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!

*As always, shout to my AMAZING beta, beachtree. She is always so insightful and thorough, and she truly makes my writing better. She's a gem!*

Thanks again to everyone who reviewed! Your reviews inspire me to keep writing! I will respond to some of your reviews below my author's note.

A/N: I hope you guys enjoy this chapter. It builds some friction between Sandy and Kirsten due to their disagreements on how to address Ryan's problems. This chapter really explores Sandy's bond with Ryan, and Sandy's desire to really understand and help Ryan. However, this chapter is also fluffy and shows Ryan enjoying himself in college. You'll get to see his budding friendships with Barry and Amy, more of his friendship with Luke, and even his long distance friendship with Summer. I wanted to give Ryan a break mentally and physically in this chapter because in the next chapter, ish hits the fan for poor Ryan. This is an angst/hurt & comfort fic, after all, so the next chapter will bring in the hard times. ;-)

To all who reviewed anonymously: Here are my thoughts on some of the Guest reviews. I am so touched by these comments. I really wish there was a Season 5 where Ryan is in college, and if there was, I really wish the writers would have finally delved deeply into Ryan's psyche to explore his issues with trauma and abandonment while he adjusts to college. I am thrilled that my readers seem to be enjoying the friendship I have set up between Luke and Ryan. The writers missed a major opportunity to explore that dynamic. Luke should have remained a regular on the show. I am also thrilled that my readers are enjoying the bond I have been exploring between Sandy and Ryan. The actual show should have had much more of this. I am grateful that you all feel I am doing Ryan justice and staying true to how you'd imagine his character being in college - working extremely hard, bonding with Sandy and his friends, trying to keep up appearances, trying to please everyone and spreading himself too thin . . . with all his trauma bubbling beneath the surface. The actual show should have also had more of the Ryan/Summer friendship, which I explore a little in this new chapter.

Baloo: Thanks so much for reviewing! You are so kind. It means a lot to me that you regard me as a good OC fic writer. I hope this new chapter doesn't disappoint! No need to worry...I've already written 9 chapters. Not all of them have been beta reviewed yet, but I'll try not to leave my readers hanging as long next time. I was out of town for a couple of weeks. Thanks again!

deviltown: Thank you so much for reading and reviewing! Yes, the show's writers glossed over so much with Ryan's character and left the poor guy without the proper help to deal with the trauma he experienced throughout his life. He will definitely be getting counseling in this story. First, though, he needs to (and the Cohens need to) recognize that he needs the counseling. Right now, it's the furthest thing from Ryan's mind. This fourth chapter sets things up (and is a bit fluffy) for what comes in the fifth chapter when things go wrong for poor Ryan (which will bring to the forefront how much he needs help). I'm excited to explore his PTSD, and I hope you will continue to enjoy this story! I've already written 9 chapters, but not all of them have been beta reviewed yet.

Tif S, thanks so much for reading and reviewing! I'm not sure if you'll see this comment, but in this chapter Sandy begins working through how to help Ryan. I hope you enjoy chapters 3 and 4. Given how amazing your writing and stories are, I'm so touched and thrilled that you are enjoying this one. I hope you'll update soon, too, on some of your stories that I love, especially the AU one where Ryan is an adult raising Daniel.

Chapter 4

Thursday, October 23, 2008

"You're up early," Kirsten said, moving towards her husband to gently caress his shoulders. It was a quarter to six in the morning, and Sandy was sitting in his reading chair in the master bedroom, scanning through numerous papers that were stacked on his bedside table. Kirsten lovingly took in the sight of him. A few gray strands were beginning to blend with his shaggy black mane. He was clad in his favorite blue flannel pajamas. "New case in the office?" she asked, sweetly.

"Not this time, honey," he said, looking up from the documents that had consumed him. He paused and met her eyes, seeing that he had her full attention. He took a moment to really look at her. She was as beautiful as the first day he saw her. Two tendrils of long blond hair framed her face, highlighting her classic features. The rest of her hair was tied back into a ponytail, hanging loosely over the back of her red nightgown. To Sandy, it appeared as if time had nearly stood still in the years of their marriage, the move to Newport and their return to Berkeley. The only signs of aging were small crows' feet along the corner of each eye, and slight lines around her mouth.

Sandy hadn't spoken to Kirsten much about his inquiries into Ryan's past over the past couple of weeks because she had been distracted by her sister Hailey's impromptu visit, but he decided that now would be a good time to discuss this important matter with her.

"I've been talking to an old friend of mine named Dale, who worked for the Berkeley District Attorney's Office for many years. He's a private investigator," he explained to his wife of twenty-four years. "I asked him to look into some information about Ryan's past, and his search yielded these documents," he said, motioning towards the stacks of papers in his hand and two manila envelopes that were sitting on his bedside table.

"Is this about what happened at Julie's a couple of weeks ago?" Kirsten inquired. There was a worried expression evident in her bright blue eyes.

He nodded his head slowly. "I should have done more investigating a long time ago. My gut always told me that there was a lot left out of Ryan's file with social services and—"

"There are things about Ryan's past that you want to know, but that he's never opened up to us about," Kirsten finished his sentence. "Oh, Sandy. He'll come to us when he's ready. There is a fine line between helping him and respecting his privacy."

"It's been over four years, Kirsten. . . almost five! If I wait for him to come to me about these things, I'll never be able to help him." Sandy ran a hand through his tousled hair in frustration, again meeting Kirsten's eyes. "Something is still holding Ryan back," he continued. "I just wish I knew what it was."

Kirsten sat down in her reading chair next to his, softly resting her hand on the top of his right thigh. "What's that?" she asked, dumbfounded, as she got a glimpse of a graphic image that slipped out of one of the thick manila folders on her husband's bedside table. Her expression changed to one of horror as she took in the sight of the small, bloodied leg with deep gashes and blotches of black, blue, and purple in the photograph. "Please tell me that's not—"

"It is honey. I wish it wasn't, but this is a photograph of an injury Ryan sustained at age seven during a violent altercation with Frank's brother, Butch." Sandy became emotionally overwrought, his voice quivering slightly as he continued. "Dale was able to track the records in Fresno. Butch's daughter was also seven at the time. Her name is Mimi."

"The name that Ryan whispered in the family room at the Coopers' a couple of weeks ago…" Kirsten gasped, holding a hand over her mouth.

"Yes. Butch pled guilty to felony child abuse and aggravated battery. This is the entire case file from the Fresno County District Attorney's office. According to the medical records included in the case file, Mimi almost died in this altercation. Butch beat her over the head with a crowbar and left her with permanent brain damage. Ryan was also beaten with the crowbar, suffering serious blunt force trauma to the right thigh. The crowbar cracked his femur. There were also contusions around his neck and chest. He was in the hospital for two weeks due to complications. The medical records included in the file indicate that he was diagnosed with something called compartment syndrome and that an emergency fasciotomy procedure was done. I looked up the medical terminology and Ryan could have lost his leg from this injury. He had to do months of physical therapy at a group home, but thankfully made a full recovery. Apparently, Ryan had been living with Butch for a few months shortly after Frank's arrest for armed robbery. Somehow these records got left out of Ryan's file with social services in Chino."

"Oh my God, Sandy…" Emotion welled up inside of Kirsten as she peered down at several other gruesome photographs of the incident. She shuddered, feeling sick to her stomach. "Where was Dawn during all this?"

"These records don't say. I was wondering the same thing," Sandy answered somberly, a single tear escaping his eye and slowly coursing down his cheek. He really loved Ryan and learning of this information filled him with righteous anger.

"Are you going to ask her why Ryan was staying with Frank's brother and not with her?" Kirsten asked, outrage etched into her features.

"Yes, I plan on calling Dawn today," Sandy answered.

"I—I'm—speechless. I knew Ryan's childhood was bad, but this—this is horrifying. I can't imagine what it's been like living with these memories," she said solemnly. "Are you going to talk to him about it?"

"Not yet. The look on his face that night sitting on Kaitlin's bed. . .the pained expression in his eyes. . . the fear. . .his childlike whimper. . .I haven't been able to get it out of my head. He's doing so much better this week. I need to wait until the right time."

"I wonder what triggered these memories. I still don't understand what happened that night. We were just watching Growing Pains. I wish I could figure out how a relaxed birthday party and an evening watching Nick at Nite led to all of this," Kirsten stated, a baffled expression on her face.

"I think he would benefit from therapy," Sandy stated. "Using a punching a bag or other physical activity as an outlet or a release is not enough. It's just not the same, and he hasn't been able to talk to me yet. We probably should have talked to him about seeing a professional a long time ago. He's been through too much trauma for one kid to take, unfortunately, plenty more just since we became his guardians. I also am determined to track down more complete information about his past abuse."

"Ryan is not a kid anymore, Sandy. He's almost twenty-one. He has his own life. We can't keep pressuring him to open up, or begging him to confide in us," she said with conviction. "It's his choice whether he wants to go to therapy, and I'm not sure how I feel about your persistent search for these records. He keeps it private for a reason."

"He may not even recall some of his experiences growing up, Kirsten! He may have forgotten some of what happened to him due to age, trauma, and other factors," Sandy countered. He narrowed his eyes, letting out an exasperated sigh. His voice grew to a crescendo as he asked, "Would you say the same thing if we were talking about Seth?"

The question caught Kirsten off guard. To Sandy, her silence in response to the question spoke louder than words.

"Didn't think so. So why should we treat Ryan any differently?" Sandy asked, straight to the point.

It was Kirsten's turn to become agitated. "You know we can't compare Ryan to Seth! When Ryan came to live with us, we took him in as a son, and I love him dearly, but we could never use the same parental tactics with Ryan that we do with Seth. Ryan had a life before he came to live with us, and he has his own family, too, and that complicates things."

Sandy's eyes widened incredulously.

"What family? Dawn, who abandoned him multiple times and just got out of rehab? She has proven herself unreliable over and over again, coming in and out of his life whenever she pleases! Frank is back in prison on a ten-year sentence—this time for a federal RICO Act violation. Trey almost killed him. Please, tell me. . .what family does Ryan have besides us?"

Sandy's voice had again risen several decibels higher than intended, so he lowered it, but the intensity remained. Holding his wife's gaze, he continued. "I was right about Frank. Ryan had warned us about Frank, Trey, and Dawn, but you kept pushing his biological kin on him no matter how many times they hurt him, and for the life of me, Kirsten, I can't understand why. How do you think that made him feel? Do you remember what Ryan told us his senior year of high school about the quandary of his identity?"

I may not be an Atwood anymore, but I'm not a Cohen either. I don't know what I am.

Kirsten's eyes flashed with an emotion Sandy recognized as guilt. He had noticed that same emotion in her eyes several times before during similar discussions.

"We may not be his legal guardians anymore, but even though we never officially adopted him, I consider him our son, and he deserves to be treated as such. His biological family gave up that bond a long time ago . . . if they ever had a real bond with him to begin with," Sandy resolutely stated.

"I do too," Kirsten replied defensively. "He is our son."

"It sure doesn't seem like it sometimes," Sandy shot back. Pent up frustration could be clearly heard in his voice. He knew his wife loved Ryan, but in his mind, she still hadn't fully accepted Ryan as her child in the way Seth and Sophie were her children, and he wasn't sure if she ever would, although he had hope.

"I don't know what you want me to say right now. I've done everything I can to make Ryan feel at home here." Kirsten's words were laced with hurt.

After seconds of silence, Sandy continued, speaking in a much softer tone. "I've asked Dale to investigate any existing records of abuse towards Ryan, whether by Frank, other relatives, Dawn's boyfriends, or in a group home. In the past, I have only been able to get records involving criminal cases. If you recall, Frank was charged with felony family violence battery on several different occasions. I revisited these criminal case files this morning. In 1993, Frank was arrested for breaking Ryan's nose. Dale has already gotten ahold of the transcript for a 911 call placed by Dawn in 1994 where Ryan had a gash above his left eyebrow and a black eye, purportedly caused by Frank. I would need to see Ryan's old medical records to piece together other incidents that he was never charged with. I plan on asking Ryan to sign an authorization form to release the rest of his past medical records to me. Unfortunately, since we are no longer his legal guardians, it is much more difficult for me to get access."

"I thought you told me you obtained some of his past records when he was injured in the car accident and the altercation with Trey," Kirsten responded.

Sandy lowered his head, closing his eyes and rubbing his temples. "I did, but they were destroyed during the earthquake. Along with important documents pertaining to the Newport Group…"

"And you never looked at them before that?" Her tone unintentionally came across as accusatory because of her own guilt. Every motherly instinct within her was brought to the surface upon hearing the additional information of Ryan's abuse. She thought about little Sophie, and young Seth in elementary school, and could never imagine allowing either of her biological children to be compromised. She recalled questions she raised with Sandy shortly before Ryan first came to live with them. What kind of mother just abandons her child? What kind of mother allows her child to be beaten? What kind of mother abuses her child?

Just thinking about the childhood Ryan had endured caused Kirsten to be furious at Dawn and somewhat regretful for pushing Ryan to maintain a relationship with her. Kirsten had always wanted to protect Ryan. However, something—which she didn't quite understand—did, in fact, hold her back from going all out the way her husband did. Perhaps it was because no matter how terrible Dawn had been to Ryan over the years, Dawn was still his mother and Kirsten wanted to respect that familial bond. It was Ryan's choice to have a relationship with Dawn, after all.

"I didn't, and not a day goes by that I don't regret that, but neither did you," Sandy pointed out heatedly. "We were too consumed in our lives and problems to put our kids first, especially Ryan. And when he was in need immediately following the car crash on graduation night, he thought we wouldn't want him to stay with us anymore. . .he even asked me months later if the pool house was filled with boxes," Sandy's voice broke at the memory.

"We? You practically left me and the boys alone that year to fend for ourselves!"

Again, Kirsten had become defensive. For Sandy, her words stung. He still hadn't forgiven himself for neglecting his responsibilities as a father and husband that year, having become too consumed by the hospital project and running the Newport Group.

"Yes, we," Sandy said frankly. "We are both the parents here, and we are both responsible for how he felt. Ask yourself if you ever took Ryan to an AA meeting. Or did you only take Seth, even though you knew Ryan would have wanted to go given his history as a kid trapped with alcoholics, substance abusers and addicts? Then ask yourself if you ever apologized for what you said to him at your intervention. Did you even consider his feelings when you spent much of your time back then with Julie Cooper—the very person who tried to pay Trey off to lie and say Ryan shot him so that Ryan could take the fall and go to prison?"

"What is that supposed to mean?" Kirsten retorted angrily, jaw muscles clenching.

"It means that had we truly treated Ryan as our own son, the way Seth is our son, he would never have thought we'd give up on him, and he probably wouldn't be so hesitant to open up to us now, about his past abuse."

It took everything within Kirsten to hold back her emotions. The truth was often devastating to hear, and it hit her like a ton of bricks. For once, she was rendered speechless.

It was closing in on nine in the morning, and Ryan and Luke had been lifting weights at the campus recreational center for the past couple of hours. The two roommates were finally on their last stretch. They had made their way into one of the small rooms on the top floor of the gymnasium used primarily to teach martial arts. Two punching bags were mounted to the wall adjacent to the door, about ten feet apart.

"Damn, Chino. Whose head are you picturing on that thing right now?" Luke asked. His sneakers squeaked on the hardwood floor as he pivoted away from the swinging heavy bag.

Sweat had soaked into Ryan's wife beater and dripped down his forehead and around his eyes. He grunted with each punch as he pushed himself harder and harder, relishing the feeling of hitting the bag so relentlessly that the skin on his knuckles tore, leaving the injured area raw and bloody. This type of physical pain made him feel alive and in control. He had been punching the bag regularly the past week and a half, channeling all his emotions into abusing the sparring equipment.

"Is it Oliver?" Luke chuckled. "I heard he's finally out of the looney bin…"

Ryan dropped his hands to his sides, looking up at his friend with an amused expression at the mention of his old nemesis.

"Because, if it is. . .just give me the word, and I'll drop the Great Gatsby," Luke added, dramatically mimicking his best punch into his left palm.

Ryan burst into a fit of laughter at the memory. It was the type of gut-wrenching belly laughter that often served to be therapeutic. "You did say that! We were standing by my locker after he walked away."

Luke's tall frame shook with mirth, doubling over. "God, I could have hurt that guy."

"We had the same New Year's resolution that year," Ryan recalled, trying to suppress more laughter.

"Punch people less," the two friends guffawed in unison.

"I needed this," Ryan grinned, eyes flashing with gratitude. Laughing had helped relieve some of the tension in his tight muscles, and some of the pent-up tension and emotion much further beneath the surface.

"No problem," Luke offered a knowing smile. "I needed a good laugh, too. But hey, you almost done destroying this sack of sand?"

"Yeah, just give me five minutes and we can wash up and grab breakfast."

"Good, 'cause I'm starving. Plus, you especially need the calories to stay focused. Me, not so much, though I plan on eating several plates of food anyway. Thankfully, all I have today is an hour and a half of Econ. You, on the other hand, have, what—five hours of class this afternoon?"

"Yeah, don't remind me," Ryan sighed, grabbing his towel to dry off. "I'll race you to the showers…"

"You got it, bub."

"X-Men reference? I guess letting Seth live with you for a summer in Portland rubbed off," Ryan smirked.

"Shut-up, Chino," Luke humorously punched his roommate in the arm. "It's Wolverine. Everybody likes Wolverine. He's a total badass!"

"I'll tell you what. . .I wish I had his healing factor," Ryan grimaced, stretching out his injured shoulder as the two friends dashed across the corridor of the recreational center, disappearing into the men's locker room.

A few hours later, Sandy dropped by Norton Hall before Ryan's afternoon classes. His dark hair was damp, and he was dressed down in colorful baggy shorts and a long sleeve t-shirt. He had a cylindrical cardboard storage tube tucked beneath his arm.

Ryan was surprised to see him so early in the day. Usually, Sandy had court at this time on Thursdays. However, the former hippy criminal defense lawyer explained that the judge canceled her morning and afternoon sessions due to a family emergency, which opened his schedule to squeeze in a morning surf at Muir Beach.

"How are you feeling?" Sandy asked, his paternal instincts on full display.

Sandy watched as Ryan let out a deep, controlled breath. "I feel okay. . .better," Ryan answered carefully, meeting Sandy's eyes. "Just taking each day as it comes and focusing on school."

"I'm glad to hear it, kid. You look better too," Sandy observed. Ryan seemed much more energetic than the previous week and the dark circles that had been lining his eyes were beginning to fade. "I see your knuckles took a beating though," he pointed out, taking in the scabs forming over the damaged skin.

"Yeah. But the punching bag is definitely helping. I needed the therapy. My sleep has improved," Ryan explained in his soft-spoken manner.

Sandy glanced at the brochure for the study abroad program that rested on top of one of Ryan's textbooks.

"Have you made an appointment yet to talk to your academic advisor about going to Dubai next summer?"

Ryan shrugged—almost as if trying to downplay his enthusiasm for the program. However, Sandy noticed how Ryan's eyes danced with delight, having been asked about a prospect that meant a lot to him.

"Not yet, but I plan to next week," Ryan replied with a content smile that betrayed his body language.

Sandy gently squeezed Ryan's shoulder and said, "Well, I brought you something for motivation." He then popped the cap from the cylindrical tube, revealing the glossy, 18x24 inch printout.

"My Muhammad Ali poster." Ryan uncurled the glossy image of one of his sports heroes with two callused fingers, as his deep blue eyes conveyed both surprise and appreciation. The left corner of his lips curved into a boyish half smile.

Sandy gestured towards the bare wall on Ryan's side of the dorm room, which contrasted sharply with his roommate's numerous posters of musicians, athletes, and swimsuit models. "I figured your side of the room could use a little sprucing up, and I remember how much this poster meant to you in high school. I'm sorry I didn't get the frame replaced after it cracked during the earthquake. I would have bought you another one now, but I remember Berkeley's strict policies about hanging things on dorm room walls."

"It's perfect," Ryan said, moved by the thoughtfulness of the only real father he had ever known. "Thank you, Sandy."

Sandy patted Ryan's shoulder, a nonchalant expression on his face. However, as he locked eyes with his surrogate son, a dolorous feeling overcame him. He studied the contours in Ryan's nose and wondered how much of its current shape was the result of injuries inflicted by his biological father or other abusers. He then scanned the scar above Ryan's left eyebrow and closed his eyes, imagining what ugly scars must remain on Ryan's left thigh, although he had never seen them. His stomach churned with anger and sadness. How many times had Frank, Butch, AJ, or any other abuser put their hands on this kid? How many times had Dawn let it happen? How much had Ryan's personality changed over the years because of it? Could Ryan ever move past the deeper emotional and psychological scars that manifested only in behavior, but were invisible and otherwise hidden? In that moment, Sandy wished he could confront every evil person who had ever harmed Ryan, physically, emotionally, or psychologically, as a child.

"Is everything okay?" Ryan asked, sensing that something was bothering the man in front of him. This kid is too sharp, Sandy thought to himself.

Sandy settled for telling a half-truth. "I just need you to sign a medical authorization form."

"What for?" Ryan questioned, raising a quizzical eyebrow.

"I was going through our files at home and saw that I had an entire medical file for Seth, but that yours is incomplete. The only medical records I have for you in the file are from when you were admitted to HOAG for the injuries you sustained at the model home, and during the altercation with your brother, the 2006 car accident, the incident where you fell off the ladder later that year, and the earthquake in 2007."

Sandy noticed how Ryan visibly grimaced when he mentioned Trey and the 2006 car accident. The quiet young man wrapped his arms around himself, almost instinctively, and averted his eyes.

"Sandy. . . I, uh, um, why do you need me to do this?" Ryan asked shakily. He was still perplexed by the abrupt request. He had been admitted to the hospital too many times over the span of his relatively short life, and Sandy would probably need multiple file cabinets to house all those records. More importantly, there were certain details of his childhood that he wanted to keep to himself.

"I should have gotten your past medical records a long time ago, because it's important for me to have certain information on file in the event that another health issue comes up."

"I'm allergic to amoxicillin and morphine. My blood type is O negative. Diabetes and hypertension run in my family. I have no pre-existing conditions. You already know these things. What else do you possibly need to know about my medical history?" Ryan asked, not bothering to hide the dubious expression on his face.

"Well, previous history of broken bones. . .past injuries," Sandy replied. Past history of abuse and neglect, he thought to himself.

"I broke my arm as a kid playing football. Broke two of my fingers in a fight at school. Have broken my ribs a few times in fights. I don't see what else you need," Ryan stated coolly, his uncertain expression lingering. He trusted Sandy more than anyone else, but sensed that Sandy was keeping something from him. Until his surrogate father was upfront about his intentions, Ryan would resist signing the form.

"Don't worry about it, kid," Sandy sighed, not wanting to press the issue any further. He was tempted to ask Ryan about Mimi, but did not want to risk it. Instead, he hugged Ryan goodbye and left for his office.

Hours later, Ryan sat in the far-left corner of the windowless classroom in Bauer Wurster Hall where his Environmental Design Workshop was held. Fluorescent tube lighting brightened the otherwise dull space. Numerous long desks were aligned side by side in front of a large dry erase board and projector. The teaching assistant, Jacob Greene, had just finished a lecture on sustainability, and Ryan and Amy were working together on a new assignment.

"So, what kind of structure should we design for this project?" Ryan asked, pulling out his sketchbook, a mechanical pencil, and some graphing paper. He rubbed mindlessly at the sports tape wrapped around his injured knuckles.

"Hmm, how about a large, glass tower that's energy efficient, or a skyscraper that incorporates wind turbines into its design?" Amy suggested, twirling her pencil around her left thumb.

"Both of those ideas sound cool…" Ryan said evenly. He fumbled with the zipper on his backpack, visibly distracted.

"Wow, I'm really sensing the enthusiasm…" Amy rolled her eyes in an exaggerated manner, nudging her lab partner in the elbow.

"What?" Ryan threw up his hands, feigning annoyance.

"I've known you long enough to know when you're not down with my idea. Now, what sort of structure do you think we should design?"

"I think we could. . .green up the ghetto."

"Good one, Einstein," Amy shot back.

"No, I'm serious. I was thinking of something smaller. . .urban. . .more accessible to the low-income community. Maybe with solar panels? I saw a Ted Talk on this the other day. I'll send you the video."

Amy narrowed her eyes, then sighed. "Okay, that actually sounds pretty cool."

Ryan smiled slyly, unable to mask a look of triumph.

"Fine! You win, Yoda Pants." She threw up her hands in mock surrender.

"Yoda Pants?" Ryan stifled a laugh. "That's a truly terrible nickname."

"Would you rather I call you Francis?" Amy's dark brown eyes sparkled with mischief.

"The dreaded middle name? You wouldn't…"

Ever since their calculus professor had called Ryan by his full name, she started occasionally calling him Francis. She could tell it annoyed him, but she liked his middle name.

"Or better yet, Sir Francis." she chortled, pleased with her cleverness.

Ryan cringed inwardly at hearing Amy repeat his middle name, but gave her his best mock glare, running a hand through his dark blond hair. It had grown a little over an inch since the semester started and a few loose strands fell over his forehead.

"Try me," the energetic Hong Kong native flashed her lab partner an impish grin, accidentally bumping her eraser off the table and onto the beige vinyl tile floor. Ryan reached to pick up the eraser and caught a glimpse of her footwear.

"Freudian slippers? You wore Freudian slippers to class?" He sniggered, deep blue eyes twinkling with amusement. The dimpled black-haired beauty certainly had a colorful personality. Her pink Yakuza t-shirt contrasted sharply with Ryan's plain, long-sleeved black one.

"What's wrong with Freudian slippers?" she pouted. "They're comfortable! Besides, I brought some shoes to change into for the hike back to my dorm."

"Nothing," Ryan chuckled softly. "Nothing is wrong with them. They remind me of an old girlfriend, actually." For a moment he thought about Lindsay, a warm sensation tickling his belly. It had been years since he'd seen her, but he missed her. He would always have a soft spot for the freckled redhead.

"You had girlfriends?" Amy gasped in mock surprise. "And here I thought you were asexual," she joked.

"Too many girlfriends…," his voice trailed off, tone becoming more serious. "I needed a break from the dating scene. Time to discover myself. I felt like I was on an emotional roller coaster my last two years of high school because of… well, girls." His cheeks flushed as he said it.

"Well, that's too bad…," Amy replied cheekily. Because I think you're kind of cute. . .really cute, in fact, and… somewhat mysterious, she thought to herself. Especially with the broody puppy dog eyes. She wanted to kick herself for developing a slight crush on her lab partner, but she vowed to keep it to herself. Instead, she opted for a more acceptable response.

"I guess I get that. I haven't dated for a while." Changing the subject, she said, "Can I ask you something?"

"Sure," Ryan replied.

"What did you do to your knuckles? Like… are you in martial arts? Because that would be so freakin' cool. I did Wushu for a couple of years as a kid and I want to try a Japanese martial art just so I can have a Katana sword..."

"I, uh. . .well, I wish I was that cool, but no... I just punch the bag sometimes at the gym. . .just trying to stay in shape," he answered, taking a deep breath. It wasn't entirely true, but he hoped it satisfied her curiosity.

"But why not wear gloves? If you wore gloves, you wouldn't do so much damage to those pretty hands of yours," Amy said pointedly.

Ryan quirked an eyebrow. "Pretty? You mean pretty rugged, right?" he asked in a husky voice.

"Shut up, you goof!" Amy grinned. "You know what I mean."

The truth in all seriousness was, he got a kick from the pain. It makes me feel more alive . . . less numb, he thought to himself.

Instead, he settled for a more guarded answer. "I don't know," he shrugged. "Maybe I'll try gloves next time."

After all his classes were over for the day, Ryan made his way across campus to Cal Student Central to pick up a package. He had ordered a book online and was anxious to start reading it. For Ryan, reading had always been another way to clear his head.

He paused for a moment to take in the beautiful scenery around him. A combination of oaks, Japanese maples, and evergreens lined an array of large buildings. Ryan enjoyed the magnificent architecture of the older brick structures and the sight of the changing autumn foliage, with various hues of red, yellow, orange, and purple blending together due to decreases in temperature. He took a deep breath and let the cool autumn air expand his lungs.

While walking through the quad, he shifted the weight of his backpack to his left side to ease the pain in his right shoulder. Punching the bag that morning had helped him to relieve mental and emotional stress, but seemed to further aggravate the permanent injury he sustained on high school graduation night.

"Just my luck," he grumbled to himself, massaging the injured shoulder with his free hand.

His cell phone began vibrating in the other hand, and he glanced down at the caller ID. He smiled as he saw who was calling.

"Summer," he greeted the spirited brunette. "Long time, no talk."

The two of them had grown closer during their last year in Newport, bonding over shared experiences, and loss, and providing each other with emotional support. They had more in common than anyone would have guessed, both being profoundly affected by the tragedy that occurred on graduation night, and both having even been abandoned by their mothers as teenagers. Summer had even been subjected to the substance abuse of the evil step monster. After moving away, Summer had made the effort to keep in touch. Ryan considered her a good friend.

"Hey, Atwood. Cohen is always so involved in his geek fest comic book activities with Zack these days that he never keeps me up to date on how you're doing, so I'm checking in. How are you?"

"I'm, uhm, you know…hanging in there," Ryan answered as he continued his walk through the quad.

"Is everything okay?" Summer's voice expressed concern.

"Yeah. Yeah. Just tons of schoolwork and not enough sleep." Summer was much easier to talk to than Seth, even though Seth was one of his best friends. However, there were still certain topics he didn't feel comfortable talking to her about, so this response would have to do. "How about you? How have you been?"

"Better than over 1 million species of animals that scientists predict are on track for extinction in the coming decades. We must do something to save them, Atwood. Nature needs us."

"You sound like Gaia from Captain Planet…"

"Hmm, Gaia was all powerful. . .the female spirit of earth, guarding peace and harmony. I'll take it. In fact, . . . I like it."

"So, you're back at Brown. How does that feel?" Ryan asked, tightening his grip on his water bottle idly as he swiftly made his way up the steps onto the large walkway leading to the student center.

"It feels good! I'm vibrating at a pretty high frequency these days. Working with GEORGE taught me so much, and I'm totally a better student now than I was before that experience. I also never thought I'd be into science, but so far, I'm loving my Environment Studies class even more than my other classes. It turns out I'm way better at understanding equations and memorizing theorems than anyone gave me credit for."

"So, does this mean you're going to switch your major to Environ-?"

"Oh, no, no, no, no, noooo. Don't get it twisted, Atwood. I may like the introductory level environmental studies course, but there is no way I'm taking chemistry or physics . . . I mean, . . . titration lab and barometers? Ew. I'll stick to public policy."

"Fair enough," he replied. "I actually just got out of environmental design workshop, which is right up your alley. My lab partner, Amy, is spunky and cool . . . kind of like you. She definitely keeps things interesting in class."

"Oh my god, you have a female lab partner? You did not tell me that! Do you like like her? I mean, it totally wouldn't be the first time you hooked up with your lab partner…"

Ryan shook his head and rolled his eyes comically, for a moment forgetting that the peppy brunette couldn't see him. "Can't I just enjoy the company of a beautiful girl without wanting something more?"

"Hey, you're the one who just admitted that she's beautiful. I didn't even ask you that." Ryan could envision Summer's smug grin on the other line.

"You know I'm trying not to date anyone this year. I'm focused on self-improvement," he reminded the shoe loving tree hugger.

"So, you're really staying single this year, huh?"

"Yep," he answered emphatically.

"Well, it's definitely not something I'm used to, but I respect it. It seems that ever since I've known you, you've been in a relationship," she said, sparing them both painful memories by avoiding all mention of her deceased best friend. Instead, she added, "And I know it was hard for you after the way things ended with T-squared. . ."

"Well, being single is what I need. They say you go to college to find yourself, right?" The question was somewhat rhetorical, his voice earnest.

"Right," Summer agreed, answering anyway.

"Well, I realized I've gotta find myself alone."

For several seconds, there was silence on the other line. Ryan scratched his head and sighed. Why was everyone so obsessed with his love life?

"Okay," Summer finally responded. "But for the record, Atwood . . . Taylor is like a sister to me, and I love her to death, but she really could have been more sensitive to your feelings when she rushed into a serious relationship with Pepé Le Pew, in France, after the. . .breakup."

Ryan responded with a simple "thanks", his voice quiet.

"How's Pancakes?" he changed the subject, swinging open the door as he entered the student center. He noticed a few other students approaching and decided to wait, holding the door open for them.

"Pancakes is good! Healthy and happy. And how is Flapjacks? Hopefully you still haven't used his cage for, well, . . . cage fights. . ."

"I got him a little punching bag to match mine," Ryan deadpanned.

"I see your drab humor is still intact. Don't tell Cohen I admitted you're funny."

"Your secret's safe with me."

"Good. Because if you do, I'll fly 3,000 miles to Berkeley and rip out your larynx."

"I barely talk so not sure that would make much difference," he countered. He could practically feel Summer rolling her eyes from the other end of the phoneline.

"So, Flapjacks?" she nudged the conversation forward.

"He's doing great," Ryan said, seriously. He beamed with pride talking about his pet bunny. "Over the summer I took him on a few adventures with me and he snuggles up to me when I read. I told you, I promise to raise him right."

"Aw, that is so cute! I can just picture you snuggling up with the furry little guy. So, you can still keep him in the dorm with you? I remember you saying something about Norton Hall changing its pet policy this year."

"Erhm, well, no. Norton Hall doesn't allow pets in the dorms anymore, so Kaitlin has kind of been rabbit sitting for me this semester. I visit Flapjacks a few times a month to make sure she's taking good care of him."

"Huh. Mini Coop. I wonder what she's up to these days."

"I just saw her a couple of weeks ago. She's getting ready to take her SATs." Ryan walked towards the mailboxes and glanced down at his watch. It was half past five and Barry was meeting him in the community kitchen in a couple of hours to plan a Halloween RA event for the freshmen.

"Hey, while I've got you on the phone, can I borrow your expertise?" he spontaneously asked his environmentalist friend.

"Fire away, Atwood. Fire away. I'm all ears."

"Thanks. So, I've gotta plan this thing for the freshmen in my dorm. . . a Halloween event. . . and I really don't know what to do. I think I want to try something environmentally friendly."

"I'd be happy to help," Summer said enthusiastically. "How many residents?"

"About sixty," he answered, searching the back pocket of his jeans for his keys. When he found the mailbox key, he fumbled it into the lock and opened the receptacle, revealing the package he'd been waiting for. He tucked the package under his arm as he listened to Summer candidly suggest an idea for his freshmen residents.

"How about Jack-o-lanterns?" she offered.

"Hmm. Jack-o-lanterns?" he questioned.

"I know it sounds lame at first, but the simplest activities are usually the most environmentally friendly. You can buy sixty small pumpkins of varying colors. . .make sure they are fresh pumpkins. Get markers, candles, and tools to carve with. The residents can decorate the jack-o-lanterns however they like. Then, after Halloween, everyone can put their pumpkins in a large bin, and it will decompose into compost. You can donate the compost to a community garden. Keep the seeds, though, and you can roast them with a little garlic, salt, and pepper."

"How have I survived living thousands of miles away from you?" he asked, thoroughly pleased with her suggestion.

"I ask myself the same question."

Later that evening, Barry met Ryan in the community kitchen on the fifth floor of their dormitory. He sat next to Luke at the round table near the center of the modest space, where the two of them were watching college football on ESPN from a small, mounted television. Ryan, meanwhile, stood over the countertop chopping carrots. A pot of rice was slow cooking on the stove.

"Who's playing?" Ryan asked casually.

Luke answered, still fixated on the game. "Auburn and West Virginia."

"Cool," Ryan responded, more focused on cooking his dinner than the television.

"Do any of you want some of this when it's done?" Ryan offered, looking over his shoulder briefly in the direction of his friends. "I have enough to feed both of you."

"That depends. What are you making?" Barry asked, interested.

"Baked chicken drumsticks, Spanish rice, and roasted carrots," Ryan replied, sprinkling lemon juice over the raw chicken. An assortment of spices, from rosemary to cumin, rested on the countertop next to a box of chicken bouillon, a container of olive oil, a small bottle of minced garlic, and an empty can of tomato sauce.

"Sure, I'll have a little," Barry responded.

"Same," Luke nodded.

"Where'd you learn to make Spanish rice anyway?" Barry was curious.

"Chino," Ryan answered matter-of-factly.

"Well, that was descriptive." Barry said, a sarcastic smile on his face.

Luke snorted with laughter. "Yeah, Chino is a man of many words."

Ryan tilted his head, smirking. "Fine," he said, shaking his head in mock defeat. "Theresa's mom, Eva, taught me how to make Spanish rice."

Barry pried for more information. "Who's Theresa? An old girlfriend?"

"Yeah, sorry," Ryan smiled sheepishly. "Theresa Diaz. We dated off and on when I lived in Chino. She lived next door."

Luke shifted in his chair, stretching out his legs. His bright blue eyes met Ryan's dark blue ones. And you gave up your whole life for her one summer when she got pregnant with a baby that wasn't even yours, Luke silently communicated through his expression. Ryan averted his gaze. Luke shrugged.

"Got it," Barry nodded, acknowledging understanding. "She Mexican or something?"

"Uhm, her mom is Mexican. Dad was from Spain, I think," Ryan responded.

"She's hot," Luke chimed in, walking towards the counter where Ryan was prepping the food. "Nice rack, great hips."

Ryan looked up through long eyelashes, again shaking his head. A crooked smile formed on his lips.

"What?" Luke shrugged. "She is!"

Barry laughed. "I believe it. I can tell Ryan's got some soul in him."

Almost on cue, Ludacris's recent hit, What Them Girls Like, could be heard distantly playing from a student's dorm room down the hall.

"Hold up. That's my jam right there." Barry stood up, swaying his body to the music. Ryan and Luke exchanged looks and smiled.

"I know what them girls, I know I know what them girls, I know I know what them girls
I know I know what them girls like," Barry sang in rhythmic fashion.

While the food cooked, a few other students entered and exited the community kitchen, but none stayed for longer than a few minutes. Ryan, Luke, and Barry enjoyed the relaxing atmosphere as various hip-hop songs reverberated from the unidentified speaker in the background. While Luke resumed watching the game, Barry and Ryan discussed a plan on how to execute the environmentally friendly Halloween activity that Summer had suggested for the freshman residents.

"I'm all in," Barry said. "It'll be fun making jack-o'-lanterns, and using them to make compost is a great way to create environmental awareness among the residents."

"Cool," Ryan said. "Are you cool making a poster to promote the event? I can buy the pumpkins and art supplies."

"Yeah. Sounds good. Then we can get-together and figure out what space in the hall to use for hosting the event," Barry replied. He paused and then asked in a teasing voice, "By the way, who's Summer? Another ex?"

Ryan blushed slightly. "No, not at all. She's a good friend. Actually, she's in a serious relationship with my friend, Seth."

"Seth is Sandy's son, right? Your… pseudo-brother?"

"Right. Exactly."

Throughout the conversation, Barry would sometimes get up and dance. When Hey Ya! by Outkast began playing, Luke caught a glimpse of Ryan absentmindedly bobbing his head while taking the finished pans of food out of the oven.

"I think Ryan likes this song," Luke chuckled. By now, Barry was full-out dancing, moving skillfully to the beat.

Ryan shot Luke a look that said, "Shut up before he tries to make me dance."

Soon after, they fixed plates and dug into their dinners.

"Okay, okay.I see you, I see you. Look at Gordon Ramsay over here," Barry said between mouthfuls.

"Definitely. This is good, man," Luke agreed.

"Thanks," Ryan said, smiling bashfully.

"I'll cook for you guys, sometime. I make a mean Ackee and Saltfish. It's the national dish of Jamaica," Barry said.

"That sounds really cool, man," Ryan replied. "I remember watching an international cooking show at four in the morning a couple of years ago and someone was making that. I guess the ackee fruit is poisonous if you don't cook it enough."

Barry and Luke exchanged glances before each raising an eyebrow at their friend curiously. In turn, Ryan's eyes conveyed the look of "please don't ask me why I was watching random channels at four am", so neither friend probed further. Barry, however, was impressed that Ryan knew the ackee fruit was poisonous when eaten raw.

Redirecting the conversation back to Barry's offer, Luke nodded, devouring a chicken leg. "Yeah, anytime food's involved, count me in."

After dinner, Luke, Barry, and Ryan spent a few minutes talking in room 517. Luke and Barry quickly noticed the new addition to Ryan's wall.

"Sweet poster, dude. Muhammad Ali was the GOAT," Luke commented. "Plus, it's nice to finally see something up on your side."

Ryan flashed Luke a look that said thanks.

"Bro, I love Muhammad Ali and everything he represents. His story is so inspiring. That's my hero right there," Barry said with passion.

"Yeah, he's one of mine, too. He motivates me," Ryan responded, glancing at his glossy printout of the boxing champion.

"What does he represent to you? What's his story?" Luke asked Barry with genuine interest. He had seen highlights of Muhammad Ali's boxing prowess on television, and always thought he was cool, but did not know too much about him.

"Freedom. He was a freedom fighter," Barry emphasized. "Especially for people who look like me. Muhammad Ali fought relentlessly against racism and stood for his values and what he believed in regardless of what it cost him. He defended his faith and stood up to a system that was against him from the outstart. As a conscientious objector, he lost everything. They stripped him of his title and convicted him of draft evasion, but he prevailed. When he carried the Olympic torch and lit the cauldron at the 1996 Olympic games, I cried. I was nine years old. He was a model for our times."

"Wow, I didn't know all that. I need to read up on him," Luke responded. Ryan also made a mental note to read more on Muhammad Ali's activism.

"Where'd you get the poster?" Barry asked, meeting Ryan's eyes.

"Sandy brought it by earlier. This poster actually used to hang on my wall in the pool house back in Newport."

"It's dope. Remind me to show you guys some rare footage I have of Muhammad Ali sometime," Barry said with enthusiasm.

"I'd really like that," Ryan gave a small half smile.

"Well, I'ma head back to my room. Orgo test next week. Gotta crack Sn1 and Sn2 reactions. See you guys tomorrow."

"Night, man," Ryan said as Luke bumped fists with their hallmate just before he left.

When they were by themselves, Luke washed his face and put on some cologne.

"Where are you headed?" Ryan asked, dramatically sniffing at the air for comedic effect with a roguish grin on his face. "Don't spray the whole bottle," he teased.

"Going to a frat party. I know it's futile asking but, wanna come with?"

"Not tonight. Thanks though. I think I'm just gonna kick it here and read," Ryan replied. "But call me if you drink too much and I'll pick you up."

Luke held Ryan's gaze, expressing his gratitude. Ryan made this offer every time Luke told him he was going out, and every time Luke was too inebriated to drive, he took Ryan up on his offer. Ever since that chilling night back in Newport nearly four years before, when Luke wrapped his truck around a telephone pole, Ryan vowed to never let his friend hurt himself like that again.

"You need a haircut, by the way," Luke playfully smacked his friend on his bad shoulder, unintentionally forgetting about the injury. Ryan grimaced in pain, rotating the shoulder to loosen it up. Luke apologized before heading out.

Ryan looked at his reflection in the mirror. He did need a haircut, but he was too tired to care. He took a deep breath, grateful for some alone time. He brushed his teeth and changed into a clean t-shirt and sweatpants. He then grabbed the package that had arrived earlier, opening it, and pulling out its contents. The Divine Comedy. He grinned, thumbing the leather binding. He was ahead on his homework for once so had some rare time to relax. He had been wanting to read Dante Alighieri's lengthy poem for a while now. Clipping a small reading light to the edge of his bedrail, he propped up a pillow and flipped off the wall switch so that only the reading light illuminated the room. Finally, he slipped into bed and curled up underneath the covers, his new book in hand. He turned to The Inferno and read until he fell asleep.

Sandy ran a hand through his shaggy black hair and sighed in frustration. He hadn't had the best day. It was nearly midnight, and he couldn't sleep. Kirsten had been avoiding him since their heated conversation that morning, and she still hadn't come to bed. Ryan had been unwilling to sign the medical authorization form, and Dawn wouldn't answer the phone.

He needed to decompress but couldn't seem to unwind. He had just turned on the television, leaving it on a bad Nicholas Cage movie to serve as background noise, when he noticed Dale calling him. He answered, hoping to get some direction on how to obtain Ryan's past records without his signature.

"Sandy, I have some big news," Dale opened the conversation.

"What is it?" the eager father and attorney asked.

"I was able to trace Mimi in the system and ran a search on her whereabouts."

"And?" Sandy probed.

"She's dead. Passed away last year."

Sandy let out an anxious breath he hadn't realized he was holding. This was not the news he was expecting.

A/N: The OC never had a Halloween episode. Well, Chapter 5 of this story is a Halloween chapter and a lot happens. It's sort of the turning point. Please Read & Review! I promise to post Chapter 5 in less time than I posted Chapter 4. I was out of town for a while. Life happens.