Thanks to the wonderful HelenC, this fic has finally been given some closure!
Brandy (brandywine421) and myself (Joey51) were happy to hand over the reins to Helen when she expressed an interest in writing the epilogue for this story. We think she did an incredible job finishing what we never could. So any and all kudos should be directed toward Helen on this one.
Ryan lay on his bed, Lindsay wrapped around him, soaking in her warmth, enjoying the rhythm of her quiet breathing.
Ever since the accident, he kept feeling like he would never be warm enough anymore. He still bundled under two covers each night, the remembered shivers of cold never far from his mind.
"You okay?" Lindsay asked.
He smiled at her. "Yeah. Just…"
She made a face. "Still cold?"
He shook his head. "I'm not cold. I just feel like it."
"That makes… very little sense, Ryan."
He didn't reply. She was right—she usually was—but he didn't know how to explain it better.
Sighing, she laid her head on his chest. Ryan had to smile. Whatever other consequences the accident had had, at least he and Lindsay were definitely more comfortable with each other. It probably had a lot to do with the fact that she had seen him half naked under the covers at the hospital, and that she had helped him to drink at a point when he could barely lift a finger to do so.
It may also have to do with the fact that she had heard his voice shaking on the phone, and that she had dealt with his call for help alone, gathering all the Cohens and making sure they knew something was wrong.
In many ways, this had been a harsh crash course into the messy life of Ryan for her, but she had come through with flying colors.
She had been there with him through the worst.
They hadn't talked about it yet, but he had the feeling that, aside from being closer to him, she also felt more integrated into the family.
"I'm going back to school on Monday," Ryan said, his eyes on the ceiling, his fingers absently playing with Lindsay's hair.
"Good," she said. "Just in time for the new physics project to be handed out."
"Yay," Ryan said. He didn't try to fake enthusiasm. Working with Lindsay was nice, and he didn't mind Physics, but the sheer amount of "special projects" they had to work on was bordering on the ridiculous.
He amended his answer when she looked up and frowned at him. "I mean, cool."
She shook her head, amused. "Right. I'm sure you're so very excited about it."
"Excited?" Seth said, stepping into the room without knocking. "Am I interrupting?" He froze at the sight of Ryan and Lindsay, his eyes widening comically. "Well, maybe I am."
Lindsay looked like she was about to stick out her tongue at him, but she merely shrugged, detangling herself from Ryan.
Ryan sighed at the loss of warmth just as she said, "Come off it, Seth. At least, we're still fully clothed. Which is more than I can say about you when I surprised you and Summer in bed together."
Seth turned a bright shade of red. "Er," he stammered.
"Did you want something, Seth?" Ryan asked pointedly. Seth's habit of barging into other people's rooms was one of his biggest flaws. For that reason only, Ryan was impatient to go back to the pool house (not that the pool house door locked, but at least, there, he sometimes managed to see Seth before the guy entered without warning or permission).
"Nah." Seth bounced on the edge of the bed, jarring Ryan who scowled at him. "Grandpa is here. Says his lawyer spoke to Julie earlier today." He sighed dreamily. "You gotta admit, there's no good way of learning you've been cheated on, but learning about it that way had to suck."
Ryan could almost see the jokes starting to gather in Seth's mind. Knowing his friend's atrocious sense of humor, all of them would be tasteless. "Seth," he said. He motioned to Lindsay, inwardly praying that Seth would have the good sense to think before he talked, for once.
Lindsay was looking at them both, her expression unreadable.
"Right," Seth said. "I think I'll just… remain silent, now."
Ryan and Lindsay shared an incredulous glance.
"Who are you?" Lindsay started.
"And what have you done with Seth Cohen?" Ryan completed.
Seth made a face at them. "Very funny. Ha ha. You're so funny together."
"Has Julie gone back to Jimmy?" Lindsay asked before Seth could start to rant.
"Word on the street says she did, yes. No one seems to know yet what they're going to do. Sail to Hawaii? Live on their boat for the rest of their lives? The question remains open."
Knowing Julie, Ryan very much doubted the new Cooper-Nichol-Cooper baby would grow up on a boat, but he refrained from saying so. It wasn't his problem. The Cohens had enough on their plates without worrying about the Coopers.
Kirsten still seemed shakier than anyone was comfortable with—shaky enough that even Lindsay had picked up on it.
Ryan didn't think that she and Sandy had decided what they wanted to do yet. He suspected that she had seen a therapist before leaving the hospital, but he didn't know how the Cohens were going to handle her addiction.
Was Kirsten going to be sent to an in-patient rehab facility? Was she going to attend AA meetings? Was she going to get therapy? All of the above?
He knew that she and Sandy had long talks about it, but so far, Ryan and Seth hadn't been told much, aside from, "Don't worry," and, "We're figuring it out."
Ryan did know that there wasn't a single drop of alcohol left in the house. He had checked, discreetly, once Kirsten and Sandy were holed up in their room. He didn't know whether to be glad they weren't ignoring the problem, or saddened that there was a problem at all.
He must have looked as gloomy as he felt, because Lindsay nudged him before asking cheerily, "So, Seth, how are things with Summer?"
Seth brightened immediately. "Great!" He sobered long enough to look at Ryan. "I'm not losing sight of—"
Ryan waved away his explanation. He knew Seth felt vaguely guilty of hooking up with Summer again so soon after what had happened to his family. Hell, sometimes, Ryan felt guilty for feeling happy with Lindsay too.
Kirsten wouldn't want them to spend their time brooding while she recovered, though.
"It's okay," he said. "I get it."
Seth nodded, and once again started to list all the ways in which Summer was perfect and how much being with her rocked.
Ryan settled in to listen, Lindsay drawing closer to him. He put an arm around her shoulders and she leaned on him, her body warmth seeping through his clothes, and he savored the sensation.
Ryan was going to die.
The water was rising, his seatbelt was stuck, and even if it got unstuck, he was trapped in a drowning car, and there was no way he'd be able to hold his breath long enough to swim to the surface.
Which was a moot point anyway, since the impact had jammed the seatbelt mechanism, and it was hopelessly stuck.
The water was reaching his chin and Ryan tilted his head back, gulping down oxygen, fighting back a wave of panic.
His fingers, numb with cold, struggled some more with the seatbelt release button.
Then, the water rose some more, covered his mouth, his nose, and Ryan closed his eyes.
When he opened them again—again? Wasn't he supposed to be dead?—he was falling and Kirsten was falling next to him.
He reached out, grabbed her hand, held on tight.
Pull this car over, now!
Kirsten's hand was wrenched from his and he saw her fall down, and down, and down, spiraling almost gracefully out of his reach.
"Kirsten!" he yelled.
When he reached out for her, his fingers didn't meet anything but air.
She was several feet beneath him now, heading straight to the black water.
The same water that was climbing up to meet him awfully fast.
Ryan closed his eyes.
When he opened them again, he was stuck in the car again, trapped by his seatbelt.
And Kirsten was not with him.
Ryan woke up with a gasp, his arms trapped by his sides.
"You with me now, kid?" Sandy asked, peering down at him.
Ryan nodded jerkily, panting, disoriented. Sandy let him go and Ryan sat up slowly, trying to get his bearings.
He was in the guest room—the Cohens had insisted he stay here after he'd been released from the hospital. "Just until you feel better," they'd said. Ryan had accepted, mostly because they looked worried and guilty every time they looked at him and he wanted to appease them.
"You okay?" Sandy asked when Ryan's breathing returned to normal.
"Yeah." Ryan shook his head slowly. "Sorry."
Ryan rolled his eyes. Given that Sandy had found him trashing in bed, maybe even talking, there was really no point in denying it. "Yeah."
Sandy's reaction was exactly what Ryan expected—a patient, "Wanna talk about it?"
Still fuzzy with sleep, Ryan offered, "I couldn't get out of the car. The water was rising, and I couldn't get out of the car, and…"
I lost Kirsten.
I couldn't catch her, I wasn't quick enough.
"Did that really happen?" Sandy asked.
Ryan shot him a surprised look, leading Sandy to add, "You didn't talk about it. I just… Did you have trouble getting out of the car?"
Ryan swallowed, nodded. "My seatbelt was stuck. Then, I couldn't open the door."
He saw Sandy's jaw clench and stopped. He shouldn't have said anything at all. He didn't want Sandy more worried than he already was. "I'm sorry you had to go through this, kid," Sandy said.
"I'm fine," he replied hastily. "I'm fine." Not that claiming so ever made a difference. Sandy and Kirsten kept apologizing, several times a day. No matter how many times he told them that he was doing well, they still kept apologizing.
And sure, the recurring nightmares were a bitch—disturbing, scary, and real enough that Ryan could feel his lungs burn again, like they had that night. Still, having nightmares meant that he was alive enough to get them, so that was good.
Sandy looked skeptical, but he didn't push.
Another rush of gratefulness through Ryan. He glanced at the clock.
Five in the morning.
No sense in trying to go back to sleep now.
Looking at Sandy, he smiled sheepishly. "Pancakes?"
Sandy smiled, rubbed his hands. "Kid, that's the best idea I've heard all day."
"The day's still young," Ryan pointed out.
Sandy didn't let that deter him. "Doesn't matter," he said. "I'm sure it'll be the best idea I'll hear all day."
In many ways, the night of the accident seemed unreal—almost like it had happened to another family.
Sandy had the feeling that they were all going through the motions. Discussing the best course of action to help Kirsten, making sure Ryan got the support he needed, making sure Seth wasn't lost in the shuffle and keeping Social Services off their back, required all of Sandy's energy.
At least his job was covered. The fact that he was going to owe some people a lifetime of favors was totally inconsequential, as long as it gave him time to focus on what was really important.
And of course, the fact that he was able to blow off some steam when he spent half an hour yelling into the phone at the cops who had left one of his kids to freeze to death in a holding cell didn't hurt either.
Damn, but that felt good.
Every time he started to wonder if he should have some pity, he remembered Ryan's drowsy, "They took me to jail," at the hospital, the slurred words fuelling his fury all over again.
Once he eventually stopped screaming and allowed the cops to thoroughly apologize, he hung up and saw that Ryan and Seth had witnessed some of that.
Both of them looked awed.
"Remind me never to get on your bad side again," Seth said.
"Son, I would have thought you'd have learned that lesson years ago," Sandy replied half-jokingly.
The boys retreated then, but the look Ryan shot Sandy on his way out was worth a thousand thanks.
That kid just didn't think he was important enough for people to stand up for him.
Well, he'd learn.
Sandy would make sure of that.
Still, that little fun notwithstanding, life had been strange recently in the Cohen household.
Everyone was walking around on eggshells, and Sandy didn't know how to go about fixing this.
Kirsten adamantly refused to go to rehab. "I know I need help, but my place is with my family," she kept saying. Sandy couldn't deny that. He just hoped he wasn't making another mistake by not forcing the issue.
She had attended two AA meetings already. She said they helped, but she insisted on not saying it to the kids right away. "Just in case," she said.
Just in case AA wasn't enough and she had to leave, Sandy translated. Let's not give them false hope.
Lindsay, at least, seemed more at ease around the lot of them, and she seemed to be doing a world of good to Ryan. Despite the nightmares and the skittishness whenever anyone talked about the accident, Ryan seemed more comfortable with them than he ever had.
Seth, too, seemed to be taking the situation in stride. It must have shaken him to realize that he had almost lost his mother and his brother, at the same time he had realized that his mother was human and made mistakes, but he was doing all he could to help.
Caleb was around a lot more often—an unpleasant but unavoidable consequence. At least, his hostility towards Ryan seemed to have faded. He hadn't even made a jab at Ryan's driving skills, had actually thanked him for saving Kirsten.
Ryan hadn't said a word about it, but Sandy had studied him carefully the last few times Caleb had been around, and he thought Ryan looked slightly less tense—almost as if he didn't expect an attack from the old man any time soon anymore. About damn time.
Sandy sipped his first cup of coffee of the day. The house was quiet, as was the pool house—Ryan had finally gone back to it the previous day, pleading that he was fine and needed some privacy from Seth. This small hint of things returning back to normal had been good for everyone.
They had all been given second chances.
He had been given a second chance.
This time, he vowed he wouldn't screw it up.
Ryan froze on the patio, just short of entering the kitchen, the sharp sob coming from inside the house taking him by surprise.
He cautiously peeked into the kitchen.
Kirsten was sitting at the counter, her back to him, head in her hands.
She shoulders were shaking softly as she cried.
Ryan swallowed past the lump in his throat.
How many times had he found his mother like this?
How many times had Dawn cried—wanting him to help her, take that burden away from her. Wanting him to forgive her? Swearing she wouldn't do it again?
He shook the thoughts.
Kirsten wasn't like Dawn.
Kirsten wasn't asking him to take care of her problems. She was doing everything she could to make sure that Ryan and Seth's lives weren't too disturbed by her problems.
Kirsten hadn't yelled at him that it was all his fault, or that she was just trying to do the best she could, as Dawn had once done. Ryan could still remember with painful clarity Trey's smirk, his cynical, "Yeah, well, nice to see the therapy worked."
That must have been after Dawn's third stint in rehab.
Aren't you the slightest bit mad? a little voice asked him tauntingly, intruding on his thoughts. Mad that life made you go through that shit again? Mad at Kirsten for not being perfect? Mad that you ended up with another alcoholic mother?
Ryan took a deep breath, ignoring the nagging questions.
If it had been Dawn, he might have gone to her, allowed her to rest on him, made her talk to him.
But this wasn't Dawn and…
And he had spent too much time already dealing with Kirsten as if she had been Dawn.
He had covered for her so Sandy wouldn't know there was a problem.
He had covered for her so she could lie to herself and pretend that her drinking was still well under control.
He'd just had to do something. He couldn't let people he loved hit rock bottom, not without trying to prevent it.
Ryan wasn't blind enough not to see that he had fallen back on old habits, doing for Kirsten what he would have done for Dawn.
He should have remembered that he had never helped Dawn—not in any way that counted.
He'd just have to let her struggle her own way through. There was nothing he could do for her.
For either of them.
He took a step back just as Kirsten got to her feet and took the phone.
He continued his silent retreat, only stopping when he bumped into something.
He spun on his heels, startled, and came face to face with Seth, who was staring at Kirsten.
Ryan nudged him softly, and Seth finally focused on him. They exchanged a long, silent look.
Ryan knew it had hit Seth hard to realize that his mother could get sick too.
He didn't blame him. He had been blindsided too.
He had always known that human beings made mistakes, but he had never thought the same theory would ever apply to Kirsten.
"I'll go in by the front door," Seth said.
They hurriedly went back to their rooms, before Kirsten realized they'd seen her.
"You were wrong, you know," Ryan told Kirsten, two weeks after the accident.
She had admitted to both her sons that she was now attending AA meetings, and they had both nodded in either acknowledgement or acceptance before asking if they could go out the next day.
She hadn't pushed, wary of making them more uncomfortable than they already were.
Ryan had hung back after they had finished eating, helping her to fill the dishwasher. They were standing side by side in front of sink. He was rinsing out the dishes and handing them over to her, their movements coordinated and sure. It was part of their well-honed evening routine, familiar and comforting.
"About what?" she asked when it became clear that he wasn't going to elaborate if she didn't prompt him.
"When you said that you were the parent, and it wasn't my place to worry about you."
She tried to catch his glance but he was studiously avoiding looking at her.
She wondered once again how mad he was. He kept to himself most of the time, and he was too skilled at hiding his emotions, but she knew that deep down, he had to be somewhat angry, even if he didn't admit it—even to himself.
It wasn't fair for her family, but it was even more unfair for Ryan, who had been promised a new life—a life where he would never be put in such a situation again.
He was waiting for an answer, so she swallowed thickly and said, "I was drunk."
"I know." His tone was warm and un-judging, and for all his awkwardness at initiating this discussion, he wasn't letting go. "I just meant… You can worry about me, and I can worry about you, and Seth can worry about you and…" She looked at him when he trailed off. He was staring out the window, at the sunset over the ocean. "I mean, that's part of being a family, right?"
His voice caught on "family," but only slightly.
Kirsten nodded, blinking back tears.
He didn't say anything more and they finished filling the dishwasher in silence, while Kirsten thought about what he'd said.
You were wrong too, Ryan. You said I wasn't like Dawn, but that's not true.
I'm not that different.
The thought shamed her.
She didn't want to imagine how many times Dawn had promised him never to drink again, only to fail to keep her word.
She didn't want to imagine what it must have been like for him to live through this, and survive, and find another family, only to go through the same thing all over again.
Kirsten vowed, then and there, that she wouldn't disappoint Ryan that way.
She couldn't protect him from the world any more than she could protect Seth, but there was one thing she could do; get sober. Stay sober.
Failure was not an option.
Two weeks later, she was leading Ryan into a room in a white building, not far from the pier.
The chairs had been set up facing the stage, reminding her of a classroom—and weren't they here to learn how to live with themselves?
"What are we doing here?" Ryan whispered.
She could see in his eyes that he already knew.
She smiled and squeezed his hand.
Once everyone was seated, a woman took the stage and asked if anyone wanted to speak.
Kirsten got to her feet, feeling Ryan's eyes on her; her legs were shaking but when she spoke, her voice was firm.
"Hi, my name is Kirsten and I'm an alcoholic."
I think I speak for both Brandy and myself when I say thanks to Helen for this wonderful ending to our story.