The Long Goodbye

Author's Note: Despite believing, as I do, that Marissa and Ryan might have had the chemistry of nuclear fusion, but instead more often resembled an inert gas, their relationship was pivotal to many of the story arcs in the OC and therefore deserves a fitting tribute, as does the character of Marissa. Besides, who could pass up a Josh-given opportunity to deliver more Ryan-angst?

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In the dark of night
Those faces they haunt me
But I wish you were
So close to me.

- INXS, 'By My Side'

The dream always ended the same way, with a sickening grind of metal and then the fall; a bone-jarring tumble into endless darkness, punctuated by a single terrified scream. Ryan would wake, sweating, enmeshed in damp sheets, his heart hammering, his ears resounding with Marissa's death cry, and he would squeeze his eyes shut, finding solace in the blank emptiness behind his lids, wishing he could get past that moment of impact; knowing if he could just relive their escape from the carcass of the car, if he could cradle her in his arms one last time and hear her final whispered words, he would be able to let go. But dreams are cruel, composed of what-ifs and regrets, unhappy notes of a discordant symphony conducted manically by a guilt-ridden mind.

He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed, burying his head in his hands. Shit, he was tired. He hadn't slept properly since the funeral and he recalled now, as he always did after that dream, the day her coffin had been lowered into its dank grave, its passing marked only by a strengthening breeze that stirred hair and playfully lifted skirts and by the mournful sobs of those who'd cried as he couldn't.

Then he'd stood as he always had, a little apart from the crowd, wrapped in misery that craved forgiveness. But who had the power to grant him absolution? Not the dead, whose penance for relinquishing life was eternal silence; and not the living, whose eyes spoke the words their mouths could not utter: that Marissa lay boxed in satin and cedar because of him.

With faltering steps, Julie had approached the lip of the grave, stooping to clench a handful of dirt, dirtying her nails, muddying her porcelain skin, every move calculated to evoke the finality of death. The thud of earth upon wood had made him jump and he'd raised tired eyes to accept her anger, reading across the neat, rectangular chasm the clearest of messages, vicious and unrelenting: It should have been you, you bastard! Oh God, why wasn't it you?

Only after everyone else had departed, clutching one another in tearful huddles, had he sought in vain for an answer to that question. Shrugging off the guiding hand of Sandy, ignoring Kirsten's pleas and mutinously avoiding the eyes of Seth, he'd stood awhile by the carefully cut grave, its banks amassed with hot-house flowers that would, in turn, brown and wither. It was ludicrous, he'd thought then, glancing around at the avenues of trees and the smoothly-mowed lawns and the neat paths trod upon by brief visitors, that in this garden of the dead - an Eden tended more zealously than any city of the living – where sprouted the grey stunted tombstones that bloomed with words and dates and meaningless proclamations of the virtues of those who dwelt there, Marissa had been left to rot. And it was unseemly that she, who had been abandoned so often in life, should be so in death. No one else had stayed, only Ryan; as he had always tried to protect her in life, so he was there for her in death. Such was his promise, and his penance.

Now he rose unsteadily from the bed and, stumbling to the bathroom, doused his face with cold water. His eyes felt gritty with exhaustion, his cheeks rough with stubble. He didn't bother turning on the light; he already knew he looked terrible and darkness was his confidante.

There should have been music, he thought suddenly. There should have been music at Marissa's funeral. Not the sombre dirge selected by a grieving, hate-filled mother, but real music, the type Marissa had loved, something darker, with a heavy tempo to mask the silence left by a heart that no longer beat. But that's not what funerals were for, Ryan chided himself. Funerals weren't for the dead; they who couldn't hear the music and the eulogies, and the cries of those they'd left; they who couldn't comfort the mourners, or wipe away the tears, or reassure the uninitiated. Funerals were life's homage to death, as if by declaring it a solemn occasion, it might be perceived as being grand, an adventure, something to wonder at. But there was nothing wonderful about lying in a box below six feet of cold earth. No, there was nothing to marvel at there.

Oh God! Ryan choked and bowed his head, willing the tears to fall, waiting for that tell-tale prick behind his eyes that would bring blessed release. But there was nothing. He hadn't wept at the funeral and he couldn't cry now. That release, that relief he craved, would have to come from somewhere else.

Weaving his way into the main house, he passed the kitchen and headed for the bar. It was a place he rarely visited, yet this night, in the dark, he unerringly found what he was looking for. He paused then splashed the brandy into the glass, filling it. Marissa would have approved, and he smiled grimly at that thought. Closing his eyes, he leaned against the counter, allowing the cool wood to support his weight. He raised the glass to the empty room and downed the contents, quickly, without wavering. His throat burned, but it was a good because the pain took his mind away from that other dark place where it had dwelt for days, cold and alone. He waited for the familiar warmth to seep from his stomach to his limbs, driving out the chill he had known since the accident. Damn! It was taking too long. He poured another glass.

Was this how Marissa had felt after Johnny's death? Alone amid friends, self-recriminatory, helpless to understand how or why such a tragedy had occurred? If so, then what a shit he'd been, to have shown so little sympathy, or comfort. What a complete, fucking shit! But the joke was on him now, right? Ryan smiled grimly, acknowledging the irony.

'Hey kiddo,' Sandy spoke softly from the doorway. His hair was disheveled and he wore an open robe over wrinkled pyjamas; the late-night epitome of concerned fatherhood. 'All alone in the dark?'

Ryan took another gulp before replying. 'Nope. Marissa and I were just reliving old times.' He waved his glass and reached for the bottle. 'Care to join us?'

There was a momentary pause before Sandy replied, 'Sure. Pour me one too.'

Ryan glanced at his guardian. That was the wonderful thing about Sandy, he thought. The guy never judged, never censured. It was also a weakness, Ryan knew, but hey, what the hell did he know, he who judged everything and everybody at the drop of a hat? He reached for another tumbler and filled it before handing it to the older man.

'To Marissa,' Sandy said quietly, raising his glass.

Ryan didn't trust himself to speak, merely stretching across to clink his glass against Sandy's. They sipped in silence.

'No one blames you Ryan,' Sandy said at last.

Ryan snorted. 'Except Julie.' And me. Always me.

'Julie's struggling with her own demons. They have nothing to do with you. One day, she'll realize that.'

Ryan shrugged. Sandy needed to realize a few things too: that a mother's love and protectiveness did not die with her child; no matter how bad the mother. But Ryan was in no mood to argue. Not tonight.

'We're all worried about you, kid,' Sandy tried a different approach. 'You're not eating, you look like crap. Are you getting any sleep at all?'

Ryan shrugged again and swallowed his brandy. There was no need for words; clearly his appearance said it all.

Sandy fumbled in the pocket of his robe and drew out a couple of pills. 'I want you to take these,' he said then added, by way of explanation, 'They'll help you sleep.'

Ryan regarded them for a moment, before glancing blearily at Sandy. 'Yeah,' he murmured his voice gravelly with exhaustion. 'They probably will. But will they stop me dreaming?' Hell, he'd swallow a whole fucking bottle of them if he knew they'd banish that dream.

Sandy sighed and, turning over Ryan's hand, dropped them into his open palm. 'I don't know, kid. But it's worth a try.'

Ryan closed his fist around the pills. He wouldn't take them, at least not yet, but he said nothing.

Sighing, Sandy hoisted himself off his stool and, recapping the bottle of brandy, shelved it, beyond Ryan's reach. 'C'mon,' he said gently. 'Go back to bed. We'll talk more in the morning.'

Talk. That was Sandy's solution to everything. Talking, reasoning, arguing, persuading. But some things couldn't be talked about, some things couldn't be explained. Some things needed to be kept inside, until they either dissolved or festered, rotting a person from within. Ryan knew all about that, but he nodded his acquiescence and pushed away from the counter, rocking unsteadily on his feet. Sandy draped an arm over his shoulder and guided him to the doorway.

'She loved you very much,' he said at last, as if these simple words were a cure for Ryan's pain, a balm for his burning guilt. But they were neither of those things because Ryan knew what Sandy did not: that if he'd remained true to himself and given Marissa the one thing she'd craved above all else, that she'd sought from their first meeting that night on the Cohen's driveway, everything would have been different and there would have been no room, or reason, for Volchock to enter – and end - her life. But Ryan had betrayed himself and, in doing so, had failed her. Nothing could excuse him of that.

'No,' Ryan replied, realization dawning slowly. 'She loved who I was, not what I became.'

Sandy stared at him, uncomprehending, but it didn't matter. This wasn't about Sandy. It wasn't even about himself. This was about Marissa, and Ryan knew she would have understood.

tbc