Title: The Hart Break
Story Rating: T
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: Unbeta'd -- all mistakes are mine!
AU. This story follows just after the epilogue for Seventeen, and involves the Harts, who were introduced in that story. Part 1 is set sometime just after "The Sleeping Beauty", and contains spoilers through that episode. Later parts will contain further spoilers.
The Hart Break
"We've got to tell him they called, honey."
Kirsten sighed. Sandy was right. She understood that.
But it didn't mean she had to like it. Who were these Harts, anyway?
She set her empty tea cup down smartly, shoving it to the back of the countertop with such force that the cup danced, rattling precariously on its saucer. Startled by her own actions, she turned to see Sandy's brows furrow as his eyes rose from the teacup to her face.
Damn. She needed to stay collected.
She wasn't necessarily wrong to worry, she told herself – she just couldn't appear irrational.
Kirsten aimed for 'practical' as she argued, "But Sandy, we don't know these people. In three and a half years, Ryan's never even mentioned them. Have you considered that there might be a reason for that?"
Eyebrows shooting up under his mane, Sandy countered, "There are a lot of things Ryan hasn't mentioned about his life before Newport – you know that as well as I do, sweetheart. I'm not sure we can read much of anything into his omissions – even when they're as glaring as this one seems to be."
Her lips flattened. She could hardly believe that she and Sandy seemed to have switched sides in their ongoing conflict – normally she was the one advocating Ryan's reconnection to his family and to his past, and Sandy was the one urging caution.
Wouldn't you know it? Now that she wanted Sandy to be staunchly protective, he was being open-minded instead.
As much as she loved her husband, there were times the man drove her mad.
She folded her arms across her chest, standing her ground, "I'm worried about Ryan – he's still working so hard just to cope with things. He doesn't need any more trauma right now."
Sandy cocked his head, hunching his shoulders as he made a face, "But Kirsten, think about it. Ryan's been through stuff no kid his age should ever have had to face. Having more people in his life who care about him -- who will support him while he's dealing with some horrific memories – could be just what he needs."
When he finished talking he continued staring at her, his eyes soft and imploring. She could feel him begging her to listen… to be objective.
"Humph," she snorted, averting her eyes.
She'd been the objective one too many times, arguing that what was best for Ryan involved resolving outstanding issues with his family. Almost always, her efforts had ended with Ryan being put in harm's way, and/or getting hurt.
Kirsten allowed a hint of her frustration to seep through, "Name one person from Chino who's ever come here and not left Ryan traumatized."
Sandy took her hand in his, coaxing her out of her crossed-arm stance and waiting for her to look at him. When she did, the understanding reflected in his eyes was reassuring, although not exactly what she was hoping for.
He held her gaze a moment before gathering her into his arms and resting his chin lightly against her hair.
"I hear what you're saying, Kirsten. Believe me. But you weren't on the telephone with Megan. I know we only spoke a few minutes, but I'm telling you – the woman said all the right things. You get a sense about people, sometimes. My sense was that the only person she was concerned about was Ryan – what he wanted. What was good for him. I liked that about her… I liked her. I think you would have, too."
Kirsten sighed, not really sure why Sandy's reassurances weren't working. She wanted what was best for Ryan – it was like her mantra. To that end, she'd tried liking Dawn, and Trey, and Theresa.
In the end, they'd all hurt him. She'd held out such hope that Dawn had changed, but the woman had turned her back on Ryan after the accident, more afraid she'd be pulled into a lawsuit than concerned about her son.
"I just don't know…" she answered truthfully, her voice trailing off uncertainly.
Sandy drew his head back, so that he could find her eyes once more.
"What do you say we talk to Ryan, see what his reaction to hearing from the Harts is? If he's skittish in any way, we do everything in our power to protect him from them," he coaxed.
She scanned his face, earnest eyes convincing her that he was serious.
So was she.
Mustering her best smile, she consented, "Okay, we talk to Ryan. But we don't force him to do anything he's not ready for. We take our cues from him."
Kirsten stood back as Sandy tapped on the pool house door.
"Come in," came the disembodied voice. It sounded dispirited and resigned, as though any other response would have taken too much effort.
As Kirsten followed Sandy into the pool house, she let her eyes wander over both the teenager and the room for an update as to how Ryan was faring.
The teenager was sitting at his desk, pencil in hand, sketching something on an artist's pad.
He turned toward them, lifting his eyebrows expectantly.
The dullness in his voice was painful to hear, but she took heart in the fact that his shades were over half-way up, and that he wasn't cocooned under the covers of his bed, or sprawled miserably on top of it.
A further scan across the room confirmed that not only had the bed been made, but that all the surfaces were clean and uncluttered. Clothes were stacked neatly in the shelves, and there were no dishes in the sink or on the counters. A towel in the laundry basket was the only hint that someone actually occupied the room.
If this were Seth's room, she'd be worried sick, but the order was very Ryan-like. It was a good sign – some evidence that his considerable coping mechanisms might at least be keeping pace with his misery.
"Is something wrong?" Ryan laid the pencil he was sketching with on his desk, rising from his chair. He looked from Sandy's face to hers, his eyes troubled.
Sandy nodded toward the bed, "Why don't you sit down, kid? We need to talk."
Kirsten shot a look at her husband, wondering why he didn't put the teen at ease immediately. Honestly, as insightful as her husband generally was, there were times he was obtuse.
"Nothing's wrong, honey," she interjected, hoping that the sudden frown on Ryan's face would disappear.
The boy responded directly to Sandy, "If this is about Taylor being here overnight…"
Huh? Kirsten shot another look at Sandy, before turning back to Ryan. "What about Taylor?"
Ryan groaned, looking desperately at Sandy.
"Kirsten, I think we can save that topic for another discussion, okay?" Her husband's eyes widened, as though encouraging her to stay focused.
Damn it, she hated being left in the dark. She should know what was going on, particularly when it involved Girls Staying Overnight. Sandy knew how she felt about that.
The red flush creeping into Ryan's face as he sat down on the corner of the bed made her curiosity ramp into overdrive, but Sandy was right. Taylor was not why they were here.
Eyeing Sandy firmly, she sat down on the bed next to Ryan.
A small apologetic flick of his eyebrows the only acknowledgement of her admonishment, Sandy seated himself in the wicker chair across from the boy.
"So?" Ryan led, wiping his palms against his jeans. "Is something wrong?"
Kirsten waited for Sandy to respond, surprised when he said nothing. A quick glance at his face told her they'd had a miscue – that a contrite Sandy was waiting for her to speak.
Ryan fidgeted, apparently misinterpreting their silence.
"Did Seth tell you about the insomnia thing? 'Cause that's over with," he offered, apprehension evident in his voice.
"Insomnia?" Sandy's eyebrows shot up. "You weren't sleeping? When was this? Why didn't you tell us?"
Reeling from a second revelation in as many minutes, Kirsten laid her hand on the boy's arm, feeling his body tense at her touch. She closed her eyes for an instant, troubled.
It wasn't like Ryan had ever really come to them with his problems, but shouldn't they at least be aware of something like insomnia? What did that say about how their family was operating right now?
And what did it say that Ryan tensed when she touched him? Were they really back to that?
Maybe that's what she really feared about this latest bombshell – that their relationship with Ryan was too fragile right now to withstand an outside challenge. That after all that had happened these last few months, they still needed to mend their own familial bonds.
They had a lot to make up for.
She had a lot to make up for.
Like the fact she'd never talked with Ryan, after what she'd said to him at her intervention. Or the fact she'd never opened up with him after her stint in rehab, or taken him to any of her meetings, or properly thanked him for his support.
She'd wanted to, but she'd put off the conversations, nervous at first that she'd make him uncomfortable, or say something wrong, and later embarrassed that she'd waited far too long.
As much as she hated it, she'd never grown entirely comfortable with Ryan. While she told others she loved him 'as a son', she'd never said the words to him.
After all this time, there was still a distance – Ryan seemed always one rung out of reach.
Her thoughts were interrupted when she felt his arm move under her hand.
The teenager shrugged and ducked his head. When he spoke, he was still addressing Sandy.
"I swear, it wasn't a big deal. I would have told you if the sleep – that is, I mean the not sleeping – thing got to be something I couldn't handle, okay?"
"No, it's not okay," Kirsten answered, cutting off whatever reply Sandy might have given. She braced herself for Ryan's startled glance.
Keeping eye contact when it came, she explained, "Ryan, we need to know when you're having problems. We can help – we want to help you. I want you to really understand that."
The boy bit his lip, as he nodded slowly, "Yeah, no, I'm sorry. I get that, but I just needed to work through some stuff, okay? Honestly, most of the time there isn't anything anyone can do. Look, I'll come to you if I can't manage on my own, I promise."
Kirsten let out her breath, unsure how to respond. Thankfully, Sandy didn't seem to like the boy's answer anymore than she did.
He interceded, chiding gently, "That's a start, kid, but don't think we're gonna let you off the hook that easily."
Ryan's jaw clenched, but he said nothing.
Sandy moved in his chair, leaning toward Ryan, "But we can have that discussion later, too. That's not why we're here right now."
Rolling his eyes at Sandy, Ryan muttered, "So, you guys just wanna move in here? 'Cause it sounds like I'm in for a bunch of lectures."
Kirsten moved her hand to rest on his back, pleased that at least there was no flinch this time she touched him. He glanced sideways at her, a frown tugging at the corners of his mouth.
Kirsten soothed, "Not lectures. Discussions."
His expression made it clear he didn't see a lot of distinction.
"As for us moving into the pool house? I think you're safe, sweetie. Sandy and I aren't nearly neat enough to be your tenants."
She looked across at him, offering an encouraging smile.
This time he did allow one corner of his mouth to turn up, "I'd need a big deposit."
Sandy's dimples appeared as he snorted, but he let Kirsten keep the lead.
"You don't know the half of it, honey. You'd need a maid!" Kirsten grinned, nodding her head accusingly at Sandy.
Ryan lips twitched, but he bit off the smile that threatened to appear.
"So, what say we continue the Taylor and insomnia discussions inside the house? Later?" she asked.
The boy grimaced lopsidedly across at her, sighing in resignation.
Sandy cleared his throat, the sound reminding Kirsten of their real mission. She nodded, letting him take the helm of the conversation.
Sandy looked at Ryan, "What we actually came out here to talk to you about is a telephone call that came in for you, Ryan. From someone who says she knew you from Chino."
"She?" Ryan's eyes reflected apprehension. He picked at a fleck of lint on his t-shirt. "Not Theresa?"
"A woman. A Megan Hart." Sandy's voice was even, but his eyes were riveted on Ryan's face.
Kirsten watched as Ryan froze, his hand suspended in space. The boy blinked several times, but neither moved nor spoke.
"Ryan?" Sandy pressed.
As though he'd been released from 'pause', Ryan caught a sharp breath, and swallowed. "Mrs. Hart? Really? She called?"
Kirsten nodded, "So you know her?"
His head dropped as he clenched his hands together and rested his forehead on his knuckles. He nodded, but didn't speak.
"Kid? Are you okay?"
Sandy scooted out to the edge of his chair, reaching across to lay a hand on Ryan's knee.
The boy look up at him, his eyes teaming with questions. He only gave voice to one, "Where is she?"
Sandy kept his voice neutral as he answered, "Here. That is, in L.A. She and her husband. They've apparently been looking for you for a while."
Kirsten's heart broke a little as she watched Ryan wind his arms around his middle. She wondered what he was protecting himself against. The Harts, or yet another heartbreak?
"Who are they, Ryan?" she asked gently.
His eyes were deep blue pools as he offered very softly, "Once… they were people who believed in me."
"Once?" she echoed, her heart lurching a little at his choice of words.
He didn't explain, responding instead with a few more facts, "Mrs. Hart is a librarian – or was a librarian, I guess. I first met her when I was seven – when she read to us at the library…" His voice trailed off, as he closed his eyes.
"She told me that," Sandy nodded. "She also said her husband was an architect."
Ryan smiled a little, "Yeah – he is. When I knew him, he was really into baseball, too. And soccer. Football. Actually, all my sports."
Kirsten felt her heart skip a beat.
She glanced at the books on Ryan's shelves. She'd always been impressed with the boy's love for reading, according much of his remarkable ability to adapt to new surroundings with the insight and knowledge gleaned from time well-spent with books.
Exactly what role had the Harts played in Ryan's life? And what role did they hope to play going forward?
What might Ryan hope for?
And why was she suddenly having trouble getting her breath?
"Honey? Do you want to talk with her? With them?" She shifted her position so that she was angled toward him.
"I thought… I didn't think…" he stopped, closing his eyes and sucking on his lower lip. When he opened his eyes, they were shimmering.
"They really want to talk to me? You're sure?" The muscles in his jaw were strained as he waited for an answer.
Sandy squeezed the boy's knee, his voice soothing, "Very much so, kid."
The boy stared at Sandy for a few seconds, the cords in his face still strained as he fought for self-control.
Kirsten tried to smile as she comforted, "So, I take it that's a 'yes'?"
Ryan shook his head, turning to her as he unwound his arms, swiping his fingers across his face.
"Yeah. I'd like that." The words were squeezed out, fading a little at the end.
Kirsten recognized an uneasy mixture of longing, anxiety, and wonder on his face and in his eyes.
"Then, we'll make it happen."
Before Ryan could respond, Sandy clarified, "Of course we will, kid. Just, until we get to know them, we want to be part of any contact. They're okay with that stipulation. It's not because we don't trust you, Ryan. It's because we want to protect you."
Kirsten watched the teenager carefully, pleased to see him nod.
"I get that."
Sandy smiled, and settled back in his chair. "Good."
Ryan tilted his head. "But Sandy?"
"I trust them."
She almost gasped, before glancing quickly across at Sandy. Her husband's smile was frozen on his face.
Fortunately, their stunned silence went unnoticed. Ryan was elsewhere – completely lost in thought.
The tiny upward movements of his lips and softening of his eyes spoke volumes. When at last he closed his eyes and genuinely smiled, Kirsten felt her own eyes stinging.
Her 'like a son' seemed further away than ever at this moment.
She slid an arm around Ryan's waist, unable to stop herself.
All she managed to do was startle him.
He sucked in his breath sharply, spinning his head toward her as he jumped, dislodging her arm.
His face flushed when he realized what he'd done, "I'm sorry – I guess I zoned out for a minute."
She smiled, recovering as gracefully as she could. She laid her hand gently on his back, rubbing small circles, "I'm the one who's sorry – I just want you to know I'm here – that we're both here for you."
"I know. And I appreciate that."
Of course he did. He always appreciated what they did for him.
As much as that meant, it wasn't what she wanted from the teenager.
Ryan looked hopefully at Sandy, "Can I – we – call them now? Please?"
She dropped her hand down to the bed, resisting the urge to wind her arms around her own midsection. What was wrong with her, anyway? Isn't this what she'd always wanted for Ryan? A connection to someone important from his past?
She tried her best to smile, only to realize Ryan wasn't paying any attention to her at all. His eyes were glued to Sandy's face.
Sandy caught her eye, giving her as much comfort as he could before he turned to answer Ryan. "I'm sure Megan would like that. Let's go over into the kitchen to make the call, okay?"
Kirsten poured hot water over an infuser of loose green tea as Sandy dialed the number Megan had given him.
She wondered what was in store for their family – what events this call might set in motion.
Maybe the Harts simply wanted to find out how Ryan was doing. Maybe they would be satisfied with seeing him, ensuring that he was safe. That he was part of a loving family.
Maybe giving them those assurances was all he wanted, too.
Only that's not what Ryan's expression was telling her. She couldn't remember the last time she'd seen him look this eager. The last time she'd seen his eyes shine quite like they were shining now.
As good as it was to see Ryan excited about anything, it hurt a little that he was so anxious to speak with strangers when he still barely spoke with them. Except… the Harts weren't strangers to Ryan, were they?
Kirsten hid a frown. God help her – she was actually jealous, and more than a little threatened by people she'd never met.
This isn't a competition, she told herself firmly.
Rinsing out the teacup she'd been using earlier, she could practically feel her pulse quicken as she heard the phone ringing over the speaker.
She froze for an instant when she heard someone pick up.
A woman's voice poured into their kitchen – warm and rich, brimming with anticipation.
"Hello? This is Megan..."
Ryan blinked for a second, as though he didn't quite believe his ears.
"Hello?" the woman repeated.
Sandy placed a hand on Ryan's shoulder, raising his eyebrows and nodding toward the phone.
"Mrs. Hart?" Ryan responded softly.
Kirsten watched the teenager's face as Megan Hart's excited reaction echoed across the separating miles.
"Oh my God! Ryan? Ryan! Is it really you?"
His smile virtually lit the kitchen, while Kirsten clutched her teacup tightly in her hands to keep from shaking.
She stood less than three feet from this boy who was 'like her son', but she was far too far away.
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