“Dunno why you can’t just wait for me,” Daryl grumbled, watching as Paul slid some essentials into his pack. Like they hadn’t talked about it already, and Daryl hadn’t already conceded that they needed this. More and more people were flocking to the communities every day.
Them mouths weren’t gonna feed themselves.
“I’ll be fine,” Paul said, glancing over his shoulder. “Aaron and I are just going to make sure it’s as untouched as Ethan said, and then we’re coming right back.”
Daryl huffed, slouching a little more on the couch.
“Two days, tops,” Paul continued, shrugging his pack on as he crossed the trailer to Daryl’s side, careful to mind his bandaged foot propped up on a milk crate. “Promise,” he said, leaning down to press a quick kiss to his lips. “Be back before you know – “
Daryl slid a hand around the back of his neck, smothering the rest of his words with something that left them both a little breathless when Paul finally pulled away.
“That almost worked,” Paul said with a grin, giving him another chaste peck that he refused to let get heated again. Eventually, Daryl had to let him go, and he watched Paul leave with promises that Maggie would be by to check on him, and there was water in the canteen behind the pillow, and he’ll be back soon he promised.
The last few words were muffled as the trailer door shut and Daryl stared at Paul’s disappearing back through the screen wondering why three little words always seemed to catch at the back of his throat, why he couldn’t seem to force them past his lips.
“They came out of nowhere. We couldn’t...”
“Where is he?” Daryl was on his feet in an instant, ankle nearly buckling beneath his weight, all but snarling in Aaron’s face as the man stood on the steps of the trailer, gray faced, a bruise blooming over his left temple.
“I don’t – Daryl, they knocked me out and when I woke up – “
“Was he – did you see him?” His voice cracked, the words near refusing to leave his mouth. Paul couldn’t be – he couldn’t. “Did you see him,” he asked again, urgently, harsh, Aaron’s dazed gaze settling back on him. Concussion.
“I don’t know. I didn’t see – I didn’t see him, and they were gone, maybe they – maybe they took him....”
“I’m – I gotta go I –“ The pain in his ankle was bearable, if he didn’t think about it and he nearly shoved him when Aaron put a hand against his shoulder, halting his limping steps past him down the trailer steps.
“Just wait, Daryl,” Aaron said, his voice sounding like it’d been scraped over glass. Daryl stopped, muscles vibrating with tension, resisting the urge to blow right past. Aaron looked like one shove would shatter him into a million goddamn pieces. “At least pack a bag.”
Daryl eyed him for a long moment, suspicious like he expected Aaron to follow it up with something about his ankle, or how there was no telling where Paul was.
He didn’t say anything.
Daryl packed a bag.
And he went.
When Aaron found him thirty hours later, he was soaked to the bone, with a limp that rivaled one of the dead who’d gotten their damn leg gnawed off. There was no trail. Or if there was, the rain had fucked it up before he’d gotten to see it. Paul was dead or not dead it didn’t matter – he was fucking gone.
Daryl almost considered asking Aaron to leave him be, let the walkers find him, but talking seemed like too much effort. He got in the car.
He got in the car and he let Aaron drive him back to Hilltop, and he watched out the window for the smudge of Paul’s shape.
The entire ride back, he didn’t see a single fucking walker.
For a week after that, Daryl was bedridden with the flu. When he could finally walk across the trailer without collapsing into a heap, he went straight back, despite Maggie’s tearful pleas to rest a little more.
If there was no trail before, there was even less of one now, but he couldn’t stop himself.
Day after day he’d come back, looking for a hint.
There was nothing.
The world was gray without Paul.
Daryl existed, because he had to.
He went on runs and brought back deer and watched the community flourish around him.
If he drank a little more on the days he went to the warehouse, nobody said anything.
He didn’t expect to find anything, anymore. He didn’t know why he went, exactly. He’d stare at the gravel and think about how some of those pieces coulda been some of the ones Paul’d touched.
He never felt no closer to Paul, then, but it became a habit.
Once, somebody had suggested holding some sort of memorial for Paul. A way to pay their respects to the scout, since there wasn’t nothin’ to burn.
Daryl’d felt like he was choking on air.
He went to the warehouse and didn’t come back for two days.
Weeks turned into months and the world kept fucking turning. It didn’t seem fair, but then again, when had it ever?
The communities started getting together every month – to celebrate the newly unfurling trade routes between them. It felt like something they shoulda been proud of – his hodge podge family sprawled out among the communities all together for once, standing in the middle of something they’d created.
Daryl didn’t feel much of anything, but he was happy for his family.
The seasons changed, the communities grew – there were babies being born and it seemed for once, the world was just gonna let ‘em be.
Not knowing went from being an unbearable agony to an unbearable itch, and by the time a year had passed he’d limited his trips to the warehouse to once every other week.
Sometimes, Daryl thought about walking out into the woods and not coming back. Thought about throwing himself to the first walker he could find.
And then he’d think about Paul’s face, his smile, the way he could twist his words around and around to make it sound like he was saying something profound but it was all just bullshit. His heart would ache, and he’d think about how Paul would kick his ass six ways to Sunday if he dared do it.
So, he didn’t.
It was fine.
One year, three months and two days after Aaron came back from the warehouse without Paul, Daryl was on watch.
The walkers these days were slow, decaying, more a nuisance than a danger and Daryl was only paying attention out of habit.
There weren’t too many ways to sneak up on the high gates at Hilltop, so most of the time they were just watching for people.
Today, however, he could see a shambling shape in the distance.
He didn’t bother grabbing his crossbow just yet, the heat in the air making him lazy.
It got closer and closer, and eventually, something about it made Daryl sit up a little straighter.
The leather duster was shabby – torn in places and covered in dirt. But he knew that duster. Knew that hair, tangled as it was. Knew that face, even though it was angled toward the ground, the only recognizable shape the slant of his nose.
Daryl felt like a stone had settled in his gut.
He wouldn’t look like that if he’d been a walker for a year. He wouldn’t.
Daryl found himself standing, already yanking the gate open before scrambling down the ladder.
He stood there, in the opening, as the figure shambled closer and closer. There was a ringing in his ears, and he thought, just for a moment, that if this was it – if this was Paul as a walker, if he just let him get a little closer, if that was the way he went – then that was okay.
The figure stopped. He raised his head, beard wild and unruly, sea glass eyes wide and unfocused, and he smiled.
“Daryl.” he said.
And then he collapsed.