Daryl bolted straight up in his bed. The sun was just beginning to crest over the hilltops on the horizon and begin its slow climb up into the sky, but that was late for life in the prison. He lurched out of the wreckage of his bed, grabbing nearby articles of clothing as he went.
When he'd managed 'fully dressed and armed' he tore down the stairs of the watch tower, exploding into a dead run towards Carol's cell.
It didn't really occur to him the mass-hysteria bursting onto the scene like this would cause until it was too late to take it back. He gradually slowed to a fast walk while the entire courtyard broke out in a panic all around him.
"I uh, no… wait. Don't…" Daryl mumbled sheepishly as people began fleeing from the courtyard to the safety of the buildings.
He turned around to see Maggie running towards him. Rick and Michonne converged from another direction, hot on her heels. They must have picked up on the alarm from Rick's garden.
"What is it, Daryl. What happened?" Maggie asked breathlessly.
"Nothin', nothin' happened. Everything's fine. I just… It's Christmas! You know… lotta things that need… doing."
Daryl looked from one blank face to the next for validation until Maggie couldn't contain herself any longer.
"Daryl Dixon! Did you fall outta that watch tower and hit your head on every step comin' down? What in the Sam Hill is the matter with you?"
Daryl withered under the heat of her glare.
"Well how I was I supposed to know everybody was gonna…" he sighed, frustrated, "I dunno."
"All right, Maggie. That's enough. He said he was sorry. Let it go." Rick held up a hand, trying hard to defuse the situation before she had a chance to get good and committed to letting Daryl have it. Still, he didn't try to conceal the concern in his eyes when he turned back to Daryl.
"You sure everything's okay?"
"I gotta go find Carol. Merry Christmas!" Daryl excused himself, taking care to constrain himself to a brisk sprint.
"Thought he didn't like Christmas." Michonne observed dryly as the three of them watched Daryl's winged back disappear into cell block C.
Carol had heard him coming. It would be hard not to the way he'd barreled in, but she barely looked up, "Mornin' Sleepyhead."
"Hey, I need to talk to you." Daryl latched eagerly onto the bars of her cell door, waiting for her to let him through.
"Okay, I'll be there in a minute." She had a basket of what looked like tea towels and wash clothes that she was tending to.
"'S'kinda important." Daryl pressed, fidgeting against the door.
"Look, Daryl. I know you don't want to celebrate Christmas, and I respect that, but I do. I've put a lot of work into this. I want it to be just right. Just give me a few minutes, and then I'll be right there, okay?"
He waited there, trying to be patient. Trying not to think only of himself and his newfound urgency as she diligently separated, smoothed and folded the cloth napkins from her basket. It was just a minute. Just another minute. What was another minute? Another minute or two…? Five minutes...
"I love you."
Carol stopped short. Her hands suspended in air while the napkin she'd been shaking out dangled limp and forgotten in her hand. Daryl felt his chest tighten, but he pushed through it.
"Have loved you, for a long time. I just didn't ever tell you before, 'cause I didn't think you'd want to know, with the way we have to live. But I ended up having a long talk with… well, with myself last night. I realized I can't die without lettin' you know that."
Carol stood up from her bed and stared at him. The napkin fluttered forgotten to the floor.
The sound of his voice seemed to break the spell. She nearly tripped over her own feet in her haste to get to the cell door so she could turn the key in the lock and push the door open.
"Get in here." She demanded shakily.
Daryl looked up at her uncertainly from behind the uncombed locks of his sleep tousled hair, but he lumbered through the door of her cell as he'd been told. Once inside, she reached for him. Wrapping her arms tightly around his neck, she touched her forehead to his.
"I love you too, Daryl. So much…"
She strained on tip toe to kiss him on his forehead. Then she feathered a light trail with her lips down the bridge of his nose until she'd reached his mouth. Familiar, soft lips moving against his that sent jolts through him.
"I do wanna celebrate Christmas. I want all of it, with you. The stories, the dinner, the clean-up…"
"The clean up?" she confirmed with obvious amusement, not at all sure where this was coming from but enjoying it all the same.
"Yeah, I wanna wash dishes with you."
She chuckled, breathing a warm sigh of contentment into his neck.
"It's a date."
He kissed her on the temple, "I got some Christmas stuff to work out, too. Gotta go talk to Hershel and I got some things to set right with Carl, but I'll be back soon."
He lifted Carol's hand to his lips and laid a kiss in her palm then with one last squeeze he withdrew, reluctantly leaving her to her warm basket of linens.
"So… just dishes, then? No tender feelings about laundry yet?" She teased his departing figure.
Daryl smiled and shook his head in amusement as he walked away.
It didn't take long for him to round up a small council of the people he thought would be most knowledgeable when it came to what might be wrong with Judith, describing the symptoms he'd seen from her in the future as best he could. Now he was looking hopefully as Hershel, Bob, and Dr. S. took in a small circle around in, voices hushed in the small library.
"The symptoms you've described are very common. There's still a lot of uncertainty." Doctor S mused, "If it's a bacterial infection we may see some improvement from antibiotics, but the symptoms alone could be life-threatening to someone so young if we can't suppress them."
"We need to treat the nausea right away for sure," Bob agreed, "She can't keep up her strength if she's not able to absorb any nutrients or liquids. We've got a limited supply of medications as it is, and not many that I'd feel comfortable administering to an infant so young."
Bob looked to Dr. S, who nodded agreement.
"So we need to find a pharmacy?" Daryl asked.
Hershel nodded, "Or a parent that might have kept a supply on hand."
The four men turned. The small voice belonged to a woman that had been quietly picking out Christmas themed books for the evening. She carefully sat down her small pile on a nearby table and cleared her throat.
"I'm sorry to eavesdrop. I don't really know you, but I think I might have some things that will help."
When they'd reached her cell, she crouched in front of a heavy suitcase tucked away under her bunk. Daryl stepped in to help her drag it out and together they lifted it onto the bed. Inside, she reached underneath the warm weather clothes, feeling around until she'd found a quilted tote bag, brightly printed with carousel horses linked by cascades of ribbons.
She reached into it with trembling hands and withdrew a smaller red bag with a zipper.
"We lost my sister Tess early - in those first few days before anybody had any real sense of what was going on. The daycare called after hours when she still hadn't picked up her little boy, so I went and got him. Tessie never did come home, so we kept him. My late husband and I. Kept him… just as long as we could."
A tear broke loose and streaked down her face. She quickly wiped it away.
"I was always so prepared, back when I knew what to prepare for. When we packed to leave Woodbury I almost left this behind. It had been so long ago. It seemed like maybe I was holding on to something that needed letting go... But something told me, maybe… one day…"
She trailed off and smiled, overcome. She swept up Daryl's hand with hers, oblivious to his subtle flinch at the familiarity of the gesture. Her free hand patted the back of his emphatically.
"You take it. Take whatever you need, and you get that little girl well."
Daryl swallowed, and stared fixedly at their twined hands for several beats before he cleared his throat and looked up at her, shy under a clump of unkempt chestnut hair.
"I'm sorry… I never asked you your name."
"When we talked last night... I told you wrong."
Carl looked up at Daryl inquisitively from the passenger side of the dusty truck. It had taken some real work to for Rick to agree to let Daryl bring Carl along for this short trip, just the two of them. As awful as it was, the onset of Judith's symptoms had worked in Daryl's favor, fracturing the man's focus and weakening his resolve until he had distractedly agreed that Daryl could take Carl as long as they weren't traveling more than 15 minutes from the prison, and could be expected back in an hour.
"I shouldn't have said Christmas is stupid... It's not stupid."
Carl's jaw set, and he looked away again, steely eyes swallowed in the shadow of his hat's brim.
"My dad put you up to this?"
"No. I didn't tell your dad."
"So what, then?"
Daryl was struggling, never really one for words. He tugged his hand through his hair restlessly, considering a new approach.
"What was your favorite thing about Christmas?"
"Was, you mean. Like, before all this?" Carl asked pointedly.
He didn't take long to think the question over before, turning his face back up to Daryl, "My Mom."
"Not even anything in particular that she did. I mean… she did everything. She wanted everything to be perfect. It wasn't… things aren't every just…perfect. But the way that she tried so hard to make it be… I guess it kind of was."
"Moms are special like that. My ma always tried to make Christmas good for me and Merle too."
"I guess Judy doesn't get that." Carl replied, quietly.
Daryl studied him quietly for a moment.
"What do you think Judy's favorite thing about Christmas will be?"
"I don't know." He answered honestly.
"I guess... I guess she won't either, unless we make one for her." He admitted, eyeing Daryl from the corner of his eye as the realization that this had been Daryl's intention all along.
Daryl just reached across the bench seat of the old Ford and clapped Carl on the shoulder.
When Carl and Daryl returned they were hauling a last minute detail nowhere to be found in the holiday celebration Dale had previewed for him - a lush, sprawling evergreen tree that Daryl and Rick were barely able to wedge through the door. It took another two and a half feet off the bottom before they could top it with a star.
The aromatic fragrance wound its way throughout the small room and adding an extra layer of holiday spirit. The children were all delighted and quick to begin crafting ornaments to decorate it. It wasn't long before the tree was trimmed from top to bottom with handcrafted tributes to loved ones and Christmas's long passed.
After dinner when Rick casually began to clear the table and Carol got up to help him, Daryl surprised himself by letting them go, content to just close a gentle hand around her forearm and tug her down for a kiss. This was their time, he realized. Thanks to the spirits, he now knew what an important role Rick played in Carol's life, and that if anything were ever to happen to him, Rick would be the one to help her through it.
Instead, he fell in with the Greene family, joined by Carl and Michonne. They all listened quietly while Hershel read passages aloud from his well-worn bible. And although he didn't bow his head with them when they prayed, he thought maybe now he had a better idea now of why they still did. He wasn't so bothered by Glen and Maggie making eyes at each other across the room, because as it happened he only had eyes for Carol.
And for himself, Daryl found that the more he opened up to the world around him the more the world opened up to him. Instead of an inaccessible and closed public figure he became a friend and a mentor to all of the inhabitants of the prison. He found that once he offered to teach rather than waiting for them to ask many of them were eager and devoted students all too ready to pitch in and do their part. And he was all too ready to relax and share his burden. For that very Christmas night Daryl moved the precious few boxes that made up his worldly possessions to join Carol in the cozy cell she had made up for herself, and as the two of them settled in together there one thing upon which there could be no dissention. The two of them had a very great deal of catching up to do.