Disclaimer: The O.C. is property of Fox.
Author's Note: So long, farewell, ourobouros, painted ponies going up and down, etc.
Ryan wiped away the condensation from his bathroom mirror and regarded his reflection. It had been two weeks since his close encounter of the crowbar kind and the bruising on his face had finally all but gone. His nose was still slightly swollen and had an odd disconnected feeling as he gave it an experimental prod, but his blackened eyes had returned to normal and if you didn't know he'd been in a fight, then chances were you'd assume that his broken arm was down to everyday teenage escapades. Of course, everyone round here knew that it was really because the hooligan from Chino with the pyromaniacal tendencies couldn't control his violent impulses, but he could live with it. His stitches were out, his ribs were healed, and after a little persuasion on Ryan's part including a promise to come back if he encountered problems, the Cohen's family doctor had given him a clean bill of health and no extra medications to deal with. Much to his relief, Ryan had been correct in his guess that the asthma wasn't going to be an issue. Aside from the occasional whistle in his breath some mornings that he'd always had, he'd been fine, and he'd had no cause to use the inhaler Ed had prescribed him other than to show the doctor he was doing it right. It had taken a few days for Sandy and Kirsten to stop looking at him like he was going to break every time he cleared his throat, or heaven forbid, coughed, but things were finally getting back to normal.
Then there was school. Despite anticipating a trial by fire, it hadn't been too much of a nightmare and after a few days off which he spent catching up with his reading, Ryan'd gone back and had now survived a whole week back at school, complete with a one-on-one with Dr Kim, full of thinly veiled displeasure.
But best of all, thanks to submitting to Seth for an afternoon's patient varnishing, Ryan didn't have to worry about his cast getting wet and with a lot of care and by taping a rubber glove over his hand he could even manage a shower. Alone. Which was an even bigger relief to him than Arturo's timely appearance at the chop shop a few weeks earlier. In fact, aside from the fact that he needed a haircut, something that Trey would no doubt tease him about later, Ryan felt pretty good.
Wiping off a few droplets of water from his cast with a towel as he went, he wandered back into his bedroom, nearly jumping out of his skin when he was met with the sight of Kirsten, her thoughts a thousand miles away as she gazed out the window, drinking coffee. An extra mug sat steaming on the kitchen counter and Ryan made a beeline for it.
"Do you guys do this to Seth as well, or is it just me you like jump start?" he asked, regaining his composure in record time as he breathed in the rich aroma. Barely a day had gone by lately when there hadn't been someone to greet him in the morning; mostly it was Sandy, but Seth, Kirsten and even Marissa had all put in appearance. It was sweet really, but unlike the Cohens, Ryan was just not a morning person and all the coffee in the world, however appreciated, wasn't going to help.
Hearing Ryan, Kirsten landed back on earth, "It's just you," she greeted him warmly, noting the towel that Ryan haphazardly folded with his teeth, "You, see you laughed at us, but admit it, us Cohens are geniuses."
Ryan smiled as he sipped at the coffee, "I'm just glad that you use your powers for good."
"Well, aside from the radioactive waste we use to power the house."
"Aside from that," said Ryan, as Kirsten's phone began to ring. Irritated, she retrieved it and took a look at the number, "Not again," she said, her irritation clear.
"Sorry; one second," she said to Ryan before answering it, "Hey Dad... no I'm fine... It's only eight forty five... No, Dad, look I told you, I'm working from home today... because I wanted to spend some time with the boys at the weekend, that's why... Hey, that's unfair."
Ryan couldn't help but the juxtaposition between the light tone of Kirsten's mismatched with her weary expression as she tried to placate her father. He tried to make himself inconspicuous as he straightened up his bed, cringing as he knocked over the bedside lamp with a clatter, startling Kirsten.
"Sorry," he whispered, setting it to rights, relieved that he hadn't chipped it.
"That's okay," she whispered back, "No, I was talking to Ryan... It's nothing. Because we're talking, or we were," she added with a frosty edge that didn't slip by Caleb undetected, "No, of course he's not... He's fine. You can talk to him if you want," she added wickedly, causing Ryan to nearly choke on his coffee, "Fine... Look, Dad, I'll stop by later, okay? I don't know, after lunch? I said, lunch, not brunch... Yes, I promise, Okay?... Okay. Love you."
She hung up and regarded Ryan with a frustrated sigh, "My Dad, surprise, surprise. Hasn't quite worked out the concept of weekends yet."
"I'm sorry," said Ryan, accurately reading between the lines, "I didn't mean to give your Dad any more ammunition."
Kirsten paused in between sips of coffee. Unlike Seth's, Ryan's intuition was sometimes so spot on it was uncanny.
"Hell, that's okay," she said, not attempting to hide the fact that he'd correctly deduced the true topic of conversation, "Makes a change from him taking potshots at my marriage."
"And I thought my dad was charming," said Ryan as he went on a hunt for his sneakers.
"You ever go see him?" asked Kirsten leaping on Ryan's tidbit of information as casually as possible.
"Once or twice. Not for a long time. He's not what you'd call a great role model. Hence jail."
"Well, none of us can choose where we come from," she said trying not to sound too patronizing this early in the morning, "More's the pity," she added, as her phone began to ring once more and she switched it off.
"Sucks, doesn't it?" said Ryan, spying his shoes under the chair next Kirsten and retrieving them.
"It does indeed. And yet we still love them," Kirsten lamented with a half-smile.
"Guess so," he replied, sounding less assured than she did as he sat down on the bed and pulled on his sneakers. Tying his shoelaces one-handed with well-practiced efficiency, Ryan couldn't help but notice that Kirsten was twitching under the burden of having something potentially awkward to say and not knowing how to say it.
"What?" he asked finally, deciding to make it easy for her.
"You're very good at that," she said, again acknowledging his perception and loosening up a little.
"I know," Ryan responded amiably, wanting to get any further deep and meaningfuls out of the way before breakfast.
"I was thinking. About this afternoon," she said before faltering again.
"Yeah?" Ryan asked apprehensively, wondering where this was going and suspecting he wasn't going to like it.
"I just wanted to say, that it's still fine about you going and everything- "
"- Good," he interrupted bluntly, before apologizing, "Sorry."
"That's okay, uh..." Kirsten said, trying to regain her fragmented train of thought, "Good. I just wanted to say it's fine for you to go. And I think it would be good if you did. But I also think if you decide you don't want to, that's fine too." She looked over at Ryan, who was studying his coffee with unwarranted fascination. "I'm saying this wrong," she said with a sigh.
"No, you're not," said Ryan looking up at her, still not entirely sure which direction she was headed at the conversation from, "It's fine."
"What I'm trying to say, however inarticulately, is that if you want to go see Trey this afternoon, and next week and the week after, that's fine; if you want to go this afternoon and never again, that's okay too. And if you decide not to go at all, or you want one of us to go in your place we'll support you. Either way, it's entirely up to you."
Ryan blinked slowly, as he processed the offer and considered it. The fact that Kirsten hadn't offered up Ryan going to visit Trey alone as an option hadn't passed him by unnoticed. That slightly heated conversation had already come up a few days ago when Ryan had first voiced his wishes to go back and see his brother. In a rare display of diplomacy, Seth had slipped quietly out of the room as Ryan and Sandy's tone had become more abrupt until finally Sandy had pulled the parent card. Although he wasn't happy about it, Ryan begrudgingly knew that it was just the Cohen's way of looking out for him. Of course, that didn't mean he had to like it, but still, at least they were giving him some choice.
"Thanks," he said at length after deliberating them, "But I want to go. At least this afternoon."
"Okay then. And I know we decided that Sandy would go with you, but I'm free too, if you'd prefer. Or even Seth. Sandy'll get over it."
"Cool," said Ryan appreciatively, his thoughts drifting back to Kirsten's ill-fated visit to see him at the juvenile detention center, "But I think maybe Sandy should come this time. Jail suits him. Uh..." he said awkwardly, wincing at his turn of phrasing, "You know what I mean. Doesn't faze him."
"I know what you mean," Kirsten said kindly, "Whatever you want to do, it's okay with us. Come on. Let's get breakfast."
"Okay," Ryan agreed, getting to his feet and heading for the door.
"Aren't you forgetting something?" she said, with a mock stony glare.
"Right, sorry, " said Ryan sheepishly, retrieving his abandoned coffee mug from by his bed.
"I meant this, Ryan, as you should well know," said Kirsten with amusement as she retrieved his sling from under a cushion and held it out to him, "This house is not used to its kids tidying up after themselves."
Ryan scowled, "Do I have to? It's not like my arm even hurts anymore."
"Do you want me to answer that or shall I just glare?"
"Is that a quote from something?" Ryan suspiciously.
"Ryan," Kirsten admonished firmly, trading the sling for his empty mug, "Don't make me use my powers for evil."
"Okay, okay!" said Ryan sulkily accepting the sling and slipping his arm inside. Kirsten smiled as she opened the door and they both made their way across to the house.
"And before you ask, yes I slept well, and; no, the fact that I only want a bagel for breakfast has nothing to do with nerves or anything else."
"Taken your antibiotics?" she asked amiably as they entered the house.
"Crap," said Ryan doubling back to the pool house, Kirsten's good-natured laugh echoing softly behind him.
After lunch, Kirsten had finally surrendered to the cry Caleb's incessant phone calls and had headed into the Newport Group office for what she had assured the others would be, "a flying visit, ten minutes, tops." An hour and twenty minutes later, there was still no sign of her and Sandy was anxious to get going. He stuck his head into the den where Seth and Ryan were sitting on the floor engaged in their latest Sega obsession; death by Columns. He was almost to loath to break them up; the sight of Seth insisting on employing Ryan's one-hand-bracing-the-controller-against-the-knee-technique so as not to give himself an unfair advantage and yet still getting his ass kicked was incredibly endearing. Plus there was also the fact that Ryan's last trip to down to Chino had been an unmitigated disaster.
"Ryan, we need to think about heading out," he said, pushing his misgivings aside.
"Not now, Dad, I'm making a comeback," said Seth without looking up, as a cascade of jewels brought him back on to level pegging.
"Five minutes, Ryan?" asked Sandy rhetorically.
"It'll be over in two," said Ryan deadpanned antagonistically.
"Ho, ho! So confident! Even if I do this?" said Seth slipping into a frenzy of button pushing, before clumsily dropping the controller on the floor.
"Maybe one and a half," Ryan added, ignoring Seth's narrow glare.
"See you in a moment," Sandy said with a smile before departing.
Seth retrieved his controller and focused his attention to the competition as victory slipped ever further away from him.
"Hey man, is it just me, or is your screen filling up?" teased Ryan.
"Kiss it, Chino," said Seth, reverting to two-handed play as he frenetically tried to salvage the game.
"Say goodnight, Gracie," Ryan taunted as Seth's space finally ran out. Defeated, he threw down his controller in exaggerated frustration.
"You're irritatingly good at this, you do realize that?" he said, standing up and offering Ryan a hand.
"I know. Thanks," said Ryan, accepting Seth's help and getting to his feet.
"Re-match when you get back?"
"Sure," agreed Ryan, retrieving his sling from the floor and re-adjusting it round his shoulder.
"So..." said Seth, after a stilted moment of silence, "Tell Trey I said hi. If that's not too weird."
"It's not. I will. He liked Legion," he offered.
"You see, we're all connected by graphic artistry of comics, it's like it was meant to be," Seth bumbled, "I should definitely go with you next time. That is if you go. And if you don't, it's totally cool, 'cause I mean he's your brother and everything. Although he's also sort of technically legally mine too, which is strange because it was always just little old me rattling around here by myself and I always kind of wanted a brother and now I have two. Well, not exactly but-
"Seth," interrupted Ryan before his friend spiraled completely out of control.
"I'm doing it again, aren't I?" said Seth, grinding to a halt.
Ryan nodded, "Thanks for the offer, but trust me, it's better this way."
"Oh, okay," Seth replied, trying not to let his disappointment shine through.
"It's just... I've got a brother; I don't want or need another," Ryan said, instantly regretting his choice of words as Seth's face fell. "I didn't mean it like that..." he said, trying again, "Things between Trey and me are kind of twisted; I love him, you know but I kind of have to. Trust me, he can be a real asshole sometimes. Plus he's bigger than me."
"Hate to break it to you, Ry, but quite a few people are bigger than you," said Seth, softening a little as Ryan threw him his trademark sideways glance before looking down awkwardly and continuing.
"Trey's family, but so are my Mom and Dad and look how well that turned out. But you, you're like my best friend. And I never really had one of those before. I kind of like it, knowing that you've got my back; that it's a choice, not an obligation. It means something. You get it?"
"I do now," Seth replied, finally feeling comfortable with the Atwood-Cohen band of brothers situation, "And you know, ditto."
"You did not just say ditto," Ryan rebuked in mock disgust.
"So, good luck?" said Seth, shrugging it off and clasping hands with Ryan in the conventionally approved half-hug of teenaged guys.
"Thanks," said Ryan as he left, calling over his shoulder, "Keep practicing."
"You mock me with your words," Seth called after Ryan as he met up with Sandy in the hall and they headed out the front door, "But you will see. The underdog always comes back in the third act. It's classic cinematic narrative, Ryan... And I'm talking to myself."
By the time Sandy and Ryan had parked the car in the visitors' lot at the jail they had completely run out of things to say to one another. Except of course, for the obvious and Ryan had absolutely no intention of giving in first. Sandy knew that if he wanted to have the traditional last chance saloon talk, then he was going to have to be the one to broach the subject.
"So. Here we are," he started, cursing inwardly at his lack of tact and originality.
"Looks like," replied Ryan, not giving him anything to work with.
Sandy gave up. "Listen Ryan, you don't want to hear it and I don't want to say it, but
are you sure about this?"
"You're right, I don't want to hear it," said Ryan, taking Sandy aback with his rare display of direct animosity.
"Well, some things just have to be said anyway," Sandy declared, "And this is one of them. You are not your brother's keeper. You should not feel obligated. If you don't want to go see him, I will go explain."
"And say what?" Ryan snorted, scratching at his cast habitually.
"Whatever you want me to. Or if you don't know what to say, I'll wing it," said Sandy putting his hand on Ryan's to stop his scratching and gain his attention, "My point is, you shouldn't have to worry about this stuff, Ryan, you're just a kid."
"I think we both know that's not true," Ryan said levelly, startling Sandy once more with his directness.
"Perhaps not in the same sense as Seth is, maybe-"
"Look, I can't just forget where I came from, who I left behind," Ryan interrupted with irritation, his bitterness clear.
"I know that-" Sandy said, backing off in a futile attempt to pacify the rising anger of the Ryan-shaped time bomb sitting next to him.
"- Then stop acting like I can. You knew what you were getting when you signed up for this. You knew what I'd been through and who'd put me through it. Or didn't you read my file?" Ryan asked accusatorily, finally broaching the one unofficially taboo topic of conversation between them.
"You know I have," Sandy admitted, suddenly feeling awkward and ashamed of what it had told him about his foundling's past.
"Then you should get it. I don't just turn my back on the people I care about."
"Even when you should?"
"Okay," Sandy shrugged, knowing when to cut his losses.
"Okay. Good," said Ryan, still keen with anger as he clumsily unbuckled his seatbelt and got out of the car. Closing the door a good deal more forcefully than he needed to, Ryan regarded the jail's series of imposing barbed wire fences that centered around his older brother, before turning back to Sandy.
Seeing Ryan kick at the dirt as he looked back at him, Sandy breathed a secret sigh of relief, "Yeah," he replied at length, "I'm coming."
After passing through the last in a seemingly endless line of security checks, Ryan and Sandy approached the final gate that led to the visitor's area on the roof.
"You ready for this?" asked Sandy, already knowing the answer.
"Are you?" Ryan shot back without a second's pause.
"Touché," conceded Sandy, as they walked through the gate. He watched as Ryan scanned the faces around him for his brother, his demeanor stiffening slightly as he locked eyes with a tall, serious looking young man sitting at a table in the corner. Trey's expression creased with guilt at the sight of his little brother and for a moment, Sandy wondered if Ryan was going to change his mind and back out of the visit.
"That him?" Sandy asked redundantly.
"Uh-huh," Ryan muttered in response, before walking towards Trey and leaving Sandy standing alone behind him. Approaching Trey, Ryan had never felt more homesick, not even in the long night in the hospital two weeks ago. Imperfect as it was, this was the one relationship in his life that required no second-guesses, no definitions and never would.
Without a word, Trey came over to meet him and enveloped him in a wholehearted bear hug that offered more comfort for Ryan's broken arm and expressed more gratitude for the reason for it than words alone could communicate.
"God, Ryan I am so sorry," he said, breathing him in.
"I know, " Ryan said, his voice muffled against his brother's shoulder, "It's okay."
Breaking the hug before they were asked to, Ryan and Trey retreated to the table and sat down.
"So, you bought you company again," Trey stated, nodding in the direction of Sandy as he made their way over to join them.
"Not by choice," Ryan said grumpily.
"Nah it's cool," said Trey, standing up and offering his hand to the older man, "Hey, you must be Sandy."
"Yeah," said Sandy, shaking his hand, a little surprised.
"Trey," Trey introduced himself, sitting down again. Sandy followed suit, focusing on the older youth's genuinely warm body language than the slightly unnerving hostility of his little brother's.
"So... thanks for letting Ryan come back down here," Trey offered, ignoring Ryan's sulky disposition, "I know I'm not exactly your favorite person right now."
"Well, you should meet my father-in-law," Sandy, hoping a little levity at the expense of one Ryan's lesser liked member's of the Newport community might loosen him up a little, but to no avail. Ryan snorted in response, returning once again to the mindless distraction picking at his cast. Never mind two weeks from now, at this rate his thumb was going to be free by next Tuesday.
"Hey Ryan," Trey said, putting his hand over his brother's to gain his attention, locking on to his eyes when Ryan looked up, "Why don't you let me and Mr. Cohen talk for a while?"
When Ryan didn't shift, he added, "Go on, we'll talk in a moment, okay?"
"Whatever," said Ryan petulantly, standing up and heading over towards the edge of the roof.
"You know, you're going to have to teach me how you do that," Sandy joked lightly to Trey, impressed by his ability to handle Ryan's non-verbal cocoon.
"Practice," Trey said lightly, "Or bribery. Used to- never mind..." He trailed off.
"What?" asked Sandy, his curiosity peaked.
Trey sighed quietly, "He used to stand as look out for me and 'Turo when we stole my Mom's liquor. Paid him in cigarettes. Yeah, I know," Trey added, seeing Sandy's look of disapproval, "Great role model, huh?"
"I've encountered worse," said Sandy, thinking of Dawn, "Believe me."
"You must hate me," said Trey, looking down, picking at his fingers just as Ryan had picked at his cast moments earlier.
"God no," Sandy replied truthfully, "I don't know if I can trust you, but no, Trey I don't hate you."
Trey looked up, touched by the honesty and sincerity of the words of a man he barely knew and to whom he owed so much.
"You can trust me. I swear. What I did, what Ryan did for me, I never should have asked him. I was just... I know I'm selfish. And I guess I thought Ryan would be able to figure something out, not have to go down there. He was always the smart one, you know?"
"He's a bright kid. Most of the time," Sandy acknowledged, beginning to get a picture of Trey, of what his life had been like. Any way you looked at it, it was sobering.
"He could be something, you know?" Trey said, his voice tinged with pride and regret, "He just needs convincing."
"We're working on it," Sandy replied. He followed Trey's gaze to where Ryan was standing looking out across the city, its landscape slipping away with the fading hazy sunlight. As if sensing their eyes focused on him, Ryan looked round, guiltily dropping his glance to the floor as their expressions met.
After a moment, Sandy reached into his pocket and handed Trey a business card, scribbling his home number on the back, just as he had on the sidewalk for Ryan all those months ago.
"Here's my card. There's my home, office and cell numbers on there. You need anything, legal, personal, whatever, call me."
"Really, it's okay," said Trey, not taking the card, "You don't have to do this."
"You really are Ryan's brother, aren't you? Just take it," Sandy said, trying again.
Reluctantly, and more than a little puzzled, Trey accepted the card, "Thanks," he said, regarding it.
"Honestly, I hope you never need to call. But if you do, just pick up the phone, and I'll help in any way I can. And if you want to see Ryan, that's great, I think you guys should stay in touch. But hear this," he said, his tone taking on sudden deadly sincerity, "If you ever, and I mean ever get Ryan involved in something like this again, I will personally make sure that you spend the rest of your sentence sharing a cell with a guy who lives on nothing but salami and boiled onions."
Trey smiled in spite of the threat, "I promise."
"I'm not kidding, I'll get it shipped in special. And you can kiss any chance of parole good bye," Sandy added, not liking his own words, but aware of the necessity of his message.
"You have my word," replied Trey with as much conviction as he could muster, "Never again."
"Good," said Sandy, finally running out of things to say, "Okay then."
"Can I ask you something?" inquired Trey suddenly, sensing their talk had drawn to a close. Sandy nodded.
"Why are you helping us? I mean, Ryan?" Trey asked uncertainly, "Trust me, nobody wants more for him than I do, but what you've done for him... it's not like he's even your kid or nothin'."
Sandy regarded the young man sitting across from him; saw his still desperate search to understand a generosity he'd forgotten the world was capable of. He looked over at Ryan again as if to refresh his memory, who, caught again stealing glances, instinctively sensed the truce that had occurred between the two men and acknowledged them both with a little wave. Sandy returned the gesture, before turning back to Trey and answering simply,
"Because he gave me and my wife back our son."
Trey remained silent, knowing that no response was expected and offering none. Sandy stood up and held out his hand.
"Take care of yourself Trey."
"Thanks," Trey replied, shaking it warmly, "For everything."
Sandy nodded and turned away, heading towards Ryan as he made his way back towards his brother.
"You're it," Sandy cracked, punching him lightly on the shoulder, "Take as long as you need."
"Thanks," said Ryan appreciatively, before adding in a slightly embarrassed tone, "And, you know, sorry. Again."
"Forget it. See you back at the car," he said, before heading over to the exit and leaving Ryan alone to regard his brother. Now that he really had the chance to talk to him, he had absolutely no idea what to say.
Sitting back down at the table once more, Ryan decided to get the unpleasant part of the conversation out of the way first.
"The car's delivered; the debts' paid," he said, relieved that things were finally over, "But I am never doing anything for you again. You understand?"
"I'm sorry, man," Trey said genuinely.
"I could have been arrested. He could have killed me."
"I know. And I also know that no one else would have done this for me. But I get it. We're done."
"Yeah, we are," said Ryan, his emotions conflicting, swerving more and more erratically between anger, remorse and regret with each passing second. Sensing his little brother's twisting bittersweet feelings, Trey stepped in, consciously lightening his tone, hoping Ryan's pervading mood would follow suit.
"Your cast is shiny," he said, placing his hand gently over Ryan's to stop him from picking at it again.
"I varnished it," Ryan said, taking his good hand from under Trey's and sitting on it in an attempt to curb his compulsion before continuing, "Seth's idea. Means I can shower. Kind of."
"That's cool. You know, I didn't want say anything at the time, but before, with your foot? You got a little ripe."
"Thanks bro, I appreciate that," said Ryan allowing a smile to escape from his lips.
Mission accomplished, Trey turned his attention to the messages and doodles that adorned almost every available inch of Ryan's cast. He couldn't believe how many different sets of handwriting had scrawled well wishes over the roughly textured surface. He was keenly aware that he didn't know any of the people that the messages belonged to. He wasn't part of Ryan's daily life anymore; it felt wrong and it hurt.
"What's with the nail polish?" he asked, pushing his feelings aside and turning Ryan's arm carefully to take a closer look, "Are these blobs supposed to be flowers? I thought you were into architecture, not agriculture."
"I was attacked by a ten year old," Ryan said, slipping his sling off and holding his arm out for Trey to study, "Babysitting Caitlin." Seeing Trey's eyebrows rise questioningly he elaborated, "Girlfriend's little sister. A monster in Mary-Janes."
"Babysitting huh?" Trey replied, Ryan's fashion reference passing him by, "You must really like her."
"Yeah. Probably be easier if I didn't. Her mother hates me."
"No, I mean really hates me. Like the way Mr. Dalston hated us hates me," said Ryan referring to the Atwood's neighbor in Fresno, an odious man with no redeeming social qualities whatsoever and the hoarder of an indecent number of Trey and Ryan's stray baseballs.
"Wow," said Trey, feeling for his little brother, "You going to let it stop you?"
"Nope," said Ryan casually.
"Good for you," he said impressed, before teasing, "She's really hot."
"I know," Ryan smiled wryly, not rising to bait.
Spotting a small unadorned patch of orange down the back of Ryan's forearm, Trey picked up the half chewed pen that Sandy had absent-mindedly left lying on the table and started to write.
"So what happened to yellow?" he asked, as he concentrated hard on keeping his writing small and neat over the uneven surface of the cast.
"I thought orange. Orange County, you know," said Ryan, trying and failing to get a look at what his brother was writing, "It was meant to be a joke."
"Yeah, 'cause you've always been the funny one, Ry," cracked Trey.
"I was on morphine; everything's funny," said Ryan defensively before adding, "Seth thought it was funny. You'd like him. Talks a lot. Drives me crazy, but in a good way."
"I'd like to meet him, you know, someday," Trey said, giving Ryan his arm back,
"He said the same thing about you," Ryan said suddenly feeling oddly reluctant to talk about his semi-sibling with his biological brother. There was a distance between his family in Chino and his family in Newport that Ryan still didn't know how to reconcile. There was a choice to be made. All at once, Ryan knew that this was probably going to be the last time he and Trey spoke for a long while.
"You'll have to get him to tell you what this says," Trey said, tapping Ryan's cast with the pen before handing it back to him, "And will you thank him for the comic? It was a hit with the guys down my wing; we've got ourselves a whole bartering thing going on. Who knew so many geeks were in prison?"
Ryan nodded and coughed, cursing inwardly as he noted the slight whistle that accompanied it, hoping Trey hadn't noticed too. The last thing Ryan wanted was to provoke his older brother's protective instincts and then walk away from his life leaving him with nothing to protect.
"Hey, you wheezing again?" Trey said, immediately picking up on it, "You said what happened at the hospital was a one-off."
"It was," Ryan said, lightly brushing off his brother's concern, "I'm fine, Trey."
"You should be taking better care of yourself."
"I said I'm fine."
"Then why you doing your impression of Steamboat Willie?"
"Drop it, Trey," said Ryan, giving his brother a hard stare to back up his words. It would have been more convincing without the lingering musical accompaniment that followed. Unable and unwilling to conceal his concern, Trey tried again.
"Come on, squirt, why aren't you taking care of yourself?"
"Because a guy with a crowbar kicked my ass. And pretty much every other part of me."
Trey dropped his gaze and looked down, not wanting to offer hollow apologies for something that neither of them could change. Instead, Trey gave Ryan the time he needed, listening discreetly as his brother's breathing evened out once more. After a moment, Ryan spoke.
"Really, I'm fine," he said sincerely, "You don't have to worry about me anymore," he added, finally absolving Trey from the burden of care that he'd had to carry for too long. Trey looked down again briefly, knowing what Ryan was doing and appreciating it and hating it in equal measure.
"So... Sandy," he said to Ryan, "He seems to really care about you."
"Yeah. Yeah, he does," Ryan replied, taking the time to acknowledge his guardian's feelings towards him, even if they didn't still didn't quite make sense.
"How's about you let him?"
Ryan met his big brother's gaze, "Okay," he said.
Trey looked over towards the exit, as some of the other inmates' visitors began to drift towards it. Not wanting to end his time with Ryan on somebody else's terms, he stood up.
"You should go."
"Well, I'll c-come by to see you," Ryan stammered, his lack of conviction penetrating his tone.
"Don't," Trey said kindly yet firmly, "You've got a chance, little brother. You've gotta leave me behind. Leave all of this behind."
Ryan could only blink in acknowledgement, "Take care of yourself."
"Yeah," replied Trey, no longer wanting to delay the inevitable, "Well, you should jet. You've got people waiting for you," he said wishing he could be one of them. He pulled Ryan into another tight embrace, letting go whilst he thought he still could.
His words and his mettle exhausted, Ryan walked away from Trey, baseball, history, familiarity and comfort, and towards Sandy and the benevolent uncertainty that was his new life.
Back at the car, Sandy sat patiently as Ryan walked slowly across the lot towards him. Even from here, he could see a slight redness to the boy's eyes that echoed his downcast body language. As Ryan approached the car, Sandy leant over the passenger's side and opened the door for him. Wordlessly, Ryan slipped inside and pulled the door gently closed behind him, as if to apologize to the vehicle for slamming it earlier. The two of them sat quietly together, neither saying a word, the silence of the car permeated only by the faint whistling breaths that emanated quietly from Ryan. Understanding the youngster's need for space, Sandy suppressed every parental urge within him and said nothing as Ryan quietly calmed himself. Marveling yet again at Sandy's inherent ability to read him, without a word Ryan leant forward and retrieved his inhaler from the glove compartment, not caring one way or the other what it meant for his tough guy image as he used it.
"Better?" asked Sandy tactfully after a moment.
Ryan nodded, "Uh-huh."
"Okay. Put your seatbelt on," he said, pulling on his own and clicking it into place.
"Sandy?" asked Ryan, his voice slightly hesitant as he held up his left arm for him to read, "What does this say?"
Sandy looked at the neat flowing script that Trey had added to Ryan's cast and smiled.
"You're a good man, Charlie Brown."
Ryan joined him in smiling at Trey's choice of words, feeling for the first time in a long time that things were going to turn out all right. He reached behind him for his seatbelt, grateful for the assistance as Sandy stretched across to help him. The older man sat back in his seat momentarily before suddenly reaching a hand into Ryan's hair and ruffling it up affectionately.
"You need a hair cut," Sandy joked, "You look like a hobo."
"I know," Ryan replied amiably, ducking away with a warm half-smile. Scruffy hair and scruffy eyebrows regarded each other contentedly for a moment.
"Come on," said Sandy with a nod, "Let's go."
So, that's it. And if you made it here in one go I'll be, a) impressed and b) touched.
Thank you to everyone who read, reviewed and pinata-ed, especially (in no particular order) ctoan, muchtvs, miss suga, connell, famous99, Brandywine, Storymom, Teacher Tam, Queen of the Elven City, Elzed, parisindy and Joey, all of whom took the time to review me time after time.
Special shout to all of the above TWoP-pers and the rest, who put up with Briticisms, nagging and overposting and still kept reading!
And yes, Kirsten is quoting at him. Now let's not always see the same hands...
And an extra note, to those of you crazy enough to try the one handed shoe lace tying when you don't need to (you know who you are), the trick is to stand on lace whilst you pull it tight before making the loop. Then it's all down to tactical use of the fingers!