"You’re real good with her."
He jerks his head up, and she’s startled that she appears to have startled him. He’s always seemed aware to her, always seemed watchful, and she’s assumed he might be someone it would be hard to sneak up on. And she wasn’t trying. She only heard Judith being fussy, echoing through the block, and she wanted to come check. Didn’t know Daryl had beaten her there.
She’s kind of not surprised.
Standing there, cradling a baby against his chest, he looks both bizarre and completely natural. He has since she first watched him feeding her. She’s not sure why that would be.
But she likes it. It does feel right.
“‘s late,” he says, voice low. It is, it’s long after almost everyone else has bedded down, but she’s not sure why he’s saying something so obvious. Wonders if he’s annoyed with her. It’s sort of hard to tell. He’s not always the easiest person to read. But then he adds, “Whatcha doin’ up?” And she really does wonder if he just doesn’t want her there at all.
She shrugs. “Couldn’t sleep. I heard her.”
"She’s fine. I got it."
He’s half turned away from her now, his face in shadow. It was really only after he told her to stick close to Carl and then the run for the formula that she started noticing him as more than this guy, this extremely prickly guy who got shot in the head, dragged back to the house, bloody and looking basically dead, covered with scars, and maybe he’s not actually a jerk, maybe she’s starting to think there’s a lot more to him, but she doesn’t think she’s ever once seen him smile.
Except with Judith. He did then. He did, and it was so sudden and it looked like he was forgetting himself and losing everything in what was right in front of him, the little bit of life he was holding, and it was quick and small but it warmed something in her.
There isn’t much happiness to go around now. And she doesn’t think he’s had a whole lot anyway.
Now that she’s really paying attention, she doesn’t think he wants her to go. She doesn’t get that feeling. She moves a bit closer, one hand on the railing. “Yeah, you do.”
She gets a quick glance for that. Nothing else. Okay. She doesn’t need anything else. And maybe she should go, just leave him alone, but the fact is that she doesn’t want to. This is interesting, she was telling the truth about not being able to sleep…
And she likes this. She likes watching him like this. It’s like a small brightness in a lot of dark.
Which also seems like a strange thing to attach to him, but that doesn’t make it less true.
"Good that things are a little calmer. I was worried about her." She looks down at her wrist for a moment, and for some reason she feels the urge to fiddle with the beads there, so she does. "I mean, I was worried about a lot. But her…"
He grunts a non-reply. But he’s turned back toward her, and faint light from the windows is catching him. His face, the partial shadow thrown onto it by his hair. There’s simultaneously a kind of age to him and something deeply young, and the light is intensifying it. She doesn’t know how much older than her he is, but he’s obviously a man… But he’s also a kid.
She’s not sure where that sense comes from, but it’s strong.
"I’m glad you came back," she says softly. "It’s better with you here." She clears her throat, suddenly and weirdly awkward, and nods at the baby. "It’s better for her."
Without thinking, then, she reaches out, touches the blanket they found to wrap Judith in, and her fingers accidentally brush his forearm and he looks at her, a little sharp, and she almost pulls her hand back.
Then she doesn’t. And he doesn’t look away. She can only see one of his eyes clearly, but the light is hitting it just right, and it’s bright. Keen.
He doesn’t like being touched. She’s guessed that before but now she really feels it. Or maybe he just doesn’t like being touched right now.
For a moment nothing happens at all. She’s moving her hand, stroking her fingers lightly over Judith’s little arm, her cheek, and Judith makes a soft snuffling sound and doesn’t wake. But Beth feels pinned under that gaze. Caught and held.
He’s not angry at her, and he’s not even annoyed, and there’s nothing at all aggressive in it. Nothing even slightly threatening. If anything she thinks he might be nervous. In the daylight he would probably be shying away, leaving. But it’s dim, almost dark, and maybe that makes him braver.
Under the nervousness, he seems… Curious. Possibly.
He shifts and something in the air cuts itself off. She isn’t sure what to do now, but all at once he’s holding Judith out to her, slow and very careful, and yes: he’s good with her. Good like not even trying. Confident. She wonders if he’s handled babies before, if maybe he had a little brother, a little sister, someone besides Merle, someone he never talks about - not that he ever talks much anyway.
If maybe he had a child of his own.
But his expression has changed, almost imperceptible. Softened.
So she takes Judith, holds her close, rocks her very gently, and he just stands there, staring at her, clearly uncertain regarding what to do with himself. He could just go, but he isn’t. He doesn’t.
And it occurs to her then that maybe he likes seeing this too.
She gives him a small smile, and she isn’t insulted when he doesn’t smile back. That’s okay. He doesn’t have to. And if he wants to stay, he can do that too.
Stroking Judith’s wispy hair, she starts to sing.
if I asked real sweet, would you take a ride with me?
drive down streets that no one else has ever seen
red bucket seats with a stereo from 1953
I knew you before you were born
and I’ve seen an ending worth waiting for
under blankets and maps to keep us warm
She’s not looking at him anymore, except for once, quick, and she doesn’t know why she suddenly cares what he thinks. Why she should. But she does get a glimpse of him in the shadows, just a fragment of an image, and he looks…
He looks almost pained. Like something is clenched inside him. Twisting.
But she thinks it would be awkward if she just stopped, so she keeps going to the end, and if he was really annoyed, if he really didn’t like it… Wouldn’t he finally, finally go?
Wouldn’t he do that?
The last of the song dies away and the block is quiet. It might just be Judith and them. Gazing at each other across an expanse of strangeness that she can’t see but can feel with a heaviness which is abrupt and caught somewhere between unpleasant and not.
She really notices him. This guy. This man. This man who feels, sometimes, now, like just as much of a kid as she is.
Then he glances away, turns. “If you got her, I’m gonna…”
"Yeah," she murmurs. "It’s okay. I do."
He goes, heading down the stairs, and he doesn’t look back. But she watches him until the shadows finally swallow him up, and that heaviness lingers.
He’s good with her. He’s good. She suspects he might not know it.
But he is.