The Hart Break

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: All mistakes are mine, mine, mine... However, many thanks to Beachtree for her preview and much-appreciated suggestions.

AU. This story follows just after the epilogue for Seventeen, and involves the Harts, who were introduced in that story. Chapter 5 is set the morning after Chapter 4 (where the Harts came for dinner). The whole story starts sometime just after "The Sleeping Beauty", and contains spoilers through that episode. Later parts will contain further spoilers.

Megan feels Sam's fingers tighten around hers as they follow a chattering Seth Cohen toward his kitchen. The boy barely stops for breath as he backpedals his way through the house, the word torrent punctuated by flailing arms and a gamut of facial contortions.

"Yeah, so Dad says to tell you he's sorry he's not here. He planned to be, but he got a phone call from the night clerk's office thirty minutes ago and had to rush down to the courthouse. Which wouldn't be a problem except that Mom left before dawn this morning to help out with some Harbor-sponsored clothing drive, which is kinda' weird because, I mean, we don't even go to Harbor anymore, but The Kirsten can never say 'no' to Julie Cooper…"

The boy pauses for a beat, drawing back one corner of his mouth in a sort of half-grimace before shrugging and continuing his ramble. "Then again, to be fair to Mom, Julie's rumored to eat Newpsies for breakfast – and it's an established fact that she seduces way more than her fair share of the local gentry. Take Jimmy Cooper, Neil Roberts and yes, I have to admit, even my grandfather for instances. And don't even get me started about the whole sordid Luke…"

He stops rambling and tilts his head, squeezing his eyebrows together as he halts his progress. He raises his index finger, punching the air. "But that's not the point here, is it? So like I was saying, Dad was supposed to be here when you guys came but now he's gone, too, 'cause his latest client got arrested and is being arraigned in like", he looks at his watch, "four minutes."

He draws a breath and starts again. "But on the bright side, it's not Ryan who got arrested, so all in all I think we could agree it's not such a bad morning. Not exactly what Walt might call a zippity-doo-dah day, if he weren't, you know, in a cryogenics lab, but I definitely think there's a little zip in our morning. Maybe even some 'ippity'. What do you think? Would you say there's some 'ippity'?"

"Excuse me?" Sam blinks.

Seth just nods to himself, mumbling something about 'doo-dah' and some sort of 'color indicator' scale that Megan doesn't even try to follow.

"Hey," Ryan interrupts from inside the kitchen. "You guys up for bagels before we head up the coast?"

He nods to the bar stools by the island as he heads to a nearby cabinet.

Sam's face clears. "If they come with coffee, count me in."

"Coming right up," Ryan assures him, pulling mugs down from a shelf.

The kitchen smells like the fresh-brewed coffee, with undertones of lemon and eucalyptus. Megan watches Ryan's quick, efficient movements as he pours the brew and recognizes something of the athletic child from Chino in the young man he has become.

"I'm so glad you're coming with us," Megan says, brushing Ryan's arm lightly as he hands her a mug brimming with rich French roast.

His eyes catch hers for just an instant. "Glad you asked."

The Cohen breakfast bar soon buzzes with activity. Seth crowds beside Ryan in front of the bagel slicer, rubbing his hands together greedily, while she and Sam perch upon the bar stools.

Megan grins as she watches Ryan 'schmear' (his word) her bagel with cream cheese. He was a toast guy back in Chino.

Seth nods his head approvingly. "He learned how to do that from Dad. It's a Cohen talent. Dad's very proud of his protégé."

Ryan cocks his head toward Seth and glares at him.

"What?" Seth's eyebrows shoot up.

Megan's grin grows a little wider. "Ryan's always been a quick study."

Ryan hands her a plate with her perfectly smeared raisin bagel, his eyes locking onto hers. "Don't encourage him," he warns, but the smile playing at the corners of his mouth says far more than his words.

"So, where are you guys staying?" Seth asks a few moments later, after Ryan serves Sam and schmears a bagel for himself. Without a word, Seth plucks Ryan's breakfast from his plate and bites off a sizable chunk.

Sam's eyes follow Seth's actions, his eyebrows furrowing just a little before he answers the teen's question. "We're staying in a friend's relative's house, just off-campus."

"Cool," the lanky teenager mumbles around a mouthful of bread and cream cheese, lifting the remnants of the bagel up in a salute to Ryan. "Mmmm. Love sesame bagels."

"Yeah. Me, too," Ryan mutters, reaching for the last (not sesame) bagel and repeating his slice and schmear routine.

Vintage Ryan, Megan thinks – letting someone else have what belongs to him without any obvious protest. Seth appears completely unfazed, licking his fingers after he pops another hunk of the stolen breakfast into his mouth.

Hardly waiting to chew, Seth offers, "If you want some company, dude, I've got the time. You. Me. Berkeley. Could make for some classic Seth-Ryan fun and frolic. What do you say?"

Megan glances at Sam, whose fingers twitch almost imperceptively. She doubts Seth noticed, but wouldn't bet against Ryan. When your very survival depended for years on paying attention to minutia, would you ever stop noticing the little things?

Ryan's face looks like he just inhaled a whiff of something rank. "Seth, don't say 'frolic'. Ever. Again."

Seth's head dips a little. "Too gay?"

When Ryan's eyes practically drill a hole through Seth's forehead, the dark-haired boy gulps down his final bite and nods. "Yeah. C'est fini for 'frolic'. But seriously, Ryan, I'm available to, you know, do manly things. It'd be like old times. You and me. Just hanging out…"

Ryan takes a bite of his own bagel, shaking off Seth's offer. His voice is a study in placation. "Thanks, man, but not necessary. I'm good."

His glance sweeps over Megan and Sam, and he amends, "We're good."

Sam leans toward Megan, just enough so that she feels his arm softly nudge hers. She recognizes the signal – her husband is pleased.

She watches in something between disbelief and wonder as Seth openly sizes up Sam and then herself, before the boy leans in to Ryan and stage-whispers, "You sure you don't need a wing-man? Someone your age?"

Ryan catches Megan's eyes, a silent apology written across his face. He then turns to address Seth with what sounds like long-practiced patience. "Yeah, Seth, I'm sure. I've got this one."

With a noise Megan recognizes as relief, Sam hops down from his stool, carrying his plate to the sink. Megan sees Seth eyeing Sam's actions curiously.

"So, did our Ryan learn to clean up after himself at Hart House?" the boy asks.

"Why don't you ask Ryan?" Sam replies, running water over the dish and stacking it neatly in the dishwasher. Megan is amazed the man's voice doesn't betray his irritation, certain that he's keeping his back to Seth on purpose, buying time to clear the scowl she's sure is on his face.

Seth shakes his head. "Uh, yeah. 'Cause that Ryan, he's a real chatterbox. Talks all the time. Can't shut him up."

"Seth," Ryan growls.

"What?"

Ryan glares, causing Seth to point.

"See?" Seth stage whispers again. "I rest my case."

Sam returns from the sink and places a hand on Ryan's shoulder, his voice softly restrained. "I'm going out to the car, Ace. I think I packed some files I need to review on the way up. I'm going to go look for them."

Ryan stares at him a beat, but when Sam smiles back reassuringly, Ryan visibly relaxes, nodding.

"Okay. I promise I'll be ready in just a minute."

With a little squeeze Sam releases the boy. "I'm not in a hurry. You guys finish up here, and I'll see you and Megan outside. I saw your bag by the door, so I'll grab it throw it in the car with our things."

Ryan nods again, "Cool."

Megan watches Sam stride down the hall, until he disappears out of sight. She stands up, holding up her index finger. "Just give me a minute, guys. I'll be right back."

Without waiting for an answer, she follows Sam's trail out the door. She finds him pulling out the bags he packed so perfectly into the trunk only an hour earlier. Several are now lying scattered on the ground.

"So you're really looking for files, huh?" she asks.

"Um-hum." He pulls a large bag closer, turning it toward him.

"And you're okay?"

His lips twist as he looks up. "I will be. Go on back inside, and take your time. I really do have to find my Berkeley files – I need to re-read them on the way, because I want to spend time with you and Ryan once we get there."

She sidles up next to him as he starts unzipping the larger pockets in his duffle. "You can't fool me, Babe. You're avoiding more time with Seth."

He looks up from his search. "Busted. Honey, I'm sorry, but there's just something about that kid that gets under my skin."

"Sam, he's nineteen. I think he's supposed to get under our skin."

Sam huffs. "Nineteen? He acts more like nine. A self-indulgent nine at that."

She can't disagree with that assessment, but she counters, "Well, regardless, he's Ryan's friend, so we're going to have to make room for him."

"I know." Sam doesn't sound thrilled by the thought.

"Best friend, Sam."

Sam sighs, and nods. "I'm working on it, for Ryan. But, for the moment, let me work on it from a distance, okay?"

He reaches for her hand, his fingers twining through hers fleetingly before he brushes her cheek with his other thumb.

She turns her face up toward him, his lips touching hers gently, and then again more deeply. She smells his shampoo, and the light musk cologne he wears, and feels a little light-headed.

She backs up, staring into Sam's face. "When you put it that way…"

She leans in for one more kiss before she pulls away.

His eyes linger on her lips, but he doesn't stop her as she turns to go back inside the Cohen manse.

As she walks into the kitchen, the two teenagers are standing on opposite sides of the breakfast counter. Seth's face is animated, his dimples deepening as speaks.

"So, Ryan, buddy – promise me you'll keep your nose clean and your fists lowered while you're away. Remember what we've talked about. No more juvie daycare for you, dude. It's the Big House from now on." A smirk spreads across his face.

Ryan's outward demeanor plummets from upbeat to still. Megan sees the light flush that rises to his face as he glances sideways toward her, but Seth is either oblivious or indifferent to the rippled wake of his remark.

Megan quietly joins Ryan by the barstools, one hand wrapping around the back of the nearest stool. She squeezes it tightly, imagining for just an instant that it's Seth's scrawny neck she's clutching.

She aims for neutral as she speaks. "Ryan, would you mind checking on whether Sam found his files and if he's got everything loaded back into the trunk? I think he wanted to go over the route with you, too. I'll be out soon – I just want to leave a note for the Cohens with our Berkeley address and contact details."

The blond teen blinks a second, like he's switching gears inside his head, not quite on the same page with her.

"Please?" she adds. "Please? Check on Sam?"

He stares at her, his eyes probing hers, before slowly nodding. "Alright."

Seth doesn't heed Ryan's non-verbals, and repeats his earlier offer. "Sure you don't want me to go with, dude? I can be packed in like, two minutes."

Up until now Ryan has been gentle with his rebuffs, but this time he's glacial.

"Very sure," he says as he stalks away, leaving Megan alone with Seth.

Seth is staring at Ryan's retreating back, his face filled with questions. He turns to Megan, his hands upturned as he hitches his shoulders upwards in baffled resignation. "What's with him?" he asks.

She stares at him a second, trying to decide whether he's as clueless as he seems to be. She honestly can't tell.

She steps up to the island, so that they're face to face, separated by a barricade of wood and granite. "Seth, that thing you said about juvie and prison? Don't you think, given Ryan's history, and his family's experience, that might have been insensitive?"

His eyes widen, and then narrow under furrowed brows. "Insensitive? About the Big House? I mean, that's crazy, 'cause Ryan is totally cool with it. It's just a thing with us. You know, one of our 'in-jokes'."

Megan shakes her head as she absorbs what the teenager has just said. "Maybe I am crazy, but I don't think Ryan sees joking about prison as 'just a thing'. Judging from his reaction just now, I'd say he finds it pretty upsetting."

Seth frowns. "It's Ryan. He broods and glares the same as you or I breathe. It's normal. SOP. Look, I've been saying the same thing ever since he turned eighteen. He's fine with it."

Megan crosses her arms, her fingernails digging into her skin as she stares across at the teenager. "Are you sure?"

"Positive. It's what I do – I bring the funny, 'cause we all know that Ryan is down with the brooding, and I gotta' give us some balance. I'm yin and he's yang, I'm hot and he's cold, I'm white and he's black, I'm fire and he's water, or maybe he's fire... anyway, you get what I mean."

"You're Ryan's friend, Seth. As his friend, I don't get why you'd think any reference to prison time would be funny."

Megan watches as Seth's face clouds over. The boy leans back against the sink as he speaks.

"So, Megan, I'm going out on a limb here, but don't you think you might be projecting your own feelings just a little bit? I'm just saying…"

She shrugs, ignoring his question in favor of her own. "Tell me, just how often do your laughs come at Ryan's expense?"

The boy's brows knit together. "You know, you're kinda' acting like he's your kid or something. But the thing is? He's not. You guys left him three plus years ago."

Her eyes close for an instant as she remembers all too well. "You don't know how much I wish we would have been there the day Ryan called. We would have taken him into our home in a nanosecond. Sooner, even."

"But the fact is you weren't there. We were. And now he belongs to us. He's ours."

"Ryan doesn't belong to anyone. He's not property."

"You know what I mean."

Megan tilts her head, appraising the teenager. She is a little afraid she does.

She probes further. "What would your parents say if they heard you joking about Ryan and prison?"

Seth splays his hands. "Nothing. They've heard me plenty of times before, and they know it doesn't mean anything. They'd probably just think someone needs to lighten up."

"I'm sorry to hear that, because I kind of hoped someone would be speaking up for Ryan."

"Saying what, exactly?"

"Saying something like this: I know where Ryan's from, and a lot of what he's lived through and overcome. I've seen him, and kids like him, suffer at the hands of their families and others who put them down for kicks, and I've watched Ryan take the abuse because he didn't understand he deserved better. These kids accept cruelty and insensitivity almost as 'givens', and bear them even as the repeated assaults slowly scar their psyche. This much I'd bet, Seth – using what must be one of the most painful moments of Ryan's life for laughs must feel kinda' like an ice pick jammed into his gut. It isn't something a true friend would do to someone he cares about. It's just not."

"You're saying I'm scarring Ryan's psyche?"

"Why risk it, Seth? If it's just for fun, find something else to joke about. If you really are his friend, find something else."

The boy's head shakes from side to side like he is looking at a crazy woman, but Megan doesn't care.

"Find something else."

His head draws back and his mouth scrunches at the corners. "Whatever. Something else," he mutters.

It's not a rousing victory, but it's a concession and she'll take it. She scans his face, surprised to find more questions than umbrage in the dark brown eyes. She nods an approval. "Thank you, Seth."

"You're welcome," he says hesitantly, as though he's not sure it's what he wants to say.

An awkward moment of silence follows before she nods toward the door. "Look, Sam and Ryan must be waiting, so I'm gonna' scoot. We'll have Ryan back by Monday night."

She pulls a handwritten note out of her pocket and slides it across the counter toward Seth. "Give this to your mom and dad. It's got all of our contact details, in case any of you need to speak with Ryan or with us before we get back."

The teenager steps up to the counter and spins the note around, glancing up at her as he finishes.

"Monday night?" he sputters. "You're not coming back on Sunday?"

"Monday night," she repeats, heading out of the kitchen.

"But what about my reindeer?" Seth insists, trailing her down the hall. "They won't just put themselves up, you know. I was kinda' counting on Sunday as our official 'Reindeer Day."

Ryan swings the front door open just in time to hear Seth's last sentence. He holds up one hand, effectively bringing Seth's whine to a halt.

"Your mom says no reindeer until the 24th – the neighbors threatened to start a petition. But don't worry, Seth. Donder and Blitzen will go up, I promise. It's on my schedule. Done deal."

"Vixen and Cupid."

Ryan's head pulls back a little and he grimaces at Seth.

The curly headed boy nods in resignation, and Ryan's face instantly clears. Seth immediately pounces. "It's just that, technically, my reindeers' names are Vixen…"

"Seth," Ryan warns.

"Yeah. Okay. Cool," Seth throws his hands up in surrender. "I get it, dude." He edges closer to Ryan, his voice pitched low. "We'll talk more about their names when you get back. And about moving up the timetable."

Megan intercedes before Ryan growls again. She steps between the two boys, speaking quickly to Seth.

"We'll see you Monday night. Tell your parents we'll call when we get to Berkeley."

She then turns to Ryan, who tosses her a grateful glance. Placing a hand against his back, she steers him to the open door.

"Let's hit the road, Ace. I see Sam has staked his claim to the backseat. He's got some prep work he wants to do, so looks like it's going to be you and me up front."

"Good by me," he says, as they walk out the door together, leaving Seth standing inside in the shadows.

"Phone me if you want to talk," Seth interjects, "or you could text if you want to stay stealth. Keep our com on the QT. Maybe I should work on a triple secret code…"

Ryan pulls the door closed behind him, answering as the gap narrows, "You do that, Seth. We'll talk about it when I get home."

The last thing Megan hears is Seth's muted, "Yeah, a secret code. Cool."

She keeps her voice low as she asks, "If you wanted Seth to come along, you'd tell me, right?

Ryan rolls his eyes. "Right. And if Seth were cooped up inside the car, Sam would escape where? To the trunk?"

Megan snickers. "Maybe. Or to a separate car."

"Seth's a good guy. Honest. He just takes some getting used to."

"Some?"

"Okay, maybe a lot. But in the end, it's worth it. Trust me."

She reaches for his face, her fingers feathering against his cheek.

"Always."

Ryan ducks his head, looking up at her from under blond eyelashes. His wears the tiny half-smile she loves.

Time seems to stretch softly between the present and a multi-textured past. The Chino child's face wavers before her, out of place in the sparkling Newport sun. The image is oddly juxtaposed with the features of this young man who could easily belong in a privileged world. Two very different lives, trying to settle into one.

"So, who's driving?" the teen asks, schooling his voice carefully.

Classic Ryan, she thinks, never asking for what he wants.

But his eyes are still her windows.

Wordlessly, she tosses him the keys.

...tbc