Disclaimer: Unfortunately, I do not own the characters, not even the adorable Ryan Atwood/Ben McKenzie. The OC universe and all of its characters were created by Josh Schwartz and owned by him as well. Don't sue me Josh! I mean it! No copyright infringement intended!

A/N: Okay, so originally I said this story was going to be 3-4 chapters long. Well, let me take that back! This story is going to be long! Maybe 12-15 chapters? The reason? Well I expanded the plot. It has now changed into a Ryan-centric hurt/comfort story where Ryan is very ill, but it is still focused on the relationship between Ryan & Luke and also Ryan & Sandy. There is a decent amount of Ryan & Seth (and Cohens +1 in general) thrown in as the story goes on as well.

I apologize for the long wait on Ch. 2! My wonderful beta, beachtree, had some priorities in life to attend to and so did I, but hey... it's here now! And not that this makes up for waiting an entire month to post the second chapter, but for what it's worth, this chapter is LONG! Oh, and this chapter has Ryan/Luke time, Ryan/Sandy time, and Ryan/Seth time as well as some deep revelations from Ryan about his past. Well enough of my babbling!

Enjoy. ;-)

~*~*~*~CHAPTER TWO~*~*~*~

"I thought you'd be sick of this place by now after working here so much. I know I can't handle the food here anymore," A tall, slightly overweight gentleman in his late thirties with short, jet black hair and green eyes greeted Ryan. He was a waiter at The Crab Shack and now worked alongside Ryan during the weekends.

"Yeah, you'd think," Ryan grinned lightheartedly, relaxing a little and bumping fists with his co-worker. He'd been working there for several months now and had good rapport with all of the other employees.

"You probably just can't get enough of us. What can I say? We're cool people," the middle-aged man added slyly.

"Yeah," Ryan said, with a slight nod of his head, pressing his lips together into a thin smile.

Finally noticing the other boy sitting across from Ryan in the small booth of the diner, Nick turned to face him.

Realizing that the two had probably never met, since Nick was a fairly new employee and Luke rarely visited the diner anymore, Ryan took the initiative and introduced his friend.

"Nick, this is my friend, Luke," he said.

"It's very nice to meet you, Luke," Nick smiled, holding out his hand. Reluctantly, Luke shook it.

It was a delayed reaction, but finally Luke agreed, "You too."

He was merely going through the motions, and clearly not in the mood for idle conversation.

"So, are you guys ready to order?" Nick asked readily.

"I think so," Ryan replied before turning to his friend and asking, "You good?"

"I guess," Luke answered, but Ryan could tell that dinner was the furthest thing from his mind.

Not wanting to keep Nick waiting any longer, Ryan ordered.

"I'll have a lobster roll with fries, please."

"I could have guessed that," Nick chuckled at Ryan's eating habits. He always seemed to order the same thing. "And let me guess… you want a Mountain Dew for your drink?"

"Yeah," Ryan answered shyly, his cheeks turning slightly red. "You know me," he added, swallowing hard in an effort to rid his lungs of the tingling sensation that had been building.

"Well… working with you so much tends to do that," Nick laughed lightly before promptly turning to face Luke, still smiling.

Unable to hold back the irritable feeling in his chest any longer, Ryan began to cough.

"You sick?" Nick asked, turning back around to face Ryan again.

"Don't think so…" he managed to say in between coughs. "Nothing bad…"

His chest still felt a little bit tight and he wasn't feeling very well, but he decided that for now it would be best not to worry about it. Instead, he began thinking of what he could do or say to cheer Luke up.

"The school nurse told him it was allergies. He had sinusitis all last week and the week before," Luke clarified, the severity of Ryan's cough bringing him back to reality for a moment. He was a bit worried that Ryan's cough seemed to be getting worse.

"Make sure you're taking care of yourself, Ryan. If you need a break from everything, take it," Nick counseled, also concerned for his co-worker's health.

Ryan was his favorite person to work with, and he knew the quiet kid sometimes overtaxed himself—often staying overtime without pay to help other employees with their shifts. He determined that if Ryan was like that on the job, he must be like that in school too.

"Guys, I'm fine," Ryan protested as his cough finally receded.

"If you say so," Nick humored him, regaining eye contact with Luke whose mind seemed to have drifted.

"Have you decided what you're getting yet?" He asked Luke, waiting patiently for his order.

"Luke," Ryan prodded, also trying to get his attention. "You ready to order, man?"

"Oh…um… fish and chips I guess," Luke replied, glancing at Nick, but still seemingly detached from the brief discourse. His mind had again wandered back to his problems—not to mention he still didn't know how badly he'd injured Evan.

"And what would you like to drink with that?" Nick continued attending to him.

Nick waited patiently as almost a minute passed without any further response from Luke who appeared to have zoned out completely.

"Luke," Ryan cued, audibly enough for his friend to hear him. "You know what you're having to drink?"

Forgetting for a minute where he was, Luke responded languidly, "I could use a few beers right about now."

Puzzled, Nick hesitated for a moment and then asked, "Can I see some ID please?"

"Nah, he'll have a Coke," Ryan quickly covered for Luke, saving him from further embarrassment.

Confused, Nick confirmed the order, "Alright... a lobster roll with fries and a Mountain Dew and one order of fish and chips and a large Coke, right?"

"Yeah," Ryan shook his head.

"Okay, that'll be ready in about fifteen minutes."

Nick took up their menus and began the short walk to the kitchen area of the restaurant. Shortly after, he returned with their drinks before leaving again.

When Nick was finally gone, Ryan reverted his full attention back to Luke, but worry quickly flooded his thoughts as he took in Luke's dejected posture.

By now, Luke sat on his side of the booth staring out of the window with his right elbow resting on the table while his chin rested in the palm of his right hand, propping his head up. His left hand remained in the pocket of his gray, Nike sweatshirt. Ryan could tell that Luke was depressed, and he wondered if he was almost sober from his drinking binge earlier in the day.

"Luke?" Ryan tried to get his attention, but Luke didn't answer so he tried again.

"Luke? You alright, man?" he asked, concerned.

Finally, Luke responded—still looking out the window.

"Look at all these people walking outside…," he paused before continuing. "They're all talking to their boyfriends or girlfriends or buddies, gossiping… without a care in the world… no shit to worry about."

"You don't know that," Ryan replied.

Caught off guard by Ryan's comment, Luke turned his head to make eye contact with him, now fully intrigued by what he had to say. It was rare that Ryan ever opened up, but when he did, there was something thought-provoking about his insight that Luke was in awe of.

"Everyone's got something beneath the surface they try to hide," Ryan finished, lowering his head slightly and looking up to hold Luke's gaze—a thoughtful, but intense expression on his face.

Luke wasn't sure how to answer, so he merely nodded his head once slowly, acknowledging his respect for Ryan's perspective. He understood that Ryan's words were loaded, and he couldn't help but wonder how much pain his friend often hid beneath his own exterior.

He didn't know much about Ryan's past, but from the little he did know, he wondered how petty his own issues probably seemed to him. Still, Ryan never complained or made him feel as if his problems were unimportant, and for that Luke was grateful.

The two boys remained in silence for a few moments—both sitting pensively in the diner until Luke finally broke the silence again.

"Everything's just so fucked up now," he stated gloomily. "How did my life get so out of control?"

Ryan knew the question was rhetorical, so rather than answering, he just wanted Luke to know that he understood.

"You wanna… talk about it?" He offered.

"Not really," Luke answered, shrugging his shoulders.

"I know the feeling," Ryan confessed sadly—his deep blue eyes maintaining eye contact with his friend. The left corner of his mouth twitched upwards into a small, knowing half smile before he regained his contemplative expression.

Another bout of coughing interrupted the conversation as Ryan fought to gain control of his breathing.

"Doing alright there, Chino?"

"Yeah, it's… nothing," Ryan answered, annoyed that the cough was persisting.

He couldn't handle people hovering over him so he hoped the cough would get better before the Cohens started worrying again.


A few minutes later, Nick returned with their dinners.

"Here's the lobster roll with fries and an order of fish and chips," He said, setting their food on the table.

"Thanks, Nick," Ryan responded politely, holding his breath momentarily to try to prevent another coughing fit.

"No problem," Nick responded.

"Actually, can we get that to go, please?" Ryan changed his mind.

"Yeah, yeah… of course. Want me to put it on your tab?"

"Yeah, that works. I'll tell Bill to take it out of my paycheck."

"Alright, I'll be right back," Nick said.

Ryan noticed Luke's baffled expression so he explained, "I think we should just get out of here, you know? I've got a baseball in my backpack. I figured we'd head to the park across the street—eat there and hang out…"

Ryan's thoughtful expression let on more than he was saying verbally, and Luke understood that the real reason he was doing this was so that they'd have some alone time to talk about things.

At this realization, a grateful Luke softened his expression, merely saying, "Thanks."

Ryan nodded, a small smile forming on his lips—his silent way of saying you're welcome. He grabbed his backpack and the two boys stood up as Nick was approaching the table with their bagged dinners.

"Thanks again, Nick," Ryan said as Nick handed him the two bags.

"It's not a problem. You working this weekend?"

"Actually, I've got a really important soccer game, but I'm doing the Friday shift after school," he answered.

"Alright, see you then. Good to meet you again, Luke," Nick replied, and Ryan and Luke headed out of the Crab Shack to begin the short walk to the park.


After Ryan and Luke arrived at the park, they found a spot on a bench and quietly ate their meals.

"I didn't realize how hungry I was," Luke smirked, finishing the rest of his fish and chips. It was the first time either boy had spoken for almost twenty minutes.

"Guess it's good I took you out then," Ryan smiled, taking another bite of his lobster roll.

"You've barely touched your food though," Luke observed Ryan's half eaten entre and untouched fries.

Not willing to admit that he wasn't feeling well, Ryan changed the subject.

"So how's your mom doing? I haven't seen her in a while."

"Not good. It's the same old thing, you know? My dad really hurt her. The divorce won't be finalized for a while, but it hit her hard and she's never home anymore. She was pissed about my suspension. Me getting in trouble was the last thing she needed."

"That sucks, man. I hope things get better for you guys," Ryan said sincerely. "How long will you be out of school?"

"Not sure yet. Me and my mom meet with Dr. Kim tomorrow to determine that. I'm guessing at least a week."

"Soccer practice isn't the same without you," Ryan stated and Luke offered him a faint smile, thankful for his support.

"At least I won't have to put up with dicks like Evan for a while. I don't think I could stop myself from kicking their asses at this point."

"Yeah," Ryan agreed.

Both boys remained silent momentarily before Luke got the courage to ask Ryan what was on his mind.

"Hey, um…," Luke hesitated nervously, clenching and unclenching his fists as he spoke. "Do you ever… you know… miss your dad?"

He was fearful that he'd asked too much.

Not expecting the question, Ryan took a deep breath and rubbed his fingers through his shaggy dark blond hair. He didn't have many positive memories from his childhood, and there was a reason he didn't like to talk about it. However, his gut instincts kept telling him that if he didn't have this important conversation with Luke, he would never get the chance again to help him.

The past several weeks, Ryan had observed dolefully as Luke indulged himself in alcohol, becoming almost completely shut off from the outside world as he used the potent liquid as a means to numb himself from the pain and turmoil that he was too afraid to face. The mere possibility of his friend's downward spiral worsening made Ryan uneasy, sending a chill throughout his tensing body.

Ryan knew that Luke's state had become volatile to the point where even a small, additional setback could send him over the edge. Hoping that a more balanced perspective was what his friend needed, he warily allowed himself to risk opening up a little.

Slowly, he switched his gaze from Luke's conflicted eyes to the small hole he was nervously creating as his right boot dug into the patch of grass beneath him. He began to answer the question cautiously, giving just enough information about himself to help his friend without lowering his guard completely.

"Not really… I mean… honestly? I don't really have many good memories of him."

Ryan hesitated momentarily as painful flashbacks began to muffle his thought process. In deep thought, he closed his eyes slowly—subconsciously calculating how much he was ready to reveal to Luke about the haunting childhood he wished he could forget. Finally, after almost a minute, he re-opened his eyes and was ready to speak again.

"He got arrested when I was eight, and before that…," He trailed off and winced at the unpleasant memories of how his father used to treat him. "He…um… didn't really like me I guess," he finished, regaining eye contact with his friend.

Luke was having difficulty processing what Ryan had just told him. The more he learned about his friend's struggles growing up, the more he realized how good he had it compared to him. Unsure of how to respond, he merely nodded his head in appreciation of his friend's difficult revelation—his rueful expression not going unnoticed by Ryan.

"You miss yours?" Ryan asked, knowing the answer already but sensing it would be helpful for Luke to talk about it.

"Yeah… I mean… I thought about what you said that night after my mom found out for the first time. He lied, but he still loved me. We still had good times together. I wish he could've stayed, but he left to make it easier for my mom to deal with everything."

Ryan smiled at Luke sympathetically. His deep blue eyes were fierce but compassionate, speaking volumes in and of themselves. Without even uttering a word in reply, Luke knew how much Ryan cared and understood what he was going through and that's all he could ask out of a friend.

"I wish I could be strong like you," Luke confessed.

"How do you mean?" Ryan asked, taken aback by Luke's admission.

He restlessly wrapped his arms around his midsection and inhaled again deeply—the tickle in his lungs triggering his cough. After regaining control over his airway, he bit his bottom lip as more and more hurtful images resurfaced from the past he couldn't escape, entangling themselves in the labyrinth of his already conflicted mind.

He had tried his entire life to be strong, but trying never saved him from getting his ass kicked by his dad or his mom's boyfriends. It never stopped him from falling off of his bike and breaking his arm when he was seven, only for his dad to beat him with the buckled end of a leather belt after finding out that Ryan's hospital bill that day cost more than his dad's stash of cocaine.

Ryan's effort certainly was never good enough to protect Dawn or stop her from almost overdosing on heroine when he was twelve.

It was never good enough for her to go to rehab for her alcoholism.

It was never good enough for her to choose him over AJ.

It was never good enough to protect him or Trey, and it definitely never got him anywhere but kicked out and abandoned.

Hell, it wasn't even good enough for Theresa to choose him over Eddie.

He had concluded from a young age that if anything, he wasn't good enough to be wanted and certainly not strong enough to protect himself from getting hurt, although he was definitely capable of taking care of himself as he had sadly proven so many times before.

He knew that most people saw him as being worth nothing more than damaged goods, and he couldn't shake the thought that the Cohens probably viewed him the same way.

If his own mother didn't want him, why should they?

Sooner or later he believed they'd get sick of him too and get rid of him, probably for corrupting Seth. It was only a matter of time, although he prayed every night that he was wrong.

For fear of abandonment, he preferred to remain inconspicuous. Perhaps if they didn't notice him, they at least wouldn't grow to hate him enough to kick him out.

Luke's answer interrupted Ryan's distressed thoughts.

"You went through all this shit, yet you seem to have it so together," He explained.

"Together?" Ryan asked—his ocean blue eyes now studying Luke's intently. Did Luke really think he had his life together?

"Yeah, I mean… for the most part you stay out of trouble. You try really hard in school. The Cohens are lucky to have you."

Fidgeting with his hands anxiously, Ryan responded.

"You know… every day I'm worried that I'll mess up everything here and… get sent to a group home or something."

This admission surprised Luke, but he didn't know what to say in response. As much as his home life sucked, talking to Ryan was helping him realize how lucky he was to have at least grown up in a stable home environment.

"Can I ask you something?" Luke asked.

Ryan nodded so Luke continued.

"Why are you so against me having a few drinks?"

"You know it's more than just a few drinks, Luke."

"Whatever," Luke shrugged. "It helps me feel better."

Ryan let out an agitated sigh. Talking so much was wearing him out, and Luke seemed dead set on continuing his drinking habit. Not to mention the unpleasant feeling in Ryan's throat was returning. Hoping to alleviate the dryness in his mouth and prevent another bout of coughing, Ryan reached for his Mountain Dew and took a small swig of the yellow-colored soda while absentmindedly putting the remainder of his barely touched dinner into the plastic container. He then focused his attention back on Luke, taking in his friend's still crestfallen demeanor. However, the irritation he was feeling towards him was quickly replaced with concern as he realized for the first time that his once bright blue eyes had become dull and lackluster—emptiness and defeat robbing them of the energy they once emitted.

Determined not to let another person he cared about give up on life, Ryan locked eyes with Luke, willing his friend through his piercing gaze to understand the seriousness of what he was about to tell him.

"Drinking doesn't fix anything," He said, his voice shaking slightly from the building tension in his jaw. The gravity of his tone was severe, and his words came out in a breathy, quiet inflection—almost at a whisper, but he spoke with so much conviction that Luke couldn't help but be in awe of his friend for the second time that night.

Ryan inhaled and exhaled sharply before continuing.

"After you sober up the next day, your problems are still there, aren't they?" He pointed out.

Pausing again and lowering his head, he stared at the ground as he divulged, "I wanted my mom to get this, but she never did. I guess… seeing people I care about drink to deal with stuff… it just brings back bad memories… a lot of old issues I'm not ready to talk about."

He swallowed the lump that was forming in his throat and lifted his head to once again make eye contact with Luke.

His eyes burned with sincere emotions as he finished, "I don't want to see that happen to you."

He wasn't ready to go into details with Luke about his mom and her alcoholism, and he wasn't ready to talk about the incident with Trey that turned him off of alcohol abuse for good, but he hoped that at least for now, this answer was sufficient to help his friend.

Deeply touched by Ryan's words, Luke was rendered speechless.

Suddenly another round of coughing got the better of Ryan, intruding on their profound conversation—this one causing him to double over, holding his chest and wheezing slightly.

"Damn, buddy… you sound like you're coughing up a lung."

"I feel like it too," Ryan mumbled dryly.

When Ryan finally caught his breath, he remembered that he'd brought his baseball and he reached into his backpack to grab it.

"Wanna play?" He asked Luke, holding the ball in his left hand.

Shrugging his shoulders, Luke answered glumly, "Not really in the mood."

"Maybe it'll make you feel better. Less thinking, anyway."

"Sure, why not," Luke finally conceded.

The two friends made the short, fifty foot walk onto the park's grassy practice field, and without warning, Ryan playfully tossed Luke the ball. He ran further out onto the grass, waiting for Luke to toss it back to him.

He watched as Luke widened his stance, leaning forward slightly and rotating his right shoulder towards him in preparation for the throw. Keeping a firm grip on the ball, Luke finally shifted his weight to his rear leg and wound his right arm backwards. With a fast, circular motion, he threw the ball as hard as he could, letting out an exasperated grunt.

"AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHRRRRRRRRRRRRR!" He yelled, venting some of his frustration with life and releasing some of the tension in his muscles.

Astutely keeping his eyes on the ball, Ryan ran backwards as fast as he could and leaped into the air to catch it—the momentum throwing off his balance as he landed on his back on the damp grass. He immediately started coughing.

Noticing Ryan lying limp on the ground, Luke panicked and sprinted towards him. Much to his relief, his friend was already sitting up and brushing off his pants by the time he reached him.

"Chino, what the hell was that?" He questioned, clearly worried.

"Sorry," Ryan managed to say in between bouts of coughing. His cough was worsening by the minute.

"You okay?" Luke was becoming very concerned about Ryan's health.

"Yeah," Ryan lied. He was having difficulty breathing, but he didn't want to concern Luke who already had his share of problems.

"Let me help you up," Luke offered, holding out his hand and Ryan accepted it, pulling himself off the grass.

"Where'd you learn to catch like that?" Luke asked, curious.

"Played second base in little league and then middle school. Chino is decent training ground."

"Why'd you stop?"

"Not really in the mood to talk about it," Ryan answered honestly. He'd had his quota of bad memories for the day.

"I was a pitcher," Luke revealed.

"Well… you know, your throw isn't too bad," Ryan smirked, his cough now diminished to a light wheezing sound. "Almost gave me a hernia."

By now Ryan could tell that Luke was completely sober and in a better mood.

"Feeling better?" He asked.

Luke offered a grateful smile and simply answered, "Yeah."

Ryan also smiled faintly and draped a shoulder behind Luke's back as the two friends walked back to the bench.

"We better get going. I've got a chemistry quiz tomorrow," Ryan simply stated, not wanting to let on how ill he was feeling.

"No worries," Luke said. "I should probably call a taxi. That way you don't have to walk all the way back to my house."

"What about my bike?"

"I'll pay for your taxi. They can drive us to my house first and pick it up and then drop you off at the Cohens' with your bike."

"You'd do that?"

"You helped me a lot tonight. I owe you."

Ryan eyed Luke gratefully and sat back down while Luke called the taxi.

He was exhausted.

Glancing at his watch, he saw that it was already midnight. He'd have to stay up to finish studying for his chemistry quiz. He couldn't afford to have his grade drop anymore in that class.

The Cohens were paying for him so he figured the least he could do was get good grades. He dreaded staying up all night considering how fatigued his body felt, and he was also sore from Coach Nielson's grueling practice session earlier in the day, but as long as Luke was feeling better, he decided it would all be worth it.


By the time Ryan arrived back at the pool house, it was nearly one in the morning. He tried to be as quiet as possible in order to not disturb Sandy, Kirsten, or Seth who he figured were probably sleeping.

His cough was worsening and his stiff muscles were aching more by the minute—especially his quadriceps and iliopsoas. Hoping that the hot water would open up his airway, wake him up, and loosen up his muscles, he opted for a warm shower before hitting the books.

Normally, he didn't like to pull all-nighters, but he knew he was behind in chemistry and he had a lot of material to cover. Besides, he figured the bad memories that had resurfaced after his in-depth conversation with Luke would probably mean nightmares were a sure thing, since talking about his past always seemed to do that, so if staying awake meant preventing that, he was down for it.


"Ryan, are you in here?" Sandy asked, knocking on the pool house door. When he heard no response, he opened the door and walked in, looking for Ryan.

Hearing the footsteps from outside his bathroom door, Ryan gasped—anxiety intensifying his pulse rate and causing an upset feeling in his stomach.

He hoped he wasn't in trouble. His curfew was midnight, and he certainly had broken it tonight.

Having just finished showering, his hair was still very damp. In a rush, he pulled on a white t-shirt and a gray pair of sweatpants and cautiously opened the bathroom door of the pool house, stepping into the spacious room to find Sandy sitting on the large, king-sized bed.

The first thing Sandy noticed as he watched Ryan slowly make his way towards the center of the room was the large, darkening bruise on his chin, but sensing Ryan's nervousness, he decided not to bring it up and instead made an attempt to lighten the tension in the room.

"Wow, am I that terrifying? And here I thought I was charming!" he chuckled, his black bushy eyebrows and kind eyes helping to relax Ryan a little bit.

"I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to miss curfew…I…," Ryan said hurriedly, but Sandy cut him off.

"Don't worry about it, kid. It's water under the bridge. Seth told me you were helping Luke," he assured the skittish teenager.

Relieved that he wasn't in trouble, Ryan sighed—the small intake of air triggering his cough.

"That's quite a cough you've got there. Maybe we should set up another appointment with Dr. Canales and have him take a look at you," Sandy suggested.

"No. I'm fine, really. It's not that bad."

"Okay, but if it gets worse, please don't be afraid to come to me and talk about it. I'm on your side," he assured Ryan—the bashful teen rewarding him with a tiny, but appreciative smile.

If Sandy hadn't noticed Ryan's eyes light up ever so slightly, he wouldn't have even noticed he was smiling. It amazed Sandy sometimes how well Ryan was able to hide his emotions, and it saddened him to think about what the kid must have endured his entire life to make him fearful of expressing himself around others.

"Thanks, Sandy," Ryan said, his words quiet, but earnest.

"Hey, that's what I'm here for."

Ryan wanted so much to be like Sandy, and it meant the world to him to hear that his mentor was on his side. Sometimes he feared it was too good to be true.

"Oh, I almost forgot to mention. Your coach called. He had said he wanted to talk to you in his office in the morning before school."

Ryan's stomach tightened nervously at the news. Was Coach upset with him? Had Evan given him a different account of what happened than him and Luke? Perhaps Evan blamed him for assault too? He knew Evan didn't like him very much…

"Am…I," Ryan swallowed hard. "Am I in trouble?"

"No! You're not in trouble. I'm sure he would have told me if you were. I know you didn't start the fight before practice. He just said he wanted to talk to you about something private."

A feeling of relief flooded Ryan's veins. He wasn't in any trouble and he relaxed a little bit, feeling more at ease now that he knew Sandy wasn't mad at him.

"How's Luke holding up? I heard about what happened," Sandy asked.

Ryan frowned slightly, and Sandy could see worry etched in his benevolent features. He patted an empty space next to him on Ryan's bed, signaling for his foster son to sit next to him.

Although Ryan was still fairly timid around Sandy, he obliged, taking a seat on the bed next to the man he looked up to the most—the man who had saved him.

Staring down at his hands, Ryan answered, "Not so good. I mean… he still seemed down on the ride home."

Ryan pursed his lips together tightly and then inhaled—coughing a little bit as he did so before adding, "I think talking to him about stuff helped though."

"You? Talking? I'd have to see it to believe it," Sandy joked affectionately.

"I save it for when it counts," Ryan countered, sporting a lopsided grin.

"Well if you'd ask me, Luke's lucky to have someone like you on his side. You're a good kid."

"Yeah?" Ryan asked, searching Sandy's eyes for honesty.

"I wouldn't say it if it wasn't true," Sandy replied meaningfully.

Ryan wanted to believe his foster father more than anything, but for most of his life, he'd been lied to—betrayed by the people he'd loved the most, making him reluctant to trust people.

Nevertheless, he was slowly learning to trust Sandy, and any sort of compliment from him carried immense weight.

"Your coach told me about Saturday's game. I'm proud of you, kid. Playing striker in the county championship is a big deal," Sandy said, squeezing Ryan's left shoulder.

Ryan wasn't used to any sort of affectionate physical contact from parental figures, but oddly Sandy's gesture relaxed him.

"Thanks," Ryan replied as he ducked his head—the corners of his mouth quirking upwards into a tiny grin.

Could Sandy really be proud of him?

Was he worth being proud of?

Ryan was scared to ask the question that had been lingering in his mind for the past few minutes, but he decided it was now or never.

"Will you be at the game?" He asked shyly, now locking eyes with his foster father.

"I wouldn't miss it for the world," Sandy replied.

He hadn't been able to make most of Ryan's games over the course of the semester after taking the job at Partridge, Savage and Kahn, but he was going to make every effort to be in attendance at Ryan's first game as a lead striker for Harbor.

Sandy's heart warmed at the sight of the radiant smile that lit his foster son's face as he mentioned going to his game.

It wasn't very often that Sandy got to see such a raw display of emotion play across Ryan's normally guarded features, but when he did, he remembered just how special this boy really was.

It was these rare, but precious moments between him and Ryan that he cherished the most—getting a glimpse of the vulnerable, but sweet boy who resided beneath the layered mask that often made him seem much older than his age.

"Well I'm gonna hit the sack, but try to get some sleep tonight. Don't study too hard," Sandy said, pushing himself off the bed. He gave Ryan's shoulder another squeeze before walking towards the door and adding, "Night."

After Sandy left the room, Ryan pulled out his textbooks and notes in preparation for his all-night cramming session.

Although still physically and mentally exhausted, it felt good knowing that perhaps for the first time, he truly had someone who believed in him.


Four hours later, Seth walked into the pool house to find Ryan sitting in his study chair asleep on his book.

"Ryaaan," Seth tapped his foster brother on the back trying to wake him. "Oh, Ryaaaaan," he repeated, but Ryan remained sound asleep, his face and arms sprawled across the study desk, so Seth decided to try a different approach to waking him up.

He tiptoed into the kitchen stealthily and filled an empty cup with ice before heading back to the pool house.

Before opting for plan B of Operation Wake Up Kid Chino, he decided to try plan A one more time.

"Ryaaaan," he murmured, shaking his best friend's shoulder.

This time he got a response.

"Mmmmm," Ryan mumbled into his chemistry book. "Let me sleep," he grumbled before drifting off again.

"I guess I'll go with plan B then," Seth snickered quietly, rubbing his palms together and grinning widely. He reached for a couple of ice cubes and slipped them inside the back of Ryan's white t-shirt.

Ryan gasped, his head jumping up immediately from his book at the sensation of cold ice falling down his back.

"Seth? What the hell?" He exclaimed.

His head was throbbing, and although he hated to admit it, his chest felt tight, making it difficult to breath. He was definitely feeling worse than he had just a few hours before.

"Ryan! My favorite Gentile! Well... other than my petite, Anglican mother. Good morning! I always knew you weren't a morning person. It's good to see you too. Anyway, rise and shine! It's Seth-Ryan time!"

Ryan glared at Seth before turning his head in the direction of his alarm clock to get a glimpse at the time.

"He keeps showing up earlier and earlier," he muttered under his breath, gritting his teeth.

"I'm sorry, did you say something?" Seth asked, pretending he didn't hear what Ryan said.

"No. But Seth, it's 5:30 in the morning. Do we have to do it this early?"

"Yes, Ryan. You see you told me we'd do six hours of Seth-Ryan time today, but I found that you won't get out of soccer practice until 5. You go to bed at 12 usually. That leaves us 7 hours for Seth-Ryan time, but that doesn't include time for showering and dinner with the rents and… my most dreaded of them all—homework, so if we start now, we may actually be able to fit in six hours."

"We have lunch together. That's almost an entire hour."

"Yes, I forgot about that. Okay, but still. I have so much to talk to you about so the earlier the better…"

"I guess," Ryan capitulated. The irritable feeling in his lungs was returning, and he was hoping he'd be able to prevent himself from coughing too much in front of Seth. The last thing he needed was Seth hovering over him too.

"So how'd your rendezvous with Luke go last night? You still have chest hair, right? Please tell me you still have chest hair," Seth said.

"What? That's none of your business."

"Just trying to make sure the evil water polo forces aren't stealing away my best friend. The chest hair is always the first thing to go…"

"What are we talking about again? "Ryan asked, furrowing his eyebrows.

"Luke. He shaves his chest."

"Seth," Ryan glared.

"Right, sorry….," he paused briefly before continuing his endless chatter.

"So Summer called me last night, and you're never going to believe what she said to me. Ryan, she called me sweet, but not sweet in a fruitcake kind of way. She thinks I'm nice… Do you think she finds me physically attractive too… you know, maybe she thinks of me in an Offspring 'Pretty Fly for a White Guy' kind of way? Or do you think she just finds me sweet?"

"Just sweet, definitely, but Seth… I've got a….chemistr-," Ryan tried again to say something, but to no avail so he stood up and started organizing his things while Seth followed him around the room talking about Summer.

"Hypothetically let's say she thinks I'm hot too. I mean I'm a good looking guy, right? I mean… not good looking in a Brad Pitt kind of way, but I've got my own charm… maybe more like Screech from Saved by the Bell? I mean some ladies love the Screech. So, Ryan, I think that together you and me can come up with a plan for me to win over her cold, icy heart…don't you?" Seth continued.

Ryan raised his left eyebrow quizzically, holding Seth's gaze–a dumbfounded expression on his face.

"I'll take that as a yes," Seth said before babbling on.

Shrugging his shoulders, Ryan began packing his backpack, remembering that he had to be in Coach Neilson's office before school. He became so preoccupied with everything he had to do that he almost forgot Seth was talking to him.

"So what do you think, Ryan?" the lanky, curly-haired boy asked.

"Huh?" Ryan said, confused. "Oh, sorry. Yeah, that sounds great, but hey, if it's okay... I'm going to go take a shower. I've got a chemistry quiz today and I'm not really ready for it," he said, trying hard to keep himself from coughing.

"Right… I guess I'll leave you then," Seth said glumly, disappointed that his morning chat with Ryan was already over. "But if you want some company after you finish," Seth started, but upon seeing the familiar glare on Ryan's face, he said, "Chemistry quiz. Got it. I'll be in the kitchen if you need me… all alone thanks to you… sipping on my coffee, eating a bagel, reading a comic, and listening to Deathcab. I hope you feel really guilty right about now…"

"Seth…"

"Right. See ya."

After Seth left the room, Ryan let out a sigh and hopped into the tub, ready to take a cold shower to wake himself up.

He was relieved that his foster brother hadn't noticed his uneven breathing.

He felt fatigued and short of breath, but he hoped that if he kept his bearings, he'd make it through the day.

Suddenly, he began to cough uncontrollably, and his chest heaved painfully as he struggled for air. It felt as if a knife was piercing his lungs—the strain on his airway forcing him to kneel down, holding onto the ceramic tub for support as he continued to cough. Gasping desperately in an effort to get enough oxygen, he finally passed out due to the fatigue.


About two hours later, the loud sound of Seth pounding on his bathroom door jolted him awake.

"Ryan, buddy… you in there?"

After getting no response, Seth tried again.

"Ryan?"

"Just a minute, Seth," Ryan finally answered, his voice raspy. Worried that he was holding up his foster brother, he willed his aching muscles to pull himself out of the tub. He didn't want Seth to be late to school because of him. However, as he shifted his weight upwards in an effort to get out, a sharp pain around his chest cavity immediately held him back, and he slipped back in—banging his hip against the tub's ceramic lining.

He let out a quiet whimper and shut his eyes tightly as a wave of excruciating pain disoriented his thoughts. When he finally gained enough composure to reopen his eyes, the first thing he saw was his hands. Observing them closer, he noticed a thick, greenish-yellow substance covering them. Curious, he looked over to the side of the tub where his arms had been resting, and saw it there too.

Mucus.

His heartbeat quickened and his stomach churned with anxiety as he struggled out of the tub and began wiping its cool, white surface down with a paper towel.

Whatever bug he had seemed far worse than just sinusitis or allergies.

"Dude, hurry up. We're going to be late. Did you fall into the toilet or something? Or let me guess… you started shaving your chest too," said the lanky boy on the other side of the door.

"I said wait a minute," Ryan reacted, growing agitated with the situation. However, it wasn't Seth he was upset with, but rather he was upset at himself for forgetting the past few minutes, though he had been distracted by blinding physical pain, that his foster brother was waiting on the other side of the bathroom door for him, ready to head to school.

Realizing that he didn't have time to take a shower, he hastily threw on his clothes, pulled a comb through his messy, dark blonde hair, and brushed his teeth.

"Shit," he muttered quietly to himself as he glanced at his complexion in the mirror.

There were heavy bags under his eyes from lack of sleep, and he wanted so badly to shave and take a shower. The dark purple bruise outlining the side of his chin wasn't very flattering either.

"Ryan, come out already!" Seth reminded him again impatiently from behind the door.

"Alright!" Ryan barked as he opened the door and stepped out into the pool house, but as he noticed the hurt expression on his foster brother's face, he quickly took it back.

"I'm sorry… I didn't mean…," he paused for a moment so that he could organize his thoughts. "I shouldn't take this out on you."

"Take what out on me?" Seth asked, confused.

Ryan wanted to kick himself for saying too much.

"Nothing. I'm just not ready for the quiz today… that's all."

"Um… okay, but I don't get it. It's just a quiz. Do you think my parents are really going to care if you get one bad grade?"

Ryan bit his bottom lip and looked down at the floor, wrapping his arms around his trunk.

He didn't know how to respond to Seth's question so instead of answering, he opted to grab his backpack and followed him out the door, on his way to unlock his bike as the other boy picked up his skate board.

"Hey, Seth…," Ryan called out—realizing that he didn't feel well enough to bike to school. The curly-haired boy turned around to face him.

"Do you think that maybe…," Ryan cut himself off while Seth waited for him to finish his statement.

Do you think that maybe Kirsten could give me a ride to school?

That's really what he wanted to ask, but he wasn't ready to explain himself, and he didn't want Seth or the Cohens to grow suspicious so he decided it wouldn't be a good idea to ask.

"Never mind," he said. "But if it's okay… I just want to walk today. I know I'm going to be late, but I need some time to think."

"Um… okay…," Seth responded, rolling his eyes slightly as he sensed that Ryan was hiding something from him. "If this is how you're going to be, then fine. All you ever do is think or brood I should say I'm guessing we won't be playing Battlescar Gallactica later either," he said agitated, taking off to school on his skate board.

"Seth, wait…," Ryan called out after him, but Seth was already too far away to hear him so just like that, Ryan glumly began his slow, painful walk to school.

He was late, he didn't feel well, he'd missed the meeting with Coach Nielson, and Seth was mad at him.

It was going to be a harder day than he thought.


A/N 2: So a lot of things will be happening in upcoming chapters of this story. Yes, Sandy will go to this game of Ryan's (aw, how touching right? Should have happened on the show, JOSH! :D) And also, within the next few chapters, you will find out what happens to Luke (in terms of his suspension and his alcohol problem) as well as finding out what is medically wrong with Ryan.

Thanks for reading, and if you get the chance, please review because it helps me improve the story and my writing if I have feedback from you guys! Thanks again! :D

TBC.