Title: The Acceptance

Author: RangerGirl

Rating: PG-13

Summary: Ryan has nightmares. Possible slashy undertones but nothing explicit. If you want it, it's there.

Notes: The first draft of this was written when I'd only seen the first four episodes. I was terrified that it would turn out I'd got the characters horribly wrong, but I've seen most of the episodes now and touch wood, I don't think my amateur status showed too much. It did mean, however, that I hadn't ever read any OC fic before writing this, and I therefore had no idea that the whole "Seth comforting Ryan after nightmare" scenario is one that's actually been used in A LOT of stories already. So I hope this isn't too clichéd.

As noted in the summary, the slash is kind of take it or leave it. I did what I seem to do with most of my fics and not answer the question explicitly one way or the other - you can call it clever ambiguity or wishy-washy inability to commit to a genre, but either way, it's there. Is it slash? Is it pre-slash? Is it pure platonic, brotherly love? Up to you.

Disclaimer: Nooo, they're not mine. Believe me, if Adam Brody was, I'd spend a lot less time at the keyboard. >:)

The Acceptance

Ryan has nightmares.

He's had them for as long as he can remember, and sometimes on the nights when sleep is mercifully elusive, he tries to work out just how long it's been since he slept undisturbed. It hasn't always been like this, he's sure; there had been a time when sleep had been something other than a curse to him. But the days all blend into one another and he figures in the end, it doesn't really matter.

It was always the same every night; so predictable now that he wondered why he still awoke with a jerk each time, heart pounding and skin clammy with cold sweat. Disjointed, senseless, but always vivid, so that in the seconds before reality dawned it was impossible to distinguish between what was real and what wasn't. Once the adrenalin had stopped coursing through him and his breathing had returned to normal, he always felt a faint wave of disgust at himself. He'd had his ass kicked in real life so many more times than he could count, and you'd really think he'd be used to it by now. You certainly wouldn't think that a few minutes (hours?) of violence that wasn't even real, not even flesh or blood or solid, could leave him powerless, gasping for breath and fighting back tears. Every night he expects it to get easier, keeps thinking that he must be building up some kind of immunity or resistance, because he has to believe that the same damn thing can only hurt so many times.

Before now when he dreamt, he had never really been sure who the aggressor was. It was his dad, it was Trey, it was his mother and whatever drunken dipshit she'd picked up as her flavour of the week. It was AJ, it was whatshisname and theotherguy and in the end what the fuck did it even matter? It was any one of a thousand vicious, nameless faces; the faces of the only world he had ever known. And he'd thought he had it bad then.

But now the faces were painfully clear. And the dreams, once deadly silent, were deafening. For each blow he felt connect with his ribs, his stomach, his skull, he heard them jeering at him, their taunts confirming unequivocally his every worst fear. As he curled in on himself in a vain attempt to cushion the blows, he heard Sandy muttering somewhere above him, voice laced with disappointment as he spoke indistinct words whose meaning Ryan nonetheless understood. You're pathetic. You're worthless. You are the scum of the earth and you're hoping you're the only one who's realised it.

As he closed his eyes against the storm he knew that it was useless, because you can't shut your eyes against dreams; they seep in through your eyelids and between your clenched fists and through the holes in your broken mind, finding their way in no matter how you hide. Kirsten was there now, azure eyes clouded with something that could have been pity, but presently grew cold and turned to some close approximation of loathing. She did not speak, but the blows rained down on him still and he felt his muscles seizing up from the pain and Sandy's voice was still echoing somewhere above him, shunning him, telling him that they should have left him in jail where he belonged with the rest of the filth, safe behind bars where they can't contaminate the earth. You're nothing, son, you might as well admit it to yourself. You were born scum, and you'll die scum.

And still he was beaten, and by now he was sure there could not be an inch of him that wasn't either black or blue, and yet any corporal pain he might have felt was drowned out by the pounding in his skull which seemed to increase with every word that echoed acerbically above him.

Abruptly, the blows ceased. Kirsten and Sandy were gone. And in their place came a single voice, so close to his ear it could almost have come from within his own mind. Even as he registered who the voice belonged to, he felt his blood grow cold. He knew that whatever he was about to hear would be the final blow that broke him, and he didn't think he had the energy left to pick up the pieces tonight.

"Did you really think you'd fit in here?"

Seth's voice was uncharacteristically smooth, every syllable dripping with contempt. "Come on, you know better than that. Nobody wants you here, man. You don't belong. You never will, not anywhere."

The pounding had started up in his head again, and he felt one of his ribs crack as the blows once again began to crash down on him, and this time he knew who was behind them. Seth's words echoed in his head, and at this point it didn't even matter if the words were real or if they had ever really been spoken because every one of them was true. You don't belong here. Why don't you just go back to Chino? Did you really think you'd fit in here? I bet there's a really nice car in the parking lot that you could steal. Nobody wants you here. No one has ever loved you and no one ever will.
The pounding in his head was unbearable, and his body jerked and spasmed and twisted all at once and he couldn't breathe. He was screaming and suffocating and still the words echoed in his head, taunting him, growing louder and more jarring with every red hot second that passed, and now the words were no longer clear to him, they were jumbled and blurred and all he could make out was his own name, echoing over and over and over in a senseless mantra. Ryan. Ryan.

"Ryan. Ryan. RYAN!"

He did not even realise he was awake until he felt hands on his shoulders, shaking him, rousing him, releasing him from his incarceration. His eyes opened, and it occurred to him dimly that the nightmare was not over, because Seth was still in front of him. But this Seth was flesh and blood and dishevelled from sleep, gripping his shoulders and speaking words which Ryan couldn't hear.

All at once his breath came back to him, and he gasped for air, feeling the world slowly come back into focus as his lungs began to work again. He closed his eyes, waiting for his brain to catch up with the rest of his body, the words of the dream still ringing incessantly in his ears.

"Hey. You alright?"

He wanted to reply. He wanted to open his eyes and smile and tell Seth that he was fine, it was cool, he could go back to bed. He wanted to be able to go back to sleep and wake up in the morning and forget that the nightmares existed. But after two or five or ten or sixteen years of trying, he knew better than to believe it was possible.

When he did open his eyes, he was horrified to feel tears welling up, so sudden and so rare that there was no time to make any attempt to hide them. These were the tears that had been waiting to fall for too many years, and he would give anything to hold them back for just another five minutes because god he did not want to cry in front of Seth. But he knew, even as he took a deep, shuddering breath that it was useless. The dream had taken him and torn him down, ripped away every defense and left him bleeding and vulnerable and more exposed than he had ever been in his life.

He lowered his face to his hands, a part of him praying that Seth would slip quietly away and leave him to pull himself back together as he had done a million times before, while a deeper part of him ached for somebody else to hold him together, just once. He knew he was mouthing something; his mouth was forming words that went unheard and it was just as well, because at that moment he had no idea if he was telling Seth to leave or begging him to stay. PleasegoIdon'twantyoutoseethisplease.

"Ryan?" The word was spoken hesitantly, Seth's voice tinged with uncertainty. He felt his shoulders shaking and wondered if Seth would even notice in the darkness. Pleasedon'tleaveme.

His question was answered when the hands were removed from his shoulders and he was drawn into a hug, feeling Seth's hand roam hesitantly over his back, the other running through his hair. He stiffened automatically, and a memory came rushing back to him. The day when he thought he would be leaving for good. Seth had hugged him then, and he had...To be accurate, he hadn't done anything at all. It wasn't that it freaked him out, or even that he hadn't enjoyed it; it was the simple fact that he had been utterly unprepared for it in every respect. He hadn't known how to take it, mainly because he couldn't recall having been hugged by anyone before. Now, though, with the dreams still fresh in his mind and under cover of darkness, he felt the last of his inhibitions abandon him. He relaxed into the embrace, feeling Seth's hands rubbing his back as silent tears soaked his friend's neck.

They both knew, even then, that there would be no mention of this in the morning. They would awaken together without comment, and eat cereal and play video games until Kirsten told them to stop wasting their day inside. They would go out as they always did, and he would flirt with Marissa and trade jibes with Luke and listen to Seth babble about Summer every other minute of the day, and things would be as they were.

But there was something between them now, something which neither had experienced before and which did not need to be voiced or acknowledged because they both knew. Ryan had nightmares. He was not as tough or as unbreakable as he liked to pretend, and Seth was nowhere near as naïve. Ryan had nightmares and Seth had seen them and seen him, seen him completely as nobody else ever had. And Seth – beautiful, beguilingly innocent Seth who loved so indiscriminately and so unconditionally, had accepted him as he was.

In Chino, everything had a price. You couldn't afford to be broken, to be vulnerable and human and messy, because there would always be someone looking to take advantage. He'd lived his life thus far behind walls and barriers so impenetrable that it had never even occurred to him that they might ever be breached. But Seth...He left no room for barriers. There were no lies with him, no ulterior motives or unspoken price. He was the first person to see straight through Ryan, to see everything that there was within him, all of the mess and the pain and the ugliness. And in that moment, Ryan felt he knew what it was to love someone. He loved Seth. Loved him because he hadn't recoiled, because he hadn't left yet and because he never would. Loved him because he had seen everything that Ryan was and everything he wasn't, and still smiled and held him and wiped away his tears and made it so clear without words that he knew Ryan was damaged and flawed and breakable and that it was okay.

He's the first to admit that he's in no position to be making grandiose statements on the subject of love. But he does think to himself, as Seth pulls the covers more tightly around them and grips his hand in the darkness, that love and acceptance are really pretty much synonyms for one another. And he's not sure exactly what that means for the two of them, because his eyelids are heavy and his mind is blurring and Seth's voice is low and soothing and at that moment, he doesn't need to think any more. For once, his sleep will be undisturbed. For once, he doesn't sleep alone. And for now, that's all he needs.