(One-shot) Ryan's mad. So is Sandy. The gloves are off as they both fight for what they want. In the process, might they also discover what they need?

Disclaimer: The OC Universe, with all its assorted characters, belongs to Josh Schwartz, et. al. No copyright or trademark infringement is intended, nor is any money being made.

A/N: For anyone that's interested, I'm still working on my final chapter of 'Dear Ryan', but a melt-down of my laptop meant a long hiatus. In the interim, this piece just wouldn't go away until I captured it on paper.

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Setting: Sometime after Ryan's birthday.

FYI, in this piece, there are some minor tweaks to canon. Julie and Neil are engaged, but Julie hasn't moved in to the Roberts' manse yet; Ryan hasn't installed his locks at the pool house; Matt hasn't been fired; and Marissa's still… well, 'Marissa'.

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Everyone Needs…

Ryan can feel his heart racing as he faces Sandy in the dimming light.

His bike lies in a heap near the Rover, in the same spot where Sandy waylaid him five minutes ago.

Five minutes and way too many words ago.

The SUV is still running, its low purr serving as dissonant background for their swelling voices. The exhaust fumes permeate the early evening air, burnt and malodorous, a by-product of mechanical combustion.

But it's a far more human combustion that confounds and maddens Ryan. One that is rapidly threatening to race out of control.

"Forget it, Ryan! I said no, and I meant no!"

Sandy's switched into full parental mode now, and it's far removed from any gentle guidance. His eyebrows are drawn into an angry 'V', and his voice registers just below incendiary on the heat index.

Ryan stares at him a moment in disbelief.

It isn't like Sandy to push him this hard when he's not doing anything wrong. And he's sure this isn't wrong.

At least, not in any sense that counts.

Ryan feels his color rising higher. He's just mad enough right now to be a little reckless. Mad enough to push back, his voice echoing Sandy's in intensity, "And I told you, she needs me, Sandy!"

Without waiting for a reply, he starts toward Summer's door again, steering a wide circle around Sandy this time. Marissa's inside, and she's in trouble. He can't leave her hanging, whether he has his guardian's – make that ex-guardian's – okay or not.

Sandy moves with surprising speed, blocking his path. The man's actually inside his personal space now, and he's not yielding an inch. He doesn't touch Ryan, but still locks him in place effectively.

His voice resonates with warning, "If you think for one minute I'm gonna' stand for your helping her run away tonight, you're sorely mistaken. End of discussion."

Ryan grapples with unexpected words. "Who said anything about running away?" he asks, buying a few seconds to recover.

In one quick movement, Sandy snatches the small, worn duffle bag that Ryan clutches. Holding it up, he asks, "Think maybe I wouldn't notice this?"

Ryan flexes his fingers, feeling the sting of the canvas strap being ripped away. He feels another sting as well – a prickly one straight to his pride. He thinks about lying, but opts instead for the truth.

He raises his chin and allows his words to spill out unfiltered, "Pretty good chance."

Sandy's dark expression prompts him to add heedlessly, "Honestly? I wasn't expecting you to notice I was gone."

Sandy's eyes narrow, but he says nothing. Ryan can almost hear the man counting to ten.

Some internal voice tells him he'd be smart to cool off, too, but he ignores it. He's not in the mood for counting.

Instead, he clenches his jaws together tightly and grits out an icy warning, "You're in my way."

He only has to wait a second for his ex-guardian's reaction.

Sandy takes a half step toward him, his eyebrows drawing together severely. His voice is harsh as he responds, "Let me make this perfectly clear, kid. You're not leaving with her, you're not seeing her, you're not having any further contact with Marissa until tomorrow. What you are doing? You're coming home."

Ryan snorts and raises his eyebrows disbelievingly, as he asks, "Excuse me?"

Sandy steps even closer, until he's nearly nose to nose with Ryan. His eyes are almost blazing.

The man's fire-forged voice commands, "Home! With me! Now!" He thrusts out an arm, index finger pointed toward the Rover.

Ryan can't help himself. He steps back, surprised and a little unbalanced.

In the midst of this confrontation, it's like Sandy's somehow forgotten that he's not actually 'Cohen'. But he can't say that. They never talk about the difference between the parenting that he receives and the more rigorous mode that applies to Seth.

So instead he counters with a new and yet untested, "I'm eighteen."

Sandy stares at him, momentarily speechless.

Ryan wonders if perhaps he's found a winning argument, but he finds himself conflicted. As much as he wants to win, he's not so sure he wants his age to matter.

Sandy seems to recover, as his eyes widen, and then flash. His hands fly up into the air in exasperation, as he demands, "Oh, come on, kid! What's that supposed to mean? Do you really think a piece of paper makes a difference? That its expiration means we're suddenly not family?"

Ryan debates which response he'd offer, if he were to answer. The one Sandy wants, or the truth. He opts for neither, and holds his tongue.

Sandy closes the space that Ryan opened. His voice is intense as he admonishes, "This much I know, Ryan. I've been your father for nearly three years, and paper or no paper, that hasn't changed. So don't say another word about being eighteen – that argument doesn't cut it. You're my kid, and I say you're coming home with me right now."

Ryan blinks, flummoxed, and ducks his head. He's angry that Sandy's treating him like some belligerent kid. Even more angry that the man's being completely unreasonable and intractable.

But he's also a little stymied, because Sandy's treating him like his belligerent kid. Which, in some convoluted way, kinda' feels good.

The man's not trying to 'handle' him tonight. This is pure un-tempered parenting, with no concession for his not-true-family status. No textbook parent stuff, either. Just plain old-fashioned fury.

He raises his head, and shoots a look at Sandy that conveys his anger and frustration, because he's still too unsettled to speak. Sandy takes the look in stride, his stance unbending.

Ryan weighs his options, his earlier resolution wavering in the face of Sandy's will. He thinks about simply ignoring the command, but the look on Sandy's face makes him quickly rethink. He ducks his head again and breathes in uneasily.

It chafes, being ordered to obey like this. And yet, it's weirdly reassuring. He thinks he's probably more surprised than Sandy when he feels himself capitulate.

"Fuck this," Ryan finally mutters under his breath as he turns toward the Rover, hoping Sandy hears him. He yanks the door open, and propels himself inside. He tells himself he's not really giving up. He can always sneak back later.

He sees Sandy moving deliberately. The man grabs his bike, and bundles it roughly into the back of the Rover, together with the duffle bag. Ryan suffers a stab of guilt for not taking care of the bike himself, but he brushes it aside.

After all, he didn't want this ride…

Sandy climbs into the driver's seat, and looks across at Ryan. His words are clipped, "Close the door, please."

Ryan raises his eyebrows slightly, before scowling. He extends his arm, and slams the passenger door. As the sound echoes in his ears, he looks sideways at Sandy, judging his reaction.

Sandy doesn't have to say a word. If Ryan weren't so angry, he might cringe. Instead, he sits up taller, and stares straight ahead.

As they drive in silence, Sandy's jaw is set. Ryan can see the muscles twitching as he glances sideways. With each minute, he knows they're driving further away from where he needs to be.

He turns toward the man and forces himself to speak, making at least an attempt to mask his temper as he presses, "She needs me, Sandy. I have to talk to …"

Sandy's cell phone blares over his words. It's Matt, talking about the hospital project. They speak for several minutes, while Ryan reverts to silence. With each passing mile, his frustration builds.

When they're finally off the telephone, Ryan waits impatiently for Sandy to pick up their conversation, but he doesn't.

Doggedly, Ryan tries again, "You were wrong back there, you know. No one was 'running away'." He sees the sharp glance Sandy sends his way, and thinks about telling him the truth. In the end, he hedges, "She's upset, Sandy. She just wanted to get away for a couple of days. That's all." He feels Sandy's eyes boring through him, and adds, "I was gonna' call."

Sandy nods, and starts to say something, but the cell phone rings again. He looks at the caller ID, and whispers, "Kirsten", before taking the call. He talks with her, telling her that he has a message from Julie Cooper. He lets her know that Julie's not going to meet her at the yacht club. That she's on her way to Neil's instead.

Ryan bangs his head back against the headrest, and exhales sharply.

Honestly, how could Julie really be Kirsten's new best friend? Don't either of his former foster-parents have a clue how much that sucks?

Almost before he finishes the thought, he amends the scope of his displeasure, focusing solely on Sandy. He can't really blame Kirsten. She knows nothing about Julie's role in his latest suck-ass trip to juvie.

Ryan grinds his teeth, and digs his fingers into the leather armrests. This time he refuses to restart the conversation once the phone call is over.

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Sandy glance across at him, and tenses, waiting for the man to speak. But Sandy's eyes go back to the road, and he says nothing.

Fine.

Ryan's done with talking now.

It doesn't help Ryan's attitude that by the time they reach home, Sandy's taken yet another call from Matt.

Honestly. Fuck Matt. Fuck Julie. And this minute? Fuck Sandy, too.

He leaves the man sitting in the Rover, still on the phone, the instant the SUV stops at the top of their driveway.

He's not normally much of a door slammer, but right now? He's slamming doors…

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Ryan jerks hard on the pool house door, causing the glass to rattle. Good. Let it rattle. If it weren't the main thing separating him from Sandy right now, it could damn well shatter.

He quickly lowers the blinds – all of them. One more barrier he can inject between himself and his … whatever. Right now, he'd give up every possession he owns to have locks that he controls, but face it – he's never had control over this space. Not really.

He hears footsteps falling heavily across the dividing concrete, a little surprised it has taken this long. But then again, these days it seems other things always take precedence.

The knock is superfluous. Ryan wonders why the man even bothers.

Because the door flies open before he is given any chance to answer.

"What's with the doors?" Sandy's tone is sharp.

Ryan stands his ground, his own voice filled with sarcasm, "And yet again, with the noticing…"

Sandy just stares at him for a long moment, before hissing, "We need to talk, kid."

The words are okay, but the tone is not. Neither is the body language. Sandy's demeanor is pure Alpha male.

But Ryan's seen worse before. Way worse.

He refuses to bend, "Wrong, Sandy. This conversation is over." The words sound cold, even in his ears. He follows them up with a defiant glare.

Sandy's eyes grow wider for an instant, before he recovers. The dense eyebrows that define the man's face gather in steely determination. Underneath, snapping sapphire eyes return his glare, more than matching its intensity.

Their breathing is now the only sound inside a room grown much too small for the pair of them. Ryan squares his shoulders, and turns his head toward the open door.

"Leave," he snarls. He almost adds 'please' out of habit, but he bites it off.

There will be no 'pleases' tonight.

His ex-guardian's head draws back a little, as though he is taken off-guard.

Ryan seizes the momentary advantage, his words brusque, "And you can close the door on your way out!"

Sandy's reaction comes quickly this time. He grabs the handle and slams the door shut once more. Ryan would be relieved, but for the fact that Sandy is still inside the pool house.

"I don't think so," the man says as the glass rattles behind him. "Not before we finish this, Ryan."

Ryan snorts, before he shoots back tersely, "You mean before you finish it, don't you? 'Cause I sure didn't get the feeling you were listening to anything I had to say!"

Ryan watches closely as Sandy clenches his jaw, and folds his arms across his chest. Ryan folds his own arms, and draws his mouth into a straight line. If Sandy's waiting for him to cave, it's gonna' be a long wait. He's played this game before, with assholes that wouldn't hesitate to hurt him. In comparison, this is a cake-walk.

Not that Sandy doesn't wield tremendous power. The power to throw him out. It's just – right now? For reasons he's hesitant to define, Ryan doesn't think for a second that's going to happen. Angry as he is, he still feels safe.

Sandy capitulates and breaks their stalemate, "This is Marissa's mess, Ryan. I'm not about to let you get pulled into it!" His voice is filled with exasperation, and he punctuates his final sentence by launching the duffle bag toward Ryan's bed.

Ryan's head turns, tracking the bag as it lands near the center of the bed, its momentum causing it to tumble and spin off the other side. It lands with a soft thud on the floor.

Sandy edges closer, "Ryan! Do you understand me?"

There's something in the man's tone that grates against his skin. Ryan doesn't bother to resist temptation this time, like he's done so often over the last few months.

He turns back toward Sandy, smirking broadly as he counters, "Don't you have some phone call you need to take?"

The look Sandy gives him is filled with reproach.

Ryan's smirk fades, but not his resolution. He stands impassive, not buckling under Sandy's stare. He waits, while silence divides and multiplies the passing seconds.

Sandy is the first to break eye contact. The man grimaces, and turns his head to the side as he exhales loudly.

Looking back at Ryan, he finally speaks, "Point made." He pulls his cell-phone out of his pocket, and turns it off. He strides toward Ryan's landline, and turns off its ringer, too.

One side of Ryan's mouth crimps. He nods his head ever so slightly, acknowledging the concessions. This is new for him. He doesn't use guilt as a weapon to get what he wants. He's reminded why – it feels wrong to win this way.

When Sandy finally speaks again, he's toned his frustration down a notch or two. "You do know she was drinking, right?"

Back to Marissa. Somehow it was always back to Marissa. She's the one thing he and Sandy lock horns over repeatedly. Sandy's never really understood about Marissa. Why Ryan needs to save her…

Ryan rolls his eyes, as he balls up one hand into a fist, and rams it viciously into his other palm. Keeping the fist tightly clinched, he asks irritably, "What is it with you, Sandy? One minute, you're pushing Marissa and me together, and the next minute, you're telling me not to see her… not to talk to her. Can you just do us all a favor, and make up your mind?"

Sandy shakes his head, his jaws still set. "Ryan…"

Ryan's hasn't finished, "Seriously, sometimes you're all 'if you marry her', and other times you're in my face because you're afraid she'll take my focus off my future. A future I wouldn't even have, if it weren't for her, by the way."

Sandy's teeth are clenched as he says, "Look, kid, I know you think you owe her…"

Ryan is dumbfounded. "Think? Hell yes, I owe her. I owe her for stopping Trey when he was gonna' kill me. And I owe her for saving me when Julie set me up."

He doesn't add that he also owes her for not being able to save Johnny, but that doesn't make it any less true…

Sandy counters, "I understand that, Ryan. But I know this – you can't keep risking everything in order to save her. I won't let you do that anymore."

Ryan shakes his head as he glares at his ex-guardian. "I get that. But this isn't like that. I'm not risking anything, Sandy."

"Don't be so sure," Sandy says flatly.

"What the hell are you insinuating?" Ryan's temper flashes.

"I asked if you knew that she'd been drinking. Did you?" Sandy repeats, impatience seeping back into his words.

Yeah, he knew. The instant he'd heard her voice on the telephone, he'd known.

But he doesn't want to give Sandy the satisfaction of an actual admission, so in the end, Ryan shrugs dismissively. He's sure it'll piss Sandy off – the man lives for words.

He fights back guilt. To hell with feeling guilty.

And to hell with being sorry. No 'I'm sorry's' tonight, either.

Sandy stares at him, willing him to say something more, but he's not in a talking mood right now. And he's better at silence than Sandy ever will be.

He reaches inside himself, slipping into one of his dark masks effortlessly. His eyelids slide half-closed, and his jaws lock in place.

As he slides into a comfort zone, he realizes that Sandy's only partially right about what drives him. It's not just that he owes Marissa.

The fact is, she confuses the hell out of him. She always has. That hasn't changed, even though they've both moved on…

She's beautiful, and fragile. She's grown up surrounded with privilege and wealth, her life and his worlds apart… and yet in some abhorrent ways, actually not so very different.

She would have been beyond his reach, except that she's flawed, much like he is flawed. The rich, he's learned, also make messes of their children.

Maybe it's because of that, he's not entirely sure. He just knows it always comes down to the same simple truth.

She needs him.

And maybe more than anything…

He needs to be needed.

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Sandy finally gives up waiting for him to speak, and chides, "We can stay here all night if that's what you really want, kid." He lowers his voice, "Your choice, Ryan."

Ryan's mask vanishes instantly. He jumps on Sandy's words, and snorts, "My choice? Funny, I seem to remember 'choosing' that you leave!"

Sandy's glare is withering, causing Ryan to duck his head for an instant before he catches himself, and raises his eyes.

Sandy frowns, but continues with the questions. "And you knew that she was driving?"

Ryan groans before he catches himself. He knew that, too. He just doesn't see why Sandy is making such a big deal out of it. It's not like she hurt anything other than Summer's freshly detailed car. Well, that and maybe a mailbox…

Irritated, he snaps back, "So, she made a mistake. So what? She's been pretty torn up over Johnny." He pauses a beat, before adding coldly, "Maybe you remember him? Her friend? Fell off the cliff right in front of her?"

Sandy frowns deeper. "What happened with Johnny was terrible, for all of you kids. I know that. But Ryan? Frankly, I've been more worried about its impact on you. As for Marissa, what happened still doesn't give her the right to drink and drive. And it certainly doesn't give her the right to think you'd cover for her. Or help her run away."

Ryan's head snaps back at that statement. "I didn't even get to talk to her Sandy, except a couple of minutes on the phone. She didn't ask me to 'cover' anything!"

He doesn't try to hide his incredulity. Sandy is full of shit.

Sandy drops heavily into a chair, sighing as he settles back among the cushions. "Not in so many words, maybe," he says pointedly.

Ryan's mouth drops open before he regains control over his reflexes. "What the fuck are you talking about?"

Sandy's admonishment comes briskly, "Language, Ryan!" His tone says clearly that he's reached one of his tolerance limits.

"Sorry," Ryan says, before he remembers he's not saying 'sorry'. He counteracts the slip by mocking, "Because language is so what's at issue here…"

Sandy ignores his dig, challenging him instead, "How do you think I knew where to find you? Knew what you were planning?"

That one he's figured out. Seth has outted him. He'd been in the pool house, trying to talk him into going to some bizarre all-night I-MAX marathon, when Marissa had called.

He thinks briefly of returning the favor. Wonder how Sandy would react to Seth's recent foray into pot?

It might teach Seth to keep his mouth shut.

Except not. He won't do that to Seth…

He shrugs, as he deadpans instead, "Ouija board?"

Sandy sends him another silent reprimand, before he replies, "Summer called me, because she was worried about you."

Shock registers somewhere in Ryan's brain, causing him to blurt out, "Summer? Why would she be worried about me?"

Sandy tents his hands in front of his face, waiting a long moment before responding, "Because Marissa was apparently wasted enough to let some things slip when she came crying to Summer."

Ryan is still trying to wrap his head around the fact that Summer would call Sandy, but he manages to catch up enough to ask, "What things?" He's careful this time to keep his voice even.

Sandy sounds like he's being careful, too, "She told Summer she wanted to call you, because you'd 'fix' things for her."

"Sounds pretty ambiguous to me," Ryan answers flatly, even though something in his stomach starts to squeeze.

Sandy speaks more gently, "What did she tell you about the accident?"

Ryan clenches his fists as he strides toward the punching bag that hangs suspended from his ceiling. He suddenly doesn't like where this is heading. He doesn't like the feeling that's roiling in the pit of his stomach. He doesn't like much of anything right now.

"Ryan?" Sandy presses.

She'd been crying too hard to make much sense on the telephone. Well, that, and slurring her words, too.

He taps the bag lightly, before he draws back his arm and throws a right-handed punch, knocking the bag backward. His knuckles sting, and it feels good. He needs to hit something. Hard.

He jabs twice in succession with his left hand, and then pounds into the bag with a right-cross.

"Ryan?" The voice is more urgent.

He steps sideways, and jabs this time with his right fist. He leans into the bag with his right forearm, following up with a left upper-cut that lands solid, flesh meeting leather with a loud thwack.

"Ryan! Please! Listen to me!"

He's forced back by the voice, to face words he's sure he doesn't want to hear. He turns slowly, fists still clenched.

Sandy's on his feet now, and the man's eyes seek his, "She hit someone, Ryan. And left the scene."

Ryan lets his head drop back as he squeezes his eyes shut. He wants to erase Sandy's words. "You're wrong," he says, trying to convince himself that his provider is mistaken. "She told me she hit a mailbox…"

Sandy takes a step closer, "I wish I were wrong, kid." The sympathy in his voice is meant to comfort, but it has the opposite effect. Ryan doesn't want sympathy. He wants a full retraction.

He backs up two steps, until he feels the punching bag against his back, and levels his gaze at Sandy. He challenges, "How do you know you aren't?"

Sandy frowns. It's clear he's stepping carefully when he answers, "Summer told me everything Marissa said to her."

"What exactly did she say?" Ryan demands. He wants to stay angry. It's better than most of the other feelings that are wrestling inside his stomach.

Sandy continues, "I'm sure she was scared, Ryan. And the alcohol might have caused her react rather selfishly. Summer thought as much, anyway. But kid, she told Summer she had to see you – that she was sure you wouldn't let her go to jail."

Ryan shakes his head. His eyebrows furrow, and his mouth draws to one side as he stares at his guardian. "What I'm hearing? Marissa needed me worse than I thought. So thanks, for being so supportive back there."

Sandy's voice takes on a weary edge, as he responds, "Supportive? Count on this, Ryan. You're the kid I'm going to support. You and Seth."

Ryan draws in a deep breath, unwilling to acknowledge what his ex-guardian's just said. He can't. He's got to stay focused.

Sandy's speaking again, "Kid, you know how much Summer loves Marissa. The girls are best friends, but here's the thing. Summer's your friend, too, and she told me she couldn't just stand by and risk your doing something foolish in order to save Marissa from herself this time."

Ryan retorts, "You're wrong, Sandy. You're talking about the wrong Cooper. This is Marissa, not Julie. She wouldn't ask me to risk anything in order to save her."

Sandy shakes his head, as he counters, "That's just the thing, kid. She wouldn't have to. Summer knows it. I know it. And I'm sure Marissa knows it. Your instinct would be to save her, no matter what the cost."

"You're making a lot of assumptions, Sandy." But Ryan's not entirely sure that Sandy's wrong. At least, not about the 'instinct' part…

Sandy's eyebrows raise and lower, as he says, "I've seen the evidence, kid. You're her white knight. Have been since you got here." The man takes a step toward Ryan, before adding, "That you'd do something that put your own well-being into jeopardy? To save her? I'm just saying, kid, the probability scared the hell out of me."

Ryan's stomach feels like it has knives twisting inside it, stabbing at him from the inside. He forces himself to ask, "Why didn't you tell me any of this earlier? When we were at Summer's house?"

"Frankly? Because I was afraid you'd rush straight to her if you knew about the hit and run. That nothing I could say would stop you. I'm sorry I wasn't straight, but I didn't want you anywhere near that car or Marissa before the cops got there."

Ryan blinks, "Cops?"

Sandy nods, "They're probably there now. Neil called them. Right after he talked to Julie. He had to – Marissa was driving Summer's car, and he didn't want this to get any worse than it already is. Summer could have been implicated, too, you know."

"What about a lawyer? Could you…"

"Not me," Sandy interrupts, "But Brian Stilton's going to meet them there, and they'll have Marissa turn herself in on the hit and run. It'll be better that way, believe me. I called Brian – he's the best criminal defense attorney I know, and he owes me a couple of favors."

"Is she going to be arrested?" Ryan's heart is racing now, as he thinks about how frightened Marissa must be. He's having trouble getting air into his lungs.

Sandy looks down, before raising his eyes to meet Ryan's. The blue eyes are sympathetic once more, as the man says, "I expect so."

Ryan groans, and shakes his head disconcertedly. "The guy? The one she hit? Is he… I mean, do you know how bad he's hurt?"

Sandy offers, "Neil made some calls, and found out that the victim's leg was broken, and that he was pretty banged up. Seems he got between the convertible's fender, and that mailbox. On the plus side, it sounds like he's going to be okay. So, it's not nearly as bad as it could have been…"

Ryan absorbs this news.

Staring into a far corner of the room, he says softly, "I deserved to hear the truth. At Summer's."

The man's mouth turns inward, as he nods. "I know. But kid? You're just too important to me. I couldn't take that risk."

Ryan snorts, but he suddenly finds it hard to think. He's mad and hurt and worried about Marissa, but he's jolted by Sandy's words.

The man tilts his head, and continues, "Look, Ryan, I know you're angry. But I also know that you're safe, and you're home. The other stuff I know? There are none of your fingerprints on that steering wheel, you haven't proffered any reckless confession or fake cover story, and there's no other evidence that can tie you in any way to Marissa's accident."

Ryan averts his eyes, but he's still listening. Sandy doesn't sound so angry now – he sounds protective. Ryan's not sure he wants to be protected, at this cost. But he's not quite sure he doesn't.

Sandy speaks again, intruding upon his thoughts, "I don't think she'd dare try, but even if she wanted to, Julie won't have any way to tie you into this, either. You're safe from her, too. And right now, kid? As long as I'm sure you're safe, I can live with your being mad at me…"

The mention of Julie dredges up a thousand bitter feelings. Ryan's kept quiet for months, but it's cost him. He knows it's time he speaks up, even though this topic is littered with landmines. Sucking in a shaky breath he says quietly, "Kinda' thought maybe you'd forgotten about Julie."

Sandy looks at him oddly, saying, "Forgotten? I haven't forgotten, kid. But you do understand why I haven't told Kirsten about the Julie thing, right?"

Ryan stares, taken aback, "Is that all it was to you, Sandy? The 'Julie thing'?" He folds his arms across his chest and draws his brows together as he continues, "'Cause you know what? It sure felt a lot bigger than that to me."

Sandy's face registers surprise. He sounds defensive as he insists, "You know better than that, Ryan!"

Ryan unwraps his arms and turns his head to the side. He looks back at Sandy, his words pouring out before he stops them, "What I know? Is that juvie sucks, Sandy. And as bad as that was? I'm sure it's nothing compared to prison."

When any reaction is slow in coming, Ryan can almost taste his disappointment. He bites his lip as he feels his eyes stinging. To cover, he mocks, "But hey, like you so kindly pointed out, the jump suit still fit…"

Sandy's face blanches, and his shoulders slump. He looks for all the world like he's just been slapped.

Ryan swallows, every instinct prompting him to retract his words. To say he's sorry, because he truly is. Not exactly for what he said, but for the fact he said it. But this time, he ignores instinct. Whatever the cost, he needs to see this through.

Sandy recovers, drawing his mouth into a straight line, "Why didn't you say something, kid? You should have told me how you felt."

Ryan steels himself, biting back every retraction he desperately wants to make. He's come this far. For once, he's going all the way,

He looks straight at Sandy, and says simply, "I didn't think I'd have to. I thought…"

He stops and draws in an unsteady breath. He drops his eyes for a long second, before reconnecting with Sandy's. His voice is flecked with pain he can't quite hide as he finishes, "Somehow, I thought you'd know."

Sandy rubs a hand across his face, and back through his hair. "I'm really sorry, Ryan, if you've ever thought I don't thoroughly loathe Julie's actions. I think about what she did to you every time I see her. Every time I hear her name. It's just…"

"Kirsten," Ryan finishes.

Sandy nods, "Who woulda' thought? Those two?"

Ryan swallows, "Yeah. Who woulda' thought…"

Grimacing, Sandy offers, "And son? I was way out of line with that crack about the jumpsuit. I was kinda' hoping you'd forgotten that, but I should have known better. That memory of yours cuts two ways. I need to remember that."

He draws in a breath, and continues, "You've gotta' realize, Ryan, I was angry that you'd tried to run, because you'd made a tough situation so much worse for yourself. I guess what I really wanted that day was your attention, and I used a cheap shot to get it. It was wrong, and I'm sorry."

The man's voice tightens, "It's just – running away like that could have cost your freedom. And the thought of losing you? Terrified me, Ryan. Which kind of brings us back to tonight, I guess. I was frightened that you might do something rash like that again. This time, to save Marissa."

Sandy moves closer, and carefully reaches out to touch Ryan's shoulder. He acts like he's not sure whether Ryan will allow the connection, but he does.

Squeezing his shoulder gently, Sandy explains, "Here's the deal, kid. Sometimes? Fear for your safety's gonna' make me do… and say… egregious things. Things I'll doubtless be sorry for later. I don't know... I think, unfortunately, it's part of being a parent. You see your kid in trouble? You stop thinking clearly, sometimes. In the moment, you just react."

Ryan nods, trying to absorb what Sandy's said. He barely breathes until he feels Sandy's hand drop away.

Sandy backs up a couple of steps, and turns his palms up in supplication as he asks, "About Julie? What do you want me to do here, Ryan? I'm not sure what the truth would do to Kirsten at this point…"

Ryan cautiously replies, "What do you think she'd want, Sandy?"

Sandy's eyes lock onto his, as he says carefully, "Sometimes what people want and what they need are different, kid."

Ryan acknowledges, "I get that."

"But you still want me to tell her, don't you?" Sandy asks softly.

Ryan raises his eyebrows and pulls his lips between his teeth. He ducks his head, and looks up through his eyelashes at Sandy, "You know her best, Sandy. I… I'll respect your judgment, okay?"

He raises his face, "It's just, sometimes? People need the truth."

The silence that follows seems so tangible that Ryan can feel it hover and settle slowly into every corner of the room.

At last Sandy grimaces, raising his eyebrows as he nods. He brushes back his hair again, and breathes in deeply. "You know, kid, you got in some powerful punches tonight. Definitely the gloves-off variety."

Ryan looks down at his knuckles, even though he knows Sandy's talking metaphorically. He abandons his earlier resolve, and offers a soft, "I'm sorry."

Sandy shakes his head, and says firmly, "Don't be. Seriously, don't be. You need to let me know how you're feeling. And I need to listen. I guess part of what you're telling me is that I haven't been paying attention. I needed a wake-up call, and trust me, kid, you just delivered it."

Ryan swallows, "It's just…"

Sandy reaches out again, this time cupping Ryan's neck, causing his words to stop mid-thought.

Eyes locked, the man grazes Ryan's cheek with his thumb as he offers comfort, "Sometimes, son, you've got to stand up for yourself. Don't worry about me – I can take a few punches."

Ryan nods, relieved. Sandy pats his cheek before releasing him.

"Sandy? I can take some punches, too," he returns. He raises his eyebrows quickly as he adds, "And we're good about the jumpsuit, okay? I hear why you said it."

He pulls his mouth into a small self-effacing smile as he adds, "Trust me, it worked. You got my attention."

Sandy's lips twist as he responds, "Doesn't change the fact it was wrong, but thanks, kid. I appreciate that."

The man isn't finished. "While you're in a giving mood, can I ask you for something else?"

"Like what?" Ryan's not about to make an open-ended promise. Not even to someone he trusts as much as he trusts Sandy.

Sandy answers smoothly, "I want you swear you'll wrap your hands if you decide to go after that bag any more tonight. I don't want Kirsten mad at me again about your having bloody knuckles. Can you do that for me?"

"Done," Ryan nods.

Smiling crookedly, Sandy turns to leave, but stops as he's standing by the door. He looks back at Ryan, "You know Marissa has Julie and Brian tonight, right? They're the adults who are responsible for watching out for her now. And Neil and Summer are there, too. They'll make sure that she's taken care of."

Ryan blinks as he acknowledges, "I know. It's just… I know we're not together anymore, but I still care about her."

"I know you do. It's part of who you are. But kid, she's got to care about herself. That said, I promise, I'll make sure you get to see her in the morning."

"Are you saying I'm grounded?" Ryan frowns.

"That depends. Will you promise me that you'll stay put? That you'll stay home tonight?"

"And there's a difference because…?" Ryan leads.

Sandy chuckles but replies, "TV, PS2, phoning Sadie…"

Ryan purses his lips, "Fair enough. In that case, I promise."

Sandy's dimples make an appearance as he says, "Then we're good."

The man's face grows serious once more, as he asks, "You get that this was about a lot more than Marissa's accident, don't you?"

"I guess… it just kind of expanded," Ryan concedes.

Sandy smiles understandingly, "Boy, did it ever." He wraps his fingers around the door handle, but hesitates, as though he is considering something.

Ryan closes some of the distance between them, moving halfway to where Sandy is standing. He watches as Sandy's face clouds over and then clears.

Sandy crimps his mouth before he speaks, "What you said, Ryan? You were right, you know. Kirsten would want to know about Julie. She… and you… deserve the truth."

Ryan swallows hard, as his stomach lurches. He hears himself equivocate, "Maybe it's too soon."

Shaking his head, Sandy answers, "I'm more concerned that I've waited too long."

He levels his gaze at Ryan, "I know you'd never say anything, but someone else will, eventually. And selfishly, I'd rather that someone be me."

Sandy snorts self-derisively as he continues, "I'm not sure who's going to be in more trouble, Julie Cooper or me. I guess we'll find out when Kirsten gets home."

Blinking again, Ryan can only nod.

His voice low, Sandy soothes, "It's the right thing, kid. This much I know… it took a lot of courage on your part to call me on my omission, but taking steps to make things right? That's my job, both as Kirsten's husband, and as your father."

"Big job," Ryan says, lifting his eyebrows. He tilts his head as he adds softly, "But if anyone's up to it? I'd say it's you."

"Flattering your old man?"

Shaking his head, Ryan replies, "Nah. Trust me, Sandy. No flattering tonight."

Sandy snorts, "Still mad?"

Ryan shrugs, "A little. Not so much."

"Do you want to be there when I tell Kirsten? Watch me get my ass kicked?" Sandy asks. "I wouldn't really recommend it, but you've probably earned the right…"

Ryan shakes his head back and forth, "No way. I'm not looking for any type of retribution, Sandy. Not even with Julie. I just want Kirsten to know what happened. She works it out with Julie? I'm cool with that. Like you said, your kid's in trouble, a parent might do 'egregious' things…"

"You're a helluva lot more generous than most people would be, kid", Sandy observes.

Shrugging, Ryan hedges, "I don't know about that."

He sits on the arm of his chair, lifting his eyes toward Sandy, "What I do know is this. Until I came here, and lived with you guys? That stuff you said earlier… about being scared I'd do something that might hurt myself? Your being worried about my safety? Being afraid you'd lose me? I never had that."

He drops his head, staring at the floor for a moment as he clasps his hands together and lets them drop between his knees. Raising his face, he finds Sandy's eyes searching for his.

Blue eyes meeting blue, Ryan finishes, "Now, on a good day, I actually feel like… like I matter. And if that's true, then Julie Cooper shouldn't get to treat me like I'm expendable. And you guys? Shouldn't act like nothing happened."

Sandy's response comes instantly, "Ryan, son, of course you matter. You mean the world to us."

Ryan dips his head, acknowledging Sandy's words.

After a moment he adds, "And your telling Kirsten? Means a lot to me."

Sandy nods, "You know Kirsten's going to want to talk with you."

"I'll be here. As it turns out… my plans for tonight were cancelled…"

Sandy's eyes narrow a little, but then one corner of his mouth turns up, "Mine aren't exactly what I had in mind either, kid. Speaking of which, I should text Seth, and give him a head's up. He left a note about going to some all-night I-MAX marathon."

"Head's up sounds like a good idea."

Sandy nods, and says, "I need to get my thoughts together before Kirsten comes home. Trust me, kid, hell hath no fury…"

"A little 'dead man walking' vibe going on?" Ryan asks wryly.

"Pretty much," Sandy agrees, his voice rueful. He nods farewell as he slides out the door, closing it softly behind him.

Ryan listens to Sandy's footsteps fade. He sits very still, afraid if he moves he'll lose grasp of this moment. This sensation. This feeling of worth.

It's been growing slowly inside him, almost without his knowing. Only lately has he been able to form the feeling into thoughts.

Tonight, for the first time, those thoughts became words.

They're fragile, as yet no match for his demons. But they're addictive, and he senses their power to heal his broken places is strong. Maybe stronger than feeling needed…

It's slipping away, though, even as he tries to hold on more tightly. Sliding out of his hand like drops of water. Slipping out of his mind like fragments of a dream, leaving just vague memories.

The feelings that he's been holding at bay are pressing in again. The stifled guilt and contrition rush forward, threatening to wash over him.

His head is filled with every word he's said and heard tonight. Every nuance, and each inflection.

He's anxious about Marissa, too, 'cause he knows all too well what she could be facing. A justice system that can be harsh, and unforgiving. That has the ability to suck your soul away with your sins.

And now, he's concerned about Sandy and Kirsten. Worried that she will be livid, or devastated, or both. That Sandy will suffer her wrath, when he had only tried to protect her.

His stomach hurts so badly he can't imagine ever wanting to eat again. His whole body is tense, like a spring wound way too tight.

But these feelings? These feelings he knows how to deal with.

Standing up, Ryan rolls his head from side to side, working out some of the stiffness that has settled in his neck. Crossing to his cabinets he pulls out his hand wraps. He methodically straps the hooks around his thumbs, winding the long strips of cloth around his wrists, and across his knuckles and palms, crossing back and forth carefully, forming protective layers around each hand.

Finished, he heads toward the punching bag.

He eyes the bag hungrily, wanting the release it can give him.

Tapping the bag with his bound fists, Ryan feels its solid resistance. He can smell the leather, sweat-stained and bloodied through the years.

He looks at it and sees an orange accumulation of all that is bent and twisted and broken… all his sources of fear, and anger, and pain.

But somehow tonight they don't seem to have their full power. They feel a bit diminished, as a fresh strength awakens inside him. He draws on the sensation, as he glares at the bag.

He backs up a half-step, and throws his first punch…

-------------------

fin

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