They’d been walking for two weeks before the fall weather truly set in. Days were tolerable, chills of the night chased away by the late autumn sun. Nights were another matter. Sometimes they got lucky, Rick or Daryl spotting some kind of shack, barn, or even a large truck everyone could settle into for the night. Walls felt safer than open air, both in protection from walkers and protection from the elements. This night, they were not so lucky. Hershel swore if they kept going just a bit further they’d reach an old granary but the rain that had only been a sprinkle quickly escalated into a deluge. Sheets of water that drenched clothes, cold settling into bones as if the concept of “warm” never truly existed. The canopy of trees along the old highway could only provide so much shelter from the downpour but it was something. Almost everyone had picked a tree base without much discussion, huddling in twos or threes. Daryl settled into the driest patch he could, crossbow at the ready should he be needed. It would be a quiet night, he knew that already. Rain like this made the world into a swamp of muck, where walking became treacherous for those with working minds, let alone walkers. Those bastards would sink into the soup and stay there, snapping and clawing uselessly.
People had started to doze off, exhaustion overtaking discomfort. As bodies slowly stopped their fidgeting, Daryl realized he wasn’t the only one huddled solo. Little Beth Greene curled up at the base of a pitiful looking tree, arms wrapped around her knees, shaking in time with the spindly pine needles above her. One tree away, Hershel and Maggie slept beneath a scratchy blanket they’d taken from the trunk of a partially burned out car. Daryl frowned, disbelief curling in his gut. How in the hell had Beth ended up all alone, without a blanket under a shitty tree? Surely someone should be looking after her. Minutes ticked by, the remaining members of the group slid into slumber and Beth’s shaking got worse. Slight tremors became bone deep rattles as she became increasingly saturated. Was she normally that pale?
Discomfort pulled his gut tighter and tighter. She wouldn’t survive the night like this but did he have it in him to move? He was soaked through, along with the rest of them but the thing about wool was that, even wet, it helped keep in body heat. And Beth needed body heat.
He’d had to clear his throat twice before the rough sound was able to penetrate the rain. She lifted her head from her arms, gazing blearily at him.
His voice was low, and she didn’t respond for a few of his thudding heartbeats. He opened his mouth to speak again, maybe a bit louder this time when she jerkily unwound herself and lurched toward him. Cold had made her clumsy, feet sliding in the earth, fingers unable to uncurl properly. He moved as quickly as he could, pulling her against his chest then under his poncho, head tucked just under his chin. He moved his legs to cradle her from either side, arms around her rigid frame. She was ice, damp to the touch everywhere. She held herself stiffly, trying not to shake against him but wave after wave of shakes still came. Rattling her bones, rattling his. He held her tighter, hands rubbing her arms, hands, the side of her ribs. Whatever he could reach to create friction, get her blood moving. Saturated strands of blonde hair stuck to her neck and his collar bone, dripping slowly onto both their skin and clothing.
Now that she was here, trembling against him, he wondered if he made the right decision. She needed warmth yes, but did she need him? Could he handle having her pressed against him all night? Anxiety crept up his spine, making his skin itch and burn every place they touched. He should have just given her the poncho and a space under his tree, not curled himself around her as if he were trying to be some kind of space heater. His fingers twitched, feet shifted as if he’d already made up is mind to forfeit the poncho. He could stand the cold and wet without it. Hell, he’d survived much worse before. But something stopped him from moving. She burrowed into him, a quiet sigh escaping her. Fingers slowly curled into the flannel covering his chest, the pad of her little finger slipping through a small hole to rest against the skin of his chest. A small noise bubbled up from the back of her throat, a moan mixed with a sigh. Not a second later did a breathy “thank you” follow. In that moment he settled fully against the base of the tree and her. Choice made. He wasn’t letting her go.