A/N Just want to say that I am so very grateful to all of you that reviewed the last chapter and gave me the courage to keep it going. This was originally just a contemplative piece, a character study, and while that is generally how I write anyway, with so much enthusiasm I am forced to re-look at this and delve deeper. So, that kind of requires plot! I am about to go and respond to all of your amazing reviews, but just wanted to let you know now how great I think you all are. You gave me a tremendous boost. Now, on with Carol…
Oh, and my apologies, this chapter is unbetaed. If you find any glaring faults, please let me know.
She'd made a decision, sitting beside Sophia's grave. While she sat in the dirt, remembering her past and cataloguing every single minute where she'd been a victim—where she'd suffered such loss as if it were her due—Carol decided she wasn't going to take it anymore. This world was hard, much harder than the one where she'd spent the last forty two years being meek and a coward, and it was time for her to finally find her backbone. If she'd found it earlier, she might have been able to save her own daughter from the horrible fate that had ripped her from her life. She wasn't going to be too hard on herself, though, and think she'd have been any better equipped to do what she had if she hadn't spent fifteen years as Ed's wife. He'd trained her to be weak-minded and accepting of whatever punishment life threw at her, and in thinking such thoughts, memories of her baby Louisa had flooded her mind.
She'd been so small when they'd presented the premature baby to her. Tiny, yet perfect, and as Carol remembered seeing that dead little bundle in her arms, she felt herself break all over again. She'd been so foolish to risk falling pregnant then, when her world had already become so violent. The only thing in her entire life that gave her any meaning had been Sophia, a beautiful, adventurous toddler and there Carol was, clinging to every hope and dream she'd had before she'd ever even met Ed—a life, a family, children. She'd wanted the trio, wanted the white picket fence and the man who would go to work and then come home and love her at night, the three children, one that looked like each of them and another for good measure. She'd wanted her children to not know what it was like to grow up lonely, being the sole focus of elderly parents that had waited to procreate until it was almost too late. And she'd almost waited too late herself, being too shy to take risks with men she'd met until her twenty-eighth birthday and she decided if she didn't throw caution to the wind, she'd die an old maid. Ed had never seemed perfect, but by then she was willing to overlook the flaws that cracked through their courtship in favour of that perfect life she'd craved with every single cell in her body.
She'd finished her wedding night with her dress torn and bruises colouring her skin, and when she'd seen her parents the next day after the wedding, she'd been a lot less happy than she had been during the festivities of the previous day. Her parents had suspected something was wrong—she was much more quiet than usual and suddenly reserved around her new husband—but they'd let her leave their house with her final remaining suitcase and so her life had truly descended into hell.
Yes, she'd been stupid to try to bring more than one child into her world, but after Louisa she learned fast not to make the same mistake again. And now, here she sat, two daughters in the ground, her husband as well, and she, the broken, abused survivor surrounded by people she didn't really know and walkers by the plenty.
It was for Daryl that she'd made the decision. Her life had been filled with underachievement, broken dreams and loss, and she'd be damned if she was going to go into her forty-third birthday with any more of it. She had Daryl to thank for it, this renewed sense of purpose, of strength and, starting today—once the sun finally signalled its start—she was going to take the first steps to change. This old Carol—this whining, broken pathetic woman she'd become—was going to be smarter, was going to come out a winner in this new world they'd found themselves in, and maybe she was going to find love in the most unlikeliest of men.
Her mother would have pitched a fit if she'd seen Daryl as he was at the quarry camp. If she'd seen Merle. She'd have ordered Carol to stay well away from that type, and Carol would have obeyed without question, being the dutiful, easily-frightened daughter that she'd been. No, she'd have missed Daryl's potential, just as much as she'd misjudged Ed's, and that thought made her heart sick. How she might have discarded the possibility of a man as honourable as Daryl while she'd once chosen to lay down with a wife-beater, she would never know, but she wouldn't make that kind of mistaken judgement again. Carol wasn't so sure she was ready to dive straight into another relationship, and she almost regretted her earlier kiss with Daryl because she knew it would confuse him about what she truly wanted from him. She should regret starting something she wasn't quite ready for—and she knew Daryl was far from accepting what could happen for them—but she couldn't dismiss the memory of how he'd felt against her body, against her lips. Couldn't dismiss the heat and clarity his kiss had given her. She couldn't turn away from him now even if she forced herself to try, but she'd take it slow and hopefully, between the two of them, they could both find healing within themselves so they could capture something good and strong and beautiful.
"The hell you thinkin', wanderin' around without tellin' anyone? You fixin' to get yourself killed?"
Carol jumped, never having heard his boots approach, so lost in her memories and plans for the future. She'd been foolish wandering off without telling him, even here on the farm. They weren't an island, surrounded by water. They were a farm, surrounded by fences made of sticks and wire and a moat of live cows to tempt any walker that heard their sporadic calls with dinner.
Their reunion was awkward, though Carol held in a smile when he sat and took her hand, her momentary disappointment seconds ago at his rejection of it as he'd taken a seat in the dirt all but forgotten as desire swept through her faster than wildfire.
She was still overcome with her melancholy memories, and so she opened up, for the first time really sharing some of her past with a member of the group. Sharing Louisa, like she'd never really done with another living soul. While he fidgeted beside her and grew angrier at the tragedies that had shaped her life, she knew that what she'd started between them was right. That it was something she wanted with all of her heart and if she wanted it that badly, she had to take action to achieve it.
Leaning forward, she gently patted the earth, imagining Sophia's innocent little face, and tears filled her eyes. "Goodbye, Sophia. Stay safe."
Daryl pulled her up and they stood, Carol bone weary and sore as she leaned into him, wanting the comfort only his arms could give her. Her hands slid around to his back and she pressed her face into his chest, wanting so much to go back to his tent and curl up with him, maybe kiss some more, but wary of pushing him further than he could go. Going too fast might frighten him off completely and that would be a mistake. A mistake she wasn't willing to make.
"No more mistakes, Daryl," she whispered against his neck, fighting the curl of butterflies in her belly, fighting the heat that tore through her body and made every nerve ending come alive. Fighting the very core of her that wanted to lay down with him and cement this thing that was developing.
"You plannin' on kissin' me again?" he asked and Carol could hear the vulnerability he couldn't quite hide. She smiled against his throat, feeling giddy as his pulse jumped rapidly against her cheek.
"Maybe later," she promised, whispering the words in his ear as her lips brushed against the lobe. His body was hot, his cheeks hotter as she pushed up on her toes and pressed her lips against his cheek. "I'm kind of wiped."
"You need me to walk you back?"
She could hear his reluctance and she sighed, wondering if she'd already pushed him too far, but then she looked over and saw a figure on the roof of the RV and guessed that Daryl didn't want to be seen walking over in the middle of the night with her. An innocent kiss was one thing, but letting the camp known they'd spent the night together, even as platonic as it had been, might cause him more trouble than he would know how to deal with.
"I'm good," she said, already stepping away from him. "I'll see you later?"
There was a pause, long enough for Carol to stop breathing, wondering if he was planning on packing up and running away from her—running further than his new camp he'd set up to distance himself from them all.
"Place ain't that big," he said finally, toeing his boot into the dirt. "I'll be 'round somewhere."
Allowing the air to flow back into her lungs, Carol allowed a shy smile of relief to turn the corners of her lips and she nodded.
"I'll be countin' on it."
She fancied she could feel his gaze burning into her back as she quickly headed back to camp, and thought her step was a little lighter because of it. She was stepping back within the edge of their camp when she heard the gun cock.
"It's only me," she called out, terrified whoever it was on the RV would mistake her for a walker and shoot her in the head. Maybe she should have had Daryl bring her over after all.
"Carol?" Shane jumped down from the RV and walked over to her, clasping his hand around her arm and dragging her into the safety of the circle of tents. "You shouldn't be wanderin' around in the dark. I bet you don't even have a weapon."
Oh God, he was right, and this was one of those things she had to fix about herself, Carol thought.
"I need to change that," she said to Shane, hoping he'd have some idea of how she should start this metamorphosis.
"You're ready to learn how to defend yourself?" he asked, satisfaction and approval evident as he curled her into the arch of his arm and led her to the RV. "We'll discuss it in the mornin'. You should get on up there and try to get some sleep," he advised, Carol nodding in agreement.
"Thank you, Shane. I will."
In sudden impulse she hugged him, just a quick embrace to show how much she appreciated him taking her seriously and not shying away from her like the others had been doing since Sophia had been discovered in the barn. She knew some friction in the camp existed because of Shane, but so far he'd done right by her, so she'd give him the benefit of the doubt and suck up all the wealth of all his experience that he was willing to give her.
With a quick nod, he gently pushed her up the stairs and into the RV and Carol breathed in deeply. There wasn't much time before the morning sounds of the camp coming to life for a new day would begin, so without changing out of her clothes, Carol crawled on top of the bed and fell asleep as soon as her exhausted head hit the pillow.
Dale and Lori had dealt with breakfast that morning, both of them smiling sadly at Carol to show they believed she needed a break to deal with the issue of mourning. She should feel angry that they were taking away one of the few things that helped her to focus on something other than the loss of her daughter, but instead she found herself dwelling on Daryl while distractedly spooning up real eggs into her mouth. As if conjuring him in her mind, Daryl strode into camp, his crossbow slung over his shoulders as he walked toward Rick, but darting an anxious yet shy glance at her.
She swallowed hard, not being able to tear her eyes away from him and feeling her skin burn as he held her gaze. His head jerked in a quick, non-verbal greeting and Carol chanced a smile, feeling her heart pick up an extra beat when she saw the answering twinkle in his eye. She ducked her head, trying to involve herself once again in the delicious treat of Herschel's eggs but finding it difficult to curtail the grin that wanted to break across her lips. Quickly she looked again and almost dropped her plate when she found Daryl staring straight at her as he spoke to Rick. A blush burned her cheeks until she was certain everyone would see, but quite shockingly, no one paid her any mind. She felt stupid, like she was responding to a blossoming crush like a teenager.
Daryl didn't talk long, leaving the camp without looking at her again as soon as Rick agreed with whatever he'd said. Rather than be disappointed, Carol was relieved, suddenly doubting her ability to do the simplest things while he was around to watch her. She finished her breakfast then jumped into the fray, gathering up dirty dishes and diverting her attention to something more mind-numbing.
Before she'd gotten very far, Shane stepped out in front of her, leaning down to catch her eyes and then took the pile of dishes from her hands. "You about ready to have that talk now? I been thinkin' up ideas on how to toughen you up."
"Shane!" Lori shoved herself into the middle of them, pushing one delicate hand into Shane's chest and smacking him away. "What the hell are you thinking?"
Carol sidestepped the woman, a new warmth for their friendship blossoming in her chest. "It's okay, Lori. I asked Shane last night to help me learn how to defend myself. I don't want to be the only hopeless member of this group, dependin' on everyone else to keep me alive."
She wasn't quite prepared for the shocked gasps that echoed around the camp, but suddenly Carol realised that not one of them had ever expected her to step up. The abused wife, the poor grieving mother who'd lost her child, the one in the camp with nothing left to lose was finally wising up and not one of them had ever predicted it. Carol didn't know whether to be sad that they were all happy with her being so pathetic, or if she was mad that it had taken her so long to embrace the need to change.
"I think this is great," Andrea said, making her way to wrap Carol in a big hug. "But you know, this new Carol, maybe we can work in an image overhaul as well?" She looked over to Glenn and raised an eyebrow. "You up for a trip into town? It's about time we had a good look around for clothes and weapons. It's going to be getting cold soon."
Glenn nodded and jumped to his feet. "Shane, can we take the Hyundai? We might find something else useful, who knows?"
Shane nodded. "Keys are in the ignition, man."
"Andrea, are you saying you don't like how I dress?" Carol didn't know whether to be insulted or relived that someone was giving her permission to change the kind of clothes Ed had always demanded she wear.
"Oh, Carol, you know I love beige, but it's complete shit to wash walker guts off of." The blonde winked and Carol gasped out what she thought might have been a giggle.
"Okay, then be on the lookout for something red. If I'm going to change how I dress, I want there to be something red involved." A vision of the red dress she'd found on the highway made her sigh.
Plans made, Carol quickly went to clean up, brush her teeth and take some deep, steadying breaths while she was alone in the RV. It was all about to change, and she just hoped Daryl could roll with the punches.