It was dark.
Rick stood perfectly still, while the rest of the group ate in silence, looking out towards the trees. Daryl wasn't back yet, might not even come back at all, and his presence was sorely missed. The only sounds were the ones of people shifting in their chairs, all eyes either on the ground, or looking out at the woods.
Carol hadn't even come out of the RV. They had been able to hear her sobbing inside, all day long, her cries getting more and more hysterical as the hours passed. At one point, Rick had watched her wrench open the RV door, and stare out at the trees, tears streaming down her cheeks.
He had been worried that she would take off running into the woods, and he had readied himself to deal with her, but she had only bit her lip, and retreated back inside.
Everyone was painfully aware of the fact that Daryl had been gone for over fifteen hours, and that the minutes were running out. Sooner or later, Rick knew that he was going to have to say something, to prepare them all for the idea that Daryl might not be coming back.
From the looks of the group though, they already knew.
Carl was pressed up against his mother, lip trembling as he tried not to cry. Andrea and T-Dog were sitting closer than usual as well, both of them unconsciously twitching their legs in a display of anxiety. His eyes fixed on the edge of the woods, Glenn wasn't much different, his fisted hand trembling as he knocked it gently against his thigh. Shane was staring into the dirt, shovelling the small rations into his mouth, and looking conflicted. Dale was frowning, brow furrowed in an expression that Rick could easily recognise. Lori was looking up sadly at him, as if she already knew how this was going to end. Carol was crying in the RV.
He ran a hand over his face, and tried not to look as worried as he felt. Rick honestly didn't know what they were going to do if Daryl didn't come back to camp that evening. If he didn't emerge from the treeline before it was too late.
Because he doubted that they'd find him alive this time.
Sophia had stopped crying an hour or so ago, and Daryl was fairly sure that she had drifted off to sleep.
Her arms were still locked around his neck though, making breathing difficult, but there was no way that he was going to wake her up. She didn't need to see this shit, to have the fear of trudging back through a dark and dangerous forest on top of her.
Daryl's crossbow was hanging off his left forearm by its strap, the weight of the weapon threatening to damage his arm as it swung around painfully, his left hand holding tightly to Sophia's legs. In his other hand, was his hunting knife, which he had already used to silently kill off two walkers.
The crossbow was banging against his knee powerfully every time he took a step, and it was beginning to feel like the time Daryl's knee had swollen up for a week a few years ago, when he hadn't been able to put any weight on it at all. He grunted quietly, and tried to change his limp so that he wouldn't be getting smacked with the crossbow every two seconds, but he only achieved in stumbling. When he was able to get himself back limping properly, he could feel the crossbow sending shoots of pain into his kneecap again, but he only bit the inside of his gum until he could taste blood.
His injured ankle was barely holding his weight at all, and he was dragging it behind him, feeling pain racing up and down the injured limb. But he kept walking.
It was getting harder and harder to keep going, his pace slower than it ever had been before, and Daryl knew that he would be lucky if he managed to make it back to the farm without collapsing. But he had Sophia, he had the kid to worry about, and he'd sooner die than leave her unprotected in the forest again.
He just needed to get her back to Carol, just needed to know that she would be safe, and then he didn't even care was happened after that.
Daryl's breath was clear in the cold air as it came out in harsh pants, and he was pretty certain that the wet stickiness on his shirt was not sweat. Everything part of his body was pure agony, and it felt like Sophia was getting heavier by the second.
But he kept walking.
Rick walked back to the campfire, after speaking to Hershel.
No one even looked up at him, all too engrossed in the early stage of grieving that they had become accustomed to. He sighed, and went back to where he had been standing before, leaning against a thick tree, and just watching.
Hershel had approached him from the house, to tell him that they were all turning in for the night. "If he comes back," he had said, looking into Rick's eyes with sincerity, "I don't care what time it is, you come and you get me. No matter how late or early it is, you come and get me."
"I will." Rick had promised, a lump in his throat as he nodded, "I will."
The fields and woods were empty, as far as he could see, and Rick found himself thinking back to how Hershel had said if, and not when. The bark behind his back suddenly felt harder than ever, and the lack of movement at the edge of the woods seemed more painfully obvious
If he was being honest with himself, Rick realised that he wasn't really expecting Daryl to make it back either.
Daryl had been walking for hours.
He was barely breathing anymore, the harsh pants turned agonizing and too much of a drain on his energy. So now he was simply running on the bare fumes of his lack of food that day, and his pure determination and stubbornness.
He was going to get Sophia back to her mother.
Even if it killed him.
When he finally looked up, to see the edge of the forest, and the almost invisible tiny light of the campfire in the far distance, Daryl could have collapsed with relief. But instead, he continued to limp through the forest undergrowth, nudging Sophia slightly with his head.
"Hey, kid. We're nearly there." She woke up with a start, hands tightening their grip around his neck in fear, cutting off his air supply. Daryl resisted the urge to buck the kid off, instead waiting for her to calm down and release her grip by herself. She did eventually, and he took a deep breath, regardless of the agony that caused his vision to white out for a moment, "Yer okay, Sophia, I got ya… see tha' fire in th' distance? That's were yer mother is, an' th' rest 'a the group."
Sophia gasped weakly, and whispered into his ear, "We're nearly there."
"That we are, kid. Yer mother is gon' be so happy ta see ya, I know it. Jus' a few more minutes."
As he stumbled out of the woods, Daryl hoped that the rest of the group were still awake. He needed someone to be there for Sophia, when he eventually collapsed.
He'd just turned around to the group, to say some words about Daryl and the…situation, when it happened.
"Listen, everyone… I know that this isn't easy for any of us, but—the thing about Daryl is that nothing could have stopped him. He set out this morning, with the sole intention of—of finding Sophia, and bringing her home. But—"
Just as he was about to say the dreaded words, Andrea leapt out of her chair, knocking her plate of food into the dirt, and threw out her hand, "Look! I see something! I think it's them—Carol!"
Before Rick could even turn around to see what she could see, Carol had emerged out of the RV, her face lit up in both happiness and fear as she saw Andrea's expression. She took a few slow steps towards the field where Andrea was pointing, and then slowly burst into a run.
Things seemed to move into fast forward then.
Sophia squealed when she saw the dark shapes moving towards them from the direction of the house, the ones that were yelling and carrying flashlights. But she kept her arms wrapped tightly around Daryl, and he just kept walking.
But then they were getting closer, and Daryl could hear Carol's sobs of joy, so he pushed his aching body into a run.
Then they collided, and Daryl let himself fall to the ground, as Carol grabbed Sophia, and sunk down into the long grass with her. He could hear their sobs and cries of gladness, and the rest of the group getting closer, but he couldn't bring himself to move.
Daryl just lay on his back, in the damp grass, and let himself breathe.
He let his eyes slip closed.
But then the rest of the group caught up to them, and Daryl's moment of peace was ruined by several people throwing themselves down beside him, and touching him. Someone peeled one of his eyelids open, and another one was tilting his head up, and then Daryl found the strength to move.
"Get off," He slurred, and raised a hand to cover his face, "Jus' leave me here… 'm fuckin' exhausted."
There were various sounds of relief from all around him, and he could still hear Carol crying, and then Rick's voice spoke up, "Sorry, Daryl, I'm afraid we can't do that. C'mon, let's get you to Hershel… Shane, can you give me a hand."
Daryl grunted in anger as he felt hands wrap around his biceps, and heave him to his feet. "No," He protested, but he wasn't sure that anyone could hear him. He could barely hear himself, his voice cracked and practically inaudible.
They were dragging him across the field then, and he opened his eyes to see Sophia safely in her mother's arms, and the rest of the group pressing around both of them, as they all made their way back to camp. Several unidentifiable people patted him on the back, and it seemed like everyone was trying to thank him at once, and all Daryl wanted to do was go back to his tent, and fall back asleep under all those blankets that he now had in there.
And that's what he was going to do.
He dug his heels into the ground when they reached the edge of the campsite, and shook his head, "I ain't goin' back in tha' house. Jus' let me go back ta m'tent." And then they were all protesting against him, and trying to keep walking, but Daryl scowled with the last of his energy, and nodded towards Sophia, "The kid's dehydrated, an' half starved. Let Hershel at her first, an' I'll be sleepin' in my tent. Grimes, I swear ta God I will fuckin'… I'll… Jus' let me go back ta 'tent already."
When neither of them moved, Daryl gathered up every last ounce of strength he had left, and pulled away from the two men. "Daryl…" He tried to give Rick the finger, but he had no strength left, and instead just limped over to his tent.
Daryl fell inside, landing on the mess of blankets and comfort, and warmth, and opened his eyes to see Glenn placing his crossbow inside the entrance, and Rick looking worriedly inside.
"If I don't wake up in this fuckin' tent tomorrow, 'm gon' stomp yer ass, Grimes. Now leave me be."
Rick stayed up all night.
He watched from a seat in the corner, as Hershel examined Sophia, checked her for injuries and bites. He watched as Hershel set up an IV for the child, and as Carol curled up beside a sleeping Sophia, and cried herself to sleep. He knew, that this time she was crying with happiness.
He went out to the rest of the group, who were waiting anxiously outside, and relayed the good news that Sophia was going to be fine, in a few days. He watched as they hugged, and cried, and expressed their gratitude to Daryl, who was asleep in his tent.
He then talked to Hershel, explained that Daryl had refused to go inside the house, and that he was in his tent, most likely sleeping. He bit his lip as he told Hershel that he wasn't sure of the extent of Daryl's injuries.
He watched as Hershel quietly examined Daryl, who was sleeping deeper than ever, and listened as Hershel told him that he thought Daryl just needed to rest. He watched the others as they drifted off to bed, hours later, smile at Daryl's tent, and say again how lucky they were to have him.
He felt a small hint of regret, when he realised that Daryl wasn't there or awake to hear the entire group praising him, but then knew that the appreciation for Daryl wouldn't be going away any time soon. He watched as his son cried, and hugged him, relieved beyond words that he wouldn't have to tell Carl that his friend was dead after all.
He ended up sitting by the smouldering fire the next morning, just feeling this huge sense of relief and thankfulness, while the rest of the group slept.
They all saw the following afternoon, when Daryl limped out of his tent for lunch.
Carol let out a cry of thankfulness, and ran over, Sophia behind her, and they all watched as the two engulfed Daryl Dixon in a huge hug. "Thank you, thank you, thank you…" Carol was whispering over and over again, while her daughter hugged Daryl's legs.
They all saw how surprised he looked, and how he bent down to hug Sophia back. They all saw how she gripped him tightly, and whispered her own thank you's in his ear, and how he gently pressed his lips to the top of her clean hair.
And they all had the same feeling of thankfulness, and gratitude, and relief.
Things were going to be okay.
So, that's it for this story, guys.
I'm sad to be ending it here, but I've really enjoyed writing this, and I hope you've all enjoyed reading it. I've adored reading all your comments and seeing all the people who've viewed this, put it on alerts or favourites, and read it.
I'd love to hear what you guys have to say about this last chapter, whether you've been reviewing every chapter, or none at all. Thank you all for clicking on this story, and helping me along through it as I write.
Thank you so much for reading,