Author's Note: I don't even think I have the right to make an excuse for how long this took. I don't know what made me pursue it again this weekend. Perhaps it was the lack of homework, or maybe I've just been really bored by the show's repetitive plotlines week after week… Not that I'm not enjoying it 

Anyway, with a hundred thousand apologies for being so late, here is the tenth and final chapter of "The Vanished." I combined it all into one REALLY long chapter, instead of splitting it up into two as I'd been considering, because I just can't wait any longer.

For anyone who stuck around with me and is still reading this, thank you thank you so much, and thank you for your lovely reviews too. You guys make my day.

Well, it's been fun! Cheers!

Kara

Title: The Vanished

Author: Drink Sparky Cola

Rating: PG-15 due to language and violence

Genre: Drama/Angst

Timeline: Pre-The Proposal, end of first season.

Summary: After one year of living with the Cohens, Ryan begins to slip and after making a few grand mistakes, runs away back to Chino, thinking his friends and family have abandoned him. He discovers too late that he is not alone, but before he can make the decision about the direction he wants his life to take, it takes a tragic turn. Will Ryan figure out what direction is home?

Part Ten

When he'd been growing up, Sandy Cohen had been quite the professed hellion.

It had always been just him and his mom growing up – Sandy's father was never around, much like Ryan's father wasn't around. Sophie Cohen hadn't developed yet into the 'Nana' she was today. She was a different person, then.

Not to be mistaken – she had always been a force to be reckoned with in the Cohen household, but she had a lot less control over Sandy then, being a single mother growing up in the poorer part of town. She couldn't always provide for Sandy, so Sandy had done a lot of 'providing' on his own – of the legal sort or otherwise…

Most weekends saw Sandy hanging out with his friends on the streets of his hometown, stealing where he could and generally being disrespectful of the law he would later make a career out of, ironically. For the first 16 years of his life, Sandy Cohen was on a steady downward spiral towards prison. He didn't feel like he belonged anywhere.

It wasn't until he met Professor Allen Bloom, his mentor and first father-figure, that Sandy learned to shape up and quit all his delinquent behavior. Gradually, he learned the consequences of his current lifestyle, and in the process discovered who his real friends were. Over the course of his young life, he shed all the things that had been holding him down or misguiding him, and embracing a more meaningful existence, much to his mother's immense joy.

But, he would muse as he looked back on those years, none of it had happened in a day, a week, or even a year.

Indeed, it had taken several years for Sandy to fully adjust to a new lifestyle, as he imagined it would take anybody. No one could pull a 180 and change their entire lives in a short amount of time; it was ridiculous to ask it of anyone, and yet, here it was 20 years later and Sandy was asking the exact same thing of Ryan Atwood.

Sandy had always felt he best understood Ryan. After all, the kid practically was him – the Sandford Cohen of the new generation, revised and re-released. They'd gone through a lot of the same troubles, and had ended up in the same place as well – a place where they had the opportunity to better their lives – to achieve the life they truly deserved.

What Sandy realized now was that Ryan was still adjusting to that life. A whole year later, and he hadn't quite gotten used to the responsibility his new home offered him. Before, when Ryan was still living in Chino, there were no family members encouraging him to succeed, there was no hope for college, not even a school with the means to sustain him. Here he had all those things in abundance, all offered to him freely. It was difficult for a person with Ryan's self-pride to accept these things openly, believing he had to work for them and still submit to the fact that they were just plain out of reach.

And of course there were always temptations… the simple practice of slipping into old habits, as Ryan had certainly demonstrated the first few months he was here. Habit was always a tough bug to get rid of, especially when you're feeling alone in a brand new place.

Sandy and Kirsten had simply overlooked Ryan's hesitance to assimilate himself into their lives. They were so busy trying to make him feel accepted and falling into a routine that they simply hadn't realized the approaching anniversary of Ryan's addition to their little family.

A whole year.

Ryan had been with them a whole year.

13 months ago, before Sandy had brought Ryan home, he never would have believed it if someone told him he'd be taking care of another teenager. It just wasn't in the ballpark of likelihood.

13 months ago, Sandy Cohen never would have thought that he'd be standing outside a liquor store in Chino praying that a teenage boy he never knew 13 months ago would be OK and come home with him and Kirsten and Seth.

He never thought he'd have another son.

And now he was so close to losing him…

When the first gunshot rang out behind the building, there was mayhem in front. The hushed voices of the crowd raised in volume, and immediately the multitude of cops rushed toward the scene of the crime. Sandy, too, found himself following blindly, jogging after the officers, his heart pounding out a vicious rhythm in his chest.

At the reverse side of the building, the scene that confronted him made his heart stop completely. There stood a man with a gun, pointing it down at a figure on the ground, pointing it at Ryan.

But before anything could be said, before he barely had a chance to register the immediacy of the scene, the words that came out of the gunman's mouth, or the blood trickling down Ryan's temple, a second and final gunshot rang out and the stunned gunman, now with a bullet in his head, crumpled to the ground, dead instantly.

Ryan Atwood, his face and chest now covered in the blood of the gunman, sat still on the ground, frozen to the spot. Eyes wide with terror, he stared disbelievingly at the lifeless body before him which had, only moments earlier, nearly taken his own life.

At that moment time resumed and the surrounding cops had rushed forward, to check on the condition of the other prone figure on the ground farther away, and that of the gunman. A cop approached Ryan, but the teenager backed away, pushing his back against the wall and shunning interaction.

Willing his feet to respond to his commands, Sandy rushed forward and over to Ryan, who lifted his gaze to meet his. "Sandy?" He asked, his voice quivering. "Sandy, I—" Ryan began, but before he could say anything else, Sandy was kneeling down in front of him and wrapping his arms around Ryan in a tight embrace. Too stunned to react, Ryan let Sandy hug him a few moments before he returned the gesture, embracing the older man rigidly, feeling his terror and his anger and everything else inside of him quickly subside. He felt a few tears slide down his cheeks and squeezed his eyes shut instinctively to temper them.

Sandy pulled away and looked Ryan over quickly. "God, kid, you really had me worried there. I thought—I thought for a moment that… Hey, are you OK?" he asked, his voice full of concern. "You're bleeding."

Ryan remembered the pistol whipping he'd received earlier and nodded dumbly. "Yeah, I'm OK… it's just a cut—" He remembered Jace at that moment and tried not to look past Sandy to the crowd of police around the body, feeling the emotion overwhelm him once more.

Ryan blinked once, then pushed himself to his feet. Martinez, the paramedic, stood by behind Sandy, waiting for his permission to step in. "We should get that looked at." Sandy said, moving his hand to wipe away some of the blood on Ryan's temple but Ryan shrugged him off roughly. "Ryan—?" Sandy began, concerned. "Is there something—"

"Can we just go to the hospital now?" Ryan asked, looking at the ground. "I need to see if Seth's OK."

"Yeah, yeah, we can." Sandy said, relieved, but still anxious at Ryan's reaction to his concern.

"We can take you there," Martinez spoke up. "And take a look at that cut on the way." Without another word, Ryan walked in the direction of the ambulance, followed by the paramedic and Sandy. Before they got there, however, a thin, balding man in his 30s intercepted them and stood in front of Ryan.

"I don't pay you to come over here and—" noticing Jace's blood on Ryan's face and clothes for seemingly the first time, the man stopped, furrowing his brow. "Jesus Christ, Atwood, what the hell happened to you? You—you weren't in there, were you?"

Ryan looked at the older man disparagingly, then reached into his pocket and pulled out a picture ID on a lanyard and thrust it at the other man's chest. "I fucking quit, Holder."

Leaving behind the still-shocked supervisor, Ryan walked on, holding his head just a little bit higher than before. Sandy, a slow grin creeping onto his face – the first one he'd managed all day – looked at the balding man and said with a shrug, "He quits," before continuing on his way past the onlookers, past the cops, toward the place where his other son's fate was still hanging in the balance…

o-o-o-o

Kirsten Cohen stared at the doctor, trying to maintain her composure when inside all she wanted to do was shake him and yell at him to tell her what had happened to her son. Somehow she remained calm as the doctor explained to the three women the procedure of Seth's operation.

"Is he OK?" Kirsten managed, interrupting the surgeon. "Is my son alive?"

And then the surgeon did the best thing Kirsten could imagine over anything else in her life at that moment. He nodded and continued, describing the outcome, "Yes, the operation was successful, Mrs. Cohen. We removed the bullet and gave your son a transfusion. He's upstairs in ICU now. He lost a lot of blood, and he hasn't woken up yet, but he should pull through."

"Oh thank God…" Kirsten closed her eyes, feeling her knees go weak. She slid into the nearest chair, putting her head in her hands and allowing tears to flow. Marissa put a comforting hand on her shoulder and Kirsten covered the hand with her own, grateful for the contact.

"Kiki? Kirsten, is that you?" Kirsten looked up at the sound of her father's voice. Caleb Nichols strode into the waiting room then, ignoring the doctor and walked straight over to his daughter, who rose to give him a hug.

"What's going on, Kiki? Is my grandson OK?"

"Yes dad," Kirsten answered. "Yes, Seth is OK. He's resting in ICU. He just got out of surgery."

"Thank God," Caleb answered, looking relieved.

"Can we see him, doctor?" Summer spoke up, rubbing away a few idle tears with the back of her hand.

"Not right now. We'd like to wait a bit before we allow anyone up to see him, but I'll see what I can do about it later on."

"Thank you, doctor." Kirsten said as the surgeon nodded politely and retreated, leaving Caleb and the three women to themselves. Caleb led his daughter to a chair and sat down next to her, speaking to her in hushed tones. Summer and Marissa, excluded from this intimate conversation, took their seats across the room, next to each other.

Marissa viewed the faraway look in her friend's eyes and piped up, "Can I ask what's on your mind?"

Summer let out a long sigh with more than a hint of relief that she had been keeping bottled up inside for the last several hours. Without turning to look at Marissa she replied, "I'm just so happy that he's OK. For awhile there I thought I might lose him… Coop, I don't know what I'd do if I lost him…"

"Well, you don't have to worry about it anymore," Marissa comforted, feeling the pang of sadness that she couldn't say the same thing about Ryan. Summer, sensing this, covered Marissa's hand with her own comfortingly.

"He'll come out of it OK, Coop. He's Ryan."

"Even if he does come out, Sum', he's still gonna be lost to me. I'm starting to think I ever really knew Ryan Atwood."

There was a moment of compressed silence before Summer spoke up again. "Y'know, I've been thinking about something ever since the ride here, and I haven't been able to get it out of my head." At Marissa's silence, Summer took her cue to continue. "You remember my Grandpa Roberts, right?"

"Yeah, I love Grandpa Roberts. He's always so friendly." Marissa grinned, remembering his last visit.

"Well, he wasn't always like that. I don't know why I remember this so clearly, I was so young, but I distinctly remember the change in him when my grandmother died when I was 5. For almost three years my grandpa stopped talking to us. He pulled into himself a lot, and wouldn't call or go out much. We were really worried about him. We thought he was never going to get over her death. He couldn't even cry about her. Never show them your vulnerable side, was his motto. He just couldn't open up to us."

"What happened?" Marissa asked, her interest piqued. "When did he change back?"

"It was when I was about eight years old – dad had to go on a business trip so he asked Grandpa to take me to my first day of class. He met my teacher – Miss Hartford – and the two must have hit it off or something. They went out a few times throughout my school year. They're still friends today, actually, though never anything more than that. He was finally able to get over Grandma Roberts and move on with his life. I realize that now – those three years when he stopped talking to us – he was grieving. He was having such a hard time adjusting to a life without my grandmother that he didn't know how to cope, so he did the only thing he could do, which was to retreat into himself."

Marissa silently comprehended her friends words, then asked slowly, "What does this have to do with Ryan?"

"Don't you see, Marissa? That's what people like my grandpa, people like Ryan, do when they don't know how to cope. They don't tell anyone they're struggling, and so they don't get any help. He felt completely alone, so in his mind, he was completely alone."

Marissa pondered her friend's words for a few minutes and was about to speak when they were again interrupted, this time by the unmistakable voice of Sandy Cohen asking for the condition of Seth at the front desk outside the room. Kirsten rose from her chair and rushed out to meet him before the nurse could reply, wrapping her arms around her husband and exclaiming, "He's alright, Sandy. He's alive – the doctors said he should be OK. Where's—"

Before Kirsten could continue she saw Ryan standing behind them, covered in blood and looking a lot worse for the wear. "Ryan, oh my God, Ryan, are you OK?" She asked, averting her attention to him, administering to his well-being like any mother would. She noticed the little white bandage on the side of his face and asked, "Did they hurt you? What happened to you?"

"It's just a cut." Ryan told her. "I might have to get a few stitches, but the doc said I'll be alright." Ryan fingered the bandage lightly, then noticed Kirsten's stare. "The—the uh—the rest of the blood isn't mine," he mumbled.

Kirsten was speechless for a moment, then said, "Well, let's get you cleaned up then. I think there's a bathroom down the hall, if you want—"

"Thanks, I got it from here." Ryan told her, ignoring the gazes of Caleb and Summer and focusing in on the one person he never expected to be there. "Marissa?" He asked, shock registering in his voice.

Marissa averted her gaze, staring down at her shoes awkwardly, then met his gaze. "Hey."

"What are you doing here?" he asked, his voice surprisingly soft. The others had returned to the waiting room to give the pair space as they talked things out. Summer patted Ryan on the shoulder as he passed, mumbling an 'I'm glad you're OK, Chino.'

"We—I—was really worried about you, Ryan. Summer and I came as soon as we heard." Ryan didn't speak, so Marissa fumbled on for words. "Look, I know what happened between us wasn't pretty. I thought I hated you before today—" Ryan cringed, but Marissa continued. "But today made me realize… how much I still care about you, and how I would feel if I ever lost you… I can't lose you Ryan, you're my rock, you always have been. I may have punished you too long for what you did – or maybe I punished you too much for what everyone did to me – but I'm ready to forgive now, and ready to talk about it."

Ryan reached out and took Marissa's hand in his own, holding it loosely. "I'm still sorry for what I did. I didn't know what was wrong with me then, what was making me act the way I did. I think I may have a better idea now, and I should never have taken my issues out on you..." He looked into her eyes sincerely and sighed before continuing, "But I don't think I can just jump back into a relationship with you, Marissa. I—I'm just not ready for that. I've got a lot of things I need to work out on my own—a lot of things—and I want you by my side, but I think it'd be better if we just did it as friends… and worry about this relationship thing some other day."

Marissa looked up at him and for a moment Ryan thought she was going to cry again, but she smiled instead, and replied, "I think I can deal with that for now."

Ryan grinned, "Good." He leaned forward and gave her a quick hug, then looked around. "I gotta get cleaned up," he said. He pulled away and walked in the direction of the bathroom Kirsten had pointed out to him, giving Marissa one last look before retreating down the hall.

o-o-o-o

Ryan found the bathroom down the hall as instructed. Before he went in, the head nurse Sandy had spoken to stopped him and handed him a blue t-shirt. "Here," she said. "I found this for you. In case you wanted to change."

"Thanks." Ryan managed a grin at her and slipped into the dark restroom, closing and locking the door behind him. He found the light switch next to the door and flicked it up. Turning in place, he found himself face to face with his own reflection. Shocked by his appearance, Ryan stopped cold and studied his appearance.

There was a lot more of Jace's blood covering his face and arms than he'd thought, initially. The red splatter was a painful reminder of the ideal he'd been through that day, and of the death he'd witnessed up close and personal – the death of someone he had, only minutes earlier, felt himself related to.

Ryan turned on the sink faucet below the mirror and washed his hands vigorously. It took a tremendous effort to scrub away the dried blood on his hands. Jace's blood, Seth's blood, and his own – all mixed together to stain his hands a terrible hue of crimson. By the time he'd finished scrubbing his hands and face clean, he'd used almost an entire bar of soap, and left his skin red and chafed, a souvenir he hoped would disappear before tomorrow.

When he was done, he changed into the loose-fitting blue shirt the nurse had given him and balled his own up into a bundle. Taking a deep breath and one last lingering look in the mirror, Ryan opened the door and reemerged into the bustle of the ER.

"Here, let me take that, hun'" The nurse took the shirt away from him and Ryan watched her retreat before continuing on to a suture room where a doctor was waiting to administer to his head.

20 minutes and two stitches later, Ryan was heading for the waiting room where the Cohens were waiting. As he neared he could hear Caleb's distinct voice talking to someone he couldn't see. He was asking about his money, and when it would be returned to him.

Ryan turned the corner to see Caleb talking on his cell phone outside the waiting room. He sounded angry at whoever was on the other end, but the instant he saw Ryan he said, "Collins, could you hold on a second?" He looked Ryan up and down and seemed at a loss for words. "Uh, how uh, how are you doing, son?"

Ryan paused, confused at the older man's concern. "I'm OK," he answered sullenly.

"I'm uh—well, I'm just taking care of a little business, you know?" Caleb leveled with him.

To this Ryan shrugged. "Thanks for asking if I was alright." Not really sure how to continue the conversation, Ryan left it at that and walked on to the waiting room. Caleb didn't concern him anymore. Caleb's money definitely didn't concern him. All he wanted to do was see Seth.

In the waiting room, all eyes turned to him. Ryan wished they would stop paying so much attention to him. He was tired, and he was beat. He took a seat a few chairs down from Kirsten, who told him, "We're probably not going to be allowed in for awhile, Ryan honey. If you wanna go home, maybe get some sleep—"

"No." Ryan interrupted quickly. "I mean—no thanks Kirsten. I'd rather stay here and wait until Seth wakes up… if you don't mind."

"Oh, of course not, Ryan. You know that," she told him sympathetically. "You can stay as long as you want. It just might be a bit of wait, is all."

Ryan gave her a reassuring look. "I've got the time."

o-o-o-o

The group was there most of the evening. Summer left to make a few calls and an hour later, Luke showed up, bearing dinner for all, and a change of clothes for Ryan. Ryan never would have thought he'd be so grateful for Luke Ward's presence – just another unexpected change in a long year of unexpected changes he'd been slowly adjusting to.

"I called Anna, as well." Summer explained. "I thought she should know… She wants you someone to call her later on and give her an update."

"I'll do it," Ryan offered. "It'll be nice to hear from Anna."

"So I heard you're like a gung-ho hero, Chino." Luke piped up, eliciting a somber look from Ryan.

"I didn't do anything…"

"You gave yourself up for those other people, and for Seth." Marissa supplied.

"I did what anyone else would have done."

"Not everyone has the guts – or the lack of brains for that matter – to give up their safety, then try to single-handedly stop two robbers," Summer told him.

Ryan looked at each of them sincerely. "I'm not a hero."

Luke lounged back in his chair, putting his hands behind his head. "That's exactly what a hero would say."

o-o-o-o

It was well into the night when the charge nurse finally came to get them. She looked around the small room, shocked at the number of people who started at her entrance, looking at her entreatingly.

"Seth is awake now, but he probably won't be for long. I can't let you all in yet, but I'll allow three, for ten minutes."

The kids looked crestfallen. Caleb spoke up, "I can wait a bit longer. One of you kids can go in."

"Ryan?" Sandy looked to him.

Ryan looked around at Summer, who shook her head and pushed him from behind. "Go, you deserve it. I'll see him the next time he wakes up."

Without further encouragement, Ryan followed Sandy and Kirsten and the nurse down the hall toward the elevator. When they reached the right floor, the room was just outside the doors. The trio fell into a hushed atmosphere as the nurse let them into Seth's room and quietly closed the door behind her.

Kirsten put a hand over her mouth as she saw her son, connected to the beeping machines, his eyes closed lightly. Sandy pulled a couple chairs up to one side of the bed and he and Kirsten sat down. Ryan stood near the door awkwardly.

When they sat down, Seth's eyes opened and he looked up into the faces of his concerned parents. "Hey mom, dad… How's it hanging?" He asked softly.

"Oh honey." Kirsten ran a hand through her son's curly hair, simultaneously wiping away her tears. "Don't you ever do this to me again. You are in BIG trouble, mister."

"What are you gonna do, mom? Ground me?"

"Don't try me! I just might."

"Oh, right… OK, I won't leave this hospital until you say I can."

"Look at this. Even with a bullet wound he doesn't let up on the sarcasm." Sandy rolled his eyes. "You're a true Cohen."

"Where's Ryan?" Seth asked.

"He's over there," Sandy turned to Ryan. "Hey, come on over here, kid. What're you doing, standing in the doorway?" He relinquished his seat, despite Ryan's protestations, and allowed the teen to sit down in his place. Ryan sat down warily, afraid of touching any of the machines or tubes connected to the other teen.

"Hey," Ryan grinned at him. "I told you I would see you later."

"I never doubted," Seth smiled weakly. "Hey, nice shirt, man."

Ryan tugged at the front of the shirt. "Thanks, I been thinking of replacing the wife beater. What do you think?"

"I think… I think that's a terrible idea," Seth chuckled. "Stick with the wife beater. You're much better off."

Ryan smiled at the joke, but the expression faltered and he got serious, "You really had me worried back there, Seth."

"I'm sorry, man. Really, I'm sorry for everything…" He raised the nearest hand, in the arm devoid of IV, and held it above the bed railing, outstretched. "Forgive me?"

Ryan paused, then took Seth's hand in his own and squeezed it tightly. "Always," he smiled.

Behind them, Sandy put his hands on Kirsten's shoulder and said, "So, Ryan. We never did get to tell you before you left town. I think now's a better time than any to get this out – we still plan to adopt you, if you'll have any of it. The papers are just waiting to be signed…"

He let the question hang and Ryan considered his words carefully. He'd been through a long emotional trip today. He didn't even know if he would see the end of the day, and here he was being offered a family. Putting all his arguments aside for one, Ryan looked into Sandy Cohen's eyes, still clutching Seth's hand, and answered, "I'd love to, Sandy."

Sandy and Kirsten grinned. "That's great," Sandy said. "I'll get the papers validated Monday. You're a certified Cohen now, kid."

"Big mistake, man. You know what this means, don't you?" Seth said sarcastically. "Curfew, shape up in school, college… you got quite a road ahead of you."

"I can't wait."

The nurse opened the door then and poked her head inside. "OK guys, I have to make you leave now. Seth needs his rest."

"Oh, hey, by the way, the car is parked outside your old work," Seth called out as his family retreated. "Oh—oh and tell Summer I love her; oh, and when you come back, could you maybe bring me some CDs or something? I'm gonna go crazy here if I don't have something to listen to."

Ryan grinned and headed for the door. "Sure thing, man." He looked at his brother one last time before allowing the door to shut behind him.

The others had already departed by the time they got back to the waiting room. As Ryan waited for Kirsten to pick up her coat and purse, Sandy clasped his shoulder with a heavy hand. "Well, kid, you ready to go home?"

Ryan took a deep breath and looked around the busy hospital before nodding his head confidently. "Yeah, I'm ready."