Last chapter. Thanks so much for all of the wonderful reviews. You guys have been so awesome and I can't thank you enough for all of the support (and in some cases, beatings) I've received. You're all incredible.
And of course, the obligatory thanks goes out to the betas that torture themselves by tackling my work. Thanks to all of you for your time and patience.
Disclaimer: I own nothing.
It is a fool's plan to teach a man to be a cur in peace, and think that he will be a lion in war. -- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Ryan cringed at the sound of footsteps. There was nothing worse when you felt extremely nauseous than having the additional worry of others watching you. He appreciated Kirsten sticking around all night to wake him up and hand him his pills, but the smothering attention was just that, smothering. He wasn't six. He needed his space.
The unexpected voice caused Ryan's breath to catch in his throat. He searched his mind as rapidly as his drug-induced state would allow, trying fervently to put a face, name or any kind of association to the voice. Even before Johnson's unwelcoming features registered in his mind, Ryan knew the voice belonged to someone that he wasn't particularly fond of. It was weird how impressions could be formulated faster than actual recognition.
Ryan glanced at the wastebasket before willing himself to turn around. He wanted to know exactly where it was…"just incase", as Seth so casually put it.
He rotated gingerly, his neck stiffer than it had been the night before and not completely cooperating with his brain's request.
Ryan managed to alter his position just enough to caught the pathetic sight of Johnson standing slouched a few feet inside the door, his head lowered and his eyes raised, and the most guilty of all expressions plastered on his face.
Through the restriction of tight, bruised cartilage and pain in his ribs, Ryan took as deep a breath as he could muster. He let it out slowly and lifted his gaze until he could focus on Johnson's eyes.
Johnson moved a step closer, removed his hands from his pockets and clasped them together nervously, kneading his fingers roughly several times before finally speaking. "Atwoo -- uh…Ryan…. I just…."
Ryan frowned uncomfortably. Johnson's presence was doing nothing for his sour stomach. His brain was working on overdrive trying to figure out how this all came to pass. Why the hell was Johnson in the pool house? How did he find him? Who let him in…and why? It didn't make sense. And Ryan didn't really care. He just didn't want Johnson in the room, in his room, especially when he felt like his stomach was lodged about halfway up his esophagus.
"Look, man," Johnson continued with a sigh. "I just…I just wanted to say…thanks."
Ryan could barely believe his ears. For some reason, Johnson's words lit a fire of rage within Ryan's chest.
"For what? Saving your ass or not saying anything?"
Johnson, obviously taken aback by the quiet but bitter words, stuttered on air for a second before responding. "Uh…both, I guess. But really, man, I'm sorry about…all this." Johnson unclenched his fingers and waved a hand in Ryan's direction, acknowledging the war wounds.
Ryan shrugged. He hadn't expected an apology from Johnson, but at the same time, he wasn't going to accept it and pretend nothing happened. He couldn't do that. His summer was a write-off, and Johnson wasn't going to make that all better by mumbling a couple of meaningless words. Instead, Ryan cringed as his stomach rolled over again. He slouched further forward and subconsciously wrapped his good arm around his midsection.
"Why'd you do it?" Johnson asked bluntly.
Ryan didn't want to talk. At this exact moment, he just wanted to die, but Johnson was going to be heard; that much was obvious.
"Why'd you do that for me when I've been nothing but a complete fuckin' ass to you?"
"I don't know. Seems pretty stupid now, though…." Ryan answered honestly in a single, forced breath. If he'd had a glimpse of the future to get some idea of the consequences of that action, he surely would have chosen a different route.
"I called the director of the league this morning…filed a complaint against Rickard for what he did to you. I had a few other people that were there to witness call in…. I think he'll be banned…." Johnson paused and his cheeks reddened as he confessed his guilt. "I don't know, man. I know it's not much, but I figured…you know, it was the least I could do…."
Ryan slowly turned his gaze off Johnson, bowing his head into his chest as he tried to sort through his conflicting emotions. On one hand, he was still burning with hate for the guy who'd made every second of the previous weekend a nightmare. On the other hand, Johnson had made the effort…which, from what Ryan knew about the guy, went against all of his social norms.
Ryan didn't feel like deciding what he thought of Johnson; he just hoped that the guy had learned his lesson, whatever that may be. It was hard to believe that Johnson learned anything from the disaster, seeing as how Ryan was the one struggling through waves of pain and nausea. From the look on the guy's face, it was clear that something had changed. The whole situation was a little too déjà vu for Ryan's liking. Luke's drastic transition from ass to friend was shocking enough but this was mind-blowing. However, Ryan couldn't even fathom the thought of being Johnson's friend. He'd want to get a few punches in on the guy before even considering such an idea. Retribution. It would be quite a while before he would be physically ready to dole out retribution.
"You don't have to do this. I won't tell anyone about your brother," Ryan stated evenly, almost sounding annoyed as he reassured Johnson.
Johnson nodded, relief relaxing his shoulders into a less rigid position. "Well…I am sorry."
Ryan nodded back down into his chest without looking up. That much was obvious.
"Cohen, what the hell are you doing?"
Seth jumped at Luke's voice, shocked despite his knowing that Luke was going to make an appearance sooner or later. Somehow, the surprise arrival of this Johnson fellow had affected Seth's memory.
"Uh…." He shook his head, realizing that though Luke wasn't the sharpest tool in the shed, a trained monkey would have known Seth was eavesdropping. "Fine…I was just…."
Luke limped forward, not bothering with the crutches that he'd been using the night before. He leaned in when Seth started whispering his explanation. "There's this guy that stopped by…."
"And?" Luke pressed when Seth paused for an unacceptable amount of time.
"And…well, I still don't know what the hell's going on," Seth conceded in a louder voice, throwing his arms up in frustration. When he turned back, he realized that Luke had pulled away, squinting so he could see what was going on in the pool house, and obviously distracted by what he saw.
"That fucking ass…," Luke growled, shaking his head and barging in through the half-opened pool house door. Seth, in a state of confusion deeper than he thought possible, took advantage of the opportunity to follow Luke and join the conversation he'd been straining to overhear.
Once Seth's eyes adjusted to the dimmer light, he noticed the Johnson guy, standing just a few feet in from the door, his posture just as awkward as it had been when Seth answered the front door a few minutes earlier. Ryan had moved only slightly, enough so that by looking up, he would have been able to see that the pool house population had just doubled.
"What the fuck, Johnson?" Luke spat, his voice vibrating with anger, causing Ryan's head to shoot up, his tired gaze jumping from Luke to Johnson and finally landing on Seth.
Seth responded with wide eyes and an honest shrug. He really had no idea what was happening and it was irking him like a bug bite that wouldn't stop itching. He needed a scratch. He wished someone would just explain what the hell was going on.
"Don't you think you've done enough?" Luke continued, and for some reason, Seth found himself grabbing onto the sleeve of Luke's shirt to prevent him from charging the mysterious visitor.
Through his surprise, Johnson still managed to look utterly pathetic. Whatever history Luke and this guy had, it was obvious that this Johnson fellow was fresh out of fight.
"I was just leaving, Ward…," Johnson sighed the words, holding his hands up as if to claim his innocence. He stepped toward the door but turned back to face Ryan, who had his eyes closed and appeared to be caught up in his own personal struggle. Seth hoped his brother remembered where the wastebasket was.
"I'm sorry, Ryan," Johnson mumbled sincerely, turning and squeezing past Luke, through the open pool house door.
Luke lowered his frame a couple of inches once his enemy had departed, and Seth took that as a sign that he could release his restraining grip on Luke's shirt.
"I'm sorry, man…but what the hell was he doing here?"
Ryan simply let out a shaky sigh that showed he was in no mood to talk about it. He rubbed deep circles over his eyes with his thumb and index finger of his good hand, and mumbled, "He's an ass…."
"Then I'm an ass," Luke scoffed.
Seth felt himself slipping deeper and deeper into the blackness of ignorance, and prayed that someone would explain this mess to him soon.
Ryan pulled his hand away to reveal bloodshot eyes and squinted to convey his own confusion toward Luke's comment.
"Yesterday, in the car…you said that Johnson and I were the same," Luke murmured under his breath, almost as if the words brought along with them an incredible burden of shame.
"Yeah, well, you're different cuts of ass."
Seth smiled. It sounded like a joke, and even though Ryan didn't look like he was kidding around, Seth could decipher the intended humor through the extenuating circumstances.
"I don't get it," Luke replied after a few seconds.
"That doesn't surprise me, but I don't get it either," Seth added his two cents.
"Shut up, Cohen."
"Never mind," Ryan groaned, interrupting the two and grimacing as he readjusted his arm in his sling.
"I just…." Luke glanced nervously at Seth for split second before continuing. "I just wanted to tell you that I'm sorry, man. I shouldn't have dragged you into that mess." He shook his head in regret. "I never thought…this…would happen." Luke, too, waved a hand toward Ryan, summing up his injuries with a single hand movement.
Ryan raised his good hand in acceptance and let out a soft groan, wincing as he shifted his seat slightly, his discomfort palpable.
"Ryan, the doctor said that it's probably the antibiotics that are making you feel…. Oh." Kirsten slammed to a halt in the doorway, waving the phone around as she surveyed the surprise crowd.
"Mrs. Cohen," Luke acknowledged her sheepishly, suddenly looking quite guilty and self-conscious.
"Mom," Seth nodded to his mother, somewhat mocking Luke, but mainly in an attempt to placate her with a sweet greeting so she didn't physically kick his ass out of the pool house.
Kirsten smiled at Luke, gave her son a questioning glare and then finally landed her gaze on Ryan.
He shrugged, clearly without an explanation for the rampage of events that had taken place during her short leave.
"I think that you guys should probably give Ryan some space…."
"I was just leaving." Luke pointed to the doorway that was instantly occupied by another figure.
"How's he…. Oh." Sandy placed his hand on Kirsten's shoulder as he approached, then stopped behind his wife when he, also, observed the wealth of pool house dwellers.
"Mr. Cohen," Luke nodded again as he proposed the greeting.
"Dad." Seth couldn't contain his smile this time around. His dad had this incredible ability to assume an extraordinarily befuddled expression when he was caught off guard.
Ryan just shrugged again, pulling his sweater tighter when his entire body shook with a shiver.
"Uh…okay," Sandy started. "Well, if you guys wouldn't mind, I'd like to have a word with Ryan." His voice rose at the end, almost as if he was asking his injured foster son's permission. The worry Sandy witnessed sweeping across Ryan's face was almost heartbreaking.
Luke nodded instantly, darting from the tension-thick room with an awkward limp. Kirsten reluctantly complied after several seconds of contemplation and grabbed Seth by the shoulders, navigating him out the door ahead of her.
"But, Mom, I still don't know what --" Seth's complaint was cut short when Kirsten shut the door behind her.
Sandy walked over and sat in the chair opposite the bed, not wanting to crowd Ryan.
"So, how're you doing?"
No response. Ryan tucked his chin tighter into his chest. Sandy waited patiently for several seconds, allowing the usually quiet teen a chance to arrange his thoughts. Sandy knew he was the last person that Ryan wanted to talk to. Though it was completely understandable, Sandy found his frustration growing. How could he sort through this mess if the kid wouldn't say anything?
Sandy caught a few quick glances at his watch throughout the period of silence and once passing the thirty second mark, his building frustration replaced whatever was left of his fleeting patience.
"Look, Ryan --"
"Shit…," Ryan moaned, all but falling off the side of the bed, grabbing the wastebasket with his good arm and pulling it close just in time.
Sandy instinctively jumped to his feet, placing a hand on his foster son's shoulder to prevent him from falling off the edge of the bed to which he was barely clinging. Sandy did his best to support Ryan's upper body, but the kid gasped between his gut wrenching heaves, pulling away from the older man's touch.
"Oh God…sorry, Ryan. I didn't mean to hurt you…." Sandy trailed off when he realized that Ryan was far more concerned with ridding his stomach of its contents than listening to a stuttered apology.
Sandy settled for the small task of rubbing Ryan's back until what seemed like endless heaving started to slow and finally cease altogether. The kid inhaled deeply, the breath catching in his throat and finishing with a heavy shake.
Ryan lowered the wastebasket but didn't release his grip on the rim of the stainless steel bin, keeping his head bowed as a precautionary measure.
"You all right now?" Sandy asked softly, his hand stationary on Ryan's back, pausing at the apex of one of the slow circles.
Ryan groaned and shook his head, leaning forward again as his stomach resumed its convulsing.
Unable to suppress another wave of panic, Sandy turned and urgently called for his wife over his shoulder.
Almost as if she'd been waiting for the emergency summoning, Kirsten had come sprinting into the pool house. Sandy immediately stood back and nervously shifted his weight from foot to foot while watching his wife take care of Ryan. After much soothing and convincing the kid that there was nothing left in his system besides his stomach lining to throw up, Kirsten coaxed Ryan to lie down.
She grabbed a tissue from the night table and wiped at the tears that streaked down Ryan's cheeks from the sheer strain and pain associated with the horrendous and seemingly endless bouts wracking dry heaves.
While Kirsten worked the front line, Sandy was acting on his wife's command, only moving when told to do so. He'd been assigned the secondary tasks of retrieving ice packs from the freezer and keeping Seth from entering the pool house, the latter by far the more difficult of the two jobs.
When Sandy returned from the kitchen with an armful of freezing gel packs, Kirsten was dabbing a cool, wet face cloth over Ryan's sweaty neck and face. He had his eyes closed, but his jumpy breathing pattern and occasional grimace showed he was still quite awake.
"Here," Kirsten demanded, holding out a hand toward her husband, calling for the ice packs by opening and closing her fingers several times.
Sandy obeyed, dropping a gel pack from his numb fingers into his wife's hand.
Kirsten manipulated the item for a few seconds, bending it every which way. When it reached satisfactory pliability, she gently placed the cool object on the right side of Ryan's chest.
He gasped immediately, his eyes shooting open as he tried to swat the invading object off his body with his good hand.
"No, sweetie," Kirsten started, taking the kid's wrist with one hand and holding the ice pack in place with the other. "It's gonna help. I promise."
Ryan's hand went limp beneath her grasp and she slowly lowered it to his side before sticking her hand out toward her husband, demanding another icy package.
Once the kid looked like he was buried underneath one hundred pounds of dark blue gel packs, Kirsten sat back and let out a worried sigh.
"Let him sleep, Sandy," she said softly without turning to face her husband.
Sandy nodded and ran a hand over his face with comparable weariness. "Later, Ryan," he whispered to the sleeping boy. "We'll talk later."
The two adults retreated to the matching chairs at the foot of the bed. Enveloped by the silence, they kept watchful eyes on the frail figure beneath the mound of ice packs.
Sandy was sure his heart skipped a beat when Ryan woke with a start. Discarding his own personal worry, he rose to his feet, and approached the side of the bed.
Ryan's eyes were blurry with the remnants of sleep, but he seemed somewhat more lucid than he'd been an hour earlier.
Kirsten had stayed for a good half hour until the phone started ringing incessantly. She'd exited while grumbling obscenities under her breath directed toward her father, leaving Sandy alone with the sleeping teen.
"How're you feeling now, kid?" Sandy asked, a sad smile playing on his lips.
Ryan coughed, groaned, swallowed and struggled to sit up, reaching for one of the many, now warm, ice packs on his chest. "Wet," he replied groggily.
"Yeah, sorry. We probably should have taken these off a little while ago. I can't imagine they're doing much good right now."
Sandy took over the job of ice pack removal while Ryan watched in silence. The tired teen's eyes drifted shut every few seconds but he ultimately managed to remain awake throughout the process.
"So," Sandy started as he removed the final pack from Ryan's chest, dropped it onto the pile on the floor and retreated to the wicker chair. "You up for a little discussion?" Sandy immediately regretting his tone and quickly added, "I'm serious, if you're not up for it right now, we can talk later when you're feeling better."
After a few awkward seconds, in which Sandy doubted himself numerous times, Ryan readjusted his sling before speaking. "I know what you're going to say," he started, apprehensively watching Sandy out of the corner of his eye. "And I'm sorry, okay?"
Sandy's head shot back as if he'd just been nailed with a sucker punch, his eyebrows furrowing in shocked confusion. Ryan, who must have been uncomfortable with the lack of reaction, turned his head a little more to stare at Sandy head on, his defeated eyes begging for some sort of forgiving response.
"Ryan…I…I wasn't expecting that," Sandy admitted honestly, linking his fingers together and letting his hands fall into his lap with a sigh.
The kid didn't move, he just sat there and waited for Sandy to continue.
"I wanted to talk to you because…I wanted to apologize. I shouldn't have allowed you to go this weekend, and I certainly shouldn't have let you play that game…. I've replayed that moment over and over in my head…and every time I yell at myself for not saying "no". I'm sorry, kid. I really am."
Sandy watched Ryan go through a less dramatic, but similar reaction to his own when he'd received the initial apology.
"I made the choice," Ryan mumbled through a yawn, "not you."
Sandy smiled at that, leaning back in his chair, suddenly much more relaxed. "But you see, Ryan, I too was seventeen once, and I know that when you're that age, it's impossible to walk away. You can't. It's like it's programmed in your brain not to turn away. But as a parent, it's my job to overrule those decisions. It's my job to make the decision that's in your best interest. Though you'd probably think I was just doing it to piss you off, because naturally, that's what parents do, it's just because I know what you don't." Sandy tilted his head back and lost himself in his thoughts. "It's what I like to call "wisdom", but really it's just because I'm old…and I've seen a hell of a lot more than you have. Even a kid like you who's had to endure more hardships than 90 percent of all kids out there, you still don't know what I know. It's one of the few perks that come with age, kid. I'm trying to take advantage of that wisdom."
Ryan just blinked a couple of times, raising his eyebrows for a second at the end of the speech.
"Yeah, I don't expect you to buy into that theory until you're much older, but I mean it, Ryan. I wouldn't lie to you."
Eyeing Sandy through strands of hair, Ryan tilted his head, his blue eyes rimmed with the red hue of exhaustion.
"You know," he started, turning away before continuing, "three people have apologized to me today, but this entire thing was my fault."
"It's not your fault, Ryan. You were…attacked on the field!" Sandy exclaimed, extending his arms toward Ryan to illustrate his point.
"No…I mean…." Ryan's voice was shaking heavily, but it was clear he wasn't going to stop until he expressed confusion on the matter. "I went to that tournament. I let Johnson goad me back into the game. I chose not to listen to you." Though it didn't sound like Ryan had finished his thought, he seemed content to let it stand at that and closed his body down further.
Sandy recognized the natural human reaction to curl up when distressed, and decided not to pursue the matter any further until Ryan was a little more comfortable.
"Look, you just worry about getting better and we'll have plenty of time to sort this entire mess out when you're hanging around the house all summer." Sandy rose to his feet and arranged the pillows at the head of the bed into what he assumed would be most comfortable for the ailing teen. Placing a hand on Ryan's back, he gently lowered him back onto the mattress, pulling up several of the rumpled blankets that had been kicked to the bottom of the large bed.
"You gonna be okay? Can I get you anything?"
Ryan's eyelids twitched, but didn't separate. He let out a soft groan while shaking his head "no" with as little movement as possible.
Sandy brushed the hair from the kid's forehead, took a step back from the bed and let out his own stressed sigh before turning toward the door.
"Yeah?" Sandy responded to the tired calling of his name, pausing in the doorway.
"Can you send Seth in here for a sec?" The words were slurred together and under any other circumstances, Sandy would've sworn Ryan was drunk.
"Okay. But remember," Sandy added slyly, "you asked for it." He caught a flash of a grin through Ryan's pained expression, and smiled to himself while finishing his descent of the pool house stairs. Things were going to be all right.
Ryan tried to swallow his discomfort with little success.
"Dude? Dad said you wanted to see me. You awake?"
"Mmm," Ryan groaned, opening his eyes a crack to see Seth standing uncomfortably close. Despite the pain, Ryan made the effort to adjust his position, if only for the ability to remain awake for the short speech he owed Seth.
"Well?" Seth asked, sporting the same confused expression he'd been wearing all morning.
"Um…yeah," Ryan grunted as he finished rearranging his upper body on the stack of pillows behind him. "Guy. Pileup. Bottom. Me. Injuries…."
Seth's smile slowly expanded and, though feeble, he appreciated the effort on Ryan's part…the effort to be funny, that is.
"Good try, but you promised me a whole lot of adjectives," Seth mocked with the point of a finger.
Ryan nodded and closed his eyes in deep concentration as he prepared the words.
"Gigantic, colossal…bitter guy. Sudden…quick, big pileup. Heavy…pounded…flattened, on the bottom. Me…moaning, gasping…cringing. Many, painful…agonizing injuries."
Seth laughed occasionally and waited patiently as Ryan paused and fought to collect all the adjectives he could to explain the situation accurately.
"So, let me get this straight," Seth started once the list had been completed. "You were quickly, suddenly, pounded and flattened at the bottom of some big pileup by some gigantic, colossal, bitter guy, that caused you to moan, gasp and cringe due to the many, painful agonizing injuries you suffered?"
Ryan opened his eyes a crack in awe of Seth's recollection skills. Despite the fact that he felt as if every single one of his nerve endings had been set on fire, he couldn't help but smile.
"Well, that sounds pretty brutal, man. But thanks for painting such a beautiful picture for me. You've got such a way with words."
Ryan's smile grew but his eyes slid shut once again, his weariness winning out.
"Well, Ryan, I look forward to hearing more about this war you speak of."
"War," Ryan grumbled, trying out the word through the foggy barrier of sleep. "That sounds about right."