Merle awoke the next morning to the smell of bacon in the air and kitchen sounds bustling just outside his door.
It took him just a moment to realize where he was, why this wasn't the cold, uncomfortable place he'd become accustomed to waking up in. He squirmed around on the soft, clean-smelling sheets, stretching as he squinted through the slits of sunshine peeking through the shades on the window.
He stumbled out of bed, pulling on his jeans and opening the bedroom door before zipping them up, not really caring who was on the other side. He spotted Carol standing at the stove, her back to him, and he leaned against the doorframe for a moment, taking in the sight.
She was fully dressed, presumably for work. She wore another little dress, another cardigan over top of it. Her hair was all pulled back from her face today, not half up like the day before. A modest bun rested at the nap of her neck, her thick curls just barely tamed. The hand that wasn't working on the bacon was propped on her hip.
This was the sight his brother woke up to every morning, he imagined. This was the life Daryl lived now.
Her head snapped towards him, having an uneasy sense that she wasn't alone though she heard nothing over the crackling bacon, and she smiled a welcoming smile as he pushed himself off the doorframe and walked towards the counter.
"Good morning," she said cheerfully. Her smile wavering as her eyes glanced down to his bare chest.
She wished he'd put a shirt on.
"'Mornin'," was all he offered back.
She took a deep breath, keeping her gaze focused on the stove. "There's some juice in the fridge if you want it. I've set out your plate and cup on the table. Um…how do you like your eggs?"
But he just stood there and watched her in that horribly intimidating way he had. She felt exposed, judged, and she hated it.
She was supposed to be gone before he'd woken up. Daryl had insisted that he'd go into work later that morning, and leave at the same time she usually did. He didn't want her to be alone with Merle, not for a minute. But she'd asserted that it would be fine, and he reassured her that Merle was likely to sleep in until well after she left anyhow.
And she'd decided that she'd make him breakfast for when he woke up, to heat up and eat after she left. Set him a place at the table, put the bread in the toaster so that all he'd have to do is push it down. She had never expected him to be awake this early, long before she was done cooking the bacon or the eggs.
But that wasn't how it had played out at all, and her heart had jumped just a little when she'd looked up and seen him standing there in his doorway, half naked and eyeing her.
Why wouldn't he just put a shirt on?
"Daryl likes his over easy. Soft yolks, so he can dip his toast in," she rattled on, taking the bacon out of the pan and laying it on a plate lined with paper towels. "Do you, um, do you like them that way too?"
He ran his tongue along his teeth and paused a moment in feigned contemplation.
Please just tell me how you want your goddamn eggs.
"Scrambled," he finally answered. "Fluffy. With ketchup on the side."
"Great!" she knew her voice was far too enthusiastic to be talking about ketchup, but his glare was nerve-wracking, and she just wanted to get out of there. "Fluffy eggs coming right up."
She cracked the eggs into a bowl and began whisking them with a fork. "Ketchup's in the fridge," she muttered, making no move to get it herself. It would have meant she'd have to brush past him, and she was more than happy to avoid that.
Because she was starting to understand why Daryl hadn't wanted Merle around her so badly. She realized exactly why she refused to get the ketchup herself. She simply didn't trust him to keep his hands to himself, not one little bit.
And he still stood there, leaning against the counter, watching as she cooked his eggs. Assessing. She didn't know what he was looking for, and she didn't know how to fill the silence.
"Where's Daryl?" He asked suddenly.
"Um, he went to work. Left about a half hour ago, I suppose."
"Goin' to work so early? Baby brother sure has changed. Never used to get outta here before noon," Merle chuckled.
Carol furrowed her brow in confusion as she turned off the heat on the stove.
"Really? He's always left this early. At least as long as I've known him," she trailed off. She pondered that for a moment, wondering why Daryl used to work such strange hours. He was such an early bird, always up at the crack of dawn, rarely even needing an alarm. Even on the weekends.
"You make him breakfast too?"
"Sure did. I try to almost every day." And he said nothing, so she just kept talking. "Some days he's out of here extra early, so he'll just grab a bowl of cereal in a hurry. And he'll leave me out a bowl too," she chuckled. "With the cereal box sitting right next to it." Nothing. "He'll put the spoon on top of the box, balancing it there just to be silly," her voice trailed off as she smiled nervously.
Apparently she had a tendency to prattle on when she was nervous.
"Ain't that sweet," he drawled with a sarcastic sneer, his tone suggesting that he truly thought the opposite. "He write you little love notes, too?"
Carol's smile faltered slightly, her mind working overtime to try to figure him out. She was trying. She was really, really trying.
"Ketchup's in the fridge," she repeated a bit more bitterly, taking the frying pan to the table and filling his plate.
She put the pan in the sink and moved to the door as he took his place at the table, placing the ketchup and juice in front of him.
"What's this?" she heard him ask.
Carol turned abruptly with her hand already on the doorknob, to see what he was talking about.
"Um," she began, furrowing her brow. "Daryl left that for you. He wants you to, uh, look for a job today. He said he circled a few that looked good."
He slapped the newspaper section back onto the table,folding his arms and glaring right at her. She turned back to the door, grabbed her bag and was ready to bolt, but he spoke again.
"Why don't you come sit with me for a few minutes?"
And she paused, her heart hammering, unsure of what he could possibly want with her. But she couldn't just leave. She didn't want to make him angry on purpose. She just didn't know him well enough to not be complacent. Not just yet.
I was supposed to be gone before you woke up.
She put a smile on her face and made her way back to the table, standing behind the seat directly across from him.
"Have a seat," he gestured.
"I really have to be going. I need to be at work. I'll miss my bus," she trailed off.
Carol, do not sit down.
His eyes ran over her, as they had before. She shifted her stance slightly, her eyes glancing at the clock on the microwave as she tucked a stray tendril behind her ear.
"So what do you do for work, Carol? Leaving here in such a hurry."
"I'm a secretary at an elementary school."
He nodded and sucked his teeth, completely and utterly disinterested in the details of her life.
"Carol Sinclair…" he mused, enunciating her last name slowly in a way that made her toes curl. "Sounds like the name of a little princess whose mommy and daddy gave her everything she ever wanted."
Her gaze shifted then, and he saw a flash in the steely blue of her eyes. He'd struck a chord.
"They did," she said simply.
And then I was Carol Peletier for a while.
"Yeah, I bet they did. I bet you played the piano. Wore a pretty pink ribbon in your hair."
She remained silent.
And then I was Carol Sinclair again.
"I bet you went to private school with the rich little kids of your rich daddy's friends."
He ran his tongue along his teeth once more, his eyes never wavering from hers. Trying desperately to intimidate her, keep the upper hand. This girl didn't belong here, and he'd decided it was now his own personal mission to make her realize that.
Still, she said nothing.
But the second time I was Carol Sinclair was entirely different.
"I bet you'd never even look at a little boy of the likes of little Daryl, all dirty and bruised. Scared of his own shadow."
Her lip twitched, and she fought the urge to scream at him.
"I bet your parents never shouted at one another, never had a fight. I bet they never so much as raised their voices at you. I bet you never been punished a day in your life."
He stood up then and made his way over to her. "I bet you had every fuckin' thing handed to you on a silver platter. I bet you never lived through hell on earth. I bet you ain't got a clue what that's like. Am I right, Carol Sinclair?"
She stood her ground, not moving an inch as he came to stand directly in front of her. So close that she could feel his seething heat radiating off of him.
And then she recognized something in herself that she never had before. It was how she realized just how far she'd come, how much she'd changed. Because when Merle got in her face, when she could feel his angry breath fanning over her skin, she didn't flinch, didn't fold in on herself and prepare to take whatever he had decided she deserved just for living the life he thought she'd lived.
Screaming. Hitting. None of that scared her right now, not in the least, even though she wouldn't have put it past a man like Merle to take it that far.
And she was proud of herself when she stayed exactly where she was. Her feet firm on the floor beneath her, proud of herself when she heard her own voice.
"What are you gonna do, Merle?" Her voice was soft, and her eyes had a bite to them that neither of them were expecting. "Are you gonna hit me? Teach me my place?"
He didn't move. His upper lip twitched with equal parts surprise and contempt. Because he didn't want to hit her, but it was what he knew. It was how a man kept the power, how he ran his life. How it was supposed to be.
Her face – her soft voice – stayed even, and she still refused to move.
"You think I've never been hit by a man before?"
He flinched back then. Moved away from her just barely, his eyes boring into hers questioningly as his mind began working hard to figure out what her words meant.
Had Daryl hit this woman?
A wave of anger overcame him then, submerging him and making his whole body hot with rage for a fraction of an instant. Though he'd always imagined he and Daryl to be doomed to be horrible men for the entirety of their time in this world, the thought made him angry. Angry that Daryl would choose to be with this woman, to make her his. To bring her into his home, only to use her the way their daddy had used their mama. He thought he'd taught Daryl to just avoid it altogether.
Daryl was supposed to be too good for that life.
In a way, he never realized that he'd held Daryl on a pedestal, and had always just assumed he'd choose the high road.
Merle was the fuck up. Merle was the one who avoided any far-reaching contact with a woman beyond a quick fuck just to escape having to hit her. Because Merle was the one with no self-control. And you couldn't keep a woman if you weren't prepared to show her what's what every now and then.
But she didn't offer up any more information than that, and he slumped away from her entirely, defeated. His fury towards her dissipating in an instant.
"Your eggs are getting cold," she said. This time with a voice that was spiked heavily with disdain.
And with that, she walked to the door and swung it open.
"Daryl said you'd better have a job by the time he gets home tonight, or he'll want you out of his house."
He nodded tersely. His gaze now focused on his plate, and he worked hard to make his next words sound unaffected by the conversation they'd just had, clearing his throat before he dared to speak.
"Thank you, sugarplum."
She offered the barest quirk of her lips but said nothing before making her way swiftly out the door, and slamming it behind her.
Carol was distracted at work. All morning long she had a hard time focusing. Had forgotten entirely that Carl Grimes was due to be at school late because his mother was taking him to the dentist that morning.
She worked slower, not able to shake the unease she felt after her confrontation with Merle that morning.
"Are you alright, dear?"
Carol turned her head swiftly to the familiar, soothing voice. The woman she worked with every day, who she felt such deep affection for.
She smiled through a sigh, wanting to reassure her that it was nothing to be concerned about. "I'm fine, Mrs. Greene. I'm sorry. I'm a little dreamy today."
"Oh, darlin', it's nothing to lose your head over. But you know I'm here to help if it's anything you'd like to talk about."
"Thank you, Mrs. Greene. I know."
The older lady laughed her kind, chime-like giggle. "And I am still waiting on the day that you start calling me Josephine."
Carol laughed right along with her, unable to keep a sour mood around the sweetness of her friend. "You know it just wouldn't feel right."
"Must have been raised right. A little too right," Mrs. Greene teased, before getting up to make her way to the photocopier.
The moment she turned back to her desk, Carol's brow furrowed at the reminder of her upbringing and her parents. She'd always wished they could have met Daryl. They'd never have accepted her being with someone like him, she knew for certain, but she had convinced herself they'd be glad for her happiness.
It was a thought that comforted her, no matter how badly she knew it would never be true.
Because they would never have approved of a man like Daryl. Never have approved of the place she now lived in. Never have approved of the way she chose to live her life, instead being concerned that she hadn't settled down with a nice, clean, wealthy man who could take care of her so that she wouldn't have to work a day in her life.
But they'd never meet Daryl anyhow, so she tried tucking away the thoughts from her mind.
The phone rang then, bringing her abruptly out of her reverie.
"Good day, Jonesboro Elementary," she answered in her usual cheerful work voice.
"Hey, sweetheart," came the smooth voice on the other end of the line. And just like that, Carol's face instantly dissolved into a smile. He rarely called her anything but her name, and when he did, she was sure he had no idea how weak in the knees it would make her.
"Hey, Daryl," she crooned softly into the receiver.
"You alright? What happened this morning? Did you see him?"
"Actually," she began, glancing around to make sure she had a semblance of privacy. "He woke up while I was frying up the bacon. But it's alright," she tacked on quickly, hearing his intake of breath on the other end and cutting him off before he could start. "It's fine. We made small talk. I told him you wanted him to find a job today. And then I left."
She wasn't sure why she left out the most important details of their conversation.
"Alright, as long as he didn't say anything crazy. Make you upset or nothin'."
"Nope, everything was great," she fibbed, wincing slightly at how wrong it felt. "So, are you on lunch?"
"Yeah. Thanks for the sandwiches," he said earnestly. He thanked her every day for the lunches she made for him.
"You're welcome, baby," she said quietly. "Are you home for dinner tonight?"
He often worked late, his longstanding habit of squirreling away extra cash for his brother's drug and prison habits a difficult one for him to break. He'd come to rely on his cushion, especially since he had refused to blow it on bail for Merle's latest stint in the clink.
It turned out that having money around was something he liked.
"Yeah, I'll be there. Come by here on your way home, alright? We'll go back together."
"Daryl-" she began, not wanting him to worry anymore about her being alone with Merle. She could handle it, she felt positive that she could.
"Just meet me here," he insisted softly. "Please. I'd feel better if you did."
"Alright, I will. See you around four?"
"See you around four," he agreed.
Her afternoon went much better after speaking with Daryl, hearing his voice. And she wouldn't admit how much she loved the idea of meeting him at the shop so that they could go home together.
A united front. That's what they were. And it seemed that the sooner Merle realized that, the better.
She'd had to wait for him for a little while before he could leave for the day, and they arrived home around five fifteen to see Merle laying on the couch with a bag of chips, a beer, and the television remote in his hand. Two cans of pop were strewn sloppily on the coffee table.
Daryl and Carol spared a look at one another, and Daryl rolled his eyes before making his way to the bedroom to change out of his soiled work clothes.
Carol flitted immediately to the kitchen to preheat the oven before prepping the chicken to bake and setting the pot of rice to boil over the stove.
Her eyes lingered on the sink full of dirty dishes as she attempted to keep her tone light. "So, did you have any luck finding work today, Merle?"
Daryl appeared in the open bedroom doorway then, pulling a shirt on as he listened to his brother's response.
"Nah, nothin' today, sweet cheeks," was all he said before changing the channel once more.
Daryl leveled a glare her way before joining her to help with the meal prep.
"Good thing I found you a job myself then, asshole," he bit out.
That had Merle's attention. He sat up abruptly on the couch as a few stray potato chips fell to the floor.
"Dale's towing company's looking for a new overnight guy. Congrats. You start Monday," Daryl said flatly but with an edge to his tone. He knew Merle wouldn't have spent a minute of his day looking for a job. And if he wanted to stay this time, Daryl would make him work for it.
Merle said nothing, only staring open-mouthed at his brother in a way that almost looked like he was offended.
Daryl pulled a butcher knife from the drawer in front of him and began trimming the chicken as Carol busied herself with the peas and carrots. Sarcasm dripped heavily from his mouth as he spoke his next words.