The last Christmas she wants to remember isn't the last Christmas she lived through.
She used to love Christmas. It used to be her absolute favorite - more than Easter, more than Thanksgiving, and New Year’s always struck her as vaguely silly for some reason. Sure as hell more than the Fourth of July. She never could have articulated why; she never tried, never felt that she had to. She simply loved it, loved it with everything in her; the carols in the stores, the holly and fir trees and gold tinsel, red bows everywhere, twinkling lights. The smell of baking - cinnamon and ginger - that seemed to perennially fill her kitchen starting in the beginning of December and lasting until well into January, in part because Daddy believed in the twelve days of Christmas and he kept the tradition as he kept all the traditions he loved: with warmth and care and a kind of tenderness for the past that she never questioned.
She has trouble conceiving of that warmth and that tenderness now.
Except maybe she does feel it. The tiniest threadbare scrap of it. There is that memory of that final Christmas, when there was a rare genuine snowfall, not a dusting but enough to make moderately deep snow angels out of - and the memory of falling backward into the snow, the impact oofing the breath out of her but no pain as it cushioned her, and then cold wet down the collar of her coat and working its way under the hem of it at her waist, making her shiver. Sweeping her arms and legs back and forth, patting it down with the back of her head, and then laughing as Shawn reached down a hand and tugged her on her feet. Looking at it - perfect, the best snow angel she ever saw. Mama calling from the back door, calling them in to supper, and they went, crunching over the snow toward that blaze of cheerful light, her fingering ice out of her hair where the snow melted and froze again.
Their tree in the parlor, topped with the angel Mama had for her tree when she was a little girl. Tree skirt hand-sewn by her grandmother, green and red with gold trim. She can still feel the piano keys under her hands, smooth and somehow heavy, the satisfying solidity of them as she picked out a tune and Mama and Maggie sang. Hot chocolate, then bed and the little thrill that ran all through her at the promise of Christmas morning and gifts under the tree and her stocking stuffed full, even though she long ago accepted the unreality of Santa Claus.
Though now she does wonder about that.
That final Christmas was real. It happened. The music. The snow. The light. It was all real.
In some ways that makes it even worse.
She starts, flicks her gaze up, and in the window of the Dillard’s she sees Daryl’s face reflected, illuminated by the tasteful silver lights strung along the frame. As usual she can only partially make out his eyes, but what she can see is glittering, alert, and she feels his focus trained on her, sharp as the point of her knife.
She feels him, and he must have felt her. Felt her memories, if he didn't exactly see what she was seeing. And he may have done.
“I'm fine.” Without turning, she gives him a reflected smile. She abruptly realizes that she doesn't know how long she's been standing here, staring at two vaguely eerie faceless mannequins modeling snowflake sweaters with a selection of matching shoes along the bottom. With equal abruptness she wonders if he's wondering why she's staring at this window, if she should try to explain - not that she owes him an explanation. But it must look weird. She's not intending to buy Rick or Carl or Lori a sweater or a pair of shoes. Certainly not like this.
It wasn't about what was in the window. It was about the light. It's long past sundown and there's a bite in the air, but here's a glow that almost seems to carry its own warmth, even if she's merely imagining it.
She feels silly. Stupid. Maybe she shouldn't have asked her to bring him here. But tonight is what she gathers is the cyne’s equivalent of a family Christmas get-together, and she wanted to have something to bring for Rick and for Carl, and for Lori. Even though Lori won't be there.
As soon as the idea occurred to her, she was certain that the others would understand, and wouldn't feel slighted if she focused her frankly meager resources on the Grimes family.
What's left of them.
She finally turns, and he jerks his chin in the direction of the double doors. “You wanna go in?”
He doesn't sound unenthused by the idea. But neither does he sound enthused. In fact, he had shrugged when she suggested the idea to him, and she might have been taken aback by that, if she didn't understand now the degree to which the Hathsta differ regarding a lot of basic assumptions about how things will go. About what's appropriate and what isn't.
She's not being expected to do this. That's what she took away from it.
She sighs. Not really, she doesn't. She doesn't want to be here at all, doesn't want to be thinking about Christmas and out in a place where she's being assaulted by Christmas from all sides, but she does want to do what she came for, to the extent that she can do it at all, and she nods.
“You're sure,” he says softly. Not challenging. But of course he knows how she feels, and he wants to remind her that she has an out if she wants one, no face lost.
It's not about face. She's not confident that she could articulate what it's about. Except something stirs inside her, and though it's way too early for that - barely six weeks, and she's not showing yet - she lays a hand over her belly and closes her eyes.
“Yeah,” she murmurs. “I'm sure.”
He nods - a single dip of his head - and takes her hand, and together they walk through the door and into all that light.
She hadn't asked for details about how this will work or what she should expect, and Daryl hadn't offered any. It's not a lack of curiosity so much as - she suddenly understands as he pulls the bike up to the pitch black door of the Frithus - a simple desire to not think about it any more than she has to. Because it goes along with the rest of Christmas and her pained aversion to it, and though she would never dream of refusing to go…
God, she's nothing but a fucking Scrooge.
Cars are parked in a small cluster nearby; the rest of the cyne must already be here. And this was the first mild surprise, once she realized where they were going: that it was going to be here instead of at one of their houses - maybe at Rick’s - though she actually shouldn't be surprised at all. This place is the center of everything they do - this place and the meadow nearby. It's not the most comfortable place for a family gathering, but it makes sense.
She can't decide if that makes her feel better or not.
Daryl cuts the engine, but he doesn't climb off the bike. Instead he half turns at the waist, studying her with his one visible eye, and her chest tightens as his concern ripples into her.
She's worrying him. She hates doing that.
“Look, you alright?” He pauses, but not long enough for her to answer. “You don't have to be here. Swear. We can go back to your place right now if you wanna. They'd get it.”
She's not so sure they would. But she doesn't argue. Instead she gazes at him, clutching the little gift bag in her hands, and then flicks her eyes away, past the building and out into the dark toward where the meadow lies. Not because she wants to go there - God, she doesn't, not with the fire scar from Judith’s funeral pyre still visible in front of Eostre’s idol - but because she's uncertain what else she should look at.
“I don't wanna go,” she says, her voice low. She doesn’t. She does, and she doesn't. This is her family now, she loves every one of them, and if they're doing this, she wants to be with them while they do.
Whatever it is.
“You don't like it,” he persists, not fighting her on it, though he sounds unhappy. He's unhappy that she's unhappy, but even more than that, he's unhappy that he's unable to properly articulate what she herself is feeling. Because it's a hell of a lot more complicated than that.
Not that he has to articulate it. But she aches at how much it means to him to try.
Even when neither of them has to say anything, there's value in the words.
She leans in and briefly presses her forehead to his leather-clad back, then slips off the bike and stretches slightly. He follows her, apparently ready to let it go, but an impulse seizes her - the desire to reach for those words - and she turns to him, holding the bag against her stomach as if she needs to shield it.
The bag. Her stomach. Both.
“Last Christmas I was locked up in a psych ward,” she says, the words tumbling out of her, shaking as they come.
She watches his eyes widen - nearly imperceptible but they do - and pain flash through them. She still doesn't talk much about the months after her family was killed; in her opinion everyone knows as much as they need to know, Daryl included, but even more, talking about it makes it real all over again, and no matter what's happened since then - her strange but wonderful new family, her strange but wonderful new husband, the strange but wonderful child she's carrying - she desperately wants to pretend it wasn't real at all.
That Christmas, the Christmas before - that was real.
That's what she’ll hang onto.
She lowers her head. “It's… Nothin’. It's nothin’. It's over.”
No. It'll never be over.
He looks at her for a long time. She holds his flickering, animal gaze, swallows. His face is unreadable. He might be feeling anything now, and for once, though she's gleaning shifting fragments of it, it's largely a mystery to her.
But at last he lifts his hands to her face - somehow warm even with his lack of gloves - strokes his thumbs over her cheeks, tilts her head up and kisses her brow.
“Ain’t nothin’,” he says, low as her, and steps back, once more reaching out a hand for hers. “If you don't wanna leave, let’s go. They're waitin’.”
It's considerably easier to go with him through this door than the door before it.
She had thought this wasn't the most comfortable setting for a gathering, and it's certainly not luxurious, but the sight that greets her isn't at all uncomfortable, either. A fire is burning in a small circle of stones in the center of the cavernous room, and the cyne is sitting around it in a circle, blankets over their shoulders, talking in low voices. Set a little way back is a propane stove - she supposes it must be the one from Daryl’s den - and a saucepan of what looks and smells like apple cider is simmering gently over it. Spices - cinnamon, perhaps nutmeg and cloves, and an edge which to her suggests something a bit more potent than mere cider at its core. A couple of mugs sit beside it, and as she draws closer she sees that Glenn, Carol, and Shane are already holding their own.
It's primitive. But it feels good. It feels good just to stand here.
Rick, Carl, and Michonne are sitting with their backs to them, but when Daryl halts, they turn. Morgan looks up. Michonne is smiling, small but warm, and she lifts a hand and beckons as Carol and Glenn scoot back to make a space for them.
“C’mon. We were just about to get started.”
Daryl grunts as he leads Beth over to the open space. “Didn't have to wait.”
“Yeah, who says we were?” But even Shane sounds amiable, and as Beth sinks down onto the floor and accepts a blanket from Glenn and a mug from Carol, she's not sure she's mistaking the hint of a smile on his face when he looks at her.
It's not exactly fair to say that being pregnant has increased her status here. But it hasn't hurt. They do look at her differently now.
It doesn't bother her. Much.
Her attention shifts to Rick as she passes a mug over to Daryl, and what she sees on his face… He's not smiling. Unsurprising; he hasn't truly smiled in weeks. But the darkness in his eyes isn't quite so thick, and the softer pain there… She knows it. She knows it intimately. The past, what he'll never get back. The woman who's not at his side now.
She was feeling that pain not even an hour ago.
Carl is almost smiling. Close to it. Certainly closer than his father. But some of the same pain is there too. All at once his gaze meets hers, and he gives her a little nod. Out of everyone present, she might be the one who best understands what they lost.
Because she was there.
Then there's Morgan. And though he's sitting beside Michonne, he somehow seems to be far separate from the rest of them, to occupy a slightly different point in space, or a slightly different space altogether. He also nods when she looks at him, and while that's the extent of his greeting, she senses more behind it.
Among them all, except for Daryl, he probably knows a particular part of her best. Has seen it more than the others. Knows exactly how powerful she is. How powerful she might yet be.
It didn't set her at ease when they began, and it still doesn't. But she trusts him now. She's ready to call him a friend as well as a teacher, without reservation.
Michonne clears her throat and raises a hand, and the last quiet buzz of conversation ceases. All eyes - including Beth’s - turn to her, and the silence hangs in the air for a moment. Then Michonne reaches into the pocket of her coat and produces a small plastic sandwich bag full of what look like dried leaves. She spills them into her palm, leans in, casts them into the fire, and it leaps up, bleeding from orange-red into a kind of rosy gold - oddly familiar light, though Beth can't place where she's seen it before. The smoke, which was standard woodsmoke with the standard woodsmoke scent, now smells of something deeper and sweeter, something she can't place either.
Something a little like a kitchen full of baking.
“Wilcume,” Michonne says quietly, and Beth wouldn't need to understand the Reord as well as she does to know what that means. Nor would she need to in order to repeat it with the others, a soft choral murmur, as if they're afraid to disturb something close by. But when Michonne speaks again, her voice rises into the huge room, filling the space. “The sun has fallen, and with it the darkest shadow. The longest night is upon us. Beyond our circle lurk many dangers, but we do not fear.”
Another murmur from them all, and this time she’s too taken by surprise to repeat it: We do not fear.
“We are warriors for the light, made to be so. We are the children of the dawn, made to fight in her name. We will keep watch through this night to see the dawn come again.”
All of them, and now she only listens: The cyne will keep watch.
“Se freamiht a se cyne sy se anhiwe freamiht,” Michonne says, and Beth does remember this, can't forget it, said in the hospital as they all kept a different and far more terrible watch. She echoes it with them, and her voice shakes at the edges as she does.
The strength of the cyne is the only strength.
“Then let's remember that strength.” She's fallen back into English, and Beth senses the formality slipping a bit. “Let's remember all the strength that came before us, that teaches us how be strong.” She looks around the circle. “Who wants to start?”
For a moment, no one speaks, but the pause isn't uncomfortable. It's thoughtful, as if they're all considering something, and when Glenn clears his throat and speaks up, it doesn't feel random.
“I’ll tell the story of Rowan Ofstig, who led his cyne safely through the Labyrinth of Mirrors and into the Hrirnigheard Valley.”
Michonne smiles. “Good one. Listen up, everybody. And think about what you got when it's your turn.”
So it's stories. Somehow this doesn't surprise her either. It's all stories, heroic legends in the purest sense, and as Glenn launches into his tale and her cider warms her hand and slides hot down her throat - definitely more potent than cider alone - she finds herself sinking into it, staring at the flames until she doesn't see them any longer but instead sees what she's hearing, every second of danger and terror, and every moment of triumph that inevitably follows. They're clearly very old stories, ancient, and she can't decide whether or not they really happened, but she also doesn't think it really matters.
Whether or not they really happened isn't the point.
Glenn ends his story with the brave Rowan running at the head of his cyne as they charge into battle in the Hrirnigheard Valley - some battle that's indicated as being decisive in a war they all seem to know the history of but which escapes her. Then it's on to Carol and the tale of Kendra of the Nimble Hand, whose cleverness - and knowledge of poisons and skill with a dagger - brought down a corrupt Eal and threw his entire family into well-deserved exile. Morgan and Errol the Nameless, who wandered the world for nearly a century in search of enlightenment, and whose wisdom - in the final years of his life - eventually became so great that Eostre herself sought his counsel. Shane and Elwine Getyd, who trained an entire army of two hundred cyne with such rapid skill that they defeated a group of fifty giants in a single day, thereby protecting the young city of London from a threat it was never aware of. Michonne and Agleaw Firm-Heart, whose knowledge of the Arit - the great laws - and whose keen sense of justice resolved a seemingly irresolvable dispute between a band of dwarves and a hot-headed young Eal and prevented a war from breaking out in the first place. Daryl speaking up, his rough voice finding a clarity Beth hasn't heard before, with the story of Ivor Camden, whose prowess in tracking and hunting fed ten human villages in a year of famine and saved them all from starvation.
And then, all at once, silence.
This time the silence is uncomfortable. It jolts Beth out of the trance she’d drifted into, and when she glances around the circle, their faces both less and more than human in the shifting firelight, she see that everyone is trying very hard to not look at Rick, but is also at a loss regarding what to do instead.
Of course, it's his turn. He's the only one left - aside from Carl, who she gathers isn't yet included - and he's the Eal, which must mean it's his job to close things out. She doesn't know how much later it is - it strikes her as impolite to check her phone - but it must be well into the small hours, and in fact it's very possibly close to dawn. The fire is burning lower, though it's nowhere near coals. If it's Rick’s job to end this, and he can't, then perhaps they don't know how to end it, at least not without him.
They're not looking at him - but she does. She looks straight at him, and he lifts his eyes to hers and doesn't look away. Again she sees that hideously familiar pain, the sadness and the weariness of it, and she thinks of how every day is exhausting when you're hurting like that, how everything you see and taste and touch reminds you of everything you'll never see and taste and touch again, every way in which your senses are forever deprived, everything you'll never be able to do, as if you’ve lost a physical part of yourself. As if you've been robbed of a limb.
He's remembering all the nights like this before, what it was like when everything was different, how good it felt and how happy he was, and how it's over now. How Judith won't ever sit in this circle and hear these stories. How she won't ever get a chance to tell any of her own.
They don't know what to do, if Rick can't perform his own task. But Rick doesn't know what to do either.
It's not fair to expect him to.
He's not pleading with her. He's not asking anything of her at all. It doesn't matter. She can do this. She takes a breath, closes her eyes and watches the ghost of the fire dance on the inside of her lids like an old projection against a screen.
“I don't have any stories like that,” she says softly, and all heads turn to her, surprise passing through the group like a murmur. “I guess I don't… I don't remember any. Not well enough to tell them. I wish I did. These are great stories. They're…” She trails off, unsure. But Daryl’s hand closes over her knee and squeezes, and she finds her voice again. “But there's… This one time. It was Christmas Eve, two years ago. It snowed, way more than it had in years, and…”
And before she fully realizes it, she's telling the story of the snow angels. Of the wet chill down her neck and at the small of her back, the way packed snow beneath your body feels like nothing else on earth, the laughter of her brother and the way the snow glittered in the moonlight when she looked down at the shape she made, her mother calling, crunching through the silvery dark back to the farmhouse and what was waiting for them in the kitchen.
All that light and all that love.
They're all wordless, motionless, and it doesn't feel like they're indulging her. It doesn't feel like politeness. They’re listening, rapt, to a story where no one faces ridiculous odds and comes through in the end, or finds courage and faith when everyone else has lost theirs, or uses their skill and wisdom to solve some impossible problem. It's just a story about home, and people, both of which she's lost, and a night she'll never have again. But it happened.
It was real.
At last she reaches the end - not the ending as it really was, not the end, but the ending as she chooses to remember it: Christmas morning and stockings stuffed full and presents under the tree, the smell of sausage and biscuits and eggs, Mama singing carols in the kitchen, Daddy reading aloud from the Book of Luke in his battered and well-loved Bible - and she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger - and through all the windows, the impossible brilliance of the sun on the snow.
And they all lived happily ever after.
To the end of their days.
She's only aware that she's stopped talking a few seconds after she has. That it's all silent again, the only sound the crackling of the fire. Her mug is long-cold in her hand, and Daryl is holding her other hand in both of his, big and warm and rough around hers.
The crackling of the fire - and in the distance, very faint, a bird is singing.
“Normally I'd be telling the story of Ealdgyth,” Rick says quietly. No one jumps. It's as if they all expected it. Perhaps they did. “Ealdgyth Anmodne who unified all the cyne and brought peace to the people. But not this year.” He sighs and looks down, his head bowed and his hands loose in the bowl of his folded legs, but he doesn't look defeated.
He merely looks tired.
“It's a good story, and it’s worth telling. But it's not my story. Not right now.” He raises his head, and when his eyes meet Beth’s, he is smiling. Just a little. It's a sad smile, but it's a smile, and it passes into her chest and settles there, small and warm. “I think Beth’s is a better one to end on anyway.”
The bird trills again, sounding closer, and it's as if they're all waking up, stirring and shaking themselves, rubbing their eyes. Shrugging off blankets and stretching, leaning forward and to either side, and it's like the greetings Beth has seen them exchange as a pack: hands against hands, brows pressed together, nuzzling - not remotely human, even if they're still wearing human skins. And even that's starting to change as they start to change, smoothly and easily, and they're truly stretching now, arching their backs and shaking themselves all over.
Rick glances at Carl, nods, pushes up to a crouch and briefly closes his eyes. “The darkness is ended,” he says, softly enough that Beth wonders if she should have been able to hear him. But he must be saying it for everyone.
“Now the light begins.”
She expects them to go to the meadow. But they stop in the parking lot a little way past the cars, facing the downtown towers. The light is growing behind them, catching the corners and facets of the glass, and as Beth sits on Daryl’s broad, powerful back and watches it come, she realizes that it's the exact shade and hue that the fire had been.
Dawn light. They kept it in their circle until it was ready to go back into the world.
No one speaks. They crouch together and Beth slides down, leans against his tree trunk of an arm and rests her cheek against his fur. The longest night of the year is over. From now on the days only get longer. And she's not fool enough to think the darkness is truly ended, but that has to be something. It's certainly something worth fighting for.
As if on a cue she can't identity, they raise their heads in unison and begin to sing.
She heard them sing at Judith’s funeral - sang with them - and it was the most beautiful thing she had ever heard. This isn't more beautiful than that was, but it's so different, starting low and rising with the light, passing into and out of a recognizable pattern, each of their voices spinning and soaring around each other like swallows with a purity of harmony unlike any a human chorus could generate. Once again there aren't any words she can identify, but she doesn't need to; she simply stands and listens, tears running down her cheeks, as the sun rises over the city.
She’ll sing next year. If she's here next year to sing. If she's here with her child in her arms, as proof that no story ever really has an end. She’ll sing next year but for now she listens, until their voices drift gracefully back down and fade into the crisp air.
Wilcume. The one word she did recognize. Welcome. Yes. Because this isn't the end of a story.
It's a beginning.
The cyne is changed back and breaking up, and Rick is heading toward his car when Beth catches his arm, and he turns. He still looks tired, shoulders slumped and gait heavy, but a kind of peace that she doesn't recall ever seeing before has settled around him. It won't last, because things like that never do, but for now at least he has it, and he can rest in it for as long as it's with him.
She gives him a smile - the tiniest bit nervous but not because of any particular thing - and holds out the little silver gift bag.
He takes it and looks at it, brow furrowed, mild confusion clear on his face.
“It's for Lori,” she says, quiet, as if it's something she wants to keep secret. And she doesn't, in fact, but she does want this to be just for them. Them and Carl, later, and Lori, but for right now, just them. Because it's not only for Lori. When she saw it in the display case, somehow she knew it was for a lot more than that.
She knew it was important. It was there because she was meant to find it, because she was meant to give it to him.
He lifts his gaze to her and fixes her with it, clear and meditative, his brow still furrowed - but not a frown. The corners of his mouth are tugging very slightly upward.
“Thanks,” he murmurs. “We’re headed to the hospital. I'll see she gets it.”
She nods, takes a breath - and isn't sure what else to do, having done the one thing she had a plan for. But then Daryl is calling her name from the bike, rolling the engine into a growl, and Rick lifts his chin toward him.
“Should get going.”
But she doesn't. Not immediately. Instead - obeying the same strange impulse that pushed her to buy the gift in the first place - she pushes up on her toes and presses a light, swift kiss to his cheek, warm stubble under her lips. Real.
When she walks away, she knows without looking back that he's smiling.
The second they walk in her door, she realizes how exhausted she is - how exhausted they both are, and they barely summon the energy to get their clothes off before they're topping into bed together, Daryl wrapped around her like he always is, legs tangled, her face pressed into the hollow of his throat. It's so good to sleep with him when he's in fierd, but at least for the present the size of her bed makes that awkward at best and downright uncomfortable at worst, so this is good enough in the meantime - the solid warmth of his body, his rough scarred skin on hers, the scruff on his jaw prickling her scalp and his heart thudding in her ear.
She closes her eyes against the morning sun streaming in through the window and lets that rhythm lull her to sleep like it always does, strong and gentle just as he is - joining with hers just like the rest of him. And it's not the only one, not anymore, because she's sure she can feel it: another, almost too quiet to be there at all, but there nonetheless, and stronger all the time.
She falls asleep thinking about that, and about the light in the Dillard’s window, the light over Atlanta, the firelight in between, all the light in her memories and all the light that might still come, the stories and the singing, and there inside the display case with a collection of others like it and nothing like it at all, waiting for her to find it and take it and give it to someone who needs it…
A little crystal wolf with eyes stained blue.