Pathfinder

by TeeJay

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Summary:
Missing scenes from the episode "Common Thread", surrounding the events after Adam goes missing up on Mount Nashman, eventually skipping to events that happen after the s2 finale.

Author's Note:
Why is it that we have so little so-called "gappers" here? You know, missing scenes to fill the gap that episode left us with? I felt like writing one for "Common Thread", because, let's face it, what did Adam do the whole day up there on Mount Nashman? He went hiking in the morning. They don't find him and Ryan before 3 AM in the night. He surely didn't wander around aimlessly and lost for ten hours! This is my take on what may have happened.

I need to thank Sisterdebmac for her input and also for inspiring me with regard to some of Adam's decisions. Her story "The Haircut" paved the way for me to be sick of a self-pitiful, wallowing Adam and for him to become more of a self-confident, decisive Adam. An Adam that, had there been a third season, would have been on the way to redeem himself for his mistakes. Don't we all want that? So let's give a cheer for the new Adam (or new old Adam) and see what he's been up to on the mountain.

Disclaimer:
These characters and settings are not mine. Nor am I claiming they are. They are property of CBS, Barbara Hall Productions, Sony or whoever else they might belong to. I'm not making any money out of this, although I wish I was.

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"I know how you'd like things to be, but life can never be exactly what you expect, okay?"

These words still rang in Adam's head as he angrily put on his boots and grabbed the backpack on his way out of the house. He could still see the defiant look in Joan's eyes as she stood there behind the counter in the bookstore, her resolve to verbally lash out at him for his shortcomings clearly visible and audible.

She was kinda right, though, wasn't she? Life had never been exactly what he expected. If it were the way he'd like it to be, his mother would be alive, his father would be healthy, Grace's mom wouldn't be an alcoholic, Bonnie could have gone and screwed herself and Joan would still be his sweet, loving girlfriend. None of that was how things actually were, however.

His father suddenly appeared in the doorway, a slightly worried look on his too-ashen face. "Where are you going?" he asked.

"Out," Adam just said.

His father's voice became more compassionate. "Are you all right? You've been taciturn all morning."

Adam had to bite back a sharp remark. His father was the last person to deserve his wrath. "Yeah, I'm fine," he said quickly, matter-of-factly, then added, "Look, I'll be back by six. I'm going to Mount Nashman. I need to get out of here for a while. I'll pick you up from work later, all right?"

The worry on his father's face never lessened. "Are you sure that's such a good idea? What about the weather? They said there might be thunderstorms later today."

Adam looked out the window. "Looks fine to me."

Carl just nodded. Adam obviously had his mind set on it. "Just be careful, son."

"Yeah, sure," he replied, trying to sound like he really cared.

When he stepped outside, he felt the sun warm on his face. The weather was much too perfect for his pissy mood. Getting into the camper, he slammed the driver's side door too forcefully and jammed the first gear into position to drive the forty-five minutes out there to the hiking trail that he had walked so often with his mother when he was young.

She'd take his hand and they'd walk all the way up to the little hut that someone, probably a hunter, had built there at one time. When he got too tired, she'd just put him on her shoulders and carry him. Though she stopped doing that when he got too big and heavy for her to carry.

They'd sit there in the hut and devour the sandwiches and soda pop that she had taken, talking or just sitting next to each other, drawing or sketching something in silence. He'd then proudly show her his drawing and she'd point out how beautiful it was and how well he managed to bring out the details. He'd only been 11 or 12 the last time they went together, but he could still remember.

He parked the camper in the parking lot at the bottom of the trail, locked it and started walking at a quick clip. He knew the way almost blindly, even thought it had been a couple of years since he'd last been here. Why had he chosen to come here today? He didn't know exactly, but maybe it was the first thing that came to mind when he was looking for a place where he could just leave everything behind for a while, where he could just get some perspective on what he was gonna do now—because he knew that things weren't exactly going the way he had planned. Yeah, Joan was exactly right to tell him that.

He walked fiercely and steadily up the incline for maybe half an hour, pushing himself to the point of over-exertion. He was panting heavily and stopped for a moment, leaning forward with his hands on his knees. He could feel his t-shirt wet with sweat clinging to his back.

It couldn't be more than 10 or 15 minutes to the hut now. He drew in a breath and kept walking, his steps still determined but not quite as hurried as before. Taking time to actually look at his surroundings instead of keeping his gaze concentrated on the unevenness of the ground, he took in the shrubs and trees. It was early May and the plants were almost glowing with a luscious, fresh green where new sprouts began shooting from the earth.

When the hut came into view, Adam felt a certain degree of relief. It was still here, he hadn't been sure it still would be. Coming closer, he noticed how it looked so much smaller, so much more battered and rickety than he remembered it.

He stood for a moment, looking around him. The sun was still going strong. He could do with hiking for a while longer. That was what he had come here for in the first place, wasn't it? Seemed a waste to just stop here and not go any farther. He adjusted the straps of his backpack and looked on with resolve. He still had a few hours of daylight ahead of him. Why not make use of it?

Adam didn't know how long he had actually walked when he next looked up. It was as if he was perfectly happy just to stare at the ground, concentrating on where to place his feet next to not stumble over a root or an uneven stretch of ground. It was something to occupy him, to keep his mind busy without having to think about... well, pretty much anything. Because he knew that if he let his mind wander, just where it would end up. Hadn't he come out here to forget about all that for a while?

Looking around, he searched for something to sit down on. A few yards away, a toppled over tree presented just the right opportunity, so he untangled himself from the straps of his backpack and put it down on the ground. He sat down on the tree trunk and retrieved the sketch pad and pencil from his backpack. If he was going to take in the mountain scenery, he might as well capture it in a more permanent way.

Taking a swig from the water bottle he brought, he unpacked the plain bagel he had grabbed from the kitchen, and between bites started with a few rough strokes to get the perspective right and then outlined the landscape around him. Maybe he'd also color it later, in the shed. With his photographic memory, he didn't need a camera to take a color picture.

When he next studied the drawing to take in its entirety, a lot of the details already worked out and shaded, he narrowed his eyes in confusion. What had he drawn? This wasn't what surrounded him, not really. This was some dark, gloomy place, a place where trolls and orks and creatures of the darkness lived. A place without happiness or light. What did that mean? That he couldn't even relish the beauty of nature all around him and capture it the way it shone in all these luscious shades of green?

He wanted to rip the page off the pad and crumple it into a ball where he sat, but he thought better of it and put the sketch pad down next to him. He couldn't help but wonder if this was what it would be coming to? Him just sitting there in the stillness and quiet all alone, in that dark place he had just depicted? Who did he still have to turn to? He had managed to alienate both Joan and Grace by his recent actions. Yes, Grace had made a few feeble attempts to reach out to him, but he felt the reserve, felt the amount of betrayal she was still trying not to show in his presence. Besides, it wasn't him she went to with her problems now. It was Luke. Not that he could blame her, it was only natural.

And if his conversation with Joan in the bookstore yesterday had taught him anything, it was that he couldn't count on her anymore, not even for that fragile friendship he had been hoping for. Clearly, he had been setting his hopes too high. How could he ever expect her to want to be friends with him again? He knew now that that particular illusion was never going to become reality. He hadn't cried when she had told him that they weren't gonna be friends anymore. He wanted to, but he was too angry at himself to succumb to the tears. It had left him drained and lifeless.

And now he had lost his job on top of everything else. What the hell was he going to do now? He knew his dad couldn't afford all the medications and therapy he needed, even with that job as a police dispatcher. And what about college? Where would the money come from for that? Adam also knew that his father had already borrowed a rather large sum of money against the house when he got sick and couldn't work anymore. And even though his dad never spoke about that with him, Adam knew they didn't have a lot of reserves to fall back on.

He knew he had to do something. He had to find a new job. That was one part of this whole mess he had landed himself in that he could do something about. He'd go and check the newspapers and internet for openings. He was desperate enough to do anything—bagging groceries, sweeping up nuts and bolts and scraps at the hardware plant. He'd even go back to the hotel if they'd still take him. Anything to help his dad and him get by.

What he was absolutely clueless about was what he was supposed to do about Jane. Jane—whom he couldn't look at without his stomach turning somersaults, and lately not the pleasant kind. Jane, who had rescued him from the throes of depression, who had believed in him and made him see and do things he hadn't even thought possible. She had loved him—without question, without doubt.

But had she? Suddenly, he thought back to that night in the shed, when she had told him she had kissed Roger. If that wasn't an indication of things not exactly being right between the two of them, then what was? It couldn't all have been Stevie's fault, the fact that he had taken on the perky blond girl as his assistant. But Jane was right. Who indeed needed an assistant in high school? What had he been thinking?

And then the night in the camper. It had all spiraled out of control somehow after that. There had been that longing for physical release, the one he didn't think he could suppress any longer. Who was he kidding? That had been as much an excuse as telling himself everything would be fine if Jane didn't know about his transgression with Bonnie. Why he did it, in spite of realizing that it was wrong—as wrong as it could be—he wasn't sure. Maybe he was trying to shake them up because he was tired of waiting. Maybe he didn't think he deserved to be happy. And in that one moment of weakness, everything had fallen apart and plunged into that deep, dark hole, not to be retrieved ever again.

The night after mock trial had been hell. He didn't know if losing his mother or losing Jane was worse. Those were the two worst nights of his life, the nights he would never forget, the nights he had cried until he didn't think there were any tears left, until his throat was sore from all the sobbing.

Losing his mother had been hard enough, but at least he could hang on to the feeble comfort that her death hadn't been his fault. And Grace had been there after his mother's death, had fiercely refused to leave his side. Yes, she had come to him the night after mock trial, but it hadn't been the same. She hadn't said much that night, but he knew that he had slapped her in the face as much as everyone else by his betrayal. And while she was still willing to be a loyal friend to him, he knew there would always be the issue of trust having been violated, of faith having been tainted. And while his mother's suicide might not have been his fault, Jane breaking up with him was. And that drove the pain deep, so deep that he didn't think it would ever completely ebb away.

He felt tears threatening to well up in his eyes even now at the mere though of that day, that night. He angrily slammed his fist down onto the bark of the log on which he sat. "Dammit!" he exclaimed into the stillness of the woods. He was sick of all the tears and self-pity. He was sick of himself and the fact that he just kept screwing up. Maybe the idea of ending one's life wasn't all that absurd. If he had taken anything, a pocket knife, a box cutter, who would notice or care if he just slit his wrists and bled to death up here?

His father, yes. But what good was a son to him who couldn't even hold a job he enjoyed, who cheated on his girlfriend even though he loved her? A son who built meaningless junk out of meaningless junk, who just barely struggled through high school and who would never have a shot to be accepted at any halfway decent college. Maybe it was just better that his father didn't get to know just how much of a loser he really was.

In a flash of sudden anger at himself and the unfairness of life itself, he bit down on his lower lip until it stung and he thought he could taste blood on hit tongue. He couldn't go on like this. He wasn't getting anywhere. And no matter how hard he tried to tell himself that he wouldn't mind dying, deep inside he knew that wasn't true.

He looked up from the spot on the ground where his gaze had been fixed, wondering how much time had passed since he got here. A look at his cell phone's screensaver told him that it was time to head back if he wanted to make it to the car before dusk. Filled with newfound resolve, he put the sketch pad back into his rucksack and set out to walk back.

About halfway back, Adam suddenly felt water dripping onto his face. He looked up to see if it had maybe been a drop of water from one of the trees that lined the trail. He hadn't even noticed that the sun had vanished and been replaced by gray clouds that now obscured the sky overhead. More raindrops hit his face and Adam hoped it would maybe just be a quick shower. He stopped long enough to take the hoodie he had absent-mindedly stuffed into his backpack out and put it on.

The further he walked, the more the rainfall intensified. He could already hear a faint rumble of thunder in the distance. Should he have listened to his father after all? When he stopped for a moment to look in the direction the thunder was coming from, he saw dark and menacing clouds on the horizon that filled him with an inkling of dread.

He quickened his steps. Not too far now, maybe another hour to go until he'd reach the parking lot if he hurried a little. Rain was pouring now, visible as twines in the distance against the dark backdrop of the trees. A clap of thunder coming from somewhere behind him startled him, it was getting closer. And then he saw the hut, the cozy little hut, his safe haven. He'd just wait there for the thunderstorm to pass.

As he stepped into the three-walled shelter, he cleared away a few twigs and leaves that were scattered on the small bench that was made from roughly chopped logs before he sat down upon it.

He looked up and the sight that presented itself was both familiar and new. A lot of the trees had grown a fair bit since he last remembered sitting there, the shape of the shrubs was different. But the meadow of the clearing he looked at was still the same. He remembered how sometimes, when he was sitting here with his mother, a deer would come out from the undergrowth if they were really quiet.

Sitting there on the bench, he suddenly felt the cold and dampness from his wet clothes penetrate to his skin. He wished he had taken a raincoat, but he only had his t-shirt and hoodie, so he turned sideways to envelop his drawn up knees with his arms to keep warm.

As he gazed ahead and listened to the thunder moving ever closer, his mind ended up exactly where he feared it would. Jane. There she was, ever present in his mind, hiding and lurking and surfacing at odd intervals.

When exactly had things started to go wrong? He went back in his mind to replay their last weeks together. They had had a few fights. There had always been misunderstandings between the two of them. And Jane's uncanny ability to completely misinterpret situations and get worked up over nothing had escalated them. But was it fair to blame it all on her? Why had he not told her about that rescheduled interview in Rhode Island? Were they having trust issues? That's what it came down to in the end—trust.

There was always something in the back of his mind, nagging, telling him that she wasn't being completely honest with him. About some of her motives for doing all the crazy things she did without ever really explaining them. About all those strange people she would suddenly walk up to, talk to. For a while he had been mulling over what she had told him in the hospital, that she talked to God. God as a person, not just as an abstract. Could that be true after all? That it hadn't all been a massive hallucination from her Lyme Disease? Would that maybe explain all her weird behavior?

He had tried to bring it up with her again once or twice. But she had been so determined not to talk about it that he had given up eventually. Now he wondered if he'd been a little too quick to let it go. He had lost the right to talk to her about that any time soon, but maybe, one day, he would. One day when she didn't quite hate him anymore.

And then, suddenly, he realized that he could imagine the day when she wouldn't hate him anymore. When they could actually be friends. She'd forgive him and he'd be back to the guy who could be trusted and who you would come to with your problems. No way in hell was that gonna happen if he just sat in his shed all day, being miserable.

If he was gonna make it out of here, he would have to start making some changes in his life. That picture, that drawing he had created earlier—he didn't want to dwell in the darkness any longer. So he messed up. So he got the punishment he deserved. He wouldn't able to undo any of it, so what now? Sitting and wallowing in self-pity wasn't going to change anything, he realized.

Yes, he would give anything to have Jane back—his sweet, loving Jane. To hold her, to kiss her, to stroke her soft hair. Hell, even to get intimate with her. He would be lying to himself if he said he didn't think about that anymore—sometimes, in the wee hours of the morning when he couldn't sleep. But he would never get her back if he continued to succumb to his self-pity. He smiled at the irony of having to be trapped by a thunderstorm in the woods all on his own to discover that.

There was nothing more he wanted now than to get back home, into the warmth and shelter of his bed, to lie there and focus on taking steps to become a trustworthy person again before he'd drift off to sleep.

He suddenly felt very tired. All the walking, the being out and about in the fresh air. He rested his head sideways on his knees and watched the rain drip from the leaves of the trees onto the soft ground of the forest. He sighed and closed his eyes, wishing with all his might that the thunderstorm would pass quickly and he could make his way back to the car safe and sound.

Adam awoke from a loud clap of thunder that sounded much too close. He shivered through his still damp clothes. It was as if the temperature had dropped at least ten degrees and it was also pitch black around him now. A flash of lightning briefly illuminated the scene and Adam felt strangely energized by the sudden rush of adrenaline. How could he fall asleep out here in the wet and cold?

He retrieved his cell phone from his pocket, the clock read 10:03. Dammit! Finding the path to the hut in daylight wasn't much of a problem for Adam, but finding his way back in the dark? The uneasy feeling in his stomach spread slowly as he already realized that his cell also showed no reception. He couldn't even call for help. He remembered there was a mini Maglite in the rucksack, but when he took it out and switched it on, the batteries died on him quickly, the light bulb fading first to an orange glow and then to nothingness. He angrily threw it back in the bag. Then he'd have to try this with just his five senses to guide him.

When he stepped out from the sheltering confines of the hut, he realized that the rain was still going strong. Intermittent lightning illuminated the forest around him for a fragment of a second, closely followed by roaring thunder. Was this another thunderstorm or had it just never stopped? And what did they say about keeping away from trees in a thunderstorm? But he had to make it back to the car. His father would be sick with worry by now. Heavy rain drops pounded down on him in rapid succession as he stumbled along the trail that was quickly washing out from under him.

He slipped on the mud a couple of times, once almost losing his balance. As far as he could determine, he was still walking on—no, sliding along—the trail that he had come in on, but it was hard to tell. If everything had looked uncannily familiar on his way up, everything now looked scarily unfamiliar to him. Had he passed this particular stand of trees before?

The path was becoming steeper and Adam slipped on a rock and tumbled towards the ground without any foothold or leverage. He slid through the murky mud a few yards before he skidded to a halt, feeling his arms sting slightly with new abrasions from trying to grab hold of something to break his fall. He had stupidly slung the backpack over one shoulder only, and during the fall it came loose. He watched it topple over a steep rocky cliff that he had just barely missed himself. "Shit," he muttered. This wasn't working. The next time he might not be so lucky and end up the way his backpack just had.

He looked around desperately, nothing seemed familiar at all. He didn't know how far he had tumbled off the trail and he had the sinking feeling he was getting nowhere. He checked his cell phone again—still no reception. Just his luck. Adam clambered to his feet, wiping his muddy hands on his already soggy jeans. He was fairly sure that he hadn't hurt himself other than a few scrapes and bruises.

Not knowing what else to do, he did the only thing he could think of: He called out for help. He yelled, "Hello?" into the dark night a couple of times. Only silence greeted him, other than the dripping sounds of the rain all around and the occasional thunder claps that still hadn't abated.

There was no answer. Of course there was no answer. He let out a short, sarcastic laugh. Who would be hiking in the dark in a thunderstorm at 11 at night? Only a madman or someone foolish enough to not listen to the weather report or see the signs. Or someone really, really desperate.

The way he saw it, he at least had to wait until the rainstorm diminished. He didn't want to take another chance at tumbling off a cliff somewhere. Funny, just a few hours ago he had been ready to end his life, or at least had actually considered the possibility. How ironic that when presented with the actual concept of dying, your survival instinct would kick in.

He found a small group of trees that had grown in a way that they presented the perfect shelter, so he wrapped his hoodie tighter around himself and went to stand in the spot that would best shield him from the rain.

Time dragged on endlessly, or at least that's what it felt like. It didn't help that he was cold and hungry and miserable. The sounds of the woods seemed to be enhanced by a hundred-fold, every rustle of a leaf, every snap of a twig penetrated the quiet much too loudly and almost made him jump. He didn't want to imagine what dangers might be lurking all around him. Deer and hares were harmless, but there was a very real possibility that wild boars and maybe even bears could be living in this habitat.

While he cowered under the tree with the rain's intensity only slightly lessening and the thunder moving away slowly, he asked himself if anyone would have even noticed he was gone yet. His father was the only person who knew he had gone hiking. It might very well be that he was now peacefully sleeping in his recliner, having nodded off watching some quiz show or other, not even noticing that Adam hadn't come back. Grace wouldn't be missing him, she was far too busy these days with things that didn't concern him. And Joan sure as hell wouldn't care where he was, she had made that abundantly clear.

Wouldn't they have sent out a search party by now? Wouldn't someone have come looking for him? The sense of dread inside of him intensified, but he held onto the hope that if he could just wait through the night, he would find his way back in the morning when he could actually see where he was going.

Adam suddenly heard noises from somewhere above him, up the incline that rose behind the trees he was standing under. His whole body tensed. What if this was one of those wild boars that had sniffed him out? But then he heard a human voice saying something that sounded like a curse. "Hello?" Adam called out once again. "Anyone out there?"

The reply was swift—a male voice. "Yes. Do you need help?"

"Yeah, I'm down here," Adam shouted back.

"Wait, I'll come get you," the voice shouted back. "Keep talking, I need to hear where you are."

Adam didn't know what to say to this stranger, so he just rambled as he stepped from the confines of the trees. "I kinda got lost and then I slid down and off the trail and couldn't find my way back in the—"

He could now see the beam of light from a flashlight flickering and coming towards him. "I'm over here," Adam called out again, stepping towards the light.

Adam made out a tall and slender man dressed in a raincoat. When he stepped closer, he could also see the half of his face that wasn't hidden beneath the hood of the jacket. The guy was maybe in his late twenties or early thirties. "Are you okay?" he asked Adam.

"Yeah, I'm okay," Adam replied. "I just kinda got lost and skidded off the trail and couldn't find my way back in the dark."

"Well, then I guess you're lucky that I happened to pass this way."

"You were hiking out here too?" Adam was mildly surprised. He had expected this was someone who had come out here to look for him.

"Yeah, I guess I was." He chuckled slightly. "Sounds kinda crazy in this weather, doesn't it?"

Adam just shrugged. He didn't really care why the guy was out here, what counted was that he had been found and hopefully now he could get back to the parking lot.

The guy addressed him again. "What's your name?"

"Adam. Yours?"

"Ryan. Hunter," he added his surname after a short pause. "Come on, let's get out of here."

Adam couldn't argue with that and tentatively followed Ryan. With the help of the flashlight, they found their way back to the trail, albeit with some difficulty because they had to climb up the steep incline with the help of their hands and feet, almost slipping again a few times.

Once having reached the relatively even surface of the trail again, Ryan stopped and turned to face Adam briefly. "You all right?"

Adam nodded. "Yeah. I didn't hurt myself. I'm okay."

Ryan gave one nod and kept walking, Adam kept close-by. After a few minutes, Ryan addressed him again. "So, let me guess, like me you went hiking and were taken by surprise by the thunderstorm, huh?"

"Yeah, something like that." Adam didn't want to admit that he had fallen asleep up in the hut. That had been a pretty stupid thing to do.

"You come here often?"

Adam wondered why Ryan was trying so hard to make conversation, but he didn't really mind. He'd had enough quiet and solitude for a day. "I used to come here with my mom when I was a kid. I needed a time-out today, so I came back."

"And you got lost in the dark," Ryan finished for him.

"Yeah, I..." What could he say? He suddenly felt very foolish. "It was kinda stupid. My dad told me about the thunderstorm warning, but I didn't think it was a big deal."

"So, what went wrong to make you come out here on your own?" Ryan asked as if it was the most natural thing in the world that something was wrong. "Fight with your parents or your girlfriend?"

Adam didn't know how to reply to that. Why would he tell his personal business to a man he just met a few minutes before? He didn't answer at first. But after a moment, he thought, what the hell? It was going to be a long walk, he might as well carry on a conversation. "No, it's not like that. I mean, not really. My... my girlfriend and I broke up a while ago. But that's only part of the problem. I lost my job too, which is kind of a much bigger problem."

"So you work full-time? You look like you might still be in high school."

"I am. Still in high school, I mean. But I have to work. My dad and I aren't... exactly rich, you know?"

"Oh, I see," Ryan said knowingly. To Adam, it felt like he was being sized-up, and found lacking, 'Another one of those poor, lost, struggling kids with a ton of problems.' Out loud, Ryan added, "If you need to work so badly, how'd you come to lose your job? Did they fire you?"

What was this guy, psychic or something? Adam didn't reply at first. There it was again, the knot in his stomach was back with a vengeance. He had slept with Bonnie, which led to Joan breaking up with him, which led to losing his job. Which led to one conclusion: He was a screw-up. "I was... it's sort of a long story," he evaded.

That stopped their conversation for a while until they came to a chasm that they would have to cross in order to get up the mountain. Ryan shined his flashlight on it and they saw that the sturdy little bridge that used to span the ten feet from side to side wasn't there anymore. Or at least not in its entirety. The storm had uprooted a huge oak tree that had crashed right onto the bridge, tearing its middle part away along with it.

Ryan stood close to the edge of the precipice, directing the spotlight downwards. About 15 to 20 feet below, between the near perpendicular cliff-like walls, he saw a small creek that seemed to have risen to twice its usual size. He looked back at Adam. "No way we can make it across without the bridge."

Adam's face fell. Great. More obstacles thrown in their path. Would it ever stop? "So what now?" he asked.

"We'll have to find a way around it. I know there's another bridge a couple of miles in that direction." Ryan pointed up along the chasm.

Adam's resolve and energy suddenly left him. He didn't think he could take wading another few miles through the uneven and muddy terrain. "Can't we just wait until they send someone to find us?" he feebly suggested.

"How do you know that they will?" Ryan asked in return. "I think our best chance is to try and find an alternate route."

Adam considered their options and suddenly wasn't too fond of huddling in the cold and the rain for hours on end. "Yeah, okay," he agreed.

Adam didn't know how long they had walked when Ryan stopped in front of him. The advantage of walking along the chasm was that the tree line didn't start until a few yards away, so the brush-covered ground wasn't as rough as the forest soil away from the trail. It was much easier to walk beside Ryan than behind him, because that way Adam could see more of the flashlight's light and didn't have to guess where he was stepping. He had almost sprained his ankle twice already.

Ryan took off his backpack and retrieved a water bottle from it, taking a swig. When he was done, he held it out to Adam, who gratefully took it and took a long draft before he handed it back. "Thanks," he muttered.

As Ryan closed the zipper of the backpack again, he casually asked Adam, "So, what kind of job did you have?"

"Oh, uhm... At a design studio."

"And what did you do? Like, run errands, make coffee, do some xeroxing?"

"No," Adam sounded a little offended. "Actually, I was working on ad campaigns most of the time. There was this huge one for sunglasses, and the last one I did was for dog food."

Ryan sounded genuinely surprised. "Oh, so you're into media design, huh?"

"I... I don't know. I was gonna go to college next year to major in the arts. The media design job was great, but I'm not sure that's what I wanna do in the long run."

"So what else do you do? Painting?"

"Yeah. Mostly sculpting, though."

"Really?" Adam wasn't sure Ryan was indeed interested of if he was just trying to make conversation. "What, like the hammer and chisel kind?" Ryan added.

Adam had to hide a small smile. He couldn't really see himself chiseling stone. "No, more like the welding metal kind."

Ryan's hand went to his hood to pull it back off his head. The rain had slowed to a very subdued drizzle by now. "That sounds interesting. You know... about a year ago, someone exhibited sculptures like that in one of the cafés downtown. They were funky. I almost bought one."

Adam felt himself blushing—not that Ryan could see it in the dark. "You mean the Unurban?"

Ryan pointed his finger at Adam. "Yeah, that's the name of the place. I thought that artist had a lot of potential."

"Uhm... that was me."

"Those were your sculptures?" Ryan asked. "Quite a coincidence, don't you think?"

Adam raised his eyebrows. Some coincidence indeed. But before Adam could comment on it, he heard Ryan ask, "And your parents, what do they do? You inherit your arty genes from them?"

Adam didn't mind the questions. It beat walking through the dark and cold in silence. "My father, he's... he used to work as a night janitor for a while until he hurt his back. Mr. Girardi got him a job as police dispatcher a couple of weeks ago."

Ryan's head suddenly perked up. "Girardi? As in Detective Girardi?"

"Yeah, he's my—" Adam stopped there. He had been about to say 'girlfriend's father', but he quickly corrected himself. "He's the father of one of my friends." Friends? Were they even still friends? And if they weren't what were they? Acquaintances? Classmates?

"Your ex-girlfriend?"

So Ryan had noticed his little almost-slip. "Yeah," Adam just said without elaborating, his voice heavy and weary.

"I'm guessing you didn't exactly part on friendly terms." It wasn't a question, but Ryan made it one.

Adam concentrated harder on the ground in front of him. "No, we... look, can we not talk about this?"

"Touchy subject, huh?" As if he needed to ask. "Sorry. I didn't mean to pry."

"It's just that... I did some pretty stupid things. Things that broke us apart." What was happening? A second ago he had told Ryan that he didn't want to talk about it. Why was all of this pouring out of him in the presence of a complete stranger?

"And she broke up with you?"

"When she found out that I cheated on her, yeah, she did." There was no sadness in his voice now, only a hint of bitterness.

"Ouch," Ryan commented.

"Yeah. I mean, I don't blame her. I would probably have done the same thing. You know, it's... I don't really... I don't really understand all of it. Because I didn't mean to cheat on her."

"Well, something must have been wrong if it happened anyway."

"Something was wrong. A lot of things were wrong. It was all getting so complicated and then we kinda drifted apart more and more, we fought more often. You know, looking back at it now, I can think of a million things to fix, to do over."

Adam paused, mulling the thought over. If he had the chance to go back there and start over, where would he actually start? That night in the camper? That day when he was supposed to go to Rizde but didn't and lied about it?

"And you'd like to start over? Even now?" Ryan gently prodded.

Very quietly, Adam admitted, "Especially now. She's... she's really special."

"You've got it bad for that girl, huh?"

"Yeah," Adam sighed. Ryan didn't know the first thing about just how very bad he had it for her—for Jane.

"Don't you think you have a shot at winning her back?" Ryan asked.

"I... I don't know. She'll have to forgive me first."

"That'd be a good starting point, yes. Adam, I think you're a good guy. But it sounds like you need to give her some space. Maybe she'll come around eventually."

"I wish," Adam meekly admitted.

Ryan glanced over at him. "If I may give you some friendly advice, don't get into that whole mopey routine. The girls don't dig that."

Wasn't that the conclusion Adam had drawn earlier today? There had to be some merit to it if Ryan, who had some ten more years of experience under his belt, also told him that.

"So, what's your mother do? She the artist in the family?"

"Yeah, I guess she was," Adam said quietly.

"Was?" Ryan repeated.

"She died a few years ago."

"Oh." That muted any immediate further questions from Ryan. "Look, I'm sorry."

"No," Adam assured him. "It's okay. You didn't know." He looked at Ryan as they walked. "So, what do you do for a living?"

Ryan looked at him, surprised. "Me? Oh, I'm a... consultant."

"Consultant? For what?"

"I have a law degree. I do consulting work for different parties and organizations. It's actually quite an interesting and demanding job. It's..." Ryan paused and shone his flashlight ahead. "Look, there's the bridge. Looks like it's still intact."

Upon closer inspection, it did indeed seem safe to cross. The wood was slippery from the rain, but by holding onto the railing on either side, Ryan and Adam made it across without problems. When they were on the other side, Ryan stopped for a moment, looking around.

Adam tentatively asked, "You know the way back from here, right?"

Ryan turned to him. "What? Yeah. Yeah, sure."

But Adam had the feeling that wasn't exactly true. Still, what choice did he have but to trust this guy? He was totally lost, he had no idea at all where they were. And Ryan was the one with the water and the flashlight.

Ryan started walking again, and Adam realized to his relief that there was an actual trail here with little markings at regular intervals that would hopefully guide them back. It had started raining again, and the rain was getting heavier. They both pulled their hoods over their heads again and the noise of the rain drops cascading down made it hard to carry another conversation, so they just walked in silence. It was also becoming increasingly harder to see where they were going, so they both concentrated on where to step so they wouldn't slip again.

The rain never let up. If anything, it intensified yet, and Adam was getting wearier with every minute. He wasn't sure how much longer he could take all the stumbling and sliding and slipping. Just as he was about to say something to Ryan, to ask for a short break, Ryan pointed to something a few yards away.

"Look," he said loudly, over the sound of the rain.

Adam could make out a kind of information panel next to the trail. Ryan made a beeline for it, illuminating it with the flashlight. A little red dot showed them their present location on the map of the area.

Adam also approached and studied the panel. Ryan pointed to an area on the map that wasn't too far from the red dot. "That's the Ranger's Station. I know there's a payphone there. There's no cell coverage around here anywhere. The station can't be more than 10 minutes away now. Come on."

Energized with newfound resolve at the prospect of actually making it down this blasted mountain, Adam picked up his pace to match Ryan's. Adam couldn't say if it was more or less than ten minutes, but when he looked up, he suddenly saw lights in the distance. As they came closer, he saw movement outside the station and couldn't help but call out, "Hello? Hello?"

And then he could make out people moving towards him. A voice called out his name. Jane! It was her, she was here. He was so relieved, he ran straight into her arms, letting himself be enveloped in her relieved embraced. His father appeared behind Joan, hugging him. Next was Grace. They were all here.

He didn't know where to look, who to talk to first. Then his father was beside him. "Come on, let's get you inside," his father told him.

When they entered the station, a Ranger draped a blanket over his shoulders. It felt good, Adam could feel some strength returning to his body with the dry and warm cloth replacing the teeth-chattering wet cold with a dry warmth.

Another Ranger gave him the eye as he asked, "Are you okay? Does anything hurt?"

Adam shook his head. "No, I'm all right. It's just a few scrapes," he said as he rolled up his sleeves slightly to reveal a few abrasions.

"We can take care of those," the Ranger said. Adam nodded feebly. "You sure nothing else hurts?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. Really."

"Okay. I still recommend going to get checked out at a hospital. If you experience any discomfort—fever, nausea, chills—see a doctor."

Adam nodded again. "Sure."

The first Ranger came back and handed Adam a steaming mug. Upon inspection, it revealed some kind of herbal tea. Adam accepted it gratefully, relishing the relieving warmth it spread from his esophagus to his stomach and from there through his whole body. The Ranger gave him a look as he went to work on Adam's scrapes. "You were really lucky to make it down in one piece. We lost several people in storms up there this year already."

And for the first time, it really sank in what a stroke of luck it had been to run across Ryan when he had. His eyes searched the room until they found Ryan, being taken care of by the Paramedic now, also holding a steaming mug in his hands.

Adam saw his father walking toward him and suddenly felt a knot in his stomach. He looked to the floor for a moment before his father spoke. "Son, you all right?"

Adam took another quick sip from his mug. "Yeah, I'm fine. Just a few scrapes."

He could see his father's shoulders slumping in relief. His father wisely didn't utter any denunciatory remarks and Adam was grateful for it. He seemed to know that it was best to save all that for later, when he could express his worry for his son in private.

"So, that guy got you down the mountain?" Carl indicated Ryan on the other side of the room.

"Yeah. Ryan. He found me out there."

"What was he doing up there in the storm?"

Adam shrugged. "I don't know. You'd have to ask him." After a moment, Adam's voice grew softer. "Dad, I'm sorry. I should have listened to you, about the weather and—"

But Carl interrupted him, shaking his head. "That's doesn't matter now, Adam. I'm just glad you made it back okay."

Adam met his father's eyes and saw the gratitude in them. "Yeah, me too."

"Are you sure you don't need to go to the hospital?"

Adam was slightly embarrassed by how everyone was fussing over him, but he realized that it meant they cared about him.

"Dad, I'm okay. Really," he said with conviction to his voice.

Carl nodded and touched Adam's shoulder through the dark gray blanket still draped around him.

Joan carefully approached form behind and Carl stepped aside to give them a minute to talk. He would have ample opportunity to talk to his son later.

Adam looked down as Joan stepped closer, not wanting to meet her eyes. When he did look up, his eyes followed his father who was walking over to where Ryan stood with Will Girardi and one of the Rangers that had tended to him earlier. Grace was standing near the fireplace, talking to someone on her cell phone.

Joan addressed him tentatively. "Hey."

Adam finally met her gaze, not sure what to expect. If she was up here with Grace and his dad, what did that mean? "Hey," he said back.

"So, you okay?"

He sighed. He was getting tired of everyone asking him that. "Yeah, I'm fine."

Just at that moment, the Ranger finished dressing the scrapes on his forearms with gauze, instructing Adam, "Keep the dressing on for at least a day. If there's any sign of infection, I recommend you see your doctor. Otherwise it'll be right as rain in a few days."

Adam just nodded as the Ranger left him and Joan to talk in private.

She watched as he pulled the sleeves of his hoodie back over the bandages. "You're fine, huh?"

He gave her a look as he stood up to level with her. "Jane, it's just a few scrapes. No big deal."

"Okay, that's..." she started, then said, "I'm glad you made it back. I was... we were all really scared."

He looked to the floor again before he quietly said, "Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to... for this to happen."

"Adam, what were you doing out there?"

He thought he could detect a hint of accusation in her voice, like he'd had no right to go out there on his own. "I just wanted to get away for a while. You know, with all that's been going on lately."

He watched her swallow. Yeah, she knew what he was talking about. She turned around slightly, looking for Ryan. Adam followed her gaze. "And that guy, Ryan, he found you?"

"Real stroke of luck he was out there too. I wouldn't have made it back without him."

She let out a short, sarcastic snort through her nose. "Quite a coincidence, don't you think?"

He now looked at her questioningly. "What are you saying? That he was out there on purpose? Why?" Adam's voice was now slightly raised. Was she accusing Ryan of something?

"No. I don't know. I just get this weird vibe off him."

"Jane, you don't even know him."

"He knew me, though, by name. Did you talk to him about me?"

Adam's eyebrows scrunched together in confusion. After a moment, he answered, "I don't know. Maybe your name came up. I don't really remember."

Now Joan sounded incredulous, almost angry. "You talked about me with a total stranger? What did you tell him?"

"Look, I..." he stammered. "I didn't tell him anything. Just that you were my friend and..." But was she? His friend?

"And what?"

"Jane," he sighed. "We talked. He asked what I was doing out there. I told him."

Her voice was now unmistakably bitter now. "So you blab about our fucked up relationship to a complete stranger? Great. What is he, a therapist or a shrink or something?"

"No, he said he had a law degree, that he was a consultant," he answered flatly. "He's a nice guy. He saved my life," he added after a moment's hesitation.

That sentence hung in the air for a few tense seconds before she said in a much gentler voice, "Yeah, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to go off on you. It's just... it's been a rough night." Her eyes met his before she added, "I'm really glad you're okay."

He just nodded. "Yeah, I'm glad I made it down that wretched mountain."

Just then Grace joined them. "Rove—"

But Adam interrupted her. "Please don't ask if I'm okay. I'm fine."

Grace lifted her arms defensively. "Easy there, Mr. Mountaineer. I was just gonna say that it's good to see you among the living and in one piece."

He gave her an apologetic look. And that seemed enough for Grace. "Don't pull a stunt like that again, okay?" she told him. "You had us all pretty freaked."

"Oh, I won't be repeating this any time soon," he told them.

"You'd better not," Grace said.

Just then Carl joined the group again. "You good to go?" he asked, looking at Adam.

"Yeah," he answered.

"Okay," Joan said. "You gonna be in school on Monday?"

"Sure," Adam replied.

"Well, see you then," Joan told him.

"Yeah, see ya Monday, Rove," Grace chimed in.

"Okay," Adam agreed before he followed his father. Before they left the Ranger's Station, Adam said to his father, "Dad, hang on a second."

Adam walked over to where Ryan stood and addressed him. "Ryan. Thanks," he simply said and held out his hand.

Ryan looked at him and then took the proffered hand and shook it briefly. His grip was firm and strong. "Sure, I'm glad I could help out."

Adam gave him a quick nod and then went outside where he met with his father and one of the Rangers. Carl looked at Adam, indicated the Ranger and said, "Mr. Farbrother is gonna take us to the camper."

"Okay," Adam acknowledged. He had almost forgotten about the camper after all that had happened. And all he really wanted right now was a hot shower, clean and dry clothes and a warm bed.

--...----...----...--

"Hey," Joan greeted Adam casually as she stood on the Rove's front porch two weeks later, Adam just having opened the door for her. Adam could tell that she was trying to keep the coolness out of her voice.

"Hey," he greeted her back. "I'll... I'll be right there."

He vanished again in the house to put on his shoes and grab a jacket. Joan was picking him up for AP Bio study group with Grace and Luke. He wasn't sure if she was trying to reconnect with him on a platonic level or if she was just being polite. After all, it was she who had offered to stop by his house on her way to Grace's place.

About halfway through the front garden, his hand suddenly went to his forehead. "Shoot, I forgot my notes in the shed."

She followed him there and inside. He stole a furtive glance at her. If she was uncomfortable being in here, she was hiding it pretty well. As he searched the for his notebook, she wandered around the shed as if she was at the mall, window-shopping. Was she trying to see if anything had changed since the last time she was here? Was she looking for signs? If so, signs of what?

She stopped in front of a drawing he had put up on the shelf, so that he could look at it whenever he sat at the table. It was as close a recreation of the pencil drawing he had made up on Mount Nashman as he could come up with, the one he had titled 'Dwelling in the Dark'.

"'Remember not to dwell'?" Joan read the caption he had added at the bottom aloud and looked at him questioningly.

He looked back at her, meeting her eyes. "Yeah," he just said, not sure how to explain it to her.

"Dwell where?"

His hand went to his hair to brush back a lock that was poking him in the eye. It was getting a little too long lately. "In that dark place," he answered simply. When he saw the confused, yet curious and accommodating look on her face, he knew that he needed to elucidate the drawing's meaning, knew that he wanted her to understand what it signified to him.

"You know, that day when I went hiking, before I got lost, I made that drawing. Well, not that one," he pointed at it, "the original one got lost along with my backpack. But I recreated it."

He paused long enough for her to cut in, "Why?"

"Because it reminded me of something important."

"Not to dwell in that dark place?" she asked, rephrasing his words.

He nodded. "Metaphorically speaking. Up on that mountain, I had a lot of time to think. About, you know... what happened. And what's gonna happen." He stopped, letting out a breath. This wasn't easy to talk about, but he wanted her to know, for all the good it might or might not do. Looking down, he went on, "And I realized that what happened, happened. There's no way to undo that. But what good is it gonna be if I just dwell on it now? Look at how things turned out when I did. I got fired. I got lost in the woods, scaring my dad and you and everyone else. That picture reminds me not to be like that anymore."

His eyes were filled with resolve as they met hers. Was it just her imagination, or was he standing a little straighter, his shoulders not quite so slumped anymore? Was this a new Adam? Or a new Adam trying to get back to being like the old Adam? Could that really be true?

She gave him a warm smile. "That's good."

He nodded, briefly licking his lower lip. "Yeah."

Joan studied him for a moment, feeling the need to say something. Something that would tell him that she liked the new Adam better. Or the new-to-be-old Adam. She sucked in a quick breath as Adam finally located his biology notebook under a stack of magazines and papers that were piled on the table.

"Got 'em." He held up the notebook and wiggled it slightly. Why did he have the feeling she was just about to say something important?

"Great," she simply said in a chirpy tone and went towards the shed door, knowing they were done here for now. "Let's go and get miserable."

--...----...----...--

Free period after lunch, and Joan was bored. Grace had Spanish or History or something or other, Luke, Glynis and Friedman were off on some science project for AP Bio and she knew that Adam also had a free period. So where was he? By now things between her and Adam had gradually improved and they had settled into a careful but loose almost-friendship. One that included the occasional talk and definitely the right to entertain each other in times of boredom.

She found him in the art room, sitting on his own at one of the desks with an open coffee table book in front of him. Joan entered the room, drawing carefully closer.

"Hey," she greeted him in their usual way.

He looked up at her, surprise visible in his features. "Hey Jane," he greeted her back, maybe a little too reserved.

She suddenly wished he would smile that cute little smile at her, the way he used to before—before disaster struck and things went awry. But he didn't.

Joan sidled up to him and stood next to him. Looking at the book on the desk, she asked, "What are you doing?"

"Oh, uhm... Your mom's latest assignment. She showed us this painting by René Magritte and we're supposed to come up with something surrealistic ourselves, starting from there." He pointed at the painting that filled the right page. It depicted a surrealistic image of a woman's naked body with part of a man's head and torso merging into the woman.

"Wow, that's..." she started but then stopped, "...twisted," she finished.

Adam nodded slightly. "Yeah. It's totally depressing stuff. Look at this. The man can only be seen where he overlaps the woman's body. She's trying to fend him off as he tries to violate her. It's like his identity is being determined by that, by him trying to rape her. His whole existence is reduced to that sexually violating act. You can see that a lot in Magritte's work, the loss of identity. There's this other picture, called 'The Rape' that..." Adam trailed off as he looked at Joan.

She was still staring at the picture, but she looked like she had fazed out somewhere during Adam's interpretation of the painting. When he didn't say anything more for a few seconds, she looked at him. He looked back at her questioningly, asking, "You okay?"

She didn't hide a small, melancholic smile. "Yeah, it's just... You are... you used to be this sweet, smart guy. How could that guy go and display such a serious lack of judgment?" she mused in a low voice. "Where did that boy go?"

Adam immediately looked down at the table, not meeting her eyes. He knew exactly what she was talking about. But then he remembered the drawing, 'Dwelling in the Dark'. He could see it in front of his mind's eye. And he knew he wasn't going to buckle under, not this time.

He looked up at her with resolve. "Jane, I'm not perfect. No one is perfect. People make mistakes. And if you took me for some flawless, smart, sweet guy, then maybe you were just expecting a little too much."

She seemed stung by that implication, that she had maybe been a little too naïve, a little too expectant. Granted, it didn't explain or justify his actions, but as painful as it had been, maybe it had taken that eye-opener to wake them both up and pop their pink bubble. He knew what he had done was wrong, and he would still do anything humanly possible to undo it if he could, but he also couldn't deny that there were more reasons for him turning to Bonnie than just raging hormones. And maybe it was time for Joan to realize that too.

"Was I?" she asked back, challenged him. "Was I really expecting too much? Is it too much to expect your boyfriend to be faithful, to not screw around with another girl behind your back?" Her voice was raised now, heated.

He sighed. "That's not what I meant." He raised his own voice a notch. "I knew it was wrong, of course I knew that. But maybe it wasn't all my fault, you know?"

She let out an exasperated breath. "Oh! So you're saying it's my fault now?" She pointed at herself to underline her words.

"No!" he shot back. "Most of it is my fault, but I don't think all of it is."

She just stared at him, incredulous. How could any of this be her fault? "And just exactly how did I play any part in you fucking Bonnie?"

"Why do you think I did it in the first place?"

"I don't know, you tell me." Joan spat at him. "Hormonal overload? You were tired of waiting? You wanted to finally get it over with? I don't know."

There was silence for a few tense seconds before he answered more coolly, "Yeah, that was all part of it. But, Jane, I would have waited for you. I would've, if I had any hope that it was actually gonna happen. We were drifting more and more apart, and there was always this... this something that you kept to yourself, that seemed to be getting in the way of everything. These crazy things that you did, that seemed more important that anything else. How do you think that made me feel?"

She hadn't really looked at it from that angle, she had to admit that much. The God missions did seem to get more demanding as time went on. And now with Ryan in the picture... Maybe there was some merit to what Adam was saying. Although she had a very hard time admitting it.

What could she actually say to him? Yes, I've been hiding this huge secret from everyone, and I tried to tell you once, but you wouldn't believe me? She stammered, "Adam, I... I can't—"

"You can't explain it, I know," he interrupted her in a bitter voice. "Yeah, how often have I heard that?"

She crumpled under his fiery words, her shoulders slumping.

He saw that and his voice became softer as he continued. "You have asked me before to go on faith, to just accept it and not question it. And I have. But there's only so much of that you can take before you feel you can't be trusted." His voice was gentle again in his usual subdued quietness when he asked her, "Why would I not deserve your trust?"

That question stabbed her heart, even though she was trying hard not to let it. "Adam," she almost whispered. His cheating on her suddenly didn't feel so violently hurtful anymore. She repeated his name after a short pause. "Adam, I... Back then you did deserve my trust, but I was... I did tell this to someone before, and that didn't go so well, so I didn't... I couldn't... I was just scared," she whispered.

"I still don't understand why you couldn't come to me with it," he said in a low voice. "No one should have to go it alone like that, Jane. It already tore us apart, I'd hate for all these secrets to cause any more damage. I just wish you would tell someone. Your parents, Luke, Kevin... Grace," he added after a second.

Joan almost smiled at the notion. Somehow Grace didn't strike her as the person to go to with this, but the more she thought about it, the less absurd the idea became.

"Yeah, I..." Joan stopped, then continued. "I'll think about it, okay?"

Adam nodded weakly. "Okay." He looked up at Joan, and he knew he had to say it again, even though he had done so countless times before. "Look, for what it's worth, I am sorry. For everything. I didn't mean to give you a scare when I went hiking. I was just... not thinking clearly. Which has been happening a lot lately, but I... I guess I'm working on changing that."

The anger had left her eyes now as she met his and looked into them for a long moment. "I liked you better when you were that sweet, smart guy."

"I know," he sighed. "I liked myself better when I was that guy too."

"You think he'll be back?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe."

She rested her hand on his shoulder and it almost made his breath freeze. It was the first time he could remember her touching him in any sort of affectionate way since he came down off the mountain, and that was only relief. That old electrifying feeling was back with a vengeance, the one he used to get from her lips on his or even the mere touch of her hand on him, anywhere.

"I'd like him to be," she said.

"Then I guess we have a consensus." He cleared his throat. "Look, I, uh... I have to finish this." He pointed at the book with the Magritte painting and the sketchpad with the few rough lines he had come up with so far.

"Sure," Joan said almost cheerily. She removed her hand from his shoulder, their physical connection broken. "I'll see you tomorrow then, right?"

"Yeah," he answered and watched her leave the room, trying hard not to admire the luscious curves of her body.

--...----...----...--

Grace and Luke where the last to arrive. They both had a bit of a sheepish grin on their faces as they entered Adam's shed. Joan had a good idea why. They joined the group that had already gathered, Adam, Joan, Glynis and Friedman. They huddled around the table that dominated the smallish confines of the room. It was big enough for two or maybe three people, but with the six of them, it suddenly felt very crowded. Everyone was staring at Joan, who was sitting on the uncharacteristically empty workbench table, her legs dangling.

Friedman was the first to interrupt the silence. "So, Joan, what's with this whole secret meeting business? I feel like I'm in the middle of some conspiracy theory."

Joan threaded her fingers nervously. She knew she needed to do this, only she had no idea where to start. She nervously cleared her throat. "Okay, there's... I asked you come here today because there's something I need to tell you."

"What? That you've officially lost it?" Grace snickered.

Both Luke and Joan shot her a punishing look. Luke couldn't help but protect his sister when it mattered.

Grace lifted her hands defensively. "Okay, okay. Shutting up."

"Right, well..." Joan stammered. "This might... no, this will sound completely crazy and impossible and mind-blowing, but before I go on, I want you to at least consider the possibility that it's actually the truth. Can you all please just try to do that?" She looked around at her friends and saw curiosity and anticipation in their faces.

"Oh, I can hardly stand the suspense," Friedman remarked. "Spill it already."

Joan sighed. She would have to tell them eventually. "Okay, so here goes. I talk to God."

She stopped there, taking another look around. This time it was mostly confusion she read, so she elaborated. "Not like praying or anything. I actually, like, talk to Him in person. And He talks to me."

She told them the whole story, from the very beginning, from when she first met Cute Boy God to what was happening now with Ryan Hunter. She tried not to leave anything out in between, mentioning a mission that affected each one of them in some way, hoping that would help them believe her.

When she stopped, silence greeted her at first. Glynis was the first to speak. "Wow. This is too crazy to not be true."

Luke spoke up. "It... really explains a lot."

Joan's gaze went from Luke to Adam. He met her gaze and his own eyes shone with skepticism and surprise and maybe also a bit of awe. But he smiled. And that was all she needed to know that it had been the right decision to do this.

Of course everyone had questions. Those she could answer, she answered. Most she couldn't, because they were just the sort of questions that He had refused to answer when she'd asked them herself.

After the first barrage of questions died down slowly, they all agreed to just let this sink in. Joan acknowledged that readily. They would need time to think, just as she had the first time she had been confronted with the whole concept.

Everyone but Adam left eventually. She walked over to where he was still sitting on the floor and sat down next to him. "So you do talk to God?" he asked her. It sounded more like a statement than a question.

"Yeah."

The word hung in the air for a few seconds before Adam said, "I'd have to lie to say that it's something that I can just accept in a heartbeat, but I... I guess I'm open to the possibility of it actually being true."

"And that's all I'm asking. You'll see for yourself soon enough."

Adam raised his eyebrows before he said, "I'm glad you told everyone. Here, like this."

A smile spread over Joan's lips. She felt so much more confident now, so much happier. This was her army, all right. With them on her side, she could do this. And more out of impulse than out of will she took Adam's hand and squeezed it. "Yeah, me too."

--...----...----...--

THE END.

--...----...----...--

Author's Note cont'd:
So there we have Joan's army. It's left to you how you think they might gang up on Ryan and bring him down. I have no intention to write anything that might resemble a third season. You all know I mostly do Joan/Adam, so that's what I'm sticking with. If you want a third season, you're on your own. Feel free to play in this little Joaniverse of mine and take it further if you like. I have no objections whatsoever. Just be nice to Joan and Adam. That's all I'm asking. :o)

Thanks to Sisterdebmac for the beta-read. You rock, girl! Now, hush, go back to your writing! :-P