Title: Equilibrium (One-Shot in two parts)

Author: ChaseII

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.

Summary: Start with Second Season Ryan. Add Cliffs. Stir in Storm. Top with a Madman. See who keeps his balance.

A/N: This story is set in Season Two, sometime just before charges are brought against Caleb.

Summary: Start with Second Season Ryan. Add Cliffs. Stir in Storm. Top with a Madman. See who manages to keep his balance.

Equilibrium

Ryan grabs for the ringing phone, checking the caller ID.

"Hello," he says, and gets an earful of Summer-related drama. No greeting. No 'what are you doing?' Nothing but a steady stream of Seth's latest insecurities.

He takes advantage of a momentary pause in his friend's long-winded ramble. Luckily the guy has to breathe. "Seth? Can this wait? I'm kinda' busy here. Art assignment. I told you this morning, remember?"

As usual, Seth hears what he wants to hear. "I get it, Ryan. It'll be better if we talk in person. Be home by six. I'll be waiting." The telephone line goes dead.

Ryan pulls the cell away from his ear and stares at it. He flips it shut, and stuffs it back into his pocket.

He raises his head, staring out across the bluffs of Balboa Heights. The sea churns a hundred feet below him. He looks back down at his sketch, pleased he chose charcoal rather than colored pencils as his medium. He is at home with shades of shadow and refracted points of light.

The day is chilly for early fall. A cool breeze ruffles his hair, gusting strongly on occasion. The sky is unusually grey, with clouds growing thicker out over the Pacific as the afternoon wears on. The place smells earthy, with sea brine wafting up from the ocean. Gulls fly overhead, crying as they soar through the sky, their screams a discordant accompaniment to the thunder of waves below.

Ryan perches some distance from the sheer drop-off to the Pacific. He has a perfect view of the grasslands, and the higher bluffs rising above them. This landscape speaks to him, particularly the imposing shoreline. He's drawn to this place, where huge malformed pillars of solid rock refuse to bend graciously to erosion, rising up from the sea to heights of more than a hundred feet.

The rock formation he finds most compelling is connected to the mainland by a treacherously narrow arm, but then spreads out into a wide promontory. Wind and rain have beaten away at its surface, smoothing it until it's nearly flat. Erosion has worn down all but the most resistant strata in the very center, which have been sculpted into something which resembles an uneven bench, with a rounded backrest.

He's always longed to sit on that bench and watch the sea, but he's not about to cross the narrow arm of rock he'd have to cross to get there. This spot suits him fine.

From here he can see from the cliff top all the way down to the ocean. He likes that the Pacific does not roll to shore gently in this place. He likes the way it pounds relentlessly against the jagged rocks below. The way the salt spray rises to wild heights, and then crashes down onto tumbles of boulders before sliding back to sea.

His cell phone rings again. He sighs, and digs it out of his pocket.

"Seth?"

"Make that five-thirty, buddy. I've got a thing at six."

Ryan groans. "A thing? What kind of thing?"

But he's talking to himself. The line is dead again. He snaps the phone shut, frowning. He taps his finger against the casing, sorely tempted to call back. He counts the reasons that's a bad idea, and is up to twelve before he sets the phone aside.

He turns back to his assignment, not yet content with what he's captured. The perspective seems right, but the shading is too soft. He tilts the soft charcoal pencil he holds, and sweeps it carefully across the paper. He uses a blending stump to soften the edges of the shadow he creates. He repeats the process, adding more and more layers of shadow and texture, creating on paper the haunting wildness he feels in this place.

He expects most of his classmates will turn in landscapes highlighting cerulean skies and sun-washed sand, or orange sunsets, or moonlight shattered across a Pacific midnight. His will probably be the single charcoal rendering of crashing waves and darkness.

He doesn't pay attention to time passing, or the darkening sky. He works steadily until he decides the work is finished, and then carefully slides it into a clear plastic sleeve. He holds it at arm's length, and what he sees makes him suck his lips between his teeth. Is this too revealing? Are there too many shadows on the page?

He doesn't want to mess things up this time.

Only a few months ago, he'd thought that this life was lost forever, as it seemed there was no way out of the hole he'd dug for himself. But then he'd gotten another chance. One born from death.

He's pretty sure if there's a hell, he'll burn there one day. A baby died, and he's truly sorry. For both the unlived life, and Theresa's pain.

But his dark secret – his unsettling truth – is that he feels a huge sense of relief as well. He knows that feeling has to be wrong, on about a thousand levels. He'd kind of like to hear what Sandy thinks, but that's not going to happen.

No one talks to him about his summer in Chino. It's like they all pretend the baby wasn't real. When he first got back to Newport, he was glad no one asked him questions. Now he's not so sure. Buried, they haunt him – both the death and his relief.

He almost jumps when the phone rings this time. He closes his fingers around it, checking the ID. He takes a deep breath and answers.

"Forget something?" he asks as evenly as he can.

Ryan hears something that sounds like Seth's voice, talking to someone in the background. The words sound muffled, like Seth may have his hand over the receiver.

"Seth?"

Seth's voice becomes clear, but it's dismissive. "Gotta' go. You'll have to call me back." The connection breaks.

Ryan shakes his head. Un-freaking-believable. He's not sure if he's more bemused or pissed.

Either way, he doesn't feel too guilty as he jabs at the 'cancel' button and watches the device power down. He stuffs it deep into his shoulder bag, wishing he'd done that about three calls ago.

He tells himself shutting Seth out for the next hour or so doesn't mean he's not still committed to his resolution for this year. He's wholly resolved to becoming everything his benefactors want him to be.

Sandy and Kirsten want him to do well in school, so he takes AP classes and works his ass off to ace them. Seth wants a best friend, so he is the best friend he knows how to be, even when it means gritting his teeth and ignoring Seth's escalating self-interest. He hopes it's just a phase they'll both survive.

He's not sure anyone notices how hard he's been trying this year, but it doesn't matter. Having people notice his efforts is so not the point. He's noticed plenty – like Caleb's impending arrest, and the more hidden potential for Kirsten to be pulled into the fray. With all that's going on inside the Cohen home, somewhere under the radar is precisely where he wants to operate.

He shoves his picture inside his sketch pad to keep it flat, and moves on to the final phase of his assignment. He has to photograph the scene.

He carefully withdraws Kirsten's digital camera from its case. Handling the Nikon D70 makes him nervous, but she insisted that he use it. When Kirsten insists, he's learned it's best to acquiesce. He focuses the zoom lens on the cliffs, capturing as much of the panorama as the lens will allow. He clicks off several frames, smiling a little as the internal mechanisms click and whir.

He purses his lips. He's got to admit, this thing is pretty cool.

As he is about to snap a final shot, a tiny figure comes into view, crossing the narrow arm onto the promontory. The figure moves swiftly across the surface of the rock.

Ryan hears himself gasp as the lone figure keeps walking toward the precipice. He twists the lens, resizing the figure until he can see that it's a man. He continues to zoom in on the body, pulling the man closer and closer until he has a view of his face.

"Shit!"

He nearly drops the camera as he scrambles to his feet, catching it securely mere inches from the ground. His shoves it hurriedly into the camera bag, taking another millisecond to zip the top. His pad, charcoals, pencils, stumps, and erasers lie scattered and forgotten around his feet.

He bounds across the rough terrain until he reaches the upper ledge, ignoring the 'No Trespassing' and 'Danger' signs that are posted there. He jumps easily across a low tangle of wire where an inadequate fence has given way to the weight and determination of those before him.

The wind is stronger at this elevation. Ryan sees the back of the solitary figure clearly. The man is standing within what looks like only inches of the drop-off. He is tall, with close-cropped grey hair and an athletic frame. His deep charcoal slacks and pale grey pullover are wind-whipped so they mold themselves against his body. He focuses outward, across the Pacific.

The man seems to fit into this place of light and shadows, as grey as his surroundings and every bit as dangerous.

As Ryan nears the cliff, a familiar apprehension rises. He backs up a few steps, where he feels safer.

Warily he calls out. "Mr. Nichol?"

The man whips around to face Ryan, eyebrows furrowed. "What the hell do you want?"

"I just… I thought … Are you okay?" Ryan stammers, irritated with himself.

"You want to talk to me? You come out here."

Ryan moves a little closer, eyeing the narrow arm of rock that separates him from Caleb's promontory. Maybe as much as fifteen feet long, the expanse can't be more than twenty-four inches wide.

He tells himself twenty-four inches is a generous footpath, but he doesn't buy his own self-talk. Not when there is a hundred foot drop on either side.

"If you're coming, you'd better make it fast," says Caleb, turning back toward the Pacific.

Fuck.

Ryan takes a deep breath and dashes across the narrow arm. He collapses onto the rock bench, his drop hard enough he's sure he'll have some bruises. He can't seem to get any air into his lungs, and his heart pounds so fast he thinks it might implode.

Caleb studies Ryan, raising his eyebrows haughtily. His face settles into a languid sneer. "What's the matter with you, boy? Afraid of heights?"

Ryan glares up at the senior Nichol, but says nothing. He needs to gain more equilibrium.

Caleb narrows his eyes, and tilts his head. A dark smile spreads across his face, and he takes two arrogant strides towards Ryan. "Would you care to explain what compels a boy who's obviously terrified of heights to come out here? To talk with someone he doesn't talk to under ordinary circumstances?"

"I'm beginning to wonder that myself," Ryan shoots back, irritation superseding his anxiety.

Caleb chuckles. "There's one thing I can think of that might inspire you to come out here. Do you think I'm suicidal, Ryan? Is that what you think?"

"I think you're selfish enough to consider it."

Caleb's eyebrows arch, and one corner of his mouth turns up. "Selfish, how?"

Ryan averts his eyes, staring down at his boots. He grinds his teeth together, and his hands clench involuntarily into fists.

"I asked you a question," Caleb snaps.

The man's tone really pisses Ryan off. He raises his head, icy dark blue eyes looking directly into Caleb's. His voice is on low burn. "Yeah, but do you really want an answer?"

Caleb stares at him a long beat before he folds his arms across his chest and purses his lips. "Tell you what, Ryan. What say we play a little game, you and I? You ask me a question. If I find it interesting, I'll answer it. Then I'll ask you a question. If you answer to my satisfaction, then you get to ask me another question. If you make it through three rounds, you win. But if you lie, or if I get bored, then the game's over."

"What do you mean, 'the game's over'?"

Caleb turns to face the Pacific. "What do you think I mean?"

Shaking his head, Ryan snaps, "I don't have a fucking clue."

"Oh, come on boy, don't be disingenuous."

Ryan ducks his head, twisting at his watchband. He's doing this is for Kirsten, he tells himself. It sure as hell isn't for Caleb.

He scrunches his face, wishing Sandy were here. Sandy would know what to say to this lunatic. How to handle him.

He makes a stab. "Look, I know you're in a lot of trouble over the Newport Group. That you might go to prison. But you're not … I mean, please just tell me that you're not gonna' jump."

Caleb laughs lightly. "Not if you win. Ask your first question."

Ryan blinks. "You can't be serious. You'd honestly consider suicide? Why?"

Caleb turns back to him. "Oh, come on. You wouldn't be out here if you didn't think I might be serious. Doesn't make the 'why' a bad question, though. I think 'why' merits an answer."

Caleb's face is clouded, like he's weighing what he's about to say. Ryan hates the way the old man looks down on him, and thinks about standing up so they'll be more even. Those thoughts are negated when a blast of wind whips across the promontory, threatening to sweep away anything that's not secured.

The grey man seems fearless, drawing himself to his full height, feet planted solidly against the elements. "You ask why? Take a good look at my life. I'm the most powerful man in Newport Beach. I'm feared, respected, flattered, catered to. People in Orange County pretty much kiss my ass. So the specter of going to prison? Let's just say that might be too damned far to fall, for far too long to suit me."

"People survive prison."

Caleb glares at him, his nostrils flaring. "And I guess you should know. I hear there's an 'Atwood' wing at the state facility in Chino."

"Want an introduction?" Ryan smirks.

Caleb nods sharply toward the precipice. "That's a more attractive alternative."

Ryan doesn't try to hide his contempt. "For you, maybe, but what about for Kirsten? Or Seth? Or Hailey?"

Caleb glares at him. "You forget yourself, boy. My game. My rules. You asked your question. Now it's my turn."

Ryan stares at the man. "You're insane."

"I'm insane? You came out onto a ledge you're terrified of to talk to someone you despise. That's insanity."

Ryan takes in Caleb's smug expression. "More like stupidity."

Caleb's lips twist into a freak-show smile. "Looking for points for accurate self-assessment? Don't waste my time."

He pauses a second before he lashes out, "What do you want from my daughter?"

Ryan wants to say 'nothing', but that's not true anymore. "I don't want her money, if that's what you're asking."

Caleb snorts, and jabs his finger at Ryan accusingly. "Which is why you live in her house? Let her pay your tuition? Buy your clothes? Feed you?"

The man's hand clenches into a fist as it drops to his side. He continues stabbing with his words. "You take her money all the time, so don't pretend you don't. I really want to know, Ryan. What the hell do you want from my daughter?"

Ryan clenches one fist and sheathes it inside his other hand, muscles straining under his hoodie as he wrestles for control of his temper.

"I'm getting bored," Caleb warns, edging closer to the precipice.

He's not sure the old man isn't crazy enough to jump just to spite him. He reminds himself how much he owes Kirsten. He reminds himself that despite her father's faults, she loves the madman.

He digs in deep, sure Caleb won't be taken in by lies. He loosens his fist, clasping his hands together between his knees. He looks squarely at the shadowed man in front of him. "I want to be part of Kirsten's family. I want her to want that, too."

His face flushes under Caleb's scrutiny.

He's not sure which is more ominous – Caleb Nichol's face or the dark clouds thickening out over the Pacific.

The grey man finally breaks their eye-lock. "So the little pussy wants a mama, does he?"

Ryan glares up at him, refusing to be baited. "No dice. Your rules, remember? I answered your question, now you answer mine. Why do you treat Kirsten like you don't have any respect for her? She's awesome, and you treat her like shit."

Caleb cocks his head and narrows his eyes. "Didn't think you'd have the balls to ask me that, but since you did, I'll answer. Kirsten is 'awesome'. She's also intelligent, creative, loving, and extremely dutiful. Her flaw is that she's too soft. It makes her weak. She pays too much attention to that self-righteous son-in-law of mine. Hell, she even pays too much attention to me, when she should stand up to me sometimes."

Ryan's jaw clenches. The man's an ass, but he's right about one thing. Kirsten should stand up to him.

A sprinkle of rain feels cool against his skin. Thunder rumbles in the distance, and wind whips through his hair. He pulls his hoodie together in the front, zipping it half-way up.

The old man ignores the gathering storm. "If you want a 'for-instance', just look how Sandy talked Kirsten into taking you into her home. Respect her? I'll respect her when she makes me respect her."

Ryan grinds his teeth together. "You're unbelievable. You should respect her because she's brilliant and loyal and caring. Because she's a great daughter, and wife, and mother. Because she's got more integrity than you'll ever have."

Several quick flashes of lightening flicker off-shore like distant fireworks. Sheets of rain empty out of blackened clouds a few miles out over the Pacific.

Caleb's glower is punctuated with a piercing clap of thunder. "Integrity is highly over-rated. Money and power are the only currencies that count in this world, boy."

"Your world maybe. Not mine." Another roll of thunder fills the sky.

The lightening in the distance intensifies, forking white hot between sky and sea.

Caleb's eyes close halfway, and his voice deepens dangerously. "My world is your world, Ryan. Don't forget that. Not while you're living off my daughter."

The man turns toward the sea, walking back to the very edge of the rock promontory. He turns his head to the side, raising his voice so it will carry back to Ryan. "My question now. Why did your mother abandon you?"

Unbelievable.

Ryan closes his eyes. "You tell me," he says before he catches himself.

Caleb spins just as a gust of wind whips by. One foot slides on loose pebbles and he struggles for balance. Ryan springs to his feet, getting to the man in four swift strides.

He reaches out, and Caleb grabs for him. Caleb's fingers wrap around his arm like talons clinging to their prey. Ryan can feel the tensile strength in the man's hand, and he plants his feet and leans backward to counteract the sudden weight that threatens to propel him forward.

Caleb recovers his stability, but he's slow to release his predator's grip on Ryan's forearm. The old man's eyes find Ryan's.

They simmer with contempt.

Once he turns Ryan loose, Caleb picks up the conversation as though he hasn't just nearly plummeted off the rocks. "My game doesn't work that way, boy. I don't tell you why your mother dumped you. You have to tell me."

The rain is coming faster now. The drops are bigger. They make round wet splotches on the rock surface where they land.

Ryan eases away from the ledge, but doesn't sit back down. He swipes at his face with his jacket sleeve when a sharp gust blows water in his eye. Perfect. The bastard will probably assume he's made him cry.

But Caleb doesn't seem to notice. The grey man has his own agenda, inching backward as lightening dances more wickedly behind him. "Kirsten will want to know what happened if I die here while you stand there and watch. You gonna' tell her you refused to answer a simple question? Is that how you'll pay back everything she's done for you?"

Thunder rumbles across the Pacific, voicing Ryan's thoughts better than he can.

Fucking self-centered bastard.

He squares his shoulders, ignoring the raindrops pelting more steadily. "Fine. You want to know why my mom left me? I'll tell you. She left because she couldn't face failing again. My brother had a juvenile record by the time he was eleven. I think Mom gave up on him before he turned fifteen. She used to say I was her last hope. Her last chance for success. But then I got arrested, too. She left because I let her down."

The sky is split with jagged white, the thunder exploding instantly.

Caleb's voice carries over a deafening rumble. "You don't think she let you down?"

Ryan matches the old man's decibel level. "That's another question."

He is surprised when Caleb snorts approval.

The grey man's face softens for an instant. "I've found leaving usually isn't much about the person left."

Ryan wonders if the old man is reminiscing. Was he left, or did he leave?

The thunder continues to roll, but it's gotten a little softer. Lightening forks through the sky at a greater distance.

Caleb pulls at his sleeves, rubbing his shoulders against a gust of wind. "I'll give you this much, boy. You've got more moxie than I thought you had. I didn't think you'd make it to the last round, but here you are."

The storm moves further down the shoreline, the brunt of it still well out to sea. A light drizzle continues to fall, the drops fat and cold.

Ryan rubs his neck with one hand, rolling his shoulders to loosen the tension that's gathered there. As he works at some of his knots, he addresses their source.

"Okay. Last question. What made you into such an asshole?"

Caleb lips twitch. "I was always an asshole."

Ryan flings his hands out in mock surprise. "Imagine that. Now why don't you tell me something I don't already know?"

"Ask a better question and I might."

Irritated, Ryan starts again. "Seth says you're self-made. I want to know what drove you to become such an insensitive bastard in the process. You succeed at other people's expense. Were you abused? Did someone hurt you? Ignore you? Are you all about getting even?"

Caleb shakes his head. "Project much?"

"I'm not like you."

The man uses one hand to swipe at a thick spatter of drops the wind blows into his face, shaking the water off his fingers sharply. "You're damned straight you're not like me. You're nothing like me, and you never will be."

"Thank you."

The man spits back, "That wasn't meant as a compliment."

Ryan smiles. "And yet, it was a huge one."

"Fuck you."

"No thanks."

Caleb's glare dissipates into a grudging nod.

Ryan takes advantage of the grey man's silence to prod. "So what happened? Or are you too afraid to tell me?"

Caleb's response comes swiftly. "I'm not afraid of you or anybody else. I never was. When I was eight, I knew I'd own this fucking town."

"Why? What happened when you were eight?"

The grey man's face contorts, and he seems lost in memory. He blows out a sharp breath, his head shaking at whatever he's thinking. When he looks back at Ryan, his expression seems pensive. "Haven't thought about it specifically in a long time. Odd, what motivates you as a kid."

"What happened?" Ryan repeats.

Caleb's voice sounds distant, as though it's as far removed as his memory. "I got a dog once, for my sixth birthday. Great big yellow Lab named 'Winston'. He was loyal. Brave. We were almost inseparable, until the day one of the local trust-fund kids shot him. Brought him down with one bullet. Then that kid laughed in my face."

"Some kid shot your dog? Why would he do that?"

Caleb's expression hardens. "For kicks. Because he could. Because his family had power and position, and mine didn't. That was the day I decided I was going to own this town. That I was going to be richer and more powerful than the whole fucking lot of the trust-fund set. That kid's arrogance led to my success."

"You should have kicked that rich kid's ass."

The old man snorts. "What makes you think I didn't?"

Ryan chuckles softly to himself. That's a scene he can imagine.

He tilts his head, looking sidewise at Caleb as he scoffs, "So, is that your final question?"

Caleb shoots him another grudging look of approval. "Smartass."

"Don't flatter me."

The man nods. "Wouldn't think of it."

"Good."

Caleb steps closer, his voice eerily soft. "You think I'm an asshole? Well, maybe you're right. But you know what? I got everything I ever went after."

Ryan can't help himself. He edges backward, careful not to bump into the bench. He frowns at Caleb. "Yeah, maybe you got everything you went after, but at what price? You might go to prison. Kirsten might get caught up in your mess. Is the power and position really worth it?"

Caleb wags a warning finger at him, "Your turn is over. It's my question."

Fine. Ryan folds his arms and waits.

"What about you is worth fighting for?" Caleb tilts his head to the side as he appraises Ryan.

Good question.

"Now who's afraid?" the old man taunts.

"I'm not afraid," Ryan says.

Caleb narrows his eyes, "Is that your answer? Because if it is, I'm not buying it for a second. You've been scared shitless since you've been in Newport. Of me. Of Kirsten. Of getting thrown out on your ass. Don't tell me you're not. I'm a lot of things, Ryan, but blind isn't one of them."

"No. Yes."

Shit.

Ryan turns away from the man and blows out a sharp breath. He wishes he could deny the charges, but he can't. Not entirely. He gathers himself together and faces Caleb again. "I'm not afraid to answer your question. That's what I meant."

"Glad we got that straight."

Ryan grimaces. He earned that reproof.

"So?"

Ryan shrugs. "I've got a good mind, I guess."

"You either do or you don't. Which is it?" Caleb's lips twist snidely.

God, the man pisses him off.

"I do," he retorts. His voice snaps as he continues. "I'm a good student. And I'm not just good with school subjects – I read people pretty well, too. I don't mind hard work. I don't lie. I don't care about money or power or social position or things. I care about people and relationships, and I watch out for the people that are important to me."

Ryan's breathing heavily by the time he finishes his rant. He can't believe he just pimped himself like that. He sounds a lot like Seth.

To his surprise, Caleb smiles. "That wasn't so hard, was it?"

Ryan frowns, but says nothing.

"Come on, Ryan. It would be a whole lot easier for me to respect you if I had the sense you respected yourself. Mind you, I'm not saying I'd like you. Hell, I can't stand Sanford, but I respect him."

This guy is too much. Ryan is seething. "Know this, Mr. Nichol. I don't like you or respect you."

"You think I care, Ryan? Do you honestly think your opinion of me matters one way or the other?"

"What I think is that your fucking 'game' is over. I win. That's what I think." Ryan catches the man's grey-blue eyes with his, and holds on tight.

Caleb purses his lips, standing there a long moment before he steps away from the edge. "So, thanks to you, I live. Feel good about your day's work?"

Ryan considers. "No."

Caleb laughs out loud. "Watch out, kid. I might end up respecting you after all, and you'd hate that."

Ryan thinks the man is right. He hates the way Caleb's words make him feel a little proud of himself – like maybe he measures up in some small way to Sandy. Caleb's opinion shouldn't matter. He shouldn't let it matter.

Caleb speaks again. "Why don't you lead the way back? Unless you've lost your nerve." The old man nods his head toward the narrow arm.

Ryan has been trying to forget he has to cross the strip of rock again, but there's no way out of it. He's not about to let Caleb see how frightened he is, nodding his acquiescence because he doesn't trust his voice.

As he crosses the flat rock face, he feels rather than sees Caleb walking close behind him. He stands at the near end of the arm, telling himself it's just over five yards to the other side. He'll have a rock span nearly two feet wide underneath his feet.

But the threatening sound of waves crashing nearly a hundred feet below and the wind still whipping across the Heights do nothing to ease his rising panic. He stares at the rock protrusion in front of him and feels dizzy, like he's had too much to drink.

He sucks in a breath and takes three steps forward. He tries to stay in the middle of the path, but his feet refuse to move in a straight line. They veer left.

His vision fogs, and his world becomes a blur of cliffs and ocean. Everything moves in slow motion as his body sways out of his control.

Strong hands press against him. He tries to shake them off, twisting his body further.

"God damn it, Ryan, stop fighting me!"

He instinctively obeys the stern command.

Long lean arms wrap around his chest, refusing to let him submit to his own body's will. He has no motor control, but his senses are in overdrive. He hears the crunch of loose stones under scrambling feet. He hears his own boots scraping against the rock-face. He feels hot breath against his neck. Caleb's ring has twisted, and presses into his arm. He smells expensive scotch and salty brine, and hears sea gulls screaming overhead.

Slowly he's pulled upright. Back to the center of the pathway.

"Trust me," Caleb whispers. "Close your eyes, and let me guide you."

He has no better option, so he submits. He's urged forward one step at a time, the man's hands on his shoulders guiding him until he feels earth and grass under his feet. Only then, when he's safe, does Caleb let him go.

Ryan steps further away from the precipice before collapsing forward, his hands resting against his thighs.

From somewhere behind him, the man says, "Now we're even."

Ryan turns around, still doubled over. He lifts his eyes just enough to see Caleb's face, and nods.

He notices that the clouds are not so thick now, allowing the sun to break through. From where Ryan is standing, the Nichol patriarch is bathed in back-light, his face cast in shadows.

It looks like Caleb frowns, but it's hard to tell. The man's voice isn't shadowed, though. Its edges are crisp. "Are you going to tell Kirsten about this?"

Ryan raises his head. He breathes his words, but at least he's capable of speech. "Still thinking of offing yourself?"

Caleb moves closer, his head blotting out a portion of the sun. It's easier to see the man's features, but his eyes remain inscrutable. "I've decided not to give either you or Sanford the pleasure of my demise."

Ryan's breathing settles into something manageable. He straightens, and is relieved to hear his voice sound almost normal. "What ever motivation works for you. As for telling Kirsten? I'll make you this promise. Unless she asks, I never saw you."

He doesn't bother to tell Caleb that Kirsten won't ask. No one asks him much of anything these days.

Caleb nods. "Fair enough." Without another word he turns away.

Ryan looks at his watch. If he hurries, he can nearly meet Seth's schedule.

Except no.

Not this time. He's got his own 'thing'. Seth will have to wait.

As Caleb strides toward the crumpled fence, Ryan calls out to him.

"You could have let me fall."

Caleb stops, and turns around. The sun glints off the silver in his hair. "I thought about it."

Ryan squints. "Nice to know."

"Anytime. Don't mention it."

Ryan ducks his head, and grinds the toe of his boot into the loose dirt at his feet. When he lifts his face, Caleb is studying him intently, a hint of interest in his eyes.

"Thank you," Ryan offers.

"Acknowledged. But there's more on your mind than thanking me, isn't there?" The man tilts his head like Kirsten does when she's curious.

Ryan moves toward him, speaking as he walks. "Why risk your life for mine?"

The elder Nichol's eyes widen just a bit. "Why indeed? What do you want me to say?"

"I just want the truth." Ryan draws up in front of him.

Caleb actually smiles, although the smile isn't exactly warm. "The truth? You caught me by surprise. You didn't kiss my ass."

Ryan's lips curl up as he shakes his head from side to side. "You're certifiable."

Caleb's voice lowers as he taunts, "You thought I did it for Kirsten, right?"

Maybe.

"No."

The grey man nods. "Good, because I'm still hoping she'll change her mind about you."

Big surprise.

"About letting me stay?" he asks.

The old smirks, but says nothing. He turns and strides away, leaving Ryan shaking his head.

The man is almost out of earshot when he calls back.

"About your being like her son."

fin

A/N: Reviews greatly appreciated.