Title: The Anniversary
Rating: PG for my potty mouth
Disclaimer: I still don't own The OC, Ryan or Benjamin McKenzie.
Ryan ran until his lungs felt like they were on the point of exploding but still he pushed forward, ignoring the cramp in his calf muscles and the sweat running into his eyes. He was only fixated on the lifeguard hut in the distant. He increased his pace as he had done with each hut he saw along the beach until he was no longer jogging and was sprinting along in the sand.
He reached his final goal and leant against the worn wooden upright as his heart beat a wild tattoo in his chest. Once he'd regained his breath Ryan slumped down hard and let the sand cushion his fall.
He sat for a long time watching the surf as it lapped up onto the shore not wanting to go back home but knowing he had to.
He had to because the last time he'd given into the overwhelming urge to distance himself and be alone he'd found himself locked in a mindset that was not remotely conducive to great mental health.
Ryan took a deep breath and shut his eyes, trying to banish the smells and sounds of hot metal, gasoline and burning rubber that screamed into focus, vivid and gut wrenching images that he'd thought he'd managed to banish if not for good but to a place in his brain that didn't hurt so much.
It shouldn't be so hard after all this time but it was.
He had thought that after a year he'd reached a better place but as the day had approached he found the knot in his stomach tighten and the old familiar darkness enclose him again.
Now the day was actually here every time he shut his eyes all he could picture was the confusion on Marissa's face as she realized he wasn't going to save her this time. He could still feel the weight of her body as she relaxed for one last time against him. He remembered holding her close not knowing what to do. He'd been numb, almost as if locked in a bad dream.
How was he going to tell the Cooper's that he'd killed her daughter? How could he look Summer in the eye and say he'd taken away her best friend?
Rocking her back and forth whilst frantically praying to a god he didn't think existed.
All those feelings and thoughts crowded him again and he didn't know what to do.
He didn't then and he didn't now.
It wasn't like he didn't know that people cared, he knew that, he really did but he still didn't really know how to let them in. This seemed too private.
They had all been tiptoeing around him for weeks now. Sandy coming into the pool house for chats about nothing, Seth organizing games marathons, Summer giving him old photos, Kirsten cooking his favourite foods, Taylor trying to screw the ghost of Marissa out of him.
He'd tried to ease their worry. He was fine now. A year had passed and he'd forgotten…honestly… he'd really forgotten how it felt to watch someone you loved die in his arms.
That was all in the past and he'd moved on but still the worried looks passed between them.
They were probably worried he would once again spectacularly fall off the end of the world.
Ryan gave a hollow laugh.
Too late…he was standing on the edge already looking down.
Ryan took an angry swipe at his eyes, surprised to see his hand wet, and stood up. He walked back to his car on exhausted, trembling legs. He'd been out for most of the day and it was growing late. The beach was emptying around him. As he put his key in the ignition Ryan looked down at his cell phone on the passenger seat and saw the little blue neon envelope was flashing incessantly signalling he had messages. He wanted to be able to pick up his phone and call them, wanted to tell them that the big black void of nothingness was closing in around him again but he couldn't. They'd only really stopped watching him for signs of the crazy after the whole cage fighting thing seven months ago.
Ryan picked up the phone and opened the glove box, throwing it to the back before slamming the door shut. That done he picked up the brown paper bag that had sat on the floor and turned it upside-down, the bottle of vodka landing on the same spot his phone had just vacated.
Ryan drove with a vague sense of purpose, his mind already programmed with his destination even if he was unaware as to where he was driving. As he pulled up outside the cemetery it seemed a logical place to be and he grabbed the bottle as he made his way to where Marissa's plot was.
Ryan stood for a while staring down at her headstone. He didn't spend much time at the cemetery because each time he visited he had trouble getting his head around the fact that Marissa was there…lying several feet down just under the grass…so near yet so far. He didn't like it. Didn't like the morbid thoughts that filled his head when he was here. But today it seemed right.
Ryan knelt by the grave and unscrewed the bottle. He raised it in a toast to the headstone then shut his eyes and brought the bottle up to his lips. The first gulp made him wince and cough but he soon got used to the astringent burn in the back of his throat.
He missed her.
Even though he knew that ultimately they'd been no good for each other he still wanted her as badly as the first time he'd laid eyes on her.
He wanted to scream, shout at the unfairness of it all. He didn't even have rosy memories of a perfect relationship to see him through. He still saw the betrayal, the lies, the petty squabbles alongside the good times and that hurt too. He'd do so many things differently.
Knowing in hindsight that Theresa had been jerking him around, he'd never have left for Chino that summer.
If he'd begged Marissa to stay then she wouldn't have needed a ride to the airport that night.
If he hadn't been driving the car then Volchok wouldn't have flipped out.
If he'd have just pulled over.
If he'd have just fucking pulled over that night then none of this would have happened.
Marissa would still be alive and he wouldn't feel so fucking empty inside.
Ryan took another pull on the bottle of vodka and got unsteadily to his feet. Drinking on an empty stomach was never a good idea and it hit him hard. He lifted his arm to throw the bottle towards the base of a large fir tree.
"That would be a waste." The voice was quiet but loud enough to make him jump.
He lowered the bottle and turned.
"I could really do with some of that if you're in a mind to share."
He wordlessly held the bottle out to Julie and watched as she tipped the bottle back. Somehow he'd expected her to wipe the rim of the bottle before placing it towards her lips but she didn't.
Julie shuddered as he'd done as she swallowed then looked at the label.
"Marissa's brand of choice." Ryan's voice broke on the last word and he turned away from Julie, embarrassed at the rawness he heard in his voice.
"I used to find these bottles under her bed. I blamed you but I knew that she started drinking long before you arrived in Newport." Julie walked around to face him, she put a hand on his arm and handed back the bottle. "I don't admit to being wrong much but I was wrong about you…you were good for her. I wish I hadn't been such a bitch and realized that sooner. I made her life hell."
Ryan felt his chin tremble and a hard lump made his throat ache. He would not cry in front of Julie Cooper. He wouldn't.
"I miss her." Julie stared right at him, her blue eyes bright with tears, almost pleading with him to admit the same. "Oh Ryan…. I miss her so much."
Without knowing how because he wasn't aware he'd moved, he found his arms wrapped around Julie's slim frame.
"I miss her too…every day." Ryan whispered into her hair. He breathed deeply…they used the same shampoo.
They stood in the darkening cemetery, clinging together like old friends rather than old enemies. Julie's tears quickly soaked his shirt through to his skin underneath. She rubbed his back and grabbed fistfuls of his shirt.
Julie trembled and hiccupped as she cried. The warmth of her body warmed Ryan's chilled bones and the heavy grief they shared suddenly hit him and he finally let go. His tears were silent but they flowed and nothing happened, the world continued to turn.
Gradually crying gave way to sniffing and they parted. Ryan wiped his nose against his shirtsleeve and bent down towards the bottle. He held it out to Julie.
She took it and gave a weak smile.
"To Marissa." She drank and passed the bottle back.
"Marissa." Ryan took a gulp and sat down facing towards the inscription. He wiped his eyes and ran a hand over his face. Julie sat next to him.
They sat in silence.
"She loved you." Julie eventually spoke.
"She loved the idea of me…but I never quite lived up to the image. I did love her but we were better off as friends." Ryan said simply.
Julie looked sad at what he said but didn't say anything. They sat in silence again, each with their own memories.
"Marissa once said she was scared of me." Ryan finally revealed as he took another swig, wincing not at the drink this time but at the memory of losing it the evening Marissa had said that to him. He didn't know why he was sharing the painful memory with Julie, he'd kept it to himself for so long and today really shouldn't be the day to dump but it had always made him feel bad thinking that he scared people. Seth joked about it enough that he often wondered if his friend also saw what Marissa had.
Julie took the vodka from him and took a small ladylike sip. She rolled the bottle around in her hands, back and forth, back and forth.
"We talked that afternoon…before she left for the airport. She told me she hoped when she got back that you two could get back together again. Ryan, that doesn't sound like she was scared. She told me that she always felt safe with you."
Ryan looked up and tried to see the lie in Julie's eyes but she didn't lower her gaze or look like she was just trying to ease his conscience. He didn't know what to say, it helped a little but it still hurt that Marissa had said it. The comment had touched the inner part of him that frightened him the most. He never wanted any woman to ever feel threatened by him. He was not his father.
Julie's eyes bored into him and he felt embarrassed, as if she were reading his mind. It still felt more than weird to know that Julie was sleeping with his dad. Okay, Frank seemed to have really changed, but he had still to really apologize for the man he'd been whilst Ryan was growing up and that irked Ryan. It was like Frank had been able to throw off the bad memories and had expected Ryan to do just the same but it wasn't that easy for him. Ryan was still pondering on the correct response when Julie spoke again but this time the calm words were replaced by emotion.
"She…she hated me." Julie started to cry again, her tears silent.
Ryan was shocked. Okay, Marissa hadn't always seen eye to eye with her mom but for Julie to think that Marissa had 'hated' her was far too strong a word and it put his worries about his relationship with Marissa into perspective.
"She didn't hate you…she really didn't, Julie."
Ryan paused before pulling her against him and rubbed his thumb gently against the back of her hand. If someone had said years ago that he'd feel comfortable hugging and opening up to Julie Cooper he would have had to have them certified but he actually felt comfortable with Julie since Marissa had gone. Something had shifted in their relationship and he felt like Julie saw him as more of an equal and not the sworn enemy who'd once dated her daughter.
"Trust me…my friend Theresa and her mom used to fight like cat and dog from the time she hit thirteen. I witnessed broken china, cussing and slammed doors…the works. I kind of think it's natural …" Ryan blushed. "All those…um…. hormones flying around but I do know that Theresa would lay down her life for her mom and vice versa and it was the same with Marissa. She loved you…she couldn't always live with you but I heard her defend you twice as many times as she ever bitched about you. I think she was really very proud of you and all you've achieved."
"She told me on the way to the airport that she was going to miss you." Ryan confirmed.
Mention of that last journey made them silent again. Julie sniffed several times as she tried to gain control again.
Ryan gave Julie a tight squeeze again and kissed the top of her head. A light giggle broke through the sombre darkening sky. Ryan gave Julie a startled look.
"You're a pussycat, Ryan!"
Ryan tried to look offended but he smiled.
"I don't know how you can be so nice to me after all I've done to you."
"That's in the past Julie." Ryan bit his cheek ruefully again and he could feel himself smile. It was kind of bizarre.
"I tried to frame you for murder…how can you forgive me for that?" Julie actually sounded embarrassed.
Ryan took another sip of vodka, more for something to do rather than the need to anaesthetize and handed the bottle to Julie.
"At the time I wasn't a whole lot impressed as you can imagine. You wanted to protect Marissa and if that meant sending me to prison so be it."
"God…you make me sound so cold and calculating…but I guess I am."
"After I stopped panicking about spending ten years in prison for something I didn't do… I actually had to respect you at how far you'd go for Marissa." Ryan gave a bitter laugh. "I can't imagine my own mom ever doing something like that for me. Hell, the first time I fucked up she dumped me and left the fucking state."
Julie kissed Ryan on the cheek.
"Does it help to know that if you got into trouble now, I'd totally do the same for you?"
Ryan laughed but he was touched because for all the silliness of the conversation he did think she meant it.
"Will I get a say on who you frame?" Ryan laughed.
Julie punched him in the arm.
"You know…I have a plan. Kaitlin. She's getting a little out of control…too much like me. Maybe your steadying influence would be good for her."
"Are you trying to pimp me out?" Ryan shook his head. Kaitlin, good grief! "Anyway, if you marry dad wouldn't that make her my step-sister?"
"Oh this is Newport, no one would blink an eye at that…anyway didn't you once used to date your Aunt?"
"And my almost step-grandmother." Ryan added.
"Long story." Ryan smiled enigmatically.
"Oh you've got to share that with me one day." Julie chuckled.
An owl started to hoot and they listened to the sounds of the night animals as they emerged from their daytime slumber.
Ryan stared once more at Marissa's name on the gravestone and again they grew silent. They passed the bottle between them again and again.
"I really do mean it, Ryan…I'm sorry for how I was. You didn't deserve it." Julie grew serious again. "I'm glad you were with her…. that night…I'm glad she wasn't alone."
Ryan lowered his head. He could feel the personal darkness closing around him again. As soon as he thought of that night he went to pieces. He took a deep shuddering breath.
"Losing Marissa changed everything, didn't it?" Julie said quietly.
"Yeah…yeah it did." Ryan nodded.
"No one else can understand how we feel can they? But we've got to move on and put this behind us because if we don't it will drag us down and Marissa wouldn't want that. She wouldn't want you to feel like this…she'd want you to be happy, Ryan. You scared everybody today. You weren't answering your phone and we didn't know where you were. I was scared you'd do something stupid and that terrified me. I don't want to lose anyone else….I couldn't cope with that, Ryan. You've helped me so much…you, Frank and Kaitlin. You're family now and you know how fiercely I protect my family."
Ryan ran his hand through his hair and turned to face Julie.
Julie held his gaze.
"No, you're not…but you will be I promise...you will be."
Ryan could feel the stupid tears threaten again and Julie was holding him, rocking him back and forth.
He didn't know how long they sat there locked in each other's arms, locked in their own private support group, but it helped. It did.
He eventually gained control again. He'd never drink vodka again, it made him open up too much obviously.
"Come on. Frank will be getting worried." Julie stood and held her hand out to pull Ryan up.
"He drove me here. He's sitting in the parking lot waiting for us." Julie smiled.
"We've been hours!" Ryan frowned.
"I knew you'd come here...knew it. Frank said he'd wait as long as needed. When we saw you arrive he also rang Sandy and let them know you were safe." Julie added, as they picked their way through the Cemetery, both a little drunk, both a little night-blind.
Ryan was impressed. His dad had once belted him around the head because he'd taken five seconds longer than usual to get out of the family car such was his impatience back then. Maybe he had really changed if he was willing to wait for over four hours in a deserted parking lot for them.
His dad was leaning against his car as they approached. Frank pushed himself off the wing and wrapped his arms around him.
"Yeah…yeah, I'm getting there."
He then watched his dad give Julie a bear hug.
Maybe things would to work out after all.
Maybe all it took was time.