It takes him two weeks to finally see her again.
Oh, he's seen her before that, in the most technical sense. Could do nothing but see her. Standing there in the wreckage of the center of federal power, on the broad marble steps with a pile of walkers around her and the rifle in her hands, the crumbling Capitol dome behind her, and the rest of the world melted away and all he could see was her. Seeing was all he could do; he couldn't take a step, couldn't fucking budge, as if every last scrap of power devoted to every nerve in his body was rushing headlong into the service of his optic nerves and the processing power attached to them. There was nothing else. Dim awareness of Maggie screaming and sprinting forward, Rick beside him dropping his gun as his hands went lax with shock, but in the end just her, staring straight at him, and the fire in her blue eyes.
His last memory of her wasn't firelit, but in his mind, ever since that final awful moment, that's how she's appeared. That's how he's wanted it.
But then, there was no fire. And perhaps that was why. Perhaps the fire was what he was waiting for.
Perhaps his dreams manifesting right in front of him was what it took.
He never planned for what he would say to her when he saw her again. He never planned it, because it never so much as crossed his broken mind that such plans would be required.
So he didn't say much, when they got her back, and she didn't say much to him. Looked at him in a way he couldn't define, and that helped push him to a distance, for which he felt profoundly guilty but which he didn't seem able to help. He watched her walk through the gates of the Hilltop, and he watched her meeting the new people and struggling to figure out what to make of them—she appeared to like Aaron and Jesus and Enid very much, which is only what he would have expected—and he watched her struggle even more to come to terms with the ones who were no longer there and who never would be again. Wished he could have been closer to her with that part, but the truth is that he hasn't figured out how to deal with that part himself, so there was an appalling helplessness in how he watched her then, and he hated it, and couldn't help that either.
One day he found her sitting at Glenn’s grave, her hand resting on an arm of the cross, and when she looked silently up at him, he looked away and eventually left.
He did his job. He went on runs, helped organize defenses and watches, stood by as wordless bodyguard when Maggie had to deal with the kind of business that justified it—which he's been doing this whole time, and which is in fact the only job that has ever come close to feeling right to him.
He was keenly aware that it was sharpest irony, the fact that he felt closer to her sister than to her.
Whatever door had begun to inch open between them, it was slammed shut the instant she took the bullet, and he wanted so desperately to open it again, but he could no longer locate the handle. Traced the tight seam where the door met the frame, and there was no room for him to wedge his fingers in.
Couldn't she do it? She did it once. Couldn't he wait for her to loosen it up for him? But that was unfair, and he felt like shit about it. He should have been better than that.
He should have been better for her.
But something he should have learned from her—which he only realized afterward—was that there are times when all you can do is wait for the right moment, and have faith that it'll come.
So then there's the bonfire.
He doesn't know who had the idea, only that it picked up steam and support and from there it just kind of happened. It's been a long time since the place did much as a community except work, and they've all been working so hard for so long, so it was probably only a matter of time before someone came up with something along those lines. He walks into the yard one afternoon and they're piling up wood and kindling, broken scraps of furniture, dry grass and straw unsuitable for the livestock. It's a messy pile, no structure or organization that he can identify, but that strikes him as proper somehow, so he gets to work helping them. After a while, he almost feels good about it.
It's the hottest, thickest part of summer, hot as a Georgia summer ever was, and they're all sweat-drenched by the time they're done, slick and dripping and shedding as much clothing as they can. Of course, he keeps all of his on, but he can take it. No part of him has gone soft; if anything he's hardened, toughened, and he can dismiss discomfort as easily as he ever could at the worst times.
Might be a little odd, building something that will generate such heat when there's already so much of that. But it does make a kind of sense.
Fire is fire. There's nothing more primal.
Twilight falls; it barely gets cooler but they all gather around as close as they can safely get and set it alight. There's an audible collective gasp when it catches and the flames race over the mound, and someone breaks into a loud, careless laugh. There's a metallic thud, rattling and rhythmic, and another joins in with a deeper plastic bass. Someone dragged together some drums, and that's how the dancing starts, bodies leaping and whirling in the firelight as lightning bugs wink on and off in the trees.
He stands back, leans on a stack of crates. Lights up a smoke. Considers leaving entirely, because all at once his mind is wandering in directions he would rather it not. The last time he saw fire like this—and he's seen fire so many times since then, helped set it himself more than once. But that was different. He's thinking of the last time he saw fire like this, when his head was pounding with the sickening rhythm of alcohol but he felt so insanely good anyway, and staring into the brilliance of all that destruction left him breathless and exhilarated.
He isn't sure he can stay here.
Then she's there, and he really isn't sure.
She simply appears, almost as if she emerged from the flames. Her hair is loose and long and flying around her shining face, her scars thrown into the same sharp relief as her smile. Not a smile; she's grinning, turning gracefully as Aaron twirls her, and there's no artistry to her dancing but it's so beautiful that it ruins him. He stands there and he gawks at her, and as she spins across his field of vision he realizes that she's stripped to the waist, her breasts bare and her skin gleaming, completely unashamed.
She's not the only one. All around her, more people are stripping off their clothes and leaving them in the grass—and there's nothing sexual about this that he can discern. It's a more fundamental heat than that, a kind of heat that makes clothes seem like an unnecessary artifact of a world that no longer matters. Not everyone is doing it, but the people who aren't don't appear to even notice the people who are, or to feel as if there's anything wrong with it. Men, women, and children in various states of nakedness, laughing and capering as if some kind of wonderful madness has gripped them, and the drums hammer on and on.
But all he can see is her. And he sees her.
She turns to him, sees him, and it's like he remembers that he has a body and he should want more than anything else to remove it. She doesn't feel shame and there's no reason why she should, but he should, because he hasn't earned the right to look at her like this. It's indecent. He can't be part of this kind of joyful abandon. On any other night it might horrify him, but more than anything else he's miserably embarrassed.
Or he should be.
But she's raising her hand, beckoning to him. He's nearly certain he's not imagining it. Her grin hasn't slipped one iota but it's softened, and she curls her hand, flutters her fingertips. And she can't mean that—but then again, she always has.
Back when they first found her, he couldn't move. Now, although it makes no sense whatsoever, he can.
He didn't see her before, not really. He does see her now. He sees her as purely as he ever has. The dancing bodies part for him like water as he goes to her, step by step, the heat blasting his face and chest and arms. It's like stepping into an oven, and some vaguely recalled Bible story comes to him: faithful servants of God thrown into a furnace by an evil king, and their very faith was strong enough to keep them from being consumed.
We ain't ashes.
“Hi,” she murmurs, impossibly audible over the drums and the laughter and the rough chords of the guitar someone's produced. She's not dancing anymore. She's standing still in front of him, and he's never dreamed her like this but the entire scene is so deja vu-familiar that it almost knocks him down. Like he was waiting to see her this way.
All his fucking life, he was waiting.
“Daryl,” she says, even softer, and opens her arms and he falls into them, curling himself around her, her sweat soaking into his shirt and dripping down over his collarbones. And that's fine; he’ll bathe in her. He’ll let her baptize him. It's perfect.
He had no plan for this. He never could have.
He doesn't dance with her, not then, and he doesn't join the more sensible people in shedding his clothing. Maybe someday. He clings to her, and he doesn't burn; she protects him with her faith even if his won't do the job.
But it might. He may not be giving himself enough credit. She would probably say he isn't.
Regardless. He sees her, not just with his eyes but with all of himself. He sees her like he never has before, and whatever happens now, whatever happens again, it doesn't matter.
He’ll never stop.