Author's Notes: I am apparently having a lot of communication problems with . My apologies about that.

Thanks go to May who reminded me of why I loved this show in the first place, who in all probablity inspired this little piece with her much better story, and for realizing I mixed up my Cranes and my Fords. Thanks also to Katt for the DVDs.

I live in a college town. It's graduation AND the incoming freshman have been here for parent orientation. 'Nuff said. Gig 'em, Aggies!

The World Is Your Oyster

Crane McFadden was sitting in his bedroom, going over the books for the ranch, when he heard a light tap on the door. "Come in," he called, wondering who, exactly, in this family, ever knocked on a door.

That question was answered when the door pushed open and Ford stuck his blond head through. "Hey. Crane," he said, nervous about something. "Do you have a minute to talk?"

"Of course." Crane waved him in and shut the ledger closed, leaning back in his chair. "What's up?"

Ford dropped onto Daniel's empty bed and looked around. "Does your room seem as empty as mine does?"

Crane laughed. "I'd think mine was more empty. Isn't Guthrie sleeping in Evan's bed most nights?"

Ford smiled. "He says he doesn't want me to get lonely while Evan's off on the circuit."

"Well, don't let him get too comfortable. Your graduation is coming up soon, and you know Daniel and Evan will be home for that."

Ford shrugged. "That's like six weeks from now."

Crane studied his younger brother. Ford was always quiet, like Crane himself, but now that he thought about it, Ford had been even more silent since Daniel had finally embarked on his music career. With brother number four on tour with Stormy Weather's band, and brother number five out on the rodeo circuit, even the noise of Adam and Hannah's new baby girl couldn't seem to fill the silence in the house. "What's going on, Ford?"

"Was it hard, leaving for college?" the younger brother burst out suddenly.

'So that's it.'

Out loud he said, "Only the hardest thing I've ever done in my life."

He almost laughed at the look on Ford's face.

"Really? I don't remember, everyone was so excited you were going, and then you were gone, and we were all counting the days until you got back for Thanksgiving. I heard Brian tell Adam one day he'd be surprised if you ever came back, and Adam just said you had to make your own decisions."

Crane smiled. "Adam knew I'd come back. Brian was just talking. He knew I'd come back, too. This is always home, Ford. No matter what you do or where you go, you can always come back here."

"But you're real smart, Crane," Ford protested. "You got your degree in three years. You could have gone anywhere and found a job."

Crane studied his younger brother carefully, trying to figure out what exactly was going on with him. "I could've, I guess," he admitted. "But that was never my plan. It's different with you," he said gently. "Ford, you've been accepted to five colleges. And I know you'll get some scholarship offers, too. You can go anywhere, and do anything. You can be anything."

"But I don't know what I want! Everybody at school, they're all talking about where they're going to go, and what they're majoring in. I don't even know what school I want to go to, and I don't have a clue what to major in. The only thing I think about is-" he stopped suddenly.

Crane pretended he didn't notice. "You know, I bet your classmates aren't as certain as they think they are. Probably half of them will change their majors at least once, maybe more. That's really what the first two years of college are for, Ford. To try out a little bit of everything, decide what you want."

"We don't have enough money for me to just take a bunch of useless classes."

"They're not useless," Crane pointed out. "It's called general education. You have to take a bunch of them, anyway, no matter what you major in. Just enjoy it! And don't worry about the money. Even if you don't get a scholarship-and you will-that's for me, and Adam and Brian to worry about. The ranch is doing better now, and we've been saving. We've got the money."

"That needs to be saved for Guthrie and Brianna," Ford protested.

Crane couldn't help it, he started laughing. "Guthrie won't be going to college for four more years," he pointed out. "And Brianna isn't even a year old. There's plenty of time to save for them. Besides, I know your grades and your SAT scores. You'll be getting a scholarship letter-at least one-any day now."

If anything, that seemed to make Ford even more miserable. "I did," he said, pulling a crumpled envelope out of his pocket and handing it to Crane.

Crane opened the letter and scanned it, letting out a whoop. "A full ride to Texas A and M University? Ford! That's great news. It's a wonderful school."

"But it's halfway across the country! We can't afford plane fare for me to come home-"

"You have a full scholarship! We can afford plane fare a couple of times a year."

Ford looked at him, desperate. "But I don't even know if I want to go there!"

Crane calmed down. "You'll get more offers," he said firmly. "But even if you don't, Ford, so what? Adam is going to be over the moon about this!"

"You can't tell him, Crane! He'll tell me I have to go there!"

"Of course he will. Ford! It's a full ride. That means everything is included. Housing, meals, books. They're even offering you a stipend for expenses. You'd be a fool not to accept."

Ford looked crestfallen. "I thought, maybe, you'd understand," he almost whispered.

"Understand?"

The younger McFadden was silent, his head down. Startled, Crane really looked at him-and saw fear.

Suddenly he was transported back in time, to the day his scholarship letter had arrived from UC Davis.

He waited until all the younger boys were in bed, when it was just he and Brian and Adam downstairs. He remembered Brian and Adam were splitting a beer when he quietly handed the letter over. He'd convinced himself they were going to say he couldn't go. That even with the scholarship, they couldn't afford it, or that they needed him to stay on the ranch and work full time after high school, or take care of the younger kids. He felt a little disappointed about it, but a lot relieved.

How he'd so thoroughly deluded himself, he couldn't imagine. Not when Adam and Brian had been talking "college" to him practically since his parent's funerals. Adam had given up his college scholarship to raise his brothers. Crane seriously doubted Brian had ever planned on going to college anyway; his first love was always the ranch and the family. But they'd been intent on Crane going.

Still, when Adam had jumped up and, tossing the letter to Brian, caught up Crane in a huge hug, he'd been shocked. Then Brian had joined in, elated and talking about opening a bottle of champagne to celebrate, even though he knew full well they didn't have any champagne.

"But I can't go!" he exclaimed.

The two of them froze, and then stared at him with equal looks of horror.

"What do you mean you can't go?" Brian yelled.

"You are going!" Adam added.

"But I can't!" Crane insisted, his mind swirling with all the things that he did during the day that no one would do if he wasn't there. And the thought of being away from home for weeks, months at a time, when he hadn't even gone for a sleepover without one of his brothers since his parents were killed. All those college students staring at him, laughing about his clothes or how he didn't have a car, or…parents…

He suddenly noticed that neither Brian or Adam were yelling at him anymore, they were just looking at him, with sympathy.

He'd always remember what Adam said next.

"It's okay to be afraid," his oldest brother said kindly. "There's nothing wrong with being scared. It's natural. But you can't let fear stop you from what you really want to do, Crane. Then fear wins. And you can't let it win."

"But I don't want to go!"

Adam just smiled, rubbing his shoulders. "Yeah, actually, you do."

"How do you know that?" Crane challenged.

Adam didn't answer, but Brian did. "He knows because he wanted to go, once. He didn't get to. Neither one of us did. But you, Crane, are going."

"The world is your oyster," Adam cracked.

Remembering all that, now, he could see what Ford was so upset about. If anything, he was shyer and a bigger homebody than Crane had been. And with Daniel and Evan both gone, Crane knew his little brother had no doubt talked himself into thinking he needed to stay, to pick up the slack.

Not that Adam, or Brian, or Hannah, or even Crane himself was going to let him think that for long. Picking up the letter that had somehow ended up on the floor, he smoothed it out and smiled at the engraved crest on the top of the page. He solemnly handed it back to his younger brother. "The world is your oyster," he said, repeating the same phrase Adam had said to him.

Ford looked befuddled. "What does that mean?"

Crane put his arm around Ford and pulled him into a hug. "It means, little brother, that you are going to college. And it means that you're going to have a great time. And, when you're done, if you want to come right back here to the ranch, that'll be fine. And if you want to do something else-the way Daniel and Evan are right now-that's okay too. The world is out there waiting for you, Ford McFadden…but home is always going to be here."

Fini