"Start at the beginning." Said the Judge calmly, "And continue until you come to the end, then stop." Alice in Wonderland
If only it was that easy.
The ending came as quickly as the beginning.
Like most endings, it didn't come with a bang, but with a whimper, a sigh of relief. Things were finally over. Maybe now the real healing could begin.
It was late October. Leaves crunched underfoot, which Riley was grateful for. No one sneaking up on him, not here sitting on an old quilt in the yard.
He was alone for once. Darrel, who had been by his side for a solid month, who had been the one in the idling car waiting for him when he exited his first therapy session, who had picked up the phone at three am when the nightmares came and Ben was just too far away…Darrel was gone, away on a trip with his three real brothers, even though he always claimed that he thought of Riley as blood. The triplets were just family. Riley was his brother.
But his absence, coinciding neatly with Abigail's own visit to her mother, whisking away Joy for the weekend (and was that a wink passing between Darrel and Abby or was Riley being paranoid?) meant that Riley was forced into Ben's company.
He hadn't been avoiding his father, not purposely. More than one person had told him how grief-stricken Ben was when he discovered Riley's absence, and Riley knew himself that Ben was trying like hell to make amends. They had reverted to the roles they'd played when Riley first came to stay with the Gates. No males, including Ben, touched him. Nobody screamed, because that would make Riley whimper and cower, afraid of fists and wood and belts.
The easy camaraderie that had existed between them Before was gone, and Riley had escaped the huge house because he was afraid. Afraid that the relationship he'd thought existed between him and Ben had vanished forever, another victim of Pop.
Outside, Riley read. Escaping into the realm of science fiction was easy for him. Calming. The love of books was something he shared with Ben and Abby, something they'd bonded over the first time around, when Riley was a temporary foster kid and they were philanthropic millionaires. Now it was just an outlet, an assurance that he wasn't alone in the world.
I, Robot had been thumbed through so many times that Riley could recite whole passages from memory, but he read anyway. It was a beautiful day – the air crisp with the scent that belonged only to October, the weather cool enough for a jacket, warm enough to forgo mittens or a scarf.
Leaves crunched underfoot, and with everyone else Riley knew away with their own lives, he knew it had to be Ben. He didn't look up from his book. He didn't know what to say to this man who had once been so integral to his life, the man he was too afraid to let back into it. Afraid of betrayal, of heartbreak.
Ben settled onto the carpet of leaves, staring at the pale blue sky that matched so exactly the blue eyes of the boy he loved so dearly. Sighing, he tried to find a way to broach this gap that existed between them. Riley was healing – slowly, stiltedly, but he would shake off Pop again as he once had, embracing Darrel and Joy and Abby and every other part of his Cinderella-like existence.
Ben just wanted to be a part of that, and didn't know how to get into that inner sanctum. Darrel and Abby had collaborated somehow, he knew they had, to give him this weekend with Riley. That was all it used to take for them – Riley hung on his every word, or had. Before the whole Pop debacle, Riley would have sworn up and down that the sun rose and set on Benjamin Franklin Gates.
"I remember the first time you went to the ocean." Ben said suddenly, surprising himself with these words. "You were terrified. Thought we were going to leave you behind when we left the Jersey Shore."
Riley always used to think that. He would never stray far from Ben's side because he was afraid that he would be cast off, forgotten, discarded like yesterday's news. Onto the newer, happier children.
"And getting you into the ocean was a bear. Like we were sending you into the lion's den, but that was at the beginning. Back before you started feeling safe enough around us to pipe up and say that something made you uncomfortable." Ben smiled a sad smile. Before this past summer, Riley's past would come up sporadically and always with great surprise. You mean you've never had Chinese food? Never been to the aquarium? Never watched Spongebob?
"So when I was laying out the towel, I just said to you to get in the water. It was hot. I thought you were itching for some relief from the heat. I thought I was giving you permission. You took it as an order and marched in." Ben looked over at Riley, who'd put the book down and was staring at the same patch of blue sky Ben was looking at.
"You should have said you didn't know how to swim."
Riley's first word in a long while: "Sorry."
Ben had looked up from the beach blanket, the cooler and books and umbrella they'd brought to while the day away at the shore, to look in the direction of the commotion. A lifeguard was diving into the water, and Ben watched for the same reason people stared at accidents on the highway: some things you just couldn't look away from.
When the burly teenage boy had come up with Riley, fourteen then, pale and small from fourteen years in the basement, sputtering water, Ben felt his heart stop.
"No," Ben contradicted on that October day on the lawn outside the house. "No, I'm sorry, Ri. For the beginning. For pushing you out of the way in order to get to Joy." Ben hesitated for a moment, then put his hand on Riley's jean-clad leg. "You have no idea how many times I wanted to tell you that, especially when you were missing. I'm sorry, Riley."
Riley nodded slowly. This was what he'd wanted for months now, since the very beginning, when he'd run out of Ben's house with tears pouring down his cheeks, hopes of an excursion to the Rocky's forgotten in light of this betrayal. He'd been looking for an apology.
Now that he had one, though, he found it didn't fit right, like a shirt that was too small. Outgrown. Unnecessary. "No," he said slowly, tasting the word on his lips and feeling the animosity he'd held towards his adopted father fall away with each word. "No, Ben. I would have done the same thing. Joy is two. She could have been hurt…"
"You were hurt."
"You didn't know that was going to happen." Absolution. Forgiveness. What was that thing the Beatles said? Love is all you need? Riley felt those cold, hard feelings he'd been feeling for two months start to drip away.
This wasn't a total thaw – Pop had beaten him, raped him, treated him as less than a human being, and there would always be trauma from his fourteen years under Pop's cruelty, that week thrown back into the pit. There would always be guilt left over from stabbing his father, for his death, even if the court had ruled it self defense without Riley even having to open his mouth to defend himself.
But Riley let himself put out a hand to Ben, let himself be drawn into a hug by the older man, and let himself forgive the way he'd tried to at church for the past weeks.
"I'm sorry for what your father did to you." Ben said, talking into Riley's hair. He was crying, and didn't try to cover it up. This was a moment, reuniting with his son, and he was going to relish it. Tears and all.
Riley muttered something, too, his words obscured by Ben's shirt. "What?" Ben asked, and Riley pushed himself away from Ben's chest.
He was smiling, that sad little half-smile that was always purely Riley, the one that made Ben fall in love with the foster kid two years ago. "I said that Pop isn't my father, Ben. He's not my dad. You are."
In the end, it wasn't a court case or therapy sessions, wasn't the passage of years of anniversaries that brought the father and son back together. The big things never really happen when planned, anyway. They happen when you least expect it.
And that is what makes life so damn difficult, and frustrating, and beautiful.
This is officially our retirement from the National Treasure category, although we love AU Riley and Ben as a father/son pair. Thanks to everyone who reviewed these two stories. I hope you found what you were looking for.