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!

First and foremost, I want to give a shout-out to my AMAZING beta, beachtree. She is always so insightful and thorough, and she truly makes my writing better.

A/N: I always believed that realistically Ryan would suffer from PTSD (his life in Fresno, Chino, and Newport was filled with traumatizing events), even though Josh Schwartz never explored it. Therefore, I explore this premise in this story. The symptoms of his mental illness will manifest gradually as he gets little sleep, is stressed from the rigors of his intense architecture program, and is exposed to triggers in his environment.

This story follows canon, so assume it picks up about a year after Sophie is born in the series finale. Ryan and Seth are sophomores in college. Luke is Ryan's college roommate; Sandy and Kirsten (and little Sophie) reside in Berkeley, California; Seth and Summer live together in Rhode Island; and Julie and Kaitlin (and Ryan's little brother, Logan) live in Oakland, California. Taylor went back to Sorbonne University in France. This story is heavy on the Ryan/Sandy and Ryan/Cohens dynamics, as well as the friendships between Ryan/Luke and Ryan/Seth (and Ryan/Luke/Seth). Summer and Kaitlin will make regular appearances (Kaitlin is introduced in Ch. 3 and Summer is introduced in Ch. 4). Other key guest characters from the show (like Anna and Theresa) will also make appearances. I have also created several original characters.

For those of you who waited patiently for a new chapter of my other story, That's What Friends Are For - thank you so much! I hope you will also enjoy this new future fic. I have already written 9 lengthy chapters of this story, so you won't need to worry about not getting updates. The story will probably be 15-18 chapters in length. I'll probably post a new chapter every 2-4 weeks. If enough people review, I'll post new chapters even sooner. Enjoy, and please leave a Review. The more people express interest in this story through Reviews, the more it inspires me to finish it.

Chapter 1

Friday, August 11, 2008

Ryan Atwood was nervous. Summer break was ending, and soon he would be navigating through his third semester at UC Berkeley. He had managed to maintain a 3.5 GPA his freshman year despite burning the candle at both ends with school and work and minimal sleep, often less than five hours per night. Berkeley's Architecture Program was ranked #2 in the entire nation, and Ryan had heard rumors about sophomore year being even tougher for architecture majors. Despite his nerves, Ryan smiled to himself thinking about his upcoming class schedule. He would be taking Calculus III with Professor Zhang, Physics I with Professor Strominger, Introduction to Visual Representation and Drawing with Professor Hunt, an Environmental Design Workshop, and a 4 credit Architecture Studio. The truth was he enjoyed the work, even though the hours were rigorous and long. Despite all his previous self-doubt, Ryan and Berkeley seemed to be a great fit. Ryan enjoyed all his classes freshman year and had even made some new friends. Unlike Newport, where he often felt judged and condemned, at Berkeley he could be himself and relax. Gone were the days where he was the outcast or the notorious kid from Chino who burned down real estate mogul Caleb Nichol's model home. Although Ryan had been a quiet, introverted person for most of his life, in Newport it seemed that just being from Chino with an impecunious biological family of mostly alcoholics and criminals, was enough to bring unwanted attention to himself. In college, though, it was easier to remain inconspicuous because there were so many students from various backgrounds who were there to learn rather than gossip. Some students, Ryan learned, even came from backgrounds like his, and he found it much easier to socialize since nobody knew or seemed to care about his troubled past.

Following his freshman year of college, Ryan had spent the summer living with Sandy, Kirsten, and little Sophie at the Cohens' Berkeley home, while Seth remained in Rhode Island taking summer classes at Rhode Island College of Art & Design (RISD). For the past year and a half, Ryan had maintained a job as a server at the fine dining restaurant, Via del Corso, on the weekends. During the summer, when he wasn't helping Kirsten care for Sophie, he picked up more shifts at the restaurant, hoping to save money to pay off his student debt. Although the Cohens had offered to pay for his education, Ryan was determined to pay for college himself. However, this weekend Ryan was off from work so that he could settle into his new dormitory at Norton Hall.

"Hey, Kid, you almost ready to go?" Sandy Cohen asked, pulling Ryan out of his reverie. He patted the boy on the back as they headed towards their respective vehicles in the driveway of the earthy, brown wooden home. The Cohens' Berkeley home was about a 20-minute drive from UC Berkeley's campus.

"Ready as I'll ever be," Ryan answered candidly, opening the driver's side door to his Jeep Wrangler. Both vehicles were loaded with Ryan's belongings for college. "Is Kirsten still going to meet us there after Sophie's checkup?"

"She will, but she first wants to stop by the grocery store to buy you some snacks for the week."

"Sandy, you know—she doesn't have to go to all that trouble…"

Sandy frowned slightly. "It's no trouble at all. We can't do this for Seth living thousands of miles away, but we're excited we can at least still buy groceries for one of our sons."

Ryan's eyes lit up at Sandy affectionately calling him his "son." It had been almost five years since Sandy brought Ryan home with him from juvie, and no matter how many times Sandy referred to Ryan as his "son", Ryan would never tire of it. Sandy was the father Ryan always wanted—the father he never thought he would have. Sometimes he asked himself whether he deserved Sandy, and he hoped he could someday repay him for all he'd done.

Sandy took a moment to really take in the appearance of the resilient boy who reminded him so much of himself. Still fit as a fiddle, Ryan was clad in blue jeans and a gray Berkeley t-shirt. His dark blond hair was freshly cut, giving his face a more angular and mature appearance than when Sandy had first met him. Most importantly, Sandy was content that Ryan finally seemed relaxed and well-rested.

Ryan was now 20 years old, making him a year or so older than other college sophomores. He had endured and overcome more hardship in those twenty years than any person should ever have to, Sandy thought to himself. Yet here Ryan was—still standing and excelling in his new educational environment. Nonetheless, Sandy had observed Ryan over the summer, and could tell that underneath Ryan's stoic demeanor, turmoil still brewed. Sandy wondered what was troubling Ryan, and prayed Ryan would come to him in time with whatever was bothering him the most at any given moment when in need of help and guidance.

Taking advantage of an opportunity to remind Ryan of his important place in the family, Sandy said, "You know, even though you live on campus, we will keep your bedroom intact over the semester…just in case you want to crash at the house every now and then during the school year."

Ryan smiled brightly. "Thanks, Sandy. That means a lot."

"Kirsten and I…," Sandy added, pulling Ryan into a hug. "We couldn't be prouder."

Within minutes, Ryan and Sandy drove off to Berkeley campus in separate vehicles.

Ryan arrived at Norton Hall before his father figure and parked his Jeep Wrangler in his permit space. As he stepped out of the vehicle, he took in the simple architecture of the dormitory. Norton Hall was one of four high-rise buildings that surrounded a large courtyard a block from Berkeley campus. There was also a central common building which contained the dining center, the front office, mail services, a recreation lounge, and the Academic Service Center.

As he scrutinized the high-rises in front of him, the aspiring architect became lost in thought. Perhaps someday he could design a dormitory for low-income students where they could live for free. First, he knew he'd have to get through four more rigorous years of Berkeley's architecture program without finding himself pulled into the vicious cycle of circumstances dictated by everyone but him, dragged into other people's drama—typically of their own making—and struggling with the trauma that had a way of being inflicted at any place and time with origins in both past and present. Ryan had had to become resigned to having very little to no control over his life. He hated feeling powerless, but also had always had to devote his time and energy to survival first and foremost, which often demanded living in the moment, and to deferring to others for their sake and for his safety.

Ryan exhaled, rubbing the palm of his hand over his face. Despite how well he'd performed freshman year, he couldn't shake the feeling that he was living somebody else's life. Even though he didn't really consider himself an Atwood anymore, his parents' blood still ran through his veins, and the Atwoods notoriously had bad luck. Sooner or later, he feared his dreams would be stripped from him.

It seemed like eons ago that his younger self told Sandy, "Where I'm from, having a dream doesn't make you smart. Knowing it won't come true? That does." Had Ryan ever truly believed those cynical words? After the Cohens took him in, he'd been so eager to get into Harbor High School, and once given that opportunity, he'd worked extremely hard to maintain stellar grades. Truthfully, his entire life he'd wanted to make something of himself…to be different from his family. Everyone always told him he couldn't because of who the Atwoods were and their well-earned reputation. Somewhere along his rocky journey, he'd learned to believe in himself. Still, there was an inner voice in his head which lingered, trying to make him feel as though he would never belong. For now, Ryan willed himself to push those negative thoughts out of his mind. Maybe he was fooling himself into believing that he was somehow different from his family. Was he on borrowed time? Regardless, until his biggest fear became a reality, he was determined to make the most of his time at Berkeley. He would try to be a normal college student.

The sound of loud music blaring from the speakers of a passing convertible pulled Ryan away from his racing thoughts. He grabbed his large black duffel bag and navy-blue backpack from the back of his jeep, locked the doors to the vehicle, and headed for the front entrance of Norton Hall. Glancing down at his key card, he noted that his room was on the fifth floor—just two floors up from where the co-founder of Apple, Steve Wozniak, had lived during his time as a Berkeley student.

Since the elevator wasn't working, Ryan took the stairs to the fifth floor of the high-rise. When he finally reached room 517, he turned his room key to let himself in. As the door cracked open, he could see his roommate and friend unpacking his clothes.

Luke Ward immediately dropped what he was doing and rushed to the door.

"What's going on, Chino!" The taller blond boy greeted his fellow Oskicat and former Harbor Pirate. Luke was dressed in faded blue jeans, a gray flannel shirt, and cognac-colored flip-flops. His hair was shaggy and had grown a little past his ears. His scruff gave him the appearance of being somewhat older than his 21 years.

Ryan stepped into the small dorm room where he would be living for the next year. There was a full-size bed on each side. Between the two beds was a side-by-side twin desk and a pair of built-in bookshelves that encased a large window. Each side of the room also had a wardrobe to hang clothes.

Neither Luke nor Ryan could contain their smiles as the two friends bumped fists.

"Hey, man. It's really good to see you," Ryan replied, dropping his duffel bag and backpack near his bed. The two friends had already agreed on which side of the room each would occupy for the semester.

"Yeah, well, our beds are so close that you'll probably be tired of me by the end of the week," Luke chuckled. "These rooms are tiny!"

Ryan shrugged, "I've lived in much smaller spaces, but point taken. Welcome to Norton Hall, Bitch," He smirked as Luke doubled over in laughter.

"Yeah, this will be some year, huh? Hey, let's catch up tonight…after we get your stuff unpacked. Wanna grab drinks at Kip's later?" Luke suggested.

"Definitely. That sounds good to me," Ryan agreed. "I just can't be out too late because I've got a meeting for fellow Resident Assistants (RAs) early in the morning."

"That's totally cool. We can go for an hour and come back," Luke replied.

"Nice bass guitar, man. Is this new?" Ryan asked, taking in Luke's side of the room.

"Yeah, I bought it over the summer. Figured I'd learn how to play bass. In the past, I've only played acoustic. They offer lessons at the student center through some of the music clubs on campus."

"That's really cool, man." Ryan said supportively, still studying each of the posters Luke had hung on the wall above his side of the room. "I didn't know you like Sting and Phil Collins. Good taste."

"I thought you only liked Journey," Luke chuckled.

"Journey is the greatest band of all time, but Sting and Phil Collins are major improvements over the stuff Seth listens to," Ryan grinned.

"Well maybe I'll drag your introverted ass out to a concert one of these days," Luke teased.

"Don't count on it," Ryan shot back, still grinning.

"So, where's the rest of your stuff?" Luke asked, noticing Ryan hadn't brought much up to the dormitory. "I thought you architecture majors had loads of work supplies."

"It's in Sandy's car. He just texted me that he's on the way up," Ryan replied.

Suddenly, the sound of the door opening echoed through the small room and the two boys turned their attention to the doorway where a slightly out-of-breath Sandy stood holding a large box filled with three easel stands, tracing paper, graphing paper, a graphing calculator, a T-square, protractor, compass, and several pencils and drawing pens. Ryan rushed to help him with the box and apologized for not meeting him downstairs. He set the box down gently next to his end of the twin study desk.

"Hi, Mr. Cohen! Need some more help?" Luke greeted the familiar dark-haired lawyer with the unforgettable bushy eyebrows.

"Luke! It's good to see you," Sandy exclaimed. "Well that all depends. Think one of you strong strapping young men can help me bring Ryan's drafting table up to the room? I would do it myself but I'm afraid old age is setting in, and my knees can't handle these Berkeley stairs quite like they used to."

"Thanks, Sandy. I've got it from here. Sorry about the elevator not working," Ryan gave Sandy an apologetic look as he headed out the door to retrieve his heavy wooden drafting table.

"Yeah, we're told the elevator will be fixed tomorrow," Luke added.

"Let me tell you, even back in my hippy days when I was young and hot, Maintenance could never keep the elevators working on this campus. I think they figured that was the only way to keep the students in shape with all the drinking and partying," Sandy chuckled, recalling his younger self.

"Which dorm did you live in when you went to school here?" Luke asked, intrigued.

"Oh, I stayed in several. I lived in the Unit 1 complex freshman year, and even got to stay at Foothill and Clark Kerr for some time. It's my personal belief that every Berkeley student should experience living on campus in the historic dormitories."

"I agree, Mr. Cohen. Even though I lived off campus last year, I was really glad Ryan asked me to be his roommate this year."

"He was thrilled to learn you had transferred from University of Oregon to Berkeley. I think it'll be a great year for you two…and good for Ryan." Sandy smiled earnestly. He wanted to say more but knew Ryan would return at any moment, so decided against it.

Filling the brief silence as Sandy contemplated his next words, Luke asked, "How have you, Kirsten, and Sophie been?"

"We've been great!" Kirsten answered enthusiastically. Luke and Sandy turned to see her standing in the doorway holding Sophie Rose.

"Mrs. Cohen!" Luke approached Kirsten with a broad smile, tickling the giggling baby. "I haven't seen you in ages. Congratulations on being a mom again!"

"Thank you, Luke. As exhausting as it is having a little girl, we are relieved not to have an empty nest."

"Sophie looks just like you. Same eyes and everything," Luke observed.

"Yeah, she's pretty. Not quite the 'squished meatball' Seth thinks she is," Ryan smirked as he re-entered the room, setting the drafting table next to his other architecture supplies.

"Wait 'til you see the assortment of food Kirsten brought you. You won't even need your dining hall pass!" Sandy said playfully.

"I know. I saw a whole carload of groceries from the window of the Range Rover." Making eye contact with Kirsten, Ryan smiled sheepishly. "Thank you, Kirsten," he said, his cheeks flushing slightly.

"You're more than welcome. It's your job to focus on your studies, and it's my job to make sure that you are taking care of yourself," Kirsten replied, smiling warmly.

Ryan ducked his head shyly. Looking up through his lashes, he held Kirsten's gaze knowingly. "I'll take care of myself. I promise," he finally said.

After several trips to both of the Cohens' vehicles, Ryan's belongings were finally in the room and the Cohens departed to give Ryan and Luke space to settle in.

"Dude, Kirsten is awesome. Too bad we don't have a kitchen in the room," Luke made conversation as he helped Ryan put away an assortment of bagels, cereal, cream cheese, milk, fruit, juice, ground beef, rice, pasta, potatoes, frozen vegetables, frozen chicken, and eggs. Kirsten had also brought extra cookware, plates, bowls, and silverware for Ryan to use throughout the semester.

"Yeah, at least we have a big fridge though. I think the hall has a shared kitchen so we can still cook. Help yourself, man. I can't eat all this stuff by myself," Ryan offered, motioning his hand at the supply of food.

"I'll be sure to help myself. I've got the unlimited meal plan though, so I better keep hitting the gym or else I'll gain the sophomore 15."

"There's a sophomore 15?" Ryan laughed. "I've got a minimal meal plan that comes with being an RA. I think I get 3 meals a week, so I'll be cooking quite a bit."

"Cohen did tell me you did musicals in Chino, but cooking too? You're a true Renaissance man," Luke teased as Ryan hit his shoulder with a plastic spatula.

Glancing at the wall clock, Luke asked, "When you wanna head out to Kip's?"

"We can go soon. Just give me a few minutes. I've gotta call Seth. I…promised him I would talk to him about this week's episode of Yakuza Prep, so… yeah," Ryan smiled coyly and shrugged.

"You watch Yakuza Prep?" Luke asked with amusement.

Through his eyes, Ryan conveyed a look that could only be interpreted as "trust me, not because I enjoy it."

"Cohen and his anime shows…," Luke replied in response, shaking his head. "I remember that one from when he stayed with us in Portland. How's Cohen doing anyway? He sucks at returning emails."

"Yeah…well, lately he hasn't been the best at returning phone calls either unless it's to talk about his graphic novel or Yakuza Prep, but he's doing good." Ryan paused with a wide grin, adding, "Seth is Seth."

"Well tell him I say, 'What's up.' I'm going to continue hanging my clothes up in the wardrobe until you're ready."

"Alright, will do."

Ryan dialed Seth's number. After several rings, it went to voicemail: "This is the friendly neighborhood Seth Cohen at your service. I can't answer the phone right now because I'm out solving crimes…or more importantly…coming up with quick-quips and pop-culture laden bromides to win over the hearts of humanity, but if you leave me a message after the tone, I promise to get back to you." Ryan shook his head. Seth would be a big kid forever.

"Hey, Seth…it's me, Ryan. Call me back when you get this."

"He didn't answer, did he?" Luke stated, entering the room. "I could hear his voice on that goofy pre-recorded message from a mile away.

"Nah. I guess he's that busy." Ryan shrugged again with a slight roll of his eyes.

"Come on, bud. Let's go." Luke directed Ryan to the door. "Am I driving, or are you?"

"I'll drive," Ryan replied, pulling his keys out of his pocket. "I'll race ya," he said, eyes dancing with anticipation.

Ryan and Luke abruptly left their dorm and ran down several flights of stairs, and through the parking lot, picking up the friendship right where it left off.

Later that evening, Sandy and Kirsten enjoyed Thai food together and watched a comedy on TBS. The movie was interrupted periodically due to their baby daughter's cries. Kirsten pulled herself away from the movie to bottle-feed Sophie, burp her, and then change her diaper. Finally, little Sophie fell asleep in her crib, allowing the happily married couple to relax in their bedroom.

Eventually their lighthearted banter took a more serious turn.

"Sandy, does it bother you that Seth didn't come home at all this summer?" Kirsten asked solemnly.

"Oh, honey…to a degree it does, but Seth is doing what he has to do. He was dead set on going to boarding school before Ryan began living with us, so truly it's a miracle he even stayed hanging around us for as long as he did. You know he's very career focused right now and has a bright future as an author of graphic novels. He has Summer with him, so I'm not too concerned. I didn't want to come home either when I was his age."

"Your situation was different though, Sandy. I guess it does give me some comfort knowing Summer was reinstated to Brown University, and that she and Seth are doing well living together in Rhode Island. I just miss him. I'm not used to him being away so long. We haven't seen him for a year. It's hard to believe he's so grown up."

"Well, knowing Seth's personality, he's probably not going to come home just to visit us, but we could swing by his neck of the woods and see him this fall," Sandy offered.

Kirsten's eyes lit up at the thought. "I would really like that," she smiled.

"In many ways, I'm more concerned about Ryan," Sandy admitted.

"How do you mean? We see Ryan regularly and he's doing so well. I think it's so wonderful he and Luke are rooming together. With Seth away, Ryan seemed so isolated last year. I am grateful he and Luke bumped into each other second semester," Kirsten replied, snuggling next to Sandy on their king size bed.

"Me, too," Sandy agreed. "I think it'll be good for him. God knows that kid has been through too much. I thought Taylor had loosened him up, but after the long-distance thing didn't work out and she broke up with him from France, he retreated into his shell. Then Frank hurt him again, making matters worse. He was so tense freshman year. I feel like all the kid did was study, exercise, and work."

"Going to college is such a big adjustment regardless, especially for someone like Ryan, who is the first in his family to do it. Yes, he has a lot of intense issues, but he is working through them, Sandy. I'm sure he'll be fine. He relaxed this past summer spending time with us and Sophie."

"I know, Kirsten. I just worry sometimes. He's so much like me at his age before I opened myself up to the world and its infinite possibilities, and yet my issues were nowhere near as complicated as his. He has been through some serious trauma, and I sometimes ask myself if there is more we could do for him."

"He'll find his way," Kirsten reassured her husband, kissing him on the cheek. "We've just got to give him time and continue to support him. He's been coming to us so that's a positive sign."

"Do you ever regret not adopting him?" Sandy could tell his question caught Kirsten off guard. Kirsten's eyes flashed with guilt.

"This must have been weighing on your mind a lot lately. Is everything okay, Sandy?" Kirsten redirected her response.

"I've just been thinking about Ryan a lot lately. It's got to be confusing…one foot in as a member of this family while having one foot out knowing he is still linked to the Atwoods, vulnerable to the whims of any toxic family member who can try to abuse and take advantage of him."

"Oh, Sandy…yes, I've sometimes regretted not adopting him when we had the chance, but would he have even wanted that? To proceed with the adoption process, he would have had to completely sever his ties to his mother, and he is on relatively good terms with her now. He still has his own family and I try to be respectful of that. He's a very important part of our family, of course, and he's not going anywhere. He's been a wonderful son to us and a great brother to Seth and Sophie. What difference does it make if it's on paper or not? What matters is how we feel."

Sandy sighed. He hated disagreeing with his wife. "It makes all the difference, Kirsten."

Sandy was pensive. As of Ryan's eighteenth birthday, they had ceased being his legal guardians. On paper, Ryan was no more than a young man they loved and adored who was living in their home. Ryan was not an heir. He was not legally protected the way a son should be. He wouldn't even be considered a family member for the purposes of an uninsured motorist policy. If–God forbid—something bad was to happen to Ryan, Dawn or Frank would still legally oversee his estate. If something were to happen to Sandy or Kirsten, Ryan would get disregarded unless they wrote him into their will. Sandy felt compelled to protect Ryan better than they had been, but he would wait until the right time to discuss it with Kirsten.

After about a minute, Sandy broke the silence. "You know, I've been thinking. Being on that Berkeley campus with Ryan…seeing all of my old hangout spots from my glory days…it has me nostalgic and I feel rejuvenated."

Kirsten teased, "So you want to go back to school?"

"Well, not exactly. But there is an open teaching position at UC Berkeley School of Law. Professor Reagan, who taught Criminal Procedure, Criminal Law, and Constitutional Law, is retiring at the end of the month and they are looking to hire someone to replace him." Sandy beamed as his thoughts ran away with him. "You know I've always loved teaching and mentoring students. I could do for other students what Professor Max Bloom did for me, and this way I would be closer to Ryan daily. We could even grab lunch together regularly! I wouldn't have to completely shut down my criminal defense practice, but I could limit the number of new clients I accept."

Kirsten smiled and wrapped her arms around her husband's waist supportively. "It looks like you've already made your decision, and I think it's great." Her eyes burned with desire and admiration for the man she married. "I love you so much, you know that?"

"I had a sneaking suspicion," Sandy teased. "But not as much as I love you."

"We haven't been alone for a while without a baby crying."

"Tonight, I'm all yours, honey. I'm all yours," Sandy replied in a husky voice.

It was around 8:30 when Ryan and Luke arrived at Kip's Bar & Grill. They ordered food and sat next to each other at the bar in front of the television, where an old basketball game was playing on ESPN Classics.

"Dude, I remember this game!" Luke exclaimed. "It was 2001. The Lakers had swept every other team in the playoffs, and ultimately defeated the 76ers in the finals, but Allen Iverson really brought it in this game and the 76ers stole game 1 of the series."

"I didn't know you were a basketball fan," Ryan commented.

"I was. I haven't kept up with it though. My dad was a huge Lakers fan and took me to a game once. I used to have Kobe Bryant's jersey. What about you? You watch basketball?"

"I used to watch it sometimes . . . with my dad when we lived in Fresno…," Ryan trailed off at the memory of his five-year-old self fetching beers for an inebriated Frank in between commercials.

"Why'd you stop?" Luke asked, well-intentioned but unable to fathom the kind of childhood Ryan had, given his own happy childhood memories. Carson Ward had his problems, but despite his shortcomings, he had been a pretty good dad overall.

Ryan glanced down at his uneaten fries and what remained of his burger. Taking a deep breath and biting his lower lip, he moved his food around in his plate idly with his fork before looking up to meet Luke's concerned eyes. "My, uh…my dad got arrested for armed robbery and left us with nothing. We moved to Chino and my mom became an alcoholic, which you probably know from meeting her at Casino Night when I first got to Newport. Her, uh, boyfriends— somehow, she always had boyfriends—they, uh, used to beat me." Ryan paused to collect his thoughts and sighed. He contemplated whether he should say more. Risking another glance at Luke, he decided it was okay to open up more to his friend of more than four years.

"Sometimes my mom got arrested for petty crimes like shoplifting, drugs, um, domestic things,…and I would end up in foster care or group homes. When you're living through that cycle, it's kind of hard to, uh, watch sports." Ryan took another deep breath to release the tension that had built in his upper body as he rehashed such unpleasant memories.

Luke did remember helping Ryan's mom up at Casino Night all those years ago after she fell over, inebriated, knocking down a server, a tray of hors d'oeuvres, a chair, and some wine glasses. He also remembered Ryan opening up a little bit about his deadbeat dad, but he never knew Ryan's dad was that bad even when Ryan was kindergarten age. He also had no idea Ryan had been physically abused or that he'd spent time in a group home.

"Ryan, I'm so sorry. I knew things were hard for you growing up, but damn…," Luke responded sympathetically.

Ryan noted to himself that this was a rare occasion where Luke chose to refer to him by his real name rather than the usual friendly moniker, Chino.

"It's hard to believe I've known you now for almost five years, yet I feel like I know so little about all the bull you went through growing up," Luke continued.

"It's better that way," Ryan said matter-of-factly.

"It makes you who you are though," Luke pointed out. "It's nothing to be ashamed of."

Ryan nodded appreciatively. "Thanks, man," he said softly.

"I know I didn't make your life easier back then when you first came to Newport," Luke frowned.

"It's water under the bridge. You've more than made up for it. Besides, I was an ass to you, too," Ryan grinned, reassuring his friend and breaking the tension.

A few minutes passed and the roommates continued chatting as they watched the game. The bartender brought twenty-one-year-old Luke a third beer while Ryan sipped on his soda.

"I guess you're not much of a drinker," Luke remarked.

"Not really," Ryan agreed. "Besides, I'm still underage, remember?"

"Come on, man. Like they would card you in here…," Luke responded.

Ryan simply shrugged. Memories of the Atwoods, Marissa, and even Kirsten drinking, were enough to turn him off from indulging in the addictive substance.

"Well, I'll never make the mistake of drunk driving again. You're my official designated driver this year," Luke replied, laughing.

"Definitely. I can handle that," Ryan smirked.

"I'm glad we're doing this. I mean, we hung out last semester, but we haven't talk talked since…you know…"

Ryan nodded, understanding that Luke was referring to a lengthy conversation they had shortly after Marissa's funeral. "Me, too," Ryan agreed. "It feels good to have someone to talk to."

Luke noticed a hint of sadness flicker in his friend's eyes and wondered if that sadness emanated from memories of Marissa. However, it was not lost on Luke that Ryan had a myriad of personal issues stemming from his painful childhood that could be bothering him—issues that Ryan probably would not reveal, at least not easily. Luke noted that it may have taken a lot out of Ryan emotionally just talking about his deadbeat, abusive father and alcoholic mother tonight.

Shifting to a lighter topic, Ryan asked, "So, what made you want to transfer to Berkeley from University of Oregon?"

"I got tired of Oregon, so when my dad relocated to San Francisco, I saw no point in sticking around. Berkeley is a much better school, and the campus is pretty dope. I'll miss the Oregon girls though."

"I'm sure there are plenty of attractive Berkeley women you can chase after," Ryan laughed, shaking his head in amusement at Luke's reference to Oregon's women. Maybe Luke would always be a Don Juan, or maybe — just maybe — someday he would finally settle down into a serious monogamous relationship.

"So have you picked a major yet?" Ryan continued.

"Right now, I'm majoring in finance, but I'm not sure what career I want to pursue. I used to want to do what my dad does until…you know," Luke answered.

"Don't you and your dad have a pretty good relationship now?" Ryan inquired.

"Yeah, I mean…we do have a good relationship, but that doesn't mean I want to follow in his career footsteps. The thought of owning car dealerships now leaves a bitter taste in my mouth."

"I get that."

"Yeah, I don't know what I want…," Luke sighed.

"They say college is a time to figure things out, right?"

"I guess," Luke shrugged.

"You're really good at guitar. Have you thought about making that a career?" Ryan suggested.

"I wish," Luke replied, but Ryan detected a glimmer of hopefulness in his friend's expression.

"For what it's worth, I believe in your dream, man." The left corner of Ryan's mouth quirked upwards into a half smile—his kind eyes radiating warmth. Ryan smiled at the memory of Luke singing his simplistic songs backstage during the 2004 Rooney Concert. As much as Oliver made Ryan's skin crawl, he had been introduced to a new, endearing side of Luke during that saga. "And as goofy as you get while playing guitar, you have a pretty good voice," Ryan recalled.

"That means a lot, Chino." Luke smiled, grateful for his friend's encouragement.

"We should probably head back soon," Ryan indicated, glancing down at his watch. "As much fun as this has been, I've gotta wake-up early for that RA meeting."

"About that…I've been wanting to ask…what made you want that gig? You're already working at Via Del Corso."

"Well, it allows me to stay in the dorm at no cost. Plus, I get a stipend for books." Ryan got straight to the point. "This student debt isn't going to pay itself," he pointed out.

"But can't the Cohens take care of your school expenses?"

Ryan sighed. He knew his friend meant well, so he carefully chose his words in response. "The Cohens have done way more for me than I deserve. I won't let them handle my college expenses too. I need to do this on my own."

"But they're your family. I'm sure they want to help." Luke shrugged.

"They are my family, but it's complicated."

Luke could tell from the way Ryan's features tensed that it would be best to drop the subject, so he let it go.

"Come on, Chino," Luke patted his friend on the back. "Time to get your ass to bed."

Ryan and Luke made it back to the dorm by 10 o'clock that evening. While Ryan was getting ready for bed, Luke headed to the game room in the basement to play video games and meet up with other students. Fixing his bed sheets, Ryan examined his side of the small room. The walls were bare except for a clock, which contrasted with Luke's vivid musical posters and pin-ups of half-naked women. Feeling mentally exhausted, Ryan lay down on his bed and rubbed his temples, having changed into a long-sleeved t-shirt and navy flannel pants, ready for sleep. As he began dosing off, his phone rang. Shifting his body to reach for his Nokia E71, he saw Seth's name flashing on the caller ID.

"Hey, Seth," Ryan answered, suddenly feeling annoyed and more alert. He told Seth he had to be up early in the morning, and Seth hadn't been around during the time they had pre-scheduled time to chat.

"Ryan! I heard you moved into your new abode for the next twelve months…or maybe barracks is a better word to describe student housing at Bezerkeley. Or dungeon perhaps?"

"It's not that bad—," Ryan attempted a reply.

"I don't know, man…you are sharing a room with a guy who shaves his chest. That's a little minty of you by the way. But please tell Luke I say hello. It's been too long, and I still owe him one for teaching me how to grill."

"How do you know Luke still shaves his chest?" Ryan paused. "Never mind. Don't answer that."

"So how have your past couple of weeks gone?" Seth asked.

Ryan began to answer, but Seth quickly continued, "Or better yet…since Dad already told me about it, let me tell you about the awesomeness of Seth Cohen's final two weeks of the summer. Which coincidentally I spent with Summer…and Anna, by the way. She's become good friends with Summer and is helping with graphic novel ideas. It's amazing having her in the same city. But seriously, Ryan…I have some really big news…."

"You're finally going to visit Sophie and your parents?" Ryan asked. The only time Ryan saw Seth over the summer was the first week of June when he flew to Rhode Island to visit Seth himself. However, Sandy and Kirsten couldn't make the trip and Seth claimed he was too busy to fly to Berkeley to spend time with his parents and baby sister.

"I see my humor is still rubbing off on you even in my absence. That's good to know," Seth retorted.

"I was being serious," Ryan said, yawning.

"But really…you'll never guess what went down in the past week," Seth continued. "Remember Zach?"

"How could I forget," Ryan answered dryly.

"Well, he and I ran into each other about a week ago. He's living in New York now because of all the success Atomic County has had, but he visited a film festival at RISD, and we had a lengthy conversation in between lots of alcohol, Ryan, and it turns out he wants to gift 50 percent of the rights to Atomic County to yours truly. Warner Brothers is interested in making a movie, and if I accept it, that means I can be in on all of the success from our graphic novel!"

"That's—wow," Ryan searched for the right words to say. Seth was right. This was big news. Huge. "I'm really proud of you, man. You deserve it. This is your dream and I think you should take it."

In the background, Ryan could hear Summer trying to get Seth to join her to watch Season 10 of The Valley.

"The Valley is still coming out with new seasons?" Ryan asked, quizzically. "Weird. I thought its ratings fell below 1 million."

"Teen dramas never get canceled, Ryan…but hey, Little Miss Vixen is whisking me away to watch the non-superhero TV version of me, and I can't leave my lady hanging, so we're going to have to reschedule our Yakuza Prep talking session," Seth said, signaling that he still wanted to talk about the latest episode of his favorite anime series. "Talk to you soon, my fair headed friend."

"But wait, I wanted to talk to you about—," Ryan tried to interject, but Seth had already hung up. "Never mind," Ryan shrugged again, staring down at a brochure and application for an architecture study abroad program in the United Arab Emirates that had piqued his interest.

Ryan had received the brochure and application in the mail over the summer. He figured it must have been disseminated to all architecture students at Berkeley. At first, he had set the brochure and application aside on his study desk in his room at the Cohens', but the more he looked at it, the more intrigued he became. He began researching the program and even mentioned it to Sandy, who suggested he bring it up with his college counselor this semester.

Since childhood, Ryan had been captivated by the cultures and civilizations in faraway places. The library was a safe place in his unsafe world, an escape to many new, amazing lands. He still remembered the day he first saw pictures of Abu Dhabi and how exotic it sounded and seemed—and how unattainable. The library was as close as he'd get to any of them, but he was grateful for it. Since then, Ryan had been fascinated by the UAE's/region's rich history, but he never thought in his wildest dreams that he would have the opportunity to visit or study there. He seldom traveled outside of California and had never traveled outside of North America. Part of him wondered if the idea of studying abroad was merely a fanciful dream that would never be within his reach. Still, another part of him wondered if maybe—just maybe—someone like him could thrive in a study abroad program. Of course, he'd have to save enough money to afford it.

Ryan had been wanting to talk to Seth about the UAE program since Seth would be studying abroad in London, England next summer, but alas, that would have to wait. Not much had changed, really. Seth had never been a good listener, and Ryan had always accepted him as he was. Seth was always there in his own way when it mattered, even if he was missing in action at other times. Seth's humorous banter still often kept Ryan from slipping into a very dark place mentally, and for that, Ryan was grateful. Still, he was sometimes irritated that he could never share much with Seth. Thinking back to a conversation he'd had with his surrogate "blood brother" during his first year in Newport the night Eddie had kicked his ass and Theresa had gone back to Chino, he smiled. "I guess I can always talk to Luke."