Hands folded on his chest, Ryan inhales deeply. The motel room doesn't smell quite as bad as Summer keeps insisting, but it's no pool house. By far. He's almost starting to get used to the central air conditioning and the Egyptian cotton, which is a scary thought in and of itself. This place is a harsh shock back into reality, and he's not so sure that's such a bad thing.

All of this - the smell, the scratchy sheets, the creak of the bed - carries him back. He doesn't really want it to, but it does. It carries him back almost five years ago, to the age of eleven, lying wide awake at midnight, uncomfortably sandwiched in the bed between his brother and his mother, wondering how they could sleep so well in a strange place, that skanky motel by the highway three exits down from the courthouse, knowing that in the morning their father's fate would be revealed by some judge who didn't know them, didn't know their lives, didn't understand what it meant, not that he understood at the time, either. He remembers lying awake for hours, his heart racing, afraid to move for fear of disturbing Dawn or Trey, lying on either side of him sleeping peacefully. He remembers how much he wanted Trey to wake up, so they could go in the bathroom and turn on the light and talk about football, or go sneak a smoke on the balcony, something, anything. But he didn't, and Dawn didn't, and Ryan spent the night staring at the ceiling, worrying about a fate that he now knew was about as bad as he'd imagined. If not worse.

He closes his eyes now, trying to will himself to sleep, but he can't. He's too restless. Again.

He inclines his head up slightly to look past his feet. Seth is facing him, snoring softly, looking unusually content. Ryan briefly wonders how exactly the kid got Summer into bed with him. It's an encouraging sign. Seth is no longer the mousy reject he was only a month ago, when he first came into Ryan's life. He was right, what he said back at the hospital - his life has changed for the better. He's still kinda mousy, he's still more or less a reject, but he has a newfound confidence. A spark of independence. A life. A better one. Ryan can still see the old Seth in his mind, yammering and stammering about Summer, it wasn't so long ago, and now the kid can not only tell her off, but got her into bed while Marissa and Ryan were out of the room. Sweet. He feels a pang of brotherly pride. If his presence here has done any good, this is where it is - in a new friend and a coming of age. Maybe Seth will be okay after all. Maybe Ryan will be okay after all. Maybe the both of them will.

He glances out of the corner of his eye at Marissa. Part of him wants to just track down Luke right now and hand her over, get her out of his life. She wants Luke, right? She can have him. She never did tell Ryan what she came to the pool house for. he refuses to believe she came for him. Oh, sure, she came to the model home for him. And they had something, something he's rarely had, something he didn't want to ruin, didn't want to rush, didn't want to lose. But that was before the fire, the shooting, cotillion. that was when she still thought Ryan was just going to fade into dust, become something that she would never have to face the consequences of.

Ryan refuses to believe she wanted him that night at the party at his house, because. because it's too painful to even entertain the what-if. It's done.

Luke, who didn't even want to hear her talk about her family's problems. Luke, who stuck up for Holly's dad without even thinking. Insensitive ass. All Ryan wants to do is face the guy in a fair fight, without facing his own eviction, without facing half a dozen beefy water polo players, and see who the real tough guy is. But he won't get the chance anytime soon.

No, he knows already that Luke doesn't have it in him to see Marissa through this. Not that Ryan knows how to comfort her besides throwing her in a swimming pool. Still. that night was the last time he saw her smile, the smile that makes his heart stop. He wonders if Luke saw that smile, that night after Marissa ran out of the pool house. He somehow doubts it, though he'll never know for sure. Luke should get it, should realize how lucky he is to have spent - Ryan does the math, turning numbers in his head the way he always does, take ten years of sixteen and it's what, 5/8 of his life dating her? More than half. He takes her for granted.

Ryan could never take her for granted, not in a million years. And as much as he insists to Seth he's over her, cause he really, truly is, he still thinks she deserves so much more. She probably deserves more than Ryan, too, for what it's worth. But definitely? More than Luke. She's better than that.

He twists slightly in the bed, carefully to avoid jarring it and waking Marissa. He stares at the back of her head, the hair she constantly seems to struggle with, curling angelically around her head. She has far more important struggles ahead of her now. He remembers lying awake for hours on the stiff bunk in juvie, imagining her beside him to lull his senses into submission and slumber. Now she's here and he still can't sleep. His fingers reach out automatically for her hair, but he closes his hand and pulls it back, suddenly conscious of what he was doing.

God. He wants to wrap his arms around her, comfort her - if not to say it'll all be okay, cause it won't and he knows it, at least to tell her she's not alone. He knows it hasn't hit her yet, though maybe some day it will, that he's the only kid around who knows what she's going through, who really knows in every way. He's seen it all before. He's been there. Even if a few of these kids no doubt know what it's like to see your family fall apart, none of them know what it's like to see your father in a courtroom. To see your parents, a united force, shattered in an instant of bad judgment. Ryan knows only too well. He's spent years wishing he could go back in time and undo that one moment of bad judgment, that one mistake his father made, to fix everything and make his life perfect again.

He wants to help her. Ryan is a protector. He wants to guard, to defend. To stand with her against the tide, against the current that tries so hard to pull your feet out from under you. It's almost sucked him in before, time and again, but Ryan is a fighter and he always keeps his head above water, just barely. She is not a fighter. Marissa needs. she needs her white knight. Ryan has to swallow a little at the painful jab of memory the thought evokes.

Cause he really is totally over her.

He stares at the back of her neck, remembering the feel of her back as they waltzed at cotillion rehearsal, the nape of her neck as he buttoned her dress. Why does he always have to want things he can't have? A guy like him should have learned by now what is and isn't his for the taking.

The loyal guard dog in him is what it is. One time he had to go to a school therapist for his "anger issues". It was after the second time he got suspended, for trying to pound Rico's ass. So the way it had gone down, Rico (filthy bastard) got his mom to threaten the school about how Ryan was dangerous, which was completely not true, Rico had deserved it, but anyway, so they made him do these stupid meetings with some lady called Elba in a basement office in the science wing at Chino Hills.

He dutifully fed her the answers that sounded the best, and Elba dutifully concluded that he had "protector issues". Had something to do with his mom's alcoholism (had he really admitted that???) and his dad's absenteeism. Or so Elba had said.

He actually kind of got what she meant, not that he wanted to admit it. It took a lot for a person to become one of Ryan's people. It was a select group. And once you were in it, once you were a part of it, there was no going back. Nobody was gonna mess with Sandy, or Seth, or Kirsten - not while Ryan was around. He'd see to it. Whether he liked it or not. Just like Dawn, Trey, Theresa. it had always been a limited group. There's only so much protecting a single small but stocky kid can do.

And now, inexplicably, this waifish girl has joined his list, entered his. no, but he's over her. So how come he wants to curl around her so desperately, how come it was her face he kept picturing above Gabrielle's rack no matter how hot the real deal was? Why is Ryan shivering now, bathed in the dim red light from the street, barely holding himself back from touching her?

He finds himself back at ground zero, back at the beginning, nervously lighting up at the bottom of the Cohens' driveway, in a strange new world and a strange new life. He touches his cigarette to hers, inhales the tobacco, and takes her by the hand. After a moment of surprise at this unexpected movement, she moves towards him, up the driveway, around the house to the pool house. His hand trails behind him, gently clutching hers, feeling its cool smoothness beneath his own rough palms. He leads her into the pool house and closes the door and turns to face her, to finish what was started. He can feel her shivering - from the water, or from excitement and anticipation? - as he leans over and tastes her lips. After the first initial shock of the feel of their mouths together, they reach into sensuous exploration, his mouth nipping and sucking at hers. This time when he tumbles back onto the bed, it's Marissa atop him, the way it should be. He rolls on the bed, urging her over, so that he can cover her body with his own, envelop her, protect her from the harsh elements of the real world. They move together in a perfect, balanced rhythm, two strangers falling as one.

He hears a shuddering gasp, and opens his eyes. He sees her back deflating, and wonders what she could be dreaming about. He doubts it's anything pleasant. Even if he woke her now, she wouldn't want to talk to him. She'd want Summer. Maybe they should have woken her up, but she and Seth just looked so cute together, claiming the bed like that. He didn't want to disturb them, and Marissa didn't seem to care much either way. He wants to believe that she's dreaming about missed kisses in pool houses and magical cotillion waltzes and wild bike rides on the pier, the way he is.

And with the thought, there he is again, pedaling furiously. The sheer joy at feeling her pressed to his back is enough to dull the pain of the twists and turns of his fate, at least for a little while. She yells in his ear, playfully obscuring his vision, clinging to his jacket in the unusually chilly air. This time, the ride doesn't end at a diner, with reality and pancakes and obnoxious water polo players and witty comebacks. No, this time it just keeps going, endlessly, strands of her hair whipping at his face in the cool ocean breeze. The rumble of the boardwalk in contact with the tires of his bicycle, the beginnings of trust in this new, strange world he now tries to call home.

And there she is again, slipping lithely into his room (such that it is), anxiously seeking him out. Choosing him. She made her choice right then. Nothing since has mattered. And this time, he makes his choice, because he can't leave this, not now, not when he has everything here, and nothing left for him at home. If he's not leaving, not running away, he can have what he wants. And he does. Together they move intimately into the tent, closer, warmer, hotter. But no sex. Not tonight.

Ryan needs more than that. It's not enough. He never thought he'd say that, but it's true. At least in this moment. Sex won't give him what he needs. Marissa will.

He wraps his arms around her as they sit pressed tightly together in the flickering candlelight reflecting off the freshly painted walls. Her head rests against his neck, and he breathes a slow, deep sigh of contentment. Everything won't be okay, but they're here, and he's glad. His mother will abandon him once more and forever, her father will fall from glory, and they will endure fires, shootings, fights. but they'll endure it together, Ryan and Marissa against the world, and they'll persevere. And that's the way it should be.

Together they settle back atop the sleeping bags, cozy in the safety of the tent in the room in the home in the empty development, and he folds himself to her back, two spoons fitting against each other, contented in each others' warmth. His body tingles with pleasure now at how right it feels. He's in bliss as he holds her close, his systems shutting down, releasing his inhibitions, everything he's holding back flooding out of him with a deep, heavy sigh as he settles against her.

He moves to shield her, wrap her in and protect her, reaching around to hold her hand in his. For a moment in time, two strangers are safe with each other. Safe against the world. Nothing else can get through to harm her, not when Ryan is right here, and somehow he knows that he'll be okay, too.

The protector. He was born for this, to be her white knight, her guardian. Defend her against the evils of the world. He's found his place in the world, and nothing else can harm him, either, not as long as he fulfills his duty.

He sighs again with contentment, satisfied at last in the peace of a dream in the stale couch in the dirty motel room in the middle of nowhere, holding her in his arms.