Daryl’s never been the type to let a busted wrist keep him from doing what needs doing, so when Rick finishes rigging him a makeshift splint and sling and sits back on his heels to look his handiwork over with a critical eye, the last thing Daryl expects to hear is, “Alright, that oughta do for now. You ready to head back?”
Daryl, who was in the middle of rotating his shoulder to test out the sling’s integrity, looks up to fix Rick with a disbelieving scowl. “Hell you mean, am I ready to head back? We ain’t finished here yet.”
Rick arches a pointed eyebrow at Daryl’s wrist where it’s strapped to his chest, then looks just as pointedly at the fallen walkers strewn in a sloppy semi-circle around them, guts and viscera spilling out of their split bellies and busted skulls to steam in the morning cold.
“You sure about that?” Rick drawls. “’Cause we look pretty damn finished to me.”
Daryl hooks his crossbow over his good shoulder and gets gingerly to his feet. With one arm outta commission, his balance’s all fucked to hell, and if there were ever a day he wasn’t in the mood to eat dirt, this would be it. He kicks one of the dead walkers, hard, and glares down at Rick.
“Fine, whatever. I ain’t finished yet. You can head on back if you want; s’no skin off my teeth.”
Rick sighs like Daryl is solely and directly responsible for every last item on his very long list of problems, scrubs roughly at his face, and then gets to his feet a whole helluva lot more easily than Daryl had. That’s fucking annoying.
“You’re gonna lose a lot more than the skin off your teeth, you keep goin’ with a busted wrist and no one around to back your ass up. C’mon, man, don’t make me drag you back.”
If Daryl’s hackles weren’t up before, they definitely are now. “Yeah? Think you fuckin’ could?”
To Rick’s credit, he pauses and visibly weighs his chances before saying, “Yeah, actually, I do. Not even you could take me with one hand tied behind your back.” Rick’s lips, red and chapped with the cold, kick into a lopsided smile. “Or strapped to your front, I guess.”
Daryl wants to kick Rick right in the balls. He settles for kicking the walker again instead. “Fuck you.”
“Huh? What’d you say?” Rick makes a show of cupping one ear and leaning in to hear him better. “I didn’t catch it. Was that you admitting I’m right?”
Daryl feels his eye twitch. Christ, he’s about to beat Rick’s sorry fucking ass, never fucking mind that he’s only got the one hand to do it with. His bow’s still in working order, and he knows from all the times he’s accidentally whacked himself in the face with it that the thing packs a wallop.
The only thing that’s holding him back is the surefire knowledge that Beth will kick both their asses if they stumble on up to her sporting black eyes and busted lips on top of Daryl’s fucked-up wrist. Or at least that’s what he tells himself.
“Fuckin’—fine. You’re so worried about me bein’ out here alone, you can come the fuck with me.”
Rick doesn’t take the compromise, though, because of course he fucking doesn’t. “You can’t cut down a tree onehanded, and I ain’t chopping one down by myself.”
“Oh, you ain’t?”
“Nah. I look like a fuckin’ lumberjack to you?”
What with the layers of flannel shirts, wool hat pulled down over his ears, and thick coating of stubble, actually, yeah. He kinda does. The look would probably do something for Daryl if he weren’t in pain and freezing his damn ass off, never fucking mind the walker stink.
“I don’ need both hands to hold an axe.”
Rick looks at the axe in question, lying on the frosted ground at their feet and coated in dark blood and strips of rotten skin. It was sharp enough before they headed out this morning, but that was before Daryl used it to hack through a walker’s neck.
And that was right before one of its buddies knocked him ass over teakettle and sent him landing on his own wrist with a sickening crunch of pain that had him seeing God, Jesus, and the Holy goddamn Ghost.
“Yeah,” says Rick. “That’s not happening. C’mon, Daryl. I’m sure Glenn can scrounge up one of those artificial trees the next time he goes out on a run.”
Daryl frowns to himself and looks off to one side, to where the scattered stands of trees thicken into true forest, bare, skeletal branches tangling with the evergreen boughs of conifers. “Ain’t the same, though, is it?”
“What, is getting a real tree for Christmas that important to you? I gotta say, man, you never really struck me as the type.”
The thing is, he’s not. Or at least, he hasn’t been since right around his sixth Christmas, when Merle got arrested and chucked into juvie for driving a stolen Lamborghini into the broad side of a strip mall. But this ain’t about him. It never was.
He don’t have to go through the agony of explaining all that shit to Rick, though. Nah, dude’s already caught on.
“Shit.” Rick sighs the word through his teeth. “This’s about Beth, isn’t?”
Daryl’s wrist throbs in time with the blood beating in his ears. He clamps his jaw shut and doesn’t say a goddamn word.
Rick sighs for the third time that morning and scratches at his jaw, blunt fingernails rasping through stubble. “You get that you’re more important to Beth than a fuckin’ Christmas tree, right?”
Daryl’s temper flares, momentarily eclipsing the pain in his wrist. “I ain’t fuckin’ stupid.”
“Yeah? So quit actin’ like it.”
Daryl subsides into sullen silence, and Rick blows out his loudest and most exasperated breath yet, looking over Daryl’s shoulder and squinting in the pale winter sunlight.
Then he starts walking.
What? What the fuck is he up to now? He didn’t take the axe with him, so—
Daryl’s train of thought is neatly derailed when Rick stops beside a half-grown eastern white pine, grabbing one of the lower-hanging boughs by the base and giving it a testing jiggle. Then he tightens his grip, braces his feet, and snaps it clean off the trunk.
Daryl stares at Rick disbelievingly as he stalks back over and thrusts the bough in his face, pungent with sticky sap. “There’s your fuckin’ tree. Now let’s go the hell home before you break your other goddamn wrist.”
Daryl bats the branch out of his face with an irritated hiss. “You fuckin’ with me, man?” This thing makes the sad-ass little tree from A Charlie Brown Christmas look like a fucking redwood. “I ain’t bringin’ that thing back to Beth.”
“It’s this or nothing, asshole.”
Daryl thinks about fighting him on it. He really fucking does. But then he thinks about Beth and that goddamn disappointed look she gets in her eyes sometimes, like she not only expects him to do better but already believes that he is better. How exactly did Rick put it? She’d rather have him than some stupid fucking tree, and she wouldn’t want him putting his ass in danger to secure her the latter.
Shit. Fucking. Shit.
“Christ. Fine.” He jerks his chin at the stupid fucking pine branch, glaring at it like he could set it on fire if he just thought about it hard enough. “Trash that fuckin’ thing, would ya? Let’s fuckin’ go already.”
Rick smiles wide enough to flash teeth. “Nah, I like it. Be a shame to throw it out.”
Daryl refuses to dignify that with a response; just rolls his eyes and starts heading back the way they came. Rick can carry the fucking axe.
But even laden down with the axe and that stupid little tree branch, Rick catches up to him easily, tucking the axe into his belt so he can hook a hand in Daryl’s collar and turn him—carefully—into a hard kiss, stubble scraping up against his. Daryl softens for all of half a second, till Rick pulls back and says, still grinning that goddamn smug-ass grin, “Pretty sure Olivia said she’s got some Christmas ornaments in storage. What d’you say? You wanna deck the halls with boughs of holly?”
Daryl can’t tell if that’s a euphemism, and he doesn’t care. He elbows Rick outta the way and keeps going. “Knock it the fuck off.”
“It’d look real nice on the mantle, don’t you think?”
Beth’s waiting up for them just inside Alexandria’s gates, arms crossed to ward off the cold and face tight with worry. Daryl tries to angle his body so his splinted wrist isn’t the first thing she sees—and it’s not, ’cause she gets momentarily sidetracked by the fucking tree branch Rick’s dragging along behind him like a body he means to dispose—but when she gets a good look at Daryl. Oh, when she does.
“Oh my God. Daryl.”
She’s at his side before he can fucking blink, hands fluttering over his busted wrist like flustered white birds, like she wants to do something, anything to help, even though she knows there’s nothing else that can be done at the moment.
“What the heck happened out there?” she demands, Disney princess eyes flickering from him to Rick like she can’t decide which of them to blame for this. “And why’re you holdin’ a branch?”
“Long story,” says Rick. “You mind walkin’ Daryl the rest of the way back while I swing by the infirmary?”
“You sure you don’t want me to do it?” Beth’s offer is sincere, but Daryl’d have to be even dumber than he looks to miss the shadow that passes over her pretty face when she says it. Ever since Grady, Beth’s had a thing about infirmaries, or really anyplace with a medical setup. Daryl takes another sidelong step into her personal space, brushing his good hand against hers. She doesn’t look at him, but she does wrap her cold fingers around his.
“Nah.” Rick knows just as well as Daryl that Beth don’t do real well around medical equipment these days. “I’m good, sweetheart. Y’all just head on back; I’ll catch up with you in a minute.”
He leaves before Beth can even try to argue, still swinging that goddamn branch around like a fucking walking stick. Beth watches him go, then looks up at Daryl.
“I thought you said you were goin’ huntin’.”
In a manner of speaking. “Yeah, well. Didn’ pan out, did it?”
“Not unless you were huntin’ for tree branches.” She tightens her grip on his hand and gives him a gentle tug. “C’mon. You should be restin’.”
“Had worse.” He has, but he lets her get her way because fighting her on this shit’s a bigger pain in the ass than it’s worth. He laces their fingers up tight and allows her to lead him.
She breaks their companionable silence when they’re about halfway home. “So. You wanna tell me what happened out there?”
He shrugs, then hisses when sharp pain shoots into his wrist, shaking his head at her when she stops and gives him a concerned look. Pulls her along.
“Same thing that always happens. Walkers got the jump on us. One of ’em knocked me over an’ I fell on my fuckin’ wrist. Coulda been worse, couldn’t it?”
Another shadow passes over Beth’s face, and the sky’s too clear for it to have been a cloud. Yeah. She knows damn well how much worse it could’ve been. Doesn’t mean she’s okay with it happening in the first place. “Lemme guess. You would’ve tried to stick it out if Rick hadn’t bullied you into comin’ back.”
It’s not a question, but either way, Daryl doesn’t answer. Not that he needs to. Beth’s right on the money, and she fucking knows it.
“Okay, well, you gonna tell me why Rick’s draggin’ a branch around or what?”
Daryl nearly stops dead in his tracks, the thick leather soles of his boots dragging across the sidewalk with an audible scrape. He glances up and down the street, at the artificial wreaths nailed to people’s doors and the plastic icicles hanging from their eaves, giant candy canes that light up in the dark speared into the half-frozen earth of their front yards. When the Christmas decorations started appearing about a week ago, Daryl couldn’t fucking believe it, until he did. Makes a fucked-up kinda sense, don’t it? World goes to shit, but that doesn’t stop people from being people, and people like their holidays.
He can make out the shape of an artificial-looking tree through someone’s front window, decked out in glittering ornaments and coils of blinking lights that flash red then green then white before cycling back to red. Those lights are making his eyes hurt, so he looks away.
“I wanted—” He blows out a breath that fogs the air in front of him. His ears and nose feel numb; winter starts a few weeks earlier in Virginia than it did down in Georgia, and he can’t say he particularly likes it. “Nah, never mind. It’s dumb.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.” He makes the mistake of looking her in the eyes, those goddamn pleading eyes he can never fucking say no to no matter how hard he tries. And believe him when he says he’s fucking tried. “C’mon, Daryl. Tell me what’s goin’ on, huh?”
This shit’s making him wish he’d landed on his head instead of his wrist; if he was concussed, he could pretend to have amnesia and not know what the fuck she’s talking about. “Jesus Christ. It really matter that much to you?”
“I mean, you broke your wrist over it, so, yeah, it matters to me.”
Point fucking made. “You even think about laughin’, I’m gonna kick your sorry ass clear across the county line, busted wrist or not.”
Beth crosses her heart. And waits.
Fuck. Him. “I wanted—Jesus fuckin’ Christ. I wanted to get you a fuckin’ Christmas tree, alright? Goddam.”
Beth’s mouth opens, then shuts. Her hand contracts around his, then goes loose again. “You—really?”
At least the embarrassment’s distracting him from the pain. Yeah. At least. “Think I’d make shit up?”
Now would be a good time for a fuck-off huge herd of walkers to knock down the goddamn gates and give him an excuse to peace the fuck outta this conversation. “Why, what?”
“Why’d you do it?”
Yeah. That’s what he was afraid she was gonna ask.
He clenches his jaw. For fuck’s sake. “Christ, I dunno. Jus’ overheard you an’ Maggie talkin’ ’bout how it used to be, how y’all’d decorate your tree with your folks an’ shit before all this. Thought it’d make you happy to have one now.”
“Oh.” She doesn’t say anything else but that for a couple minutes, and he’s just getting desperate enough to break the silence himself when she finally pipes up again. “So let me see if I’ve got this right. You wanted to get me a Christmas tree, but you couldn’t chop one down because you busted your wrist, so you…got me a branch instead?”
The sunlight’s not strong enough to account for the heat in his cheeks, but he pretends it’s sunburn anyways. “Was Rick’s idea.”
“I see.” He’s not looking at her, but he can hear a smile in her voice, which is just—fucking fantastic. That’s just what he needs to top this day off: Beth laughing at him. “Well—”
“Forget it,” he cuts her off. “Toldja; it was dumb. Just—”
The rest of what he was gonna say—and what was he gonna say?—gets smothered against the soft pressure of Beth’s mouth, chapped from the cold like Rick’s had been but warm in every way that counts, and when she falls back on the flats of her feet to grin up at him like he hung the fucking moon, he feels like he’s gonna choke.
“I—” He swallows once. Twice. “I’ll go getcha another one. I’ll—”
“Daryl.” Her voice’s as soft as her mouth had been, but her eyes are sharp. “You’re not steppin’ a foot outside those gates till your wrist is better. And I mean all better.”
He grumbles halfheartedly. She doesn’t pay it any mind.
“Besides.” Her eyes crease into pretty half-moons. “Hasn’t anyone ever told you it’s the thought that counts?”
That makes him rolls his eyes to high goddamn heaven, but when Beth stretches up on her toes to kiss him again, all he can do is mumble, “Yeah. Guess I mighta heard it a time or two,” before sinking in to her warmth.
The painkillers do their job and knock Daryl right the fuck out with all the brutal efficiency of a blunt weapon to the head, and when he wakes back up an indeterminate amount of time later, it’s with a struggle toward consciousness, like he’s fighting his way to the surface from the bottom of a lake. His temples are throbbing like a bitch, and so’s his wrist, but someone’s combing their fingers through his hair and humming, and that helps a little.
He must’ve called her name out loud, because she looks down at him and smiles. Rough denim abrades his cheek; his head’s in her lap. Definitely not the worse way to wake up, he decides, sore wrist notwithstanding.
“Hey there, grumpy.” Beth circles his temples with her thumbs, and his eyelids drop to half-mast. “You ready to return to the land of the livin’?”
His mouth kicks up into a half-smile. “Smartass,” he accuses, but there’s no mistaking the affection in his voice for anything but what it is.
“Yeah,” Beth says, but she’s not talking to him anymore. “He’ll be just fine.”
“Glad to hear it.” Rick squats in front of the couch, cupping his chin in his hand and giving Daryl another one of them assessing looks, like he’s a problem that needs solving. “How you feelin’?”
Daryl grunts, levering himself into a sitting position and brushing Beth and Rick off when they try to help. “Not as good as I look.”
“Yeah,” Rick says, echoing Beth. “You’ll be just fine.”
Daryl flips Rick off, which just makes him grin like the asshole he is. Daryl’s starting to regret waking up, and not just because his meds are wearing off.
Rick pushes up from his crouch and plops down on Daryl’s other side, thigh pressed warmly to his. Beth curls her hand over his knee and says, “So? Whatcha think?”
Daryl blinks, still feeling kinda muzzy. The hell’s she talking about? “Of what?”
By way of answer, she points at the—oh, Christ. At the goddamn mantle.
And there the fuck it is, in all its absence of glory: Rick’s dumbass little Charlie Brown tree, listing sideways in a cheap clay flowerpot, spindly branches sagging under the weight of shiny red and silver Christmas ornaments. It’s the saddest fucking thing Daryl’s ever seen, and given where and how he grew up, that sure the fuck’s saying something.
He looks at Beth, whose eyes are bright and expectant. Looks at Rick, whose eyes are also bright, only with barely suppressed laughter.
Daryl wraps his good arm around Beth and settles back against the couch. Knocks the side of his boot against Rick’s.
“I think,” he says slowly, “that ’m gonna need more codeine for this shit.”
The thin thread by which Rick’s control was hanging gives with an almost audible snap; he clutches his gut and laughs so hard he falls off the goddamn couch.