Author's Note: I do not own Walking Dead. Also, this story is slightly AU. Enjoy!
Brace for Impact
All his life, Daryl Dixon had conditioned himself to brace for impact. By the time he was six, he was good at going numb in preparation to an angry word, a slap to the face, a belt to a bare back…he knew how to brace himself. The words, the blows, he knew how to separate himself from it all. He knew how to shake off the dust, wipe up the blood, and act as if nothing had even fazed him.
His father had instilled in him, early on, that emotions were bad. Emotions meant you were a sissy (his dear ol' pa didn't exactly use that word…) and meant you got a beating. Emotions were Daryl's enemy growing up. He'd learned quickly how to keep them at bay.
And that is where they stayed, for about twenty-five years. Until one day…
That's all it took, one ordinary day. The sun rose, like every other day; and, like every other day, the wind blew, the crows cried, the chickens squawked, Carl was annoying as all get out, and – as far as Daryl knew – the earth was still spinning. Everything was normal. Well, as normal as life could be for their little camp.
But it wasn't a normal day. It wasn't an ordinary day. Life was about to spin on a dime, and no one could be prepared for what would take place.
Sophia. Beautiful, laughing, carefree Sophia. He'd spent weeks searching for that little girl. Her mama was going crazy with worry, and Daryl couldn't take that sadness in her eyes any longer. He tried so hard to find her. He tracked her to the little house and found her doll…he was closing in. Any day now (maybe that day) he would be able to find her and return her to her mama and then Carol wouldn't look so sad anymore.
They found her that day, only not in the way that was expected. Sophia had been turned into a walker. She had been stripped of her spirit, her life. All she craved was the taste of human blood, human flesh – no longer did the little girl crave human love. She was dead. And it was all his fault.
If only…if only he had been able to find her in time. If only he had been better at tracking…his pa used to tell him how bad a tracker he was…maybe dear ol' pa was right. Because of him, Sophia was a walker.
Because of him, she had to be put down.
Rick pointed that gun and shot, knowing what needed to be done. Carol screamed and cried and tried to run to her daughter. Daryl had held her and together, they had collapsed to the ground. The dirt beneath them was muddy from Carol's fallen tears and his sweat.
"Sophia," she kept crying, "Sophia!"
No one could believe it. Everyone just stood there, completely dumbfounded. Carol was screaming and crying so much, and Daryl could feel her whole body convulse. He felt so useless, sitting there, holding her. Why hadn't he done more – been out longer, tracked harder – to find her.
Daryl Dixon had learned from an early age how to brace himself. But nothing ever – could ever – prepare him for the impact of that one moment.
The women had taken Carol inside, and Daryl had stormed off to set up his own camp far away from everywhere else. He couldn't stand being around anyone. They all knew he had taken on responsibility for Sophia, therefore her death was his fault.
He should have done more. Why didn't he work harder and longer? Why did he stop at nightfall and take breaks? Lazy, that's all you are you selfish son of a bitch. Lazy.
Daryl didn't speak to anyone for several days. He didn't see any sign of Carol either. He didn't want to admit it, but he was worried over her. He kept thinking back to that moment, to the tears and sweat mixing with the dirt as he struggled to hold on to her, to her shaking, frail body. Everything about that moment was engrained into his memory, and he would never – could never – forget it. No matter how badly he wanted to.
After a few days, he surfaced from his hideaway. Everyone seemed surprised to see him walking towards the campsite. Rick approached him first.
"Daryl," he said, his voice calm, "I…"
"Where is she?" Daryl asked, and instantly, Rick knew who Daryl was referring to.
"She's in the house. The women made up a room for her. I-I haven't seen her…but I know she's upstairs."
Daryl just nodded, and headed towards the house. He could feel the stares on his back as he headed up the stairs to the porch. He didn't care though. Their stares were nothing. He needed to see her, and that's all he cared about at the moment – her.
Lori glanced up from the kitchen sink when she heard the footsteps. She didn't say anything but, "Upstairs, second door, on the right."
"Thanks," Daryl grumbled before making the climb up the stairs. His heart was thudding against his chest, and he felt as though it'd break through his chest at any moment. The vein in his neck pulsed, and he realized it was really hot inside the farmhouse. Why was it so hot?
Daryl paused at the door, and tried to regain his bearings. Fear.
Daryl Dixon was afraid. It was an emotion, and it was bad. He tried desperately to swallow that fear, but it was too hard. He was scared. Scared of facing Carol. Would she blame him for the death of her daughter? He deserved it. He deserved being screamed at or slapped, or both. He deserved it. He had murdered a little girl – a little girl.
Daryl knocked on the door, and a small, feeble voice said, "C-come in."
She was sitting in a chair, looking out the window. She didn't even turn around to face him, but she knew it was him who had just entered.
"Daryl," the way she said his voice – on a breath – made his heart hurt.
Tums. I need to pick up some Tums when we go into town…Daryl kicked himself for thinking of indigestion at a time like this. But damn it, why did his heart hurt so much?
"Hey," he shut the door quietly behind him before walking towards her, "I-I just thought…"
"I'm glad you're here," Carol interrupted him. Her voice reminded Daryl of a small twig being snapped underfoot. Damn heartburn! Musta been the squirrel I had last night…
When she didn't say anything else, Daryl lost it, "Damn it, woman! What the hell is wrong with you?"
Carol looked at him for the first time in days, and he noticed how red her eyes and nose were. She didn't say anything, just blinked and stared – allowing him to carry on.
"Aren't you pissed? Your little girl just got 'et up by a walker and shot and you're not even a little bit pissed? It's my fault, ya know," Daryl continued to yell at her, "It's my fault. I shoulda done more. I shoulda tried harder an' I didn't. It's my fault she's dead! Damn it, woman!"
Carol flinched, "What do you want from me?" She asked; her voice had finally broken, "Do you want me to be angry at you? To yell at you? Because you can just turn around and leave if that's what you're expecting out of me."
"I killed her," Daryl's face was flushed from yelling, "I killed your little girl!"
Carol blinked, "No you didn't. You did so much for my little girl. You did more for her than anyone – including her own father. I wish she could have gotten to know you more. She would have adored you."
"Didn't you hear me, woman! Or are you just stupid? I killed your girl!"
"No you didn't," Carol's voice was very clam as she said, "My little girl was killed by a walker. You tried to save her…"
"But I didn't. I didn't save her. I killed her because I didn't save her."
Carol sighed, "Daryl, no one thinks that. You cared so much for my girl. You did so much for her. You risked your life and got shot for her. You took a bullet for my baby, Daryl. No one thinks that you're at all responsible for her death."
"Well then they're all fuckin' idiots."
"Daryl Dixon! You did nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing that happened to my Sophia was your fault. Nothing. What can I do to make you see that?"
Daryl let his forehead drop against the wall next to the window, "She was just a little girl."
His voice was barely a whisper, and it took Carol a moment to realize what he had just said.
"She was…she was just a little girl," she noticed his back quaking up and down, and how his knuckles were clenched into a ghostly shade of white. Carol stood from her chair and placed a gentle hand on the center of his back. Daryl tensed under her touch.
Carol felt them through his shirt, but Daryl no longer cared if she saw or knew.
She didn't ask about them, just gentle moved her hand lightly across his mangled back. Daryl finally relaxed under the touch of her fingertips.
"I don't need an explanation," Carol said softly as she continued to move her hand over the scarred back.
"I know," Daryl's voice was almost as soft as hers as he continued, "He liked to hit me with his belt. For anything and everything. I don't let anyone see or touch my back. I guess you've got a VIP pass to my wonderful childhood. Go ahead, tell me how it's my daddy issues that make me the way I am. Psychoanalyze me."
It wasn't the reaction Daryl had expected. He had always hidden his back from everyone. The scars were far too mortifying to reveal to anyone. Whenever he did have sex (which seemed like a lifetime ago) he would always keep his shirt on. The girls he'd have sex with never cared to ask why. But this was Carol. And Carol cared.
Daryl turned to face her and cupped her face in the palm of his hand, "Thank you for that."
"For not prying, but just…caring."
Carol smiled a feeble smile, "I've always cared about you Daryl Dixon."
"How are you?" Daryl asked the question that had been playing on his mind for days now.
"I will be okay," Carol nodded, her strength evident, "I don't think about her as a walker. I want to think that my little girl died out there in the woods quick and painless and by a big patch of those Cherokee Roses with the thought of, 'aren't those beautiful,' in her mind. That's what I like to think."
"Then that's exactly how it happened," Daryl brushed her cheek lightly with his calloused thumb, scared to death by his own tenderness towards her – scared to death by the emotions he was feeling towards her.
Carol kissed him lightly on the cheek, and together, they both blushed, "I-I don't want you to think that I'm just some silly, grieving woman. That, that kiss, is just me saying thank you for all that you did for my little girl. And for all that you do for me."
Daryl really despised that blush on his cheek, but when Carole smiled up at him, he no longer cared.
"I've missed that."
Carol blushed, "My smile isn't anything special."
"It is to me. To me…" Daryl paused, telling the little voice in the back of his head that was calling him a sissy to go screw itself, "…that smile of yours is everything."
Daryl Dixon had learned early on to brace himself, but nothing ever – could ever – prepare him for the impact Carol Peletier had on him.