Beth slips out the front door and stands on the porch. She stares out at the quiet street, at the lightless windows of each house.
It’s dark yet, and utterly quiet. Snow fell most of yesterday, and well into the night. It’s covered the Alexandria Safe Zone in sparkling white. The sky has cleared, and stars glow bright and distant. It’s the coldest winter Beth can recall, and it’s colder and snowier in Virginia than she expected. She spends a moment wondering how the mass die-off of humanity must be affecting the climate of the country, perhaps even the world. If the rest of the world is even left to be affected.
Beth wonders about that a lot, too.
The snow muffles all sound and covers all the dead grass and shrubs. It makes the community look like a village of gingerbread houses.
It’s an hour before dawn on Christmas Day.
The street is so beautiful that for a moment Beth can only look around her, take it in, and feel the bite in the breeze that blows snow skiffing across the sidewalk before her. But the weight of the package in her mittened hand reminds her of the job she has to do, and she heads for the house next door.
Beth ducks between the houses, lifting the latch on the back gate. Kicking her way through the snow, she walks to the back door, a pretty French door that leads to the kitchen and great room. She unlocks it using the spare key Rick gave Maggie, and lets herself in.
Turning and closing the door behind her, Beth tries not to make a sound. She toes off her wet boots and leaves them on the mat by the door. A glimmer catches her eye, and she glances into the living room. There’s a Christmas tree there, by the fireplace, covered in strings of popcorn, paper chains, and stars cut from tinfoil that shine even in the faint pre-dawn light. Four mismatched socks hang from the mantle, heavy with the small gifts that have been tucked inside. On the coffee table is a plate strewn with cookie crumbs. Beth smiles.
Beth looks down at the package in her hand. It’s a large grey wool sock; she stitched the hole in the heel herself with red yarn. It’s half-full of small gifts, too. Not as many as she wanted, but their resources are still tenuous. They all have to make do.
But that doesn’t mean that they have to live without joy. Beth believes that with her whole heart, even now. Especially now.
Considering the row of stockings on the mantle, she chews her lip. She’d like to hang it up with the others. There’s one each for Rick and Michonne, for Carl and Judith. Beth smiles again, thinking of Rick and Michonne filling stockings for each other. She wonders if they’ve figured that out yet, or if they still think they’re just friends and roommates.
She wants to hang the stocking with the others, but she worries. Will he be embarrassed to open it in front of all of them? She never means to embarrass him -- that’s the last thing she wants to do -- but over the last several months she’s done it many times. Over the last several months she’s learned a lot about him.
She’s learned that Daryl Dixon is extremely shy.
Showing affection around others makes him uneasy. He’s gotten better, if it’s just their family or Aaron and Eric, but out in the street or at community meetings where anyone might see, he gets tense. He goes rigid and doesn’t kiss her back, lets his hand go limp in hers.
It hurts -- she won’t pretend it doesn’t. But it hurts him, too, when he pulls away and mumbles an apology; she can see it hurts him, the way he gets quiet and aloof until they can be alone. Until he can walk her home and stand on her porch in the soft darkness, can kiss her knuckles and hold her hands in his. Until he can mutter another apology and stare silently at the floor beneath their feet, unable to explain.
But he doesn’t have to. Beth understands.
When they’d been alone, just the two of them for all those weeks, he touched her all the time. Leading her by the elbow, tapping her forearm to get her attention, swooping her up into his arms, carrying her. It had been so easy, so natural. So good.
But now there are people all around them. People who know them, and plenty of people who don’t. Beth’s not stupid -- she’s seen the looks some of the Alexandrians have sent their way. They don’t get it. It doesn’t matter, except of course that it does. Maybe it shouldn’t matter, but it does.
It matters to him. It hurts him, and Beth can see this is an old wound, that this has happened before. This isn’t the first time he’s had to make his bed on the outside of everyone else; he’s spent his life on the defensive. She can see it in the tension that deepens the lines on his face at the end of the day. The fears that have him cracking his knuckles and biting his cuticles ragged after every conversation with Rick and Deanna. He wants to leave, sometimes, though he would never say so. She doesn’t know how, but she knows.
Beth turns away from the living room and heads down the hallway toward the main floor bedroom she knows belongs to Daryl. He’s not yet invited her into it, but she at least knows where it is. She’ll hang his stocking on the door handle and slip away, let him discover it on his own.
Stepping lightly to keep the floorboards from creaking, Beth finds his door. She reaches out to hook the sock onto the knob, and the door swings abruptly open. She snaps up, whipping the hand holding the stocking behind her back.
Daryl stands in the doorway, his hunting knife clenched in his right fist, his arm cocked back like a drawn bow. His hair is even messier than usual, rumpled and sticking up in spots. He’s barefoot and shirtless, wearing only a pair of grey sweatpants.
His expression is tense, but he drops his arm. He blinks at her.
Beth straightens up and a soft laugh escapes her. She feels her face flush. She tightens her fingers around the stocking still hidden behind her back.
“Shit,” she says, “I was tryin’ to surprise you.”
“Y’did,” he says flatly. He stares at her for a beat. “So nothin’s wrong?”
“No, God, everythin’s fine,” Beth says, shaking her head. Suddenly she feels silly, embarrassed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to worry you, or wake you, I was just gonna -- crap.” With a sigh, she pulls the stocking out from behind her back and holds it out to him. “Merry Christmas, Daryl.”
Daryl’s eyebrows go up and his mouth goes down, and in his flummoxed expression she can see she’s truly taken him by surprise.
Daryl takes the stocking from her and looks down at it. His thumb runs over the red stitches in the heel. He glances back down the hallway, towards the living room, and then at Beth. He disappears back into his room for a moment and returns, shrugging a black, sleeveless buttondown shirt on.
“C’mon,” he says, and reaches down with his free hand to take hers. He leads her back to the living room, dropping her hand to light a few tealights on the coffee table in front of the Christmas tree. Beth removes her jacket and scarf, throws them over the back of the couch.
They sit on the couch, a foot apart. The tealights reflect off the tinfoil stars, making them sparkle. Outside, the sky is turning a faint mauve as the day begins to dawn.
Beth watches in silence as Daryl opens the stocking. He removes each item and turns it over in his hands, examining it. There’s a Swiss Army knife Beth found on a corpse while out on a supply run a month ago. There’s a pack of Marlboros she traded a lot of tampons for. There’s the striped peppermint candy she and Carol made together on a rainy November afternoon, their forearms spattered with burns from the spitting hot sugar.
Last, there’s a grainy, black-and-white photo of the two of them. Aaron took it one night when she and Daryl were over for dinner. In the photo, they’re facing away from the camera, standing at Aaron’s kitchen sink, washing the dishes side-by-side. Daryl’s looking down at her and she’s looking up at him, and both of them are smiling. Beth found a frame for it in the basement, apologetically removing the photo of the previous homeowner’s golden retriever.
Daryl stares down at the items in his lap, just stares and stares.
“It was supposed to be from Santa,” Beth says, after a long silence.
“Means more from you,” he says, glancing at her fleetingly before looking away.
Beth smiles. “I guess. But you told me that you never got a present from Santa, and I just thought -- you know.”
Daryl nods, a little smile playing at the corner of his mouth. “Didn’t know there’s no Santa when I was a kid. Always just figured I musta been on the naughty list.”
The way he says it, Beth knows he means to make light of it, like it’s funny that he wasn’t old enough to understand that his parents had nothing to give him. It’s how he defuses the awkwardness of talking about it at all, like taking a pin to a balloon.
But it doesn’t work. Beth still pictures him, a sweet and scrappy little redneck Dennis-the-Menace, disappointed year after year, coming to believe that he was bad. Undeserving.
Beth eases closer to him on the couch, and slides her hand underneath his where it rests on his knee, lacing their fingers together. She rests her cheek on his shoulder.
Daryl kisses the top of her head. “Thanks,” he says, his voice gruff.
Beth just smiles and squeezes his hand.
They sit for a long time in silence, watching the candles flicker as the room slowly fills with soft morning light. Beth can see the trees in the yard without moving her head from Daryl’s shoulder, all the branches spindly and black against the pale sky.
“Who put up the tree?” Beth asks, eventually.
“Michonne and Tara,” Daryl says. He shrugs. “I kinda helped.”
Beth lifts her head enough to see the side of his face. She’s not surprised that it wasn’t Rick; she finds it hard to imagine him even caring that it’s Christmas, these days. It’s not his fault. He simply hasn’t got room for it. His concern is the most immediate one of safety, nothing else. It makes her sad to think of Rick, to remember how thrilled he was the morning he harvested his first ripe cucumber from the prison yard. He cut slices for her and Carl while her dad looked on, smiling. She remembers all of their smiles. She remembers how much that stupid cucumber mattered to Rick.
She can’t imagine a Christmas tree or its decorations or stockings or presents mattering to him now. But it does matter. It matters for Carl and Judith.
Maybe it matters for all of them.
“Should do these things,” Daryl says, his voice low and halting. “For Carl and Lil’ Asskicker. They oughta get to have this stuff.”
It does something to her, when Daryl talks like that. When she knows he’s digging deep, choosing his words with care, sharing something with her. Only with her, she knows. She gives his hand a gentle squeeze, and he looks at her.
“You oughta get to have this stuff, too,” she says.
Daryl huffs a dismissive little “pfft” sound and lets go of her hand. He stands, and for a brief, painful moment, Beth’s sure he’s going to ask her to go.
“Wait here,” he says, waving a hand at her. He disappears back down the hallway towards his bedroom. Beth twists a strand of her hair around her forefinger. It’s long enough to pull back into a ponytail now, but she doesn’t very often. She likes it loose around her shoulders, blowing in her eyes and catching in her mouth.
It’s a reminder that things can come back. That not everything has passed away.
Daryl returns with a small package in his hands, a bundle wrapped in newspaper and tied with kitchen string. He comes around the couch and sits back down beside her, handing it to her.
“Here,” he says, settling back against the couch, more relaxed now. “From Santa.”
Grinning, Beth grabs the package and gives it an exaggerated shake, holding it to her ear. “This’d better be the new iPhone,” she says, frowning. Daryl scoffs.
“Quit screwin’ around and open it,” he grumbles.
Beth does, unwrapping the string and paper to reveal a piece of rich brown leather about eight inches long. There are leather laces attached to it on one side, and it’s covered in a simple but beautiful pattern of leaves and flowers punched into the leather.
“It’s beautiful,” Beth says softly. She looks up to see him watching her, chewing on the cuticle of his thumb. He’s nervous. “What is it?”
“Armguard,” he says. He takes it from her. He slides the sleeve of her t-shirt up and wraps the guard around her forearm, fastening the laces. “It’ll keep your bow from reboundin’ and hurtin’ your wrist. When we find you a bow, that is.”
“Did you make this?” Beth asks. Daryl just shrugs. Beth looks down at her wrist, runs the fingers of her other hand over the design. She looks back up at him. “Wow. Daryl, I love it.”
Daryl’s cheeks and his ears are dark pink, and he looks down at the couch, where he’s rubbing his thumb against the upholstery. “S’nothin’.”
Beth doesn’t scold him or correct him. She leans into him, her face close to his, and waits until he slants a cautious look her way.
“I love it,” she repeats. “I love you.”
Beth kisses him. She brings her hands to his face and cups his jaw in her palms, running her thumbs against the scruff on his cheeks. He sighs, his breath tickling her face. Beth feels his hands spread across her back, pulling her closer. Daryl slides a hand into her hair, tangling his fingers in the strands as his nose bumps against hers. She smiles.
A floorboard upstairs creaks, and one of the bedroom doors opens. Daryl pulls back. They listen to the footsteps as they cross the upstairs hallway and thump softly down the staircase. Beth sees a shape appear at the end of the hallway.
“The living room is a strictly PG area,” Carl says, loud enough that everyone in the house can probably hear him. Beth feels Daryl cringe beside her as her own face heats. “Is it safe for Judith to come in?”
“Ha ha,” Beth grouses. She squeezes Daryl’s hand. “Of course it’s safe.”
Carl walks into the room with Judith in his arms, one hand covering the little girl’s eyes. She flails her tiny hands at his, trying to get him to stop.
“Whoa,” Carl says, taking in the stockings and the gifts under the tree. A grin spreads across his face as he approaches the tree, his hand dropping from Judith’s face. “Look, Judy. Santa came!”
The little girl giggles, reaching out and grasping at one of the tinfoil stars on the tree. Carl pulls her out of reach and hushes her as she begins to fuss.
Beth glances at Daryl beside her and the expression on his face is something for which there’s no single name. There’s no word she knows that can describe what she sees there. She can only feel it -- the love and loyalty, the tremulous happiness at knowing that for now, the boy and the baby are safe. They’re safe, and what’s more, in this moment, they’re happy. They’re all happy.
Daryl’s gaze turns to hers, and he smiles. It’s a rare thing, a true smile from him, a flash of teeth and an awkward twist of his mouth, the muscles there unpracticed. It’s become one of her absolute favourite things, his smile.
Beth presses closer to him, tucking her arm under his, and feels him sigh next to her, the broad cave of his chest expanding and relaxing and welcoming her into him. He kisses the top of her head, his breath tickling the hair there.
Soon Michonne and Rick wander downstairs, and there’s instant coffee and toast with sugar and cinnamon, and they all gather around the tree to watch Carl and Judith open their presents.
Later there will be more presents and popcorn and gingerbread cookies and a ham -- an actual ham -- and their whole family gathered together, smiling and sad and still breathing.
Later still, there could be many things. There could be anything.
For now, there’s peace. With Daryl’s hand on her hip and his scruffy smile scratching her temple, their friends close by, there’s peace.