Disclaimer: I own nothing, unfortunately. That would be nice, but alas...
A/N: This is set in an AU season three, mostly because they're in the prison and Andrea's with them, but Michonne isn't there and no one has died yet. That's about all you have to know.
(or The Practical Art of Being Afraid)
This fear—the mind-numbing, bone-chilling, muscle-locking fear—first appeared when she'd kissed him in Hershel's empty kitchen when they were on dish duty, arms around his neck, lips warm and unfamiliar on his. It settled into his chest the same time she pulled back and said, "I like you, you know. I really like you." His body thrummed with this awful fear that was suddenly in him, around him, everywhere. Fear of everything and nothing. But he'd nodded and said, "I…uh…like you…too," and that had changed things.
It's all-consuming, this fear, and it's only gotten worse with time. He ignores it as much as he can, but it'll show up worse than ever at certain times in the day—like when he wakes up after her and she's no longer in his arms, or when she's helping Lori and Carol with something and he has to ask where she is. His heart pounds and his hands shake when he's not near her, sometimes so badly that he has to give up on hunting for a day because he keeps missing his target. It paralyzes him, makes him jumpy and nervous, frantic until she's within his line of sight or next to her and he can be there if she needs him, ready to protect her.
It's more than just a fear when she's not around, though. It's a fear that, sooner or later, she'll realize that she can have better than him—that she deserves better than him—and then he'll be on his own. He's so afraid of being alone again.
She's better than he is, he knows. He's not enough for her. She'll figure it out eventually, and she'll leave him. Or maybe he'll mess it all up—say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, maybe just make her upset—and she'll leave and never come back. She'll just walk away and find someone better—someone smarter and kinder, someone who isn't stoic and afraid to touch her when others are around.
And it's not just that, either. It's also knowing that she might leave him against her will. That she might wander into a cell block they haven't cleaned out one evening, or the fence around the prison yard might break one night and something could grab her from behind, sink it's gnarled, rotting teeth into her flesh and pull away skin, ligaments, bone. Just tear away her skin and leave behind a body that will get sicker and sicker until, finally it's no longer her. It's no longer his Andrea. She'll turn into one of them and he'll be left alone to keep living without her.
That's what he's most afraid of, really. That's what he has nightmares about when his arms are empty as he lies at the top of the stairs—nights when she's on watch or in her own cell, but mostly just not there.
He can't be without her. He knows that much and he hopes she knows it too, even if he's sometimes bad at putting it into words. It's only been a year since she kissed him for the first time, but it's getting harder and harder to remember how he'd survived so long without her before that night. Because he loves her and, if she died, he'd blame himself. If she left him, he'd blame himself. If she realized he's not enough, he'd blame himself. And then she'd be gone.
And what would he do then? What then, what then, what then, what then, what then, what then.
He can sense her coming even though he isn't looking up. He can feel her crossing the prison yard to get to the clump of grass he's crouched on. She's supposed to be helping Rick with something, he thinks, but Rick is fifty feet to Daryl's left, playing tag with Carl and Glenn and Beth and laughing like it hasn't been the end of days for a year now.
"What's wrong with you, Dixon?"
He looks up from the already-clean crossbow bolt he's been scrubbing at with a rag for the past twenty minutes and frowns when he sees her sitting on the grass, just in front of where he's crouched. She crosses her legs and tilts her head, eyes wandering over his face as she tries to interpret his expression.
"Nothing," he grumbles, because it's a whole lot easier than trying to explain all of his thoughts.
She scrunches her nose at his answer and he can practically see the wheels turning as she tries to decipher the deeper meaning behind what he's just said. "Okay…" she says slowly, and he can tell that she'll accept his lie for now. She keeps her eyes on him, biting her lip, and it's cute in a way that makes him feel warm all of the sudden, even though it's been getting colder and colder these days. Then he hears Rick and Carl laugh in the distance and he looks up to see Carl stick his tongue out at Maggie and T-Dogg, who are taunting him from the sidelines. The warmth is gone and he's just afraid again.
He's afraid of what she'd say if he ever told her about these fears inside of him—these intense and complicated worries that have been continually plaguing his mind since this them thing started. She might say that he's over thinking, or worrying too much, or loving her too much, or being needy and he couldn't handle her saying those things, he really couldn't.
He looks at her, at the way the evening sun glistens in her hair, and it's too much right then—too much love, too much fear, too much anxiety, too much her—so he does the only thing he can handle doing, and he drops his rag and his crossbow bolt and leans forward, towards her, cupping her face in his hands, and kissing her. She's shocked at first, lips stiff and unresponsive against his, but then she kisses him back, softly, letting it linger for just a moment before pulling away.
He's not having any of that, though, and he kisses her again almost as soon as she pulls back—his thumbs on the corners of her mouth, the tips of his fingers pressed against the curls of her hair.
It doesn't matter that he's never been comfortable showing affection out in the open, it doesn't matter that almost everyone else is less than fifty feet away, close enough that he can hear them talking to each other, but can't understand the words. What matters is that he loves her and he needs her to know that, needs her to understand that before she leaves him, or falls in love with someone better, or dies. She needs to know that she's the only reason he's ever afraid anymore.
When they finally pull away for air, he presses his forehead to hers and keeps his hands where they are. He wants to say, "I love you," even tries, but it comes out in a series of jumbled sounds that have no real meaning.
But then she says it for him, whispers it against his lips with her eyes closed, before adding in an, "I'm not going anywhere," like she somehow knows what this has all been about.
So he nods and steadies himself by placing his knees on the grass in front of her. She leans up and he leans down, her arms wrapping around his neck, his arms going around her back. He pulls her to him and rests his cheek against her head as she presses her forehead into his neck, her head on his shoulder.
That's not something she can promise, though. He knows that, but it's enough that she loves him. It's enough that she won't leave him by her own choice. There's still so much to be worried about, though—so much to fear.
He doesn't know what will happen tomorrow, or if they'll both be alive next week. No one can know that. But, even with all that anxiety, she's tracing a heart onto his chest through his shirt with her index finger, tickling his neck with her eyelashes as she blinks, and he doesn't think he's ever felt braver.