AN: Well, this thing is finally done. I just want to give a big thank you out to everyone whose stuck with this story. I know I'm not the most timely person out there with the uploads. I promise not to post anymore fic until I have internet in my own home again. Anyway, I hope you all enjoy this!
The next thing he knew he was waking up to the cool touch of Carol's hand on his forehead, he had a blanket draped over him that someone must have put there as he slept. He blinked up at her blearily for a moment.
"You're still a little warm." Carol said removing her hand. "Dinner's ready. Would you like to join us? Or I can bring it to you here if you'd prefer."
Daryl looked past her to see that the others had gathered at the two tables that had been scooted together to form one table large enough to accommodate everyone. He hadn't even noticed them till just now. It was like his senses had been shut off. He didn't much care for that. "No, I'll come sit down."
He moved to get up, standing carefully and suppressing a groan. His body still ached and he was stiff from days of little activity. He sat in an empty chair, Glenn to his left and Carol taking the seat to his right. He could feel the groups' concern hanging heavy in the air, though no one said anything. It was stifling, and almost worse than if they would just say something.
Which they did, but it was all uncomfortable small talk. Half-formed conversations that died out nearly as quickly as they began, each as hushed and awkward as the last:
"Carol you didn't happen to notice if we had any peas left in our vegetable stores did you?" "Yes, about a cup and a half worth."
"Sure is cold this winter. It must have snowed at least a little bit just about every day." Met with agreeing grunts and mumbled "Mm's."
"We should probably look for more firewood soon, our stores are getting low." "Everything's all wet." "We can dry it out."
Eventually the conversation stopped altogether replaced with that cloying concern and unease threating to choke him; the only sounds the scraping of silverware on plates and quiet chewing.
Daryl looked around. Everyone looked stiff and uncomfortable, averting their gazes when he'd catch them peering his way. He couldn't take it anymore. They were driving him nuts, and while initially he'd been grateful they hadn't come at him full force with excitement that he was getting better, it was starting to look a hell of a lot better than whatever this game was they were playing at.
"Am I really that scary looking?" He joked, in an attempt to alleviate the tension, which was a poor choice in words on his part. He probably was that scary looking. His comment was met with uneasy chuckles and furtive glances cast quickly about, they were going for inconspicuous he imagined. Didn't quite work out for them, he saw each one.
Before the silence stretched unbearably far, Rick finally took charge. "We're just glad to have you back. It hasn't been the same around here without you, but we wanted to give you your space too."
"Well, I'm fine now." Daryl stated dryly. "I ain't a piece of glass. Won't break if you tip me over. Ya'll don't need to go around acting like packing peanuts around me."
"What?" Carl had a childish expression of innocence and confusion on his young face. Something that was becoming quite the rarity as the cruelty of this new existence destroyed any lingering childhood tendencies the boy may still possess. It was refreshing to see, and Daryl found himself oddly pleased that he'd been the one to put it there.
"Ya know the Styrofoam peanuts that come in fragile packages? Just saying, I don't need ya'll to be my Styrofoam peanuts." Daryl told the boy, pinning him with a serious look, doing a brilliant job of masking his amusement under a stern façade. Carl stared at him then burst out laughing.
"You're so weird, Daryl!" He said with a big grin, causing everyone else to laugh as well. Real, genuine laughs. Even Daryl couldn't help himself from letting out a peal or two. He didn't even begrudge them their laughter, didn't cook up any misplaced notions in his mind that it was directed at him.
After that, the atmosphere of the dining room was much more relaxed. Conversation flowed naturally. People chatted casually about all manner of things they tended to discuss these days. Daryl didn't join in much, but at least he no longer felt like he was the unofficial center of attention.
He hadn't realized he was nodding off where he sat until Carol was suddenly at his side, gently taking his arm and quietly pulling him to his feet. She led him away towards his room. He was sure the interaction escaped no one's notice, but the woman had done what she could to be discreet, for which he was obliged.
As he stumbled down the dark hallways allowing Carol to guide his way, he felt an unfamiliar peacefulness. Once the ice had finally broken, being with the others tonight had been an unexpected healing balm on his soul. He could almost believe he'd finally found a place to belong.
He was basically sleepwalking at this point, and only vaguely registered Carol pushing him into bed and stuffing some pills down his throat, before feeling the blankets pulled up around him and a kiss on his forehead.
He knew he should be ashamed that he'd just essentially been tucked into bed like an infant, but found that right now, he really didn't give a shit.
When Daryl woke the next morning he found himself warring with his own nature again. All evidence pointed to the groups' sincerity in their acceptance of him, but that was in complete opposition to everything he'd been bred to know.
He was such a fool for ever believing he could belong. They weren't blood. He was a Dixon. Not only that, he was Daryl Dixon; lowest of the clan. Socially inept, awkward, the 'sweet one'. He'd always tried to find the good in people and it'd always ended badly, whether at his father's hand or some cosmic force hell-bent on making his life miserable. That's what made him the lowest in his family's food chain, what made him soft, because he could never seem to stop doing what'd he'd been trained to stop doing. And yet, here he was, entertaining the thought that these people could possibly give a shit about him. Again. He'd been letting these thoughts slip through his defenses a lot lately; he knew if he wasn't careful they'd start to chip away and crack the walls he'd erected around his heart until they finally came crashing down.
If he was completely honest with himself, the process of breaking down his walls had already begun. Fighting them on this was just delaying the inevitable. He had to do something, had to push back and fill the seams that'd been breached. He couldn't allow this.
And why shouldn't he? Because that's what Merle would expect of him? Because that's what his father had beat into him?
He was well aware that he may not know a lot about healthy family dynamics, but he knew damn well that what he was raised with was wrong. The rational side of him told him to go against it, take all those lessons he'd learned from that god awful bastard and throw them away. But that other part, the beaten child still trapped within him, was terrified. What if his dad was right? What if he wasn't worth shit, and when he finally let his defenses down, he'd be betrayed? If that happened they'd leave him a broken shell with nothing left of himself, and nothing left to live for. Was it a risk he could afford to take?
With a heavy sigh, he got out of bed and made himself presentable, knowing he couldn't avoid the others forever. He didn't really relish the idea of company, but decided he might as well get it over with; breakfast would be ready soon, and seeing as he'd joined in on dinner last night his presence would be expected.
As he walked along the hallway to the dining room he realized he was feeling better. A lot better actually. There was still a little soreness in his muscles and a bit of a headache, but overall he felt like he was finally getting his strength back.
Entering the dining room he saw Lori and Beth setting the dishes out for the morning's breakfast.
"Good morning, Daryl." Lori greeted him brightly. He nodded in return, taking a seat at one of the chairs.
"You've got some color back." Beth noticed as she poured water into ten glasses. "Are you feeling better?"
"Yeah." He answered simply, not much in the mood for talking.
Carol came out of the kitchen then with a pot of oatmeal, saving him from further interrogation. She gave him his space, simply offering him a smile, as she started serving up the mixture. He gave out another of his signature nods with the feeling that his immediate future would be littered with the gesture.
A couple minutes later Hershel appeared, grumbling that he'd wanted to give Daryl an exam before he got up, but relenting that it could wait till after breakfast. He still reached a hand out and placed his palm on Daryl's forehead, his eyes crinkling with a soft smile both at the coolness he found there and they icy stare he was rewarded with from the hunter for invading his personal space.
"I think your fever's finally gone for good." Hershel informed him quietly before taking his own seat at the table.
Yup, there it was. He found himself nodding again.
Daryl eyed T-Dog, Glenn and Maggie as they came shuffling in. Glenn and T-Dog were bantering about some video game they used to play while Maggie rolled her eyes at the both of them. He didn't know a lot about the gamer world, but caught the name 'Halo' and remembered quite the fuss had been made over that one.
Rick and Carl finally made their way in smiling and casting each other secretive glances, having just been engaged in some matter that was clearly on a need-to-know basis. Who knew what those Grime's men were up to in the rare moment of spare time.
As Daryl ate in silence listening to the comfortable chatter going on around him he could feel the sense of kinship in the room. He realized he felt he had a place in this unlikely group of people. He'd been fighting the idea so hard, but maybe, just maybe, he could accept that he belonged here. Would it be such a bad thing? It's not like he had much to lose, and it certainly wouldn't be the end of the world seeing as that ship had already sailed.
About midway through the meal Maggie let out a powerful string of sneezes. Daryl felt his chest constrict. Fear seized him. What if he'd gotten her sick? He didn't think he could handle the guilt of jeopardizing anyone's health.
The room had suddenly gone quiet and he noted all eyes were on him, he could feel a blush creeping up his neck under their collective gaze. His first thought was that Maggie was sick and they all blamed him. He hadn't even realized that he'd frozen in place, his spoon hovering over his bowl, and been staring at her with an expression of thinly veiled panic since she'd sneezed.
"Daryl, I'm fine." Maggie reassured him, unable to hold back a grin at his concern for her. "I was dusting earlier, which I really probably shouldn't do. I'm allergic to dust."
He watched her warily for a moment. When he saw nothing but honesty in her eyes, he looked around sheepishly, letting out a nervous chuckle and turned his attention back to his food.
"Awww, he's worried about you Maggie." Glenn teased.
Daryl shot him a scathing look. "Shut up, before I come breathe on you." But there was no malice behind the threat, and everyone erupted into laughter.
He'd have to fight his inner nature, but he could do this. He could accept that he had finally found a place to belong. Damn. It seemed that icy chill around his heart had been melting away in little spurts and he was only just beginning to notice.