A/N…Firstly, it must be said that I do not own these characters, and get no profit from writing about them. I must thank Susan and Spikeslovebite for being such wonderful betas and friends, but I especially want to dedicate this fic to Tam (Spikeslovebite), because without you I might never have come back to writing fanfiction at all. You know how important you are to me and I hope that we will always be friends and there for each other whenever we can.
It has been a long time since I've wanted to lose myself in fanfiction. Discovering this show has reminded me how much I loved to write, and how much I love to love an unlikely love story. The way Daryl looks at Carol seems destined for love—whether either of them suspect it or not. So, how could I help myself when the urge to write becomes overwhelming? I hope you can enjoy this—two more chapters are written so far so I think this might go on for a while. If you do enjoy, please take the time to let me know. Encouragement is the greatest thing in helping someone to finish a fic!
You Can't See The Forest For The Trees
From the minute she pulled that red dress from some poor unfortunate's luggage, Carol knew she was going to have to pay for it. She'd coveted something Ed had always told her she didn't deserve—something beautiful—and she'd coveted it from someone who had died a horrible, frightening death. If she didn't pay for it, she'd be very surprised. Carefully returning the dress to the back of the car, Carol crossed her fingers and hoped it would reverse the damage. She'd been selfish picking it up in the first place. They needed water, medical supplies, food and warm clothing, blankets and weapons—not frivolous red dresses that she had nowhere to wear it to, and no one to wear it for.
Sticking close to Lori had been a conscious decision, considering the only other mother amongst them to now be her friend. Knowing that if trouble came a calling Rick would make a beeline for his wife and son to protect them didn't hurt her decision, either. By default, she and Sophia would get the heads up they'd need to try and stay alive. She couldn't think of anyone better to align herself with, especially as Officer Grimes had allowed them passage in his car. Had promised Sophia to take them to the Grand Canyon should the world ever right itself enough for them to go. If she thought selfishly about it, the only other of them she thought might aid their safety was the surviving Dixon brother, only he was a frightening prospect and not someone she'd normally talk to, let alone seek out for protection. No, she'd made the right choice, she decided, so turned back to the cars to see if any of them held anything at all that might be useful to the group.
Carl and Sophia had wandered a little ways off, still in their mothers' lines of sight but not within arm's reach. She thought once more on that red dress she'd hugged against her body and suddenly felt the need to have Sophia come back to her side. Then, as if she'd known it would all along, disaster struck. Carol tamped down a scream as Rick barrelled through, fear making his eyes glisten as he whispered urgently at them to get down, to hide under the cars. The kids had heard and quickly scampered under the vehicles nearest them, but it was all Carol could do to not bite Lori's hand that suddenly covered her mouth and scream with fear for her child.
She was grateful for Lori's level-headed thinking, truly she was, but Carol wanted so much to tear from under the car and protect her daughter, even though she knew she'd be torn apart in seconds and condemn them all to death if she didn't remain as still as she could—if she didn't at least try to control her fear.
A swarm of dead stumbled slowly past their hiding spots, moaning and groaning with hunger and aimlessness. They moved in pack formation, missing the cars in their path and barely rolling their bodies along with the slack feet that took their weight, but Carol knew it would only take one small whimper, one sniff of fresh blood to bring a hundred ravenous walkers down on them all. Her body shook with terror, her eyes blurred with angry, desperate tears, and she barely drew breath as they all waited for the herd to pass by. She could hardly believe it possible that they could remain safe…alive. So many of those…things…and not one of them seemed to stumble to a stop, show any curiosity about what might be hiding from their hungry jaws. For once Carol thought maybe it wasn't so much that they sensed life when it existed, but rather felt the pull towards movement and sound as a simple testament to something…anything…that wasn't another one of them.
It was that damned red dress, she thought, shaking. With an immediate sense of doom, Carol knew all of this was her fault. Not the villain that released the virus and turned the world to shit, not Ed for dying and leaving them at the mercy of a group of strangers, and not any one of these good people that were helping her and her little girl to stay alive. No one was responsible for this hell that rained down upon them but her. For a one minute craving for something pretty. For daring to wonder how she'd look in a red dress when they were desperate for food and water and weapons to protect themselves with.
Eventually the groaning sounds of the walking dead started to ebb and Carol began to pray hard that they were safe. It was too soon to leave the safety of the stranded undercarriage hiding places they'd scrambled beneath, fearing stragglers might still be in the area—might still be close enough to consume them in one terrifying lunge. But Sophia didn't know that. Carol watched in horror as Sophia wriggled, made the smallest whimper and without warning a walker dived under the car, reaching its decaying arm out desperately to try and snag her daughter for its next meal. Sofia did what any child would do, she screamed and wriggled frantically in the opposite direction until she was out from under the car and running down the embankment, away from the road, away from them, with two walkers hot on her heels.
No longer caring how many more might still be lingering, Carol was out from under the car she shared with Lori, the other woman no match for her panic as she fought for freedom. Before she'd opened her mouth to scream, before she could run after Sofia, Rick was there, jumping the guard rail and running as fast as his legs could carry him.
"Oh God, he has no weapon," Lori said, her own fear now betrayed to the group. "He won't use his gun in case that herd turns and heads straight back for us."
The group stood there helplessly, eyes glued to the trees where first Sophia and then Rick had disappeared, Carol wringing her hands in terror and moaning softly as if her heart was being ripped slowly from her chest.
"What's goin' on?" Daryl hitched up T-Dog, dragged the bleeding man to the gathering on the edge of the road and then dumped him to the side as Dale ran to catch him. "Why's everyone standin' around like walker chow?"
Carol sobbed, flinging herself forward and made to head over the guard rail in pursuit when Glen and Shane held her back.
"There's two walkers after Sophia," Lori enlightened him, and Daryl growled in frustration. "Rick's gone after them but he only has his gun."
With all the appearances of being furious, he pushed them all aside, gave Shane a filthy look, and tore out after them. "Two walkers and y'all jus' standin' around like pussies? Good Lord, how will any of us survive?" And he was gone, disappearing amongst the trees just like Rick and Sophia before him.
Following their tracks was laughably easy. Darryl paused, seeing the split from the walkers following Sophia, and Rick's attempt to move forward to cut them off. A sudden shout and he heard Rick call for them to follow him, and, as one far more observant than others had ever given him credit for, Daryl left him to it, knowing the former deputy had more balls in his little toe than most of the others left at the highway had dangling between their legs, and would easily take those two walkers out. His job, then, was to intersect with Sophia and bring her back, unharmed, to her mamma's shaky arms.
He stepped on with confidence, a man bred in the wild could find a missing girl without any trouble at all—on a good day he'd already be celebrating. Today was not a good day, Daryl Dixon discovered, his feet too slow as he saw the little girl explode from the trees and run straight into another walker that seemed to appear from nowhere. Before Daryl could shout or point his crossbow in the right direction, half of Sophia's shoulder was missing, the child screaming in agony and terror. His arrow split through the walker's skull and lodged through its eye socket, brain matter coating the weapon as it stopped right before Sophia's face.
With a sense of unreality, Daryl ran, skidding on his knees toward the girl to sweep her up in his arms while simultaneously trying to hold the torn flesh of her neck and shoulder together. Blood soaked through his fingers, dripping down his arm as he struggled to calm her, shushing her pained cries lest her voice carried and brought further walkers to their path. His body settled into shock as he held the girl in his arms, guilt flooding through him making his muscles feel strangely weak. Fighting the urge to throw up, or throw the girl from his body, he stood, holding her tighter so he could carry her back to the road— back to the group. Back to her mother.
"Sweet Jesus," he swore, vision blurring a little as he stumbled through the undergrowth. What had he said and done when the others had been bit? Kill 'em all, before they could rise up and turn on them. He'd wanted to put a bullet through that Amy's head, not for one minute expecting her sister to have what it took to put something like that out of its misery. And that other guy, Jim, with the obscenely clean bite on his belly. Daryl would sooner have put a bullet in his brain than watch the miserable development that followed. But this…Sophia was just a child. She was their next generation and the only thing her mother had left in the world. He'd not seen that much of Carol Peletier before, only really noticing her as she hacked her good for nothin' husband to pieces. He'd viewed her as weak, a woman beat down by her abusive life with only her daughter to get her through it. Daryl knew the type. Hell, his own mother was the same until she'd set herself ablaze and gave herself the freedom she'd always wanted. He'd hoped Carol was more than that, needed her to be for the good of them all, for their survival of this shitty life that God had seen fit to bestow on them, but delivering the death sentence of her daughter to her, he figured, was probably not the way to prove it.
Before he'd taken two steps toward the road, Rick came thundering through the trees, a large rock in his hand and walker blood splattered against his face. He halted abruptly at the sight of Daryl and a whimpering Sophia in his arms, the bite clear for anyone to see, and he sunk to his knees.
"No," he breathed in disbelief, his failure weighing him down just as surely as Daryl figured his own did. His legs felt weak and his brain was actually telling him he couldn't take this girl back to the others. He knew he had no choice, but Daryl wanted to run in the opposite direction. Hell, he'd never had a kid of his own and he'd done all he could to ignore the brats in their camp, but this one, he'd been mean to her the night before, telling her mother to shut her up before she brought walkers down on them all. He'd been a mean ass fucker to her and now he cradled her in his arms, her head dropping to his shoulder like he was her father, and she cried furiously into his shirt.
Tears ticked his own eyes and Daryl looked at Rick for guidance. He didn't know what to do, just wanted to get back on Merle's bike and escape this whole sorry mess as fast as it would allow. Rick's devastated gaze was the proof that he'd not be making that choice, and so gathering up his emotion and shoving it as far back as he could, Daryl straightened his spine and flicked his head toward the road.
"Best you go first. Give 'em some warnin' that we're comin'."
Rick nodded once, regained his feet in a shaky fashion, and slowly walked back to the road. Daryl followed along, crossbow slung over one shoulder, a little girl crying into the other, and a hardness in his eyes that no one in this group was likely to have ever seen before.