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Letting Go

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Daryl sat on the large piece of driftwood alone. It was late, but even still, he could hear the distant voices from Oceanside. The roar of the ocean was strong in the air around him. He couldn’t sleep, couldn’t pretend like things were alright, even with all the shit of the last few weeks having come to somewhat of an end,

There was a relief of course. People let out a breath they had been holding for the better part of six months. The collective shoulders of the community dropped with the walkers as they went over that cliff. Maggie was back, at least for a little bit; much to the delight of Aaron and Judith. Lydia maybe had a chance at normalcy, with Alpha and Beta dead and the herd long gone. He felt himself blink at that. It was a good thing, the war being over. It was another threat gone for now.

But he wasn’t stupid. 

If the herd was gone, then she could be too.

Daryl had come to terms with a lot of things in the past few days. He knew Michonne had left, at least for a while; giving him charge of her kids. There seemed to be some understanding between him and Negan. He realized his attempts to cut Carol out were not going to last, that he needed her just as much as she needed him. But her

He couldn’t let her go. 

“Hey,”

The voice made him jump, head snapping and fists clenched on the handles of his knives;  not expecting her to emerge from the dark. She was nearly as quiet as her sister, just as light on her feet, just as good at hiding in the shadows.

“Hey,”  

His voice sounded strained and raspy, as if it hadn’t been used in a long time.

Kelly didn’t ask to take the spot next to him before settling at his side. She looked out on the ocean, a deep sigh seeming to come from somewhere within her. Daryl watched her quietly. He forgot how young she was sometimes, still just a kid really, only a little older than Carl would have been. He could barely remember himself at her age, twenty-something and naïve. Her face was still hopeful, somehow tricked into thinking that maybe the world would cut her a break.

The two had got along well, Connie had made sure of that. It helped that Kelly had the best parts of her sister. A dedication to protecting her people, her family. The same gentle eyes that had lured him tell stories and dumb jokes and say soft words. A stubbornness that irked the hell out of him, never willing to take no for an answer. Persistent, even if it was stupid to be. It hadn’t shocked him when she had volunteered to go through the herd alongside him. And he’d nearly told her no, because if he couldn’t protect Connie, he damn sure was going to protect Kelly. But she had proven, and honestly he should have known, that she didn’t need protecting. 

“How you doing?”

Kelly looked at him, her features soft and her eyes darkening. She knew what he was asking. They both did. 

He had avoided her after they had all met up at the rendezvous point in the woods; shit he had avoided everyone. Their walk to Oceanside had led him to hide on the outskirts of the group, as if still on the lookout for skins or walkers. Holding his breath and digging his nails into his hand to make the nagging feeling of grief go away. He had nearly lost it when Carol came to walk beside him, but collected himself nearly as quickly, walking in the back as they made the trek, keeping his head down, hood up, and his hair over his face. 

Maggie had noticed of course. A brief flash of concern in her eyes as she had hugged him close, a few hesitant glances back to him as they moved toward Oceanside. But even now, years later, she knew better than to ask. He was grateful. 

“I’m alright,”

She nodded as she said it, her bottom lip going between her teeth. It was a familiar gesture, something that he had seen Connie do. He looked away from Kelly quickly, too quickly for her not to notice. 

He flinched at the touch on his arm, jerking away from the warmth that made its way through his shirt. He froze; he hadn’t done that in a long time. If anything he had sought touch out, would give it to those he deemed safe enough. Memories of her skin beneath his hand made his fingers twitch, causing him to quickly flex his fingers into a fist. 

Daryl quickly looked up at Kelly, to let her know he wasn’t mad, to take it back, to not fuck up anymore than he already had. 

“Are you alright?”

Her face was sincere, and she was looking at him hesitantly, as if afraid of what he might say. There it was again, the prick behind his eyes. He shook his head slightly before looking back to the water. 

“Nah,”

She was quiet after that, mirroring his position. The waves seemed louder than ever, crashing on the beach with force. He could clearly remember the rush of helplessness that had flooded his body upon realizing that Connie hadn’t made it out of the cave. Aaron’s gentle coaxing making him scramble more, rocks scraping against his fingers and nails as he dug. Kelly’s voice had quickly snapped him back to reality. She had been level headed in that moment, mature, more rational than he could have been. And yet the sound of her sobs still ran through his mind sometimes, taking him out of his current nightmare and placing him back into another.

“You really think this is all over?”

“Yeah,” he hesitated, “For now,

“It doesn’t feel like it.”

“Nah, but you shouldn’t get comfortable anyway.”

"I guess." 

She went silent for a breath, a wave crashing on the shore cutting the air between them.

“I want to think she’s alive .” 

It was an abrupt change in discussion. He looked over as she spoke. There were silent tears on her cheeks now, leaving streaks that seemed to glow in the night. Her own face bruised, puffy in a few places; just as beat up as he was. She looked over at him, her lip seeming to quiver slightly; and suddenly she looked even younger. Her signs seemed to shake as she moved her hands slowly. 

“But I don’t know -” her voice cut out. 

The few tears seemed to turn into rush, and she reached a hand up to wipe at her eyes and cheeks and nose. 

I thought for sure that she was out there,” her signs were jumbled as she spoke. “That we would find her when everything was done.”

“Still can,“

Voice shaky, Daryl looked away, somewhat ashamed. Magna said that Connie had been in the herd, and the herd was gone. Destroyed. Sitting underneath a cliff in a pool of dark blood and rotting organs. He cried like a little bitch earlier when no one was looking. Silent tears that left the abrasions and cuts on his face burning. He didn’t want to consider that she may have been gone, didn’t want to think there was nothing left. 

“I want my sister back”

Thoughts of Merle seemed to pop up for the first time in ages. His brother had been a piece of shit, nowhere near the sister that Connie was to Kelly, but it had hurt. Stung. The beginning of what would be a stupor that he’d walk around with for years. He had loved his brother, a conflicted, troublesome love. But he had seen him turn. Knew he was gone; that he wasn’t ever going to come back. Kelly hadn’t seen shit. Maybe never would. 

He knew what that was like too. 

“Lost my brother ,” Kelly looked at him as he spoke quietly. The surprise in her eyes was evident, “Near the beginning.”

“He was an asshole,” Daryl swallowed, face twitching slightly at the motion, “Didn’t really treat me that well but...he was still my brother.”

It had taken him a while to come to terms with that. He read the dumbass book he had found at the shelter with Carol, only to go out looking for more. There weren't shrinks anymore, no therapy: not that he would have gone. The trauma books helped a little, let him realize that Merle had done just as much shit as their father. Showed him that there were other ways to dealing with it all, that there was no need to add his own scars among the ones from when he was a kid. He supposed he had known that, but it was nice to have confirmation.  

Kelly was quiet. He picked at the wood beneath him, grazing his nail against its exposed grain. He hadn’t told Connie everything about Merle, hadn't really said shit about his childhood. He knew she had seen a few scars; the ones on his arms, the nearly-gone ones on his hands. She had never asked and he never told. 

“You know about Rick?”

Kelly nodded, “Yeah,” she blinked, “I know about him.”

“Don’t know where he is.” he shrugged, “Don’t know what happened.”

Because I never found a body.  

The thought seemed to hang in the air, the words just barely on the tip of his tongue behind clenched teeth. It still bothered him, even after all these years, probably always would. He still went out sometimes, combing the riverbed for any kind of trace, looking up to the clouds like maybe the answer was hidden between heavy rays of the sun. There never was one. 

“It ain’t right,” he shrugged, locking eyes with her, “But it’s the way it is.”

Her face fell slightly, but there was an understanding behind her now watery eyes. 

They fell into a quiet again, somewhat awkward but comforting. He knew that he shouldn’t be alone, that it would be so easy for him to fall back into hiding. There were people relying on him, mostly on him, no space to run away and let the world go on without him there. He squinted against the light of the moon, aware of how large it was, drawn to its reflection in the dark waves of the Atlantic. 

“I’m losing my hearing.”

Daryl’s eyes shot to her. He was mindful of his body, holding back the quick turn of his head at the news. He had suspected something since she went missing at Hilltop. Going out alone like that was so...so careless; a word he would assign himself maybe, but not Kelly. It occurred to him that she needed Connie to survive, not to feel alive, but to live. Her teacher and guide, her partner: her sister. 

“What-”

“It runs in the family.”

“Kelly I’m sor-”

“She was training me. Trying to help me get ready for when-” she stopped herself. “We take care of each other.” 

"It ain't your fault," he offered, unsure. 

"I know," she swallowed, "She's not here though."

Her jaw clenched as she continued to try and fight back her tears, a feeling Daryl knew all too well. Choking on feelings that you didn’t want anyways, blinking away a perceived weakness, tensing your muscles so they would never be caught off guard. He still hated it when he cried, even if it was a sensation he had learned to stop fighting; letting go when the occasion was right and he was alone. Kelly, like him, was stubborn and strong-willed, and if it didn’t get her killed there was a chance that she would end up even more like him. Angry, stunted, afraid- that was the last thing he wanted. 

He gently put an arm around her shoulders. Daryl could feel her shoulders shake slightly but relax as she accepted the offer of comfort. She leaned against him, her hand repeatedly going to wipe her tears from her cheeks. She didn’t want them to fall, didn’t want her eyes to sting. Daryl would let her cry for as long as she needed, let her sit with him even though he really just wanted to be alone. She needed to “feel it”. Isn’t that what Carol had said to him all those years ago? He should have done it then, and he should do it now: but he knew that he wouldn’t. 

Granted, there were a lot of things he regretted, both before and after the turn. Not telling Connie...that was one of them. Daryl was a dumbass, but he knew how he felt about her. He didn’t know what the hell they had been doing before the cave, if they had been doing anything at all. There was a solid chance that he had made up a lot of it in his head, but even then, she was one of the better things to have happened to him. She had made him consider, if only briefly, that there he maybe wasn’t nearly as fucked up as he had led himself to believe. Made him wonder if there were still good things left out there to find. 

“We haven't found her.” she was mumbling, her hands unmoving, as if she was talking to herself. 

“We haven't,” he echoed.

“But I know she's alive,”

“She is,”

Kelly knew Connie was out there. Daryl had observed her over the past few days, head held high, focused on the task at hand. One thing at a time, slow and steady, and eventually everything would fall into place. Except that everything was jumbled now and Kelly, ever so level-headed, was crumbling. The weight of the realization and loneliness and fear crushing the hope that had kept her afloat. There was a part of Daryl that felt responsible for her now. Yumiko was gone, and who the hell knew when she was coming back. Magna was so haunted by the herd that she seemed on her own planet, out of sync with the rest of them. Luke had left for Oceanside, and when they managed to figure everything out, Daryl wasn’t so sure he wouldn't stay there. Daryl wasn’t them, wasn’t her family, not really, but at least he was someone.

Kelly was seeming to settle, sniffing and lessening the wiping of tears. She moved away from him slowly. He dropped his arm, gently patting her back before bringing it back to his body. She breathed, steady long breaths. 

I'm sorry. ” 

She didn’t speak, seeming not to trust her voice to not give out or shake. Her signs were close to her chest, eyes avoiding meeting his own. 

“You ain’t got to be sorry.” he shook his head slightly, “Not for that.”

They sat, Kelly collecting herself and Daryl trying to focus on anything that wasn’t his own thoughts. That one star that seemed to shine a little brighter than the others, the space where the ocean met the sky. There wasn’t much to hold onto anymore, little could ground you in reality because reality was so fucked up. He closed his eyes, letting the sound of the waves fill the space around him. 

“You almost died looking for her.”

Kelly’s voice was sharp in the background noise. 

“Yeah,” his hand went to his thigh, resting over the wound Alpha had given him.

It still hurt like a bitch. Rosita said he was lucky he hadn’t bled out, even more lucky that his entire leg wasn’t infected. The hot tears that had streamed down his face and the pure adrenaline that rushed through his body had done nothing to aid him, only making him more amped up. “

She’d say that was stupid,"

He chuckled lightly, “I know.”

Kelly’s hand landed on his arm, he didn’t pull back this time. 

“I never said thank you .”

He shrugged, “Did what I had to”

"It wasn't your job-"

He shook his head no slightly, “I’m gonna go back out there,” 

“I’m coming,”

He looked at her, face contorting into one of questioning and confusion. 

“She trusts you,” Kelly continued, “You showed me why.” They locked eyes, an intense leveled gaze. “The two of us will find her.”

Daryl blinked, salty air seeming to rush against his eyes, drying them. He flipped his bangs back to their normal position over his eyes, hiding them from the rest of the world. A stupid habit he had picked up back at the prison when all those Woodbury folks had been around, one that he never really grew out of. 

“She’d be proud of you,” he said quietly, “For what you did, going out in the herd like that.”

“I know,” she said proudly.

“I didn’t say thank you either,” Daryl turned his head slightly to see her, “For having my back,”

“Someone had to” she seemed to hide a smile before glancing at him.

They fell into a silence again, neither acknowledging the other but not wanting to leave. They were comfortable, more willing to be together than to be alone. Kelly lost in thought as he did everything he could to avoid even thinking. He didn’t know if they would find her, but the hint of hope in Kelly’s eyes told him that they would. A world where she was maybe out there was better than one where she was gone.

“I know you like her” 

Her voice brought him out of his stupor.  

Daryl glanced at the younger woman. Her eyes were red, still distant, but there was a small smile on her face. The ends of her mouth were flicked upward. He felt his own cheeks heat up, the ends of his mouth quivered and he quickly looked away. He bit at the skin on his thumb, a gross habit he was desperate in trying to break. The small smile on her face hadn’t faltered. He didn’t know what to make of that. She was intent on watching him, making his teeth only gnaw harder on his skin. 

He had liked-he did like Connie. And Jesus, he hated it, every moment. Staring at her like some kind of creep, memorizing every part of her face. Making lame jokes to get her to laugh, just once, a quiet giggle that made his heart pound. Playing silly games with Dog while they were out, running and rolling with the animal like he was a child. It was odd. She had been someone before the turn. She was smart, picked up on most things within mere minutes. “Pretty” as Judith had told him once. So damn near perfect. 

“When we find her,” Kelly spoke softly, “Please don’t hide from us.”

She was looking at him with pleading eyes, wide and filled with what he could only assume was fear. He didn’t make promises, not anymore, mostly because he rarely was able to keep them. Couldn’t let people down if they didn’t have faith in you in the first place. But Kelly was silently begging him, eyes bearing into his own. It occurred to him that he was maybe all she had in the moment, the closest thing to her sister still thinking semi-straight and standing upright. 

“Please,” her voice was even softer now. 

“Alright.”