Daryl was used to being the first one up in camp, not counting whoever had opted to stay awake for night watch.
He rose with the sun, as was his norm if he didn't beat the yellow ball on the horizon.
This morning, though, the camp was awake before him and his stomach dropped at finding them all gathered when he exited his tent.
They were outside the RV, huddled together in a conversation that stopped as they seemed to sense his presence. Heads slowly began to turn toward him as he crossed to join the group and his feet dragged with a reluctance to get there and find out what was wrong.
"I've been lying in that RV for days with access to every gun in this camp and I never went for a single one of them."
Carol's words from the day of the Walker's attack looped in his head as he got closer to them. Her absence twisted him in knots as he tried to brace for the news.
He'd known it was a possibility.
Known it, but hadn't wanted her to do it.
A gunshot would have woken him sooner, so he wasn't sure what method she had chosen.
He was sure they would tell him, if his feet would ever get him to the gathering.
The lack of tears on Andrea or Lori's faces was puzzling, as was the apprehension on the men's faces as they watched Daryl approach. The lot of them exchanged a series of odd glances, as if deciding which would be the one to tell him and that caused Daryl to pause.
What could they have to tell him that he hadn't already figured out on his own?
"We'll find her," Rick stepped forward and said quietly, putting his hand on Daryl's shoulder. "We were just about to get you so we can head out."
His words were odd to Daryl, causing him to frown as he tried to figure them out.
"She can't have gone far," Dale said, joining them. "I only dozed. I never doze more than a few minutes. You know that," he said to Rick, worried and defensive in the same tone, as if he'd said the same thing multiple times already. "I take watch very seriously. Thirty minutes max, that's all the time she could have had before I noticed her missing."
Realizing that their words meant Carol hadn't killed herself gave him only a moment of relief before it sank in that she was off somewhere.
"What the hell y'all standing around for?" he snapped, turning to rush back to his tent to collect his crossbow then rejoin them. "How damned long ago did you realize she was gone?"
"She's got a good hour on us," Rick was hesitant to admit, hands on his hips and shoulders slumping.
The dejection in that posture could be contagious, but Daryl wouldn't let his mind wander to the dangers Carol may be facing. He couldn't have this turning into a reenactment of what had happened with Sophia.
"A lot can happen in an hour," a muscle ticked in Shane's jaw as he issued the warning. "We all know where her head has been lately_"
"Don't you be sayin' we shouldn't look for her," Daryl interrupted with narrowing eyes.
"I'm just saying we have no idea where she may have gone and it's a lot of ground to cover," the other man said in placating tone.
"Then we'd best start covering it."
Maggie came forward just then, quietly leading two horses toward Glenn. Daryl gave her a quick nod of thanks in seeing her coming to help despite the tensions between the group and their reluctant host. He didn't linger to watch them swing up into those saddles
"I had planned on us looking to the east," Rick said, falling into step at his side.
Daryl didn't acknowledge the comment, just continued on his way, steps hurried toward the edge of the woods.
"You have some idea where she's gone?"
He hoped, but wasn't about to go making any tender confessions.
"Look," Rick pulled him to a sudden stop, "I don't know what it is or isn't between the two of you. I do know that you need to keep your cool on this. If we find her-"
"When," he snapped, yanking his arm free and moving on again with renewed purpose.
"When we find her, can you handle it if-"
"Save the fucking 'ifs.' If you don't realize by now that I can, will and do do what I have to, when it has to be done and however it must be dealt with, then you need to get your head outta your ass and start paying attention."
The biting words had the desired effect of stopping the Deputy's attempts to converse and Daryl was glad of it. Conversation required thought and thinking was dangerous until he found her and knew exactly what he had to deal with.
At the edge of the forest, he prepped the bow and slowed his steps, knowing caution would be necessary given the possible hiding places for Walkers. Rick took a similar moment to take out his Colt and check the rounds in the chamber before they left the open field for the trees.
He hadn't trekked this particular direction since the scene at the barn, hating the memory of those foolish words he'd spoken, but he could think of no other place she could or would have gone. Unless suicide by Walker was her intention, in which case Glenn and Maggie would find her in town or on the way there.
After taking a bracing breath, he squatted down a few feet into the woods to survey the forest floor for signs.
The debris of fallen leaves and twigs seemed to have the impression of her soft-soled shoe compacting it further to the ground, but Daryl couldn't be sure if he really saw the print or simply wanted a sign that badly.
Rick continued past him, his eyes moving constantly from the ground to their surroundings. Daryl watched the other man for a moment and closed his own eyes in a brief moment of relief as he saw that the Deputy was picking up and following an actual trail.
If Rick saw it too, with his fledgling tracking skills, then Daryl hadn't imagined the print and Carol had passed this way.
He retook the lead, picking his steps carefully to move as quickly and quietly as the groundcover allowed. He wouldn't allow himself a moment to wonder at whether her memory and direction would lead her back to the swimming hole. He just let his steps guide them to that place and kept his mind focused on being alert for any zombies that may now be in these woods.
It was a quick hike and, once there, he put a hand up to stay Rick from moving from the woods into the clearing.
Mistaking the move for an indication of danger, the Deputy snapped to attention and let his eyes thoroughly scan the area.
Daryl's eyes remained riveted to the lone figure kneeling on the raft on the water, head bowed and eerily still.
"I'll go round the others up," Rick said quietly, reading the scene as one not needing his direction or presence. "Let them all know she's … that we found her."
He didn't watch the other man leave or worry about his safety on the way back. There had been no sign of a Walker threat on the walk in and they hadn't made any noise that would draw undue attention to the area.
Rick would be fine.
Daryl only wished he had a fraction of that same confidence for Carol or himself.
He switched his hold on the crossbow, simply carrying it now that the area was clear, and began to cross the open space between them.
His eyes never moved from her, not even to glance toward the stupid plant he had brought her here to see that day that seemed a lifetime ago.
At the edge of the water, he paused to consider the options. Deciding he didn't want to startle her by just jumping up on the floating dock, he cleared his throat.
Then cleared it louder.
He added a cough when she gave no reaction to his subtler efforts.
"Dammit, woman, you alive or not?"
Her head came up slowly when he leapt up on the raft and moved to stand over her huddled form.
"I go on," she said, smiling softly and extending her hand toward him.
He frowned his confusion as he automatically accepting the rose, staring at the lone petal left on the stem. A flutter of white on the platform drew his attention and he watched the wind gently pick up and move the collection of petals discarded all around her. He didn't have a full view of the plant from his current position, but the stems and petals on the dock, along with the noticeable lack of white blossoms on the shore seemed enough to tell him she'd plucked every Cherokee rose in the clearing.
"It's childish, I know," she said, rising slowly from her kneeling position then stooping to scoop up a handful of petals. "I haven't done it since grade school when I was trying to figure out if Tommy Ledeski liked me or not."
As he watched, frowning in continued confusion, she cast her hand out and released the remains of the roses for the petals to flutter to the water like confetti.
"Tommy was my high school sweetheart. When he went off to college, that's when Ed moved in. I wonder, sometimes, if things would have been different if I had consulted the flowers before I married him."
Her eyes stayed on the little bits of white drifting on the soft ripples of the water around the dock and his gaze followed automatically.
It was pretty. Oddly peaceful and soothing.
"I'm not going to crawl off and die," she turned to his suddenly. "I'm not going berzerk or any crazier than we all already are. I can't just accept all that's happened, but I can go on."
Her hands curled around his as it held the thorny stem of the last rose she had been plucking.
"I didn't have daisies, so I asked the roses. Seems appropriate, somehow," she caressed the remaining petal with a gentle finger, head bowed over their clasped hands. "It gave me two choices, go on or stop. This," she raises their hands until the mutilated flower is in his face, "this is me going on."
With that soft statement, she left him on the dock, moving effortlessly to solid ground then pausing there, head turning but not quite looking back at him. He looked from her to the pitiful flower in his fist then back again.
He didn't understand her any better in that moment than he had in recent days, but men had had that problem before the world went to shit and they would struggle to figure out the ways of women until all life forms were erased from the planet.
Daryl gently tucked the rose into his shirt pocket, slipped his arm through the strap of his bow then followed her to the shore.
~*~ THE END ~*~