TITLE: The Constants
SPOILERS: "The Day After Tomorrow" (3x20)

The smell of fire and smoke clung to his clothes, his borrowed Berkely sweatshirt as he walked up the street, hands shoved in his pockets. He'd let Seth take the car home -- he didn't need it, after all; he'd been wanting to drive Sadie home but she'd insisted that they say goodbye there at the beach, at the sweatshirt party.

After Marissa, his life was supposed to get less complicated. He'd met a wonderful, patient girl who was understanding and didn't need to be saved from trauma at every turn like he was used to. He was going to be leaving high school, graduating and moving on to bigger, less complicated things. But then, the inevitable question of 'What next?' had come up. Sadie had suddenly become a very big part of the picture, very suddenly. And then complication found him.

It left Ryan wondering if his life would ever be uncomplicated, if he could ever find something remotely resembling normalcy. Since he was young it had been one problem after another and he was growing rather tired of it. His father leaving, getting arrested, getting thrown in jail. His mother turning to drinking and promiscuity, bringing home strings of dangerous men. He still remembered shutting himself in one of the back bedrooms with Trey and playing with toy cars, trying to ignore the sounds of breaking glass and punches being thrown.

Then he and Trey had grown up; learned how to fight back. Trey took to stealing real cars, no more playing with the miniatures for him... and Ryan had gotten involved against his better judgment. Then of course came the juvy complication. Getting thrown out of the house. Having to turn to his attorney for help. Moving to Newport was supposed to be his big change, his break from complications. If anything, the complication increased five-fold since his arrival three years ago.

There was Marissa (and subsequently, Luke), and Tijuana, and the return of Theresa. Then had come Lindsay and she'd seemed normal for a time until Caleb's Chrismukkah announcement. Then, not long after, Marissa was back and so were the complications. Trey returned and made things worse; created a nightmare, in fact, for him and Marissa. And then had come Johnny and the drama at Newport Union and the return of Kaitlin Cooper... and then Johnny's death. Sadie had come along then and for a few brief shining moments, Ryan had a chance at normalcy until the college acceptance letter came. And thus, the bonfire he had walked away from a half hour ago.

Ryan tried hard to think of one area of his life that was simple; one that was clear-cut. He tried to think of one person in his life that was always there, always patient, never dishing out the advice by the handful when he didn't want or need it, never needing something back from him, never needing to be rescued. The one person that had been there that he could always count on to be a touchstone when things were at their worst. The one person that always had time for him, always had a smile for him, the one that he'd always come back to and always love to be around no matter what.

It wasn't Marissa, not by a long shot. There was too much complication there. And it wasn't Seth; he always seemed to have way too many problems of his own to talk endlessly about without letting Ryan get a word in edgewise. It wasn't Sandy, who was too ready to fix a problem, dole out advice when all Ryan really needed was someone to just... be there.

And then he looked up.

Kirsten slammed the front door behind her and headed straight for the Range Rover. She lifted up her keys in a shaking hand and then froze, suddenly realizing it was the Range Rover her father had purchased for her as a fifteen-year-anniversary present, for fifteen years of being the loyal daughter, indulging Daddy's wishes at the Newport Group. Hearing the name stung even now... especially now.

He was turning into her father. He was getting in over his head and all the pleading in the world wasn't going to turn him around. Things with the new hospital deal were taking a turn for the worse, a violent turn at that if one look at Matt's face had been any indication. But he refused to get out, even when she practically begged him. He told her he couldn't quit. Just like her father couldn't quit before he really became one of the bad guys.

Things were supposed to be less complicated now, she'd thought. Or she had hoped. She was done with the Newport Group for good, she'd gotten sober and things were supposed to be better. If anything, the complications were continuing to pile up. Now her husband, who she didn't even recognize some days, was getting in way too deep and was refusing to listen to her. They were drifting, as they did once or twice every year, and she was growing rather tired of being on that loop.

Kirsten was left wondering if there'd ever be anything in her life that was just normal. Normalcy was all she'd wanted. She thought she'd had a normal childhood, a normal adolescence, only to realize upon maturing just how screwed up it was because of her corrupt father and their dysfunctional family. Then Sandy had come along, given her some of the best years of her life at Berkeley, in that damned stupid mail truck, and Kirsten thought she could experience normal with him. And granted, for awhile she did. But then she started at the Newport Group. Her father started hanging over her head, butting his head into her marriage and into her life at every turn and it had taken its toll on her and Sandy.

Seth had been a nice shot at normalcy but even that was complicated when he was depressed as a little boy -- a little boy struggling with depression -- because he didn't have any friends. She'd never been able to relate well to her son, had always felt an unfortunate sense of detachment. As much as she loved him, she just had never been able to connect.

And then of course, there was Sandy's brief foray into the world of corporate litigation and that had brought out a whole new world of problems... then, not long after there were more issues with her father, finding out about his infidelity (not to mention the sister she never knew she had) and of course Rebecca. Carter Buckley was next in her line of complications and that was when the drinking started. Her father died, she hit rock bottom and finally her family had to force her to get help.

When she'd come back she had been hoping to find normal again. And she was still looking. Normal wasn't at home right now, it wasn't with Sandy. When she was at home things were complicated. And she was done with complication. She needed to find one thing in her life that was uncomplicated, that made perfect sense for once.

She needed to find so much as one person that didn't frustrate her or confuse her or anger her at every turn. The one person that was always there in the background that she could always count on to brighten an awful day. The one person that always made time to talk to her, even if there was nothing pressing to talk about. The one person that could lift her heart with so much as one smile, could read her with one glance, the one touchstone, the one constant in a world of ever-changing complications.

And then she felt a presence, looked up... saw that one person at the bottom of the driveway. "Ryan?"

She locked eyes with him as he stood with his hands in his pockets, just contemplating her... reading her with his eyes. "Kirsten."

Kirsten looked down at the keys in her hand, the keys to that Range Rover from Daddy... and then tossed them carelessly on the step along with her purse. She looked back up and noted Ryan hadn't moved. He still stood at the bottom of the driveway, just watching her... and for a moment she just watched him, taking comfort in the... ease of it all.

There were no words, there was no movement from either of them for several moments. They just remained, staring at each other as if seeing each other for the first time in a long time, complication ebbing away in the other's presence.

Then Ryan took a step forward. And Kirsten mirrored him. Soon, they were striding quickly to one another, gaze never faltering. She wasn't sure if she had thrown her arms around him first or if he'd reached out and pulled her close, but before she knew it she was in his arms, tight against him... eyes closing as they always did when they embraced.

She wound her arms tight around his neck and felt his tighten around her waist, one sliding up her back. She felt, without seeing, that his eyes were shut as well, and she tightened her hold on him. He was here. Her constant, her touchstone, smelling like a bonfire and the nighttime Newport wind, just holding her and uncomplicating her life.

Ryan practically clung to Kirsten, clung to her warmth and the light scent of her perfume, clung to the feeling of just being near here. His one constant in his ever-changing, always complicated world. The one person he always loved to be around no matter what. The one person that never needed rescuing, that never dished out advice by the handful -- who only dispensed it when she sensed he needed it -- the one person that just let him be him and didn't ask for anything more. He needed this. He needed her. And judging by the way she was hanging on to him, she needed him too.

He felt without seeing that her eyes were closed -- they always were when she was in his arms, though he never knew why. It didn't matter. Right now, this was the one uncomplicated thing in his life, the one thing that made perfect sense when everything else was an enormous question mark.

Kirsten sighed against him and felt Ryan turn his face into her hair, felt his hand rubbing her back gently before holding her even tighter. Her arms tightened around his neck accordingly and she heard him mumble into her neck, "You okay?"

She nodded, refusing to open her eyes. "I am now." She ran her fingers gently through the close-cropped hair at the nape of his neck before tightening her hold on him again. "Are you okay?"

Ryan nodded against her in return and smiled (also refusing to open his eyes), running one hand through her hair gently while pressing the other to the small of her back. "I am now."

And for once, things became less complicated, for both of them. And so they remained.