He would never be able to forget the day he'd said what he said to her.
I'm thinkin' maybe I wanna take you out for dinner, Miss Carol.
Everything about him had changed on that day.
He'd shocked himself when those words had come out of his mouth. But he could never deny the stirring in his belly each and every time he saw her car waiting for him to fix at the shop. He could never deny the flips and twists it did every time she came to pick it up. The best moments were when he'd hand her the keys and sometimes the tips of his fingers would touch the warm palm of her hand. It was always over much too soon.
Because there was something about her that had pulled him in. Like they were magnets, the two of them. Just the mere sight of her reduced him to nothing of the man he'd always assumed he was. The sound of her soft, honeyed voice. It sang to him.
In the moment between his offer to buy her dinner and her sweet acceptance, he felt as though he'd been kicked in the gut. That split second of watching her smile falter for a brief moment with her surprise, the shock of the fact that he'd actually said it out loud and the unbridled fear of rejection, had the wind knocked clean out of him.
And then she said yes, and he felt his face grow warm. Felt the breath rush out of him in a swift gust. He'd smiled. The relief was overwhelming, and he'd been giddy for the rest of the afternoon.
Well, maybe I wouldn't mind that so much.
He'd just replayed it over and over in his head.
He was so terribly nervous for the date he'd asked her on, not having a clue what was supposed to happen. Because before Carol, Daryl had never been on a date. Never asked a woman to spend time with him that way. A quick fuck here and there just to get his rocks off was all he'd ever allowed himself, all he ever thought he'd have in his life, or thought he deserved. All he ever thought there was, really.
But, Carol…it was like she was made especially for him. Like the sole purpose of her existence was to knock his entire world upside down.
He'd never really thought of anyone.
To think of someone when they weren't around him meant trying to figure out how long it would take to make bail. Figuring out how the hell to pay off the debts owed for substances that were already long gone. Figuring out what kind a mood they'd be in when he got home. High or sober. Mad or indifferent. Full of misplaced rage, or so far gone that the world was just a cloud. A haze of nothingness that wasn't really there. An empty shell, sitting on his couch or lying half-naked on the bathroom floor.
But Carol was on his mind every day, and it was odd to him that it wasn't about anything bad. There were things about her that made him feel good. Her smile, her soft voice, her teasing. The key hand-off.
Daryl never knew what the goodness was, could never pinpoint what it meant. All he knew was that seeing her meant a few short minutes of an escape from himself. From his life. From Merle.
He never imagined a woman like her would want to be with him, or even just want to be around him. He could never understand why he'd always looked forward to her visits to pick up her keys. Couldn't understand why he felt disappointed that they couldn't last longer. He never imagined he'd have anything to offer someone like her. Never imagined she could ever understand the life he'd lived, or be able to be happy with him once she did.
He never thought he'd ever want anyone like her – her – to be a part of his life. Never thought he'd feel such a need to make anyone else happy. Because he wanted it so bad, for her to be happy. There was something about her – something – and he wanted her to have it all.
But they'd talked, at that dinner date. They'd both talked and they'd both listened, and Daryl had never felt the wind knocked out of him harder or faster. The life she'd lived – the things she'd been through – he understood where her kindness came from. He understood, then, how it was that she didn't judge him. Judge his torn clothing and filthy hands. His greasy hair and his crude, unrefined disposition.
It was because she knew that a well-kept man didn't translate to being a good man.
So they just sat in that booth at that diner on the edge of town, and talked until breakfast was being served again.
He couldn't even believe he'd wanted to talk to her in the first place. Tell her things, and hear the things she had to tell him. Women had never been made for that, in his mind. He'd been taught that women were for nothing other than to satisfy a need. A primal, basic need to have your fill and be done with them. It had never occurred to him – not ever – that his daddy and his brother could be wrong.
He'd grown up never understanding why anyone would get married. Why a man and a woman would choose to marry and live together and torture each other with their hatred. Why put yourself through a marriage when you could just scratch the itch somehow when it finally became too much of a distraction to ignore and be on your merry way? Why?
And for a while he thought something might be wrong with him because he didn't want her that way. He didn't want to use her for a quickie and send her packing. He didn't want her to be that person to any man. And when he tried to picture it – tried to picture her as one of those used-up women underneath him that he could get his hands on – it made him mad. A strange type of mad that he'd never felt before.
So he'd decided he could never see her again. Because what would be the purpose? He couldn't be her friend, whatever that meant. He worked and went home and spent his time making sure his deadbeat brother didn't die from some sort of overdose, or alcohol poisoning, or STD. Now that Merle was in prison, his free time was spent working some more. Making some cash on the side because, when Merle was locked up, he always realized how little he had in his life.
And he wouldn't fuck her – he couldn't. Not like that.
No. He wanted her slowly. In a bed – his bed – with sheets. Clean sheets. He wanted to make her breakfast in the morning. And he wanted to talk some more.
But that just wasn't real. It wasn't a thing that happened to real people, least of all him. It was in his mind, and that's where it would stay. And he'd thought a lot about it, since that night at the diner, how they would talk and eat breakfast.
He loved thinking those thoughts, and so he kept on doing it. Holding on to the happy they gave to him, thinking that his thoughts alone were the gift he was getting out of his life.
So he'd driven her home from their date and didn't kiss her goodnight – or technically, good morning – because he didn't know how. Didn't know if she wanted it, or how he was supposed to even know if she wanted it. And he grew more and more nervous as she lingered in his truck, telling him she had a good time. Joking about how she'd sleep until dinnertime since the sun was already peeking over the horizon.
He wanted to keep her there somehow. Just keep her right there so that he could look at her and hear her voice whenever he wanted. Because his thoughts about her were always so fresh after she'd been at the shop for her keys. He'd picture it all so much more vividly after his brief encounters with her.
But he didn't know how, and so she eventually left without a kiss or a promise or anything else.
And he didn't call her. Didn't try to reach her. He figured it was over, and that was the most he'd ever get. The closest he'd ever get to whatever that was with a woman – with her. And he figured he'd just hold onto the memory of their night together and go back to the way things were before.
Before Carol. Because that's how he classified his life now.
Before Carol. After Carol.
But he just never realized that once you crossed the line to After Carol, you could never go backwards.
About two weeks after their date, he'd shown up to work and saw her car there – waiting for him. And it suddenly hit him how badly he'd fucked up by not calling her. How much he'd been keeping from himself by staying away. Because now that he knew he'd be seeing her again when she came for her keys, he was like a dying man in a desert, desperate for a drop of water.
He should have called her. Even though he hadn't the faintest idea of what he would say – should say – at least he would have heard her voice.
Daryl didn't think about how his unawareness would hurt her, how she might have felt slighted by his ignorance. He simply didn't think it would have affected her at all. She'd given him the gift of her stories and the sound of her voice, and the time to be near her and breathe the sweet scent she carried around with her. But he hadn't the dimmest impression that he'd been giving her anything in return.
Because if you weren't anything to begin with, what would you possibly have to give?
He fixed her car before he did anything else that day, and left her a message to come pick it up. He figured she'd be surprised to hear his voice on her answering machine, telling her the car was ready. He never called her – it wasn't really his job – but some sort of switch had been flipped, and he was suddenly desperate for her.
She stopped by the shop on her way home from work. His face grew hot the moment he laid eyes on her, stepping tentatively through the door. She smiled at T-Dog as she entered, and they had a quick exchange, as they usually did, before she made her way to the counter.
He watched as she took the clipboard that Axel handed to her and signed it as she always did, before making her way tentatively over to him. No sign of the smiles she usually wore for him. No sign of the easy banter they usually held with one another.
She kept her gaze lowered and cleared her throat quietly as she approached.
And his throat closed up at the look on her face. It felt like she was upset with him, like she didn't want to be there anymore. It was different, entirely different. He hadn't the faintest idea what to even say to her when she wore that face.
It turned out that he didn't have to, because she broke the silence first.
"Thank you," she said simply, glancing up at him so briefly that he wasn't sure she could even know for certain it was him.
"Anytime," he mumbled back, watching her face as he held out the keys.
She took them and looked up at him again, for a fraction of a moment longer, and her mouth curved up into the smallest and quickest of smiles. As though she was forcing herself to be friendly.
And just like that, another punch to the gut.
It was then he realized it was impossible. He had to see her again. Every day forever, if he could help it.
"I wanna see you again," he'd stuttered randomly, catching her attention as her eyes snapped up to his.
"You didn't call," she said simply, shrugging a shoulder and moving her eyes back to the ground.
"I didn't know you wanted me to."
"I wanted you to."
She looked at him then. Fixing him with some type of eagerness that had him fighting himself to stay where he was.
He paused for a moment as his eyes drank in the sight of her. Taking a beat to let the blueness of her eyes wash through him.
"Let me take you out again," he announced. And then he shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose, knowing that came out wrong. "Uh, I mean…can I take you out again?"
Her eyes shifted around them, not knowing exactly how to respond. Because she wanted to go with him – everywhere, all the time – but she didn't want to be strung along for whenever it suited him. Didn't want him to just not call her again. She'd been an idiot before. Let herself be treated horribly by a man.
And because she blamed herself for that, she promised herself she'd be stronger next time, if there ever was a next time. She didn't want to make the same mistake again and give herself over to someone who could very well hurt her.
"I'm sorry," he offered, unsure if those words were even appropriate. "I just…I wanna see you again."
And the sincerity in his eyes and his voice stopped her dead in her tracks. His gaze was unwavering, captivating her and making her see him for the first time all over again.
So she just nodded, her head moving on its own accord. "Okay," she said.
She swallowed. "Um," she shook her head. "No."
His smile dropped suddenly, and he swallowed against the hurt.
"I mean, I can't tonight," she continued with trepidation. Her eyes were locked on her twisting fingers, and then she peeked up at him shyly. "Tomorrow?"
He smiled, exhaling the breath he held with relief.
Gone was the easy repartee they'd had together, before. Gone were the easy smiles they'd given to one another, the brush of their hands as he handed her the keys. Things were so different now. A different he wasn't prepared for and didn't know how to handle. But it was a different he coveted nonetheless. It was a different he would never want to give back.
Because she'd gotten him to break his tedium, to add something new and exciting to his life. So instead of going home alone to his empty house, and instead of working that extra shift every now and again, Daryl would take her back to that booth at that diner on the edge of town, and they would talk until breakfast was being served again.
And every single time he'd leave her on her doorstep, he'd feel an inexplicable lightness. She was exorcising his demons, one by one.
When Carol let the screen door slam shut behind her, he glanced up from his place on the sofa and opened his arm to her as she went straight over and curled herself into his side.
"Everything alright?" he mumbled into her hair.
She hummed in response. He must have heard them speaking out on the porch, but she offered no more details than that.
Carol felt him pull back slightly and she peeked up at his face, finding his blue eyes looking intently at her. She placed a hand lightly on his cheek and kissed him softly on the mouth.
"It'll be alright," she muttered, burrowing herself into the crook of his neck once more and turning her attention superficially to the television in front of them. "We'll be alright."
But something just wasn't settling right with him. He'd fought himself from going out to the porch when he'd heard them talking, and now her tone paired with the distant look in her eye did nothing to soothe his dismay about the whole situation.
"Wanna go to bed?" he whispered.
So Daryl shut off the TV and stood before taking her hand and pulling her gently to stand with him. And then he weaved a hand softly into her hair and kissed her chastely before guiding her to the bathroom with a strong hand placed soothingly at the small of her back.
They brushed their teeth in companionable silence, watching one another through the mirror with eyes that spoke of fear and weariness and hopeful disappointment.
They dressed in their nightclothes, standing on either side of their bed, her eyes flitting involuntarily to his chest as he stripped down to his underwear, and he carelessly watched her worn light blue slip fall delicately over her body.
They crawled into bed, meeting in the middle, and his arm came around her as she fitted herself into his side. Tangling their legs together as she wrapped her arm around his belly, and he brought the covers up and over them.
Like a cocoon.
A little shell that was just for them, keeping them together and away from the harshness of their new reality. Both terrified of what their new roommate had the potential to do to them, separately and together. Both troubled of their inability to fight back their old selves.
Daryl brought his free arm up behind his head and listened to Carol's steadying breath as she was lulled slowly to sleep, tucked into him. His mind was running away from him, and he scrambled to find answers to problems he didn't even know existed yet.
This could be good. Or it could be really, really bad.
The unknown of it all was gnawing away at him, as was his confidence in being the man Carol thought he was. The man he wanted to be for her. The man he'd become with the strength he'd found in himself.
But Carol wanted them to try. She thought it could help. And it very well might, so he would try.
He would do it for Carol, because she felt it was important, and he would do anything to make her happy.
He would do it for himself, because he knew he wasn't the type of man who could cut his only kin out of his life without a second thought.
And he'd do it for Merle, because Merle deserved a real chance at finding his own happiness. He deserved the chance to know there was another way.
Give a man a fish. Teach a man to fish.
And so he bit back against the ill feeling gnawing on his insides, telling him something wasn't right. And he would try.
If it helped, he would try.
Lord knew Merle wasn't doing a damn thing to make anything easier on them, but Daryl fought against the onslaught of his past and all the new-old feelings it brought back. He fought through the stampede of who he was Before Carol and grabbed hold of the talisman she represented.
He'd remember the days of his fingertips brushing over her palm when he'd hand over her keys, the booth at that diner on the edge of town, the Well, maybe I wouldn't mind that so much.
He'd remember, and he'd fight.
And they'd all be alright.