AN: Sorry it took so long AGAIN. This time I had to move down to Houston for school and it took a bit to get the net set up in my dorm room. This is the final chap of "The Letter". I would like to take this moment to announce my hiatus from fic writing. I have a bit of a time consuming course load this semester and will not have the time to devote to a continually updated fic. I may post up a one shot here and there and I will still be writing fics. I just won't post chapter fics until I have them finished to insure timely updates.

##PAST 1992##

Richie sat quietly in his little private room waiting for Judith to return with his lunch. This was his eighth day in court and every day was the same routine. Wake up, eat breakfast, wait for the boys to leave for school, then either Tamara came and picked him and Judith up or they got in Judith's car, he hid under a coat as the reporters tried to get photographs of him, he was smuggled into his private room attached to the court room until the trial resumed. Once in the courtroom, he would sit quietly- and at times pathetically or uncomfortably- at the prosecution's table listening to testimonies from various officials, then when they recessed for lunch he was ushered back into his room and someone would run out to get him some food. Then it was back into the courtroom until they adjured for the day when he would be buried under a jacket and smuggled back into a waiting car and taken home where he pretended nothing had happened.

Today, however, was just a bit different. Prosecution was calling its witnesses. The time was swiftly approaching when he would have to tell the world his side of the story.

"Sorry it took so long, Richie," Tamara apologized coming into the room, with a polite smile for the security guard posted outside. "There was a huge line. You wanted a number seven, right?"

"Yeah."

"Good." She put the paper bag containing the burger and fries on the table in front of him. "It should still be hot. Where's Judith?"

"Bathroom." He opened the bag and unwrapped his burger.

"Ah." She sat down next to him and opened her salad. They sat in silence until Judith walked in. Once Judith sat down, and the women shared a rather meaningful looking glance, they both turned to face Richie, who was squirting a packet of ketchup onto a napkin for his French fries. "We need to talk, Richie," Tamara said, attracting his attention.

"What?" he asked, looking at the pair. He could tell something was up.

"It's about your emancipation."

"What about it?"

Tamara took a second to prepare what she was going to say. "It has been decided that you will remain a ward of the state until all of the trials are over."

"What's that mean?" Richie asked.

"It means that on your eighteenth birthday, you won't be emancipated. You will remain in state custody until the trials are over."

"But you can't do that," he insisted. "Once you're eighteen, you're done. You're out."

"Not if there's a court injunction. The child welfare officials have talked over your situation and got judicial approval to keep in you custody. Once the trials are over, you'll be released."

"And there's nothing I can do about it?"

"You could appeal," Judith told him. "But you have to have either Tamara, myself or Bryan backing you up. And we all think this is in your best interest. We agree with the decision... it was actually my idea."

"How could you do this to me?" Richie demanded, pushing roughly away from the table. "I thought you were on my side!"

"I am," she insisted. "But as long as you are a ward of the state, you are classified as a minor."

"I'm going to be eighteen in a week!" He stormed over and put his back to them, staring out the window.

"And then the press would have full access to the details of the case," Tamara explained as she guided him away from the window and back to his seat. "Richie, this way no one will know who you are. And once the trials are over they will be sealed and no one will be able to get into them to get your identity."

"It really is in your best interest, Richie," Judith said. "We're only trying to protect you."

"This is so unfair! What about the guys at home? They already know I'm in court. Don't you think this is gonna convince them that I'm the kid all over the news?"

"Richie, Collin is twenty and he still lives with us. No one thinks twice about it. We welcome all our boys to stay as long as they like. But if it bothers you that much, we just won't mention your birthday. No one will know the difference."

"This isn't fair! When you turn eighteen, it's your ticket out! How come I gotta stay?" Richie demanded.

"They're ready for you," the bailiff said, opening the door that led to the little hallway to the courtroom.

Powell was the first called to the stand on Richie's behalf.

"Detective Powell," Ms. Abbot, the defense attorney started. "How do you know Mr. Ryan?"

Powell smiled. "From work."

"Could you please clarify?"

"I've arrested him a few times."

"According to his juvenile record he has been arrested over thirteen times, is that true?"

"Yes."

"So Mr. Ryan is a criminal."

"Objection!" Mr. Marshall interrupted. "Richie is not on trial, Mr. Cooper is."

"Sustained," Judge Keenan agreed. "A new line of questioning, please."

"I just want to establish Mr. Ryan's less that spectacular past, Your Honor."

"A new line of questioning, Ms. Abbot."

"I have no further questions, then." She went back to her seat. "Your witness."

"Detective Powell," Mr. Marshall started, approaching the witness stand. "The defense has already established that Richie has an arrest record. You were involved in many of those arrests, were you not?"

"Yes, I was."

"What sort of crimes did Richie commit?"

"Misdemeanors, mostly. Petty theft, pit pocketing, joy riding."

"Did Richie ever hurt anyone?"

"No."

"Do you consider him to be a bad seed?"

"Objection!" Ms. Abbot shouted. "Your Honor this is the same line of questioning I was just prohibited from using."

"Sustained."

"I'm sorry, Your Honor." Mr. Marshall turned back to Powell. "You have a past with Richie, don't you?"

"Yes."

"What is your overall impression of him?"

Powell smiled at Richie. "He's a good kid, a little mischievous, but in the proper home environment, it's my opinion he wouldn't get in trouble."

"So, what you're saying is that Richie behavior..."

"Objection! Leading the witness."

"Over-ruled, continue."

"So, what you're saying is that, in your opinion, Richie's behavior is in direct correlation to his treatment at home?"

"I believe so, yes," Powell agreed.

"And how many times has Richie been arrested in the last sixteen months, while he was in Mr. Cooper's care?"

"I don't know off the top of my head... five, give or take a few."

"According to his record, of the fifteen times he's been arrested seven occurred while in Mr. Cooper's care. Does that sound right?"

"If it's in his file, it must be."

"And of those fifteen arrests you were involved in ten?"

"That sounds about right."

"Did you ever have to use some sort of physical force to detain him?"

"Yes. You usually have to chase him down before he lets you arrest him," Powell smiled and winked at Richie. "He makes you earn it."

"What sort of physical force have you used on him?"

"I've wrestled him to the ground, pushed him into walls, pulled him off of fences, all but sat on him to keep him on the ground and tripped him."

Mr. Marshall smiled. "And when you bring someone into the station are they not looked over for injury?"

"The minors are."

"And has Richie ever had an injury from you?"

"Only when I had to be rough with him because he wasn't cooperating."

"So you have bruised him?"

"Yes."

"Would you say you had to use a lot of force to bruise him?"

"Yes. In my experience, he doesn't bruise easily."

"Thank you, detective. That's all."

Next, Dr. Murphy took the stand. He testified that Richie's injuries most likely did not come from a gang beating or random street violence. The bruises and injuries most likely were cause by common household objects. When asked if a serving spoon and belt could have caused the injuries he replied:

"A belt could easily caused the long, thin bruises."

"Dr. Murphy, have you seen these pictures?" Mr. Marshall asked unveiling the police evidence pictures of Richie's bruised and battered back, chest, arms, legs and buttocks which were propped up on an easel so both the witness and the jury could see them. The jury let out a collective gasp at the graphic photos.

"Yes."

"Now, these bruises," he pointed out the stripes on Richie's back. "could have been caused by a belt?"

"I believe so."

"Now, could these rounder bruises be caused by this?" He held up a large metal serving spoon with a tag hanging off of it.

"With enough force, I would think so."

"By looking at Mr. Cooper, do you think he'd be able to exert the right amount of force to cause these injuries using this as a weapon?"

"Easily."

Duncan was next.

"Mr. MacLeod," Ms. Abbot nearly laughed. "You expect us to believe that an innocent child agreed to go home with a complete stranger because you offered him some food?"

"That's what happened."

"Mr. MacLeod, are you sure you didn't have anything else in mind?"

"What does that mean?"

"You have to admit, Mr. Ryan is a very nice looking young man. You had no ulterior motive when you invited him to your home for the night?"

"Objection!" Richie's screamed. "Leave him alone! He's nothing like that!"

"The prosecution will keep their client quiet!" the judge ordered.

"Richie, hush. That's my job," Mr. Marshall said quietly. Then louder. "But we do object, defamation of character."

"Sustained. Ms. Abbot?"

"After the alleged beating, why didn't you call the police?"

"I felt Richie needed some rest before he had to endure that."

"Did he tell you what happened before or after you let him rest?"

"Before."

"And how soon after the alleged beating did Mr. Ryan show up on your door step?"

"I'm not sure."

"Do you have a speculation?"

"Objection!"

"Rephrase the question, Ms. Abbot."

"Do you have an estimate?"

"Judging by how formed the bruises were, I'd say it had to have been a few hours."

"And what had he been doing in those few hours?"

"I don't know," Duncan admitted.

"Is it possible that Mr. Ryan had spent those few hours from the time the injuries were sustained to the time he sought your help making up his story?"

"I don't believe so."

"Why not?"

"Because I know Richie and he wouldn't lie about something like this."

"But, Mr. MacLeod, the very nature of your meeting suggests him could have."

"He's a petty thief, not a liar."

"A thief but not a liar, interesting. No further questions."

"Mr. MacLeod," Mr. Marshall started as he got up from his chair. "What sort of condition was Richie in when you found him that night at the little league field?"

"He seemed okay, just bored, cold and a little wet."

"What happened when you took him home?"

"I got him some dry clothes and told him to help himself to anything in the fridge."

"Then what happened?"

"I went to bed and left him to watch movies on the couch because he said he couldn't sleep in a stranger's house."

"And the next morning?"

"I woke him up and took him home."

"Did anything seem off to you while you were driving Richie home?"

"He seemed a bit jumpy, almost scared to go home."

"Did he say anything to you?"

"He did say that his father was a bit harsh on him."

"Now can you tell us how he behaved while he was working for you?"

"He's a good worker. He was very attentive and meticulous."

"When did you start to suspect that something was going on at his home?"

"The second day he came, he was stiff and had bruises on his arms. He was also hungry. I took him to breakfast and he ate a very large meal of his own before finishing mine. That afternoon, he ate a lot and that night at dinner as well."

"So is that how you paid Richie for his help? You fed him?"

"The first day. After that he got meals and twenty dollars."

"And how long a day was he helping you?"

"Ten to twelve hours, I suppose. Whenever he showed up."

"He didn't always come when he said he would?"

"No, not always."

"Did he seem different whenever he came back?"

"He was usually stiff, wore jackets inside, his collars were turned up and if I ever asked him what happened he usually had some excuse."

"But you didn't believe him?"

"No."

"And why not?"

Duncan looked at Richie. "They were very formula, predictable. He had tripped, got into a fight with a neighbor, ran into a door, fell down the stairs. I think deep down he wanted me to figure it out."

"Objection, speculation."

"Over-ruled, continue."

"Tell us what happened that night when Richie ran away after the accused beat him?"

"Objection, allegedly beat."

"Sorry, allegedly beat him," Mr. Marshall corrected.

"He showed up with bruises all over his face."

"Like the pictures?" Mr. Marshall indicated the photos on the easel.

"Yes, only not quite so pronounced, yet."

"Was he acting strangely?"

"He had his dog in his arms. He was worried that his dog was hurt."

"Not about himself?"

"No. He wanted us to help his dog."

"So what happened?"

"Tessa took Max, that was the dog's name, to the vet and I took care of Richie."

"Which is when he confessed to you what had happened?"

"After a bit of questioning, yes."

"Do you believe him?"

"I filed the complaint for him, didn't I?"

"Thank you, Mr. MacLeod. You've been a great help."

"I hope so."

Finally, it was Richie's turn.

"Mr. Ryan," Ms. Abbot started sizing the teen up. "How did you do in school?"

Richie shrugged, "Okay, I guess."

"What were your grades like?"

"Cs and Ds."

"Did you ever get into trouble?"

"Yes, ma'am," Richie said staring her straight in the eye. She was not going to wear him down.

"For what?"

"Various things."

"Fighting?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Skipping?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Stealing from other students?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"How many times have you been arrested?"

"Fifteen times arrests, no convictions."

"Have you ever purposely hurt someone?"

"When in a fight, I suppose you could call that purposefully."

"Did you ever get in trouble at home?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"What sort of punishments did you get?"

"From whom?"

Ms. Abbot smiled at him. "Did you ever deserve a punishment you got from Mr. Cooper?"

"No."

"You were never punished for being suspended from classes?"

"I was."

"So, then, you deserved it."

"I suppose."

"Did you deserve to be punished after being arrested or being brought home by a police escort?"

"Yes," Richie mumbled.

"Did you deserve to be punished for failing grades?"

"Not the way- -"

"Yes or no, Mr. Ryan."

"But..."

"Yes or no. If a student receives failing grades do the parents have a right to punish them?"

Richie looked at Mr. Marshall, who just nodded at him. "Yes."

"If a child doesn't do their chores, should there be some repercussions?"

Richie sighed. "Yes."

"If a child is careless and breaks a valuable object, is it proper for the parents to punish them?"

Richie looked at her in amazement. He had thought he was ready to be questioned, apparently he was wrong. "Yes."

"By the guidelines we just established, did you deserve a punishment the night of the alleged beating?" Richie stared at her, his mouth hanging open. "Yes or no?" Richie just shook his head and tried to gather himself. "Answer the question."

"Yes," he finally said.

"Were you punished?"

"Yes."

"Enough to make you want to run away?"

"Yes."

"Enough to decide to get back at your foster father and make up a story that he savagely beat you?"

"I didn't make it up!"

"One more question, Mr. Ryan. Is it true that you threatened your current foster parents with a fire poker, something considered a deadly weapon?"

Richie sighed and leaned back in his chair. "Yes."

Ms. Abbot smiled at him. "No further questions."

"Yes, Mr. Ryan is a nice looking young man," Ms. Abbot said as she paced in front of the jury. "Yes, someone did hurt him that night. But was it the defendant, Mr. Cooper? That is the question you have to answer. To answer that you have to ask yourself, 'Is Mr. Ryan capable of lying?' Yes, he is. 'Is there reason to suspect he might?' Yes, there is. He has an extensive juvenile record for committing crimes much more serious than lying to a few people. 'Might Mr. Ryan put himself into a position to receive a beating from anyone?' Yes. We have established that Mr. Ryan has quite the temper. He threatened his foster parents, on his first night in their custody, with an iron fire poker. For what reason? He was in trouble and he lashed out. Who's the one who should be in police custody? The young man who has been arrested fifteen times and assaulted innocent people with a deadly weapon? Or the man who was only trying to turn this troubled young man into a decent citizen?" She finished her closing argument and took her seat.

Mr. Marshall stood up and took his place in front of the jury. "Yes, Richie has a past. But if you look at where he grew up, statistically he's in the majority. Yes, he got into some trouble in school, but what boy his age hasn't?"

He took a breath. "Richie is not the one on trial here. It's Jonathan Cooper. The man accused of beating his foster son rather savagely. You've seen Richie and you've seen Mr. Cooper who is half again Richie's size."

He paused. "What you really need to ask yourself is why did Richie take a job, paying him on average two dollars an hour doing menial chores for a near stranger? It obviously wasn't the money. He could make twice that flipping burgers down the street. Maybe it was the attention; Mr. MacLeod has an obvious soft spot for the boy. Or maybe it was the food. You heard Mr. MacLeod testify that Richie had a very healthy appetite. You also heard Richie tell you that he was rarely allowed to eat in his own home. The most compelling evidence to support this accusation is his medical chart.

"According to Dr. Murphy, a licensed physician of the state, from the time Richie was placed in Mr. Cooper's care to the time he was brought back to the orphanage he had lost twelve pounds. Twelve pounds in sixteen months. All in all that isn't much. But when you take into account that Richie is at the peak growing age for males, he should have gained that weight, if not more in those months. And is it just coincidence that he's grown nearly two inches and gained twenty two pounds in the time he has been out of Mr. Cooper's care? Perhaps he lost more than those twelve pounds, but gained some of it back when Mr. MacLeod began to feed him regularly. But, how...how can such dramatic numbers be just a coincidence?

"Yes, Richie did threaten his foster parents with the fire poker. But why did he do it? You heard two people, one with a masters and the other with a doctorate in child psychology, testify that Richie was suffering from a flashback. A phenomenon typically used to describe the erratic behavior of men who have been through war. Do you think Richie, a mere boy, would know the condition accurately enough to pretend to have one? To convince two students of child behavior that, that is what happened? Or did he really go through something so traumatic that the very combination of being in trouble and a man touching him sent him into such state? And in addition to that, remember that Dr. MacCaffrie, the man who set off the reaction, testified that he distinctly remembered being called Jonathan while Richie begged him to leave him alone.

"What really happened that night? You've heard the truth. You just have to decide who said it. Think it through. Look at all the facts. You know what has to be done."

##PRESENT 1994##

"Waddaya think?" Richie asked plopping a piece of paper in front of Duncan, who was going through the day's mail.

Duncan picked up the flier and looked over all the information on the one bedroom apartment. "Looks nice. Have you seen it?"

"Yeah. I checked the place from top to bottom. I bet even you can't find something wrong with it."

"This one's a lot more expensive than the ones you've been looking at," Duncan commented. "Can you afford it?" Richie handed him another piece of paper. "You deposited the check?"

"Yup. I'm not keeping all of it, though. Just about two thousand, you know to cushion the financial situation."

"Good," Duncan smiled. "I think that's a good idea."

"Thanks."

##PAST 1992##

Jonathan Cooper was found guilty of child abuse and child neglect and sentenced to five years in prison and classes for anger management, drug and alcohol awareness and proper parenting. Connie Mankin was found guilty of child endangerment and sentenced to one year in a minimum security women's prison.

Richie stayed with the MacCaffries for two weeks after he was finally served his emancipation papers. He worked for Duncan and Tessa everyday for eight dollars an hour plus meals and lived in a motel not terribly far from the store.

"Still haven't rented that room, huh?" Richie asked one morning looking at the 'Room for Rent' sign in the front window.

"Not yet, how goes the apartment search?" Duncan asked.

"Slowly. So what's first on the list for today?"

"Have you eaten?"

"I'm fine," Richie assured him.

"Nonsense, go upstairs and Tessa will make you something."

A few minutes later, Tessa came down into the store. "Do you want some pancakes?" she asked.

"Sounds good. Just make me a few and I'll be up in a minute."

She looked at the sign in the window. "How many more people are you going to turn away before you realize that Richie's not interested?"

"As many as it takes."

Duncan ended up finding a way to disinterest people until one rainy day Richie finally caved.

"How much are you asking?" he asked, plopping the sign on Duncan's desk.

"You're soaked, Rich. What happened?"

"The bus stop is two blocks away. Are you gonna answer me?"

"Let's get you dry first."

So upstairs they went, where, just like the first night they really met, Duncan got Richie a clean pair of sweats to change into.

"Tessa, Richie's interested in renting our room," Duncan said nonchalantly over hot cocoa as the three gathered around the kitchen table.

"Really?" Tessa asked, trying to sound nonchalant as well. "Well, I think that's a great idea. This way we won't have to worry about him getting sick every time it rains."

"And we won't feel bad if we end up keeping him busy sort of late."

"And I can sleep in cause it won't take me so long to get to work," Richie added. "I mean, that is, if I can afford what you're asking."

"I don't know, Rich. I don't feel right charging you. You're practically family," Duncan said.

"You gotta want something."

"I know," Tessa said. "What if you did chores for us?"

Richie shrugged. "Like what?"

"Setting and clearing the table, taking out the trash, that sort of thing."

"You can help with the errands," Duncan added.

"That doesn't sound like much," Richie said. "Maybe that and I could pay you something."

"That won't be necessary," Tessa said. "I think as long as you're available to help around the house we should be even."

"I don't need you guys to do me any favors. I don't need charity."

"You'd really be doing us a favor," she told him. "With you here to help out, I could spend more time on my art."

"And your help in the store has made a big difference," Duncan added.

"The customers love you."

"And this place can be kind of hard to take care of when we get busy. But with a third person here, it would be much more manageable."

"Are you sure just a few chores is gonna be an even trade?"

"Well, meals are part of your pay for work so I don't see why doing some chores won't make us even," Duncan said.

"We can make it an open contract," Tessa said. "If you start to think we ask you to do too much or we think you aren't doing enough, we'll renegotiate."

"How does that sound, Rich?"

Richie shrugged. "I guess that's okay. Just be sure to tell me if I start slacking off or something."

"And you be sure to tell us if we push you too hard," Tessa added.

"So we're agreed?" Duncan asked. "Richie's taking the room?"

"Agreed," Tessa and Richie answered in unison.

##PRESENT 1994##

Richie sat at his new-to-him kitchen table in his new apartment and chewed on the end of his pen.

"Dear Bryan and Judith

I don't think I ever really told you how much all you did meant to me. You two are a very big part of why I am the way I am today. You taught me a lot about getting along with other people, especially men. I really appreciate everything you did for me and what you continue to do for other kids like me. You two really know what you're doing and it's good to know that there are people out there looking for the problem kids instead of avoiding them.

I know you took only minimal money from my child support checks. And only took the money out when it was necessary so that I would have a decent nest egg ready for me when I got out.

I'm sorry for all the fights I got into with Jake, all the times I disappeared on you and all the time I took up from you guys. I know you'd let me do it all again if I asked you to, but I am sorry.

Again, I really appreciate everything you did for me and what you do for the others. Thank you is not enough, but it's all I got.

Richie Ryan

P.S. Please accept the enclosed check as a small sign of gratitude. Use it to take the guys out for a nice dinner and a movie or something. Then treat yourselves to something nice."

Richie sealed the envelope with the letter and check for one thousand dollars inside, then got out another sheet of paper.

"To whom it may concern

Please use the enclosed check to treat the kids to something nice. As an alumnus of the West Side Orphanage, I know what a rare treat a field trip is. I hope this money can help put a fun one together for the kids.

Signed, Richard Ryan"

Again, in with the letter went a one thousand dollar check. Now he only had one more letter to write.

"To whom it may concern

I had some foster parents who were avid supporters of your organization. I have also been on the receiving side of the good work you do. An organization such as yours can never get too many donations. You help kids most people want to forget exist. I know you will put my money to the best use possible. Thank you."

He didn't sign the letter or put a return address on the envelope. He had even gotten a cashier's check instead of writing a personal check for three thousand dollars. He addressed the third and final envelope to the national headquarters for the Foundation for Abused and Neglected Children before getting his keys and heading for the door. Suddenly, he stopped and went back to the table and got another piece of paper.

"Jonathan

I sent the money to the kids who really need it. Maybe it can help a few kids like me who's lives were made hell by people like you.

Richie"

He sealed it in an envelope then left for the mail box at his street corner. He let the door to the mail box close with a satisfying slam. It was now officially over. It was all behind him and it was time to move on.

After mailing the letters, he walked the extra block to the market to get things for dinner. One of the conditions of moving out on his own was that Duncan would get to be his first dinner guest and he wanted to make him something good.

It was all he really could do. Duncan would have never accepted any money from him, no matter how much Richie insisted he deserved it for all he did for him. Richie would just end up getting a pay raise so Duncan could give him his money back. That was why Richie kept two thousand dollars of Cooper's money. This way he could afford a nicer apartment, in a nicer neighborhood, closer to the dojo like Duncan wanted. It wasn't as if Duncan was the only one who could be sneaky to get what he wanted.

The way Richie figured it, the extra money he had to spend on rent was just the money he had saved from getting to stay rent free with Duncan and Tessa. It was past time for him to pay them back for that.