1Rating/Warnings: minor swearing, mentions of child abuse & alcoholism

Disclaimers: I own nothing in relation to The O.C. All mistakes are mine.

Mornings

Six year old Ryan Atwood walked very carefully towards his mother's bedroom. He was going to surprise her by bringing her breakfast in bed. It really wasn't that hard not to spill anything. The only food they had in the house was cereal. They didn't even have any milk to go with it. Ryan's mommy had been in bed crying for two days, ever since she and Roy had gotten into a big fight. Roy had stormed out of the house and hadn't come back yet. She got like this every time one of her sleep-over friends left. Ryan didn't know why she always got so upset. He didn't like any of the men she brought home. They were all mean and liked to hit him and Trey. Roy hadn't been any different, except that he was really strong. It would hurt for a long time after Roy hit him. Ryan had been more afraid of him than all her other boyfriends.

He was no sissy - he was used to getting hit. His daddy had hit him all the time. It was a father's right to punish his kids when they got out of line. At least that's what his dad always said after he got after the two of them with the belt. But these guys weren't his father, so Ryan didn't think it was quite right that they hit so much. He wasn't sure about that though. His mommy never told them to stop, so she must think it was okay. Ryan tried not to think too much about that; it just confused him.

One of the things that she had been so sad about was money. She kept saying that they weren't going to have enough to live on with Roy gone. Ryan didn't understand that either. Roy didn't even have a job, but he knew better than to question his mom. She would cry really loud, and say that they were going to come take the house away, and the three of them would starve. Ryan didn't know who "they" were, but they must be bad people. He would watch out the window for people he didn't know. He wanted to be ready when "they" came.

He had another surprise for his mommy, not just breakfast. She wasn't going to have to worry about money for awhile. He had sold all his toys to his best friend Eddie, for five whole dollars. Well, all his toys except his toy Camaro car. It was magic. Someday, when Trey got big enough to drive, it would turn into a real car and the two of them would drive away together where no one could hurt them anymore. Trey promised. He was ten and he knew everything.

Ryan opened the door slowly; he didn't want to wake her up if she was still sleeping. His mommy got real mean when you woke her up, especially if she had gone out the night before. She would yell at him and ask why he couldn't be quiet when she had one of her headaches. He thought she had too many headaches. He was scared she might be sick. With his daddy in jail, no one would be left to take care of them if something happened to his mom.

Ryan almost dropped the cereal when he looked into the bedroom. Roy had come back sometime last night after Ryan had gone to bed. Ryan was glad he had been so quiet. His mom would yell if he woke her up, but Roy would have been a lot worse. He even looked mean when he was sleeping. Ryan wanted to get out of there as quick as he could without making any noise. As he shut the door behind him, he hoped that his mom would get into another fight with Roy and next time he wouldn't come back.

"Mom. Mom. Get up, Mom. Please, get up."

Ryan shook his mom by the shoulder in the hope of waking her from the effects of her latest binge. Her only response was to roll over and mumble something about five more minutes. Ryan glanced at the clock it was almost eight; if he didn't get his mom up soon, he would be late for school.

"Mom, you can't have five more minutes. You need to get up now. I need to get to school."

"So go to school already and leave me alone." She swatted at him with her arm in an attempt to make him stop shaking her.

Ryan knew that would be a bad idea. If he left, she would never get up. Most of the time he didn't care if she spent all day in bed or not, but today was different. She was scheduled to work today, and more importantly it was payday. They desperately needed the money. He had even scavenged the couch cushions in hopes of spare change and had come up empty handed.

Ryan wished he could just pick up her paycheck himself, but he knew that wouldn't work. Dawn had a list of former jobs a mile long and Ryan knew from past experiences that her boss was probably just about at his breaking point with her only showing up half the time. If she didn't work her shift today, there would be no paycheck

Ryan tried again.

"Mom, you've got to get up and go to work. We both know you won't get up if I leave. It's payday, and the bills are due. You need to pick up your check today. I paid all the bills last night and I can mail them on the way to school. Remember, you have to bring the check home, so I can take it to the bank. Don't stop at a bar on the way home and cash it like you did last time."

Ryan had been paying all the bills himself the past few months. At first he had struggled to understand everything he needed to do. His mother hadn't exactly been a good example, but he did the best he could. He finally decided to work up the nerve to ask his sixth grade math teacher how to balance a checkbook. Ryan had used the excuse that he wanted to improve his math skills. He was forever grateful when Mr. Schmidt said he had planned on doing that very project the next week. Ryan had a knack for numbers and quickly caught on. However, even Einstein wouldn't be able to figure out how to pay the bills when there was absolutely no money.

"Mom, I'm going to be late for school."

She propped herself up on her elbows, her make-up matted and smeared in red, black, and blue streaks. Her hair was sticking up and going in every direction; the dark roots in stark contrast to the bleached ends. One morning, when he had been very little, he told her she looked like a porcupine at Halloween. It was a mistake he didn't make again.

"Since when did you care so much about showing up for school?"

"Ever since my guidance counselor told me that she would have Social Services investigate the "quality of my home life" if I didn't start showing up for school more often."

"Nosy bitch." She flopped back down.

Ryan really wished Trey was around. He wouldn't care about making their mom mad; he would just pick up the mattress and roll her out of bed. But Trey wasn't here right now; he still had four weeks of his sentence left in Juvie. Ryan couldn't shake the feeling of guilt he got every time he thought about Trey in that place. It was his fault Trey had been arrested. If he hadn't complained about his shoes being too tight, Trey would have never got caught shoplifting in the first place. Trey hadn't thought about the extra security at the mall. He was used to stealing food at the local convenience marts. It was fairly easy to steal stuff there; even Ryan had managed it a couple of times when things were unusually bad.

Ryan tried a new approach.

"I made you a hangover special. It's waiting for you in the kitchen. All you have to do is walk in there and get it."

"Oh baby, you fixed me a drink and got me a new pack of cigs. I thought the guy wouldn't sell them to you. You're such a good boy. Why don't you bring them in here? Your mom's got a headache today."

That wasn't exactly what he had meant, but if she had gotten out of bed, he would have gladly been her personal bartender for a week. He glanced at the clock again, eight-fifteen. He was going to be late even if his mom got up this very second. He heard her steady, labored breathing, and knew she had once again fallen asleep.

So he began again...

"Mom. Mom. Get up, Mom. Please, get up."

Ryan woke up to the distant ringing of the phone. He fumbled to find his watch on the floor in the dark bedroom. It was three-thirty in the morning, and the phone call could only mean one thing...his mom needed a ride home.

After speaking to his mom, he got on his bike and started his search. She hadn't even been able to remember the name of the bar. He hated nights likes these...his mom would call home drunk and rambling, about how some guy she had been hitting on, had turned her down. She would cry, feel sorry for herself, get even more drunk, and call Ryan to come get her.

However, these nights were better than the alternative. His mom and a random guy would come stumbling in the front door at any hour of the night. Their clothes would already have started coming off by the time they reached the house. Sometimes they would make it to Dawn's bedroom and sometimes not. Ryan shuddered at the unwanted reminder of what he had to pass on those mornings.

He biked faster partly to hurry up and find his mom before she could drink even more, and partly for warmth. It was cool that evening and he had only worn his grey hoodie. He had tried her two favorite places just to be told that she was no longer welcome until her tab was paid. The third time was the charm. He found her at the Full Moon; a rat hole even by her standards. Just as expected, she was in a corner booth crying.

"He called me an old drunk. Can you believe that? It's not true, is it, kiddo?"

"No, Mom, of course not." He tried to pull her to her feet.

"I mean that guy has some nerve. I was just too much of a woman for him."

Ryan cringed. Her voice was getting louder and more shrill by the minute.

"Whatever you say. Let's just get out of here, okay? Where did you leave your purse?"

"Hey, kid," the bartender yelled. "Your ma has a fifty dollar tab from tonight. Pay up or else."

"Mom, what have you been drinking? No wonder we never have any money."

"Don't start with me, Ryan. I work hard for a living and I deserve to let loose once and awhile."

Ryan wanted to tell her that once and awhile was turning into almost every night, but it would be pointless. She wasn't going to change. Ryan knew they didn't have that much cash and from the looks of the guy, he wasn't exactly the understanding type.

"I'm sorry, mister. We don't have it. I can give you my bike instead."

"You don't expect me to believe anything you own would be worth fifty bucks, do you?"

"Please, it's all I've got." He held his breath. He didn't know what they would do if the guy wouldn't take it. From the looks of the bar, it didn't appear that offering to help clean up and do dishes would do any good. Ryan wondered if anything ever got cleaned in this place.

"Fine, bring it in here and let me look at it"

Ryan wheeled his bike into the bar, and was relieved when he was told it would do. He hated parting with his bike; it would be at least another year before he could scrape enough money to replace it. Unless, of course, Trey "found" one for him. Before the owner could change his mind about the bike, Ryan grabbed his mom and headed for the door.

"I'm so sorry baby. You must hate me." She tried to reach out and touch his face, but in her condition, she only made it to his shoulder.

"No, of course not, Mom. I love you."

"Shit!" Ryan banged his fist on the steering wheel and pulled over when red and blue lights illuminated the car. He had been driving the speed limit and used his turn signal. He had been so careful. What could he have done wrong? Why was he being pulled over?

"Are you aware that you have a broken tail light...?" The officer stopped mid-sentence when he saw Ryan behind the wheel. "Exactly how old are you, son?"

"Sixteen, sir. I forgot my wallet and license at home, but I have the registration," Ryan said as he held out the paper. He hoped the officer would believe him.

"Boy, do you think it is a wise idea to lie to me right now?"

Ryan should have known better. Nothing in his life was ever easy.

"No, officer. I'm sorry, officer. I'm fourteen. It's just that I had to pick up my mom from work. She's real sick. It won't happen again. I promise."

His mom had barely made it to the car before passing out. She laid there unmoving, sprawled in the passenger seat. The cop shined his flashlight in the car to look at her. Ryan could see the pity in the cop's eyes. "Sick, huh?"

"Yes, sir."

"I'll tell you what, son. I'll follow you home, and as long as you don't ever do this again, I'll forget all about it. Are you going to need help getting her in the house?"

"No, sir. Thank you, sir."

Ryan hadn't been able to carry his mom any farther than the living room couch. As he sat staring at her, he wondered if his life would ever be anything more than this.

"Ryan, Ryan, it's time to wake-up."

It took him a moment to get his bearings and remember where he was. Some nights, the memories of his former life would come back to him so strongly in his dreams. He would wake up disoriented, with that same feeling hopelessness that he had in Chino. But then, he would remember that he was now in the comfort of a home and family that didn't expect him to be the parent.

Ryan rolled over and put a pillow over his head. "Seth I'm not really up to another Summer story right now."

"Sorry kid, wrong family member. You overslept."

Ryan groggily sat up in bed and ran a hand through his rumpled hair. "Sorry. Thanks for checking on me. I'll be there in a few minutes."

"Don't worry about it. There are still plenty of bagels to go around."

Ryan yawned as he sat down at the breakfast table.

"Morning, sleepy-head." Kirsten handed him a glass of orange juice and a box of cereal. She had figured out a within a week of Ryan's arrival not to bother with milk or a bowl.

He looked at her and gave her a shy smile. "Thanks. I didn't mean to oversleep. I was up late doing homework."

"Speaking of your homework, it was scattered all over the living room. I gathered it up and set it on the coffee table."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to leave a mess."

"It's okay, sweetie. That's not what I meant. I just wanted you to make sure I didn't get something out of order, in case you were handing it in today." She reached down and fixed his collar, finishing with a slight squeeze of his shoulder.

"Oh, well, thanks again." He knew that the little gestures were a sign that she cared, even if he wasn't completely comfortable with them yet.

Then he noticed there was no familiar sound of the coffee machine. "Um, not that the juice isn't really good, but where is the coffee?"

"Yes, mother. Why don't you tell Ryan why we have no coffee? I, for one, can't fathom why you would want us to fall asleep in class, followed by failing grades, thereby ruining our chances at getting in to a good college. Then we'll end up on the streets begging for change to buy coffee. Is that what you want? Can your conscience live with that?"

"Thank you, that was a heart wrenching story. As I already explained, you boys are too young to drink so much coffee. It can't be good for you. I decided that you should have a more nutritious drink for breakfast. Therefore, now we have juice instead."

"Don't worry, buddy. We'll just buy it first thing when we get to school."

"I heard that, Seth. You won't be buying anything if I don't give you boys your allowance. Speaking of which." Kirsten went to her purse and handed each boy an envelope.

Seth immediately started counting. As if his parents were actually going to short-change him. Ryan gave another small embarrassed thanks. He still couldn't get used to taking their money. At first he had refused, but the Cohen's had insisted, saying it wouldn't be right for only Seth to get an allowance, especially since Ryan was the only one who ever did any chores around the house. In the end, they won the argument just like they always did.

"Seth Ezekiel, how many times have I told you not to put the empty cream cheese container back in the fridge?" Sandy stood with the refrigerator opened, clearly annoyed.

"Wait a minute there, Dad. How do you know it was me? After all, you now have two sons who could have put the empty container back."

"I know because, Ryan," Sandy patted him affectionately on the back, "does not have an aversion to cleanliness and throwing things away, as opposed to you. Plus, I saw you do it."

Ryan finished his breakfast, soaking in the expert banter of his new family.

Mornings were his favorite part of the day.

The End