Disclaimer: I don't own The Walking Dead… but I think by now we all know that.

Season 5, episode 8

Grady Memorial Hospital, Atlanta, GA, Day

A/N: Yes, I skipped episode 7 and anything that may have happened in between Daryl and Noah heading back toward the church and the exchange at Grady – because let's be honest, I'd rather skip to the part where they rescue Carol, and I feel like I can't be the only one. I'm writing so much angst in my other fics at the moment, and there's so much angst in this one even when they're together, I thought I'd spare all of us the angst of them being apart… again. Plenty more chances for that in the future, anyway, sadly. Anyway, hope you enjoy this chapter.

They stood in the dark at the end of the hall – Rick, Daryl, Tyreese, Noah, Sasha and their two captives – about to walk through the swinging doors and make the hostage exchange. In the end, Rick had decided that this was the best way to get Carol and Beth back with a minimum of casualties, hopefully none. After all, they could've gone in guns blazing, but really, none of them wanted to lose anyone else if it could be avoided. They'd all lost too many people already.

Carol fidgeted restlessly in the wheelchair. She hadn't wanted to be in it in the first place, but Dawn had insisted. Carol wasn't exactly weak-willed, but given her weakened physical condition, she wasn't exactly up to a fight over something as trivial as whether she'd sit or stand. What was important was that she was going to get out of there, that Daryl and the others had come to get them. She turned and looked over her shoulder, glancing up at Beth standing behind her. The blonde looked anxious, and Carol attempted to smile at her. Carol was nervous as well, but as usual, she didn't think about herself, just wanting to calm the younger girl's nerves as much as possible.

"It's gonna be okay," Carol whispered. Beth looked down at her then, focusing on her face for the first time and appearing to come out of a daze at the sound of her voice. She smiled back at Carol and nodded in agreement.

"I hope so," she replied quietly. Carol turned back around then, squinting into the darkness at the end of the hall. She'd heard movement down that way, and was fairly sure that their group was gathered behind the swinging doors that had been left closed partway down the hall, blocking their view.

Rick peered through the narrow window in one door, while Daryl peered through the matching window in the other. There, silhouetted by light from the windows at the far end of the hall and surrounded by strangers, Daryl saw Beth and Carol, the two women who he'd failed to protect. Guilt threatened to choke him as he looked at them. They'd both ended up here because of him, and now his friends – his family – were being forced to risk their lives to clean up his mess. He kept his face impassive, as he usually did – not that it mattered in the dark of the hallway – but inside he burned with shame.

He could see that Carol and Beth were flanked by two men and two women in police uniforms, one of the women standing at the front of the group and appearing to be in charge, as well as one other man at the back of the group in a white lab coat. They were all so close by – less than the length of the hallway from them… and yet still so far away. Relative proximity wasn't the most important thing in the situation, however, because there were probably more guns in that hallway than there were people, and just one of those guns being discharged at the wrong time would surely set off a chain reaction that would be catastrophic for both sides.

Everyone was on edge, and the tension was palpable at both ends of the hallway. There was still so much potential for something to go terribly wrong, and Daryl wasn't sure he could stand to wait much longer. They needed to get their people, and get the hell out of there.

Daryl felt anxiety rising quickly inside him. Both of the women they'd come back for were still alive, thankfully, and they could both still be saved. Shit, he thought, just don't let nobody do nothin' stupid. Outwardly he seemed calm, his normal, steady self, but inside he was a bundle of nerves. Only someone who knew him well would have known how anxious he was – specifically, one of the two people at the opposite end of the hall who didn't belong here at Grady. He was not concerned for his own safety at that moment, and not even primarily concerned for those who stood with him – though of course, he would have put himself in danger to protect any of them, too. His concern was for Carol most of all. For as long as he'd known her, she'd been his first concern – even before he'd even realized it – and of course, for Beth as well.

Carol had heard Dawn tell everyone to holster their weapons, but could they all be trusted to keep them holstered? She knew that her people wouldn't shoot unless provoked, but she had no idea what the people standing around her would do, nor how they would react to the newcomers. Would they honor the agreement? Did they really intend for them all to make it out alive, or was it a ploy? If so, to what end? Dawn wasn't an especially warm or caring person. Could she be trusted to care that much about getting her people back safely that she would release the two of them unharmed? Carol shivered involuntarily, wishing they could just get it over with already.

The seconds that they stood behind the doors, as both sides holstered their weapons before the exchange, seemed to Daryl like an eternity. Conflict, he could handle. Waiting? That was another story altogether.

Beth and Carol saw the doors down the hall swing open, and six of her favorite people, plus two others, emerged from the darkness. After spending so much time afraid that she'd never see any of them again, her heart swelled with emotion. As usual, her eyes landed on Daryl first. He was really here. It was almost too good to be true. Then again, they weren't out of danger yet. Think positive, she told herself, taking a deep breath to steady her nerves.

Suddenly they were through the swinging doors, the only thing that had been separating the two sides, and facing each other warily. As Rick and the others stopped, still leaving a stretch of empty hallway between the two groups, they watched the Grady officers remain still as Beth pushed Carol forward slightly in her wheelchair. The wheelchair was just another reminder of Carol's weakened condition, and it made Daryl wince slightly.

I shouldn't have let her go so far ahead of us. I should've told her to wait while I helped Noah out of the building. Hell, I should've made her go back to the church instead of letting her come along to Atlanta in the first place. That last one, especially, was laughable and he knew it. He could tell himself all he wanted to that he should've done this or that, but still he knew that none of it would have made a difference.

She wouldn't have listened to any of those things, he reminded himself. She don't never listen when she's got it in her head to do somethin'. He felt the warmth of affection for her at the thought, despite how much her stubbornness drove him crazy. It was both one of the most frustrating and yet also one of the most endearing things about her.

Kinda like someone else you know, his inner voice replied. He could have tried to deny his own stubbornness, but what was the point? Anyone who knew him knew that was the case, and most importantly, she knew it as well. A hint of a smile tried to show itself on his face at the thought that they were so evenly matched. However, the muscles in his face were so tight with tension that the impulse simply faded, unable to be completed.

No, he realized upon reflection, not only would she not've gone back to the church, but she would've just left the group, like she was tryin' to do when I found her by the car. The thought was frightening – he'd come much too close to losing her yet again. But he hadn't, and goddammit he wasn't going to lose her this time, either.

There were words exchanged between the sides, but Daryl only half heard them. He pushed one of the hostages forward so that they could trade one for one. One of the men in the police uniforms in the other group had taken over for Beth, and now he pushed Carol's wheelchair toward their group. Never had such a short walk seemed so endless as the one when he watched Carol being pushed toward him. Daryl had to fight the urge to push forward in anticipation, lest that be taken as a sign of aggression on his part and destroy the delicate peace between the two sides.

And then just when he thought the agonizing wait would never end, there she was in front of him. The man in the police uniform who had pushed her wheelchair to their side handed him a bag, which Daryl tossed over his shoulder before he grabbed the handle of the wheelchair, pushing it a few feet towards the rest of the group and that much closer to safety. Before turning back around to watch the rest of the exchange, his right hand moved, almost without his knowledge, to her shoulder and gave the slightest of squeezes. It was as though he wouldn't be able to believe that she was there in front of him if he relied on his eyes alone to tell him the truth. It was simply too good to be true.

It wasn't yet the time for words, but words had never really been necessary between them anyway. In that second, his meaning was clear, and more was communicated in the brief contact than could possibly have been said in words during that fraction of a second, even if he could have found the right words – which was doubtful. Fuck, but I'm glad you're safe. Don't you do that to me again. You know what you mean to me, right? Then in seconds, he was once again facing the other group warily, impatient for it all to be over so they could get the hell out of there.

She felt his hand on her shoulder, and sighed with relief. He did it. He found me. Us. She was still slightly dizzy with relief at that thought… or maybe that was the pain medication they'd given her. She'd known that Daryl would fight with everything inside him to find her and to get her back – of that she had no doubt. However, the world was full of unimaginable dangers, and things so often didn't go the way they wanted them to. It happened all the time. The fact that they had all ended up here at Grady was nothing short of a miracle.

Deep down she'd been afraid that he'd have taken some crazy, unnecessary risk in order to save her, and that it would have cost him his life… that something would have happened to him because of her – which she'd never have forgiven herself for – and that she'd never see him again. She had been afraid to admit that the thought had scared her, or how much it had scared her, even to herself. That is, she'd been afraid to admit it until now that he was there in front of her, and she felt herself let go of the breath she hadn't realized she was holding.

But no, there he was in the flesh, holding onto her shoulder for just a few seconds, as real as any of the other people around her, or as the ground below her. He had done what he always did, even when she tried to tell herself that she didn't want him to – he'd saved her. Or, he would have once they got away from that place safely. Though she firmly believed that she didn't deserve such undying loyalty, she had it. She only wished she was worthy of it.

For a split second, she wondered what he would think of the risks he took for her if he knew the truth about the things she'd done, but she pushed that thought from her mind. They weren't out of danger yet, and she couldn't let herself be distracted. There would be plenty of time to torture herself with her thoughts later.

She was now safely behind Daryl with the rest of her group, and already pushing herself out of the chair to stand with them, finally daring to believe for the first time since their car had struck her that she might get away from Dawn and her other alleged "rescuers" alive. She was unsteady on her feet, to be sure, but Dawn would never let her take the wheelchair out of the hospital anyway, so it was time to stand up and prepare to leave with the others. Besides, she hated having to be pushed around like an invalid, far preferring to walk if she was able. Just like always, if she could do anything to avoid having anyone else fuss over her, she would do it, and that included pushing through the pain. After all, she had a lot of experience at putting on a brave face when she was in pain.

Daryl was looking in the other direction, watching solemnly as the man who had pushed Carol's wheelchair forward escorted one of his comrades back to the other group. Beth was then exchanged for the second hostage, and it seemed that the transaction was complete. Turning back, he saw that Carol had been able to stand, limping gingerly toward the far end of the hall with Tyreese beside her. He was glad, both to see her able to walk and to see her get a head start getting away from these people… there was something that didn't sit right about this exchange, and he'd feel better when they'd left the hospital and gotten on their way. It had all just seemed too… easy. As though the other shoe was going to drop any second.

Except, of course, that it was never that easy. Things never went quite right for them, it seemed, and afterwards Daryl would tell himself that he should have been more skeptical. The woman who seemed to be in charge of the group at the hospital had one more condition: she wanted Noah back, as if he was a thing that belonged to her, and not a person who had every right to decide for himself whether he would stay or go. Rick and Daryl argued with her, knowing that Noah didn't want to be there, and that he felt strongly enough about it that he'd gone to the trouble to escape. They weren't quite sure who this woman thought she was to refer to Noah as "mine." Feeling that they owed it to him not to simply turn him back over to her after he'd helped them with their mission to rescue Carol and Beth, even though it meant going back to the place from which he'd just escaped, they were shocked when he'd given himself up to Dawn rather than jeopardize the deal.

It had all gone so quickly after that, and so terribly, terribly wrong.

BANG.

For a few seconds, it felt as though the air had been sucked out of the entire building, with no one on either side able to breathe.

Beth.

Daryl recovered before any of the others and, never having been one to stop and ask questions first, even when he was thinking clearly – which he was not in that moment – he didn't hesitate to take out the woman in front of him who had just killed Beth, in the exact same way that she had shot their young friend – a shot to the head. He was ready to kill the rest of them, too, except that it immediately became clear that none of the rest of them wanted any trouble. The other side lowered their weapons, but Daryl stood frozen, pointing the gun that he'd almost forgotten was in his hand, still too shocked to move. The pain in his chest was intense, and thinking about moving – thinking about anything except the horror that he had just witnessed– was simply impossible.

And then, a hand was on his shoulder, the touch gentle and familiar, and his numb senses slowly began to register again. Carol was standing just behind him, quiet sounds of grief escaping from her and reaching his ears. He turned away from where Beth lay in the middle of the hallway in a pool of blood, walking slowly beside Carol back toward the others a few steps away, where they stood rooted to the hallway floor, still immobilized with shock and horror.

Rick was the last to lower his gun, the last one left staring open-mouthed, unable to force his mind to begin functioning again. The others from the hospital group said that it had "only been about her," meaning Dawn, who now lay on the floor with a hole in her head. They even offered to let Rick's group stay with them at Grady. But Rick, now finally recovering the power of speech, declined, knowing that despite the thick walls around them and the supplies that remained there for the time being, anything would be preferable to staying in that hospital, or even in that city. He made the same offer to them, however, in a show of goodwill, saying that anyone who wanted to join his group could do so. Only Noah, Beth's friend and the young man who that final argument had been about, accepted Rick's offer.

And then finally, there was nothing left to say or do. They were leaving, but not the way they'd imagined. They moved through the dark corridors and down the stairs toward the main entrance with Daryl carrying Beth in his arms like a limp ragdoll. Tyreese walked at Carol's side without saying a word, one arm wrapped around her and gripping her hand with the other, for both physical and emotional support. Had Daryl not been overcome with grief, he may have been jealous of Tyreese's proximity to her, but in this circumstance, he was oblivious.

Rick and the others trudged wearily through the front entrance, emerging into the light of day. The rest of their group who had made the trip to Atlanta – Maggie, Glenn, Abraham, Tara, Rosita and Michonne – were waiting for them outside. No one could bring themselves to speak as they pushed forward, away from the hospital, knowing that as great as their own pain may be over what had happened to Beth, Maggie's would be infinitely greater in a matter of seconds. And indeed, as soon as she saw her sister dangling from Daryl's arms, she fell to the ground, wailing in agony. There was nothing to say, no comfort that could undo what had been done. Her cries rang in their ears, stopping them in their tracks and multiplying the pain that each of them felt. It wasn't just Maggie who had lost her, it was all of them. They had been here far too many times already, and yet, here they were again. The cruelty of each loss was like a knife slowly twisting inside each person who remained.

After standing in the parking lot outside of Grady Memorial for several minutes in shock, just staring at each other, the group somehow managed to return to their vehicles and began following the highway back toward the church, making it just outside the city limits before allowing themselves to stop. They knew that staying in Atlanta longer than necessary would have been foolish, and they couldn't afford mistakes, even in their grief and numbness. After all, they were always mourning someone, or at least it felt that way. No, by this point they were mourning so many people, it was hard not to feel overwhelmed. Being numb was easier than letting yourself feel the pain, both because it was easier emotionally and because if you were immobilized by grief, it was infinitely more difficult to run for your life.

They slowly piled out onto the side of the road, silently agreeing to take a short break before continuing the rest of the way back to the church. After holding her on the ride out of the city, with Maggie squeezed in beside him and Glenn beside her, Daryl brought Beth out of the car and found that he didn't know what to do. As much as it didn't seem right to leave her laying in the car, it felt equally wrong to put her down on the ground.

And so he did nothing, simply stood in place in the middle of the patch of dirt alongside the road, holding Beth's lifeless body. Maggie stood nearby, leaning against Glenn and breathing heavily, appearing not to have any tears left but with no shortage of grief. Carol, ever the practical one and always trying to take care of these people who had become her family, walked back to the car and began rummaging around in the trunk. Within minutes she had found what she was looking for. Despite being worn and dirty, the thick wool blanket would suit her purpose.

Without a word, she walked over and spread it out on the ground a few feet in front of Daryl, who didn't appear to have noticed what she had done. She approached him slowly, not knowing exactly how he would react or if he was conscious of her there. Laying her right hand on his bicep, she stood beside him and waited to see what his reaction would be.

"Daryl," she whispered. He didn't answer, but exhaled loudly in reply. It was painful to see him like this, looking so broken. She felt it too, of course, but she had far more experience with numbing herself to the pain. Not sure what else to do, she simply stood there beside him, not letting go of his arm.

After several minutes, Daryl finally glanced down at Maggie, who'd sank quietly to the ground not far from where Carol had laid the blanket. Glenn was right beside her, as he had been since she'd found out her sister's fate. Sighing heavily, Daryl slowly and awkwardly knelt beside the blanket so that he could more easily lower the younger Greene onto it, releasing her hesitantly against the thick fabric. If not for the hole in her head, she could have been sleeping.

Carol watched from several feet away, feeling her heart break for all of them, but especially Maggie. The poor girl's father had been murdered right in front of them all, and now a similar fate had befallen her sister. Mercifully, she hadn't had to watch this time, but the ugly truth was the same – both of them had been killed by people, not walkers, and within a relatively short period of time.

Being killed by walkers was horrible, of course, but that was simply what walkers did. Being killed by other people, on the other hand… it was hard to say that one was worse than the other, because death was death, but there was something that was just such a shame about the fact that human beings weren't able to stick together against the threat of walkers, but instead continued to kill each other – and in even more brazenly awful ways now that the rule of law had ceased. Human posed an even greater danger than walkers, in some ways, because you couldn't know their intentions – sometimes until it was too late.

" 'M sorry," Carol heard Daryl whisper to Maggie. "I didn't protect her." Then suddenly he stood up and walked briskly away from them, into the trees nearby. Maggie stared after him for a second, not saying a word. Carol wasn't even sure if she'd heard him, much less what she thought of his apology. Carol now realized more clearly why Daryl seemed to be taking Beth's death so hard – not only had Beth been like a sister to him, but as far as he was concerned, there was no one to blame for her death but himself.

What had happened to Beth wasn't Daryl's fault, of course, but it didn't surprise her that he'd feel that it was. Maggie turned her attention back to her sister, moving so that she knelt beside the blonde's midsection and taking her hand, Glenn hovering protectively nearby. Carol backed away, giving them time alone. Glancing around at the rest of the group, she saw the others resting, some talking quietly and some sitting alone. Everyone, that is, except Daryl, who hadn't yet re-emerged from the trees.

Rick approached Carol slowly, looking down at the ground before bringing his eyes back up to meet hers. He nodded at her in greeting. Her expression was solemn, her mouth barely flinching in acknowledgement.

"How is he?" he asked her quietly. It was a question they both knew the answer to. None of them were okay, least of all Maggie or Daryl. Rick had seen how Daryl had held tight to Beth's body until now. He hoped for his friend's sake that Carol would be able to get through to him.

"I'll talk to him," she said quietly, ignoring the question.

Rick just nodded, then said hesitantly, "We're going to need to talk about what to do next. And we'll have to bury her before we go any farther."

Carol nodded, looking in the direction of the trees into which Daryl had disappeared. "Okay," was all she said, her voice distant and only half listening, her thoughts focused on Daryl, before she turned without another word and walked off in search of him.