It's just after noon when one of the Woodbury women comes up to the guard tower to relieve Daryl, and by that time he's more than ready to give up his shift. He usually refuses the daylight shifts, and especially the morning ones, because they're dangerous. In the mornings, Rick is in his garden working, and for all of Daryl's good intentions, he can't seem to keep his eyes from straying to the man when he should be watching the treeline for threats. Part of that is that Rick is the closest thing he has to family, even more so than the others, and Daryl has had a burning desire to keep him alive since about half an hour after he met the man at the quarry and so he wants to have an eye on him at all times. Rick is his brother. In some ways, Rick is more his brother than Merle ever was, and god knows Daryl had loved Merle a hell of a lot more than the idiot had ever deserved. So part of it is that driving, consuming need to protect his family.
Part of it is that. Part of it isn't.
Daryl doesn't think about the other part. Or, more accurately, Daryl thinks about the other part too much and then has to waste time reminding himself that he knows what will happen and what won't so that he can stop thinking about it. Daryl has seen enough of life to know that things like Rick don't happen to Dixons. Dixons are more the "fuck around until you're desperate and then settle for whoever will take you" sort of folk, not the type who get what they want out of life. Daryl accepted that a long time ago.
Merle never did. Daryl wonders if that's why Merle is dead now. Fucking Icarus, he thinks, snorting out a quiet laugh as he pictures his brother with wings. Fucker could fly and he wanted more. Merle could have had family here but he wanted greatness, respect, a slot in the history books. And so he's dead. Daryl, though... Daryl has family now. He's the closest he's ever been to happy, with sisters like Michonne and Carol and brothers like Glenn. He has a teenager who's his son for all intents and purposes. He has a baby whose little eyes light up when she sees him. He sees the wax wings hanging on a hook in front of him, begging him to take them, to try and fly, and he doesn't do it. He doesn't need to. What he has on the ground is far more than anything he'd thought he would ever have, and it's enough. It's more than enough. He is content. He is happy.
But Daryl looks at Rick as he works in the garden and he sees the sun, and never let it be said that Daryl doesn't want.
It's not about Daryl being gay, although whenever he bothers giving it any thought, he guesses he is. But it doesn't really matter. It's Rick, and Daryl would long for him whether he was gay or straight or ace or bi or any of the other labels he's never had much use for. Ain't nobody's business who Daryl wants. There haven't been that many of them anyway so it's always been hard to figure out a common denominator other than that they've all been men so far, and the only thing Daryl knows for sure about his "type" is that Rick Grimes fits it perfectly.
But all of that is just dreams, ideas made of wax that will just melt if he gets too close to the sun. So instead, he hunts. Sets snares, checks them. Makes himself useful. Doesn’t think about what it would be like to watch Rick sleep from inside his arms.
It would be easier, Daryl thinks, if it weren’t for all the flirting.
After his watch, Daryl grabs a bowl of venison stir-fry from Carol and sits down at one of the outdoor cafeteria tables to eat lunch with Glenn and Tyreese. They spend a few minutes discussing an upcoming run, and then the hairs on the back of Daryl’s neck snap to attention and he can just feel Rick behind him, approaching with soft footsteps, the scent of sun-sweat and licorice preceding the ex-deputy and making Daryl’s head spin with adrenaline.
“Morning, boo,” Rick says, sliding onto the bench beside Daryl. “How was your watch?”
“‘S afternoon, dumbass,” Daryl says, shoulder-bumping Rick and trying to keep himself from smiling like an idiot at the sight of him. He’s half-successful, managing to keep the left side of his mouth in its neutral state but not having so much success fighting the right side off from moving upward, and Rick sees it and responds with a grin of his own. “But yeah, watch was fine.”
“Lots of things ‘round here seem pretty fine,” Rick says, pupils boring into Daryl’s skin like jackhammers, and Daryl shoves a forkful of stir-fry into his own mouth to have some sort of distraction from the tone of Rick’s voice.
A few seconds of tense, loaded silence pass before Glenn pipes up. “You coming with us on our run tomorrow, Rick?”
Rick finally-- finally--takes his summer-blue eyes off of Daryl, and Daryl takes in a deep, grateful breath through his nose and chews his food for a lot longer than strictly necessary.
“Got pigs to tend,” Rick says. “Maybe next time.” He shifts a bit in his seat and his thigh presses against Daryl’s, and Daryl allows himself a brief fantasy of being thrown down on this table and fucked until his eyes cross before he remembers that Daedalus kept his sights on the horizon and survived the flight.
And anyway, it’s not like Daryl really knows what it would be like to be fucked. The most he’s ever had the guts to try was one of his own fingers, and even then he’d done it quick, holding his breath and hoping that the next time he looked somebody in the eye it wouldn’t be written all over his face: Daryl’s gay, Daryl’s a pansy-gay, Daryl wants to take it up the ass like a little bitch. And it hadn’t even felt very good then, although Daryl recognizes that he hadn’t exactly put a lot of effort into making it good for himself, and besides, this would be Rick, and Rick would never hurt him.
But then Rick would never fuck him, either, so it doesn’t matter.
“You goin’ with ‘em?” Rick asks, nudging Daryl with his elbow and breaking the hunter’s train of thought.
Daryl swallows and nods. “Yeah. Just a quick run down to Tinsland.” He slants his eyes over to Rick. “Why? Need somethin’?”
“Just need you back safe, darlin’,” Rick says, and Glenn rolls his eyes so hard that Daryl’s surprised they don’t fall out of his skull.
“Okay, lovebirds,” Glenn says. “If we leave first thing in the morning, we can be back by nightfall. Sound good?” He looks at Tyreese, who nods, and then at Daryl, who hopes that his hair is shaggy enough to hide the color on his cheeks as he nods too.
Glenn stands up, picking up his bowl to take it to the washing station. He stops, looking between the two of them, and then rolls his eyes again and mutters, “Geez, just kiss already,” and Daryl’s out of his seat and halfway across the courtyard before anyone else even has time to respond.
The run is a success, and as they pull back through the gates, Daryl sees Maggie and Karen standing in the courtyard waiting to latch on to Glenn and Tyreese as soon as the engine stops. Rick is there, too, arms folded loosely across his chest, feet shoulder-width apart, a twinkle in his eyes that Daryl can see from the damn treeline, and the hunter shifts in the tiny Daryl-shaped hole they’d left empty of supplies in the backseat and chews on his thumbnail, clutching his crossbow close to his body and trying not to think too hard.
And when the car rolls to a stop, the girls rush forward just like Daryl knew they would, pressing against their men with smiles and murmurs and grateful hand-roaming, and Daryl huffs out a breath through his nose and walks around to open the trunk and start unloading supplies.
“Hey,” Rick says from close behind him, and Daryl forces himself to continue tugging on the duffel bag of camping gear instead of reacting to the man’s voice by shivering like a schoolgirl.
“Need somethin’, Rick?” he asks, keeping his back to the man and finally yanking the duffel free of the packed-full trunk.
“Just wanted to see that you were okay,” Rick says, quiet and rough, and Daryl drops the duffel on the ground at the same time that Rick puts a hand on his bare arm and turns him around to face the ex-deputy.
He’s close, too close, and Daryl’s breathing speeds up but he has to keep cool, has to respond to the proximity like it’s platonic even though every cell in his body wishes it wasn’t. He grunts because grunting is carefully neutral and gently shrugs Rick’s hand off of his arm. “‘M fine,” he says, then reaches down and picks the bag up again, thrusting it out at Rick. “Found some fun stuff, though. You’re gonna like this.”
Rick smiles at him and gives him flirty bedroom eyes, and Daryl wants to fucking scream. “Should I open this here, or somewhere more private?”
Daryl panics a little then, shoving at him with shaking hands. “Jesus Christ, Rick. Stop.” He takes a deep breath to center himself and then manages to offer up an almost cheeky smile to show Rick that he’s not actually upset.
“Sorry,” Rick says, chuckling. “You know I just like seeing you ruffled, boo.” Daryl rolls his eyes, and Rick laughs again and shifts the duffel to one arm so he can unzip it with the other.
“Found a little camping store that hadn’t been cleaned all the way out yet,” Daryl says, hoping that the sandpaper in his voice just sounds like normal gruff Daryl and not desperately off-center Daryl. “Had a couple handguns with ammo. Few MREs, might be good to take on runs. Compass, water purifier tablets, some beef jerky. Pair of walkie talkies. An’ a box of Mike and Ikes that don’t seem too out-of-date. Thought you might want those.”
Rick’s eyes light up and he digs around in the duffel until he finds the green box of candy. “Thank you,” he breathes, and Daryl turns back to the trunk and carries on unloading things.
“Weren’t nothin’,” he grumbles.
“You should take these walkie talkies out when you go hunting,” Rick says after a moment, his voice slurred like his mouth is filled with gummy candy. “That way I can keep track of you.”
“Hmmph. We’ll see about that,” Daryl says. He hefts up a cardboard box filled with granola bars and turns to head into the prison.
“Hey,” Rick says again, his voice stopping Daryl in his tracks like the timbre of it has the ability to override all of Daryl’s motor functions. Daryl turns around and looks at him. “Glad you’re home.”
Daryl swallows and lets his eyes drop to the ground. “Thanks,” he says, then briefly, so briefly, wonders if he should just say to hell with it and try to kiss Rick, right here in the courtyard. But he can’t do that, and he knows it. Showing his hand like that would be the fastest way to lose Rick if he doesn’t feel the same, and of course he doesn’t, so Daryl can’t take that chance.
Someone calls Rick’s name and the leader looks away to answer whatever question he’s being asked, and Daryl takes the opportunity to flee inside the prison with his box of granola bars and a pit of regret deep in his stomach.
The next morning, Daryl is almost to the outer gate when Rick's voice calls his name from the courtyard. The hunter slings his crossbow across his back and turns, granting himself the luxury of admiring Rick's graceful loping run as the other man catches up to him.
"You forgot your radio," Rick says, holding out the shiny new walkie talkie with a smile on his face.
"Didn't forget ," Daryl says, eyeing the radio but not taking it. "Don't need it."
Rick rolls his eyes. "If I have to take my gun, you gotta take the walkie."
"Ain't gotta do nothin' but stay white an' die," Daryl mutters, hearing Merle’s voice echoing in his head as he says it.
"Humor me." Rick shakes the walkie at him and gives him the famous Rick Grimes Is Serious stare.
Daryl scoffs. "Ain't goin' far. Just checking the traps. Seein’ if there’s any deer out there. Don't need all this."
Rick half-smiles. "It'll make us all feel better if you have it with you." He searches Daryl’s face, and Daryl doesn’t respond. Rick takes a long breath. “It’ll make me feel better if you take it.”
Daryl snorts through his nose and looks away. “Don’t need it,” he says again, because doing anything specifically for Rick is a thermal updraft and the wax around his wings is too soft these days anyway.
“It’ll make Judith feel better if you take it.”
Daryl’s eyes snap back to Rick’s face, where an infuriating smirk has taken residence. “Fuck you, man. That’s playin’ dirty.”
Rick just lets the smile get bigger and holds out the walkie talkie again. “For poor little Judy’s peace of mind?”
"A'ight, fine," Daryl snaps, snatching the radio and clipping it to his belt. "Be back by dark."
"Have fun out there, boo," Rick says, and for just a moment their eyes lock and that strange something passes between them, the jolt of connection that Daryl's never been sure what to do with, the thing that feels terrifyingly real when nothing else seems to.
"I will," he says, and heads off into the woods.
He's been hunting for a little less than an hour when the walkie talkie crackles, nearly making Daryl jump clean out of his skin.
"How's it going?"
Daryl picks up the radio and raises it to his chin. "Fine. Be better if you hadn't just about made me piss myself just then. But fine."
"Sorry. I'm bored," Rick says. "Entertain me."
Daryl makes a clucking sound into the speaker. "Scarin' the game away, Rick."
"We got plenty of food to last us a while," Rick says. "And it's my lunch break. You're supposed to bullshit with your best friend on your lunch break."
Daryl smiles despite himself and holds down the button to speak. "Don't let me keep you away from Vernon, then."
Rick groans. "Jesus, Vernon. I swear I'm gonna clock him one if he don't stop followin' me around talking about the damn Peloponnesian Wars."
"Somebody's got to remember ancient Greece, man. Or else what are we gonna bore Carl with when we get a school set up?" Daryl smiles, pausing to rest for a moment with his shoulder against a tree trunk.
“Hope Carol does better than my teachers did. Every single year we’d spend six months goin’ over Ancient Sumer and then rush through the rest of world history in about two weeks. Could draw you a detailed topographical map of Mesopotamia but I didn’t even know who was in World War I until college.”
“Hey, least you went to college,” Daryl says. “I still don’t know nothin’ about World War I.” He realizes that he’s still smiling and forces himself to go back to being a serious outdoorsman. “Now shut your mouth, Grimes. Got deer to hunt.”
“Roger that,” Rick says, chuckling a little in a way that makes Daryl’s throat hurt. “Grimes out.”
Daryl hooks the radio through a belt loop next to his knife and goes back to tracking, forcing thoughts of domesticity out of his head and letting himself sink right in to the rhythm of the woods. He gets in almost an hour of uninterrupted hunting, managing to take down a decent-sized turkey and tie it over his shoulder, and then the walkie-talkie crackles again.
“What are you wearing?” Rick’s voice drawls, lazy and throaty and wretchedly sinful, and Daryl hates the way that the tone goes straight to his cock, especially since Rick is joking like always and Daryl knows it. Knows that he doesn’t have the plumbing to be what Rick really wants. Knows that teasing like this is all he’ll ever have of the man.
Knows that he doesn’t know any of that at all, not really, but he ignores the possibility that he could be wrong because he’s too much of a coward to call Rick out on it and demand to know how serious he is when he says shit like this. Maybe one day he’ll have the balls to do it, but not today. He’s not ready to risk losing what they have. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
“French maid outfit,” he grumbles into the speaker. “Red feather boa. Silver stilettos. What the fuck you think I’m wearing, Grimes? I only got like two shirts to choose from and anyway, you saw me when I left this mornin’.”
Rick chuckles again and Daryl’s legs feel a little weak. He sits down with his back against a tree and lets the other man’s voice sink into his pores. “Stilettos sound sexy. What’ll it take to get you in a French maid outfit?”
Daryl feels his cheeks heat up and he’s suddenly very glad that no one is around to see him blushing, because men like him do not blush. He holds the walkie talkie up to his face for several seconds before he convinces himself to press the button. “You ain’t even bought me roses yet. You think I’m easy or somethin’?”
“I sure hope not. I’ve seen Vernon lookin’ at you.”
Daryl laughs. Really laughs--who would have thought? He can’t even remember the last time he laughed at anything that wasn’t something Rick had said to him. But it’s so simple with Rick. Rick says funny things, so he laughs. Rick smiles at him, so he smiles back. Rick makes him feel like he’s worth something, so he stays by Rick’s side. Forever.
Jesus, he has it bad.
“Vernon ain’t lookin’ at me,” Daryl says once he’s collected his thoughts a bit. “Now be quiet so I can finish hunting before it gets dark.”
“Okay,” Rick says. “See you when you get home.”
Daryl clips the walkie talkie back to his belt and leans his head back against the tree, staring up through the leaves at the afternoon sky and trying hard not to think about what it would be like to be Rick's, to belong to him.
The first swipe doesn’t get him, just rips a small stripe in his leather vest. Daryl’s eyes snap open and he wonders how fucking long he’s been asleep against that tree, why the hell he’d let his guard down enough to fall asleep against a goddamn pine tree and let a fucking mountain lion pounce on him.
Game is scarce, and getting more so as the apocalypse drags on. Daryl thinks about this in a strangely detached manner as he shoves at the animal, as he bats its heavy paws away from his skin, as he reaches for its throat. There just aren’t as many deer as there once were, and the predators are hungry just like the people are. It was probably the turkey, he thinks. The damn dead turkey that’s practically laying on his lap must have drawn this thing right to him. He can hardly blame it, but that’s not going to stop him from fighting back.
The lion’s claws rake over his shoulder, digging in enough to tear his clothes and draw angry blood from his skin, and Daryl’s hands sink into the surprisingly soft fur of the animal’s neck. He bellows loudly, hoping that the noise will scare the big cat enough to let go. Mountain lions don’t keep fighting when they think they can’t win, and there’s no way that this fucker is going to live through this encounter unless it runs away now. Daryl will make sure of that.
But the animal doesn’t let go, doesn’t run. Its ribs are showing, its spine peaking sharply under its fur, and Daryl gets that, understands what it’s like to be hungry, to be desperate enough to try and take down something he normally wouldn’t tangle with. It growls and claws and bares its teeth, going for Daryl’s neck, but he shoves it backwards enough to block the motion and kicks viciously at it, earning a yelp from the cat but not managing to scare it away. Well. That’s it, then, he thinks to himself. He’s always had a soft spot for felines and he’d rather not kill one, but this asshole is going to force the issue, and Daryl’s nothing if not a survivalist.
The cat has kicked the crossbow off to the side but it doesn’t matter. It’s too close of quarters to use it anyway, and Daryl has his knife. He lets go of the animal’s throat with one hand and draws his knife, then thrusts it up through the animal’s open mouth into its brain. Gotcha, you son of a bitch , Daryl thinks, smirking slightly, and then a wave of excruciating pain slams through him as the dying cat kicks out its back paws and drags a huge, deep gash into Daryl’s thigh. Daryl blinks down at the wound and leaves the knife shoved up into the lion’s brain for several seconds as he stares at the strangely relaxing flow of blood from the claw mark on his leg.
After a few seconds, Daryl pushes the dead mountain lion off of himself. That’s when the adrenaline finally hits, overriding all of the fog and the calm that he’d felt while the attack was going on. The whole fight had only taken maybe thirty seconds from the first growl to the gurgle of blood from the animal’s sliced neck, and it’s not until it’s over that Daryl panics: partially because of the fact that he’s just been attacked by a mountain lion and partially because Jesus, he’s losing a lot of blood. Fast.
He’s got claw marks all over him, bleeding at varying rates, but most of them are really just glorified scratches and he’s not that worried about them. There’s one on his bicep that might need a decent-sized bandage and a couple that have dirt already rubbed into them that will probably need to be cleaned and disinfected, but none of those are the problem. No, the problem is the deep cut on his thigh, the one that’s spurting blood at an alarming rate, the one that he’d almost escaped the attack before receiving.
Daryl pulls off his vest and the sleeveless shirt under it, then rips the shirt into strips and starts binding his thigh, trying to slow the flow of blood. Not stop it, though. This isn't the sort of wound you can just put pressure on until it clots. This is a gash that will need at least stitches, and that's best-case scenario. The far more likely scenario is that Daryl is going to bleed out long before he can drag himself back to the prison, and he knows it.
He’s never been afraid of death. There were times in his youth when he actually prayed for it, welcomed the idea of it, and even now he’s not particularly upset about the thought. Of course, he’d vastly prefer not to die alone in the woods, but his number has to be up sometime and today is as good a day as any. He just wishes that if it had to happen, that Rick would have been here with him to reassure him that it was going to be okay.
But even if he’s not afraid to die, he has to at least try to make it back to the prison alive. Because of Rick. Because whatever this thing is that they have between them, if it's romantic or just platonic, brothers or friends or lovers... whatever it is, it's something , and Rick can't lose any other somethings. Not now. Not when he’s finally himself again, when he smiles sometimes and laughs sometimes and there’s a light behind his eyes that makes Daryl feel like the world is a good place to be, Walkers and all.
So Daryl struggles to his feet, bracing his hand against the nearby tree to steady himself as the pain of putting weight on his leg makes his vision swim. After it fades a bit, he takes an experimental step, trying to put as little weight on his leg as he can manage and still be able to walk. Rick , he thinks. For Rick.
The instant his foot hits the ground, a white-hot streak of agony blazes through his whole body and Daryl falls, catching himself with his hands so he doesn’t go completely face-down in the dirt. Onyx diamonds sparkle in his vision and he concentrates on breathing so that he doesn’t black out. It’s close, but after a few seconds the dark spots fade from his eyes and he can see again, can smell the pine sap and honeysuckle and iron in the air, can hear the birds starting to sing again nearby now that the roaring from the fight has stopped.
Daryl rolls gingerly and lets his ass hit the ground so that he’s sitting instead of kneeling, and that helps the pain recede a little. The shirt tied around his leg as a tourniquet is already soaked through with blood, and Daryl stares at it for a moment, a host of equally painful courses of action floating through his head. None of them involve living through this. That just isn't an option anymore, not if he can’t take one single goddamn step without hitting the ground. The prison is three miles away--even if he could walk without passing out from the pain, there’s no way he’d make it back before… well. Before.
But Daryl knows where he is, knows there’s a shithole of a house nearby with a moonshine still and, more importantly, a door that still closes. And if Daryl’s going to die, he at least wants to go out on his own without being torn apart by Walkers in his final moments. So at least the shack will let him die in fucking peace . He thinks about Rick again, thinks about how fucking unfair it is that he’s going to die without ever calling Rick’s stupid bluff about all the flirting, without making the man come clean about whether the bedroom eyes and the terms of endearment were friendly banter or something else. But there’s no time for that now. Not nearly enough time to say everything he wants to say.
The radio hangs heavy on his hip, metal and plastic and the echo of Rick’s voice. Daryl runs his blood-slick fingers over it, then sighs and drags himself back up to his feet. He'll call when he gets to the cabin, when he’s settled. And then he’ll tell Rick at least some of the things he needs to, things like where to find his body. Things like where to look for the crossbow he doesn’t think he can carry with him as he walks. Things like… goodbye.
It only takes Daryl five minutes to get to the cabin, but those five minutes completely drain his energy and when he gets inside and closes the door behind himself, he's done. He leans against the wall and slides down it slowly, trying to jar his leg as little as possible. The shirt is still tied tight around his thigh but it's acting like more of a spillway than a levee at this point, just providing the blood with an obstacle to flow through rather than a barrier to hold it back. He situates himself as best as he can and then slowly pulls the walkie-talkie out.
"Rick, you there?"
There's silence for a few seconds, but it feels like a fucking lifetime and Daryl concentrates on breathing, on staying awake, on hanging on for long enough to say what he needs to say. It's not fair to Rick to do this, to lay this on him and then check out, but Daryl can't stand the thought of dying without at least telling Rick how much he's loved, appreciated, damn near worshipped. So he waits, breathing quietly, watching blood pool below the saturated tourniquet and thinking about all the wasted opportunities, all the flirting that was too casual to be real but too intense to be fake, and after a moment he picks up the radio again.
"Dammit, Grimes, pick up. I need you, man. I need you." He releases the button, drops the walkie-talkie in his lap, waits.
The radio crackles. "Sorry, had manure all over my hands. You miss me that much, darlin'?"
Daryl laughs breathlessly, thinking about how surreal it is that Rick's voice makes him happy even while he bleeds out in what probably used to be a meth lab in the woods. "I'm hurt pretty bad, Rick. Don't have much time and I need to tell you some shit. You listenin'?"
There's a pause before Rick radios back. "That's not fucking funny, Daryl."
"Shit, I know. Believe me, I know." He takes a deep breath, tries to slow his wildly beating heart so he can buy himself a few more minutes. “Didn’t want to say it like this,” he says. “Didn’t want this to be how it went. But I ain’t gonna get another chance and I need you to know, Rick. I need you to know I love you. And not… like family. Not like brothers.” He holds the button down for another second, then lifts his finger with a shaking hand.
There’s silence for a few seconds, then Rick’s voice, deadly calm. “Daryl, we’re coming to get you. Tell me where you are.”
“Too late for that. Listen, Rick,” Daryl rasps into the walkie-talkie. “Ain’t never been nobody but you. Okay? Ain’t never loved nobody like this. Not… at all. An’ I’m okay with that. I’m okay with you bein’ the only one.” He breaks off in a cough but keeps the button down, keeps Rick from being able to cut him off with promises that Daryl’s going to be okay when the amount of blood pooling on the floor below him tells a pretty clear story about how that’s not true. “Just wish I coulda got up the nerve to kiss you. Even if you’d pushed me away, punched me in the jaw. I wish I’d done it just once.” He doesn’t intend to let go of the button this time, but his finger slips off of it and Rick cuts in immediately.
“We can talk about that later, Daryl,” Rick says, something that sounds like panic edging his voice like the sharp blade of a knife. “Tell me where you are.”
Daryl laughs weakly and leans his head back against the shitty wood paneling. “Back where I started, you know? Pretty fittin’ end for me, dyin’ in a place just like where I grew up. Place stinks like moonshine an’ meth. Still smells better than Walkers, though.”
“ Where are you? ” Rick bellows through the speaker.
“Michonne knows,” Daryl says, dispassionately. It’s not like it matters since there’s no way they’ll get to him in time, but he guesses he does want them to know where to look for his body, where to come so they can put down the Walker he’s going to become. He looks down at his leg, pulls the tourniquet tighter to slow the leak of blood a little more. “You won’t make it, though. Bleedin’ too fast.”
There are several seconds of silence, then Rick comes back on. “We’re on our way. Just hang on, okay?”
Daryl stares at the walkie-talkie, wondering how long it will be before the black at the edges of his vision creeps all the way in. He presses the button. “I ought to just end it, so I don’t turn. But I can’t do it, Rick. I got a knife here but I can’t opt out like that.”
“ Don’t you fucking dare ,” Rick growls. “You hear me? Don’t you dare . We’re on our way. Hang on. You’re strong, you can make it. Hang on for me, okay?”
“Fuck, I’ve been waitin’ for you for months.” Daryl smiles to himself, thinking of Rick’s curls in the sunlight, the way his eyes had looked across a campfire. “I woulda loved you for the rest of my life, Rick. Hell, guess I will, now. Ain’t hard to keep loving you for a few more minutes. Not with eyes like you got, not with how fuckin’ beautiful you are pickin’ tomatoes out in your garden.”
“Shut up,” Rick barks into the speaker. “Just shut up, okay? Keep your energy. We’re coming. Hang on. You’re gonna be okay.”
“I’m gonna stop talking now,” Daryl says. His leg doesn’t even hurt anymore, temperature means nothing. His ears feel stuffed with cotton but he can still hear Rick’s voice. “I’m gonna stop talking but please stay on, okay? I love you. I want you to be the last thing I hear.” He laughs again, more of a wheeze than anything at this point. “I love you, Rick,” he whispers, and then he lets go of the button.
He thinks, as his vision darkens and his breathing slows, that it would have been better if Rick had been talking softly to him when he went instead of screaming his name, his voice breaking with the force of it, but at least he has something of Rick to take with him. At least Rick’s voice is there with him at the end.
Daryl opens his eyes.
Heaven wouldn’t be like this. What good is an afterlife if it’s just a crumbling prison in the apocalypse, with Daryl’s stomach growling like a wounded coyote and his lips cracked and dry, burning for water? And hell wouldn’t be like this, either, because this is too good to be hell, with the voices of his family drifting through the blanket to settle over him like home. He hears Rick out there, the man’s liquid drawl making Daryl’s toes curl with anticipation of… something.
But Rick wouldn’t be in the afterlife, because Rick is alive. Which means that Daryl is alive.