A/N - This is it, The Chino is over. Thanks to everyone who took the time to let us in on your thoughts regarding our little story. We hope the last chapter doesn't disappoint.

The Chino

Epilogue

"Ryan? Ryan, wake up …. Wake up, Ryan."

I can hear her voice but I can't find her. She's calling to me, but I can't reach her. Finally, I open my eyes.

"Thank God. I couldn't wake you," Theresa says, her face lined with worry. She's on her knees in bed beside me. She must have been shaking my shoulders because I can feel where her fingernails were digging into my flesh.

"Sorry. What time is it?" I yawn despite my urge to fight the sleep. The past twenty-four hours are a blur; I barely remember getting home yesterday. The memory of the rejection by the bank is the last thing I recall before hearing her call my name.

"Around six in the evening," she answers.

"What? Shit, I'm late …." I start to get up, but Theresa places a hand on my bare chest, keeping me immobile. A flash of white crosses my vision and the events from earlier start to come back to me. The dizziness, the nausea … the panic. It's all still there, but much more subdued. I guess I just needed the rest.

"You're not late."

"What? It's six, I have to be there in--"

"I called Harry."

What? Why the hell would she do that? Why would she call my supervisor?

"You didn't tell him anything, Ryan. He's a really nice guy but you didn't tell him that I lost the baby," Theresa says quietly. I sit up, closing my eyes briefly and waiting for the spinning to stop. Much to my relief, it only lasts a few seconds.

"Why is it any of his business?"

"He wouldn't have made you come in if he'd known. He's giving you vacation time even though you're not permanent yet. He wouldn't have made you work, Ryan."

"I have to work, Theresa. We need the money."

"We don't need the money. I need the money."

What is she talking about? "We're in this together …."

"Not anymore. I won't do this to you. I won't let you destroy yourself." She won't meet my eyes. I cup her chin and force her to look at me. I need to see her eyes to be able to understand her. I don't know what she's talking about but I can tell she's serious. This is serious.

"What are you talking about? I promised you that I'd take care of you."

"You promised me that you'd take care of our baby. But you couldn't … I couldn't. It wasn't meant to be. None of this was meant to be, Ryan, and you know it."

"Theresa …."

"No, let me finish. You're being a prick. You won't eat, you don't sleep, you don't listen and you …." She takes my shoulders and shakes me to get her point across. "You're slowly killing yourself."

"I'm not, Theresa. I'm trying to pull us out of this financial spiral. The bills aren't going to stop coming. I'm doing the best I can …." Doesn't she understand that I'm doing the best I can? I thought for sure she understood.

"I know you are but I can't let you keep this up. You don't belong here."

"I came here for you; came because you asked me to."

"And I have never regretted anything more than asking you to come here. This is my fault. I was selfish. I thought I needed you."

"You did need me, Theresa, and I need you."

She looks at me with sympathetic eyes. "No, you don't. You have a family that cares about you, people that would do anything for you and you walked away. You gave it all up to help me." She sighs, putting an arm around me. "And I'll never be able to make it up to you. The only thing that I can do … is let you go."

"I promised you that I wouldn't leave you …. We've been through so much."

"I know, but you don't belong here. You don't love me." We'd never said the words, not in all our history. It isn't something that we ever felt we needed to say. She'd told me when we were kids that she never wanted to hear those words from me, that I should never feel forced to tell her anything and that it was understood between us. Our feelings couldn't be summed up with words. They were feelings, not words.

"You want me to go."

"I don't want you to go, Ryan, I need you to go. You have to go. Seth, Sandy and Kirsten, they need you. You need to be there. You have to finish school. You have to go to college. You have to make a life for yourself. You deserve better than this."

"What about you? You want me to just leave you here? Who's going to take care of Eva? Who's going to take care of you?"

"It's not your problem," she murmurs.

"Eddie? Will Eddie take care of you and your mother, Theresa?"

Her face flashes with anger but she gets my point. "I don't need fucking Eddie to take care of me. I don't need anyone to take care of me. You think I'd go back to Eddie? You think I'll run back to him just because I can't have you?"

"I don't know, Theresa. I just … I wasn't expecting this."

"I know, but I can't force you to stay any longer. You have to go back to your family."

"You're my family, too."

"I know, and that won't change. I'm not going back to Eddie, I've told him that and he understands. I don't love him and I won't be with someone I don't love."

"What about me?"

"I … you know how I feel about you. But we're not meant to be. You have to go. You can't stay here any longer." She sighs and takes my hands, lacing her fingers through mine. "When I first saw you across the street, when we were kids, I knew that you didn't belong here. You were just too … too innocent - too good for this place. And once I got to know you, I knew I was right. Your family - Dawn and Trey - they don't deserve you. But the Cohens … you belong there. It's like, they weren't complete until you came to them. It took sixteen years for you to find where you belonged … and I won't take that from you."

Wow. She's serious.

"Please, just go talk to them. Think about this. Go see your brother and Sandy and Kirsten. Maybe you'll listen to them."

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I borrow Theresa's car and it takes me under an hour to get to Newport. Neither the drive nor the sunset do a thing for my nerves. I've been trying to fight my need for them for months and now I'm on my way back. This is home. But what can I say to these people? I've failed and I want another chance? Theresa kicked me out? How can I go to them and ask them for any more than they've already given me?

I park the car on the street. Summer's car is behind the Range Rover and Sandy's car is beside hers. I had taken Theresa's pack of cigarettes before I left and I'm made my way through five already. I light another and try and summon some confidence as I walk up the driveway. The door is wide open. I remember the security of this place. I always felt safe here. It's like a different world.

The porch here is nothing like Theresa's porch. It's concrete and beautiful with columns and decorative brick. Theresa's is falling apart, sagging and wooden. The steps creak and the door still isn't fixed. I sit down on the cement steps and take another drag off my cigarette.

Theresa says I belong here. I wish it was true. I don't feel like I belong anywhere right now. No matter what choice I make, it's always the wrong one. Should I have let Theresa go? Would the baby have survived if I had left her alone? Would Seth have stayed if I had left her alone? Would anything have changed?

I couldn't have lived with myself if I didn't go with her. I don't regret my choice; I just regret that there was nothing I could do. My life is one big exercise in futility. I can't save my mother. I can't save Trey, I can't even fucking save my own child's life.

I hear Sandy's laughter echoing through the house. Apparently, Summer and Kirsten are trying to cook and the Cohen men are upset. I find myself smiling. Nothing seems to break the spirit of these people. It's not the money that makes them so resilient, it's who they are. Sandy worked his way to where he is and he appreciates everything that he has. Kirsten loves Sandy more than she'll ever be able to explain; she loves his fire and his never-say-die attitude. Seth is a combination of the best of both of them.

Theresa says I belong here, but I'll never measure up to that.

I stand up and start to walk back to the car.

"Hey. What are you doing?"

Seth. I turn to face him.

"What's going on?" he asks as he walks over to me.

"I … uh …."

"At a loss for words; what did I expect?" He smiles nervously. "You okay?"

I shake my head. I feel the tears springing but I can't stop them. They start to streak down my face.

His smile flickers but he doesn't speak. He puts his hand on my shoulder and guides me toward the house. "C'mon."

"Seth …," I manage, trying to dry my face of the tears but they keep flowing.

"You don't have to say anything, but you do have to come inside," he says, ignoring my trembling. He leads me into the den.

I sit down on the couch and he sits down beside me. "What's new?"

His nonchalance is not lost on me. Seth's never dealt well with drama but he doesn't seem surprised to see my tears and shaking. Maybe the weeks he spent away from Newport really helped him out.

"What's wrong?" he asks, not taking his arm from around my shoulder.

I can't talk. Not now. Not when he's being so nice … not when I shouldn't have come here.

Before I can think of an answer, I feel arms wrap around me. Kirsten. She's kneeling beside me and rocking me in her arms. I wish I could pull away and tell her that I don't need her. I don't need this. I can do this. I'm strong and I can take care of myself … but I let her hold me.

"Oh, honey … it's okay …. It's all right …." She runs her hand through my hair, soothingly. I wish I could believe her but nothing's all right. Nothing's ever going to be all right. Doesn't she know that?

I can't seem to stop the flow of tears, even as the room starts to spin. I feel myself drifting away, lost in my tears. It's been so long since I've just allowed myself to break.

She doesn't understand, she would never understand how it feels to be a complete and utter failure, to be cursed to this life where, no matter what I do, it all crashes down around me. I don't want it to be my fault, but it always is. I can't stop the chaos that follows me.

"Ryan? Honey, talk to me. Say something, please …," she urges.

"I'm sorry."

"Why? There's nothing for you to be sorry for …. You haven't done anything wrong. What's got you so upset?"

"I'm so sorry …."

I can't stop shaking. I don't think I'll ever stop shaking.

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"I think he cried himself to sleep …," Kirsten whispers to Sandy.

She's released Ryan, and he is leaning limply against the couch, dried tears on his cheeks. She's never seen him this way, this shattered and vulnerable. She knew when she saw him at the hospital, that it was only a matter of time before that rock-hard exterior he'd perfected would crack, but she never wanted this. She wanted him to come to his senses and realize that they care about him and that he should come home, but she didn't want him to fall apart. Seeing her sons cry … it's something she finds she is never prepared to handle.

"Did he tell you why he's here? What was wrong?" Sandy asks Seth, because he realizes his son knows Ryan better than anyone. The two boys share some sort of bond that he's never experienced. He's just relieved that Ryan is asleep on his couch, where he belongs, but it saddens Sandy that the kid's face is streaked with tears that he shouldn't be crying.

Ryan has been through so much - too much - in his short life, and the past few months have only added to that mountain of responsibility that he carries around. Sandy had been overjoyed when Ryan finally seemed to settle into their family, and equally stunned when he'd told him he had to leave. It wasn't what Sandy had wanted for the him, it wasn't what he'd deserved, but the kid's pride and sense of responsibility overruled Sandy's misgivings and he had to set him free. But this, seeing the kid so tired and exhausted when all he ever tried to do was the right thing, it killed Sandy.

"I don't know. I went outside and he was walking away and when I stopped him, he just started …." Seth motions to Ryan, unable to locate the right word to describe Ryan's breakdown. Summer wraps her arm around Seth's shoulder. She knows that he's stressed out because of Ryan's situation, it's all he's talked about since he's been back. She knows that the two boys need each other more than anyone could ever know.

"Let's just give him some space. He needs his rest. I'll call Theresa and see if she knows what's going on," Sandy states quietly.

"Are you sure you should call her? Didn't you say that Ryan got upset when you talked to her?" Kirsten asks. They've spent the last few days trying to figure out how to get Ryan home without physically dragging him, but they'd yet to come to a conclusion. They know that he's in too much of a volatile state to listen to anything that they have to say. They're terrified of pushing him further away and risking losing him forever.

"She's the only one that can tell us why he's here. Unless you want to wake him," Sandy replied.

"Call her," Summer says. "Hell, I'll call her. Where's her number?"

Sandy is happy that Summer's in their presence. She's the only one who's removed enough that she's not afraid of getting involved. She'd proven her ferocity and tenacity during Seth's absence, and it's become more than clear that she'll do anything to ensure his happiness. That involves Ryan, now. It's always involved Ryan. Sandy graciously leads her into the kitchen.

Kirsten rises off the floor and sits down beside the sleeping boy on the couch. "He looks so young … so tired …."

"Is he all right? I mean, you don't think he's sick or anything, do you?" Seth asks his mother. He needs someone to tell him that his brother is going to be okay. He needs his mother to make Ryan all right.

"I think he's made himself sick. He'll be okay. We just need him to come home so we can take care of him. Seth, go into the kitchen and see if there's anything in the fridge for him to eat." She has her hand against his forehead. He's feverish and pale but he was pale and shaking when she saw him at the hospital, too. She just prays he's okay. He has to be okay.

Seth goes into the kitchen and Kirsten gently shakes Ryan, running her hand thorough his shaggy hair again.

He stirs slightly, but doesn't open his eyes.

"C'mon, Ryan. It's going to be okay …," she whispers, putting her hand on his arm.

"He collapsed? When, Theresa? And why didn't you take him to a doctor?" Summer's voice is raised and drifting into the den from the kitchen. "The money? You know the

Cohens would've taken care of it …. Oh …. Can you say that again?"

Summer walks into the den shortly after with the phone raised to her ear, followed respectively by Sandy and Seth. She covers the mouthpiece and looks at Kirsten. "She says that he came to talk to you guys. She told him that he should come home, that he shouldn't be with her anymore."

"So he's coming home?" Seth asks his girlfriend with a stunned expression on his face.

"Theresa? What exactly did Ryan say when he left? So …." Summer listens intently. "Oh. Thanks. We'll call you later. Thanks."

"Summer?" Sandy impatiently presses her for information.

"She told him that he belongs here. And he just left. She said that he collapsed earlier, just fell out . She doesn't think he's been eating or sleeping …. She was crying, but I think she said that he's been killing himself and he has to come back here," Summer finishes softly.

Ryan stirs slightly, pulling away from Kirsten's touch.

"Ryan?"

He opens his eyes sluggishly and glances around in his disoriented state. She keeps him on the couch with her hand on his arm.

Summer pulls Seth from the room and leaves Kirsten and Sandy alone with Ryan for the time being. Seth initially fights her, trying to stay close, but she gives him a warning glare and he follows obediently.

"What's going on, Ryan?"

Ryan opens his mouth to speak but no words come out. He closes his mouth again. He appears to be searching for the ability to form words.

"Ryan?"

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Sandy says my name again but I can't look at him. I don't know if I can do this. But I have to.

"It's okay. Whatever it is, it's okay," Kirsten says gently. She has her hand on my arm and for some reason, I feel the need to form a connection. I take her hand and squeeze it. She smiles, the slight contact brings tears to her eyes. I don't want to make her cry, but she's still smiling.

"Are you home now?" Sandy asks quietly, sitting down slowly on my empty side. His eyes are dark with understanding. He seems to know that I can't say it. I can't ask him to take me in again … but he's just asking me if I'm coming home. Home. This is home. This has always been home.

I nod. Kirsten bursts into tears and pulls me into an embrace. She's wracked with sobs as she holds me against her.

"You don't have to explain anything to us, Ryan. It's enough that you're home."

I feel like the weight of the world's been lifted off my shoulders. I'm home.

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The drive back to Chino the next day is quiet. For once, it's a contented silence. We've all been through our worst nightmares, and somehow, we've all ended up together again. As they've said time and time again in the short amount of time that I've been "home," we're a family.

The past few months have stripped me down to nothing. I can't imagine having to go through more, or having to be more. It was too much. I can admit that now. It wasn't an option at the time, but now it doesn't make me a weaker person. As a part of this "family," I'm instantly stronger.

Seth is driving Theresa's car back, following his parents' Range Rover at a safe distance.

They wouldn't let me drive, not until I get checked out by a doctor. It's nice to be able to think those words without the sharp waves of panic that always accompany the thought of the price tag associated with the visit. I didn't argue. Even after a long night's sleep, I'm still too tired to fight for anything.

Sandy backs the Range Rover into the driveway and Seth parks Theresa's car on the street. I don't know how much stuff they think I have, but it's not enough to warrant a back-in.

"Let's go. Grab your suitcase. Now, Megan!"

My attention is drawn next door. The lady emerges from the house with an armful of boxes. She dumps them into the trunk of her car before turning around to face her daughter, who's standing on the porch with her arms folded across her chest and her lips pursed in an exaggerated pout.

"Megan! I mean it!"

"I don't want to go! Why do we have to move?" She stomps her feet at the end of her rant.

Seth taps my shoulder lightly, encouraging me to come inside, but I shrug him off and keep my eyes fixed on the scene next door.

The lady walks over to her daughter, kneels down in front of her and takes the small girl's hand in her own. "We're getting a fresh start, honey. It's going to be different …. It's going to be better now. We're going to be a better family."

The little girl doesn't seem as affected as the lady would have liked, but she gives in anyway, following her mother into the house.

The woman's doing what's best for her family. I suddenly have a tremendous amount of respect for her.

A hand squeezes my shoulder. "You okay, sweetie?"

Kirsten's voice pulls me back. She looks worried. She's always worried. I give her a small smile and a nod before allowing her to guide me into the house.

Seth and Sandy are sitting on the stools behind the counter. Seth's tracing the crack in the top of my laptop with his finger. "What happened here?" he asks, not removing his eyes from the damage.

"You happened," I reply quietly. I know Seth doesn't comprehend what I've said, but he nods anyway. He must know that he can't begin to understand this place. It's a different world.

Theresa leaves the bedroom with two small bags, both of which, I assume, are holding the extent of my limited wardrobe. She places them on the floor by the door and tucks a strand of hair behind her ear before we lock gazes.

She slowly walks over, her eyes glistening. She appears oddly satisfied. Strong. The girl I used to know. Unbreakable.

She stops directly in front of me, wrapping her arms around my waist and nestling her face into my chest. I place a hand behind her head, stroking my fingers through her long, sleek hair.

"You're the strongest person I've ever met, Ryan Atwood," she whispers softly. "It's not fair for me to keep you all to myself." She pulls back, smiling through her tears. After placing a soft kiss on my cheek, she turns and waves shyly at the Cohens.

"I'll call you this week, Theresa, and we'll go through your finances and I'll see what jobs I can find for you," Sandy states.

"Thank-you," Theresa nods and smiles at him before going back down the hall and into her room.

Once she's disappeared, I stare down the empty hallway for a moment.

Sandy eventually clears his throat, breaking the silence, "Is that all your stuff?"

I raise my eyebrows and nod. I didn't collect anything in my time here. I had more than I could handle as it was.

"Okay then. I'll take these out to the Range Rover." He grabs the bags off the floor. Seth retrieves the laptop and follows his father outside.

Kirsten places a hand on my back. "Whenever you're ready, Ryan," she says kindly before leaving as well.

I stuff my hands in my pockets and slowly make my way down the hall. I stop in front of Eva's door and take a deep breath before knocking lightly.

"Come in."

I push it open and step into the bright room.

She pats the spot beside her on the bed, inviting me to come sit. I comply. She grabs my hand and places a kiss on top. I smile at her, and she does her best to return the gesture.

"In my heart," she starts, rubbing my hand with her thumb, "you'll always be my son."

I nod and take a shaky breath. With a mother like this, it's no wonder Theresa's as strong as she is.

Her eyes fill with tears but she keeps smiling. "Go home, Ryan."

I squeeze her hand before slowly getting up and leaving the room.

I hear the gentle click of the door shutting behind me. Across the hall, Theresa's door is closed. We've said all there is to say. We know what we meant to each other. We don't need the words.

I take one last look around before opening the squeaky door to the porch.

Sandy, Kirsten and Seth are already piled into the Range Rover, chatting and laughing as they wait.

I walk down the steps and climb into the back seat beside Seth, hanging my arm out the open window. Sandy starts the car.

"Okay! Everyone in the car!" The lady from next door calls to her two older children as she straps the baby into a car seat in the back.

The girl still appears to be holding a grudge, and is planted firmly outside the car. "I don't want to go!" she whines.

"Megan, get in the car!" the woman raises her voice, obviously frustrated at having to explain herself again. The lady is suddenly distracted, as it would appear she has forgotten something in the house. She rushes back inside.

"Get in the car, Megan!" the older boy demands.

"Why should I?" she screams at her brother.

"Because … we'll never have to be invisible again."

The lady rushes back out of the house, gets into the packed car and turns the key in one fluid motion. Afraid of being left behind, the little girl jumps in. Not a second later, they speed off down the road, the front door of the house let ajar.

I hear myself exhale a deep breath that I had been unaware I was holding.

I look around the car. All three Cohens have their eyes on me.

"You ready?" Sandy asks.

I nod and smile. "Let's go home."

- Fin -