Shunned

They didn't talk about it. She was so sure this had been the point of him taking her along on the run. She never went on runs, and suddenly he was insisting she join him. Insisting she leave with him, even though that left Maggie alone to defend the prison should something happen. So they went house to house, putting down walkers, gathering supplies and all the while she waited for him to talk about it. He didn't say a word.

"We're going to lose the light soon." Rick said, as he arranged their newly acquired supplies in the trunk of the car. His hands seemed to be moving over the items in a useless, repetitive way. "Let me see your bag." He asked without looking at her.

Carol handed over the backpack and watched him stuff it with some of the basic necessities they'd managed to find. She understood, finally.

"Rick," She said, forcing his attention on her. "You don't have to do this."

"I do." He said after a moment. "I don't want to. But this is the way it has to be."

"I made a choice. It wasn't easy. But it was what I believed I needed to do to protect the group. You must understand that. You've made those kinds of choices. You killed Shane."

"Shane tried to kill me. He was a threat. He'd lost himself." Rick looked down at the ground briefly before returning his gaze to her. "You put down two people. Two of our own. They were vulnerable, had no means to defend themselves. They trusted you. And you killed them."

"I thought I could stop the spread of the disease."

"My God, Carol, listen to yourself. This isn't you. You care about people. You care for them, for all of us. This was cold. Calculated. We don't know what this disease is. Maybe some will recover. You took away their chance at survival. After everything we've been through, how can you justify this?"

"I'd do anything to protect those kids. To give them a fighting chance." Carol said. "I can't lose another child. I wouldn't survive it."

"Carl told me what you've been doing during story time. I understand why you're doing it. I don't disagree. Lori didn't want Carl to hold a gun, but I pushed for it. I wanted him to be able to protect himself. The scariest thing about this world is that you can't be everywhere at once. It only takes a moment, and someone we love is lost forever. We lost Sophia. And we barely had a minute to mourn her before we were on the run again. We've lost so many since then. When it stops meaning anything, when it stops hurting, then we're in trouble."

"It wasn't easy." Carol insisted. "I know what I've done."

"But you don't regret it. You think you made the right choice because you were thinking of the greater good." Rick let out a breath and shook his head. "I took Carl's gun away from him because he wasn't mature enough to make those kinds of calls. He'd lost touch with the value of human life. I wasn't careful enough with him. I almost lost him. I almost lost myself. I still have my bad days."

"We all understood, Rick. The strain you'd been under. Losing Lori. We understood and we supported you."

"Do you remember how shocked you felt when you realized I'd been planning to trade Michonne for our own safety?"

Carol felt the familiar burn of unwanted tears forming.

"I couldn't do it. I was close, but I stepped back. Her life has just as much value as any of ours. Just as much as mine or yours or even Carl's and Judith's. Every life is precious. We can't afford to lose more people. We have so much working against us already, Carol. This flu, or whatever it is, it's just one more thing we have to fight against. I can't fight you too."

"If you leave me here, I'm as good as dead." Carol said. "It'd be kinder to kill me now. Just put a bullet in my head."

"I've got more faith in you than that." Rick said, slamming the trunk shut. "You're strong, Carol. A fighter. I think you'll make your way back to us, eventually. A month or so, out here, on your own, well, I think that will give you time to get your head on straight."

"You want me to come back?"

"Yes. But we need time. You think Tyreese is going to understand any of this? You might be safer out here."

"You'll take care of Lizzie and Mika?" Carol asked, swallowing a sob.

"Of course. I'm trying to take care of everyone. That's not really supposed to be my job anymore, but the council seems to be dispersed. We do what we have to do."

Rick stepped forward then and wrapped his arms tightly around her.

"You come back to us." He said. "And let's make sure we get some real story time in for those kids. It's smart to teach them how to protect themselves. But we also need to teach them how to be people. I want them to experience joy and innocence. I want them to have fun and to explore their imagination. I want them to understand what they're taking away, when they take a life." Rick pulled back from her, gripping her arms for a second before letting go.

She stared after the car long after it had disappeared. Carol picked up her backpack and looked around. The light would be gone soon. She'd pick one of the houses they'd already cleared to camp in for the night. It was quiet. The last time she'd been this alone, she'd been trapped in the tombs. But she'd survived that. Daryl had found her.