A/N: Alright, so just a short one shot. Takes place after they find Sophia, but before they leave the farm.
Warnings: General angst, mentions of past child abuse, language.
Daryl didn't look up from his fire as Carol sat down next to him, just kept carving more arrows. Just like Merle had always told him. You gotta few free minutes, you don't catch your breath. You just get ready for the next fight.
He chuckled softly, ignoring the curious look Carol gave him. Seemed like his whole life was spent getting ready for the next fight. Never a moment's peace. Never a second's respite. And even now, in the middle of fucking nowhere, half the population wiped out, and these people still insisted on taking even the quiet from him.
"You know… The whole point of bein' out here is to get away from you people," He said casually.
"Daryl, I… I appreciate… everything you did. Trying to find my daughter. I just wanted you to know that."
Daryl finally looked over at her, stopping his work. "I didn't do none a it for you, lady. I did it for Sophia. Ain't no kid… they ain't meant to… Wanderin' out there… It ain't right. No kid should hafta go through that."
Carol sighed. "I know. I should've… I wasn't watching her close enough. I shouldn't have let her wander like that. It's my fault. And to top it all off… I couldn't even go looking for her. I'm useless out there. We both know it. Hell, we all know it. I'm as useless to y'all now, as I was being Sophia's mother."
Daryl chuckled again, resuming his carving. "Trust me… I ain't excusin' what ya did out there. But you weren't useless to Sophia."
He looked over, and seen the tears streaming down her face. Shit. Crying wasn't allowed in the Dixon house. He wasn't sure what exactly the right thing to do was. So he sat. Silently. Awkwardly.
Finally, Carol broke the silence, swiping the tears away from her face. "I uh… I used to think that… By keeping her father away from her that… That I was protecting her. That it was better to stay and… and deal with Ed, than it was for me to leave, and take her daddy away. Or at least… That's what I told myself.
"But after… After seeing Carl… It was obvious. My daughter was… damaged. Even though her father had never laid a hand on her she was… still scarred. But even then… I just didn't know what else to do. I couldn't run. Not with Sophia. I couldn't have taken care of her on the road. So I just… stayed. And watched her get more and more frightened. What kind of mother does that make me, Daryl?"
Daryl sighed, finally setting the almost-finished bolt at his feet, leaning back against the tree. "My mamma… She left me. Couldn't take no more of my daddy beatin' on us. She said… Since she couldn't stop it, and she…" He swallowed thickly, running a closed fist against his chin. "She said she jus'… couldn't watch it no more. Said we would be… No worse off without her. An' she couldn't find nobody to take us in. So one day… Was 'bout, maybe, nine I think? She just packed her shit, walked out the front door… And that was it. Left me and Merle alone with our daddy."
He looked up, to see her watching him with pity, and he shifted uncomfortably. "I don't need your pity, lady. I survived, a'ight? I… Fuck, I don't want your damn pity. I didn't tell you that to get no damn sympathy. I tol' you that so you knew. Even if what you did wasn't the best choice… It was a damn sight better than some you couldda made."
"I… I don't pity you, Daryl. I… empathize," Carol said softly, leaning over, and going to lay her hand on his head, stopping when he pulled away sharply.
"That's a mighty big word. The hell does it mean?"
Carol chuckled as she sat back on her knees. "It means… I understand. That I… sympathize. Not that I'm sympathetic, but that I sympathize."
"The hell's the difference?" She could see the discomfort, the embarrassment written on his face at his lack of understanding, and suddenly realized what her laughter had cost him.
"It just means that… I know what you felt. Maybe… No, definitely not as bad as you… but I know what it's like."
The younger man was silent for a few minutes, clearly wanting to say something. Finally, he stood, walking over to his tent, and bringing out two paperback books.
"Here," He said gruffly, tossing them at her feet, and crossing his arms over his chest. "Ain't much good to me. Might as well give 'em back to Hershel."
Carol picked the books up, and frowned. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Journey to the Center of the Earth.
"What's wrong with them?" She asked cautiously. Dale had told her he'd picked out a few books for the hunter that he thought he'd get the most use out of, but now she wondered if Daryl had taken offense to the books.
"Ain't nothin' wrong with 'em. Or maybe there is, I dunno. I… I can't read," He snapped, shifting from foot to foot.
"You… how did you never learn to read?"
" 'Cause I'm stupid, a'ight? I… Shit, I only know the damn alphabet up to 'E' for Christ's sake."
"And your teachers didn't work with you?" Carol asked in amazement.
Daryl snorted, biting his lip. "I never went to school. Merle… he tried teachin' me a little bit of what our mamma had taught him, but… I jus' never got it. My daddy used to joke and say… All I needed was to get my brain a few good knocks. We'd be sittin' at the table, an' he'd hand me the paper an' ask me to read him the game scores. He knew I couldn't. He knew it, an' I knew it. An'… when I'd… I'd jus' sit there, starin' at that damn paper, prayin' it'd all suddenly make sense… 'cause every time… He'd… He'd punish me by smashin' my head off somethin'. The table, the floor… The cook stove one time. Even left it lit an' everythin'. Jus' for me," He finished quietly, staring off into the trees.
Carol barely managed to keep her tears in, as the hunter dropped down, balancing on the tips of his feet, hanging his head.
"Shit. Dunno why the hell I'm tellin' ya this."
"You ever told anyone before?"
The younger man laughed darkly. "In case you ain't noticed… Not like I know a whole hell of a lot a people. It was always just my daddy, Merle an' me. Wasn't like I was gonna go runnin' to one a them for sympathy. Even 'fore all this started… Never knew anyone but my daddy and Merle. No other family… No relatives. We lived out in the sticks, so never had no neighbors either."
Carol smiled softly as she stood, and walked over to him, dropping back to her knees next to him. "Would you like to learn to read, Daryl?" She asked quietly, holding the books out towards him.
The man scoffed, swiping at his face with his sleeve. "Didn't you hear me, woman? I said I'm too stupid. So there ain't no point in either of us wastin' our time."
"I don't believe that. You're a lot of things, Daryl Dixon, and 'stupid' isn't one of them. You think somebody 'stupid' could've stayed alive these past few months? Somebody 'stupid' could've fed this group? It wasn't a stupid man who found my daughter's doll, or climbed up a mountain with a hole in his side to get that doll to me. That's not a stupid man."
"A'ight then, if you so smart… If I ain't stupid, then how the hell am I the only thirty year old man who can't read? Hell, kindergarteners can read better than I can," He scoffed.
"Maybe… You just didn't have the right teacher. So… If you don't mind, Daryl… I'd like to teach you how to read."
For the first time that entire night, the man met her eyes, as he slowly reached his hands out towards the books, a glimmer of hope on his face. Just for a split second, and then it was gone, but Carol knew what she had seen.
"I'd uh… I guess if you got the time… I mean, if you wanna try… Probably jus' a waste of time, you know," He said gruffly, as he grabbed the books back from her, and glanced at the cover. "Merle used to have this one. Said it was 'bout a guy who found a whole 'nother world underneath this one, yeah? I recognize the picture."
Carol smiled. "Yeah. You wanna start with that one?"
"Might as well, I guess. I mean, if you think it's gonna do any good. But uh… If it makes you feel better, I guess…"
"It does, Daryl. It does."