"Better Days"

Author: carmen_085

Disclaimer: I don't own any Walking Dead characters. Original characters are mine

Author's Note: This story is AU and in it Sophia is never a walker. Takes place on the farm while Daryl is searching for the girl. My first attempt at Walking Dead fanfiction, hope you like it! Please review!

Chapter One

"And you asked me what I want this year

And I try to make this kind and clear

Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days"

"This is bull shit!" Shane slammed both fists down on the picnic table as he, Rick, and Daryl squared off. "You really believe that girl is still out there? That's she's still alive?" Shaking his head ruefully he gave the other two men an incredulous look.

Rick bowed his head. It had been a week since Sophia went missing from the highway and as much as he wanted to keep hope alive, he knew that their chances of finding her were slipping away. After three days you look for a body; he knew that but he still couldn't bring himself to give up hope. He needed to be practical, though. Every time they went out looking for her they were risking their lives. Maybe Shane had a point. Eyes roaming toward Daryl, Rick was not surprised to see the look of disbelief on the other man's face.

"Are you kidding me? I just found her doll yesterday!" Daryl Dixon, what a surprise he had become. When Rick met Daryl at the quarry camp he thought the man was a loose cannon. Quick tempered, rough, and decidedly backwoods in all things, Daryl was an outcast who could have gone as easily as he decided to stay. Of all the people in the group, Rick was most glad that Daryl had decided to stick around. Once the dust settled over the Merle situation, Rick and Daryl became friends and allies. Smart, extremely perceptive, loyal, and caring; he was so much more than what met the eye. Running a hand through his short hair, Daryl glared back at Shane again, "What the hell is the matter with you? She's out there! I know she is."

Rick stared at Daryl for a minute. He was jealous; he wished that he could believe in something the way that Daryl believed in this. He didn't doubt himself not for a second; a true believer through thick and thin. "Daryl, I think we need to regroup. Define a search area today and tomorrow I will go out with you and we will find her."

Daryl shook his head. Rick was a good man there was no doubt about that. He had never met Rick before all this but he wished that he would have. A person who always tried to do the right thing was rare before the world ended and damn near impossible to find now. He respected him even despite what happened to Merle. Deep down, even though Merle was his blood and his family Daryl couldn't help but to think that maybe this had been coming to him. A form of grotesque atonement for all the people he hurt in his life; including Daryl.

"We can't lose another day. You two don't want to go, fine by me." Bending over Daryl slung his crossbow over his shoulder and began walking toward the woods.

"You can't go alone, Daryl!" Rick yelled after him.

"I'm better alone." Rick watched him disappear across the field. Shit! Shane shook his head.

"Let him go, Rick. You know Daryl; he's not going to listen to anything. Once that redneck gets an idea in his head…." Shane trailed off as his eyes met Carl's. He wondered if the boy had been standing there the entire time.

"You think she's dead?" His eyes were glassy as he struggled to hold back tears. Reaching out Shane tried to pull the boy toward him but Carl batted his hand away stepping back. "No. You think she's dead! You both don't care!" Turning Carl sprinted toward the barn. Rick took a couple of steps toward him before yelling out.

"Carl! Carl! Get back here!" Taking off after his son, Rick met Carl halfway down the dirt road. "Carl. Stop." Bending down on one knee he held the boy by the shoulders.

"Let me go." Carl had been up and about for few days and Rick was glad to see that his strength was back. Wiggling against his father's grasp, Carl refused to meet the older man's eyes.

"Carl, it isn't that I don't believe Sophia is alive; I…I just need to look out for the safety of the group." Rick tried to sound rational but it had no effect on Carl.

"And who's looking out for Sophia?" Rick opened his mouth to answer but nothing came out. Carl nodded pulling away from his father. "That's what I thought. You don't care. If you did, you never would have lost her in the first place." Taking off down the path, Carl disappeared behind the barn; as Rick stayed frozen in place for a moment. The words of a child, especially your own, can cut deeper than anything else. Rick had to make a hard call and Carl didn't understand that. Still, he couldn't shake the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. He lost her; that much was true.

Carl peered around the barn as he watched his dad walk back to the others. Shoulders sagging Carl sank down to the ground. She was his friend; he couldn't just sit by and wait. He needed to go get her! Why didn't anyone else feel the same sense of urgency? As this thought settled heavily against his twelve year old psyche, Carl's eye flicked up to something disappearing into the woods. Daryl. He still cared; he still believed that she was alive. He wanted to find Sophia just as bad as Daryl if not more but he knew that neither his parents nor Daryl would go for the idea of him going into the woods to help find her. Standing up a nervous jolt of energy shot through Carl. He was going to sneak away and follow Daryl until the man was too far out to make Carl turn around and go home by himself. Crouching down in the high grass, Carl moved quickly toward the tree line before Daryl completely disappeared. In his pocket he had a hunting knife that Shane had given him much to Lori's dismay. Other than that, all he had were the clothes on his back. Carl watched as Daryl disappeared around the corner, walking lightly over the undergrowth he was careful not to make too much noise. Rounding the corner Carl stopped abruptly when he saw Daryl crouched down looking at something in the dirt.

At first he thought that maybe the man had picked up some sort of trail but then as the minutes ticked by, Carl realized that Daryl wasn't really looking at anything in particular. Head in his heads, Carl watched as he took a few deep breaths. His voice was just barely audible as the boy craned to hear. "Why can't I find her? Jesus Christ! Why can't I find her?" The torment in his voice made Carl feel uncomfortable. He hadn't pictured someone was rough as Daryl to look so worried. It was unnerving and for the first time doubts began to bubble up inside of him. If Daryl was worried, then what the hell was he going to do? The moment faded much to Carl's relief as Daryl quickly jumped to his feet and began stalking down the trail. A new sense of purpose was in his stride as Carl was careful to follow unseen at a distance.

The sun was beginning to dull in the sky as Daryl estimated that he had probably walked almost four miles. Still no sign of Sophia as he stopped for a moment to collect himself and plan his next move. Behind him he heard a rustling of leaves as he quickly loaded the crossbow dropping down to one knee. A mile or so ago he thought he heard someone behind him but when he turned no one was there. Steadying himself he let out a breath he didn't know he was holding. It was quiet. Maybe he was losing it. Just about to stand up he heard it again. Someone or something was there. Inching toward the bushes Daryl sneered waiting for it to happen.

"Don't shoot me. Please don't shoot me!" Carl stepped out from behind the tree with his hands raised to the sky.

A whoosh of air escaped Daryl's lips as he dropped the crossbow to his ground. "God Dammit! What the hell are you doing all the way out here?"

"I…I came to find Sophia." Carl stammered looking at Daryl in fear. He didn't consider what it would be like to be alone with a pissed off Daryl. At the quarry camp he had found Daryl to be kind of scary but as the weeks went by Carl grew up and Daryl didn't seem so scary anymore. Maybe they both had changed at the same time.

"Your daddy know you're out here?" Carl quickly averted his gaze. Of course not.

Daryl snorted as he looked around. This was some shit. Rick was going to kick his ass and Carl's when they got back. "I don't care what he thinks. He left Sophia behind." Daryl scratched the back of his head as he sat down on a rock. Pulling one knee up to his chest, he sat back and regarded Carl quietly.

"Come here." At first Carl was hesitant not sure of what to make of Daryl. He was much more calm than he anticipated and it was making him nervous. Carefully sitting down, Carl was sure not to get too close to the older man. If he started going nuts at least he might have a prayer of getting a break on him before he got his ass beat. The stiffness in Carl's posture was not lost on Daryl as he felt the nervous energy radiating off of him. Sighing Daryl couldn't bring himself to be too harsh on Carl. The boy was growing up in a world that was broken beyond repair yet he still tried to hang onto something good. While everyone had turned into animals, Carl was still trying to hold onto something as innocent as finding his lost friend. So Daryl couldn't be mad; not even a little bit.

Daryl sighed as he pinched his eyes shut. "Carl your daddy had to make a tough call. He did what he thought was best."

Carl glared at him, "Do you think he did what was best?" Daryl was silent for a moment. He would never undermine Rick, especially not in front of his son.

"I do." Carl was not happy with that answer although he kept his protests to himself. "Listen, Carl, I get it. You want to find Sophia but you can't just run off like that! You're parents are probably worried sick and I need to get you…"

Before Daryl could finish Carl cut in. "No. I'm helping you look for Sophia."

Daryl sighed; he wanted to keep looking but it as starting to get dark out. He might have stayed out all night but certainly not with Rick's son. It was completely out of the question. "Can't look no more today. It's getting dark out." Slinging the cross bow over his shoulder, Daryl got up although Carl was still firmly rooted in place.

"No."

Daryl whirled around a little too fast. "What?" He didn't believe that Carl would talk back to him like that.

"I said no. I'm not going back. I'm going to find her." Carl rose to his feet looking up at Daryl indignantly.

Daryl was at a loss. They were losing the light and the last place he wanted to be was in the woods with a kid at night. At the same time he wondered what lengths he would have to go to make Carl come with him. The boy was too big for him to carry so that was out. Daryl wasn't really a people person and reasoning wasn't his strong suite. So he did the only thing he knew how to do. Reaching out he roughly grabbed Carl by the back of the shirt. A momentary look of panic crossed the boys face as Daryl began dragging him back toward the farm. Seeing this made Daryl instantly regret his decision as he remembered that same look in his own eyes as a boy. But he had to so something before they got themselves in a situation he couldn't get out of.

"Let me go!" Carl dug his feet in as Daryl struggled with him before letting go.

"Listen Carl I get you want to find her but this isn't how you do it. We need to get back before dark."

"How do you do it then, Daryl? Huh? You're such an expert you've been out here all these days and you still haven't come up with shit!" Daryl stopped for a moment. A panicked look suddenly crossed Carl's face as he realized what he had just said. Taking a few steps back from Daryl, he was afraid of what hell he might have just unleashed. Anger bubbled up inside of Daryl but it wasn't directed at Carl. The boy was right. If Daryl was such an expert tracker and hunter why hadn't he found her yet? It was good question. His whole life he had been told that he wasn't smart enough or fast enough or good enough. He struggled not to believe it but before long he felt himself tumbling down the same slippery slope.

Daryl hated himself in that moment but he didn't know how to process that so he did what he had to do. Grabbing Carl roughly by the wrist he began hauling him back to the farm again. "That enough. You're coming with me and that's it!"

"Ow! Ow! Daryl you're hurting my arm…Daryl.." He didn't care this time. They needed to get back, Carl would be dealt with after they were safe. "Daryl…Stop! Stop! I heard something…" Daryl dropped his hand abruptly as he paused. Heard what? Carl looked around; he heard a voice. Small and weak but he swear he heard it.

There was nothing. Shaking his head, Daryl reached out for Carl when he heard it too. It was a little girl there was no doubt about that. Daryl's blood ran cold for a second. It couldn't be. Not after all this time. He'd been past this damn spot at least twenty times. His practiced eyes scanned the valley below them as the trail perched and meandered along the ridgeline.

"Help me." There it was again. So small he barely heard it. It sounded like Sophia, it really it did but he didn't want to get too excited. It could be another kid, lost in the woods, separated from their group. He couldn't get ahead of himself. Lying down on his belly Daryl inched closed to the edge of the cliff as he peered over. Carl was nearly shaking with anticipation as he watched the older man inch closer to the edge. It had to be Sophia; it just had to be.

He wanted to look but he didn't. If it weren't Sophia he would be crushed. This was the closest they had come to anything and he couldn't bear the thought of returning to camp empty handed again. Not this time. He needed a break. Taking a deep breath he hoped that luck was on their side for once.

"Sophia?" A dirty blonde head of hair leaned out over a small ledge looking up. It was her. It was fucking her! He couldn't believe. She was alive. Her hair was matted to her face with dirt and leaves and blood. Her shirt was torn but it didn't look like she had been bite. She looked tired and hungry but other than that he couldn't see any major injuries.

"Daryl…" Her voice was barely above a whisper, as she had not had anything to drink in a couple days. Her eyes were a mix of relief and fear as Daryl scooted as close to the edge as possible. The girl was clinging to a small ledge about five feet down. Daryl wondered if he could reach her. Extending his arms all the way he tried to grab her shirt but couldn't quite reach. Sophia shifted as the weight of her body caused some of the rock to crumble. A shot of fear radiated through Daryl. She wasn't falling, that wasn't an option; not after all this.

"Sophia, you're going to need to jump for my hands. I can't reach you any other way."

Shaking her head she clung to the rock face. "I can't. I"ll fall." The fear was evident in her glassy eyes as Daryl tried his best to convince her.

"I'll catch you, I promise." Sophia looked at him doubtfully. Before she had disappeared she hadn't really ever talked to Daryl. He was scary; not as scary as his brother, Merle, but scary just the same. Always fighting with someone or swearing she had seen him blow up once or twice at the quarry camp. She didn't trust him. Seeing the doubt in her face, Daryl tried another approach. "Your momma's waiting for you." Sophia looked up at him tears running down her face. The ledge teetered underneath her foot as readjusted. Looking back up at Daryl, he gave her the softest most un-Daryl like look he could muster. "I promise."

His tone of voice and the look in his eye made her feel safe. She didn't expect that. Biting down on her bottom lip she wiggled herself into a squat. Daryl's arms were dangling only a foot or two about her head. "Ok. On three."

Daryl was relieved and nervous at the same time. If he did anything right in his whole life it had to be this. He couldn't let her slip away; not after everything they'd gone through to find her. Not after he promised Carol he would bring her home. Not after all the setbacks they'd suffered. He had to get this win for Carol and the group but most of all himself.

"One…Two…" Daryl's heart pounded in his ears as he heard Carl's heavy breathing beside him. "Three." As Sophia pushed off, the ledge crumbled underneath her. She didn't get as much lift as he expect and without thinking Daryl lurch himself over the edge. Grabbing her hand he held on as tight as he could. Precariously Sophia dangled over what he had estimated to be a thirty- foot drop. She screamed as the bottom fell out from under her. Frantically she grappled for Daryl's wrist with her other hand. Grunting Daryl used all his strength to hold her up as he felt his body sliding through the dirt toward the edge. He felt like he couldn't breath. This wasn't happening!

Reaching down he latched his other hand around Sophia's wrist. Trying to dig his feet into the ground he felt himself being pulled closer to the edge as the young girl thrashed in panic. They were both going to fall. What the hell was he going to do now?

Pinching his eyes shut, Daryl wouldn't let go of her. Even it meant he would die too, he wouldn't let go, not in a million years. It was either going to be both of them or neither one of them. Just when he thought it was over, he felt someone latch themselves onto the back of his belt. He stopped sliding for a moment as he was finally able to gather his bearings. Behind him, he heard a small grunt as Carl dug his heels into the dirt. Using all the counter traction a twelve year old boy could muster Carl gave a Daryl a second chance. Looking down at Sophia, Daryl tightened her grip. Grunting loudly he used every ounce of strength in his arms to pull her up towards him. Kicking, she was finally able to find a small crevice to dig her foot into. Taking some of the weight off Daryl's arms gave him the chance to scoot backwards. Pulling her up over the edge he rocked back up into his knees letting go of her hands and grasping her around the midsection. When Sophia's feet hit the dirt of the trail Daryl collapsed backward falling onto his behind as she fell forward on top of him.

Sophia was crying as he instinctively wrapped his arms around her. He couldn't fucking believe it. She was ok. After everything she was ok. Breathing heavily, Daryl closed his eyes. Beside him Carl's own eyes welled up with tears as he watched his long lost friend cry in Daryl's arms.

Looking up Sophia stared into Daryl's face. "I didn't think anyone was ever going to come. I was so scared and there were walkers and…"

Before Daryl could open his mouth Carl spoke up, "Daryl looked for you everyday. He never stopped believing he would find you."

Daryl looked at Carl for a second; he hadn't expected that. Not after what happened earlier anyway. Reaching out he ran a hand through Carl's hair; their earlier argument erased by the magic of two heartfelt sentences.

Sophia was a flurry of emotions. Things had swung from one extreme to the next in a matter of seconds. Pushing herself up she felt wobbly from the lack of food, water, and sleep. Regarding Daryl for a moment she saw the way his eyes darted away as he stood up and dusted himself off. Maybe she had been wrong about him. Throwing his arms around her, Carl and Sophia both fell over into a heap as she continued crying. Picking up the cross bow Daryl slung it over his shoulder as he heard Carl mutter, "I knew we would find you…"

Every muscle in Daryl's body ached with relief as he watch the two kids finally stand up. The excitement of the moment wearing off, he began to take stock of Sophia. She had lost weight and had a cut across her forehead. Her skin was pale and her lips were bone dry. Obviously malnourished and dehydrated, he was surprised that she had enough fluid left in her body to make any tears. Taking a few wobbly steps forward Sophia collapsed into a heap on the ground.

Jutting his cross bow at Carl, Daryl grunted to him, "Hold that." Carl did as he was told. His worry for Sophia mixing with an undercurrent of excitement that he was holding such an awesome piece of weaponry. Bending over, Daryl hoisted the girl up into his arm. If Sophia couldn't walk he was going to have to carry her. Her eyelids were heavy as the extreme fatigue was evident in her features. Looking down at her he wondered if he could make it four miles carrying eighty extra pounds. It didn't matter; he had to make it. "Carl…let's go." This time Carl didn't fight.

Sophia eyes drifted open and shut as Daryl jostled her around. Her extreme fatigue was making any awkwardness she might have felt about him carrying her melt away. She wanted to sleep more than anything else. Looking down Daryl saw the girl drifting in and out as he suddenly wondered if maybe she was injured beyond what he assumed. Picking up the pace he walked as safely as he could with her in his arms. "Sophia….Sophia."

Her head was leaned into his chest as she struggled to open her eyes. "I'm so tired."

"How long since you slept?" The light was beginning to fade as an inky twilight cast itself across the forest. This wasn't good. No way could he carry her back in the dark. It was too dangerous. He had a rough idea of where the mile markers were in the woods and by his calculation they hadn't even walked a mile yet. He hadn't counted on carrying someone home.

Against his chest Sophia sighed. "I don't know." Huh…so long she couldn't even remember. Daryl stopped to adjust her weight as he gained a better grip. Instinctively she wrapped her arms around his neck. Safely in his grasp for the moment he pressed onward.

"Your momma's going to be so happy when she sees you. She's been worrying so much, Sophia. We're staying on a farm now. It's nice, you'll like it there." Nuzzling closer to him, Sophia pressed her ear against his chest as her eyes remained closed. She heard his heart beating as the vibration of his voice made a buzzing sound in her ear. His strong arms held onto her tightly as his shirt smelled of soap and dirt. He was quiet for a moment as she let the rhythmic thudding of his heart lull her into a sense of comfort that she hadn't experienced in a long time.

One time when Sophia was a little girl she went to the school nurse delirious with fever. Barely able to breath and sweating profusely, her father had come to school to pick her up. She couldn't walk but he refused to carry her; refused to "coddle" her like that. Her feet didn't move as he all but drug her out of the school. In that moment she wanted him to pick her up and carry her. Tell her everything was going to be ok. Tell her that he loved her and not to be scared. Instead her roughly threw her into the backseat like a rag doll and left her there.

Daryl wasn't nearly as big as her father and she had grown a lot since that day at school. Stopping she felt him readjust her again as his grip tightened. He was having a hard time; she could tell. If she could have walked she would have but at that point she could barely keep her eyes open. Still she couldn't help but to feel guilty and remember that not even her own father would have done something like this for her. Wiggling a little bit she forced her eyes open, "Daryl. I can walk. It's ok, really." Expecting him to stop and throw her down, Sophia braced for it.

Instead Daryl tightened his grip. "No way." He took in her shocked expression as he continued. "You've been out here a week by yourself. I'd have to say you've done enough."

Sophia shook her head, "No. Really. I'm too heavy."

Daryl stopped and looked her right in the eye. "I'm carrying you. That's it." Sophia opened her mouth to say something else but stopped when she saw the sincere look on his face. There was no maybe about it. She had without a doubt been wrong about him.

Relaxing back against his chest, Sophia felt the last ounce of energy drain from her as her eyes slipped closed. The muscles in Daryl's shoulders ached but it made him feel good to see her relax.

"Hey Daryl, why's it so dark out?" Behind him Carl clamored up beside him as he pointed out the obvious. Daryl had been so intent on carrying Sophia that he hadn't been paying much attention to their surroundings. In the span of twenty minutes they had gone from twilight to near blackness. Stopping he looked around. A storm had to be moving in. Shit. They were still almost three miles out from the farm. Looking at Carl's worried face and the sleeping girl in his arms Daryl felt a slight jolt of panic bubble up in his chest. At that point he was looking at spending a night alone in the woods with two kids, God only knows how many walkers, and a thunderstorm to boot. Now what the hell was he going to do?

Above lyrics are from Goo Goo Dolls "Better Days"

Please Review I would love to know what you think!