Thanks to everyone who stuck with this marathon story. I hope the ending satisfies, because it fought me, and I am written out! There may be a Lindsay-Ryan, Seth-Summer epilogue.
Collision Course Chapter 26

"Seth? What's wrong? Why does Ryan need us? What's happened?"

Kirsten's voice, shrill and distant, skidded on the edge of panic. Belatedly Seth realized that it wasn't a good idea to terrify his mother when he wanted her to drive for the first time since the accident.

"Nothing's happened, Mom," he said, trying simultaneously to sound urgent and reassuring. "Or well, yeah, I mean something did, or at least it could, but Ryan's fine. Physically. It's just . . . could you pick me up and I'll explain when you get here?"

"Did the car break down? Are you stranded somewhere? Seth, what is going on?"

Seth raked his fingers through his hair, producing drunken curls that staggered over his head. "I'm not stranded," he replied. "Except, I kind of am, because Zach went to the trade show, and—okay, see, Mom, I could explain this while we're actually driving to Grandpa's house, which would be a lot more time-effective than this conversation. So, short version: this advisory panel? It's some kind of a fucking set-up."

There was a moment of silence so absolute that Seth thought for a moment the line had gone dead. "Mom?" he prompted anxiously.

He heard a sound, like a sharp breath or a stifled curse, and then Kirsten ordered, "Tell me where you are." Her tone was terse and insistent, almost unfamiliar to Seth. It belonged to the Kirsten Nichol Cohen who coolly chaired corporate meetings and snapped orders to contractors more than twice her size.

Startled, Seth echoed uncertainly, "Where I am . . ." He made an awkward pirouette, craning his neck to check for street signs. "Right, now, that would be—okay, I know it's Wilshire Boulevard. Let me just see--"


"Wilshire and Crandall. I'm on the northeast—wait, the sun's setting there, so okay, the northwest corner. In front of an eye clinic . . . You're gonna come, right Mom?"

"Just don't move," Kirsten commanded. "I'm on my way, Seth."


At the sound of people coming through the French doors, Ryan jerked upright, with Jamie still molded damply to his back. His hands slid off her slick skin as he moved. Giggling, she slipped her fingers inside the waistband of his pants, and began rubbing slowly, trying to reach lower. Ryan's breath hitched, and he could feel heat flaming his ears.

"Jamie, stop," he hissed.

"Why?" she asked lazily, nuzzling his neck. "You like it. Know you do."

"Fuck, Atwood," Eric drawled, nodding appreciatively at the sight of Jamie's wet, nearly nude body. "At it already? And here I thought this advisory panel shit was going to mean a wasted evening. Guess we'll get to be wasted instead, huh? So where are you hiding the booze?"

Ryan's jaw tightened as he attempted to disengage Jamie's fingers without hurting her. "It's not a fucking party, Eric," he snapped. "And there is no booze . . . Jamie, I mean it. Stop now . . . "

"There sure as hell was some, though," another guy commented. "What did you two do, drink it all yourselves?" He sat down, spread his legs and patted his groin. "Hey, Jamie, if Atwood doesn't want what you're offering, you can always bring that action my way."

Ryan could feel Jamie's body tense against his. "Shut up, Tucker," he ordered curtly. Ducking one shoulder, he managed to turn and lift Jamie off the lounge chair. He kept one arm circling her shoulders, holding the tablecloth in place as he set her down. She leaned against him, shivering and unsteady. "Jamie's going to get dressed now."

"I am?" Jamie cuddled closer. She blinked up at him, her eyelashes tangled together in spiky clusters. "How come, babe?"

"Because I don't feel like playing these games," Ryan's voice was brittle, and he lowered it, adding in a weary whisper, "Just, please, get dressed, Jamie."

"Thought you wanted to play," she protested. Her face looked like a child's, sulking but also nakedly hurt. "Thought we were gonna get to know each other better. You know, have fun tonight, like we were gonna at that tightass party last week."

Ryan's eyes narrowed. Snatching her clothes, he steered Jamie toward the house, past the leering eyes of more arriving guests. "Why would you think that, Jamie?" he asked. In his voice, a degree of sympathy mixed with suspicion.

"They said," Jamie murmured vaguely. They reached the French doors and she swayed against Ryan. One hand clutched his, while the other curled around his neck, playing with the ends of his hair. "Just wanna have some fun with you, babe. You know, like before. 'Member?" When Ryan stiffened, clenching his jaw, she added plaintively, "You really don't want me . . . want me here?"

Ryan paused, trying to find the right words. "You being here is fine, Jamie. It's just that I don't want . . . this." Gently, he peeled her off his chest, and took a step back, creating a space between their bodies.

"I don't understand." Jamie's lips started to tremble, and she pulled the tablecloth tight, shrinking inside it. "Thought you liked me. Ryan, don't you like me even the littlest little bit?"

Ryan reached toward her and then dropped his hand helplessly. "Yeah, I like you," he said. "Look, Jamie, you're fun and sexy as hell, and I bet there's a lot more to you that you don't let people see. So shit, yeah, under other circumstances . . ." Gritting his teeth, Ryan swallowed hard before he declared firmly, "But I have a girlfriend."

"Oh," Jamie whispered. "That, what's her name, Lindsay? Really?"

Ryan closed his eyes briefly, then nodded and handed Jamie her clothes. "Yeah. Lindsay," he confirmed. "She means a lot to me. And she trusts me, even though she knows what happened . . . what almost happened . . . between us. So you've got to understand, no matter how tempting it . . . you . . . may be . . ." He exhaled a shaky breath and stroked Jamie's cheek with one finger, concluding gruffly, "I really can't . . ."

Clutching her dress to her chest, Jamie studied Ryan, her head tilted, her expression bemused. "God," she sighed finally. "You do one hell of a sexy rejection, babe. Hope Lindsay knows how lucky she is. I'd give anything to have a boyfriend like you." Standing on tiptoe, she pressed a long, chaste kiss on Ryan's mouth, tracing it lightly with her tongue just as she pulled away. "So if the two of you ever break up . . ."

"I'll let you know," Ryan promised. His lips quirked in a crooked half-smile. "You okay?"

Jamie shrugged. "Yeah. Well, except for freezing a little. But I think maybe me hanging around isn't such a great idea . . ." Her voice trailed off and she twisted a wet curl around her finger.

"No, stay," Ryan urged. His expression tightened, even though his tone stayed consoling. "Look, Jamie, you got played here—we both did—and I'm sorry about that. But you've got nothing to be ashamed of, okay? And besides, you're not in shape to drive home right now. Please don't go yet."

"You care whether I get home safe?"

"Yeah. I do."

"That's nice, Ryan," Jamie said softly. "You're nice. Thanks for . . . well, not treating me like the ho of Newport. So I guess I'll just . . . get dressed and come back out? And maybe, we could be, kind of, friends?"

A loud splash and whoops of raucous laughter punctuated by shattering glass startled them both. Ryan's head whipped around. His eyes darkened, and he nodded grimly. "That would be great, Jamie. I think I'm going to need all the friends I can get here tonight."


Kirsten clutched the steering wheel in a death grip.

Ever since she finished talking to Seth, she had been moving automatically, getting her jacket and purse, checking for directions, walking to the Rover, pulling out her keys. They felt sharp and icy in her hands, but she didn't allow herself to think about that, or about the way her body recoiled when she climbed in the driver's seat. For just a moment after she turned on the ignition, she sat, listening to the hum of the engine, staring sightlessly out the repaired windshield, preparing herself to put the car into gear.

She could do this, Kirsten told herself sternly. She had to do this.

For some reason, her mind conjured images of a humid evening like this sixteen years ago. Sandy had been working late, leaving her alone with Seth, who, overtired and teething, began first to fidget and then flail, arcing his back as she held him, hiccupping into her shoulder. Kirsten fed him and changed him and rocked him, but still he cried inconsolably whenever she tried to put him into his crib. Seth's eyes, dark with exhaustion, kept fluttering shut and then snapping open, tears and misery staining his cheeks. Desperate to soothe him, and equally desperate to escape the stifling house that echoed with his sobs, Kirsten finally bundled up her restless baby, tucked him into his car seat, and drove.

They hadn't gone a quarter mile before the motion and sound lulled Seth to sleep.

Kirsten remembered sneaking amazed peeks at her baby's face in the rearview mirror. Each time she marveled at how rapidly the red splotches faded, how readily Seth's small limbs relaxed and his breathing evened to a soft pulsing sound, something like a purr. She remembered too, the warm feeling that suffused her own body—relief that she had found a way to comfort her son, hope that she would always be able to keep him safe.

Shuddering slightly at the memory, Kirsten set her shoulders, took a long breath, and pulled out of the drive.

If her child—both her children—needed her now, she couldn't indulge her own fears anymore.

Kirsten didn't glance at the guardhouse when she turned onto the main road, even though she could see the guard waving in her peripheral vision. Willing herself not to think of anything except the directions, she drove steadily, cautiously, sitting straight in her seat, until at last she spotted Seth. Bouncing impatiently, he leaned out to check oncoming traffic, his arms waving like semaphores when he saw the Rover approaching. The instant Kirsten pulled over, he darted over to the driver's side.

"You're here," he gasped through the open window. His voice was ragged, as though he had been running. "Well, okay, obvious point, but . . . great. Thanks, Mom. For coming. I wasn't sure . . . well, I mean, I was sure you'd come, because you said you would, but, you know, not so sure that . . . well, anyway, if you scoot over, I can drive now."

Seth's breathless gratitude melted something frozen in Kirsten. Smiling ruefully, she patted his cheek. "I'm fine, Seth," she said. "Just get in before the light changes."

"You don't mind driving? Really?"


His eyes wide with surprise, Seth bobbed his head and bounded around to slide into the passenger seat. He sat in uncharacteristic silence as his mother eased the car back into traffic, her eyes fixed on the road ahead.

"I'm waiting," Kirsten prompted impatiently. "Seth?"

"Huh? What?"

"Why does Ryan need us? What's going on?"

"What's going on? Oh, right, you mean tell you what's going on," Seth stammered. He drummed his fingers on his knees. "So, turns out Zach knows some of the people Grandpa invited to this advisory panel thing tonight. Their parents all work for the Newport Group, which, fine, nothing suspicious there. But Marissa and Lindsay weren't invited, which I've got to say I think is a little bizarre, since, hello, Grandpa pretty much is the Newport Group. And then kids who were asked . . . Okay, now what's the politically correct way to put this?"

"Just say it, Seth. What about them?" Kirsten demanded.

Seth yanked off a thread dangling from the hem of his t-shirt. "It's like a who's who of Harbor's major players, Mom," he blurted. "Like, all the kids Ryan was hanging with at the re-launch party when, when, well, you know . . . And, I hate to think Grandpa did it deliberately, but . . . shit, that's exactly what I do think. I'm sorry, I mean, he's my grandfather and I love the guy in a somebody's-got-to-do-it, blood-is-thicker kind of way. Even though I'm really not so sure how he feels about me. But I do know Grandpa hates Ryan, and my guess? He's hoping to make Ryan to screw up so bad that you and Dad throw him out. Or Lindsay breaks up with him. Or he gets sent back to juvie. Or maybe, I don't know, all of the above."

Exhausted by his outburst, Seth leaned back miserably, bracing for his mother's reaction.

"I should have known," Kirsten whispered. She took a deep breath before she spoke again, but when she did, her tone was firm and steady. "All right, Seth, first of all, your grandfather does love you."

"You think?" Seth asked dubiously.

"I know he does."

Seth shrugged, and found another loose thread to coil around his finger. "Yeah, okay, maybe—in a he's-my-grandson-so-I've-got-to kind of way. But he's not proud of me."

"Oh, sweetie," Kirsten sighed. "Love and control get mixed up in your grandfather's mind. You insist on being your own person, and that throws him. One of these days, he'll be proud that he can't force you to be something you're not. Strength of character is a good thing, Seth, and don't you ever forget it. But as for Ryan . . ." Kirsten's voice trailed off unhappily.

"Don't try to spin it, Mom," Seth warned. "Grandpa flat out despises Ryan. You should have heard what he said about him at the re-launch party—I mean, not to me, but I heard him. Overheard him. Not that I was trying to eavesdrop or anything."


"Really, I wasn't," Seth insisted, hunching down in his seat.

"Sweetie, just tell me," Kirsten urged. "What did you hear?"

A dull flush of vicarious shame shadowed Seth's face. "Some guy was complimenting Ryan's designs—I guess you showed them to him," he recalled glumly. "But Grandpa blew him off. He called Ryan a delinquent and an opportunist. Some other stuff too." Seth's forehead creased in bewilderment. "And see, that makes, like, zero sense, Mom. Because shit, Ryan's smart and strong and athletic, and yeah, he comes from a rough background, but so did Grandpa. Ryan's even interested in Newport-Group stuff. He's like, the ideal Nichol grandson, except, you know, not-so-related. I don't get what Grandpa has against him."

With the car stopped at a light, Kirsten reached over and rubbed Seth's arm soothingly. "I think that's the problem," she mused. "Your grandfather sees some of himself in Ryan, so he assumes everything about them is likely to be the same. And my father—well, a lot of the things he did to make his fortune were not exactly kosher, Seth."

"Kosher?" Seth snorted. "Okay, only Mom? Wrong side of the family there, remember?"

"You know what I mean," Kirsten reproved, although her lips crimped in amusement. "Your grandfather has never trusted Ryan because he knows that in Ryan's position, he would have been out for everything he could get. But I really believed that he had finally realized how wrong he is . . . Seth, what exactly are you afraid is happening at your grandfather's house?"

Seth shrugged and stared out the window. "I don't know," he mumbled. "Sex, drugs, rock and roll? Maybe a few police sirens?"

"Oh Seth, you don't think Ryan--?"

"No!" Seth protested vehemently before he amended, "I mean, I don't think he would, because, you know, it's not like it was the night of the party. Things are better now. With us, and between him and Lindsay and, well . . . everything. But no matter what, Ryan shouldn't have to deal with Grandpa alone. He's always had my back. It's just . . . it's time I returned the favor, that's all."

Kirsten flashed her son a small smile of mingled pride and approval. "I think you're right," she agreed. "But Seth, you do know that your father and I would never throw Ryan out, don't you?"

"Yeah, Mom, of course I do." Seth looked at his mother and nodded decisively. "And I think even Ryan knows that now. But Grandpa doesn't."

"Well, he's going to," Kirsten declared. Seth heard it again—that determined, indomitable tone, and he felt a surge of confidence. His mother was back. "Call your father, would you, sweetie? I think we Cohens need to present a united front tonight."


Without bothering to knock, Ryan swung open the ornately carved door to Caleb's office. He took three steps inside, then stopped, his eyes dark and dangerous as they scanned the room.

Caleb's chair had been facing the window, but at the sound of the door, he swung around. "Ah, Ryan. It's rather early, isn't it?" he asked, swirling the cognac in his glass. His tone was cool and faintly amused, and he took a sip before continuing. "Don't tell me the advisory panel has already completed its work and adjourned for the evening?"

A muscle jumped in Ryan's jaw. "Everybody's gone home if that's what you mean," he answered. His lips twisted cynically as he spotted a globe in the room and he crossed to it, giving it a vicious spin. "And I see you've finished—what was it now? Dealing with some emergency in Japan that kept you from joining us?"

Caleb shrugged slightly and poured himself another drink. "I managed to avert the crisis."

"Yeah. I'm sure you did." Ryan gritted his teeth, hating to ask, but finally ground out, "I couldn't find your driver. Could you call him for me?"

Running his finger along the rim of his glass, Caleb studied the boy thoughtfully before nodding. "Of course," he agreed, "if you're ready to leave."

"I'm ready," Ryan snapped. "Unless there's something else you want me to do for you. Take a drug test, maybe?"

Caleb's brows furrowed and he rose from his seat. "Young man, don't you take that tone--" he warned.

"My tone?" Ryan hissed. He seemed to be forcing the words out between measured breaths. "Yeah, that's the problem here."

"That will do, Ryan." Gripping the edge of his desk, Caleb added with icy disdain, "Clearly you have no idea what was going on here tonight."

"Hell, I know exactly what this was tonight," Ryan retorted. "And it had nothing to do with any youth center. You found out what happened at your party, and you thought you'd give me a chance to fuck up again, right? Did you have the cops on standby to bust me?" Ryan's fists clenched, and he took a moment to get his hectic breathing under control.

"I said that's enough, Ryan. If you really want to know--"

"I don't," Ryan said flatly. "I just want to get out of here. Which is what you want too, right? Tell your driver I'll be waiting outside." He turned to the door, but Caleb moved swiftly to block his way.

"You and I aren't done here, young man."

Ryan clutched his cane tightly and retreated a step, as though he didn't trust himself close to Caleb. "We were done before we started," he sneered. "This was never an advisory panel. It was a fucking ambush. Do you think I wouldn't notice how you stacked the guest list? And made sure Jamie was here early, thinking that I—Well, sorry to disappoint you, Mr. Nichol. That part of your plan didn't work. Although you did lose a punch bowl and a few plants before I could convince everybody that the party was over. Oh, and your pool? You should clean it before you use it again. But I'm sure you already know all that, because you had security cameras watching us, right?"

Caleb drew himself up to his full height, his mouth tightening. "That was quite a speech, Ryan. I'm impressed," he observed. "You do have a curious sense of paranoia, though. I hardly need to justify myself to you, but the fact is I invited some children of Newport Group employees to participate on the advisory panel. It made perfect business sense. They have a vested interest in seeing this project succeed."

"Right," Ryan scoffed. "And it was just a coincidence that they happened to be the kids I was hanging out with at the re-launch party."

Caleb raised his eyebrows coolly. "Were they?" he countered. "Well then, they were friends of yours. I fail to see how you could take issue with me inviting your friends to work with you, Ryan."

"My friends," Ryan echoed. "You mean like Seth, and Marissa and Lindsay? Funny, I didn't see any of them here tonight. And as for work--" He swallowed, visibly choking back what he wanted to say. "You know what? I'm done talking to you. One thing, though--" Flinging a sheaf of papers on Caleb's desk, Ryan gave a short, bitter laugh. "These are the notes I made for the meeting. Yeah, I was that stupid—I actually thought we'd talk about the youth center tonight. Anyway, here you go—you know, so you can burn them or shred them, or keep them as souvenirs. Whatever . . . Thanks for the evening. I won't forget it."

In his haste to turn, Ryan lost his grip on his cane and it crashed to the floor. "Fuck!" he muttered, grabbing for it futilely. He refused to look back at Caleb as he fumbled to pick it up and make his way out the room.

Just as he reached the door, Caleb's voice halted him.

"Ryan," he ordered. "Stop right there."

At the tone of clipped authority Ryan spun around, rigid with rage. "Don't you tell me what to do," he snapped. "Just—don't."

"Or what? You'll give me a demonstration of that famous Atwood violent streak? Are you threatening me, young man?" Caleb's eyes locked on Ryan's, the goading words not quite matching his appraising expression.

Ryan's fists opened and closed convulsively. He shut his eyes, seeing Kirsten's face, Sandy's, Seth's, and forced himself to answer evenly, "I am not threatening you. I just want to leave. That's all."

"Fine," Caleb said. "Feel free to go." He stepped to the door and held it open with one hand. In the other, he grasped Ryan's discarded notes. Smiling ironically, he added, "But if you're as smart as my daughter claims you are—two of my daughters, in fact—you'll stay in this room and listen to what I have to say."


When no one answered the doorbell after three rings, Seth and Kirsten stared at each other in consternation.

"Oh-kay," Seth said slowly. "This makes no sense. How can no one be home? 'Cause I think it's safe to say we've got the right address." He stepped back and surveyed the house critically. "Ostentatious, oversize Taco Bell design? Yep, that's Casa Nichol."

Kirsten frowned, trying the locked door. "They have to be here. Maybe they're back by the pool, and just didn't hear us," she suggested. "Come on, Seth."

Striding quickly, she led the way around the house, but when they reached the patio, she and Seth both froze, exchanging apprehensive glances again.

"Shit," Seth breathed. Two tables were overturned, and several pieces of silverware floated in the pool among bobbing plants and a couple abandoned pieces of underwear. "Okay, you don't suppose Julie had a few Newpsies over for margaritas and they did this?" he asked hopefully. "Or maybe there was a mini-earthquake t here? That, um, shook the clothes right off people?"

Kirsten's mouth set in a grim line as she pulled her out phone and dialed, listening anxiously. "Ryan's not answering his cell, or at the pool house," she announced, before she caught sight of her son wandering through the chaos and demanded, "Seth, what do you think you're doing?"

Guiltily, Seth wiped off the finger that he was trailing through some white powder spilled on the buffet table. "Just, you know . . . checking," he muttered. "It's only sugar anyway. I think. Not that I'd know. Well, I would know sugar, but . . . Oh hell, Mom, this is so . . . really not good."

"Let's go," Kirsten ordered abruptly, grabbing his elbow.

Seth pulled back in confusion. "Home?"

"Inside." Kirsten pointed to the French doors, which stood ajar. "Somebody is here, and we're not leaving until we find out what happened and where Ryan is."

"Right," Seth agreed, but he shuffled in place, resisting his mother's attempts to propel him forward. Suddenly he was very afraid of what they might find.

Ryan and his grandfather were two formidable forces. If they had clashed . . . and it was clear that they had . . . well, an earthquake would probably do less damage.

And Seth didn't know if his family could survive another rift.

"Seth," Kirsten insisted. "House. Now." Noticing the dread in his eyes, she lowered her voice. "It will be all right, sweetie," she assured him. "Ryan came here in good faith, and he is not responsible for this. Trust me. I'll handle your grandfather."

"Right," Seth repeated. This time he set his shoulders and marched with his mother into the house.

Apparently the destruction was limited to the patio. Inside, all the rooms appeared in order, pristine but deserted.

"Dad?" Kirsten called. "Ryan? Where are you?"

Seth put his hand on her arm. "Mom, listen," he urged.

From the hall that led to Caleb's study, they heard his voice snapping, "Are you telling me that I'm wrong, young man?" and Ryan retorting, "That's exactly what I'm saying--"

"Oh God," Kirsten murmured. With Seth on her heels, she pushed open the door and swept in, ordering, "Stop it, Dad. If you're trying to blame Ryan for what happened outside--"

She broke off in bewilderment as she took in the scene in front of her: Ryan, sitting at Caleb's desk, adding lines to a rough sketch while Caleb stood behind him, one hand on his shoulder, the other pointing to a section of the drawing.

Ryan's head jerked up when he heard Kirsten's voice and he dropped his pencil, stumbling to his feet.

"Kirsten? Seth? What's wrong? What are you doing here? Are you okay?"

Seth's mouth opened and closed before he stammered a response. "Okay, dude, that was totally my line. What are you doing here? Are you okay? Because I found out who Grandpa invited tonight, and shit, when Mom and I saw the pool--"

Ryan flushed, but Caleb waved an arm dismissively and urged him back into his seat.

"The panel didn't work out," he said blandly. "However, Kiki, you'll be happy to know that Ryan and I have reached an understanding."

"The panel never existed," Kirsten retorted. "And before you go on, Dad, there's something you need to understand." She paused as Sandy rushed in, his tie askew and his eyebrows furrowed worriedly.

"Kirsten—Seth, I got here as soon as I could. Ryan, are you all right?"

"I'm fine," Ryan's eyes darted uneasily from Sandy to Kirsten and back to Seth. "I'm . . . really confused right now, though."

Seth grinned. "Relax, bro. It's just the last horse in the cavalry. Dad—the human Captain Oats."

"What the hell happened outside?" Sandy demanded. "Cal, I warned you . . ."

Caleb lifted his glass. "Just in time, Sanford," he noted sardonically. "Now the entire Cohen family can hear my daughter put me in my place. That is what you intend to do, isn't it, Kiki?"

"Call it whatever you like, Dad," Kirsten replied. "But if you ever again undermine either one of my boys, or belittle them, or try to manipulate them the way you did with Ryan tonight, you and I are done. Is that clear?"

"Kirsten--" Ryan began uncomfortably, but Caleb cut him off.

"Perfectly clear," he confirmed. "And now, may I speak?"

Leaning back against Sandy, Kirsten folded her arms and nodded curtly while Seth perched on a corner of the desk, watching with avid interest.

"I have already apologized to Ryan," Caleb reported. "This evening was . . . well, why don't we call it a test?" He raised his hand when Sandy began to protest. "Fine," he conceded. "Consider it a trap, if you like. The fact is Ryan acquitted himself admirably. I didn't expect him to behave with such restraint. I certainly didn't expect him to come prepared with ideas for the youth center, much less ones that are innovative and viable. So I'm prepared to admit that I may have been wrong about him."

Lifting his chin, Caleb nodded once, obviously considering the matter closed.

"Yeah, only, Grandpa? Not may have been," Seth argued. "You are wrong about Ryan." Caleb's eyes widened in surprise and Seth grinned, sitting up proudly. "Okay, was that disrespectful? 'Cause I gotta say, it felt totally good. I mean, hey, love you, Grandpa, but really? You've been an ass about Ryan since day one."

"Seth--" Ryan hissed, but Sandy clapped Seth on the shoulder.

"Well said, son," he declared. "And Cal, just so you know? You've been an ass about Seth too. Kirsten and I have two remarkable kids. That means you have two remarkable grandkids. It's time you started acknowledging that fact instead of fighting it . . . Okay, family. What do you say we head home? I'm thinking popcorn and a video. Maybe The Great Escape." Wagging his eyebrows, Sandy smirked at Caleb. "It's such an appropriate title, don't you think?"

Grabbing his cane, Ryan stood and started to gather his drawings, but Caleb laid his hand flat on the paper.

"Leave them," he urged. "I'd like to have our designers look at them. Perhaps they can call you—that is, if you're willing to work with us on the project this summer."

Ryan caught his breath and nodded. "I'd like that," he said quietly. "That would be . . . great, Mr. Nichol."

Glancing at Kirsten, Caleb gave a wry smile. "Please, Ryan," he suggested. "Call me Caleb."

Kirsten stepped to her father, kissing him quickly on the cheek. "It's about time, Dad," she whispered.

"So," Sandy said expansively, herding his family toward the door. "Who's riding in which car? You've got choices tonight, boys."

Ryan blinked, startled. "Really? Kirsten, you drove?"

"I drove," Kirsten confirmed. "And you can ride home with me, sweetie. We'll talk about plans for the youth center."

"Ah, so that leaves you and me, son," Sandy declared. "What are you in the mood for? I'm thinking one of the classics—maybe some Man of La Mancha." Sandy cleared his throat and began to sing the first bars of "The Impossible Dream."

"Mom—Ryan, I could ride with you too, couldn't I?" Seth asked hopefully, trotting after them.

Ryan shook his head. "Nope. Sandy likes an audience. Anyway, we'd bore you with design talk."

Seth's shoulders slumped, defeated. "Fine," he muttered. "But if Dad makes me sing Sancho Panza's part, I am totally blaming you, dude." With a pathetic glance over his shoulder, he began to trudge toward Sandy's car.

"Seth, wait," Ryan called. He ducked his head uncomfortably as Seth turned back. "You never told me . . . What about the comic book trade show? Presenting your work to a distributor? You gave that up, man? Why?"

Shrugging, Seth scuffed a toe along the driveway. "I'll have another chance sometime," he said simply. "It just seemed more important to have your back tonight . . . So, catch you at home, right dude?"

"Yeah," Ryan said thoughtfully. "Catch you at home."


Seth bounded into the kitchen where Kirsten was putting on coffee. "That is totally the wrong smell, Mom," he complained. "Dad and I stopped for the movie. You and Ryan were supposed to make the popcorn. By which I mean, Ryan was supposed to make the popcorn. Where is he anyway?"

"I'm not sure," Kirsten shrugged.

"Ryan!" Seth yelled, racing through the house. "You're shirking your popcorn duties, man!"

He skidded to a stop at the living room door. Ryan was sitting on the floor, already in his sweats and t-shirt, a box of cereal open by his knee. He glanced up from the TV screen, and gestured with his controller.

"Hey," Seth stammered.

"Hey," Ryan replied, smiling shyly. "Wanna play?"