Disclaimer: Unfortunately, I do not own the characters, not even the adorable Ryan Atwood/Ben McKenzie. The OC universe and all of its characters were created by Josh Schwartz and owned by him as well. Don't sue me Josh! I mean it! No copyright infringement intended!

A/N: Guys, I am SO SORRY that I took so long to update! This chapter has been written for a while, but life got in the way. It is the summer time now, so I will try to update quicker from now on! I hope you guys stick with this story despite how slowly I've been updating it. I promise it will be worth the wait if you stick with me! I have an intricate plot planned out for the remaining ten or so chapters and it will get quite intense and many relationships will be developed (Ryan/Luke, Ryan/Sandy, Ryan/Seth, Ryan/Kirsten, Sandy/Kirsten, and Ryan/Seth/Summer/Anna).

This chapter introduces the following characters: Kirsten, Caleb, Anna, Summer, Dr. Kim, Meredith Ward, Dr. Canales.

Every scene in this chapter is important for later character development, even if it seems like fluff at times. The second half of this chapter (the Ryan & Luke part) becomes EXTRA intense and is BASED ON A TRUE STORY (something that happened between me and a close friend) so please keep that in mind. I hope you will not be mad at Luke after this chapter or if you are, please consider the fact that he is an overwhelmed teenager. We all make mistakes, but what happens in this chapter with Luke is essential to his development later on in the story and what Ryan does for him in this chapter is essential to the building complexity regarding their friendship. When Ryan's severe illness becomes revealed, I will expound upon these things more and you'll understand better what I am talking about in later chapters.

Sorry that was so long winded and thanks so much for sticking with me and for all the amazing reviews!

Lastly, but certainly not least, thanks so much to my beta! You've been amazing so far!

Now on with the story!

~*~*~*~CHAPTER THREE~*~*~*~

Kirsten Cohen was washing the dishes. She had been reading over floor plans for most of the morning and had missed breakfast with the family. As she reached her hand out to turn off the tap, she felt someone affectionately kiss her on the neck.

"Hey, you," She said seductively, turning around and pulling her husband to her for a light kiss on the lips. "I thought you had already left for work. You said you had an early morning meeting."

"I did, but after it I realized I forgot something at the house and had to come back," Sandy said mischievously as he continued to caress her slender body lovingly.

She looked at him curiously and he smiled boyishly at her.

"Actually," He said nuzzling her neck and kissing her softly. "It was just an excuse to see my beautiful, classy, charming, magnificent wife," he added, punctuating each superlative with a kiss.

"Good answer," She smiled at him, pulling him in closer.

Just then, her cell phone began to ring. For a few moments she hesitated before finally pulling away from him and reaching for her phone to see who was calling.

"Aren't you going to take that?" He asked, confused.

"It's my dad."

"Oh, that rich, heartless bastard? No wonder you haven't picked up the phone yet," Sandy playfully mocked her father.

Kirsten glared at her husband causing him to throw up his hands in mock indignation.

"What, honey? You know it's true! Despite all that, he's still my favorite father- in-law."

"He's your only father-in-law," Kirsten responded, clearly irritated by his continued digs at her father.

"And thank God. As much as I love to hate the man, I don't think the world could handle another Caleb Nichol."

Ignoring Sandy's remark about her dad, Kirsten changed the subject.

"Have the boys left for school already?" She asked, walking back over to the sink to place the remaining dirty bowls and silverware from breakfast in the dishwasher. "I haven't seen them all morning."

"I'm pretty sure they left, honey. It's already…," Sandy paused to read the time on his Breitling watch. "It's already ten 'til eight. If they haven't left, I'd imagine they're both running very late, and I know Ryan had a meeting with his coach before school."

"He did? What about? Is it about the fight at practice yesterday?"

She had been worried that Ryan would get into trouble at school ever since he'd come to live with them.

"I'm not sure what the meeting is about, but I'd imagine it's about the game Saturday. You know, Ryan is going to be the starting striker in the county championship. I'm really proud of that kid," Sandy answered.

"Oh," She exhaled softly, relieved that Ryan had continued his streak of good behavior at Harbor since the incident at practice several months before where he had been suspended for two games. "That will be good for him," she added with a reserved smile.

Sandy noticed the skepticism in her voice and sighed. This was not the first time she had let her fear of Ryan getting into trouble slip in front of him.

"It'll be great for him! I promised him I'd be at the game. I think we should all go together as a family to support him."

"That sounds like a good idea. I've been so wrapped up in the new development project that I haven't even found the time to talk to Seth lately."

Sandy looked at his wife dubiously. In his mind, the purpose of them all going together was to show Ryan how much they wanted him to feel like part of the family.

Finally, noticing her husband's confused expression, she added, "I'm sure Ryan will appreciate the support."

Almost on cue, her cell phone began to ring again, but this time she knew she couldn't ignore it much longer.

She kissed her husband one last time before grabbing her things and leaving for work as he did the same.

By the time Kirsten reached the Range Rover her cell rang for the third time that morning.

"Hi, Dad," She finally answered unenthusiastically, unlocking the door of the vehicle and setting her briefcase on the passenger seat.

"Kiki," he responded. "I've been trying to get a hold of you all morning."

"I know. I'm sorry. I'm on my way to the office right now. I got tied up with things at the house, but I've already taken a look at the new architectural designs and made an appointment to meet with the contractors next week if that's what you are concerned about," She tried to appease her father as she started up the ignition and began pulling out of the driveway on her way to work.

"Actually, I'm not calling about that. There is an important business meeting on Saturday with the CEO of Richard H. Dodd & Associates."

"They finally agreed to meet with us? They have some of the nicest residential designs I've seen."

"Yes, and I expect you to be there."

"Saturday? Couldn't they have picked another day? I already made plans. You know I hate to work on Saturdays."

"Nonsense. You thrive off of your work. You're a workaholic just like your mother was."

Kirsten sighed. She couldn't argue that one.

"What time is the meeting?" She asked, hoping perhaps it wouldn't conflict with her schedule.

"It's at two. Then we are all going out to dinner afterward. What is it you made plans to do on Saturday that is so important anyway? Cardio bar with those women from the Yacht Club again?"

"Actually, Dad… Ryan has an important soccer game on Saturday, and it starts at two."



"Oh, you mean the delinquent? I thought I told you it's dangerous to let a criminal get so close to the family. I still can't forgive that self-righteous, overzealous husband of yours for taking him in. He's leeching off of our money—my money… and now he's eating up your valuable time… time that you could be spending with my grandson. Don't you see what is happening, Kiki? That boy is finding a way to manipulate his way into all of our lives."

"That boy has a name, and he's not a bad kid. He's living in our home now, and it was just as much my decision to let him stay as it was Sandy's. Seth adores Ryan, and I already told Sandy I would go with him to the game."

"This is completely unacceptable," Caleb replied, but Kirsten zoned out from the conversation as she noticed a lethargic, dark blond figure walking on the sidewalk ahead.

"Dad, let me call you back," She said, hanging up her cell phone and pulling over as she turned on the emergency signal.

She stepped out of the Rover and locked its doors, hurrying to catch up with the sluggish boy in front of her. The closer she got to him, the more worried she became as she noticed his seemingly labored breathing.

"Ryan?" She called out, but got no response.

"Ryan?" She tried again, this time a little bit louder. Finally catching up to him, she tapped on his left shoulder, startling him.

He flinched at the physical contact, and his whole body tensed until finally, the trance that had been absorbing his mood was broken, and he realized who was calling his name.

Wide-eyed, he clumsily dropped the notebook he had been carrying and stared at his foster mother in utter confusion.

"Kirsten?" He asked softly, unable to hide his surprise.

"Ryan, why aren't you in school?"

"I'm sorry…I…," He said quickly, stepping away from her and inhaling sharply. Much to his dismay, he was unable to control his worsening coughing as he struggled to catch his breath.

"Shit," he thought silently as he met her serious gaze.

Swallowing nervously, he tried to explain himself to her.

"I wasn't… I mean… I'm not ditching school or anything. I didn't mean to be late," he answered, suddenly losing his nerve and breaking eye contact with her, but before he could say anything else, she interrupted him.

"Are you feeling okay, Ryan?" She asked, softening her tone as she examined his worn out appearance. Guilt flooded her eyes as she realized this was the first conversation she had had with the blue-eyed teenager in almost twenty-four hours.

He didn't respond to her question; instead, his shoulders slumped as he continued staring down at his boot-covered feet.

Dark circles outlined his puffy, slightly watery eyes, and his hair appeared a bit greasy and unkempt—strands of his shaggy bangs cowlicked in varying directions. It was much different than the clean and neatly styled tufts she was used to seeing on him.

Even more, the bruise on his chin that Sandy had warned her about had now taken on a dark purple and grayish hue. His cough didn't go unnoticed by her either. To put it mildly, he looked as if he hadn't slept in days. Fighting off the urge to feel his forehead in public for a temperature, she settled on prying for more information.

"Why are you walking? You usually take your bike."

He merely shrugged his shoulders, throwing her a quick glance and chewing on his bottom lip. Momentarily, he got the courage to answer.

"Wasn't feeling too well I guess," he said in a quiet, hoarse voice, upset that he felt bad enough to admit that to her.

"So you decided to walk instead?" She sighed—annoyed that he hadn't come to her. "Ryan, does that make any sense to you? If you aren't feeling well, you need to tell me or Sandy. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Kirsten," he answered timidly.

"So why didn't you?"

"You seemed busy. I didn't want to bother you."

His thoughtful answer only served in adding to the overwhelming amount of guilt she was feeling.

"Get in the Rover, Ryan. Now," She ordered sternly. "I'm giving you a ride to school, and I expect you to see the nurse as soon as you get there," She said, unlocking the doors to the black vehicle.

As she walked briskly to the driver's side, Ryan obediently followed, lagging behind her and gingerly opening the door to the passenger side. He hesitated as he saw her brief case lying in the passenger seat, unsure of whether or not she wanted him to move it himself.

"Oh, don't worry about the brief case. You can just set it on the floor," She assured him, noticing his discomfort. He did so and climbed into the seat, shutting the door.

She hadn't meant to come across harshly, and it hurt her to see how uneasy Ryan still seemed to be around her, especially knowing that she hadn't made much of an effort to make him feel like part of the family over the past few months. She cared about him, but she didn't know how to approach him or how to talk to him, and she had no idea why, which further added to her frustration.

If anything, she was disappointed in herself. She had been so wrapped up in her job the past few weeks that she hadn't paid much attention to either of the boys, not even Seth, which intensified her guilt even more.

Had Ryan been feeling this ill for a while now? Would he have even told them if he had?

She knew he had been recovering from sinusitis the past couple of weeks and that a mild, recurring cough had persisted since he first began living with them, but the doctors told them it was all caused by allergies, and she hadn't ever noticed him appearing as physically worn down as he did today in the entirety of the seven months they had been his legal guardians. Concerned, she made a mental note to talk to Sandy about setting up another appointment for Ryan with Dr. Canales.

Ryan remained silent for the duration of the ride to Harbor, and when she pulled into the front parking lot of the school, she glanced at him and noticed he had pulled a few note cards out of his backpack that he seemed to be studying intently. It amazed her how hard he tried in school. Seth didn't spend half the time that Ryan did on studies or homework.

"We're here, Ryan," She said, interrupting his train of thought, which had been completely focused on whatever he was studying in chemistry.

He turned his head in her direction, giving her his characteristic, bashful smile.

"Thanks, Kirsten," He said, putting away his note cards and unfastening his seat belt.

"Oh, you're welcome. Have a good day at school today, and don't forget to see the nurse first thing. This way, they can excuse your tardiness as well."

He nodded at her appreciatively and then climbed out of the Range Rover on his way to school.

After visiting the nurse's office, Ryan was released with a note for his first period teacher to excuse his absence. Furthermore, the nurse had assured him that Coach Nielson would be informed of his health status.

Taking a deep breath, he relaxed a little knowing that he wouldn't be in any trouble for missing the early morning meeting.

However, other than that, the nurse hadn't told him anything he didn't already know, which confused him. If it was just allergies, why did Kirsten and Sandy keep insisting he see a doctor? Surely they had better things to worry about than his petty health issues.

After all, despite the persistent cough and shortness of breath, the nurse had told him his temperature was normal, and she gave him the go ahead to attend all of his classes and go to soccer practice as long as he was feeling up to it.

As he continued his walk to Pre-Calculus, he decided there was no point in even showing up considering there were fewer than ten minutes left of the class. Besides, he wasn't too fond of Mr. Schmidt and didn't mind a day without his boring lectures. Seth had been right all along. The man talked with his eyes closed and belittled his students when they couldn't understand a concept.

When Ryan finally reached his locker to grab his Western civilization book in preparation for second period, he saw Luke and his mother in the hallway.

"How's it going, Chino?" Luke asked casually, approaching his friend.

"Hey, man," Ryan greeted him, ignoring his question as the two friends bumped fists. "Hi, Mrs. Ward," he added politely, meeting her gaze and smiling softly.

"It's good to see you, Ryan. Thank you for helping Luke last night," She replied.

"It's no problem," he responded, shrugging his shoulders a little bit and quirking the left side of his mouth upwards shyly before gaining a more serious expression and turning to face Luke. "You okay?" He asked his friend.

"Yeah, you know… better anyway. You and my mom helped a lot. I guess I'll really know how I'm doing after this meeting with Dr. Kim."

Ryan eyed him sympathetically, and the three of them remained in awkward silence until Luke finally spoke up again.

"Dude, you look like you haven't slept in weeks."

"So I've heard," Ryan replied, slightly annoyed that everyone kept reminding him.

"You feel okay? I mean… that cough last night sounded pretty brutal."

"Yeah, everything's cool. Hey, look… I better get to class, but good luck."

"Thanks again for everything, Ryan," Meredith Ward reiterated her gratitude and Ryan nodded thoughtfully in response.

"Alright, Chino… take it easy, guy," Luke said, bumping fists with Ryan one more time before the other boy began the short walk to his second period class.

Shortly after, Dr. Kim arrived. The closer they got to the wooden doors of Dr. Kim's office, the more Luke's stomach churned with anxiety.

This was it.

Would he get to play in any of the remaining soccer games this season?

"Mr. Ward," Dr. Kim greeted him coldly as he entered her office before turning her gaze to meet his mother's. "Meredith," she acknowledged.

"Dr. Kim, I am terribly sorry about Luke's actions. It won't happen again."

"This is not the first time your son has been in trouble for fighting, and it's not me you should be apologizing to," Dr. Kim responded seriously. "Have a seat please."

Luke and his mother sat down across from Dr. Kim's desk as she pulled out Luke's file and began skimming it over and making notes.

Nervous, Luke swallowed thickly and began tapping his right sneaker quietly against the shiny, wooden floor. If the grave expression on Dr. Kim's face carried any weight in her decision, this meeting certainly would not turn out in his favor. Already feeling defeated, he slumped back in his chair and waited for his principal to speak. Instead, his mom was the next one to break the silence.

"What is it?" She asked hastily, anxious for her son.

"The disciplinary committee has made their decision…," The principal answered sternly. She then paused, pressing her lips together tightly.

"And?" Meredith asked discreetly. Even she was afraid of rubbing the strict, Asian woman sitting across from her the wrong way.

"Luke is suspended for the remainder of the school year."

Meredith gasped as the news began to sink in and continued pleading with Dr. Kim to change her mind. However, Luke didn't say a word as his focus shifted to his own bewildered thoughts.

In that moment, nothing seemed real to him anymore. He couldn't decipher up from down or even left from right. He knew his mom was going to be pissed when he got home, and deep down he did feel bad for worsening her situation, but that was the furthest thing from his mind.

He hadn't expected to be suspended for the rest of his junior year, but he couldn't bring himself to care. For the first time in his life, he felt completely empty and it scared him.

He knew it wasn't the suspension that triggered the numbness. It was rooted far deeper than that. Truthfully, the suspension didn't bother him at all. It was an escape from all the jackass kids that had made his life miserable the past few months—the same kids that he wanted to punch in the face.

Still, he knew he was depressed. His life had gotten way out of hand and he didn't know what to do about it. He was no longer in control.

Had he ever been?

A hysterical plea by his mother interrupted the perplexed thoughts running through his mind that were robbing him of his sanity.

"Dr. Kim, there has to be some mistake… please fix this! That's two months!" She cried.

"I shouldn't have to remind you what a serious offense it is for a student to assault another student," The principal explained matter-of-factly.

"But Dr. Kim, please! You have to listen to me! My son didn't assault Evan!"

"Did he not punch him over and over again until he passed out? Is Evan not in the hospital still because of your son?"

"Yes, but… he was provoked and Evan shoved him first! I agree with you that my son should be punished, but to say that he assaulted Evan just doesn't seem right!" she asserted.

"That's not what Evan is saying. Evan said that Luke attacked him in the locker room and several other students who were in the locker room when it happened confirmed that had Ryan not pulled Luke off, Evan may have been even more seriously injured than he already is."

"My son is not violent! He's just going through hard times with our family right now! I'm begging you… is there anything you can do to lighten the punishment?"

"Not violent? This is the second time I'm reminding you today that this is not the first time Luke has been suspended this year for fighting. I'm not even counting the model home incident where a fire was started. It's no secret that he has a history of bullying as well."

"His future can't be ruined because of this! He—I can't handle that right now! It's too much!"

"Luke should have thought of the consequences before taking his first swing at Evan," Dr. Kim maintained, but upon observing the look of desperation in Meredith's eyes, she softened her tone and sighed. "I'm afraid there is nothing more I can do."

Turning her head to face Luke, she added firmly, "I suggest you clean out your locker today—both your school locker and your gym locker. I'll inform all of your teachers of your suspension. Coach Nielson already knows. Do you have anything to say for yourself?"

Luke shook his head defiantly.

"Fuck you," he replied coolly, even surprising himself but unable to snap out of the pugnacious mood that was now replacing the numbness.

"Excuse me?" Dr. Kim asked, clearly astonished by his suddenly crude and disrespectful behavior.

"Luke, don't!" Meredith yelled, tears still descending from her tired eyes.

"I said fuck you and fuck Harbor! I don't give a fuck anymore, okay? I've already lost everything anyway… good riddance!" He blurted out before forcing himself up from the chair he had been seated in and heading for the door.

"You're not going anywhere! Get over here and sit down!" Meredith commanded harshly.

"Make me!" He shouted back.

"If you walk out that door, you are expelled and never to set foot near this school again!" Dr. Kim yelled, unfazed by the despondent teenager's sudden temper tantrum.

"Good!" He barked, slamming the door behind him and leaving his distraught mother on the verge of a breakdown.

The bell rang, signaling the end of Western civilization. Gingerly placing his well organized notes and textbook in his backpack and swinging it over his shoulder, Ryan took a deep breath in an effort to relax himself.

Although he wasn't particularly hungry, he was relieved that it was finally time for lunch. The 'fight' he had with Seth earlier in the morning had been bothering him all day and he was looking forward to seeing his foster brother at lunch with the hope that he'd get a chance to apologize to him. One thing he knew was that he couldn't take Seth being mad at him, and he was willing to do whatever it took to make things right between them. After all, if Seth hadn't tried so hard to convince Kirsten to let him stay in the pool house, Ryan feared he would still be living on the streets.

When he reached the school cafeteria, his reverie was interrupted by the heavy smell of greasy fries, pizza, corn dogs, and other similar foods that nearly caused his stomach to revolt. He knew there would be no way he could handle eating anything heavy, so he grabbed an apple and a bottle of water from the lunch line and began his walk to the courtyard to look for Seth.

As he made his way outside, he took a second to breathe in some of the fresh, spring air. His euphoria quickly ended, however, as the painful cough returned, forcing him to sit down against the brick wall of one of the school's many finely constructed buildings.

Anna Stern spotted him as he struggled for air—the petite blond unable to hide the concern radiating from her magnificently shaped, piercing brown eyes.

"Ryan?" She called out, walking towards him. "Are you okay?"

"Hey," He managed to get out in between coughs. "Yeah, fine."

Sensing that he wasn't in the mood to talk about his health, she buried her curiosity and changed the subject.

"Come on, tough guy. Let me help you up," She offered, holding out her hand for him to take.

"Are you on your way to have lunch with Seth?"

"Yeah," He replied, trying to ignore the uncomfortable tightness building in his chest.

"Do you mind if I sit with you guys? I was at the comic book store yesterday and picked up the new Legion. I thought Seth might want to take a look at it."

"If he doesn't already have it," Ryan smirked. "Sure, it's no problem. You can sit with us."

She smiled at him gratefully, and he returned the expression—a coy grin planted on his boyish face.

As the two of them walked to the courtyard, they ran into Summer Roberts who was sporting a bright pink, tight fitted blouse over a short, white jean skirt that showed off her curvy figure.

"Hi, Blanche," Anna used her affectionate nickname from the Golden Girls to greet her friend.

"Hey, Rose," the brunette replied before noticing the attractive, but exhausted teenager walking beside her.

"Hey, Atwood," She greeted him. "Nice bruise, and when's the last time you slept? You look like death warmed over."

"Thanks, Summer," He replied, smiling at her cheekily. "From you, that's a compliment."

"Hey, have you guys seen Cohen?" Summer asked, a glimmer of excitement illuminating her remarkable, coffee brown eyes at the mention of his name.

Ryan noticed a tinge of jealousy flicker across Anna's face.

"We were actually on our way to meet him for lunch," Anna answered.

"Oh," Summer said. "Can I come with you guys? Mrs. Applebalm had a 'family emergency' half way through English and totally let us out early, but now I have a whole period to kill!"

"Yeah, it's cool," Ryan answered.

He couldn't yet place what it was, but there was something about the energetic brunette that drew him to her. Normally he wasn't attracted to girls with personalities like hers, but there was something about her that he found enigmatic. Maybe it was because over the years he felt he had become pretty good at reading people, and every time he looked into her eyes, he saw a girl who was simultaneously strong and vulnerable—one who hid her true personality under the shell of her characteristically shallow one, perhaps as a mechanism for protecting herself from being hurt.

None of that mattered though because she was off limits. There was no way he could ever develop feelings for the girl his foster brother had been crushing on since the years he first began playing magic the gathering.

Brushing off his attraction, he continued walking with his two female companions as they chatted about their biology assignment. He enjoyed their company, but he knew he had to find some time with Seth alone so that he could apologize.

The three of them finally spotted Seth sitting in his predictable spot alone in the courtyard, demolishing a tuna melt and reading one of his favorite X-Men comics.

Summer and Anna sat across from Seth while Ryan took a seat next to him, greeting him with a head nod.

Still upset about what happened that morning, Seth ignored Ryan, instead smiling and waving at the pretty brunette sitting directly in front of him.

"Hey, Summer," the curly haired boy blushed.

"Hi, Cohen," Summer replied, sweetly enough to make it obvious that she liked him but also caustically enough to make it clear that she was playing hard to get.

Now turning his attention to the witty girl with short blond hair sitting next to her, he asked, "So Anna, are you up for a little bit of Jenga after school?"

"Jenga? Ew! What are you eight, Cohen?" Summer interrupted.

"I'm sorry, Summer. Was I talking to you?" Seth reacted curtly, turning his attention back to Anna while Summer rolled her eyes, pretending not to care about his presence.

"It's Tuesday, Seth," Anna chuckled. "We have a lit mag meeting after school and I don't want to miss it. Today we are discussing the article in the American Register on the horrors of West Indian slavery."

"That sounds awesome!" Summer exclaimed. "With Coop in San Diego for therapy, I have absolutely nothing to do after school anymore. I mean… I could go to South Coast Plaza, but if I have to spend another afternoon shopping alone, I think I'm going to go totally insane. Is it too late to join the lit mag club this year?" She asked, smiling genuinely at her friend.

"Well this year is too late, but I was voted in as president for next year and I can sign you up," replied the spunky blond. "I think it would be fun to have you on the team!"

Seth laughed, "Are you both serious? I mean, no offense, Summer, but… I can't really picture you being into any magazines that don't revolve around fashion and celebrity gossip."

"And what exactly is that supposed to mean, Cohen? I happen to read literary magazines to the evil step monster all the time!" She countered.

"I believe it," Ryan quietly stated, giving Summer a small half grin. He wanted her to know that he was on her side.

"Me too," Anna replied.

"Awww, you guys are sooo sweet!" She exclaimed, glancing at both Ryan and Anna before turning to Seth and adding, "Take that, Cohen!"

"Whatever," Seth said.

Obviously irritated, it was his turn to roll his eyes at Summer as he changed the subject.

"So, Anna… I can't believe tomorrow is already Wednesday…," He said, stuffing a handful of fries into his mouth.

"Yeah," She said, taking a bite out of her cheese pizza. "That also means graphic novels come out tomorrow, which reminds me, I finally finished reading the new Legion, and I wanted to know if you'd read it already…"

Ryan was now fighting back fatigue. His attention slowly diverted away from their conversation, and he closed his eyes, placing his head on the table and not even bothering to eat his apple.

Seth had been trying to ignore him, but his annoyance was quickly replaced with worry as he noticed how uncomfortable and exhausted his foster brother looked.

"Ryan, buddy… come on… I know lit mag and graphic novels aren't your thing… well words in general actually, but we can't possibly be boring you that much…"

Looking up, Ryan smiled at him tiredly, relieved that at least he was talking to him now.

"I'm just tired, Seth," he responded.

"Aren't you going to eat something though?" The other boy inquired.

"Not hungry," Ryan shrugged. "But hey… um, can I talk to you for a minute?" He finally asked, trying to tell Seth with his eyes that he'd prefer to go somewhere private.

Getting the hint, Seth stood up and pushed his chair in, observing the two girls sitting across from him who were now engaged in a conversation about the latest Golden Girls marathon.

"Ryan and I are going to go get some dessert. We'll be right back," he informed them, and with that the two boys took off.

"So, um… I'm sorry… about earlier," Ryan finally apologized as they reached a spot where nobody would hear them.

He held eye contact with Seth who was touched by the sincerity emanating from his expressive eyes, which had turned a darker shade of blue.

Seth knew that technically Ryan hadn't done anything wrong earlier. It was now obvious to him that his foster brother wasn't feeling well, and he couldn't help but feel a little guilty for taking things personally and even getting mad at him in the first place.

"I'm sorry too," Seth replied, for once not having a witty one liner to respond with.

"You still up for Battlestar Gallactica later?" Ryan offered.

Grinning emphatically Seth answered, "Ryan, when am I not in the mood for Battlestar Gallactica? And hey, while we're on this streak of higher level Seth-Ryan awesomeness, want to join me in Magic the Gathering later too? And how about a marathon of my favorite anime show and then we can listen to Deathcab for Cutie's new album and…"

Ryan shot him one of his characteristic glares, shutting him up for a second.

"Right. Got it. Just Battlestar Gallactica," the neurotic teenager said, grabbing a greedy portion of cheese cake from the dessert line in the cafeteria.

Ryan smirked impishly at Seth's response and as the two friends locked gazes, he finally allowed himself to relax knowing that things between him and his foster brother were okay—at least for now.

The rest of the school day passed by slowly for Ryan, but he was relieved when it was finally over.

He was disappointed about the outcome of his chemistry quiz, but he'd worry about that later. After all, at least he hadn't failed. As Sandy would say, it could have been worse, and as long as he could pull his chemistry grade up before midterm reports were released, the Cohens wouldn't even know he got a 70.

For now, he just needed to stay focused on the task at hand. Coach Nielson had rescheduled a meeting with him, and he had to find away to stay awake before soccer practice.

"Hey, Coach Nielson," Ryan said timidly as he stepped into his coach's office. "Sorry I missed the meeting this morning," he added ruefully.

Unsure of where to sit, he remained standing—positioning himself awkwardly in front of his coach's trophy decorated desk while shifting his weight from side to side and fidgeting with his hands nervously.

Perceiving the edgy teenager's discomfort, Coach Nielson reassured him, "You're not in any kind of trouble, Ryan. Have a seat anywhere you want."

Keeping eye contact with his coach, Ryan respectfully did as he was told.

"Evan will be out of the hospital tomorrow," Coach Nielson began.

"How is he?" Ryan asked, genuine concern etched in his eyes.

Coach Nielson couldn't help but smile at the young man sitting in front of him. It was Ryan's caring attitude—even towards kids who didn't necessarily deserve it-that made him so fond of him. He had never coached anyone quite like him, and he applauded his resilience on the field as well as his team-oriented attitude and concern for others. When he had first met Ryan, he hadn't expected him to excel so much, but he was happy that he had been wrong about him.

"He's going to be alright. He's pretty banged up right now, but he's going to be alright. I want to thank you for getting Luke off of him before things got more out of control."

"I'm glad he's okay," Ryan answered.

"Well the reason I brought you in here today is to discuss your new role on the team," He began.

Now sitting on the edge of his seat, Ryan waited eagerly for him to continue.

"With Evan in the hospital and Luke suspended, it would be overwhelming for Dean to be the only captain. Too much has happened...," he trailed off—his eyes focusing on Ryan's.

As his words registered with Ryan, the shy boy respectfully nodded in understanding.

"You want me to be co-captain...," Ryan said.

"Not only that... I want you to play striker for the rest of the season."

"But... what if it doesn't work? I mean... I'm only a sophomore."

"Ryan," Coach Nielson said earnestly, hoping his hardest working player understood how sincere he was in what he was about to say. "You've proven yourself a good leader this year, and I trust you and Dean will be a great one-two punch. Dean is a senior so I'm not worried about you being such a young co-captain. He'll help you out when you need it, but I believe you'll do an excellent job."

Ryan couldn't hide his surprise, but he also had difficulty comprehending why Coach Nielson was giving him this responsibility. After all, Harbor had a winning record with Luke and Dean as co-captains.

"What about Luke?" He asked.

"He's not returning for the rest of the season."

Or any season.

Ryan's heart sank at the news. He knew this would be a big blow to Luke. His friend had looked forward to getting back on the soccer field.

"Okay," Ryan said, looking down at his feet. "I'll do the best I can."

It's the least I can do to help the team like Luke would,he thought.

Since the moment Ryan stepped into his office, Coach Nielson had noticed the incessant cough that was making the teenager's voice huskier than usual. Worried, he felt the need to keep a close eye on his new captain's health.

"How are you feeling?" He asked, changing the subject. "Mrs. Jennings from the nurses' office told me you are sick."

"I… it's not that bad. I can play Saturday," Ryan assured him.

"You don't look so good. I saw you wheezing in practice yesterday. Take the rest of the week off and recover. I need you fresh for Saturday's game."

"You sure?" Ryan asked incredulously. He wasn't expecting a break from practice this week.

"I need you at 100% when we play Sage Hill. This year they're the team to beat."

Smiling gratefully, Ryan said, "Thanks, coach."

He was more exhausted than he would ever let on, but even if he wouldn't admit it to anyone else, he knew he needed the rest.

"Get to the school early on Saturday. We leave at noon so 11:30 is fine. We need to go over plays."

"Okay, Coach," Ryan answered attentively.

"Now get out of here," Coach Nielson joked, earning him a small half smile.

A couple of hours later, Luke and Meredith finally arrived back at the house. They were both clearly frustrated and emotional, which only served in worsening the verbal quarrel that had started in the hallway at Harbor after the tumultuous meeting with Dr. Kim.

"What has gotten into you? I know it's hard for us right now, but your behavior is completely unacceptable!" Meredith Ward shouted at her son.

Luke wasn't sure how to answer his mom. In fact, he wasn't sure about anything anymore so he said nothing. Instead, he reached for a bottle of Coke from the refrigerator, brushing his mother off.

"Look at me when I'm talking to you!" Meredith commanded.

"Fine… what is it?" The unruly teenager now turned around, finally meeting his mother's gaze.

"What the hell has gotten into you?"

Luke merely shrugged his shoulders and kept sipping on his Coke.

"Answer me! What did I do wrong? What did I do wrong as a parent? I've tried so hard to be a good mom for you and this is how you repay me after everything that's happened with your father?"

"Nothing! You didn't do anything wrong, Mom! Shit… it's me, okay?"

"Don't use that language around me! And no, it's not okay! You just got yourself expelled from school! You knew I was struggling and under a lot of stress and you still couldn't control yourself… not even for me! I can't handle you right now! If this is how you're going to behave… I just can't deal with you, Luke! I called your uncle, Louis. You're going to live with him for a while. Go pack your things. I want you out of here tonight."

"What? How could you, Mom? I thought you were on my side! You're kicking me out of the fucking house?"

"What did I say about the language?"

"Fuck the language! I can't believe it! You're kicking me out of the fucking house!"

"It's not permanent, honey," She said, now lowering her tone. "It's just until… until I can straighten my own life out. I'm sorry, Luke. I just can't handle this right now," she added, and as she spoke, her anger quickly dissipated as an overwhelming sadness took its place and she began to sob.

Exhausted from the monotony of reading design after design for one of the town's upcoming housing development projects, Kirsten was about to take a break and call her dad when she heard a familiar tune from Solomon Burke resonating from the car pulling into the driveway. Sandy was home, and she was eager to see him. It was rare that both of them were home early and she hoped they'd get a chance to make up for lost time before dinner. Stopping what she was doing, she walked to the front door to greet her husband.

"You're home early," Kirsten said, smiling brightly as he entered the house.

"Well, Rachel and I finally managed to wrap things up at the office at a decent hour," Sandy responded, leaning into her gently and kissing her forehead.

"And?" She asked, wrapping her arms around his torso.

"And… I couldn't go another minute being away from my gorgeous wife."

"That's good to know," She chuckled, holding him closer to her.

"Is Seth home yet? I need to talk to him about something," Sandy asked, pulling away slowly from their loving embrace.

"No, but Ryan is. He's in the pool house," she replied.

"He is? I thought he was at soccer practice."

"Maybe it ended early today. He was there when I got here half an hour ago."

"I'm going to go check on him," Sandy announced, walking in the direction of the pool house with Kirsten following a pace behind him. She sighed quietly to herself, hoping she and Sandy would still get the alone time she'd been desiring.

"Ryan?" Sandy called out, knocking on the pool house door. When he heard no response, he opened it and stepped in, finding the blinds completely shut and a sleeping Ryan lying on the large bed, tangled in a couple of thick, blue blankets.

It was only five o'clock in the afternoon.

"Should we wake him up?" Kirsten asked.

"No. Let him sleep. He was up late last night studying. If he's still not up by dinner, I'll wake him."

Luke was depressed and not in his right state of mind—too pissed off at everything and everyone, especially himself, to think rationally.

He tried to feel something—any kind of emotion, but he couldn't.

He didn't feel anger or pain or hate or even sadness. Instead, he just felt nothing.

He felt like a fucking failure.

A loser.

Was his life even that bad? He didn't even know anymore.

He was no longer thinking… just reacting. He was going on pure impulses now.

Reflecting on the way his life had been less than a year before had only made him feel worse about himself.

Maybe he deserved everything that was happening. After all, he used to be a huge asshole—probably even a worse one than Evan.

He had bullied kids and pissed in their shoes, lambasting gays and even stereotyping others into that category without knowing anything about them just because it gave him a sense of importance. It had made him feel like a tough guy.

Like he mattered.

Now here he was confused about his own fucking sexuality after finding out a secret his father had kept from him and his mother during the duration of their marriage.

Luke wasn't gay. That much he knew.

But then why had he carried such intense animosity against homosexuals for all those years?

Had his bullying complex just been a defense mechanism to suppress his own insecurities?

Had he been afraid to face what fate had known about him all along?

The very thought of it sent several chills down his spine, leaving him nauseous.

He had gone from being the popular jock at school with all the girls, a bright future, and a loving family to realizing that his former life was based upon a lie. He felt like nothing more than a shell of his former self.

In his mind, he was a loser with no friends, a broken family, and a precarious future, but he just didn't give a fuck anymore.

He was lonely, conflicted, and confused—more depressed than he'd ever been.

The bitter resentment he had felt for his father was slowly fading and strong feelings of guilt and inadequacy were replacing it.

If he was being completely honest with himself, though, his insecurities had been there all along. They were just more noticeable now that his once tightly wound life had slowly unwoven itself into a calamitous disarray of delusive memories and complicated problems—some of which were self-created.

In short, he was vulnerable—a volatile teenager too wrapped up in self-pity to think clearly or even remember the profound words Ryan had told him the night before.

He was living on the edge, like a caged animal ready to lose it at any moment.

He hated himself. He hated who he'd become and he hated his situation, but he didn't know how to get his former life back.

In his mind, he'd lost something irreplaceable, and nobody could make him feel like himself again.

Nobody could make him feel happiness again.

Lost in his thoughts, he somberly walked over to the small bar in the basement where his mom kept an assortment of alcohol to be used for parties.

He needed an outlet, and he knew that alcohol was definitely a way for him to get the escape he was looking for. After all, it had been his escape for the past few months.

Normally, he was a beer guy, but today he wanted something stronger. He needed something that would completely take the edge off of things.

He searched the cabinet, carefully selecting his drink of choice.

Red wine was an old man's drink and definitely not strong enough, and gin was too dry.

Vodka was closer to what he was looking for but still not concentrated enough, and whiskey? He hated the taste.

Patron SIlver? Still not strong enough.

Finally, he saw the golden colored liquid he was looking for sitting there in a one liter bottle in front of him—tempting him.

That was it.

Bacardi 151.

75.5 percent alcohol/151 proof.

He didn't want to mix it with juice or soda. No, sir… that was for wusses.

Instead, he opted to drink it straight out of the bottle. Without a second thought, he picked up the container of hard liquor and made his way to his room to pack.

Two hours had passed since Sandy last entered the pool house and Ryan was still fast asleep. Sandy hated to disturb Ryan when he was clearly so exhausted, but dinner time was fast approaching and he wanted everyone to eat together tonight as a family.

"Ryan," He said, nudging his shoulder gently. "It's time to get up. Dinner will be here any minute."

Ryan stirred slightly, turning onto his side.

"Mmm," he groaned.

"You okay, kid? Do I need to call Dr. Canales? Kirsten told me you weren't feeling well today."

"I'm fine. Just tired," Ryan answered, yawning as his eyes slowly fluttered open.

"You don't look fine. Why weren't you at soccer practice today?"

"Coach sent me home… said he wants me well rested for the game Saturday."

"Well going to bed before dinner is certainly resting well, but are you sure something else isn't bothering you? Usually when I find you after school or practice you are studying or doing your homework— not sleeping. If something is wrong, I need to know. You saw the nurse?"

Ryan pushed himself up into a sitting position while trying to clear his throat.

"Yeah," he replied.

"And what did she say?" Sandy asked.

"Not much," Ryan shrugged. He was still feeling groggy and not completely awake, which made it more difficult to come up with adequate responses to Sandy's questions.

"Talk to me, kid. If you're not well, I have to know. What did she say?"

"Um… she said it's just allergies and that if it gets worse to see a doctor."

"Did you have a fever?" The older man asked.

"No," Ryan answered, not comfortable with where the conversation was going. "Sandy, I appreciate everything, but really I'm fine," he added, not wanting to worry the Cohens. They already had enough on their plate. Luckily for Ryan, Sandy changed the subject.

"Well we're going to have dinner in a few minutes. We ordered Thai and Japanese. We were going to ask you what you wanted, but you were sleeping so I got you chicken Pad Thai."

"Thanks, Sandy," Ryan said—the corner of his mouth moving up into an appreciative half smile. He was thrilled that Sandy remembered his favorite Thai dish. Back in Chino, Dawn had rarely remembered or even cared what kinds of foods he liked. She was too busy spending their money on drugs and booze to even be bothered by his eating habits. In fact, even when he'd gone hungry, she hadn't known or cared.

"Don't mention it," Sandy said sincerely, returning the smile and squeezing Ryan's left shoulder.

Just then, the door bell rang.

"That must be the delivery guy. If you can, please help Kirsten set the table. Seth is in the shower."

Always enthusiastic to help, Ryan washed up for dinner and headed to the kitchen to help Kirsten as Sandy headed to pay the delivery guy for their food.

While the Cohens and Ryan got ready for dinner, Luke was lying on his bed, indulging himself in Bacardi, and blasting loud music through the speakers hooked up to his Sony stereo system. He knew he was supposed to be packing his things to move into Uncle Louis's house, but he couldn't bring himself to do it.

Instead, he continued basking himself in self-pity.

After three swigs of the potent liquid, he was completely inebriated. Staggering out of his bed and nearly tripping over the railing, he changed the song to Papa Roach's Last Resort.

Cut my life into pieces

This is my last resort


No breathing

Don't give a fuck if I cut my arm bleeding

The anger he had been harboring for months was now returning, which excited him because it meant he wasn't completely numb after all.

He took another swallow of rum and walked clumsily across his room to where a line of soccer and water polo trophies he had won over the years lay organized on his dresser.

As he rehashed old memories of when he had won those awards, an icy ball formed at the pit of his stomach.

None of it mattered now and the awards only mocked him… reminding him of what he once had and could never get back.

In a sudden fit of rage, he knocked all of them off of the dresser while screaming to relieve some of the tension that had been building inside of him for the past few minutes.

I never realized I was spread too thin

'Til it was too late

And I was empty within

Realizing how relieving this action felt, he then kicked his dresser several times. Although disoriented from the alcohol, his foot still collided with the hardwood furniture enough times for everything else that was on top of it to topple over.

His foot was throbbing, but he didn't care. It was a pain that he eerily welcomed.

After all, this physical pain assured him that he wasn't completely emotionless on the inside.

Cause I'm losing my sight

Losing my mind

Wish somebody would tell me I'm fine

Losing my sight

Losing my mind

Wish somebody would tell me I'm fine

He was now punching and kicking everything in sight. Both of his hands bled furiously and he could have sworn he heard one of his bones crack, but again, he didn't care.

It was an injury to himself that he welcomed and the effects of the alcohol were keeping him from feeling the pain anyway.

Every punch and kick was an illusory relief for the emotional turmoil he was battling internally but too scared to face sober.

I can't go on living this way

Can't go on

Living this way

Nothing's alright

And I'm contemplating suicide

He screamed at the top of his lungs, releasing anger and frustration that had been building within him for months like a pressure cooker without release.

Without thinking, he threw several of his precious belongings across the wall, shattering expensive electronics and gifts that at one time had meant a lot to him including his plasma screen television set, his guitar, and his personal computer.

Nothing's alright

Nothing is fine

I'm running and I'm crying

Panting to catch his breath, he felt a few tears escape.

After his outburst, he was emotionally exhausted. At this point, his muscles had become lethargic and he was no longer aware of his surroundings enough to form coherent thoughts.

Without second thought to what he was doing, he sat down on the carpeted floor and gulped down more rum until the bottle was almost halfway empty. Each limb became heavier and heavier until he could no longer hold his body up—welcoming the escape as everything faded into darkness.

"Seth, would you please pass me some of that green stuff?" Kirsten asked, pointing to the strong smelling garnish lying next to the salmon rolls. "I'd like to try it."

"It's called wasabi, Mom, and why is everyone eating with silverware? You're supposed to eat sushi with chopsticks… what is wrong with you people?"

"Son, just be glad your mother didn't cook for us tonight," Sandy quipped.

"You know, one of these days I'm going to buy a cook book and prove you all wrong," Kirsten shot back.

"Oh please don't, honey. God help us all!" Sandy chuckled.

"Yeah, no offense, Mom, but… now's not the time to experiment with expanding your culinary abilities. I almost needed a colonoscopy the last time you tried to make beef brisket. Just because you see it on Food Network, doesn't mean it was meant to be eaten," Seth bantered.

"Oh, come on. It wasn't that bad!" Kirsten defended her cooking.

"Yes, it was, honey," Sandy guffawed. "We still love you, though."

Ryan bit down on his fork, trying to hide his bemused expression.

Even after seven months of living in their pool house, it was always a new and enjoyable experience for him to watch their dynamic around the dinner table. The Cohens represented what he had always wanted: a real family.

Growing up, he had never encountered a family quite like theirs.

The Diaz's had a decent life in Chino with Eva providing both Theresa and Arturo with all the necessities as well as a loving home, but the way they interacted with each other was still tainted by the lack of a strong father figure—or any father figure for that matter.

To Ryan, the Cohen family was close to perfect, special, and unique all at the same time.

They were happy and they loved each other, which is something he'd never experienced with his own parents and brother.

However, as much as it hurt to admit it, he still felt he didn't fit in with them and he wondered if he ever would. He wanted to, but part of him still felt like a burden—like a charity case—when he was around them.

He was the guest; the pool boy; the poor kid who got lucky and landed himself a nice place to stay when he really should be out on the streets. (or worse?)

He was grateful just to have a warm bed to sleep in every night, but nothing frightened him more than the prospect of him messing up and losing the second chance at life that Sandy had given him.

After all, eventually, his luck was bound to run out. It was only a matter of time before they gave up on him.

"So Ryan, how was school today?" Kirsten asked, interrupting his brood and shifting the conversation away from her cooking skills—or lack thereof.

"Good, I guess," Ryan replied stiffly, shifting the food in his plate around with his fork.

Although he wasn't nauseous, he couldn't remember the last time he'd had much of an appetite.

The phlegm that continuously lingered in his throat was ruining the taste of his food, and for weeks his stomach had been feeling full quickly, keeping him from finishing his meals. He knew he had lost a few pounds because his jeans were fitting looser around his already toned waist.

"Whoa… Earth to Ryan… but seriously dude… you keep zoning out. Are you okay? I mean… we still have several hours of Battlescar Gallactica tonight so I need Kid Chino to be fully alert," Seth babbled.

"Yeah… sorry," Ryan answered coyly.

"How'd the chemistry quiz go?" Sandy asked.

"You had a chemistry quiz today?" Kirsten inquired.

"Yeah… um," Ryan stuttered, unsure of how to answer. He was disappointed in his score, and he knew the Cohens would be even more disappointed if they knew, and he really couldn't handle Sandy being disappointed in him right now. Sandy going to his game meant everything to him, and he didn't want to lose that.

He wanted the man he looked up to to be proud of him. He knew that Sandy would be thrilled to know that Coach Nielson had made him a co-captain of the team, but Ryan couldn't even bring himself to talk about that just yet.

Just at the right time, the phone began ringing, which saved him from having to answer anymore questions… at least for now.

"I'll get it," Sandy announced. "I'm expecting a call from an old buddy of mine who used to work with me at the PD's office."

"Oh, which friend is it?" Kirsten inquired.

"Peter Howard," Sandy replied.

"Peter Howard? I haven't seen him in years!" She responded.

"Yeah, it's been a while, but it'll be great to catch up. Maybe I can convince him to move back to Newport. I miss having a friend out here," he said on his way to answer the phone.

About a minute later, Sandy returned with a grave expression on his face.

"What is it? Peter's okay, isn't he?" Kirsten asked, concerned.

"That was Meredith Ward," Sandy explained.

"Luke's mom? What does she want?" She asked, clearly puzzled.

"She wants to talk to Ryan," He answered.

Ryan's darkening blue eyes immediately widened with fear and anxiety. Hoping that nothing was wrong, he rushed over to the kitchen to take the phone from his foster father and headed for the pool house where he could get some privacy.

A couple of minutes later, he was scrambling around the room, trying to figure out what to do next. His chest felt tight, but he ignored the uncomfortable feeling and instead stayed focused on the task at hand. He reached over to pull on his worn, gray sweatshirt and headed for the door when Sandy stopped him in his tracks.

"Where are you going?" Sandy asked.

"I… it's… important. Luke needs me. He…"

"Whoa… whoa…whoa… slow down. What's going on?"

"Can I please borrow your keys?" Ryan pleaded with his mentor.

"Not until you tell me what's going on. What did Meredith say?"

"It's Luke… he… he's in trouble," Ryan explained—his harried words coming out in a deep, breathy voice.

"It's not up to you to save him, Ryan. You don't have to play the parent anymore."

"I'm not… it's… this is different. Please, Sandy… you have to believe me. Luke's been good to me…. he..."

"I trust you," The older man said suddenly, cutting him off.

"What?" Ryan asked—an incredulous expression visible across his benevolent features.

"I said I trust you," Sandy repeated. He was now holding Ryan's gaze intently, and this time Ryan understood.

Sandy was realizing how important Luke was to the young man standing in front of him who he had grown to love almost like a son over the past seven months. Understanding that trust for Ryan was hard to come by, he didn't want to deny him the opportunity to help someone he obviously confided in and cared so much about.

"Here are the keys," Sandy acquiesced.

The instant Sandy's words and actions sank in, Ryan felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from his heavily burdened shoulders.

Sandy trusted him, and he couldn't remember a time in his life when anyone's trust meant more.

"Here," Sandy said, reaching into the pocket of his gray slacks and pulling out his cell phone. "We haven't gotten you a phone yet, but take mine in case of an emergency. If anything bad happens while you're over there, please don't hesitate to call the house."

"Thanks for doing this," Ryan replied, earnestly looking into Sandy's sincere blue eyes. He held his foster father's gaze steadily, unable to bring himself to look away.

Sandy would never forget that look. It was a look of both gratitude and admiration, but this look also conveyed something deeper: trust. This kid who had trusted nobody had now opened up his heart enough to let Sandy in. It was at this moment of realization that Sandy knew he had made the right decision.

He and Ryan had just taken two steps forward in their relationship.

When Ryan arrived at the Wards' house, he found Meredith sitting on the front porch next to her flower garden. She was crying.

"I checked everywhere I could think of that he would be. The door to his room is locked but he isn't answering. I'm so scared, Ryan. Some of the alcohol I keep in the basement is gone," She informed Ryan. She was in denial and unsure of what to do.

"How much did he take?" Ryan asked.

"A bottle of Bacardi 151 is missing," She replied, leaving Ryan with an unsettling feeling in his stomach. Luke was drinking over-proof rum now? That stuff was almost purely alcohol.

"It's my fault. I knew he had been drinking a lot recently and I should have known he would react like this when I told him he had to go live with his uncle," She sobbed.

"Hey, it's not your fault, okay?" Ryan comforted her.

She clung onto him, and he stood there for almost a minute, letting her cry into his shoulder before breaking away from her.

"I'm going up there," He announced, hastily making his way into their house and running up to Luke's room. Meredith followed behind him.

"Luke?" Ryan cried out, banging as hard as he could on his friend's door.

"Luke? It's me, Ryan. You in there, man?"

Still, he got no response.

"Should we check outside again? Maybe he's not in here after all," Meredith questioned.

"Wait," Ryan interrupted her. "You hear that?"

After a few moments of silence, the sound of retching and choking that Ryan had recognized returned.

"Oh my God!" Meredith cried out. "What do we do? What do we do? What if it's too late to get him out of there? How do we get him out?"

She began to panic as the thought of her son choking on his own vomit mortified her thoughts.

Taking charge of the situation, Ryan tried to calm her. Freaking out right now wasn't going to help Luke.

Most teenagers wouldn't know what to do, but due to the harrowing experiences from his past, Ryan knew all too well.

"I'm going to try to get him out," He explained. "Call an ambulance…," he further instructed, eerily reminded of the time he had called one to save Dawn's life two years before. Then of course there was the time he had watched Trey call one for Dawn after she almost overdosed on heroin.

There had also been a time when he had suffered the effects of alcohol poisoning after Dawn's boyfriend at the time, Jeff, thought it would be funny to spike his soda with pure Absinthe.

Just the memory of that situation made Ryan nauseous. He had only been ten years old at the time and had almost died. Nevertheless, he shook off the painful memories, focusing his attention back on the task at hand.

He only hoped that it wasn't too late to get to Luke. He couldn't handle losing the friend he had grown to trust the most in Newport.

Struggling to gain composure, Meredith grabbed the nearest phone and dialed 9-1-1.

Meanwhile, without hesitation, Ryan pulled out his wallet and grabbed the first card he saw, which happened to be a credit card the Cohens had given him for emergencies. Well this was an emergency.

He tried to pry the lock open with the credit card, but after three failed attempts, he knew he had no choice but to try to kick down the door.

Ryan tossed his wallet aside and quickly examined the hinges of the door to see where it opened. With all the energy he could muster, he kicked the side of the door nearest to the keyhole.

Nothing happened.

He kicked the door again.

Still nothing.

He sighed tiredly, suddenly wishing that he had listened to Trey when he'd offered to show him how to pick a lock. However, despite his frustration, he wasn't giving up. He'd just try to use the credit card again.

He jiggled the lock with the card and applied as much force as he could to try to jimmy the door. After several minutes of doing this without success, he tried kicking the door again, but still couldn't manage to open it.

Now shouldering the door with all the strength he had left, he jiggled the card against the lock one more time and the door finally cracked open.

Ryan was now panting and exhausted, but he had to keep moving. He swiped a hand through his sweat soaked hair and took a deep breath, coughing uncomfortably before darting into the room.

As he entered, he mentally ignored all the debris and shattered furniture and glass littering it. He'd let those visuals sink in later. Right now, he had to get to his friend.

Promptly, he spotted Luke's limp form lying in a supine position on the floor in the corner of the dark room. He was still heaving and was unconscious. Kneeling down beside him, Ryan slowly turned him onto his side and then checked his pulse.

Luke's pulse was very weak as Ryan expected, but Ryan chose to stay positive. Although Luke was breathing very shallowly, he was still breathing. He could survive this. He had to.

The room was dark, making it difficult to see. Since it was April and still fairly light outside, Ryan tried pulling the blinds up to let some light in. However, still unable to examine Luke's complexion the way he wanted to, he turned on the light switch. He then sat once again by Luke's side, ready to check his face for discoloration. Sure enough, he noticed the pale blue hue coloring his lips.

Luke needed oxygen, and he needed it fast.

By now, Meredith was staring in awe at Ryan as he attended to her son, but she couldn't bring herself to move or speak—the shock hindering her actions.

Ryan, on the other hand, was used to this. When he was 14, Dawn had almost died of acute alcohol induced liver failure.

Ryan kept his attention on his friend and noticed that Luke was still vomiting profusely. However, he refused to leave his side—not even for a pail or a bucket. Almost instinctively, he pulled out the cell phone he had just been given and dialed the ten digits that had been etched in his memory indelibly since the day he met Sandy in juvie.

After two rings, his foster father picked up.

"Ryan? What's going on? Is everything okay?"

"No. Can you… could you get down here?" He croaked.

"Where are you?"

"I'm at Luke's. An ambulance is coming. I… it doesn't look good," Ryan informed him—his voice quivering. He was terrified.

"On my way, kid," Sandy assured him. "Hang in there," he added before hanging up.

Less than ten minutes later, the paramedics arrived on the scene. As Ryan and Meredith answered a few questions for them, Luke was lifted onto a gurney and an oxygen mask was placed over his face to aid with his breathing.

A few minutes later, Sandy also arrived on the scene, immediately hurrying over to where Ryan and Meredith were talking to one of the paramedics outside.

As her symptoms of shock worsened, Meredith eventually fainted and was also strapped onto a gurney, leaving Ryan and Sandy alone for a minute.

"How are you holding up?" Sandy asked the distressed teenager.

"I haven't really had time to think about it," Ryan replied, taking a deep breath to calm his nerves and looking down at the ground. "I just hope Luke's okay, you know?" He added, looking back up to meet Sandy's gaze.

"Come on," Sandy said, patting Ryan on the back and nudging him forward in the direction of the Rover. "I'll leave my car here. Give me the keys. I'll give you a ride to HOAG."

Two hours had passed since the ambulance had rushed an unconscious Luke off to HOAG.

Sandy had informed Kirsten and Seth of his and Ryan's whereabouts but had urged them to stay home. Meanwhile, Meredith had regained consciousness and was being treated for symptoms of shock while Ryan was sitting in an uncomfortable chair in the lobby of the emergency waiting room reading an outdated copy of Sports Illustrated. For the past thirty minutes, Sandy had been making phone calls and talking to doctors, and he was now on his way back to the lobby to give Ryan an update.

"You look really into that magazine," Sandy bantered, taking a seat next to Ryan and snatching the copy of Sports Illustrated from him. He was hoping to lighten the tension in the room a little and get Ryan to relax.

"Just bored," Ryan replied, shrugging his shoulders and clasping his hands together to rest on his lap as he offered his foster father a tiny smile. "And there was nothing else…," he added.

However, his smile quickly faded into a more doleful expression as he prepared himself to ask his next question.

"Any news on Luke?" he asked.

"Well they've finally stabilized him, but the doctor said he's not likely to come out of the coma until another day or so. They're still pumping his stomach and they have him on haemodialysis. Apparently he was suffering from metabolic acidosis. He had a BAC of 0.36. It kills me to think about what he must have been going through to let himself drink that much," Sandy said.

"So he's going to be okay?" Ryan inquired, his eyes simultaneously shimmering with sadness and hope.

"Well he's not completely out of the woods yet, but the doctors are confident that he'll bounce back and make a full recovery," Sandy replied. "I just got off the phone with Carson, and he's on his way. He booked a last minute flight."

"That'll be good for Luke," Ryan said thoughtfully, shoving his hands into his pockets. "He misses him."

Sandy was proud of Ryan, but he also wanted some answers.

"How did you know what to do tonight?" He asked, pausing for a few seconds before continuing. "You saved that kid's life, Ryan. If you hadn't gotten there and done what you did… well… he would have died," He added quietly.

As Ryan's mind drifted to a sequence of unpleasant memories, his body tensed significantly and for a minute, Sandy could see a pained, lackluster expression threaten to rob his eyes of their usually remarkable intensity. It was as if he were in a trance, staring catatonically at the white washed wall in front of him.

"It's not the first time I've been in that situation," Ryan answered reticently, and when Sandy realized he wasn't going to elaborate more, he dropped the subject, making a mental note to come back to it at a later time.

Finally breaking the hypnotic state that was enveloping his mood, Ryan took a deep breath and scratched the back of his head absentmindedly. The adrenaline rush he had been running off of while attending to Luke was long gone and his body was beginning to feel the full effects of his physical exertion. Every inch of his body ached, and his cough was worsening as the evening progressed.

Sandy noticed how pale his complexion seemed compared to earlier in the evening and was becoming worried again. To put it mildly, Ryan looked ill and run down.

"That cough of yours keeps sounding worse and worse. I can probably pull a few strings since Kirsten and I have known the Canales family for many years. Since we're already here, would you mind seeing Dr. Canales to get the cough checked out if he's willing to see you tonight?" Sandy asked.

"Do I have a choice?" Ryan asked with a sigh.

"Not over my dead body," Sandy chuckled.

"Didn't think so," Ryan replied. He wasn't in the mood to see a doctor, but he didn't want to upset Sandy so he acquiesced.

"Yeah, I'll see him if you want me to."

Dr. Canales was wiped out. He couldn't remember the last time he had gotten a good night's rest, and he had already been on call for the past two days. His stomach was growling and he was eager to get home to his wife and two daughters.

Running his own clinic was no easy task, but what added to his stress was the fact that he also worked at HOAG at least four days a week as their primary physician for preventative and family medicine. These work hours meant that for the most part, his entire day was spent seeing patients and he had little time to himself. In fact, he had already seen at least twenty patients over the past several hours before agreeing to do Sandy the favor of examining his foster son.

Grabbing Ryan's chart from its holder on the wall adjacent to the door, Dr. Canales stepped into the examining room.

Ryan, who had been waiting to be seen by him for almost twenty minutes now, was restlessly fidgeting with the pages of the sports magazine the nurse had leniently let him bring into the room to keep him entertained.

Upon hearing the rhythmic creak of an opening and closing door, Ryan immediately refocused his attention on the middle aged Hispanic gentleman in the white coat entering the room.

"Hey, Ryan," Dr. Canales greeted him warmly. "How's the spring soccer season been going since I last saw you? I heard you have the County Championship this weekend. My youngest daughter has been getting into soccer. I think she'll be old enough to try out for an AAU team in the fall."

"Great," Ryan answered quietly. "It's going great."

"Very good," replied the doctor as he began examining Ryan's chart. "Well it's time to get down to business. It looks like the first time I examined you was for a physical so that you could play on the team."

Ryan merely nodded his head in response.

"And last time you were here two weeks ago, I prescribed more Zyrtek for your allergies; and extra strength Tylenol and a saline nasal spray for the sinusitis and headache. Have you been taking the medicines daily and using the nasal spray?" He inquired.

"Yes, sir," Ryan said.

"You don't have to call me sir," Dr. Canales laughed. "That makes me feel old. Doc will do," He said smiling at the shy boy's politeness. Ryan responded to his laid back demeanor with a sheepish grin of his own.

"So how have you been feeling lately?" The doctor continued his interrogation.

Ryan swallowed hard. He knew he had to be honest with Dr. Canales about his health even if it led to the Cohens hovering over him should something be wrong with him other than allergies.

"Not so good," He answered as the physician continued scribbling notes on his chart.

"How is your energy during soccer practice?"

"I'm always tired," Ryan admitted.

"Have you been sleeping well?" Dr. Canales asked.

"Well… no," Ryan confessed.

"Is there a particular reason for that?"

"Um, no," Ryan lied. He didn't want to admit to having troubling nightmares. "Just studying late I guess."

"Well the first time I examined you last fall, you were a healthy and muscular 162 lbs. A couple of weeks ago when you came in, you were down to 150 lbs. You've lost another two pounds since then. Overall, you've lost 14 pounds in a little over six months. Was this weight loss intentional?"

"No," Ryan answered, grimacing slightly. He had been shocked when the nurse told him his weight during the last visit. He knew he'd lost weight since living with the Cohens, but he hadn't realized it'd been that much.

"How has your appetite been lately?"

"Not good," Ryan replied softly. "I…," he tried to elaborate, but a painful bout of coughing temporarily prevented him from doing so.

"I get full fast," He finally answered, regaining control over his breathing.

"That's quite a cough you have there. I remember you having a mild cough when I saw you last, but it definitely sounds worse now," Dr. Canales said, inserting each ear piece of his stethoscope into his ears.

"I need you to take a deep breath for me on the count of three, okay? I have to listen to your lungs to make sure nothing is abnormal."

"Okay," Ryan answered.

Placing the rounded piece of the stethoscope in the vicinity of Ryan's chest cavity, Dr. Canales counted to three and on the third count, Ryan inhaled as deeply as he could—coughing both before and after expiring. However, Dr. Canales only detected the latter cough. After listening to the teenager's breathing one more time, he put the stethoscope away and continued his examination.

"Have you been wheezing?"

"A little," Ryan replied.

"How often do you wheeze? Is it after exercising? Before? During?"

"All of the above I guess," Ryan admitted.

"Have you been falling back in practice?"

"No," Ryan answered confidently. He had just been made a team co-captain. Even if he felt sluggish and fatigued during practice, Coach Nielson hadn't noticed and he definitely was able to keep up with his teammates.

"Have you experienced any shortness of breath?"

"Yeah, a little," Ryan responded. "When I cough and if I'm running."

"Your oxygen count is a bit on the low side—hovering around 93%, but you're not running a fever. I'm going to send in a prescription for an inhaler and a starter pack of methyl prednisone. Your chart doesn't indicate any previous experience with asthma, but you're currently showing signs of it. You also have bronchitis so I am going to order an antibiotic to see if that clears up the cough. I'll have your guardians bring you back in about two weeks for a check-up. I'm also going to put an order in for a chest x-ray, which can be done at the radiology clinic down the street. I'll let your guardians know to get that done before your next appointment."

"Can I still play on Saturday?" Ryan asked. He wanted so badly for Sandy to see him play in this important game that he didn't care how sick he was. He had to be out there on the field, and he also needed to help his team win the game for Luke so that he could dedicate the game ball to him.

"I think it should be okay since you said you aren't having any trouble keeping up in practice, but I will write a note to your coach to cut back your minutes a little bit and to keep a close eye on you and make sure you aren't over-exerting yourself. The methyl prednisone and antibiotic should reduce the symptoms of your cough and my nurse will show you and your guardians when and how often to use your inhaler."

"Asthma, huh?" Ryan asked skeptically—more so to himself. A little voice in the back of his head kept telling him that something was off about the diagnosis, but he tried as hard as he could to ignore it. However, no matter how much he tried, he couldn't shake the nagging feeling that there was something more than asthma that was causing his persistent and painful cough. Not to mention, he felt tired all the time and was finding it more difficult each day to find an appetite. Did asthma really affect people's appetite?

"That's right, sport," Dr. Canales replied affectionately. "But plenty of people live with it and have no problems and lead an athletic lifestyle."

Ryan nodded dubiously.

"Well I'm going to go write out your prescriptions and talk to Sandy about your treatment and medications. Good luck at the game this weekend!"

"Thanks," Ryan smiled hesitantly.

For now, he'd choose to believe that everything would be okay despite the gnawing feeling of anxiety he felt in the pit of his stomach, which warned him that something was terribly wrong. Little did he or his foster family know that they were about to face the most difficult time of their lives.

A/N 2: I hope you enjoy and if you can, please review! The quicker (and more) I get reviews, the more inspired I get to write so keep them coming! It's a great motivator because it lets me know what I'm doing right or wrong as a writer so I can keep on improving and trying to make the story better. Thanks so much!