Eight Years Ago
Ryan wakes up to a gasp and a muffled cry. He launches out of unconsciousness and out of his chair. For a split second, he is confused, and then he remembers.
His son, his baby.
There is a man in the doorway, large and bulky. There’s a smaller shape close to him in the dark. A muffled scream.
Ryan doesn’t think, he just lunges. “Let him go!” he snarls and he slams into the man. Nick has taught him some basic self defense and Ryan brings out every dirty trick he knows.
“Who else would it be?” Nick demands.
“I don’t–I don’t know. I’m sorry.” Ryan takes a step back and gropes along the wall for the light switch. The lights come on.
Nick looks exhausted. His braid is half unraveled, there is blood on the collar of his shirt. Its not his usual shirt, its some sort of tactical thing, with rough cloth and lots of pockets. There’s a heavy belt as well, loaded with pouches and a knife strapped to his thigh.
These are his…work clothes, then.
His arm is wrapped around–Ryan gasps.
Nick’s arm is wrapped around Chris’s shoulders, pressing his back to his chest. Chris looks so small, so delicate, so helpless.
Ryan trusts Nick with everything. With his very life. But his heart lurches.
“Nick–”he rasps desperately, he holds his hands up, out, surrendering, reaching for his son. His knees give out. “Nick–” he croaks.
Chris’s eyes are wide, tears shining in them, falling down his cheeks. His chest is heaving, his breath shuddering.
“Fuck,” Nick mutters. “Okay, easy. Easy Ryan. Look, he’s okay.”
He lifts his arm and lets Chris go.
And Chris lurches, lunges, away from Nick.
He staggers. Stumbles. Falls.
Into Ryan’s arms.
Chris is as light as a feather. As delicate as a newborn fawn. The impact is soft when he crashes into Ryan’s chest, but it still sends all of the air whooshing out of his lungs.
“Oh,” Ryan gasps. “Oh Chris. Oh sweetheart. Its okay, its okay. I’m here. I’m here. Dad’s got you.” He murmurs nonsense into Chris’s hair. It doesn’t matter. He doesn’t care. His son, his son is in his arms.
Its been five years since Ryan held him.
He can feel his baby’s ribs.
He sobs and clutches Chris closer.
“I’m here,” Ryan croaks, “I’m here Chris. I’ve got you. I’m never leaving you again. Nobody’s ever going to take you away again.”
“Dad,” Chris sobs into his collarbone. “Dad.”
“Shh, shh, its okay. Its okay, I promise its okay,” Ryan murmurs. He presses a kiss to Chris’s hair. It smells like Ryan’s shampoo. He sobs.
Chris trembles in his arms, sobbing and clutching onto Ryan just as tightly as Ryan clutches to him. Ryan wraps all of himself around Chris that he can manage. He wants to tear open his chest and tuck his son between his ribs. Safe and sound next to his heart for the rest of his life.
He doesn’t know how long they stay like that. Chris’s sobs die down to hiccuping gasps, and slowly, those too fade, until they’re replaced by wheezy little snores.
Ryan’s son, asleep in his arms.
Ryan keens as softly as he can manage. His son. His son.
His baby boy.
He’s so much bigger than he was the last time Ryan held him but he’s still so small. So small and so precious and so fragile.
“Ryan,” Nick says softly.
Ryan draws in a shuddering breath and looks up. Nick is by the door. At some point he must have left, though, because he’s out of the tactical gear. He’s in a normal shirt and pants, the cloth soft and unstained.
Ryan’s arms tighten around Chris all the same.
Nick holds up his hands in surrender and slowly kneels down, folding in on himself until he’s on the same level as Ryan. “Are you okay?”
Ryan stares at him, trying to process the question.
Is he okay?
“I–I don’t know.”
“Are you hurt?”
“Alright. That’s good. I was worried about you.”
“Oh,” Ryan says, then he realizes how that call must have sounded. “Oh. I’m sorry Nick I just–”
“Easy,” Nick murmurs, like he’s trying to calm a wounded animal.
Ryan feels like one. A wounded prey animal, trying to defend its calf. He presses his nose to Chris’s hair.
“Ryan?” Nick asks softly, he tilts his head down, trying to catch Ryan’s eye. Ryan lets him. “Why don’t we go to your bedroom,” Nick suggests gently, “you can lay him down and we can talk somewhere more comfortable than the floor.”
Ryan’s arms tighten around Chris. “I’m not leaving him. I can’t–I can’t Nick.”
“Okay,” Nick says in that wounded-animal tone again. “That’s fine, we can stay in there and talk. You can tuck him in. Its late, and he’s probably had a long day, he needs his rest.”
“Yeah,” Ryan agrees raggedly, “yeah okay.” He takes a deep breath and tries to get to his feet.
Chris is still so small, so light, but he’s grown up, and Ryan’s grown weak. His arms tremble, his feet are unsteady.
“Easy,” Nick murmurs, carefully bracing Ryan’s shoulder. “Can I help?”
Ryan looks up into his face. He trusts Nick, he does. He loves him, even.
But this is his son. This is his baby boy.
“Just until we get to your room,” Nick says gently, “then I’ll give him right back, I swear on my life. You don’t want to drop him.”
No, no he doesn’t.
“O–okay,” Ryan whispers. “Just–just for a second.”
“Just for a second,” Nick agrees. “And then I’ll give him back.”
“Okay,” Ryan whispers again.
Slowly, Nick holds out his arms.
Tears burn in the corners of Ryan’s eyes. His breath hitches.
Slowly, slowly, he sets Chris in Nick’s arms.
“Good,” Nick murmurs, “I’ve got him. He’s safe.”
“Yeah,” Ryan breathes.
“Let’s put him to bed,” Nick says, and slowly, they go to Ryan’s room. Ryan pulls the blankets aside and Nick settles Chris into the bed. Like a baby bird returned to the nest.
Ryan swoops down, brushing Chris’s hair back from his forehead. Checking him, irrationally, as if some injury might have been done to him in the last thirty seconds.
He fusses with the blankets, carefully pulling them up over Chris’s shoulders. They’re not soft enough. Ryan needs softer blankets.
“Ryan,” Nick says gently, “you’re gonna wake him up. He’s okay. Let’s talk, alright? Tell me what happened. I’ll help you, but I need to know what I’m working with. Where did he come from?”
“He’s–He’s my son,” Ryan chokes out. He rests his hand on Chris’s cheek. Its soft and round with baby fat, not round enough. He’s too skinny. Why weren’t they feeding his baby?
“Okay,” Nick says gently, “he’s your son. Where did he come from though?”
“He–He ran away,” Ryan whispers. “He ran away from his foster home–” he chokes back a sob. “What were they doing to him? What did they do to him? Why would he run away? They hurt my baby.”
“Ryan, Ryan focus,” Nick murmurs. His hand rubs Ryan’s shoulder. “Start from the beginning. Tell me everything.”
Ryan takes a deep breath. Another. The beginning.
The beginning of the end.
“I was–I was a lawyer,” he says, “thought I was a big hotshot. Criminal Prosecution.” Bile burns in the back of his throat. He was so foolish, so arrogant, so idiotic.
“There was a politician. Corrupt. The police nailed him on drug charges and I was–it was going to be my big break. It was going to make my career.”
So stupid. So fucking stupid. He never should have touched that case. If he could go back–but he can’t. He can’t. No matter how much he wishes he could.
“He tried to bribe me, but I–I said no.”
He should have just said yes.
He remembers Barnett leaning close, alcohol on his breath. “You’ll regret this, Case. Do you hear me? I’m going to ruin your fucking life. I’m going to take everything from you.”
“He walked,” Ryan breathes. He feels far away. “I couldn’t–he had the judge in his pocket. He had everyone in his pockets.”
Ryan should have let Barnett have him too.
“A month–” he croaks, “a month later my wife–my wife was murdered. Mugging gone wrong they said, but she–it wasn’t–it wasn’t. He killed her.” He sobs, the agony clawing through his chest. “I had to–they took her purse. They took her ring. I had to identify her. ”
His wife, his love, laying on that cold metal slab, a clinical white sheet over her body. The scars that she’d told all the stories behind noted on the sheet beside her. Identifying marks. Nothing more.
Nick’s hand grips his shoulder firmly. Silent support. Nothing like the countless people who murmured that they were sorry for his loss.
Ryan takes a shuddering breath and plunges on. “I wasn’t–I didn’t take it well. I was…struggling. I had–I had Chris, he was five. And–” He sobs again. “I had him and Alex. Alex was just–he was just a couple months old.” A wounded whine leaks out of his chest. He holds his hands in front of him, as if he could still hold Alex in them. “He was so little. He was so little, Nick.”
Nick makes a sympathetic sound and sits on the bed beside Ryan. he wraps his arm around his shoulders.
“Someone–someone called CPS. Said I was neg–neglecting my boys.” Ryan desperately wipes at his eyes. “I wasn’t–I would never. I–I wouldn’t have–I was just–I didn’t neglect them. I was–I was behind on stuff around the house. I was just so tired. But they needed me.”
“I know,” Nick murmurs, “I know Ryan. You were a great dad, I can tell.”
Ryan sobs and buries his face in his hands.
“I kept fixing things, but the social workers kept saying it wasn’t enough. I tried to fight it in court, I tried everything. It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough. It was never going to be enough, because–because it was all him.” The rage flares up, but just as quickly dies away. “They took them. They took my babies.” His voice cracks and he shudders and sobs.
“Okay,” Nick says, pulling him closer. “Okay Ryan, its okay. Chris is here. Look, he’s here, he’s safe. He came back. C’mere kid, its alright, I’m not gonna hurt you.”
Ryan looks up with a gasp.
Chris, his son, is curled up against the headboard, watching them with wide, wary eyes. Tears are falling silently down his cheeks. He opens his mouth and draws in a shaking breath.
“You–” he says softly, “you said you’d get us back.”
“I tried,” Ryan says, “I swear Chris I tried. I never stopped trying.”
“He never gave up on you kid,” Nick murmurs. “Trust me.”
Chris whines and crawls across the bed into Ryan’s lap. He buries his face in Ryan’s chest and Ryan wraps his arms around him.
“Never,” he promises shakily into his son’s hair. “I never stopped trying. I swear, I swear Chris. I thought about you every day.”
Chris sobs again and clings even tighter to him. Nick gently presses on Ryan’s shoulder, and guides them to lay down.
“Rest,” he says softly, “I’ll figure things out. Everything is going to be okay.”
“Okay,” Ryan breathes into his son’s hair.
In the morning, they leave the apartment behind. They pack the essentials, and leave everything else. No phones, no IDs, nothing that could track them or tie them back to the old apartment. Ryan’s car is left behind, he’s not sad to see it go. It was on its last legs anyway.
Nick drives them out of the city. Ryan sits in the back with Chris. His son clings to his side, not speaking, but not trying to leave either. They go into the mountains, higher and higher. The air is cold, and the sky has started to turn dark by the time Nick stops
“We’re here,” he says simply.
‘Here’ is a cabin, old and run down on the outside, but the inside is warm and well stocked. Nick turns on a generator outside and they have lights and heat.
“Stay here,” Nick commands, “I’ll tie up loose ends. No one will find you here, this is–This is the safest place I know.”
Ryan catches his wrist before he can turn away. “Thank you.”
Nick stops and hesitates. “You…You offered me kindness, when you had nothing. That’s a debt I don’t forget lightly, Ryan Case.”
“I didn’t do it for a debt,” Ryan whispers, “I did it because–I don’t know. I was lonely. You’re my friend, now, right?”
Nick is silent for a harrowing moment. “Yeah,” he says softly, “I’m your friend. And you’re mine. I’ll be back, I promise.”
“Okay,” Ryan says softly.
Nick is true to his word. In a week, he returns and presses a band of cold metal into Ryan’s palm. He opens his fingers and falls to his knees when he recognizes Toni’s wedding ring.
“He’s gone,” Nick says. “He won’t ever hurt you again. We’ll find Alex, I swear it, even if we have to search for fifty years. We’ll find him Ryan. We’ll put your family back together.”
“Ours,” Ryan says, clutching Nick’s sleeve. “Our family.”
“…Our family,” Nick says softly, reverently.
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