Everything was a bit of a blur after that. Daryl got Carson and they carried Paul back to the medical trailer. Daryl’s hands shook where they curled under Paul’s armpits and he nearly couldn’t force himself to let go as they lowered him to a bed.
Paul was skin and bones when they peeled the duster off of him, the gauntness in his face overly apparent this close, even obscured by his beard, wild and untamed. His eyes flickered beneath his eyelids and he muttered in his sleep, but his pulse was strong, and Carson said it seemed like he was suffering from a combination of starvation, dehydration and exhaustion.
Carson said a lot of other stuff, but Daryl’d tuned out when he said it looked like Paul was going to be alright, with a lot of rest and recuperation.
Daryl sat by his bedside, wrapped one dirty hand around Paul’s – too thin – hand, and refused to move.
The door to the trailer opened and Aaron came inside, his expression faltering as soon as he laid eyes on the bed.
“Is he –" he started, trailing off as he stepped up behind Daryl.
“Dehydrated, ‘n starvin’ but Carson said he’d be alright,” Daryl said, voice low, gravelly, eyes closing for one brief moment as Aaron’s hand came to rest on his shoulder.
Daryl swallowed, giving Paul’s hand a squeeze, inhaling a rough breath. “He’s got – “ he started, voice dying on him so that he had to clear it, teeth worrying at his lower lip as he tried to force the words out. “Here,” he said, uncurling his fingers from Paul’s to reveal pale, bony wrists, with red scars around them, like he’d been bound.
“Oh, Jesus,” Aaron whispered, voice thick with horror, leaning a little heavier on Daryl’s shoulder.
“What the fuck happened to him?” Daryl whispered, staring at Paul like he might be able to undo the last year and change if he just stared hard enough.
There was no answer. Not from Aaron, who’d gone silent, with horror and guilt and not from Paul, who slept on. Daryl stared, and hoped – hoped that whatever those scars meant, it wasn’t as bad as what his mind was conjuring up.
It was a fleeting hope. The world these days was cruel.
Thirty-six hours later, Daryl was still sitting at Paul’s bedside when he finally woke, sea green eyes flickering open and closed a half dozen time before they stayed open. He went still – unnaturally still – as his gaze flickered around the room, waiting for something. Or someone.
But then his eyes met Daryl’s, wide and concerned, and he visibly eased, opening his mouth. All that came out was a strangled sound, lips so dry they were cracked and Daryl jumped into action, grabbing a pitcher from the bedside table and pouring a glass of water with shaking hands.
“Here, here,” Daryl said, trying to hold the cup of water and help Paul into a sitting position at the same time. Paul was weak, hands clutching at Daryl’s biceps as he grunted with the effort it took to heave himself up and shuffle back against the pillows, even that brief movement tiring him.
Daryl held the water to his lips, watching like a hawk as Paul’s hand slid over his, eyes closing as he gulped back the water, slow at first and then faster as his body realized it finally had some hydration, his throat bobbing and water spilling onto his front. Neither of them noticed.
“Hey,” Daryl said, voice cracking, once the glass was emptied and put back on the table.
“Hey,” Paul echoed, voice stronger this time.
Daryl all but collapsed back into the chair, reaching for his hand again, fingers curling tight around it once more. “I thought you were –" he pressed his lips together, head bowing. “I kept lookin’ for ya, went back but there was – what the hell happened, Paul?”
Paul stared at their joined hands, mouth working around the words he didn’t want to think about, much less say. “It was a group,” he said, gaze not moving from where Daryl’s thumb rubbed against his hand. “Apparently lock pickers are in high demand,” he said, the humor falling flat as his brow furrowed.
Daryl frowned but didn’t press. It was obvious Paul didn’t want to talk about it, a faraway look in his eyes and so Daryl didn’t make him.
Three hours and twenty minutes after Paul woke up, Daryl was finally coaxed out of the medical trailer by a patient but firm Aaron. He hemmed and hawed and insisted he could eat just fine there as anywhere else, but when Carson popped his head in to say that Daryl was looking awfully grungy and dirt was bad for Paul's recovery, he finally was on his way, grumbling that he’d be back in twenty minutes.
Aaron took the spot that Daryl vacated, sitting gingerly in the seat.
"I'm so sorry Jesus I – "
Paul shook his head. "It's not your fault," he said.
Aaron frowned and looked away. "If I'd have just –"
"They knocked you out. If you tried anything else, they would have killed you." He sounded sure. His fingers twisted together on his lap and Aaron tried not to look at the scarred marks around his wrists.
"Look I had...I had a lot of time to think," Paul said, staring down at his hands. "I didn't blame you for a second," he said, looking up to lock eyes with Aaron. "I'm just glad I'm back."
"How...." Paul frowned, gaze flicking toward the trailer door. "How was he....?" he asked, voice soft, almost like he didn't want to know the answer.
Aaron let out a breath. "He went out to that warehouse so many times," he said, brow furrowed with guilt. "I don't know that he ever expected to find you, really.... he just....didn't know how not to go," Aaron settled on. It was the truth, but it didn't exactly paint the entire picture of just how badly Daryl had faired in Paul's absence.
Paul bit his lip, the skin so delicate that a smudge of blood bubbled up beneath the imprint of his tooth.
"Are you....okay?" Aaron asked, hesitant, like he knew it was a dumb question before it even left his mouth.
Paul pasted a smile on his face, not noticeably fake, except for around the edges. "I'm home, now," he said.
It took two weeks for Paul to regain enough strength to move back into his trailer. He was still thin, but not alarmingly so and the night before he was declared fit enough to move he’d let Daryl shave his beard, in the fading yellow lamplight in the medical trailer.
"Looks like a damn bird made a nest in it," Daryl gruffed, standing over the utility sink in the corner, Paul parked in a chair in front of it.
"Says the man who hasn't had a haircut since the world ended," Paul quipped back.
There was still something fragile about his humor, like it was an old coat that didn't quite fit anymore, but it wasn't something either of them wanted to bring attention to. Settling back into what they considered normalcy was easy, at least on the surface.
If they didn't pay too close attention, it felt alright.
Daryl eyed the ratty beard, fingers curling around the handle of a straight razor. One of the dinky disposable razors someone had brought back from a run wasn't gonna do shit against the beard Paul was sporting. He'd already lathered and wet it, but the idea of pressing the blade against Paul's skin made him uneasy.
Paul pretended not to notice.
"You never complained bout it before," Daryl replied, jaw setting as he brought the razor to Paul's face, one hand on his jaw to keep it steady. Paul went unnaturally still, not even breathing, but when Daryl made to pull away he put a hand against his and nodded as best he could without actually moving a muscle.
Daryl swallowed and drew the blade slowly across his face.
It was a long, slow process.
By the time he was done, there was a pile of dirty, ragged hair in the trash and Paul's face was smooth.
Daryl tipped his head back with a hand on his chin, making sure he got everything, but eventually just ended up running the pads of his fingers over his chin, his jawline, marveling at the smoothness and how young Paul looked without it.
Still, even without it Paul looked like Paul again, not some man half-starved who'd obviously spent a good deal of the past year fending for himself in the wild.
There was a faraway look in his eyes sometimes.
A year was a long time to be gone.