Disclaimer: The characters and setting portrayed here are not mine. I wouldn't mind Norman Reedus though...

Written for a lovely prompt over at the tw_kinkmeme on livejournal. My fill kind of exploded everywhere because I have no self control. The timeline stretches from around 2.02 to beyond the mid-season finale. This can hopefully be read as a pairing or friendship or mother/son dynamic, so it's flexible depending on your preferences.

This show has taken over my mind. It's almost not cool except I enjoy it so much.

/-Real Men-/

Daryl never was the type to express affection. He'd long since been told {first by his pa, then by Merle} that Real Men didn't do that shit. Real Men were strong and independent, and they didn't need no touching or praise or affection to do what had to be done. That was women's territory and to cross that line meant mocking at best {'Darlina' was far from the worst thing Merle had called him} or a heavy cuff 'round the head and shoulders at worst.

Point was, Daryl Dixon didn't do hugs. He'd long forgotten what it felt like to have someone wrap their arms around him. In a good way that is, because he'd been in plenty of fights where someone trapped him in a headlock, or pinned his arms to his sides so he couldn't retaliate. Now, whenever a set of arms got too close he flinched away instinctively.

But sometimes when he looked at Carol across the camp and saw the way her thin shoulders hunched in, the way she looked out across the fields with less hope in her eyes every day, and the way she turned to say something to her daughter only to remember that she wasn't there... He saw that and thought briefly of his own mama, dead for more'n twenty years now, and remembered how good it felt to be held by someone.

But he never went over to hug her. He wasn't quite sure how he'd go about it, honestly, because what the hell were the rules? How long was a hug supposed to last? Which arm was supposed to go where? Fuck it, hugs were complicated.

So he did other things to try and make her feel better. Little things, really. Like thanking her for washing his clothes, or listening to her stories about her daughter. He told her about when he'd been lost in the woods himself and had turned out just fine, about other kids he knew of that turned up safe and sound after disappearing. Jaina May had gotten left behind on a Girl Scout camping trip and walked back to the road two days later unscathed. Jake 'Nutso' Nutson got lost and made it home and he was a fuckin' numbskull who couldn't find his own ass with both hands and a flashlight. And there were others. He brought her the Cherokee rose in the cracked beer bottle, helped her clean the squirrels and rabbits he brought back, kept her company. He tried.

And of course he searched for Sophia. Every day he went out, every day he stayed just a little longer because he hated coming back empty handed and seeing the anticipation flicker and die. He was gonna find that little girl, he knew it. Dead convinced of it, and it pissed him off when everyone else started giving up hope. Soon, tomorrow even, he was gonna call out and she was gonna answer and he'd carry her back to the farm and put her in her mama's arms and their ragtag little family would be complete again.

He wanted to see Carol smile.

Then he got thrown from that damn horse and that crazy blonde bitch shot him and things went to hell pretty damn fast after that. Carol's voice was shaky when she thanked him and told him he'd done more than Ed ever had, he could hear the thin edge of pain in her voice, and he recognized it for what it was because damaged goods seemed to find each other. Not the Carol was anything as unimportant as goods, and he hated Ed even more for putting the idea in her head that she was. He spent a good long moment after she'd kissed him being pissed that a walker had gotten to the bastard before he had. Because it was either that or blush, and Daryl wasn't much in the job of blushing either.

The next two days were infuriating. They told him in no uncertain terms that he wasn't allowed to go out and look for Sophia, and no amount of swearing, growling, or god help him even pleading {he was blaming that on the fever, goddamn it, and he'd punch the first person who said otherwise} would change their minds. So he reclined in his tent, bored out of his skull and desperate for any sort of action. From here, poking holes in his tent with his last remaining arrow, it was too easy to see how Carol worked herself to distraction.

And then he'd gone and exploded at her and fuck if that wasn't enough to make him ashamed of himself. Like she didn't have enough on her plate, like she wasn't grieving, like she hadn't had enough of that kind of shit in her life. He'd felt terrible about ten seconds after storming away and then the stitches in his side protested at the sudden movement and that made him feel worse.

He went for a walk to cool off and found the familiar white roses on the edge of a small pond. He sat on the ground and stared at them for awhile, head whirling in a hundred different directions. It was the first time in a good long while that someone had told him they cared whether he lived or died. Carol didn't see him as a tool, someone who could keep them all alive, and that knowledge was a heady rush. She'd said that he mattered just as much as anyone else. So he went and asked her, shy and halting, if she'd come with him, that he had something to show her, and then he did something very unDixon-like: he'd apologized. He was genuinely surprised that it made him feel better, especially when she'd accepted it.

And for a few hours, it had felt like things were gonna be okay again.

The barn, though. That fucking barn. He'd been as excited as anyone {well okay, maybe just Shane} to finally be up and doing something useful. Keep the camp safe. Keep the group safe. Keep Carol safe. He could do that.

And then Sophia had come out of there, shirt stained, eyes wide and vacant, growling... one of them. Carol hadn't screamed, but he heard her footsteps, the broken denial clawing its way up to her throat and he'd turned in time to catch her as she raced forward. It'd hurt, hurt like a bitch, but that wasn't the only reason he dropped to his knees with her. All of that, all that hunting and all that hoping and there she was, locked up in the fucking barn not even five hundred yards from the camp.

He wrapped an arm around her, held her tight. She didn't even put up a struggle much, too stricken with shock and grief. She wanted to go closer, wanted to hold her baby, he could feel it in the way she shuddered, but she knew better. And he wouldn't let her go even if she wanted to. She didn't want to lose him? Well, he didn't want to lose her.

He watched the bullet go through Sophia's head. He owed her that much. Later, he would wake in a cold sweat, seeing that little body crumple to the ground. The shot was still echoing over the fields when Carol tore her gaze away, put her forehead to the ground and sobbed.

The thoughts that flickered though his mind were scattered at first; what now, what do I do, god, why, she's gone. They all coalesced into a single burning point, and he was on his feet and striding over to Hershel.

"How fucking long?" he growled. "How long have you known about this, you fucking prick? Huh?" The old farmer didn't so much as blink. Daryl reached out, fully intending to grab the lying bastard by the suspenders and shake him, maybe even hold him long enough to get a good swing in. Hands closed around his shoulders, big ones, and pulled him back before he even got close.

"Easy." Shane then, all the rage and fire gone from him now in the face of their loss. "We'll deal with it." The cold promise in his voice was the only thing that let Daryl turn and walk away fuming.

"You better," he snarled over his shoulder, "or I'll kill 'im myself."

He avoided them all that night, ignoring the arguments over what would happen now. No one came near him or asked his opinion and that wasn't unusual. But he could hear Carol's quiet sobs well into the night and it tore at him no matter how much he tried to block it from his ears. He wanted to do something, anything. But flowers weren't going to fix this, and he didn't know what else to do.

They held a memorial the next day, everybody carrying rocks to build a cairn by Otis's. Carl said a little something, eyes bright but not crying, and so did Rick. For once, Daryl was glad he wasn't expected to have any input; he was afraid if he tried to talk his voice would crack and a Real Man was supposed to be quiet and stoic anyway. He put a bunch of Cherokee roses around the base though, because god knew more people were crying for that little girl now than ever.

Carol stepped forward last, out of the ragged semi-circle they'd all formed. She smiled, or tried to as she bent to pick up a flower, tracing the edges of the petals. "She would have liked these," she said. "She always wanted to hear all kinds of stories. Ed said she was too old for them, but I never stopped telling her stories. She'd read to me, her favourite books, when I did the dishes or the laundry. She always... she wanted to be a story-teller when she... she grew up. She wanted to learn how to make people smile. And... now..." Her fingers worried at the edges of the petals, tears streaming down her face. "And now she's gone. My little girl—"

Her voice broke and then Lori was there, pulling her gently away.

She didn't speak for the rest of the day. Instead she sat on one of the low log benches near the fire and stared into the flames, periodic shudders ricocheting through her. When dinner time came, she picked at her plate for almost ten minutes before setting it aside and picking up the doll, thin fingers coming through the ratted hair.

Daryl, for his part, paced. Not too close, but not too far either, back and forth and then in circles around the camp, halting to glare over at the farmhouse, the yellow lights glowing cheerfully from behind the curtains. Eventually, his movements slowed as his injuries made themselves known once more and he found himself standing like an idiot between Glenn and Dale, watching her from across the little circle of people.

She looked so sad with the silent tears flowing down her face and so alone that he was moving before he was even aware of it. His feet carried him forward, the sudden movement drawing attention as he crossed through the middle of them all to stand before her. She didn't even notice at first and that was probably what really prompted him to do what he did next. He didn't know how, but he was going to make this better.

So he knelt down to her level and, very carefully as if she might break into a thousand little pieces the second he touched her, reached out. He couldn't look her in the eye, afraid of what he might see, and it took him two tries to actually make contact, but he wrapped his arms around her, flattened his calloused hands against her back and pulled her forward into a hug.

No one was more shocked than Daryl when her arms came up to cling to him and she buried her face into his neck. He could feel her tears sliding hot down his skin but she didn't make a sound. He knew why too, or he thought he did, probably because Ed had taught her to keep real quiet about everything. He pulled her closer at the thought.

He was sure everyone else was staring, the heat at his back not just from the fire, and in the back of his mind he heard Merle telling him what a pussy he was, to man up and back the fuck away, because sooner or later she was gonna come to her senses and realize just who held her in dirty arms and she was gonna push him away.

But she didn't and eventually he remembered what she told him, the lines flying through his mind again and again {'you're every bit as good as them. Every bit.'} and driving back Merle's constant stream of abuse until there was nothing but affirmation. Maybe he was as good as the rest of them. And why shouldn't he be?

So Daryl took a breath and held her close, banished all thoughts of what Pa and Merle's 'Real Men' should do, and let himself be hugged back.