The whole thing strikes him as pretty much a sham.
He wouldn't say it. He's not that much of an asshole, and it's not like it's hurting anyone. And he can tell they kind of need it, at least the younger ones, and there's a kind of thin... not desperation, not exactly, but something a little like that in the adults. Hershel seems immune to it, and as usual Rick is keeping his own council - Daryl can guess why. And can guess why he prefers to remain apart. Carol too. She might have very similar reasons. They leave him be and he leaves them the same.
Christmas has an edge to it. It cuts. You learn that, when you get older and start losing people one way or the other. But some children learn it far too early.
But he won't leave the block, won't go outside, though guard duty makes sense if he's not going to get involved. Here, he wanders the catwalks like he has something to guard inside, looking down at the tree they've dragged in and draped in salvaged lights. Of all the things people loot, it turns out Christmas lights aren't very high on the wanted list.
There's food. A bunch of people are singing a not particularly tuneful bunch of carols. There aren't really any presents to speak of, but this feels like something bigger and more defuse than presents. Presents are too particular. This is communal because it has to be.
And there's also not much in the way of shopping going on.
There are memories this calls up that he doesn't want. There are people absent he'd rather not think about now. People who made his life hell, made every Christmas a drunken, violent thing to dread, but that hadn't stopped him, as a child, from wanting one. Hadn't stopped him from trying.
The block takes the tuneless singing, folds it into echoes and reshapes it into something almost pretty. He leans against the rail, bow at his back - though he can't honestly see himself needing it, which is a dangerous way to feel - and closes his eyes.
His eyes flick open. Of course it's her. Since Judith, their orbits keep swinging around toward each other, keep crossing. He doesn't really have a problem with that, because she's so good with Judith and that's more than good enough for him, but he gets the distinct sense that she thinks he doesn't like her, and he's not sure how to set her straight.
Beth confuses him. He's not sure why, and that bothers him, and maybe it makes sense that it comes off as dislike. She's holding Judith now, cradling her in her arms, and Judith is sleeping like the baby she is, both of them cast in a strange light, and something about the whole thing is abruptly difficult to look at.
"How come you ain't down with the others?"
He shrugs. Lots of reasons, none of them her business. "Don' wanna."
"You should, we actually got a cake together. Icing and everythin'." She's cheerful, but as usual not aggressively so. With him, there's always something a little careful about her. A little gentle. A little like how Carol can be, but not exactly. It's something she's made her own.
"I'll head down later."
"Later it's gonna be gone, it's already goin' fast." She smiles, leans beside him, stroking Judith's wispy hair. "C'mon, it's chocolate."
He does wish she'd leave him alone. Except he sort of doesn't. He keeps looking at her from the periphery of his vision, and he keeps noticing things. The way her smile curves just slightly sometimes, like it's always there, waiting to be revealed. The fall of her hair around her neck. The way, when she lowers her eyes to the baby, she reminds him of a Virgin Mary in a crèche - not the cheap, ugly plastic kinds people had in their yards when he was growing up but something nice. Something in a church, maybe.
He shakes himself. He might be too sober.
She's fiddling with the beaded thong around her wrist, idly, looking down at the tree, when suddenly its clasping comes undone and it rattles to the floor. "Oh, crap." And Judith stirs, sniffles, and begins to cry in the uncommitted way of a baby disturbed but who won't need much coaxing to sleep again.
She looks up at him, turns and holds Judith out to him. "Take her just a sec?" And he does, reflexively, holding her like he does fairly often these days, cradling her in his arms and briefly distracted - as always - by how well she fits there. He never had to try. He was never awkward. It was like instinct.
He lays his cheek against Judith's soft head - still fontanelle but not for much longer - and murmurs something to her without thinking about it. And he's also watching Beth as she crouches to retrieve her bracelet from where it's skittered away close to the edge of the catwalk, the subtle grace in the way she moves.
There are things he notices, knows they must mean something, doesn't understand.
She straightens up and brushes her hair back over her shoulder, replacing the thing around her wrist. This is something else he notices, has noticed from the beginning. Where she wears those bracelets and why. What she's hiding, without saying that she's hiding it.
It's always made something in him ache.
"I can take her ba-" she starts, and then she must see something, because she stops, smiles again, and shakes her head. "You keep her a while."
For a second or two he thinks he might argue. Then he doesn't.
She moves closer to him, and he can smell something on her - chocolate, he realizes, chocolate and a hint of something else, some kind of spice. It brings back no Christmas memories, but perhaps it's making some, and something in his chest tightens up.
She lays a hand over Judith's head, strokes her, straightens the blanket wrapped around her, and before he knows it she's started singing something, low, her voice as sweet as ever.
oh, to grace how great a debtor
daily I'm constrained to be
let that grace now like a fetter
bind my wandering heart to thee
prone to wander, Lord, I feel it
prone to leave the God I love
here's my heart, oh, take and seal it
seal it for thy courts above
He's silent. Listening. He listens a lot, and he listens carefully. People don't realize how much he hears.
He thinks they might be alike in that way. Even if there are things he doesn't understand.
She falls silent, looking at Judith. Looking up at him. From down below, the carolers are launching into another raucous verse of Hark the Herald Angels Sing. But up here, with her, it's quiet. It's peaceful.
"I can take her now," she says softly, and does. But she looks at him for a moment longer, and before he realizes what she's doing, before he can think of a way to stop her - before he can decide whether or not he wants to stop her - she leans up and kisses him. Just the corner of his mouth, but it lingers, and something warm shivers all through him.
He doesn't understand.
She pulls back, and her smile is small and secret, like a present just for him.
"Merry Christmas, Daryl."
He doesn't say anything as she leaves. But he doesn't think he has to. She does that. She makes him feel like he can be quiet if he wants to. She makes him feel like she doesn't want anything from him.
She makes him feel like he might be enough.
He stands for a moment, looking down, watching her return to the others. The lights cast shifting colors over her hair, make her smile shine as she turns to say something to Maggie.
They make her beautiful.
There are things he doesn't understand, and that warm tightness in his chest doesn't fade as he heads down the stairs toward the group. Right now he doesn't need to. She's turning back to him as he comes to them, and this time her smile is so wide and so clear that it's a present for all of them.
But there's still the one she gave him. That, he'll keep. He'll keep it close. And maybe someday he'll understand.