Disclaimer: I don't own AMC's The Walking Dead or any of its characters, wishful thinking aside.

Authors Note #1: This story is meant to fit in some point during the winter when they were going from house to house. Or even at some point in the future, the timing is subjective. It focuses on how Daryl views the concepts of "love" and "forever." – This story originally came out of a snippet of text I wrote for Shipperwolf on tumblr that eventually took on a life of its own.

Warnings: Contains minor season three spoilers, as well as references to Daryl and Merle's past. This story will have clear references to the following: child abuse, child neglect, domestic violence, adult language and mature content. *Please be aware that this story contains detailed allusions to child abuse, childhood trauma and parental death. This may not be everyone's cup of tea. Please read accordingly.

In Saecula Saeculorum

Chapter One

The idea of forever was a pretty laughable concept these days. Something which, in his opinion, was pretty rich considering that back when the world had still been in one piece, twenty-four hour marriages and shot gun divorces were about as close as most people got to the definition. After all, it's pretty hard to take the whole concept of 'love' or worse 'eternity' seriously when you had husbands walkin' out on their missuses and bottle-blond gold diggers counting the platinum in their old man's teeth as they slept.

Love? Give him a fuckin' break already.

It was a tricky thing these days, make no mistake. And that was if such a thing even existed in the first place. Love or the closest thing to it was either impossible to find or impossible to keep. He knows because he's seen it. He's seen how it breaks you down. How it takes you apart piece by piece until there's nothing left - reshaping you into something harder, into something less malleable and forgiving.

The truth is that love makes you weak.

Lost love? Missed chances? Death? You name it. In the end it all boils down to the same god damned conclusion. Love is like taking an AK-47 to the chest from your best friend and only one of you living to tell about it. Turning your life into an uneven jig-saw of pain and guilt that eventually takes on a life of its own. Leaving you purposeless and weak as the very word becomes synonymous with a whole slew of other four lettered words that you're only too happy to say out loud.

Now he wasn't talking about the kind of love that a mother has for her children, or that a friend has for a friend. He understood that kind of bond. Nah, he was talking about the can't eat, can't sleep, head over heels, grow old and fat together kind of love.

Come to think of it, it was probably the kind of feeling that Merle would have slapped him stupid for even thinkin' about.

In reality he wasn't sure what to make of it. After all, it wasn't like the kind of love that was portrayed in the fairy tales his Mama used to read him when he was young. In reality, love, or at least the closest thing to it, was messy and complicated. And in his experience, it either didn't last or, when push came to shove, was conditional rather than unconditional – unlike what everyone and their maiden aunt said.

Reality, as they say, is a bitch.

He'd never known anything in his life to last. Not the people, the money, or the scenery. Life is change. Whether you like it or not, that's simply the way of things. So why would love be any different? Before the virus the only love he'd had in his life had been reserved for his Mama. And even then it was a childish, devoted kind of love, the kind that came in the form of butterfly kisses and skin that smelled like sunflowers and lavender.

It was the kind of love that put pictures on the fridge and turned the couch into a makeshift dragon's den. Transforming the living room into an imaginary landscape complete with a damsel in distress and an evil fire breathing creature that lurked somewhere in between the wall and the arm rest. The heroic knight, complete with a plastic sword and a dented hockey helmet, on point for some unseen foe as he scrambled up the side of the sofa, scaring the shit out of the cat, and proceeded to liberate the 'princess' as his Mama nearly keeled over laughing.

But all that had died the day they'd lost her. Burning up with the house and his old life like dry timber in front of a forest fire. After that he'd simply loved the memory. He'd created entire worlds inside his head that involved his Mama still being alive. Melding fantasy and wishful thinking together with reality when their old man started hitting the bottle and laying hands on Merle.

He escaped there when the shouting started. Facing his problems with all the willful stubbornness of a boy desperate enough to wish things were different, but jaded enough to know that all the hoping and praying in the world wouldn't do jack shit. Nothing could bring her back. Not him, not God, and certainly not any fancy magic bean that the good guys could always count on to appear when things got rough.

But that had never stopped him from hoping. …Only now he knew better.

Sometimes he'd pretended that his Mama was reading to him, pressing his hands over his ears to block the sounds as he stared up at the ceiling and mouthed the words to Peter Pan and the Hungry Caterpillar. Other times it was something simple, something like her taking him to the park after lunch or making him do his chores - something that could be easily imagined and innocently hidden.

But sometimes it went too far.

Like the time he'd climbed out his bedroom window in the middle of one of Merle and Pa's screaming matches. Scrambling down the drain pipe to the unmistakable clink of their old man undoing his belt, the sound growing stark and terrible as Merle suddenly fell silent. He was barely seven years old when he'd pointed his feet towards the forest and hadn't looked back. Wandering barefoot through the brush as curiosity and excitement had eventually overcome that of fear.

And as he'd sunk his feet into the dusty, Georgian clay, he'd pretended that she'd been right there beside him, singing and laughing as the day grew dark and he realized he had no idea where he was. It was Merle that had eventually found him, curled up under an old oak tree in the middle of nowhere a few hours after twilight. And for once, he hadn't said a word. He'd just scooped him up and carried him home, just like she used to when he was young. Letting him drool into the collar of his leather jacket as the salt tracks of long dried tears flaked off across his brother's skin like paper rain.

He'd known better than to ask why Merle limped every other step, his face a mass of deeply set lines and salt tracks. He smelled like old sweat and the tang of Papa's leather belt as his brother hitched him higher in his arms and carried him up the front steps. Both of them sighing in relief when they found the place trashed, but empty.

Believe it or not, this hadn't been a onetime thing. There had been a time where Merle had looked out for him, before all the drugs and that first stint in prison. Merle had never been the perfect older brother. But, at least back then, he'd actually tried.

Hell, the way Merle acted these days, you'd think love was some sort of weakness - a disease or virus that could be cured with pills and creams so long as it was caught early. But he supposed that shouldn't surprise him. Merle had always approached other people like they were contagious, shying away from attachments of any kind until he'd become a stranger to his own family. Or what was left of it anyway.

And after their mother had passed, that was how he'd grown up. Merle had taught him by example that caring about something, or someone, made you weak and that other people were more trouble than they were worth.

Funnily enough, the truth was that Merle had turned out a lot more like their Pa than either of them would like to admit.

And it was no wonder, because, without the influence of their mother and her no-nonsense approach to her husband's vices, the truth was that their father had little love for his sons. It was either that or everything good had been whipped out of him by his own Pa. The jury was still out on that one. Because as young as he'd been when their old man had started taking out his resentment on them, he still remembered the day their Pa had taken his belt to Merle's backside for wrecking the fence with the neighbor's motor bike. The crack of worn leather hitting exposed flesh was pretty hard to mistake. Especially considering what came after.

So when it all comes down to it, he supposes its little wonder he has trouble with the term. After all, a lifetime of experience is bound to have a hand in shaping the person you grow into. Didn't completely excuse it of course, but at the end of the day he figured it certainly hadn't helped.

When he got older, the only love he'd had in his life had been found in either the bottle or some cheap, backwater tart that hadn't wanted to know his last name any more than he'd wanted to know hers. Everything else had either been unattainable or had quickly soured.

He'd tried though. Lord knows he'd tried.

Because while he didn't understand the concept, he did understand how it was supposed to work. Or at least how they wanted you to think it worked anyway. For example, he knew how the books and the movies wanted you to see it. He knew every device they tried to spoon-feed you: a few lines of sassy dialogue and a semi-decent villain resulting in a pyrotechnics' display fit to rival Washington on the 4th of fuckin' July. Been there, done that.

It was a god damned mind fuck, that's was what it was.

So yeah, he understood how it was supposed to play out. But other than that he was clueless. And honestly, he figured it was probably better that way. After all, who could blame him? Not when the official definition in the dictionary read more like a mixture between a sappy romance novel and a load of politically correct, pseudo-scientific bullshit that, when push came to shove, didn't actually mean much of anything at all.

Hell, he'd nearly chucked the damn thing right out the window when he'd read it. "A profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person?" – "A person toward whom love is felt?" - "A beloved person?" The definition itself was about as helpful as a hole in the head. And that was just the tip of the freakin' iceberg when it came to that kind of shit.

No wonder the world had fuckin' ended.

So yeah, he knew how it was defined in the movies, in the TV shows and books, but he'd never understood it. Not really. And up until a year and a half ago he'd been damn well convinced that he probably never would.

'Cause if you asked him lately, he'd have to admit that it wasn't that simple anymore. Sure, he didn't understand the idea of love, or even the concept of forever when it was applied to the term. But considering the events of the past few months, he had the sneaking suspicion that he might actually want to.

And worse still, that that suspicion had a name…

A/N #1:Thank you for reading. Please let me know what you think! Reviews and constructive critiquing are love! There will be one more chapter to this particular story, hope you enjoy.

Glossary: "In saecula saeculorum" is a Latin phrase that translates into: "to the ages of ages," or in modern terms: "forever and ever."

"Don't brood. Get on with living and loving. You don't have forever." - Leo Buscaglia