Disclaimer: I don't own anything OC related.
AN: This story is at Maud's request. Enjoy!!


So glad to see you well
Overcome and completely silent now
Without himself
You cast your demons out
And not to pull your halo down
Around your neck and tug you off your cloud
But I'm more than just curious
How you're planning to go about
Making your amends to the dead
--A Perfect Circle

The blinds slammed against the windows as she stepped into the poolhouse. "Ryan? We need to talk to you." Kirsten held the doorknob with white knuckles.

He'd never seen Kirsten look so pale.

It'd been a few days since Oliver had blown his head off in front of him and he'd tried his best to avoid the Cohens. He felt guilty enough for his involvement and despite their apologies and concerned questions, he couldn't help but know that they blamed him, too.

He sat up and regarded her. "Yeah?"

He was so fucking tired. He hadn't slept, the gunshot would wake him up every time and he'd see the blood splattered on Marissa's pale skin and he'd have to stay awake so he could get the picture out of his mind.

Marissa called almost hourly but he hadn't answered the phone since it'd happened. He hoped she was okay. Oliver wasn't a threat anymore, the only threat was herself. And he couldn't help her with that.

"Come inside. Please…" Her words were trembling and as he watched her, he saw that her body was trembling too. Almost like she was about to cry. He'd never seen Kirsten cry.

Ryan pulled on his tennis shoes and followed her into the house.

Seth was sitting at the counter. He was paler than his mother. Sandy was standing by the sink with his back to the door.

"What's going on?" Ryan let himself ask. He'd made it a point lately not to speak unless spoken to, and sometimes not even then. He cared about these people, more than he thought he should and he had to put some distance between them until he figured out how to handle the previous weeks' events. He had let down his walls but now he was rebuilding them with every day.

"I'm so sorry, man…" Seth whispered.

Ryan blinked at him. Seth had been apologizing almost as often as Marissa was calling but he hadn't replied. This was different. Because Seth really was crying.

"Ryan, sit down," Sandy said.

Ryan took a seat beside Seth, trying to ignore the boy's hiccups.

"Ryan…we are going to fight this…" Kirsten started but stopped speaking as soon as Sandy looked at her.

"What are you talking about?" Ryan asked again. He looked at Sandy.

"Kirsten, Seth…let me talk to him alone…" Sandy said.

"Come on, honey…" Kirsten took Seth by the arm and pulled him outside to the patio, closing the door behind them.

"Ryan…something's happened…" Sandy said quietly.

"What?"

"After the incident at the school with Oliver and…and his suicide and the police reports…Children's services started an investigation."

"An investigation…" Ryan felt his stomach drop. He knew what was coming. Children's services had never brought anything but trouble for him. They'd left him with his mother countless times when he was small, never taking him from her care so he knew that their views were not the same as his.

"Yes, son…they…they think it would be best if you didn't stay with us anymore…" Sandy whispered.

He should've known it was coming. He blew it. Sandy's words from earlier in the year echoed in his head. We're always one mistake away from someone taking you from us. This was that mistake. He'd fucked up and now he had to deal with the consequences.

"Ryan?"

"Am I going to juvie?"

"No, Ryan…"

"When?" He wouldn't react. He'd make it easy for them. They'd been working so hard to understand him and talk to him and find out why he did what he did so he'd make letting him go easy. He wouldn't let them see him upset. His walls were in place.

"You…you aren't even upset?"

"There's nothing I can do. If there was, you would've come to me already. How long?"

"Wednesday…Ryan, we're going to fight this, we're not letting you go, you've been through too much here for us to just give up…"

Ryan nodded but he didn't say anything. Even with the Oliver fiasco, the time he'd spent here had been the best time of his life. But he didn't deserve it and it was going to be taken from him.

"Ryan…please, say something…"

"There doesn't seem to be anything to be said. I'll start packing. You'll let the school know, I assume?" Ryan stood up.

Sandy had his hands flat against the counter. "This isn't supposed to happen…I…"

"This isn't your fault, Sandy. I got myself into this mess…" Ryan started. Sandy looked…devastated.

"You were trying to protect Marissa," Sandy whispered.

"You told me the reasoning didn't matter, that it was my actions that mattered. It's still true. Good intentions only lead one place. I appreciate my time here, Sandy. It was…very nice. I'll be in my room."

He felt Sandy's eyes boring into his back as he walked out. Kirsten was openly sobbing now and Seth was clinging to her. They didn't acknowledge him as he silently padded back to the poolhouse.

He closed the door and leaned against it.

He was leaving. His life in Newport was over. He had two days. Today was Sunday night. He had two days.

We're always one mistake away from someone taking you from us.

He should've listened.

--------- --------------- ----------------- ---- -------------------- --- ----------------------- --- - ---------------------

"This will be your room, Mr. Atwood. You have two drawers in the dresser, I think the bottom two are empty. You'll also have a little room in the closet for your nicer clothes. This is your bed."

He put his dufflebag down on the bed. It's not a bed, per se, more like a cot. But it's better than the floor. What did he expect?

It's not the Cohen's. He's not going to like it because it's not the Cohens.

Pale, faded yellow walls. Concrete floors covered by frayed rugs. There weren't any posters on the wall, forbidden by the 'caretakers'. They want him to consider them 'caretakers'.

The rules are pretty straightforward. No fighting, no cursing, no drinking or drugs. There must be thirty kids in this place and he hadn't seen any of them. She said most of them were at school and the few that are in the house are in 'time-out'. Time out. He's not sure what that means, but he knew it wasn't good.

"You'll be bunking in with Gary, Les and Andy. You'll start school tomorrow, you're already enrolled and Andy will be your buddy for tomorrow. He'll help you find your way around the school and get you acquainted with the area," She finished.

"Thanks." Ryan's voice is gravelly. He hadn't spoken during the tour. He hadn't spoken since leaving the Cohens.

Seth had cried. Kirsten had cried. Sandy hadn't said anything but Ryan knew he was upset, too. The past two days at the Cohens had been traumatic. Seth hadn't left his side, he'd been begging Ryan to run away with him, pleading and crying for Ryan to find a way to stay. Kirsten had just cried, rotating between yelling at Sandy for losing him and begging Sandy to find a way to keep him. Sandy spent most of the time on the phone with lawyers and social workers.

Ryan wanted to stay with them. He wanted it more than anything he'd ever wanted. Even with all the drama of Oliver and the misunderstandings, the Cohens had taken better care of him than anyone else. He loved them.

He didn't know what he'd do without them.

"Mr. Atwood? I'll give you some time to get acquainted with your room. Unpack. Someone will call you for lunch."

He nodded.

Her name was Mrs. Trotter. He hadn't met her husband yet, but they were the 'caretakers'. They had a few helpers around occasionally, a nurse came by once every two weeks, but the Trotters were the rulers of the home. Kids as young as six and as old as seventeen were housed here. Boys on the right, girls on the left.

He sat down on the bed and felt the springs poke through the worn blanket.

The Cohens' beds never poked him. They were top of the line.

He had to stop thinking of the Cohens. That part of his life was over. He was going to live here now. Until he turned eighteen. Or they moved him. He was here now.

He picked up his dufflebag. He hadn't packed many things, several changes of clothes, a few books, school supplies. He pulled out the picture he'd slipped in. The Chrismukkah card. He glanced around and saw that the other beds had personal photos on the nightstand so he felt like he could put it up without incident.

The Trotters thought posters and CDs gave the kids a reason to fight and argue. Everything was to be kept plain and simple.

Ryan pulled his feet up onto the bed and settled into a sitting position. He could survive here. He had to meet his housemates, first though. He'd keep to himself, stay out of trouble and he'd be fine. He'd be fine here.

--------- --------------- ----------------- ---- -------------------- --- ----------------------- --- - ---------------------

"Boys, this is Ryan. He'll be in your room from now on. Andy, you're on buddy detail tomorrow. Make sure he makes it to school and back, okay?" Mrs. Trotter left the room after the boys gave Ryan a courtesy nod.

"So. You're the newest new kid," The shortest boy remarked. He was round and portly with twinkling green eyes. "I'm Les."

"Nice to meet you," Ryan said quietly.

"This is Gary. I'm Andy," The tallest boy introduced. He had unruly brown hair that was shaggy and hung in his eyes. Gary was about Ryan's height and had rosy cheeks. At least Ryan could tell they ate well here.

"So, how'd you get sent here?" Les asked.

Ryan shrugged.

"Ooh, another quiet kid. More time for me to talk," Les laughed.

"Don't worry. Gary rarely says anything either. We don't mind," Andy said.

"This is just a little weird for me," Ryan admitted.

"Yeah, well, you'll get used to it. I mean, I doubt we'll be best friends or anything…we're just trying to stay out of trouble," Les said. "Kids transfer in and transfer out like crazy. I'm just trying to finish my time out here so I can get on with my life…"

"Les has been here for eight months. He's one of the longest," Andy nodded. "My sister and me, we've been here four months. Gary been here a little under one."

"So. How can I stay out of trouble?" Ryan asked.

"You been in foster care before?" Les asked.

"Nope. Juvie a couple of times…it's a long story. This is my first time in a place like this," Ryan replied.

"You're a j.d., too?" Gary asked with a small smile.

"Juvenile delinquent. Gary's been in and out of juvie since he was eleven," Andy said.

"I'm not proud of it," Ryan muttered.

"If I can stay out of trouble, so can you," Gary said.

Ryan nodded.

"It's your first night. We'll get you settled in. This place sucks, but it's okay as long as you don't get on Trotter's bad side," Les said.

Ryan wondered if he'd be able to do that as easily as Les said.

--------- --------------- ----------------- ---- -------------------- --- ----------------------- --- - ---------------------

Ryan kept to himself. Gary, only fourteen, had decided that he'd take Ryan under his wing. Ryan didn't mind, the quiet boy seemed to be respected by most of the other kids. And he didn't talk. Les reminded Ryan of Seth with his constant chatter. Ryan thought he talked just to fill in the uncomfortable silences from the other kids. Joy wasn't a common emotion for this place.

They ate dinner in shifts, ten kids at a time in the dining room. Ryan ate with his roommates and several other kids. He met Andy's sister, Jennifer. They were fraternal twins and looked similar. Ryan picked up their intense protectiveness of each other immediately. They finished each other's sentences and seemed to talk without words.

After dinner, Ryan was planning on heading to his room to crash out, but there was mandatory social time in the 'game room'. The game room was in the basement.

The younger kids were gathered around Jen as she read them stories. Les was sitting with a group of girls, entertaining them with some anecdote. He was clearly one of the most popular kids, he was outgoing and upbeat.

"You play cards?" Andy asked.

Ryan shrugged. He sat down across from him at the small card table. A worn deck of cards was in the center of the table. Gary took one of the empty seats.

"Gary's been teaching me to play poker, but if Trotter comes over, we're playing Go Fish, okay?" Andy raised an eyebrow.

"Got it," Ryan nodded.

"So. You play poker?" Gary asked.

Ryan nodded.

"You any good?" Gary probed.

Ryan nodded again.

"Really? Let's see…" Gary grinned.

They played in silence for several minutes, keeping tabs on their imaginary bets in their heads. Finally, Andy threw his cards down. "Okay, guys. This is really not fair…"

"Are you cheating?" Gary asked, his eyes bright with awe.

"I can count cards," Ryan said under his breath.

"Can you teach me?" Gary whispered.

"Go fish," Ryan said evenly. Mrs. Trotter approached with an older man.

Gary plucked a card from Ryan's hand.

"Ryan Atwood, this is Mr. Trotter."

Ryan shook his hand and tried to ignore the coldness in the man's eyes.

"I've heard a lot about you. Don't think you're going to be spoiled like your last home. You'll follow our rules now. I'm watching you," He added, walking away.

"Damn, man…what was that all about?" Andy whispered.

Ryan shrugged. So much for staying on the Trotter's good side.

--------- --------------- ----------------- ---- -------------------- --- ----------------------- --- - ---------------------

He was six days in when Ryan got his first time out. It was past lights out when Gary and Les started arguing.

The Trotter's house was a tight ship. Ryan had learned most of the rules, no calls out, letters were distributed once a month, and they weren't allowed out on the weekends or after school without the Trotter's going with them.

It was like prison. With no TV.

Ryan kept to himself. Gary wasn't as quiet at school, he was known as a hustler and could get you anything you wanted. Ryan didn't want to get involved with him. Les had a lot of friends at school and didn't fraternize with the Trotter kids at school. They were already outcasts, the group of kids arriving on foot for school every day were known as the 'orphans' and no one went out of their way to welcome him.

Ryan tried not to think about Seth or the Cohens. But he couldn't stop himself. He missed them. He'd been so hurt and upset about the Oliver stuff that he'd lost sight of how much he needed them. He wanted to go home. But he was home now.

Andy and Jen stuck close together and Ryan found himself hanging out with them most of the time. He liked Andy and found himself looking out for Jen when he wasn't around. They didn't mind Ryan's silence.

Ryan wasn't sure what Les and Gary were fighting about but when the first punch was thrown, he immediately tried to break them up.

When Mr. Trotter burst in, Ryan had Gary by the shoulders, pulling him off Les.

"What the hell is going on here?" Mr. Trotter demanded.

No one said anything.

"Okay, no one's talking? You, Atwood, you're going to time out, Les, Gary, you're both on restriction. Andy, you, too. Come on, Atwood…" Mr. Trotter took Ryan by the arm.

"Wait, Mr. Trotter…" Andy started.

"Oh no, you had your chance to talk, too late now," Mr. Trotter growled, pulling Ryan from the room.

Ryan didn't argue, Mr. Trotter's grip wasn't too strong and he could've pulled away if he wanted to. But he didn't. This was a new place, he had to make it work here. He couldn't get into trouble, there was no one to get him out of it. He let the man lead him down the stairs into the basement.

They went through the game room into the small pantry on the far side of the room. Mr. Trotter pulled a string and the pantry lit up with light. A small door was in the back of the pantry. He opened the door.

"Get in."

Ryan didn't move. "What?"

"You'll have time out for the next three days. You'll get breakfast and lunch at school but as soon as you get home, you'll be in time out. We'll see when you decide to start another fight after a few days of this. Get in," Mr. Trotter ordered. He waited for Ryan to contradict him.

Ryan didn't want to go into the closet. He pondered his escapes with his eyes.

"Don't test me, Atwood. Get in."

Ryan took a step back and the man sighed, deftly grabbing his wrists and twisting them behind him as he shoved him against the wall. Ryan felt soft straps being cinched around his wrists, binding his hands.

"You want your feet, too?" Mr. Trotter asked. Ryan didn't answer, stunned. Mr. Trotter shoved him into the small closet. It was barely big enough for him to stand comfortably and with his hands bound, all he could do was lean against the back wall. There wasn't enough room to sit.

"We'll let you out in the morning," He said, slamming the door.

It was dark and the room smelled faintly of urine. Ryan took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

He had to make it here. He didn't have anywhere else to go.

--------- --------------- ----------------- ---- -------------------- --- ----------------------- --- - ---------------------

"You okay, man?" Andy asked him the next morning when Ryan was getting dressed for school.

Ryan nodded. He was sore from sleeping standing up and he'd only managed a few hours of sleep.

"I'm sorry about last night man…it totally wasn't your fault, Trotter just…"

"It's cool, man."

"Time-out sucks, Ry. I'm really sorry," Andy said.

"Don't worry. It was Les and Gary's fault, not yours," Ryan replied.

"Yeah, but…you sure you're okay?" Andy asked.

"Fine," Ryan said.

"Damn…I've never seen a kid come out of his first night in time-out with nothing to say…" Andy whispered.

"There's nothing really to say about it. It sucks. But what can I do?" Ryan muttered.

Andy nodded. "Yeah. I get that. Trotter's really got it in for you…"

"Yeah. Can we head out? I want to get to school a little early today," Ryan said.

"Sure thing," Andy agreed. "Let me go get Jen, okay?"

Ryan appreciated the moment of silence. Even though he'd had all night to think, he still didn't have his head together. He'd had a rough childhood, but he'd never been locked in a fucking closet before.

He preferred the beatings.

At least he knew that the bruises would fade. He'd never forget the night in the closet. It was worse than jail, worse than living with Dawn…

But he'd be fine. He was fine. He could do this.

Jen walked in with Andy and immediately gave Ryan an impulsive hug. "I heard about what happened…you okay?"

"Fine…" Ryan said when she released him. They started their walk out of the house and toward the school.

"See? Told you," Andy smiled.

"The kids are going to miss you tonight. They love it when you read to them," Jen said as they walked out.

Ryan had started helping Jen entertain the younger kids for 'story time'. They'd switch off reading stories and the social time would pass a lot faster while they focused on keeping the kids happy.

"He gave him three days, he'll be back on the job in no time," Andy said.

"You guys don't have to cheer me up…" Ryan muttered.

"You're always dark, we know. But you didn't have to take the fall like that," Jen said. "Gary's been an ass lately, he's on his way back to juvie…"

"He'll be fine," Andy sighed. "We just need to stay out of his way."

Ryan nodded knowingly.

"So why are we going to school so early?" Jen asked.

"I heard some of the kids talking about a payphone behind the school…" Ryan admitted.

"Yeah. You need to make a call?" Andy asked.

Ryan nodded.

"Sure. We'll watch your back for you. Mr. Trotter drives by sometimes…" Jen said. "But we'll take care of that. Can I ask who you're calling?"

Ryan had made sure to tell the kids as little as possible about himself. He didn't want them to hear about how he had such a nice setup with a family that cared about him just to fuck it up and end up here. But Jen and Andy seemed different.

"Jen, give the kid his privacy," Andy scolded.

"No, it's cool. Before I was here…I had some friends. My best friend's name is Seth and I was supposed to call him as soon as I got moved in. He's going to be worried," Ryan admitted.

"Seth…he's the guy in the picture on your night table?" Andy asked.

"Yeah."

"You guys looked happy," Andy continued.

"We were. It's a long story. I just want to check in. Let him know I'm okay," Ryan said.

"You going to tell him about the closet?" Jen asked.

"Hell, no. I don't want him to worry about it," Ryan snapped. "Sorry…"

"It's cool. Come on, we'd better hurry before someone else gets there first," Jen said and they all started walking faster.

--------- --------------- ----------------- ---- -------------------- --- ----------------------- --- - ---------------------

Summer was driving Seth to school when his phone rang. She'd been trying to cheer him up but it was a lost cause. Without Ryan, Seth was a faded version of his former self. Especially considering the way Ryan had been taken from the house.

"If you're here, who's calling me?" Seth muttered, answering it absently. "Hello?"

"Seth?"

"Hey, man, what's up? Where've you been? You haven't called and…"

"Seth, slow down. We don't have phone privileges at the place where I am," He answered. Seth could hear the smile in his voice.

"No phone privileges? Even in jail they let you use the phone, man…that sucks. So, you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm okay. I'm going to Riverside Day School and it's not so bad. I just wanted to check in…"

"Yeah, that's awesome, when can I come see you?" Seth asked.

"We can't really have visitors. They have to be cleared and…yeah. Give me some more time to figure out the rules and stuff…"

Seth's face dropped. "You can't have phone calls, you can't have visitors…Ryan…"

"Dude, its fine. It's okay, really. I have a bed to sleep in, I'm not on the streets…"

"You should be with us, man…"

"How're your parents?"

"Freaking out. Dad's trying to get you back and Mom…"

"Listen, I have to go, I'll try to call you again soon, okay?"

"Ryan?"

"Yeah?"

"You're really okay?"

There was a long silence. "Yeah, Seth. I'm okay. I'll call again, tell your parents…tell them I miss them, okay?"

"Sure, man…" Seth closed his phone. He didn't speak for a long moment.

"So, he's okay?" Summer asked finally.

"I don't know…he didn't sound…like himself. He sounded…off."

"Off?" Summer questioned.

"Yeah. Like…he sounded…hopeless. He knows we're going to bring him home…he has to know that…" Seth said, talking to himself. Summer reached over and squeezed his hand.

--------- --------------- ----------------- ---- -------------------- --- ----------------------- --- - ---------------------

After Ryan's first punishment was over, he tried to settle into a routine. He'd go to school with Andy and Jen and come home with them. He'd study with Andy in their room until dinner. For social time, he continued to help Jen with Story Time. Gary had been transferred out a few days after the fight so Ryan didn't have to worry about him causing any more trouble.

Ryan's intelligence became notorious around the house after the second week. He'd already been transferred to the most advanced courses at Riverside Day and would help Andy and Jen with their homework. Several of the younger kids had started coming to him for help reading and writing. Ryan enjoyed helping them with their skills and they reveled in his attention. It took Ryan's mind off the Cohens. It took Ryan's mind off where he was.

But Mr. Trotter didn't take the news of Ryan's 'smarts' well. He started going out of his way to antagonize Ryan.

Ryan found himself in time out for trivial offenses like wearing his socks two days in a row or being three minutes late to dinner. He was late because Mrs. Trotter had put him on kitchen duty but there was no negotiating the rules with Mr. Trotter.

Mr. Trotter was always watching him.

Ryan couldn't relax. Mr. Trotter didn't like him and he didn't know why. But the man would watch him. All the time. Even Jen and Andy noticed it.

After dinner, Andy and Jen were sitting on Andy's bed across from Ryan.

"I heard the Trotters talking last night, Ry. I think I know why he hates you," Jen said.

"Jen's room is right over the kitchen. She can hear through the vents," Andy explained.

"Seth, your friend, he was your foster brother, right?" Jen asked. Ryan had told them a little about his past.

"Yeah. His parents…they were really good to me."

"They're rich. That's why Trotter doesn't like you. Mrs. Trotter was telling him about the checks that keep coming in for you, I think they're sending you money…" Jen continued.

"Sounds like them," Ryan sighed. "I haven't seen any money…"

"They've called you, too. Mrs. Trotter was talking about how she thought you would be getting out of here soon and Mr. Trotter said that he wouldn't stand for it. He said that you didn't deserve to go to a place like that…"

"Fuck…like what?" Andy asked.

"Newport. The Cohens…they're rich. Like crazy rich…" Ryan admitted.

"Oh. So, Mr. Trotter…" Andy started.

"Is just being an ass. If those people want you, if they care about you…then you should be there…what happened with them? Why'd they take you from there if you were happy?" Jen asked.

"It's…I don't really know. I got into trouble and…I'm not supposed to get into trouble. The Cohens…they didn't want me to go, even after all the trouble I got into, they still…they still wanted me," Ryan said quietly. It was the first time he'd said it out loud and it felt like his stomach dropped. They wanted him.

"That sucks, man…"

"I figured if I behaved myself, didn't get into trouble…that I could go back. Even if it's when I'm eighteen, I'll…I'll still go back to them…they were my first real family…" Ryan murmured.

Jen and Andy nodded. "Just hang tight. If they care about you as much as you care about them, they'll come for you."

"What about you guys? What are you doing here?" Ryan found himself asking. He needed to take the focus off him. He needed to think about something else.

"Our parents died in a car crash a few years back. We were staying with our grandmother, but she got sick. She can't work anymore and social services took us because she can't afford to support us. It's such bullshit, we're fifteen, we don't need a full-time mother…we could get jobs, but…we don't have any say in it," Andy said.

"It sucks. We're old enough to take care of ourselves but the 'state' won't let us. And you finally had a nice place to live and they jerk you out of it," Jen agreed.

"Sorry, guys. Do you get to talk to your grandma at all?" Ryan asked.

"Not much. We get letters once a month…she writes us every day but we only get them on mail day. It's been months since we talked to her in person," Jen admitted.

Andy put his arm around her. "We'll get through, Jen. We always have."

--------- --------------- ----------------- ---- -------------------- --- ----------------------- --- - ---------------------

Ryan was washing dishes in the kitchen. Mrs. Trotter had given him kitchen duty, the kids seemed to enjoy his meals of grilled cheese sandwiches and he enjoyed the peace he got while he was cooking dinner.

Jen was helping him, she'd dry the dishes when he was finished washing. Andy was taking Story Time tonight while they worked in the kitchen.

"So. You always this quiet? Even with your family?"

Ryan raised an eyebrow. "The Cohens?"

"Yeah," She smiled.

"They made me talk," Ryan smiled. He liked Jen, she had made the past few weeks tolerable. She insisted on calling him 'Ry' to piss him off, but he appreciated her friendship. The other girls his age got quiet when he approached and they giggled a lot, but Jen treated him like she treated Andy. They trusted each other.

"How'd they do that?" she asked.

Ryan returned his attention to the stack of dirty plates. "Seth…he's a nonstop babbler. He's worse than Les…"

"Blasphemy!" she laughed.

"Yeah, well, he'd come into my room before school and ask me about thirty questions, so many questions that I couldn't even process most of them. Then he'd wait until I picked one to answer," Ryan said, remembering Seth's morning ritual.

"Cool. And his folks?"

"Sandy's a lawyer…"

"Ooh, enough said," Jen laughed.

"Why all the questions?" Ryan asked.

"You're always so…dark. When you talk about them…you get this light in your eyes. I can see how happy you were there…" Jen replied.

Ryan nodded. "I didn't know it was that noticeable…"

"Oh, don't worry. I won't tell anyone that you're a big softie…" Jen teased.

Mr. Trotter walked in and approached Ryan by the sink.

Ryan had seen him enter and was tense and waiting.

"The kids liked your dinner tonight," The man said, putting his glass down beside the stack of still-dirty dishes.

Ryan nodded. It was the closest thing to a compliment that he'd ever gotten from the man. He knew there was more to come.

"I don't like punishing you, you know. You might think I have it in for you, but I don't. I'm just trying to teach you right from wrong. Teach you some respect," He continued. Mr. Trotter's gaze seemed to register Jen's presence. "Could you excuse us, Jen?"

Jen gave Ryan a sympathetic glance but dried her hands and left.

Ryan turned and met the man's stern gaze evenly.

"You think you're smarter than me. You think you're better than me because of those rich people that pampered you before. But you're not. You're a criminal, you shouldn't even be here, you should be in jail where you belong. I see through your act," Mr. Trotter said quietly.

Ryan didn't lower his gaze.

"I just wanted to let you know that." Mr. Trotter said, turning and leaving.

Ryan turned back to the sink. His hands were shaking when he started washing dishes again.

--------- --------------- ----------------- ---- -------------------- --- ----------------------- --- - ---------------------

Two weeks later, Andy was waiting for Ryan at their usual lunch table in the cafeteria. Jen had a separate lunch, but Les, Ryan and Andy ate together at one of the back tables.

Les sat down with his overflowing plate and gave Andy a nod before stuffing a roll into his mouth. "Ryan's talking to one of the football players outside…you think he's okay?"

"One of the jocks? Are you sure?"

"Yeah. I gave him a look but he did that little nod that says he's okay so I left him alone," Les replied.

Andy finished his sandwich and when Ryan still hadn't shown up, turned to Les. "I'm just going to make sure he's okay…"

"He can take care of himself, Andy," Les replied.

"I know. At least out here I know…"

"Trotter's a bitch to him," Les muttered.

"I'll be right back, okay? Watch my stuff," Andy said. Les nodded as he started in on his pizza.

Andy walked outside and saw one of the jocks shaking Ryan's hand and walking away. Andy approached him. "You okay?"

"Yeah, man…you got a second?" Ryan glanced around.

"Yeah, what…" Andy let Ryan pull him into the boy's bathroom.

"I got something for you…well, for us…" Ryan said, reaching into his backpack.

"Dude, I don't do drugs…"

Ryan gave him an amused look and pulled out a cell phone and held it out.

"Man, what's…"

"It's a prepaid phone. So you and Jen…so you can call your Grandma…" Ryan said.

"Man…this is…how'd you get it?"

"I wrote that guy's term paper and this was my payment. 200 minutes…but it's more than we have right now. We just have to make sure Trotter doesn't find it. He did random searches last night so we should be safe for a week or so," Ryan said.

"Why don't you keep it?"

"I…I'll use it when you're done. I've seen the Cohens more recently than you've talked to your Grandmother. I figured this was only fair," Ryan said.

"I…I don't know what to say…" Andy stammered.

"Don't say anything. I'm hungry, let's go," Ryan said, shouldering his bag and leaving before Andy could say anything else. Andy stuffed the phone into his bag and followed him out.

--------- --------------- ----------------- ---- -------------------- --- ----------------------- --- - ---------------------

"...Your halo slipping down to choke you now..."

Ryan was leaving school with Andy when his English teacher stopped him.

"Mr. Atwood? Can I see you in my classroom?"

Ryan glanced at Andy. "Um, I have to get back to the Trotter's…" He knew if he was late he'd get in trouble again.

"I wrote you a note and Andy can take it," The teacher smiled, holding out a note.

"I'll see you at home," Andy said, accepting the note.

Ryan followed the teacher into the class and was surprised to see Jen and several of the girls from the group home assembled.

"Hey, Ry. Mrs. Hopkins was hoping you could help us out," Jen smiled.

The teacher turned to Ryan. "You stay at the Trotters with the girls. They've been having some trouble with their papers and I understand that there's no computer at the Trotter's. If you wouldn't mind, could you help them get their words together and then I'll give them class time to type them up?"

"Um, what kind of help?" Ryan hesitated.

"He's being stupid. You know, make sure we have verbs and nouns in our sentences, read over our papers like you do already," Jen smiled.

"Sure. I'll do what I can," Ryan agreed.

"Thanks, Ryan. You're more advanced than any of the other kids in my classes and when Jen said you'd been helping her, I was hoping you could help tutor some of the other girls," Mrs. Hopkins explained.

"It's no problem. She didn't tell me she had papers due," Ryan said, relaxing slightly.

Jen stuck her tongue out at him.

"You guys can go on home now. I'll see you tomorrow," Mrs. Hopkins said.

"You conned me into that," Ryan scolded Jen once they left.

"Totally. But you…you can help us, you know," Jen replied. Several of the other girls chimed in. They started walking out of the school.

"I'll try, Jen," Ryan promised. "We'll have to find a time to get together. Why don't I come by after social time?"

"Ooh, Ryan's coming to the girl's side, we'll make all the other girls jealous," One of the younger girls teased.

Several kids were gathered out front smoking cigarettes when Ryan and the girls approached the sidewalk. Jen lowered her gaze and Ryan caught her slight movement and instinctively stepped in front of her.

"There she is, little goody two-shoes…" One of the boys snapped as they approached. "She told the principal about us…"

"No I didn't, Jackass," Jen retorted.

"You little bitch…" The boy snarled, starting toward them. Ryan grabbed Jen's arm and kept her behind him.

"Hey, leave her alone, what's wrong with you?" Ryan snapped, stepping forward to confront the boy.

Before Jen could do anything, the girls had pulled her back while the boy started swinging. Ryan dodged most of his punches but several other boys rushed over until Jen couldn't see Ryan anymore.

"Go get the teacher, now…" Jen yelled suddenly and the boys quickly scattered. She rushed over and helped Ryan off the ground. "You okay?"

"Yeah…" He ran a scraped hand through his hair as he recovered himself. He stepped away from her and spit, shaking his head. "Too many…"

"I'm so sorry, Ry…" She said.

"Not your fault…I need to get cleaned up before I go back…" He said.

"We have to get you home…the nurse should still be there if we leave now…" Jen insisted, putting her arm around his waist as the other girls flanked him. They started their walk back to the Trotters.

--------- --------------- ----------------- ---- -------------------- --- ----------------------- --- - ---------------------

Ryan was still so dazed from the fight that he didn't register Mr. Trotter calling his name.

"Fighting again? I should've known…" The man snapped, grabbing him by his arm and spinning him around.

"Mr. Trotter, he's hurt, he didn't do anything…" Jen protested.

Mr. Trotter ignored her, grabbing his other arm and shoving him from the room and toward the stairs.

Ryan's mind started to clear as Mr. Trotter walked him down the stairs.

Ryan felt the straps tighten around his wrists and lost his breath when the man shoved him face-first against the wall beside the closet door in the pantry.

"Harry? What are you doing, Harry?" Mrs. Trotter walked in from the stairs.

"Atwood's fighting again…"

"He looks like he's been beaten and the girls say…" She continued.

"They're lying. He's like an animal…" Mr. Trotter covered his mouth with duct tape and Ryan panicked, struggling. "See? He wants to fight…I'll teach him…" He held Ryan against the wall forcefully.

"Harry?"

Mr. Trotter grabbed one of Ryan's pinky fingers and bent it back. Ryan's cry of pain was muffled but the cracks of his bones were loud.

"Let's see him hit somebody now…" Mr. Trotter snarled, breaking two more of his fingers in the same fashion.

"Stop it! What's wrong with you?" Mrs. Trotter started slapping him desperately to get him to stop.

He opened the closet door and pushed Ryan inside, slamming the door.

Ryan could hear them arguing but he couldn't focus. His fingers were pulsing with pain and he couldn't catch his breath with the tape over his mouth.

He closed his eyes and tried to find his breath.

--------- --------------- ----------------- ---- -------------------- --- ----------------------- --- - ---------------------

Jen burst into Andy's room.

"Jen, what the hell?" Andy asked. Jen ignored him, going straight to Ryan's bed and searching through his things.

"What's wrong with your sister?" Les asked.

"Trotter's got Ry again…he didn't do anything, these punks were messing with us and Ry jumped in, they beat him up and as soon as we got here, Trotter took him," Jen said, not looking at them as she emptied Ryan's dufflebag.

"Is he okay, are you okay?" Andy asked, alert now.

Jen was pale when she turned to him. "I followed them downstairs and…he broke Ry's fingers…he broke his fingers, Andy…"

"What are you doing?" Les asked.

"Ry's friend, the Seth kid, his dad's a lawyer…Ry trusts him…I want his number, someone has to know about this…"

"Ryan's got an awesome memory, it won't be written down," Andy said.

Les got up suddenly and walked over, picking up the framed picture from Chrismukkah. He removed the frame and pulled out a worn business card from behind the photo.

"What's that?" Jen asked.

"He looks at it when he thinks we're sleeping," Les said. "It means something to him…"

"Sandy Cohen," Jen read aloud before nodding. "Now I just need to get to a phone…"

"Close the door, Les," Andy said, reaching for his backpack. Les moved his cot so the door was blocked.

"Andy…" Jen gasped as he pulled out a cell phone.

"It's a prepaid cell phone…Ryan wrote this paper for this jock and scored this. He gave it to me so we could call Grams…we have 200 minutes…" Andy explained.

"Shit…call them, Jen," Les said, wide-eyed.

--------- --------------- ----------------- ---- -------------------- --- ----------------------- --- - ---------------------

Kirsten answered the phone. "Hello?"

"Um, can I speak to Seth?"

"Sure, hang on…" Kirsten went to the living room and held out the phone to him.

Seth glanced at his father across the room as he took the phone. "Hello?"

"Seth?"

"Yeah? Who's this?"

"It's…my name's Jen. I stay with Ryan…"

"Ryan…okay…is he okay?" Seth glanced over at his father. Since the phone call a few weeks earlier, no one had heard from Ryan except for blanketed reports from Arlene, the social worker, that he was 'fine'. Seth hadn't even gotten a chance to tell him what his parents had done yet.

"Your dad's a lawyer, right? Ry…he really loves you guys and…"

"My dad is a lawyer and we love him, too, what's going on? Can I talk to Ryan?" Seth started to panic. Sandy and Kirsten moved beside him.

"He needs help. Mr. Trotter…he's hurting him…can your Dad come and see? If he comes right now, he can see, he can get Ry out of here…"

Sandy took the phone from Seth. "This is Sandy Cohen…"

"Mr. Cohen…Ry needs you…"

"Does Mr. Trotter know you're calling me?"

"No…"

Sandy listened as the phone changed hands. "Mr. Cohen…if you call Ryan's social worker and tell her, she can make a surprise visit and catch Trotter in the act…"

"Is Ryan okay?" Sandy asked, trying to stay calm. He pulled out his cell phone and was dialing with his free hand.

"Jen says he was…he'll be okay…"

"Are you kids okay?"

"Yeah…can you come?"

"What's your name?"

"Les…"

"Les, we're on the way. Hang tight and we'll be there as soon as we can…" Sandy promised.

--------- --------------- ----------------- ---- -------------------- --- ----------------------- --- - ---------------------

"Harry, he's just a boy…we've never hit our kids, how could you…"

Mr. Trotter was pacing. "He's trouble…"

"We should just transfer him, why are you so insistent on keeping him?" Mrs. Trotter asked.

"I can break him…" Mr. Trotter started, interrupted by the loud knock on the door.

"It's after midnight, who could…"

The knocking repeated. Mr. Trotter went to the door. He swung it open.

"Mr. Trotter…"

"Arlene? What's all this?" Mr. Trotter was startled to see Arlene, Sandy and two officers standing outside.

"Mr. Trotter, we need to see Ryan," Arlene stated.

"Atwood? What…" Mr. Trotter was clearly upset.

"Just take us to him and we'll sort this mess out," Arlene said, glaring at Sandy.

"I'll get him for you…"

"You'll take us to him," Sandy stated flatly.

Mr. Trotter was red. He didn't move.

"Mrs. Trotter? While we're waiting, can you get Jen and Les for me? I'm checking on all my clients," Arlene said.

Mrs. Trotter hurried upstairs.

"Now. Take us to Ryan," Arlene stated.

"He's in time out," Mr. Trotter said finally.

"Time out? What the hell does that mean?" Sandy demanded.

Mr. Trotter was silent.

Jen rushed into the room, Andy and Les trailing behind her several steps. "Give me the keys."

"Keys?" Arlene asked.

Mrs. Trotter entered. "Harry. Do what they want. Please."

Mr. Trotter held out his key ring and Jen snatched it, turning to Sandy.

"You're Mr. Cohen?"

Sandy nodded.

"I'll take you to him," Jen said.

"Stay with him," Arlene told one of the officers, nodding to Trotter. They followed the kids down the stairs.

"Jen…tell me what's happening," Sandy said.

"Time out is in there," Jen said, pointing at the closet as Andy took the keys and tried the lock. "You have to go in time out if you break the rules…"

"The closet? My god…" Arlene was pale.

"But today, Ryan didn't do anything, he tried to help me and he got beat up…Trotter didn't listen…he dragged Ryan down here and I heard…he hurt him, Mr. Cohen…" Jen was trembling now and she'd started to cry despite herself. Les steadied her with an arm around her waist.

Andy was still trying keys. "Trotter broke his fingers. Jen heard his bones crack."

Sandy didn't move. He was stricken. Not only was Ryan locked in a closet, he'd been hurt. Ryan didn't deserve any more hurt. Sandy had let him down again.

"Jen said you'd come," Les told Sandy. He held out the business card and Sandy took it, recognizing it immediately. Sandy held the worn card in his hand. All this time, Ryan still had it.

"Ry talked about you…and Seth…he said he had to do good here so he could come back to you…" Jen whispered.

Sandy took the keys from Andy suddenly and started trying keys. He had to get Ryan out. He had to help him, he had to fix what had happened. Finally, one clicked and he swung the door open.

He reached inside and leaned back with Ryan's body in his arms.

"Mr. Cohen…" Arlene gasped.

"He's breathing…" Sandy kneeled beside him as he lowered him to the floor. He quickly pulled off the duct tape and rolled him on his side, unstrapping his wrists and pulling his arms from behind him.

"Sandy?" Kirsten's voice startled them all.

"Oh god, what happened, is he okay? Dad?" Seth pushed through the gathered people and crouched beside his father.

"Shh…he's okay…" Sandy said, his voice oddly calm. He was with Ryan. He hadn't seen the boy in weeks and he needed to stay calm. All he wanted to do was go upstairs and pummel the man that had hurt his boy but he had to stay calm. He had to see Ryan, see him open his eyes.

"Call an ambulance. Take Mr. and Mrs. Trotter into custody for child abuse…" Arlene told the officer.

"Ryan? Wake up, kid…" Sandy said, shaking Ryan gently.

Seth was holding Ryan's damaged hand in his palm, looking at his swollen, discolored fingers.

"Ryan…come on, kid…" Sandy whispered.

Ryan's eyelids fluttered.

Sandy looked up at Arlene and Kirsten. "He breathes really fast when he's upset, he probably hyperventilated…"

"Sandy?" Ryan murmured.

"Open your eyes, Ryan…" Sandy urged.

Ryan finally blinked, struggling to pull his hand out of Seth's grasp. "Sandy, what…"

"Just relax…look at me, okay? Just for a minute so I know you're okay…" Sandy whispered.

Ryan held his gaze, swallowing thickly. "I'm okay…what are you doing here, I'm at…I'm not home, why…" Ryan started to panic.

"Dude. Chill…" Seth said, capturing Ryan's attention. Ryan relaxed visibly. "Just chill out and don't freak…"

Kirsten turned to Arlene suddenly. "You heard him, he knows where his home is. You give him back to us or I swear I'll have you fired, your whole team. He is a child and your people have him chained in a closet. I want him. Now."

"Mrs. Cohen…"

"We've filed all the papers, next week he'll be legally ours. We adopted him. He is my son and I am taking him home tonight," Kirsten stated coldly.

"Did I miss something?" Ryan asked.

"He broke your fingers," Jen whispered. The room was silent.

"Mr. Cohen. I'm giving you temporary custody of Ryan. It'll take until next week for the paperwork to be finalized," Arlene said.

Several EMT's rushed in.

"No hospitals, I'm fine…" Ryan said, sitting up.

"Dude…" Seth started quietly. "It'll help and you're coming home…I'm right here, okay?"

Ryan shook his head. "No, man, no hospital…"

The medic took Ryan's hand and met his gaze. "Only if we have to…you might not need a hospital but we have to see, okay?"

"Okay…just give me some space…" Ryan said, closing his eyes in acceptance.

Arlene took Les, Jen and Andy upstairs, putting them to bed in the boys' room with Jen in Ryan's empty cot.

The head EMT approached Sandy. "He's got three broken fingers on his right hand. We're splinting them but he needs x-rays. I'd give him a couple of days to recover…from whatever happened here and take him in. He's a little dehydrated and he's got some pretty harsh bruises but he's okay. Don't let him move his fingers or use his hand and make him rest," The man said.

"We can take him home?" Kirsten asked.

"We're giving him some prescriptions for pain, Joe over there is a doctor, he's doing a ride-along with us and he wants to see him two days for those x-rays. Got it?" He held out a small bag and papers.

"Thank you," Sandy said.

"We've got him pretty doped up…his hands were killing him…but he's all yours," The medic smiled.

Sandy and Kirsten went to Ryan's side. Seth was still sitting beside him. Ryan was staring at his splinted hand.

"Dude…you okay?"

"Yeah, Seth. Who called you?" Ryan asked quietly.

"Jen. She found my number and called me. Said you talked about me…" Seth replied. "She said you were in trouble…"

"Ryan…" Kirsten couldn't take her eyes off Ryan's hand. It was trembling and he was cradling it in his left hand. "Ryan, we're going to take you home."

Ryan looked to Sandy. "Is it…I mean, is it okay? You're not going to get into trouble?"

"No, kid. You're going to live with us. Permanently. I promise, okay?" Sandy whispered.

Ryan nodded, still not fully believing Sandy's words.

"Honey…are you ready to come home?" Kirsten asked.

Ryan nodded. He felt like crying. After all this, he was going home. He wanted to cry and curl up in Kirsten's arms but he couldn't. He couldn't do anything. He didn't know how to tell them that he was happy, that he was over-fucking-joyed. He just nodded.

"Ryan. The officers and Arlene…they need to know what happened…are you ready to do that now or do you want to wait?" Sandy asked.

"I…I can do it now, I guess…what do you want me to do?" He asked. Before he could go on, Sandy pulled him into a hug.

"I just want you to be safe…" Sandy whispered. "I want to take you home…we'll worry about everything else tomorrow…"

"Okay…" Ryan replied. Sandy released him and offered his hand. Ryan accepted it with his left and pulled himself to his feet.

"Dude…this whole thing sucks but…I'm so glad you're coming home…" Seth admitted, pulling Ryan into a hug of his own.

"Me, too, man…I really missed you guys…" Ryan said.

"I'll save my hug when you're safe at home," Kirsten smiled, putting an arm around his waist and guiding him to the stairs.

Arlene was talking with a group of officers by the front door.

"Arlene. What's going to happen to the rest of these kids?" Sandy asked.

"Well…we're keeping them here for the moment, until we do some further investigating. We're going to get some temporary people here to take care of things until we find homes for them…" She said. She turned to Ryan. "You okay?"

Ryan nodded. Kirsten kept her arm around his waist, not letting him go.

"I told Ryan that you'll need to talk to him but he's really in no shape tonight to do that…" Sandy told the woman.

"Should I get my stuff?" Ryan asked quietly. "I should say something to Andy and Jen…"

"Later," Kirsten whispered. "Home now."

--------- --------------- ----------------- ---- -------------------- --- ----------------------- --- - ---------------------