Disclaimer: I do not own The Walking Dead. I am just one hell of a fan.
Author's Note: Well, here we are. One way or another, it all ends here. I told you all it wouldn't be very long! But I hope all of you enjoyed the ride while it lasted. This is the last chapter, and I have no plans to do a sequel. But I do hope you all are happy with the way it turned out. I think I am! I may do more Walking Dead fanfiction in the future, even though stories without a ton of romance don't seem to do so well. I still found this to be an awful lot of fun to write. So, if friendship fics are up your alley, keep an eye out! You may see a thing or two. Hell, maybe you'll even see romance! Who knows? Either way, THANK YOU! And...
It was a tiny cave, not even big enough to really warrant the name. It was just a shallow pocket cut into the cliff side, about six feet in a rough oval, barely tall enough to sit up inside. Rick couldn't believe what the hell he was staring at.
Behind him, Glenn's breathing was harsh and fast. "Is he in there?"
Rick stood as steadily as he could even as he felt his feet trying to slip treacherously out from underneath him. Carol squeezed inside the miniature cave as tears stung at her eyes. Just in front of her was a body, but it wasn't moving. Rick's throat tightened up as a hand went to settle on the butt of his Python, ready to act but hoping as hell he wouldn't have to.
Carol turned to look at Rick, revealing that a few of those tears that made their way down her dusty face. "Rick, I can't tell," she said helplessly. "I can't… oh my god."
Beth didn't need to be told twice. She took the bag from Glenn's shoulder and put it on her own before pushing past Rick. Her tiny body managed to squeeze into the little cave, just enough so that she could start to hand Carol some of the supplies. Rick had to lean as far back as he could to give the two women the room they needed. His foot planted into the hillside to keep from simply riding all the way down the cliff side again. Beatle was whining and panting so loud that Rick wanted to hiss at him to shut the hell up.
"I can't find a pulse," Carol's voice wavered as she spoke. She was trying to be cool and professional, but her emotions were shining through with every sharp intake of breath. "But he's breathing…"
Rick's grip on his Python tightened. No pulse? Breathing? That didn't sound good.
Carol reached out with trembling fingers to lift back his eyelids. A calm steady blue iris stared back at her, and she pulled back with a relieved breath. "He's alive!"
Rick's knees wobbled. He was breathing; he was alive. Somehow, after all of this, Daryl was still alive. He wasn't sure if they could keep him that way, but it was the best damn news he had heard all day. Beth was quickly moving to pull out some of the stuff in the backpack including several bandanas and washrags along with a few water bottles. She started to soak each piece of cloth before handing it off to Carol who was wrapping the rags around Daryl's wrists, neck, collarbone, and his upper arms, just under his armpits. Her fingers lingered on his skin, as if needing the extra second to remind herself that he was real and he was there.
Rick turned away to look over his shoulder at the rest of the group. They were all along the slope, staring, hoping, waiting. Hershel stood at the bottom of it all, leaning heavily against the crutch as he used his free hand to shade his eyes as he looked up at them all.
"Is he there?" he called.
Rick nodded slowly.
"Is he alive?"
"Yes," Rick answered, and his voice echoed off of the rock walls.
Halfway down the slope, Maggie sat down hard. Michonne's teeth shined in a smile.
"It's not gonna be easy getting him out of here." Beth used one of the extra rags to dab at her face and neck as she rummaged through the pack of supplies. "I doubt he'll be able to walk. Maybe… maybe you and Glenn could manage to carry him down together?"
Rick looked back at the younger man, and Glenn nodded without hesitation. "Whatever it takes," he said easily.
"Can he swallow?" Beth asked as she started to pull out the different rehydration solutions that they had on hand.
Carol shook her head uncertainly. "I don't know. He doesn't seem conscious enough."
Beth nodded and moved to look back down the slope. "Daddy!" she called. "We're going to need the IV!"
Hershel nodded and limped back over to the truck.
The little alcove-cave smelled dusty and almost sweet. Carol was wedged into the side as she bent over, staring at Daryl. He was lying on his side, a rock digging into his right cheek. It didn't really look like Daryl, not how she had seen him only two days ago. Two days. His face was drawn skeletally tight, a mask pulled thin over bones. His closed eyes were sunk deep into the sockets, and blood had clotted around his nostrils and the corners of his mouth. His hand lied motionless on the dirt. When Carol grabbed it in her hand, it was cool and the flesh tented beneath the pressure of her fingertips. There was no capillary refill, no natural elasticity.
"Daryl, we're here," Carol whispered. "I'm so sorry it took us so long… but we found you. We did."
The sudden voice, so quiet that Carol thought she might imagined it, was soft, raspy, almost impossible to understand. And yet Carol knew immediately what he had said. Her eyes locked onto his face to see his eyes half-lidded, still mostly out of it, but awake enough to see her face.
"…you found me…"
Other than his mouth, which barely moved at all, nothing else stirred, but it was enough. More tears sprung to Carol's eyes as she gazed down his face, but this time they were out of relief. She held his gaze as Beth pushed a bottle of ORS fluid into her hand, and she very gently dribbled a little sip of it into his mouth. It was painful, and it seemed to take everything he had in him, but he swallowed it down. It was enough to start to get some fluid into Daryl's dehydrated body.
Smile in place, Carol reached out to gently caress his scratchy cheek. It was fiery hot, horribly so. As if reading her mind, Beth handed her a thermometer.
"His temp's 104.3," Beth read off, her red face going pale. "Was he bit?"
"No," Carol said, without even giving him a thorough check over, "but we need to get him out of here."
Carol detached herself from Daryl as she crawled out of the little cave so that Rick and Glenn could better squeeze through. Beth didn't argue and simply followed.
x X x
It took nearly an hour for Rick and Glenn to be able to ease Daryl out of the cave and then down the slope. Back in the sunlight, everybody was able to get a good look at what his ordeal had done to him. It was hard to believe he could be alive. Nobody voiced how uncertain they were in Hershel's ability to keep him alive, but they were all thinking it. It was hard to imagine that he would survive at all, even with Hershel doing everything that he could as they drove back to the little warehouse they had procured. Daryl could still very easily pass away.
Rick just kept his eyes on the road as he sped through the endless desert. He sat next to Carol, and he reached out to offer his hand to her. She took it with both of hers and squeezed it, hard. He glanced over at her to see lines had cut through the dust on her face revealing tracks of wetness.
"He's got to make it," she said in a parched, trembling voice. "After all this, he has to be okay."
Rick didn't say anything. He nodded and kept holding her hand. He glanced in the rearview mirror as he looked into the backseat where Daryl and Hershel were. Carol had said he had regained consciousness for a brief second in the cave, but Rick hadn't seen it, and he hadn't seen signs of it since. This was the ending stages of dehydration. He didn't know a lot, but he could tell that much just by looking at him. Daryl was burning with fever, the outward sign of a body whose inner thermostat no longer worked as it blazed out of control.
But he was alive. Perhaps only clinically, but that was enough for now.
The Hyundai ran over something that crunched beneath the tires, but nobody even noticed it. The Dodge Ram behind them buried it further into the sand. The plastic bottle that Daryl carried for several miles was now flattened and half embedded into the ground. It was wedged between two sharp rocks that the drivers were lucky didn't puncture their tires. A few critters would cautiously approach the bottle later that day, and eventually, a lone scorpion would make it its home.
The death of Tyreese and rescue of Daryl stalled the group for several days, but it was only two days later that another close call with the Governor and his men sent the group packing up and heading out. They headed north, hoping to leave the heat wave behind them, and when they drove headfirst into a rainstorm, they took it as a good sign to stop. Rick, Glenn, Maggie, Michonne, and Carl cleared out a house that looked secure enough before everybody moved in. Within 10 minutes, every window was covered with duct tape and whatever they could find (sheets mostly).
The rain continued to fall, almost constantly, for the next three days as they settled into their new home. The storm was cool and welcome as it beat down on the house. Rick shook off some excess water drops as he came in from standing out on watch. Glenn shot him a smirk and put a finger to his lips before he passed him to take his place. Rick watched after him with a confused look.
Usually, Daryl was surrounded by just about everybody as he was forced to tolerate every single worried face as they watched over him. Too many of the old folks had tried to step in to try to baby him, so Sasha and Beth had eventually been put on duty to keep them occupied and keep them away from the irate redneck. Hershel had scarcely left his side as he monitored his condition constantly, trying to make sure that there weren't any lasting effects that he needed to keep an eye on. The second floor room, third door on the left, was a hive of worried faces as people filtered in and out.
But tonight, the second floor seemed to be particularly quiet as Rick headed up to check on his friend. He thought back to Glenn's face, and he kept his footfalls light as he approached the door. He barely poked his head around the doorframe, not wanting to disturb him if he was sleeping, but Daryl was wide awake. His only visitor was Carol, and a smile immediately tugged at the former deputy's lips.
Daryl no longer had the mummified mask that Rick had glimpsed in that tiny sour-smelling cave back in the desert. Traces still lingered. Daryl was still pinched-looking, and some of the skin along the back of his neck and arms was still peeling from the awful sunburn he had received. He tired easily, which was driving him fucking nuts, but a week of ORS therapy was doing him a world of good no matter how much his bitching said otherwise. Hershel said that he would allow him to get back into the swing of things with watch duty and even hunting in a few days. It was a fucking miracle, if those existed anymore.
At the moment, he was sitting up in the bed with Carol sitting just behind him. She was gently running some lotion they had found across Daryl's still blistered skin, her fingers brushing over the back of his neck, his arms, and his exposed back. His knees were up to his chest, the blanket held tightly in his fists like a child with his chin resting on the fabric. His eyes were shut, tightly so, as if he were trying to block out how exposed he felt at this moment with her, but every brush of her hand was loosening his facial muscles just a little bit until he was practically melting into her hands.
"Carl wants to give you back your crossbow," she announced suddenly.
"I ain't takin' it back."
Rick knew that he should leave. This was obviously a private moment meant for the two survivors only, and nobody else's prying eyes was supposed to witness this. But he found himself taking in Daryl's renewed health and sense of strength. Even his voice had gained back its natural gruffness as opposed to the scratchy quality that it had developed from drying out.
Carol smiled. "Glenn knew you'd say that… so he and Maggie have been looking for a replacement for you. There's a store here that apparently looks promising. They're thinking of going to clear it out tomorrow and take a look."
Daryl growled in response. His lips were still scabbed but they pursed with annoyance. "Don't need them doin' that shit. Ain't worth puttin' their lives in danger for. There is a shit ton more useful crap to be keepin' an eye out for than a crossbow for me."
"I'll tell them," she said, laughter in her voice as she tried not to laugh at him for his irritation drawn from overprotectiveness. "But you're just not Daryl Dixon without your crossbow."
He rolled his eyes, causing Rick to pull back out of fear of being seen. "Bullshit."
She let out a sad sigh and the mood in the room changed almost immediately. "I still don't know how you did it," she whispered. The lotion had long since been rubbed into his back, and now she was just mindlessly kneading the muscles in his shoulders. "All alone like that. I thought…"
Daryl turned slightly to look at her. "Didn't do it alone."
Rick felt about as confused as Carol looked.
"Had some help."
Suddenly, Rick found himself concerned as he stared at the redneck through the crack in the door. The first few days, Daryl seemed to have been plagued with hallucinations as he muttered about things that didn't fully make sense. He thought they had moved past that stage, but he suddenly wasn't so sure. And yet, the look on Daryl's face was so calm, serene, and certain, that Rick found it hard to question his friend's sanity in those words at all.
"You did?" Carol whispered.
Daryl looked away, feeling suddenly uncertain as he picked at some loose string on the threaded blanket. "I mean, sure… yeah, I was alone… but ya'll… Merle… was like ya'll were all there with me kinda. Got me through it. Kept me goin'. Fucked up, I know."
"I would have been terrified," Carol whispered. Her hands fell off of his shoulders so that she could take his right hand into her own. He didn't pull away, and her grip only tightened as if she had no plans on letting go anytime soon. "Scared out of my mind."
"You and your nine lives woulda been fine," he said without any hint of hesitation. "You wouldn't have walked into the fuckin' unknown and gotten your ass lost."
"Right back at you, Nine Lives." She was teasing lightly, trying to pull him out of the dark place that his mind seemed intent on going. She leaned forward, and he turned his head to avoid her closeness. She was unperturbed and simply placed the kiss against his temple instead. "It wasn't your time to go."
He gave a dismissive snort. "More like I got lucky as hell."
"Maybe," she said, deciding not to argue with him. "Who did you see in the desert?"
"Everyone," Daryl replied.
His blue eyes suddenly met Rick's prying ones from the crack in the doorway, as if he had always known he was there. An understanding passed between the two men. In Daryl's eyes, Rick could see the endless vistas beyond the swirling dust and hiss of the wind. In Daryl's calm look, Rick saw something that he understood probably better than anyone else in their entire group ever would. He understood the wavering of sanity, the desire to hold onto the illusions for illusions sake, the need to not be alone and let those ghosts go. He recognized the bottomless abyss that they all stood in front of.
Or maybe Daryl was just tired and Rick was reading way too much in that gaze; maybe Daryl was just glad to have made it.
Rick knocked lightly on the door, deciding not to eavesdrop anymore, as he poked his head in. "How are you feeling?"
Daryl gave a curt nod. "Good. Did ya'll ever find Martinez and Shumpert?"
Rick gave an apologetic shake of his head. "No."
"My pocket," Daryl said suddenly, the gears in his head changing direction so fast that it left Rick confused. "Tyreese gave me somethin' – I gotta give it to Sasha."
"The necklace," Carol said softly. She squeezed his hand that she was still holding onto. "We found it."
"Gotta give it to her."
Rick raised a calming hand. "I'll take care of it. Don't worry about it."
Daryl sighed and leaned back into Carol's embrace without even realizing it. "Thank god."
The former cop watched the way Carol's thumb ran over the back of his palm, pulling on the skin ever so slightly before it would spring back into place, the way it should. The sign of good hydration again. "You need anything?"
Daryl shook his head. He was starting to look sleepy. "Nah. Just ready to get back to the swing of things."
"Soon," he promised before his lips spread into a smirk. "I'll leave you two alone now."
He grabbed the doorknob and slowly pulled the door shut, chuckling as he heard Daryl call after him: "Fuck off."
Inside the room, Carol was laughing slightly as Daryl glared at the door as if Rick were standing right there. She could see the exhaustion of his ordeal, of his day, shining in the lines around his eyes. She reached down and patted her lap lightly. "C'mon. Lay down."
He turned to look at her, and a strange look crossed his face as he saw what she was saying. She started to wonder if she should take it back when he finally started to shift down and gently laid his head against her thigh. She smiled and started to gently comb her fingers through his matted hair. Daryl let out a small content sigh as his eyes slid closed, and the exhaustion disappeared with the blue of his iris. Who did Daryl see out there in the desert? All of them? Her?
She started to hum absently.
"What is that?" His eyes were open again, staring at her, almost startled.
Her fingers pause in his hair. "What I was humming?"
"You don't know it?" she asked, surprised.
"I've heard it," he admitted. "Dunno what it is."
Carol smiled slightly as she went back to running her fingers through his hair. "I used to sing it Sophia when she would have trouble sleeping," she told him quietly.
Daryl didn't move to interrupt her or ask her to stop. He just reached out to put a gentle hand on her ankle next to him.
"You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.
You make me happy when skies are gray.
You'll never know, dear, how much I love you.
Please don't take my sunshine away…"