A/N: Thank you all so much for reading, and especially for reviewing! I really hope you like the end of this story, I definitely hope to write more TWD fics in the future, with Daryl front and center, and I hope you'll check them out when I do :)
Carol opened her eyes slowly, afraid to that she would wake and discover that it was all just a dream, that Sophia was still gone; but then, she felt the warm skin beneath her arms, felt Sophia's back pressed up against her as they lay together, curled up on the bed. It was real. Her daughter was safe, in her arms, where she belonged. Carol breathed a soft prayer, so relieved she was almost dizzy, and squeezed Sophia tighter.
" . . . Mama?" the girl murmured, eyelids blinking sluggishly.
"Shh, it's all right," Carol whispered in her ear, "go back to sleep." She sat up slightly, propping herself up on her elbow so she could gaze down at her girl; she brushed away strands of hair that had fallen onto Sophia's face. "It's still early."
Sophia smiled, sleepily. "I thought I was dreaming."
Carol returned her smile with a wobbly one of her own. "I did, too," she said, "but we weren't. I've got you now." She bent down and kissed Sophia's forehead. "I'm gonna go check on Daryl. I'll make you some food when you get up, okay?"
Sophia nodded, her eyes already drifting shut again. "Tell him I said I hope . . . he feels better," she finished with a yawn, and in no time her breaths were deep and slow, her eyes remaining closed. Carol took a moment just to watch her, irrationally afraid that if she glanced away for just a second, Sophia would disappear again, and never come back.
Foolish thought, she chided herself, moving slowly as she got off the bed. Her head hurt a little, but she felt more refreshed than she had in a week; she'd barely slept the whole time Sophia was gone. She rubbed her eyes, walking into the hallway, shuffling her feet slightly as she made her way into the room where Daryl was staying; two days had passed since he'd brought Sophia home and then gave Carol one of the worst scares of her life. The man wasn't good for her heart, she decided, in any way.
She hesitated outside the door, then knocked timidly; there was no answer, and Carol pushed open the door and stepped into the room, taking in his haggard appearance; he looked better than a couple days ago, but still too pale, his breaths were still labored, and dark shadows stood out in stark contrast to his white face. He was asleep, but not peacefully so. His mouth was set in a grim line, eyes shut tightly, his fists were clenching the blanket that lay across his hips. Soft grunts and moans escaped his lips, and his head twisted on the pillow, back and forth, struggling against some unseen force.
"Daryl," Carol called to him, keeping her voice gentle. "Daryl, wake up." Her heart leapt into her throat when she caught his voice, painfully gasping Sophia's name. "You're dreamin'," she told him, "'it's okay." Unable to stand it any longer, she put her hand on his shoulder and shook it slightly.
Daryl jerked awake with a barely-stifled cry, his eyes wild for a moment before they adjusted and he recognized his surroundings; he sagged back onto the bed, a line of sweat running from his temple down the side of his face.
"Are you okay?" Carol asked.
Daryl brought his hand up to wipe at his face, and Carol noted his slight trembling. "Just a stupid dream," he muttered, then froze, his hand still on his forehead. "Sophia . . . is she?"
"She's fine," Carol replied, hastily, "it was just a dream. She's sleepin' just down the hall." Then his lips curved into the smallest of smirks, and Carol found herself beaming back at him. "How are you feeling?" she asked.
Without thinking, Carol pressed her hand to his forehead, regretting it as soon as their skin touched, for Daryl jerked away as if she'd burned him; she pulled her hand back quickly, face now flushing fully red. "Oh, I'm sorry," she stammered, "I wasn't thinking . . . "
Daryl cursed softly, and Carol suspected she wasn't supposed to hear. " . . . 's alright," Daryl said, "I just, um . . . "
"I understand." Carol thought of Daryl's chest, riddled with scars, and understood all too well. Before she could say anything else, there was a knock on the door, and then Herschel was coming in; he glanced at Carol, seemingly unsurprised to see her, before speaking to Daryl:
"I have to check the incision. Make sure there's no infection."
Daryl looked like he wanted to protest, but he just rolled onto his side, bringing one arm up to cradle his head; Carol watched as Herschel inspected, finding herself drawn to the lines of his bare back. Broad, strong shoulders that led down to a lean waist and hips . . . her face flushed a deep red, burning hot as it dawned on her that she was quite literally ogling Daryl right in front of Herschel.
He either didn't notice, or was good at pretending not to. But he was frowning. "So difficult keeping anything clean under these conditions," he sighed.
"It's not infected, is it?" Carol asked, worry spiking in her gut.
Daryl rolled onto his back again as Herschel spoke: "Seems to be . . . just a bit. Hopefully the antibiotics will keep it down, but we don't have many left." He pinched the bridge of his nose, every line in his face radiating exhaustion. "I'll get some alcohol, try to clean it as best I can."
Carol's touch on Herschel's arm stopped him. "I'll do it," she offered, then looked down at Daryl, who was watching them both with a wary expression in his glazed, blue eyes. "If that's okay?" she amended.
Daryl licked his dry lips, bringing his hand to his side and rubbing it tenderly, grimacing. "Do what ya' have to," he replied. And with that, Herschel left to gather the needed supplies, and Carol settled herself down in the chair next to the bed; she folded her hands in her lap, staring at them awkwardly.
"Think you can manage some food?" she questioned.
Daryl scowled. "Not hungry," he said, a bold-faced lie.
No use arguing, Carol thought to herself. "Maybe later," she settled for, "you really should try to eat, gotta keep your strength up." More like get it back. They sat in silence for a few minutes, until Herschel reappeared with some gauze and alcohol, tape for Carol to redress Daryl's back. He gave her some brief instructions, then left them alone again, and Carol went about unwrapping the bandage. The blood hadn't soaked through all the way, but the inside of the gauze was red, and the material was sweaty; she swallowed hard, her stomach flipping, and rolled the bandage into a ball before tossing it in the trash.
Daryl hissed in pain when she brought an alcohol soaked cloth to the wound, but stayed remarkably still as she went on cleaning it; the skin around the incision was puffy and red, angry and so very painful looking. Daryl watched Carol as she worked, but then suddenly bit his lip and turned away, nearly burying his face in the pillow, his entire body tensing.
"I'm sorry!" Carol said.
"It's fine," Daryl breathed, still avoiding her gaze. At his side, his fingers rotated between gripping the blanket and drumming the mattress; his body was shaking, from a chill or the pain, but he fought to hold steady.
Carol poured more alcohol onto the cloth and wiped at Daryl's skin as gently as she could, flinching when Daryl jumped at her touch; she worked as quickly as she could, but by the time she was done they were both exhausted. Daryl's skin glowed with a sheen of fresh sweat, and Carol's hands were shaking as she tossed the cloth into the basin on the nightstand.
"Maybe Glenn can make another trip into town," she thought aloud, screwing the cap back onto the bottle of alcohol. "Pick up some painkillers. Even some Aspirin would be better than nothing."
"Not worth the trip . . . " Daryl eased himself onto his back, eyes closing. "He said they ran into Walkers last time."
"I'm sure he wouldn't mind."
"Just leave it be," Daryl muttered.
"Daryl . . . "
"Would you just stop?" his voice was stronger, and it snapped at her like a whip. He glared at her, and she had to fight the urge to shrink away from him, the raw emotion reflected in his face. "Just stop," he repeated, softer this time.
"What are you talkin' about?" Carol fidgeted nervously, then reached out and put her hand over his. "I'm worried about you."
He pulled away from her, letting his hand fall onto his stomach. "No," he said, "you're just tryin' to pay me back . . . you don't owe me nothin' for Sophia. I didn't look for her 'cuz of you." He struggled to sit up, growing more agitated by the second. "You got her back now, you should be with her!"
"This is the least I can do . . . " Carol began.
"You don't need to do anything for me," Daryl cut her off.
"Well, I want to!" Carol snapped back, effectively silencing him. "I'm not doin' this because of some debt, that debt can't ever be repaid, no matter what I do. So all I can say is thank you. I'm here because I . . . " she gestured helplessly, at Daryl, at the room around them. "I care about you, Daryl. Can't you see that?"
He narrowed his eyes, squinting at her, as if confused.
"I care about you," Carol said again, "and not just because you saved Sophia. Even if . . . " the thought was almost to painful to say aloud. "If she'd never come back, I'd still be here with you." She tried to smile. "Whether you want me here or not." Tears were in her eyes, she noticed, and furiously wiped them away.
"Hell . . . " Daryl whispered.
Carol sniffed, holding back her tears; she reached out and lay her hand on Daryl's cheek, expecting him to flinch away like always, but this time he stayed still. His eyes met hers for a long gaze that neither of them understood, all Carol knew was that suddenly the air was very thick and hard to breathe. The hand on Daryl's cheek slipped down to brace herself on the bed as she got closer, nervously placing her cool lips on his warm forehead; she smiled against his skin as his mumbled "What're ya' doin'?" and held her lips to him for just a second longer before pulling away. She had to hold back a laugh at his bewildered expression.
"Lie back down," she said, "you shouldn't even be thinkin' about getting out of bed yet."
Daryl sighed but relented, lowering himself onto the bed, keeping his eyes trained on her as if she were a rabid animal; Carol tugged on the blanket, pulling it up higher so it lay across his chest, smoothing out the edges, letting her hand linger over his. He was already falling asleep, pain and fever sapping him of his energy; it wasn't as bad, but heat still rose from his flushed skin, and Carol frowned.
"You can't scare me away, y'know," she spoke, barely finding her voice. "I know what kind of man you are, you're nothin' like Ed . . . you'd never hurt me." She paused. "Now if I could just convince you that I'm same way . . . " he made a soft noise in his sleep, maybe it was supposed to be a reply, but didn't open his eyes. Carol smiled at his sleeping figure, brushing his hair away from his face. "I'm not leavin'," she promised, not knowing if he could hear her or not.
Daryl's fingers were too big and clumsy as he tried to button his shirt, and after only a few seconds he was growing incredibly frustrated with the whole ordeal; how could he still be weak as a kitten after laying on his back for damn near a whole week? He growled, swearing quietly, letting his hands fall to his sides and glaring down at the offending buttons; seemed like they were glaring right back at him, taunting him.
He looked up, and didn't even try to hide the smile that flickered across his face when he saw Sophia in the doorway; she'd put on a little weight already, and it looked good, she didn't look like she was starving anymore. Her freckles had darkened and were pronounced across her nose and cheeks, crooked teeth smiled back at him as she asked: "Are you comin' for breakfast?"
"Was thinkin' about it," Daryl admitted, remaining seated on th bed while Sophia came into the room.
She eyed his shirt with a bemused expression. "Want me to help?" she asked, "when I was sick, my mama had to help me with the weirdest stuff . . . even tying my shoes."
Daryl glanced down at his muddy boots. "I got that part, at least."
Sophia giggled, one of the sweetest sound Daryl had ever heard, and went about buttoning his shirt with her nimble fingers. "There," she said, "all done . . . there's toast this morning! You want butter or jam? I think Lori said it's strawberry."
The abrupt change of subject took a moment for Daryl's still-fuzzy mind to process. "Either one sounds good," he answered, evasively. He stood up, testing his legs, before going with the Sophia; they walked into the hall, down the short passageway, and into the kitchen. It was crowded in there, seemed like everyone in the camp was starved, and Daryl fought down the urge to bolt when all eyes focused on him.
"Well, you look better!" Dale declared, grinning like a fool.
Daryl stopped just short of the table, eyeing them all as if for the first time; their relieved expressions were confusing, so sincere, like none of them had gotten any rest since he got back. Then Glenn appeared at his side, holding a steamy cup and smiling ear-to-ear: "Coffee? It's actually pretty good."
" . . . thanks," Daryl said, taking the cup and sipping at it slowly, savoring the strong, hot liquid as it ran down his throat. When he lowered the cup, he caught Carol's eye, and realized she was standing aross the table from him; she smiled, warm and inviting, and Daryl returned it with the slightest of smiles himself. "So, uh, Sophia said we got toast this mornin'?" he spoke, his eyes never leaving Carol.
"And strawberry jam!" Carl announced.
A chair was pulled out and a plate thrust in front of Daryl, and before he knew it, he was shoveling the food into his mouth like he hadn't eaten in a week . . . which was mostly true. One by one the group began to disperse, Dale muttering something about the RV needing a tune-up, enlisting Dale for help; Rick and Lori walked off together, Carl and Sophia skipped away yelling about "tag", and soon it was just Carol and Daryl.
Daryl took another bite, chewed thoughtfully. "So listen . . . " he said, after a moment. "I, um, wanted to tell ya' somethin'."
Carol rested her hands atop the table. "What is it?"
He blew out a breath, suddenly feeling ridiculously uncomfortable. "Just, thanks," he finally spit out. "Y'know, for this week . . . can't be easy tryin' to play nurse to a stubborn ass like me."
Carol laughed lightly, the same kind of laugh Sophia had. "No, it isn't," she acknowledged, "but it's worth it. I'm so glad you're okay." She stood, began to fuss about, clearing any remaining dishes; she walked around the table and took Daryl's from in front of him, but his hand shot out and grasped her arm when she went to walk away. She stared down at his grip, then brought her eyes to his, her voice unsteady when she spoke: "What're you doin'?"
Daryl pushed away from the table, rising from his seat and freezing in front of her, just inches away; his hand loosened but didn't let go, and his thumb began to circle her wrist, nervously. She smelled fresh, like grass and flowers, and it was damn near intoxicating. He let his otherh and have a mind of its own, and found it running up her arm 'til it rested on her cheek; she gasped, and that was enough of that, so he dipped his head and kissed her. Her skin was smooth beneath his chin, unshaven for too long, her lips were willing and ready for him; she leaned into him, inviting, and his arms snaked around her waist to pull her even closer as he deepened the kiss. When they finally broke apart, they were both breathless.
Daryl cleared his throat, feeling more awkward than he had in a long time. "I . . . um, care about you, too," he managed, his face burning hot.
Carol's eyes were shining, but her lips were smiling. "Come on," she said, reaching down to take his hand. "Help me clean up?"
Daryl squeezed her hand, not even glancing at the dirty dishes around them. "Might take a lot of work," he said, quietly. "Hope you're a patient woman."
"Daryl . . . " Carol kissed his cheek, then whispered in his ear: "I've got all the time in the world, and I'm a very patient woman."
And then he kissed her again.