If It Helps

Chapter 8

There was a time when things were great. A good, solid twenty six days when they really thought things with Merle could work out.

Maybe he would even live there with them indefinitely.

Maybe they really would be able to make it.

It was in the way that Merle would just get up after dinner and start drying the dishes, at first. A handful of times of silently getting up from the table when Carol had started washing their dinner dishes, grabbing a dishtowel from the clean pile in the cupboard just under and to the left of the sink, and standing next to her, drying each one.

One night he stood up quicker than she did after their evening meal. Grabbed her plate right out of her hand without even making eye contact, piling it on top of his own as though it was something he did every day, and taking Daryl's in his free hand before making his way to the sink. Carol was stunned silent for a moment or two, not really knowing what to say.

She eventually opted to not say anything at all since he clearly didn't want any fanfare, but made herself busy by cleaning up the leftovers and packing them into the fridge. Daryl promptly took a dishrag and dried the freshly washed dishes alongside his brother. All entirely in silence, not a word uttered between the three.

With all the food tucked into the fridge, Carol put away the dried dishes that Daryl had neatly stacked next to him on the counter.

Like a well-oiled machine, they'd cleaned the kitchen that night in record timing.

It was in the way he may have started to pick up after himself around the house. Carol couldn't be entirely sure if that were the case, or if maybe he had just stopped leaving a mess of himself everywhere he went.

All she knew was that the empty cups and beer bottles scattered around their little space were fewer and farther between, and that his dirty underwear had a way of making itself into the hamper more often than not.

The mess he had been leaving in the sink after shaving seemed to have disappeared entirely.

His bed was made, no matter how carelessly.

It was in the way he'd made them both breakfast on the days he happened to be around before they went off to work, or when he'd arrive home from his overnight shift while Daryl was in the shower and Carol was brewing a pot of coffee. After about a week and a half of their rooming together, Merle wouldn't fumble into his room to go to bed when he arrived home early in the morning until after the two of them had left for work.

And sometimes, even if he wasn't working at all, he'd be up when they were and did it anyway. Just because.

Merle's pancakes. Presented to them without the snarky remarks or underhanded comments. He'd whistle a tune while he flipped them in the frying pan and ate right alongside them before they each left for their jobs.

Sometimes they chatted, other times they didn't. But they were all together.

It was in the way Daryl grumbled as he climbed up the ladder one Saturday morning to clean out the gutters, only to find that they had already been cleaned out.

And it was in the way that, as they were nearing their third week with their new roommate, Merle had been scheduled for his first daytime shift.

"Merle still at work?" Daryl asked as he popped a little roasted potato into his mouth, breathing erratically with his mouth hanging open once he realized too late that it was still much too hot.

Carol smirked at his impatience.

"Yeah, I think he's due home around eight," she replied, before tacking on, "Those just came out of the oven."

"Jim said Dale was pretty happy with him workin' there. Guess he's doin' a good job."

Carol smiled as she tossed the salad in the bowl in front of her.

"That's good, right? I mean, maybe these daytime shifts will start to be a regular thing?"

He knew what she was saying. Maybe he really is turning his life around. Maybe it really is helping.

"Yeah, it's good," he replied, leaning an elbow on the counter next to her, his body just barely touching hers. She smiled wide, stifling a snicker and glancing up at him when she felt his eyes on her.

He nudged her foot playfully with his, his beautiful smile tugging at his beautiful lips, and she couldn't hold it in, giggling delicately and nudging him back with her elbow.

It had been a while since they'd flirted in this carefree way that had always come naturally to them, before.

"Want a beer?" he asked, his smiling eyes flitting to her smiling mouth.

Carol pursed her lips in mock contemplation. "Yeah," she nodded, still beaming at him. "I'll have a beer."

He kissed her then, pressing his lips firmly to hers and pulling away with a loud smack, and she muttered her thanks as he made his way to the fridge. She brought the salad to the dinner table, already set for their quiet supper alone together.

She'd fixed Merle a plate for him to heat up when he got home and placed it in the fridge, writing him a note on the counter so he'd know it was there.

But they never did hear Merle come home that night.

And day twenty seven was the day that everything began to change. The first day of many where the pancakes weren't much of a priority anymore.

Carol was fixing breakfast for herself, Daryl, and Merle that Sunday morning. Merle's bedroom door was closed, meaning he had come home the previous night, though it was clearly well after Daryl and Carol had gone to sleep.

His plate of supper from the night before was still in the fridge where Carol had left it. The note remained untouched on the countertop.

Daryl leaned up against the counter opposite the stove as she worked, sipping his steaming cup of coffee and making idle chit chat as he drank in the sight of her freely. The lace trim of her nightgown peeked out just enough from underneath the hem of her housecoat, and he'd decided he didn't want to hold back as her slender neck called out to his lips, her curls pinned up loosely atop her head.

Placing his coffee mug down on the counter next to him, he slid up behind her with his hands at her waist, the length of his front pressing against her back as he let his splayed hands slide across her ribcage and hold her tightly.

She giggled when she felt his lips and the very tip of his tongue grazing over the smooth skin of her neck and tilted her head to the side to grant him better access. She absently turned off the stove and slid the last slice of French toast from the pan onto the plate she'd had ready next to her.

The muffled sound of movement coming from Merle's bedroom had Daryl growling playfully into her skin, placing soft kisses along the side of her throat and the back of her neck in anticipation of having to reluctantly pull himself away from her when Merle finally came out of hibernation. They never did that shit in front of him because Daryl didn't want him seeing Carol like that. Merle's brain would connect Carol to sex without any help at all, and he certainly didn't want to be the one to give his brother any ideas.

As Merle's bedroom door whipped open and the sounds of the quiet laughter – the very feminine laughter – made its way to the kitchen, Daryl and Carol snapped their attention promptly to the sound.

The woman – the girl – froze at the sight of them, clearly surprised at their presence. And Daryl's hands tightened on Carol's waist as the pieces fit together.

"Oh," the girl began, her fingertips flying to her mouth.

But Daryl said nothing, and neither did Carol. All they could do was stare.

She was dressed in a fitted creamy white t-shirt with blue stars peppered over it, and close-fitting jeans covered her slender body. She had flowing, long blonde hair. She was pretty.

She was young.

"Hi there," she continued, glancing back into the bedroom as though looking to Merle for a little help, though he never appeared. So she took a few steps towards them, smiling nervously. "Good morning. I'm…um…Amy."

It registered with Carol after a brief moment that was far too long to be socially acceptable, that Daryl hadn't spoken, and hadn't moved an inch from his spot behind her.

"Hello," was all Carol could muster, her tone clipped as she forced what she thought might have been a smile. She was vaguely aware that she should probably have introduced herself, or Daryl, but she didn't. Couldn't. Only kept glancing behind the girl – Amy – to the half-open doorway to the bedroom she'd just come from. But she couldn't see Merle, and it seemed he wouldn't be making an appearance anytime soon.

"I…guess I should…be going." It came out like a question.

And Carol's instinct to invite this girl to eat breakfast with them and be as hospitable as she'd been when she'd first met Merle was very quickly slapped around by the feeling of Daryl's hands tightening on her waist.

Not the time, Carol.

So Amy made her way to the door as the two sets of eyes followed her. They turned their bodies rigidly to watch her pick up her purse from the couch on her way to the door. And they remained frozen and wide-eyed as she hastily snatched up the bra that they hadn't even noticed had been perched atop the coffee table.

Amy turned and waved at them awkwardly once more before muttering a floundering "Have a nice day" and leaving their home, shutting the door gently behind her.

Daryl stood frozen, his unrelenting gaze plastered on the front door. Carol glanced at him a time or two, unsure of what to say.

Because Daryl had told Merle he wasn't allowed having women at the house. And although that was definitely more of a girl than a woman, she could see the steam practically shooting out of his ears.

Daryl knew it was the first of many rules Merle would break.

So Carol did the only thing she could do just then. She set to fixing the table for the three of them to eat whenever Merle saw it fit to show up. She hoped that maybe he would stay in his room all day. Maybe he would just not come out at all, and then take his things and leave in the middle of the night so they'd never have to see him again.

Or, she'd even hoped that he would come out of his room to eat with them. Maybe he'd apologize for his slip-up with this Amy girl and swear that it would never happen again.

Because Carol felt a dread settle over them as the two of them sat down to eat. She forced her breakfast down her throat as she tried pushing away all the unease, but the look on Daryl's face was tearing her up inside.

And they had no such luck of escaping any kind of awkwardness. Not five minutes after they'd started eating, Merle finally came out of his room. Walked straight to the empty seat at the table, eyeing them both with a gleam in his eye – daring them to say something about the girl who'd just left – sat down heavily, and began to eat.

Daryl and Merle hadn't fought that day. Instead, they didn't speak to one another at all.

It was Carol who'd gone head to head with Merle while Daryl fumed on the couch, far too keyed up to trust himself to hold back.

She'd said everything she thought Daryl would want to say since he seemed too angry to do it himself, and she wouldn't have Merle disrespect Daryl in his own house. She'd found her footing, and she'd gone for it.

It was mid-afternoon when the tension finally broke her.

She stood at the kitchen counter, poured herself a glass of water, and downed it rapidly before slamming the glass down and opening her mouth.

"How old is she?" she asked bluntly.

Merle looked up at her from his seat at the opposite end of the couch from Daryl as they pretended to watch television, surprised at the sudden break in the day-long silent treatment they'd been giving him.

They both knew Merle had been testing them. Acted like there was not a thing wrong and hung around the two of them all damn day. But he knew what he'd done, and he knew Daryl would be angry with him. What amused him the most was that Carol was furious with him, too. He saw how much it bothered her that Daryl was uptight.

And for whatever reason, that just tickled him pink.

He stood up and made his way over to her, standing on the opposite side of the counter and leaning in menacingly as he glared her way.

Daryl sat rigidly on the sofa, holding himself back with everything he had, but had become suddenly tense as he watched it all happen. He'd avoid the fight if he could, but if his brother laid a hand on Carol, all bets were off.

"The fuck do you care?" Merle spat.

"She's a girl. She's just a girl," she sneered, her tone disbelieving that he could be so disgusting.

"She's twenty-two. Lay the fuck off."

"You're thirty-seven," she argued. "Merle, come on."

"Hey!" he barked loudly, and Carol flinched back in surprise. Daryl looked on, unblinking, tensing further. "I didn't force her to do nothin' she ain't wanted to do, so don't go fuckin' judgin' me like I'm some fuckin' pervert."

"Daryl said no women, Merle. On your first night here. He told you." She could feel herself getting hot with anger as she raised her voice.

"Oh, fuck," he said loudly before she'd even finished speaking, and his next words came through a thick, humourless laugh. "'Daryl said', did he? You people want me to just be fuckin' celibate?"

"Just don't bring them here, Merle. That's all he asked."

And then Merle flew right off the handle as he screamed at the two of them that they couldn't tell him what to do. Couldn't make him a prisoner in his own home.

Carol kept on, reminding him that this wasn't his home anymore and that he was more than welcome to leave whenever he wanted.

Daryl said this, and Daryl said that. It drove him fucking crazy.

He'd gotten right in Daryl's face then, leaning over him while he sat on the couch, shouting that Daryl wasn't the only one allowed to get laid here. And Daryl remained stoic, using every ounce of energy and focus that he had to block Merle out. But his fists were clenched and his jaw was tensed, and all Daryl wanted – more than anything – was to beat his older brother into the ground.

Merle stopped yelling suddenly but stayed towering over Daryl, staring him down as a dry, ruthless, menacing smile spread slowly over his face.

Carol stood in her place by the kitchen counter, tensing suddenly at the abrupt end in shouting. It felt like the eye of the storm, and her stomach turned at the anticipation.

Merle straightened slowly and sauntered back towards Carol, leaning on the counter adjacent to her. Close. Too close. She sneered in distaste when he ran his tongue along his teeth and lowered his eyes to the vee of her fitted black t-shirt.

"Maybe Daryl's right. Maybe I shouldn't be bringin' strange women into this here trailer. After all, there's a perfectly good one already livin' right under this roof. Ain't like I never though of gettin' you-"

He hadn't had the chance to finish uttering the words before Daryl stood and barrelled towards them. And in that fleeting instant, Carol's eyes widened as she predicted his reaction, and she moved quickly around Merle to place herself between the two men.

Daryl stopped short when she placed both of her hands on his chest, her back to Merle. Her wide eyes pleading with him not to do it, her chest heaving with her anxiety.

Don't start, they implored. You're better than he is.

And he glared down at her, wanting her to just move out of his way but unable to look away from her anxious blue eyes.

He hated that look on her face – so afraid – and the rest of it all faded away as he reigned it in.

The anger on his face stayed right where it was, even as he looked down at her soft features, felt the delicate touch of her hands on his chest as he warred with himself; his hatred for Merle versus his love for Carol. He looked past Carol to his brother, his scowl deepening and his breath quickening, and Merle just grinned that wry, malicious grin.

They glared at one another for too many moments, Merle taunting and Daryl receding. Carol turned her body to face Merle then, backing herself into Daryl so that she was flush against him. Daryl's hand moved immediately to her wrist while his other touched her waist, anchoring her – tethering her – to him as they both waited for Merle's next move.

Carol watched as Merle's icy blue eyes shifted from Daryl to Carol. She wanted to scream.

Why do you keep doing this to him? Why can't you just leave him be?

And then he finally broke, moving past the couple towards the front door, glancing back at them with one last condescending eye roll and slamming the door behind him, leaving them both standing in stunned silence.

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