After the Season 2 finale shooting, a shattered Ryan knows everything has changed …

Disclaimer: The OC Universe, with all its assorted characters, belongs to Josh Schwartz, et. al. No copyright or trademark infringement is intended, nor is any money being made.

A/N: Final chapter! Greetings and welcome to those of you who've come along on this journey with me – hope you've enjoyed the time you've spent in my AU…

A/N 2: As always, all mistakes are mine.

CHAPTER 14

Time: Picks up shortly after the end of Chapter 13, mid- afternoon of Day 5

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Sandy's argument with Kirsten lasted less than sixty seconds. She wasn't changing clothes, and neither was Ryan. The sun was warmer, their things were lighter weight, and they'd dry just fine, she'd reasoned, impervious to all reminders of what she'd said only earlier this morning..

After deflecting a final volley, she'd shepherded Ryan off toward the bath house.

Game. Set. Match. To Kirsten.

He now waited for their return, dutifully filling plates with finger sandwiches and fruit, and pouring fresh lemonade into tall, ice-filled glasses. Just as he was completing the tasks he'd been assigned, his wife and foster son reappeared, trekking damply from the bath house.

He wondered if he should worry that the pair weren't talking, or if he should read anything into their silence. After all, Kirsten? Ryan? Maybe silence was okay.

Besides, his wife could say plenty without speaking. Like the look she turned on him the second he met her eyes. Kirsten clearly wanted information, but she wouldn't voice questions whose answers might cause Ryan more distress.

"Talked to the ADA while you two were over there playing in the water," he tendered, encouraged by the look which passed between his wife and foster son. There seemed to be a degree of comfort between them he hadn't sensed before.

Kirsten touched his hand, obviously trying to keep her voice in check as she asked, "What did she have to say, Sandy?"

Sandy followed her eyes to Ryan's face, where the apprehension rising in the boy's eyes was palpable.

He cut immediately to the salient facts, "Sidney wanted to cancel our appointment. Seems they've decided not to pursue anyone other than Trey. And they're only going after him for parole violation and a misdemeanor drug charge, provided he continues to cooperate with their office. Trey's looking at serving out the rest of his original sentence. Good news is he'll probably be able to serve any drug-related sentence concurrently, if he doesn't screw this up. It's not gonna' be easy for him going back to prison, but all in all, it could have been a whole lot worse."

Not surprisingly, the teenager's anxiety was only partially abated. "But what about Marissa?"

Fortunately, Sandy had anticipated the question – it was quintessential 'Ryan'. "The DA's office isn't bringing charges against Marissa, either. They've accepted that the shooting was in the 'defense of others' – which means there's really nothing for them to prosecute, and they know it. Bottom line? You're both off their radar screen."

"That's great news!" Kirsten raised her lemonade glass, "To closed cases!"

Sandy tapped his glass against hers, "Hear, hear!"

Sandy watched as Ryan fingered his glass uncertainly.

"Not toasting, kid?"

The boy tilted his head to the side, turning his blackened eye away from Sandy's line of sight.

"What if the ADA had decided to prosecute? For assault? Or… worse?"

Sandy placed his lemonade back on the table, allowing his hands to rest clasped loosely around the glass. "Then we would have dealt with it. If it had made a difference, Ryan, we would have waited to talk to you until after we had their decision. Don't you see? Everything we've said today – everything we're trying to show you – it wouldn't have changed. We love you, no matter what. We want you in this family, no matter what. That's how 'unconditional' works, kid."

"Sort through the noise, Ryan," Kirsten coaxed.

Sandy turned to Kirsten, "What noise?"

His foster son intercepted his question, smiling crookedly, "Not important. Inside thing, okay?"

"Oooo-Kay," he answered, glancing quickly between his wife and foster-son and liking what he saw.

The boy looked down at the table, tracing his finger through the condensation from the icy drink. Peering up through his eyelashes, he flicked his eyebrows, "Unconditional, huh?"

Sandy nodded. "Unconditional."

The boy's eyes dropped back to the table, where he resumed tracing his finger through the water rings. Without looking up, he spoke, "It's a big word."

"It doesn't scare us."

Ryan traced another circle as he snorted softly, "Yeah, well, name anything that does."

"Ever losing you."

His foster-son's finger froze, his head rising, blue eyes wide and full of questions. Sandy met the teenager's gaze, not flinching while the boy probed deeply, willing Ryan to trust the answers that he found there.

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Even though he hadn't felt hungry, Sandy found himself polishing off the last of the finger sandwiches he'd piled onto his plate. He noticed that his wife and foster-son had eaten most of theirs, too, which was even more surprising. Their bodies must have needed the fuel more than he'd realized.

He hoped their impromptu break might have replenished some of their emotional reserves as well. If he'd needed the mental respite – and he had – he could only imagine how drained his wife and foster son must have been, with everything they'd both been through.

He'd tried to keep their conversation light while they were eating – laughing about his explosive learning curve with the microwave, trotting out Ryan's rope story and Seth's reaction, groaning over Seth's care package for Kirsten, complete with I-Pod and enough downloaded Emo tunes to see her through the next century…especially since she was into classic rock.

Unobtrusively, the food staff appeared, clearing away their dirty dishes and used utensils before vanishing, leaving small silver bowls of frozen mango gelato in their wake.

As he dipped his spoon into the dessert, Sandy focused once more on his foster son. Ryan's radar must have picked up the subtle shift in his attention, because the boy straightened out of his slouch and squared his shoulders.

Sandy leaned forward, "Remember earlier I said how much I respected your opinion about people? Your ability to read them?"

Ryan's eyes narrowed a bit, but the boy nodded as he sucked a spoonful of the gelato into his mouth.

Leaning back, giving the teen a little more space, he asked, "Do you think I'm any good at it? Reading people?"

The teenager's hand with the empty spoon stopped in midair. "Better than good." One corner of the boy's lip drew back slightly as he amended very softly, "At least, most of the time."

Sandy swirled his melting mango dessert around inside its bowl. "I messed up with Oliver, though, right?"

His foster-son flicked the spoon he held up and down, focusing intently in the direction of the bath house. The spoon grew still as the boy's eyes found his.

Ryan's voice was hesitant, "You didn't spend time with him."

The kid was nothing if not generous. Time to see how generous. "I've spent some time with you, though, right?"

The boy's face worked itself into a wary frown as the kid mined the gelato in his bowl. Looking up, Ryan squinted, "Is that a trick question?"

Sandy smiled reassuringly, "Not at all. It's just, I think you're saying I'm pretty good at seeing people for who they are – at least when I've spent time around them, right?"

Ryan still looked wary as he turned the spoon upside down inside his mouth. This time he only nodded, lips closed around the latest shovel full of mango ice.

"I'm suggesting that I've got a pretty good read on you, Ryan. As does Kirsten. And I think it's fair to say that we see you differently from how you see yourself. I think we may be able to see some things that you're too close to see, or that you've been conditioned not to see. What we'd like to do? Is to tell you a little of who we see when we look at Ryan Atwood. Would you let us do that?"

The boy pulled the spoon out of his mouth slowly, as though he were buying time. Sandy waited while the kid returned the utensil carefully to the table, and looked across at him.

"Do I have a choice?"

Good question. Sandy hedged, "I'm hoping you'll choose to hear us out."

Ryan's eyes slid half-closed as he shook his head in resignation. "In other words, no choice, right?"

"It's not gonna' hurt, kid."

The kid grabbed the spoon again, filling it with gelato as he smiled wryly, "So, I'm just curious. Who's gonna' speak up on behalf of the rest of Newport? Maybe Julie Cooper would have some stuff to say? Or the kids from Harbor? Like, I don't know, maybe some of the guys from our water-polo team? And hey, how about the police – they've got some pertinent perceptions, don't they?"

The spoon hung suspended in mid air, full of mango ice.

Kirsten leaned across the table, "First of all, there are lots of people I know in Newport who've said very complementary things to me about you. Your teachers, your soccer coaches from last year, a number of our friends from the country club and the yacht club – even the Newpsies."

Sandy covered his grin with one hand as he watched Ryan's face contort at the same time the spoon tipped over, spilling orange colored sweetness onto the dreaded scrubs. The teenager grabbed for a napkin, smearing the dessert as he blurted, "The Newpsies? Kirsten, they …"

He stopped, apparently rethinking what he was about to say. However, Sandy saw the boy's face turning pink.

Kirsten countered, "The Newpsies can be superficial sometimes, I'll give you that. But they're not blind and trust me – they're not easily impressed. They see a good-looking guy who also happens to be charming, gracious, and unfailingly considerate, and like a number of the other girls around this town, they're captivated. Face it, honey, you're the type of guy women are always gonna' fall for. And the fact that you don't let it go to your head? Makes you that much more appealing."

Sandy choked back a chuckle as he observed the boy's progressive reactions to the things his wife was saying. The quick succession of reddening ears, the offending spoon being sent clattering back to its place on the table, and mortified blue eyes rolling self-consciously before dropping in consternation – reminding him unquestionably the kid was only 17.

It was just – Ryan normally seemed quite comfortable with the frequent attention he received from girls – leave it to the Newpsies to throw him. Or maybe it was really Kirsten who was throwing him. Either way, Sandy couldn't help enjoying watching the boy act his age.

The boy's voice was strained as he finally stammered, "Please, Kirsten… that's… that's…"

Kirsten must have decided to take pity, "Too embarrassing to hear coming from me? I'm sorry, honey – I won't torture you anymore, I promise."

Ryan raised his face, "Thanks." He bit his lip, and flicked his eyebrows up before adding, "And thanks. For … you know."

"For telling you the truth?"

The teenager's head dipped, but not before Sandy saw the bashful smile the boy gave his wife.

Kirsten grew serious once again, addressing their foster son, "Going back to those other people you mentioned, I want you to think, Ryan. Who knows you better? Who is more credible – us or any of them?"

The kid stared hard at his hands as he answered, "I didn't mean… I just … I'm sorry."

Sandy sat back, watching Kirsten cover their foster son's hand with hers, her voice soothing, "Sweetie, all I'm saying is that I want you to weigh the facts, and decide for yourself who to believe. Trust me, I'm not afraid of the competition."

Sandy saw the teenager focus intently on Kirsten's fingers before he answered her, "There's no competition."

Kirsten nodded her head, her hand squeezing Ryan's until the teenager looked up. Satisfied, she let him go, and leaned back. Her eyes sparkled, "I knew that."

Clearing his throat, Sandy asked, "So, ready to get a glimpse of the Ryan Atwood we see, kid?"

Ryan wrapped his arms loosely around his body, although this time Sandy thought the boy looked more uncertain than defensive. He could see the effort the teen made to meet his eyes before shrugging and nodding his assent. Not surprisingly, the kid then quickly dropped his head, hiding most of his face from view.

Sandy decided to start with some simple observations. Ones he knew the boy could accept as true. "The Ryan Atwood I know is intellectually gifted, and not only thrives but excels in a very challenging academic environment. He maintains top grades in honors courses, consistently earns praise from his teachers, and has even won over a once-skeptical Dr. Kim."

At the mention of Dr. Kim, Ryan's eyes flicked upwards, followed by a small uplift of his face. The boy let a grudging smile cross his lips, as Sandy's remark seemed to have struck a chord. As well it should – the kid had every reason to be proud of what he'd accomplished at Harbor.

"And it's not just academically that this kid shows us his intelligence. He's an astute observer of people and behavior. He's a voracious reader. He's an innovative thinker, with an engaging dry wit. Even Seth gives him credit for being funny, and Seth's a hard sell."

"Tell me about it," groaned Kirsten. Appearing startled to see two sets of eyes turn toward her, she shooed their attention away with her hands, "Back on topic, funny guys."

Sandy saw Ryan's follow-up glance in his direction, seeking reassurance that Kirsten was okay. He shook his head slightly, pleased to see the boy relax a bit in response.

"So, where was I? I was about to say that this kid has the ability to juxtapose diverse thoughts and concepts to come up with fresh ideas and original theories. Like the spiel he gave me the first day we met. He's also a talented designer, as evidenced by his architectural solution for our family room that the professionals couldn't find, not to mention school projects like the planning and construction of a massive Trojan horse."

Ryan squirmed a bit in his seat, as though he were uncomfortable hearing praise. The kid finally turned a little away from toward them, positioning himself so that he could easily glance sideways at them, or out toward the Pacific.

Cautiously, Sandy moved on to his next point. Still simple. Still undeniable, even for this kid who discounted himself all too readily.

"Unlike most of the teenagers I've known, including my own, Ryan Atwood doesn't shirk household chores or other responsibilities. He keeps his room immaculate. He cleans up after himself in the kitchen. What am I saying? He cleans up after everyone. He even rinses the dishes before he puts them in the dishwasher, though I gotta' say, only God and Kirsten know why. He takes out the trash; he volunteers to help Kirsten or me whenever we need a hand setting up for or pulling off social events; he runs errands; he brings in the groceries; he even cooks… What I'm saying is that he sees something that needs to be done, and he does it. And we never have to ask."

Kirsten wrinkled her nose, "Flying food. You rinse the dishes to keep all that food from flying around in the dishwasher…"

Sandy saw Ryan's arms loosen, as the teenager turned up one corner of his mouth. Looking sideways at Kirsten he confessed, "I wondered why we did that. Rinsed the dishes, I mean. We never had a dishwasher, so I just copied what you did."

Kirsten's smile lit her face as she counseled, "Word to the wise, sweetie. While I'm gone, don't let Sandy or Seth near the dishwasher, and please – keep on rinsing."

Sandy grinned at the pair of them, "Glad you two got that sorted out!" When their glares back at him mirrored one another, Sandy held up his hands, realizing his wife and foster-son made a formidable team.

Grinning wider, he shrugged, "I'm just saying…"

Their glares intensified, prompting him to concede, "Okay! Moving on…"

He saw Kirsten's quick wink at Ryan, and his fleeting upturned lips.

Imagine. Bonding over flying food.

Sandy picked up with another observation the kid would be hard-pressed to dispute. "This kid is polite, respectful, and well-mannered. He's that way at home, at school, and in social situations. We don't say this often enough, but that behavior doesn't goes unnoticed or unappreciated. Kirsten and I have been pleased and impressed with his conduct, as well as very proud. He instinctively uses his considerable observation skills to great advantage, watching, learning, and then adopting situationally-correct behaviors."

"It's no big deal," the teenager blurted, sounding embarrassed.

"It's impressive, kid. And it's uncommon."

Ryan countered, "But you forgot to mention the fighting. Or the trips to juvie…"

Sandy answered firmly, "Trust me, kid. I didn't forget – I'm going to get to those things in a minute."

He watched as his foster son blinked, and ducked his head.

Sandy continued, "The Ryan I know is resourceful, disciplined, and determined. He's a hard worker, he finishes the things he starts, and he has a remarkable ability to focus on an issue or a problem…"

To his surprise, Ryan snorted, obviously amused, "Is that last part some kind of code for brooding?"

Smiling, Sandy acknowledged, "Angst, thy name is Atwood. But I wasn't talking about your brooding, kid. I was talking about the sheer power of concentration you can bring to bear on a problem."

He chuckled, adding, "Although, as brooding goes, I'd have to say that Ryan Atwood is a world-class brooder. He might just be the Yoda of brooding."

Ryan turned to Sandy, his expression rippling between a scowl and a smirk, "Finally. For a few minutes there, I thought maybe you had Ryan Atwood confused with some sort of saint."

Shaking his head, Sandy grinned, "Hardly, kid. I see you as a lot of things, most of them positive, but I'd never saddle you with sainthood. We've all got flaws, son. Bottom line is, I don't think any one of us is up for canonization anytime soon."

This time the expression on Ryan's face was a lot easier to read.

Judging from the boy's more open demeanor, he might be ready for something meatier. Something Sandy had alluded to before.

"Like I said earlier, the Ryan Atwood I know is considerate of the people he interacts with. He pays close attention to our feelings. He's been paying attention all day to Kirsten and I. What we're thinking. How we feel. He was careful earlier with Seth, considerate of his wishes even when they didn't exactly match his own. I can't begin to count the times he's been there for each of us, supporting, defending, helping, making real differences in our lives.

"Not to mention the innumerable times he's been there for his friends. Take Marissa – the kid's her personal white knight, always there when she needs him. Or Lindsay. He stood by her through some very rough times, back in the day.

"Or, what about everything he was willing to do for Theresa? Like saving her from a very angry Eddie, and reasoning with her when she was thinking about going back to an abusive relationship. And going back to Chino when she asked him to…"

He paused, overcome as he thought of the self-sacrifice Ryan had made. How much more he had been willing to make. His voice felt a little thick as he continued, "The kid's loyalty and sense of responsibility is overwhelming.

Ryan spoke hesitantly, "But what you're saying? It's not like there was anything else to do, you know? I mean, you do what's right, don't you?"

Sandy shook his head, "You'd be surprised how many people would do nothing. And the reason you'd be surprised, kid? Because 'nothing' is the last thing Ryan Atwood would ever think to do."

The boy turned away, staring once again toward the sea.

Evenly, Sandy continued, "The fact is, I can't even list all the times he's been there for other people. Like for Luke when we learned about his dad. And for Zach when he was hurting. Or what about rescuing Hailey from the strip club? Saving Trey from a false drug bust?

"The fact is, this kid's the polar opposite of self-absorbed. Frankly? Sometimes I think he's the poster-child for selflessness. I'm awed by, and very proud of his abiding, deep-seated thoughtfulness and consideration of others, as well as his ingrained instinct to help when anyone's in trouble."

Sandy watched as Ryan continued to focus on the Pacific, with just occasional sideways flicks of his eyes. As proud as he might be of this kid, he needed for Ryan to hear his concern as well.

"That said, I worry that he discounts his own feelings too much sometimes. That he doesn't take care of himself the way I wish he would, because he doesn't recognize that his own safety and well-being are every bit as important as those of the other people in his life. The people he wants to help. This much I know – he's vitally important to me, and to Kirsten, and to Seth. He needs to understand that, and factor it into his actions."

Ryan's head turned, his eyes contrite, "I'm sorry. I don't mean to make you worry."

"We don't need you to be sorry, Ryan. We need you to be safe."

The boy's head nodded slightly, but Sandy noted that the teenager made no promises – not that he really expected any today. However, this much he was sure of – the significance of Ryan's safety would be thoroughly addressed.

In therapy. Also at home. And very, very soon.

Sandy shifted his position, placing his elbows on the table and leaning into them. "This kid has faced hardships most kids, thankfully, will never have to face. And the thing is, they've left their mark. As smart as he is, he's conditioned to use his fists instead of his head sometimes. It's what he knows, what he's learned, what he still resorts to on occasion, under extreme circumstances."

Ryan swallowed hard, but didn't turn away. It was like the kid was making himself face judgment – honor-bound to bear the burden of his faults.

Sandy was tempted to forgo mentioning any further flaws, but he knew better. This kid would discount everything positive he might say if he omitted the negatives Ryan knew existed. For the kid to trust him, he had to speak the truth.

Resolutely, Sandy continued, "He can be hard-headed and stubborn to a fault when he thinks someone he cares for is in trouble and something or someone is standing in the way of his helping them. He has a hard time trusting people. And he's reluctant to turn to anyone for help."

The kid's head recoiled a bit, and his breath intake was a touch ragged, but other than those small signs, the boy remained stoic. His eyes, however, told a different story. Sandy could see the guilt and self-condemnation rising to the surface.

Seeking to shortcut the boy's self-flagellation, Sandy proffered, "He knows, and we know, that we have to face his demons – that we can't keep pretending they don't exist. He's got to start thinking, start trusting, start asking for help."

He could see his foster-son's bruised cheek as the boy finally turned away, eyes now closed. The muscles in the boy's jaw were lightly twitching as he seemed to consider Sandy's words.

Sandy's voice was insistent as he observed, "But this much I know, Ryan. Other qualities are forged by fire, too."

The eyes that found his were wary.

He felt his voice catch a little as he explained, "The qualities I'm talking about? Far outweigh the flaws. For example, Ryan Atwood has …"

He stopped, and started over, "You have resilience and inner strength that literally blow me away, Ryan. Like tempered steel."

"You've learned to face adversity, and cope with issues a kid your age should never have to deal with. You're exceptionally diligent and resourceful, meeting challenges without whining or complaining. You do it like you do everything – quietly, thoughtfully, introspectively."

"That's not anything special," Ryan objected, sounding embarrassed.

"More like exceptional."

Ryan blinked several times, but said nothing.

Sandy moved on, "You have the courage of your convictions, you're not afraid to act, and you accept responsibility for your actions. And incredibly, despite all you've been through – and we'll face those things together when the time's right – despite all that, you have a penchant for forgiveness and compassion.

"Maybe most impressive is that somewhere, somehow, you've developed a moral compass that you live by. I've watched, and I know your compass point is true. You're honest, your convictions are strong, and you conduct yourself with honor and integrity. You're as good as your word, and that, my friend, is powerful."

His foster-son was staring at him as though he had just arrived from Pluto, speaking Plutonese.

"What I'm saying is this: Ryan Atwood is a kid – you are a kid – who we love, who we respect, who we have faith in, who we're proud of, and who we want in our lives."

Ryan spoke, his eyes unsettled. "But, Sandy? The kid you just described? Doesn't sound a lot like me."

Sandy countered, "With all due respect kid – and I mean that sincerely – this is where I've got to disagree. The person I'm describing may not be the Ryan Atwood that you see, but the qualities I've described are as much a part of you as my predilection for words is a part of me. The thing is, kid, odd as this sounds, you're probably going to have to look at yourself through our eyes before you learn to see yourself realistically through your own."

"But what if you're wrong? What then?"

Sandy smiled reassuringly, "Remember that big word we talked about?"

Ryan blinked, "Unconditional?"

Nodding, he answered, "Still applies, kid. If I'm wrong about the boy you are right now – and I'm confident I'm not – but say for the sake of argument that I am – if I'm wrong, then we'll simply turn our attention to helping you become the young man I know you want to be."

The teenager's voice was hesitant, "Could be a gargantuan job, you know."

"I'm willing to accept that possibility. How about you, kid? Are you willing to accept the possibility that I'm right about you?"

The kid stared at him a moment before averting his eyes. Sandy watched the teenager take a few steadying breaths before turning back to him. "I'm willing to try to find the truth."

Sandy smiled widely, "And that, my friend, is exactly the answer I'd expect from you. It's precisely where your compass points you, kid."

Ryan's eyes widened, "I didn't say that because of what you said – I mean, it's just how… It's…" The boy stopped talking, obviously flummoxed.

"Face it kid, it's just who you are."

Sandy caught the quick wrinkle in Ryan's eyebrow, as though the kid were piecing together incongruent thoughts.

The teenager's voice sounded bemused when he finally spoke, "Maybe I'll give you that one."

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Ryan kicked at the water as he waded along the beach. Sandy and Kirsten had allowed him to leave the alcove to walk along the entire Suriak coastline. He had no doubt that his boundaries were the property lines of the institute, and that they were locked down tightly. Not that he wanted to escape – just that his guardians' willingness to let him roam alone had its limitations.

He stopped, considering the metaphor. Balancing it against his thoughts a couple of days ago when he'd waded in the cool Pacific, thinking he'd probably lost everything he'd grown to love. He locked his hands behind his neck, staring toward the horizon while the waves lapped tirelessly across his feet.

Who would have ever thought?

Squinting into the sun, he felt the tug as certainly as though his guardians were at his elbow. They'd be waiting for him by now. Another limitation on his freedom – their quiet but persistent expectations.

He held out another minute, testing strength of will – both his and theirs. At last, he smiled in resignation, not sure whose will was stronger since they both seemed to pull him in the same direction.

Turning back toward the alcove, he decided he could live within the narrower restrictions the Cohens were likely to impose going forward. Limits that would protect as much as control.

Maybe he'd been looking for rational boundaries all of his life.

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His foster parents were back at the palm tree, where they had started off with him this morning. Kirsten was sitting on the lowest point of the tree trunk, drawing patterns in the sand with her toes. Sandy was standing on the other side of the tree, a little further toward the water where the trunk reached just over waist-heigth. Sandy lounged against the trunk, his hands spread wide, palms down on the bark.

Ryan positioned himself between them, facing both his guardians. He stood back a couple of feet, not certain what was coming next.

"I had a message to you from Seth," Sandy grinned, obviously amused. "He says to 'hang tough with the 'rents' and promises that he'll 'let you win' at the PS2 game of your choice. You name the time and place, and he'll be there, ready to 'sacrifice' himself 'for the greater good.'"

"That's one way to spin it," Ryan scoffed. He raised his chin, looking quizzically at his guardians, "You know I totally own the Playstation these days, right?"

Kirsten smiled, "I think I've heard Seth mentioning you've 'improved'."

Sandy's dimples deepened, "See? That's what I'm talking about, kid. All that determination? The discipline? The concentration? Shows itself, doesn't it?"

Shit. He hadn't seen that one coming. He shrugged, not sure PS2 mastery was anything that should really count.

His guardian's eyebrows waggled, "Suit yourself, kid, but I'm telling you – I know what I see."

Sure of the answer, but anxious to move to another topic, Ryan asked pointedly, "So, are we finished here?"

Sandy's face grew serious, "I thought we'd talk about Trey. Actually, about a couple of things Trey called me on. Things we should have discussed a long time ago."

Ryan shook his head, "I still don't get why Trey would say anything to you."

"I do, kid. He's one messed up young man, but underneath all those layers of anger and pain and jealously, he's trying to look out for his little brother. And I have to say, doing a damn fine job the day he jumped on me."

"Riiiiiight. Trey's all about the brotherly love."

His guardian frowned, but said nothing for a moment. As though to clear the way for new words, Sandy smoothed one hand across the palm bark as he spoke, "Let's start with the pool house."

Ryan recoiled, "The pool house?"

Nodding, Sandy elaborated, "Trey wondered why you were still out there, instead of in the house with the rest of the family."

Ryan swallowed. He knew exactly why he'd been put out there in the first place, and he'd understood. However, stupid as he could be sometimes, he was smart enough to realize exactly what they'd given him.

A veritable treasure.

One he wanted to hang onto.

Uneasily, he offered, "I like the pool house. If Trey said something that made you think I didn't, I promise he was wrong."

Ryan saw the look of relief that passed between his guardians, surprised to think that they had ever worried. Hoping that they'd let the subject drop.

Kirsten spoke up, "I'm glad to hear that, honey. It's just… I worry about you out there. Separated from the rest of us like that. I'd really like for you to move inside the house."

Fuck.

That is, the sentiment was nice and all, but still... just fuck.

He stepped up closer to the tree, "That means a lot, Kirsten. Hearing you say that. But I'm only fifteen feet away, and it's not like it's really separate. I don't feel separated from you guys out there, I swear."

He saw the look Sandy gave him. The look that said: You're not fooling me. I know you want to stay in the pool house precisely because it is separate.

And the thing was? The man was right.

But for some reason, Sandy let Kirsten keep the lead. She pressed, "What about when it rains? Or hails? I've seen you and Seth trade phone calls, rather than walk across the patio, honey. Sometimes you're drenched by the time you make it inside to eat. Wouldn't it be nicer to be inside?"

"It's really okay. I'll… I'll get an umbrella, okay?" he countered hopefully. Weather was a lot easier to address than the separation stuff.

"You really like it out there, hum?" she finally relented. "You truly want to stay there?"

"I do. That would be a yes."

She frowned, before brightening, "Then maybe we should build some sort of passageway between the house and the pool house. Connect them."

Ryan shook his head, "That sounds pretty weird. And expensive."

Not ready to give up, Kirsten suggested, "Then what about some type of covered arbor? It could be pretty, give us some shade outside, and keep anyone going back and forth out of any nasty weather."

He shrugged, not exactly thrilled at the thought of making the trek to the pool house any more inviting. There was something to be said for separation, after all – Seth and separation in particular. "Maybe we could think about it, okay?"

"You'll draw up some plans? Let me see them next time you come visit?"

Ryan's lips twitched, recognizing that tone. "So, those aren't questions, right?"

Kirsten turned to Sandy, "Like you said, honey. He's extremely intelligent."

Ryan ducked his head, narrowly avoiding the smirk he was certain Sandy shot his way.

But he couldn't avoid Sandy's voice, "And diligent, right, Ryan? I'll be anxious to see the plans, too. But kid? Just so we're clear about your keeping the pool house? I think it's time we agree on some rules."

"Rules?" Ryan tried to sound nonchalant, but he didn't quite succeed.

However, Sandy answered smoothly, "For example, I know we've asked you to move out of your room when we've had company. We need to stop that – I promise, no more treating the pool house like it's another guest room. It's your room, and we won't ask you give it up for visitors."

Okay – that would be a pretty cool rule. But he knew Sandy had other rules in mind. Ones that wouldn't be so cool.

Sure enough, Sandy added, "Other rules we need to agree on? Things like what activities are unacceptable. When visitors are allowed, and when they're not. Where are the lines with respect to girls you have over. That type of thing. Got that?"

"Got it."

Anything to keep the pool house. Besides, they'd let the rules slide this long…

Sandy smiled knowingly, "Good, glad we're agreed. Want to set down some suggestions we can discuss with Kirsten next time we visit? When you bring the plans for the arbor?"

Kirsten nodded, "That would really make me feel a lot better about your staying out there, sweetie."

Fuck.

Still, the pool house was the pool house.

And it wasn't like he never broke the rules.

"Okay," he agreed, "If that's what you want."

Sandy's eyes twinkled. "It is. Was from the beginning."

Not allowing Ryan time to contemplate pool house life post-rules, Sandy changed the subject.

"Another thing Trey scolded me for was my calling you 'kid'. Be honest, Ryan – does that term bother you? I promise, you won't hurt my feelings."

Scrunching up his face in disbelief, Ryan shook his head, "Are you kidding? He said that?"

"He did. He thought it sounded too impersonal. That I should change it up."

Ryan snorted, "He's one to talk. You should hear some of the stuff he calls me. Trust me this time, Sandy. 'Kid' is just fine. Better than fine, coming from you."

"Better than fine?"

"Yeah. I mean, your saying it kinda' reminds me I am one, you know? Besides, I'd kinda' miss it, if you stopped."

Sandy smiled, "Yeah, kid, so would I."

"So we're good, right?"

Nodding, his guardian confirmed, "Those were the open items from Trey's hit list."

"Open items? There were others?"

Sandy seemed to equivocate, "Nothing else we need to talk about right now."

Willing to let that slide, just to avoid more talking, Ryan asked instead, "You really thought he was worried about me?"

The man's head nodded slowly, "I'm sure he was."

Trying to wrap his mind around that idea, Ryan drew in a steadying breath. He'd been trying for days to write Trey out of his life, seeing only the darkness inside his brother. Terrified of the answering darkness he'd found inside himself.

Maybe, just maybe – there was something better in both of them. This much he knew – it felt kind of nice to think Trey was looking out for him, even if the asshole didn't have a fucking clue what he was talking about. Typical Trey – seeing things his way, and assuming everyone thought like he did. In his own warped way, being the best brother Trey knew how to be.

Sandy spoke again, "Just so you know, I'm going over to the hospital tonight – let him know we talked. That we've worked through some things he was troubled by. If… if you want to come with me, you can."

Ryan shook his head quickly, "I'm not ready to see him, Sandy. But… would you give him a message?"

"Sure. What do you want me to tell him?"

Ryan frowned, not quite sure. "Tell him… tell him I'll be in touch. But that it's gonna' be a while this time."

"Of course," Sandy agreed, before reminding him, "When you do see Trey, I'm going to be with you. Don't forget."

"I won't. Forget, I mean."

His guardian assured him, "He'll understand you need time, kid. He'll be relieved to hear from you."

Softly, Ryan added, "And Sandy? Tell him we're still brothers."

Sandy's eyes met his unflinchingly, at once sympathetic and reassuring, "I'll be sure to tell him."

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

They stood in silence for a few minutes, before Sandy spoke again. This time his guardian's voice sounded more hesitant, "Going back to what I call you, Ryan. There's another word I'd like your permission to use, too, kid. One I've used a little recently, on my own, but that I've avoided for the most part."

Ryan felt his heart climb into his throat.

Sandy spread one palm open, as though in supplication, "Look, kid, I don't know whether you've noticed, but I've been calling you 'son' some lately." His fingers recoiled as he waited silently for a reply.

"I've noticed," Ryan finally managed to say. How could he not have noticed?

Sandy's eyes locked onto his, "Like I've tried to tell you today, that's really how I feel about you, Ryan."

Ryan could only blink, still trying to wrap his mind around the fact that all those 'sons' had been intentional, and not just slips of an anxious tongue.

His guardian's mind-reading abilities must have finally failed him, because the man offered, "I don't want to overstep your boundaries. I heard what you said to Seth this morning. About the word 'brother'. I understand if 'son' is an issue for you, too. Say the word Ryan, and I'll stop, I promise. "

"Don't."

Sandy's face fell a little, but then he managed an unconvincing smile as he nodded his understanding.

Ryan watched, confused. He replayed the scene, realizing what Sandy must have heard.

Hastily, he clarified, "I mean, don't stop. It… it's not real. I get that. But it's like… I dunno… a pretty awesome fantasy?"

One of Sandy's eyebrows lifted for a second, before it settled back into place. The new smile that took over the man's face was echoed in his eyes. "My fantasy, too, kid."

It was Kirsten's voice that brought them both out of their reverie.

"Ryan, honey, just so I know – does that permission extend to me, too?" She looked down uneasily at her hands, fiddling with her wedding ring as she waited for him to answer.

As if he'd deny her anything she asked for.

So why wouldn't the words come? He gave up, and shyly nodded his assent.

Her eyes lit up, "Thanks, son."

Damn it. He felt himself blushing, for about the thousandth time today. With a small, self-effacing smile he finally found his voice, "Guess it might take some getting used to."

She beamed, "That's okay, sweetie. We'll work on it for the next few decades."

He ducked his head, hoping her definition of a 'few' was as broad as Sandy's.

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

"Walk with me, kid." Sandy ducked around the tree, steering Ryan down the shore, one hand at his back. Kirsten followed, staying about a half-step off their pace, and keeping well away from any water.

"Another phone call came while you two were out on the rocks. Your PO left a message – he wants to see us both at 7:30 next Saturday morning in his office."

Ryan stopped abruptly. "That's not good."

His foster father's hand squeezed his shoulder, "He's clearly punishing us – that hour on a weekend. But he said in the message he expected better from us both going forward. That we'd better come to him ready with some ideas."

"Going forward? He said that?"

Sandy nodded, "Among a few other things primarily directed at me."

"So that means…" Ryan led.

Sandy's voice had its parental ring, "That means we're in his office at 7:20, we're both on our best behavior, we answer his questions, and we listen respectfully to whatever admonishments he has in store for us. Capiche?"

"Yes, sir."

Sandy's sharp glance prompted him to explain, "Just practicing."

Shaking his head, Sandy observed wryly, "Not a bad idea…"

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

They walked on for a few minutes before Kirsten asked, "What about Child Services, Sandy? Don't we still need to discuss what Mike said with Ryan?"

"Right. I almost forgot." Sandy stopped walking, stepping in front of Ryan.

"What about Child Services?" Ryan's stomach did that roiling thing it always did whenever Child Services was mentioned.

Sandy explained, "When I spoke to Mike Shuster, I made it clear that we want you to stay with us. That we're willing to do whatever it takes to make that work out. In theory, they've agreed, but first they want to make sure you still want to stay with us, kid. That you don't want to be reassigned."

Ryan drew back his head, his eyes narrowed, "Were they serious?"

Sandy snorted, 'Trust me, kid, they were serious. I've got the scars to prove it. They want to hear from you – hear what you want. So they'll be calling – setting up a time to speak with you. That's not a problem, is it?"

He shook his head, mystified that Child Services would think he'd want to leave the Cohens.

When he saw Sandy and Kirsten looking at him expectantly, he spoke, "No problem. I'll tell them whatever you want me to."

"I want you to tell them what you want to do," Sandy coached.

"I want to stay with you."

His foster parents exchanged a quick glance before Kirsten smiled, "That's what we've been counting on, sweetie. But it's lovely to hear you say it."

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

As they all continued walking, Sandy debated bringing up his final topic, wondering if it was too much for Ryan to handle right now. Or would it bring home just how serious they were?

They reached the cliffs that marked the northern border of Suriak, and turned to head back toward their alcove. He could see a few people sitting back under the trees, and some gardeners attending to flowerbeds, but the beach was deserted even here, away from their private haven.

They'd let their foster son fall back a few steps now, allowing him some space. Giving him a little time to think.

Kirsten's arm was looped loosely through Sandy's, her body bumping into his as they walked. Surprisingly, she didn't try to skitter away on those occasions when the waves reached up to slap her feet.

Or maybe not so surprisingly, he reflected.

She hadn't run from much of anything today.

Sandy retrieved a business card from his shirt pocket, and fingered it thoughtfully as they drew closer to their alcove.

Maybe it was time he stopped running, too.

He halted, looking at Kirsten. Showing her the card.

She nodded, and stepped back, motioning for Ryan to join them. "Sandy and I have something else we want you to think about, honey. You don't have to say anything, or make any decisions now, but we want you fill you in on something we've been talking about for quite a while now."

The kid's eyebrows wrinkled, "What?"

Sandy glanced at Kirsten, getting her final go-ahead before he spoke, "You'll be 18 soon, which as you know means we won't have your legal guardianship much longer. All that signifies is that a piece of paper expires – it has absolutely nothing to do with our relationship. We want to be clear about that."

Ryan blinked, "Is that another piece of what you mean by 'unconditional'?

Sandy smiled, "You'd better believe it, son."

Sandy noticed the boy's fleet glance and fleeter smile before the kid questioned, "So, what do you mean about decisions? What decisions do I need to make?"

Sandy drew in his breath, "You know how we've said we think of you as our son? But how we understand you have your own family? Your biological family?"

The boy's nod was wary.

"If it weren't for your family, we'd have brought this up before. You see, Ryan, we'd like you to consider letting us adopt you. Right now, though, that would be difficult, because we'd have to get your parents' permission. But when you turn 18, we only need yours."

"Adopt me?"

The words were awash with conflicting feelings. Sandy thought he heard surprise, and fear, and maybe concern. But he was pretty sure he heard interest, too.

He put an arm around the boy's shoulder, propelling him toward the alcove once more. "That's right, kid. Adopt you. Go through a legal procedure that would just confirm the informal relationship we already share, Ryan. It doesn't mean you have to give up your other family – legally, they wouldn't be responsible for you anymore, but the fact is regardless of legal responsibility, you'll always have biological ties to them. A legal procedure would never change that."

Ryan stopped, turning out of Sandy's grasp, "You want me to become a Cohen?"

"Depends on how you mean that. We want you to consider signing on with us permanently, from a legal perspective. Would we want you to change your last name to ours? That'd be completely up to you, kid. You could change your name, but you wouldn't have to. Atwood works fine, too. Or you could do something like taking 'Cohen' for a middle name. Or maybe just use the 'C'."

When the boy said nothing, Sandy tried teasing, "It'd finally give us a middle name to use when you're in trouble."

The kid groaned, "Now there's a really good reason to adopt someone."

Sandy countered, "Maybe not, but loving him and wanting him incontrovertibly in our family is."

The boy stood silent, biting his lip. He finally ducked his head, peering up through his eyelashes, "Sandy, I… I just don't know…"

Sandy soothed, "Of course you don't. That's why I want you to take time. Ask questions. Think about what would make you happy. Make you comfortable. Here, kid – I have something for you that should help."

Handing Ryan the business card, he explained, "This woman specializes in family law and adoptions – she's excellent, and she's easy to talk to. I've spoken with her – explained our situation. She's agreed to answer any questions you have – talk to you about the procedure, what's involved, what it all means. And she'll only tell me what you want me to know. Call her. Or don't call her. It's your choice. Okay?"

Ryan took the card, turning it over in his hands. "Siobhan O'Meara? That doesn't sound like a Newport name."

Sandy confessed, "Newport by way of New York, but she's been practicing here for fifteen years. I'm telling you, I've worked with her before. She's the best."

Ryan frowned, "This is… It's way too much."

Sandy smiled, "Don't you see, kid? In every other way that really matters to us, it's already done. Practically, physically, emotionally… you're part of this family right now. All this would do is ensure that relationship is recognized by the State of California.

"You'll be an adult by law – that wouldn't change. However, adoption would still make a difference for tax and inheritance purposes – health care issues – that kind of thing. The main thing it would do though – the thing we care most about – is it would officially make us your parents, and you our son. And – Seth loves this part – you'd legally be his brother."

Sandy paused, before adding reflectively, "And honestly? The truth is, we'd like the whole world to know that you're ours."

Ryan shook his head as he waved the card, "You're saying Seth knows about this?"

"We talked to him a few months ago, when we started discussing what would happen when you turned 18. This impacts him, too. He knows you're already in our wills, and that we've established similar trust funds for you to those he already has. He knows that adoption would just make everything official. And as I'm sure you've guessed, he's thrilled by the idea. But I made it clear to him – no pressure. No bugging or begging or badgering you, okay?"

Ryan's face was a canvas of concern. "Wills? I don't want… your things should all go to Seth."

Kirsten shook her head, her voice brokering no further discussion, "Whatever we have will go to both our sons."

She frowned, "We assumed you knew you'd be provided for. But no more assuming going forward – we'll discuss estate issues with you someday soon, with this caveat. We're not changing our minds about our provisions for you."

The boy looked like he had something more to say, but then seemed to change his mind. Sandy was sure they'd hear further arguments later, but Kirsten's tone must have convinced the kid it was futile to argue now.

Sandy skipped ahead, "About this proposal, Ryan. Feel free to ask us questions, anytime. Or ask Siobhan. We're in no hurry – we can't do anything before you're 18, anyway. We can even wait longer than that, if you want. In the meantime, we'll talk more. Take your time, kid, and just think about it, okay?"

The boy looked down at the card again, rubbing a finger over the raised letters. At last, he stuffed it into one of his pockets. Looking back at Sandy he mumbled, "Okay, I'll think about it."

"That's all we're asking, Ryan. And believe me, kid, there's no wrong answer, 'cause whatever you decide about this, you're still our son. Nothing's gonna' change that."

They walked the rest of the way back to the alcove, Ryan pulling a few steps ahead. The boy excused himself as soon as they reached their freshly tended table, disappearing toward the bathhouse.

When Sandy rounded the far corner of the bathhouse five minutes later, he spotted Ryan leaning against the back side of the structure, one foot propped behind him. The kid was standing with his eyes closed, holding Siobhan's card in front of him with both hands.

Sandy backed away quietly. He could take another route.

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

Ryan sat on the shore, just out of reach of the waves. His toes pushed into the soft hot sand, finding the cool dampness hidden underneath. It felt good, this soothing contrast to the broiled surface.

So many things were hidden, he thought. Covered or camouflaged, thus safe from outside view. Revealing their secrets only when someone dug deep enough to find them.

He was something like that. Sometimes invisible, sometimes disguised, but always out of sight. It used to be a matter of survival. Now? Habit, maybe? Or fear? Or had he forgotten how to be himself – had he ever really known just who that was?

He wondered if the Cohens were right – did their eyes see him more clearly than his own?

The truth was – the Cohens were starting to convince him lots of things were possible. Including things he'd never had much faith in, like unconditional love.

Cramming his hands into his pockets, he felt the business card resting safely where he'd stashed it. He wasn't sure what he thought about adoption, but knowing they'd actually considered it – were still considering it – so seriously? Spoke volumes. It kinda' confirmed all the stuff they'd been telling him all day.

Maybe he'd call the lawyer. Just see what she had to say…

Scrunching his toes even deeper into the sand, he leaned back against his arms and closed his eyes. He let his thoughts collapse into fragments, tuning them out as he focused on the senses of touch, and sound, and smell.

The breeze ruffling his hair and billowing his shirt, the toasted sand under his hands, the surf's constant rhythm of rolling and crashing softly onto the shore before sliding back into the sea, the smell of salt water and fish…

He felt himself drifting, but it wasn't like before. This time, he had anchors – he wasn't going anywhere.

He felt Sandy's presence before the man spoke.

"Mind if I join you, son?"

Smiling to himself as the word 'son', with all its treasured connotations, was directed knowingly toward him, Ryan gently mocked, "So, now he asks for permission…"

Plopping down, Sandy smiled. "First rule of lawyering. Never ask a question you don't know the answer to."

Ryan laughed, "Blow that one a lot, don't you?"

The man's dimples deepened, as he nodded, "I've never been that good with rules. Taking chances, now? That's a different story all together."

"Like the chance you took with me?"

Sandy shrugged, "Only until I got to know you, kid. Then I realized I had a sure thing."

"You guys missing me?" asked Kirsten, approaching.

"Always," Sandy answered warmly.

She leaned down, kissing Sandy lightly on the lips before focusing on Ryan.

"This spot open?" she asked, indicating the vacant space beside him.

He squinted up at her, "Absolutely."

She sank fluidly into the sand, almost but not quite touching him.

"Your jeans are dry, sweetie – they're back at the table. You can change into them before you guys head home."

Ryan looked down at the salmon scrubs, sliding a finger into the slit he'd torn across his thigh. Amazed at all the dirt and dessert and dried salt that he'd managed to accumulate in just one day, he asked a little sheepishly, "Uh… Could I… I mean, do you think they want these pink things back?"

Kirsten's head tilted, and her eyebrows furrowed as she asked, "Why? You want to burn them?"

Ryan could feel his color rising a little as he explained, "I'd kind of like to keep them."

When he saw Kirsten's eyes widen, he hastened to add, "I'll pay for them. I've got some money left from my job last summer."

"I'm not concerned about the money, Ryan. It's just, I thought you hated them."

Shrugging self-consciously, Ryan admitted, "I did. I do. But…"

He stopped, gathering his courage. "It's just – today's been so surreal in so many ways, I'm afraid I'll think maybe I just imagined it. I guess this probably sounds weird, but I'd like to keep these so I'll know that it really happened."

His foster-mother smiled, her voice thick, "That's really not so weird, honey. I kinda' feel the same way."

"So it's okay? Keeping them, I mean?"

"Mmm-hmm. All yours, sweetie. Throw them in the laundry – I'm sure Rosa can clean them up for you."

"No! No laundry," he said quickly, "The stains and all? They mean something, too. I'll remember what was going on when I got each trail of dirt, or when I made the hole, or when we got drenched with salt spray. Or when you made me spill that mango stuff. So they stay as they are? Okay?"

Kirsten blinked, before she slid her arm around his waist and hugged him, "As they are. Memories intact."

She pulled back, looking across Ryan at a silently pleading Sandy, "And don't worry, honey, you can keep yours, too."

Sandy grinned happily, "Aw, sweetheart, you're too good to me."

"I was just thinking that," she teased, before leaning close to Ryan's ear and whispering under her breath, "Mmmm. I can almost taste that bacon!"

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

Ryan glanced sideways, first at Kirsten and then at Sandy. He wasn't sure how long they'd all been sitting here, only inches from one another. His foster parents were staring companionably out across the Pacific, outwardly at peace. They seemed content to sit quietly with him, silently offering him everything he'd ever dreamed of having.

Softly, he made his own offering, borrowing their words.

"You know that I love you, too, right? Because I do. It's just… It's not…it's not so easy for me to say."

Kirsten whispered, "Believe me, sweetie, we know how you feel. As for how hard it is to say the words? Remember what I said, Ryan. We're not leaving. Loving us out loud won't make us go away."

He ducked his head, thinking maybe Sandy wasn't the only mind-reader between these two.

When he looked back up at Kirsten, she was smiling tenderly. She touched his face, holding him lightly while she kissed his cheek. "See? I'm still here, and you said it to me once before, remember? You even wrote it down."

Ryan swallowed, realizing the only one he hadn't told before was Sandy. How the hell had that happened?

Before he could come up with anything close to the words he needed, Sandy wrapped an arm across his shoulder, pulling him close.

When his guardian spoke, his voice was husky, "Like Kirsten said, we know you love us. But Ryan? Expressing your feelings out loud? That's a huge step, kid. And I know it's hard at first – I really do. It does get easier, though, I promise."

Ryan responded softly, "I should have told you before."

Sandy shook his head, releasing Ryan from his grasp. "Don't go on any guilt trips, kid. Know this – I hear a fair share of the things you say every day without speaking. And since you've been with us? Trust me, I've heard you 'say' you love me in a hundred different ways."

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

After lingering, bittersweet goodbyes, Kirsten turned away from them with a parting smile, holding her head high as she walked back toward the Center.

Ryan stood frozen, watching until she disappeared from view. He was sure that Sandy's heart must be breaking a little right now, seeing Kirsten leave. His was.

And yet, the fact that she wanted so desperately to get well? That she was that committed to her – their – family? The fact that she was willing to do what Dawn had never done? There were simply no words to express how much that meant to him. All his words seemed far too small.

He wasn't sure how long he'd been frozen, before his thoughts were interrupted by Sandy's movement. Strolling over to where Ryan stood, the man busied himself rolling up his pair of scrubs and tucking them under his arm.

Nodding toward where they had entered the grounds, Sandy raised his eyebrows.

"We've got a hike back to the car, kid. Ready to go home?"

Ryan nodded, "Home sounds good."

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

As he walked along the shore with Sandy, Ryan shook his head.

It was inconceivable, really.

Four days ago, he'd nearly killed his brother. He'd thought then that he deserved to die.

Three days ago he'd been too numb to really think.

Two days ago the terror had settled in. The nightmares started, and Kirsten's letter came.

Like a coward, he'd tried to find his own pathway to oblivion, and damn near succeeded.

Instead, he'd come face to face with Sandy Cohen. He'd come face to face with all his lies and pretences, too, sure he'd lost everything and everyone he loved.

He'd known with certainty that everything had changed.

One day ago, he'd resolved to face his future, accepting that he'd earned whatever came his way. That meant facing Seth, and finding the courage to respond honestly to Kirsten.

Today, he'd faced a Cohen 'intervention'.

And against all odds, after telling them the truth – explaining everything he'd done and failed to do…

They told him they believed in him. They told him they understood things he couldn't even wrap his head around.

They said that what he'd done could be forgiven.

And they told him that they loved him.

Unconditionally.

Today, everything in his world had changed again.

He glanced at Sandy, knowing his guardian – his would-be-father – was watching him.

Breaking the silence, Ryan spoke, "So, I guess we're finally finished, huh?"

"Guess again, kid." The heavy voice belied the lighter words.

Ryan halted in his tracks, eyebrows knitted.

Moving closer Sandy smiled, placing one hand easily against his back before explaining, "We're not 'finally finished', Ryan. We're finally beginning."

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

fin

A/N 3: Writing is a solitary art – countless hours spent with people who only live in stories. That's why reviews are so very special – they provide the connection to real life and real people. Thanks to everyone who has reviewed, and will review this final chapter. And my deepest thanks to those of you who have been so very faithful.

You've all made it all worthwhile. And now, I say farewell…