Disclaimer: I don't own The Walking Dead… have I already mentioned that?

Season 5, episode 9

Along the road outside Atlanta, GA, Day

She hadn't expected it to be easy to find Daryl amongst the trees – he had always been by far the most familiar with the woods of anyone in the group, and many times he seemed to appear and disappear into and out of the trees as if by magic. Still, she hadn't expected it to be this hard, either. Somehow, she'd just assumed that she'd be able to find him because of the bond they shared. That she'd just know where he was, or at least be able to sense where to look. They he would want her to find him. Or that she maybe just be lucky and stumble upon him.

What she hadn't expected was to have been walking slowly through the trees for what felt like at least thirty minutes and still not have seen any sign of him. It was disconcerting. She didn't think he'd leave the group and just walk away… but what if he had done exactly that? What if he'd finally broken? They were all near the breaking point, after all. But he wouldn't just… leave. Leave the group. Leave her.

Why not? You did, said a voice in her head. You left him. You walked away and didn't intend to come back. It just so happened that he found you in time.

That's different, she thought vehemently. The group needs him. They don't need me.

These thoughts, laced with increasing levels of panic, were running through her mind when she suddenly emerged into a small clearing and there, sitting on a hollow log in front of her, was Daryl. On second thought, she decided that sitting may not be the right way to describe what he was doing. It looked like he had collapsed on the log, and then slid forward, off of it onto the ground.

He didn't seem to hear her approaching, but she took that more as a sign of his state of mind than of her ability to walk quietly in the forest. If there was anyone who, under normal circumstances, would have detected the tiniest of sounds among the trees, it was Daryl. So either he was too distraught to hear her, or her was simply ignoring her. She couldn't decide which one of the two would have been preferable.

Still, it didn't matter, because whichever one it was, she needed to get through to him. She needed him to be okay. The group needed him to be okay. They couldn't afford to lose anyone else, both because they needed all the manpower they could get, and also because none of them could stand to lose another member of their family.

His head was bent and his shoulders slumped, and he was staring at the ground. She'd seen him look broken before, but never like this. Her heart ached just to look at him, now knowing for sure that he was blaming himself for what had happened to Beth, something that was so very much not his fault. She knelt down in the dirt directly in front of him, in the space between his knees, which was the only part of him that didn't seem to have collapsed in despair. She moved gradually, so that she was directly in his line of sight. Still, it was as though he was looking right through her, like he was somewhere else. He was conscious, and yet he almost seemed to be unconscious.

"Daryl," she whispered, but got no reply, no sign that he'd heard her at all. She didn't really know what to do for him, only that she would be the only one who could get through to him. That much had always been clear. That was just what they did for each other; they took turns being the strong one, and bringing the other back from the brink of nothingness. She didn't deserve anyone as good as Daryl – that much she knew. But for now, she had him, and she certainly wasn't going to let him slip away if it was at all within her power to stop him.

And so she tried again. "Daryl," she whispered, more loudly this time, and took one of his hands between both of hers. Looking down at their hands together, she closed her eyes and squeezed her palms as hard as she could around his hand, which was so much bigger than one of hers. "Please, Daryl," she whispered. "We need you. I need you." She heard a sudden intake of breath and then slowly, his head dropped to his chest, and he began to lean forward, until finally his head was leaning on her shoulder. At the same time, his hand squeezed back against hers, not tightly enough to hurt, but enough to convey the force of emotion that he was fighting inside himself.

One of her hands released his, leaving the other clasped tightly, and she brought her now free hand up to the back of his neck, beneath his shaggy hair, to the skin along the edge of his shirt. She pressed her shoulders upwards, so that she was leaning into him. Slowly, the hand on the back of his neck moved back and forth, in what she hoped were small, soothing motions, and she leaned her head to one side so that her cheek touched the side of his face.

Her eyes were closed, and she tried to keep her breathing steady, attempting to calm him, by extension. "It's not your fault," she told him quietly but forcefully. "Whatever you think, it's not your fault."

She felt him shudder then, and she simply held on tighter, both to his hand and to the back of his neck, pressing her cheek into the side of his face just a little harder. It was so much easier not to let yourself feel. She of all people knew that. That was the way that she coped, but she didn't want to see Daryl go down that road. There was too much at stake. Too much at stake for the group, for one. She knew that without Rick having to tell her. Daryl was one of the strongest among them, and the group needed him in order to stay strong – both physically and emotionally.

And of course, even more than that, selfishly perhaps, she wasn't going to allow him to become the monster that she had. The one who couldn't connect with their own feelings because they blocked everything out. No, she couldn't stand the idea of him becoming like her. He was so much better than her. It was too late for her. After all of the people she'd killed… not just people whose deaths she'd been responsible for, the way Daryl felt responsible for Beth's… no, besides a few of those, she had actually, actively killed people. And not just one person. Not just two people.

She couldn't think about that at that moment, however. This wasn't about her, it was about Daryl. She could feel him shaking now, as he cried into her shoulder. He let go of her hand, and to her surprise, he put his arm around her, his hand on her back, pulling her closer. This was far from normal behavior for Daryl, even with her, and that told her how very much he was hurting. She simply clung to him more tightly, whispering again and again next to his ear, "It's not your fault."

Finally, after what felt like a very long time, she could feel the shaking stop. For a little while he stayed where he was, sitting perfectly still, and then, almost as if he had only just realized how tightly he'd been holding on to her and for how long, he suddenly let go. His head was the last thing to move, leaving her shoulder slowly as his head came up. He looked at her shyly, looking embarrassed. He glanced away, and opened his mouth as if he was going to say something, but before he could, she did.

"Don't," she said simply. His eyes jerked back to hers in confusion. "Don't apologize."

He looked back at her in surprise for a second, and then his expression changed. He spoke then for the first time since he'd apologized to Maggie, his voice slightly hoarse. "What makes you think I was gonna 'pologize?"

"Oh, weren't you? My mistake. What did you want to say, then?" It was an attempt at normalcy that might have been too soon, but she knew how uncomfortable he was likely to be with his outburst. Even with her, it just wasn't something he did. She thought that if she lightened things a little, maybe that would help stabilize him.

He sat and looked at her, his mouth open in surprise, not knowing quite what to say. Finally he closed his mouth, his eyes narrowing at her. "Don't wanna talk about it," he said finally, turning away from her and crossing his arms across his chest, exactly the way she would have expected a small child to pout. She knew without a doubt that she'd been right, and she had a feeling he knew exactly how ridiculous he was acting.

She tried to suppress a chuckle, but it escaped despite her best efforts. He looked at her in annoyance that she could see he didn't really feel, and she almost laughed again, only stopping herself by clamping her hand over her mouth. He wasn't going to be over something as traumatic as Beth's death this easily, she knew, but she hoped that she had at least gotten through to him. He was staring out into the trees now, sitting with one foot on each side of the log. She pulled herself off of the ground, and moved in front of him to sit on the log as well, just past the reach of his knees. After their proximity a moment before, she found that despite still being close to him, she suddenly felt very far away. However, she didn't move any closer.

He was staring out at the trees, but he was conscious of her moving to sit in front of him on the log. She was almost close enough to brush his knees against her leg, but he remained still. He considered moving closer to her, but he didn't. He didn't even really know where that thought had come from. That wasn't… him. When it came to that kind of thing, he just didn't really know how things were supposed to work, after all.

He knew that he'd basically collapsed on her shoulder a little while ago, but he hadn't been in control of himself at the time. Now that he was… he still felt like absolute crap, and he knew that despite what Carol had tried to tell him, losing Beth really had been mostly his fault… but even so, somehow he felt better having released some of the emotion he'd built up.

Though he continued to stare into the trees, he knew that she was watching him. Still, he didn't move, didn't glance at her or acknowledge her.

It had been a while since he'd been staring into the trees, and she'd started to think that maybe he just wanted to be alone with his thoughts. She'd been sitting there in front of him, somehow close to him and much too far away at the same time, and decided that she'd head back and check on the others. At least now she knew where he was, and she was fairly sure that he wasn't going to run off. She was pretty sure that when he was ready, he'd come back to them.

She stood up and stretched, and only then did he look in her direction. She couldn't help but think that he looked genuinely confused. Had he forgotten that I was here? she wondered, not sure why he was looking at her like that.

"Where ya goin'?" he asked. If she didn't know better, she would've said that he sounded slightly disappointed.

"I thought I'd go back and check on the others, tell them that I found you. And that you're okay." She stopped then, tilting her head slightly and looked as though she was considering something. "Are you? Okay, I mean…"

He shrugged his shoulders slightly, looking past her into the distance. Then suddenly, his eyes snapped back and met hers again. He attempted a smile, but he looked sad more than anything else. "Gotta be… right?"

She smiled sadly back at him, remembering the other times those words had been uttered between them. Nodding, she turned as if to start back in the direction of the others.

"Hey," he called, causing her to turn once again and look back at him questioningly. "Wait for me?" It was a question, and one that he asked not in his usual, confident very "Daryl" tone. He uttered these three words more unsurely, as if he didn't even know himself what he was asking of her. He didn't move to stand up, however, just sat and looked at her.

"Okay," she whispered simply. She really wasn't sure what he was asking her, all of a sudden. Swinging one leg over the log so that he once again had both feet on one side, he just looked at her expectantly. When she didn't move, he patted the spot beside him, indicating that she should sit down. Finally beginning to understand, but still a little unsure, she walked slowly towards him, sitting down slightly farther away than she'd meant to.

He turned and looked at her quizzically, as if trying to figure something out. "Ain't never bit ya before, and I ain't gonna start now," he said matter-of-factly. She smiled then, realizing that she was being silly, and scooted closer to him, to where their shoulders brushed gently against each other. This was where they tended to sit in relation to each other, so it wasn't out of the ordinary.

Still, for some reason, she couldn't help but feel far away from him. Assuming that it was probably just weariness from the extreme emotional toll of the day, a reaction to what had happened to Beth, and the contrast with how close they'd been when he'd cried on her shoulder, she dismissed any worry that she may otherwise have had on the subject.

They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes, as they done so many times before, in so many other places after so many other emotionally wrenching things had happened, alternating between looking out into the trees and glancing at each other. Life seemed to be filled with nothing but pain, and yet… sitting here, side by side, there was a calm that could make them forget everything else.

Finally, without thinking much about it one way or the other, Carol leaned over and laid her head down against his shoulder. Doing so served several purposes – not that she had thought about any of them in advance. It reminded both of them that the other one was still there – both physically beside them, and emotionally there as well. It also allowed her to rest just a little, as she had only just realized how drained she felt by the events of the day.

And not least importantly, it gave Daryl something to smile about – albeit a small smile, one that didn't quite reach his eyes. Still, the light pressure of her head against his shoulder reminded him of what he hadn't lost. It was so easy, he realized, to focus on who and what had been taken from them, and so easy to lose sight of the rest. He could wallow in self-hatred over the loss of Beth – and he was sure that he would never completely forgive himself, no matter what happened – he could let it consume him, or he could remember that Carol was right there beside him, and that even though she'd been the strong one this time, pulling him back from the bleakness that had threatened to swallow him, that she needed him too – even though he knew that she hated to admit it, even to herself.

They'd sat like that for a while, until they were so relaxed that they both began to feel sleepy. Deep down, they both knew that they couldn't stay there any longer, and yet they hated the thought of leaving. All that waited for them back with the others was the reality of so many horrible things, the most recent of them being fresh feelings of grief and loss. And yet, that was their life.

" 'F we don't go back soon, Rick's gonna lead a goddamn search party out here," Daryl growled reluctantly. Still leaning against him, Carol chuckled quietly.

"You're probably right about that," she agreed. She turned her head towards him, so that she could press her forehead against his shoulder, feeling him lean into her ever so slightly. She held that position for thirty seconds or so, before sitting up reluctantly, then continuing to move until she was standing up in front of him.

"C'mon, Pookie, we have a whole bunch of people that need to know that you're okay," she told him.

"Pfft," he snorted, standing up in front of her. For a second they were suddenly very close together, only inches separating them. But what to do about it? It wasn't something that Daryl had ever been able to figure out, and especially not around Carol. Which was why, as a rule, he did nothing – and this time was no different.

She watched him, and it was as though she could hear the wheels turning in his head. She knew that he would stand in front of her and simply look at her. It just seemed to be his default in almost as long as he'd known her. Occasionally he'd surprise her with a few words, something simple but sweet, but mostly he just looked at her with a piercing stare. As strange as it sounded, she didn't necessarily mind. Well, maybe sometimes she did… There were days when she did wish fleetingly that he wasn't so damned shy. But she had been so burned by her past, that she much appreciated someone who would do nothing when they weren't sure, rather than do something that one or both of them would later regret.

Besides, that stare that he gave her? It was reserved only for her, and she knew it without ever having been told. It was the stare that told her that she was the most important thing in the world. There were days when that thought alone was simply too much for her. Lots of them, actually, especially since the prison, after Karen and David... ever since she'd felt herself transform into the kind of monster that could do that to other people, Daryl's stare had terrified her. She knew that she didn't deserve that kind of devotion, that she was unworthy of his admiration. Not just that, but she felt sure that eventually, he would stare hard enough at her and it would allow him to see the truth about her, and about what she'd done.

There were times when she felt the need to run, just to get away from the responsibility that his stare imparted to her. Other days, that stare was all that kept her going, the only thing that kept her tethered to reality when she felt like she was going crazy. She wanted to believe that she deserved someone like him, wanted it more than anything. But the truth was that she didn't, and she knew it.

She knew that it was only a matter of time before either she was overcome by the pressure of it and told him the truth – though she was sure that she was simply too much of a coward to do so – or, seemingly more likely, until he found out just how unworthy she really was. She felt like she should be the one to tell him, but she couldn't bring herself to do it. Then again, he was so damn stubborn that even if she told him, he probably wouldn't have listened.

And so they stood and looked at each other. There was nothing to say, really, but that was okay. Words had never really been necessary between them – at least, not when it really mattered.

Finally Carol smiled sadly at him, turned back toward the direction from which they had come, and looked back at him over her shoulder. "Let's go, Pookie," she said simply, hearing him growl slightly at the repeated use of the pet name that he had been unable to get her to stop using.

She'd only gone a few steps when he was beside her, ever alert to their surroundings and ready to protect her, if it should come to that. Not that she needed protection, necessarily. The woman beside him had come a long way in the time he'd known her, and he was proud to know that thanks in part to him, but mainly due to her own determination, instinct and quick reflexes, she didn't need his protection. They were now a team, and had been for a long time.

They trudged back to the clearing where they'd left the group. As they emerged from the trees, Rick looked up, appearing relieved to finally see them. Carol smiled sadly at him, nodding, and walking over to where Maggie was still crouched beside her sister. Daryl just stood and looked at the group, trying to keep Carol's words in his head despite the fact that everything inside him screamed that it had, indeed, been his fault. He thought of his head on her shoulder, and he thought of her head leaned against his shoulder. They held each other up, as they always had. Somehow, that thought helped him not crumble to the ground at that moment.

Rick walked over and clapped him on the shoulder. Daryl couldn't help but think that the other man looked ragged, and wondered if he looked just as bad. He imagined that he probably did, maybe worse.

"You alright?" Rick asked him, looking at him with concern.

"Yup," Daryl replied. His eyes darted for just a second across the clearing to where Carol sat on the ground beside Maggie, then back to Rick. "So what's next?"