NOTES: The OC and the characters herein are owned by Fox and other people, no profit gained or intended to ever be gained. Title, etc. from the Wilco song, She's A Jar. All lyrics quoted within the story are Wilco, as well. For the Freeverse Challenge. Also viewable there. My quote was: 'He wants to turn the music off/ but the dial crumbles in his hand./ The rain comes down heavy/ but he hardly hears a thing.' Thanks to Amber and Younger.



A BRUISED ROAD



'When you're back in your old neighborhood the cigarettes taste so good,' someone slurs from the radio. Ryan doesn't recognize the song or the band. He hears feedback. He sees a picture in his head: backhanding Seth, slamming his head into the seat, Seth's blood on his hand. Some days, and today is shaping up to be one of them, it's all he sees, those same sorts of pictures over and over again. Because that's need and want and it ends the same every time. But he won't do it. He won't. Not to Seth.

He takes a deep breath and opens his eyes. "What are we listening to?"

"You're awake!" Seth bounces in his seat. He grins and glances over at Ryan before looking back at the road.

"How long've I been asleep?"

"Dude, not long. One album. I stopped for coffee, too, but I think, like, just an hour." Seth taps his plastic coffee cup holder. "So there's still, um, five hours to go."

"Sorry." Ryan picks up the coffee cup, still half-full. "This doesn't smell like coffee."

"No. It's chai tea." Elongated i sound, because Seth is happy. Just because Ryan woke up.

Ryan raises his eyebrow and Seth nods, so he takes a sip. It's too sweet. "Did you add sugar?"

"And whipped cream." Seth bounces again. "Dude, look at the sky. It's butt insane early in the morning."

"Sorry."

"No, no. We have to be there at 2, right? 6 hour drive, compensate for possible traffic, other possible disasters like, you know, overturned trucks. We're right on schedule." Seth grins again. "If you want to go back to sleep, it's fine with me."

Ryan shakes his head. "So what are we listening to?"

"Wilco," Seth says. "All four albums. Do you hate it?"

"No, it's fine. I only slept through the first one?"

Seth nods. "I put 'em in in order. For the first listen. The first one was really country, though, it might have been a wise choice on your part. I like this one a lot better. It's a double album, which is an interesting choice for the second album."

"I didn't know you liked country." Ryan sips the chai again, tries not to spit it out. It tastes like pure sugar.

"I'm not a fan, no. But this isn't country, it's alt.country. No depression. There's an edge there." Seth nods and reaches for his chai. Ryan passes it to him without touching Seth's hand. Because he won't.

Ryan rubs his forehead. "I like this."

They don't talk for an hour. It's a relaxed sort of silence. Ryan stares out the window and tries not to think. This is a bad day.

The singer is mumbling something about his 'fragile family tree' when Seth says, "So when was the last time you saw your dad?" He sounds jaunty.

"Um. When I was twelve. My grandparents just showed up in the morning, on a Saturday and wanted to bring me and Trey to the prison, to visit him. Trey wouldn't go and my grandfather was standing in the yard yelling at my mother. They hate her." Seth's eyes narrow but he doesn't say anything. Ryan's pretty sure Seth's not a fan of his mother either. "So it was just me and them. Up to Salinas and back."

"So you weren't listening to the alt.country stylings of Wilco that time, huh?"

"My grandfather likes books on tape. It was Stephen King. It, I think."

"Wow. That sounds like a really special day." Seth snorts. "Are your grandparents still alive?"

"I think so."

"Because, I mean. I was just wondering. Like, when your mom --"

"Trying to get rid of me? It's a little late for that." Ryan smiles because Seth keeps looking at him. Glancing at him in the mirror or looking over.

"No, it's just like, dude, I'm glad you ended up with us, but I just wonder why not them." Seth slurps more of the chai and then tosses the empty cup in the backseat.

"When I was fourteen my mom put me and Trey in the car, told this whole story about how we never saw our grandparents. And then we get there and after an hour, she springs her plan on them. Her boyfriend wants to move to Tulsa, and she thinks it would be just perfect if we stayed with our grandparents while they got settled in. They yelled at her and threw us all out. I think they moved a little after that and they didn't give Mom their address." Ryan shrugs. "It sucks because they were the only ones with money in the family."

"Well, it sucks even without that. Grandparents, the family, it's important." Now he's keeping his eyes on the road. "You have rich relatives?"

"They have actual money, they're not rich. My grandfather was a mail carrier for forty years."

"Government money, that's the good stuff." Seth nods. "But you write your dad, right?"

Ryan nods. "He even writes back sometimes. About once a year."

"And now we're off to visit him. What, um, were you waiting for? I mean, I know he's not going anywhere, but, yes."

"He asked. Twice. Plus, if you're under 18, you have to be accompanied by a guardian. Also, I'm not on probation anymore. They're strict at Salinas." Ryan sits up and looks in the bag from Rosa for a snack.

"I'm not 18 yet." Seth blinks a few times.

"We're going to worry about that when we get there."

"That's a plan." Seth rolls his eyes. "This is very, dude, this is very Say Anything of us. Like, at the end, when they go visit the dad in prison. Have you seen that movie?"

"No."

"Okay, John Cusack's in it. And some other people. That guy. Hey, it's that guy. John Cusack and his girlfriend go visit her dad in prison but the girlfriend can't bring herself to go in." Seth frowns. "Okay, that's a really inadequate metaphor. Analogy. But prison."

"She won't go in?" Ryan would like to do that. He won't, but it's tempting.

"No, see, she's totally close to her dad and doesn't know he's, like, defrauding old people. And she's brilliant and has this trip to England instead of, um, college. I think. I only saw it twice. But her dad makes her break up with John Cusack. And he has this famous line, he says, 'I gave her my heart and she gave me a pen!'" Seth laughs. He glances at Ryan in the mirror. "Are you eating that? Cause I want some, man."

Ryan hands over the granola bar. It tastes like cardboard. "No one's ever given me a pen."

"Really? Wait until graduation. I got five at my bar mitzvah. But I gave none of those people my heart. Anyway, her dad goes to prison and she gets back together with John Cusack after he plays some song for her. That prison was just a yard. Will there be a yard?"

"No. This is maximum security in Salinas, Seth. They don't let you in a yard." Not like visiting Trey. Ryan looks in the bag for something that isn't healthy. They're never asking Rosa to pack them snacks again.

"So it's like glass windows and phones? Like on Angel?"

"That's what I remember. Should I send you instead of me? You're the John Cusack here, I take it."

Seth blushes. Ryan looks away before Seth sees he's looking. Seth says, "Well, no. I mean, really, I'm more like the girlfriend, except not, because my dad's very much not defrauding old people. Or doing anything that would send him to jail. Not that, that's not --"

"I know."

"Yeah. Anyway, John Cusack is the one who's all cool and together and missing his parents and living with his sister. The girlfriend has money, even though it's all from defrauded old people." Seth pauses and, as Ryan watches in shock, actually passes a very slow truck. "If you want to do the analogy by those kind of economic indicators. And either way, we're not dating, so."

"We're two swinging single guys. This is more of a road movie."

"A buddy flick. Those are the best kind." Another pause. "Did you write to tell him you're coming?"

"Yup." Ryan's still tired. Sandy and Kirsten didn't ask why he wanted to do this and neither has Seth. Ryan wishes someone would. He'd like to be forced to say something. He closes his eyes. Now the song is 'do you miss me, too? Baby, say you miss me.' When he opens his eyes he can see Seth's hands on the wheel.

Nature abhors a vacuum, Seth abhors silence. He starts talking about their classes, some insane thing that he can't believe Summer said to him, new comic books and then something about a flame war on one of his mailing lists. It's all a load of crap but it's distracting. And Ryan can't take over driving after one accident and three tickets in this car last year, so he should stay awake and participate.

He watches Seth smile and thinks about kissing him, pushing him into the back seat, Seth's head cracking against the door, twisting his wrist until he cries. He won't do it. Just because it's the end he expects from wanting this much, it's not the way it will be and he won't do it until he can see a better one. This is such a bad day. Ryan closes his eyes and opens them again. He sits up and starts eating the cardboard bar.

"Just ripping right into that, aren't you?" Seth smirks. "They taste like jockstrap."

Ryan looks skeptical. Seth says, "I don't know how jockstrap tastes, mind you. I'm assuming."

"You ate three already."

"You are right." Seth gets passed on the right by an angry looking fifty year old woman. "You know, I am going over the speed limit."

"By five miles an hour, Seth. The highway's practically deserted."

"I have had enough bad experiences in this Range Rover, dude, I am taking no risks." Seth taps the steering wheel. "Did you bring your dad a gift?"

"Yeah. A book and two cartons of cigarettes."

"Do people in prison really use cigarettes like currency?"

"Yes."

Seth almost replies. Ryan can see jokes being thought of, discarded in the motion of his eyebrows and mouth. He finally says, "What book did you get him?"

"Something, uh, long and complicated. Since he has lots of time."

"Ah. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix?"

"Would you recommend that to a 45 year old prisoner in maximum security?"

Seth considers. "Has he read the previous four?"

"I doubt it."

"Then no. So what book?"

Ryan reaches into the back and pulls it out. "James Michener. Alaska. It is, um, 1088 pages."

"Whoa. That's really long." Seth nods a few times. "So, that's very nice of you. Getting gifts for Dad."

"His birthday was Thursday." Ryan throws the book in the back. It smells weird somehow.

"Hey, your birthday was Tuesday. You were, like, a slightly early birthday present." Kirsten and Sandy probably think of Seth as the best gift they've ever gotten. Ryan's pretty sure he was a mistake. His mother said so more than once and she probably wasn't just saying it to shut him up. As much as he tries not to think about it, there's something odd about hearing himself described as a gift.

After a half hour, Seth says, "So, we're almost there. Those six hours just flew, huh?"

"Totally." Ryan should have realized, they're on their second listen to the third Wilco album. Ryan says, "We're early, aren't we?"

"Yeah, it's only one." Seth squints and they take the exit for the prison. "Okay, visitors, visitors." They find the parking lot. Ryan puts the book in his backpack with the cigarettes. He wants to smoke one of the cartons right now, before they go in. But he just gets out and waits for Seth to set the alarm on the car.

There's a line waiting outside. Seth walks up to the last woman in line and says, "Is this the line? Is there a line for visiting?"

"Yes," she says and she glares at the building. "They just wait in there until they're good and ready to let us in. Take the bus whenever you want, get here when you want, but be ready to wait and wait. And if it's not the waiting, it's the yelling. Get your kids to settle down." She spits on the ground. "Get your kids to settle down, what are they supposed to do? No place to run around, no place to even sit, how settled can they get? I'm here to visit my husband, I didn't do anything wrong."

Seth nods and says, "Completely," very quietly. He presses his lips together and looks at the line of women and old men waiting in front of them. "Dude, did you want your jacket from the car? Because I want mine."

Ryan nods. Seth walks off, hugging himself against the sudden wind. The woman says, "You here for your dad?"

"Yeah." It's just that it's the easy assumption, he thinks. It's written on him. She lights a cigarette and glares at the building again. He says, "Can I bum a smoke?"

"God, yes. Take the whole fucking pack, I'm trying to quit. Not doing very good, but you gotta try." She stuffs the pack into his hand, a pack of matches from a bar stuck in the plastic around the bottom. Camel Lights, so Ryan nods and lights one immediately. Thank god she doesn't smoke menthols.

He's almost done with the cigarette when Seth walks up. He hands Ryan his jacket and says, "Dude, I thought you quit."

Ryan thinks about pushing Seth down, slamming his head into the pavement, watching for blood. He takes a last drag and just stares at Seth. Seth backs up a half step and puts his hands up. "Okay, never mind. You're 18, this seems like a nice day for it."

There's nothing nice about this day. Then Seth says, "Can I have one?"

"You don't smoke." It's almost funny. "You don't want to start."

"It's cool, right?"

The woman in front of them turns around and glares at Seth. "Young man, it's a filthy habit. Don't even think about it." Then she smiles at Ryan, "Okay, I want one more."

It's another hour and two more cigarettes for Ryan, three more for the woman in front of him, and finally the line starts moving. Seth is blowing into his hands for warmth like a little kid.

It takes another half hour for everyone in front of them to be searched. Ryan puts his bag on the table and takes out the two cartons of cigarettes and the book. "These are for Gary Atwood." The man behind the desk just looks bored.

There's no comment about Ryan or his ID so everything must be cleared. The man looks at Seth's ID for five minutes and then says, "He's 17 and he's not on the list."

Seth opens his mouth but Ryan just puts his hand up. He says, "He's my stepbrother. Can you, um."

The man sighs and then just waves them on in. Seth jams his hands in his pockets and mutters, "Cool. That worked out surprisingly easy."

"I was ready to say you were my long-lost twin, but the different birthdays, you know." Ryan even manages a grin.

Seth smiles back and looks around at the bleak room. He says, "Okay, well, I'm not gonna horn in on Dad time. I'll just hang here." He leans against the wall. Ryan nods and sits down at the long table by the glass that the guard waves him to. He waits.

His father walks in slowly, like he has all the time in the world and not just a half hour. He looks the same, only older and with two more tattoos. He looks like a mirror aged twenty years. Ryan grimaces. He picks up his phone after his father picks up his. "Happy birthday, Dad."

"Happy birthday to you, too. Is it seventeen now?"

Ryan looks down at his hand lying flat on the table. "Eighteen."

"Well, good for you. How's school?" How's school, how are things, like they're just checking in.

"School's fine."

"And you're definitely going to graduate, right?"

Ryan looks up and glares. "Of course I am."

"I guess those private schools don't really let people fail." Think you're so smart, don't you, just like that.

"They fail people there."

Through the glass, Ryan's father smirks. "Of course. So you planning on going to college? I went to college, you know. Two years. Before I met your mother and everything went to shit."

Because his mother sent his father here, of course. "Yeah. I think maybe UC Berkeley or UCLA."

Ryan's father narrows his eyes. "Is that the son over there? The one who keeps smiling in case you turn around."

Ryan looks over and half-waves to Seth who is leaning against the wall and looking uncomfortable. He turns back to his father and says, "Yeah. Seth's a good guy."

"Bet he's not going to some state school."

"What do you mean?" Ryan doesn't flinch but he watches his hand shake.

"Look, they took you in, but they're not going to spring for some expensive college when they've got the real thing. How're they gonna afford both of you at school, right? So he can go to Harvard or Yale or some place like that. They're not gonna pay that for you." Another smile, like he's decided Ryan's going to get screwed and that's a good thing. You think you're so smart.

"Shut up."

"Fine, I'm wrong." He sounds smug. "You're living with the best people in the whole world and they can afford to pay, what, 50 thousand a year to put two kids through college? You're right."

Ryan takes a deep breath. "Have you heard from, uh, my grandparents?"

"Yeah, Mom writes every week. They decided not to visit anymore when I got in that fight and missed parole. All pissed off at me, the biggest disappointment ever." He sounds so aggrieved.

"Could you give me their address?"

"Sure. They're in Goleta now. Guess they didn't want your mom to know, but they wouldn't mind you, I bet." He rattles off the address after Ryan finds a pen in his jacket pocket. Ryan writes it on his hand.

They stare at each other for another two minutes and then Ryan's father stands up. "I guess we're done. It's nice of you to come, kiddo."

Ryan nods. He can't think of anything else to say. He watches his father walk away.

Seth doesn't say anything until they're in the parking lot and Ryan's lighting another cigarette. "So, how was it?"

"It was fine."

"He looks exactly like you. Not, like, exactly because he's way older, but wow."

"Yeah." Ryan keeps looking at the ground. Seth doesn't say anything and then they're at the car.

Seth says, "What's that on your hand?"

"It's my grandparents' address." Ryan looks at his hand. There's a receipt from their last gas stop on the floor by his feet and he copies the address onto that.

"Dude, you should call them."

"Just call them?"

"Why not? Families, generations, it's important. Plus, they were mad at your mom, right? Not you." Seth is smiling again.

"I haven't talked to them in four years."

"So, what, you were just going to write them?"

"They can't hang up on a letter, Seth." Ryan sighs and fastens his seat belt. "Let's get something to eat."

"Thank god you finally said that." Seth turns away from the highway. "Burgers, fries, grease, you think?"

"Please."

They're in line inside when Seth brings it up again. "You call information, you say, hey, the Atwoods in Goleta, you have a number. You dial the number, and then, grandchild grandparents reunion."

"I'd rather just write them." They order their food and Ryan starts sipping his drink immediately so he doesn't have to talk.

"I see right through you, dude, you can't fool me by drinking things. And why wouldn't they want to talk to you? You're not trying to move in, you're about to go to college."

"Seth." Ryan sits down. "Where -- where were you thinking of applying for college?" He hates himself. Seth blinks.

"Um, you know, UCLA. Berkeley. I know I need a few more. Dad wants me to go to Columbia because he went to Columbia before he got his law degree. Which is a good reason right there, dude, no Columbia for me. UCI is out because it's way too close to Newport Beach. Maybe not even UCLA."

"But what about, like, Harvard? Yale?"

Seth shrugs. "You have a better chance at that than I do, dude. I don't think I'm Ivy League material."

"Why not?"

"Well, you have better test scores than I do."

"By, like, ten points. You have better grades. More advanced classes."

"Overall. I have some advantages, you know." Seth frowns. "So it makes me look all bad because I'm going to all the best schools, my parents are, like, brilliant, and I'm just above average. The only way I'm getting into the Ivy League is if Grandpa makes some calls. Which isn't exactly the way I want to get into college."

"Well, if you can't get in, neither can I." Ryan's mostly angry with himself for even asking. His father's wrong. But he hears it still. You think you're so smart.

"Of course you can. Man, you're all about the potential and realizing it. You're the guy. You're the story, self-made. Like my dad and my grandpa." Seth leans forward and smiles. He thinks it's all good.

"It doesn't matter, I can't afford it." Ryan balls up his burger wrapper.

"What do you mean? I'm pretty sure you're covered, Ryan." Now Seth looks pissed.

"Nothing." Ryan takes a deep breath. "Give me your phone, I want to call information."

Seth still isn't smiling as he hands over his phone. He says, "The area code in Goleta is 805, I think. Also, I'm so telling."

Ryan glares at him. He says the address and his grandparents' names. Seth is still staring so he presses the button to be connected to the number.

An old woman's voice says "hello" on the third ring.

"This is Ryan, Ryan Atwood, I'm calling --"

"Oh." She pauses. "Ryan? Gary's Ryan?"

"Yeah. Yes, it's me. I was just visiting Dad today and he gave me your address, so I called." Ryan looks up at Seth. Seth is back to encouraging, so he smiles and makes a goofy thumbs up gesture complete with a full body wiggle. It shouldn't be quite that funny, but it is.

"Well, it's good you called. Your father wrote that you'd been adopted. Some nice family."

"Not quite adopted, but yeah. It's nice. They're nice."

"You were visiting your father?" She sounds like it's nothing at all for her grandchildren to call after four years of silence.

"I was."

"So you're living in Chino still."

"No, I live in Newport Beach now." He feels like he's aged ten years sitting here in this stupid McDonalds.

"So we're on your way back, straight down 101. Come for dinner tonight, 7:30."

Ryan looks at Seth and says, "You want me to come for dinner tonight?" Seth does the thumbs up again. Ryan says, "My friend is driving. So it'd be the two of us."

"He's a nice boy, not one of your brother's friends, right?"

Under the table, Ryan clenches his fist. "No, he's not."

"Then it's fine. We'll see you at 7:30." She hangs up, just like that.
 
"So I guess we have dinner plans."

Seth doesn't say anything as they get back in the car. He grabs Ryan's hand and types the address into the GPS. He twists Ryan's wrist a little to compare the address to the screen and then delicately puts Ryan's hand on Ryan's knee. Ryan waits and says, "Are you still telling?"

"Yes." Ah, pissed off Seth. This is proving to be one of the best days of Ryan's life. "As soon as we get home, I'm telling that you only applied to the UCs. Because it's a little fucking annoying, Ryan."

Ryan shifts in his seat. Seth's only sworn four times since Ryan's known him. This is bad."Maybe they're the only places I think I can get in."

"Except I know you're not that stupid." Seth says and presses his lips together. "And really, if anyone's gonna be feeling like the second-class son around here, I think I have a much better case than you. So. Telling."

"That's not even close --" Ryan reaches for Seth's hand on the wheel and then puts his hand back down.

"Dude. I don't feel that way. I'm not ... look, of all the things I doubt in this world and there are many, that's not on the list. I know my parents, you know, love me." Seth rolls his eyes. "But like, what specifically do we have to do to make it clear that you're, like, one of us?"

"That's not why I didn't apply," Ryan says. He knows it sounds weak.

"Whatever. Telling. Be prepared for some quality time with the parents tomorrow." Seth smirks. "And now it's settled. Done with this. Sorry I got all riled up there, man."

"It's okay." Ryan sighs. "Maybe you're right."

"I'm completely right. You can so get into the Ivy League college of your choice, man." Seth pats Ryan's knee. "You got into the Harbor school, you know."

"I think I've seen you there, too. You could get in."

Seth frowns. "Probably not."

"If you're making me do it, I think it's only fair. We can get matching rejection letters." Or Seth will get in and Ryan will end up UCLA. Which isn't bad at all, he'd love to be at UCLA.

"I hear the Princeton letter is all 'sorry you didn't get in, don't kill yourself.' And someone told me the Yale letter is very 'prove us wrong!' I can't wait. I feel, with my long and varied experience in rejection, this will be nothing. Roll right off my back, mister."

"Maybe you'll get in everywhere."

"Whatever. I don't want to think about it." Seth shakes his head. Now isn't the time to challenge Seth's attempt at not being afraid of college applications.

Ryan tries to think of something else to talk about they didn't cover on the way up. He stares at Seth until Seth starts talking. Ryan's not surprised it turns out to be all the same things they talked about on the way up.

In the middle of a very long ramble where Seth's recounting his worst injuries from skateboarding, sailing and school complete with rankings of the top three in each category, Ryan just gives up on paying attention. He watches Seth's mouth and the way his wrists twitch like he wants to talk with his hands, but he won't take his hands off the wheel. There's nothing bad about today for Seth, even though they've been sitting in the car for more than twelve hours.

They could just pull over for a few minutes, they could. But when Ryan pictures it, Seth is crying out, lip split, shoulders pressed against the door. Ryan shakes his head and start paying attention again, just in time for Seth to describe how three members of the volleyball team at Harbor stuffed him in a locker his freshman year.

And, inevitably, after two hours, Seth rolls around to sex. "Okay, I know we've covered this before, but really. Dude. Okay, okay, so how many people? Have you, you know..."

"Had sex with?"

Seth nods vigorously. "Yes."

"And this time we're defining sex broadly enough that you can claim more than one, right?"

Seth nods again. "So how many people, really?"

"People?"

"Yes, people. How many, man, come on. Numbers, I like numbers. And descriptions." Like a fucking puppy.

Ryan pauses, because he doesn't actually count, and he needs to be broad enough for Seth's experience. "Lots."

"That's so not a number."

"Okay, less than forty, more than thirty."

Seth whistles. "Seriously? Man. What's the proportion on that?"

This is the country Wilco album again. 'You're the only sober person I know'. Ryan blinks, thinks 'people,' and says, "Mostly girls."

Seth sputters and the car jerks. He says, "Mostly? There were guys? Guys? You never ever mentioned that before."

"I edit. And, wait, you said people. You emphasized people. I thought you --"

"I had no idea. Dude. Dude." Seth is briefly speechless. "I just said people because, because, dude, I talk funny. I'm weird. You know that. Seriously? Guys?"

Ryan covers his eyes. "Dude. I thought you'd, you said people. But let's, uh --"

"Okay, so wait. Would you say, were you being, you know, experimental?" If Seth weren't driving, he'd make finger quotes, Ryan is sure.

"The first one."

Seth sputters again. "Oh, man. Dude. Dude. So would, uh, okay, you would say you're bi?" This time Seth takes his hands off the wheel briefly to wave them around.

He really doesn't want to get into this with Seth somehow. "Let's, let's keep this between us, okay?"

"Dude." Seth pauses. "Seriously, my father? Wouldn't care if that's what you're thinking. He's convinced I'm gay and he loves me."

"He knows you're not." Ryan almost laughs.

"Well, now. But seriously, like, when I was 9, we had a whole conversation. About sex. Third most embarrassing conversation of my entire life. And after the extremely painful explanation of how men and women show their love," and Seth shudders at that, "he goes into this way vague thing about how not all men love women and some men love men and it's okay." Seth winces. "Plus, note how he's always so surprised that I have, like, dates with girls."

"Third most embarrassing? What were the first 2?"

"Well. Number 2 was centered around how Rosa needs to knock before coming in my room." Seth glances over and grins. "Dude. Seriously? You're not just, you know, pulling my leg? Fooling with me?"

Ryan looks out the window.

"Well, anyway. Seriously, dude. Besides, who's the one who Tivo's Queer Eye? I think that would be Mr. Sandy Cohen."

"Your father's not gay."

"Oh, I know." Seth shudders again. He even looks a little pale. "See the most embarrassing conversation of my entire life. Oh, dude. Still scarred."

"You walked in on your parents, didn't you?"

"I was 9. I got home early, I don't remember exactly how the disaster happened. Maybe I've blacked it out. But. I was 9, and I did not go back into the dining room again until I was 14. I mean, don't worry, it's a new table. But still. Sometimes I have flashbacks."

Ryan does laugh at that. "I'm sorry."

"Oh, you're laughing at me, but it was. It was indescribable. Flashbacks, nightmares, uncontrollable shaking. I was 15 before I could even download porn without thinking about it." Seth looks over at Ryan again and Ryan knows his face is red from trying not to laugh even more.

"So, that many. And most of those, uh, people were before you knew me, right? How did you find the time for that? I know, I know, we've talked about this. The women? And, uh, men?"

"They weren't women or men yet. I used to skip school a lot. And once you've played a few video games, watched some TV." Ryan shrugs.

"Okay, I never skipped school, but still. I was bored a lot before you came along, man, and I'm so not at that many."

"You didn't meet the right people at those Comicons and Magic the Gathering meet-ups?"

"Ah, touché. Touché. Still, the sailing. Why didn't that lead to girls?"

"You sail by yourself or you teach lessons to ten year olds, Seth. I think it's a good thing that didn't lead to girls."

"Very true. Very very true." Seth briefly closes his eyes and then opens them again. "Dude, really, guys?"

"We're done talking about this."

"We didn't talk about it all. You diverted me into painful childhood memories and discussion about my life and you said nothing. Nothing." Seth pauses. "Okay, we're done for today. Except, now, none of those guys were, like, here, right?"

"No." Ryan could make it so if he would just reach out his hand. He could. But he won't. And not because of how things with Marissa went to shit. Seth's completely different from Marissa. He thought about saving Marissa, he never thought about hurting her. Maybe he didn't want her in the same way.

It's already dark. Ryan says, "Where are we?"

"About 40 miles past where you told me you have slept with guys."

Ryan glares at him.

"Dude, just getting it out of my system. I promise not to bring it up at dinner with the grandparents."

"Oh, god." Ryan closes his eyes. Seth must have hit random at some point, now it's a song from one of the later albums. 'What was I thinking when we said hello?' Ryan says, "How much longer to Goleta?"

"Um, about 45 minutes. We're gonna be early."

"We can't be early. We can pull over or got to a gas station or something, but we really shouldn't be early. They'll be pissed." It's been four years, but Ryan's sure of that.

"Strict punctuality for the elder Atwoods, got it. Well, Santa Barbara's just, like, ten minutes south of Goleta, but Santa Barbara sucks. Total tourist town."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. Great surfing up here, according to Dad. But everything else just sucks like you wouldn't believe." Seth shrugs. "But we won't be that early. We can just hit a 7-11 or something and look at magazines, scope the local ladies." Seth makes an exaggerated motion like he was going to say something else and Ryan shoves his shoulder.

"Okay, ow. Driving here."

Seth rubs his shoulder and Ryan mumbles "sorry."

They get off the highway and onto some main road. Seth says, "Okay, I think we've got, like, ten minutes. So let's just see if there's anything near your grandparents' place."

His grandparents' place turns out to be a trailer park, neat and clean and laid out in kind of circle. Seth makes a u-turn and says, "There's a sign for a 7-11. We'll just browse and come back and be right on time."

It's not a bad part of town but it's the filthiest 7-11 Ryan has ever seen in his life. He's afraid to touch even the plastic wrapped food so he keeps his hands in his jacket and follows Seth as he walks around the store. Seth doesn't get anything and Ryan notices he keeps his hands down, too. When they get back to the Range Rover Seth says, "How did it get so dirty? How? Like, that had to have taken effort. That wasn't just neglect. Do you think the guy behind the counter just, like, hates his life and at night, when no one comes, he grabs a bag of dirt he bought somewhere and scatters it all over the store?"

"It looked a little more ground in somehow than someone just throwing it." Ryan looks at the snug little trailer Seth's parked in front of. "We still aren't early, right?"

"Nope." Seth gets out and sets the alarm. Ryan waits. He should have had a cigarette.

The door opens, bright light behind the figure standing there. But it's his grandfather, still tall. He says, "Is that your car, boy?"

Seth says, "Yes, sir. Is it, should I move it?"

"You don't need to move it, this neighborhood is perfectly safe. If you don't think so, there's a big housing development across the street."

Ryan looks over at Seth, who looks like he's been punched in the stomach. He mutters, "As charming as ever." He says, "It's me, Ryan."

"I assumed so. You're right on time. Come in." And he disappears from the door, but leaves it open.

Seth whispers, "Should I move the car? Or what?"

"Fuck him, just leave it." Ryan walks up the three steps to the door and turns to grab Seth by the elbow. "Come on."

Inside it's a neat and more spacious than Ryan expected. No matter what everyone in Newport Beach thinks, Ryan's never actually lived in a trailer. But he's known people who have and this is a nice one. It's neat but fussy. His grandmother and grandfather look older and more worn than he remembers. And his grandfather looks angrier.

His grandmother must have been waiting right by the door because she hugs Ryan tight as soon as he gets inside. She smells like flour and mouthwash. He pats her back and thinks he has no idea what to call her. She lets go and his grandfather holds out his hand. Ryan shakes it and says, "Hey. I'm glad you wanted to see me." He nods at Seth. "This is my friend, Seth."

Seth smiles and holds out his hand. Ryan's grandmother smiles at him and his grandfather ignores Seth's hand. He just walks over and sits at the small dinner table. "Dinner will be ready in a few minutes. You two sit down."

Seth grimaces and sits down next to Ryan. The table is already set, simple white plates and green placemats and paper napkins. Ryan thinks it's just like he remembers from the two or three times he ate with them, before his father went to prison. No one says anything for two minutes.

Ryan says, "So, how long have you been here in Goleta? This looks really nice."

His grandmother says from the compact kitchen, "About three years. Isn't this a nice area? There's some lovely grocery stores in Isla Vista and the college students are far enough away to not be any trouble." She smiles and then hums as she brings out a casserole dish. Seth just looks scared now.

Ryan seems to be responsible for any conversation that might happen. He says, "There's a college around here?"

"UC Santa Barbara," his grandmother says. "Just a few miles over. It's not even in Santa Barbara. But I suppose calling it UC Goleta would be silly." She brings out the last dish, green beans, and then sits down herself.

Ryan's grandfather says, "Well, dig in. What are you waiting for?"

Seth waits for everyone else to get food before he takes any and Ryan notices he takes smaller portions than he usually does at home. After another few minutes of awkward silence, Ryan's grandfather says, "So your father wrote that you'd been taken in by some rich family. Is that true?"

Ryan grips his fork. "Yes, Seth's parents are my guardians now."

"How did that happen? They just came marching down to juvie and pick you out? I've never heard of anything like that happening." He keeps glaring at Ryan, with occasional hard glances at Seth.

"Me neither. Guess I was just lucky."

Seth isn't eating now, and he's just staring at his plate. Ryan's grandfather says, "Were they your foster parents or something?"

"No, Mr. Cohen was my lawyer, public defender."

"When Trey got sent up?" Ryan nods. His grandmother winces and then reaches for more green beans. His grandfather says, "And he just decided to take you home? Why?"

Ryan wants to say "because I blew him in the back of his car." He can picture his grandfather's indignant face and Seth's hurt but he won't say the lie. He won't. He says, "He just did. Mom threw me out and he saw something in me. If you have more questions about Sandy, you should just ask him."

Ryan's grandfather makes a huffing noise. Seth says, "Mrs. Atwood, this is really delicious. Thank you."

His grandmother smiles and says, "Well, thank you very much. Save room for dessert."

Seth nods, looking scared and stupid. Ryan likes Seth so much more than anyone else in the room. His grandfather says, "So you're really going to graduate?"

Ryan nods. "I paid the right people off and everything."

Another huff. "Don't you go to some fancy private school now? That's what your father wrote."

"Yes."

And that's the end of all conversation for the rest of the excruciatingly bland meal. Dessert is brownies. They taste store bought even though they come right out of the stove.

When those are finally gone, Ryan's grandfather stands up and says, "You smoke?"

Seth vigorously shakes his head and Ryan nods. He follows his grandfather outside while Seth shoots him a completely panicked look.

Outside, they both light up. Ryan's grandfather waves to an older man sitting outside with his pipe two trailers down. The man nods back. His grandfather says, "You look just like your father. He smokes, too."

"I remember." He turns away and squints at the Range Rover. He'll be sitting in there soon and Seth will make him listen to more weird music and then he'll be home.

"Your father went to college, too. Before he screwed everything up."

"I remember that, too." He wonders if his dad ever hit his father. He hopes he did. His grandparents are pretty much just as unpleasant as he remembered.

"You got a lot going against you, kid."

"I've never heard that before." He puts out the cigarette.

"Well, at least you're mouthy. Mouthy isn't so bad. I worry about the polite kids. And the whiny ones. Those are the ones that really end up in trouble."

Ryan smiles at that. "Really? That's different." He turns around and his grandfather is staring at him.

"Your father was polite and then he was always whining. Your mother? Never stopped whining. I rest my case."

"So the secret to figuring out who's going to go really bad is whether or not they mouth off at you?"

"Yes." Ryan's grandfather drops his cigarette, grinds it out and puts the butt in a tin can by the steps. "You should write down your address. Maybe come up again. We should have written." He looks away when he says that.

"Yeah." They walk back inside. Seth is sitting on the couch, clasping his hands together in his lap and looking at the carpet. Ryan smiles at him and Seth stands up immediately.

"Is it time to go?"

"One sec." Ryan writes down his address. He hugs his grandmother and shakes his grandfather's hand. Seth waves and nearly runs out the door.

In the car, Ryan says, "Sorry."

"What are you sorry for?" Seth doesn't say anything else until they're back on the highway. Then he says, "I think my problem is grandparents. They don't like me. I don't know why."

"Because they're stupid."

"That's nice of you to say, but it's clearly a problem. My grandfather? Took years for him to warm up to me. He didn't even come to my bar mitzvah, man. He just sent money."

Ryan reaches over and turns on the stereo. More feedback. He says, "His loss, Seth."

"Again, you're nice, but I think that's not true. I think something about me rubs the grandparents the wrong way. As a class, which is totally weird. Maybe it's just everyone over 35."

"Your parents like you. They're over 35."

"Maybe they're the exception." Seth looks miserable.

"My father liked you." He's a much better liar than Seth, and it's probably not untrue.

"Really?" Seth's mouth twitches.

"He said so." Ryan stares Seth down until Seth looks back at the road.

"And he's 45. Maybe that's the cutoff. Maybe the Seth Cohen curse doesn't kick in until 46. Or 50. With the AARP card, there's, like, special instructions. 'If you ever see Seth Cohen, hate him.'" Seth blinks. "But yeah. We should call the 'rents. We're gonna be home later than we said and you know Mom nearly implanted satellite tracking on me before letting me have the car. We've had way too many accidents in this thing, man."

"I'll do it." He finds Seth's phone on the floor and dials home. Kirsten answers on the second ring.

"Hey, we're gonna be late. We stopped for dinner."

"Well, that's good. How was the visit?"

Ryan decides not to say "fucking hell." He says, instead, "About what you'd expect."

"What does that mean?" She sounds kind. Even when she yells at him, which she's not doing now, she always does.

"It wasn't fun."

"You're a good son to go visit, though. When will you two be home?" Just like that. Good son.

"Seth, when we will be home?"

Seth looks at the GPS. "In two and a half hours. God, I may speed. Don't tell Mom."

"Two and a half hours. Seth won't speed." Ryan grins.

"He better not. And you're not on the insurance anymore, Ryan, so you can't drive. So make sure Seth stays awake and doesn't speed. If he gets a ticket, his driving privileges are gone. You tell him that."

"She says don't speed and stay awake."

Seth salutes and stares at the road. "I think he got the message," Ryan says.

"Okay. I'll be up when you get home."

"We'll be fine."

"I'll be up. I love you both, I'll see you soon."

Ryan says goodbye while Seth shouts, "Thanks for letting me borrow the car, Mom!"

Seth says, "We need to think of something about this grandparent thing. Clearly, if this continues, when I'm 45, everyone else my age will hate me."

"Maybe it's the age difference. Then just 80 year olds will hate you."

Seth's eyes widen. "That's a very good point there, dude."

"Don't worry about it, man. They're unpleasant people."

"Your grandmother seemed nice. She just didn't like me."

Ryan thinks his grandmother is stupid and she's been bullied all her life. He won't say it, but he thinks it's true. He needs to change the subject. The song playing now is 'Is it really punk rock, like the party line?' Kinda funny from a country song.

"So," he says, "I like this. Do you?"

Seth nods. "Sure. I like the middle ones, I think. I shouldn't have switched to random, I'm getting lost."

"Not lost on the road, right?" Seth doesn't answer.

Ryan stares out the window for a few more songs and then glances back at Seth. His eyes are closed and they're veering off the road. "Seth," Ryan says and reaches for the wheel to straighten them out.

"Whoa, hands off the wheel." Seth sits back. "Wait, was I sleeping?"

"Yeah. Let's pull over." Ryan can feel his heart in his throat. He reaches for the wheel again and watches Seth blink a few more times.

"Okay." Seth pulls over. "Let's, okay, don't tell mom and you drive and let's get off the next exit and we'll get some coffee or something. Then I'll drive so it'll be fine." Seth rolls down his window and a blast of cold air comes in.

The next exit comes up pretty quick and Seth says, "So, McDonalds, something like that. It's really only, like, 9:30 or something."

"We've been on the road since 7, though."

Seth says, "Yeah."

Ryan parks in front of a McDonalds. "Go to sleep. I'll wake you up in ten minutes." Seth blinks again and mutters something. He takes off his seat belt and slips to his side, ends up twisted around with his head on Ryan's thigh. Ryan starts to say something about the back seat but Seth's already asleep.

He could. He could just reach out. Marissa, he always thought Marissa needed him, maybe even someone to save her. From her mother and Newport Beach and everything. Except she needed a lot more than a boyfriend that didn't cheat on her. And now that's over and she's fine and he's fine. And Seth doesn't need any sort of saving at all. There's nothing broken about him at all. He falls asleep in an empty parking lot without even looking around.

Ryan puts his arm up around Seth's seat and rests his other arm on the door. It's awkward but it's better. He waits through two songs. Then he shifts his leg up and says, "Seth," loudly.

Seth starts and opens his eyes. "Did I sleep?"

"You're on my leg. Sit up, man."

"Was that ten minutes? Wow." Seth stretches and Ryan gets out of the car. He lights a cigarette.

"Can I have a puff?" Seth is bouncing on his feet next to him.

"No."

"I read somewhere that smoking keeps you awake. It's, like, something they advise you to do for long drives. Experts want me to smoke, dude."

"None of those experts include your parents and they can hurt me."

Seth nods. "Let me anyway." He smiles and reaches out. Ryan sighs and hands him the cigarette. Seth takes a long drag and holds his breath until his eyes water. Then he lets it all out and coughs.

"Dude, it's not pot. You don't get extra points for time."

Seth looks up confused, eyes red and still coughing. Ryan says, "Give me back my cigarette."

Seth hands it over and Ryan finishes it. Stubs it out on the ground. "Let's go inside."

Seth orders three cokes and two coffees. He finishes the first coffee while they walk back to the Range Rover. Then he stretches again, does some weird almost dance move and then gets into the car. "Are we ready?"

"I'm completely awake now."

"So amuse me." Seth smirks. "Let's talk more about your wild sexy past. Gimme names."

"No."

"Ah, ever discreet." Seth goes on what seems like hours, trying to get Ryan to say more. Ryan doesn't. That takes them all the way past Los Angeles until they're almost home. They only stop once for Seth to go to the bathroom.

"Okay, none of this in front of Kirsten."

Seth nods. He's looking tired again. "I'm beat. Seriously. But I bet she'll still be up. Don't tell her I fell asleep, okay? Because then I'll never get to drive again."

"Promise." Ryan rubs his forehead. He's beat, too. He wants to get home, push Seth against the Range Rover, break him. But he won't. Maybe he will someday. Someday that isn't today, when he can picture it ending some way other than Seth wincing. Or he doesn't picture anything at all, it just happens.

He almost cheers when they see the gate. The guard looks tired and just waves them through. Seth says, "That's gotta be a crap job."

"Security? I bet it's not so bad. Lots of time to think. Read."

"Maybe he can have a stereo in there."

Seth sits for a moment when they finally pull into the driveway. He turns off the car and the last thing Ryan hears is 'I dreamed about killing you again last night.' Seth says, "Man, that Wilco is dark stuff. I like it, I do, but suddenly I'm thinking about beating the crap out of you."

"Maybe you blame me for 14 hours in the car and the dinner from hell."

"I totally don't. That's not, like, your fault. I made you call them, man. And they liked you."

Ryan starts shoving empty cups into the bag Rosa gave them.

Seth says, "Yeah, cleaning." He takes off his seat belt and pulls cups and wrappers from the back. He shoves them in the bag in Ryan's hand. Then he gets out and closes the door. Ryan keeps looking around for trash. He puts the receipt with his grandparents' address in his pocket.

Seth opens Ryan's door and stands there. He's smiling. "Come on, man. You got everything?"

Seth takes a step forward and looks in the back seat. He's right there. Ryan puts his hand on Seth's hip to push him away. He holds on instead. It's just fine. For once, it's fine and three seconds pass where he doesn't think of anything.

Seth straightens up and backs away. "Okay, get up, let's get some damn sleep."

Ryan says, "Yup." He hands Seth the bag of trash.

Seth turns around before they get to the door and says, "I keep meaning to say, um, thanks. For, like, asking me. For wanting me along this time. Because, dude, I know this wasn't the easiest day of your life and it was, like, I appreciate it." He pulls Ryan into a hug, the plastic bag bouncing off Ryan's back.

Ryan pats Seth's arm and tries to think of something to say. He finally settles for "Thanks for driving and everything."

Seth has already turned around and heading back into the house.

Kirsten makes them hot cocoa. Seth says he's not thirsty, that hot cocoa is for little kids and only drinks two cups. Ryan has one and watches Seth and Kirsten talk.

He smokes the last cigarette in his gift pack sitting on the steps of the pool house, watching the light in Seth's room. By the time he's stubbed out his cigarette, all the lights in the house are out.

THE END

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