It was so quiet. Eerily quiet. Too quiet.
The loud bangs and screams and snarls of Terminus still echoed in your ears, the vivid images of fire and blood flashing across your vision each time you closed your eyes, the darkness only intensifying the memory of being trapped inside that claustrophobic railway car, helpless and afraid. It was supposed to be the answer. It was supposed to be a sanctuary. Instead, it had just brought more terror and misery and death.
You sighed loudly, easing yourself up from the centre of the maze of sleeping bodies around you, and tiptoed carefully to the edge of the makeshift camp, nodding to Tyreese who was keeping watch, propped against a tree in the gloom with his rifle resting in his lap. The barbed wire that had been rigged up to form a tentative perimeter glinted in the moonlight that filtered through the branches overhead and you stepped carefully over it, wincing when you felt the sharp barbs prick through the thinning denim of your jeans.
You couldn’t explain it, the sudden urgent need to be alone, but when you sank down amongst the protruding roots of a wizened old tree, you felt the tension that had wrapped itself around you, suffocating and unrelenting, finally begin to ease as you let yourself fall apart. God, it had been so close. Too close. That carriage had been a holding cell, a waiting room, and you’d been maybe hours away from being bled and hung like an animal. Your family had come even closer still. Now, as you wrapped your arms around your knees, drawing your legs up to your chest, you could smell the coppery tang of blood, the roasting human flesh and your stomach churned at the thought of how that could have been you, or Rick, or Maggie, or Carl.
You were so lost in what might have been that you didn’t stir when someone lowered themselves to the ground beside you, the scent of smoke creeping in to your awareness as the soft grey wisps curled towards the sky. It was a hand on your shoulder that finally dragged you back to the present moment and you flinched away from the touch, the darkness turning friend into threat.
‘Hey, s’me.’ Daryl’s gravelly rasp reassured you and, when you raised your head to meet his piercing blue eyes, you felt a wave of calm wash over you. ‘Ya shouldn’ go sneakin’ off like this. Gonna get yerself killed.’
‘I’m sorry.’ You knew it was stupid, but you also knew that the archer, above everyone else, would understand the need for solitude. ‘I just needed a moment alone after everything.’
‘I get it.’ He took a drag from his smoke, leaning his head back against the gnarled bark and casting you a sideways glance. ‘Ya gonna have t’ be alone with me here though ‘cause I ain’t leavin’ ya.’
You nodded, having no desire to argue with him. Besides, he was so quiet that you figured you could still enjoy a little space, even with his long leg pressed against yours.
‘Ya wanna talk about it?’
‘I’m not sure I can,’ you admitted. ‘We came so close in that place, Daryl. So close to losing everything and I can still hear the screams. I close my eyes and I’m right back in that train car…’ You tailed off, realising how pathetic you must sound to someone like him. He was strong, fearless. When the metal door had slammed shut behind you, he and Rick had been straight down to business, working on a plan, constructing weapons out of the meagre supplies you had available. He was a hero and you were a victim.
‘That why y’ain’t sleepin’?’
‘Yeah. Stupid, right?’ You shrugged. ‘I bet you don’t even know what it’s like to be that afraid.’
‘I know what it’s like.’ He fixed you with a stern look.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen you scared.’
‘Ain’t scared o’ dyin’.’ He stubbed out his smoke, dragging it along the ground until the orange glow blinked out. ‘M’scared o’ losin’ people, lettin’ ‘em down. Don’t matter if somethin’ happens to me, but if I mess up ‘n’ Rick gets hurt, or the kids, or you… I’d never forgive myself for that.’
You could understand that, sort of, though why your name was listed as high on that list as the Grimes family, you really didn’t know. He’d never looked twice at you, never treated you any differently from any of the others and yet, as his arm curled around you, his touch tentative, as though he expected you to pull away, you wondered if maybe there was something else he might be afraid of. ‘You’re always saving people.’
‘Yeah, but you go out of your way to do it,’ you pointed out. ‘You searched for Sophia for days, got yourself all torn up doing it, too. You kept everybody fed at the prison. You got us out of Terminus-‘
‘Nah, that was Carol.’
‘She provided the opportunity, but it was you that got us out. You and Rick. You look after us. You always have.’
You were sure that, had it not been so dark, the tips of Daryl’s ears would have turned a rosy pink, and his grip on you tightened as he shifted against the hard ground. ‘Ain’t like that. M’just lookin’ out for the group.’
‘Well, it’s appreciated. The group needs you.’ You turned your body into his, resting your head in the crook of his neck as a gentle breeze penetrated your shirt, raising goosebumps over your skin. ‘And you coming after me, that’s appreciated too.’
‘Even though ya wanted to be alone?’
‘I think I needed this more.’ It was true. The archer’s embrace had filled you with a sense of security, forcing the nightmarish images from your mind and settling you for the first time since before the prison fell.
‘You ‘n’ me both.’ You fell silent, enjoying the peace of the moment, the break from the struggle of survival as the group slept on. Your face was nestled against his skin, your hair catching in the scruff of his chin and, when you felt his lips brush against the top of your head, you bunched his shirt between your fingers, holding him close. You could feel the steady rise and fall of his chest, the heat that was emanating from him, and you sighed contentedly. There was no way he’d have held you like this in the daytime. He wasn’t unfriendly, but the archer had never really been big on physical affection. But in the dark, somehow, it was okay and you were glad of that. Before long though, he was pulling away, releasing you so that the cold crept back in. ‘C’mon, ya gotta get some sleep. Gonna be a long day tomorrow.’
‘I don’t know if I can.’
‘Ya can.’ He eased himself to his feet, reaching for your hand and hauling you upright, his fingers lacing through yours as he led you back towards the camp. When you reached the small clearing, he motioned for you to lay down and you did as instructed, rolling onto your side and tucking an arm beneath your head, though you were sure that it was a lost cause, knowing that your anxiety would seep back in as soon as you closed your eyes. But then he was dropping down beside you, curling against your back, crooking his legs behind yours so that your bodies were flush, his arm resting heavy over your waist. ‘I got ya. Ain’t nothin’ gonna hurt ya tonight.’
‘Y’know, before, when I said the group needed you?’ you ventured hesitantly, keeping your voice a low whisper so as not to disturb those around you. He grunted, waiting for you to go on. ‘What I really meant was that I need you.’
‘Yeah?’ You’d expected him to sneer at you, to maybe shut you down, but instead he tugged you closer, his breath hot on the back of your neck. ‘Well, I ain’t goin’ nowhere.’