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The Three Gifts

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The Three Gifts

 

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Deck the Halls

 

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The music started before 6 a.m.

Daryl knew this for a couple of reasons. Reason number one, it was Thursday. Thursday morning. One of the three days a week he got to sleep in, at least until 7, 8 if he was lucky, and Merle and Axel opened up shop across town. Reason number two, a soft female body was still draped around him like a winter blanket, cold nose tucked between his shoulder blades and sleepy mouth curving into a smile against his spine. Cracking one eye open, being greeted with their darkened bedroom as expected, he groaned into his pillow. "You got to be shittin' me. The fuckin' muppets?"

A pale, freckled arm circled around his ribcage, hugged him tight. "Would you prefer Mickey and his friends?"

A cloud of copper curls entered the periphery of Daryl's vision, and he huffed out a quiet but vehement answer to her teasing question when her lips tickled across the blade of his shoulder, settled on the round of it in a sweet good morning kiss. "Hell no." He slid his left hand over hers where it rested over his heart, his fingers absently toying with her most recently acquired piece of jewelry, and sighed. "Don't mean I like that bacon loving green frog any better."

"Daryl!"

She sounded scandalized, but she giggled all the same, and he smirked, choosing to ignore the obnoxious rendering of what passed for a Christmas classic around these parts and giving her arm a tug as he rolled to his back. "This what I'm gonna have to put up with the rest of the month? Thought you Peletier girls had better taste."

Sprawled across him with her chin propped on her crossed arms, she smiled down at him, unable to suppress a shiver as he dragged his knuckles up and down her back, catching the worn cotton of her camisole on an upward sweep and flattening his rough palm across the soft skin discovered there. Her blue eyes sparkled as her fingers lightly traced the stubble that peppered his cheeks and his chin. "You keep forgetting."

"Hmm?" Daryl hummed, because he never tired of hearing it, didn't think he ever would, and hell. If Soph wanted to listen to the fuckin' muppets, well, then. He'd just deal with having the frog chorusing fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la in his head the rest of the day.

"We're Dixon girls now."

"That right?" Daryl asked, lifting his head from his pillow and claiming her lips in a clinging kiss that went on and on and on, until they had to pull apart for air. Good thing, too, because the alarm on her phone went off, and he knew they didn't have enough time for what he wanted to do to her, didn't have time for much more than another quick, regretful press of the lips before Sophia came knocking, and their day officially started. With great reluctance, he let his arms fall away, watched her crawl from their warm bed with heavy lidded eyes.

She lingered in the doorway to their bathroom, all sleep tousled and bright eyed, camisole still hiked high on her ribs and pale, restless legs on display. "Share?" she asked, nodding toward the waiting shower.

Dragging his tongue across his lip, Daryl shook his head, stifled a groan that had nothing to do with the cheery Christmas music rising to a crescendo two doors down, and she knew it. Damn, did she know it, judging by the smirk that twitched on her pretty, bruised mouth. "Better not." His own smile threatened even before she let hers have full reign, and he shook his head again. "Don't tease me, Woman," he warned. "You know we don't got much longer 'fore Soph comes bargin' in. Door's not locked."

"Too bad," she murmured, all but her head disappearing through the bathroom door. "Maybe some other time?"

"Carol," Daryl growled.

Soft laughter pealed from her lips, and she lifted her hand to blow him a parting kiss. "Happy first of Christmas, Mr. Dixon."

Happy first of Christmas, Mrs. Dixon, Daryl thought as he rolled onto his stomach, gathered her pillow and her scent close to him as the shower turned on and Deck the Halls looped on repeat just down the hall. Happy first of Christmas, indeed.

Chapter Text

The Three Gifts

 

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A Holly Jolly Christmas

 

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"Oh, ho the mistletoe," Axel warbled beneath the hood of the Toyota he'd been tinkering with for the past hour. "Hung where you can see."

"Ain't nobody waitin' for you, Man."

Axel tried to glare at Big Tiny for his laughing comment, his handlebar mustache even twitched a little with indignation, but it was a half-assed effort because he was too busy rubbing at the newly acquired bump on his head, and Daryl had to roll his eyes.

"Might not be nobody waitin' on him, but the Boss Man's got somebody waitin' at home. Two somebody's as a matter of fact. Get back to work, Ladies." Merle's sneer softened when he got a good look at Daryl, and he tossed him the rag from his back pocket.

Daryl took it gratefully, rubbing at the grease and grime that seemed permanently soaked into his skin. "Thanks," he muttered, peering up at his brother beneath the fringe of his sweaty bangs.

"No thanks needed, Baby Brother," Merle declared. "And I mean no thanks needed," he reiterated with a shit-eating grin that bordered on lewdness. "Guess who's comin' to dinner?"

Shaking his head, Daryl finished with the rag and tossed it at Merle's broad chest. "Man, still don't get what Andrea sees in you."

"Me?" Merle scoffed. "You's the one bagged yerself a wife and little girl. 'Times I wonder. If I hadn't witnessed it with my own two eyes, I'd never believe me and you was related." He followed close on Daryl's heels as he left the garage, paused right outside the small office that rarely got used, 'cept by the receptionist Tara. Girl was already gone for the weekend, headed upstate to see her girlfriend, no doubt with the blessing of his brother, and Merle couldn't resist further comment. "You always been the sweet one." Daryl held out a chilled bottle of water from the mini-fridge, and he accepted the offering, uncapping it and swallowing half of it down. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he studied the boy for a moment, smiled.

Daryl sighed. "What?"

"Nothing." Merle shrugged, setting his bottle of water down on the desk and parking his ass on its edge.

"It's always somethin' with you, Merle," Daryl remarked tiredly. A few feet away, Big Tiny had joined Axel in his holiday cheer, and between the two of them, they were murdering a perfectly serviceable song. "Just spit it out."

"Nothing," Merle repeated. "Just saw the tree up in yer window last night on my way home. Last time a Dixon had a Christmas tree…"

Though he'd been nothing more than a boy, Daryl recalled the decades' old memory with clarity, felt his irritation slip away, just like that. "Was Soph's idea." It may have been Sophia's idea, but Carol had run with it, and Daryl had found himself swept up in their excitement the evening before, decided maybe Christmas weren't so bad after all. Not if it made his girls smile like that, big and bright and beaming. He shrugged, tried to play the moment off, but his brother read the truth all over his face, seen it in his eyes, and he mumbled the suggestion before he could take it back. "You should get one for your place." He waited for the jeers, the insufferable grin, but it didn't come, at least not in the form of his brother's teasing. No, Axel beat his brother to it, proving once and for all his mind was on anything but his work.

"Chicks dig decorating that kind of thing, Man!"

"They do," Big Tiny chimed in.

"Ladies!" Merle barked, and both men quickly ducked back beneath the Toyota's hood. Before long, they were back to butchering the holiday staple, singing loudly and with exaggerated gusto. "Could be they're on to somethin'," Merle finally said. "Maybe I should take Andrea out to Greene's farm."

"Maybe you shouldn't." The past was the past, but the old man didn't have much use for his brother, and Daryl didn't blame him, not one single bit. "You make sure those two finish up in there?"

"Maybe I shouldn't," Merle agreed belatedly. "Yeah. Cheech and Chong ain't goin' nowhere." He watched as Daryl straightened up Tara's work space, shoved his wallet in his back pocket, and he stood from his perch, snagging his bottle of water in his hand. A small smile crept across his lips, and his eyes twinkled when the boy sighed again.

"Merle."

"Calm yer tits. Was just thinkin'…"

Daryl crossed his arms, waited him out.

"Married life looks good on you."

Daryl relaxed, smiled back at him before killing the lights and locking the door behind him. "Thanks."

"Now get outta here," Merle waved him off. "Get home to yer wife and kid. And Darylina?"

"Yeah?"

"Kiss 'em once for me?"

"Man, don't even…"

Chapter Text

The Three Gifts
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Do You Hear What I Hear?

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“Here.”

Wordlessly, Daryl accepted the small Styrofoam cup offered to him, lifted it to his nose and breathed in deeply before taking a healthy drag. He hissed, swearing lightly when the hot liquid burned his tongue, but managed a small muttering of gratitude nonetheless. “Thanks, Man.”

The man beside him shrugged, took a much more careful sip of his own coffee to hide his smirk. “Looked like you needed it. Cookie?” he asked, holding up a crinkled paper bag that bore the logo of the crowded cookie franchise across the way. “Got domino, chocolate chip, peanut butter. You name it.”

Daryl frowned, taking another more measured sip of the coffee in his hand. “The hell’s domino?” Another shrug, and Daryl’s frown threatened to turn into a smile. He still had trouble wrapping his brain ‘round it sometimes. The very idea that him and one of King County PD’s finest moved in the same circles now, were borderline friendly even. But Soph and that disobedient little shit Carl Grimes were the bestest friends there ever was according to his little stepdaughter and a day didn’t go by that he didn’t hear the boy’s or his mama’s name spoken in his house. If he was to hazard a guess, the same held true for Grimes where Carol and Sophia was concerned. “You even know?”

“Not really sure,” Rick admitted with a chuckle. “Why don’t you try it? But chew fast.”

Daryl’s brow furrowed and cookie crumbs fell from his lips, littered the front of his shirt. “You didn’t buy enough for the kids?”

“Didn’t buy enough for Lori.”

Daryl snorted, almost choked at the reference to the very pregnant missus. Woman had looked like she was ‘bout to pop way back when. Hell, he’d held his breath all through his and Carol’s September wedding ceremony, partly because he thought his streak of unbelievable luck had to run out sometime and Merle or her ex or some random Joe Blow off the street would fuck everything up, partly because he was afraid his girl’s matron of honor would explode like a birthday piñata at any given second. “Shit, Man. You must like living dangerously.”

Rick’s grin was big and wide and full of teeth. “You don’t know the half of it.”

They fell into a comfortable silence, consuming their cookies and coffee and moving with the line as it crawled forward. They passed Victoria’s Secret and Daryl pretended not to see Merle milling around in a sea of women and scanty lingerie, looking like he swallowed a damn coater hanger, Andrea’s brassy blond head nowhere to be found. They looped around the jewelry store, and Daryl started having flashbacks to his last visit to literal Hell on Earth and the snooty little sales clerk that looked down his nose at him and his grimy, work-roughened hands. Smarmy sonuvabitch followed behind him with a fancy handkerchief, cleaning up the smudges, watching him like a hawk. Case after case of engagement rings and Daryl didn’t buy nothing, took his hard-earned money and asked Tara’s friend Rosita to make Carol something as pretty and unique as her. Must have done something right. Woman hadn’t took that ring off since. Andrea joined back up with them when the line curled in front of some kind of ritzy women’s store, White Market Black House or something like that—false advertisement if you asked Daryl, both arms full of bags that she immediately divided up between the two of them. She abandoned their company to disappear into the Apple store when the insufferable line circled again, and the volume of the Christmas carols that had followed them throughout the bustling mall ratcheted up several notches and finally, finally Daryl saw the back of Santa’s head. He was just about to step into Santa’s Village when a long, skinny red and green striped arm darted out and stopped him.

“Well, jingle my bells. Which one of you’ve been naughty, and which one’s been nice?”

A glance at Rick showed the other man had ducked his head, only the tips of his red ears visible to Daryl’s mortified gaze, and his tongue grew thick in his mouth. “We’re not...I’m not…” Grimes was no help at all—the fucker’s shoulders were literally shaking with laughter—and Daryl searched the milling crowds of overstimulated, crying kids and fed up parents for help, for a glimpse of somebody, anybody that could set the record straight, and he finally found it in Carl and Sophia, weaving toward them through the throng hand in hand, their little faces flushed and excited. “Soph! Carl! Over here!”

Sophia curled her little arms around his leg when she reached him, and her thumb gravitated toward her mouth in a nervous gesture Daryl knew all too well. She kept her lips tightly zipped when the nosy Elf started asking her questions, but her little shit friend had no such compunction.

When asked, Carl loudly and proudly proclaimed, “They’re our dads!”

Rick’s stifled laughter left him in a rush, and tears started running down his cheeks as he pulled Carl to him, catching the eye of his amused wife several feet away.

“Oh! Aren’t you just the cutest family?”

“You gonna say somethin’?” Daryl asked Lori as she waddled closer, one hand cupped protectively over belly and the other rubbing absently at her back.

“She’s not wrong,” Lori teased as she joined them, leaning into Rick when his hand replaced hers on her aching back. “You two do make a cute couple.”

“But not as cute as you and me,” Carol cut in with a cheeky smile, standing on tiptoe and effectively kissing the glare from Daryl’s face and mouth.

“The hell you been?” Daryl muttered, chasing her lips as she pulled away, following her blindly as the line started to move again and they left their tights clad admirer behind.

Carol’s lips quirked in a teasing little smile, and her blue eyes crinkled with happiness. “I might have taken care of a little shopping of my own while Lori took Sophia to Build-A-Bear to pick out her present from Carl.

For the first time, Daryl noticed the stuffed cat cradled lovingly in Sophia’s arms, the Darth Vader Bear little Grimes wasn’t letting go of for love or money. Then he spotted a small pink striped bag peeking out of another bag, and his heart started to race and his throat went dry. When Carol’s smile merely widened, he pulled her to him and combed a hand through her hair, his voice dropping to a low, gravel-laced tone only she could hear. “You gonna let me open it ‘fore Christmas?”

“Who said it’s for you?”

“You sayin’ it ain’t?”

“I’m not saying anything,” Carol laughed, slipping from his arms and tending to her daughter, who was nervously tugging at her shirt tail as the man of the hour came into view.

“Mama. Mama.”

“I know. Looks like we’re next.”

“You ‘member your list, Soph?” Daryl lay a gentle hand over her glossy head.

Sophia nodded, her stuffed feline friend clutched tightly to her small chest. “Uh huh.”

Kid was still shakin’ like a leaf so Daryl did somethin’ that was comin’ a little easier to him with every day he spent in the little girl’s company, every day he basked in her mama’s unexpected love. He cupped her face in his big hand and bent to kiss her on the forehead, whispered a promise in her ear. “You got nothin’ to worry ‘bout, Soph. Nothin’. Santa knows.”

When her time came, Sophia marched right up to the jolly man in the red suit, let herself be placed in his lap.

Daryl proudly watched as she tugged lightly at the old man’s beard and leaned over to whisper in his ear, her little hand cupped over her mouth as she looked back over at him and Carol and smiled. “You got any clue what she’s askin’ for?”

Carol slid her arm around his waist, rest her head upon his shoulder and sighed happily. “I think I have a pretty good guess.”

Chapter Text

The Three Gifts

 

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Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep

 

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The bedroom door closed behind him with a soft snick, and Daryl fell back against the door with a sigh. "Thought they'd never leave."

"Hmm?"

Just her hair poked above the mound of blankets on the bed in response, still wild and curly from his eager hands, and his mouth twitched with the makings of a smile as he shuffled across the darkened room. He peeked through the drawn curtains, past the rain that pattered slow and steady and gray, and watched the Horvath's old station wagon back carefully out of the driveway. Sophia's little face was nothing more than a blurred smudge in the backseat, but her concern for her mama continued to pull and gnaw at his gut. Daryl was still getting used to that feeling. That stone of parental guilt. Merle liked to tell him it got better, but Merle didn't know shit 'bout kids. Least not any more than Daryl himself, and anyway. Soph was different. He was going to have to make this up to her. He would. Turning from the window, he temporarily shook the thought from his head. "The old man's Bull Shit Detector was working overtime."

A soft, kittenish mewl fluttered from Carol's lips as he lifted the covers and slid in behind her, pulled her close until her rounded ass fit snug against him, all warm and cozy and content. She covered his hand with hers and murmured, "Yeah?"

Daryl's mouth brushed over her soft hair. "Yeah."

The shiver that licked up and down the pretty curl of her spine had little to do with the slight chill that had taken up residence outside and in during the overnight hours.

Daryl knew it. They both knew it. Still, she was too tired to really do anything about it, and he reckoned she had every right to be. Over and over, she'd come apart in his arms. Shattered and moaned (sweet and soft so Sophia couldn't hear them down the hall), and damn, if his body didn't still crave her, his tongue didn't chase the remnants of her taste on his lips. She hummed a question, a name really, and his pinky finger slipped beneath the waist band of her pajamas, absently stroked at the skin he found there.

"Ms. Irma?"

"Hopes you feel better. Even offered up some of her famous chicken noodle soup." Daryl half-grunted, half-laughed as she snuggled deeper into his embrace. Pulled his arm even tighter around herself until he could feel each slow contraction and relaxation of her ribcage when she breathed, each thud of her beating heart. Horvath's old lady had been real pushy 'bout it, too, 'til her husband stepped in. Took her by the shoulder, Sophia by her little hand, and steered them both toward the door. Daryl hadn't missed the knowing twinkle in the older man's eyes as he stepped over that threshold, but he wasn't going to mention that. Instead, he passed along the last thing the woman had said to him. "Promised you ain't gotta worry none 'bout Soph."

Of that, Carol obviously had no doubt. Dale and Irma Horvath doted on her little girl. Had almost from the very start, back when she put Ed in her rear-view mirror, got back on her own two feet. She acknowledged that portion of his comments with a tiny nod.

Daryl, though. He was still figurin' this stepdaddy stuff out. Still trying to reconcile the fierce feelings he felt for a little girl that didn't share a drop of his blood, and he worried about Soph. Even when she was with the retired couple. He figured he'd always worry, but maybe that was a good thing. Least, he hoped so. Probably Carol knew that, too, and that's why she teased him 'bout the rest of what he'd said, to get his mind off things. He loved her for it and played along.

"Surprised you turned her down."

When he answered her, he smirked against her soft skin, started to nuzzle her jaw. He met the graceful curve of her neck with his lips and teeth and fuckin' delighted in the laugh she tried to smother but couldn't. "Won't say I didn't consider it. On account of you starvin' me to death and all."

"You're the one that wanted to skip dinner."

The whiskers from his five o'clock shadow tickled her, and freckled gooseflesh met Daryl's lips. But she lazily curled her arm around his head to hold him there, hoping to coax him into applying more pressure, and he obliged with a murmured reminder, "Thought you was gonna let me open up my present."

"Who said it was yours?" She tucked her cold nose—and her yawn—into the cradling crook of his elbow.

Daryl snorted and squeezed her seeking hand. "Fallin' asleep on me again, Woman? This new habit of yours is hell on my ego." He felt her lips curve into a smile before he saw it and he feathered a kiss across the happy crinkles at her eye when she lifted her face to his own. She laughed and shifted to accommodate the leg he threaded between her own, but she didn't say nothin' else. Didn't shoot him down, and Daryl felt a wave of utter adoration swell inside him, threaten to pull him under. He damn near pinched himself to make sure he weren't dreamin', but he didn't. Just held on to her tighter and loved her even harder through it. After all, was her and only her that'd built him up to begin with. He wanted things now. Things he never dared to hope for. Before. She made him feel like anything was possible. Hell. Anything was possible (she married him, didn't she?). So he grinned when another yawn fought its way free of her pretty mouth and he rest his head on the pillow beside hers, buried his nose in her wayward curls. Felt the faint, sweet promise of oblivion start to call to him, too.

"Just a little nap?"

"Two blinks." Daryl's promise gently stirred her hair but that was all. She was already gone, already lost to her sweet dreams, and that was alright. Way he figured it, everybody earned a sleepy Sunday in sometimes. As he closed his eyes and started to drift, a content smile curled the corner of his mouth. She never did let him know what was in that little pink bag, but that didn't worry him none. 'Twas just wrapping. He already held the real gift in his arms.

Chapter Text

The Three Gifts
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The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)

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“Don’t get these people, Man,” Axel grumbled and the ends of his mustache drooped with his displeasure as he eyeballed the twisted heap of parts he was tasked with reshaping and returning to the owner looking brand-new, or as close as he could conceivably get. “S’like they forget how to drive every time it rains. It don’t make sense.”

“Naw,” Daryl agreed absently. “It don’t.”

“Good thing we don’t get much snow ‘round these parts,” Axel muttered as he turned around, bent to start gathering his tools. “Good thing.”

“Speak for yourself,” Big Tiny cut in, his smile crooked and bright. “I’m partial to a white Christmas myself.”

“Something ironical ‘bout that statement if you ask me.”

Shaking his head and issuing a gruff order to quit wasting his dime, Daryl left them, stopped right outside the tiny, windowless hole Tara called home, least during those few hours she put in when she wasn’t at school, and sighed at what he saw. With her messy pigtails bobbing to a beat he (thankfully) couldn’t hear thanks to the tiny earbuds in her ears, the girl was drawing scribbles in the margins of what looked like a math textbook while she waited out the shop’s slow-ass internet connection on the old desktop that threatened to die on them at least once a month. And it wasn’t the numbers she was crunching. She didn’t notice him right away, and maybe that was a good thing, ‘cause his cheeks reddened as the images started taking shape on the computer screen and fuck. He guessed he should be thankful it weren’t porn, what with Merle and Axel being around her so much and all, but it weren’t much better. Apparently, Amazon sold a little bit of everything. Eventually, his discomfort got the best of him, and he kicked the side of the metal desk with the toe of his boot.

Tara dropped her pen, pulled one of the ear buds from her ears, and smiled at him, completely nonplussed. “Hey.”

With a jerk of his chin, Daryl awkwardly demanded answers. “Your daddy know you look at that shit?”

Tara’s nose scrunched as her grin widened, and she shrugged as she pulled the other ear bud from her ear. “He likes Denise.”

“Ain’t what I asked,” Daryl muttered.

“He knows I’m not shopping for hula hoops,” she teased him, referencing the song that could still be heard faintly but clearly from the discarded earbuds. “If it makes you feel better, it won’t be the worst thing the Feds see on the search history. You know. If they ever decide to case the place.”

“Why would they do…” The girl giggled before he even had a chance to finish the question, her mouth open wide and big dark eyes crinkled at the corners, and Daryl covered his face with a grimy hand and groaned. “Don’t make me send you home, Kid.”

“How would I get my Christmas shopping done then?”

Flustered, Daryl blurted, “Buy your girlfriend a scarf. Or a keychain. Hell, the gas station at the corner has all kinds of ‘em.” One for every occasion, he knew. When he finally manned up and popped the question to Carol, Merle’d given him one with a set of brass balls on it. Daryl had been equal parts touched and disgusted. Just par for the course with his brother since he’d straightened his act up.

Tara folded her arms, rested her chin on them and looked up at him with a twinkle in her eyes. “How very Mulder of you. I hope Carol knows what a romantic man she married.”

Daryl huffed and turned to go, knowing a losing battle when he seen one, and this was definitely that. His brother was a better match for the girl’s quick tongue, but his ass still hadn’t dragged back in with their lunch, and damn if Daryl was going to stick ‘round and chase his tail with her. It was almost time for Carol’s lunch break anyway, and if he ducked out now, there was a good chance he could catch her and hear her sweet voice over the phone. He hoped it’d be enough to tide him over since it looked like they’d be pulling another late one. “I’m blocking that site tomorrow. Get back to your work. Homework. The work I pay you for. Just…work.”

“Yes, Sir. Boss, Sir.”

His voice held a note of warning as he pulled the door shut behind him, better to save his own eyes next time he decided to drop in for a visit. “Tara.”

“On it.”

Chapter Text

The Three Gifts

 

xx6xx

 

Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree

 

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Stomping up the porch steps to rid his work boots of mud, giving his head one last, vigorous shake to dispel the icy drops that clung to his shaggy mane of hair like lace, Daryl fit his key in the lock and turned the knob. And stepped right in to the Twilight Zone. Least it might as well have been to a guy that grew up Dixon like him.

With all the overhead lights off 'cept the little lamp Carol liked to read by, the living room was all lit up all soft and festive like by the rainbow glow of the Christmas tree and Carol and Soph were dancin' 'round the thing like some kind of wood fairies, their eyes shining bright, their happy smiles tuggin' at his insides. Music played in the background, some old song he thought his mama must've liked a thousand years ago, when he was too little to know better 'bout his beginnings, before drink and his daddy drove her into the ground, and the place smelled like…

"Popcorn for dinner?"

Carol noticed him then, and the smile she gave him was damn-near blindin' (but gentle somehow). With a parting ruffle of Sophia's hair, she crossed the small distance to him on her socked feet. Raised on her tiptoes as soon as she stood in front of him and threw her arms around his neck like oceans and heavens had separated them and not just the ordinary responsibilities of the day.

Daryl's hands closed gingerly around her slim hips, and he gruffly murmured against her brow. "Careful, Woman. M'dirty."

Her grip grew more sure, her curves more pliant and soft against the tension in his own body, and that nose of hers that was so prone to wrinkle with laughter, with happiness, nuzzled right up under the line of his jaw. She brushed a kiss across his skin and settled back onto the balls of her feet, threaded her cool fingers through his belt loops and toyed with the worn leather belt that circled his trim waist. "I don't care."

"That so?"

A teasing smirk curled her lips up at the corners just so, and she tilted her head to study him, lowered her voice to a soft whisper Sophia couldn't hear. "You know it is."

Daryl ducked his head and took her mouth, kissed the breath right out of her 'til she slid her hands in the back pockets of his jeans and just held on. When she was weak and whimpering in his arms, he pulled back, rest his forehead against her own, caught his own damn breath. "Popcorn?" She laughed, and he wanted to kiss her again, but she was slipping through his arms like water, backing slowly away.

"To string around the tree, Silly."

"Sounds like a waste of…" She held a finger to her lips, cast a glance at Sophia, and Daryl held on to his words.

In her nightgown and red, fuzzy socks, the little girl still flit 'round the tree, her short arms stretched wide. Her pink tongue poked between her lips in concentration, and a deep furrow formed between her strawberry brows.

She was small and sweet. So fuckin' serious 'bout the thing Daryl felt his heart start doin' somersaults while he stared at her.

And Carol knew. She knew because she just smiled, soft and steady, gave him her understanding in a single glance. "Why don't you clean up some? Help her while I warm you up some dinner?"

Daryl nodded, hung his jacket on the little hook behind the door. "Yeah. Yeah."

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The Three Gifts
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It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

 

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Daryl heaved a sigh, slowed his footsteps even more as he and Carol followed behind the Grimes family (plus Sophia) in what amounted to nothing more than a shuffle of feet.

“You okay?”

Daryl ducked his head, watched the toes of his mud flaked boots nose through the brown clumps of grass and weeds poking up through the cracks in the sidewalk, sighed again before acting against his better judgment and muttering an answer beneath his breath. “M’fine. It’s just…damnwomanwalkslikeapenguin.”

“Care to repeat that? I don’t think I speak Mary Poppins.”

Daryl’s measured footsteps stalled completely, and Grimes and his cookie cutter little family disappeared around the corner. He would have been more pressed about the fact Soph wasn’t in spitting distance anymore, but he was too busy staring at his wife like she had sprouted two additional heads. “Mary who?”

Carol’s lips twitched, but she managed a straight face when she answered him. “Poppins.”

Daryl resisted the urge to groan. Barely. “Heard that part, Woman. The hell she got to do with what I said?”

This time, she wasn’t able to play it cool, and a big grin made her cheeks dimple, her teeth gleam beneath the reflection of the twinkle lights that had multiplied seemingly overnight, dotting nearly every yard in every neighborhood of King County. “Oh, I don’t know. I just have my doubts that what you said was supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

Daryl snorted, grabbed hold of her cool fingers and folded them in his own. “You’re fuckin’ weird. You know that?”

“Thought that was part of my appeal,” she teased, swinging her hand in his own as they started moving again. “Must’ve been some reason you married me.”

She pulled Daryl right out of his deep thoughts as she soaked in their surroundings with a child’s exuberance, wouldn’t let him dwell on the endless reasons why he counted himself lucky just to share the same space as her. Just the same breath. Soon, they rounded the corner and spotted Sophia’s relieved expression. Grimes acknowledged them with a suspicious tilt of his head but didn’t pay them much mind, and Lori? Lori just smiled and started up that slow, plodding forward motion of hers again, leading with her considerable belly, and without thought, Daryl found himself repeating what he’d said earlier. “Woman walks like a penguin.” The hand nestled neatly in his squeezed, hard, and Carol tucked her smile behind her scarf, bright and cheerful like the twin Christmas poinsettias that he’d come home to find greeting him on the top porch step.

“Don’t be mean.”

“Ain’t bein’ mean,” Daryl smirked, tugging her into his side and delighting in the way she wrapped both arms around him, slowed to something of a waddle herself as they kept her friends and their girl just in sight. There’d been garland at home, too, all twined around the rails. More of it looped over the decorative mantel once he’d let himself inside, and damn if it hadn’t been festive. Pretty. Not as pretty as her, though. Never. In her kickass boots and slinky sweater, her cheeks flushed and blue eyes shining up at him like stars, the way Daryl figured it, nothing or no one could ever compare. He kissed her forehead, relaxed. Did a little sightseeing, lost himself for a while in the comfort of her arms, in Sophia’s joy.

They lingered in the town square. Lori took respite in Santa’s sleigh, propped her aching feet, braced her burdened back against her husband as the kids acquainted themselves with the reindeer and Daryl (and Carol) looked on beneath the shadow of the towering Christmas tree, nursing a cup of coffee between the two of them.

The town was all dressed up, the storefronts awash in a rainbow of light. Fake snow and elves everywhere. Enough plastic Santas to cause some major confusion among the little people population.

Quite simply, it was perfect, in that Hallmark way that had always gotten underneath Daryl’s skin as a kid. Perfect in a way that Carol and Sophia loved, and he was tryin’. He was. He was fuckin’ tryin’ his best. They didn’t talk about it, though, and he nodded at the cop and his wife, both of them looking dead on their feet, lowered his voice to a low rumble. “Reckon me and you should leave them here? Go back for the car?”

“You telling me you’re scared of a pregnant woman?”

Daryl huffed out a laugh, dropped a kiss to the top of her head. “That pregnant woman? Yeah.”

“You don’t nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ no babies?”

He rolled his eyes. “Stop.”

She persisted in her teasing, tangling their fingers again and pulling him in for a proper kiss, soft and sweet. “So skittish. I thought Dixons weren’t afraid of anything. Isn’t that what you’re always telling Sophia? Hmm?”

“Well, shit,” Daryl drawled, kissed her wrinkled nose as he leaned back. “Looks like you’re on to me, Woman. Pregnant women, especially ones tryin’ to walk themselves into labor, do. Babies. They terrify me even more.”

“Hmm.”

“Hmm? That all you got to say?”

Carol nodded. “For now.”

“Pfft.” He tried to shake her hand loose, but she wouldn’t let him. Reeled him back in, matter of fact, and grinned against his lips as she let him in on a little secret.

“Rick called Shane while you were in the diner. He should be here any minute.”

“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

“Does it really matter?” she tossed back at him as she waved Sophia over, waved goodbye to their friends.

“Guess it don’t,” Daryl muttered as Soph sagged against his side. He grunted and hefted her little body in his arms. Rest his cheek against her soft hair and relished the warmth of his wife at his side. They started back the way they came, falling effortlessly into step with one another, the Christmas lights and moon lighting their way. After a while, as they neared their street, caught sight of the home lights glowing, he asked, “What’d you mean back there? For now?”

She didn’t answer. Least not right away. Let him crowd her right up to the door as she searched his pockets for his keys, press her against it all nice and tight with Sophia tucked between them, long since asleep, and gave him the barest curl of a smile. “I meant what I meant. For now.”

Chapter Text

The Three Gifts

 

xx8xx

 

Baby, It's Cold Outside

 

xxxxx

 

"Sophia up?"

Daryl didn't answer her right away. Nothing he said would have made a lick of sense anyway. He was too distracted. By the curls of her hair, piled high atop her head in a messy red knot. By her bare legs, lean and kissed with freckles, peeking out from beneath the flannel shirt that practically swallowed her up. Wasn't like it was a secret either. When she turned to him, her blue eyes bright and knowing, her lips curled in a faint smirk, he shook his head and fought against his old inclination to blush, gruffly launched an accusation of sorts. "That my shirt?"

She made a show of shrugging, acted all innocent when she looked anything but the part. "Maybe."

Daryl's tongue unconsciously swiped across his lips as he eyed the smooth round of her shoulder. "Me and you need to have a little talk 'bout things?"

"Stuff, Daryl? Things?"

Damn woman played it cute, had the audacity to grin at him, teeth and all, before she took off for the bathroom, and Daryl rolled his eyes, followed right on her heels. He caught up with her in front of the sink, did some playing of his own with the groan that he let escape. "Stop." Whenever Grimes really wanted to get the wife's goat, he'd drawl out those words (stuff, things), and Lori? Shit. All bets were fuckin' off, and it was like bein' in the middle of a real-life sitcom. It was funny as hell, one of the things that had finally warmed Daryl up to the stick in the mud sheriff, made him think they weren't so different after all. It'd also become a runnin' joke 'tween him and Carol, and his wife and Grimes's were in the same boat as Soph and the little shit. Thick as thieves. That little grin of hers morphed into girlish giggles when his arms slid around her waist from behind and his whiskers tickled her skin as he kissed her exposed shoulder. "Not things. Thangs," Daryl growled into her ear before nuzzling it.

Carol shivered, sagged into his supportive embrace, and her grin softened into a small smile. She covered his hands with her own as she met his mirrored gaze. "Sophia?"

"Parked her in front of the TV with some cinnamon toast, milk, and Charlie Brown. She's poutin' a little, but she'll be alright." His little bit of news was digested soberly, and he feathered a reassuring kiss across her temple. She loved her job as a school nurse, Daryl knew. Would welcome the opportunity to go full-time should the opportunity ever arise. 'Til it did, though, she split time at Sophia's little school with Tara's older sister, and the other woman had pulled the mama card for once, optin' to sit this field trip out in favor of taggin' along with her kid's class next week. As luck would have it, the kid and Soph were both in the same class, Lori's class, and because they'd swapped assignments, tinkered with their schedules a little bit, Carol was goin' to miss Sophia's field trip. That was bad enough. The fact that she was makin' the short bus trip to Greene's farm today without Sophia when the kid had been beggin' to visit the place since Thanksgiving? Well, to say Soph had been upset, in her quiet and serious, so very Soph-like way? Bit of an understatement. Still…his girl would be fine. Daryl would make sure of it. "She'll be alright," he repeated.

Carol nodded, gave his hand a grateful pat before reaching for her toothbrush. "Greene's farm is just too much for Lori to handle right now."

"Really?" Daryl teased. "The old man's been a vet long as I've been alive. M'sure he's delivered hundreds of calves. Thousands."

"Daryl Dixon, that's terrible," she hissed, once she'd spit her toothpaste out. She ducked his kiss, laughed when it landed on the side of her nose instead and turned around in his arms. Her nails tickled up and down his forearms as he held her loosely, and she sighed into the kiss he stubbornly persisted in seeking. "Don't be so…"

Daryl ended the kiss with a barely-there smile. "Mean. I got it. 'Sides. You're the one puttin' words in my mouth, Woman." He gave her waist a little tug, maneuvered them so he was sitting on the porcelain toilet lid and she was standing between the open vee of his legs.

Her small hands hovered briefly over his broad shoulders before finding his hair, and she gathered that bottom lip between her teeth as she gazed down at him with equal parts affection and exasperation. "Daryl."

Daryl's rough hands left her waist to sweep down the backs of her thighs, and he gathered the soft edges of the flannel in his deliberate grasp on the return trip. "You say somethin'?" The familiar buttons slipped free easily, and the worn material parted slowly 'til her pale belly button came into view, the shadow of the silky valley between her breasts, and when his hands spanned her waist this time, they covered nothing but smooth skin. "Didn't hear you."

She combed her fingers lightly through his hair as his calloused fingers traced the lacy edges of her cotton underwear, pulled at the tiny bow on front to encourage her to come a little closer. She did, stumbling a bit as his strong arms wrapped around her, and he rest his unshaven cheek against the swell of her breast. "There's not…we don't…Daryl."

Daryl could literally feel her heart pounding just beneath his fingertips, see her muscles quiver with each increasingly shaky breath she took, and he mouthed kisses and promises into her skin. "Shh. We got time. Just enough."

"But Sophia…"

"Is all set," Daryl told her as he lowered himself to the floor, his knees digging into the rug below, and smirked up at her. "I'm still shit with pigtails, though. Hell if I'm ever gonna get the hang of 'em."

The look in her eyes, the tickle of her fingers in his hair was infinitely tender, and she melted into him, fine tremors traveling up and down every inch of her as she made her own promise and his gentle hands breached the barrier of her underwear, cupped the firm globes of her ass. "I know you. You will."

Her utter faith in him, the knowledge that she loved him even half as much as he worshipped her, still fuckin' mystified him, and Daryl knew he'd spend the rest of his days tryin' to prove himself worthy of such a gift. Startin' with right now and makin' her feel good. Giving her somethin' to remember him by in the long day ahead of them both. With one last nuzzled kiss into the sweet well of her navel, he captured that tiny bow between his teeth, whispered a hoarse warning they both felt, all the way to their bones. "Best grab somethin' to hold on to, Woman. I know you."