Fathers and Sons, pt. 6

I'm sorry it took so long to get this out. Life and frustration conspired against me. Thanks to those of you who continued to send occasional notes. They kept me from abandoning this story completely – it's amazing what encouragement and guilt can work. :) Thank you for your patience.

A belated Father's Day offering.

xxxx

The next time Ryan woke, he turned instinctively to the chair by his bed, but Kirsten was gone. In her place was a gangly form, head topped by an unruly mess of brown hair. Seth was all off-kilter, slumped in the chair, arms around his legs, head at an odd angle. In the dim hospital light, Ryan could see the fading bruises on Seth's face, and his stomach constricted.

"Hey."

Ryan was startled by the soft voice. His eyes went sharply to Seth's.

"Hey." His own voice was hoarse, still rough with disuse.

The boys regarded each other silently, neither sure what to say. Slowly, Seth uncurled. He sat up stiffly, and perched on the edge of the chair. Still without making a sound, Seth reached out his hand. Hesitantly, Ryan held out his own, grasping Seth's.

"You're OK," Ryan said softly after a long moment. "I…" his voice broke as he stopped helplessly.

"I'm OK." Seth moved closer, tightening his grip on Ryan's hand. He grinned lopsidedly. "I've never had a black eye before. I feel like a real man now."

Ryan choked, half laughing, half crying. "You look like one, bro."

"Yeah?" Seth sounded inordinately pleased with himself.

They lapsed into silence again.

"Are you OK?" Seth asked it hesitantly.

Ryan met his eyes. "Yeah," he said softly. "Now, I am."

Seth nodded.

"Grand Theft?" He pointed to the gaming console already attached to the hospital television.

"Yep."

Seth took in Ryan's arm, immobile in its cast.

"I'm so gonna beat your ass."

xxxx

When Sandy returned, he heard his sons before he saw them.

"Dude, no!" Seth's voice carried through the door.

He saw the grin on Ryan's face as he entered the room, one hand awkwardly working the control, eyes intent on the television mounted on the wall.

Seth was sitting on the bed next to Ryan also using only one hand.

"No!" Seth shouted. Sandy's heart skipped at the elated expression on Ryan's face. The boy twisted his body as best he could, face contorted as he tried to bend the machine to his will.

"Yes!" Ryan's hoarse voice was triumphant, and Sandy grinned at Seth's crestfallen face.

"Who's your daddy?" Ryan smirked as the game signaled its end.

Seth met his father's eyes with a look that was soberingly adult.

"You are, man," he said shaking his head in defeat and grinning.

"Hey, Sandy." Ryan's open smile made Sandy's heart constrict again. Sandy knew that Ryan's relief at seeing Seth, being with Seth, was the cause of this giddiness.

"Did you see me kick Seth's ass?" Ryan demanded, oddly out of breath.

Sandy frowned in mock seriousness.

"Don't say 'ass,' Ryan," he intoned. Both boys giggled.

"Well, don't say it in front of your mother, anyway," he allowed.

Beneath the flush of happiness on Ryan's face, Sandy saw a pallor that made him pause. Unable to stop himself, he put a hand to Ryan's forehead, checking for heat.

Ryan didn't even roll his eyes, just leaned back against the pillows. Sandy reached for the Xbox control, and Ryan surrendered it without a fight, abruptly exhausted.

"Lie down, kiddo." He eased Ryan the rest of the way down onto the bed, as Seth watched worriedly. "Dad, I…"

Sandy smiled reassuringly at Seth. "It's OK, son."

"You boys just overdid it, I think," Sandy said gently. "Ryan?"

The boy blinked at Sandy, recognizing the paternal glint in the man's eyes. Ryan scowled petulantly, even as he felt the unwelcome ache of weariness start to drag him under. "I don't want to sleep." He hated this. He looked over at his friend. "I want Seth…" He trailed off.

But Seth was already turning off the television.

"One ass-whupping a day is my limit." Seth's gaze went to his father, and Sandy was startled by the understanding he saw there.

"Seth's not going anywhere, Ryan."

Ryan's eyes went to Seth, and Seth nodded his reassurance, though he wasn't sure what support he could offer.

"Have you had water recently?" Sandy asked, reaching for the ever present pitcher. Ryan shook his head.

Sandy poured a glass, guided the straw to Ryan's mouth. Ryan took several deep drinks.

Seth watched uncertainly as his father took care of Ryan. Ryan didn't struggle or protest, just with a slightly grudging expression let Sandy tuck him in. Smiling, Sandy leaned close to say something softly in Ryan's ear, and Seth felt an odd twinge when Ryan's face eased in response, his eyes going to Sandy's. A small smile appeared, and there was a shared look that left Seth standing awkwardly on the outside looking in.

"Seth?" Ryan curled gingerly onto his side.

Seth moved toward the side of the bed, hunkered down so he was eye level with his friend.

"You're coming back tomorrow?"

Seth nodded. "Yeah, man."

"Good." Ryan gave a sleepy, self-satisfied smile. "I'll kick your ass again."

xxxx

"Dad?"

Sandy looked up from the document he'd been reading. He and Seth had moved out into the small waiting room. It had been early when Ryan drifted off, and Kirsten wasn't due back for a couple of more hours.

"What, Seth?"

Seth stared pensively down the hall toward Ryan's room. He looked worriedly back at Sandy.

"Is Ryan OK?"

Sandy's surprise was etched across his face. "Seth, he's fine. He gets tired quickly, but he's getting better."

Seth bit his lip, still uncertain.

Sandy stood, moving toward his son. He sat down in the chair next to Seth. "What is it?"

"He's different," Seth said softly.

Sandy watched Seth's profile contemplatively. He tried to think through the right thing to say.

"What do you mean?" he asked gently.

Seth struggled to put words with what he was feeling.

"I don't know. He's just… He let you…" Seth couldn't articulate what it was about watching his father interact with Ryan that afternoon that had shaken him like it had.

But Sandy thought he'd gotten it.

"I think he is different, Seth." Sandy said it softly. "I think we all may be different."

Sandy put an arm around his son's shoulders and pulled him close.

"You know. All these months that Ryan's lived with us, I would have said—I did say—that I considered Ryan my son." He turned to look at Seth. "You know that don't you?" Seth nodded.

Sandy paused, considering his next words.

"Until this last week, though, I don't know that I would have said I considered him my child." He looked at Seth again. "Do you know the difference?"

Seth met his gaze and shook his head uncertainly.

"You're my child, Seth. You have been from the time you were born." He quirked a smile. "Obviously. It's hard to explain how a baby's helplessness bonds it to its parents, maybe especially to dads. Moms are already bonded—they've carried the baby in them for nine months, they breast feed—there are physical, hormonal things that turn a woman into a ferocious she-bear when it comes to her child."

"For dads…" Sandy paused again. "I mean, when your mom was pregnant with you, I was thrilled. I was over the moon with happiness that we were going to have a kid, that I was going to be a father. But it wasn't until I held you for the first time – this little being that was completely and utterly dependent on me – that I realized the enormous weight of responsibility that caring for a child would be. That was when I knew…"

Sandy trailed off, remembering. "When I knew that I would never be able to breathe without knowing you were safe." He grinned at Seth. "That you would be asthma to me." Seth ducked his head, and Sandy wrapped both his arms around his son, pulling him into a fierce hug. Seth returned it, then pulled back, embarrassed.

Sandy let him go and continued. "I had that realization with Ryan this week. It knocked the breath out of me in a way I never would have anticipated to have him taken from us like that, to know that he was hurt, and was being hurt; that he was alone and frightened and in danger …" The fear rose again and Sandy couldn't go on.

He took a moment before he said unsteadily. "For the first time, I really understood that Ryan needed me the way any child would need his father. And I realized that I would do anything—anything—to protect him, to bring him home."

Seth felt a shiver of recognition run through him as his father spoke, when he saw the look in Sandy's eyes. He knew, abruptly, what his father was talking about and it simultaneously frightened and thrilled him.

"That changed me, Seth—the same way holding you the first time changed me."

Sandy took another deep breath.

"By the same token, I think that for the first time, maybe in his life, Ryan counted on a parent who came through for him."

Sandy turned in his chair to face Seth. "Do you know what he said to me when I found him?"

Seth shook his head.

"He said, 'I knew you'd come. Seth said you'd come.'"

Seth felt his throat close up and he struggled to breathe.

"He trusted you, and he trusted us. He had a choice. He could believe that we would find him, that he could trust us or he could believe that we would fail him. Like he's been failed so many times before."

Sandy was quiet for a long time.

"That kind of trust, that kind of dependence on someone else, changes us. It changed Ryan."

"I think that Ryan's realized he can trust us the way you do, the way most kids instinctively trust their parents. You trust that your mother and I love you; that we will always take care of you, that we would do anything to protect you. On some levels, you probably don't even realize it." Sandy smiled. "And as a teenager, you definitely don't like the way that looks all the time."

"But underneath it all, you know that your mother and I would give up our lives to keep you safe."

Eyes wide in recognition, Seth nodded his acknowledgement.

"I think that for the first time, Ryan knows that, too."

"I don't think this new … vulnerability, or whatever it is, will last forever. I just think right now he doesn't have the emotional or physical reserves to put up all the walls he's used to protect himself with us. Especially now that he knows that he doesn't have to."

Sandy rubbed a hand up and down Seth's shoulder as they sat, still, for a long moment.

"Give him some room to adjust, Seth." Sandy was quiet again. "And some time to figure things out."

"Okay," Seth agreed softly. Awkwardly, he struggled to his feet. "I'm just gonna…" He nodded his head down the hall toward Ryan's room.

"Sure."

xxxx

Kirsten had called to let Sandy know she was running late. She wanted to run by the house and make sure the house and the pool house were ready for Ryan's return. The doctor hadn't let them know an exact date, but they were hopeful that it would be within the next day or so.

"How's he doing?"

"Fine. Asleep." Sandy smiled. "Rough game of Grand Theft Auto wore him out."

"Sandy…"

"Honey, he's fine. He needed the time with Seth and a little bit of normal."

He heard a soft sigh on the other end of the line. "OK."

"Did you kiss him good-night for me?"

Sandy rolled his eyes to the ceiling. "Yeah."

"Sandy." There was a definite warning in her voice. "You actually kissed him?"

There was a long pause. Busted. "I told him you kissed him good-night."

"Not good enough."

"Kirsten, he's a …"

"You kiss him good-night for me, Sanford Cohen!"

"You'll be here…."

"Sandy."

Sandy bowed his head in defeat. "Fine."

He heard her gentle laugh in response.

"Thank you," she said, generous in victory.

xxxx

Sandy poked his head around the door, wondering what he'd find. All was quiet.

The light at the head of the bed, cast a blue glow over the room. Ryan was curled on the bed in much the same position he'd been in when Sandy had left the room just a few hours earlier. Seth was tucked into tight ball in the chair, head on the armrest, knees under his chin, snoring lightly.

Sandy moved quietly across the room, sliding into the space between the bed and the chair. His eyes went from one boy to the other, and slowly he crouched down, watching his sons as they slept. Balancing himself carefully, Sandy rested a hand on each boy, closing his eyes and breathing a prayer of thanks.

Knees creaking, Sandy stood. He bent down, smoothing the hair back from Ryan's forehead, studying his sleeping face. Gently he kissed his cheek.

"From Kirsten," he said softly. Reaching down, he pulled the thin blanket up around Ryan's shoulders, and, settling it, kissed him again, "From me."

Sandy straightened and turned his attention to Seth. Smiling at his son's awkward position, Sandy pulled the extra blanket off the back of the chair and draped it over Seth's form. Then, he bent down again and gave Seth two gentle kisses.

"Goodnight, boys."

The end.