Part 7

That one's called Nellie…Nervous Nellie…

Daryl hadn't thought this out. He knew he'd made a vital mistake the second he'd kicked the horse to a gallop and Carol nearly squeezed his guts up out of his mouth. Woman had more strength than he'd bargained for and her head buried against his shoulders, her chest pressed against his back, was causing all sorts of physical difficulties that he hadn't contemplated. She said she couldn't ride. She hadn't told him she was shit scared of the animal.

He'd slowed as he followed the trail up into the mountains, forcing his head to stop thinking about how it actually felt pretty good having a woman hold onto him, depend on him. He focused on his mission, to find Sophia. He didn't have much to work with. Her trail was long cold and his only point of reference was the river, so he found it and followed it. It was Carol that pointed the doll out to him, and he felt his heart skip a beat. Of course the little girl didn't have her doll anymore. Walkers didn't need to hang on to comfort toys when all they needed was to feel flesh tear between their teeth.

He retrieved it quickly, not really sure if Carol wanted the sodden doll back but giving it to her so she could decide. They rode on for another hour, Carol's arms finally loosening around his middle until eventually she bunched a handful of his shirt in each hand, her head away from him and looking out for her daughter. The silence between them stretched on for miles, both of them content to just eye the countryside without the distraction of talk.

He didn't see a damn thing that gave him any hope they'd find Sophia. For all they knew she could have joined a herd by now. Hell if he knew how these things worked once someone was turned. Whatever had tickled her ears as soon as she woke as a walker would have determined where she was now, and Daryl had to concede he had no idea what those liberating sounds might have been for the girl.

"We're not gonna find her, are we?"

Daryl blanched at how easily this woman seemed to see inside his head. The sun was hot and he looked up at the wide blue sky, squinting at the brightness trying to think of the best way to answer.

"She's prob'ly long gone. Could've joined with a herd, headin' fuck knows where." He hated the tone of defeat in his voice. He thought of the Cherokee Rose he'd found at that house the day before and felt a lump of something clog in his throat. It seemed like such a slap in the face that he couldn't tell her the story, hand her hope in the shape of a flower and force her to believe Sophia was going to be okay. Because the sad fact was, she wasn't. There was no hoping for that girl, what was done was done and Daryl knew that better than anyone.

Silence fell between them once again and he knew she was crying—knew it in the same way that he knew he was holding back more tears for the loss of his own brother. Losing Merle was a blow that he knew the others would never understand, but he thought Carol might. Thought that maybe one day, when she'd dealt with her own loss, he could talk to her about Merle and tell her the little pieces of his brother that the rest of the world had never seen. It would mean opening up to someone, revealing far more intimate parts of himself than he ever had to any of this group, but maybe, with her…

Nellie skittered nervously, breaking into Daryl's thoughts. A rustle in the grass revealed a snake slithering toward them and the horse reared up, tossing the pair of them to the ground. Daryl hit the ground hard a little further than Carol and he lost his balance. He caught her terrified eyes and felt the apology teeter at his lips before he tipped backwards and tumbled, fell, slammed into trees and rocks as he descended the ridge faster than was safe for anyone. There was a searing pain in his side as he hit the water, tasting his blood as it mixed with the river water and filled his mouth.

"Daryl."

Her panicked scream made him groan as he dragged himself to the surface and spat out his bloody mouthful.

"Shut up, you stupid bitch. You wanna bring a herd down on us?"

She shut up but even with the crash of the waterfall behind him and the ringing in his ears from the fall, he could hear her trying to stifle her whimpering. He stood up and moaned at the pain in his side, seeing one of his arrows sticking out through his flesh.

"Sonovabitch." He stumbled pathetically to the side of the riverbed, sat down and tried to assess the damage, almost panting with the pain. He didn't think the arrow had punctured anything besides his skin, though it burned like a bitch. Still, he needed to secure it so he could climb back up to Carol, and in thinking that he reared back on his haunches and peered up…and up and wondered if he could sprout wings and fly because that might have had more chance at getting him back to the top than his body was likely to do.

Using the knife sheathed at his belt, he cut the sleeves from his shirt and tied them together, thanking Carol silently for taking all his other shirts for washing and only leaving him this one with the sleeves still intact. As he finished the job, binding the makeshift bandage around the arrow and his body to stabilise it, he heard a rustling in the bushes near the river and reached for his bow.

"Shit." He must have lost it in the water when he landed on the arrow. He rushed back into the river, brandishing a thick branch to help him locate his crossbow by poking it into the muddy water, dredging the river floor for it. It took him too long to find it, and if it had been a walker in the brush he'd have been done for. It wasn't a good feeling, he realised, being at the mercy of those mutilated and decaying freaks, but then suddenly he could hear Carol calling down to him, trying to do it as quietly as possible when she was in full blown panic and he couldn't help but smile.

"Yeah, yeah, hold your horses," he called as he shuffled to the bottom of the cliff and started the incline. The muscles in his arms strained painfully and Daryl grunted, trying hard to hold in his moans of pain. His side was burning and he could feel the blood loss beginning to effect his ability to focus, so with urgency he dragged one foot up after another, his hands grasping at every tree sapling sprouting out from the surface and every large rock that seemed stable.

About ten feet from the top he could see Carol's face and the relief he read there warmed him in a new way. She reached her hand out for him but he judged her still too far away, dragging himself up with his arms now because everything felt just too weak.

"Come on," he berated himself. "Stop being such a pussy."

And then he made the ultimate mistake, closing his eyes for just a split second and grabbing hold of something that wasn't quite what it was supposed to be and with a crushing sense of dread, he felt himself tipping back and falling once again, hitting rocks and trees harder and faster than he had the first time.

"No!" Her scream echoed around the woods and it was the last thing he could cling to before his eyes fell closed and blackness filled his head.

She didn't even think. Before he'd reached the bottom, Carol had started following him down, turning her body to slip over the edge and tried not to fall like he had but not quite being able to control the speed at which she reached the bottom. She sat for a moment—small part dazed and large part incredulous that she'd been so brave—trying to catch her breath, catalogue her new cuts and bruises, and allow her pulse to drop a few beats before she gave herself a heart attack.

Standing carefully, testing that she'd not managed to break something or twist her ankles from her foolhardy tumble down the ridge, she stood and rushed to Daryl's side. He was out, and Carol couldn't blame him when her eyes fell on the arrow that had pierced through his side.

"Daryl?" She had no doubt he'd have hated the taint of fear she couldn't keep from her voice.

He made no movement—nothing to imply he could hear her at all. Her hand shaking uncontrollably, Carol pressed two fingers against his neck where his pulse was supposed to be and almost collapsed on him with relief when his skin jumped against hers.

"Oh, thank God. Thank God."

She didn't know what to do. What if he'd broken something, broken his back or his neck? Complete horror tore through her and Carol jerked back, trying to gain control of her swirling stomach. If he was mortally wounded she'd never be able to live with herself. He was out here because of her, because she'd needed to say goodbye to her little girl. He'd have been perfectly safe if he'd stayed at camp, if he'd stayed away from her problems.

Carol watched over him, watched his chest rise and fall and then settled her hand against his heart. She couldn't understand why he'd cared so much for Sophia, why he'd cared so much for her. He could have left Carol many times, left her to grieve in the church without watching her every move carefully, left her sitting on those steps of the little building when she'd been unable to function, to focus on anyone or anything. Everyone else had left her, but he'd stayed, and he kept on staying and helping and pushing her until she felt he'd buried himself inside her soul. She couldn't lose him now, realising it would hurt as much as losing her daughter, if not possibly break her completely. He was a good man, a great man and proving himself to be everything the others of their group were, if not better. How could she not fall for him, or at least take him into her heart as one of the special ones that would kill her if she lost him?

The distinctive moans of the dead filtered through the air and Carol stood slowly, her terrified eyes sweeping the riverbed and finding a walker as it stumbled toward her. Her hands shook, her body ached and stung from her jerky descent down the ridge, but adrenaline like she'd never felt before pumped through her body as she realised she had both her and Daryl's lives in her hands. She'd never killed one before—the men had always been there to protect the women and suddenly Carol realised how much of an idiot she'd been. The current situation established without any doubt how easily she might be left defenceless and clueless on how to protect herself.

She wasn't going to be a victim. She had to protect Daryl like he'd been protecting her, and then she had to get them out of there and back to the farm. She gave her surroundings a calculated look and settled on the knife at Daryl's hip—the one he never left home without—and she unsheathed it with a confidence she'd never have thought possible when she was a mousy housewife and her husband's punching bag.

Not liking the thought of this thing getting too close to Daryl, Carol stepped forward and plunged the knife into the walker's head, belatedly realising that if she hadn't had that burst of fear-fuelled adrenaline she'd have never pierced the skull. Eye sockets, that's what she had to go for, she thought almost hysterically as another one stumbled out of the trees and lumbered towards her at a quickening trot. She tried not to scream as the knife sank through the eye socket and embedded itself in the brain. She stumbled as it fell, desperately clinging to the knife as the walker's body hit the ground and she heard another moan on its way toward her. Carelessly putting her foot on the body, she yanked the knife out of its head and prepared for the next assault. Before it got close enough, a bolt flew past her and slammed into the third walker's eye, knocking it backwards where it lay silent and still on the ground.

Carol whipped around. Daryl sat, wincing in pain and panting from fear. He pushed unsteadily to his feet and took what looked like a tortured step toward her. Grasping the knife in her hand, with walker blood dripping down her fingers, Carol met his eyes and saw approval. She swelled with pride in herself. She didn't know this woman—the one who could protect someone else by taking on the threat—but she had a feeling she kind of liked her.

"You okay?"

It should have been her asking him but as usual he had her welfare ahead of his own. Carol nodded, tears of relief in her eyes and then she launched herself at him, her arms winding around his neck as she squeezed what little life he had left out of him.

"I thought you'd be all broken," she admitted, her voice choked with tears, noticing but ignoring how tense his body was at her presumptive hug. He relaxed by degrees, one hand settling lightly at her hip and the other finally curling around her waist to pull her tighter against his body. She could feel his warmth against her and her stomach jumped in yearning. Slowly she pulled back, seeing the question in his blue eyes and hating herself that she didn't have an answer. She licked her lips nervously and felt a little thrill shoot through her as his eyes lingered on her mouth. Her heart seemed to be thudding painfully against her ribs and her face burned.

"Do you think you can make it back up there?" She pointed back over her shoulder, meaning the side of the hill they'd toppled over but ended up pointing down the river.

He smirked at her, his eyes squinting as he followed her hand before abruptly turning back to her and pinning her with the most intense stare she'd ever felt. "Shit, I was born to pull myself up the side of a cliff. How 'bout you?" His eyes sparkled and Carol was quite struck at how attractive he was, even with blood and dirt smearing his face.

"No, but I will. What other choice is there? We go down the stream and we might end up too far away to get back to the farm before nightfall, and you need to get that wound seen to." Her gaze settled where he'd previously had an arrow sticking out of his side, to now see a large, bloodied patch against the cotton of his shirt but minus the arrow. "You pulled the arrow out to shoot that walker?" She asked, shocked. She closed the gap between them again and put her hand against the wound, feeling the contraction of his muscular torso at her touch. His blood flowed between her fingers and she looked up at him, concerned.

"It's fine," he said, chasing her hand away as he readjusted his makeshift splint so that it put pressure against the wound. He took the knife from her and replaced it in the sheath at his belt, swung his crossbow across his back then limped slowly toward the incline, eyeing it with hatred.

"You go first."

Carol eyed his back and took a deep breath. "No. You're weak, Daryl. I'll go after you so I can help you keep on going up there."

He flipped around abruptly, his hand fisted, and she could see she'd offended him. "I ain't weak," he scoffed, but even his voice was a weaker burst of gruff than she was used to and Carol stepped closer and looked him dead in the eye.

"You fell down this thing not once, but twice. You got an arrow through you, you probably have a concussion and you're bleedin' like a stuck pig. You're the strongest man I've ever met, but I won't be watching you fall down there again. I just won't."

"You gonna catch me if I fall?" he bit out at her, clearly irritated at her little speech.

"Always."

And be damned if she didn't smile as she pushed him to take the first step.