I own nothing (and nothing owns me).

Ember

Chapter 1 : The Smoldering Remains

Later, she would realize that, despite everything that had come before, things had really begun to change that chilly autumn night, while huddled with her few remaining companions around their small fire. It seemed like the longest night of her life, probably of all their lives. Not the worst night, certainly - that first sleepless night after she'd lost Sophia still held that distinction - but probably the longest. They'd been up for nearly 48 hours straight, and in that time, they'd had to abandon another home. The barn had burned, and they'd had to flee the farm - which was now overrun with the walking dead. Worse still, they'd lost more people along the way; Jimmy, Patricia, Shane, Andrea…over the last few months they'd lost more friends and family than she could count, but it never got any easier. The ache just got duller and heavier as they tried to contain it all, pushing it down inside themselves where they could pretend to make peace with it. Mourning was not a luxury they could afford.

These wounds were still fresh, however, and while she knew that there was no use dwelling on it, Carol was having a hard time clearing her mind of these troubling thoughts. She kept replaying those last moments at the farm, before Daryl had heard her screams and come back for her, when Andrea…

Andrea. Up rose a fresh stab of pain and guilt at the thought of her friend. Andrea had saved her life, as surely as she was sitting here now, but Carol had not been able to do the same in return; She simply wasn't strong enough. She wasn't a fighter like Andrea, or Daryl. She was no leader, like Rick, or Shane. She wasn't quick and resourceful like Glenn, or skilled like Hershel, who while he was "only a veterinarian," had managed to save so many of their lives already. No, she was none of those things. She contributed nothing, when she really thought about it. Who really needed clean laundry in this brutal new world? She had no place, and no purpose. Not anymore. She was no one's mother, no one's wife, barely even a friend. The closest thing she'd had to a friend was Andrea, and Andrea, like everyone else she came to care about, was gone.

Then there was Daryl.

Carol shook her head slightly. She didn't know what to think about that.

She had meant what she'd said to Daryl just a few hours before; as far as this group was concerned, she was a burden. Why she was still here, alive, using up valuable resources when so many of the good, deserving people they'd all cared for were gone…well, it didn't seem right.

Carol took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, grounding herself. Maybe not, she thought, but here I am.

She stared intently into the fire, avoiding the faces of the other people around her. If only "here" weren't such a lonely place to be. It was almost worse than feeling like an utterly useless person. She couldn't remember ever having felt so alone before, not even in all the miserable years she'd been married to Ed. She'd had Sophia, after all. There was a time when all she'd had to do was think of Sophia, and the thought would bring her comfort; but Sophia's death had left a gaping hole inside of her, and the hole seemed to be collapsing in on itself tonight. She missed her little girl. She missed her friends. Jacqui and Andrea. Dale. In some perverse way, she even missed Ed. At least when Ed was alive, she knew what was expected of her.

Carol chuckled bitterly to herself. How bad were things that she's prefer the hell of living with Ed to the present?

Though she loathed the comparison, sometimes being with Daryl wasn't so different from being with Ed. It seemed strange how sitting next to an unresponsive person could make you feel more lonely than simply being alone. Stranger still how she found herself wanting to sit beside him anyway. It was his watch at the moment, and she wasn't entirely sure where he was, or really how he was functioning at all on such little sleep and food. Say what you would about that difficult man, but his determination was staggering. She worried for his safety, of course, but honestly felt safer knowing that he was the one watching over them. Maybe she should have been trying to take advantage of that fact by going to sleep. Not that it would do much good. Physically, she was exhausted, but her mind kept running in endless circles.

She raised her head, and slowly looked around the fire at her remaining companions. Across from her, on the other side of the fire, Lori had Carl curled up against her chest, with Rick pressed to her back, his arm across them both. Whatever Lori's feelings might have been about what had happened between Rick and Shane, it didn't seem to outweigh her need for warmth and comfort, Carol observed. Maggie and Glenn had snuck off to their car a short while ago; no doubt they were planning to keep warm in another way. To her left, T-Dog and Hershel sat up talking, with Beth asleep, her head in Hershel's lap, the old man absently stroking his daughter's hair. Little moments of connection and affection, a balm against the terrors of the night.

How nice for them, she thought, with more than a touch of bitterness. It seemed that she was destined to watch life continue from the margins from now on. The only one who seemed to notice that she still existed was Daryl, and since he was nowhere to be seen, she was left alone with her thoughts.

Carol hugged her body, pulling her thin sweater around her more tightly. It was no use putting it off any longer; she should try to sleep. Besides, the sooner this night was over, the better. With nothing to cover her but the inadequate clothes on her back, she lay down on the hard ground, as close to the fire as she dared. One by one, she heard the others settle in and drift off, but sleep refused to come, no matter how hard she willed it. Soon she was left with nothing to occupy her but the night noises and the cold. It felt like she had been lying there for hours when she finally heard the quiet, steady rhythm of Daryl's boots approaching their makeshift camp. There was the sound of low voices as he woke T-Dog for his shift, then some more scuffling, and finally, after a few minutes, the sound of Daryl hunkering down near her, maybe a foot away from her turned back. He muttered a soft curse, an unspoken complaint about his aching body. A few seconds later and there was nothing but his breathing. Now she really couldn't sleep. Her heart had sped up, as if trying to catch up with her mind. She hated to admit it, but ever since they'd lost Sophia, Daryl made her feel… anxious. She wasn't very good at hiding it from him, either. She knew he was frustrated with her. When they'd spoken earlier that night, he'd finally come right out and asked, What do you want? The trouble was, she wasn't really sure herself.

Well, sleep, to start with. Just sleep, but it was all too much; too many thoughts, too cold, too close to Daryl for comfort…or not close enough. If things were different, if he were different, they could have taken comfort in one another, even if just from the cold. If she were bolder, perhaps. If he were more receptive. But she didn't want to inflict herself on him any more than she already had. She was dangerously close to making a complete fool of herself. These thoughts, too, she tried to push down, but after several more excruciating minutes of frozen silence, she couldn't stand it any longer.

"Daryl?" she whispered tentatively, rolling herself over to face him.

"Hm? " he muttered back drowsily, and after a beat of silence, a slightly impatient, "Well, what do you want now?" Steeling her resolve, Carol forced herself to continue.

"Please don't read too much into this, I'm freezing."

Once the words were out, there was no turning back. Scooting across the foot or so that separated them, she invaded his space, laying her head on his chest and an arm across his waist, hugging him to her. His leather vest was cold to the touch, however, so throwing caution to the wind, she slid her hand between the inside of the vest and his body, where she finally found the warmth she was looking for. She wished she was bold enough to slip beneath his shirt, but that would undoubtedly be taking things too far. If that level of intrusion weren't enough to keep her in check, he probably also wouldn't appreciate her icy fingers on his warm skin. And maybe this was already a bad idea. Daryl's body had tensed, with a short, sharp intake of breath, the minute her hands had found their way beneath his jacket, and he didn't seem to know where to put his arms. After a few seconds, he awkwardly draped the one nearest her across her back, the other up beneath his head. With her head resting on his chest, she couldn't tell which was louder, the sound of his heart hammering through his chest, or her own pounding in her ears. She felt a small stab of guilt, as she was certain the she was making him uncomfortable with this forced intimacy, but he hadn't said anything or pulled away, and she was so very cold, and desperate for human contact. She was grasping at anything, because he had been right - she was scared, and she had nothing left. Just the slim hope of connecting with another person. Someone who might understand some of what she was feeling most days, who knew a thing or two about living in the margins. Someone as alone as she was.

After several minutes, his heart and breathing slowed down, and his body began to relax a bit. Carol took a deep breath in, a sigh of momentary relief, and caught his scent. He smelled musky, not entirely an unpleasant smell, despite the fact that he hadn't washed. He smelled like smoke and dirt. But hell, they probably all did. It was almost comforting. More comforting still was the fact that, whatever he might be thinking about her, he was keeping it to himself and leaving her be. It wasn't exactly the connection she might have hoped for, but for tonight, she'd take whatever she could get.