It's not Rick's intention to fall asleep.
Hell, he's not even really aware that he's done it, until suddenly, he feels something on his shoulder, and he starts awake with a grunt. It takes him longer than it should to realize he's on a stool, and by then, he's already knocked it off balance, so he ends up abandoning ship and pushing himself to his feet just in time for the stool to clatter to the ground like a goddamn gunshot.
"Sorry," Beth practically squeaks from behind him. She's holding a blanket in her small hands that Rick gets the feeling she'd been aiming to put on his shoulders, and her eyes are wide as silver dollars. "I just thought you might be getting cold."
And right about then, Rick gets cold alright. But it's not the sort of cold a blanket can cure. It's a cold that grips his bones, that shoots like ice through his veins to settle in a heavy weight in the pit of his gut. It's the cold that makes his hair stand on end and everything freeze.
"How long?" he chokes out, and he's got to hold onto the top of the bunk, because his head's spinning. Standing too fast, missing meals, and an oncoming heart attack'll do that to a fella, he reckons.
Beth blinks at him for a second, confused, but then she sort of scrambles to look at the clock on the shelf on the wall. It'd probably be a hell of a lot faster for Rick to look himself, but his eyes are kind of blurry, no matter how many times he blinks them, so he's not sure it'd do much.
"It's almost noon," she says finally.
She might as well have punched Rick in the gut.
He doesn't waste time on cursing – he already wasted too much time – just whips around and drops to his knee next to the bunk.
Daryl hasn't moved.
Daryl's the lightest sleeper Rick's ever known; he'd wake up at the sound of a pin dropping before the damn thing even hit the floor. But Rick just made enough noise to, from the sounds of the footsteps and the shouts outside, bring the whole damn prison running to the cell, and Daryl doesn't even peel a goddamn eye open.
"Rick," he hears Beth say tentatively behind him, but he ignores her in favor of taking a knee by Daryl's bunk. They're well past the eight hour mark, now, and he's almost afraid…Christ, he can't even think about what he's afraid of. Can't even give it that much reality.
It takes him a second to remember how to control his limbs properly, and a second longer still to lift his hand from where it's fallen to the side of the bunk. He tries to ignore how his fingers are trembling when they reach for the hand resting across the blankets on Daryl's chest. He thinks he must've been holding it in his sleep, must've dropped it when he woke, but he takes it back, now, with a sort of sick dread slithering in his gut.
For a second, his hand on Daryl's, the world stops. Rick's only faintly aware of Hershel shooing the others away from the prison cell, of Carol saying his name as she slips inside and Beth slips out. Everything in his world is in at his fingertips, and his whole life rests on what he feels.
Rick's not ready to trust it at first – his hands are sweating and shaking enough, it might just be him – but a few seconds and a dozen heartbeats pass, and he can still feel it.
He thinks he might sob, but he's not sure. He doesn't give a damn one way or the other, because it's there. He's there. Warm. Hot. Alive. And he doesn't give a damn if he looks like a lunatic, but he holds that hand in his like it's the last shell in the ammo box and there's a herd on the horizon, because it's real.
"It's been almost a day." The voice sounds kind of distant, like it's someone else's, except it isn't. "He's not dead."
That seems like such a blunt way of putting it. Three words don't seem to suffice for what's going on right at this moment, but they're all he's got, and he just keeps repeating them, aloud or in his head – he's not rightly sure.
This time, when he feels something settle on his shoulder, he doesn't flinch. He knows it's Carol's hand. She's crying, too. He doesn't look at her – doesn't tear his eyes away from the hitched, but continuing rise and fall of Daryl's bandaged chest under the sheet – but he knows she's crying. And what a pair of damn fools they must look like, he thinks, sitting here carrying on like this, but he can't hardly bring himself to care.
"He's not out of the woods, yet," Hershel says, ever the voice of reason, but Rick doesn't pay it much mind.
"He's not dead," he repeats, because even though it doesn't come close to covering it, he thinks it just about sums it up. He's survived this; he'll survive the rest.
"He's strong," Carol joins in, her voice soft but firm. She's smiling, too, Rick realizes. "He'll be just fine, and we never should've doubted it."
Because he's Daryl goes unspoken, because it can't be explained. It's just…understood. Daryl can't leave them; Daryl wouldn't leave them. He'd run through hell and beat the Devil if he had to, because he's Daryl.
The stubborn son of a bitch.
Suddenly, Rick realizes he's smiling too, because his cheeks are starting to burn, and he thinks his lip's split. Too much chewing on 'em, he reckons, but that's alright. It'll heal. It just feels good to smile again.
He leans forward, his knees creaking in protest on the hard concrete floor, but that hardly registers either. One hand still clutching Daryl's – he'll be hard-pressed to ever let it go, he thinks, which might be a fun conversation to have with Daryl when he starts getting back on his feet – he reaches the other to press against one stubbled cheek.
"Fever's gone down," he thinks aloud. Not by much, and if he's being honest, Hershel's right about Daryl still being in the thick of it, but in this life, a man learns to take the small victories. And he does.
The large victories, though…they're even better.
And when Rick, gaze fixed now on Daryl's flushed face, sees a single sliver of blue peel open, he decides this is one of them.
Slowly, surely, the sliver widens, and is joined by another, and after a second, Daryl's brows furrow over half-lidded eyes.
"The hell?" he mumbles groggily, and Rick doesn't think he's ever heard anything sweeter. Daryl's looking with slow, glassy eyes between him and Carol and even Hershel, standing way back in the back of the cell, and then back to Rick. "s'everybody cryin' for?" He looks genuinely chagrined about it, too.
Rick just smiles a little wider, and behind him, Carol lets out a choked little laugh, because, well…that's Daryl.
He doesn't bother wiping his eyes, knowing that particular well's not yet run dry, and instead just sits up a little higher on his knees so Daryl doesn't have to strain his eyes so much. "Look who's back in the world of the living," he says, the backs of his knuckles brushing lightly over the shadow of stubble that's grown on Daryl's cheeks. And it's a sure sign of just how worn out Daryl still is that he doesn't seem to mind in the least.
Worn out as he is, though, he still manages a chuckle, and even it sounds somehow better than the ones before. "Came back after all," he mutters, Rick thinks, because he doesn't have the energy to do anything more.
Rick's alright with that, and as Daryl loses the fight to keep his eyes open again, Rick leans up farther still, to press a kiss to his bandaged brow.
"I reckon this means you're mine forever."