Universe: The Following present, 2x12 [Slight AU]
Pairing: Claire Matthews/Ryan Hardy
Summary: He flinched away when she tried to touch him.
Author’s Note: The story is pretty much an expansion/rewrite of the scene below. While I did like the opener of 2x12, I still thought it was too short, and definitely way too silent for my taste. Therefore, I decided to expand it because, honestly, these two have a ton to talk about. (PS, for those that watch the show, I’m ignoring the existence of Carrie Cooke
Disclaimer: This story is slightly AU, with Ryan being a great deal less put-together than he appears in the show. (Because, come on, would he really bounce back that fully?) Claire’s death still very much haunts him here, and he has not moved on in any sense of the phrase.
He’d dreamed of her so many times before, but this one was different in a way that no other dream had been.
He stared at her and stared at her, trying to puzzle it out. Why did she look so different? She always looked exactly the same in all his dreams. Her ghost was forever defined by the same features that had haunted him for the past year since they'd buried her: that beautiful, curled blonde hair framing her face so nicely; her worried, worried blue eyes staring out at him; her light-colored skin, always creased in anxiety or confusion or terror…
But all that had changed, for some reason. Her skin was no longer pale; her eyes were no longer scared; even her hair was no longer the same color.
He stared at her, and was more than a little surprised to find her staring right back. There was more determination in her gaze now; more confidence in the way she held herself before him.
But there was also that undertone of fear, and he knew it well.
“I’m sorry,” was the first thing she told him, and it immediately made him want to ask why. What was she sorry for? Dying? That hadn’t been her fault. She’d just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Molly had come to kill him, not her. You were always my chapter, Ryan, Molly had said as she clutched that knife, already wet with his blood, tight in her hand as she cornered him in his own kitchen. Joe promised me I would be the one. Claire had just been collateral damage. That was the phrase the Bureau had used to explain away her death. Apparently they’d grown weary of calling her a victim.
“I’m so sorry.” He could hear tears in Claire’s voice when she repeated the words, and when he looked into her eyes, sure enough, they were swimming in her lower lids. They gathered, and when she blinked, they started to fall. They made bright, wet streaks down her tanned skin, and he could see their droplets shine even in the dull light of his apartment. He wanted to tell her to stop crying. It hurt so much to see her cry.
But just as he thought that, she reached up and wiped her face, and he shut his eyes. He would have said she had read his mind—but he knew it was more than that. She was in his mind; she was a product of it.
Just another goddamn dream.
“Ryan, can you say something, please? Can—Can you just acknowledge that I’m here?”
He shook his head, deflecting her words and denying her wishes. He couldn’t do as she asked. He couldn’t. If he did, it would be all the more worse when he woke up. He hadn’t dreamed of her in so long, and he knew if he let her in now, he’d break when he woke. And he didn’t think he’d be able to come back this time.
He’d gone so long without dreaming of her like this. So long. Why was it happening again now? And why was this time so different?
“I know you must be confused,” Claire said. “I can’t—I can’t even imagine what you’re going through right now. What you’re thinking. But if you’d just talk to me, you’d see that I really am here, I’m okay, and everything that happened—”
“You’re not here.” He knew he shouldn’t indulge his own delusions by interacting with them, but he couldn’t listen to her speak any more. God, her voice is just the same. No. He couldn’t keep doing this. He had to let her go. “You’re not real. You’re not alive. You’re dead. I saw you die, I held you, I—”
He broke off when she started shaking her head, and he fell silent. Like the masochist he was, he longed to hear her denounce him. He longed to have her prove him wrong and for her to be right in her condemnation.
“You didn’t see me die,” she told him in a whisper. “You saw—” She sucked in a deep breath, drawing her stomach in, and he was suddenly remembered of how she’d looked when Molly had stabbed her from behind. How her body had seized. “You saw me go unconscious and then later, you—” She squeezed her eyes shut, as if she were recalling something just as painful as what he was remembering. “They staged it so you saw what you needed to see, so you would believe what they needed you to believe. Nothing you saw after we were taken out of your apartment was real.”
“You were dying,” he maintained, forcing away all of her sweet, tempting lies. How he longed to believe her, and to know she was telling the truth. He closed his fingers into fists as he spoke, and dug his nails into his palms. Maybe if he felt something, maybe if he hurt bad enough, he’d wake up. “I saw you in the ER; you were dying across from me, Claire. You were dead.”
“No, Ryan—” She rushed towards him, her voice rising in desperation to make him understand, her hand lifting to touch him as she neared—only to fall back to her side when he jerked away.
He knew her touch would only be torture when he woke up, and so he flinched away from her, trying not to care about how hurt and betrayed she looked. He’d been here too many times before. She wasn’t real. She wasn’t here. He was asleep, or drunk, and she was dead. She was in the ground. He would wake up soon and realize that.
She hesitated for just a second as his rejection, but then reached forward nonetheless, hurrying towards him. “Please, Ryan—”
“Stop,” he shouted, throwing out his palms to keep her back as he stumbled away. She froze in place at his order, falling back on her heels as if he’d hit her. “Just stop. I—I—I know what this is, okay? I know what you’re doing. You’re trying to make me believe this is real, but it’s not. This—This is only a dream. A dream, just like all the others. I’m going to wake up in ten seconds and you’re going to be dead again and I’m going to be alone. That’s how it works. That’s how it is. Always. You can’t convince me otherwise. I know the truth.”
Her face twisted in pain, her eyes shining as tears filled them once more. “Ryan—” She tried to say, he throat choking on the word.
“Don’t,” he continued stepping back as he spoke, putting more and more distance between them. “Don’t come any closer to me. Don’t touch me.” He knew he’d be lost if she touched him, destroyed if she kissed him, dead if she made love to him.
“Ryan, please—” Her voice cracked as she begged him, as she reached out across the empty space between them to touch him, but he did not step towards her and he did not reply. Her voice grew even more anguished as she cried out, “I’m real! What do I have to do to make you believe me? What even can I do to prove to you that I’m—”
Suddenly she broke off, and grateful for the silence in which to think, he covered his face with his hands. He rubbed his fingers roughly against the bones of his skull, pressed them against his eyes. Though he tried to get rid of her, her face still lingered in his retinas.
His eyes snapped open when he heard a dull thump. The first thing he saw was her black winter coat sitting in a heap by her feet. He frowned, lifting his eyes to hers, confused as to why she’d taken it off. Her gray scarf soon followed, which landed on top of her coat, and he froze when he realized what she was doing. Every muscle in his body went rigid as he watched her reach for the hem of her shirt and start to lift it.
Oh, God, no, he thought, his stomach twisting in a nauseating combination of thick, bubbling guilt laced with hot, desperate desire. His dreams had done this before, had turned into this before—so many times—and while he had so adored kissing her and touching her and feeling her all around him then, he couldn’t let it happen again. She was dead. She was a corpse in the ground. She was rotting. He couldn’t keep thinking of her like this. Oh, God.
“Claire, stop.” His throat tightened as she began lifting up her shirt, baring a few inches of her stomach, but he managed to force out the words anyway. “No, no, you can’t. Stop. What are you—”
“I’m proving it to you,” she told him firmly, not stopping, and finally pulling her shirt clear over her head. “I may have been near death before, but I’m alive now. Look,” she told him, turning around. Her back was bare, covered from his eyes only in a couple places by the thin straps of her black bra, and it was flawless—save for one straight, three-inch-long scar just beside her spine. So dangerously close to her spine.
He could still remember the way her body had jerked when Molly had snuck up behind her and shoved that knife into her in the back. At first, he’d thought she’d died instantly. Later, watching her suffer and gasp for air and bleed out on his kitchen floor, he’d almost wished she had.
Please no, he’d whispered, cried, begged, as she lay dying in his arms on his kitchen floor, No, no, no, please no. Please, please.
“And here.” She turned around to face him, pointing out an even bigger scar in the center of her abdomen, just a couple of inches above her belly button. It was stitched up more crudely than the other; it wasn’t a simple straight line but a jagged series of scars that grew out an inch from the center in every direction like a very painful spider’s web. He hurt just looking at it. “They’re real,” Claire told him.
He stared at the sewn-up gashes, sickly mesmerized. His fingers tingled and twitched by his sides, desperate to feel them.
“You can touch them if you want,” she told him softly, and the quiet glance she sent his way made him wonder again if she really was part of his mind, and privy to his inner thoughts. “They don’t hurt anymore.”
“Neither does mine,” he heard himself say. His own souvenir from that night itched at the mention, in fact, but that was nothing like how it had pained him a year ago when he'd first received it.
“You’ve got a collection of them now,” she commented quietly: “Scars.” And he nodded, because it was true. He had so many.
He wondered if he could tell her that, out of them all, the only one that still hurt him every day was hers.
The scar Sarah Fuller’s murder had left on his soul had faded to a dull ache over the last year and a half, tempered by so many other innocent, gruesome deaths. His brother, Ray, only flared up when the calendar read September 11th. And his parents’ memories found their eternal home in his bones, but even they only made him lose a step every couple years.
But she was always with him. She always hurt.
He lifted his hand, trying and failing to keep it from shaking as he reached out towards her. She didn’t flinch like he had before with her; instead, she stood still and tall. But even so, he could feel her skin tremble when they finally met.
He ran his fingers against the length of the scar on her stomach, tracing its small web, curious as to its nonlinear form. Molly twisted the knife, he realized with a jolt that made his fingers jump from her skin. He’d wondered before why the scar on Claire’s front wasn’t as clean-cut as the one on her back, and he knew now. It was because Molly had taken the knife in both hands and twisted it after she’d plunged it into Claire’s abdomen, as if she were wringing out a wet towel. As if she were trying to gut her.
When Ryan closed his eyes, he could still see the bloodstains that had been left behind afterwards. Claire’s, and his. Molly’s broken neck hadn’t bled, not after he’d snapped it, but it didn’t matter. She still left her mark. He’d never forget the way that knife had felt as Molly had rammed it into his abdomen; he’d never forget the look on Claire’s face when the same had happened to her.
“Do you believe me now?” Claire asked, bringing him back to the present. “Or do you still think this is a dream?”
He swallowed at her questions, struggling to reconcile the colliding realities, struggling to come up with an answer. He wanted so badly for this one to be real, but he’d been tricked before. He stared at her, taking in every bit of her, thinking of all the other dreams he’d had. Was this truly one of them? She never looked like this in his dreams. She never had scars in his dreams. And she had never had to prove her existence to him before; he’d believed her on sight. Rejoiced on sight. When he closed his eyes now, he could picture all those dreams he’d ever had in his mind’s eye, seeing flashes of them like memories—her long blond hair tickling his chest, her voice whispering in his ear how much she loved him, her hands caressing his cheeks and neck before pulling him close for a kiss, a smile always on her lips…
“I… I’ve had so many dreams like this,” he whispered, his throat growing tight, thinking for the first time that maybe this wasn’t one of them. “Claire, you have to understand why—”
“I know,” she replied, and he was grateful she was speaking so he didn’t have to hear his own voice crack anymore. “I know why you were scared to believe, and I do understand. I…” He caught the smallest smile flickering on the edge of her lips before she admitted, “I’ve dreamed about you, too.”
He squeezed his eyes shut, feeling the tears leak out, feeling the truth wash over him now. “You…” He struggled to take normal breaths, to clear his mind. To come to terms with the fact that she really was alive. “You’ve dreamed of me?” He opened his eyes and stared into hers, watching in awe as she nodded.
She said nothing else, and he wanted so badly to ask her, What have you dreamed of? The question was poised on the tip of his tongue, so eager to jump off. He wanted to know if she’d thought about him as often as he’d thought about her this past year. He wanted to know if she felt guilty—so guilty—for her dreams, as he did for his.
“Were they good dreams?” he asked hopefully, wanting so badly to see her smile again as she had a moment ago. He’d missed her smile. He’d missed everything about her.
“Only sometimes,” she whispered back. She didn’t smile.
He nodded. He understood. There were good dreams, yes. But more often there were nightmares.
He felt himself start to shake as he remembered them, remembered her tears and her screams and her blood. Remembered the way she hadn’t been able to speak at the end, hadn’t even been able to say his name as he’d held her and begged her not to go, begged her to stay with him. Please no, please, please, please—
“Come here,” Claire called, interrupting his thoughts and stepping forward to take him in her arms. For once, he did not draw back. He shuffled forward and she met him halfway, and when he finally held her, she was as warm and as solid in his arms as he remembered. She was real. He buried his face in her now brown and short hair, breathed her in, and was relieved to discover she smelled the same, too. So many memories burst in his mind at the scent of her, memories that he hadn’t thought of in years: those late nights in Brooklyn when she’d find some time to visit, those early-morning drives to Richmond when he’d stay for the weekend; the hours spent lounging silently in his bed and the hours spent sitting on her couch, playing with her baby and talking about every silly little thing that came to mind…
“I’ve missed you so much,” he cried against her neck as he wrapped his arms around her bare back. He knew he was probably holding her too tight, but he couldn’t let go, and he was grateful she didn’t ask him to. But she was always like that: always giving up something for others, something for him—even when he gave up nothing for her.
“I’m so sorry for pushing you away,” he whispered, feeling the tears coming back now. He squeezed his eyes shut, hoping to force them back, but they came out anyway, dripping down his face and into her dark hair. “And for not believing you. Claire, I’m so sorry, I’m so damn sorry, I—”
“It’s okay.” He could feel her breath pass by his ear as she spoke, and it was so warm and soothing. “It’s okay, Ryan. I’m here; I forgive you; it’s okay.”
“You swear you’re really here?” he asked, desperate for reassurance, desperate for truth. He couldn’t take one more dream. Not after this.
Her arms wrapped tighter around him as if knowing exactly what he needed. “I swear,” she told him, clutching his shoulder blades with one hand and the back of his neck with the other.
“And—And you forgive me?” Please forgive me.
She laughed softly, and despite his fear at her answer, he smiled at the sound. It had been over ten years since he’d heard her laugh. She had such a warm, carefree laugh. “I’ll always forgive you,” she whispered, and when she nuzzled her face into his neck, he could feel her lips brush against his skin, kissing him.
He closed his eyes, feeling his body warm at her touch as it hadn’t by any other means in over a year. He wanted nothing more than to turn closer to her, to guide her lips to his mouth, to guide her body to his bed… But there was more history between them than just him pushing her away tonight, and they couldn’t sweep it all under the rug. Not if she was really back.
Slowly, and as carefully as he could, he stepped back and pulled them apart. He could see worry crease her forehead and fear in her eyes as they flew to his, and so he reached out and took her face in one of his hands. Though more tanned, her skin was just as smooth as it used to be. “I was so horrible to you when I left back then,” he whispered, never taking his eyes off hers, forcing himself to look her in the face. “I was mean and I was unfair and—”
“And I still love you anyway,” Claire finished for him, disregarding whatever else he was going to say.
Ryan blinked, surprised at her forthrightness, shocked at the turn the conversation had taken. He waited a second, but she didn’t take it back. Shakily, he wondered aloud, hoping he wasn’t digging yet another grave for himself, “Are… Are you sure that’s a good idea, Claire?”
“Oh, I don’t know…” She actually smiled, rolling her eyes, and he smiled, too, when she pressed her face against his hand. “Probably not,” she whispered then, all humor gone from her voice as her serious blue eyes found his, “but I don’t really have a choice, do I?”
He shook his head, not buying that. “No, you’ve always got a choice,” he insisted. “Always.”
“Well, then, I’ve made one, haven’t I? That’s why I’m here,” she added, “I want to be with you.” She stepped closer, and he closed his eyes when her chest met his. “I don’t want to be apart anymore. I don’t want to lie to you anymore.”
“I don’t want that, either.” He stared down at her, wishing things were that simple, wishing they could just be together because they wanted to be together. “But it’s dangerous, especially here with me. Claire, you have no idea—” He broke off, suddenly curious. “Wait, where are you staying? Now that you’re back?”
She smiled a tiny bit at the question, but immediately avoided his eye, ducking her head to the floor with an embarrassed laugh.
“What?” he asked, leaning closer to her as she turned away. “What is it?”
“Nothing, I just…” With a sigh, she finally lifted her eyes to his. Her pale blue eyes blinked up at him slowly as she measure out her response. “I was kind of hoping I might be able to stay here, with you. I know it’s presumptuous of me, but I was thinking, maybe if the marshals just camped outside, I could—”
She didn’t even get a chance to finish asking before he pulled her to him in a hug so tight she nearly lost her breath. She smiled as he crushed her body against his, hooking her hands around his shoulder blades as she asked, a little short on breath, “Can—Can I this that as a yes, then?”
He didn’t answer, but he held her so tight and so close that she knew the answer intuitively. Yes. She could feel it in the way his warm breath heated her neck as he buried his face against her shoulder. She could feel it in the way his hands never stopped touching her—stroking her skin, cupping her back, brushing through her hair. She knew he was checking to make sure she was still real, still alive. And she knew he would likely never stop checking.
So she hugged him back and she pressed her face against his shoulder and she whispered in his ear that she wasn’t going anywhere, hoping that that eased some of his worries.
Though he never let go, after a while he began to relax around her. His grip loosened and his hands grew gentler and when he spoke her, his voice no longer shook. He could feel her around him and he was no longer scared or disbelieving. She was real and alive and as much as it felt like it, he knew she wasn’t just a dream anymore.
Author’s Note: Thank you SO much for reading! Reviews would be so greatly appreciated. :)