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: First and foremost, I want to thank my lovely beta, beachtree. Once again, she's been amazing!
And I am really sorry I took so long to get this chapter to you guys. On the plus side, it's a really long chapter (just like the last one was) so at least there's a lot of content, right? So in this chapter, a lot happens to poor Ryan. Also, relationships will begin to develop even more. There is some sort of tension between a lot of characters in this chapter (even Sandy and Kirsten; also Seth and Ryan; Seth and Sandy).
The Seth part in this chapter is a bit AU. I don't think Seth on the show would be this selfish, but for the purposes of the story, I think it would make things more interesting and Seth will redeem himself in the next chapter.
I hope this chapter was worth the wait! I have a lot going in my life, but Ch. 5 will be a bit shorter so hopefully I'll be able to get that to you guys faster. If you get a chance, please leave me a review so I know there are people still reading this story. The more reviews I get, the more I'll probably be inspired to finish this. Love you guys! Now on with the story! Enjoy!
"You're up early," Sandy said in an upbeat voice as he walked into the kitchen, still clad in his floral sky blue and red surfing trunks and a gray t-shirt that read Put a Long Board Between My Legs in bold white lettering across the front. "One of these days, I've got to get you on a board. You'll love it! The waves are good this time of year and it's great for the soul. You know what they say. You haven't experienced life until you've been on a surf board," Sandy continued, brushing a hand through his damp black hair.
Normally Ryan would have shuddered at the idea of surfing, but if it meant he'd get to spend more time with the first person he could remember ever believing in him unconditionally, he was in.
"If you have time...," Ryan said, looking up at Sandy through his lashes. "I'd like that."
"Honey Nut Os today, huh?" Sandy asked playfully, quirking up one of his dark, bushy eyebrows.
"Yeah, Seth ate all the Capn' Crunch so...," Ryan answered, unable to hide his smile.
"I bet he ate the last English muffin too," Sandy said, looking through the fridge in search of something to eat. "I swear, everyday I feel that rebellious son of mine has more of Kirsten's genes," he quipped, earning him a quiet chuckle from Ryan.
"I got some salt bagels last night after work," Ryan offered.
"Oh, kid, you didn't have to. It's Kirsten's and my job to buy the groceries. You should save your money," Sandy replied.
"I'm sorry," Ryan responded diffidently. "I... overheard you tell Kirsten you were craving them and... the bakery is right near The Crab Shack so I thought...," he trailed off, ducking his head and folding his hands firmly together in his lap.
It broke Sandy's heart to see how quickly the boy's demeanor changed in a matter of seconds when he thought he did something wrong.
"You don't have to explain yourself to me, Ryan. What you did was extremely thoughtful. You have absolutely nothing to be sorry about."
Despite Sandy's efforts, Ryan remained seated in the same position with his head downcast so he tried once more to get the kid to understand. "Look at me," he said softly, now standing just inches away from him.
Ryan slowly lifted his head and made eye contact with his foster father.
"Thank you for the bagels," Sandy added with a gentle smile while he affectionately squeezed Ryan's shoulder.
As Ryan loosened up again, Sandy relaxed more as well and sat down next to him at the breakfast table. He knew it was now or never. There were some things he'd been wanting to talk to Ryan about and he needed to get them off his chest before it was too late.
"I'm sorry I reacted the way I did," Sandy apologized. "I'm just worried about how much you've been working and then to find out that you're voluntarily buying groceries for us...," he added.
"Sandy, I'm fine. Really. You don't have to worry about me," Ryan replied.
"You willingly help Rosa around the house every chance you get... you refuse to let us pay for stuff... it's just hard for me to wrap my head around it. Seth never worked a day in his life. We want what's best for you, and you already seem to be running yourself to the ground...," Sandy explained.
"Sandy...," Ryan tried to interject, but Sandy continued.
"You're a great kid, Ryan. I just want you to understand that you don't have to be the parent anymore. What you did for Marissa before she left for rehab in San Diego several months ago... what you did for Luke the other night... even the things you do for Seth. No kid your age should have to be responsible for anyone other than themselves and it worries me that you feel responsible for everyone."
Sandy paused momentarily to take in his foster son's appearance, frowning as he realized how exhausted the kid looked. Dressed in his characteristic wife beater and navy blue sweatpants, it was now easy to tell how much weight Ryan had lost since first coming to live with them. His face had thinned out significantly, and even with the extra sleep from not having to attend soccer practice this past week, his face and eyes appeared utterly worn down. Sandy mentally kicked himself for not noticing Ryan's deteriorating appearance earlier.
"We want you to focus on school," Sandy advised, realizing Ryan wasn't going to say anything further.
"I am... I mean... I do. I'm trying, really I am...," Ryan panicked, fearful that maybe Sandy found out about his low grade in chemistry a few days prior.
"Slow down, kid. That's not what I mean. I know you try hard. You study harder than any student I've seen. That's not the point. I want you to be able to focus on school and not have to worry about life. You rarely open up to us about your former life, but it doesn't take rocket science to figure out how difficult things were for you. I want you to finally get a chance to be a teenager."
Understanding where Sandy was going with his argument, Ryan acquiesced.
"Okay," he nodded. "I'll try," He said—his words so quiet that Sandy had to read his lips to confirm what was said.
"Now, I'm looking forward to that game of yours today," Sandy smiled, changing the subject and nudging Ryan's arm playfully.
"Me too," Ryan responded. The left side of his mouth rose into a tiny half smile that reached his eyes.
"So where are the bagels?" Sandy asked, hoping Ryan didn't hear his stomach growling.
"On the counter... next to the toaster," he answered.
"Sounds good," Sandy said, reaching over the counter to pick up the bag of bagels. "And they're already cut in half! Good work! That's less work for me. Have I shown you how to schmear the perfect bagel yet?"
"I haven't gotten the one-on-one version yet, but I've had plenty of opportunities to watch," Ryan smirked.
"Well if I've taught you anything, remember that schmearing a bagel is an intense form of art. The more you practice, the better you get," Sandy explained, sitting next to Ryan again with a salt bagel in one hand and a butter knife and large container of cream cheese in the other. The two of them enjoyed a moment of bonding as Ryan completed his bagel schmearing crash course.
"So...um, I'm going to go visit Luke in the hospital before meeting with coach," Ryan informed Sandy, standing up on his way to wash his empty cereal bowl.
"Alright, kid. But remember what I told you. It's not your responsibility to save everyone."
As Ryan walked to the pool house to grab his cleats and soccer uniform, he hadn't noticed Seth sitting on the family room couch pretending to read an X-men comic. The lanky boy had eavesdropped on his and Sandy's entire conversation over breakfast.
Ever since Ryan had returned from taking Luke to the hospital, he had spent most of his time holed up in the pool house sleeping—too out of it to participate in many activities with Seth.
The lack of Seth-Ryan time had frustrated Seth and to make matters worse, he was growing increasingly jealous of the amount of time his father was spending with Ryan.
Oblivious to his foster brother's approaching footsteps, Ryan changed into a pair of jeans and a black shirt and then grabbed his soccer bag and exited the pool house. As he locked the door and retrieved his bike, he noticed Seth standing in front of him.
"Hey," the dark-haired boy greeted him casually.
"Hey, Seth," Ryan replied with an awkward smile, coughing painfully immediately after. "I came looking for you earlier this morning to see if you wanted to get a couple of games in on the PlayStation before breakfast, but you weren't in your room."
"Yeah, there was a Yuyu Hakusho marathon on Cartoon Network," Seth answered stiffly. "You visiting Luke right now?"
"Yeah," Ryan replied.
"Cool," Seth responded. "I mean... that's cool. He's your friend... he's in the hospital... you should visit him."
"Seth...," Ryan reacted, furrowing one of his eyebrows.
His friend was behaving far too uncharacteristically quiet for his liking. Despite finding Seth's incessant babble a bit much at times, he also couldn't deny the fact that he often welcomed it since it distracted him from his problems. Being around Seth reminded him of what it could feel like to be carefree and for that he was grateful. More importantly, he cared a lot about the other boy, and he could tell something was bothering him.
"So... what's going on... you okay?" He asked, a little bit concerned.
"What's it to you?" Seth shot back and Ryan flinched a little at his tone. He felt bad. Perhaps he did something to agitate him.
"Look. If... I did anything to upset you... I'm sorry...," Ryan began, but Seth cut him off.
"Don't worry about it," Seth snapped. "I'll see you at your game."
Seth contemplated wishing Ryan good luck, but he couldn't bring himself to drop the self-pity act. He knew he was being immature and unfair to the guy who had been nothing but there for him all year. On top of that, he would be one of the first people to admit that Ryan deserved all the attention he was getting for overcoming so much and working so hard.
Still, Seth couldn't fight the disgruntled feeling that was lingering in the pit of his stomach. Instead, all he could think about was that before Ryan came to live with them, his parents paid much more attention to him. Sure he had been ready to get away from home and go to boarding school on the East Coast had Ryan not shown up, but things were different now, and he envied Ryan for getting to spend so much time with his dad. It was his dad after all... not Ryan's.
Seth also hated the idea of Ryan spending so much time with other friends. He knew it was selfish, but he couldn't get himself to not feel this way. So caught up in his thoughts, he hadn't even noticed Ryan's pale complexion or how exhausted he looked.
"Okay then," Ryan responded, confused by Seth's behavior. "Later."
As Ryan got on his bike and road away, Seth kept playing the conversation they'd just had over and over again in his head. If he didn't change his attitude, it was going to be a long and unpleasant weekend.
"Hi, Mr. Ward," Ryan greeted Luke's father at the hospital entrance.
"Ryan, it's good to see you," Carson smiled sadly. "Please call me Carson. I think we're way past formal greetings by now."
"Sorry," Ryan said, the left edge of his mouth contorting awkwardly into a small and uneasy smile. Feeling slightly embarrassed, he averted his eyes—his head arching downward. He'd called Luke's dad by his first name before. Why did he forget to this time?
"Ryan, it's okay. Really," Carson chuckled, trying to put him at ease.
"Ah...," Ryan paused, regrouping his thoughts. "How is he?" He finally asked, looking up again. He'd been ready to ask this question since the second he left the house on his way to the hospital. For the past couple of days, he hadn't been able to get the image of Luke's lifeless body out of his mind.
"He's doing a lot better," Carson answered. "He's up now. Come on. Let me take you to him."
"Thanks," Ryan agreed, following a pace behind Carson who was leading the way to Luke's room. "So he's out of ICU?"
"Yes, thankfully. The worst is behind him. They've moved him to the second floor. He's been out of it ever since he woke up, but he'll be happy to see you."
Carson took a deep breath and exhaled, stopping in front of room 201 and turning around to face Ryan. His features conveyed a mixture of both gratitude and seriousness and his eyes were filled with unshed tears.
"Thank you," he began, unable to control a lone tear from slowly tricking down his right cheek. "For finding Luke... taking charge and calling an ambulance..."
Ryan nodded once slowly. As he studied Carson's expression intently, he saw what seemed to be gratitude in his kind blue eyes.
Uncomfortable with the idea of Carson giving him so much credit, Ryan decided not to respond right away—hoping his silence would somewhat diffuse all of the praise he was getting. After a moment of awkward silence, he finally spoke up.
"Luke...he...," he trailed off. It was now his turn to take a deep breath, which caused him to cough a little. He fought to hold back a few tears of his own, which were threatening to fall at any moment.
Finally gathering his thoughts, he continued, "He's been there for me."
"And you've been there for him. For all of us. Anything you want, Ryan. Anything. You name it and it's yours. I can't say thank you enough. You...," Carson paused, trying to regain his composure. "You saved my son's life. If it wasn't for you... well... I don't want to think about it," he choked out.
Ryan wasn't sure what to say. He opened his mouth to speak but no words came out so he closed it again, biting his lower lip as he did so. Inhaling again deeply, he hugged his arms to his chest tightly, preparing himself to see his friend for the first time since he was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance three days before.
"Chino! What up, what up?" Luke exclaimed tiredly from his bed. Although his voice was weak, Ryan could hear the contentment in it.
"Hey, man," Ryan greeted his friend with a rueful smile, positioning himself on a chair next to him.
"I can't thank you enough... for... um...you know...," Luke closed his eyes, searching for the right words to express how he felt. He then opened them and gazed intensely at the boy he admired more than anyone he'd ever known. "I owe you my life, Ryan," he said sincerely.
"You don't owe me anything," Ryan quickly emphasized and Luke smiled appreciatively at him.
"I'm going to let you two be while I go and get something to eat," Carson announced.
"Thanks, Dad," Luke responded and Carson left the room.
"So it must be great getting to see your dad again," Ryan commented, balling his right hand into a fist and holding it out towards Luke's good hand, careful of his IV.
"Yeah. You know... I missed him," Luke agreed as he bumped fists with him.
"How have you been?" Ryan asked. "I mean... considering everything."
"Like I've got the worst hangover in the history of hangovers," Luke replied, half jokingly and half seriously.
"Yeah, I bet," Ryan replied.
"My throbbing knuckles aren't helping much either," Luke explained.
"Yeah, about that," Ryan said, pointing to the large, white cast on Luke's hand. "What'd you do exactly? Punch glass? A wall? Your hard wooden dresser?" Ryan asked glibly.
"Something like that," Luke nodded, grimacing at the memory.
"You know, you can just knock me around next time you get mad if it saves your parents money from having to take you to a hospital. Trust me, man. I'm used to it."
"Ryan Atwood, human punching bag. I'll keep that in mind," Luke smirked. However, the seriousness of his friend's words were not lost on him. He was almost certain Ryan wasn't just referring to days when the two of them used to kick each others' asses. When Ryan said he was used to getting the shit beaten out of him, Luke feared Ryan was implying something more—something about his childhood that Luke wasn't sure he wanted to know about. Trying to keep the mood light despite the heaviness of the conversation, Luke added, "I don't think you're hard enough for my punches anymore though."
"Oh, is that right?" Ryan shifted his head to the right playfully and folded his arms loosely in front of him, feigning shock at Luke's lighthearted insult. "Try me," he said with a wry smile.
However, as Ryan noticed Luke's expression change from relaxed to serious, so did his.
"You're looking pretty rough," the older boy pointed out.
"Not you too. I'm fine, Luke."
Shifting his weight on the bed, Luke said, "I'm just worried about you... that's all." He felt a bit out of place drawing attention to Ryan's weak physical appearance, but he wasn't sure what else to do. He didn't want Ryan to overwork himself.
"You look like you've lost weight. You look... pale. Are you sure you're good to play?"
"The doctor said I have asthma and mild bronchitis. It's not too bad," Ryan tried to assure him. However, not even a second later, he felt a tickle in his throat that triggered his worsening cough, causing him to double over.
"If you say so," Luke rolled his eyes. "You're definitely fine alright," He added sarcastically. "Look, I know you're taking my place as team co-captain, and I wouldn't want anyone else to take over for me as leader of the team, but you can't lead a team when you're not 100 percent."
"I'm fine," Ryan repeated stubbornly.
"You better be because if something bad happens to you out there on the field... I know where you live...," Luke threatened.
"Yeah, but you're stuck in here," Ryan reminded him, smiling impishly.
"Don't remind me," Luke sighed. "Just promise me you'll take better care of yourself."
"M'kay," Ryan agreed hesitantly.
"I mean it," Luke once again stressed how serious he was.
An awkward silence filled the room for a couple of minutes before Ryan got the courage to talk about what was on his mind.
"Can I ask you something, man?"
"You're going to ask why I did it, aren't you?" Luke caught on.
"Yeah. I mean... we had that talk and... well I thought...," Ryan looked at his friend, sadness filling his darkening blue eyes.
"I know. And what you said means a lot. I know how difficult it is for you to open up like that."
"Then why'd you do it?"
"I guess... I just sort of lost it after the meeting with Dr. Kim and then my mom getting all mad at me and stuff... kicking me out of the house... and then I started thinking about my dad and all sorts of other things and next thing I know, I'm drunk, kicking shit around my room and not thinking clearly. I don't know what happened that night. I guess I... just wanted..."
"An escape," Ryan finished his thought.
Luke shook his head. "How'd you know?" He asked, impressed that the other boy understood how he felt.
Ryan sighed—too mentally exhausted to explain himself.
"You had me promise I'd take care of myself... now, it's your turn to promise me something."
Luke didn't say anything so Ryan continued.
"Promise me you'll put all this behind you. Get your life together. You're worried about me? How do you think I felt about you the other night? You could have died, Luke! I...," Ryan took a deep breath—coughing a little—and then explained, "I can't keep doing this... it's... hard, you know?"
His breathy words came out more heavily loaded with emotion and pain than he intended.
"I'm sorry," Luke apologized, his words regretful, but genuine as he realized the extent of the damage his actions had had on his best friend. "I promise."
Content with Luke's response, Ryan slowly nodded—a look of simultaneous relief and distress on his face.
"Well... I have to meet up with Coach now, but... I'll try to visit you tonight," He said.
"Good luck, Chino," Luke stated. "Make me proud," he added, smiling brightly.
Ryan gave him one of his signature half smiles and pumped fists with him one more time before heading out in preparation for the big game.
A little over two hours later, Caleb arrived at the Cohen mansion to pick up his daughter.
"Kiki. I'm here," he greeted Kirsten, walking over to where she was seated and kissing her lightly on the cheek.
"Oh, hi, Dad. You're here early," She observed.
"You must be joking. It's almost one. We have to leave in half an hour. Are you almost ready for the big meeting?" He asked, setting his briefcase down on the glossy wooden floor.
"Yes, Dad. Everything is under control. I promise," She answered, going over a couple more floor plans at the kitchen table.
"We can't be late. And we'll take my Aston Martin," He informed her before turning around to see Seth entering the room.
"What are you doing here?" Caleb asked his grandson. "You should be out with that boy... what's his name again? Your new friend... the stray kid that self-righteous father of yours insisted live in my house."
"Dad...," Kirsten interjected disapprovingly in the background.
"Where is he anyway? Stealing cars somewhere? Beating people up? Burning down model homes?" Caleb ignored her and continued throwing insults.
"He's getting ready for a soccer game," Seth replied nonchalantly.
He wanted to defend Ryan. After all, over the past seven months he had grown to think of him as a very close friend—a brother even, and without him, he'd still be getting picked on and having his shoes peed in at school. At the same time, he just wished someone in his family would notice him. Even though Caleb had nothing good to say about Ryan, it still hurt that he was talking about Ryan—not even seeming the least bit interested in Seth's life. However, in a twisted way, he had to admit it felt good to hear negative things said about his foster brother for a change considering he seemed to be the one always getting the praise lately.
"Well you certainly don't have the body or stamina to be an athlete, so I can see why you're not with him. At least someone living here can play a sport even if I detest that kid," Caleb flippantly remarked.
"It's good to see you too, Grandpa," Seth countered sarcastically, turning around and walking away as his mom approached.
"Where are you going, sweetie? I thought you were going to watch Ryan's game?" She inquired.
"Yeah...well, think again. I don't see you going to it," Seth argued.
"Don't talk to me that way. I'm your mother! I can't go to the game. I...," she looked at Caleb for some back up, but when he just continued fiddling with his BlackBerry, she quieted her tone and merely said, "I have obligations. Work. You don't. Sandy wanted us to go as a family. Since I can't go, the least you can do is support your friend."
"Whatever," Seth responded indifferently as he made his way to the staircase.
Kirsten sighed. She couldn't force Seth to go if he didn't want to, but she couldn't help but wonder if something had happened between him and Ryan. The last thing she wanted was two bickering teenagers in the house.
"Blanche! Over here!" Anna greeted Summer, waving from her seat on the visitor's side of the bleachers.
"Hey, Rose! Thanks for saving me a seat!" Summer smiled as she climbed the bleachers to sit next to her friend.
"You're welcome," Anna answered.
Dressed in a tight fitted maroon and white colored t-shirt and a pair of dark blue form-fitting jeans, Anna came prepared to show off her school spirit. Her short hair rested softly against her shoulders under a maroon cap that read Harbor across the front in fancy white lettering, and her white Pirate earrings matched her tennis shoes.
"I brought face paint!" Summer exclaimed, holding up the bag.
Her choice of attire also displayed a great deal of school spirit. Sporting high heels, a tight maroon colored mini skirt, and a white form-fitting blouse that read 'Go Pirates!' across the chest, nobody would deny that she looked stunning all decked out in her fan gear.
"I saw an episode of The Valley once where Mark had this football game, and anyway, April went all out of her way and became like the ultimate cheerleader for him. Isn't that so romantic? She had face paint and everything so I thought we could try it too."
"Is that the show with Grady Bridges in it?" Anna inquired.
"Yep! That's the one! He is sooo... freakin'... hot. In a nerdy..., unconventional..., goofy kind of way... kind of like... oh, what's his name again? Dark, curly hair... built like a pogo stick?"
"Seth," Anna chimed in.
"Right. King of the irony. Where is Cohen anyway?" Summer asked.
"I'm not sure. He's supposed to be here already, but I haven't seen him. This should be fun though, right? Supporting Ryan and the rest of the team... and I think the face paint thing is a terrific idea," Anna replied, taking the bag from Summer's hands and opening it to reveal three containers of maroon, black, and white face paint and a bag of silver and gold glitter.
"As long as the humidity doesn't friz out my hair and my face doesn't get fried from the sun because that would just be... Ew!" Summer exclaimed.
Anna gave Summer an unimpressed look so the brunette quickly added, "Kidding!" and the two girls chuckled.
"Your hair looks fine, Summer," Anna complimented her with a genuine smile.
"Thanks. Yours too! Well I mean... I'm sure it looks great under the cap and everything, and those earrings are gnarly," Summer said, positioning her head so that Anna could begin face painting.
As Anna added some glitter to the maroon pirate she was working on, she asked, "So is this the first Harbor soccer game you've attended?"
"Yeah. It is, but it's supposed to be a good one so..."
"Yeah, Ryan's first game as a co-captain," Anna blushed.
"Oh. My. God. Do you have a crush on Chino?" Summer asked, excited.
"No. Well... not like that. He's just really great to talk to. He has this inner sweetness that I admire and he seems to be a really good listener. I'd like to get to know him better because I think he'd make a good friend. Plus, I really respect how he's turned his life around."
"Yeah, I know what you mean," Summer agreed. "On a different note, I'm really hot. Are you hot? It's like... a five hundred degree furnace outside."
"I think all the players are feeling the heat too. I mean both coaches are letting them warm up without their jerseys on," Anna pointed out.
"It all makes sense now! Don't you see?"
Anna shook her head 'no' so Summer explained further, "All the hot jocks running around the field... showing off their ripped muscles? They're caliente! Too hot to handle and we're feeling the heat!" Summer beamed in an uptempo voice, pretending to fan herself off.
"Yeah," Anna agreed, laughing.
"Too bad Cohen couldn't hit a soccer ball to save his life," Summer went on. "His scrawny little ass might have actually looked kind of cute all dressed up in a soccer uni. Chino fills his out quite nicely though..."
However, she paused as she noticed Ryan's sluggish form walking towards the bench down below to retrieve a bottle of water.
"Or he used to...," She trailed off, taking in his unusually thin physique.
The last time she had seen him shirtless was in Tijuana months before when she had accidentally opened the door on him while he was preparing to take a shower in that bug infested, cheap motel's dirty bathroom. Since he generally wore a lot of layers at school, she hadn't noticed his weight loss over the months, but without his jersey on, it was obvious.
"What's wrong?" Anna asked, concerned that her friend turned silent all of a sudden.
"Ew. What happened to him?" Summer questioned.
"Who are you talking about?"
"Ryan! Is he like... on a vegan diet or something?"
"He's not on any diet! What are you talking about?" Anna laughed.
"I mean when he first got to Newport, he was like... really really hot, right? Those arms. Those abs...cried out, 'I'm sexy. I'm wounded. Somebody save me!'," Summer explained.
"He still looks good, Summer," Anna stated her opinion.
"He's... looking a little thin these days is all I'm saying...," Summer went on in her best sing-song voice. "And by a little, I mean a lot. I guess he's trying to give toothpick Cohen a run for his money. He used to be so buff."
"He's slender now, but he still doesn't look scrawny. Maybe he's just working really hard in practice," Anna suggested. "I admit he does look a bit worn down though. Actually, he's been looking that way for a while...you know, maybe he's anemic?"
"Anemic?" Summer asked.
"Yeah, Mrs. Applebee talked about it in health class, remember?"
"Kidding! I pay attention. Plus, the evil step monster takes iron supplements."
"Yeah, my mom used to have it and she took iron supplements too."
"Speaking of the devil... look who's approaching!" Summer observed, pointing at the exhausted looking athlete who just spotted them in the crowd. He waved at them and continued walking towards the bleachers.
"Hey, Atwood," Summer greeted him as he got closer.
"Summer... you look...," Ryan stammered. "Wow," he said quietly to himself, turning his head away and hoping she didn't hear him. He felt so embarrassed for finding the girl who was his foster brother's obsession attractive that he hadn't noticed Anna's face fall.
"Okay then. Awkward much?" Summer asked.
'Ouch,' he thought silently, definitely getting the vibe that she wasn't liking him back even a little bit, which was probably a good thing since he knew he would never act on his feelings anyway because of Seth.
Diverting attention away from himself, he turned to face Anna.
"How are you?" He asked her, wiping a few beads of sweat off his forehead with the white towel he was carrying and then tossing it over his shoulder.
"I'm great, but more importantly... how are you feeling?" She asked, a bit worried about the pallor in his complexion.
"Fine, why?" He asked defensively.
"I just wanted to make sure everything is okay. You don't seem to be all together here," she answered.
"Just...a little nervous I guess," he responded before chewing on his upper lip. "I mean... playing in such a big game... it's all new to me."
"I thought you played a lot of sports back in Chino?"
"Yeah, I did. I just... none of the games were this big," He swallowed nervously, taking a quick glance at all the newspaper reporters snapping photos of the players and holding video cameras. "Also, I never exactly had anyone who cared enough to go to one of my games before," He confessed, looking down quickly and then back up again.
"Well Summer and I wouldn't miss this one for the world. Right Blanche?"
"Yeah, definitely. I mean we're like... your number one cheerleaders! We're totally Team Chino... I mean, it's obvious right? We're even painting our faces for you," Summer said, smiling enthusiastically. Ryan's cheeks turned a deeper shade of pink, which contrasted his pale skin.
"It looks great," He blushed.
"So you're ready for the big game?" Anna asked.
"Ready as I'll ever be," He replied. He pressed his lips together—scratching the back of his head as he slightly lowered it. Looking up again, he asked,"Hey, have you girls seen Seth or his parents?"
"Nope, haven't seen any of them," Anna replied.
"Oh," Ryan said under his breath, trying to hide his disappointment. He hoped that at least Sandy was still coming to the game.
"Seth was supposed to be here half an hour ago. Maybe he got delayed... or maybe he fell off his skateboard and had some sort of Coheny emergency. I wouldn't worry about it. I'm sure they'll all get here soon," Summer tried to assure him.
"Well...um," Ryan looked down again, running a hand through his sweat-dampened hair. "Thanks for coming out to watch. Means a lot." He nodded his head goodbye to both girls and then walked down the stands to join his teammates—completely oblivious to the cold look Seth was giving him from behind the bleachers.
Seth had been eavesdropping on his conversation with Summer and Anna. Just an hour earlier, he'd been dead set on not showing up at all, but he knew he couldn't pass up a chance to talk to Summer. He only wished he hadn't seen how free-spirited she and Anna seemed when talking to Ryan. He admittedly felt left out.
Why did everyone give his foster brother so much attention lately? Well, he knew why, but he didn't like it. Ryan was athletic and he wasn't. Ryan was a good listener and he wasn't. Ryan was responsible and he wasn't. Ryan "saved" Marissa in Tijuana when nobody else knew what to do. Ryan saved Luke's life a few days ago. Ryan this, Ryan that. It seemed like that's all Seth heard anymore.
In fact, he realized that he liked it much better the way it had been months before when he was Ryan's only friend in Newport and nobody paid attention to the kid from the wrong side of the tracks who stole cars and set people's houses on fire other than Marissa. Well... and Summer at that Newport party Ryan's first night in town... and his dad obviously. Clearly the Sandman couldn't get enough of the brooding bad boy. And shit. Everyone else. But why?
Seth knew he was acting ridiculous, especially considering Ryan hadn't done anything to really warrant his behavior. He even tried to come up with a good rationale for why he didn't feel like supporting his best friend today. He did happen to detest watching organized sports in general. Would that excuse sit well enough with the 'rents? Probably not, but lately he couldn't fight the feeling of annoyance that lingered every time he saw Ryan, so instead of sticking around, he walked back to his mom's car and headed home.
Down on the soccer field where both teams were still warming up, Coach Nielson noticed how run down his lead striker looked.
Considering how hot and humid it was outside—the temperature hovering right around 95 degrees Fahrenheit, it was understandable that anyone would get more tired than usual during warm-ups, but Ryan just seemed completely out of it. On top of that, it was no secret that unbearably humid days like today sometimes ended in disaster for athletes competing with bad asthma.
Concerned for his player, he pulled him aside to talk to him before the game.
"How are you feeling, Ryan? You're not looking too good."
"Just tired," Ryan admitted quietly—making eye contact with the ground.
"Are you up to playing today? Even as a co-captain, if you aren't well enough, you don't have to play, especially considering the effects the weather may have on your asthma."
"I'll be okay," Ryan insisted.
"Okay, the team trainer has your inhaler so whenever you need it, just signal for a time out."
"Got it," Ryan agreed.
"Now get out there and show me what you've got," Coach Nielson affectionately patted him on the back.
"Damnit!" Sandy exclaimed, pounding on the steering wheel of his BMW. He was caught in Saturday afternoon traffic on his way to Ryan's game.
"We'll make it, Sandy. Even if we're a few minutes late, I'm sure Ryan will understand," Carson Ward, who was sitting in the passenger seat, said in an effort to calm him down.
"I hope you're right. It's bad enough that Kirsten isn't going. I wanted to talk to Ryan before the game... give him some last minute encouragement."
"I'm sure that you just being there will be enough," Carson replied.
"It's nice of Luke to let you drive down with me to watch the game," Sandy pointed out.
"Well... despite what happened the other day, he's a good kid and Ryan is really important to him. He wanted to be there... to watch him play, but since he can't, he figured me being there is the next best thing. Meredith is with him so he's not alone, and Luke wanted me to snap a few photos," Carson smiled.
For the remainder of the car ride, the two men talked about their children and a number of other topics—building a friendship that neither of them ever expected, and when they finally arrived at Sage Hill's complex, they were thrilled to find that they were only ten minutes late.
The first half of the game seemed to go by quickly. Immediately after the kick off, Sage Hill had started off strong, making the first goal, but about a minute before the first half ended, Dean came through for Harbor, evening the score.
Ryan quickly made a beeline for the air conditioned walls of Sage Hill's training room and dropped down on a bench—his coach and the team trainers hovering over him. He felt weak and disoriented but that was nothing new. He'd been feeling that way even during warm-ups. Coach Nielson had benched him a few times already, and he knew if he didn't get it together, he wasn't going to get to play for much of the second half. To make matters worse, his spirits were down since he hadn't yet been able to locate Sandy in the stands.
Fifteen minutes later, he exited the training room—almost willing himself to stay focused, but no matter what he did, he couldn't get his legs to stop feeling like Jell-O, nor could he get his chest to stop feeling as if an elephant was sitting on it.
35 minutes into the second half, the game was still tied at 1-1 and Coach Nielson was growing increasingly worried.
"Atwood, get over here!" He yelled after one of his other players kicked the ball out of bounds.
Struggling to get his muscles to cooperate, Ryan lethargically hobbled over to the bench and took a seat next to his coach. He was finding it increasingly more difficult to breathe and he couldn't stop coughing.
"What the hell are you doing? Enough is enough! You're done for the day," Coach Nielson barked at him, agitated by his stubbornness. "Here's your inhaler," he offered, lowering his tone sympathetically and passing the medical device to Ryan.
Ryan puffed and breathed into the inhaler several times. The medication did offer him some relief from his worsening symptoms, but not quite as much as he had hoped for. Within a few minutes, he was doubling over in pain and holding onto his chest.
"I thought you said you rested up during the week and that you were okay to play today," Coach Nielson stated, frustrated. Ryan's cough was becoming more and more frequent and it was making him uneasy.
"I did... I promise. I am. I... I don't know why I'm so out of it," Ryan replied in between labored breaths.
"Are you okay? Do we need to call an ambulance?" Coach Nielson asked, fearful that Ryan was on the verge of an attack.
"No ambulance," Ryan pleaded. "I'll be okay."
Ryan closed his eyes, feeling almost ready to give up. His body felt like crap and emotionally he was drained. Luke was right. He wasn't one hundred percent. Not even close, and he was beginning to doubt his ability to even continue running around the field let alone kicking and dribbling a soccer ball against a team of unrelenting competitors.
Then he heard a faint cheer in the background that caught his attention. As he focused a bit more keenly on the voice, he slowly began to feel rejuvenated—adrenaline taking over his body.
"Check out my boy, Ryan. He's keepin' the Sage Hill players cryin'. He's the star and they know it. When he gets the ball he shows it...!"
As awkward as the cheer was, Ryan couldn't help but smile. Sandy came to watch him play after all.
He searched the crowd harder this time, determined to spot his foster father and sure enough, there he was in the stands sitting next to Carson Ward in a section high up.
Kirsten was nowhere to be seen, but Ryan hadn't really expected her to come anyway. She hated watching sports, and he'd hate to think she sat through an hour and a half of torture just for him, especially when she always seemed so uncomfortable around him. She seemed to only be tolerating him for the other two members of her household anyway.
He was a bit disappointed that he couldn't find Seth in the crowd, but Sandy's presence was enough. He wondered why Carson wasn't with Luke in the hospital, but he had to admit it felt good to have these two men supporting him. Plus, there was Anna and Summer.
A large grin spread across his face as he took in the enthusiasm of the only father figure he had ever known.
His breathing began to slow down and despite still feeling like death warmed over, he refused to sit out the rest of the game.
"I want to keep playing," he firmly informed his coach.
"I don't know, Ryan. You don't look so good. You've done a great job leading the team today. It's not about that, but I'm not sure I want to risk it."
"Just give me a shot. If I feel it's physically impossible to keep hanging in there for the last few minutes, I promise I'll come out, but...," Ryan trailed off, thinking about what Luke said in the hospital.
Make me proud.
"I want to try. It's my duty as co-captain," Ryan added softly—his deep blue eyes glistening with determination.
"Alright. But if you feel any more discomfort in your chest, I need you to come out of the game immediately. Do you understand me? The last thing I need is for you to suffer an asthma attack."
"This is serious, Ryan. Your health is not a game. I mean it. If I see you struggling, I will decide whether or not you can keep playing and if I say you are to come out, then you are to comply. Understood?"
"I will," Ryan promised stolidly and Coach Nielson patted him energetically on the back.
"Alright, then let's do this!" Shouted the coach as he pulled out his whistle—blowing it twice. "Everyone over here!"
Ryan then took charge.
"On the count of three, Go Harbor. Ready?" He said, leading the way as he and the rest of the team situated themselves next to each other, forming a circle with each player placing one hand on top of one of their teammate's hands.
"One, two, three... GO HARBOR!" The team shouted simultaneously.
With just five minutes left in the game, the score was still tied at 1-1, and Ryan was more determined than ever to help his team win it.
He was dribbling the ball up the field as fast as he could when Barry Whiting from Sage Hill outran him and kicked the ball out of his possession. Meanwhile, another Sage Hill player, Manny Jefferson, subtly pushed him. Since he was already off balance, Ryan came crashing down to the ground.
"Take that you little punk!" Manny taunted Ryan under his breath. He knew about his friendship with Luke and he and Evan had been good friends for years despite playing on opposing teams.
Coach Nielson's frustration could be heard clearly from the sidelines, but still no red card was called by the referees.
"That's a flagrant foul damnit!" he complained. "It's a flagrant foul!"
Dean, who knew about Manny's disdain for Luke, was also pissed off by the unfair turn the game had taken so he sprinted towards Manny and kicked the ball out of bounds, stopping the clock momentarily.
"You alright?" He asked Ryan, helping him up.
"Yeah," Ryan lied, fighting to breathe normally.
"Come on. We've got a couple of minutes left. We can win this," Dean reassured the less experienced athlete. "For Luke," he added, which earned him an appreciative smile and a high five from Ryan.
A minute later, Barry threw the ball in for Sage Hill.
Ryan dived in front of Manny, intercepting the ball, and Harbor's Chip Daniels took the ball into his possession, managing to break free from two Sage Hill defenders before Ryan finally caught up to him on the side of the field closer to the goal.
Chip passed the ball to Ryan who then dribbled it up the left side of the field as fast as he could, noting Dean sprinting towards the goal in his periphery.
It was now or never.
With less than one minute left on the clock, Ryan made the quick decision to pass the ball off to Dean.
He kicked the ball with just the right amount of force and watched as it floated through the air in Dean's direction. Gaining the momentum he needed, Dean finally leaped into the air and head bunted the ball into the goal.
Harbor had won the County Championship and Dean with his two goals along with Ryan and his game winning assist were now Harbor's unspoken heroes.
After the game, Ryan wasn't up for socializing with his coach or teammates despite the victory so he decided to bail on them early.
"You ready to go?" Sandy asked, patting him gently on the back as the two of them walked to the car.
"Yeah," Ryan said weakly.
"I'm proud of you. You were great out there today," Sandy praised him—leaving him momentarily speechless. Ryan then tilted his head in Sandy's direction—his eyes examining him through his lashes. What Sandy said, he meant. Sandy was proud of him.
Sandy flushed at the level admiration Ryan seemed to have for him. He loved the kid and it felt good to see how much he'd opened up to him in the past week.
As they continued walking, Ryan spotted Carson standing in front of Sandy's BMW.
"Hi, Mr. Wa—," He began, but quickly noticed his mistake and corrected himself. "Sorry," He blushed. "I meant to say Carson."
"Not a problem. And congratulations on the win, Ryan. That was quite a game. Very brutal, but you hung in there and did well. I only wish Luke could've seen you play," Carson replied kindly causing Ryan to blush once more.
"Thanks," Ryan smiled—though his demeanor suggested he was still guarded.
He opened the back door of the car and gingerly maneuvered his sore body inside while Sandy and Carson made themselves comfortable in the front.
After about twenty minutes of driving, they arrived at HOAG where Sandy dropped Carson off to get some quality time in with his son.
What Sandy hadn't realized was that during the car ride, Ryan had begun feeling nauseous and wasn't in the mood to socialize with anyone.
"You want to sit in the front?"
Ryan looked up at Sandy, making brief eye contact before nodding and lethargically stepping out of the car.
"Do you want to stop somewhere to eat before heading home?" Sandy then asked, turning his head to again make eye contact with his foster son, who was now sitting on the passenger side of the vehicle.
"Thanks for the offer, but... not really hungry," Ryan replied honestly, fastening his seat belt as Sandy started up the ignition and drove the vehicle out of HOAG's parking lot.
"After such a rigorous game? I thought you'd be eating up all the restaurants in Newport," Sandy tried to lighten the mood.
When Ryan didn't respond, he tried again, "Are you sure? If we don't stop for food now, you may end up stuck with my wife's cooking later...," He joked, but Ryan merely shook his head.
Another minute passed by in silence, and Sandy's guilt was getting the better of him.
"I'm sorry I was late to your game," He apologized. He wasn't sure what was bothering Ryan, but he needed to make sure things were right between them.
"You were just in time," Ryan responded genuinely.
Sandy turned his head to meet Ryan's gaze just fast enough to notice the boy's content smile before redirecting all of his attention back to the road.
At least Ryan's glum mood had nothing to do with his tardiness.
"I know I've already said this today, but you played great today. You made me proud," He added, earning himself another timid smile, which he observed from his periphery.
"Thanks," Ryan replied—touched that Sandy had reminded him once more that he was proud of him. He felt bad for giving Sandy monosyllabic answers, but he wasn't sure what else to say. He wasn't used to all the attention, and he was struggling to even keep his eyes open. He felt like a big ball of crap.
After another silent minute, Sandy was left feeling that something was still bothering Ryan. Sure the kid was usually quiet, but he'd just helped his team win a very important game. He had hoped Ryan would at least be a little more excited.
"What's bothering you? Is it Kirsten... or Seth?"
"Nothing, Sandy. I'm fine," Ryan fibbed. He knew his guardian deserved to know what was upsetting him, but he was too exhausted to talk about it right now.
"How's your cough?" Sandy asked, disturbed by Ryan's wan complexion.
"Bad," Ryan answered, frustrated that he felt sick enough to admit that.
"We'll take you to get that chest x-ray on Monday. How are you feeling otherwise?" Sandy continued his interrogation.
"If I'm being honest... pretty beat actually. I don't think I'm up for celebrating with the team later."
Sandy pulled into a gas station and parked the car.
"What are you doing?" Ryan asked, confused.
"Getting a closer look at you. I'm worried about your health and need to know everything," Sandy said firmly. "Why are you sitting like that?" He further inquired, noticing for the first time the awkward manner in which Ryan leaned forward in the seat of the car—his head resting on his hands, which were propped up by the dashboard.
"Huh?" Ryan reacted, suddenly unaware of his surroundings as a wave of dizziness overpowered him. He blinked his eyes several times, and finally after a few seconds, his line of vision meshed back into focus.
"Why are you sitting like that?" Sandy repeated.
"Sorry," Ryan answered. "I must have zoned out. Um... I don't know. It's easier to breathe this way I guess."
"Let me check for a temperature," Sandy insisted, placing his palm against Ryan's sweaty forehead.
Sandy sighed, feeling guilty for letting the kid overexert himself today.
"I'm no doctor, but I think you're burning up. Wait right here. I'm not taking any chances."
"Sandy, wait. What do you mean?"
"I'm calling Dr. Canales. You're not well."
Ryan wanted to argue, but he was too tired. Not even he could deny that this was the worst his body had ever felt.
When Sandy couldn't get a hold of Dr. Canales, he decided it would be best to just get Ryan back to the house as quickly as possible so he could rest.
However, when he reached the car, panic quickly set in. It appeared that Ryan had passed out in the front seat.
"Ryan?" Sandy tried to nudge him awake, but he didn't respond. "Ryan! Wake up!"
He checked for a pulse and found a moderate one, but he still couldn't fight the fear that Ryan was seriously ill and only getting worse. He was even starting to question Dr. Canales's diagnosis.
Sandy could feel his stomach drop and his heart race as he nudged Ryan's shoulder hoping the kid's lack of movement was a result of sleep deprivation rather than unconsciousness.
"Ryan, please...," Sandy nudged him again, a little bit harder this time. Intense anxiety caused his heartbeat to quicken even more. "Please, kid. Wake up," he urged.
Finally, Ryan stirred and slowly shifted his body in the seat of the car as Sandy breathed in a sigh of relief.
As Ryan's heavy eyelids opened drowsily, Sandy tentatively asked, "You going to make it?
"I'll be alright," Ryan answered hoarsely.
"You sure? Dr. Canales isn't answering his phone, but I can take you to the hospital if you're not feeling well."
"I'm fine, Sandy. Just tired," he smiled lazily—his eyelids closing slightly over glazed eyes. "I'm just ready to go home."
It was a word Ryan had never understood until moving to Newport, but gradually he was warming up to the idea of belonging to a family. He prayed everyday that the Cohens wouldn't give up on him, and even though he had his doubts, he still knew that no matter what happened, Sandy was there for him. He'd be okay.
The very thought made him smile and for a brief moment he felt content.
Sandy sat in the living room, flipping through the latest issue of The New Yorker when the sound of lazy footsteps approaching caught his attention. He glanced up from his magazine to find his curly-headed son pattering towards the front door.
"Where are you going?" Sandy inquired, placing the magazine on the coffee table in front of him.
"To Summer's house...," Seth answered.
"No, you're not. Get over here and sit down. We need to talk."
Seth let out an exasperated sigh and muttered, "Fine."
"You want to tell me where you've been all day?" Sandy asked, disappointed by his son's behavior. "I didn't see you at the game."
"Wow, you noticed," Seth remarked flippantly.
"I don't know where this attitude is coming from, but you better have a good explanation for why you weren't there to support Ryan today," Sandy responded sternly.
"Like you care," Seth rolled his eyes.
"That's not the way you speak to your father," Sandy replied—a bit of hurt in his eyes.
"Last time I checked, fathers spend time with their sons," Seth answered bitterly.
"You know I will always be there to support you, but today wasn't about that! You and me... we had an opportunity to spend some quality time together supporting Ryan and instead you decided to stay home."
"Mom said I could stay home," Seth confessed, shrugging his shoulders defiantly. "So I did."
"She what?" Sandy asked incredulously.
Ignoring his question, Seth shot back,"When the hell did it become all about Ryan anyway?"
"Seth, he's your friend. He's part of the family now, and like it or not, I assure you if you had an important event, he'd be the first person in line to support you."
A hint of guilt flashed in Seth's eyes as he visibly calmed down. He knew his dad was right. If he had been the one playing in a championship game, Ryan would have been excited for him.
"How'd his game go?" Seth asked, feeling slightly embarrassed for the way he'd been acting.
"I think that's something you should ask him yourself. He's in the pool house. I'm going to call your mother."
Ryan sluggishly ran a towel through his damp hair while using his free hand to search through his drawer for a clean white tank top. His body continued to ache from overuse and his chest still felt like an elephant was sitting on it, but the shower had definitely helped. Still, he couldn't wait to lie down on his bed to take a nap. Just as he finished changing, he heard the latch of the pool house door open. He looked up to find Seth walking stolidly towards him—his brown eyes flickering restlessly around the room.
"Hey," Ryan broke the silence.
"Hey," Seth replied lamely, briefly making eye contact with his pseudo brother before fixing his gaze on a poster of Muhammad Ali that hung on the wall adjacent to Ryan's bed. Every time Seth entered the pool house, he was reminded of just how different he was from his muscly, close-mouthed, tank top rocking pal.
"What's up?" Ryan quickly asked, sensing Seth's discomfort. After all, it seemed like Seth couldn't even look him in the eye. His usually chatty friend certainly hadn't been acting very much like himself the past couple of days and right now he was acting even weirder, which worried him.
"Not much," Seth answered, taking another rigid step towards him. "How was your game?"
"Good," Ryan responded flatly. "We won."
"That's awesome," Seth forced a smile. When Ryan remained silent, he added, "I mean, that's awesome, right? That was a huge game for you guys."
"Yeah...," Ryan replied stiffly, fighting the urge to cough. He tightened his lips into a thin smile that didn't reach his eyes. Although he had hoped to see his foster brother at the game, he tried not to feel hurt or upset by his lack of attendance. After all, Seth wasn't into sports, and he shouldn't have to do anything he didn't enjoy doing just for him.
Ryan lowered his head slightly, still maintaining eye contact with the curly headed boy and added, "Look, Seth... I know you didn't come in here just to talk about the game. What's on your mind?"
Seth wanted to apologize so badly for not showing up to support Ryan today. Part of him even wondered if Ryan had spotted him at Sage Hill earlier or if he'd been too preoccupied with whatever Anna and Summer had been saying. He wanted to apologize for how he'd been acting in general, actually. He wanted nothing more than to make things right with Ryan so that he could show him the new video games he bought with his weekly allowance and play him for hours and hours while eating Doritos and potato chips and pizza and drinking Mountain Dew and talking about his plan to ask Summer out today and... well he wanted his best friend back. Not that he'd lost him, but it still felt like there was a big wall standing between them.
The problem? He couldn't get his mouth to budge from its closed position. He felt like his lips were sealed shut with super glue. Actually, he felt like he was trapped in one of those weird horror flicks where some frightened teenage girl is being chased by zombies and tries to scream at the top of her lungs for help but no sound comes out. This verbal constipation was kicking his skinny ass.
He was scared. He was scared he'd say the wrong thing to Ryan and put a permanent rift in their friendship.
"Are you okay, man?" Ryan asked, confused by his silence.
Seth felt really guilty right about now. He tried to shake off the feeling of jealousy that had lingered with him throughout the day, but he still couldn't figure out what to say. Perhaps he wasn't ready to apologize. Maybe he didn't even need to apologize. He definitely wasn't used to apologizing and usually people told him his actions were okay even when he'd thought he did something wrong so why should this time be any different? Not to mention the fact that it didn't exactly seem like Ryan was mad at him...
"Nothing really," He lied.
"You sure?" Ryan queried, wrinkling his forehead pensively.
"Yeah... it was just gas...," Seth faked a smile, chuckling nervously. "I better get over to Summer's before she tries to kill me with an Excalibur or something for being late."
Ryan just stood there in the middle of the spacious room, eying Seth as if he was speaking in Hebrew, so Seth explained, "The latest episode of The Valley had some crazy storyline related to King Arthur and..."
"You watch The Valley?" Ryan smirked, cutting him off. He was relieved that Seth at least seemed to be acting a little bit more like himself at the moment.
"I don't. Summer does, but, dude... you're supposed to have my back here. I was hoping you'd have at least a little more confidence in my manhood. Either way, I've gotta get going because the last thing I want to do is piss off Little Miss Vixen and..."
"Little Miss Vixen?" Ryan furrowed his eyebrows, tilting his head to the side but maintaining eye contact with Seth.
"It's a comic book reference... my com—," Seth caught himself before he revealed too much. He hadn't talked to Ryan yet about the comic book he was working on called Atomic County and he felt that now wasn't a good time to explain it to his quiet friend so he changed the subject and said, "You know what? Never mind... um... bye."
With that, he headed out of the pool house, leaving Ryan even more concerned than he was before. Seth was avoiding him and he knew it.
Kirsten sat in her office searching hastily for an important document she had forgotten when she heard a buzzing noise coming from her purse.
"Oh, hi, Sandy," She answered her cell—still looking through a heap of papers that were now scattered over her desk. She was holding everyone up in the meeting, and while she didn't want to end the phone call, she was distracted. "Is everything okay?"
"That depends. Where are you?"
"With my dad at the Newport Group. Why? What's wrong?"
"Well when are you coming home?We need to talk."
"The meeting is running late, but I'll try to be there before dinner. I have to go. Love you," Kirsten responded—hanging up the phone.
Sandy sighed and flipped his cell phone shut. When had life become so complicated?
Still irritated by his wife's decisions to choose work over supporting her new foster son and to tell Seth he didn't have to go to the game, he walked over to the kitchen and searched through the cabinets for something to eat. He found a bag of Cheetos and grabbed a bottle of beer from the fridge and then settled on the living room couch in front of the TV.
Ryan walked into the main house just as Sandy finished finding a program to watch.
"Is everything alright?" Ryan asked cautiously, approaching the living room couch.
"If I taught you anything... don't ever get married, and if you do? Don't ever have kids."
A tight lipped half smile formed on Ryan's lips. He wanted to joke with Sandy, but he felt guilty for all the trouble he seemed to be causing this family. "You say that a lot. I think it's the third time I'm hearing this from you," He said.
"That's because it's true," Sandy smiled—not noticing the way Ryan's body tensed. "How is your love life by the way? Are you... talking to any girls at the moment?"
Ryan blushed slightly and chewed on the inside of his mouth, shaking his head before answering, "Nah, not really. Just trying to stay focused, you know?"
"Well it looks like you're on the right track," Sandy assured him proudly.
"Can I...uh...," Ryan pointed to a spot on the couch next to him.
"Oh, please do! And help yourself to some Cheetos while you're at it," Sandy smiled.
"Thanks," Ryan returned the smile, taking a seat next to him. Ryan looked up to Sandy, which also meant he was afraid of disappointing him and even more afraid of being rejected by him. He wanted to cherish these relaxed moments with the man he was beginning to view as a role model because he wasn't sure how long it was going to last. "What are you watching?" He asked.
"Oh, this?" Sandy laughed, popping another Cheeto into his mouth and pointing a finger at the TV.
"Now last season you may remember when I invited families to move into the Dr. Phil house because they said their kids were brats. Those were their words—not mine. Twelve-year-old Noah and his mother, Wendy, left quite an impression on everyone. I know America has been wondering whatever happened to the child who slapped his mother...," Dr. Phil went on and on, introducing the episode.
"It's just a show about how to discipline out-of-control teenagers," Sandy finished the statement, continuing to chuckle.
Ryan's body visibly tensed. The only forms of punishment he could remember growing up were getting punched in the face, kicked in his side, starved, or being called a worthless piece of shit without even being told what he'd said or done wrong.
He swallowed a lump that was forming in his inflamed throat and nervously asked, "Do I... uh... am I a lot of trouble?"
"Oh, far from it. In fact, I'd argue that you're heaven sent. Kids like you make my job easier," Sandy reassured him, patting him on the back.
Ryan relaxed into the cushion and the left corner of his mouth curved upwards. The smile was almost too tiny to be noticeable, but it did meet Ryan's eyes and that was enough for Sandy to know that his words connected with the kid.
Just as they were getting comfortable, the house phone rang.
"I'll get it," Sandy announced, standing up and walking towards the receiver. A minute later, he returned with the phone in hand. Ryan looked up at him expectantly.
"It's for you. It's your coach," Sandy said, handing the phone over to Ryan.
"Ryan, congratulations again on today's game. You did great."
"I was calling to let you know about tomorrow's practice. I know it's a Sunday, but since we won, we have a chance to compete in the state tournament, and I don't want to waste any time on getting you guys ready. I know you played hard today though and that you haven't been feeling well. Will you be strong enough to go to practice tomorrow?"
"Yeah. I'm good."
"Ryan, I need you to be sure. Are you sure you're feeling up to it?"
"Yeah, it's no problem."
"Okay then. I'll see you on the field at noon. You coming to the celebration tonight?"
"I don't think so. I'm... I think I'm just going to relax here with the Cohens if that's okay."
"That's fine. See you tomorrow."
"Alright, see you then," Ryan agreed, ending the phone conversation and turning around to face Sandy.
"So I have practice tomorrow," He explained.
"Are you sure you can handle it? You looked like you were going to die on me earlier in the car," Sandy said—his joke not betraying the seriousness of his tone. Dr. Canales still hadn't returned his call, but if Ryan's symptoms worsened even a little, he'd decided he was going to try calling again.
"Yeah, I think so. I feel a lot better. I'm just really tired."
"Well feel free to get all the rest you need."
"Actually... I was just about to take a nap if that's okay."
"Go sleep, kid. I'll wake you up before dinner."
About two hours later, Ryan woke up—his stomach growling lightly. He hadn't eaten anything since breakfast and the physical exertion of the soccer game had taken a lot out of him. Although he hadn't been hungry immediately after the game, he was relieved to find that he now had a mild appetite.
He stretched out his arms and yawned, sitting up slowly before getting the strength to pull himself out of bed and wash up. Sandy hadn't come to get him yet, but he figured Kirsten and Seth were probably back and he was hoping to see them before dinner.
After washing his face and pulling a pair of jeans over his boxers, he exited the pool house.
His chest still felt heavy, which made it difficult to breathe as he walked, but at least he wasn't coughing as much as earlier.
Just as he opened the door to the main house, the sound of yelling assaulted his ears. Sandy and Kirsten were going at it in the kitchen.
Hoping to remain unnoticed, he slipped into a corner of the living room. As much as he knew he should tear his ears away and leave, his legs refused to move. His heartbeat quickened and his feet felt cemented to the shiny wooden floor as he eavesdropped on their argument.
"We're the adults here! We're supposed to set good examples for our kids. Family members are supposed to support each other! That's if you even consider Ryan a part of this family," Sandy barked.
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Kirsten shouted back angrily. "I let him into this house! I'm the one who took him out of juvie the last time! I'm the one who announced he'd be staying here after his mom left him for the second time! Of course I want him to be part of the family!"
"He's already a part of the family! You just proved my point! You hardly even spend time with the kid! Or either of our kids—not even Seth!"
"That is not true! I am a good mother!"
"You know what Seth said to me earlier? He was bothered that I don't spend much time with him. Do you really think it's just me he feels that way about? You're always in the office. You're always with that coldblooded, callous father of yours and no matter how much you work for him, I've got news for you... you're never going to please him."
"Sandy, let's not get into this right now, okay? This argument is not about my father and you know it!"
Ryan could feel every muscle in his body tighten and suddenly he felt sick to his stomach. The way Kirsten behaved around him and Seth's recent attitude—it was all starting to make sense.
The Cohens weren't happy. Sandy and Kirsten were fighting because of him. Sandy didn't spend enough time with Seth because he was always in the way.
He felt responsible for tearing apart yet another family. They seemed so happy before he came to live with them, and now they were yelling and bickering and it was all because of him. He needed to get out of the house. He needed to go somewhere and think. He couldn't be here right now.
He took a deep breath to calm himself, which caused him to cough sharply. Doubling over in pain, he held onto his chest with one hand and used the other hand to support himself against the wall. He cringed at the sight of the thick, yellow mucus that covered his right hand and quickly made his way out of the main house to the pool house where he could wash his hands.
Not even a minute later, he grabbed a bottle of water from the small fridge near his bed before turning around to grab his gray hooded sweatshirt.
He had held onto a few possessions from his former life that gave him a source of familiar comfort and allowed him to still feel connected to his roots despite living in this plush, peculiar town—a town he knew he'd never fit into.
These items included his worn, black boots, his gray hoodie, his wrist cuff, his choker, which he now kept in a small shoebox under his bed, and a black toy Camaro that Trey had given to him when he was younger as a symbolic memory of their childhood together. It was during times of high stress that he clung to these memories the most.
Ryan had never been a big smoker, even in Chino, and he had quit completely since moving to Newport, but during stressful moments like this, he did miss the relaxed feeling he got from sharing a cigarette with Theresa or Trey on the nights he needed an escape from his mom's boyfriends because she was too wasted to pay attention to him—let alone protect him. To some degree, he was starting to miss Chino. Even though his life in Newport had at times seemed uncomplicated, he knew that nothing in life was uncomplicated. Realizing there was no way he could talk to Theresa or Trey tonight since he didn't have a phone number for either of them, he hoped going for a walk by the beach would at least help to calm his nerves a little.
"Sandy, did you hear that? That wasn't Ryan, was it?" Kirsten asked—a pang of guilt creeping into her voice. "Please tell me it wasn't Ryan."
"It was Ryan. Nobody else in this family has been coughing like that," He replied, agitated.
"I thought you said he was fine? Didn't Dr. Canales say he was fine?"
"Yes, but he's been wearing himself out..."
"You don't think he heard our conversation, do you?" She asked—her eyes wide with anxiety.
"You mean all the yelling?" He shot back incredulously—a little more harshly than he intended to. "Even the people living in Timbuktu probably heard us, Kirsten!" He took a deep breath to calm himself and then lowered his voice. "We weren't exactly quiet. I just hope he's okay. I'm going to go look for him."
"I'll go with you...," Kirsten offered pleadingly.
"No. I think it's best you stay here. He trusts me the most at the moment. I'll go talk to him. You wait here with Seth for the delivery guy."
"I had a feeling I'd find you here," Sandy said in his usual upbeat voice as he spotted Ryan's lone figure seated on the damp sand—his knees drawn in towards his chest and his arms wrapped around his legs.
"The beach is always a nice place to clear your head. I personally prefer relaxing over a game of golf, but nothing beats a good surf," Sandy continued.
Although he could feel Sandy watching him, he refused to make eye contact and instead remained in his position staring out into the vast ocean. The sun had already set and the moon's light reflected over the rippling water.
Noticing how confused and upset Ryan looked, Sandy took a step closer to him and cautiously asked, "Is it okay if I sit down next to you?"
Ryan merely nodded his head once—his attention still focused on the waves.
"You okay, kid?" Sandy asked kindly. Ryan shrugged.
"So I take it you overheard me and Kirsten arguing...," Sandy went on, taking a seat next to Ryan.
"I don't really feel like talking right now," Ryan sighed.
"That's too bad 'cause I'm just getting started," Sandy replied warmly with a genuine smile.
"I was afraid you'd say that," Ryan said, trying to hide his own smile. He turned his head to finally meet Sandy's thoughtful gaze.
"But hey," Sandy smiled again, patting Ryan's shoulder. "You don't have to talk. Just listen."
Ryan nodded his head again so Sandy continued.
"I'm not sure exactly what you overheard, and by the look on your face, I don't think you're ready to tell me, but I love you and even if you think otherwise, Kirsten does love you. She just needs some more time to get over a few insecurities, but she'll come around. She really does want to get to know you."
"She sure has a way of showing it," Ryan muttered to himself quietly.
He was relieved that Sandy didn't hear him... or at least it seemed that way since he showed no reaction to the comment. Then again, as a lawyer, his foster father was definitely good with the mind games so Ryan decided he needed to be more careful with his choice of words.
He felt trapped. He knew Sandy meant well, but that still wasn't enough to solace his insecurities. As much as he thought he was opening up to the idea of Newport being his home, especially earlier in the car as the man he looked up to drove him back from his game, he realized that Newport was far from his home. However, neither was Chino. Ryan felt lost and confused—unsure of his place in the world. No matter how hard he tried to please everyone, all he ever seemed to do was make everyone's life worse.
"I guess you're through talking. I was hoping to at least get another shrug or sideways glance out of you," Sandy joked.
Ryan forced a tiny smile. He had to give Sandy credit for always trying. No one else had ever cared so much before.
"That's alright. Think about what I said though. Can I get you to join us for dinner?" Sandy inquired, hopeful. "We ordered pizza. Kirsten called while I was looking for you. She said she wasn't sure what toppings you wanted so she went ahead and ordered plain cheese. I know you like mushrooms and sausage. It isn't too late for me to order another pizza with those toppings if you'd like."
"Thanks, but... plain cheese will do," Ryan answered.
It was nice to know that Sandy remembered his favorite pizza toppings even if Kirsten hadn't, but he wasn't exactly hungry and he didn't want to put Sandy out of his way or have him spend any extra money. Ryan already felt bad enough for interfering with their family dynamic, and he couldn't let the Cohens go out of their way just for him.
"Is everything okay?" Sandy asked, noticing how withdrawn the kid looked.
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm good. Just... really out of it...," Ryan admitted, stifling a yawn. "Is it cool if I just crash early tonight?"
Sandy glanced at his watch. It was only eight o'clock and the kid already looked like he'd stayed up several nights in a row. He could read in between the lines and also knew Ryan was trying to avoid dinner with the family, but he felt it wasn't the right time to push him.
"Let me at least bring a slice of pizza to your room later. That way you'll have some nourishment. You need to re-fuel for tomorrow."
Ryan agreed and Sandy helped him up, guiding him to the Rover.
The next morning, Sandy knocked on the pool house door—a cup of coffee in hand. When Ryan didn't answer, he turned the door handle and stepped in to make sure he was alright. His eyes darted around the large room in search of his foster son, but all he saw was the already made bed and a stack of folded clothes on top of the cubbyhole adjacent to the bathroom. He frowned when he noticed the untouched slice of pizza on the small table next to Ryan's bed.
A note lay on Ryan's study desk, and Sandy suddenly experienced a sinking feeling in his stomach. Had Ryan run away?
But as he scanned the note, he sighed in relief.
Dear Sandy and Kirsten,
I went to visit Luke before practice. I'll see you tonight.
"Of course he went to visit Luke," thought Sandy. "That's who Ryan is," He chuckled and then left the room.
"Chino! Dude, what's up?" Luke exclaimed, sitting up on his bed as Ryan entered his hospital room.
"How're you feeling?" Ryan asked, flashing the other boy a concerned smile. He quickly bumped fists with him before taking a seat next to the bed.
"Better... after hearing you won the game yesterday. Shitty knowing I didn't get to play. My dad told me about your game winning assist. Congrats, dude. You kicked ass out there. I wish I could have seen it."
"There'll be other times," Ryan answered, briefly breaking eye contact with Luke. His mind kept drifting to Kirsten and Sandy's argument from the night before.
"Dean came to see me yesterday after the game," Luke said.
"That's cool, man," Ryan replied—almost mechanically.
"He told me Manny tried to hurt you on the field yesterday. I swear, if I see that kid around... I'm gonna kick his ass for laying a hand on you."
Several seconds of silence passed by, and Luke finally noticed how Ryan didn't seem to be altogether there.
"What's wrong?" Luke asked, worried.
Ryan remained quiet—his eyes now fixated on a small spot on the linoleum floor.
"Huh?" Ryan looked up.
"What's wrong?" Luke repeated.
"Oh... uh, nothing. Just tired," Ryan gave a half smile, hoping Luke wouldn't press the issue further. He wasn't ready to talk about his insecurities, especially when it came to the Cohens. To make matters worse, his limbs felt heavy and overused. Every muscle in his body was sore, and his chest was killing him.
"Still coughing, huh?" Luke asked, bothered by the fact that his best friend had been coughing on and off since entering the room.
Ryan didn't answer and instead just rolled his eyes. His health was the last thing he wanted to talk about.
"You don't look so good...," Luke persisted.
"Just drop it, okay!" Ryan snapped. It had been a while since Luke had seen Ryan so uptight and agitated. Something had to be terribly wrong.
Ryan quickly recognized Luke's confused and shocked expression and guilt took over.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to...," He apologized.
"No worries," Luke interjected.
"I'll visit you again later, but I've a... I've got to get to practice," Ryan stood up, grabbing his backpack.
Luke frowned, noticing how pale his friend looked. In his mind, he questioned whether or not Ryan was even healthy enough to practice. He just looked... off. Then again, he didn't want to upset him more so he just nodded.
Ryan turned to leave, but then hesitated and turned back around.
"I'm sorry... for not staying longer. It's just... well I road my bike here and practice is at—," He rambled until Luke cut him off.
"Hey, if anyone knows about running late to practice, it's me. Don't worry about it. I get it," Luke assured him.
Ryan flashed him an appreciative smile.
"Well, thanks for stopping by," Luke smiled back. "See ya later?"
Ryan gave him a half nod and quietly left the room, leaving Luke with an unsettling feeling in his stomach.
The team had already been practicing for an hour in the grueling heat, and Ryan could no longer keep up with his teammates. His legs felt like lead, and all he could think about was taking a cold shower, collapsing onto the pool house bed, and forgetting the day ever happened.
"Atwood, over here!" Coach Nielson called him from across the field. Ryan obeyed and slowly caught up to him.
"You okay?" The coach asked—his features etched with concern.
Ryan wiped a bead of sweat from his damp forehead and shrugged weakly, rolling his eyes inwardly. If one more person asked him that question, he swore he'd punch a hole through a wall.
"Just one more play, and then I'll let you sit out the rest of practice, alright?"
"Sure. Okay," Ryan agreed, still trying to catch his breath. He was too tired to argue.
"Keep focused. I know you're tired, but you can do it," Coach Nielson patted him on the back and held out a bottle of water, which Ryan accepted. He took a few sips of the cold liquid before sluggishly making his way back onto the field to meet the rest of his teammates.
Coach Nielson blew the whistle and the scrimmage continued.
Dean darted across the field, accepting a head bunt from Chip as Ryan struggled to keep up with them.
Only a few seconds later, Dean passed the ball off to Ryan who kicked it out of bounds before collapsing to the ground, painfully clutching his chest.
Immediately, the coach blew the whistle and everyone on the team gathered around Ryan, who was panting uncontrollably.
"Hurts," Ryan croaked.
"What hurts, Ryan? What hurts?" Coach Nielson panicked.
"Chest," He managed to say in between shallow breaths. He shut his eyes—a single tear escaping onto his cheek.
Coach Nielson tried to assess him, but Ryan squirmed from under his touch—still holding onto his chest. As Ryan's eyes became disoriented, his breathing became more and more shallow and his lips began turning blue.
Reaching a hand into his pocket hastily to pull out his cell phone, Coach Nielson ordered Dean to call for an ambulance.
"Ryan, stay with me, okay? I need you to stay with me. You're going to be okay," Coach Nielson soothed him.
During the minutes that followed, Ryan slipped in and out of consciousness. While he had experienced varying degrees of pain in Chino, nothing had ever felt this bad. Not only did it feel like a ton of bricks lay on his chest, but he also felt like he was drowning.
From a distance, he could hear the ambulance sirens approaching. Coach Nielson was still begging him to keep his eyes open, and he tried to hold his gaze and focus on his breathing, but after another minute passed, his body gave out and he shut his eyes again—a couple more tears spilling onto his pale cheeks.
By the time the paramedics reached him, he had become almost completely unaware of his surroundings, and within minutes he lost consciousness, fighting for his life.
A/N 2: Yes, I know I'm evil, LOL. I left you guys with another mean cliff hanger. Don't worry. I promise that in the next chapter you will know what disease poor Ryan has and you will begin to see how this disease ties into his past and also his relationships with Sandy, Luke, Seth, and Kirsten.