Disclaimer: The O.C. is property of Fox.
Author's Note: Edited and re-posted August 9th 2004.


Even as he drove to the chop shop, Ryan knew that the evening was not going to end well. It was like the time he was nine and Trey took him swimming at the local community pool. Some guys who were giving Trey a hard time made a bet that Ryan would be too chicken to jump off the 5-meter board. So Ryan did it. He didn't want his brother to get laughed at. He could still remember the cold feeling in his chest as he climbed up the top ladder, determined not let his brother's tormentors see how scared he was by shaking. When he got to the top, he walked up and jumped, like it was nothing. Trey had been so proud of him, so pleased that his little brother had proved that the Atwoods were men, not mice. Ryan waited until all the other guys had left before climbing awkwardly out of the pool and examining the red mark down the back of his legs from where he'd hit the water flat on. It had taken the best part of two weeks for the bruise to fade, and even today it still made Ryan's cheeks prickle just to think of it. He hadn't had much of a head for heights since. Still, he had no intention of turning round.

Trey would have done the same for him. What Ryan understood, what he knew that Sandy didn't get was that Trey wasn't a bad person. Five months ago, the night Ryan and his brother were busted for stealing a car, Sandy had said Trey wasn't his concern; he'd stolen before, he smoked pot, he was carrying a gun and he'd led a brighter kid astray. That was all he needed to know. He had dismissed him as a lost cause. The other side of the story was that Trey knew that no matter how bright you were, life didn't play fair. Opportunities weren't readily available in Chino, you had to make them and take them. Trey and Ryan had grown up without a father figure and a mother who had priorities other than her children. Neither she, nor any of the men she sought comfort in had any money to spare. Rightly or wrongly, that night Trey had been teaching his brother a skill that might come in handy. And as for the pot, it was cheaper than going to the movies and a hell of a lot more fun. As much as he honored his Bronx roots, Sandy had not had to make the kind of decisions that the Atwood brothers had to in a long time. Ryan knew that in a twisted way, Trey and been looking out for him that night. Tonight was his chance to return the favor.

Ryan slowed down as he looked for the turn off. His heart was beginning to race and his mouth had never felt drier.

"It is a far, far better thing I do now," he muttered under his breath.

He wished he wasn't alone. He wished that Arturo were with him. Or Seth. Not that he'd be much good if things started to go as badly as he suspected they would and Ryan would have had to tape Seth's mouth shut when they actually arrived at their destination, but his incessant babbling was oddly comforting in times of crisis. Like when Luke had been shot and Seth had talked for an hour straight in a splurge of verbal diarrhea whilst they waited for news. Or only a few weeks later, when they waited in another hospital, for news on Marissa and Seth just about set a record for words per minute. He should be available on tape.

"Calm down with Cohen," Ryan smiled, as he turned the car round the corner and into the driveway of the chop shop.

He pulled up and turned off the engine, taking a moment to try and settle his nerves. It wasn't just the fact that he was violating probation, that was making Ryan jumpy, but the fact he was doing something so inherently against his nature by bringing the car to the garage for "re-modeling". It was a pity; this was a nice car and despite the circumstances, he couldn't help but enjoy driving it. Now it was going to be taken to pieces. Ryan very much hoped that the same wasn't going to happen to him, though given the look of disgust and the huge muscles on the guy walking towards him, he doubted it. Apparently Gattas was a serious fan of working out. Ryan tried to remember the basics of fighting, hoping that the rules still applied when your opponent was roughly the size of a small country. Punch with the thumb on the outside of the fist, if you go down, don't give anyone the chance to stomp on your fingers. Another lesson Trey had taught him and one that had proved invaluable after A.J. had moved in with Ryan and his mother.

"You Ryan?" asked Gattas as he strolled towards the car, wiping his hands on a rag almost as oily as his hair. As Ryan nodded in response, he couldn't help but notice that the guy wasn't just sizing up the car. The cold feeling in his chest was getting worse.

"This is a hot ride, I tell you that. Hard to believe your brother could pull it off," Gattas chirped between smirks, "'Cause, uh, he's such a stupid son of a bitch."

Ryan got out of the car, determined not to be fazed, "Yeah, well, what do you think?"

Gattas scuffed him on the shoulder as he answered, "What huh? What do I think about what?"

Seth probably wouldn't have been able to resist saying something goofy in response to his rhetorical question, but Ryan knew better. He was on a tightrope and someone had just taken down the safety net. Too little bravado, he knew, would make him an easy target and would result in a hiding; too much would result in another, only this time perhaps with added weight of a wrench behind it. Ryan tried to act like he had conversations like this everyday,

"Are we good? You take the car, Trey's off the hook," he replied, hoping the impatient tone coupled with the submissive question was the right way to go. Gattas smirked again and put his hands on his hips. Not a good sign.

"Oh, is that the deal?"

"It's what he told me."

"Huh. You fellas hear that?" said the chop shop guy, talking to someone over Ryan's shoulder. Ryan turned to look. Two guys, one bald, both ugly. And pretty much twice the size of him. Crap. They came up close behind Ryan, getting between him and the hot car. Exit strategy number one, out the window. Ryan turned his attention to considering exit strategy number two as the guy kept talking, "I've been waiting six months for this and there's something called interest."

"Hey, I don't have anything." Ryan shot back, hoping fervently that Marissa wasn't going to get the urge to call him to check on him in the next two minutes. He had a feeling Sandy's cell phone was going to come in very useful, very soon.

"Well, interest needs to be paid, alright?" snapped the guy, before delivering a punch to Ryan's face so vicious it snapped his head back and he staggered backwards into the chain link fence. He was almost relieved; the cards were on the table, he knew the score now. This was going to be one of the bad days. How bad depended how quick he could get in his retaliation. He cracked an elbow into the guy's face, like Trey had taught him once, going for the cheekbone where he could do fast damage, maybe give himself the opportunity to run. It achieved the desired effect, surprising even Ryan as he slipped round the side of his aggressor, heading down the driveway to the street where a three on one fight might at least get noticed, if not broken up. Years of practice dodging his mother's boyfriends meant that Ryan was fast; unfortunately, years of working dodgy deals and running from cops meant that these guys were faster.

"Get back here, you little punk!" shouted the bald guy as he sprinted after Ryan.

Ryan drove hard towards the gate, focused solely on his getaway, expecting the blow come at any second. When it finally did, the force of the crowbar connecting with his back nearly made him throw up; the blow bringing sharp pain to his back and knocking the breath out of him. He dropped instantly, falling to his knees and putting his hands out to save his face and remembered just in time to ball his fingers into a fist as the second heavy stamped on his left hand. The pain shot through Ryan's body with a dull thud. Instinctively, he pulled his arm into towards his chest in an effort to squash the pain out of his hand. He didn't think it was broken, but he'd been wrong before. Ryan sat up on his knees, trying to think and to catch his breath, still winded from the first blow. The bald man raised the crowbar again and Ryan had just enough time to raise his left arm to block the second, this time aimed at his head, crying out in pain as his felt it break. Feeling the urge to be sick, Ryan leant forward, curled in a ball, resting his head on the ground. A kick to his ribs from steel-capped boots flipped him on to his back and the bolt of electric white-hot pain made spots dance before his eyes.

When they cleared, Gattas was standing over him, nursing his cheek and holding a gun. He pressed it to Ryan's forehead.

"Tell your brother, when he gets out, he better watch out, okay?"

"Okay," Ryan whispered hoarsely back. Being given a message was good; it meant he was going to keep his teeth. He let out a shaky breath, too relieved that the confrontation was over to care about showing it.

The guy stood up, "Thanks for the car," he smirked before whipping the pistol hard and fast into Ryan's nose.

The taste of blood in his mouth was oddly comforting; familiar, and proof that he was going to get to fight another day. Ryan smiled wearily to himself; too tired to dodge as the steel capped boot aimed for his temple connected and took him inevitably into quiet darkness.