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 am sooo sorry that I took so long to post this chapter. This chapter has been finished for months, but my life has been so hectic and overwhelming this year and I lost track of this. It just so happens that this is a HALLOWEEN chapter, however, so I guess it works out that I'm posting it three days before Halloween. I always wished there was a Halloween episode on The OC. I do apologize for the cliff hanger. *evil laugh* Poor Ryan is about to go through the ringer. I have chapters 6-9 written already. Chapter 6 still needs to be reviewed by my beta, but I hope to get Chapter 6 posted next week. Don't fret. This is still a PTSD fic. As the story goes on, you will see how this new trauma connects with his undiagnosed mental illness. Thanks so much for your patience and for sticking with me! It truly means a lot!

Chapter 5

Friday, October 31, 2008

Ryan awoke to his vibrating cellphone. He had fallen asleep with it next to him in bed, which he regretted as his eyes squinted at the wall clock in the dimly lit room. It was a quarter to five in the morning. The words of Dante Aliguieri had accompanied him once again during the minutes leading up to slumber, and his reading lamp was still on. He scanned the room but did not see Luke. Must still be out at that costume party, he thought. When his phone vibrated again, Ryan finally answered it.

"Riise aaand shine, buddy!" Seth greeted Ryan from the East Coast, imitating his best monster voice.

"Your calls keep getting earlier and earlier, Seth . . . I'm not on Eastern Standard Time…"

"Hey, man, don't act like you were sleeping. You're always up," Seth retorted. "Anyway, Happy Halloween, or . . . better yet, Happy Day Before All Saints Day, or even better, Happy Samhain Day, as they call it in the Gaelic tradition, or – as I like to call it: the start of Youmacon 2008, my favorite anime convention. My flight for Dearborn, MI leaves in three hours…"

"Is Summer going with—" Ryan attempted to get a word in, but Seth continued his excited chatter.

"Besides I don't have any other time in my day to call and you said it best: we've gotta get more Seth-Ryan time in the books. Plus, I have some big news…," said the hyper RISD student.

Ryan sighed grumpily. You could make time at a reasonable hour if you really wanted to, he grumbled to himself."Actually, I was sleeping, but thanks."

"Sleep is overrated anyway, but Ryan . . . did you hear me? I said I have some big news!"

"I'm listening," the tired architecture student replied, yawning, and stretching out his arms. Seth always had big news.

"I'm going to be Son Goku for Halloween."

Still in bed, Ryan closed his eyes and massaged the bridge of his nose. "You woke me up this early to tell me that?" he asked grouchily.

"No, but . . . I figured I'd tell you since you're already up."

"So, what's the big news? Does it have anything to do with Youmacon or your graphic novel?"

"Ding ding ding ding. A major production company wants me and Zack to be the voice actors for our characters in an upcoming animated Atomic County movie. We start recording in two weeks."

Ryan smiled despite his exhaustion, suddenly less annoyed that he was talking to his surrogate brother so early in the morning. This news was certainly big because Seth was realizing some of his childhood dreams and finally not letting relationship drama get in the way. "That's great!" Ryan exclaimed. "Is that enough time to practice your lines?"

"It's called improvisation. In the words of the legendary actor, Robert Downey Jr. in the recent film, Tropic Thunder, I don't read the script, Ryan. The script reads me," the burgeoning graphic novelist replied.

"Improv. Right. But seriously, I'm really happy for you and Zack. Just. . .don't mess it up." Ryan sighed, wondering if Seth could visualize his facial expression. "Now tell me, who did they get to play Kid Chino's voice?"

"They found this guy… this actor from Austin, Texas. He doesn't have many credits under his belt, but the budget on this project is pretty tight, and I heard he's decent…"

"I'm sure he's no me, but hopefully he'll do a solid job," Ryan smirked.

"Speaking of Kid Chino, I'm convinced he really is retired. His fists of fury have been replaced by . . . nerd gear . . . like adjustable set squares, protractors, and a graphing calculator. It's a sad day in Atomic County," Seth quipped.

"I still punch the bag," Ryan replied nonchalantly.

"That doesn't count. I guess from now on, citizens will have to rely on The Ironist, Little Miss Vixen, and All-American Boy to save the day."

"I'm sure Luke will be thrilled his character is getting more screen time . . . or you can just change my superpower to something cerebral," Ryan said drably.

"No can do, Ryan. You're the brawn, I'm the brains, remember? Can't have two brains."

Luke suddenly entered the dormitory clad in a John Wayne costume. He tossed his cowboy hat on his desk, grabbed the trash can on his side of the room, and collapsed onto his bed with a thud.

"What was that?" Seth asked from the other line.

"It's All-American Boy. He just got back from a Halloween party." An uneasy feeling churned in Ryan's stomach as he examined his roommate's disheveled appearance. The belt on Luke's costume had come undone, hanging loosely over his ruffled khaki pants, and his face looked miserable. "Hey, Seth?" Ryan continued. "I hate to do this to you, but. . .I've gotta go make sure he's alright. But I'll call you later, okay?" Seth sulked momentarily but agreed to end the call.

Ryan turned his attention to the tall blond who was retching into the trash can. "You okay, man?"

"Fine," Luke mumbled, wiping his mouth off with a paper towel. "I feel like complete crap, but otherwise fine. Sorry that I'm in no condition to run with you this morning…"

"It's okay. Is there anything I can do?" Ryan met his roommate's gaze with concern.

"Not right now. I think I'm just gonna crash," Luke replied groggily.

It occurred to Ryan that his roommate never called requesting to be picked up. "How'd you…?"

Luke quickly interjected, knowing what his friend was trying to ask. "One of the guys I practice guitar with drove me back. He didn't drink. I figured I'd give you a break as my designated driver."

Ryan sighed in relief, putting on his workout clothes in preparation for his morning run. By the time he glanced back up at Luke, the twenty-two-year-old was fast asleep.

The past week had been a stressful one for Sandy Cohen. Since their last argument about Ryan, it seemed as though a wall had come between him and Kirsten. He had spent most of the week at his modestly sized office, working late hours to avoid the awkward tension at home. In the evenings, he had merely gone through the motions—engaging in small talk with his wife, changing Sophie's diapers, as much gardening as he could do so late in the evening, and little tasks around the house. Meanwhile, Kirsten spent most of her time that week at home with Sophie or decorating the house for Halloween. Their neighborhood had no shortage of children, so it was a given that countless trick-or-treaters would come knocking on their door.

Sandy's legal assistant, Tina Blackwell, pulled him out of his reflection on the week's events. "Attorney Cohen, the mother of a potential client is on the line. She wants to speak with you about representing her son. He's charged with several counts of Grand Theft Auto in more than one county," the sophisticated young woman stated, placing a stack of unrelated files that her boss had requested on his large wooden desk.

Sandy had been very impressed with Tina from the moment he hired her the year he, Kirsten, and Ryan had relocated to Berkeley. She was a bright, hardworking, and attractive graduate of Spelman College with a slender build and mahogany skin tone. She had grown up on the west coast, and had moved back to Oakland, California, from Atlanta, Georgia, upon graduation. Her goal was ultimately to become a civil rights attorney. She had been eager to work with a firm to gain experience in the legal field and save up money for law school. To Sandy, the decision to give her the opportunity had been a no-brainer.

"Does he have any priors? Is he currently in custody? Is he out on bond or on probation for another case? Which counties were involved? Is the case indicted? Has he had an arraignment?" Sandy asked the usual questions, looking up from his coffee and onion bagel with a smile. Tina smiled back at her boss warmly. She was elegantly dressed in a burgundy turtleneck, black blazer, and a brown pencil skirt with black pumps. She already looks like a lawyer, Sandy thought to himself.

The young paralegal answered, "He has a probation warrant in San Francisco County. I called the San Francisco County Superior Court Clerk's office and they said he's on first offender probation. He was granted bond in Alameda County on the new charges but he's in no bond status in Santa Clara and San Mateo. The new cases are still unindicted and have not been assigned to a particular judge or DA."

"How old is he?" Sandy asked. "Do you have his DOB? His address?"

"Twenty. Yes, I took that information down," she replied.

It wasn't lost on Sandy that this young man was the same age as Ryan. For a moment, he contemplated what would have happened to Ryan had he never taken him in. Would he have ended up like this kid, at risk of becoming a convicted felon?

Sandy was momentarily distracted by his cellphone vibrating in his pants pocket. He pulled it out and saw that Dale was calling. He looked back at Tina and asked, "Could you please tell her I'll call her back for a consultation in a few minutes?"

"Certainly, Attorney Cohen. I'll let her know."

As Tina walked back to her cubical, Sandy stepped outside to answer the phone call. His family took priority over his work. Kirsten had already guilted him about his absence from their lives the year he took over the Newport Group. He would never let that happen again.

"Hey, Dale. Any update?"

"Yeah, I know you're at work and possibly with clients, but I have some news," the private investigator stated.

"And?" Sandy could feel the hairs standing on the back of his neck as he waited for Dale's response.

"I located Butch. He's out of prison. Got out in the earlier part of 2003. He's alive and well. . . in the pink of health. When he first got out, he was staying in Chino."

"Chino," Sandy repeated. He took a deep breath to control his racing heartbeat. "So, you mean to tell me Butch was staying in Ryan's hometown?"

"That is correct," Dale replied, his tone serious.

"Early 2003 would have been right before Ryan came to live with us. Do you know if Butch had any contact with Ryan that year?" he asked with concern.

"Unfortunately, not yet . . . but I've already started searching for the answer to that. I'll keep you posted as I get new updates."

"So, where is Butch staying now?" Sandy inquired.

"Las Vegas. He moved there in 2004."

Sandy furrowed his thick black bushy eyebrows. "I believe Trey Atwood is still living in Las Vegas. Do you know if Butch has had any communication with Trey or Frank?"

"No, but I'll look into it," Dale responded.

"Alright, thank you, Dale. That's all I can ask. We'll be in touch."

After his morning run, Ryan showered and changed into an olive long-sleeve thermal crewneck shirt and a pair of washed-out Levi's. He had already planned to meet his study partners, Amy and Shruthi, to go over a physics practice exam but decided to leave early since Luke was still asleep. Since it was drizzling outside, he grabbed his umbrella. Michael Jackson's Thriller could be heard playing from someone's room down the hall.

"Ryan, what's good with you, man?" Barry greeted him as he stepped outside. The Jamaican American from Michigan was wearing a gray raincoat and a black fedora hat.

Ryan flashed his hallmate a half smile. "Hey, Barry. Just meeting up with my study group. What about you?"

"Walkin' to class. I've got a Cell Bio quiz. Where y'all meetin'?"

"The Berkeley Student Learning Center," Ryan answered.

"The Life Sciences Building is on the way. Wanna walk with me?"

"Sure," Ryan replied, falling into step with his much taller friend.

"I can't believe this weather. It feels like it's been pouring for days," Barry stated, adjusting his hat as the rain began to fall heavier.

"Tell me about it."

"So, it looks like our resident activity with the jack-o-lanterns was a success. Now all we've gotta do is make the compost," Barry said with a broad grin.

"Definitely. It worked out great," Ryan agreed.

"Thank your friend for me. Summer?"

"Oh, trust me, I will," Ryan chuckled.

When the pair made it past the quad to the walkway leading to the campus library, each bought a cup of warm apple cider from a student group that was raising money for the Berkeley Food and Housing Project. Afterwards, Barry took a side path up the stairs to the life sciences building while Ryan finished his walk in the direction of his destination, sipping on his apple cider along the way.

The Berkeley Student Learning Center was a grandiose building with beautiful white pillars. Inside, the spacious rooms had high ceilings, large windows, and a contemporary design. There were numerous tables situated throughout the first floor where various students received tutoring, studied for exams, and worked on homework assignments. Fake spider webs and orange and black tissue garland decorated the windows in the spirit of Halloween, and the aromas of freshly baked cinnamon buns and pumpkin muffins saturated the air of the foyer from the student bakery on the main floor.

Ryan sat perched on one of the couches in the open space, facing the glass windows. Secretly, he enjoyed the festive atmosphere on campus. Although he was reluctant to admit it, he had softened since his days in Chino. Holidays no longer made everything bad seem worse—at least not today. Instead, he again thought about how grateful he was to be in college and not dead or in prison like most of the friends and family he grew up with.

Shruthi was the first to appear, interrupting his musings.

"Sorry I'm late," she said. "My yoga class ran later than expected."

Ryan glanced at his watch. It was a quarter to nine and their physics class was not until ten. "You're just in time," he said. "So, you're taking a yoga class?"

"I'm actually the instructor," the mechanical engineering major explained proudly. Her long-sleeve fuchsia blouse complimented her light brown complexion. As usual, her long black hair was tied back in a ponytail. "You should take one of my yoga classes sometime. It will improve your flexibility and help you relax."

Ryan quirked an eyebrow. "Are you implying that I'm uptight?"

"Not uptight, no. Just. . .tense," she smiled warmly.

"Fair enough," Ryan admitted. "I like your bracelet by the way," he commented.

Shruthi beamed at the compliment, her eyes dancing with delight through long lashes. "Oh, these are my prayer beads, actually—not a bracelet. In my religion, we use them to count the repetitions of prayers and mantras. My grandmother gave me these prayer beads, so they are very special to me."

Ryan was about to ask her how often she prays, and where, when Amy approached wearing a blond wig, a long, flowing pink dress, a turquoise necklace and earrings, and a crown. She was holding an umbrella in one hand and a fake toad in the other. Suddenly, Ryan and Shruthi lost their trains of thought, each stifling laughter.

"What?" Amy asked, chuckling as she bit down softly on her lower lip.

"You're Princess Peach from Super Mario?" Ryan offered an amused expression.

"Is there a problem with that?" she answered, unable to hide her smile.

"No, not at all. It's a great costume," he answered playfully.

"Where's your costume, Atwood? I know Shruthi doesn't dress up for Halloween for religious reasons, but what's your excuse?" Amy smirked.

"Yeah, uh, nah. . .not for me," he snorted.

"Did you hear that Ryan got the highest grade on our Calc 3 exam?" Shruthi changed the subject.

"Shut. Up. Really?!" Amy asked animatedly. "Atwood, you got the 98? The class average was like. . .50."

Ryan's cheeks turned a deep shade of pink. "Um. I've never confirmed that. . ."

"You didn't deny it either, dufus. The verdict is out, right Shruthi?" Amy snapped back with a kittenish grin.

"She's right, Ryan. You're a genius."

The diffident young man shook his head, a soft bashful smile forming on his lips. "Genius? You two are too much," he said.

"Anyhoo, we should probably go over the practice exam since we only have forty-five minutes 'til we're stuck in class listening to Ned Flanders talk about rotational kinetic energy," Amy refocused their study session.

Ryan laughed, although Shruthi didn't get the Simpsons reference. "He does kind of sound like Ned Flanders," he said, pulling out his answers to the practice exam. "So, what did you guys get for number four? I'm skipping the first three since our TA already went over those."

"33 radians," Amy answered.

"Ms. Fundamental," Ryan's eyes met Shruthi's. "You're up."

"5.25 revolutions," the pious yoga instructor responded.

"That's what I got, too," Ryan nodded. "Amy, you're close, but you have to convert your answer from radians to revolutions."

"Duh! God, I'm so dumb," she laughed at herself. "Apparently I didn't read the question."

The boy from Chino was yet again unable to contain his radiant smile. He adored his study partners, and he wouldn't change them for the world.

Sandy stopped by UC Berkeley School of Law during his lunch break to check on open faculty positions. As he stood in the vestibule near the doorway, he noticed an old friend.

"Why hello there, Sanford," said a medium built gentleman in his fifties. He was dressed sharply in a navy-blue suit, a white dress shirt, cuff links, and a lavender bowtie, and brandy colored leather dress shoes. He even had a lavender pocket square to match.

"Ralph Abrams. I see you still dress to impress!"

"Some things will never change," Ralph replied casually. His light blond hair was now almost completely gray, but other than that, his appearance hadn't changed much since he and Sandy had graduated together almost two decades ago. Ralph had moved on to become one of the state's best personal injury attorneys and trial lawyers.

"So, what brings you back here?" Sandy asked with interest.

"I teach here now. I'm a visiting professor this year teaching introductory tort law and products liability. What brings you back?"

"Same thing as you. I wanted to check if there is still an open position with faculty. I heard Professor Reagan is retiring at the end of the semester."

"I believe the school has already hired a criminal law professor to replace him, but they are still looking for a new criminal procedure professor. Dean Sanders is still here if you want to check with her. We just had a faculty meeting."

"Thanks, Ralph. I only have a few minutes to talk with Dean Sanders so I've got to be quick, but we should catch up sometime . . . maybe grab a beer or play golf."

"I could use some work on my short backswing." Ralph pulled out a business card and scribbled his cellphone number on the back. "Call me."

After lunch, Ryan stopped by the dormitory to grab his laptop and portfolio for architecture studio. When he arrived, he noticed his roommate still sprawled on top of the bed covers, wincing at the brightness of the early afternoon light which emanated through the windows.

"Still in bed, huh?" Ryan asked, shaking his head.

"Dude, I'm so hung over. I wish I never went to that Halloween party last night. I hadn't been that smashed in a while." Luke rolled over and attempted to sit up on his bed.

"I know," Ryan smiled ruefully. He grabbed a bottle of ibuprofen out of his cabinet. "Here, take this," he said, tossing the pain medicine his friend's way. "And drink this," he added, handing Luke an unopened bottle of red Powerade that was sitting on top of his desk.

"Thanks, Chino," Luke said. "I don't think I'll drink beer again anytime soon."

"I'll believe that when I see it," Ryan chuckled softly. "I'll be right back," he responded, taking out a few condiments from his cabinet and a couple of items from their shared refrigerator before exiting the room.

Meanwhile, Luke washed a couple of the orange tablets down with his sports drink before lying back down to massage his forehead around his eyes.

Within fifteen minutes, Ryan returned with a plate of greasy bacon and cheesy scrambled eggs. "Made this for you," he said, handing his roommate the plate.

"You know, I really couldn't ask for a better roommate." Luke took the plate gratefully.

"Hey, you'd do the same for me." Ryan's eyes conveyed kindness.

"Yeah, but you wouldn't want to try my cooking. Trust me on that," Luke laughed, the slight movement aggravating his splitting headache. "So, I saw the jack-o-lanterns lining the hallways. Summer's idea seems to have been a hit among the freshmen residents. I overheard a few of them talking about how much fun they had with you and Barry the other day, and they are excited to make compost."

"Yeah?" Ryan tilted his head with a lopsided grin. "I can't tell Roberts though. Don't want her getting a big head."

"She's dating Cohen. She already has a big head," Luke smirked. He took a few more bites of bacon and eggs. His mood shifted to one of delight despite the miserable pain in his head.

"Hey, I've been meaning to tell you. . .I got my first live gig performing in the opening act of a local concert at The Marsh Arts Center downtown. I'll be singing and playing guitar."

"That's. . .that's awesome, man." Ryan's eyes widened with enthusiasm. "I knew you could do it. When is it?"

"It's on November 28 at 7 pm," Luke answered, unable to hold back his excitement.

"How'd you get the gig?" Ryan inquired. "I remember you telling me you've been playing guitar a lot with some of the other students in the music wing of Berkeley's Avant-Garde Society."

"Yeah, we practice on the ground floor of Morrison Hall a few times every week. I was practicing alone one day, and a local jazz band called Take Five was there and heard me play. Turns out they had a show coming up and we started talking. I really hit it off with all of the members, and they asked me to be one of their opening acts."

Ryan beamed at his friend's accomplishment. "This may just be your calling," he said softly.

"It would mean a lot to me if you could be there," Luke replied, setting his empty plate on his desk.

Ryan's deep blue eyes fervently met his roommate's bright blue ones. "I wouldn't miss it."

By late afternoon, Kirsten had taken Sophie with her to a nearby pumpkin farm to relax with Julie and Logan. The rain had finally let up, although the sky was cloudy, and the ground was still damp. The longtime friends sat and talked for some time on a dry bench near a large haystack while both babies slept in their respective strollers.

"Kiki, I've known you for long enough to tell when something is up. You haven't been yourself today," Julie observed. "I know you miss working and have felt cooped up in the house since having Sophie. Does your mood have something to do with that?"

"Not really," replied the former real estate developer. "Yes, I do miss working, and it's certainly driving me crazy being in the house, but I plan on becoming a working woman again when Sophie turns two. For now, in some ways I am enjoying the break."

"So, what's bothering you then?" the red head prodded her friend for an answer.

"Sandy and I have been fighting lately."

"As I've said a million times, you two are the moral center of the universe. What could you possibly be fighting about now?" Julie asked, perplexed.

"I don't even know. It's about . . . Ryan, I guess."

"Ryan?" Julie asked, her tone laced with confusion. "Is this about that evening at my house on Logan's birthday? He's okay, right?"

"That's the thing. I don't know. I've been so busy with Sophie this past year that I've hardly paid attention to him beyond small talk and checking in on him while he's babysitting Sophie. Apparently, he's been going through something, and I was completely oblivious. I already felt bad about that, and then Sandy did some investigating and found out some horrific things about Ryan's childhood. He called me out because I told him we should give Ryan his privacy and not push him too hard for answers. Sandy says I would be much more protective and proactive if Seth was going through something similar."

"Well, wouldn't you?" Julie asked frankly.

"I love Ryan! What are you trying to say?"

"That I think it's about time you be honest with yourself, Kiki. I know you love Ryan, but you love Seth more. I could always tell. You told me it was realizing you had hurt Seth that ultimately convinced you to go to rehab after Cal died. Ryan by himself could not have convinced you even though the reason he was living with you and Sandy to begin with was an alcoholic mother who abandoned him."

"I love Ryan, but I gave birth to Seth. Ryan only came into my life five years ago, but I've grown to see him as a son," Kirsten responded defensively.

"But not in the way Seth is your son," Julie finished.

Fresh tears welled up in Kirsten's eyes as she finally allowed herself to speak honestly about the issue that had been burdening her. "You have no idea how guilty this has made me feel the past few years," Kirsten admitted quietly, her voice ripe with emotion. "I do want to let Ryan in on that level, but. . .I don't know how."

"Something is holding you back," Julie stated.

Kirsten wiped a tear and took a deep breath to calm herself. "Sandy wants us to update our wills to include Ryan."

"Again, I will repeat the question. What is holding you back?" Julie asked, her green eyes displaying an emotion that Kirsten was not used to seeing in the Machiavellian woman who used to manipulate men to obtain power, status, and money: compassion.

Kirsten forced a smile that didn't reach her eyes. "Are you the same person who tried to sabotage Lindsay's chance at inheritance from my father?"

"I did do that, and I deeply regret it. As for Ryan, he deserves everything good that has ever happened to him. God knows I put him through so much—trying to frame him for shooting Trey and sending him on a homicidal mission to kill Volchok, among other things. But Ryan is a good person, and he truly loved my daughter. He is also a great big brother to Kaitlin and Logan. He is protective of the people he cares about. Losing one daughter, and then almost losing my relationship with the second, has really changed me. For the first time, I understand what's truly important."

Kirsten had been listening intently. "Thanks for sharing this with me, Julie. It's quite a revelation." She paused before continuing. "I don't know what's holding me back. My father was very against Ryan being in the will. That's why I didn't agree to add Ryan back then."

"So, what's stopping you now?"

Kirsten paused and wiped another tear. "I've carried around a tremendous amount of shame for telling my dad he was going to die alone the same day he left us for good. I guess I've put off adding Ryan to our will partly to avoid dealing with some of these issues with my dad. But I do want Ryan in our will. And I want to get to know him much better."

"Then, start there. Let Sandy know how you feel. And make things right with Ryan."

Kirsten smiled gratefully through her tears. "You know, Julie. Sometimes you really surprise me."

Architecture studio came and went, and before Ryan knew it, he was at work again at Via del Corso, serving Italian fine dining cuisine to the wealthy of Berkeley, California. Brittany Allen, the hostess, passed him a new chit. "Table 43's first rotation will be an eight top, so go ahead and pre-set that table. It's for the Smith party. Their reservation is at 8. This chit is for Table 52," she said.

"Got it," Ryan replied, as he read the chit. Viktor Maripova. Party of five. 7 pm reservation. He walked briskly to table 52 and noted that Brittany had already placed water and a basket of Italian bread on the table along with olive oil and an assortment of spices.

"Hello, Maripova party. My name is Ryan and I'll be taking care of you today. Have you dined with us before?"

"Yes, we have. The wine and the gnocchi here are great. We also enjoy the Bresaola," Mr. Maripova replied in a thick Russian accent.

"Okay, well welcome back! The Gnocci is one of my favorite dishes on the menu. Would you like me to start an order of Bresaola for you as your appetizer?

"Yes, please. We will take two orders of that and one order of the Spinaci Piccoli."

"Most certainly, I'll get that started. Would you like a moment to look through the wine list?"

"Yes, thank you."

"Yes, sir," he said, making a beeline for the server station to put in their first order. Afterwards, he retrieved the extra table settings to preset his eight o'clock party. It was only seven in the evening, but he could already tell it was going to be a busy night at the restaurant.

Kirsten sat in a dark wooden rocking chair in the family room looking through various photo albums. First, she studied a particularly striking photograph of her and Haley as children in their Halloween costumes. Little Haley was dressed as Snow White and elementary school Kirsten was dressed as Cinderella. Their parents stood behind them, beaming with pride at their little girls. Caleb and Rose Nichol were young in the photograph, and most importantly, appeared to be happy. Kirsten remembered that day. Her parents had taken them to a haunted house and then returned home to watch Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Her mother had made delicious cinnamon pumpkin muffins. Nobody made cinnamon pumpkin muffins better than Rose Nichol. Kirsten smiled at the beautiful memory, fighting back tears.

She then turned a page in the album and was met by a photograph of her and Sandy on a date at Carl's Jr. during their years at Berkeley. Below it was her favorite photograph of them on their wedding day. On the next page, she eyed a photograph of baby Seth in his Nana Rose's arms with a smiling Caleb standing next to them. Once upon a time, before her mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, her family had truly been happy.

She gingerly picked up another photo album and began turning the pages, stopping when she came across photographs of Ryan's first Chrismukkah. She became emotional at the memory. The next few pages of the album included a series of high-quality photographs of Seth as a child, as well as a few polaroid pictures Dawn sent of Ryan in grade school. Two innocent, soulful blue eyes stared back at her in those pictures. It made her feel ill to think about anyone causing physical or emotional harm to such a sweet little boy.

Suddenly, her thought process was interrupted by the sound of the doorbell ringing. She got up to answer it, grabbing a basket filled with an assortment of candies.

"Trick or treat!" exclaimed a group of children clad in a variety of costumes. One of the boys was dressed as a power ranger, another was dressed as spider man, and the little girl was dressed as an angel. They were accompanied by two teenagers who appeared to be older siblings.

Kirsten greeted the children kindly, allowing each to take a handful of sweets from her basket. When the children left, she made her way back to the couch to continue looking through old photo albums.

Hours later, Ryan wrapped up with his last table and was in the process of running his server report. He had assisted with a banquet, a party of five, a party of eight, a party of seven, and had finished off the evening by serving a couple who were dining in for their anniversary. He had even managed to sell four expensive bottles of wine. He still got a kick out of the California laws which prohibited him from drinking alcohol at his age but allowed him to serve it in a legitimate restaurant establishment.

Alfio Russo was the restaurant manager at Via del Corso. He was tall, tan, and well-built with curly black hair, a Roman nose, and a New York Italian accent. As manager, he was structured and demanding, but fair. He had taken an instant liking to Ryan because of his work ethic and positive attitude.

"Alright, Atwood. It's your turn to take out the linens," he instructed. "Once you do that, just give me your server report, and you can jet. You did good tonight."

Ryan offered a faint smile that reached his eyes and said "thanks." He was going to take home close to $400 in cash after tip-out. After completing his closing assignment for the evening, he decided to help a fellow co-worker, Raúl, reset a few of the tables before grabbing his backpack from the back room. Normally he took his uniform off before heading home, but he had forgotten his change of clothes during his rush to get to work on-time. He carefully placed his newly earned cash in his wallet, which he tucked into his back pants pocket.

Ryan turned to his co-worker, Raúl, who had just changed and was also ready to go home. "Hey, man. I'm out. You need a ride?" he offered.

"Nah, bro. Thanks, though. My cousin is outside waiting for me. Have a good night."

"You, too, Raúl. See ya tomorrow."

As Ryan exited the restaurant, he looked forward to taking a long shower and going to bed. He had been on his feet all evening and felt exhausted. His uniform reeked of stale food, sweat, and grease, and he made a mental note to clean it over the weekend.

His car was parked across the street in the backlot. The parking lot was empty but well lit, so he never expected what happened next. He had made it about halfway to his car when he was attacked from behind, the force throwing his 5 feet 8-inch frame off balance. His attacker was much taller and heavier than him.

"Drop the backpack. Give me everything you got!" snarled the man.

Ryan struggled to break free, lowering his center of gravity and using all his strength to stomp on the man's booted foot. Maybe it was the adrenaline altering his judgment, but rather than give up the backpack, Ryan decided to fight back. He turned around and noticed the black ski mask, quickly swinging a punch which connected with the man's jaw.

"What are you suicidal, you stupid mother f*****?" the man growled. That's when Ryan noticed the silver barrel of a gun. He froze, paralyzed by fear for a split second. That moment of inaction gave his attacker enough time to punch him in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him. His attacker then kicked him in the knee and swept him to the asphalt, pinning Ryan to the ground with his weight. Next, his attacker held the gun to the side of his head. Ryan could feel his heart pounding uncontrollably in his chest as he struggled to maintain his composure and ignored a flashback of his brother threatening him with a pistol. He closed his eyes tightly and whimpered, praying that this was not how his life was going to end.

"I said give me everything you got, or I'll pull the trigger!"

Ryan was too frozen to speak, and he didn't think it would be wise to cry out for help. The man searched his pockets and grabbed his wallet and backpack before pistol whipping him three times in the head and taking off.

The pistol whipping rendered Ryan unconscious for an unknown amount of time before he awakened, too woozy to sit up. Panic began to set in as a flurry of questions hit him at once.

Where am I? What happened? Why do I feel like I was run over by a truck? Why does my bad shoulder throb even more than usual? Why does my knee hurt?

He reached for the wound on his head and instantly felt a warm sticky substance against his skin. Although his vision was becoming blurry, when he lowered his hand, he could still clearly make out the bright red blood on his fingertips. He instinctively reached for his cell phone to call for help but passed out before he could pull it out of his pants pocket.

Sandy was leaning against a stack of pillows on their king-sized mattress when Kirsten walked into the master bedroom. She had washed off her make up, revealing a delicate natural beauty. Her silky blonde hair lay loosely over her shoulders, and she was already dressed in her night gown. Amid all the tension, the couple hadn't done anything romantic together in over a week.

Sandy hated fighting with his wife.

"Is Sophie sleeping yet?" he asked softly.

Kirsten nodded, a warm smile forming on her feminine lips. "Like the beautiful baby she is," she replied sweetly.

Gesticulating towards her soft smile and nightgown, he said, "So does all this mean you're not mad at me anymore?" He grinned, turning up his boyish charm.

"Oh, Sandy. I was never really mad at you. I was mad at myself, and I took it out on you. I'm sorry," she replied, honestly. "You were right," she smiled, her voice tender.

"Now that's not something a man hears every day," he teased, pulling his wife next to him on the mattress.

"I want to get to know Ryan better," she confessed, holding Sandy's affectionate gaze. "He deserves so much more than what I've given him. I know it will take time, but I love him, and someday I hope I can accept him fully as a son in the way Seth is my son. In the meantime, I'm ready to write him into my will."

Sandy was moved by his wife's conviction and held her tightly. "Honey, you have no idea what it means to me to hear you say this."

Kirsten became pensive. "I had to think hard about what was hindering me from strengthening my relationship with him," she explained. "For years I've shouldered the burden of being Caleb Nichol's daughter, and it took me many years to get over losing Mom. Even though she left us twenty years ago, my tense relationship with Dad was a constant reminder of her death because without her, Dad was perpetually miserable. My whole life, for so long, revolved around Dad, the Newport Group, and coming home to my tiny bubble with you and Seth. Then, when Ryan came along, it was a major adjustment. He is so guarded and private, and I grew up very differently than he did. There have been times where I have felt awkward trying to relate to him. He's so mature, content, and self-sufficient, that sometimes it's easy to forget that he needs nurturing just like Seth does. When Dad died, it really sent me over the edge, and it became even harder for me to understand Ryan because I had nothing left emotionally to give. Having Sophie has helped me heal from unresolved issues pertaining to the loss of my parents, and now that I can finally move forward, I need to take the uncomfortable step in learning how to relate to Ryan and nurture him. He is such a good person, and a wonderful son. He fits so perfectly into our family, and without him our lives are incomplete. He deserves to know that."

"For once, honey. . .I think you've left me speechless," Sandy responded lovingly.

"It took a lot of tears and introspection to come to these realizations," Kirsten acknowledged.

Sandy kissed his wife softly on the lips, playfully adding, "And you're not even a crier!"

Ryan's head felt like it was imploding. His vision was even more blurry than before he had fallen into another unconscious oblivion, and the ringing in his ears was exacerbated by the loud sirens of the approaching police and emergency vehicles.

"Try to stay with me," said a strange man he didn't recognize, clad in what appeared to be a navy-blue uniform, though in that moment, the strange man looked more like a navy-blue blob. Ryan struggled to stay awake, but the strange man insisted on hovering over him, urging him to keep his eyes open.

"What's your name?"

"H-huh?" Ryan asked faintly. It took all his strength to focus on the strange man's question. Or was it two strange men? Twins perhaps?

"What is your name, kid?"

Unable to process the meaning of the question, Ryan stared back at the strange man blankly, which prompted the strange man to try again.

"Can you tell me your name?"

Ryan continued watching the strange man with confused and bleary eyes.

"Do you know where you are?" asked the strange man.

Ryan shook his head without purpose, again unable to process the question or make sense of what was happening.

"What year is it?" the strange man asked.

Ryan slurred some words incoherently, his eyes closing again.

"Stay with me. I need you to stay with me. Open your eyes, okay?"

Again, Ryan did not respond, and so the strange man gently patted his shoulder. The injured young man opened his eyes into two unfocused slits.

"Now tell me, who is the president?"

Without responding, Ryan drifted off to sleep. The strange man gently shook him awake.

"Sir, you have got to stay with me." Ryan re-opened his eyes for a few seconds, but his eyelids became too heavy, and he closed them once again.

"He's disoriented to time, place, and person. He lapses into sleep when not disturbed. He has a GCS of 9 and is positive LOC according to a bystander. We gotta get this kid to the emergency room fast. He has a grade 3 concussion and is losing quite a bit of blood from the laceration on his head. It appears he was pistol whipped. He may also have a skull fracture."

Two paramedics strapped Ryan to a gurney and placed him in the back of an ambulance, while the distraught bystander, who had found him unconscious, spoke to the police.

Sandy and Kirsten were lying in bed with the lights dimmed, watching Goldfinger when Sandy's cellphone first began vibrating. At first, he ignored it, enjoying the quality time with his wife.

"I think this is my favorite James Bond movie," Kirsten stated. "And Sean Connery is my favorite Bond."

"No!" Sandy exclaimed with an animated smile. "If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times. Roger Moore was the best Bond."

Within a minute, Sandy's cellphone vibrated again.

"Who could possibly be calling at this ungodly hour?" he asked, annoyed.

"It's only about 1:00 am. You should see who it is," Kirsten replied.

Sandy sighed but agreed. "Hello," he answered the phone. "Who is this?"

Kirsten noticed how her husband's demeanor suddenly changed, his initial annoyance transforming into anxious energy.

"What happened?" Sandy asked, his shaky voice betraying an attempt at stoicism.

Kirsten continued watching as the blood drained from her husband's face.

"Okay, we'll be right there," he said, flipping his cellphone shut. His hands were shaking, and his heartbeat pounded inside his chest.

Kirsten's eyes expressed unmasked worry. "What is it, Sandy? What's going on?"

"That was Detective Dozier with the Berkeley Police Department," he answered, pausing to control his emotions. "It's about Ryan. He's being taken to the hospital, to the ER."

Kirsten's eyes widened with panic. "Oh my god," she said, her voice quivering. "What happened? Which hospital?"

"Alta Summit Bates Medical Center," Sandy replied, quickly changing into a pair of jeans and the nearest shirt he could find. Kirsten also changed her clothes and picked up Sophie from her crib, careful not to wake the sleeping baby. Sandy grabbed his jacket and continued, "The police say he was attacked in a parking lot, and that he may have been robbed. They wouldn't tell me anything more than that over the phone," he continued as the couple hurried down the stairs. "Except that a bystander found him lying on the asphalt and called 911. He had no wallet or driver's license on him, but the police found his student ID card and his cellphone in his pocket, and I was marked as his emergency contact."

The couple rushed downstairs as fast as they could. Sandy grabbed his keys whilst Kirsten placed Sophie in the car seat. Sandy said a prayer to Jehovah. Nothing would keep him from his ailing son.