"Who's worse after the apocalypse? The walkers? Or the people we live with now?"

-Nichole Archer

-oOo-

"We are not having this discussion again," Rick said, calmly, rationally, despite the fact that he was the one who was starting the argument that would eventually cause Daryl to blow up.

"If you keep telling me what to do, we will have this conversation, and you won't be winning this time," Daryl stated, his voice raising, causing his accent to become a little more pronounced. "If you think anywhere in that brain of yours that I'm going to back down on this, you're stupider than I gave you credit for."

The expression on Rick's face was somewhere in between incredulous anger and righteous indignation. Daryl could have laughed at the idiocy of all this.

"Then you can leave with them! I'm not endangering my wife and child because you picked up some strays!"

"Who are helping more than either your wife or child are." Daryl stood from where he was sitting outside his tent. On the inside, one of the people they were arguing about was sleeping, having exhausted herself helping Lori through the issues she was having. "And would your wife still even be able to do anything if not for Nichole?"

Rick shook his head. "We have Hershel. We don't need another doctor."

"Hershel? He couldn't do it! He already said he wasn't any good at human babies."

An angry sigh came from Rick and Daryl knew that this time he won once more. "Fine. She can stay another day. But if something happens, you're on your own."

"Like that's anything new," Daryl said, taking a step forward. "I'm on my own either way."

Rick turned and headed back towards his own small campsite. With that problem solved for the moment, Daryl sat down again and went back to sorting through his arrows to find the ones he could hunt with and the ones that could only be used on walkers. Since Nichole's brother Alex had taken to hunting with him, Daryl's main job was to take down any stray walkers. With both of them, it took half the time to get enough meat for the group compared to before.

Added to that, Nichole was extremely resourceful when it came to edible plants. She knew how to test things without killing anyone, and that got added to what they already had. As the others had quickly learned, her abilities to supplement their diets had created a much happier and less hungry group.

But along with that also came the danger of a larger group. Which Rick brought up at least every two days. Daryl was becoming sick of the arguments and it meant that every time he spent at least an hour thinking about the wisdom of taking Nichole and splitting from the group. Alex could step into his place easily enough, and the group would be at the same number.

It always came down to the reasons he had to stay. Nichole did not want to leave her brother, and Daryl knew that if he left, Carol would lose her final real friend here as well. Glenn would inevitably follow, and Maggie would come along. The group would splinter and people would get hurt. Daryl had been injured enough to not want to be in that position again. Especially after being shot again so recently.

Daryl set his arrows aside and leaned his bow across the log next to the tent. Standing and slipping inside, he kicked his boots off before crawling across the tent floor towards the pile of sleeping bags where Nichole was laying. Her long dark hair was curled around her face and body, unbraided from the severe way she wore it in the day. Pale skin looked lighter in the dark, and he could tell how tired she was by the dark circles under her closed eyes.

She had lost some weight since leaving the compound where they had first met. That was inevitable. Nichole still retained her same shape, but she was wearing a size smaller in her clothes. One of Daryl's belts now served to keep her looser pants on, and some scavenged shirts served well enough. Right now, she was wearing a long t-shirt and a pair of tight shorts, her blanket tossed aside and her long legs tangled in the cloth underneath her.

A smile quirked at the corner of Daryl's lips as he crept forward. Completely silent, he slid in next to her, wrapping his arms firmly around her waist. His own personal bed warmer let out a small noise and slid a little closer to him, rolling in her sleep so she could bury her face in his shoulder. It was something she did often, seeking out comfort despite how warm she was.

Over the past week, this had become a regular occurrence. And Daryl would not change it. It brought him a great deal of pleasure to come back to camp to someone who was so excited to see him walk through the perimeter again. She spent her day giving her all to the group, but once he returned, she was completely devoted to making sure he was comfortable and uninjured.

This was a wonderful thing he never expected to have, even before the world went to shit. Between watching out for Merle and trying to etch out a living, he never had much time for women. Not enough to keep someone interested, anyway. Not that it mattered anymore. Most of the women he would have chosen were now dead or undead. The kind of woman he tended towards in those days was a shallow, thin, low intelligence type. Nichole was not shallow, had actual curves, and was one of the smartest people he had ever met. And those facts made her so much more attractive to him than any of the girls he had been with before.

Pulling her closer, he saw her headphones in a tangled mess next to her. Daryl reached over and picked up the music player cell phone, turning it off to conserve battery, and tucked it in the nearest bag for her later. It was these little things that they did for one another that made it easier for both. Never having someone caring to look after him like this before, Daryl did not take it for granted. Merle had his back, but never had reason to see to his day to day comfort. Nichole did it without expecting anything in return and was always surprised when he did something for her.

After the first two days of doing little things for her, Daryl had realized that where she had lived before she was taken advantage of. And he made it his personal mission to make sure that never happened again. Making sure that the others respected her was less difficult than he thought it would have been. Only Rick still questioned her presence while the others made it clear how welcome she was.

Then of course was the ongoing joke among T-dog and Carol that this girl had tamed the wild Daryl Dixon. What they failed to realize was that now Daryl had something to fight for, he was that much more dangerous. The only other time he had given this much to something was back when he was practically leading a one man search for Carol's daughter. That particular effort led ultimately to him being shot. There was no question that Daryl would kill anyone who threatened Nichole at all, and bullets were the least of his worries.

With Rick's constant threats to ban Nichole and Alex from the group, of course it raised Daryl's protective nature ten fold. If necessary, he would voluntarily leave them behind and take his bike with Nichole. They could live easier without so many others to look after.

She shifted again, her hand snagging on his shirt as if she was having a bad dream, which given the last few weeks was probably true. In her mind was the image of death, something that in her normal life she had only seen in a sterile environment after it already happened. Never up close, never had to do it herself.

Without any hesitation, Daryl put his hand over hers, holding it tightly until her clenching stopped. Only then did he pull the thin blanket over them both and lay his head down to sleep.

If he had tomorrow to prove to Rick how wrong he was, he needed all the rest he could get. Tomorrow was going to be a long day.