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Lift Up Your Voice, Children, Rejoice

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They don’t talk about it, the night they sat together on the same side of someone else’s kitchen table eating peanut butter and grape jelly and pigs feet. More specifically they don’t talk about what they almost talked about, before Daryl clammed up, dropped his gaze to his lap and muttered at her that it don’t matter. 

It does matter, though, and maybe he didn’t get the words out, but she heard him anyway. She’s pretty sure he knows it, too, but still. They don’t talk about it, but every now and then she’ll catch him looking at her the same way he was that night and she thinks maybe they’re just waiting. Waiting for Daryl to finally figure the words out right in his head, where she knows his thoughts are a million times more eloquent than his words.

Waiting, maybe, for Beth to push him into telling her what it meant, that she changed his mind and he wanted her to know it. 

They’ve been here a couple of months now, as best as she can tell. The weather which was tending toward cool when they first laid eyes on this elegant old house has now officially taken on the title of cold with a side of nasty and she’s as grateful for this place as she is generally wary. So far nobody has come back for the small stash in the kitchen—or the larger one in the cellar they found by chance—and she knows very well why that might be. But the not knowing for sure has both of them just on-edge enough that despite the walls, the fireplace, the relative comfort of hunkering down in a place with all the amenities of a bed and breakfast, neither one of them can fully relax and it’s exhausting.

And they aren’t exactly spending their days idly. In order to stick around—which it looks like they will, at least through the winter if their luck can hold out that long, and Beth has both taken up the unfortunate habit of knocking on wood and cringing at her own ridiculous superstitions as she does—they’ve had to do a lot of work to make the place secure. Daryl Dixon’s ideas of secure are much more thorough than the funeral home’s previous occupant, but Beth’s grateful for that and throws herself fully into working to make that happen. There were pit traps to be dug, makeshift fences to be built, noise alarms to be fashioned and strung up strategically, and scouting of the area so they know what’s lingering in their backyard and after that, a few runs that—knock on wood again—have all gone well. They hunt together, now that her ankle has healed, and have carried on the crossbow lessons, too. She thinks she really is getting good at tracking, and while she can’t cock the bow, if they ever find one in her size she’ll be set.

There are walkers, too, of course. Always walkers, though the colder it gets the slower they seem to be.

Much of that work is done, now, just in time for the worst of the weather to hit. The days are shorter now, darker. Dreary and wet more often than not, and Beth longs for those cold, clear days where the skies shine icy blue and the air is sharp, like little frigid blades in her lungs with every breath in. The kind of cold that glitters like fine diamonds coating the short winter grass, the skeletons of trees. Beautiful, when there’s hot chocolate and warm baths and cozy old farmhouses with reliable heating waiting for you. Deadly, when there isn’t, when warmth and safety is a luxury and not a guarantee. And she wonders, if, maybe, there’s a good reason those days seem to be a thing of the past—though the relentless days of rain and wind hold their own sort of danger for those who find themselves without shelter.

She’s grateful they have this place. Some days too grateful to be weary, as the winter deepens and they spend more and more time indoors, using the kitchen some but keeping mostly to the two conjoined parlour rooms across the hall. There’s a fireplace in the back half and this is where they set up camp. They even moved the piano in so she can play it in relative warmth and she does, most nights, with Daryl looking on in contemplative silence. With just the two of them the place is so big, too many rooms and Daryl doesn’t say, but Beth’s pretty sure he feels the same as she does. All that empty space makes her skin crawl, has her fighting to look over her shoulder when she ventures away from what’s she’s come to think of as their space. It’s better, keeping to the fewest rooms possible, though that doesn’t mean they haven’t explored the rest of the house.

In the time they’ve been here, she and Daryl have gathered up all the useful things the house has to offer, including the bedding from the beds upstairs, if not the actual beds themselves. They sleep in shifts, still, and that’s another thing they don’t put into words, but neither of them can relax when nobody’s on watch. The couch is Beth’s and after weeks of sleeping on the ground, preceded by a year of thin mattresses and pokey prison bedsprings, this thing which could’ve been right at home in her grandmother’s house feels more like something upon which the Queen of England might take her nightly repose. Daryl actually does use that casket, as macabre as it sounds, and it sits on the floor now since they moved it in from the front room. He manages to sleep deeply enough to snore sometimes and though he assures her he ain’t kidding about how comfortable it is, Beth’s in no hurry to find out if that’s true.

A storm has raged the outside world the past two days, wind rattling the old windows even with the boards nailed across them. She doesn’t know if the roof leaks, since she hasn’t gone upstairs, but she wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it does, considering the violence of yesterday’s weather. The wind has died down today, and brought with it a biting sort of cold unlike anything they’ve seen so far. This morning her fingers ached by the time she finished checking the snares, despite the double layer of gloves, and though what’s falling outside began as rain, she’s not surprised when she peers out now through their little peep-hole in the front window, and sees that it’s more than half mixed with snow.

She hasn’t really even left the parlour at all today, once she and Daryl got back in from their morning circuit. She feels a little guilty now about letting him get away with his insistence on checking the perimeter on his own tonight while she stays inside where it’s warm and dry. This isn’t a one-man job, though, surviving, so she compensates by getting the fire going now that the sky has darkened enough to hide the smoke, and preparing some food for their supper. He’ll be cold and wet and hungry when he returns and the least she can do is warm him up and feed him. 

She tries, and kind of fails, not to let her imagination wander, but there’s only so much control she has over her brain’s ability to ramble on without her permission. Particularly when there’s not much else to do but think, with the weather how it is and Daryl currently out in it. He’s been gone awhile. Not long enough that she should worry, though she does. It seeps a little deeper into her with each minute he’s away, and now that the fire’s blazing and the sort-of soup she cobbled together is bubbling in its pot, her idle hands plead for something with which to occupy them. And so she wanders—the exact thing she resists, most days, what with that whole bit about the emptiness. Except it’s not aimless, not this time. 

They have explored the whole house and relocated the useful parts to the rooms where they live, but there are other things here. Things maybe no longer useful, which fall outside the required realm of necessity and into some other category. Obsolete or unnecessary or even ridiculous. This isn’t any of those things, at least, not to Beth. She doesn’t quite know what Daryl might think and something has made her hesitant to ask him. There’s the noise of course, an excuse which has merit even though he says he doesn’t mind when she plays the piano, and the drain on the small amount of generator time they can spare, with the fuel supply as limited as it is. Beyond that, no, she isn’t sure why she hasn’t said. Just as much as she’s unsure why she keeps coming back here to this cluttered little office whenever she finds herself alone in the house. Especially as all she ever does is look. 

It’s like the one Mama kept in the kitchen. A portable phonograph, the kind that closes up inside its own little case. This one’s a neutral sort of faded brown but Mama’s was that vintage minty green. Minty green, pristine, and always open, one record or another playing while she fixed lunches or tidied up after supper, or danced with Daddy in the evening when all the work was done. No nightcaps in the Greene house, just lullabies. Songs Beth doesn’t even know the names of, but their words are forever etched into her heart as deeply as they are into the vinyl grooves that played them.

She put it away, when Mama got sick. Before she knew—before she let herself know—that Mama wasn’t going to recover. The records weren’t the same without Mama’s sweet voice humming along or her slippered feet swishing across the floor to their tunes, and Beth couldn’t stand to see it sitting there, a silent reminder that something was seriously wrong with the world. She regrets it, now, regrets not spending every last moment trying to remember instead of trying to forget. Some not so small part of her daydreams about going back to the farm, if only to drag it out and play each of those records one last time, just to commit them more fully to her memory. Her attempts at playing them on the piano just aren’t the same.

That isn’t an option, though, and so she lifts the lid on this lonely player, scans the skinny spines of the record jackets for a name or title that’s vaguely familiar, and wonders if one of these days she’ll actually work up the courage to ask Daryl if they can play something, even for a little while. 

She’s so focused on her search that she almost misses his approach, footsteps nearly silent even on these old floors. But she does hear him, and by the time he peeks his head around the doorway of the office she has turned to face him, a flush of heat rising in her cheeks at having been caught. Daryl, or rather some drowned-rat version of him, steps fully into the open doorway, dripping water and chunks of slush onto the old hardwood as he shakes the wet hair out of his eyes. His gaze falls on the record she holds in her hand. Bing Crosby’s Merry Christmas, one of the only titles that’s familiar to her, and with threat of snow falling outside it caught her attention.

She doesn’t know that it’s Christmas. But she doesn’t know that it’s not.

“Whatcha got?” he asks, though she’s sure he sees it well enough.

Beth’s breath catches in her chest, and she doesn’t understand, because it’s not a big deal. Or it shouldn’t be. It’s just a record. Just a simple idea of something she’d maybe like to do. So she doesn’t know why she drops it on the floor behind her and says, “It’s nothing. C’mon. I made supper.”

Daryl’s hungry, so he digs into the food still wearing his wet clothes. The parlour is warm, though, since the fire’s been blazing away in there a good couple of hours. Beth eats, too, not with quite the same vigour as Daryl. He watches her, as he so often does, with little flicks of his eyes up from beneath his hair, still laying damp and long down his forehead. She normally has to fight not to watch him, too. Not to meet his eyes and issue the challenge her fluttering heart demands of him, the one he has yet to accept. What, Daryl? Tell me. What changed your mind? But tonight her thoughts dwell on the phonograph sitting all but forgotten in the office. She thinks about it—and the one abandoned at the farm—as they tidy up what little mess they’ve made throughout the day and secure the house for the night. Tries to recall all the words to I’ll Be Home for Christmas while Daryl goes to wash and change into dry clothes. Thinks about humming it under her breath and realizes she already is as Daryl returns to hang his wet things up by the fire to dry.

“Go get your bath,” Daryl says. His voice—deep, sure, but not at all like the one in her head—startles her enough that she jerks around and almost knocks over the line of candles she’s working on lighting.

She saves them, though, and the only casualty is a bit of wax dripped onto an ancient doily, and looks up at Daryl as she struggles to process his words amidst the chorus of them floating in her brain.

Go get your bath.

Right. The bath she spoke about that morning, as she blew on her nearly numb fingers to warm them up. She’s never made use of the tub upstairs, despite the inherent appeal of it. They take turns washing in the kitchen, sponge-bath style out of a stock pot filled with water warmed on the fire, and that’s the bath he really means, no matter that he teases her about wishing they had enough power to run the hot water heater.

“Go on, Greene,” he says, once again nudging her out of her thoughts with that rumbly low voice. “Quit standing there stinkin’.”

She doesn’t stink, and Daryl Dixon knows that. She swears he’s almost smiling, lips twitching just so as he waits for her reaction. It’s a thing they do. One of them teases, the other pretends to be irritated, but it’s just a game and they both know it. The truth is, they stopped irritating each other for real a long time ago. Beth can’t speak for Daryl, but she enjoys the flutters in her belly when he teases her, doesn’t mind the way her cheeks heat up as she pretends to be angry, and she thinks maybe it’s something similar for him, that keeps their little game going.

After the compulsory arm-crossing and I don’t stink and the accompanying rolling of her eyes in response to Daryl’s smirk, Beth grabs her pan of hot water from the stove to add to the wash pot, takes her towels from their hook, and goes into the kitchen for her nightly bath. A real bath would be nice, she thinks as she strips out of her day clothes and folds them up neatly and sets them out on the counter for morning. It’s been so long since she’s soaked in anything warmer than a stream and because her mind’s been on the past this afternoon it doesn’t take much for her thoughts to drift to that old claw foot tub she once loved to soak in back home on the farm.

She hears the muffled sounds of Daryl moving about in the other room. Half listens to it as she washes and wonders idly what he’s doing out there, but then she finally gets the words right, the line she’s been trying to remember and everything sort of fades to the background as she sings quietly to herself in this tiny kitchen. Before she knows it, she’s got nothing left to wash and it’s into her night time clothes. Her yellow polo, scrubbed as clean as it’ll ever get, and a pair of sweats they found on one of their runs.

Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love light gleams

It’s in her head, now. The song fully remembered, and she contemplates trying to play it on the piano tonight, or something close enough to accompany the words that are wanting out. Her voice is nothing like Bing’s but she thinks she can make a go of it, and she’s sure Daryl won’t mind. Seasonally appropriate, too, considering the weather. A smile comes to her face as she recalls Daryl standing in the doorway half covered in slushy snow, coming home and bringing Christmas with him. 

I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams

“Whatcha singin’?”

She’s halfway to the piano when Daryl speaks, and she hears his chuckle when he realizes he’s caught her off guard. Beth turns, and her mouth drops open. 

“I thought...” And here, he falters, just for a moment. Glimpses of the shy boy he must once have been showing through the hardened man on the outside, in the way he ducks his head just slightly, how he pulls at his fingers. But he clears his throat, and carries on. 

“Thought maybe you might wanna listen, or somethin’,” he says, now setting a hand on the lid of the phonograph he hauled in from the office. 

She can’t make her mouth work right, and stands there gaping at him for a few seconds before she notes the way he’s peering at her from under his hair, eyes catching the light from the candles and almost dancing as he waits for her response.

“But the generator—”

“Don’t draw much,” he interrupts, almost too quickly, as though he anticipated she would say so. “We can spare the fuel. C’mon. You been starin’ at this thing for months.”

It shouldn’t surprise her that he knows this. Of course he does, because he’s Daryl. One of these days, Beth supposes she’ll get it into her head, finally, just how much Daryl sees.

She sighs. He holds up Merry Christmas and smirks. “Call it your Christmas present.”

The smirk does her in, and she crosses the floor to the table where he set up the phonograph. Stands in front of him, trying to ignore the way his smile makes her belly jump. “You don’t know that it’s Christmas, Daryl.”

He lifts an eyebrow at her and passes her the record. “You don’t know it ain’t.”

Beth’s heart flutters now, and there’s a little ache in her throat. She can’t decide if it’s nostalgia, or gratitude for Daryl’s thoughtfulness, or a mixture of the two that’s doing it. Either way, as she places the record gently on the turntable and sets the needle, she’s fighting to hold in the tears prickling at the corners of her eyes. When the first notes of Silent Night float into the room a few heartbeats later, Beth has to turn away. The music is as beautiful as she remembers and there’s just something so honest about the crackle of vinyl. That’s why Mama always preferred her old phonograph over almost anything else—and she can’t look at Daryl, she just can’t, not with the tears streaming down her face for something so effing silly as a Christmas song recorded well before either one of them were born.

He’s looking at her, though. Of course he is. The weight of his gaze burns holes in the side of her head as she stares down at her worn-out cowboy boots and tries to pretend she’s not crying. That her heart isn’t crumpling like tinfoil inside her chest. He doesn’t want to see her tears and he doesn’t need to be bothered with them, either, not after he went out of his way to set this up for her. Daryl’s not anyone’s knight in shining armour but he’s damn sweet when he wants to be, and she doesn’t need him thinking that he’s made a mistake. That she’s anything other than grateful because she is

Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace

—she is, but she’s also kind of falling apart.

It’s two days before Christmas. Christmas Eve-Eve, she likes to say, ‘cause it makes Mama laugh and Maggie roll her eyes and Daddy smile and Shawn say it’s the best thing he ever heard. Mama’s Bing Crosby record is playing for the third time through, and all around the kitchen hang evergreen boughs decorated up with bows and shiny little bells. She couldn’t reach high enough to get them all hung but Shawn helped. She could always rope him into helping with the promise of cookies. They’re baking away now in the oven, a whole big batch of ginger cookies, the soft kind made with real ginger just how he likes best.

Mama and Daddy and Maggie will be home soon, almost exactly when the cookies’ll be done. Beth skips across the kitchen, doing a little twirl-to-crouch manoeuvre to peer into the little window in the oven. She’s always loved watching them bake and the kitchen smells just like Christmas, with all that ginger and spice. She’s so excited to share her decorating and her cookies and because it’s Christmas Eve-Eve she’ll be allowed to stay up and they’ll eat cookies with today’s fresh milk and maybe Mama and Daddy will dance, because that’s the best part about the kitchen at night, when supper’s ate and all the washing up’s done and there’s nothing else to do but twirl around the hardwoods in your stocking feet.

The timer dings, just as the front door opens, jingling the bells on the wreath Mama hung up this morning. “Bethy!”

“Beth?”

The return to the present is jarring. Enough that supper rolls around in her belly like a tidal wave and she’s almost dizzy with it. Silent Night is long over and White Christmas is just starting. She’s missed a whole song locked in her head and the tears are so thick now she can’t even see. Can barely hear Daryl repeating her name over the buzzing in her ears and before she knows what she’s doing, she’s stopped the record and sunk down onto her couch, staring at her hands through blurry eyes. 

It’s what she wanted. It is. She doesn’t understand. And her hands are shaking and all she can think about is Mama’s sweet voice, calling out her name from the doorway that long ago Christmas Eve-Eve, a sound she will never, ever hear again. 

The couch dips, and in the periphery of her watery vision are another pair of hands clutched together atop a denim-covered leg. Her bones are made of rubber, and when Daryl’s shoulder bumps into hers she sways over like a porch swing in the breeze. 

“Hey,” he says, “you all right?”

She forgets, sometimes. Forgets that the angry man who watched her fall apart by some lonely train tracks crumbled to pieces in a yard full of rubble and burnt up in a blaze of moonshine. Forgets about the man who gazed at her across a candlelit table, whose eyes never cease to follow her whenever they’re together, speaking more with a single look than he’s ever probably said in words. Of course her tears aren’t gonna scare him away. Not anymore.

With a trembling hand she rubs at her eyes, clearing them of some of the tears, although fresh ones gather immediately. “My mom had this record,” she says, her own voice sounding very far away.

Daryl clears his throat very softly, and this time when he touches her shoulder with his, Beth leans into him instead of swaying away. “Yeah. So’d mine.”

They talk, sometimes, about Daddy, and in doing so she often ends up telling stories of home. Of the farm and Mama and Shawn. But they almost never talk about Daryl’s past. She understands why, as much as she can hope to without him spelling it out for her. Without having been there.  So it’s this almost casual mention of his mother—who, she’s sure, he’s never brought up before—that pulls her head up from its downward position and has her meeting his eyes across what’s really very little space between them.

He shrugs, once their gazes meet. Lets his eyes flicker between catching on hers and looking somewhere over her shoulder, as he does when he’s talking about something he’s not entirely comfortable with.

“Didn’t get to play ‘em much,” he says, gaze sweeping now toward the silent phonograph and back again to catch hers, candlelight dancing in the dark of his eyes. “She liked ol’ Bing, though.”

That’s all it takes, one little glimmer of Daryl’s past, to get her speaking. Then she’s telling him everything, about the phonograph so very like this one, about that Christmas memory and dozens of others, the soundtrack to her childhood accompanied by creaking floors and flowered aprons and her parents’ laughter as they danced away the evenings. And it wasn’t every night, of course not, but when something you loved so much is gone for good you can’t help but think of it that way. Think of all the nights made poorer for the lack of something made of such humble beauty. 

When she finishes, Daryl’s not looking at her anymore. He’s looking across the room at that damned phonograph and she wishes he would look at her, now, so she knew what he was thinking. He swallows, and it feels loud in the otherwise quiet room but really it’s only because she sees the motions of his throat that she notices at all. 

“Should let it play,” he says, finally, after a long few minutes. “Should remember.”

He rises from the couch and crosses the room, starts the record playing again right from the beginning of Silent Night. When he turns back to her, finally catching her eyes, what’s shining there is just as much a mystery to her as ever.

“Somebody should,” he adds, looking away again.

Somebody should remember the good things. He doesn’t say it, but she’s certain that’s what he means. The world’s nothing but shit and maybe he doesn’t have much good worth remembering from before, but she does, so she should. Should because she can, because she’s the one who still believes in good things. Good people. Doesn’t mean she has to stop grieving, just to appreciate the memories for what they are and she’s more grateful for that sentiment than Daryl will ever know.

So she sits, and she listens. Sings along quietly, the words appearing in her head as the music unfolds as though it hasn’t been years since she last heard them. She imagines the Christmas tree that might sit in the corner behind the phonograph and all the packages beneath it, wrapped in newsprint and brown paper and adorned with bright red ribbons and bows.  Imagines the tree boughs, dark green and fragrant, hanging from the walls after hours spent decorating them. Candlelight dances on the sleek hardwood floors and there’s Mama, in her favourite Christmas dress and brand new slippers, twirling with Daddy—in his Sunday best—around the parlour on Christmas morning.

Where the tree-tops glisten
And children listen
To hear
Sleigh bells in the snow

“We should dance,” she says, before she realises what she’s saying, and who she’s saying it to.

Heat fills her cheeks as Daryl’s eyes shoot up from the knife he’s been cleaning and land on hers with an impact that feels a little like the recoil of a gun. Hard and sudden and gone in an instant, but the weight of it lingers as the shock fades and his focus shifts ever so slightly to the side, then away altogether as he cracks a nervous smile and looks down.

“Probably just step on your toes anyway,” he mutters, balling the rag in his fist and tapping the knife against his jeans. 

Beth’s cheeks are flaming as she looks down. Away. Anywhere that Daryl isn’t which, for the moment, is her hands clenched in her lap. Oh, he was kind about it, but that doesn’t stop the squirming shame in her gut over what she said and his quiet rejection of it. She hadn’t meant to imply—to make any sort of assumptions about what she maybe saw in Daryl’s eyes sometimes. Just got caught up in the memories and now she looks like a silly girl with romantic intentions that’ll never be reciprocated the way she’s certain he now thinks she wants. 

‘Cause even if she does, it’s not something she spends too long thinking about. 

The record plays on. White Christmas ends and the next track begins and Beth tries to zone in on the music again, the memories like she’s supposed to be doing.

O tidings of comfort and joy
Comfort and joy

There’s comfort, still. Not even a healthy dose of embarrassment can take away the warmth of the room, the fullness in her stomach from the meal she ate, that she’s thankful to have. The way the thought of Christmases on the farm and her parents dancing still wants to put a smile on her face despite it all. She doesn’t know if joy is something she’ll ever manage again. Doesn’t know if she’s felt something so innocent, so freeing as that since the world ended. She should be, if not joyful, at least happier. But she can’t help feeling somehow that she’s ruined Daryl’s present with this melancholy that’s settled across her shoulders like wet wool. Heavy. Scratchy. A bit too warm for comfort. And knowing that sinks her mood down just that much lower. 

Oh how our hearts beat high with joy
Whenever we hear that glorious word

A pair of worn brown boots appear, stepping one after the other into the view beyond her hands. Only now that he’s here does she recall the creek of the floors, the quiet thump of his feet as he crossed the room. It feels like forever that she stares down at them, and the ragged end of a worn lace peeking out from beneath the frayed denim. In reality only a line or two passes between the appearance of the boots and Beth tipping her face up to look at their wearer. 

Our Fathers, chained in prisons dark
Were still in heart and conscience free

She can’t make out his expression, backlit as he is, hair framing his face and deepening the shadows. “Daryl?”

He mumbles something she doesn’t quite catch, but then he’s shoving his hand down toward her. She takes it before she understands what’s happening, lets him pull her up off the couch to stand in front of him. Close. Too close, but she can see him, now. He’s doing that chewing thing with his lip. Hiding, some, behind his hair, but his eyes are fixed on her face. 

Maybe it’s a trick of the light, or maybe the colour really is rising in his cheeks, a deep red flush building there beneath the lingering tan and the scraggly stubble. “I dunno how this works.”

“How— Something gives a soft jump in her belly; a little flutter behind her ribs. “Oh...

He nods. One quick bob of his head but that’s all the confirmation she needs. Daryl Dixon’s a language all his own and sometimes she has no idea what’s going on in his head. Other times it’s as clear as the nose on his face. It’s not discomfort keeping him quiet now, not exactly. He’s nervous, but she was mistaken, before. It’s not that he doesn’t want to dance with her, or that the thought of doing so is an unpleasant one. It’s that he doesn’t want to do it wrong.

But he’s crossed the room anyway and pulled her to her feet and all but asked her to show him. To show him, so he could grant her one silly request she never should have made and she’s suddenly so, so glad that she did. 

Her heart’s pounding, beating inside her chest with music all its own, and when she catches his eyes this time, neither one of them looks away. 

“Ain’t gotta be perfect, Daryl,” she says, as the smile that’s been hesitating finally pulls at her lips. “Just—just help me remember.”

He’s quiet as she leads him to the middle of the room. As she shows him how to stand, where to put his feet, and how to hold her. Not the way they used to do it at school dances, but like Mama and Daddy. The proper way, Mama used to say. They’ve got it backwards, Beth realizes, as he hasn’t let go of her hand since the couch and it’s the wrong ones they’re holding, but it’s almost better like this. No, not almost; it is better. It’s perfect. It’s Daryl and Beth at the end of the world, pretending it’s Christmas, and as Faith of Our Fathers comes to a close, she guides Daryl’s trembling left hand to her waist, folds hers around the solid muscle of his upper arm, and lifts their joint hands into the air.

She looks at him again, in the crackling silence between tracks, and when their eyes meet that same little something jumps again in her belly. Maybe it’s a trick of the light, the candles flickering and catching in his eyes, or maybe there really is something else burning there. Something she only catches when the light’s like this and more so now, standing so close to him as she is. Close enough to see the pulse beating in his neck, to hear the way his breath shakes ever so slightly when he exhales through parted lips. Her own breath catches in her chest and she can’t remember how to let it go. 

I’ll Be Home for Christmas starts playing, and they both jump. Just the tiniest bit, like falling almost asleep and then waking with a start. Daryl’s gaze drops from hers, settling somewhere at her shoulder as he swallows hard and curls his fingers a little against her back.


Beth lets her breath back out, gives his hand a squeeze, even though her fingers feel a little weak. A little trembly. “Just do what I do,” she says, voice barely a whisper. 

She leads. He steps on her feet, the first couple of paces, before he thinks to look down, to watch what she does as she guides them slowly around the parlour. She’s never led before but leading’s easy, and she watches Daryl watching their feet, sees the concentration there in his furrowed brow, in the way his lips move as though he’s counting the steps. When he figures out the pattern the smallest of smiles pulls at his lips and sticks there, and she squeezes his hand again and he squeezes back. 

I'll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams

The song finishes and that’s it for the record’s A-side. Daryl looks over at the phonograph first and then back to her, and Beth waits for him to let go. To step away now that their dance is done and the two of them can settle back into more familiar patterns. But the smile he wore before still lingers there, alongside a little gleam in his eyes and it strikes her that he’s actually having fun. That dancing with her was an enjoyable enough activity to want to keep doing it. She grins at him, and he tosses his head toward the now-silent player and offers a patented Daryl Dixon Grunt. Which can and does mean anything and everything but just now she hears keep playin’, like he once told her to keep singing, and with a bleat of laughter she can’t hope to control she twirls them over to the player to flip the record. 

It’s Jingle Bells next and Daryl again looks down, keeping track of the steps that go along with the faster tempo. No squished toes this time, just a couple of missteps but it’s good, it’s fun, and sure-footed Daryl takes to it in no time. She grins at him, watching him smiling down at their feet, and they’re not just stepping, not quite anymore.

O’er the fields we go
Laughing all the way

That little flutter in her chest sweeps deep like wings and it’s silly and strange and she shouldn’t indulge in it. They’re just dancing except it’s almost like they’re floating, her and Daryl, floating around the parlour two feet off the floor as one song ends and the next begins, just as jolly as the last.

Little tin horns, little toy drums
Rooty-toot-toots and rummy-tum-tums
Santa Claus is coming to town

The lyrics she loved as a little girl make her laugh now, and Daryl laughs with her, a rumbling chuckle that tugs his smile even wider. He is having fun, he most definitely is and that feeling she was chasing, before, that little spark of joy, it blooms in her chest, bright and billowy and light as air. She hasn’t felt like this, laughed like this, for a good long while, and doing so while spinning around the room with Daryl Dixon is its own sort of joy.

When the music slows so do they, but Daryl’s got a handle on this now and the transition’s smooth. She’s still watching him when he looks up, finally.  His nose brushes her forehead and they both suck in a breath and hold it there, as she gazes up at him and he gazes down at her. She’s not sure how that happened, how they got to be standing this close. There’s still space in the middle but it’s closed itself, somehow, shrunk by half when she wasn’t looking and she feels his breath on her face. Hears the sound his shirt makes as it moves against hers whenever he inhales. There aren’t wings in her chest anymore, it’s a stampede of horses and she swears the floor shakes with the thunder of their hooves. 

Or maybe that’s just her, trembling so hard she feels it in her bones.

Maybe it’s them both, trembling together.

Children laughing, people passing
Meeting smile after smile

His eyes are blazing. Lit from within with a glow that’s beyond reach of the flickering candlelight. They’re burning down into her, through her, and it’s too much. She breaks away the same moment as he. Hears his breath tumble out in a rush, the breeze of it tickling her ear, teasing her hair. There’s a little tear in his shirt, in the seam running along the ridge of his shoulder and she focuses on it. Stares at the little gap with its stringy edges and thinks about mending it. She has to, to keep her knees underneath her. To keep guiding Daryl across the floor like it’s something they do every day. 

And the thing that will make them ring is the carol that you sing
Right within your heart

He sighs. So, so softly. A private sound she’s privy to because there doesn’t seem to exist such a concept anymore as space. What little there is crackles with static, static like the record she knows, somewhere, plays on behind them but all she can hear right now is her pounding heart and Daryl’s whisper of her name. Less than a whisper—he breathes it, a near-silent Beth which is at once part of the air in the room and something just slightly apart, and it echoes in her head as she feels the prickle of hair at her brow. Her eyes fall shut of their own accord and she leans just a little into that feeling—the rough hair and the soft lips beyond. Parted just enough to let the heat of his breath warm her skin. 

They’re not moving around the parlour now. Their feet barely lift from the floor as they circle slowly on the spot and Beth doesn’t know how long they’ve been doing this, or when the room around them collapsed into this concentrated little bubble just big enough for the two of them. She hears the record now, playing in the distance. The words of a song carried in on the wind but the tune’s all wrong. How grand it feels to click your heels and join in the fun of the jigs and reels, but in here, oh in here there’s another tune altogether. Not something she hears, something she feels and wonders if Daryl feels it, too. 

He must, because the ragged ends of his breath as it washes across her forehead keep perfect time with hers. It’s there, shaking through his fingers where they press in and pull away in a rhythm all their own against her back. Daryl whispers something, and the words don’t carry but the rumble of them rolls across her scalp and shivers down her neck, twines itself around her ribs. She shouldn’t, she knows she shouldn’t, but as she thinks it she’s already turning her face. Turning until the scruff on his chin rasps across her nose. Until the lips at her brow part just a little more against her skin. 

A little sound tumbles out. She doesn’t mean to do it but it’s not a thing she can stop, that little sigh. The little whimper which makes Daryl’s fingers flex once more at the small of her back as he pulls her the rest of the way to him. He’s warm against her, that solid wall of chest generating a heat all his own in this already warm room. She drops her forehead down to rest atop his shoulder, an action that’s as involuntary as the rest of it. This isn’t the first time she has danced with someone, of course it isn’t, but she never wanted to turn her face into the other person’s warm neck before. To breathe him in, sweat and soap and leather and dirt. And it’s Daryl’s neck she’s nosing at. Daryl’s own little sounds vibrating through his throat beneath her parted lips. There’s a tremble in her body that’s bone-deep, building like an earthquake beneath the surface of her skin and she doesn’t know what’s happening or why but she knows she doesn’t want it to end.

The record stops.

It’s the same as before, when their first song began. They both give a little start, and two heads pull back just far enough now to catch gazes. The parlour reappears around them, dimly lit by flickering candles and just the same as they left it, before they ended up somewhere else entirely. Daryl tears his gaze from hers, lets go of her hand and Beth takes a single step back, inserting some space between them where there formerly was no space at all. He’s not looking at her, and what’s stirring up her pulse now is an entirely different entity from before. But she’s frozen there, with her wobbly knees and slowly sinking belly. They both are, standing motionless in the empty centre of the now-silent room and looking at anything but each other.

Daryl moves, eventually. Shuts the lid on the phonograph and leaves the room. Beth knows he’s only going to switch the generator off but he might as well be heading out on a two day hunt, for how far away he feels. She doesn’t want to cry, she does not. There’s no point shedding tears over something so silly, over something she’s sure wasn’t really anything at all. She thought—but no, no of course not. It was just a dance. Just two people chasing memories of the past, and no matter what she might think she sees in his eyes, it could never be anything more than that.

Tears well up anyway, despite what she tells herself, blurring her vision. Beth tries in vain to swallow down that lump in her throat but it’s no use. She never should have bothered with the stupid record player. Should have left the past to its obsolete, unnecessary, useless self instead of pining away for something that’ll never exist again—or something that never existed at all.

The first tears fall to the sound of Daryl’s footsteps as he ascends the stairs from the basement where the generator lives, and she drags them off her face with the heels of her hands. He can’t see her like this, but there’s nowhere to go. Just the two of them in this big lonely house but the thought of running from the room, from this place that’s now become the only home she has, makes her want to vomit her supper all over the floor. Instead she drops down onto her couch. Reaches for the quilt, hand stitched patchwork and every bit as old as that damned record, and curls up beneath its familiar weight. Reminds herself that there’s no Christmas, not anymore, and she was foolish for pretending. Feels the shame of it burning in her cheeks, for letting herself get so caught up in it.

It isn’t long before Daryl returns. Beth hears the tapping of his boots long before he enters the room and she burrows deeper beneath her bedding. That crackling static is back, the air beyond her blanket refuge is charged and weighty. She knows he must be looking at her but she won’t. She refuses to look up, refuses to see what isn’t there in his gaze.

Is afraid, for him to see what lingers in hers.

She listens to him moving about the room, for a time. Blowing out the candles they don’t need. Helping himself to the last of the soup. After that it sounds as though he’s just clomping around, moving things, fiddling with their shit and the clutter that came with the house. Making noise for the sake of noise and that’s so un-Daryl-like it makes her wonder if he isn’t trying to draw her back out. The thought makes her belly jump again, but she pushes it down. She doesn’t want him to see her disappointment in returning to status quo. He doesn’t need that burden, too.

But she doesn’t hear him coming when he finally sits down on the arm of the couch, only the little groan the furniture makes as he settles there. Her heart thumps but she’s frozen again, even though every part of her wants to know why, why he’s come to her now instead of just heading to bed. Why his palm skims close to the top of her head first before sliding down the curve of her scalp. Petting her hair, slowly. Slowly and deliberately, over and over until her scalp tingles beneath his touch.

“Beth,” he says, in a voice that’s nearly all gravel.

She peeks out from the blanket, one now-dry eye existing beyond the ribboned hem to seek out his in the near-dark. He has a candle with him, a long skinny one in an antique holder, and the light from it flickers across his face the same way it did, months and months ago in the kitchen. His eyes look the same, too, the same as that night, and a million things at once surge up inside her. ‘Cause she’s not been reading the signs, not even at all. Letting assumptions play her emotions like piano keys instead of looking at things with a clear head. She was there, for cripes’ sake. Right here in this room when she and Daryl held onto each other and slow danced their way through jolly Christmas songs to a tune only they could hear. And yeah, maybe she was there as well when he panicked and ran away—but somehow she missed the part where he came back.

He came to her when she was doing her own sort of running away. Gazes down at her now and she knows he’s nervous. Sees it in the way he chews his lip, in the quickening of his breath. And when is Daryl nervous except for when it comes to this, this thing that’s been building between them all these months. The thing they don’t talk about, right along with the unfinished conversation that started it all.

“I don’t know what happened,” Beth says, and she doesn’t really mean to but once the words are out she can’t take them back.

Daryl doesn’t smile, exactly, but his lips twitch just a bit as he shrugs and bravely keeps looking at her. “Me either.”

“But it was somethin’, right?” she says in a whisper, pushing the quilt down now so she can sit up.

Daryl keeps stroking her hair, even as she comes upright, fingers combing through the strands now instead of merely gliding over them. His eyes track hers as she moves and hold, and he takes in a deep breath that shakes through his shoulders. “Yeah. Yeah, it was somethin’.”

“Daryl—”

“Beth—”

They speak at the same time, and it’s enough to snip through a bit of the tension. She lets out a giggle and he looks down for a second or two, but it’s not avoidance, not this time. When he looks back up at her he’s wearing a hint of a smile, and there’s something so open and vulnerable shining in his eyes that she wants to crawl right up inside them and make herself a nest in their flickering depths.

“C’mere,” Beth says instead, sliding over, making a space for him between her and the couch’s arm.

And it’s not a lot of room but he sets the candle on the floor and slides down anyway. Tangles his fingers in her ponytail and gives it a little tug, and it’s only natural to lean her head over onto his shoulder. To gather the blanket around the two of them and snuggle down beneath it, the weight of his arm at her back. She listens for a minute or two to his heart, thumping away in his chest just like hers. Wonders if his belly’s jumping, too, and thinks maybe it might be, the way he sighs and twirls her hair and leans his head over to rest against hers.

“We doin’ this, then?” he says, still in that gravelly whisper.

His boldness swirls warm through her chest, and she smiles. The last thing she ever expected was Daryl to be the one to crack the seal, to be the first of them to put it into words, even vaguely, but now that he has she lets it fill her up, that fluttering, that warmth. And the other things, too. The memories she rejected not minutes ago when she let her worries get the better of her. That fullness in her heart when she thinks about those Christmases past, of family and love and home. She is home. It’s not the one she grew up in, but it’s home nonetheless. Daryl is family and has been since the day they fled the farm, and maybe that’s looking a little different than it used to, but that doesn’t make it any less true. And love—well, that exists here, too. She’s not sure exactly how to qualify it, yet, but that’s okay. They don’t really need to.

We doin’ this, then?

Really, they have been for months. Nothing much changes now that there’s words to go along with it. More of this, perhaps, snuggling on the couch. More of other things, later, when they get used to this part. But everything else was already there.

“What?” she says, after a minute, knowing he’ll pick up the lilt of humour in her voice, hear it for what it is. “Dancin’?”

He chuckles as he turns his head to place the gentlest of kisses into her hair. “Yeah. Dancin’.”

“All right, Daryl,” she says, and burrows her head even deeper into his chest. “I’d love to.”

They sit together in silence, the both of them curling in until they’re well tangled up there beneath her quilt. The candle in front of them shrinks, leaving trails of white wax down its sides, over the edges of its holder to drip down to the floor. The words are in her head, have been all night, and they find their way out easily now, first hummed into the fabric covering Daryl’s chest, then sung like a secret whisper, a song for just the two of them. Pretty soon there’s nothing else to do but stretch out together on the couch, her back to his front, the warmth of his breath on her neck and the comfort of his arm wound around her. And she sings. Sings for him, sings for herself, sings for the memories she’ll never again allow herself to forget. It’s not the Greene farm, but it is a lullaby, and she sings and sings and sings, until they drift off together to sleep, surrounded by candles on a night that might not be Christmas, but if she wants it bad enough, it could just be.

Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love light gleams
I'll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams