He’s outside making arrows for his bow at one of the picnic tables at the prison when she comes outside. Beth. Hershel’s youngest daughter, he corrects himself. Thinking of her as Just Beth isn’t doing him any favors. That’s a slippery slope. He hates himself for it, but he can’t help but notice how much she’s changed since the prison. And that shit makes him sound like a damn creep, but he doesn’t even just mean it like that. She’s just stronger. Stands different, with her shoulders back and her chin out. She stands like she knows she’s a woman now, and a tough one. Taking out walkers at the fence and holding Judith have toned her biceps and given her a sense of purpose. But she still has that sweet, wide, blinding smile that reminds him that she can’t be more than eighteen or nineteen. Not that he ever smiled like that, but still. There’s something innocent about it that makes him feel like he shouldn’t be looking at her or talking to her. And yet, he feels like no one sees this change in her but him. They still treat her like the girl who slit her wrist.
He looks down at what he’s doing, feeling that prickle on the back of his neck and down his back. It’s a feeling he’s been familiar with since he was old enough to understand the teacher’s expression in kindergarten as she goes to her purse after he tells her for the fifth time that week that he forgot his lunchbox again. (He doesn’t even have a lunchbox). And no ma’am, I forgot lunch money too. But his pop always told him Dixons don’t take charity, so he would skip lunch anyway and slip it back on her desk at the end of the day while his empty stomach sucked and gurgled at its lining.
Or the way the cashiers at the corner store would stare at him when he was seven or eight with his black eye, dirty face, and holey clothes when he took his change to try to get some chips, like they were just waiting for him to sneak them up his shirt. Maybe he looked so much like Merle back then that they knew he was trouble regardless.
The way they would stare at him when he was ten or eleven and he was trying to sneak them up his shirt.
And years later, the way the nice girls in school would look at him in ninth grade when they got paired with him for a project, like he was some shit they wanted to excuse themselves to scrape off their clean shoes. He dropped out at the end of ninth grade when the teachers told him he was gonna have to repeat it again anyway.
No fucking business looking at Beth now, or ever.
“Hey, Daryl?” His knife slips against the arrow he was sharpening, and he breaks off the tip. He mutters a curse. It’s her, he knows without looking. He senses more than sees her sit down across from him. At least she has the kindness not to acknowledge the slip of his knife. Knows it would embarrass him. In a lot of ways, he thinks she’s even more perceptive than him.
He looks up then, nods and grunts in acknowledgment. Her face lights up like he isn’t socially fucking awkward and did something normal instead.
“Getting cold out here, huh?” she asks. He shrugs again. She continues like it’s a normal conversation. “Do you think it’s December yet?”
He looks up but not at her. Over her shoulder and past the fence to the treeline. “Yeah. Probably ‘bout halfway through judging by the trees.”
“I reckon we’re getting close to Christmas then,” she says.
“That shit don’t matter no more, girl.” It never did to him, but to a girl like her, he knows it would’ve. Especially with a Christian daddy like Hershel. Only thing his pop worshipped was the bottle. She looks kinda sad when he says it though, and he wished he hadn’t.
“You planning another run soon?” she asks.
He nods. “Goin’ out tomorrow with Michonne. ‘s colder than usual for this time a year, we wanna be prepared.”
“Can you do me a favor?” she asks.
He nods. He wonders if she makes her blue eyes wider and bats those eyelashes on purpose when she asks, or if it’s a force of habit from being daddy’s little girl. Shit has him agreeing before he even knows what it is.
“I left Judy with Carol because I didn’t want her to hear me. I was wondering if you could grab her and Carl a little something for Christmas. Nothing major. I know Rick won’t think of it the way he’s been lately, and it’s just sad to me. They’re still kids, ya know?”
He stands up and shoulders his crossbow, grabbing the broken arrow. “Lil Asskicker's a goddamn baby, girl. She don't know what the fuck we’re sayin’. You coulda brought her out.”
“Well, I don’t wanna risk it. We can’t spoil her very first Christmas, it’s gotta be a surprise.” Her eyes shine and he realizes she’s teasing him.
He snorts. “Uh, what do you reckon she wants?”
Beth’s smile cracks open her face like the rays of the sun finally forcing through the clouds near the end of a rainy day. His rainy day just happened to be thirty-two rainy years. “I think she wants a stuffed animal, or a soft blanket. She’s always touching the soft sweater you brought back for me from the last run when I wear it.”
He nods. “Shouldn’t be a problem. Maybe some comics for Carl?”
Before he knows it, she stands up and slides those skinny arms around him. “Thank you, Daryl!”
He flinches before he can stop himself, but somehow it feels nice. He freezes for too long before he remembers he should do something back. He pats her shoulder twice and lowers his arm again.
This girl’s gonna be the death of him.
He and Michonne take a car out early the next morning. Hershel claims he can tell from his arthritis it’s gonna snow this year, and the first frost is coming soon. He doesn’t see how the hell he knows that, but the man was a farmer. He ain’t gonna argue about the weather with him, especially when he was right during last winter on the run.
They’re looking for any canned food they can find, since the Woodbury folks are putting a strain on them. They’re also after warmer clothes and extra blankets, because the cellblocks have gotten pretty drafty, especially at night.
He likes going out with Michonne more than anyone because she doesn’t talk unless she has something worth saying.
They get to a Dollar General that seems to be pretty much in the middle of nowhere and clear it easily. Nothing but two walker cashiers. One gets an arrow through her eye; the other meets Michonne’s katana.
He splits off from her, mumbles an excuse about wanting to check out the back. He doesn’t want to see that knowing smile when she sees the kind of stuff he’s lookin’ at. He still feels like a dumbass for bringing Beth back that sweater on the last run, but she’s up with Lil Asskicker throughout the night, trying to keep her away from the others so they can sleep through her cries. It gets chilly in the prison. Besides, something about something about that creamy color reminded him of her shiny blonde hair and that porcelain skin. He was right, it looks good on her. Looks like her.
He’d been sitting with Michonne in the prison kitchen, slurping soup and looking at a map with her to plan where to check next when Beth had come up wearing the sweater he’d grabbed on the run. Michonne smirked at him and raised her eyebrows when she saw it on Beth. He refused to make eye contact, but then Beth came over to them thankin’ him about how thoughtful it was and how she was so much warmer last night when she’d had to get up with Judy. Michonne kicked him under the table and he wanted to fucking die right there. He barely choked out a response. Swore he’d never do shit like that again, and yet here he is. Doing shit like that again.
He finds a stuffed duck even softer than that sweater, and it’s a pretty yellow that reminds him of Beth. He grabs a pink fuzzy baby blanket and a little baby rattle for good measure in case the Lil Asskicker don’t like the other gifts.
Of course, the world ended in damn July so he can’t find any candy canes. He does find a bag of round candy peppermints, some of which have gotten a little crushed by debris. He finds an old Hershey bar too and figures Carl will like that.
The next aisle in the back is a bunch of women’s stuff. He pauses and thinks about that look on Beth’s face when he told her the holiday doesn’t matter anymore. He can bet Hershel always got her something nice for Christmas. He bites his lip until he tastes blood and keeps walking. Then turns back and snatches up a scarf the color of Beth’s eyes and shoves it in his bag too. Along with a pack of glitter gel pens since she’s always writing in that little book of hers. Hell, she’s probably about to run out of room as much as she writes in that thing. He grabs a little brown fake leather diary and takes that too. He can tell his ears are hot as he heads back towards the boys’ stuff, thanking God and whoever else is out there that Michonne is still in the canned goods section across the store.
He can hear Merle hooting in his ear like he’s right behind him. “Whoo-ee, little brother. A Dixon through and through. All them bitches in that prison and you go after the jailbait. Fine young piece a tail. You’re pussy whipped and ain’t even gettin’ no pussy, that shit is sad.” He can see that shit eating grin just as clear as he can the dirty, cracked tile floor in dollar general. It’s as familiar as his own face in the mirror. He grinds his teeth and walks faster.
He manages to find some comic books for Carl, but he doesn’t know what else to get for a fourteen year old boy who thinks he’s a grown ass man.
“He likes those mystery books too,” says a low voice over his shoulder. He jumps. How did he not hear her coming? This crap with Beth must be making him soft.
When he glances at Michonne, her eyes are kind. She picks up a book and hands it to him. “Here, he hasn’t read this one yet.”
He shoves it in his pack and turns to check for blankets without a word.
“Daryl?” she says. He stops, but he doesn’t turn around.
“They’re lucky to have you. We all are,” she says.
He grunts and keeps going towards the blankets.
Late that night, they get back to the prison, pleased with their haul. Before he goes up to his perch, he stops at Beth’s cell. He can tell there’s a candle lit, glowing through those flowery curtains she put up for privacy. He stands outside it for a while trying to get up the nerve to knock. He doesn’t hear her humming to Judith or any sound at all in there. He almost turns around to go when he hears her clear her throat.
“Hey, Beth,” he whispers, tapping the bars.
“Come in,” she calls.
He parts the curtain. She’s lying on her stomach on her bunk, writing in that book of hers. A pleased part of him notices she’s close to the end of it.
“When you doing this Christmas thing?” he asks.
She smiles. “When do you think Christmas is?”
“Uh, dunno. Few days maybe? We’re probably getting close to January as cold as it is.”
She stands up and stretches a little. “We can do it in a few days. I wanna hype it up to Judith first so she’s excited. I don’t think she even knows what Christmas is yet,” Beth says.
He smirks a little in spite of himself. It’s kinda sweet how serious Beth takes her role. Here she is, nineteen years old at the end of the world with somebody else’s baby and the dead walking, and she cares more about that little girl’s first Christmas than his ma and pop ever did combined about his or Merle’s. They never got anything but an ass whipping from their folks.
“I got the stuff,” he says, shifting his pack.
The way her face lights up makes him want to be her errand boy for the rest of his life.
He pulls out the stuff for Lil Asskicker first, and she squeals over it like he knew she would. Then the stuff for Carl. Finally, he gives her the peppermints and Hershey bar, which makes her gasp.
“Daryl, you didn’t have to do all this!” she says. “I hope it wasn’t too much trouble.”
“Nah, wasn’t nothin’,” he replies. He feels himself blush at her praise. He hesitates at the other stuff in his pack and decides to leave it be.
She throws her arms around his ribcage again. He tenses up for a few seconds, but she doesn’t let up. He cups her elbow, as far as he’ll come to putting his arm around her.
She’s hugged him yesterday and now today. He’s never got so many hugs in his goddamn life. Her hair is still damp, and he can smell her soap and something else that’s distinctly Beth. His heart starts to pound and he pulls away.
She smiles up at him, unoffended. “Thank you, Daryl,” she whispers.
He looks down at his scuffed up boots and fights a smile. He feels his mouth quirk up a little. Something about her makes him feel like she looks at him different, like he’s never been seen before. Like he’s not the dirty kid in class, the kid who gets his ass beat. The kid destined to follow his brother’s footsteps into juvie. (The man destined to follow his brother in and out of jail.)
“’s nothin’,” he says. “’Night, Beth.”
As he turns away and walks out, she calls “Goodnight, Daryl,” after him.
He stops at Hershel’s cell and knocks quietly. He calls him in, and Hershel is making notes in the margins of his Bible at his desk in the candlelight. Like father, like daughter, he thinks to himself.
“The run go okay?” Hershel asks.
“Yeah, went fine. Found some canned stuff, mostly beans. Couple big ole things of oatmeal. Lotta blankets, but not too many jackets left.”
“Good, that’s good. Because my joints expect a frost any day now,” he says.
“We’ll be ready,” replies Daryl. He gnaws on his thumb until he tastes blood.
“Something wrong, son?”
Damn, is he that easy to read these days? He sucks on the laceration on his thumb to stop the bleeding.
“Nah. Beth wanted me to get somethin’ for the kids Christmas, is all.” His thumb twitches and he fights the urge to put it back in his mouth. He settles for rubbing his index finger against his thumb, digging his blunt nails into the cuticles.
Hershel’s eyes twinkle. “Bethy always loved Christmas more than any of my other children. It’s her favorite holiday. She used to stay up and try to catch Santa.”
Daryl takes his pack off his shoulders. He can already feel his face heating up. “Yeah, well, I figured she deserved somethin’ too.” He all but shoves the scarf, pack of pens, and little diary onto Hershel’s desk.
He rushes out of the cell before Hershel can say a word.
He’s almost to the stairs when he hears crutches clacking against the concrete floors of the prison. He pauses and waits.
When Hershel gets to him, Daryl swears he sees the shine of tears in eyes. Hershel doesn’t even try to hide them. He’s not that kinda man.
“You should give them to her,” Hershel says.
Daryl shakes his head, glances over Hershel’s shoulder and back down at his boots. “Nah,” he says. “Should be from her daddy.”
“You’re a good man, Daryl,” Hershel shakily extends his right hand, careful to balance on his crutches. Daryl shakes it, embarrassed of his bloody cuticles and dirty hands.
“Wasn’t nothin’,” he replies. To his horror, he feels a burning lump in his throat.
It’s the first good Christmas he’s ever had. Society has crumbled, the world is fucked up, and even death doesn’t bring peace anymore unless somebody is there to shoot your brains out before you can turn. And yet, it’s the first good Christmas for him. The first one that’s mattered.
He thinks of Christmases when they were supposed to matter. Remembers Merle finding him crying one year when he was about six years old because he was the only kid in the first grade that didn’t get nothin’ from Santa Claus. He was crying in their room thinking he was bad. It’s the only time he can remember where Merle didn’t make fun of him for crying. He knelt down next to him with a conspiratorial smile. He looked older than thirteen to Daryl. “Ain’t no Santa. That shit’s from their parents. You didn’t do nothin’ wrong, kid,” he whispered. He handed him a crumpled dollar bill and clapped him too hard on the shoulder.
Merle did right by him sometimes. Now that he’s grown and Merle is dead, it kills him to think that there was no one to do right by Merle.
This Christmas, it snows like Hershel’s arthritic joints predicted. Everyone’s shoulders seem a little less heavy. Carl finally seems fourteen, building snowmen with Rick and Glenn. Beth sits on a mat by them holding the baby and watching, letting her pat the snow and squeal.
She’s wearing the blue scarf, and it matches her eyes just like he knew it would. She smiles at him when he walks over, and he smiles back a little without thinking about it.
Judith is absolutely beaming, wrapped in her pink blanket, her new duck clutched protectively to her chest with one tiny fist. The other fist is now wrapped around the handle of the rattle, trying to whack Beth in the head with it. Beth scoops her up and stands, walking over to him.
“Tell Uncle Daryl thank you for your presents, Judy,” Beth coos.
To his surprise, Judith reaches her little arms out for him, still holding her toys. He takes her instinctively, blanket bundle and all. She presses her duck up to his face, rubbing the soft toy against his beard and babbling. “You’re welcome, Lil Asskicker,” he says quietly.
“Well if this don’t beat all,” grumbles Beth. “I get knocked out with the rattle, and then she just rubs the duck on your cheek all sweet.”
Rick laughs. He looks lighter than he’s looked in months. Since the farm even. “She loves her uncle,” he says. “Thanks, man. Really means a lot.”
“Yeah, thank you Daryl!” says Carl.
Daryl feels his cheeks heat up despite the cold. He digs his fingers in the baby’s side to make her giggle. “Was Beth’s idea. I was just the delivery boy.”
That night, he’s on guard duty alone when he hears her come up.
She comes over to sit next to him. “I know it was you,” she says.
“Don’t know what you’re talkin’ ‘bout," he grunts.
“The presents from Daddy. I know it was you. He hasn’t gone on a run since he lost his leg.”
“What presents?” he asks.
She playfully knocks her shoulder against his. He doesn’t flinch this time.
“Thank you. I love them,” she says.
“Like I said, don’t know what the fuck you’re talkin’ ‘bout.” He fights a smile. She’s still wearing the scarf.
She leans her head on his shoulder, and he about dies. “Thank you, Daryl. Everyone loved the peppermints, and the kids are so happy. You really made this Christmas perfect.”
“Told you I didn’t do nothin’ but run your errands,” he replies. “That was all you, girl.”
She hands him a piece of paper folded up real tiny with his name written on it in glittery gel pen. “This is for you,” she says. “I didn’t know what else to give you. I saved you the last piece of chocolate, too.”
He tries to give it back, and she closes her hand over his. “No, I saw you didn’t eat any. Go ahead, eat it now. I know you’ll just sneak it to Carl later if I don’t watch you.”
He looks at her. Her eyes are huge in the moonlight, and she’s smiling. He can’t tell her no. He pops the chocolate in his mouth and groans in spite of himself. It’s so damn good. He hasn’t had chocolate in forever.
She kisses his cheek and stands up. “Merry Christmas, Daryl,” she whispers.
She’s all the way to the doorway of the watchtower before he answers. “Merry Christmas, Beth.”
She smiles over her shoulder and then she’s gone.
He opens the note.
I used to always write people a Christmas card around this time of year. I loved the pretty cards with their pictures and glitter. I guess a piece of paper out of my journal will have to do. At least I have these nice glittery pens to write with now.
Thank you. For everything. Everything for the kids, the candy, the gifts for me. I know you gave those to Daddy to give me. I was almost out of room in my old journal. I love this one so much!
Thanks for everything you do for all of us. You keep us safe and fed. I wish I could give you a real gift, but I hope this is enough. I know you don’t realize how important you are, but we all appreciate how hard you work.
You’re a good man, Daryl Dixon.
Goddamn it if he doesn’t feel that burning lump in his throat again.