Disclaimer: I own nothing. I make money off nothing.

This is me jumping into TWD fic pool with both feet. I am a confirmed Daryl/Carol lover and this story will be in three parts. Please enjoy this chapter and let me know how I did with the characters! SUPER HUGE THANKS to Shipperwolf and MissMishka for the pom-pom cheering and endless hilarious emails.

This takes place sometime after "Triggerfinger..."

Staking Claim

Hershel Greene has been on this Earth a good long while. Seen lots of things.

He's seen wars come and go, the nation caught in one turmoil after the next. Diseases arrive and are thought to be the new plague on humanity, only to be stamped out by the miracle of modern medicine. He's seen the effect of human kindness upon one another. He's seen the weak preyed upon by the strong.

Hershel remembers talking to Rick about such things as miracles and the "circle of life" only to have the younger man scoff in his face. At the time, the old vet thought it was just the nearsightedness of youth.

He knows know that the shortsightedness was his own.

It's one thing to pin your hopes to a pipedream, only to see it evaporate like the morning mist clinging to the pastureland at the first kiss of sunlight. It's another to have it savagely blown apart like the exploding innards of the woman he'd been holding onto when that hot-head's bullets tore through her body. And yet, she kept coming.

Hershel knew then he'd been such a fool. Hope was a corpse, rotting in the sun. God laughs at man's plans.

But since then, Hershel has found some solace in his remaining family, and even in the survivors that so tenuously hold onto the safety of his farm like a lifeline. There is still life around him.

Being a man trained to care for animals, Hershel has learned to read them, to see the signs of distress and know when a gentling hand is needed or if simply backing off entirely is the best course of action. It's not much different with humans, he supposes.

Rick and the others might think him an addled old fool – he has been for so long – but that doesn't mean he doesn't notice things.

He's sees the way Lori shields her nose from the smell of cooking meat, the obvious signs of her pregnancy moving further along. Of how Rick is more hyper aware of his wife's location, how he watches her move across camp. Of how she looks at his best friend.

Shane. The man is a menace. Hershel might not have had to deal with group survival tactics in the word outside his farm, but that doesn't mean he doesn't understand a threat when he sees it. You're only good to the group until you become a threat; until you start putting the group in danger.

Shane's body language screams agitation, aggression and dominance. Hershel sees him stalking across the front lawn, broad shoulders flexed and a little hunched, head down, like he's waiting for an attack and is pissed as hell that someone hasn't tried it yet. It's all in his eyes; the frustration and the anger – like a dog that's been chained for far too long and is just waiting to rip the hand off the first person who tests him.

There's a war for dominance going on between the sheriff and this walking liability he calls a friend and God only knows what the outcome will be. Hershel considers telling Rick to watch his back, but he thinks Rick's a smart enough man to already know that. The triangle between Rick, his wife, and Shane has not gone unnoticed as well and Hershel sees the way Shane looks at the pregnant woman. The love that might have been there in the beginning has soured into obsession, and that is a combustible emotion.

But there are other things happening around Hershel that he isn't quite prepared to see in this new hopeless world. Despite the uncertainty and demoralizing lack of faith, love has sprung up like the crocus that dares to poke its head through the last frosts of winter. And even after having all his assumptions burned to ashes at his feet, Hershel can't help but feel a wonder and envy at the personal connections he's seeing.

Jimmy and Beth, they were sweethearts before the world ended. Afterward, he'd taken the boy in to look after, but really hadn't been prepared to have to chase the spry teens around.

Even more surprising had been his Maggie. Hershel had been wary of the Asian boy – Glenn – at first because he just didn't want his daughter to be hurt when they finally had to move on. Now, he realizes with a lurch of his heart, Maggie may very well decide to leave with this boy.

When he watches them, tangled together with their foreheads bent to touch each other, he knows that this goes far beyond some simple crush he could have hoped for. This was love. And hadn't he taught his girl to "love one another?"

The most puzzling development seems to be forming around the two members of the group Hershel has had the least amount of contact with.

The hunter. Daryl. Hershel noticed him from day one. Not just because he rumbled up the road on that old chopper, a deadly glint in his eye and menace in his very stance, but unlike of all the others, he didn't carry a gun. No, this man carried a crossbow; a tool meant for a true hunter who could track and stalk his prey in absolute silence. There was no brawn or bravado about this man, unless you made direct eye contact with him. Then he'd just stick his chin out, square his shoulders and give the best "fuck off" look Hershel has ever seen.

Because the man didn't talk much, Hershel took to watching him. He kept to himself for the most part, and always, without fail, left every day to search the woods for that lost child. Hershel admired his spirit for that because it seemed this man alone had more conviction that he'd find that girl alive than the whole group put together.

What a comfort that must have been to the child's mother.

Daryl carries himself differently according to who is around him. He generally avoids Lori and the boy, Carl. Toward the men, Daryl stands head high, shoulders back, a slight swagger in his gait meant to project confidence and strength. There is enough of a pissing contest going on between the two head dogs of this group, but Daryl isn't about to show any weakness. Hershel doubts there is much weakness in the boy, especially after he hauled himself back, bleeding and broken but with fire in his eyes after finding that doll.

The man has attitude for days, though; strong, coarse words and a harsh tones. But around women... particularly, one woman … all that changes.

Hershel doesn't know how far back this "thing" he sees between Carol and Daryl goes, but whatever it is, it is as profound as it is unexpected.

At first, he just notices the way Daryl's head drops, his shoulders hunch a bit and he seems to soften his stance whenever Carol comes near. His voice changes too; lost is the forced bravado and what's left behind is quiet, almost shy. And the kid never, ever takes his eyes off her when she wanders any distance away.

Hershel doesn't know what drove the man to look for the woman's daughter with such an unshakable defiance, but he suspects it has something to do with all the scars he saw riddling the man's skin while he sewed up a new one.

He's been around long enough to know abuse when he sees it and it goes hand in hand nicely with the behavioral quirks he's seen Daryl exhibit.

After Sophia's death, a rift grew between the two, and Hershel noticed Daryl had his back up at all times again. But he didn't miss the look of longing that flitted across the young man's features when he looked at Carol as she kept her distance while dealing with her grief.

Hershel tends to think of Daryl as a scruffy, world weary ally cat, in such dire need of some affection and so clearly wanting it, but would probably scratch your eyes out if you tried to hold him. And Carol wasn't about to let the stray drift away.

Nowadays, Hershel sees something else forming between the unlikely pair and damned if he can't help but chuckle.

He doubts the younger man even knows what he's doing, but you see, Hershel has seen enough animals bonding to know.

Daryl's staking his claim and subtly making sure that everyone in camp knows that Carol is his. His to keep, his to protect and his to provide for…like any good mate.

A smile grows on Hershel's face as he watches Daryl swagger back into camp, dragging the hindquarters of a young buck he's felled and field dressed. He nods toward Rick, but it's straight to Carol he goes and plunks the venison down on the table where Carol has been darning socks.

There's an impish smile threatening the man's features when he startles her and she gives him a look of mock contempt before smiling at the trophy her hunter has brought before her. Daryl waits a moment while Carol admires his kill, seeking her approval of sorts and once it's given, with a duck of the head, he ambles back the way he came to retrieve the rest of his prize from the tree line.

Carol always seems to be careful to stay in Daryl's sight line these days. But when she wanders, oh, that's when the boy tips his hand.

Hershel takes to the machine shed early one morning, trying to coax some more life out of the ancient generator. Dale, Rick, Shane and Andrea are on the porch, arguing about something or other and Daryl has just come back from a pre-dawn hunt. He stands at the porch for a few moments while Rick asks his opinion on something, much to Shane's dismay, Hershel notes.

Daryl shifts his feet a bit, probably uncomfortable with the new found faith the sheriff has shown in him and considers his words before saying his piece. This seems to satisfy Rick, to Shane's chagrin. If anything, Daryl seems to be one who always says what he means and means what he says and Hershel admires that trait. The hunter fades out of the ensuing conversation to cast a glance around the farm yard, eyes scanning the make-shift camp area.

Hershel follows his gaze and his suspicions are correct – one person is conspicuously missing from the hustle of morning chores.

He watches Daryl amble off the porch, his long stride betraying nothing but Hershel can see a twitch in his cheek as he passes the tents and doesn't see who he's looking for. Bounding into the RV, Daryl disappears for only a moment, before popping back out again and adjusting the strap on his crossbow as an excuse to quiet fidgety hands.

Standing there for a moment, Daryl squints into the sun, before turning and hailing Dale atop the RV. Hershel can't hear the words, but he sees Dale shake his head and nervously scan the area. Daryl tenses and turns from the old man in a huff, his stance more stalking now than casual, betraying his feelings even more.

Carol's wandered off and no one seems to know where. Hershel takes a moment to think if he even saw the woman's direction, too. He thinks he saw her folding the wash earlier, but beyond that…


Hershel looks up and into the steely squint of the hunter he'd been observing.

"You seen Carol?" Daryl asks gruffly, looking up at Hershel from beneath sweaty strands of hair.

"No," the older man replies. He looks toward the water pump and nods. "Last I saw she was washing her hands over there, but that was over an hour ago."

Hershel watches the younger man chew his lip in a fit of nervous frustration, worry creeping into the lines around his eyes. Daryl looks off at the water pump house nearby and snorts.

"Damnit. Bunch of useless old farts standing around with their thumbs up their asses instead of keeping watch."

Hershel isn't sure if that barb is directed at him or at Dale, but he imagines it's a bit of both.

The more agitated Daryl gets, the more he moves around, pacing back and forth with one shoulder cocked upward under the weight of the bow.

"How hard is it to see a grown woman walk away from camp? Is she fucking invisible to you people?" He throws his arms out wide.

Hershel winces at the language. "Calm down, son."

Wrong words to use.

"Don't you be telling me to calm down. You with your head so far up your own ass lately it's a wonder you can even see daylight, old man," Daryl growls.

Hershel puts his hands up in a pacifying gesture, but he's smart enough to give the worked-up hunter a wide birth.

"Maybe she just went off to relieve herself."

Daryl's already walking over to the pump station.

"Yeah, and maybe Rick and Shane'll start singin' show tunes."

Hershel looks over to see Dale has climbed down from the RV and has apparently informed the rest of the group that one of their own is lost, for Rick is trotting their way with the rest fanning out behind them.

Daryl's scanning the ground, looking for the soft-soled imprint of Carol's sneakers in the dirt leading away from the pump, clearly planning on tracking the object of his worry down.

"Daryl!" Rick comes to stand next to Hershel. "C'mon, man. She can't be far. Let's not go running off in all directions-"

Daryl turns on him, shoulders back and square and a snarl on his lip. "You didn't even notice she was gone, man. Gone an hour at that."

"Look, let's just figure out a plan of action so we're not-"

Daryl swings that nasty-looking crossbow off his shoulder in one terrifyingly fluid action and brings the hock to his shoulder. Hershel decides right there that he never wants to be on the wrong side of Daryl Dixon's anger. With the exception of maybe Shane, this young man wields some truly intimidating fury.

"Yeah, well, fuck you and your plans, Rick. They turned out so well the last time."

The force of his words drives Rick back a step and Lori places a steadying hand on her husband's shoulder.

"I'll find her," Daryl says, holding the bow aloft with finality.

Rick's just about to say something else and Daryl is giving him one last contemptible, "fucking try it and see what happens" look when something in the brush beyond the tree line rustles. Everyone goes tense, hands start reaching for pistols.

Carol ducks from beneath the sweetgum and pine boughs, the tail of her shirt grasped in her hands in a makeshift basket. Inside it, Hershel can see why she'd wandered off and he eyes Daryl for the reaction he knows is coming. He almost pities the poor woman for the good tongue-lashing she's about to get…

Carol startles when she looks up, all doe-eyed and halts at the audience. Daryl is striding up into her face in an instant.

"Where you been?"

His tone is harsher than probably intended but Hershel saw the millisecond before Carol looked up when Daryl's body eased in relief. It was so minute one might miss it, but Hershel even heard Daryl breath out a shaky sigh before gearing up to let what was his know he didn't like her out of sight.

Carol frowns, nearly stepping back from Daryl's accusatory tone.

"What do you mean? Has something happened?" She looks to Rick and the others, who are putting their guns away, shaking their heads and turning to leave.

Hershel slides back up under the lean-to, but still keeps an eye on the couple.

Daryl slings his bow back over his shoulder and gestures at her.

"All this time, after everything that's happened and you ain't smart enough to tell someone where you're goin' first?"

"I wasn't far," she defends, nodding to her prize tucked into her shirt tails. "The dewberries are out. Thought I'd get them before the birds did."

Daryl looks at her for a moment, then at the berries and deflates a little.

He shakes his head, muttering a curse under his breath.

"Hell. Learn to speak up, next time."

Carol cocks her head, watching her hunter with interest. Hershel can tell that she sees the worry in Daryl's demeanor is because of her. A smile pulls at her lips but she won't let it break free. Best not to mock the man's concern or even point it out. Daryl's not one to hold up signs about his feelings.

It's fascinating to Hershel how well this woman reads this man even when he's closed off behind bluster and anger. She's a soft touch, lets him come to her when he's of a mind to. Best way to deal with unpredictable and potentially dangerous things, really.

Carol nods a little, says "sorry" softly, but that smile is still there in the corner of her mouth. Daryl's shoulders droop somewhat, he dips his head and his gaze flits around before he boldly reaches out and snags a couple of berries. He pops them into his mouth as he moves aside and Carol gives in and grins fully now. It's a true and genuine smile as the two of them walk past the lean-to.

Daryl lets his charge lead the way, him taking up a place just behind Carol's right shoulder. One hand hovers near the small of her back, like he's shepherding her back to the safety of the flock and it's all Hershel can do not to smile.

He manages to swallow said grin when the hunter turns and cuts his eyes at him as they pass and he half expects Daryl to tell him exactly where he can stick his mirth. But Hershel just nods a little and to his surprise, Daryl returns it with a slight jerk of the chin. An acknowledgement of sorts.

Daryl's taking his new job very seriously and Hershel has seen how devoted he is to a task set before him. The hunter and protector in him obviously can't be separated.

The younger man thinks he's being subtle about this, however. He'd likely say he had nothing better to do than to look after the widow. That he's got nothing for the soft looks of gratitude and pride she sends him, or how those looks seem to make him hold his head a little higher.

It's a quiet thing, this bond. Easily missed by most.

But Hershel gets it.

TBC... Next: Carol POV