Disclaimer: I own absolutely nada related to the OC, its characters, its storylines, or anything else. JS, FOX, and TPTB have created such a compelling cast of characters, I simply could not resist the temptation to invite a few of them over to play...

A/N: This was my first fan fiction ever...please forgive any first-timer mistakes! Reviews appreciated.

A/N2: Added to say this has been revised, to 'pare it down' a little in places, as suggested. Terrific advice, many thanks… I would have done this sooner, but it seemed 'dead' out there, so I didn't bother. However, I notice more people are taking a look, so I thought I'd do a little surgery. It could be edited more extensively, but I hope I got rid of some of the worst excesses...

While I don't think canon supports this "missing scene", based on Ryan's assertion to Theresa that he hasn't discussed the Oliver affair with anyone, I think there might have been some room for at least some part of this to have taken place. We know that Ryan didn't actually discuss his feelings with anyone, but he might have dropped a few clues. And I find it hard to imagine that Sandy would stay silent...

I was also intrigued (and shocked) that Sandy questioned whether he had made a mistake bringing Ryan home -- it seemed to me that Sandy was due for a wake-up call.

There was missing time between Oliver's meltdown and Seth's apology to Ryan in "The Truth". Sandy needed words, even if Ryan didn't...

The Epiphany: a missing scene from "The Truth"

Sandy was relieved that the police had finally finished questioning the kids and had released them. He was also relieved that Julie Cooper had shown up to take Marissa home, since Jimmy was out of town. Regardless of his feelings about Julie, Sandy had no doubt but that the woman loved her daughter deeply. He thought Marissa could use a healthy dose of parental affection right now.

Sandy watched them leave, assuring himself that they were safely on their way before turning once more to his own charge, Ryan. Sandy had noticed the boy's retreat to the far side of the room soon after Julie's arrival, the kid seeming almost as anxious to turn Marissa over to someone else's care as to avoid unnecessary contact with Julie Cooper.

Sandy thought that the teenager had shown remarkable composure, all things considered. He had taken an enormous risk today to protect Marissa, and then had calmly and concisely answered the questions put to him by the hotel security officers and later the police. Sandy had stayed beside him throughout the interviews, but had not had any opportunity to talk to the boy alone. And man, did Sandy want to talk.

He saw that Ryan had reclaimed his spot on the same bar stool where he was perched earlier while speaking to the officers. Sandy thought back...was it only Tuesday?...to the last time he had seen Ryan at their own bar stools in the Cohen kitchen. When he had sternly chastised the boy for taking what he had considered foolish and ill-considered actions to find out more about Oliver's problems. Now he understood with frightening clarity the full measure of desperation and fear for Marissa's safety that had inspired those actions.

Sandy had never doubted Ryan's honesty when he told them that he thought the Trask kid was trouble. But he had not given much credence to Oliver's being a threat to Marissa's safety, believing instead that jealously impaired Ryan's judgment.

He had based his opinion on Ryan's increasing anxiety as the Trask boy had become closer to Marissa. On the fact that Ryan's actions had escalated in direct proportion to that growing relationship.

Still, trying not to ignore the possibility that Ryan's progressively disturbing behavior was grounded, he had questioned Seth about the situation, thinking that his son would not have the emotional bias that Ryan had. Seth's answers had validated Sandy's own conclusions, as his son had reluctantly confessed that he did not see Oliver as a threat. That Ryan's bizarre behavior had actually started to scare him a little.

Now Sandy recognized that it had been Seth, and not Ryan, who had been blind to the truth. Who had not seen the depth of Oliver's psychosis. Maybe Seth had been too wrapped up in his whole Anna / Summer drama to pay attention to the signals Ryan had picked up. Or maybe he wouldn't understand the signals if he had seen them.

Sandy bitterly reflected that Ryan's truer insights were the product of much darker personal experience.

But today's events proved Ryan's increasingly desperate warnings had been justified. And unfortunately, also unheeded.

God, it could have ended so disastrously, Sandy thought. He shuddered yet again as he considered the alternate conclusions that the day could have spawned. His stomach was still knotted and his heart still beat too fast as he continued to relive the events, his thoughts centered on the pivotal role the boy sitting across the room from him had played in the near-tragedy.

Ryan looked tired, as he sat slouched on the bar stool, head propped on one hand, elbow resting on the counter. He idly spun an empty glass in the other hand, the noise of the glass against the counter top echoing in the nearly-empty room. Natalie Bishop, the only other person left in the suite, was silently moving through the rooms, turning off lights, and checking that everything was secured.

"Ryan", said Sandy, moving towards the youth. The teen appeared to have mentally checked out, either lost in thought or simply not thinking. With Ryan, you never knew. He wore silence like a protective cloak, rarelyremoving it easily. The sound of Sandy's voice obviously startled the boy, as he jerked upright in his seat, causing the glass to fall over on the counter top.

Setting the glass back up hastily, Ryan looked at Sandy, but said nothing.

"Are you ready to go?" Sandy spoke gently, stopping a few feet away from Ryan, waiting.

Ryan nodded, and slid off the stool, walking over to where Sandy stood. He stopped in front of Sandy, looking at him hesitantly, as though unsure of his reception. Much like he had behaved the last several days, Sandy thought bleakly, reminded of Kirsten's concern that they were being too hard on the child. Right now, he was pretty sure she had been right. He knew that the broken look on Ryan's face was one he never wanted to see there again.

Sandy draped an arm around the boy's shoulders, and gathered Ryan next to him as they walked together towards the penthouse suite door. Sandy noted the tensing of Ryan's shoulders under his arm, but was gratified that the teen showed no further resistance to the contact. Sandy needed to feel him, alive and in one piece. The boy was just damn lucky he wasn't forced to suffer a full-blown body hug, but his foster-son was skittish about almost any physical contact, so Sandy settled…

Hell, the kid was even uneasy today with Marissa. Sandy remembered watching Ryan's reaction when Marissa threw her arms around the boy's neck, clinging to him as she sought solace from her fears. Ryan had been gentle with her, tender even, but the easy affection he had once displayed around the girl had been replaced with a wariness that was painful to watch.

Sandy thought she must have hurt him deeply to elicit that behavior. Still, Ryan had put himself in the direct line of fire from Oliver Trask, selflessly protecting her.

As they passed Natalie, Sandy said a quick goodbye, leaving her to lock up behind them. Once outside the suite, he gently steered the mute teenager to the car. He maintained at least a loose contact with the boy during the entire walk, whether it be an arm on his shoulder or a hand at his back. Ryan might not have needed or wanted that much physical connection, but Sandy sure as hell did.

"Are you okay, Ryan? Do you want anything before we head home? Would you like to get something to eat? Drink?" Sandy asked, as they finally reached the Range Rover and climbed inside.

"No, I'm fine," the voice was husky, tired.

Sandy turned to face the teenager in the passenger seat, who was quite obviously not fine, studying him until Ryan finally turned towards him, and added more honestly, "That is, I'll be fine. I'd just ... please, can we go?" he pleaded softly, his voice strained.

"Sure, son." With a final squeeze of the teen's shoulder, Sandy started the engine and pulled out of the parking space, heading home. He watched Ryan rest his head against the passenger window, his gaze focused on the passing scenery. Sandy wondered what he was seeing inside his head...whether the boy was actually taking in his surroundings, or reliving the past hours...or days or weeks.

They rode in silence as the sun was starting to set over the Pacific. Sandy knew the boy's innate introversion was only enhanced by today's events. However, Sandy's desire to talk was in over-drive. He was beginning to think his needs and Ryan's best interests would both be better served if he could reach the teenager...he'd love to know what was running through the kid's head. Even more importantly, Sandy wanted Ryan to know what was on his mind.

And while it might not be entirely fair, his experience with teenagers, even this atypical teenager, told him that when they were tired, their vulnerability factor generally shot up. They were more likely to let down their normally vigilant guard, and open up. With Ryan, that might only mean one or two barriers down, but Sandy would take what he could get. Glancing at the youth sitting trance-like next to him, Sandy made a decision.

He pulled the Range Rover into a public parking space by the shore. The combination of approaching nightfall and the cool winter weather had driven most people off the beach for the day. As Sandy stopped the vehicle, Ryan turned to him sharply, eyes questioning.

"Let's walk," encouraged Sandy.

Ryan's look was skeptical. He grimaced and narrowed his eyes as he responded, "You mean 'Let's talk', don't you?"

Sandy offered an apologetic smile, as he conceded, "Yeah, I guess maybe I do. So, you coming?" he asked as he opened the door and proceeded to climb out of the SUV.

Ryan shrugged, rolled his eyes, and asked, "So, is that a rhetorical question, or do I really have a choice?" He made no move to leave the vehicle.

Sandy was standing outside, leaning to see inside the SUV with one arm on the roof and the other draped across the open door. He grinned at the sullen teen, replying, "Of course you have a choice. We can talk here while we walk on the beach... you and me. Or, we can all talk back at the house at the kitchen counter."

Ryan gave a derisive snort as he shook his head. He unsnapped his seatbelt with a jerk, allowing the buckle to bang against the door frame. "Some choice," he snipped, climbing out of the car. "I've had enough bar stool interrogations for the week, thank you very much," he finished, shutting the door firmly behind him. Sandy suspected that an urge to slam the door was just controlled, and was encouraged by the small token of restraint.

Once standing outside, Ryan looked across the roof at Sandy, lifted his eyebrows, and sighed audibly. Then to Sandy's great surprise, his face fleetingly registered a tiny, resigned smile. Whether the kid realized that conversation was inevitable, or because he was simply too tired to offer further resistance, Ryan seemed less reluctant than Sandy feared.

Sandy approached the boy, steering him to the beach with a hand lightly on his back. This time, there was no tensing, and no resistance. Predictably, though, there were also no words forthcoming.

The air was fresh and cool, as a gentle breeze blew steadily onto the shore. The smell of the ocean was comforting, as was the white noise of the tide. Rolling in, sucking out – constant and mesmerizing. The pair walked side by side for several minutes before Sandy broke the silence between them.

"You were right about how dangerous Oliver was," he said.

The boy looked directly at his guardian and said softly, "It was never about being right, Sandy. It was about protecting Marissa."

Sandy could hear the latent frustration in the voice, together with something else. Profound hurt. Sandy took in a sharp breath, hoping the crashing tide partially covered the sound. If Ryan ever suspected how close he had come to giving up...how much deeper might he have hurt this kid?

Hell, only two days ago he had asked Kirsten whether he had made a mistake bringing Ryan home. Luckily, she had stood up for their foster son without a moment's hesitation. He suspected she had long understood what had just been driven home to him.

Sandy realized he had to be careful, to ensure that they didn't lose this boy from their family. Because Sandy had come face to face with that prospect this afternoon, and he knew now that he simply couldn't bear it. For an instant, he had been literally frozen with fear. Fear that Oliver just might shoot Ryan...hurt him, even kill him. He had not truly understood until that precise moment just how much this kid meant to him... how deep his feelings actually were.

He had thought all along it was about giving a bright kid – a basically good kid – a chance. About appeasing his own self-righteous desire to help someone like he himself had once been helped. He had always been quite fond of the kid, sure. Liked having him around, enjoyed his company. Thought he was good for Seth. That his presence was good for the Cohens.

But until today? He just hadn't gotten it. Then in that moment, when he had faced the possibility that he could lose Ryan...forever... he had had an epiphany. One moment of crystalline truth.

He finally understood. What he believed with near-certainty that Kirsten already knew. The truth was he and Kirsten now had two sons. And he loved them both more than life. Tread very carefully, he told himself.

"I heard what you said to Oliver. About not having anyone in your life that believes in you," he said tentatively.

Ryan said nothing but his non-verbal response spoke volumes, as the boy wrapped his arms tightly around his midsection and fixed his gaze firmly away from Sandy, into the vast Pacific Ocean. However, he continued to walk beside his guardian.

"I want you to understand, that's not true. I believe in you. Kirsten believes in you. Seth believes in you. But Ryan, sometimes we all make mistakes. Errors in judgment." He paused, considering how to continue.

To his surprise, Ryan spoke. "I get it, Sandy. I know I screwed up. Oliver's records at school ... leaving the house without your permission..." The voice reflected an odd mix of contrition and exasperation. The arms stayed firmly wrapped around his body, but the teen did manage to look sideways at Sandy.

Sandy noted that there was still no apology for punching Oliver. However, from what he had seen today, Sandy no longer questioned that the provocation for that attack had been only too real.

But Ryan's recent actions were not the mistakes that Sandy had in mind. He stopped walking and said, "No, Ryan. I meant me. I made a judgment error. A big one. Don't get me wrong – I still don't condone your behavior, but I do now understand your motivation."

While Sandy was speaking, Ryan stopped walking, too, and turned slightly away from Sandy, eyes fixed sightlessly over the sea as he appeared to listen.

Sandy walked closer to the teenager, standing just behind his right shoulder, staring at the same point in the distance. The last deep crimsons and violets of the California sunset were disappearing from the sky.

"I listened, Ryan, to what you were saying about Oliver. I never doubted that you believed Oliver was dangerous, but I admit I thought your judgment was colored by your feelings for Marissa. That you were jealous of Oliver's relationship with her."

Sandy watched the boy's shoulders rise as he drew in a deep breath. The teen's head turned a fraction of an inch towards Sandy, as he responded, "I know what you thought. What everyone thought. That I was ...unstable." The deep voice had an accusatory edge, despite its softness. The tone was unmistakably bitter.

Sandy swallowed, and continued, "Today, seeing that kid with the gun. He was crazy, just like you said. And he was a threat to Marissa, and to himself... and to you. I was wrong, Ryan. I screwed up, and I'm sorry. I should have heeded your warnings, and pushed for a closer look at Oliver, based on your concerns. If I had, today might have been avoided."

Ryan now focused resolutely on his feet, his breath rapid and unsteady. Just when Sandy thought there would be no response, Ryan lifted his head, staring again into the Pacific. He replied, "Avoided? Maybe...I don't know. I just wish..." He stopped, drew in a deep breath.

Turning around to face Sandy, but stepping back slightly to establish some distance between them, he said uncertainly, "I know I didn't make it easy... but I thought you... or at least Seth...would listen to me. Believe me." His voice caught on the last words, and he stopped abruptly.

Sandy looked closely at Ryan, his features now revealed only by the soft amber lighting that dotted the public beach. Sandy could not see the blue of the teenager's eyes, but he could see the tell-tale sparkle that betrayed the presence of tears.

Ryan turned quickly back to the ocean, as he sniffed in annoyance and exhaled sharply, now dragging his arm across his eyes. He continued moodily, "I mean, Sandy, Luke was the only one who believed me. How fucking screwed up is that?"

"Pretty screwed up, kid," Sandy agreed quietly. He figured that Ryan must be feeling like he had been abandoned yet again. Because he had failed to be there for the kid. Failed to support him through this ordeal. He hated seeing this kid so miserable.

And he hated that his misjudgment and consequent inaction had contributed so significantly to the teen's unhappiness. But dammit, sometimes he just needed words.

Sandy wanted to be supportive, but Ryan had to start giving him more to go on, or they would just find themselves here again one day. And he didn't want that...didn't know if they could survive it. He sure as hell didn't intend to abandon the teen again, but he was afraid that any further breaches of trust might cause Ryan to bolt, much like a skittish colt. They'd do well to get past this Oliver debacle.

Sandy placed his hand on the boy's back, stepping up beside him. "I don't expect you to be like me or Seth, Ryan. God, I don't think Kirsten could take another one of us in the house! But I do need you to start helping me out, kid. Come to me, try putting some of what's going on in that head of your into words for me, Ryan. Like I've said before, I'll do anything for you, if you'll let me."

"Like end this discussion?" asked Ryan hopefully.

Sandy chuckled appreciatively, acknowledging Ryan's quick move to trap him with the words he had just uttered. "Soon," he promised.

Ryan groaned, but Sandy saw a fleeting self-satisfied smirk before the teen schooled his face into a neutral facade. The boy allowed Sandy to propel him forward, as the two resumed their walk along the beach.

Sandy considered how to broach the subject that had been foremost on his mind, hoping the teen wouldn't slam his protective shields into place. "Quiet Ryan" was one thing. "Quiet Ryan" was normal. The boy was simply not verbal in the same way he and Seth were verbal. In fact, this kid made Kirsten seem talkative, and that was saying a lot.

He listened far more than he spoke, but he did voluntarily participate in some of their conversations and would answer at least a portion of what must seem to him their ceaseless questions without any visible resistance.

Sandy reflected that when "Quiet Ryan" chose to participate in conversations, or provide answers, he was bright, dryly witty, generally articulate, and invariably interesting. Until this Oliver thing, he had begun participating more and more in the family exchanges, seeming to enjoy listening to and sometimes even joining in the easy banter that was a Cohen staple.

"Silent Ryan" was a different matter altogether. "Silent Ryan" was more or less mute. But Sandy had learned that there was a difference between a passively mute Ryan, and an actively mute Ryan. A passively mute Ryan was still reachable, albeit sometimes profoundly inarticulate when pressed to speak against his will. But a determinedly mute Ryan was utterly unreachable and non-responsive.

Sandy knew he had already stretched the limits this evening, having passed back and forth between quiet and passively silent. He had not reached the actively mute stage yet, but expected to at any moment. But Sandy still needed to understand Ryan's actions. And to try sharing some of his own reactions with Ryan. Although some things he would have to go slowly with.

He asked gently, "Ryan, can you tell me what was going through your head when you put yourself in front of that gun? What you thought about?" Sandy imagined he could hear solid gates preparing to slam shut, as he waited to see whether there would be any response.

"I was only thinking about Marissa," Ryan answered with only a moment's hesitation. The voice registered a measure of surprise, as though the answer was so obvious as to make the question superfluous.

Sandy pressed on, "I understand your concern for her, but there were trained security people there. I was there. You didn't have to stand there, exposed. That kid could have turned the gun on you, Ryan."

Ryan shrugged, ambiguously. "He was pointing the thing at himself. His history suggested that he'd try to kill himself. I didn't want Marissa to witness that. He needed to be stopped, before he went off again, and I just thought ... I mean, he knew me – I thought maybe he'd listen to me." Ryan was speaking very matter-of-factly, distanced. As though he were describing something he merely observed.

Sandy pushed further, "But you said it yourself, Ryan. Oliver was crazy. He could have tried to kill you."

"In that case, better me than Marissa," Ryan was dismissive, as he shrugged again.

Sandy stopped short, unsettled by both the response and the demeanor. He asked urgently, "Why would you think that?"

Ryan looked up at Sandy, apparently surprised by the intensity of the question from his guardian. He responded in the same distant, detached manner he had adopted earlier. "Marissa's got family, friends, people who need her." He raised his eyebrows and blinked his eyes. He apparently had nothing more to say.

"So do you!" Sandy blurted, insistently.

Ryan replied, reflectively. "Nah, my family wouldn't know I was gone." He frowned, and amended, "Maybe Trey..."

Sandy grabbed Ryan's shoulders in his hands, and squeezed them to get the boy's attention. Ryan looked up, startled. Like someone waking up out of a trance.

Sandy's eyebrows were furrowed, and his eyes were crackling with intensity. His voice was choked with emotion, as he said, "This much I know. If anything happened to you, your new family, our family – we would be devastated. I would ..." Sandy stopped, searching the face before him, sensing that Ryan was still not completely in the moment.

Sandy gently put his right hand behind Ryan's neck, extending his thumb to rest against the boy's face. Satisfied that he at last had the teen's full attention, he continued earnestly, "God, Ryan! Do you know what I've been thinking about for the last couple of hours? What will probably keep me up for the next who knows how many days? Weeks? The thought that something ... terrible... could have happened to...to you...today. That's what."

He dropped his hand back down to rest on the boy's shoulder. He has almost said 'to my son', but had bitten back the words. He was afraid of scaring Ryan away. There was much healing to be done before this child would believe those particular words. Sandy had the feeling he needed to earn the right to broach that critical topic...today would not be the day. But he would take the first steps towards paving the way...

Ryan looked confused, like he was not processing what he was being told.

Sandy explained, "The thought of you being hurt, or..." He breathed in deeply, unable to continue that thought, finishing instead, "It would break my heart. And Kirsten's. And I can't even imagine how deeply it would affect Seth. We all love you. You need to know that, kid. Like it or not, you're part of our family now. And I don't want anything to ever change that, Ryan." That much he could say. That much Ryan needed to hear, even if he didn't believe it at the moment.

Ryan looked down at the ground, but said nothing.

Sandy raised his chin gently, and stared into misty blue eyes. "If that kid had made the slightest move to turn that gun on you, I'd have stepped in front of it, Ryan."

Sandy had been poised to defend Ryan with his life, after the first terrifying second of paralysis. That he had stood back at all was something he would likely second-guess for the rest of his life. Ironically, he had trusted Ryan's instincts enough to give the boy a degree of latitude he would never have considered giving Seth in the same situation. And yet, he shuddered again to think he could have been wrong. Dead wrong.

Ryan shook his head, disbelievingly. "You couldn't do that. You've got Kirsten and Seth – they need you."

"And you've got me and Kirsten and Seth, and we all need you."

Sandy released his hand from Ryan's chin, and the boy ducked his head once more. The two stood there for several seconds in silence. Finally, Ryan looked up at Sandy through his bangs, and said wryly, "So I guess that means no more facing down lunatics with guns for either of us, huh?"

"You betcha," Sandy soundly agreed. "I'll always be there for you son, but I'd rather we steer clear of both lunatics and guns, if it's all the same to you." Sandy smiled, and said genially, trying to lighten the mood, "I have enough trouble protecting your back with swords on the PS2!"

Ryan looked at him ruefully, and sniped "More like stabbing my back."

"Accidentally," defended Sandy, mock umbrage in his voice.

Ryan snorted, and said, "Well, I'm just glad you're a better lawyer than you are a ninja."

Sandy appreciated that Ryan left unspoken the words "or I'd be in juvie." Far too close a call recently on that front. He nodded affably, and then asked in a more serious tone, wanting and yet dreading the answer, "So, maybe I'm not such a bad guy to have around?"

Ryan looked down at the ground, and responded softly with a line that made Sandy's heart catch, in a good way. "I guess I could do worse."

Sandy smiled, nodding slightly. He was content that the boy had listened. He knew that Ryan would think about their conversation. Hoped that the teenager would eventually start to believe just how important he was to the whole Cohen clan. And wished that Ryan would try sharing more of his thoughts with his new family. One step at a time...

"Let's go home," he offered.

"Hallelujah!" grumbled an obviously weary Ryan. But he gave Sandy a small half smile as the two spun back towards the waiting SUV.

As they drove, Ryan relapsed into silence, starring again through the passenger window. Sandy was anxious to get home and talk to Kirsten in person. He was not sure how to go about repairing all the damage this whole Oliver thing had caused, but after today he had a much clearer understanding of what was at stake.

He was committed to rebuilding the trust that had been lost. Making sure Ryan realized that he was really part of their family, hoping after everything that had happened that the kid still wanted that. And praying that nothing else would come up before the end of the school year that would create any more distractions or difficulties as they went through the healing process. Make it to summer, and have some bonding time – maybe take a vacation together...

Sandy glanced at Ryan, who was sitting with his arms loosely folded across his chest. It was not the same protective stance he adopted when he was upset or uncomfortable, but something more relaxed, Sandy thought. He turned his attention back to the highway.

Sandy's concentration was broken when Ryan unexpectedly unfolded his arms and turned to face his guardian. "Why did you ask me to give you the keys this afternoon?"

The question took Sandy by surprise. "Why did I ask for the keys?" he repeated, buying a few seconds.

Ryan elaborated, "You could have said right away that you would drive, but you asked for the keys instead. Three times. You had to know I'd think you were forbidding my going. Why'd you do that?"

Good question, thought Sandy, unsure how to respond. What he'd done then, and what he'd do now if he were faced with the same situation, would likely be different. Sometimes this kid's memory was a real disadvantage to anyone dealing with him, Sandy reflected. He was pretty sure that Ryan could reiterate almost any conversation they had ever had if he wanted to. Maybe not verbatim, but damned close.

Sandy opted for the truth. "Because at that moment I needed to know whether I had any influence over your actions."

"Because you were thought maybe I had become uncontrollable?"

"I didn't know what to think, Ryan. That's why you've gotta' help me, kid. I understand a lot more now than I did then, though. Why you may have felt that what you were doing was worth all the risks you took."

Sandy did not have to enumerate those risks. They both knew all too well – detention, suspension and/or expulsion from school, punishment at home, removal from the Cohen household, or in a worst case, a return to a juvenile correctional facility.

"So I passed your test," the boy said flatly.

"Yeah, you did."

"What if I hadn't?"

"We would have worked it out." Sandy stole a quick glance at Ryan, who was now staring straight ahead, before continuing, "But you did, Ryan. You had a choice this afternoon, and you chose to do what I asked of you. I won't lie. I was relieved, but regardless, we would have worked it out," he repeated, knowing now how absolutely true that statement was.

The teen said nothing, continuing to stare into the distance.

They arrived at the gated entrance to their community, and as the gate slowly swung open, Sandy put his hand on Ryan's shoulder, and waited until the youth made eye contact. "I wouldn't have stood in the way of your helping Marissa, Ryan. But I had no intention of letting you go on your own. That's what I'm here for, son."

"I didn't expect you to go with me. I wouldn't have asked you to do that," Ryan said softly, as the SUV continued up the sloping road towards the Cohen home.

"I know," Sandy said. "You're so used to fending for yourself that it never occurs to you to ask for help. But know this, kid. Like I said, I wanna' be there for you. Flip side is that you've gotta' let me."

Ryan glanced quickly at Sandy, and then resumed staring out the windshield. "I know ...it's just hard."

"So practice. It'll get easier."

"Ya' think?"

"I'm sure," Sandy replied firmly, but kindly.

Ryan frowned, clearly not convinced. But he surprised Sandy by continuing, "So, anyway, thanks for today ... for going with me. And I really am sorry ...I mean, I know you must think my behavior has pretty much sucked lately."

"Yeah, well, I think this whole Oliver thing proves I'm not exactly infallible, either. We gotta' work together, my friend."

"Yeah."

"You really could do worse, you know..." said Sandy teasingly as they pulled into their driveway.

"Believe me, I know," Ryan reflected so softly Sandy realized that the response was not actually intended for his ears. He was glad that Ryan couldn't see his eyes, as the boy's private musing had again caused his heart to catch, and his eyes to mist. He took an inordinate interest in the process of parking at the top of the driveway, diverting his eyes to concentrate on the SUV's control panel. As he finally shut off the engine, he was able to look across at Ryan.

Ryan returned Sandy's gaze, but now the teen's focus was elsewhere. He obviously wanted to escape to the sanctuary of the pool house. However, Sandy knew Kirsten was waiting inside.

"Better check in with Kirsten – let her know you're okay," he suggested.

Ryan looked at him askance, as he asked grumpily, "You got a credibility problem now, too?"

While used to flashes of temper from Seth, with Ryan they were rare. Sandy knew Ryan had heard him speak with Kirsten on the mobile phone at least twice in the last hour and a half. That he had told her they were fine.

"Ouch," Sandy smiled tolerantly. He'd allow the kid some room to vent. He knew they hadn't really touched adequately on Ryan's feelings, and even though Ryan had been only marginally cross during their discussions this evening, he figured deep down the boy must be feeling pretty angry, as well as hurt, and worse still, in large part abandoned.

The small flashes of temper or pain reflected in the teen's words this evening spoke powerfully to Sandy, precisely because Ryan so rarely verbalized his feelings or frustrations. The teen's typical reaction around the Cohens when angry or hurt was to lapse into his determined silence. Thus, while sometimes hard to hear, Sandy was actually pleased to have words – it would give him something concrete to work with.

"Sorry," the boy said after a few seconds of silence, sounding a little embarrassed at having allowed his temper to show itself yet again. He pressed his lips together and raised his eyebrows quickly in further apology. He opened the door, pausing to look back at Sandy. "So, are you just gonna' sit here all night, or are we going in?" he said more amiably, though the voice was unmistakably weary.

Outside the SUV, Ryan waited for Sandy to catch up. Kirsten opened the door, obviously having heard them pull up. Her face was anxious as she waited impatiently. She hugged Sandy briefly, giving him a light kiss, before focusing her attention on Ryan. The boy had fallen back slightly, allowing Sandy to greet his wife before he stepped up to face Kirsten.

Sandy watched Kirsten survey their foster son from head to toe, checking to reassure herself that he was indeed in one piece and unhurt, before tilting her head and holding out her arms to him. Sandy observed Ryan's reaction with fascination, as the boy shyly accepted her invitation.

She wrapped her arms around him tightly, and he responded a little self-consciously. Not warily, as with Marissa earlier this afternoon, but willingly. Sandy reflected that while Ryan had submitted to his touch, it was obvious the boy warmed to Kirsten's.

This kid, so in need of mothering, had experienced first-hand how hesitant Kirsten was to become emotionally invested in someone. Consequently, Sandy thought, maybe the boy didn't look for as much from Kirsten, so that he harbored fewer expectations of her. And thus she could not fail him as easily, or as completely as he or Seth could. Sandy was certain that Ryan never took Kirsten's smallest gesture of affection for granted.

Sandy saw Kirsten's tender expression as she held Ryan, and once again thanked whatever fates led him to this amazing woman. Her glance at Sandy told him everything she was feeling. Sandy wondered if the boy understood he had become part of Kirsten's most sacred circle of loved ones. And whether he realized that Kirsten, having made that emotional investment in the teenager, would give him her love absolutely and unconditionally. As she did to Seth, and to him.

Good thing, too, thought Sandy – 'cause when she heard the full details of today's events, he would probably be in Kirsten's doghouse for allowing Ryan to end up in harm's way. Not that he hadn't already consigned himself there...She'd be mad, but he knew that she'd eventually forgive him, probably long before he forgave himself. And he'd never doubt her love.

That's what he wanted for all of them – no doubts regarding their mutual love, support, and trust for one another. No matter what hardships they faced, or what trials they endured. He, Kirsten, Seth, and Ryan were all in this together. Seeing the tired but very genuine smile on Ryan's face as he moved at last from Kirsten's embrace, Sandy believed they had a fighting chance. They just had to avoid any sucker punches.

They moved inside the house, and walked automatically into the kitchen. Sandy's thoughts were interrupted by Ryan's voice. "Please, may I just go rest for awhile? I'm really tired," he implored.

Kirsten looked quickly at Sandy, who nodded almost imperceptively. He knew that the kid was exhausted, and needed to escape to his pool house sanctuary.

"Sure, sweetie," Kirsten responded gently, but with an odd note in her voice. "Would you like anything to take out with you? Something to eat?"

Ryan's face showed his relief as he responded, "Nah, I just want to lie down. I'm not really hungry. But thanks, anyway." He closed the kitchen door gently as he finally made good on his escape.

Sandy looked around, puzzled. "Where is Seth? I thought he'd be here waiting for us."

Kirsten looked suddenly guilty, as she nodded her head in the direction of the pool house. "Out there. Waiting for Ryan," she confessed.

"Don't you think you should have warned him?" Sandy was concerned, but now understood why Kirsten sounded a bit off when granting Ryan leave to retreat to his haven.

"I think they need to talk. Seth's had a pretty lousy day, too," she explained.

"Why? What's wrong?" Sandy asked anxiously.

"Anna broke up with him, for one thing."

Sandy frowned. While not entirely unexpected, based on Seth's recent behavior around Anna and Summer, he hated to think that Seth had been hurt. "Oy."

"And he's feeling all kinds of terrible for failing Ryan."

"He's not alone in that one," Sandy sighed. "Should I go talk to him?"

"I think he really needs to talk to Ryan right now, honey." She moved to wrap her arms around Sandy as she said, "I'll get Seth... and rescue Ryan... in a few minutes, I promise. And then you can talk with him, if he'll deign to talk to one of the 'rents, that is. And then you can fill me in on the details of what happened today. But right now? I just want us to hold each other. I want to feel your heart beat next to mine." She buried her face in his shoulder.

"I love you more than words," he said, kissing the top of her head as he enveloped her in his arms.

"I know. I love you, too." She raised her face, and met his still-troubled eyes. Her voice was firm and determined as she assured him, "We will work it out, Sandy. Believe in us. As a family – you, me, and our sons." .

Sandy shook his head in awe, as his heart lightened. He had been right – she had known. "I believe in you," he replied tenderly. "And us..."

He felt a wave of calm wash over him. His wife was in his arms, providing the quiet strength and loving support that he was convinced held their family together. That would help ensure their future. And although his sons were each hurting in their own ways, at this moment he took immeasurable comfort in the fact that they were both safe, and at home.

Kirsten smiled and said encouragingly, "Honey, in the story of our family, this is merely a plot point."

If Sandy adopted Kirsten's analogy, he was determined to control how their story concluded. Regardless of any future unforeseen plot points or twists, he silently vowed that this family would make it, together.

"I don't want to spoil it for you, sweetheart, but I hear that story's gonna' have a great ending," he said, finding her lips with his, and silencing further conversation.

fin