces her to let go, and with the other he decks her. Carol cries out, they crash to the floor and Daryl finally finally moves. He’s half way across the room before he hears Rick yelling.
“Out of the way. Goddamn it Daryl, move.”
Of course the hero’s the only one with a gun. If he tries to start hostage negotiating, Daryl is going to murder a murderer and then he’s going to knock Rick on his ass. But the sheriff isn’t talking, he’s taking aim and somehow that seems like an even worse idea. Carol’s too close. She can’t get out of the line of fire.
The gun goes off and Gary goes down before Daryl can even get the warning out and he’s moving before the shot stops ringing in his ears.
He isn’t dead. Of course not. Rick caught him in the neck and he’s gurgling and leaking and reaching even as his useless body is still pinning Carol to the floor. She’s shrieking and kicking and wiping at the blood sprayed everywhere.
“Goddamn sick sonavabitch.” Daryl kicks him, hard, driving his boot into his stomach and rolling him over. As blood dribbles from his mouth and pours from his neck, Daryl kicks him again and keeps kicking him until he is absolutely and totally dead. Then he goes for his knife because there’s only one way to make sure a man stays dead.
The world narrowed to one focus and one perception while he killed him. It isn’t until he’s drawing his blade out of the killer’s now mangled eye socket that he senses the rest of the room. Now Daryl can hear his own ragged breathing, Carol’s lingering whimpers. He can smell blood and gunsmoke. Can feel everyone’s eyes on him. He stands and wipes his knife on his denims.
Dangerous. Deadly. Unhinged. Daryl doesn’t really care how they seem him. He only meets Rick’s gaze, “I ain’t cleanin’ that up.”
Tucking his knife back into its sheath, he steps over the dead man and hauls Carol to her feet. He doesn’t offer her a hand, just grabs her by her arms and pulls her up. She almost stumbles away from him, trying to get her balance, but he holds her in front of him too tight with one hand. He brings his other hand to her face, trying to sort out her blood from the foreign stuff, running a thumb across her cheek to check for a cut. He doesn’t find one, but he can’t let go.
“Fucking idiot,” he says with no bite to the words.
Finding her wrist, Daryl turns it slowly, testing it and Carol gasps just a little.
“Not that. You’re squeezing my arm.”
Daryl looks down to where his hand is clamped on her upper arm and all but leaps away from her.
“It’s okay,” she says to his unspoken apology. She starts to reach her hand up to rub her arm but thinks better of it and inspects her wrist instead.
They’re both looking down at the ground and she asks, “Are you gonna say I told you so?”
His gaze snaps up while hers stays low, “Rick had him. I woulda had him.”
“Nobody was doing anything. I just didn’t want him to hurt her.”
Her tone, her posture, the fact that she won’t let him see her eyes are all apologetic. Daryl is still pissed she put herself in danger for no reason, pissed that she scared him again, pissed that she can scare him like that. But none of that is her fault. Even if he thinks she was wrong. He doesn’t want her to feel like she owes anyone her apologies. Him least of all.
“You did okay,” Daryl says, surprising both of them. “Shoulda lead with the knife though. Man can’t come after you if he’s bleeding out.”
She looks up at him then, meets his eyes and holds them and then smiles. Like they aren’t covered in gore, like she didn’t just almost get shot, and like he didn’t just beat a man to death. She disarms him, softens him. And then she ruins it: “I’ll remember that for next time.”
All his hackles are back up again, “Ain’t gonna be a next time.”
“There might be.”
“Not if you fucking stay where you’re supposed to there won’t.”
“Where I’m supposed to? You mean like in the safest part of a locked up and fenced in prison with a bunch of other people? Where’s this magic place where nothing bad ever happens, Daryl, because I’ve never seen it. Not once.”
“How about not going Xena on some fuckin’ criminal ain’t even coming after you?”
“He didn’t come after you either,” she says. “Why’d you step in?”
“Somebody had to.”
“Yeah they did.”
“Why not me? You just said I did okay.”
“Because that ain’t your job.” It’s at this point Daryl realizes he’s yelling. He drops his voice and closes the distance between them again to hiss at her, “Remember?”
“So you step in because it’s your sworn duty to keep everyone in this group alive, right? That’s what you do. It’s your job. You’d do the same for anyone. No other reason.”
“What other reason should I have?”
“Because you care.”
Jesus goddamn ass-gnawing Christ was she really going to start this again. “Listen, sweetheart, I don’t know who you think you’re talking to. If you want someone to fawn all over you call Rick or call Glenn cause I don’t give a fuck.”
He isn’t actually that much taller than she is but right now Daryl is in her face, exploiting those extra few inches for all they’re worth.
Carol doesn’t flinch. She doesn’t even take a step back. But she’s not wearing that little “I know you better than you know yourself” smile either. She looks away from him when she says, “Yes, you do.”
The wind gusts out of him and he clenches his fists. And he does. Fuck. He hates that he does, but he does. Care. About her. About the whole stupid group of them and no one else ever wants to talk about it.
“Think what you want.” He wants to leave it. Play it cold and get out of the way so rick and the others can stop lurking around the little powwow they’re having and clean up the corpse. But he can’t help but ask, “Why’s it matter anyway?”
“It matters,” she says and her voice quavers in a way that convinces him it does matter. That she isn’t trying to trap him or make him say something just because she can. Before he can decide what he wants to do about it she says, “It’s okay. I’m gonna go wash up.”
He watches her go until he realizes that’s what he’s doing and then he spins around. Rick’s right behind him, surveying the scene. Finally something to do. “We got a tarp or something or you just wanna carry him?”
With a rare smirk, Rick says, “Thought you weren’t cleaning up?”
“Shut up. And grab a leg.”
With a lot of grunting and one manly breather where they decided exactly where they were going to throw Gary to burn him (same place as all the others sound good) they toss him in the dirt and walk away. The other convicts , who have spent the past few weeks blaming and threatening the rest of them, have made themselves scarce and Daryl figures that’s another situation that’s going to have to be dealt with sooner rather than later. But definitely not tonight.
He’s turning away from the soon to be blaze, thinking he might go clean his knife – and his boots and pants- and Rick calls him back.
“You might want this.”
And Rick’s holding that fucking knife out to him. He musta picked it up while he was pretending not to listen to his and Carol’s scene over the dead guy. Irritating interfering bastard.
Rick just raises his eyebrows and holds the knife out again. Come on, the gesture says. Daryl sighs and stomps over to snatch it from his hand, cursing quietly and uncreatively the entire time. He’s still cursing when he arrives upstairs in the hall they’ve claimed for their bedrooms and he only stops when he swings into Carol’s cell and all but forces the knife into her hands.
“Thought I wasn’t going to need this anymore.” She looks up at him and her cheeks are red from where she’s scrubbed them raw trying to get the blood off. Unexpectedly Daryl’s stomach lurches as he realizes how much he realizes that were true. It’s not the first time he’s had the thought. This time he tells her.
“I don’t want you to need it. But you probably will.”
Carol puts the knife in her pocket, but she shrugs as she does so, saying, “I don’t even know how to use it.”
“I could teach you. If you want.” Not much to it except knowing the best place to stick it.” Daryl’s clenching his teeth to get through this conversation, willing her to take the hint so he doesn’t actually have to apologize. But, of course, one of the things that make them so alike is that they don’t beat around the bush or like it when other people do.
“No. Don’t trouble yourself. Especially since you “don’t fucking care” and all.”
That gaze of hers snares him. He can’t wriggle out of it. “I was pissed,” he says. Not enough.
“I care, alright? I’m glad you’re okay.”
The words are out there, delivered in a low serious tone that’s meant to convey something more than relief that she wasn’t murdered by a serial killer an hour ago. Because really, he’s glad Andrea’s okay too. Daryl softens his voice and keeps making eye contact even as his insides are squirming for him to get away so he can make it clear that he’s always glad she’s okay. So even when there’s no reason she shouldn’t be, he wants to make sure. Because if there was ever a time when she wasn’t okay, he would be very very not.
He’s rewarded with a soft smile, a quiet one that doesn’t make the moment feel too monumental. Daryl wants to sink into it with her, enjoy her softness for just a minute but he doesn’t let himself. Instead, he stands up straighter, points a finger at her, “But you gotta quit pretending like you don’t know that already. We can’t keep going over the same shit all the time.” I’m not going to change for you.
Carol nods, “Okay.” But unlike the other times when he’s offered just enough Carol doesn’t just accept it. She knocks aside the finger that’s still pointed in her face and replaces it with one of her own. “But you have to stop treating me like I’m some burden you’re stuck with. I’m not a child. I’m no one’s responsibility. So if you’re going to “care” about me, if you want to check up on me and make sure I’m okay, don’t sulk and pretend like someone’s making you do it.” She pauses for breath, lowers her hand and takes a step back.
She’s been waiting to say this for a while. Her cheeks are flushed and her eyes are shining. Carol always speaks so freely with him, it’s easy for Daryl to forget that it isn’t always easy for her. Her voice was strong but her eyes betray how worried she is about his reaction. For the first time in a while, he sees her as he did in the early days of their camp: a shrinking violet who wanted to fit in but couldn’t escape her husband’s control. The danger was gone, but the memory of it was still there. Something Daryl probably wouldn’t see if it didn’t look so familiar.
“Okay?” she asks and there’s only one way he can respond.
This time her smile is brighter and her entire body relaxes. He feels that warmth in his chest again, the one that makes him want to smile back. Instead he nods his head toward the door and puts his hand on the handle of his knife, “C’mon. I’ll give you that lesson.”