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Marlboro Man

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“The hell you doin’ out here?”

Beth’s shoulders pull into a guilty slouch, but she doesn’t startle, and she doesn’t cry out. She didn’t hear his approach, but her scalp’s been prickling with the weight of unseen attention for going on five minutes now, and the only question she thought to ask herself was whether she was being stalked by the living or the dead. Now that she has her answer, she pivots, putting her back to the empty barn and her front to the person who’s intruded on her private wake.   

Daryl Dixon’s standing not a yard away from her, and it bothers Beth that he got this close without her noticing until he wanted her to notice, but he’s a hunter, just like Otis—was, just like Otis was—so if he can sneak up on a deer, it stands to reason that he could sneak up on her.

He’s wearing the habitual ornery scowl that she’s only ever really seen from a distance, but his crossbow’s missing. Something silver flashes between his fingers and sparks in the hazy sunlight, too small to be a knife. A lighter?

Doesn’t matter. What matters is, less than a week ago, she would’ve skittered away from him and that scowl the second they crossed her path, mumbling excuses about needing to help Maggie and Patricia out with dinner prep. But now? Now, she twists her face into a scowl that’s probably a lot less impressive than his and retorts, “It’s my family’s land. I can go wherever the hell I want on it.”

Daryl slams his tongue against the backs of his teeth, which Beth condescends to interpret as an acknowledgement of her point. Her moment of triumph is short lived, however, because in the next second, Daryl’s in motion. Beth’s shoulders pull up even higher until they’re practically level with her ears, but Daryl doesn’t get in her face like she was half expecting him to. He just walks past her, giving her a wider berth than even considerations of personal space call for, and she turns to watch him slump against the side of the barn and fold his burly arms over his chest. 

Beth tugs her cardigan’s sleeves farther down her wrists and crosses her arms, too. It’s not that she wants to be out here with him while he silently judges her for loitering in front of an open, empty grave, but she can’t think up a better alternative for what to do with her time, so she says, “What about you? What’re you doin’ out here?” She points her chin at his lighter. “Takin’ a smoke break?”

Daryl flips the lighter open. Snaps it back shut. His knuckles are crusted over with fresh scabs. “Yeah, sure. Figured I could use one after poundin’ that college kid’s face into the goddamn dirt.”

Most of what Beth feels these days is filtered through a thick fog of apathy, but now she registers an unexpectedly potent bolt of surprise, because he didn’t tell her to fuck off when she’d anticipated the contrary. Of course, his voice was laced with the sort of irony that invited her to read between the lines; he probably was indirectly telling her to fuck off.

Beth tucks her left thumb into her sleeve and stretches the woven fabric out around her nail, tempting the threads to snap. “Doesn’t it bother you?”

Daryl’s pale, squinty eyes get squintier. If he hasn’t outright told her to take a long walk off a short pier just yet, he looks well on his way to doing so. “The hell you talkin’ ’bout now?”

Beth’s got a feeling that Daryl knows exactly what she’s talking about—and she doesn’t buy the dumb redneck persona for one goddamn second—but since he asked, she says the words anyway. “That they’re makin’ you do this. Gettin’ information outta that Randall guy, I mean. Did they even consider anybody else, or did they just assume you’d be alright with it?” Mr. Grimes and Mr. Walsh were police officers before everything ended, right? Shouldn’t this sort of thing be under their jurisdiction?

Daryl tosses the lighter two feet in the air, then catches it deftly without looking at it, or her. “Maybe I volunteered. Y’ever think of that?”

If Maggie were here, she’d call Daryl out on his bullshit. Of course, if Maggie were here, Beth wouldn’t be speaking to Daryl at all, not if her big sister had anything to say about it. “Nobody volunteers for somethin’ like this. Not unless they’re a sadist, anyway.”

For the first time, the corner of Daryl’s mouth ticks into a half smile. It is by no means a happy expression. “How you know I ain’t one?”

That’s a fair point. Beth drags the toe of her boot through the dry grass and shrugs. “Guess I don’t.” Her bandages are itching, and she tamps down the urge to scratch them raw and bloody. “What’re you really doin’ out here, Mr. Dixon, huh? And don’t tell me it ain’t my business; I already told you it’s my family’s land, so that makes it my business.”

The half not-a-smile curves into another scowl, fiercer even than the last. “Christ, girl, can’t you just leave me the hell alone?”

Beth deduces there and then that Daryl Dixon can’t have any younger siblings; if he did, he’d recognize the futility of his request. “Tell me what you’re doin’ out here and I will.” Maybe. If she judges his answer satisfactory, and if she feels like going.

Daryl flips the lighter open again, but this time, he twirls the wheel until a flame catches. He holds the lighter up to his face, too close, close enough to burn the hair right off his blunt chin, and watches the tame fire waver in the weak, humid breeze.

“Was thinkin’ of burnin’ the place down,” he says, and when he finally looks away from the lighter and back to Beth, his eyes are hot with challenge. What you gonna do about it? he seems to be asking. You gonna run away and cry to your daddy?

If he anticipated that she would cry or yell at him, though, he’s in for a mighty disappointment. Beth looks at the empty husk of the old barn and nods, once. “I wouldn’t stop you.”

When Beth looks away from the barn and back at Daryl, she finds that she can’t interpret his expression, mostly because she doesn’t know him well enough to try. He clips the lighter shut and sticks it in his jeans’ pocket but doesn’t pull his hand back out.

“Ran outta smokes, anyways,” he mumbles, and that seems to be the end of that. Beth kind of expected him to reiterate his demand that she explain what she was doing out here, especially since she dragged an answer out of him—it’s only fair, right?—but maybe he’d prefer that the conversation just die. Yeah, he probably would.

Anyway, Beth’s chewing something over—literally chewing it over with her thumbnail fastened between her teeth. Then, before she’s even concluded that this is what she really wants to do, she releases her thumb and says, “Wait right here, okay?”

Beth still can’t put a sure name to the look on Daryl’s face, but she’d venture to categorize it as regret—regret that he ever spoke to her in the first damn instance. “The hell’re you—”

She’s already retreating without looking where she’s going, and she nearly trips backwards over a rock. “Just don’t go anywhere, alright? I’ll be right back.”

Afraid that he’ll disappear the second she turns her back to him but not wanting to waste any more time, Beth spins on her heel and races towards the house, stumbling several times on the uneven ground but refusing to stop or slow, clinging to this weird rush of motivation with both hands, knowing she’s being silly but not particularly caring because at least it’s something. At least she cares.

There’s no one on the porch or in the house—they’re probably off deciding what to do with Randall—which is good for Beth, because she doubts that she could explain herself even if she wanted to. She doesn’t encounter anyone on the way back, either, except for a small distant blot that might be Carl. And Beth grew up with a whole spread of farmland for a playground, but she’s been sedentary enough lately that she’s pretty out of shape, and there’s a stitch sawing in her side by the time she gets back to the barn.

The barn, in front of which stands a grand total of no one.

Oh. Well, that figures.

Beth shouldn’t be this disappointed. She doesn’t know Daryl Dixon and she doesn’t particularly like him, but he’s the only person she’s talked to since she tried to kill herself who doesn’t look at her like she’s a ticking time bomb, or worse, like she’s some tragic little girl who requires extensive babying lest she steal another steak knife (Andrea probably wouldn’t look at her like that, except Maggie won’t let Andrea anywhere near Beth anymore). Even Jimmy won’t look her in the eye when he talks to her, and the last time he stammered his way through an awkward hello, Beth nearly started screaming at him.

She lingers in front of the barn, struggling to catch her breath, and then struggling to suppress the toxic well of disappointment. Whatever. Talking to Daryl was weirdly refreshing, but she’s not gonna let this get to her. Not when she’s already survived worse.

At a loss for what else to do, Beth shuffles into the barn, nose wrinkling at the concentrated smell of rot. It’s not as bad as it was, at least, on account of Daddy’s been airing the place out. As if by dispelling the sickly-sweet stink, he could somehow dispel his mistakes, too. As if there’s any hope at all of laying these ghosts to rest.

Beth’s breath catches, and she has to squeeze her eyes shut to keep from crying. No. No.

But a scuffling noise has her eyes flying open only a second after she closed them. Scalp prickling like it had earlier, Beth turns and looks up towards the hayloft—and, there. Two filthy boots dangling over the side, right above her head.

He didn’t leave, after all. He did what she asked—what she demanded, if you wanna get technical about it. That’s more surprising than his perceived absence. She hoped that he’d stay, but she didn’t actually expect that he would.

Beth sticks her prize in her pocket and climbs the ancient ladder to the hayloft, rungs shaking beneath her boots with every step. It’d be real fucked up, she reflects grimly, if she decided that she didn’t actually wanna die only to fall and break her neck a few days later.

But she doesn’t break her neck. She makes it all the way up to the hayloft and sits down roughly two feet away from Daryl, legs dangling over the edge same as his. She digs the pack of Marlboro Reds out of her pocket and offers it to him mutely, and his eyes bug like she just handed him a sack of gold.

Not that gold’s worth anything anymore, come to think of it.

“They’re Maggie’s,” Beth explains when Daryl fails to immediately snatch them up. “I mean, they were. She took up smokin’ while she was away at college, but it didn’t really stick.” Maggie told her that she hated the stink of tobacco too much for it to be worth the nicotine rush.

Daryl finally takes the pack of Marlboros, fingers decidedly not brushing Beth’s in a way that feels deliberate. He shakes a cigarette out of the pack but doesn’t light it. “Ain’t gonna lecture me about lung cancer?”

She probably would have, once. At the very least, she would’ve complained about the smell, but she’ll take tobacco over rotting flesh. “Doesn’t really matter anymore, does it?”

Daryl snorts, like it’s the closest he can get to laughter. “Guess it don’t.” He sticks the cigarette in his mouth and lights up, taking a long drag before turning his face away from Beth’s to exhale. “Thanks.”

Beth swings her feet through the yawning gap between the loft and the floor. If she squinches up her eyes, she can make out the shadows of bloodstains on the ground. “You’re welcome. I mean, it’s not a big deal. Like I said, no one else wanted ’em.”

“Dunno why.” Daryl puckers his lips around the filter, and the cherry flares the same surly red as coals in a fireplace. “This’s the good shit.”

Beth imagines that one brand of cigarette’s much the same as any other, but it’s not like she’s an expert on the subject. “If you say so.”

Daryl flicks a stream of ash over the side of the loft, and if it’s still smoldering a little, if there’s a small chance that the ash will catch fire and light the barn up for real—well, then, good. “Why you doin’ this, anyways?”

Beth tips her head back and inhales even though she knows better, but up here, the smell’s not so bad, more rotted hay than rotted flesh. “Doin’ what?”

The cigarette bobs between Daryl’s lips as he talks. “Hangin’ ’round me like this. Ain’t exactly pleasant company. Think ya’d prob’ly get better conversation outta the geeks.”

Instead of asking him why he calls the monsters that used to be people geeks, Beth says, “You’re alright.”

Daryl snorts again, and smoke flutters out of his nostrils. “Thanks.”

“I mean.” Grasping for the right words feels a little bit like trying to hold onto a slick river stone when the current’s fighting to drag her downstream. “You don’t look at me like—”

Like she might try and kill herself again if he says or does the wrong thing. Like she’s gonna go catatonic and stay that way. Like she’s a stupid little girl who can’t face reality for what it is.

Sometimes. Sometimes she just wants to yank back her cardigan’s sleeve and shove her stitched-up wrist in everyone’s faces and scream at them to look, look, is this what you’re so afraid of, is it? I survived this but you’re acting like I didn’t, like I’m dead already, like you’re just counting the days until you have to dig a grave for me, too.

Beth never finishes her sentence, and Daryl doesn’t press her to the way the others would’ve. Which is just as well. She’s not sure what she might have ended up saying.

Instead of waxing on about her own problems, Beth devotes herself to trying to figure this man out. He’s made it clear that she’s a pain in his ass, yet he approached her. He’s apparently willing to tolerate her company in exchange for the good shit. He’s the kind of man people send to do their dirty work, but he’s also the kind of man who will spend days out in the woods looking for a lost little girl. With a pang, Beth reflects that her momma would probably call him an enigma.

Daryl holds the smoldering cigarette between his fingers while he exhales a long stream of smoke, and Beth eyes it speculatively. There’s a damp spot on the filter where he wrapped his lips around it.

“Can I have one’a those?”

Daryl eyeballs her, then pointedly shoves the pack into his pocket and out of her reach. “Nah. Y’gotta ration this shit.”

Feeling a little bit like a kid who’s just been denied the toy they badly wanted, Beth says, “But I’m the one who gave ’em to you!”

“Yeah, you did, and they’re mine now. Ain’t givin’ ‘em back.”

“I’m not askin’ you to give them back; I’m askin’ you to share.

“An’ I’m tellin’ ya I ain’t gonna share. Christ, girl, you even legal to smoke?”

Beth ticks up her chin and narrows her eyes. “How old were you when you took up smokin’?”

Daryl’s eyes flicker. He takes a long drag off his cigarette, holding the smoke in his lungs for a minute before pushing it back out. “Still ain’t givin’ you none.”

Beth scoots a little closer. “Can I have a hit off’a yours, at least?” she asks, perfectly aware that she’s wheedling.  

“Nah. Ya wouldn’t like it, anyways.”

You like it.”

“Didn’t like it at first. Nobody does. ’Sides, you’d jus’ hack your damn lungs up an’ bitch at me about it.”

He has a point, but instead of conceding that point and moving on, Beth chooses to say something spectacularly stupid.

“We could shotgun it,” she blurts, and Daryl coughs and swears and fumbles his cigarette, ash scattering across the back of his hand. Not looking at her, he puts the cigarette to his mouth and sucks industriously, ears lighting up redder than the cherry end. Beth, her guts squirming with something fast approaching humiliation and her mind lingering on the harsh line of Daryl's mouth and the imagined push of smoke into her lungs, attempts to salvage what she can. “Um, shotgunning’s when you—” Wait, no. How is that salvaging anything?

“Fuckin’ Christ.” Daryl stubs the cigarette out—it’s not even halfway smoked—and flicks it over the side of the loft. So much for rationing the things. “I know what shotgunnin’ is, Jesus. How in the hell d’you know about it?”

Hey. Just hold on a minute. She may be sheltered, but she’s not that sheltered. “I’ve seen movies.”

A blue vein stands out in Daryl’s temple, too close to the skin. He still won’t look at her. “The hell kinda movies you been watchin’?”

Beth just shrugs, and Daryl pushes to his feet without another word spared for her. She blinks at the scorch mark his discarded cigarette left on the loft’s floor, then scrambles up and follows after him. Even out of shape, she's fast, but he’s faster, and by the time she bursts outside, he’s already made a good chip in the distance between the barn and his lonely little tent.

“Hey!” Beth says, raising her voice to be heard over the screaming cicadas. The world ends, the dead walk, but cicadas are a constant. “Just wait a second!”

He doesn’t wait, and frustration funnels up Beth’s throat. “I said, wait a second!”

Miracle of miracles, he actually stops, shoulders pulling up around his ears, fists clenching tight. He doesn’t turn to look at her, which. Fine. Whatever. Beth pulls her sleeves over her wrists and circles around him, eyes flicking to his face before locking onto the toes of her boots.

He stopped because she asked him to. Because she told him to. It’s a weird feeling, bossing around an adult and actually having that adult listen.

“Look, I’m sorry. I was just kiddin’ around. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable—”

Daryl scoffs, but it sounds forced. “Didn’t make me fuckin’ uncomfortable. Jus’ don’t want your daddy gunnin’ for my ass on your goddamn account.”

Beth doesn’t tell him that, between her dad and her sister, Maggie’s the one who’s most likely to point a shotgun at his heart. “Yeah, I know, I just…I’m sorry, okay?”

Daryl doesn’t say anything, and Beth’s throat starts to close up. Great. Just great. She finally found someone who doesn’t treat her any different, and she had to go and ruin it. The possibility that she’s chased Daryl off for good ices her over with a kind of panic, and maybe that’s why she ends up answering his earlier question. Like she can somehow persuade him not to leave by sharing something painful.

“I wanted to burn it down, too. That’s. That’s why I was out here. I brought a lighter and everything.” And she drags the plastic Bic lighter out of her pocket and shows it to him, holding it up like an olive branch.

Daryl still doesn’t say anything, and Beth finally looks him in the face. That face is still in a way that suggests he’s struggling to keep anything from showing on it. His skin is slick with perspiration, and he smells like burnt tobacco. Tobacco and sweat and something earthier, something that Beth can’t name but has smelled on men before. It’s stronger on Daryl than she’s used to, though. Possibly because he hasn’t bathed in a while.

And that should gross her out a little, but instead, it gives her a feeling like someone just tugged on an invisible string that’s been hooked to her navel. The feeling dies almost as soon as she notices it, but it still throws her for a loop, gives her a head rush like the kind Maggie described getting when she smoked.  

Daryl’s face finally shifts, and he pulls his bottom lip between his teeth. He shrugs mutely, which Beth supposes is as good an acknowledgement as she’s going to get. Then he twitches his head on his neck, not quite a nod, before stepping around her and heading the way he was going before she made him stop.

Beth turns to watch him, tracing his outline with her eyes and trying to reignite the feeling she got a second ago, mostly because it’s preferable to feeling nothing at all, even if it does unsettle her a little bit. The cicadas sing, and her bandages itch and itch.