The next day came around. Bright and early, Rick wanted us to push on.
"Alright," he began. "Since Layla used to work here, she'll keep this organized. If we get stuck, we look to her. As far as how to get there…" He gave the infested courtyard one more cursory glance. "We go in back to back. Keep tight formation." He looked at me. "Layla?"
I went up to the fence, ignoring the couple walkers that tried to snag me through the chain link. "Cell Block C is directly up ahead. Looks like the door is shut tight, which means we don't have to worry about walkers pouring in from there. But…" I craned my neck, trying to see what was going on in one of the corners. "Somewhere around that back right are walkers going in and out, as if there's another area. Looks like we might have more to worry about than just this courtyard. We need to be prepared to fall back."
"Hershel," Rick said to him. "You'll be manning the main gate. Be prepared to open it if that becomes the case. Let's do this."
It was me, Daryl, Rick, T-Dog, Glenn, and Maggie. We maintained a steady formation, all of us literally having each other's backs as we cut our way towards the cell block. I was right, unfortunately. There was another courtyard next to this one, its gate wide open and allowing walkers to spill in. Breaking formation, we flattened our backs against a wall to stay out of sight. There was an anxious pause as we all silently contemplated our next move. Things really spiced up when walkers clad in full riot gear surrounded us. There was no falling back now.
We each had our own walker to deal with. Most of them were wearing face shields or gas masks. I gripped the one I was up against by the shirt collar, keeping it steady and at a distance while I figured out how to kill it. No knife or bullet would make a dent. This gear was built to withstand it. Daryl's crossbow went off. The bolt struck the helmet of the walker I was holding, only to clatter to the ground.
"Don't waste ammo, Daryl," I hollered.
Decidedly and quickly, I yanked the visor on the helmet, exposing the walker's face, and stabbed it.
Maggie had the same idea. As soon as her walker was down, we made eye contact, and she exclaimed, "See that?"
Everyone else followed suit, swiftly dispatching each one.
"Work smarter, not harder!" I grinned at T-Dog. "Right?"
He let out a laugh. "Damn right!"
During that part of the fight, Daryl and Rick managed to close the other fence using another set of chain and carabiners. It took a little longer than expected, but we finally had all the walkers in this area killed. We stood at the center of it, taking a break, looking around for any stragglers.
"Well," Glenn said. "It looks secure."
"Not from the look of that courtyard over there," Daryl said sarcastically, pointing to our remaining neighborly walkers. He then pointed to a corpse that was wearing regular clothes, not riot gear or a prison jumpsuit. "And that's a civilian."
"So the interior could be overrun with walkers from outside the prison," T-Dog mused.
Glenn shrugged incredulously. "Well, if there's walls down, what're we gonna do? We can't rebuild this whole place."
"Rome wasn't built in a day," I said. "It's not realistic for us to take the entire place right this second. So we take it day by day. Securing areas as we go. We still got daylight left, so let's see what we can handle for now."
Rick nodded. "One step at a time. We can't risk a blind spot." He looked at one of the C Block entrances. "We have to push in. Layla, you're in the lead now."
I went in the direction he'd been looking in, taking us up a flight of stairs that were surrounded by a cage. I pressed my ear to the door, flattening the side of my body against the metal. I held up a finger, instructing everyone to keep quiet. Upon hearing no noise, I still gave everyone a cautious look and slowly slid the door open. Daryl, who'd had his crossbow raised over my shoulder, slowly lowered it as we entered.
There was a strange hush in the air as we walked down the next flight of stairs. We took in the emptiness of the abandoned cell block. Paper and debris were strewn everywhere, splatters of blood stained the walls, and there were scuff marks streaked against the ground. The prison had obviously seen its share of chaos, and the stains were very old. There was no evidence that anyone had been here in months, maybe even since the beginning of it all.
Each of us circled the room at our own pace. I could feel Daryl right behind me, probably in case I decided to take us into another room. Though, for right now, I was fine with just this for the moment.
Silently, Rick beckoned to me and Daryl by brandishing his machete. He pointed the blade upward, towards a guard station overlooking this block's common area. He climbed the stairs, with Maggie deciding to follow right behind him while the rest of us kept an eye on things from down here. A few seconds later, through the station's window, we could see Rick holding up a set of keys.
He came back down, and used the keys to open the next room, revealing the row of cells on the other side. The only walkers we had to deal with were a few that were locked behind their bars, prisoners who had been left to die and rot in their own cells. We took care of them, not only for our peace of mind, but also in case their snarls were to attract more. We still didn't know where all the breaches were. T-Dog took it upon himself to clear out the few bodies that were here.
Sometime later, everyone else joined us in the cell block, with Glenn leading them. They were carrying in what little supplies we had collected over the winter.
"What do you think," Rick asked all of us.
"Home sweet home," Glenn muttered tiredly.
"For the time being."
"It's secure," Lori asked.
"This cell block is," Rick nodded.
"What about the rest of the prison," Hershel asked.
"Layla's right," he said. "It's not realistic to take it all in one day, much as I'd like to. But in the morning, we'll find the cafeteria and infirmary. Go from there."
Beth took a look around. "We…sleep in cells?"
"I found some keys on some guards," Rick responded. "Daryl and Layla each have a set, too."
"I ain't sleepin' in no cage," Daryl grumbled, looking around for a decent spot to rest.
"Neither am I," I said. "Y'all know I won't do well with that." I never even slept in a cell during my first go-round, greedily taking one of the watchtowers. But this time, I wanted to mix it up a little. I also wanted to stay reasonably close to everyone.
…Is this what domestication feels like? It sure as hell better not be. Jesus, these people were making me lose my edge.
"Hey," I said, trying not to chuckle at my own internal battle. "What about that guard station? The one overlooking the common area?"
Daryl nodded. "Good enough for me."
It was still daylight, a rare opportunity for all of us to hit the sack early, or to just relax in general. Daryl snatched two mattresses from an unused cell, and we made our way back to the common area. Rick was there, leaning his back against the edge of a table and staring at the ground.
Daryl set the mattresses aside. "You good, chief?"
Rick nodded. He patted a few bags on the table next to him. "Glenn brought your stuff in for you." He took a look around. "What do you guys think?"
"I don't think this could work," I said as I sat down at the table, grinning widely. "I know this could work."
He also managed a grin. "Me, too."
"This place is huge," Daryl commented. He sat down beside me and gently combed his fingers through my hair, grimacing at the walker guts stuck to the strands. "Could take days for us to clear it. What we got right now won't last."
Rick nodded. "Food, ammo, and medical are next."
"We just need to get to those three things," I said. "There might be a map of the facility in the warden's office, but that won't mean shit if this place has breaches. Civilians getting in means some fencing or walls are down." I paused. "I have a mental map of this place, but it's not exactly easy to follow."
"Could you draw one up," Rick asked. "I think Glenn still has some chalk."
I shook my head. "I can only remember the layout as we go. I don't have a photographic memory of it. Daryl's right, this place is almost too big." I tapped the table. "Beneath us are the bowels of the prison. Affectionately called the tombs. That's where our supplies will be hiding. But anybody who doesn't know which way they're going will get lost down there. It's a maze like nothing you've ever seen."
"We need a breadcrumb trail," Rick said.
"Spray paint," Daryl suggested. "Mark as we go."
"We got some in one of the trunks." Rick pushed away from the table. "I'll go get it right now. You two get some rest." Rick then glanced specifically at me. "You'll be leading us through the tombs at first light." He went up the stairs and closed the door behind him with a dull thud.
I blew out a puff of air as we stood up. "He better get some rest, too. Otherwise I'll kick his ass."
Daryl snorted, and we made our way up to the guard station. "I'd bet money on who'd win that fight."
Rick and I's relationship…uh, how to define it…
…was a mutual one. All things considered.
During my first go-round, he only tolerated me, with the knowledge that I kept his family safe. In turn, he always had my back without fail, but that was the extent. This time around was a bit different
Rick and I would never be buddy-buddy with each other, especially after what had happened with Shane. I also knew he wasn't always thrilled by my presence because I still had no problem cussing him out with certain things. But for some reason, it wasn't as strained as it was just a few months ago.
During the start of winter, we struggled to find common ground, but that seemed to change after we had hashed things out at the mansion. Nowadays, we coexisted relatively fine. Oh, Rick and I still got on each other's nerves, that would never change. But we had the same goal, and that was to survive and live. To keep everyone safe and protected, with him almost always wanting my say in the matter, as opposed to just tolerating me. That was our common ground. That was the key difference.
Daryl was a part of that, with all three of us forming an odd partnership that somehow worked rather efficiently. I didn't know if I could compare us to a well-oiled machine, but we were damn near close to that.
In the guard station, there was a body that needed to be removed, and we couldn't do much about the blood stains. We also had to clear out some of the broken junk and glass in order to lie the mattresses down. But it was livable. Not that bad, honestly. We even had lockable cabinets to stash our stuff in. Once all that was taken care of, it was time to call it a day.
It was well into the night. I could hear the soft and loud snoring of the group, coming from the cells they were in. I could feel Daryl's breath wisping against the top of my head. I was wide awake. At this rate, I wasn't going to get much sleep. No, I needed to get up. Just for a bit. For my own sake. I slowly disentangled myself from Daryl's arms. I moved the poncho aside to cover him completely with it. Quiet as ever, I got my feet under me and rose to stand.
Daryl's fingers twitched sharply against the mattress. His brows came together. "Layla," he asked groggily, eyes still closed.
My heart skipped a beat, hearing the amount of affection and sudden worry behind that single word. Directed solely at me.
Before he could wake up completely, I chirped. Instead of the usual sharpness I normally put behind it, it was a soft sound this time, almost a whisper in itself. It was just loud enough for only him to hear. His brows instantly relaxed, but his hand still involuntarily twitched.
"I'm fine," I whispered. "I'll be back in a bit."
His eyelids blearily cracked open. When we made eye contact, he nodded and relaxed back into the mattresses.
I walked down to the common area, my socks quiet against the metal steps, having not bothered with my boots. My stride was smooth and confident. I could navigate this place in the dark, and I was. It was almost pitch black, with only a sliver of light from the moonlit sky filtering in through the barred windows.
I stepped up onto a bench seat, and sat down on the center of the table. I crossed my legs and leaned back on my hands, feeling a muscle in my back pop and relax as I did so. I decided to do some other stretches while I was up there, working out the remainder of the kinks still leftover from having to run around all winter.
When I was done with that, I let my senses tune in to this place. God, this place was old. It smelled of metal and dust and dried blood. The air was still, but not stifling due to the drafts rolling in through broken windows. I could pick up on the faint sounds of metal creaking and drywall sprinkling down from the ceiling, as if the foundation itself was rattling its own bones.
My people were asleep in the cells just to the right of me, and the man I loved was asleep up a flight of stairs to the left. We were all here, and all of us were safe.
...I almost couldn't believe I was here.
I scratched at my eyes again, this time with both hands. I inhaled sharply.
I enjoyed the open road and the wild freedom that came with it. I'd traveled for so long, for so many years, that I felt I didn't need a place to hang my hat. Oh, I still intended to do my share of traveling, of going on runs or hunts or just simple hikes. I refused to stay cooped up for very long at all anywhere, no matter where we would go.
But this was a place that I genuinely called mine. I was here again. I could finally let that sink in. I needed this…whatever this was.
In inhaled again, smiling so widely against my palms.
"You oughta come back to bed."
I lifted my head up, still smiling like a lunatic. Daryl saw this, but his own confused grin quickly vanished upon seeing the tear-stains all over my face.
I didn't cry often. I normally didn't even cry when I was having a PTSD episode. Actually, I'm not sure if Daryl had ever seen my cry. So the alarm on his face was completely understandable.
"Happy tears," I explained quickly. "That's all."
The concern left his eyes, but he still took his time approaching me, unsure if he should actually do anything. He sat down beside me on top of the table, and took out a rage. I wiped my face with it, and then fidgeted it in my hands for a while.
I took a breath. "I don't think you realize just how much this place means to me. It's where I met you. And where I met your people. I didn't know back then how important you'd all be to me. I know that timeline is dead and gone…I know that now. I spent too damn long trying to cling to it. But I'm here again." I handed the rag back to Daryl. "I can't even describe it."
He nodded, and I could tell he was trying to understand. We were both drifters by definition, lifestyle, and nature. We were used to roughing and making the most of wherever we went. Having a place to call our own was almost an oddity by our standards. And I was glad to give this to him. To give it to all of us.
Daryl turned his head, looking around as if he could see the details through the darkness. "So. This is your home."
I nodded. "Yes, it is."
He looked at me, and I could just barely see him smiling softly. His hand came up to hold the side of my face, and his thumb brushed away a stray tear. "Then it's mine, too," he murmured.
I leaned towards him to press my lips against his.
When we pulled back, I said, "It wouldn't be home without you."