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Once We Were Gods

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'We need a new place, somewhere we can settle semi-permanently. We're safe here for now, but it's not going to last. Daryl, you know I hate havin' to ask you...'

 

'I got it.'

 

He had promised Rick. Because of that, Daryl would not accept defeat. The people he now fondly called his pack needed him to succeed. He wasn't going to return with his tail tucked between his legs, carrying the bad news that he hadn't found them a new home. The pack needed security, their damaged bodies needing to heal and rest. They needed food. They needed water. But first, Daryl needed to pull through and find them a roof for over their heads and, at the very least, four stable walls so they didn't have to look over their shoulder in fear. He could at least do this and fulfill his duty towards his pack and his leader.

 

His therian nature was a warm companion in his mind, his Coyote willing him his strength as Daryl's body ached, stressed from one disastrous situation after another. He was lucky to have escaped Terminus without getting shot, but his body still wore the beating from the Claimers just prior to that. When he moved the wrong way, he could feel the skin around his side grow tight and throb with a bruise that had to have been left by the size 11 boot that had connected there about a time or two that night. A fuckin' cheap shot from Lenny that had kept him down so he couldn't reach his packmates in their time of need. He couldn't help the quiet growl that escaped him, lips curling over his teeth in a jaw-clenched snarl. The scabs on his face clinched as his expression twisted from indifference to anger and fear. He hadn't noticed that he was reacting to the residual emotions, his breath coming in irate huffs, until Michonne placed a hand on his arm. He paused, body tensing instinctively, crossbow aim falling to the ground as his left hand went to his knife. Her strong voice stopped him with a quick snap of his name.

 

“'m sorry.” He grumbled and relaxed under the woman's touch. She only grunted, but it was enough for Daryl to know it was forgotten. They continued to follow the winding, paved road, eyes and ears open to the thick forests on either side. The sun overhead beat down on his back, providing him with warmth that soothed the ache in his bones, and walking against the wind allowed cool air to blow on his sweaty face and sweep his hair back. He righted his crossbow, having let it go lax in his hands the more he allowed his mind to wander.

 

Still, he couldn't shake the memory of Rick's struggle with Joe – of Rick biting into the jugular of the man – that inevitably tailed the memory of Larry's attempt to beat him down. They both had had a front row fucking seat as they had watched Rick lose all sense of his humanity, face more animal than man. His nostrils flared, narrowed eyes flashing ice blue under the crescent moon and a low growl rumbling deep in his throat, as his teeth sank into a man's neck until blood spurted over his mouth and beard, warm blood that dripped onto his trembling, clenched hands in the collar of Joe's jacket. It was a savage bite, coming back with a mouthful of flesh and the wound gushing from a severed artery. A feral bite, completely wild and lacking human decency.

 

Sitting beside Rick against that beat up old car, Daryl would have just bet that Rick wasn't telling him something. There seemed to be more wrinkles around the older man's eyes, making him look heavy with his own thoughts. Daryl had extended a wet cloth for the caked blood on his beard, but it was also a silent reminder that he was right here for Rick if he needed to talk.It was a lot for the therian to expect, given the utter shame he felt at joining Joe and his crew, but as always, Rick surprised him again and forgave him, calling him his brother. It distracted him well from the questions flying around his head, and Daryl had diverted his eyes, unsure how to react.

 

He returned to the present, and thinking about it now, Daryl felt a sense of emptiness at being called a brother to Rick. Daryl understood that what he was feeling was underwhelmed. This man who had made such an impact had just extended his hand in brotherhood. Daryl was now considered family - as close as something he could finally call his pack. It was finally given to him and he now had a place, even amongst humans, even Rick, who'd never understand his level of loyalty. He should feel elated, but he couldn't help wanting something more from this human.

 

Daryl and Michonne walked side by side, gravel crunching under their feet as they shared a comfortable silence. They were lucky to not find any walkers along the way, but Daryl was used to things turning for the worse. It was definitely a surprise when he could see a large welcoming sign up ahead. He looked towards Michonne, and though the woman was just like him and could carry a short conversation with a few looks and brief nods, he simply had to ask.

 

“Wanna check the farm out? If anythin' we can scavenge anythin' we find and bring it back.” They stopped where they were, a good mile or two away from the sign just to make a decision. He knew the risks of walking into possibly claimed territory, and he was sure Michonne was mulling over those same risks herself.

 

"We should," Michonne murmured, glancing at Daryl out of the corner of her eye before drawing her sword and moving forward. Anymore, where there was civilization there were bound to be Walkers, and she wanted no surprises. With wary but confident steps, Michonne moved forward, knowing Daryl would be right beside her.

 

As they neared the sign, Michonne's eyes scanned the peeling and sun faded paint on the imprinted, weather cracked wood. It was hard to say what the colors had once been, but despite some foliage overgrowth and the unkempt state of the wood, it was still possible to read the words, 'Welcome to Raven Hollow Plantation.'

 

Michonne paused just long enough to read the sign and take in the slow reclamation of the artifact by nature before turning and making her way down the dirt, two track lane to their right. It was a long walk and the quiet woman found herself grateful that she and Daryl worked so very well together. Neither of them were much for words and both of them were ruthless if need be which definitely made them the best team for this job. It helped, of course, that she had personal experience with therianthropes, therians by common name, and didn't adhere to the social norms surrounding them. She couldn't bring herself to fear them. They were still as human as she was, even in their animal forms.

 

Her boyfriend Mike had been blessed with the secondary form of a jaguar, and she could still remember the smooth bristles of his fur coat beneath her fingers as if she had stroked a hand over his back just last night. He'd been a handful as far as boyfriends went, always with a chip on his shoulder and the urge to prove himself every bit as good as the domestic-shifters, but she'd loved him regardless. She'd been eager to find out what shape her precious little Andre might have become…if things hadn't gone down in flames so fast it'd made her head spin.

 

The slowing of Daryl's steps beside her urged her own steps into a slower pace. Just up ahead, a massive concrete fence was becoming visible through the overgrown foliage. From what she could tell, it looked like the gate was shut.

 

Daryl paused at the iron wrought entrance, squinting to the left and right of it to come to a rough estimate at the size of the thing. The black metal only went so far, but the plantation was protected with nearly a foot's width of moss covered concrete farther than his eye could see. Slinging his crossbow over his back, he approached the double gates, roughly pushing and pulling the gate back and forth. The iron clanged together, shaking dirt and dry leaves over his head and to the ground around him, but refused to budge anymore. He stepped back with a tight scowl.

 

“S'locked tight,” he grunted and gave the gated door a firm kick just in case. The latch remained unyielding, and Daryl dipped back, cursing under his breath as the shockwave shot up his leg. It only seemed to scare the black birds in the trees, making Daryl look up as they escaped their camouflage in the shadowed treetops. He turned to Michonne, scowling again at the muted amusement that replaced the seriousness that aged her face. He eventually huffed. It was definitely a dumb decision urged on by frustration that had him attempting to kick the shit out of a couple of iron bars. “'less ya got a better idea stocked in them dreads somewhere, ya best wipe that look off yer face.”

 

Michonne watched Daryl tilt his chin down, failing to hide the upward twitch on the corner of his lips, and grinned in a flash of bright white teeth. She was always highly amused by his occasional and nearly always pathetic attempts at machoism. After all, she knew him better than that now. Unperturbed by his empty threat, she moved in closer herself and sheathed her sword. Her hands and arms were much more slender than Daryl's, allowing her to work her hands through the tightly placed bars until she could run her fingers over the latch plated to the inside of the gate.

 

"We'll need bolt cutters," she announced after a moment or two of getting a mental picture of the latch and how it worked through feel. "If we cut the padlock, we'll spare the gate and the latch. Maybe we should head back and inform the others. Let Rick come check it out. If it's worth it, we can find a new padlock and some bolt cutters in one of the garages we skipped back at base."

 

A small smile slipped to his lips while Michonne's back was turned, impossible to resist whenever he got the silent woman to show more emotion than usual. Even though it wasn't intentional, he liked the reaction his sometimes crude words got him, watching her as he restlessly moved from one foot to the other.

 

“S'ppose that's a good idea.” He murmured as his fingers prodded between the gates and curled downwards towards the latch. They brushed on the hanging padlock, and he grunted in acknowledgment. Suggesting that Rick should come along, however, he was little more hesitant to agree. They had been walking out in one direction for the better part of two hours, and though Rick was by no means weak, his gait was still obviously uneven from the bullet he had taken to the leg on that horrible day. The risk of having the other man out here when they didn't know a thing about the threat that could lie beyond the wall was one he wasn't so willing to take.

 

On the other hand, a third pair of eyes would be beneficial, and Rick was the most capable. He trusted that one man to have his back above all others and guard it well. They were an unbeatable team, and if it did turn out they had to clear the plantation, there wasn't anyone else he'd rather have by his side in combat. Eventually, he gave a short nod. Either way, telling the pack would also mean having to tell Rick, and the other man would be hard to move once his mind was set. He'd want to go regardless of whatever Daryl said, willing to put his life in danger for the sake of his family. “Guess we should head back now, then. No use lookin' fer another way in if we wanna make a grand entrance through the front door.”

 

Pulling her arms from the fence, Michonne took a step back and cocked a hip. She folded her arms over her chest and raised her eyes to the tree lined lane beyond the barricade. It looked peaceful and safe. She just hoped that there weren't already people in there taking advantage of that safety and tranquility. "Yeah. If we move our asses we'll make it back to base before dark and can be out here first thing in the morning."

 

With one last assessing glance over the huge stone archway that curved over the double gate, Michonne nodded. They needed this. It would be worth almost any risk to have the kind of stability a real home gave to the lives of those who lived within it again. Maybe their luck would finally turn, and they could have a little peace behind this sturdy walls. Then she turned on her heel and faced Daryl. "Let's go."

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

It was getting late.

 

Rick fidgeted in his seat on the ratty, bloodstained sofa and dropped his hand from his chin. Daryl and Michonne had been gone for most of the day and with every passing hour Rick was becoming more and more uncomfortable without them nearby. Pushing himself to his feet and pacing to the front window, he lifted cautious fingers to gently pull a small portion of the curtain aside. Sharp blue eyes searched over and then beyond the overgrown yard and driveway of the small one story rural home they'd holed up in just over a week ago. He really didn't like it when his people were out of his sight anymore, let alone for a whole day. It was damn near dusk and still there was no sign of Daryl and Michonne. It made him antsy. It made his skin crawl. It definitely made the canine in him want loose. Family members were missing, and he was standing here at the window, longing to see them come out of the forest on the other side of the dirt road when he could be out there nose to the ground and actively looking for them.

 

With a deep sigh, Rick let the curtain fall and suppressed the urge to truly start pacing. It was even harder to stop the low grumbling growl that threatened to spill from his throat. He was glad he did when, not a moment later, Maggie came around the corner from the hallway, took one look at him and then let her shoulders slump.

 

"Rick. They're fine. I'm sure they're practically at the door step. Stop worryin' so much before y'give yerself an ulcer!"

 

The former deputy offered her a half grin, but his eyes flickered back to the window again without conscious thought.

 

"I know. I know," he murmured and turned to fully face her. She was a pretty thing, lovely as any Southern Belle could ever be. Glenn was a lucky man though Rick really felt no envy of him. After Lori, despite all of their problems, Rick wasn't sure he could fall in love with another woman. He would always think of her and probably try to catch glimpses of her in the unlucky lady's features like he had just caught himself doing now with Maggie.

 

Rick let his eyes drop as a little fissure of loneliness rent his heart. Lori had been easy to love at first, but she had been entirely human. She'd done better at meeting Rick's needs than most humans who had chosen to marry a therian, but in the end she'd yearned for a more compatible partner. She'd never sought one out until she'd thought he was good and dead, but even that was a small consolation. Things were even harder these days. Therians were rare before the apocalypse. Now there was only him and Daryl. At least as far as he knew. This time the fission of emotion in his heart was an ache of regret.

 

When he'd turned up at the Quarry Camp, Lori had made it clear that the majority of the group there weren't fond of therians. She'd felt it best that Rick keep his canine-self hidden away so that she, Rick and Carl wouldn't be ostracized from the group in the same fashion as the unstable Dixon brothers. For Carl's sake, Rick had been inclined to agree, but as time had passed, it had become more and more of burden and less and less possible to tell his people who he really was. He would always be the same Rick Grimes, former Sheriff's deputy of King County, but they still didn't know the real him. The one that wanted nothing more than to shift shape and kick up his heels for the first time in years every time he saw Daryl take the form of his Coyote. And poor Daryl, who now labored under the impression that he was the last of his kind when a closer brother than he knew stood at his side every day, seemed more and more lost as time passed. He was a part of the group but not, staying at their family's periphery instead of at its very center where he belonged. Rick was starting to hate himself just a little bit for not manning up and at least confiding in his right hand man that he was more than he seemed. Problem was, Daryl probably wouldn't take too kindly to having been lied to throughout their entire partnership. Just thinking about it all was weighing him down, so he turned his attention back to Maggie, the young woman having been miraculously patient with his long, thoughtful silence. "I just hate havin' to ask them to do this over and over."

 

"You askin' is all just for you, and you know it. They're more like volunteers," Maggie dismissed and gave him a quick hug which he belatedly returned. She was already pulling away by the time he'd responded. Rick sighed through his nose as his hands fell to his sides.

 

"Still don't mean I have to like it," he murmured and then started at the sound of boots on the porch, hand flying to his Colt revolver where it was holstered to his hip. One glance showed that Maggie already had her weapon drawn and together they moved toward the door until Rick could peer through the hazy peephole. Relief absolutely flooded him when he saw the crown of Daryl's dark head. The front door unlocked and swung open easily under Rick's deft and eager fingers.

 

Daryl jumped at how quickly the door flew open, eyes snapping to Rick who stood in the open entrance. He took one look into that welcoming face before patting the man on the chest heavily. The body underneath his hand was firm and took some energy to push so he could slip past and into the comfort of their temporary safe house, shyly dropping his eyes as he brushed against Rick on his way through the small doorway. “'Sup, man?”

 

It was a lousy greeting, but it was the best he could do. He was looking forward to lying on that grimy old couch and putting enough space between himself and Rick as to give himself a little breathing room after the intense look in those too blue eyes. Somehow, being under the other's soft gaze got him all flustered, pushing at an unrecognizable bubble of emotion that filled his chest.

 

He cleared his throat, meeting Michonne's eyes in a brief glance as she walked past him, leaving him alone with Rick in the dim entryway. “I got news fer the pack, if yer willin' to hear it.”

 

"Of course," Rick immediately acknowledged.

 

Daryl thought about waiting for the other man so they could walk back to the main room together, but it seemed too much like alpha bond-mates walking in side by side to greet the pack. It wasn't his place, so he instead chose to follow Michonne into the living room after an awkward nod to Rick.

 

Pack, Rick thought, feeling his heart swell on Daryl's voice over that word. He was entirely too amused – and if he were honest with himself no little bit touched – by the very wildside style labeling of their little family. But that's how he sees it, Rick reminded himself and fell into step behind the two, leaving Maggie, who had watched every exchange between the three strongest people in their group in studious silence, to latch the door back up.

 

"I hope it's good news," Rick quietly teased them.

 

"We wouldn't bother to tell you anything else," Michonne said over her shoulder and, instead of turning into the living room or even moving on into the kitchen, turned down another hallway, calling out to the others as she made her way from door to door with light knuckles.

 

Rick moved passed Daryl then and straight through the hallway. He came to a slow stop in the small kitchen before turning so that he could look at Daryl who moved even further into the kitchen as Rick finally asked, "Was it an easy run?" voice gone serious. Rick dipped his chin in an attempt to catch Daryl's eyes. The little movement was just one of the many gestures the two of them had found together that allowed them to communicate on levels beyond the spoken word. Rick was under no illusions. Part of the reason the two of them worked so well together was absolutely attributable to their other halves. That lonely, repentant ache in Rick's heart tightened just a little bit more, but he pressed on.

 

Daryl found himself meeting Rick's eyes for a second before instinct had him lowering his gaze submissively to the pack leader. Rick's very presence easily calmed him, and Daryl unconsciously moved a fraction closer. In a voice that was just loud enough for the other man to hear, he gruffly answered, “S'just a straight across walk, two hours tops.”

 

Simple words, but they were all the answer Rick needed. Without saying it out loud, Daryl had just told him that the run had been a cake walk, that they'd had no trouble at all, and that they'd found something promising. Rick nodded and brought a hand up to his chin while the other settled on his hip. Two hours out wasn't terribly far, but they were already far enough from Terminus that he doubted whatever of those demons that were left would be coming out even this far to find them. They'd left the place in an utter state of chaos. Rick didn't believe for a moment that they'd be able to rebuild their psychotic monarchy so quickly. If nothing else, Rick planned to have his own people safe and secure before the remaining people of Terminus had gained any traction.

 

"You look tired," he observed, hand falling from his chin to hang beside his thigh as his blue eyes wandered Daryl's tense shoulders and slightly hunched stance.

 

Daryl's shoulders did ache from the weight of his crossbow, and with a barely noticeable sigh, one that still made his side throb, he let the weapon sag in his arms. “I jus' wanna sit... How is everyone else holdin' up?”

 

"Fine. Everyone's fine. At least as much as they can be," Rick answered, though his mind was already churning with questions of his own. He wanted to know what Daryl and Michonne had found that had given Daryl that slight air of promise. Still, he kept his peace for the moment, knowing that Daryl would tell everyone at once, thus saving himself from having to repeat the news. It was typical of the other man not to want to waste words. Something Rick had found endearing, and that he was incredibly grateful for, from day one. "We're all a little hungrier than we'd like, but there's not much can be done about it today."

 

Food was running low. Daryl knew they were already having to ration just so they wouldn't have to feel the deep pangs of hunger any sooner. From over Rick's shoulder he could see their people walking into the kitchen, getting ready for the meeting. They looked better than last week, heads held high with renewed hope. It was the best Daryl could ask for in the amount of time they'd had to recuperate. The kid was the last to come in, grinning up at Daryl before he was hurried on and sat next to Carol and Judith at the table by Michonne. Just a week ago he'd seen the boy violently attacked. Sometimes it felt like just yesterday though Carl gave no outward indication either way. He forced himself to meet Rick's eyes and added, “How's Carl?”

 

Daryl would have to be stupid not to guess a man on top of his eldest child was what had set Rick off so many nights ago. In a way, he asked simply to know how Rick would react.

 

That was a loaded question. Rick twisted around just enough to glance at his son before shifting his weight back around to fully face Daryl again. Carl was preoccupied with talking to Michonne, and Daryl and Rick were far enough away from the table that he could be candid with the other man. When he spoke, it was with a lightheartedness that belied the roiling rage he kept firmly suppressed beneath a veneer of capable calm. "He's…better than I expect him to be. He talks to Michonne a lot. I'm grateful for that woman every minute of every day at this point. Don't know what I'd do with him without her."

 

Daryl hummed. He had nothing of worth to say to that, other than he simply agreed. Carl needed someone to talk to, and it turned out he didn't want that person to be his own dad. Understandable. Family was harder to talk to than most anyone else, especially given the circumstances. He eyed the young Grimes and his silent companion, again finding himself agreeing with everything Rick had said. He wouldn't have known what to do either if Carl had come to him looking for comfort.

 

Without thought, he touched Rick's arm then silently cursed himself for the bold move. However, he chose not to take back that hand when Rick expressed gratitude for his silent support in the form of a warm smile. A smile Daryl couldn't quite return. Ducking his head again, he licked over his dry lips nervously instead. Rick looked at him expectantly, gently urging Daryl to make his say with a tilt of his head in the direction of the table where their family had gathered, his eyes crinkling in amusement when Daryl's jaw tightened. The redneck felt the urge to retreat, so he let go and immediately found himself missing the warmth of Rick's skin against his palm.

 

He left Rick where he was standing, murmuring that the others were waiting for them, and took his place in the corner. Daryl was aware of his acceptance into the pack, yet still he couldn't bring himself to stand with them and feel like a part of them. In the end, his genetics would simply not allow him to and memories of his brother reminded him that he would always be considered dangerous and untrustworthy. The Coyote within him paced back and forth in the back of his skull as his emotions swirled unsteadily, agreeing with the ghosts of his family. Daryl tried to block it out, but it wasn't until Rick finally made his way over to the table that Daryl's thoughts were finally diverted.

 

The redneck waited for Michonne to say something, but she remained irritatingly silent. With his mind otherwise occupied his Coyote ceased his growling, padding back into the depths of Daryl's consciousness completely. Daryl unwound from his tense position against the wall, unlacing his arms from in front of his chest to hang loosely at his sides. He didn't know how to get everyone's attention, even as he moved out of his corner and approached the group.

 

“We found shelter a little ways out...” Daryl started and, when it seemed no one had heard, rapped his hand on the table, gruffly snarling, “Hey! I'm talkin'! Shit, the hell's a guy gotta do to spread a little light in over all'er worries?” 

 

"Sorry, Daryl," Maggie murmured, sheepishly pulling her shoulders up a little and biting at her lower lip. "We didn't mean nothin'. We're just glad you guys made it back okay."

 

Michonne leaned back a little in her chair, letting her legs fall open wide. Her entire posture screamed of confidence. "You'll be even more so when we tell you what we found."

 

Daryl muttered to himself a bit, his whole attitude and appearance reminiscent of when they had first met him, but the annoyance he felt was a little more light-hearted than it would have been back then. He rolled his eyes, slitted blue landing on baby Judith who cooed and looked up at him with a happy grin. Lil' Asskicker didn't even seem fazed by the harshness of his voice.

 

Rick moved in closer, coming to a stop behind Carl. "Oh really?" he inquired, a small smile playing around his lips as he folded his arms and stared with intent interest at the back of Michonne's head certain she could feel his gaze. The woman, to her credit, didn't even look his way, choosing to ignore his unusual display of playfulness. It was good to see his people happy again. Good to see them in good enough moods to give each other a hard time in the age old fashion of close knit families. Turning his eyes up from the back of Michonne's head, Rick searched Daryl's face with a smirk. "Daryl?"

 

At Rick's prompting, Daryl felt the tension in his face relaxing. He loosely crossed his arms again in a self-comforting gesture as he worried the nail of his thumb over his knuckles. He thought about making them guess, but Carl looked like he was dying to hear the news, and Daryl could feel the vibrations of the boy jumping his leg under the table. He thought they had waited long enough when the boy whined, “Daryl, come on!”

 

Michonne was throwing him a look that said if he didn't say anything, she would, and from the looks of it at least half of the pack needed sleep. The redneck smirked, and finally gave in. “Think we found a deserted plantation ready for the takin'. Ain't look like it's been lived in fer a while. Gate's fully intact and walls runnin' fer miles to keep the place locked down tight. S'good 'nuff to keep us safe.” He felt quite proud of himself when the group perked up, Glenn specifically lifting his head from Maggie's shoulder.

 

The Asian stood and crossed the short distance between them to pat Daryl on the back. “Man, that is good news. Rick, we gotta scope it out...”

 

“Not all of us, though.” Carol butted in and rocked Judith as she fussed. She watched as Glenn continued to shower praise over the redneck until he'd become uncomfortable and started shifting shyly from foot to foot. In all honesty, the man deserved it, and she hated raining on everyone's parade. “It's not safe enough to stay here when we're all together, let alone when we're split up. Plus, if we find the plantation unsuitable it would be a waste to bring everyone out there.”

 

She wasn't surprised to see Daryl bristle and tense, his attention now zeroing in on her and her words, but Carol was just being realistic. She had always been one to avoid blinding herself with too much optimism, a trait deep seated in her even before she lost Sophia. Her expression saddened as reluctance and uncertainty clouded Daryl's features, but she wasn't going to be taking it back. 

 

"Rick?" Maggie prompted after the room had fallen silent at Carol's words. "What do you think we should do?"

 

Rick lifted his eyes from the empty space he'd been contemplating on the table top. Bright blue eyes roved over the hopeful faces in front of him, finally landing on his daughter to his left. She looked up at him from beneath bright strawberry lashes, and he felt his heart melt a little. Part of him knew she wasn't really his, but she was Lori's, and that was what mattered most. His German Shepherd perked up at the back of his thoughts for just a moment as he gazed down at the miracle that was Judith Grimes and every protective instinct in him quivered.

 

"Rick?" Michonne prompted again, her voice just a touch softer than Maggie's had been.

 

The former deputy lifted his eyes from his daughter again, but instead of turning them on Michonne, Rick looked directly to Daryl, his second in command, his right hand and his most trusted advisor. He'd sought Daryl's council over much lesser things, but in this, the safety of their family, Rick trusted Daryl's opinion implicitly. Silently, he asked the other man with his eyes, 'Is this our best option? Should we risk it?' and prayed for an answering nod of acquiescence.

 

The Dixon could feel everyone's eyes on him, waiting for a response when Rick had looked to him. The attention made his cheeks burn, but the one gaze he focused on now came in the form of that confiding stare from their leader. The ball was thrown back in his court, the weight of the decision back on his shoulders.

 

They needed a home, somewhere that the pack could extend comfortably. The plantation would provide that easily, giving them each their own space while maintaining their closeness without stepping on each other's toes. The safety of the pack was his main priority and the place they had secured now was anything but safe.  He took one look at the peeling wall paper and the creaky walls and thought back on that foot thick concrete that protected the plantation grounds. He met Rick's steady gaze, holding it as he tilted his chin down in a single nod. ''ts worth a shot.'

 

Rick's eyes immediately drifted back over every other face, making sure he still had all of their attention. "Daryl, Michonne and I will figure out how to vet this place. In the meantime, everyone should start thinkin' about packin'. It's pretty late." Rick settled one hand on Carl's shoulder and gave the thin muscle there a firm squeeze. "Everyone should try and get some sleep tonight. We'll talk again some more tomorrow morning."

 

Michonne was the first to her feet. "Sorry, boys. Carl and I have a comic book date tonight. You two are on your own."

 

Shaking his head, Rick watched as she turned on her heel and all but flounced out of the room. Carl glanced up at his dad for one brief moment and then scrambled after her, calling out something about first dibs on some issue or another. Rick didn't bother to try and figure it out. Carol was getting to her feet and as soon as she'd balanced Judith more comfortably in her arms, Rick moved in to cradle the back of his little girl's head and press a kiss to her forehead. Judith squirmed hard in Carol's grip and made the most ridiculous scrunchy face Rick had ever seen.

 

"Don't like daddy's beard, huh?" he murmured and stroked her soft hair once before taking a step back. "Thank you, Carol. For lookin' after her."

 

"Think nothing of it, Rick,” Carol said, looking up at Rick. As the others were leaving around her, she leaned in, skirting her eyes towards Daryl who waited by the kitchen entrance. She was still a little worried about them becoming vulnerable again, and though they all moved together like a well-oiled machine, Walkers were not exactly what she was concerned about. She had not met the men Daryl had fell in with before reuniting with the group, but she had seen what bad people could really do when she arrived at Terminus and saw the tired and broken looks on her peoples' faces.

 

Beth was still out there, and no one knew who had taken her. Maggie was holding up, putting on strong front for everyone, but Carol doubted anyone had forgotten or really even put her absence behind them. Those people were still around and there had to be even more who were just like them. She didn't want to be the pessimist, but someone had to. Someone had to bring up these issues otherwise they might be ignored and allowed to evolve into even larger problems. Before Rick could follow Daryl, she stopped him by taking another step towards his retreating figure. “Think this through, Rick. I trust Daryl, I do. Trust him with my life. But those people out there...” She shook her head, not sure how to go on with that.

 

Daryl overheard, giving in to the habit of shoving the flesh of his thumb between his teeth. “We're not safe here neither,” he grumbled around his finger. “We could wait here just fer those same people to find us 'n kill us while we sleep. We're sheep sittin' out in the open waitin' fer the big bad wolf ta take us down or scatter us in the wind. Rick.” With that Daryl walked out of the kitchen, expecting the ex-cop to follow.

 

Carol sighed, her posture sagging once the irate male made his exit. “Didn' mean to offend him...” She sighed again and nodded at Rick, pasting on a sad smile. She would apologize to Daryl in the morning before he leaves. “Go on and talk to him. Looks like he could use your company.”

 

With a soft pat to Carol's shoulder in acknowledgement of her wise words, Rick turned and followed Daryl out the door. The hunter was already leaning against one of the covered porch's support posts when Rick joined him in the cool air of late evening. Daryl was standing with one foot on the porch itself though most of his weight was borne on the other one where he'd planted it on the next step down and looking for all the world like he needed a cigarette. His hair was a windblown mess and his facial scruff was thicker than normal, given that the man hadn't had the opportunity to shave in the last few days. That was one thing Rick envied of Daryl's many skills. Man knew how to shave damn well with that hunting knife of his.

 

"Carol didn't mean anythang by what she said, Daryl," Rick murmured, moving over to lean his shoulder against the support post opposite the one supporting Daryl on the other side of the step. Daryl shifted uncomfortably and Rick felt his German Shepherd stir for the second time that evening. It was…comforting to know that his other half was still with him despite how much he'd repressed his second nature over the last few years. At the moment, his Shepherd was focusing on Daryl, and Rick found he felt a bit of comfort in that too. It wasn't uncommon, or at least it hadn't been before the Turn, for therians to simply not get along because of their secondary shapes not liking each other, and Rick was beyond grateful that he and Daryl got on so well. Tonight, however, he felt a small, cold curl of dread spiral up from the bottom of his stomach. Daryl was suffering alone, even though he didn't have to be, and Rick was too chicken shit scared of the other man's possible reaction to do anything about it. Though in his defense, he honestly couldn't afford a tattling explosion from the once-short-tempered man, and he was sure to get one if Daryl ever found out the man he thought he could trust had been lying to him from the very beginning.

 

“Yeah, well. Woman best learn how to shut 'er mouth.” He didn't mean any word of it, but those were the words that came easiest to him as he stood outside, tugging his vest closer around him against the gusts of wind, fuming silently. The anger was displaced, and he knew that, but he just didn't like how easy it was to put down this achievement. He wasn't looking to make anyone proud, but he had just got that from the pack. The Coyote in him had yipped in quiet delight, thin tail perking at all the approval. He should maybe have been surprised at his own words, but his canine was just as touchy, if not more so, when it came to belittlement.

 

Daryl slouched, and sat on the porch, kicking his legs out carefully so he wouldn't accidentally knock over his weapon propped up on the porch. His back was facing the yard, allowing him to merely listen for any disturbances beyond the wind. It gave him enough peace of mind to focus on his leader that Rick was there to watch over his shoulder as they discussed this latest turn of events. He studied the man and again, his Coyote pushed forward in his consciousness. He didn't understand the animal's pull, but given how powerful it was most days Daryl was starting to believe all that business about bonding, two therians coming together as one. It was a myth, so far as he'd ever been able to tell, though every shifter he'd ever met had still been looking forward to finding that special connection in their life, to feeling their mate's emotions filtering through a mental and emotional rapport that allowed their shared love and devotion to caress every bone, muscle fiber, cell, thought and emotion in their being. Sadly, it was something that could supposedly only happen with one other therian in a lifetime.

 

All of that mystic crap had been well and good when he'd been listening to other shifters natter on about it, but a therian imprinting like that on a human? It rarely happened between two therians, so rarely most gave up on the notion without even trying to find their bondmate and committed to the first willing therian they found. It had never happened between a therian and a human except in fiction. Merle had told him not to be stupid and to stop readin' the romance crap his girlfriends brought to the Dixon household once when he was young. Daryl hadn't asked a second time given the really nasty tone Merle had taken with him that once. So, really, he couldn't be imprinting on Rick. The Coyote had to be interested in something else, and Daryl wanted to know what.

 

He could hear his Coyote's whine echoing between his ears, the pull to be near another therian strong as he continued to share space with Rick. The Coyote was always very awake when they were together, shuffling for approval if not just Rick's undivided attention. For once, Daryl gave in to his feeling of isolation. The animal had mistaken a human for one of its own, and though the creature was very smart, he had become desperate for the companionship only another shifter could provide. Rick shone with those qualities. He had the mentality of a fair pack leader and had taken Daryl in as his right hand without a second thought. His instincts were nearly as honed as Daryl's, the man easily reading his surroundings and the people around him.

 

But Rick was not a shifter. If he had been, Daryl had no doubt Rick would have changed any number of times for the good of his people and helped to protect the pack in his animal form right alongside Daryl. The world had changed and right now it fitted the therians' and their natural affinity for survival, not these humans with their clumsy, loud steps that so easily gave them away and their limited ability to hunt efficiently. He had known Rick Grimes for at least three years now. No one could hold off that long without Daryl noticing the beast.

 

Rick hadn't said anything yet, but he moved from his place in front of Daryl to take his side, settling his ass on the top step. He faced the open area, sharp blue eyes darting around even though his human sight should be weak now that it was near dark. Unlike the greenery around them, the house's yard was very dry, contrasting with the other foliage in shades of dusty brown and yellow. It was easy, at least for Daryl had he been looking, to see about eighty feet around them.

 

Daryl kept searching Rick's face, trying to puzzle out the thoughts that must be running through his head. He shifted again, unconsciously turning his body towards Rick and moving an inch closer, enough to startle Rick out of his mental tangent and loose observations of their surroundings.

 

“What do y'wanna know?” His words scratched in the lower register of his voice, the rasp making him work his dry tongue around in his mouth before wetting his chapped lips. He must've looked as bad as he felt right now and with a little vanity, Daryl found himself disappointed with his appearance during the few chances he got to be truly alone with his pack leader was always so horribly run down. He rubbed his stubbled chin on his shoulder timidly, this time dropping his eyes to the porch floor as he said, “C'mon, man. So you can head up fer some sleep. I can take first watch on my own.”

 

Realizing that he'd been staring from the moment Daryl had shifted closer to him, Rick jerked his gaze down to the weathered porch step between his well-worn boots. It wasn't the first time his German Shepherd had stealthily wrested control of Rick's conscious mind enough to drink in all that was Daryl Dixon, in Coyote form or not. Part of him wanted to apologize for having made Daryl feel so obviously self-conscious about himself. Another part of him, the part he didn't like to admit to, wanted to pretend that that moment, like a fair few others in the recent past, had never happened.

 

"Nah, Daryl. You're exhausted. Even a blind man could see it," Rick responded and rubbed his calloused palms together before resting them on his knees and stretching some of the stiffness out of his right leg. That gunshot wound from that last horrible day at the prison was healing much more slowly than it should have, but without proper nutrition and rest and with the amount of stress Rick found himself saddled with on a daily basis he wasn't overly surprised. His thigh twinged, and he was only just barely successful in suppressing the wince that sharp, shooting pain brought with it. "I'd like to know as much as you can tell me about this plantation, then I want us to come up with a game plan. After that, you're goin' to bed while I finish out first watch."

 

Rick's tone brooked no argument, but the look he slid the hunter out of the corner of his eye was searching. The last thing he wanted was to alienate Daryl through anything that might have seemed too dominating. Therians, especially those with secondary shapes that were wild species, tended not to take too kindly to overbearing authority. Merle and his Wolf had been a perfect example, railing against society like a rabid animal in either form.

 

The Dixon glowered at so suddenly being dismissed. He crossed his arms more firmly, shoulders pulled up tight as he planted his feet more firmly on the floor. “I'm not fuckin' movin'. I said I'd take first watch, yer decision whether ya stay or go when we're done.”

 

He could feel his Coyote provoked along with him and it took everything within him not to stake his claim on the porch and send Rick back with the pack. He stared Rick down, chewing on the chapped skin of his lips and firmly held his ground. When the head male sighed and eventually dropped his chin in a reluctant but conceding gesture the therian finally relaxed.

 

"Okay, Daryl," Rick murmured his tone placating. "Okay."

 

It looked like both of them would be finishing out first watch. Stubborn as Daryl was Rick didn't think he'd be able to persuade the redneck otherwise. Honestly, he really didn't mind the company. He had honestly found he never minded Daryl's company anyway. "So, tell me what you're thinkin' we'll need and need to do."

 

 

TBC…

Chapter Text

Rick wrapped strong fingers around the bars of the twin gates and gave them a good shake. True to Daryl's words from last night, they barely budged, rattling hard against each other. Sharp blue eyes snapped up, scanning the grounds beyond the fence. When no movement caught his attention, Rick turned his focus back to Daryl. They'd come alone, just the two of them, so that Michonne would be with their family – their pack as Daryl continued to call them – just in case anything happened. It had been a gesture meant to ease Carol's mind and from what Rick could tell during his and Daryl's departure from their base, it had seemed to do just that.

 

The Coyote therian looked up at him for a moment and then glanced back out around them, eyes always on the lookout for any threat that might befall them. There wasn't anyone that Rick would rather have at his back during such an unpredictable run as this one. Turning to the wall, Rick took a few steps back and studied the defensive structure thoughtfully. Shrubbery had grown up over the last few years, overtaking a good portion of the concrete. As his eyes wandered, something unusual caught his attention to the left of the main gates.  Without a word, he stepped off the dirt two track and moved up to the foliage clinging to the wall. Deft hands grabbed tight to the vines and he pulled hard. Several tugs later, Rick once again took a step back and assessed the smaller access gate he'd uncovered.

 

"Daryl," he called softly, catching his guardian's attention and redirecting it to the smaller gate with a tip of his head. "Think ya can boost me over this one?"

 

The redneck couldn't help narrowing his eyes, unwilling to jump into an action when he couldn't even guess at the immediate outcome. He had assumed they were both going to walk in together, and though it was silent from this side, even Daryl couldn't put a guess on what might surprise them from the other side. The grounds of the plantation within were calling to him, looking to be cared for, cleaned, and lived in, and Daryl wanted in as much as Rick surely did, but not at the cost of them separating. He didn't even bother to measure the height of this gate, and remaining exactly where he was, he firmed his lips into a straight line, hands tight around the strap of his crossbow. “What for? Where ya think yer goin' without me?”

 

"I ain't goin' anywhere without you," Rick corrected him immediately, turning so he could see all of the emotions he'd learned to translate out of Daryl's facial expressions and body language. Rick was trying for soothing, seeing as Daryl had gone suddenly tense at the prospect of even so minute a separation. A large part of him agreed that separating was risky and stupid, but the rest of him knew that the job didn't need to be as difficult as it would be if they tried to cut the padlock from this side of the fence. "I just think it'd be quicker and easier to use those damn bolt cutters, huge as they are, from the other side of the fence. I'd have the gates unlocked and be letting you through them before you could blink an eye."

 

"Yeah? Then I might as well do it." Daryl got in Rick's space to peer past him, the other man not getting out of his way fast enough for the hunter to get the view he wanted. Daryl's voice was strong with his southern accent and his nose scrunched a bit, eyes narrowing into slits in a challenging way as he met the other's stare. “Yer stayin' on this side. Give me a fuckin' boost, will ya?”

 

Despite this man being his leader, he wasn't about to let him jump over a damn fence with a bad leg while a possible threat might still be lurking in the thick underbrush on the other side. It wasn't usual for Daryl to let himself tell Rick what to do, but just this once he wanted to do it his own way. At least over here the most Rick had to worry about was a few black birds and a couple of rabbits, just the way Daryl liked it. He turned around before Rick could open his mouth, and shot over his shoulder, “Well?”

 

Deciding it was better not to argue, especially when Daryl took such a tone with him, Rick shook his head and moved up behind the archer. Crouching, Rick interlaced his hands and then looked up. "Ready when you are," he murmured. "Let's get you over to the other side and then I'll get the bolt cutters to ya."

 

Daryl nodded and moved forward, using the folded hands as a step. As quickly as he could, he pulled himself up and grunted as he threw himself over. The landing was less than graceful, Daryl wincing when his knees started to pulse from the impact. 

 

"Okay," Daryl breathed and pulled himself straight against the bars. He resettled his bow on his back and met Rick's eyes once before walking himself over to the double gates. "Hand 'em over."

 

Rick had stalked Daryl's every move on their way to the main gates, eyes sharper than usual as they darted about beyond Daryl's shoulder. Without a word, Rick crouched, slid the bolt cutters through the small gap between the bottom of the gates and the ground and then straightened, pulling his Colt from its holster. He wanted to be ready to defend the other man as quickly as possible should something pop out of the treelines to either side of them before Daryl had gotten the gates open.

 

"Hurry up," he murmured once Daryl had the cutters in his hands. It was clearly nerves rather than any kind of impatience that had him urging Daryl to work quickly. Rick didn't like the barrier between them any more than Daryl had liked the idea of Rick being on the inside of the wall alone and unguarded.

 

"Yeah, yeah." Daryl huffed, quickly pulling the bolt cutters through. It didn't take him long to right himself and wedge the curved bolt between the short blades, snapping it with a quick flex of his arms. The lock hung limply for second before Daryl yanked it off and tossed it aside. A second later he was pushing the left gate open one-handed.

 

"Come on in, officer. Got nothin' ta hide," he playfully wisecracked. The bolt cutters were up over his shoulder, and he shifted his weight from foot to foot, just a little impatient for Rick to join him beyond the gates.

 

Rick chuckled and slid through the gap to Daryl's side. Daryl struck quite an image posing with a crossbow on his back and a large pair of bolt cutters braced against his shoulder. Rick's German Shepherd was focusing on the other therian more and more every moment they were together, and once again it was for reasons other than health and skill assessment. Daryl's smirk was contagious though, allowing Rick to push the thought from his mind for now and he let out an amused huff before responding.

 

"Thank you for your cooperation," Rick joked in return. It almost felt like flirting really, and to Rick's mild surprise, he found himself just fine with that.

 

The former deputy tugged the gate closed by reaching back, making sure to latch it behind him. It was best not to let the Walkers that might be attracted to the noises that they were likely about to make sneak up on them from behind them. Satisfied that their six was secured, Rick checked the revolver's fully loaded cylinder, snapped it closed with a spin, then nodded to Daryl. "You ready?"

 

"Yeah, let's go." Daryl said and set the bolt cutters against the concrete wall, out of sight. He pulled his crossbow off from around his torso and secured a bolt before holding it low and ready. It didn't take him much longer than a couple of seconds. He could feel Rick watching him with interest, and feeling a little shy, he tried to ignore the man's heated gaze. He could feel his cheeks warm as he darted his baby blues to Rick's and then away again.

 

They walked side by side, and for now Daryl did his best to pay attention to their surroundings. His Coyote made it difficult, the beast almost confusingly curious with the other male. On occasion, Daryl would notice himself slowly glancing over to the scruffy man, tracing over features he knew by heart. It was honestly hard to look elsewhere. "Think if we go straight, we'll hit the family home. Thas' how mosta these things're made anyway."

 

"Sounds about right," Rick agreed with a small nod. As they moved down the lane he made sure he kept the pistol at the ready. Walkers could literally come from anywhere. A lesson both he and Daryl had learned well over the last few years.

 

"We'll clear the main house first," Rick continued, keeping his voice low and trying - mostly in vain - to keep his attention on the world around them. The path as they followed it on its winding way through the plantation grounds was quiet and almost peaceful if not for the edge that they carried with them. Rick's Shepherd was having a hard time focusing on anything beyond the Coyote beside him and while it was frustrating, Rick really couldn't blame his other half for yearning for much more familiar contact with Daryl's Coyote. Rick was finding himself wanting some "more familiar" contact with Daryl as well. His Shepherd wanted to clean Daryl's Coyote's ears and neck ruff, to nip at his heels as they romped through the tall grass to either side of them. The man in him had more than once wondered what it would be like to taste the salty skin of Daryl's sweat slick throat or to tangle his fingers in the other man's longer hair and pull his head back for a kiss. Rick shook his head. He had to get himself back under control.

 

Daryl gave an affirmative grunt. As far as he could tell, the grounds were free of any people. A few small animals who found their home on the plantation scurried in the brush, and a little out in the grass he could see cows grazing, noticing them through the trees by their stark white and midnight black spotted hides. They looked feral in the way that animals once kept by man often do after being left to their own devices for too long, but they were alive. He touched Rick's arm, ignoring the way his fingers tingled where their skin touched and how his Coyote seemed to stir in eagerness like he really expected more to come from the simple contact.

 

"Look there. Think there could be more a' them around?" He felt the weight of his hunts lift with the hope of a steady food source again. His pack wouldn't go hungry ever again once these cows had been fattened up and made to breed.

 

The touch to his arm this time sent his Shepherd to its figurative feet his other half suddenly ignited with energy and focus in a way Rick had never felt before. It was familiar in that way that all instincts were, but this was his German Shepherd, an animal half that had been considered unusually docile even for a domestic breed back before the Turn. He stopped, floored by the suddenly overwhelming surge of focused energy from his inner beast who, at the start of all of this insanity, had willingly lain down in his conscious mind and allowed himself to be repressed for the good of their pup. It was so similar to the dominating Surge - a flood of energy in the release of certain combinations of body chemistry all alpha male therians felt when dealing with others under certain conditions - that Rick almost mistook it for a belated adverse reaction to Daryl's Coyote. Rick had rarely had to deal with that influx of hormones, mellow as he was, and so he very nearly missed the underlying burn of want beneath the rush of suddenly having his German Shepherd so immediately and wholly with him again. After nearly three years of repression and a resulting unpredictable instability, Rick felt renewed and whole again. He felt like the man he had been the day he had taken that bullet for the lack of appropriate intelligence from dispatch. He felt strong and balanced again. It was a relief in and of itself, though he felt a small, cold spot of dread in the pit of his stomach because now? Oh, it was going to be so much harder to keep his Shepherd hidden from the others.

 

From the moment he had lost control and ripped Joe's throat out, Rick had known he was fighting a losing battle. Unfortunately, it was made even tougher than any self-struggle he had ever dealt with in the past because this one was with his other self, who seemed to think that their family would be able to push aside even so horrible a thing as lying to them about whom they had chosen to lead them, instead of with his collective moral standing. It was certainly a first for him as he and his Shepherd had rarely had occasion to disagree.

 

It took some effort to look away from Daryl, especially this time with Daryl actually touching him and his Shepherd taking an intense interest in that touch, but Rick managed to turn his gaze from the therian who kept recapturing his attention over and over. The relief he felt upon seeing what Daryl was pointing out was staggering, drowning out those small tingles of 'desire to possess' and 'dread of discovery' that he'd been focused on just then.

 

Rick had been scanning the other side, leaving that one to Daryl's keen eyes. The sight of those cows...Rick reached out and caught Daryl's forearm locking them in a strange near-embrace that forced the other man to stop with him. A steady source of food and milk being an option on their sadly limited beverage menu. Rick could hardly believe his eyes.  To have the property with which to support that nutrient source was more than he had ever dared hope for and here Daryl had provided both. Even unknowingly as Daryl had been in the matter Rick felt the swell of pride in his...well, whatever Daryl was to him.

 

Daryl stared, the world around him clouding in until his main focus was on Rick and the sudden unrest of his Coyote when the simple touch evolved into a mutual hold. It was like a shock to his system, a sudden attraction that made Daryl aware of the very human man in front of him and how his Coyote heeled to Rick like he had once done to the Wolf in his brother. The sudden realization that his Coyote was so convinced he was facing another therian was like a kick to the gut, taking all his breath away in one go. He scanned Rick's face again like all his answers would be written into the age lines carved into his skin. The man who stared back at him was someone Daryl had no reason to doubt, and he stomped at his Coyote's advances a little angrily, blocking out his echoing whine. Idiot mutt.

 

"Let's go. They ain't goin' nowhere. Les' see that plantation house." He pulled himself out of Rick's hold, regretfully cutting the connection. At the very least, he had Rick's approval. He might not be a therian, but he was still his leader and there was some sort of pride in gaining that man's approval. He could live with just that. He could.

 

Rick felt the tall ears of his canine half sweep back unhappily as Daryl pulled away, but he nodded, falling easily into step with the other man. After a few moments, Rick's Shepherd settled down again, but unlike the past few years, his secondary self remained alert and focused. It felt like breathing fresh air after months of being immersed in fumes. He felt as though he could see clearer, hear better and focus more astutely than he had in far too long.

 

The lane was long and mostly empty with only the occasional cow or goat to break up the monotony of the oak tree lined road. Rounding a bend, they came upon a shorter stretch of lane that ended in a circular drive that wrapped itself around an overgrown fountain. As they made their way past, Rick sneezed, the disgusting smell of stagnant water assaulting his nose. Daryl's soft snort made him feel a little better about his adverse reaction to the stench. At least he wasn't alone in his dislike of the heavy scent of rotting vegetation and putrid water. The lane continued on the other side of the fountain, leading up to the pillared porch of the main house. It wasn't the largest plantation home Rick had ever seen, but it certainly fell short of being anything close to modest. Its white walls were painted with dust and dirt and the furniture on the porch had been blown around and broken, but the front door was shut and the windows in the front of the home at least were completely intact. Even the railing that encased the roof of the front porch to make a balcony for the second floor was whole.

 

Glancing over at his companion, Rick asked, "You wanna walk around the whole building, check out the rest of the windows and doors? It should give us a better assessment of the condition of the place."

 

Daryl cocked his head to the side, his lips curling into a playful smirk. "First dibs on the biggest room go to whoever takes down the most Walkers." The offer was a sound one because as they approached the building, Daryl could already hear the fumbling, dragging thumps of a heavy body mindlessly lurching around just beyond the door. It was a given that the plantation owners had been gone for a while. The plantation was showing obvious signs of neglect, enough for the vegetation to start trying to reclaim the space, but not long enough for the animals to have suffered much without them. It was impossible to think they'd be hiding inside and letting their crops and animals wilt away in their protected lot.

 

It wasn't as large as it seemed as he walked up the steps onto the porch. He could very easily pace it with a good twenty steps across. He kicked aside a tipped wicker chair to clear path towards the front door. At this distance he could hear the disturbed groaning from at least one Walker wandering around behind the curtained windows. He looked at Rick, felt his chest lighten at the prospect of a friendly match-hunt. In a way he knew it was insensitive to treat these bodies as targets for some sort of competition, but then he reminded himself that these weren't people, and when they were they probably would of had no problem treating Daryl like a dirty creature that needed to be caged, depending on what he could tell from their lavish living home.

 

"Ya gonna do me the honors of kickin' open the door, or shall I?" He had already slung his crossbow over his shoulder and pulled out his hunting knife, a weapon he found more helpful in tight spaces.

 

Seeing the challenge Daryl issued as the playful offer of friendly competition that it was, Rick snorted and stepped up onto the porch. The Colt slid into its holster, and Rick drew out his own hunting knife. Apparently Daryl was feeling feisty today, and instead of playing it safe and checking out the whole building first, he was opting to just rush in headlong. Honestly, Rick wasn't surprised in the least. He could sense as well as Daryl could that this place was hardly filled with threats.

 

"It would be my pleasure," he joked in return and his Shepherd lurched to his feet at the back of Rick's mind, eager for the hunt like he hadn't felt since before he'd been shot and comatose. The former deputy stepped up to the door with quick, purposeful steps, and with a good solid kick, sent the door slamming open on its hinges. Of course, the sound caught the attention of a Walker that had been shambling aimlessly from one of the rooms to the right of the foyer, and Rick surged forward to meet the Walker with a knife blade to the temple. His Shepherd thrilled with the adrenaline of the hunt and the kill, and Rick immediately zeroed in on the sounds of another Walker in one of the other rooms.

 

He could feel Daryl moving behind him, tight to his heels as they rounded the corner and came to the propped open doors of the house kitchen. Their sudden appearance stirred about ten of the undead to their feet, and Rick shot one quick glance to Daryl before simply charging the small herd. If Daryl wanted a competition, Rick suddenly felt inclined to give him one. It amazed him how alive he felt with his Shepherd more alert than he had been in far too long.

 

"That one was fuckin' mine!" Daryl growled, but he couldn't help himself from feeling impressed, and ashamedly enough, a bit aroused at how fiercely Rick took to the challenge. He honestly should have seen it coming, years later from the summer he took Rick out so he could learn a tip or two at hunting. The man's instincts were on point, and from his safe point close to the door, he got to see the play in Rick's form and the muscle in Rick's forearms contract under his skin with the swift kill. The body fell to the ground with a thump, but Daryl was too fascinated in the way Rick perked up to the sounds of rustling in another room. His Coyote was screaming 'brother' in his head, sensing therian coursing through Rick's blood. His Coyote was wrong, and he shook his head hoping to dislodge the Coyote's idea that Rick was therian Blood. 

 

"Hell n'aw! Ya'll stole my kill." He charged a second behind Rick, catching a walker by the back its neck as it crowded in around the human. One, two stabs into its eye and Daryl was tossing the body behind him like a ragdoll before backing up into Rick so that all angles were met. He could hear Rick take another down with a snarl, and Daryl matched him, quickly jamming his knife right under its chin until the blade disappeared deep into its head.

 

"Two. How many are you at?" He slashed one in the face, the dead beast turning with the force of his attack and splattering blood all over his shirt. He grimaced in disgust as tacky blood stuck to his skin. When Rick muttered over his shoulder he'd downed four, Daryl elbowed him playfully in the side. "Just wait, buddy."

 

He felt the presence behind him leave, but he trusted Rick to not get himself killed over a competition. His Coyote was forcing adrenaline through his veins, becoming more aware of what was behind him now that he was without Rick's support. Two ganged up on him, and Daryl flipped out, sharply pulling against the unimaginable strength of an uninhibited human body to keep the Walker's head back. With the fear that made the ache in his muscles and joints fade, he managed to slice through the thin, rubbery neck and shove the thing to the floor, its decapitated head clacking its teeth uselessly. The other, he slid the knife home into its thick skull with a sick squelch and threw the heavy body at the Walker that managed to get Rick pinned, both decomposing bodies tipping over onto their sides. He growled at an oncoming one. When it neared he stabbed it in the temple quick, and before Rick could get up, he pounced on the one still struggling underneath his past kill and disposed of it before Rick could catch his breath.

 

"How many was that?" Daryl teased his own breath heavy in his lungs.

 

Rick chuckled and reached up for some help getting to his feet. It had been a while since he had expended so much energy just in enjoying something, and Daryl could tell that while he was winded, he was still thrumming with energy and adrenaline. The former deputy wiped at his lips only to find that his sleeve was as smeared as his face. After a moment of staring at the mess he'd made of himself, he looked up and grinned. "I'd guess you probably won with that last one."

 

Daryl couldn't help but grin a little back.

 

It took them a few minutes to dispose of the bodies outside of the house so that the smell of their rotting flesh wouldn't stink up the place anymore.

 

"Hey. There's gotta be more," Daryl said, reminding Rick to keep his guard up. They still hadn't cleared the upper floor. Before he could let Rick dwell on it, he added, "Them things won't be gettin' any deader without help."

 

Rick nodded agreeably. "Yeah. Let's get a few windows open, let some of this smell out, then we'll head up."

 

Pleased by the agreement from his pack leader, Daryl remained that faithful shadow, keeping in the same room as Rick as they opened windows to let the stale air out. They'd have to come up with a way to get rid of the stench if they were all going to live here. Daryl would start helping Farmer Grimes plant flowers around the house if that was the only way to get rid of the foul, mortuary-esque odor. 

 

The furniture he left alone. The family who lived here seemed to like their things cleaned and preserved. The couches shone with a film of plastic, making it look uncomfortable to the Coyote therian. When he had time, Daryl was looking forward to cutting it off, even if it took him painstakingly long hours to do so. He wanted his pack comfortable in their new home. At the very least, it kept the couch clean from all the walker blood just spilled. He could almost imagine the way this living room had looked before the Turn. 

He started taking down pictures, turning them over so the faces of the family who lived here before weren't facing up. It always felt weird coming into someone's home for shelter, especially if said people were dead and outside as part of the pile they'd be burning later. He looked over at Rick who was in the process of taking down a large family portrait hanging between two windows. The man was covered in as much walker blood as himself, his face blank once the picture was brought down, turned and leant against the wall. Daryl tried to lighten the mood again.

 

"Hey. Was kiddin' 'bout the room. Think ya should have it. Ya know, fer you 'n Lil Asskicker." Daryl didn't need a big room to be comfortable. He only had so many things in his possession. Rick had his baby girl and they'd be filling the room with anything and everything that they could find to accommodate Lil Asskicker. If anyone should take the master bedroom, it should be the other man and his daughter.

 

Daryl's voice snapped him back from contemplating the last hour of their time together. To hear that slight note of concern brought a small frown to Rick's face. It had been rejuvenating for both him and his Shepherd to let loose like that, and once again he had Daryl to thank for support unasked for. Rick turned his frown into a soft smile and glanced over at the other man from where he had been staring out into the back yard through the window he'd just opened in the family room. Hoping his expression and words would convey both his gratitude and contentment, he murmured, "Thank you, Daryl. For earlier. I needed that. And for the master bedroom. Judith will appreciate it when there's enough room for her to have a real crib again."

 

Rick had learned early on not to refuse gifts from the Coyote and his human half. It wasn't so much that it made the other man angry, though that was the emotion Daryl seemed to default to when his feelings were hurt. It hadn't taken a psychology degree to understand that rejecting an offering from Daryl was the same as rejecting the man himself as far as Daryl was concerned. Turning completely away from the window Rick reached out and patted Daryl's shoulder, giving it a squeeze after two. "Let's get the upstairs cleared, then go check the other buildings. Make sure we don't have another Greene Barn on our hands. Then we can head back and get the others. No sense waiting to move it when this would be the more secure of the two locations."

 

At Daryl's affirmative nod, Rick let his hand slide from Daryl's shoulder as he made his way to the main stair in the foyer. They had some exploring to do yet, but it was only midday. He felt confident that they would have the whole of the small plantation cleared and their family moved in before nightfall.

 

An uncommon warmth crept into Daryl's cheeks at the obvious gratitude on Rick's face and in his words. His Coyote sent him waves of pride equally as pleased with their success. This was Daryl fulfilling his role and providing for his pack. Rick had recognized the provision for what it was and graciously taken what Daryl had offered, cementing Daryl's place in the pack even further. Honestly, he was in too much of a good mood now to want to stay inside, and his Coyote seemed to share that sentiment heartily, whining at the back of his mind. His Coyote wanted to make the transformation so he too could enjoy the human's company and maybe run the grounds. Daryl shushed him a little selfishly, wanting to spend as much time as he could with his leader.

 

Their luck was holding strong, Rick found when they cleared the upstairs without seeing another Walker. When he'd heard no sounds after all the fuss from their little competition on the first floor he'd been suspicious that the Walkers they had already disposed of were all the Walkers they were going to find in the house. He was very glad to see that suspicion confirmed. With both of them eager to see the rest of the property, Rick led the way down the stairs again and straight out the back door with Daryl just a step behind him.

 

The place seemed like a dream come true. It might have been Daryl's state of mind, but the plantation was looking brighter, the trees and grass greener, the sky above bluer from where it peaked out through the scattered clouds. Daryl could see them clearing out their new home that day and for once in a long time, he felt the giddiness that came with the excitement of bringing home something to show his pack. It was like bringing back his first buck when they had all grown so hungry during the winter and the faces of his human family had lit with such gratitude. He'd never been so greedy for people's acceptance before. Daryl had spent most of his life thinking about himself first in order to survive, having lived too long in Merle's shadow. It was that mentality, in the end, that had taken his brother. Smiling at his own progress, he tucked away his brother's memory. 


Together, Rick and Daryl continued down the paved road eventually approaching a collection of trees baring fruit. Daryl grinned, eyes half mooned at the prospect of a simple snack. "Apples, man. Think they're any good?"

 

Daryl really wanted one, the red on them looking healthy and ripe. He wasn't going to leave Rick's side though, especially when they had more important things to do. He could already see the blue eggshell painted barn, and he knew Rick would be wanting to finish up as quick as possible so they could return to the pack.

 

A quick glance at Daryl's eager face was all the encouragement Rick really needed. Certainly it was important to get their family into the plantation before dark, but stopping for a quick bite to eat was actually a very wise decision. They'd had no provisions to bring with them, and Rick had slipped his share of breakfast onto Carl's plate before the boy had come to collect it. Maggie had caught him, but only managed to glare before Daryl had come to get him for their run. In all honesty, Rick was hungry enough that even with as small and wild-looking as the slightly misshapen little apples were, their bright red skins promised a very pleasurably sweet little meal.

 

"I don't know about you," Rick murmured and cast Daryl a sly, playful look. "But I'm starving. Last one there's a rotten egg!"

 

His Shepherd lurched back towards the front of Rick's mind again as the former deputy launched himself into an all-out run for the rows of fruit trees. He was feeling pretty good about things today what with the prospect of true sanctuary at hand. A little horsing around was good for the soul, and Daryl was definitely in similar spirits. Rick couldn't imagine wasting such a rare opportunity, and he was delighted to hear Daryl curse and dash after him. They were pretty evenly matched, but Rick had easily gotten a head start. Rick laughed breathlessly as his palm smacked into the rough bark of the nearest apply tree before Daryl had quite caught up.

 

"You- ya cheated!" Daryl yelled after Rick, but his words held no heat and a smile was plastered all over his face. He was too stunned to charge when it was called for, a few too many steps behind the other to catch up. He hit the tree half a second after Rick, hand slapping against the bark before using that same hand to slap the man over the shoulder. "Last time ya get a hand over me, ya hear?" he panted, and slung the crossbow to the ground so that he could fall backward against the trunk, letting his head thunk against the bark. The strap remained tangled in limp fingers. Looking up overhead, he could see the apples staring down at him. He was going to get one once he felt like his lungs weren't going to come up out of his mouth.

 

Rick chuckled and turned, falling back against the tree himself. As he caught his breath his hooked one thumb into his belt loop and settled his palm over the grip of the Colt then looked up in a mirror of Daryl's own pose. "We'll see," he huffed, still chuckling. Knowing they only had so much time to spare, he pushed away from the tree after only a moment's pause and reached up, grabbing a branch well above his head. Still a little breathless, he asked, "Gimme a boost? I'll drop some down for us."

 

Interested eyes dragged down Rick's form before they snapped back up with the realization of what he was doing. Daryl brought a hand up, scratching at his cheek to hide a faint flush as he dropped the crossbow strap and stepped up to the other man. He could feel his Coyote's amusement, and outwardly he huffed through his nose. He had hoped Rick wouldn't notice, but if he did, he was glad the other man didn't say anything or thought nothing of it. "Yeah, yeah." He grumbled and did for Rick what he had done for him at the gate, getting on one knee in front of his leader with his hands folded palm up to for makeshift step. "Get me that nice juicy one to the left, would'ja? Had my eye on that 'un since we got here."

 

"Sure thang," Rick murmured and glanced down so he could carefully step into the clasp of Daryl's hands. It briefly crossed his mind to wonder at the faint pink stains splashed over Daryl's cheeks, but rather than make the man stay down on one knee longer than necessary, Rick dutifully turned his attention to picking apples. With the little bit of added height it was nothing for Rick to grab and yank apples free in quick, efficient tugs, bringing down five for each of them, including the one Daryl had requested. If it had been anyone else, Rick would have selected only a few apples a piece, which would have appeased a normal human's appetite and allowed him to blend in. Therians, however, needed more calories than humans, especially if they spent a lot of time shifting between their shapes. Right now, both of them could use the extra energy, and Rick just hoped that Daryl didn't think too hard on Rick's suddenly greater hunger. Satisfied that he'd picked enough, Rick stepped back out of Daryl's hands and released the branch he'd been using to steady himself.

 

Daryl grinned and, once Rick had stepped down, righted himself and snatched a couple from Rick's arms. He shined the one he asked for on a clean peace of his shirt before biting into it with a groan at the sudden assault of its sweet taste on his taste buds. In no way had fruits ever been really filling for him, but he was grateful that Rick had brought down so many. Sadly, he had nothing to carry them in and he'd hate for Rick to carry them all on their walk. They didn't have much time to spare, but between them both, and considering his own appetite, he knew it would take them five minutes tops to get through half of the apples. He was already finishing on his one when he looked up and noticed Rick was right there with him, munching around the apple's core.

 

His therian was telling him to thank the alpha, and again he found himself suddenly shoving down his seemingly very confused Coyote. He sat down on his haunches, leaning against the tree for balance and eyeing Rick from this angle as he started on his second. Patting the place next to him he muttered, "Take a sit, partner. Those apples ain't gonna run away."

 

Daryl smirked at the wide-eyed look Rick gave him, the other man's cheeks full of apple as he paused mid-chew. The smirk turned into a full blown smile, one that he hid by turning his head away and pressing his mouth into his shirt.

 

Satisfied that he had wiped the apple juice under his lower lip on his shirt, Rick turned and dropped to his heels before rocking back. His butt hit the ground and Rick let his legs stretch out in front of him until he was leaning comfortably back against the tree with his last three apples in his lap and his second apple in his hand. He set the core from his first apple to the side by the tree's trunk.

 

"I used to avoid apples," Rick murmured and tipped over a bit to bump Daryl's shoulder with his own, the gesture friendly and social, but instead of leaning back into a more upright position he settled still leaning against Daryl just a little. "But I gotta say this is the best damn thang I've eaten in a dog's age."

 

Amusement poured from Rick's Shepherd at the human turn of phrase and Rick couldn't push the grin from his face as he took the last bite of his second apple. Laying the core next to his first one, he immediately went after his third.

 

Daryl kept his eyes on his apple, unable to really look at Rick as they sat shoulder to shoulder. There was a certain amount of contentment moving through him, but at the same time, he felt a little bit of nervousness that was making his stomach do backflips. He took another bite into his apple, eyes drifting off to the side as he chewed, and tried to come up with something of his own to share. He scanned his memories for anything that wouldn't come out sounding silly, nearly coming up with nothing until, "Never really got ta eat fruits growin' up. They're a bit expensive. Hunted most of what we ate, so what we ate was meat and maybe some vegetables here and there."

 

Daryl stared at the white flesh of the apple, thumb pressing into the yielding flesh until its juice wet his thumb. He sighed, and licked it off, "Not 'til a few months before... all this. Merle was finally bringin' home some real money." He finally met Rick's eyes, eyebrow cocked and daring him to ask about it even though he was sure Rick could already guess. His brother was dead anyway, and no one would care now about the job Merle had had on the side.

 

He finished up his apple, still chewing as he threw the core across the road. He felt a sudden unrest, something he did his best to ignore and settled down into a comfortable position against Rick's side. The contact seemed enough to calm him. "Think if we're here long 'nuff, could get the kids out during the warmer months. Pick some apples, maybe find the things we need to make some pie. Asskicker should get to know the wonders of pie. She is one lucky post-apocalyptic baby." He couldn't help grinning, and when he looked at Rick to see him still staring at him, he dropped his eyes feeling as if it was himself who had just been caught staring.

 

Crunching happily on a particularly crisp apple, Rick nodded. "She is," he agreed and wiped at the juices running down into the beard on his chin. "Maybe, if we're lucky, we can round up some chickens. For meat an' eggs. Clearly, we have cows now. I'm curious to see what else might still be here and of use."

 

In his mind's eye, Rick was already contemplating a new garden and various uses for the multiple buildings they could just see peeking through the overgrown underbrush just beyond the fruit trees. Glancing up into the boughs above them, Rick swallowed his last bite on his current apple and reached over to drop the core with the others beside the trunk. "Hell, we trim these trees after we harvest all we can from 'em an' we'll be sittin' pretty on all kinds of fruit for eatin' next year. Maybe even cannin' if we can find the supplies."

 

The words Rick was saying weren't really even processing. Looking at the fruit still left in his own lap, Daryl noticed from the corner of his eye as Rick picked up yet another apple. He was eating faster than Daryl was, and really any human consuming that many apples should have gotten at least a little sick by now. It was just Daryl's therian appetite that allowed him to eat as much as he could in a short amount of time. Necessity required him to consume more calories to keep up his energy and eating large quantities quickly allowed him to store up when times were rough. Right now, Rick was eating twice as fast as a growing teenager. Just as Rick was bringing the apple to his mouth for another bite, Daryl reached over and placed his hand over the flat, perfect skin of the fruit.

 

"Yer eatin' fer two, or what?" His eyebrows scrunched up, perplexed by the other's sudden hunger. The other man had never shown such a healthy appetite before, just eating enough to get by if he could get away with it. He was just as bad as Daryl was at pushing their food towards the others. He didn't dare take away Rick's food, but he held onto it, afraid the other man would start to feel nauseous.

 

Rick swallowed the bite he had in his mouth and licked his lips, eyes trained hard on the hand covering his food. His Shepherd's presence half sat up, equally focused on Daryl's intrusion into their eating time. Rick swallowed again, this time to prevent the growl that tickled at his diaphragm. After a moment, he lowered his hand and the fruit and Daryl's hand with it to his thigh. "I musta worked up a helluvan appetite back at the house. Thank you, Daryl," Rick murmured, doing his best to play it cool. "I don't need t'be throwin' up on the way back to get everyone. I don't know what I was thinkin'."

 

It would be one of the worst things in the world for Daryl to discover the truth right then. Rick silently cursed his own careless stupidity, his German Shepherd whining deep in his mind and expressing how equally concerned he was over the possible outcome of Daryl finally knowing of him. They needed to clear the plantation, settle in, start living again instead of simply surviving. Then eventually, Rick had decided, he would tell Daryl. He would tell Daryl and get the two of them through the inevitable feelings of betrayal and mistrust. Then perhaps, if he had Daryl beside him again, he would tell the others. They would probably all find out eventually anyway because Carl would soon reach the age where his body would decide whether he would take more after his mother or his sire, and if he ended up taking after Rick more …Rick would need Daryl with him rather than against him when that happened. It wouldn't be easy on the boy, and Rick fully intended to devote nearly the entirety of his attention to Carl during such a trying time. He would need Daryl to help with running their family and – if their human family members weren't aware of Rick's true nature by then – to help with damage control should Carl make his first change in any fashion similar to Rick's first shift. The memory of the horrified looks on his classmates' faces as he'd lost his human form for the first time would haunt Rick to his dying day. Thankfully, Lori had been one of the blessedly understanding humans in Rick's grade. It had probably helped that Rick's German Shepherd hadn't acquired anything even remotely akin to grace until Rick had hit his sophomore year of college. Lori had loved all of him from day one, accepting each change and adaption in Rick's therian life as it came. He would need to be that calm at the eye of the storm for Carl, and to do that would take nearly all of Rick's focus.

 

Daryl pulling his hand away from the apple in Rick's grip jerked his wayward attention back to the present. Worrying about the future didn't fix now. Hopefully, Daryl would take the bait just a few more times. Hopefully, Rick's current luck would hold.

 

The Coyote therian nodded slowly and watched Rick carefully. There was this heaviness that hung in the air, present in the way Rick had tensed up and stole himself away. Daryl took his hand back then placed it down on Rick's knee non-threateningly. He hoped that he had not upset his comrade in any way and knew that sometimes the quietest of connections was enough to create a sense of much needed peace. Even with his beast silenced, the back of Daryl's mind still echoed with its accusations of, Therian brother. Daryl's brow scrunched up, wondering if his own therian was slowly worming its way back to the fore and fiddling with his judgment. Rick had yet to give Daryl a reason to doubt him and had no reason to lie to him. Daryl raised his head before dipping his chin in a short nod to let Rick know he had heard. "By all means, finish it up. Don't go wastin' food jus' 'cuz it looks like we got an endless supply of it."

 

The hunter tossed over another crooked grin, the expression feeling forced but needed. He squeezed Rick's knee a little awkwardly and finished up his apple, his appetite suppressed with his thoughts for now.

 

Relief flooded Rick when Daryl remained calm and even went so far as to reassure Rick that everything was okay with a firm hand laid comfortingly on his knee. Rick's German Shepherd let out a resigned huff that was like a tingle of disappointment at the back of Rick's skull and settled back into his usual shadowy corner at the back of Rick's mind. Even settling back like that his animal's presence remained there and alert and strong.

 

This time the smile Rick turned on the other man was more genuine, and Rick settled a hand over the one on his knee, giving it a squeeze in gratitude. "Let's get a move on," he said, dropping the partially finished apple on top of the four other cores beside him by the trunk. There were enough cows loose that he doubted it would remain there for long after he and Daryl walked away. "The sooner we get this place cleared, the sooner we can get the family secured."

 

Daryl got to his feet and reached a hand out to help Rick get up. The effort it took to get the other man to stand made him grunt, tipping back to pull both their weights straight. When Rick was standing, he patted his back. "I hear ya. Think they'd be happy to finally get a bed ta themselves."

 

He shifted his crossbow, pulling it so the strap didn't bite into his shoulder so much before getting right on track to the barn Rick close on his heels. Daryl was more than willing to finish this up and head back.

 

 

TBC…

Chapter Text

They were heading up to the plantation in two vans that they had managed to hotwire thankfully without setting off alarms. Daryl was starting to feel a little nervous, shifting in the passenger's seat next to Rick. If he looked in the rear view mirror, he could see Carl chatting excitedly with Michonne, and even further back on the bench seat Carol shushed Lil Asskicker. They all wore the same happy, excited expressions. In the other vehicle, Glenn and Maggie were transporting all of the supplies – food, toiletries, tools, blankets and clothing – that they had gathered from the surrounding homes while Rick and Daryl had been clearing the plantation. As everyone's hopes grew and their excitement escalated, so did Daryl's anxiety. Right now he could do with a cigarette, but since he was without, he was chewing on a hang nail and letting his Coyote send him reassurance through their link.

 

Yesterday his Coyote had been almost too much to handle. It was the first time in a long time that he'd been alone with Rick for longer than a few hours, and it seemed with every minute that had ticked by, his animal half had become more and more restless with a need to be acknowledged. His Coyote had always been a loud presence in his mind, one that he welcomed more often than not when the others couldn't be bothered to talk to him. Yesterday, feeling and hearing his Coyote’s demands had nearly sent him over the edge. His skin had itched with all of his Coyote's urges – to shift, to run, to play and to fuck – even after they had gotten home. It had taken everything in his power to stop himself from stripping down and letting the transformation take place.

 

It was even odder that his Coyote recognized Rick for something he most certainly was not. The man was his leader, and Daryl would follow him anywhere. His very human side had bonded with Rick more closely than he ever had with anyone else in his life, but his canine self should not have felt the same way. With Merle's death, his therian should have considered himself an Alpha and he should of fought to lead the pack like Merle had tried and tried, but failed. Instead, his Coyote was satisfied leaving it all up to Rick, a satisfaction they both shared. Yet he still couldn't help but feel like his beast might be a little confused. Again, he sent the words idiot mutt through the link he shared with his wilder side only to have the same thrown back at him by his Coyote, but with a touch of annoyance.

 

The gate was just coming into view as they got to the top of the gradual incline of the road and the feeling of pride filled his chest. It needed some work, the gates could be cleaned up from all the foliage, sections of the wall looked like it could use some patchwork. It wan't perfect, but they didn't need perfect. It was enough to know that his pack was excited to finally reach their new home after what felt like months out in the wilderness.

 

“Is that it? Dad? That's where y'all were?” Carl looked at both at Rick and Daryl, patting the Dixon on the shoulder when he didn't pay Carl his immediate attention. When Carl had both of them focused on him, he asked, “I'll get my own room, won't I? This is going to be so sweet!”

 

Daryl shook his head fondly, and then ducked it to look at Rick, waiting for his answer. There were enough rooms for each of them to grab their own, so he already knew what the other man was going to say.

 

"Course," Rick said with soft fondness. "This is probably the largest home we've stayed in. I'm sure there are enough rooms for each of us t' have one of our own with quite a few left over."

 

Rick's expression darkened, and he turned his attention back to the road, braking as they rolled up to the double gates. It wasn't hard to guess that he was thinking of how large the prison had been in comparison. He knew that all of his people could read memories of the prison in the way his mouth thinned and his brows drew together. Maggie had said just a few days ago that he wore his mind alongside his heart on his sleeve sometimes. The woman in question jogged past him, breaking Rick from his thoughts as she got the gates open. Rick noted she already had their new padlocks in hand and a length of thick tow chain draped over her shoulder. They had all agreed that they should make it more difficult for other survivors to break in, at least in the same fashion that they had.

 

Maggie waved them on through and Rick lightly laid his boot to the accelerator. Glenn trailed right along behind them, stopping once Rick stopped inside the wall. Maggie was quick in locking up the gates, and in no time she was back inside the second van with Glenn. Satisfied that everyone was safe and accounted for, Rick started the van back up the lane.

 

"Hey, man, come off it." Daryl nudged Rick from across Carl. Rick glanced his way, seeming to come out of his funk,smirked, then rather playfully shoved the kid back into his seat. Daryl smirked in return and quietly barked at Carl to put his seatbelt on, listening fondly as Carl did so with a few mean words under his breath. Daryl swore the younger Grimes had to have learned that habit from himself. Rick was never one to mutter his thoughts, who much preferred to let them brew in his head, much like what he was doing now. Daryl could only imagine what the other man could be thinking that would make his calm eyes harden like they did.

 

They rolled up on the plantation house, and Daryl grinned proudly at the positive exclamations of the others. Before he and Rick had returned to their base to collect their family, they had gotten rid of the bodies, burning them behind the building and burying anything that was charred to ash by the flames. The others never had to know what Rick and Daryl had had to do to claim the house, although they could surely guess.

 

"S'all ours," Daryl said and looked back to meet the eyes of his pack. He especially noticed Carol nodding with a small apologetic smile as she held up Judith so she stood up in her lap. Daryl returned the gesture.

 

"It's perfect, Daryl," Carol said to him then. Carl got out of the van once they had come to a complete stop. Michonne was hot on his tail, ever the protective shadow. Daryl looked beside him again, looking at Rick for the right answer, but the man was looking at him with a fond expression and the dark cloud that hung over his head seemed to be gone.

 

Knowing he should say at least something, and seeing no help coming from Rick, he shyly muttered, "S'not all my doing." He figured she was only making it up to him, after being so against Daryl returning to the plantation with one of their own to check it out. He wanted to say how she had every right to voice her worries, but those words remained stuck behind his teeth. He said, “Michonne and Rick... they've done much more.”

 

Carol immediately shook her head, closing her eyes like she was so done with him. "Just take the compliment, Daryl.” She muttered soberly, and when she opened her eyes again, she made sure both the men understood she was grateful for their work. “Looks like we can finally settle down.”

 

"We can start again." Rick agreed with her and popped open the driver's door to step out. He couldn't help but take pity on poor Daryl's obvious discomfort under Carol's praise. Glenn was pulling the other van up to the porch. Rick made his way toward the house, his own words ringing hollowly in his ears. If everyone had been willing to do everything necessary to protect this family, then why was Rick still hiding behind the weak veil of human flesh?

 

Rick's steps faltered. It had been literal decades since his Shepherd's thoughts had been that invasive, practically usurping Rick's civilized consciousness and mingling baser instincts and opinions with Rick's humanity. His Shepherd gave him the impression that he was very much ready to be let loose again, the presence of his animal-half laden with the desire to stretch ground-eating legs in a good long run, the need to rub himself all over Daryl's Coyote and the yearning for full acceptance because like this? They were always going to be holding back. They were always only going to be an ill-fitting piece in the puzzle of their hodge-podge family.

 

"Rick?" Maggie's voice broke him out of his thoughts, her tone hesitant and her expression pinched with concern. "You alright?"

 

Running a hand through wavy locks, Rick nodded, the motion as stiff as his steps were jerky when he forced himself to resume his walk up to Glenn, Maggie and the van’s load of supplies.

 

"Yeah. I'm just a little tired," he explained, hoping that the lovebirds would be too interested in the prospect of retiring to a bedroom all their own for the first time in far too long to really want to pry into Rick's suddenly uncomfortable demeanor. "We'll get everythang into the house, put it all in the billiard room. We can tidy up and find a place for everythang in the mornin'."

 

"If you're sure," Maggie mumbled, pretty green eyes still searching Rick's face as he neared them.

 

Rick gave them both a genuinely tired smile, ignoring his Shepherd's grumblings that the family really wouldn't take to the news all that poorly. He just…couldn't risk it. Not yet. "I'm more than fine. Let's get settled for the night."

 

Daryl stepped out of the car, looking at the little exchange with a little interest. "Don't'chu an' yer husband got someplace ta be?" It was hard not to tease them relentlessly, and he snickered to himself as he opened Carol's door to help her and Judith out. He held his arms open, almost natural for him now to hold Rick's child in his arms, attention on the pack's little girl as Carol stepped out. He heard the door close behind him and, making sure it was okay for him to take Judith with him, he stepped up next to Rick.

 

"Let's move. Think ya earned yerself the master bedroom, didn' ya? Let's get you and Lil' Asskicker inside."

 

Daryl cradled the small body up higher on his chest, letting her arms curl around his shoulders as he held her upright and under his chin so his other hand had more freedom. He accepted the backpack with Judith's things and took it over his shoulder before supporting her weight again with both hands.

 

"You watch her head, Dixon." Carol said and wound her arm around Maggie's, tugging her along with Glenn inevitably following behind. She decided they'll take the job of taking the bare necessities inside while Daryl and Rick took first dibs of their find.

 

Daryl huffed at her and stepped close enough to Grimes that his skin prickled from the proximity. "Yeah, yeah," he muttered with a crooked grin. Judith cooed at the sound of Daryl's voice, snorting lightly as she grabbed for the hairs on his chin. He felt his face flush hotly the longer he held Rick's attention. "Come on, man. Faster I get ya settled, the sooner I get to find my own room." His skin was itching fiercely for the change, his Coyote practically hungry for a hunt. It looked like his beast wanted to bring home a celebratory meal, something Daryl could easily get behind. Just as they approached the front door, he threw over to Rick, "Think we could get a hunt in real quick? Feed the pack good tonight." Daryl wasn't sure if he meant it to be an invitation, but it kind of came out that way.

 

Rick felt his Shepherd's presence quiver hard in anticipation at the very thought of running a hunt alongside Daryl's Coyote. The other man's body language screamed for the change, and Rick fought hard to keep his posture straight and loose and his gait smooth and even as they passed through the open front door and the foyer in long, swaggering strides. They passed under the classy spiral staircase that lead to the second floor and right into the living room. Carl instantly popped out of the master bedroom and fixed his father with an almost secretive look. Before Rick had even had a moment to respond, his boy was looking him dead in the eyes and saying, "Yeah, Dad. Go out on a hunt with Daryl. It would be good for you!"

 

Caught off his guard, Rick could only freeze and stare at Carl as the boy looked innocently from one to the other before turning away and heading off to the staircase. After a long awkward moment, Rick cleared his throat and looked over at the redneck beside him. "So uhm…what kind of hunt did you have in mind?"

 

Daryl watched the kid scatter off, his face open with his bewilderment. He sent that same look Rick's way, rounding widened eyes and mouth opening around a now lost answer. He scoured his brain for something to say, amusement sent from his Coyote coursing through him that made him flustered enough to look away and over the top of Judith's wispy head.

 

"Was thinkin'. We could put Judith ta bed. It'd be easy after the long day." Daryl was stalling, and he knew it was silly to be afraid of Rick's answer. He shook his head, dislodging any of those crazy thoughts that it would be now in a simple situation like this one that Rick would turn his back on him. He looked up at Rick, finally asking for his permission, "I needa let 'im out. The damn mutt's drivin' me crazy.... Ya couldn't un'nerstand, but -"

 

"Daryl." Cutting Daryl off, Rick's voice was tight, and he stepped quickly around to face the other therian squarely. Reaching out, Rick clasped Daryl's shoulder tightly over the muscle that joined the sloping joint to the hunter's neck, giving him an emphatic squeeze. "You don't ever have ta ask. Not for that."

 

Bright blue eyes skimmed over the redneck's face, hating that Daryl wouldn't meet his gaze while he took note of the little bit of shame and sadness hiding in the weathered lines of the other man's attempt at a mostly neutral expression. Sadly, it also relieved him because Rick was absolutely certain that in that moment, his Shepherd was peering out from within harder than Rick's human self was. For a second Rick chewed his lower lip. The Shepherd in him whined, sympathetic to Daryl's plight in ways that went beyond comprehension. After all, Rick's German Shepherd hadn't been out in almost three years. The dog in him, ever loyal to their family and its own flesh and blood, was willingly tolerating the suppression, but they couldn't go on like this forever. Half the reason he'd lost his mind so completely after Lori's death had been the struggle to keep his inner canine contained while they both mourned the loss of their companion. At this point Daryl probably hadn't shifted in a good number of months, now that Rick thought about it. Swallowing hard, Rick added in a hoarse voice, "Any time you need to, just…do it. No one here will judge you. It's part of who you are and we… well, you've more than proven that you only have this family's best interests at heart. Food's not a concern now. Or at least it won't be for much longer. Just…just be you, Daryl."

 

The hand on Daryl's shoulder gave one last good squeeze and then Rick reached for Judith and her bag. Luckily it wasn't in Daryl to try to deny Rick taking his daughter or her things no matter what thoughts or emotions were coursing through his mind.

 

"Go put your clothes in a backpack and shift. I'll meet you on the porch after she's down. Can ya ask Maggie or Glenn to bring me the play pen for her on your way out?"

 

Daryl sighed in relief. "Yeah... I'll see ya there."

 

The release of that sense of tightness had his Coyote perking right up with renewed energy. The permission that Rick was extending, the almost order in the way Rick had told him to shift as often as he needed to, seemed to have popped the bubble of frustration and worry that had been growing inside his chest over the last few months. It made his skin thrum and flush from the heat of an upcoming turn, his emotions melding a little more closely with his Coyote's own presence of mind until all he felt was gratefulness and excitement. He wanted to come right out and thank Rick, but words seemed so cheap. In an uncharacteristic show of gratitude, one that he would forever blame on his Coyote's urges, Daryl invaded Rick's space as the other man reached for his daughter, passing Judith with all the care he could possibly muster, but not before hooking his chin over Rick's shoulder. Judith giggled as she was pressed snugly between them, her joy radiating out to mingle with Daryl's own. He felt the rest of his muscles and his Coyote relax into the nonrestrictive embrace, completely unperturbed that he had been the one to initiate it. It was quick, over just as soon as he was sure Rick had a safe grip on his little girl, and Daryl pulled back, leaving the room before Rick could say one word to him.

 

His face felt a little bit hot from the lack of restraint on his part. Daryl was always very aware of how his emotions ran, but they were a jumbled mess when it came to this one man. These days, because of Rick, it often took a lot of sorting out with Daryl pushing most of his emotions to the back of his mind and allowing himself to focus on very few of them at one time just so that he didn't feel so unbalanced around the others. It made him less vulnerable to the urges of his Coyote that way. As often as the canine resided in the basest level of his mind while he remained in his human form, his Coyote could still take charge if Daryl left his guard down for too long. Daryl had just reached the front door, so caught up in attempting to keep his canine self in check by massaging his own temples that he didn't notice Glenn walking in. They would have collided if not for Glenn's infamous quickness.

 

"Hey, D. You alright?" Glenn asked and sat down the two backpacks of clothes at the front door. He took in the man's fingers as they pressed in circular motions against both temples and Daryl's closed eyes and frowned. "Got a headache or somethin'? I got some Tylenol for that."

 

"It ain't that," Daryl grumbled and shook his head at the offer. His Coyote had subsided at the other's appearance, something Daryl found he was glad for. "Hey, I think Rick needs ya to put the play pen in the master bedroom. Can ya do that?"

 

"Can I?" Glenn repeated with a wide smile, "Man, whatever you want for the rest of the day. This place is amazing, Daryl. Thank-"

 

"Don't." Daryl cut him off right there and managed a crooked smile. "Jus' doin' my duty to the pack. Shower yer gratitude on Rick and Michonne, er somethin'. Leave me outta it."

 

Glenn laughed and came right up to him, clapping his hand on Daryl's shoulder. "Fine. You said play pen in the master bedroom?"

 

"Or wherever Rick needs it," Daryl muttered and pulled away. He looked up at Glenn, nervousness flooding him as he shifted from foot to foot. "Look, man. I'm gonna change in a few minutes. Tell the others."

 

Glenn was silent for a good while, and Daryl found himself nervously chewing on his lip and scraping his nails into his palms at his sides. He could see the unease filter through the Korean's eyes, so he dropped his gaze. It wasn't the kid's fault that he was afraid of therians. Growing up, most humans were told by the general public that therians were some sort of deformity of mankind and there was an almost intentional lack of understanding of the fact that therians had full control of themselves at all times no matter what shape they were in that fed that fear. Wanting to ease Glenn's sudden discomfort, Daryl took a step back.

 

"Y'best not wander tonight if ya don't want ta see-"

 

"S'not... Christ, Daryl. Sorry." Glenn quickly cut him off and shook his head, his thin lips pressed tight together. "It's not you. Just... you know I saw Merle turn, right? In Woodbury?" At Daryl's nod, he continued, "Threatened to 'sick his Wolf on me'. His exact words, okay. Said he'd eat Maggie alive in front of me, too. And I can't..." Glenn paused, flustered as he tried to come up with the right way to say what he was feeling. "I just can't put myself around that yet. It isn't you."

 

"I un'nerstand."

 

"Daryl..."

 

"Go help Rick, would'ja, kid?" Daryl patted Glenn's back. "Keep off the damn porch for the next fifteen, twenty minutes."

 

He left Glenn hanging, taking up his half-full duffle bag on his way out. The Asian man had been nice enough to bring it in with the others, so he didn't have to walk back to the vans and look for it. Instead, he stepped off the porch and made his way out to the stand of trees that still lined the lane even this close to the house. He was a good ways out, putting a layer of trees between himself and the house, before he started to strip. The cool air on his skin felt good, if a bit closer to chilly than he would have liked, and the ground underneath his knees was solid and welcoming. He calmed himself with even breaths as he shoved his clothes and boots into the duffle. His Coyote was practically begging for the change now.

 

"Shit, ya fuckin' dog. Learn some goddamn patience," he growled out loud and zipped up the bag before leaning back on his haunches. Mentally he braced himself for the Shift and steadied himself through the heat that built from the center of his chest. A heat that started moving outward until the tips of his fingers and toes tingled with tiny pinpricks. The humans always seemed to think the change was painful, but in fact it was very swift and fluid. In under a minute, he had completely shifted shape, and Daryl found himself seeing through hisCoyote's eyes. Daryl allowed himself to take the backseat, resting in the warmth of their shared mind as he let the Coyote loose. He felt amusement at the inner dialogue of the canine, a language between human and animal that was an unexplainable form of communication in their animal shift. The canine body was definitely more flexible, stretching forward and extending both back legs in turn, then bowing down rump up. It used muscles that hadn't been flexed in months, the rush of a good stretch spurring the Coyote to drop and roll around with a quiet, puppy-ish barkjust to feel the scratch of leaves and dirt underneath all the brown fur.

 

When the Coyote was satisfied, Daryl sent them back to the house, the pair of them working at a comforting level of unity. There was no one outside when he reached the house, so he went up the steps and sat to wait on the porch for Rick's companionship.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Daryl had tucked tail and ran. Rick stood staring after the redneck therian's retreating back, stunned by the sudden display of open affection from the other man. A display that had clearly embarrassed Daryl enough for the other man to flee before Rick could say another word on the matter. Rick's Shepherd squirmed in the back of his mind, yearning to chase the Coyote down and comfort him. Judith giggled brightly and kicked around in his arms, yanking Rick's attention back to her. A sudden yawn seemed to startle the little girl, and Rick couldn't help but smile as she rubbed her eyes with chubby fists.

 

"He'll come around…eventually," he murmured to her, not entirely certain of his own meaning or of the truth in his words. Daryl was as likely to start throwing around random, expressive displays of affection as he was to take well to the all too inevitable revelation of Rick's secrets and lies. Judith snuggled into his shoulder, clearly exhausted by the excitement of the day, and Rick spun slowly on his heel. Taking them into the bedroom that they would be sharing for the foreseeable future, he shifted into autopilot and tossed the diaper bag onto the bed. With care, he laid Judith back on the bed and in no time he had her diaper changed and swaddled her in a pair of footed pajamas. He was just picking her back up when Glenn came in with the play pen.

 

"Daryl said you needed this and wanted it in here?" Glenn looked slightly less sunny than he had before Rick and Daryl had left him and the rest of their family in the front yard unloading the vans to bring Judith in the house. Rick almost asked if he was okay, but he stopped himself at the last moment. It was likely nothing and Lori had often told him he got too involved in helping people make mountains out of mole hills at times. His Shepherd peeked out of Rick's human senses and despite the duller edge to his perception of the world around them, determined that Glenn wasn't all that upset. He was more pensive really.

 

"Yeah. Thanks. Mind settin' it up over there?"

 

Glenn grinned, brightening. "If it gets me out of unloading the food, no problem. Maggie and Carol like things just so, and it always seems like I put things in all the wrong places."

 

With a chuckle Rick rocked his sleepy daughter in his arms, heart swelling with love as the little girl laid her head on his shoulder, lashes fluttering. "Men don't belong in the kitchen when the women-folk are there an' vice versa. It's just the natural order o' thangs. You'll learn eventually."

 

Busily putting up the quick-set-up playpen they had found in one of the houses near their last base, Glenn grinned even wider, adding in a laugh this time. Satisfied that one of their humans was content again, Rick's Shepherd turned his attention to hounding him about changing and getting out to the porch so that they could wait for Daryl. It took Rick a moment, as he rocked the now dozing Judith back and forth, to realize why the Shepherd's urging seemed…off. He immediately gave the Shepherd a gentle but firm nudge, indicating in no uncertain terms that they would not be shapeshifting tonight. The Shepherd seemed to dislike that statement and growled at him from the depths of his consciousness. It set Rick's head to pounding in time with his heartbeat.

 

"There!" Glenn stepped back and studied his handiwork before turning to Rick again. "All set. Anything else you'd like me to do?"

 

Rick reached up and pinched the bridge of his nose for just a moment before rubbing at his temple, hoping to soothe his canine self into backing down. "I just need to get her down. Would ya mind askin' Carol to keep an eye on her? I'm goin' out on a hunt with Daryl."

 

Glenn was eyeing him when he finally dropped his hand from his head – it wasn't doing a damn thing anyway, his Shepherd too riled and cagey to be soothed in the usual manner – and opened his eyes. Glenn ducked his head, peering up at Rick with a bit of curiosity.

 

"Hey, Rick. You alright? That a headache?" he asked and laid his hand on the slightly taller man's shoulder. "Tired or somethin'? Should I get Carol now?"

 

It was a lot of questions at once, but he was worried. The two leading people of their group were showing signs of fatigue, though he knew Daryl's had a lot to do with his Coyote, and with a little guilt he wondered if they all had been leaning on Rick's and Daryl's protection and leadership too much.

 

Rick shook his head. "Nah, Glenn. I'm fine. It's just been a long day. Why don't you go finish up unloading the vans and then send Carol on in. Judy should be sleepin' by then."

 

"You sure? I mean I got some Tylenol in the bag... Just sayin', can't have both of our strongest guys pretty much down, right?" Glenn laughed nervously, hand going to the back of his head with an awkward scratch. "What's with you two anyway?"

 

That question got Rick's immediate and undivided attention. Blue eyes searched rapidly over Glenn's face while the younger man eyed the floor. It wasn't possible…was it? There was no possible way that Glenn could even guess… "What do you mean what's with 'us', Glenn?"

 

"Woah, woah. I just saw Daryl walkin' out. I'm worried," Glenn said honestly, at first shocked by the intensity behind Rick's words. He leaned back, sighing heavily and looking up away from the older man. Rick had pinned him with a razor sharp gaze, and it unsettled him enough to put some space between them. "First Daryl, now you. You know that thing in his head's messin' with him? Hell, if I didn't know any better..." He laughed again, this time sounding even more strained than the first. Rick didn't share his head with an animal. He was nothing like Daryl or Merle, always in control of his emotions to a degree that at times he was a hard person to read. Rick never ran hot then cold in an instant, never blew up because of a simple question because too many voices were going at once and then having to block out the entity residing in his head.

 

Well.

 

There were times...

 

But no one person can always hold it together. Fact of the situation, Rick couldn't be a therian.

 

Still, he couldn't help but wonder.

 

Glenn shook his head, hand combing through his glossy hair. He'd never think he could ever meet Rick on the same level. He was just too intricate as a person and Glenn liked to keep things simple. He just wanted the man to be honest with him.

 

'Ah,' Rick thought. 'So, he's concerned because we're both out of sorts and he just can't figure out why or the correlation.'

 

It was relieving to know that Glenn wasn't nearly suspicious enough to be of concern to Rick's secret, but in the same heartbeat of thought, Rick felt his Shepherd's hackles rise in defense of Daryl and the man's Coyote. He could feel the frown take shape on his mouth, brow furrowing with displeasure even as his entire body language shifted into Alpha posturing. It was in the way his shoulders straightened and the way he leant into Glenn's space even from where he stood apart from the man. Even with a sleeping baby in his arms, he knew he looked the picture of a dominating male. Shane had often bitched that even though Rick was slimmer and trimmer than him, Rick still stole the show every damn time they went on a call, his very presence commanding even when he was relaxed. Some of that had softened since the Turn given how much he'd been shoving that part of his personality down into the recesses of his being, but lately, as he'd been becoming more and more aware given recent events, it was all coming back to the foreground.

 

"That 'thang' in his head?" Rick repeated voice low and a little menacing. The wince he received for it from Glenn told the whole story, but Rick needed to hear it. He needed to hear the words Glenn would answer with because the intensity of them would tell Rick just how blind he may or may not have been to the group's opinion on Daryl. "That 'thang' kept us fed and alive during two hard winters. That 'thang' puts his life on the line every damn day just to keep us safe. That 'thang' is Daryl through and through. One shape or the other. And Daryl isn't Merle. I think he's proven that more than enough. There isn't a one of ya that I'd rather have at my back over him especially with the world we live in today. I think you'd do best to reconsider your feelings before you speak another word."

 

Forcing himself to break posture, Rick strode to the play pen and gently laid Judith down. He covered her with her blanket with quick efficient motions and then straightened, turning back to Glenn before the other male could make a break for it. "How long have you felt like this? Is this how Maggie feels about him? What about Carol?"

 

He knew well enough where his own son and Michonne stood on the matter. In fact, he wouldn't be surprised to find out that Carl had long ago told Michonne about Rick and potentially Carl's true nature. It would surprise him even less than that to find out Michonne had known all this time and not given any indication whatsoever. But in this moment, right now, Rick couldn't feel even remotely sure of how the other three humans felt about therians in general or Daryl specifically. He felt like the biggest fool, having let this oh-so-important thing fall through the cracks of his awareness simply because he was keeping his nose out of any conversation involving his species for fear that he wouldn't be able to control the beast within if something made his Shepherd unhappy. There was a struggle going on inside him right now over the barest of slights. He couldn't imagine what would have happened if someone had slandered the Dixon within earshot of them. Family or not. Hell, what had Carl been hearing while Rick had been trapped in his own little world?

 

Glenn flinched at the end of Rick's tirade, not sure how this conversation got out of hand. He hadn't meant anything bad by his words. Calling it a “thing” was better than “monster,” “rabid,” “beasts,” words like those thrown around his home and school. His fear was real though. As much as he admired Daryl, there was still a part of him that was animal, and not only that, a wild one on top of it all, the ones society said they should keep as far away from as possible.

 

He put his hands up in front of him, feeling like he was calming a beast right now. "I didn't mean to offend you. Or Daryl, for the matter... I'm sorry. I wanna blame it on what happened in Woodbury, but come on. We got classes on their history, Rick. That... Coyote is Daryl, but isn't. Seen him just arguing with it a few minutes ago. What if he can't control it? I can't ignore what I learned about," he paused, trying to think of a way to best state it, "about people like him." It still sounded wrong coming out like that. He shook his head, knowing he was about to get ripped a new hole if he continued, but he had to get it off his chest and make Rick understand. "I'm not afraid of Daryl. I'm afraid of the day his Coyote won't listen to him anymore. And right now, Rick? I'm a little afraid of you. Why you got such a big opinion on this? It can't be just Daryl..."

 

The Shepherd growled and it was like a rumble through Rick's whole body. 'Stop it,' he silently snapped but the dog barely subsided despite his tone. Placing one hand on his hip, he ran the other through his wavy, dark hair. He took a deep breath, making sure it was obvious that he was successfully checking himself.

 

"School..." he scoffed and shook his head. "And the fact that schools were teaching children that the white settlers got on just fine with the Native Americans and took all the land peacefully? That the white man never did anything heinous, like say give a tribe smallpox infested blankets? You good with that too?"

 

Shaking his head in disgust, Rick paced to his left, gathering his thoughts before speaking further. "Schools were as political as the government. They were fed by the government. I don't believe for a second that you don't already know that. So, tell me just how trustworthy you believe the opinion of a text book is on therians. If they're gonna lie about the Native Americans and what humans did to humans...do you really think they'd give you the truth about something that actually scared them?"

 

Rick studied the young man across from him, watching his words sink in before adding, "I've never been a sheep, Glenn. Never mistook you for one either. Daryl's got control and even if it were possible for his Coyote to take control their body, the worst we all would probably have to deal with would be a pile of dead things piled on the porch for us to eat."

 

Glenn groaned and he hated that he was so frustrated. He was just glad Judith was asleep, and even if she wasn't, that she couldn't understand. Whatever Rick said, he just knew that he had every reason, and more, to fear therians. It should be enough that he loved Daryl like a brother. The only set back was that he could only trust him to an extent. He wasn't a therian, he was only human and he just couldn't wrap his mind around two consciousness within one head. He could philosophize it all he wanted, but he could never ever find one true, honest answer.

 

He hated that Rick was looking at him like an enemy when all he was trying to do was help. It was lost to him now, how a simple conversation of a headache came to here. Glenn knew right then he had to stop before he completely destroyed whatever friendship he had with Rick, and salvage what was still there. The Asian reluctantly nodded, sighing heavily through his nose. When he touched Rick's arm, the muscle visibly bunched like his touch repulsed him, or that he was about to hit him for daring any contact. He hated that.

 

"I'm sorry. I get it. I know. Textbooks aren't the best, but what else do I have? I've never met a Therian before, Rick. I just know Daryl...and Merle. One tortured and tried to kill me and my wife." Glenn wanted to turn away and wanted to run, yet he stood firm to say his piece. But he had to know... no, needed to know, why Rick had no issues with Therians. "How would you know so much anyway? What could you have possibly gone through that you would think every single book on therians just has to be wrong? Rick, I swear if I didn't know any better..." He really looked at Rick, took in the wildness in his eyes and face, the menacing arch of his brow and twist to his features. If he didn't know any better, he'd have thought Rick was hiding something.

 

"You know what? Forget it. I'm sorry. I'm gonna try, okay? I'll put everything I learned behind me, but it's because we are talking about Daryl. He's my..." He blinked, a label coming to him so fast it merely slipped out, "My brother. So far he hasn't given me a reason, a real good reason, to doubt him."

 

Rick opted to find relief in Glenn's sudden avoidance of his own line of questioning. He turned back to his daughter's play pen and looked down at her peacefully sleeping face. "I hope you come to see that the Coyote in him makes no difference," Rick murmured in a tone that told Glenn clearly that he should go. "Whatever happened in Woodbury…that ain't got a damn thang to do with Daryl."

 

Once Glenn had left, taking Rick's tone for the dismissal it was and slinking away like a kicked puppy, Rick leaned down and readjusted the blanket around Judith's little body. He refused to feel even remotely bad for staunchly supporting Daryl. Speaking of which, Daryl was probably already sitting on the porch waiting for him. Reluctantly, he pulled himself away from the makeshift crib and headed out toward the porch. He passed Carol on the way by, returning her tired smile with a tight one of his own. He was incredibly grateful when she didn't ask him a thing, moving on into Rick's new bedroom to wait for his return. For a split second, he thought about following her and asking her directly what her honest opinion on therians was, but he reasoned that Daryl was probably waiting for him and he probably didn't want to know the answer just yet anyway. It would be his luck that whatever she said it would be enough to tip him over the edge. That was something he really just didn't want to deal with.

 

The storm door creaked as Rick pushed through it, stepping out into the cooler air of evening. There was a soft bang from the door snapping shut behind him, but Rick ignored it all in favor of focusing in on the very large Coyote sitting at the top of the porch steps, staring out into the yard. Daryl's fur was a blended mixture of auburn and tan hairs sparsely peppered with black and white. His muzzle, which was slender and much pointier than Rick's Shepherd's muzzle, was reddish brown on top with a black as pitch nose. His lower jaw, throat, chest and probably his belly as well were a soft white. Rick had seen Daryl's Coyote countless times before, but he never tired of admiring the fine animal. Rick's best guess had Daryl weighing in around one hundred sixty pounds and as was true of all therians, his animal half matched him pound for pound, making for one very large Coyote. Even other therians would have found him a sight to behold just then, backlit as he was by the slowly dipping sun.

 

"You ready?" Rick asked, his throat a little roughened from the expenditure of his voice throughout the day. His argument with Glenn had just put him over the limit, and he'd be scratchy until after a few hours of sleep.

 

The Coyote's head turned, pointed ears perking in interest at the familiar voice. Daryl rolled his eyes at the Coyote's excitement from where he looked out of the Coyote's consciousness, but felt a certain amount of fondness for the beast's obvious infatuation with Rick and let that filter through as he approached the human. A quiet “ruff” left his throat, and the canine butted his large head against Rick's stomach in greeting.

 

'Alpha...' whispered over the haze between their twined consciousness to Daryl, and Daryl huffed internally. It was ridiculous, and he did something that was close to flicking the canine's ear tip to show his opinion. The pointed ear even twitched at the sensation.

 

Daryl didn't know what had gone on inside the house, but he could see it in the man's face that whatever it was, it had not gone smoothly. For a second he was worried that something had happened to Judith, but he had no doubt that Rick wouldn't waste time talking to his Coyote. The man wasn't one for one-sided conversations, especially when it involved his family. The Coyote had noticed Rick's subdued demeanor too, whining softly as he moved his snout under Rick's palm and forearm. Daryl wanted to just ask what happened, but like this communication was… limited. For now all he could do was close his eyes and let Rick comb long fingers through his fur, finding his solace in the silence for now.

 

The press of Daryl's Coyote's head against his stomach had immediately eased Rick's riled temper. He answered the siren's call of physical contact with one of his own, and he slowly sank to his haunches even as Daryl's canine pressed closer, head and snout fitting in the space between his body and the inside of his elbow. Hugging the Coyote's head with the one arm, Rick carded his fingers through the Coyote's neck ruff. It was relaxing, soothing, comforting to be so close to the other man's animal side even though it also left a little empty hole in his heart, his Shepherd whining in a mental echo of the ache in his chest. It was still an incomplete moment in that Rick was still hiding the most important thing between them.

 

"Thanks," he murmured after a few moments of basking in the moment. "Now. Let's go see what we can kick up for dinner."

 

Daryl sent the suggestion to pull away and his Coyote did so with only another nuzzle to Rick's palm, a flat tongue coming out to lap fondly. The canine gave Rick its equivalent of a smile, happily panting with an open mouth before turning around where he stood. It seemed the physical contact had lifted Rick's spirits, and again he commended his Coyote for his instincts to comfort. From deep within their shared consciousness, Daryl basked in the attention as well. It if had been physically possible he actually could have purred when Rick's hand smoothed through the fluffy fur over his shoulders one last time before the man got to his feet. Daryl for once was very envious of his Coyote, wishing he had it in him to initiate similar comfort in his human form. Because it was so much simpler as his Coyote, Daryl nearly urged the Coyote to go back to Rick and encourage the human to sit and continue to pet him for the rest of the night. But they had a job to do.

 

Daryl had just realized that they were locked within the plantation thanks to Maggie and her padlocks and chains, but he had no way to communicate the concern. He followed after Rick as the man stepped off the porch and sauntered down the dirt walk that lead around the porch and then away from their new home. Daryl's softly padded feet barely made a sound on the ground while Rick's boots thumped dully. His Coyote had his snout down, breathing in the Earth and the nature around them, tickling Daryl's senses and proving to him that the hunt here was near nonexistent. He wondered if he could get Rick to come with him outside of the gate for a ways despite the late hour, maybe bring home a small doe if they were lucky.

 

Rick stopped at the corner of the porch and put his hands on his waist, tipping his head back and looking to the sky. It was nearly dusk. They didn't have a whole lot of time to bring something in. Taking a cow before they were prepared to cure the meat – and he had every intention of making a run to the local bookstore and library to see if there were survival or food preparation and storage books if there wasn't already something of that nature in the library he and Daryl had passed through while clearing the home – was foolhardy and wasteful. A goat or one of the sheep they had seen wandering around though…

 

"If we haven't got any wildlife worth huntin' on this side o' the fence, how do you feel about sheep?" Rick muttered shaking his head. "Nah. Too much wool to get around. Goat then?"

 

Rick turned bright blue eyes on the beast at his hip as the Coyote came to a stop beside him. The Shepherd in him writhed excitedly in that nonphysical way that dragged a hot, eager sensation over Rick's consciousness that only a therian could understand. A warmth spread out from lowest center of Rick's belly and he sent a pulse of disapproval into the back of his consciousness at the wash of lust over his senses, but the Shepherd wasn't so easily deterred. At least not lately. It liked looking at the back of Daryl's Coyote's shoulders and neck from this angle. The view was one the Shepherd knew he himself could accomplish (if Rick would just let him out), but only under circumstances that brought a light sheen of sweat to the back of Rick's neck just thinking of them. Rick forcefully pushed the Shepherd further back into the depths of his mind with an even sharper silent reprimand to the canine. It would be embarrassing on a level Rick couldn't even begin to describe if Daryl noticed even the minute state of arousal that his Shepherd had just woken in him. It was taking effort not to reach down and stroke over the back of the Coyote's neck with a slow hand, to feel that soft fur and the flex of powerful muscle underneath them. The Shepherd rumbled in encouragement but Rick closed his fists, dropped his hands to his sides and ignored him, the sudden sexually charged blending of their conscious minds fading reluctantly back to two almost separate halves of the same mind after a few heartbeats.

 

Rick had never gotten up the courage to ask any other therians if they experienced a similar oneness with their animal selves during times of sexual arousal. He reasoned it made sense since sex was the one thing all species felt similarly with its urgency and pleasures, but Rick had had a number of occasions where offhand remarks were made as to the unusual state of his relationship with his animal self. One of the other officers on Rick and Shane's squad had been a Bloodhound shifter who had more than once wondered at how complacent and docile Rick's German Shepherd was, the two minds that made up Rick Grimes seeming more often in sync with each other than not. It made Rick worry sometimes, when he had occasion to think about it, if the fusion with his Shepherd that he felt while having sex with Lori would make him an outcast amongst his own kind were he to ever speak of it. He'd never had sex in his Shepherd form, so he didn't know if the phenomena carried over when things were reversed. Lori had flat out told him when they had first started dating that she wasn't into 'that' and Rick had wholeheartedly agreed that mixing forms during sex was probably a terrible idea. His Shepherd had seemed entirely disinterested in Lori but encouraged Rick often to drag Lori to bedroom. The Shepherd seemed to enjoy the rush of hormones and emotions even though he wasn't more than a passive participant that was just along for the ride.

 

But with Daryl…that had been a whole other ballgame almost right from their first meeting. Rick had never felt his Shepherd take interest in a human shape before. His Shepherd wanted Daryl's human form just as much as his Shepherd wanted Daryl's Coyote. Oh, the Shepherd had remained loyal to Lori, just as Rick had from the very first day they'd become official, but it wanted the Coyote therian nonetheless. Rick had puzzled over this change once just after Daryl had found them on the wrong end of Joe's gun. Rick's Shepherd had been charged up with adrenaline and a need for release, but Rick had forced Them to sit beside the old Suburban to wait out the spike of body chemistry an event like that brought about. His Shepherd had answered the silent inquiry by implying that it was because he now had the opportunity to get physically involved at some point at last. Rick hadn't had the chance to think on it much after that. At least not until now.

 

And he hadn't thought so much about Them as a whole in a long, long time. Some of the ever present tension in his mind seemed to ease the more he acknowledged his animal side as a part of himself, but Rick also knew that the more he let himself relax the sooner his family would learn his secret. He also hadn't thought about sex quite this much in a long time either. He was thankful that he wasn't a teenager any longer and had better control of his physical responses than he had at, say, seventeen. Rick tore his eyes away from the back of the Coyote's head and gestured out toward the barns. He'd only been lost in his head for a matter of moments, but he was suddenly exhausted after the run around he'd just given Them right there in his own head. Sounding more tired than he'd intended to let on, though he felt every ounce of that weariness after the physical activity from earlier in the day, the argument with Glenn and now the forceful suppression of his suddenly lusty animal self, Rick murmured, "Let's not waste the energy to try and hunt something wild when we've got something that's easy pickin's right there."

 

Daryl was quick to pick up the absence in Rick's voice. The Coyote lifted his head to look up at their leader as words tumbled from the other man's mouth. All Daryl and his Coyote were hearing was something They had already concluded, agreeing that it was too late to venture out of the safety of their new walls. In a way, he was a little disappointed. His Coyote was itching for a real hunt, to feel a strong body fighting under his weight before sinking his teeth in for a swift kill. He hadn't let his Coyote use his skills in so long, but it had been too dangerous to do more than he had up until then.

 

Sheep? No. A goat they could do though. Daryl let approval wash through his Coyote, and the beast took a small jump in his step, both front legs coming off the ground in a small playful hop. If Daryl could laugh, he would have been chuckling at his Coyote's puppy-like antics. Rick hadn't really seemed to notice, too lost in his thoughts. Concerned, Daryl urged his Coyote to study the strong features of the human beside them, noting how they were wrinkled in self-doubt. Since it seemed contact had helped earlier on, Daryl directed his beast to sway in closer to the human, nudging Their head against the side of Rick's thigh. It was an attempt at comfort, but the moment Daryl felt Rick's absentminded caress of the soft fur between Their ears, he was shot through with a heat that he instantly stamped down, forcing the Coyote to listen. He's not a therian. Knock it off! His Coyote huffed aloud, snuffling into Rick's palm as they approached the cluster of barns.

 

There was a large, open field that needed work that could be seen beyond the buildings, and the fencing that should have been keeping all of the animals in was in tatters with the boards intermittently knocked down or broken. There were places where the grass had grown very tall and others places where it was eaten down to the root. From the direction they were coming from, Daryl could see a couple of horses grazing. The animals might all have escaped their paddocks, but Daryl had no doubt they were still within the premises. He and Rick hadn't yet walked the entire perimeter, but they had both agreed that the animals had stayed too close for the walls to be down anywhere.

 

The goats were an easy find, the lot of them staying together in a loose herd. They were grazing under the trees, bleating softly as little ones romped and hopped about. They were a peaceful thing to watch and the Coyote looked up at Rick, wondering if the human would be able to handle this if the Coyote wasn't there. It almost felt wrong for the Coyote to tear their throats apart. It might be unneeded. He nosed at the knife on Rick's side, a gentle prod to make a swift, clean kill to one of the goats.

 

The moderately harder nudge to his leg brought Rick out of further thoughts of his predicament, bringing his attention back to the task at hand. Crouching down next to Daryl's Coyote, Rick laid his left hand on the Coyote's strong back while reaching across his own body to pop the snap on his belt sheath and pull his hunting knife. Strong fingers closed tight in soft fur, tugging gently. After a moment, Rick hummed, eyes hard on the goats. He understood what Daryl and the Coyote were saying. Make it clean so the goats wouldn't be fearful of them.

 

"Stay here," he murmured and got slowly to his feet again after another moment or two of studying the herd, picking his target.

 

It was over quickly. Rick quietly walked up to the herd; the goats were timid but not afraid of him. It was nothing to catch just one by a horn and firmly lead it away from the herd. He'd chosen carefully, making sure that it had no kids on the teat. The kill was clean, Rick slicing its throat with a swift, efficient jerk of his arm well out of the sight of the others in the herd. After that, he looked to Daryl's Coyote and nodded. "Let's go."

 

They dragged the carcass together, Rick pulling it by its horn while the Coyote caught a front leg up in his teeth and carried some of the weight alongside him. Maggie was waiting on the porch for them with a rope in her hands.

 

"I figured that's where you two had gone. I already picked out a good tree to hang it." Motioning for them to follow her, Maggie stepped off the porch and strolled over to the other side of the house. She led them straight up to a large, ancient oak with thick branches within easy reach. Together, he and Maggie strung the dead goat up. Maggie drew her own hunting knife. "I'll take care of this part. I think you boys have done enough today."

 

Rick glanced between Maggie and the goat. "You sure?"

 

Maggie smirked and tipped her head, cocking one hip. "Yes, Rick. Go on an' get."

 

She was smiling, lips pulled back from her teeth in a bright, happy grin. Rick smiled back, unable to help himself. He hadn't even realized he was stroking the top of the Coyote's head until Maggie's eyes dropped to Daryl sitting patiently at his knee. Rick's fingers stilled and he looked down, the Coyote looking up at him.

 

"I guess we could go relax on the porch like the old men we are," he joked.

 

Maggie giggled. "An old man and his hound. The picture of proper southern porch ornamentation."

 

Daryl felt amusement from both himself and his Coyote, allowing the canine to nip softly at Rick's fingers before padding over to the porch. He brushed against Maggie on his way by. She was different than Glenn in that way when it came to him in this form. Daryl wouldn't say braver, but more accepting of all of him. Her smaller hand went through his fur, making his muscles quiver and relax, looking over his shoulder for Rick to come with him.

 

He sat on the porch, thinking Rick would like to take his spot on the step. He could hear their people inside. Carl's voice was laughing while Michonne's held that tamed mirth. Carol's humming came through the kitchen window, and he was certain the footsteps he heard upstairs heading down were Glenn's. Daryl made sure his Coyote was out of the way, in case Glenn decided to come out from hiding and join his wife in the preparation of their meal. He realized he needn't have worried about it when Carol came out instead. She had a bucket on her hip with a large knife, pointed tip down, inside of it.

 

"It's good to see you guys relaxin'. How was huntin', Daryl?" Carol asked, but she didn't step nearer. She kept a good, respectable distance, smiling over at the two men. Daryl's Coyote lifted his head, a clumsy nod that clicked his teeth together sent over to the older woman. It was positive, although she couldn't understand what he meant at all. She shrugged, pretending to understand and said her hello to Rick, stepping aside him to be with Maggie. The Coyote's head laid heavily on his paws, close to Rick's hand. He felt at peace, and Daryl let himself rest in the far recesses of their shared mind. He knew he should change back before dinner, but his bag was out behind the trees and he was too comfortable here at Rick's side to move.

 

Settling himself with his shoulder leant against the support of the porch on his side of the steps, watched Carol walk away for a long moment before turning hooded eyes on the Coyote beside him. Reaching over, he threaded his fingers into the ruff of hair on the back of Daryl's Coyote's neck, massaging. No words really needed to be said. They were safe for now, each member of the family had done or was doing their part to keep everyone safe, alive and well. Rick's Shepherd shifted at the back of his mind, but Rick gave him a little push in warning. Regardless of how the animal within him felt, they couldn't do any more than stroke the other therian's soft fur. Not now at least, and maybe, sadly, not ever.

 

 

TBC…