Okay, So I'm starting another multi-chapter fiction. I'll be posting it on fanfic too. Thanks to SisterRose for acting as beta. All mistakes are of course mine.
Disclaimer: I don't harbor any delusions about own the O.C. or any of its characters. It all belongs to Fox and Josh Schwartz.
Ryan leaned back in his chair and groaned inwardly, putting a hand on his stomach. He felt like a stuffed turkey. The table had been laden with enough food to feed a small army. It was just like every other holiday in the Cohen household, but he had never learned how to eat just enough to satisfy his hunger. He always had to taste a little bit of everything so no one was insulted.
Everyone contributed to Chrismukkah dinner. Even Kirsten, now that she was taking cooking lessons with all her extra free time since Seth and he were away at college. Sandy had been in charge of the rack of lamb. Seth had been in charge of grilling, it was the only thing he could do that came close to cooking. It was a skill he had acquired during his summer in Portland. Ryan had surreptitiously supervised Kirsten while she made the yams, no one quite trusted her cooking abilities yet, and he had contributed with potato latkes. The Nana had taught him how to make them on her last visit and he thought it would add to Hanukkah portion of the celebrations.
"Always grate the potatoes by hand, Ryan. Sure you can use a food processor or some other new fangled contraption, but there's nothing like hand grated potato latkes."
They were standing in middle of the Cohen kitchen, just the two of them. The Nana smelled like a mixture of hot oil and smoke.
"Does Sandy know you're still smoking?" he asked. It had been a year, and the Nana was in remission, which her doctor called nothing less than a miracle.
She winked. "Does he know you still smoke?"
Ryan looked down, trying to hide the blush that was creeping into his face. "I really did quit this time," he mumbled. "Kirsten bought me the nicotine patch."
Sophie threw her head back and laughed, her jet black hair falling all over her face. Ryan grinned wide, glad to be able to make Sandy's mother happy, even if it was at his expense.
"Come on," she urged. "Let's get back to work. "Sandy will be home any minute and it will be time to light the menorah."
She scooted behind Ryan and put her hand over his while he grated the potatoes. When they were done, she showed him how to crack and egg and to check it for blood. One of the laws of being Kosher she explained. Ryan shrugged and did as she told him, and didn't bother reminding her that they didn't keep Kosher.
"Just a pinch of pepper and salt to taste. And no need to add any oil, they'll be plenty of that when you fry the latkes." She poured the oil into the frying pan, not measuring what went in.
"Kirsten's going to freak if she sees how much oil goes in there."
"Oh please." Sophie waved her hand. "Kirsten is the queen of takeout. You're going to tell me she's that weight conscience."
Ryan cocked his head to the side and raised his brows.
Sophie grinned and patted his cheek. "I love it when you give me the look. Just don't tell Kirsten okay?" Ryan nodded. "Now, the key to successful potato latkes is in the temperature of the oil. You can check if it's hot enough by throwing a few drops of water into the oil." She threw a few drops of water into the pan and the oil hissed and crackled. "It's ready."
She showed Ryan how to drop spoonful after spoonful of potato mixture into the pan. And describe how it was supposed to look before it you turned it over.
Ryan always followed Sophie's instructions to a T. His latkes came out just like hers. Crisp on the outside, not soggy from the oil, and soft on the inside. They were best when served hot, straight out of the pan, steam rising, when you cut the pancakes open. It was a favorite at the Cohen table and there wasn't one left, even though Ryan had grated ten potatoes.
Everyone was moaning, not only Ryan, from the abundance of food and no one moved to clear the table. Seth looked like he was about to pop a button off of his trousers. Their holiday dinners were usually filled with guests, but Julie and Caleb had flown to Japan to be with Hailey and Jimmy had taken Marissa and Caitlyn to their grandmother. Summer was with her father and while there were others they could have invited, they had just opted for a quiet Cohen dinner for four.
"So what are your plans for tomorrow?" asked Kirsten. She was the only one who had not over eaten. Ryan had noticed that she picked at her food like a bird, though she had downed her fair share of wine and margaritas.
"Summer and I are spending the day together," Seth volunteered.
"Doing what?" grilled Kirsten.
He shrugged. "This and that."
Ryan smirked from his seat. They'd been home for two weeks, and he suspected Summer and Seth were hoping for the privacy that they had grown accustomed to at the dorm. He saw Kirsten open her mouth to demand more details, but she closed it again and Ryan knew she finally understood. He noticed color creeping into her cheeks and it took all of his will power not to break out into raucous laughter.
"What about you?" She asked turning her attention to him.
Ryan looked down at his lap. "I'm going to Chino to visit Trey."
"At the jail?" Kirsten asked.
Ryan shook his head. "No. He got out last week. He's at a halfway house near where we used to live." He looked up. "I – I was hoping to borrow one of the cars if Seth needed ours all day."
"Why don't I come with you, Ryan?" Sandy leaned forward, placing his elbows on the table.
"There's no need." Ryan felt his heart racing. Sandy had never met Trey and even after all these years of being part of the Cohen family, Ryan wasn't ready for his two worlds to cross.
"I'd like to. We haven't had any one-on-one time in ages. I'll bring my work along so that when you go visit with your brother I can just sit in the car. I'll give you and Trey all the time you need. But we'll have two hours there and back to do some catching up."
Ryan sighed. How could he refuse Sandy when he put it like that? So he nodded his head and mumbled, "Sure. That would be great." Even though he didn't mean it.
There was no reason to leave early the next morning. Trey was not an early riser. Ryan was hoping to get there around noon, so the worst of his brother's hangover would be over. He assumed prison had not changed Trey much. And after five years of being locked up, he assumed that Trey was getting drunk at every opportunity.
He hadn't seen Trey since his first year living with the Cohens when Trey had called him on Thanksgiving and asked him to come for a visit. He had known his brother had wanted something and that something had landed him a black eye and could have landed him back in Juvie. It was the last time they had talked. It was when Trey had said they would be better off not seeing each other.
But when Ryan had started college, he decided to start writing to Trey and occasionally they sent letters back and forth to each other. So it wasn't a big surprise when Trey had called to say he had served his time and he was out. Though it had surprised Ryan when Trey had asked him to come out for a visit.
"For old times sake."
Ryan had only hesitated for a moment. It wasn't that he didn't want to see Trey. It was that he didn't want to return to Chino. The last time he had been there was four years ago, after Theresa had lost their baby. His maybe child, since they had never determined paternity. He had come back to pack up his things. Sandy had waited in the car while Eva explained that Theresa was too distressed to see him.
"Theresa is moving to Atlanta tomorrow to live with her cousin. Don't try to call her. Just make a clean break. It's what Theresa wants."
It had been what he wanted too. He had wanted to immerse himself in his life in Newport and as part of the Cohen family. He wanted to forget his past. He wanted to pretend that he had been born a Cohen. That Sandy and Kirsten were his parents. That Seth was his brother, not Trey.
"So how were your classes last semester?" Sandy asked once they were on the freeway.
Ryan relaxed his head on the headrest. "Pretty good. It was a tough load. But I eased up a bit this semester. I'm trying to catch up on my humanities requirements. It should be a little easier than all those science requirements. And I have to take a drawing class for my architectural program, so I'm hoping that won't be too much work."
"It should be enjoyable at least."
Ryan turned his head and offered Sandy a wan smile. Ever since his junior year at Harbor he'd been on the fast track to becoming an architect. And at first it was great. It had given him purpose and the Cohens had been so proud. Seth bragged to everyone who would listen that his brother was a science geek and Kirsten included him in discussion pertaining to her work, asking him ideas. Sandy would walk around like a proud rooster, with his chest puffed out every time Ryan brought home another great report card. But sometime between Ms. Fisher's decision that he wanted to become an architect and his second year in college, he was no longer sure that was what he wanted in life. And while he was pretty sure he didn't want to become an architect, he wasn't sure what it was that he did want.
"So how's the practice going? The new partner working out okay?"
Sandy shrugged and went into a detailed account of all the happenings at his office. Shortly after he had gotten Caleb acquitted of all charges, Sandy had started his own firm. Sandy relished the adrenaline of helping those who appeared to be doomed. He was good at it too. Ryan leaned back in his seat and smiled for real, happy to have diverted the conversation from his life to Sandy's. He had never been comfortable talking about himself.
As Sandy talked, Ryan noticed the landscape changing. The view of the ocean and fields of grass melded into roads of concrete, with wisps of grass and weeds, trying to escape from below the pavement. The streets of Chino were lined with sagging buildings, with crumbling roofs. The city had aged and seemed poorer since Ryan had last been there four years before. The amount of graffiti on the sides of building seemed to have doubled, covering nearly every available inch. There was graffiti on top of graffiti. He wondered if he went up to his old high school if he'd still find the markings he had left the summer before he had moved to Newport.
Ryan directed Sandy to Trey's place and they pulled up exactly an hour after they had departed from home. He unbuckled his seat belt and looked at Sandy, who was already pulling out a sheaf of paperwork.
"Take your time, son. Pretend I'm not here. Okay? Pretend you came on your own. I brought enough work for three days."
"Thanks Sandy. It was nice spending the time with you." He smiled weakly and waved, leaving his foster father alone in the car.
Ryan knew why Sandy had been so adamant about coming with him. It was the same reason he had been insistent on coming with him to pack his things four years ago. He wanted to make sure Ryan would return to Newport. In the back of his mind, and the minds of Kirsten and Seth too, there was always a bit of insecurity that Ryan would choose his first life over the one they had given them. It was the same sense of insecurity that Ryan had felt, because in the back of his mind, he had always worried that Cohens would give up on him. That was until it had been time for him to choose a college. That was when he knew the he was stuck with the Cohens forever.
"We need to talk, Ryan," Kirsten said as they were clearing dinner from the table. She and Sandy looked pointedly at Seth.
"I get the message," he said. He scooted over to the doorway, but turned around. "If this is about the lamp in the family room, it's totally my fault. Don't blame Ryan."
Sandy rolled his eyes. "We'll talk about that later. It's not about the lamp. Go upstairs."
Ryan watched Seth go upstairs and heard the bedroom door slam close. Ryan knew that Seth was probably sitting at the top of the stairs, feet ready to spring into action, in case his parents came anywhere near the staircase. No, Seth would not idly sit in his room, while there was a serious discussion going on. He would eavesdrop.
"What did I do wrong?" Ryan asked. Mentally, he tried to figure it out on his own. But he hadn't gotten into any trouble at school. He was doing well in his classes. He was managing with his part time after school job. He had made it home for dinner everyday and hadn't missed curfew once the entire month since school had started.
Kirsten sighed. "Leave the dishes, Ryan. We'll do them later. Come sit down."
He gingerly placed the last ceramic plate in the dishwasher and shut it before walking over to his stool at the breakfast bar. He hated the breakfast bar. It always reminded him of the first time he had gotten into real trouble with the Cohens. The time he had snuck into the office at Harbor and had stolen Oliver's file.
"Ms. Fisher called."
"She told us you're not planning on applying for college."
Ryan looked down at his hands. They were full of nicks and cuts from his work at the restaurant. He worked in the kitchen and was doing a lot of prep work in the chefs. He was constantly cutting himself on the sharp knives.
"Why not?" Sandy asked, trying to force conversation out of Ryan. Ryan was only talkative when he wasn't put on the spot. But Kirsten and Sandy had decided that they wouldn't let Ryan get away without explaining his reasoning. "Why not?" Sandy repeated when Ryan refused to answer."
Realizing he would have to say something, Ryan opted for the truth. "Because I can't afford it." He slowly looked up beneath heavy lidded eyes. He pushed his shaggy bangs out of his face.
"Afford it? You don't have to worry about that."
"My job barely makes above minimum wage. I've been saving every penny, but it will barely cover the first semester's tuition at a state college. It'll take a year off and work full-time. I'll go to college eventually."
Sandy slid into a stool beside Ryan. "There are always scholarships."
Ryan shook his head. "I won't get an athletic scholarship. I had to quit the soccer team when I started all those AP courses. And what are the chances of me getting an academic scholarship? I mean, there are loads of kids who are smart. Lots of them get good grades. Even if I can find a scholarship, chances are it won't cover all the costs."
"Then we'll pay."
"No. No. I can't ask you to do that."
"You're not asking. We're telling you. If money is the only issue here, then we're here to tell you it's not an issue." Kirsten leaned forward, gripping the edge of the counter. Her face looked fierce. Ryan was afraid to answer, even though he hated what he was hearing. He wouldn't take their charity forever. He wouldn't be able to repay them if they kept paying for things. "Tomorrow you bring home those applications that Ms. Fisher wants you to fill out. We'll fill them out together."
Ryan opened his mouth to protest, but Kirsten didn't let him.
"If you don't bring home the applications, we'll be forced to ground you. Sandy and I will not allow you to screw with your future because of a false sense of pride. You are our son now. And we will pay for our children's college education. It's what parents do."
That was when Ryan knew that the Cohens would never give up on him. It wasn't so much what they said, but how they said it. The next day, Ryan didn't bring home the promised applications and Sandy and Kirsten had kept their promise. Ryan was grounded. He didn't want to try and defy them again, so he had sucked it up and asked Ms. Fisher for the applications.
The four of them, Seth, Sandy, Kirsten and Ryan, sat around for a week filling out both of their applications. He cringed when they wrote out the checks and tore them out of their checkbooks as if it was nothing. But they silenced every argument he could muster.
By the time graduation rolled around, he and Seth had settled for the same school, which was close to home. They were given a car to share for their graduation present, so that they could come home often. Even if his last name was still Atwood, Ryan knew he was truly a Cohen. That was why it was so hard to see Trey again, especially with Sandy sitting in the car a few feet away.
"Ryan!" Trey came to the door and enveloped his little brother into a hug. "It's good to see you. Come in."
Ryan stepped into the house, taking in the shabby sofa and rickety coffee table. His dorm had better furniture in the common room. A few burly men, clad in jeans and wifebeaters, and badly in need of a shave, sat around the television watching a football game. There was a lot of shouting and swearing, but there were no signs of alcohol or drugs. Maybe Trey was going to pull it together this time.
"You want a drink?"
"Water would be good." He wondered if he should bring out a drink to Sandy. But knowing Sandy, he had come prepared. "So how's it going?" Ryan asked. "Did you get a job yet?"
"Yeah. I'm working at a garage. Pay's okay. So, are you still studying to be an architect?"
"You don't look happy about it."
"It's hard work." Ryan gulped the glass of water at once. "So what are your plans? Are you going to stay here long?"
Trey shook his head. His dark brown hair was long and shaggy. It covered some scars he had garnered while in prison. "Arturo and I are talking about finding a place together. He was supposed to come, but he got stuck babysitting."
Ryan arched his brows. "Babysitting? Arturo?" He laughed, taking a seat at the kitchen table across from where Trey was sitting nursing a cup of coffee. "You've got to be kidding."
"Really!" Trey grinned though, because he knew what his brother was talking about. Things had really changed while they had been away from Chino. "Theresa had to pull an emergency shift at the hospital and she had no one to watch the baby. She's a nurse now. Eva hasn't been well for a while, so she's no use as a babysitter."
It felt like a rock suddenly careened to the pit of Ryan's stomach. "Theresa has a kid?"
Oblivious to his brother's discomfort, Trey nodded. "Yeah. He's a cute little bugger. About four-years-old now. Keeps Arturo on his toes. The kid doesn't let him rest for a second. We took him for ice-cream the other day, and I swear I was about to get a vasectomy."
Ryan forced a laugh out. "She has a kid that old?"
"Yeah," Trey said.
"Who's the father?"
His brother shrugged. "I didn't ask. Though the kid does have a familiar look. I bet we know the dad."
"I bet we do." Ryan stood abruptly, nearly toppling his chair over. "Look, I've gotta go."
"You just got here!"
"Yeah. I'm sorry. But there's something important I've got to take care of. I just remembered."
"Can't it wait?" Trey was running after him, pulling at Ryan's sleeve. "I haven't seen you in nearly five goddamn years, kid."
"This is important Trey. Let go of me."
Recognizing that his brother wasn't kidding around, Trey unhappily let go. Over the years, it was Trey who had done most of the bullying, but on occasion, his brother had gotten his back up and had really laid it into him. Trey had never forgotten the look that came before it and this was it.
"You'll come back for a visit?"
"Yeah. Yeah. I will."
Ryan ran out of the house, straight for Sandy's BMW. He jumped into the passenger seat, startling his foster father.
"Already?" Sandy asked.
"Yeah. But I need to make a stop. You think it's okay if we go to Theresa's place?"
Sandy intently studied the young man next to him, a hundred questions in his eyes. But he didn't make Ryan explain; instead he started the engine and followed his directions.