AN: I want to thank you those who have reviewed so far. You've made my day!
Hopin', and prayin' and anythin' but zen…
Lori sat in the pew behind Carol, hesitantly settling in after leaving Sophia snuggled up within the Minister's robes and Carl sitting watch with her, both talking low and fearfully. She felt awkward watching Carol stare at the figure of a suffering Jesus on his cross, but relieved as well. She knew it was selfish, but Lori felt enormous relief that it wasn't her sitting and staring at that cross, crying for God to save her child. Carl was safe—unmutilated—and for that she was eternally grateful. The moment of relief was gone, however, the second she looked again at Carol and saw how the other woman was suffering. Lori went cold, berating herself for thinking only of Carl when this woman that had been travelling with her was on the edge of losing it all. She shrank back against her seat, her fingers twisting together in her lap as Carol spoke quietly to a God she hadn't yet relinquished. One that Lori suspected never existed in the first place.
"Father, forgive me," Carol began, voice soft but with tears clogging her throat. "I don't deserve your mercy. I prayed for safe passage from Atlanta and You provided. I prayed for Ed to be punished for laying his hands on me and for looking at his own daughter with whatever sickness was growing in his soul."
Oh God, Lori thought. They'd all known Ed had a mean temper and a meaner fist, but it never occurred to her that he was a sick and twisted bastard. That he was contemplating his daughter in a manner not fit for a father to do so. Her heart broke for Carol and Sofia, suddenly realising how lucky she was with Rick and that she didn't deserve even one ounce of his love and devotion.
"I prayed You'd put a stop to it. Give me a chance to raise her right, help her not make my mistakes. She's so fearful. She's so young in her way. She hasn't had a chance." Lori resisted the urge to bend forward and place a comforting hand on Carol's shoulder. Her words were so personal and private that she suddenly felt wrong for being so close at all.
"Praying for Ed's death was a sin. Please, don't let this be my punishment. Let her be safe, alive and safe. Please, Lord, punish me however you want, but show mercy on her."
When she'd finished imploring God to bestow on her a miracle, Carol fell back against Lori, her eyes still fixed on the figure of a tortured and dying Jesus and Lori hugged her close. There was no way this could end well. Carol had lost her daughter the second that walker had bitten a chunk out of her shoulder; they were only taking refuge for now while they waited for the inevitable to take place. She had no clue what they would do then. Shooting the others in the head in Atlanta had been different. They may have shared nights together at camp, but when it came down to it they were still strangers. Just people they were sharing the end of days with, and adults at that. The most difficult to watch had been Amy, but even then she was a young woman. Sophia was a child, and as her breath caught in her throat, Lori suddenly felt exactly what the other woman was going through. How were they going to execute a child? One of their own—and while Carol watched the slaughter of her baby. She was grateful, at least, that Daryl hadn't returned to the Interstate demanding they put her down before she even died. That had been a surprise. His whole behaviour was a surprise, if she thought about it. He'd shown the other mother mercy and consideration in getting them to this place, and Lori marvelled at it. Daryl Dixon was a whole lot more complicated than she'd ever thought possible from her earlier impressions.
Carol shuddered in her arms, taking several deep breaths and rubbing grief from her face. She pushed herself to her shaky feet, smiled sadly at Lori then turned to take her rightful place at her daughter's side. Within five steps she came to the tangle of robes, stained with blood but containing no Sophia. Carl was a few steps away, a guilty look on his face. He ducked his head and rushed to the front of the church, watching quietly as Carol made her way to the makeshift bed, picked up the bloodied white robes as if she was in a trance. Some sort of realisation kicked in, then , and her frantic eyes searched the immediate confines of the church. No little girl hid under the pews or behind the statue, no Sophia perched at the altar, waiting for her. Sophia was gone and panic sank into her heart for the second time.
Not even noticing Carl, Carol ran to the front entrance, flinging the door open and running into the rapidly darkening day. Her terrified gaze swept across the cemetery and saw nothing but Shane talking to Andrea too far away. She almost fell down the stairs as she rushed to look around the side of the building, seeing nothing then running to the other side. She'd run around the whole place before she started screaming.
Everyone burst into action, running to a terrified Carol whose eyes barely saw them as she kept tripping around them to locate her little girl. It was Daryl that charged between them, grabbing her by the arms and shaking her gently until she focused on him. He didn't say a word and her hand went to her mouth as she looked deep into his eyes, tears brimming and just waiting to fall.
"She's gone," she answered his unasked question in a broken whisper and he nodded at her as if he'd already guessed. He whipped his crossbow back into his hands and started stalking around, retracing Carol's own steps as he neared closer and closer to the woods. "Sophia," he called, grunting in irritation when there was no answer. Everyone stood around and watched, some from helplessness, others from shock and even more from pure stubbornness. The tick in his jaw betrayed how much Shane wasn't going to go down this road again and he stomped off through the cemetery to the line of the trees, turning slowly, raking his hand through his hair before he stomped back.
"The hell happened?" Daryl demanded from those crowding around, almost immediately recognising Carl's unwillingness to be seen. His hand shot out and he snagged hold of the boy's shirt, roughly dragging him out from where he was attempting to hide behind his mother. Carl visibly shook, not yet sure yet if Daryl was a good guy or bad, his eyes wide as he stared into blue eyes of pure fury.
"Stop man-handlin' my son," Lori demanded, stepping forward quick as a shot and trying to wrestle Carl away from him.
"Brat knows where Sophia is," Daryl growled, "an' he best be tellin' me where she is right now before walkers get to her and turnin' is least of her problems."
He regretted his choice of words the second they shot past his lips, his grasp loosening as Carol gasped and almost collapsed at their feet. Shane and Rick were there in a flash, lifting her up and taking her to the church steps. Then Rick was back, his calm demeanour settling Daryl's rage a little. The Officer of the Law crouched down to face his son, his hat dangling in his hands.
"Is Daryl right?" he asked, half hoping that Daryl was wrong.
The boy seemed to crumple in on himself, crying and throwing himself into his father's arms. "She was scared," he admitted. "We thought he'd," pointing a wavering finger in Daryl's direction, "want to put a bullet in her head like he wanted to with Amy and Jim."
As wrong as the boy was, Daryl couldn't deny the kid's concerns.
"Carried her here, didn' I?" he said, his voice gruff. "Didn' do it for my own health. Didn' take you for no dumabass, neither." Daryl turned on his heel and moved off, pausing three steps away to glance at the distressed mother and then back to Carl. "Which direction she head?"
Carl shook his head, lip wobbling—with belated fear for Sophia or guilt at getting caught— but then pointed back toward the trees, and Daryl stomped off. Felt like he was doing nothing but looking for one person in this group or another. First his brother, now a little girl. He may not be able to find Merle, but he was going to find Sophia, or die trying.
Shane loped toward him before he disappeared into the woods. "Hey, Man, what's the point? She's bit anyway."
Daryl turned, contemplated the original self-appointed king of their group and shook his head with a humourless chuckle. His eyes sought out Carol, found her sobbing on the church steps. "If it were your kid, would you really want it out there, nothin' more than walker bait?"
He wasn't going to wait around for Shane to get it. He somehow intuited that he was too complicated a man for Shane to work him out, and sometimes Daryl thought he was even too complicated for himself. All he knew was that he had to find that little girl, bring her back, if not safe then at least in one piece, for her mamma to say a proper goodbye to. He already knew she'd failed to do that yet, suspected that instead of sitting with her feverish daughter she was probably off praying to a deaf God. "Ain't nothin' that bastard can do to cure a walker bite," he grumbled in irritation. In frustration. 'Cause it should have been so easy to pluck Sophia out of the woods, safe and sound, and start their little caravan back up so they could move on. He didn't know if it was fate that had them being picked off one by one—or eight at a time—but he was truly sick of JC's wiseass humour.
Daryl searched until it got dark, and then he searched for another hour until he had to admit he'd found nothing. He couldn't even find a trace of her path through the woods, and it wasn't until he started the long trek back to their refuge for the night that he realised that little shit had lied to him. Sophia hadn't run back to the woods at all. Girl was terrified: sick, feverish and with the knowledge that in a few short hours she'd be a walker just like the asshole that bit her in the first place. No way was she going to just rush straight back into the woods.
He was going to squeeze the truth out of that kid the second he got back, then he was going to make him watch while he found Sophia, eyes clouded in death and starving for his flesh. If he could get away with it he was going to make him put her out of her misery, then make him apologise to the girl's mother for being such a selfish little shit in the first place.
When he got back, swinging his crossbow this way and that in case of unwanted surprises, he found Carol still sitting on the steps in the dark, her face buried in her hands and a blanket draped over her shoulders. She lifted her head when he purposefully stepped on a twig to let her know he was coming. She'd looked broken before, but finding him alone seemed to snap her clean in half.
"You didn't find her?" she asked in that soft voice that just compounded his guilt at how little he seemed to be able to do for her.
"I'm not givin' up," he told her defensively, feeling his guts twist at the truth of it. "I'll start again first light." She looked grateful, though it was hard for him to understand why. "You know she won't be Sophia no more, right?"
She nodded, tears welling up in her eyes. "I know. But I can still say goodbye, before…" Her voice trailed off, but Daryl got where she was coming from.
"Yeah," he said, voice husky. "You will. Now, git inside. No good can come of sittin' out here."
She stood up, her legs a bit shaky, and without meaning to at all, Daryl held out his arm, his hand ghosting against her back as she turned and went back inside. He snatched it back before he made contact, and drew in his lips tight. Just like that, compassionate Daryl completely clammed up.
Angry as a grizzly with its paw in a trap, he stomped down the aisle and paused in front of the cross, his eyes burning into Jesus. "Hey J.C. You takin' requests?"