Song: Breaking Me Down; Silent Season [It's Ryan's song to Hayes, pretty much].

#6. Hope for the Hopeless.

Mrs. Atwater takes one look at them and she is exploding into a rant. Ryan attempts to convince the nurse that, no, he is not the one who gave Carter those bruises, and, no, he would never hurt her like that, while Carter sits down on the hard, plastic bed near the corner.

"Have you ever known me to push her around that bad?" He argues, arms thrown into the air in frustration. "I mean, I broke her nose a coupla years ago, but that was because the basketball slipped from my hands!"

She snorts, but it goes ignored. Mrs. Atwater begins to poke and prod at her sore flesh, examining the the damage with a thunderous expression. Ryan is hovering close behind her and trying to appear both tough and worried at the same time. It is a ridiculous combination. Actually, this is all ridiculous.

"Ouch." Carter winces when Mrs. Atwater brushes her throat. "Come on. Have you seen his miserable face?" She rasps, waving at Ryan. It still hurts to talk, but she feels this weird, overpowering urge to defend the kid.

"He did nothing. Really." She grumbles.

Mrs. Atwater blinks. She frowns, glances behind her, and Ryan, though he struggles to hide it, does indeed look miserable. She sighs and rolls her eyes.

"Fine, fine. Mr. Ryan, your. . .interesting kindess will be noted, but you are blocking the light." She returns her attention to Carter. "I hope whoever had the nerve to do this, then, is being expelled."

Carter shrugs. "Suspended, I think."

Ryan cracks his knuckles and begins to pace the room. His jaw is tight, and she can see some serious firepower exploding behind that smoldering gaze. Shit. He looks. . .with the sunshine glinting through the window around him, and his arms flexing beneath his sleeves. . . She gulps and quickly drops her gaze to the ground, ears reddening. He looks fucking dangerous.

Well. It might be okay to assume, should he see his gang today, that he is going to flatten them with those knuckles. Carter tries to keep her breathing slow, normal. These thoughts should not be making her feel like this. She can hold her own. She does not need Ryan swooping in to her rescue. . .

Even though dangerous is a really, really good look on him.

"Good. Suspended for at least a month, I would think." Mrs. Atwater snips. She drops her hands and steps back. "As far as I can tell. . .they were stopped just in time."

Ryan turns on his heel and marches back towards the cot. He moves to stand over Carter, dropping an impulsive palm onto her shoulder. "So. Nothing was broken?" His grin is still tight, still upset, but he is obviously relieved, too. "Hayes is gonna be okay?"

Carter almost startles beneath his touch. She takes the ice pack that Mrs. Atwater holds out for her, and presses it to her sore throat with a scowl. Because, she knows that her face is as red as her ears, now. Stupid kid. . .

Mrs. Atwater raises her brows, folding her arms over her chest. She gives Ryan strange look. Then, she gives Carter the same look. "Miss Hayes is going to be fine. But, what are you still doing here, Dale?" She directs her arched brows to where his hand is resting.

"You should be in class right now."

"Ah. Yeah." He shoves his fists into his pockets. "Um. Okay. See ya later, Hayes." He mumbles, a thin flush spreading across his face as he hurries from the room. "I'll call you."

Carter frowns. She never gave him her number. . . But, the thought still fills her with a peculiar, lingering emotion. One that she can't seem to find a name for.

Mrs. Atwater sits on the cot beside her, and she returns to watching the ground. Her shoulder still burns, and the room feels. . .empty, with Ryan gone. Her frown deepens into her usual scowl. She should not be thinking about things like that.

"Is there anything you want to tell me?" Mrs. Atwater asks. Her voice is too light and too gentle. Carter hates it. "You can trust me, honey."

She shakes her head and switches the ice pack to her bruised temple, where MacCleod smacked her with that damn watch. "No." She mumbles. "But. . .um. I think I wanna go home."

Mrs. Atwater gives her a reassuring pat on the arm. She is nice, really, when she means well. But, Carter wants her, everyone. . .to leave her alone. "Go right ahead and call your father." She smiles. "I'll get you some painkillers."

"Thanks." Carter whispers. She fumbles in her pocket for her phone, praying for missed calls, missed texts. . .and, nothing. They have never gone this long without talking. Never. Her stomach twists into tight, pained knots as she tries his cell. Nothing. Then, she tries their house. Nothing.

"Dad. . ." She murmurs anxiously. "Where are you?" She checks her contacts and finds his work number. Without hesitation, she punches send, trying to stay in calm as the line rings, rings, and rings. . .

"May I help you?"

Carter flinches. Mrs. Atwater sets down some pills and a water glass on the small table beside her, and she stares right through them without blinking. "Um. Yeah. Ms. Fischer, right?" She swallows. "This is Carter Hayes. . . Is my father there?"

Ms. Fischer pauses. "Hmm. Let me see. . ." She must be checking her computer. Carter hears clicking noises in the background, and she grips her knee hard enough for her knuckles to throb.

"I'm sorry, darling." Ms. Fischer hesitates again. "No. I don't think he checked in this morning."

In an instant, the world stops. Carter feels her blood chill inside her veins as she tries to process this. Because. . .there is nowhere else that he would be. Because, this is wrong, this is all wrong.

She clicks her phone closed with no expression on her face. Mrs. Atwater glances up from her desk, frowning. "Is everything all right?" She wonders.

"Yeah." Carter deadpans. "Fine. I'm just gonna. . .wait outside for him, okay? I need some fresh air. . ." Because, the walls are shimmering, pulsing, closing in around her. Because, she can see darkness tendrils slithering out from beneath the cots and behind the cabinets. Because, her head is swimming, and nothing is making sense.

"Carter. . ?" Mrs. Atwater calls for her, but she is out the door and into the hall, clutching her bag to her chest as she hurries for the exit.

No one stops her. No one even notices her. She kicks the doors open and as soon as the wet, humid air hits her lungs, she gasps out and squeezes her eyes closed.

Breathe. Relax. Breathe.

Carter counts to ten and then opens her eyes again. Everything is so bright. Sunshine bounces from the windows like fireworks and the pavement glitters underneath her feet. So bright, it almost blinds her. She has. . .no idea. She wants to go and search for her father, but where would she even start?

She keeps blinking against the glare. Her gaze stings, burns. . . Everything burns. This is not happening. This cannot be happening. She grips her head in her hands, and even trying to think. . .it hurts. But, she has to. She has to sort through this chaos in her mind, because she has to find him. She will find him.

Okay. She has to go home, first. Then, she has to go to his work buildings and check every room, every damn floor. She has to look for his truck. She has to, she has to. . .call the police. . . She has to. . .

"Hayes?"

With a sudden, jerking movement, Carter spins around. ". . .fuck! Ryan, did you follow me out here?" She demands, and her voice is a little wild, a little unhinged.

"Maybe I did." He snaps and tosses his arms above his head. "Maybe I wanted to make sure you got home okay." He approaches her, and the space diminishing between them is all sparks and weird tension.

Not to mention those damn eyes. Brownish, or maybe even blue, glowing and spitting flames and keeping her frozen without him having to speak another word. Either, he could care less about masking his emotions, or he actually has no idea that his eyes are so obvious, so expressive, when he gets all worked up.

"W-what?" Carter stammers. "I don't. . . I mean. . . What?" She croaks.

"You heard me, Hayes." He shoves his fists into his pockets and hunches his shoulders forward. "I knew you would call your dad, so, I figured that I would. . . I dunno, wait with you." His cheekbones turn pink. "I got the new Burying Death album. We could listen to it. You would like it, ya know."

She squints at this kid. Her face is stunned, incredulous. She tries to speak, tries to argue, and her mouth stays glued shut. Ryan and his fucking eyes still hold her immobile, maybe not as smoldering as a few moments ago. . . But her breath catches, regardless, because they are still too intense, all open and hoping and brighter than the stupid daylight spinning around them.

Which is. . .this is all so. . . Fuck. Carter swallows, her throat aching, and presses a trembling palm against her forehead. What the hell is this? She has her father, her music, her games, and she has never wanted. . .never needed anything more. It is so much easier to snap and snark and keep the world away. You are never betrayed. You are never hurt. You never have to deal with shit like this.

She almost bursts into tears as this realization crashes over her. Because, she can push and shove Ryan all that she wants, and he is going to keep shoving back until she relents, or breaks.

He is the single person on this entire planet who has fought against her. He is the single person on this entire planet that she has ever felt something for, whether anger or amusement or frustration or. . .whatever. Even, happiness. Now, her father is missing, and she has. . .she has no one to talk to.

No one but Dale Ryan.

Carter breathes out, long and slow. Her hands are shaking, and she knows that she must look about to collapse. Ryan steps closer, fingers outstretched towards her, and yet, his arm falls back to his side, inches from her shoulder. He has never seemed so unsure, so hesitant with her.

"What is it?" He frowns. "What happened?"

"I haven't. . ." She chokes. "I haven't. . . Fuck." She scrubs at her eyes and clings in desperation to the thin, crumbling walls around her control. But. . .she can't.

She can't do this anymore.

"I don't know where my father is." She whispers, and the tears begin to fall. "He isn't at home, and he isn't at work. . . I don't know what to do. I just. . . I can't. . ." Without thinking, without even caring, she throws her trembling form against Ryan and his sudden, shocked expression.

Carter does burst into sobs, this time. She sobs in his shirt, fingers digging into his broad chest, wanting his warmth, his strength. . .needing his embrace more than she could ever have known. His muscled arms are around her in seconds, pulling her closer and closer, so tight that it hurts for her to breathe.

She wants to be even closer, though. She wants to be swallowed in this embrace and never be found. She wants. . . She wants Dale to hold her and never let go.

"Hey, hey. . ." He murmurs. His lips are hot, gentle, pressed against her forehead. "Don't worry, Carter. We'll find him, yeah? We'll check your house, your work. . . We'll find him." He promises.

"Thanks. . ." She rasps. "Thank you so much."

Things. . .things are changing. Carter knows that well enough, now. Maybe, that's for the best, too. Maybe, she should consider herself lucky, having someone like this kid around, as annoying as he can be, sometimes. . .

"Come on." He smiles a little and takes her hand. "We'll go now."

She smiles a little back, and doesn't even think about punching him, this time. Yeah. She should count herself lucky. . .