He was looking at her with a sense of longing -- a sense of wonder. It was the oddest thing, trying to decipher his emotions just through the look in his eyes and the nervous flutter of his tongue in cheek. He shrugged and mumbled inaudibly, but she wanted to draw it out of him. He was going to say something important, but he couldn’t find the words.
“What changed your mind?” she asked again.
There was that look again. He couldn’t get it out, but now she was starting to think that she didn’t need him to say it. She saw it. It was obvious. It was her. She had changed his mind, but she still needed to understand why. Was it because he’d seen so much good in her, so much positive energy, that he’d finally caved and opened up? To let in a friend? Someone he could trust and feel comfortable with? Or was it something more? Was he getting the same tingle at the pit of his stomach that she was? Had it migrated from his toes to the tip of his tongue? She felt the feeling writhe within her, and like him, she was speechless. The words were lost and broken, all except for one.
She saw another sentence dangling in front of her. It was a simple question, but before she could reach out and catch it, there was a clatter outside the door.
It was probably the dog -- the same one that had paid a visit a few hours before. Daryl had vowed that if it returned, he’d try to bring it in. They’d give it food and shelter and try to give it a home. They were going to stick around here for a while, just like Daryl said. They were going to build something.
She’d always wanted a dog. And so did he.
Daryl shifted in his seat and placed the jar of jelly he’d been holding down on the table. “I’m giving that mut one more chance,” he grumbled, rising and grabbing his crossbow. He crept quietly to look outside the window adjacent to the door. She listened for confirmation that it was the dog returning for companionship, but the room fell eerily still. She got up from the table and limped to the next room. It wasn’t a quiet or very successful journey, because Daryl stopped her in her tracks about halfway there.
“Where’re you goin’?” he asked.
“Was it the dog?”
“No,” he said grimly. “Walkers. A lot of them. We need to cut the lights and keep low.”
She nodded in agreement and followed through with his instructions, dousing the candles they’d lit at the kitchen table and covering the blinds with sheets. He noticed her trying to shuffle soundlessly into the back room, so he cut to the chace and scooped her up, carrying her the rest of the way down the hall. She’d grown accustomed to this sort of travel. It’s nice, she thought, being in his arms.
The funeral home was set up very similarly to that of a normal house. This was confirmed when Daryl stepped through the door at the end of the hall and they found themselves in a small bedroom. He placed her on the edge of the bed and proceeded to close the door.
“We’ll stay back here for a while,” he explained. “As long as we stay quiet, I think they’ll lose interest.”
“Okay,” she agreed, not really needing him to provide a reason for what they were doing. She didn’t mind being in the tight space with him. He made her feel very small, but in the best way. “What do you wanna do to pass the time?”
“We should probably get some sleep,” he suggested.
She crossed her legs beneath her on the mattress. “I’m not that tired.”
“Yeah,” he huffed. “Me neither.”
They shared that look again, but instead of exchanging words or motives, he slid his back down the wall and dropped to the floor.
“We could keep playing I Never,” she said. “We didn’t get very far before.”
“Sorry about that.” He lowered his head. “I guess I ruined that.”
He was referring to the argument that had blown up between them. She still wasn’t sure if it was a result of the booze or the built up emotions he’d been attempting to swallow down, but either way, everything had erupted like a volcano. It was a blessing in disguise, because that argument had been the catalyst that brought his walls tumbling down. He’d let her see the deepest and most vulnerable parts of him, exposed and utterly sad. She didn’t credit herself with being the one to reach in and pull that side of him into the light, but she liked to think she had a part in it.
“We ain’t got any booze,” he added, attempting to erase the negative tension he’d just surfaced.
“That’s okay,” she amended. “We don’t have to drink. We can just talk.”
He shrugged his shoulders and let out a low grumble from the back of his throat. “Alright.”
She shifted on the bed and thought carefully about her first confession. They’d mentioned some of the simple things before, like going on vacation and learning how to shoot a crossbow, but she didn’t want to start off with anything like that again. She’d managed to get something out of him when confessing that she’d never been in jail, but that became a sensitive topic. She didn’t know why, but she also didn’t want to push the boundaries they’d created. They were getting somewhere, and if she asked the right questions, she might get some answers. In this case, however, she had to confess some things because receiving an admission in return.
She decided against starting big and went with something relevant. “I’ve never… had a pet.”
“No dog?” he questioned, sounding genuinely surprised.
“Nope. Maggie tried to bring home a stray once, but my mom was really strict about it. She said it would open a can of worms with my dad. He’d start bringing his work home.”
“Merle used to have an iguana,” he said, “but he never took care of it. It pissed me off, so I let it go in the woods behind our house. It probably died, but at least it wasn’t stuck in that cage.”
The muscles in his jaw twitched at the memory. It made him uncomfortable, but she could see that he still considered it to be a fond memory. He missed his brother. Despite all of Merle’s bad qualities, Daryl loved him, and probably always would. She tried to imagine having a sibling like that -- one that you didn’t always agree with, but still chose in the end when it came to an ultimatum. If Maggie had taken up ranks with the Governor and tortured people, would she still be able to love her unconditionally? It was a hard thing to imagine, because no matter what she thought she would do, it didn’t matter. Maggie was most likely dead. Everyone they knew was most likely dead. It was just the two of them now, and as much as it hurt, she didn’t mind the company.
“That sounds like something you would do,” she said, pushing all thoughts of her family to the back of her mind.
He gave her a whisper of a smile and took his turn. “I’ve never played an instrument.”
This immediately cheered her up. “We’ve got a piano. I could teach you.”
A laugh escaped his throat. “Like what? Chopsticks?”
“Maybe,” she baited. “I’ve got nothing against Chopsticks. Or nursery rhymes for that matter.”
He bit his lower lip, pulling it between his teeth and pinching the skin. “Maybe tomorrow,” he suggested.
A sudden rustling caught their attention. It sounded like branches scraping against the side of the house. Wind whistled through the cracks, and she thought she heard the distinct sound of moaning. Walkers were just on the other side of the wall. A few feet of space separated her from the outside where they roamed. She inched away from the noise, but Daryl caught a sudden glimpse of fear that appeared without her consent. She tried to keep it to herself most of the time, but sometimes it was hard to hide the fact that she was downright scared. Being forced into the wilderness after watching her father brutally murdered played games with her head. She did her best to avoid the nightmares that haunted her dreams every night. True sleep rarely found her, but it’d been easier to relax since finding the house. They weren’t stuck in the open with one eye always set on the shadows, waiting for a walker to come out from behind a tree and take them by surprise. Sometimes it wasn’t the walkers they waited for. She still wasn’t sure what became of everyone at the jail. The people that attacked them could still be out there, and she didn’t want to know what would happen if they crossed paths.
“Hey.” His tone forced her to look him in the eye. It was soft and alluring. It pulled her in, and it made her relax almost instantly. “Why don’t cha come down here with me?”
He picked up his crossbow from where it had been laying beside him and propped it against the door on the opposite side. The space on the floor called for her, so she listened. They rested their shoulders against one another, and she began to feel her heartbeat calm. It was no longer racing, but it continued to beat at a quickened pace. Being this close to him felt different than being in his arms. When he carried her, she was forced to follow his lead. It was his actions that moved her and supported her. But this. She was in control of her position. She could move closer or further away by her own accord, and she found herself subconsciously leaning into him. It was like collapsing into a wall of clouds. He supported her almost weightlessly. It felt like floating.
She felt him stiffen slightly as she leaned into him, but then he relaxed and let his shoulder fall completely into hers.
“Your turn,” he whispered.
She’d forgotten what she was supposed to do, but then she remembered the game. She thought long and hard for several seconds before coming to her next confession. It was something that had been eating at the back of her mind for a while, but it didn’t feel that important until now.
“I’ve never been in love,” she confessed.
The air in the room seemed to suction out in one fatal swoop. She might have suffocated if it took him too long to respond, but luckily his reply was quick.
“How would you know?” he asked.
She wasn’t looking at him, but she saw his face turn toward hers from the corner of her eye. It took all the strength inside of her to not meet his gaze, so she focused on her hands in her lap instead.
“My mom always said I would just know.” She giggled innocently. “It sounds cliche, I know, but I think she was right. She said, falling in love was like the worst kind of pain and the best sort of pleasure all mixed up into one emotion.” She began fidgeting with the frayed edges of her sweater, still refusing to look at the person next to her. “I think when you love someone, you stop caring about yourself. You do whatever it takes to make that person happy, because one smile from them is worth all the trouble and all the sacrifice it took to get there. Just knowing that you’re the one that did it -- you’re the one that made them smile -- that’s all that matters.”
“Sounds to me like you know exactly what it feels like,” he said.
She shook her head. “It’s just what I hope.”
Something in her finally broke, and she was able to turn her head. When she did, it was his eyes that paralyzed her. She couldn’t look away. Deep blue irises stared back at her like a mirror -- like a reflection of her own soul -- and it was as if her heart forgot how to beat. It fluttered in and out of rhythm to the timing of his eyelids as they blinked slowly and then rapidly all at once. She couldn’t catch her breath. She found herself leaning further into his body, capturing the heat of him through layers and layers of clothes that separated their skin. This was so completely different than what she’d ever expected to feel. This was Daryl. She’d looked up to him as a leader at the jail. He was a protector. He was much older, and he’d seen things that she couldn’t imagine. But none of those things compared to what she was feeling now. It was uncalled for, and it was strange, but it was wonderful.
His lips parted as he took in the sight of her. He was trying to speak, but yet again, he couldn’t find the words.
“Have you ever been in love?” she asked.
His response wasn’t as quick as the one before, but she was silently thankful that he took the time to really consider it. “Yeah,” he let out. “I think so.”
She didn’t expect to feel disappointed, but it crashed against her like a monsoon. She physically pulled away from him and tried to hide the expression on her face, but he could clearly see that it wasn’t the answer she’d been looking for.
“So you had someone before?” she assumed. “Did you lose a wife? Or a girlfriend?”
He shook his head, still looking at her fiercely with those deep blue eyes. They were like a restless ocean at high tide, threatening to spill over and pull her under. “No,” he told her. “Not before.”
Now she was confused. She’d known Daryl long enough to notice that he’d never interacted much with the other females in the group. He rarely had a one on one conversation with anyone of the opposite sex, besides Carol, and that had never come across as anything other than friendship. Before, she’d shrugged it off as him merely being uninterested. There were other things to worry about and coupling up with someone when they were at the jail was probably at the bottom of his bucket list, but still… who was he referring to now?
“Who?” she pried. It felt like something she shouldn’t be curious about, but she was.
She needed to know.
He continued to stare at her. She thought she was going to lose her mind. His lack of vocabulary was becoming more and more inconvenient with every conversation they shared. Silence filtered between them as thick as fog, and she noticed that the house was quiet. For the first time since she’d moved from the bed, she noticed the lack of noise coming from outside. More than likely the group of walkers had spread out and vacated the premises, but it didn’t ease her tension. And it most certainly didn’t make her forget the matter at hand. It was like trying to pull string from a vat of honey. She could see what he was trying to say buried under the surface, but the amount of effort it took to pull it free was tedious and frustrating. His words were never simple and clean. They were coated with uncertainty and second guesses, but nonetheless, she could usually make out the underlying point. This was different, though. She didn’t want to be wrong.
He cleared his throat, and she felt him shake.
“Who was it?” she asked again, then rephrased. “Who is it?”
Finally, one word broke free, and it was the best kind of pleasure and the worst sort of pain all mixed up into one emotion.