The group's sitting around the common area eating dinner when Rick comes back in from locking up the other cell block. They're keeping the Woodbury folks in there now that they've cleared it all out, at least during the nights. Everyone feels safer that 'a way.
He takes a look around, and his gut drops to the soles of his boots. "He ain't back yet?" Course, it ain't really a question. He has eyes, and he knows something's missing. Someone is missing.
"Afraid not," Hershel says.
"Maybe he just got sidetracked," Beth suggests helpfully. "Or, you know, carried away hunting."
But Rick shakes his head. "No," he says. "No, he knows better than that. He knows to be back before dark." Except it's already dark out. The sun set two hours ago, and Daryl still hasn't come back yet.
He left that morning. Said he was getting stir crazy, was gonna go hunt some squirrels or something. And Rick let him go, because he knows how Daryl gets: restless, jumpy, pacing holes in the floor. He gets this wild look in his eyes…no, Daryl don't take kindly to being caged in, so when he asked, Rick didn't have the heart to tell him no.
That was then, though, and now Rick's strongly reconsidering that position. An anxious Daryl's better than a missing one, and Rick's head's spinning itself out like tires in mud coming up with scenarios, each worse than the last.
"He'll be alright," Carol says. Only, it's hard to take her at her word when she looks just as worried as Rick feels. He's like a brother to her; Rick knows that. But he also knows that he cares for Daryl in ways he can't even begin to explain. He can't rightly put a name to what they are – friends, lovers, partners. All he knows, and all he needs to know right at the moment, is that he's going out of his damn mind worrying after him.
And there's nothing he can do about it. He can't send his people out after dark; he can't put them at risk like that. He tries making himself feel better, telling himself that Daryl's the toughest son of a bitch he ever met, but that don't do all that much. He ends up deciding, if he isn't back by midnight, that he'll go out after him on his own.
Not to say he thinks the others'll let him, not without forcefully volunteering their services.
"Maybe he just realized he wouldn't make it back before night and decided to lay low," Glen says.
If it was anyone but Daryl they were talking about, Rick might be inclined to think that. But it's not. "He wouldn't run the risk of us comin' out to look for him. He'd find a way to make it back in."
He knows they're all just trying to make him feel better, to make themselves feel better, and he's grateful for that. But the more explanations they throw out, the more Rick gets to thinking about the ones they don't.
Maybe the walkers got him.
Maybe he's hurt.
Rick's thoughts are – mercifully – interrupted by the sound of metal doors squealing outside. Daryl took a set of keys with him when he went out, and Rick feels a surge of relief knowing that's gotta be him. And dammit, when he gets hold of him….
The door to the cell block groans open, and Rick starts for it with every intention of raking Daryl's curfew-breaking ass over the coals before he gets more than a few steps inside. It'd serve him right for getting them all bent out of shape.
That plan dies, though, the moment he lays eyes on his wayward hunter.
He's a wreck. There's mud all over him, even though it ain't rained in days, and in the weak light of the lanterns they got going, he sees something looks a lot like blood caked on the right side of his head. The ripped-up shirt he's got tied 'round his middle's the icing on the shit cake, and the copper stain spread out on it makes Rick's blood all go to ice. He knows a makeshift bandage when he sees one, and he knows that's a lot of blood coming through it.
And suddenly, every bad thought and worse scenario comes whipping back through his head like greased lightning. He's frozen, and Daryl ain't moving either, and the only thing going through his head is a frantic, desperate prayer. Please don't let him be bit. Please don't let him be bit.
Daryl opens his mouth, and there's a second where Rick's afraid he won't be able to hear him over the sound of his own blood in his ears.
Turns out, he needn't have worried. When Daryl speaks, every damn word comes in loud and crystal-fucking-clear.
"I think I'm bit."