NOTES AND DISCLAIMERS: Characters, etc property of Warner Brothers, Hypnotic, and Wonderland Sound and Vision. Thanks to Mosca and thanks to Maggie, Elizabeth, circusgirl, and Mare. And Elizabeth again. Subtitles from Trish Murphy, Everclear, Bruce Springsteen and Nick Saloman.



FIVE THINGS THAT NEVER HAPPENED TO RYAN ATWOOD (AND SETH COHEN)




THE PILOT: CAN'T AFFORD TO BE STUPID

Kirsten: He has a family, Sandy. It's not up to you to decide whether or not they're good enough.


There are days when Ryan regrets ever staying friends with Seth after that one night in Newport. Days like today. Seth grins nervously as Ryan gets in the car and Ryan's immediately worried. "Hey," he says and waits until they turn the corner to cover Seth's hand with his. Seth grins again and then pulls over.

He says, "Okay. Okay, I wasn't sure, but I thought, life is about risk, right?"

"Wasn't sure about what?"

Seth digs in his bag and pulls out a plastic bag. With pot. Seth nods and opens his eyes wide. "I thought, uh, you know, par-tay? Like they do? Like we do."

"Seth, where did you get that?"

"Bought it at school. It's supposed to be real good. The chronic stuff." Seth almost laughs.

"You remember the part where I'm on probation, right? Remember who my lawyer is? The one who has no idea that you're here." Ryan looks out the window as he shoves the baggie back into Seth's backpack.

"Okay, okay, it was a bad plan. Point taken. Should I just flush it down the toilet or something?" Seth turns the car back on. He sounds upset.

Ryan says, "No, fuck it, you bought it. Did you get a pipe? Rolling papers?"

Seth just blinks and turns the car off. "Um."

"Okay then. Come with me." As they walk to Arturo and Theresa's house, Seth keeps touching his bag until Ryan bats at his hand. "Seth. Chill."

Seth nods his head again. He'll never be relaxed in Ryan's neighborhood. Ryan prefers it that way.

It was weird when Seth called; it was weird when Seth showed up where they'd said they meet. It wasn't weird to Ryan that Seth kept touching him. Ryan waited three weeks for him to make the move he assumed was coming. When Seth didn't, Ryan kissed him rougher than he meant to when they were sitting in the car, near some beach. Seth dropped his comic book and looked shocked. By the time Ryan realized Seth hadn't planned anything, they both had their pants open. No point in stopping then. It's not like Seth didn't want it.

It took forever to get to sex. Ryan knew how to take no, but Seth didn't say no. He wanted to go slow, he thought the car was uncomfortable; he was worried someone would see them in the theater and they'd get thrown out. They got to the fucking in an abandoned house everyone in Ryan's neighborhood knows about.

Once Seth did something, though, he wanted to do it again. And as often as he could. In between, they talk and hang out. Ryan hasn't had someone he can hang out with and fuck besides Theresa ever. Except Theresa and Seth are completely different in every way.

Arturo's home, Theresa isn't, so it's perfect. Arturo rolls his eyes and they follow him back to his room. Seth mutters something but Ryan tunes him out when he talks that low. It's always just nervous chatter about trying to look cool and not doing it. Arturo takes out the buds and looks them over, takes a sniff, and whistles low. "Dude, how much you'd pay for this? It's good."

"Uh, a hundred? It was this guy Steve who I totally don't know, but everyone knows he sells drugs and I asked him in the bathroom so I think he might have just said any number. Because he, like, knew he could overcharge me. Which I take it from your expression he did."

Arturo laughs. "Yeah, but not too much." He waves at Ryan and Ryan gets up from the floor to open the window and turn on the fan. Arturo gets his pipe ready and takes the first hit. He smiles as he passes it to Ryan and says, "Definitely good stuff."

It takes longer for Seth to get high because it's so very clearly his first time. Ryan lays off before Arturo and Seth do because someone needs to keep their head on.

Then Seth starts giggling and he touches Ryan every time he giggles. Arturo smirks and says, "Okay, now you're high." Seth hooks his fingers in Ryan's belt loop. Arturo says, "Oh, so it's like that." He rolls his eyes.

Ryan raises an eyebrow and disengages Seth's fingers. He doesn't let go of Seth's hand, though, because it's not like Arturo doesn't know. It was only once, but he certainly knows. Seth squeezes Ryan's hand and says, "Okay, so we're okay? Right?"

Arturo gets up and says, "I'm getting food, and when I get back, you both better be dressed, man."

Before he gets out the door, Seth is kissing Ryan and pulling at his shirt. Ryan gets Seth up on Arturo's bed.

They're mostly fully dressed when Arturo gets back. When Ryan walks Seth to his car, Seth says, "We should do that again. We so should. I mean, like, all of it. I'll negotiate better this time and get more for Arturo and we can use his bedroom, right? Because that was so much better than the crack den, seriously."

Ryan shakes his head. "We can't rely on Arturo being nice."

Seth squints and then says, "Okay, idea. Here's my idea. We need a bed. We need to scam my parents."

*

He waits two blocks from the house. Sits on the curb until Seth pulls up. Ryan says, "Hey," as he gets in and after he has his seat belt on, he turns toward the window.

Seth briefly touches Ryan's shoulder and then he's talking. "So this will be totally fine. Like, I have a good feeling here. Don't you? Seriously, they didn't freak that much when I told them and --"

"Because you lied." Ryan rolls his eyes. He would smile, but it hurts. Seth hasn't noticed yet.

"I left out some things, yeah. Certainly. That was sort of the point. But it's not like it's some complicated lie, like, we don't have to remember code words or anything. Just leaving out some of the details."

Ryan says, "Okay then." Mostly, right now, he's tired. He's not the one who's likely to spill the whole truth. He glances at Seth.

Then Seth says, "What -- turn more towards me." Ryan closes his eyes but he turns his head. It probably doesn't look that bad with the light in the car.

Seth sighs. "A.J.?"

Ryan nods and goes back to looking out his window. Seth says, "Fuck, that sucks. Was, like, that because I called last night? Was that my fault?"

"It had been two weeks since the last time he tried this, that was pretty much the reason. You didn't do it."

Seth sighs again. "Maybe we, you know, maybe it'll work out for the best. Like, sure. Mom'll be all moved and really, they weren't that pissed when I told them anyway. So now they'll be even more likely to be nice, at least."

Ryan leans back in his seat. "Oh, good. Glad it fits your plan."

He thinks, bed. They're doing this so they can have a bed.

Seth says, "That's not what I meant. You know that's not what I meant, right?"

"I was making a joke. Haha, right?"

"Let's let me be the funny one." Seth pauses. "This'll be fine. They weren't even that mad at me when I told them. Seriously."

Four months meeting without telling Seth's parents. Ryan thinks they were probably plenty mad. But Seth can be oblivious when he wants. Ryan wishes he could be but when he looks down his hands shake.

Ryan says, "Can we stop so I can have a smoke?"

"You have a split lip and you want to smoke?"

"Just one side." Ryan shrugs. "It's fine."

"You'll smell like smoke." Seth taps the wheel.

"I had three today, Seth, I already do." Seth shifts in his seat which is a yes. He pulls over by a beach. Ryan doesn't know how far they are from Seth's house, it's been four months. He lights up carefully.

"They really weren't angry," Seth says again, leaning against the Range Rover. "They just want to have you over for dinner. Check you out."

"Your mom already did that. She threw me out, remember?"

Seth frowns. "Yeah, but. This isn't staying with us or something; it's just us hanging out at my house. Which we'll totally be able to do after this. I figure after three weeks of supervised visits they'll let us stay there without supervision. You know what without supervision means." Seth winks.

Ryan looks for cars coming then pulls Seth closer by his belt loop. Seth stutters something but Ryan is already working his hand down Seth's pants. Seth pulls back and says, "Come on, we have to get to dinner. Boner is a bad way to indicate we're just good friends who can't wait to play video games under the smiling eyes of my loving parents."

Ryan doesn't see Mrs. Cohen ever smiling down on him. She wasn't rude, that one weekend they met, but she didn't like him. Ryan thinks about a real bed and closes his eyes.

Seth nudges him awake when they get to his house. Ryan walks slowly behind Seth and wishes for another cigarette. Seth stands with his back to the door and says, "Come on. No worries."

They walk right in and Seth calls out something and then it's the Cohens, right in his face. Sandy has a tight smile and he says, "Good to see you again, Ryan," before his voice trails off. Mrs. Cohen goes from cautious face to pity face in five second flat.

Seth says, "He wasn't fighting or anything. It was his mom's boyfriend, okay?"

Mrs. Cohen leads him to the couch and says, "Did you go to the nurse?"

Ryan doesn't even shake his head no. Mrs. Cohen says, "Didn't any of your teachers make you?" He gives her another what-fucking-world-do-you-live-in look. She sighs and says, "Okay. You sit. I'm actually pretty good at first aid thanks to Seth's skateboarding learning curve."

He sits. Sandy's spirited Seth away, he's sure, another talking to. He'll get one later. Four meetings and one court appearance he had with Sandy without mentioning he was hanging out with Seth.

Mrs. Cohen sits down next to him with her box and says, "This might sting." Her touch is gentle, though, and he doesn't feel much of anything. She says, "I'm glad to hear you're doing well at school."

When she's done, he says, "From whom?"

She shrugs. "Sandy called your probation officer. When Seth confessed." She looks cool again.

He doesn't have anything to add to that, so he lets her take his jacket and backpack. He wonders if she'll search it now or later.

Then Seth is back, looking pissy and put-upon and it's time for dinner.

The food is good. Seth says, "We should order from these guys more often." Seth and Sandy joke a little about Mrs. Cohen's cooking and Mrs. Cohen rolls her eyes and smirks. Good natured family talk. He keeps his head down.

After he's nearly cleaned his plate, they start in on the questions. School, his mother, Trey, the things he and Seth did. Ryan remembers to be polite. So they were nice for two days and then walked away. They didn't have to be nice the first time; he hadn't had expectations. He wants a bed so he and Seth can fuck. Polite, he thinks.

Seth's portion of the event goes pretty well. He babbles a lot, but he looks contrite. And he doesn't give anything away. Ryan's surprised.

After desert, Seth says, "So, okay, all settled, right? I'll drive Ryan home and then he can come back whenever. I mean, to hang out. With me." Seth widens his eyes and looks innocent.

Mrs. Cohen, predictably, says, "When one of us is here."

Seth says, "So tomorrow works, right? Cause there's videogames, and comic books and the pool and stuff. Hanging out things."

Mrs. Cohen glances at Sandy and looks down at her plate. She says, "Well, it's Friday night. If Ryan didn't have plans and his mom's okay with it," then she looks at Ryan. "You could stay tonight. Go home tomorrow afternoon."

"My mom?" Ryan puts down his fork. "She's fine with it." He licks his lips before he remembers and flinches. "Thank you, that'd be nice."

Mrs. Cohen starts to say something but Sandy gives her a look and then she stops. Seth stands up and says, "Pool house, then?"

Sandy stands up quickly and says, "Guest room."

Seth sets up the video games in the guest bedroom and then they sit on the bed together, knees touching. Seth mutters, "Guest room. Guest room sorta rocks, man."

"Completely rocks." Ryan nudges his leg closer. "You can come back when they're asleep."

"Oh, don't you worry." Seth is grinning. "Don't you worry, little man."

"Little, huh?" Ryan rubs Seth's ankle with his foot. He hears the door open wider and moves his foot back to the floor.

Mrs. Cohen says, "It's getting late, guys."

"It's eleven on a Friday, Mom." Seth turns off the video game, anyway. "It's just late for you."

"Seth, go get some peejays for Ryan, okay?"

Seth grumbles but leaves. Ryan wonders what lecture he's going to get now. Bed, bed, bed, he thinks. Goal in mind.

She says, "Did you call your mother about staying here?"

He says, "Sure."

She walks in front of the TV with her arms crossed. "You're lying to me, right?"

He keeps his eyes on the floor and says, "Yes."

She snorts. "Good, because it was, it was a dumb thing to say." He smiles at her and thinks of it as a sneer. Because his mother isn't like the rest of Seth's friends who deserve a call. Fuck it, he thinks. He looks down at her feet until she goes away.

He lies back on the bed and waits for Seth to come back. After ten minutes he sits up and turns on the TV. He flips through the channels until he finds the Simpsons reruns. He knows the late night schedule pretty well now, enough nights waiting for his mother and AJ to go to sleep.

The Simpsons are over and it's onto Friends by the time Seth walks in the door. He closes it and leans back against it. He grins wide and throws some clothes on the bed. He says quietly, "We've got an hour, man." He takes off his shirt and pushes Ryan back on the bed.

"An hour? You're sure? We can't lock the door, Seth."

"It's not locked." Seth grins and slips his hands under Ryan's t-shirt. "But trust me. Dude, trust me." Seth leans in and kisses Ryan's neck. "Trust me," he murmurs.

Ryan arches his back but he says, "What am I trusting you about?"

"Uh, only child, bedroom near my parents, thin walls. I know how long it takes them to, like, do things." Seth laughs as he gets Ryan's shirt off, gently. "An hour, trust me."

"Wow, that's impressive." Ryan wiggles out of his jeans and pulls at Seth's pajama pants. "An hour?"

"Sometimes more, but at least an hour. Really, it's a little scary and I'd like to stop talking about it right now."

Ryan flips Seth over and says, "You don't want to keep talking about your parents having sex? Right upstairs? For over an hour?" He starts to laugh but it hurts.

Seth smiles and puts his hand on Ryan's unbruised cheek. "See, it's gonna be fine. Great, even. I swear, they let you sleep over tonight, it might be sooner than three weeks before they don't give a crap if you're over here without them." Seth kisses Ryan's jaw carefully.

They don't take hours and they don't use the bed fully but it's the nicest place they've ever done anything. Now, finally, they're one small step away from having a bed. And not just for an hour.

It's more than the bed. It's more than the fucking. Ryan gives himself this one moment. Only one, because he's been swept along by Seth and Seth is spoiled, he doesn't stop until he gets what he wants. And if he told Seth, Seth would take it as a given. He could tell Seth that Seth was one of maybe three good things in Ryan's life. But he won't.

He knows when it's going to happen. They'll get to be here alone and then they'll get caught and then it will be really over. No way will the Cohens let Seth keep seeing Ryan.

Until then, he likes this bed.





THE MODEL HOME: INSANE AND RISING IN MY OWN WEIRD WAY

Seth: (talking to himself) One bus ticket to Austin. 8:00 a.m. tomorrow. Would you like to purchase?


Two years plus and Seth still remembers Ryan. It's insane. Ryan and his fake ID are waiting tables when Seth comes in, Seth's first week at UT. Seth doesn't shut up for twenty minutes and he tips 50%.

Seth follows him home, basically, waiting outside three hours. He wants to hear all about Austin, how Ryan's done since he left on the bus.

He tried working construction but he never found his mom's old boyfriend. He took whatever jobs he could find which ended up being waiting tables. It was three months before he had enough saved to get a miniscule studio apartment, before that he slept on the street or crashed on the couch of someone he worked with. He lost touch with everyone in California, including his probation officer. He has people he knows and fuck and they go out to the cheapest places they can find. He saves his money as best he can so he can think about a better apartment and someday getting a car.

He only tells Seth half of it as they walk to Ryan's place. He remembers liking Seth and he knows he owes Seth for not being in juvie, for waking up mostly safe for the past two years.

He forgot Seth's so tall.

Ryan doesn't want to take Seth to his apartment. He hates the idea even more when Seth makes a face for a split second as they start climbing the stairs. Seth says, "Isn't it against the law for the elevator to be broken? I'm sure of that. You should complain."

Ryan shrugs. They walk up to the fifth floor and Seth is still talking about housing regulations like he knows anything. Ryan stops in front of his door and says, "Do you want to come in or not? This is where I live, okay?"

Seth stops and bites his lip. "I do, I'm sorry. Sorry. I'm really glad to see you. If I had an address or your email, I'd've written because I thought about you all the time."

Ryan sighs and opens the door. He thought about Seth, too. It would have been nice to have a friend like him, like he was those few days. He thought about Marissa, too, but he'd already said those goodbyes.

Seth says, "This is really nice. I like what you've done here." He smiles nervously. Ryan knows it's tiny and he's done nothing to decorate. He has a futon and a bad mattress, sheets and a blanket he bought at Wal-Mart, a small TV someone gave him on top of an egg crate and his clothes are in two more egg crates in the corner. He still has the radio Marissa and Seth gave him and it even still works.

"Smaller than your dorm room, right?" Ryan walks past Seth and sits on the bed.

"Yeah, but you've got a kitchen. I have no kitchen. So advantage to you." Seth smiles. "It's pretty cool, though, I mean, you made it work. Living on your own and working and stuff. You have your own stuff and your own place. It's really impressive."

"Thanks."

They should run out of things to talk about. They're going to pretty soon, Ryan thinks. Seth will have a story to tell his parents.

Instead Seth says, "Hey, did I mention, maybe I forgot to say that it turns out I like guys. Also, I've had sex. With two women and three guys. Not at the same time because I'm not a ho or anything."

Ryan smiles for real and remembers exactly why he liked Seth.

*

Seth thinks he's a poor college student because his parents have him on an allowance. They go to the movies and Seth insists he has to get the combo because he can't afford to just splurge on a large-large and candy thing. Ryan doesn't say anything.

Before the previews start, Seth launches into his sexual past. There's a reason he's repeating it, Ryan's sure, but he thinks Seth just likes saying he's had sex. "So I was dating this girl Anna, who you didn't meet, she was totally cool and then, believe it or not, after we broke up? Suddenly Summer was all up in my grill. Wanting the Seth. But she totally dumped me and I started hanging out with this guy, Zach."

"And then you had sex."

"Yup. I mean, I've only told my parents. And the guys, of course. They knew, of course, since I was with them. And Summer. Not Anna because she already thinks I'm pretty gay and you know, I think I wasn't that bad when we were having sex. Apparently she does," Seth says, sniffing.

"You think you're a better judge of what she enjoyed?" Ryan stops himself from laughing.

"I think her memory is tainted by our break-up." Seth looks a little hurt but then he smiles and throws popcorn at Ryan. "And come on, your turn."

Ryan shrugs. He's fucked around, never dated and no one's been back to his apartment more than twice. He says, "You know, people."

"I'm glad to know you haven't discovered the love of a good cow or something. Or a bad cow. A very bad cow." Seth giggles. "Okay, now I'm picturing a cow in a rubber corset."

Ryan just stares and thankfully, the preview starts.

*

They're hanging out. All the time. Seth mentions friends from college and Ryan believes him but they still hang out all the time. Ryan hadn't realized he had so much free time until Seth was there to fill it.

Seth always has questions. How did you work, what about your paycheck, do you have a bank account, a DVD player would be cool, what are you going to do next? Ryan ignores him but it's hard to ignore Seth.

"Like, do you pay taxes? Because not paying taxes could so get you thrown in jail. Or garnished wages which is no fun. I know people. In Newport."

Ryan glares. "I'm a waiter, Seth; I get $2 an hour plus cash tips."

Seth bites his lip and then looks back at Ryan. "Look, I just think, let me talk to my dad. I didn't tell him I ran into you, but I could. And he could get everything set. Like, with your probation and stuff and then you don't have to worry about anything."

"What does he know, Seth?"

"I kinda confessed a few days after you disappeared. I mean, just to them. They were totally concerned, man. I think Dad might have tried to find you here. He just wanted you to be okay. And if I told him, I'm sure he'd figure out something. Because you're like, using a fake ID and you don't have a bank account and that's not right, man."

Ryan wants Seth to shut up so he says "Fine," and waits for it to be over.

Sandy does straighten everything out. It doesn't even take him two weeks to deal with Ryan's flight from California and all the legal crap related to it. Sandy flies out with a stack of things for Ryan to sign and sits comfortably on Ryan's futon while Ryan does it. Then he says, "Have you thought about getting your GED?"

Ryan shrugs. He doesn't have the time and he can't imagine how he would use it. Sandy says, "You should. You're way too smart to spend the rest of your life being a waiter. You can't want that."

Ryan thinks Sandy has no idea what Ryan wants. He says, "I'm doing fine."

"You're doing better than fine. You had no money and no one and you're not doing anything illegal and you have your own place. It's amazing. It's proof, Ryan, that you can do so much more. You could get your GED, go to college. I know you can."

"I'll remember that," Ryan says. He hands Sandy the papers and waits for him to leave.

*

Seth gets a new laptop. It's Ryan's first visit to Seth's dorm room and Seth is babbling about all the new features. Then he gets the point of all this as he says, "So I was thinking, about my old one? It's totally cool even though it's old. But it has wifi capability and it's all Linux and stuff. I thought, maybe, you could buy it."

Ryan thinks about walking out. He's so sick of the Cohens right now. All of them. He has an eight hour shift starting in two hours; he doesn't have to be here. Ryan looks at Seth until Seth looks away.

"Look, you don't have to. I just thought, installments. I priced it on EBay and stuff and I could only get, like, half of what we paid for it, but if you wanted to, just like thirty dollars a month. Or fifty if you could. But it's really only worth about $500 now." Seth looks up, serious for once. "I just thought you might be able to use it. Like, for games."

"For games?"

"Yeah," Seth mutters. "Or not."

Ryan reconsiders. He says, "Okay." He smiles. "Did you leave a lot of your porn on there?"

Seth grins. "That's why it's $500 instead of $400."

*

Ryan likes the computer. It's one more thing to lose if he has another break-in, but he hides it pretty carefully when he leaves for work, like he does the boom box.

Seth was only kidding a little about the porn. Ryan deletes most of it after watching it once or twice. In one folder he finds school pictures of Summer, he thinks, Marissa maybe, and someone who's probably Anna. He emails them back to Seth who admits he just forgot to delete them. And asks if Ryan thinks Anna is hotter than Summer.

Ryan pays every month on time. He likes to deliver them in person because he doesn't trust the mail and he knows Seth would never say anything if he missed a payment. The third month he comes by, Seth is packing. "Dropping out?" Ryan says as he puts the check on Seth's desk, in Seth's check register, right under a deposit slip.

"No, man, winter break. Sweet home a' calling." Seth grins. "What are you doing for Christmas? Any plans?"

"Working."

"At the new restaurant, right? I like that place. I like the nachos."

"All legal and everything. Another three years before I can work somewhere that serves alcohol." Ryan frowns. It sort of sucks doing everything on the up and up again.

"Well, but you won't get arrested. I'm scared of jail visits, man." Seth grins again like it's so impossible he'll ever have to do that.

"Have fun, then." Ryan's been carrying around a gift for Seth in his backpack for two weeks but he suddenly feels weird handing it over.

Seth springs up and has a bag in his hands. One of those fancy ones with tissue paper coming out of the top. "And this is for you. You can wait but Chrismukkah has already begun."

"Chrismukkah?"

"It's the greatest holiday ever," Seth says and starts babbling again about his parents and Jesus and Moses and Ryan isn't paying attention. He reaches in his bag and takes out his stupid gift.

"I got this for you. And um, this is for your parents. You know, thanks." Genuine Texas salsa. He imagines Sandy will like it.

"Sweet. Can I open it now? You have to open yours, though. Like, simultaneous gifting!" Seth likes that sort of thing.

Ryan nods and reaches into the bag. The entire 15 hour extended super duper edition of the Lord of the Rings on DVD and an action figure of Han Solo. Seth likes Fett better, but he's convinced Solo is Ryan's favorite. Ryan wants to say it's too much, because it is. Seth says, "It was a deal, seriously. Major discount because I bought more than one copy. I mean, I had to get one for myself, too. And Han isn't a limited edition thing or anything, it's just funny."

Ryan says, "Cool. Awesome, thanks."

Seth opens his gifts and grins. "Dude, this is awesome. Where did you find it?" He's already opening the CD.

"I know you like the band and they put that out last year, before they got signed. One of the other waiters used to date the bass player so he got it for me cheap." Ryan was worried Seth already had it.

Seth puts it in his computer and the distorted guitar fills the room. Seth jumps up and hugs Ryan.

Seth sends an email every day with his opinion of every comic book he's read and all the movies he's watching. And another three paragraphs about running into ex-girlfriends and ex-boyfriends and some guy he met at some show who totally gave him a blowjob in the bathroom.

Ryan works and watches the Lord of the Rings on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning before he goes into work. He goes out in the evening with his other friends and pulls out his old fake ID so he can drink though he never has to use it. He gets laid and doesn't tell Seth about it.

Two days after New Year's he drifts from one bar to another after work and finds himself at a coffee house under red lights. He's drunker than he thought, he thinks, sipping straight coffee and sitting in a corner. And unprepared when Seth plops down next to him with another long hug. "Dude, here you are! I got back quicker than I thought and I emailed you but you don't have a cell phone so I couldn't tell you." Seth grins and rests his head against Ryan's shoulder.

"Good to see you, too." Ryan ruffles Seth's hair and then shifts over a little.

Seth sits up and pats Ryan's shirt. "I'm glad you liked the movies, man, they're so awesome. The extended editions just kick so much ass."

Seth leans in and kisses him. He tastes drunk and he tastes good. Ryan pulls away and stares for a moment. Seth says, "We could do that again. We could do it more."

Ryan says, "Seth." It's not like he doesn't want to.

"I like you, I totally do. I think we could --" and Seth waves his hands like that means something. "And then you don't need to --"

"Don't need to what?" Ryan stands up. "Don't need to what, Seth? Is all this shit just your Newport idea of foreplay? Throw enough money at me and I'll –-" Seth is staring with his mouth open, not speaking. Now he can't think of something to say.

"Fuck you," Ryan says and goes home. It's a long shitty walk and he's shivering by the end of it. Pity Seth never thought to buy him a decent fucking coat like all the charity cases need.

*

He mails Seth the next check for the computer. Seth doesn't email him so Ryan must have been mostly right. He was hoping, he thinks, for a long and detailed apology or a long and detailed yelling. He almost expects to see Seth at work every day for a week, or waiting outside his apartment.

Instead it's work and home. He goes by the comic store Seth likes and reads the ones he likes without buying. The clerks are used to seeing him with Seth and Seth always buys a lot so no one bitches. That won't last long.

Then it's been two weeks and Ryan stops waiting. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe he was just an asshole. He has a better life than before he met Seth. But he had a good life before that. His own place, a job, no one could throw him out, no fucking boyfriends his mother dragged in hassling him. He's not in jail like most of the kids he grew up with and that's something, too. He doesn't think any of that was ever apparent to Seth.

The difference is that Seth has always gotten everything he wanted. He's just a kid, still.

Ryan kind of likes that Seth is that way.

He makes up his mind to go to Seth's dorm and talk to him. Tomorrow, he thinks, climbing the stairs. Make up and be friends again. He's lonely without him.

Seth is asleep against his door. Ryan's almost angry. He's happy more. He nudges Seth in the shoulder as he opens the door. "Come on in," he says.

Seth stutters and then walks in slowly, closing the door behind him and leaning against it. "Okay, so I know you're mad at me and I get it. But I wasn't saying what you thought I was. And I wasn't trying to buy you or anything. I wouldn't even, I wouldn't, okay? I mean, in the best of all worlds, I'd be like your rich boyfriend who bought you a car and a nice coat and a better TV but I think you'd probably hate that."

Ryan smiles because this is all insane but he likes it. "I wouldn't hate the coat. But I wouldn't take it."

"Right, because you don't need it. You'll get the things you really want yourself because you do that. You're the guy. And I miss you. I was hoping you'd take some time and calm down and stuff. And then I could apologize for everything ever and. How's that going?"

"I was going to go by your dorm tomorrow," Ryan says. He looks down. "To say sorry, too. So I think your apology is going pretty good."

He stands in front of Seth, against his chest. "We could --"

Seth smiles. "Kiss and make-up? And kiss more?"

Then Ryan is kissing Seth and they don't talk.





THE GAMBLE: YOUR LIFE WAS ONE LONG EMERGENCY

Ryan: She really likes it here. She talked about finding someplace nearby...in the numbered streets.


Ryan's day goes from 5 am to midnight most of the time. Sometimes later. School to work to home and homework. But so far, it's better than it's ever been. It makes him suspicious. He can't believe she'll make it. But he's tired of it of waiting for things to get fucked up. Time's up, he thinks. What he needs is to be ready to do things on his own again. He can't trust her. He can't trust his mother.

Maybe it was never the drinking or the boyfriends, maybe she's a fuck-up naturally.

He's surprised it makes him feel good. He bikes to school early because he has a meeting with his math teacher. He might be able to get into AP Calculus next year if he does some extra work. The meeting takes longer than Ryan thought and is going to involve a lot more work than he planned. But he agrees anyway.

His classes are hard. Even the public schools are hard here. He falls asleep in English and wakes up when the bell rings. His teacher stares at him for a moment and he mutters sorry as he leaves.

He goes to track practice and then showers and it's off to work. Everything feels like work except work is more relaxing.

He hates the uniform. Polyester itches. But there are other compensations.

Afternoons are dull but somewhere around 5 people start drifting in. He's taking tickets when Marissa comes in with Luke. Like always. Luke's turned vaguely nice now, like Ryan's mother only not as prone to crying. Marissa looks down as he tears her ticket but then she turns back with a smile as they walk into the theater hand in hand. He's stopped worrying when she smells like alcohol, he has his mother for that.

His mother hasn't smelled like booze for four straight months. It's a record. She even goes to meetings, without a court order first. She's been working at a bakery and a coffee shop and she's held both jobs for three months, which is probably another record.

He hates his mother sober. She cries more and she snaps at him. Sometimes she wants to talk to him and tell him how she feels. She wants him to tell her how he feels. She doesn't date because you're not supposed to until you've been sober a year. He can't believe she'll wait that long. Once she said, "Man, as soon as it's been a year, I am so getting laid again." He bets she'll bring that loser home and blow everything getting drunk with him.

She came to his first track meet and the second and did nothing but cheer loudly. He would have rather done soccer, but Newport Union doesn't have it. The team sucks and Ryan sucks but it's an afterschool thing. "You're going to get into a great college, kiddo," his mother says and ruffles his hair like he's five. He's going to get into a college far away from her.

She wants him close. Like he's the reason she can quit drinking and go to meetings. She said that once, in her first month and he wanted to hit her. She doesn't love him enough to last.

After all the shows go in and Ryan's patrolled the mostly empty theaters he goes downstairs to restock the candy. He's stacking the Milk Dud boxes when Phil comes down and pokes his head in the door. "Dude, your boyfriend's here. Don't sneak him into any movies, okay?"

"Never. And he's not my boyfriend." Ryan doesn't even turn around. But he smiles because it's seven and it's Seth.

Seth sits on the floor and talks about his day at school. He studied, he blew a test (Ryan doubts it), he talked to Anna, he got ignored by Summer and Marissa and he might be becoming some kind of weird friends. Seth stands up and leans against the closed door. He says, "I should have kissed her, don't you think?"

"Marissa? No." Ryan has fifteen minutes on his break. Maybe more given tonight's schedule. Nothing like three two hour movies to make his evening dull in the middle.

"No, Anna. Like, we went to the comic book store and we were talking and I should have kissed her, right?"

Ryan's tired of waiting for his mom to fuck up and he's really tired of waiting for Seth to buy a clue. His mother is happy to ask and ask and grab and it's all okay because she goes to meetings and she's sober now. He could do with a little grabbing. He steps closer to Seth and looks up smiling. Seth is suddenly blushing. "Do you think about kissing her?"

"Sure. Sure. Of course I do. She's an incredibly attractive young woman who likes everything I like and she's totally into me and I should just do it."

Ryan licks his lips and doesn't break eye contact with Seth. This would be better if he weren't wearing a polyester red vest. But it seems like it's working. "You really think about kissing her?"

"Sure," Seth bleats, his voice breaking. Ryan is nearly touching Seth as close as they're standing now.

He says, "Sure?" and then takes the last step forward. He pushes Seth into the door and holds his waist. He kisses Seth. Nice long wet kiss and Seth helpfully sags a little so their hips are lined up.

Seth takes a deep breath. "I think I never thought of that. But I liked it."

Ryan moves his hands up under Seth's t-shirt and holds him close. "You never thought about this?" Another long kiss. He waited way too long on that. He should have tried selfish a lot sooner.

"Okay, maybe once." Seth suddenly has his hands in Ryan's hair, pulling him even closer.

Ryan manages to find the space to unbutton Seth's pants. Thank god he's not wearing a belt tonight. "Once?"

"Every night since I met you, okay? Please don't stop."

Ten minutes shouldn't be enough but Seth is really excited. Seth sits on the floor and buttons his pants. He says, "So how often do you think about it?"

"Every night, right?" Ryan smiles. "But my break's over, so you should probably go."

"Are you sure? I can stay. Wait for you and drive you home and stuff." Seth scrambles up but doesn't move away from the door. "We're going do this again, right? For longer? I hear these things can take longer."

"I'm working doubles Saturday and Sunday." Ryan elbows Seth away from the door.

"Oh."

"Which means I have Friday night off."

"Oh, good. Good." Seth grins and follows Ryan out. "We could go see a movie. I'll even pay."

"Or we could rent a movie at your place."

"Also a good plan. Since you're probably sick of movies."

"We could watch it in your room." Ryan walks up the stairs without looking back to see Seth's expression. He knows it's happy.

He gets home after midnight. The apartment is small and it's only clean because of Ryan. She's keeping herself clean but she can't fucking pick up her own shoes and socks. She never does the dishes. He sighs as he puts his backpack down and thinks he's being unfair. His mom cleans sometimes. She's sitting at the kitchen table with a cupcake in front of her. She says, "Hey, kiddo, how was your day?"

"Long. But not bad." He sits down across from her and takes out his cigarettes when she lights hers.

She smiles and he thinks once, she was probably even beautiful. Not anymore, not ever again. But she was.

When she'd been sober for two months, he came home to find her crying. She begged him to get her something to drink. When he wouldn't, she told him she never should have married Ryan's dad, never should have had Trey or Ryan. She had a whole list of things that had gone wrong in her life because of her stupid choices. For a minute, he thought it was progress, that things were her fault for once. For the rest of the night, he locked himself in his room and studied to forget her.

Two weeks later she apologized. "I had a bad night," she said. "I shouldn't've said those things." She never says she didn't mean to hurt him.

Tonight she says, "I had a good day. You know what I did today?"

"What?"

"I gave Mr. Cohen his last payment. The last $50 we owe them."

Ryan smiles, too. "You paid off that whole thousand we got for the deposit?"

"I did. Look at us, baby. We got this place, we got a little money saved away, we don't owe anyone anything. Mr. Cohen said he was real proud of us."

Proud of her, he thinks. She won't last at this. He looks down at the cupcake. "Is this your celebration?"

"That's yours. I already had mine. It's good, there's walnuts in it. You like walnuts." He's surprised she's right.

"Thanks." He looks at her grinning and getting up to wash the dishes for once. He peels off the little paper cup from the cupcake. He allows himself a moment of hope. Maybe she'll make it. Maybe they'll make it.





THE DEBUT: HIS LAMEST FLAME


Julie: You can't make your debut without an escort.


It's Caleb and Julie's wedding and Seth and Marissa are finally breaking up. Ryan thinks it's a very good thing, except he wishes it didn't involve getting hit with cake.

It all started at the Cotillion. Luke decided to stand by his principles or whatever he said and Marissa was without an escort. Seth offered himself up, having already been dumped by Summer for Luke and then when Luke split, Ryan. Seth and Marissa kept hanging out after that; while Ryan was working, at Caleb's party, when they all went to Tijuana.

Summer walks up to him, brushing icing off her dress and saying "Ew" repeatedly. "Chino, please, take Seth away. Please? He listens to you."

Ryan uses a napkin to get icing out of his hair. "I broke up the fight. I thought you liked Seth; you do it."

"Sure, when we're hanging out. When he's giving me advice about boys. Not when he's all breaking up with my best friend." She pokes him in the chest. "You owe me."

Ryan stares at her but Summer doesn't look away. She never does. He doesn't owe her. It never shuts up Summer so he's stopped pointing that out. He says, "I'll go look for him. Okay?"

"Then go! Shoo! Go! I have to find Coop, she's probably devastated. She totally loves him, you know." She flounces off. Ryan thinks Summer is the only girl he knows who actually flounces.

Seth and Marissa have been officially dating since the kick-off carnival. Ryan remembers exactly because Seth wouldn't stop talking about it and that was where Ryan met Anna. "My parents just moved here from Pittsburgh," she'd said, frowning. "I'm really taken with this place so far." He sort of agreed and then they'd been talking and they'd started dating a few days later. And broken up a month or so later, but they were still friends.

Ryan trudges up a hill and finds Seth staring out at the ocean. He says, "Hey, man."

Seth sighs. "That was totally embarrassing. Maybe the most embarrassing moment in my life. And there's so much competition but, I think we have a winner." He sighs again.

"Kinda seemed like every party I've ever been to in Newport." Ryan sits down next to Seth.

"Maybe I should have stuck with Summer, you know? I mean, that could have worked, right?"

Ryan grimaces. They had this whole discussion after cotillion about Seth moving in on Ryan's girl. Ryan had pointed out that he'd never had Marissa. So no harm, no foul. Ryan wondered then about Seth getting over Summer so quick, but better the girl who talked to him than the one who didn't. He says, "You think?"

"No. Probably not. And definitely not now because of that whole girl code. Can't date the best friend after being dumped by the girl. Plus, I kinda feel like I know Summer too well now. I mean, she's always calling when some guy is mean to her or she's mean to some guy and I give her advice and she says it's just like I'm her gay best friend except I'm not technically. And I'm having sex with her best friend who is technically a woman. Or was. I mean, was having sex. Marissa's still a woman." Seth pauses. "I'm never going to have sex again."

"Maybe not with Marissa." Marissa had been Seth's first. And vice versa, according to Seth. Ryan finds it odd that Marissa was a virgin, but stranger things have happened.

Mostly Ryan remembers Seth trying to find the right location for the big event and the endless questions about doing everything right. So it would be good for Marissa. Seth had even asked Anna, still Ryan's girlfriend then, "because Summer would totally tell Marissa and that would be embarrassing."

Anna'd just looked at Seth and finally said, "Does she think you're some kind of stud?" Which Seth had had a long way of saying no to. But it was important because Marissa wanted to do it and Seth really wanted to do it and Seth wanted Marissa to enjoy it because he'd read and he'd heard that girls didn't always enjoy their first time. Plus, he had to be good enough to make up for not being all fit and hot like Luke.

Seth says, "I really liked having sex with Marissa. I love her," Seth says, his voice breaking.

"You guys have been fighting for a while."

"Sure, because she's totally self-centered and her life is always a wreck but I like that. I do. She totally needs me. I'm her rock. I'm her, like, when everything is bad, I listen and stuff. Or start talking about comic books so she can feel superior, I guess. We fit together. I've screwed this up, man, I screwed up this really good thing. It was mostly good, seriously." Seth looks over at Ryan and says, "You think I can fix it?"

"I don't know, man." Ryan hopes not. Seth and Marissa were good for each other in the beginning but the last few months it's been all downhill. Marissa is pissed off at Caleb and her mother and Seth doesn't want to hear about it. Seth never wants to hear about fights with his family. Seth says something else, but he always does.

Ryan used to have a lot more theories about Seth and Marissa. Anna thinks Seth and Marissa are perfect for each other because they're both obsessed with themselves. Anna's theories about Seth and Marissa are a lot more negative than Ryan's.

If he wants to be honest, he'd admit it's not Marissa Ryan misses. He doesn't want Seth going out with her because he doesn't want Seth going out with anyone. Before they were going out, it was Seth and Ryan hanging out, and since they started going out, it's Seth and Marissa and sometimes Ryan but Marissa is everywhere. He doesn't really want to be honest.

He rubs his eyes and then looks out at the ocean. Theresa came to town and all he did was talk about Seth. Ryan's officially pathetic. He's become Seth before Ryan came to town, at least the way Seth tells it. Ryan says, "Maybe you could fix it. You should go find her."

"She's pretty mad at me. I don't, I don't get why she always has to be complaining about Grandpa. Or her mom. Okay, I get complaining about Julie Cooper. She scares me." Julie Cooper was and is overjoyed that her daughter was dating one of the richest kids in town. Everyone thought Seth and Marissa was the best idea ever. Except Ryan. Even the Cohens encouraged it, didn't yell when Marissa stayed over because her home life was so hard.

Ryan says, "Maybe give her some time to cool off. Talk to her tomorrow."

"Yeah, or never. I mean, I was not the one who started throwing cake. Who does that? At a wedding? Cause, Ryan, was she fighting with me or was she just using me to make a scene to piss off her mom?"

"She's really upset and probably crying on Summer's shoulder right now, Seth. She wasn't using you."

Seth sighs again. "Yeah. But it was still kind of psycho. Sometimes I think she drinks too much."

Ryan keeps looking at the ocean. "She's a good person, Seth. You love her. You should go find her."

Seth stands up and nods. "You're right. You're totally right. Thanks, man." He pats Ryan's head and then he's gone.

Ryan finds cake on his shoes and cleans it off before going back to the wedding.

*

He wakes up because someone is poking him. Ryan opens his eyes and sees Seth.

"We totally broke up, Ryan. She's all, someday we'll be friends and we can't do this anymore and it totally sucks."

"Sorry," Ryan says and sits up. "Sorry." He pulls Seth into a hug.

Seth lies down next to him and says, "I might get a little weepy, but you promise not to tell?"

"Promise. Go ahead and stay." Ryan closes his eyes again and feels Seth warm against his back.

*

Seth mopes for a week. In between playing video games and listening to his depressing music in his room, Seth hatches plans to get Marissa back. "I could, like, go to Italy. Did I tell you she's in Italy?" Seth doesn't wait for Ryan to reply. "She makes this huge scene at the wedding and in return, they send her to Italy with Caitlyn. That can't be right, can it? I get grounded, she goes to Italy. But, see, I think I could get out of it and go to Italy. And picture it, Ryan: she turns around in some scenic Roman café and there I am, with flowers and stuff. We make up; we wait for Caitlyn to go to sleep and everything's back to right as rain."

Ryan nods. It won't happen. Ryan knows it, Seth knows it.

After two weeks, Seth stops talking about plans to get Marissa back. He calls Marissa in Italy and doesn't say anything to Ryan about how it went.

*

"He's really depressed," Sandy says after Seth leaves without having breakfast.

Kirsten says, "It takes time. Getting over your first love."

Ryan nods. Sandy says, "It's like the five stages of grief."

"I think he's moved into acceptance," Ryan says. "He'll be better soon."

"Okay," Kirsten says. "I bet you're right. I just hate seeing him so sad. Seth doesn't do sad well."

Ryan finds Seth sitting on the dock, looking at his boat. "Going back to giving lessons?"

Seth shrugs. "Next week. Probably. I'm kind of getting good at this wallow."

"Is that what you want to get good at?"

"Better be good at something, right? Can't get far just being good at being a loser."

"You're not a loser."

Seth kicks his feet. "Okay, then." He stands up. "Come sail with me?"

"Do I have to?"

Seth gives the puppy dog eyes and Ryan agrees. Somewhere too far out to swim back, Seth says, "When we first kissed, she was all, 'I didn't think you'd be any good at that.'"

"Yup."

"And on New Year's, we were at that stupid party and she said she'd never thought she'd be so happy to spend a whole party talking to Seth Cohen."

"So she was basically completely surprised that she was happy with you." Ryan smiles.

"Sure. I mean, so was I. I mean, Marissa Cooper giving me the time of day and actually talking to me, holding hands in the hall." Seth does some thing with the sail. "But now it's over. Completely over. You think next year's going to suck?"

"Nope." Ryan squints and decides he's not feeling queasy. Not at all. He hates sailing. "You know, you and Marissa will be friends. Like me and Anna."

"Anna hates me."

Which is true, so Ryan shuts up.

*

Ryan drags Seth to a Newport party. Summer came by the Crab Shack just to invite him, so he assumes it's for Seth's sake. Seth ends up sitting in a circle with four of Marissa's friends, playing quarters. Seth's made friends with all of Marissa's popular pals. It never really extended to Ryan, but he doesn't mind. Ryan drifts off to the beach to watch the waves come in. Summer comes up and says, "Wanna beer?"

"Thanks."

"Okay, so Cohen's back on the path to happy. And without the use of little pills, so I count that as a good. Cause, look at my stepmom? So not the way to go." She sips her own beer.

"So I've heard."

"From who? Is Cohen talking? Because that's just lame. Lame! You say things to someone in confidence, because he's totally your best gay friend except not technically and then he's all repeating everything --"

"I heard it from you, Summer." He grins.

"Oh." She takes a long drink from her beer. "You know, if Seth were technically gay, he'd be a much better dresser. No more gross t-shirts over button downs, no more grungy little skater jeans. He'd look good." She shrugs. "Not good enough for me, of course."

"If he were gay, Summer --"

"I know, I know." She nudges his hip. "Wanna sneak off into the bathroom?"

He looks at her in her bikini and thinks about it. Not like Seth would mind. But he knows what he wants. "You can do better."

She sighs. "That is totally true." She goes back into the party.

Later, Ryan finds Seth drunk, leaning against a closed door to some bedroom. Seth says, "I was looking for you, man."

"Found me." Ryan drives Seth home and gets him up to his bed.

Seth says, "Did you have fun?" For a minute, he looks completely sober.

"I guess."

"Cause I sort of did, but I kept looking for you. Have I been a bad friend?" Seth blinks and looks drunk again.

Ryan shrugs. "Don't worry about it." Ryan hasn't had much need for any kind of good friend this year, everything's been pretty easy. Easiest he's ever known. Seth's the one who has all the drama and need for support.

Seth closes his eyes. Ryan takes Seth's shoes off and pulls the covers over him.

He wakes up in his own bed and it's still dark. Which is weird. Then he sees Seth looming over him which is less weird. "Hey," he says.

"I'm feeling kind of sober. And I wanted to make sure we're good. I know I've been all up in my own stuff with Marissa, for, like, a while."

"That's not wrong."

"No, I know, that's what's been happening but I think --"

"I meant," Ryan says, and turns over. "I meant, it's not wrong that you've been mostly with Marissa and dealing with her stuff. You love her, she was your girlfriend. I was fine. Still fine."

"Well, but now I can be here for things. Not fine things. Like, you know, maybe you want to get back together with Anna? Eying the crazy honeys from the girls soccer team? I know some of them now."

Ryan smiles and turns on his side. "Seth, it's fine."

Seth settles in pressing against his back, tugging on the covers. "Okay, here's the plan. The new Seth plan. Marissa's gone all summer and when she gets back, I'm gonna be over her. And I'm gonna spend as much time as possible hanging out with you, taking an angst and drama break. Like, maybe? Possibly? Forever. No more drama. We're gonna live the life Mary J Blige promised us, Ryan. Do you like that plan? Does that work? Marissa says I was always planning for her."

Seth likes to plan. Ryan says, "Okay."

"I'm choosing me, Ryan. I'm choosing you. No more drama."

Ryan's willing to see if Seth really means it.





THE OUTSIDER: RULES OF ORDER


Ryan: It's my fault. If it wasn't for me, you never would have met him. Luke wouldn't be in the hospital.


It hurts worse than any beating he's ever taken and he can't breathe at all. Then it's black everywhere and he stops.

He dreams that Tom Hanks leans over his bed and says he loves him and he knows that now. And then Susan Sarandon tells him he's bleeding all over her shoes. He tries to say sorry but there's something in his throat. And everything still hurts.

He wakes up in a hospital room. He must have gotten shot. He feels pretty calm about that so he assumes he's on painkillers.

Nurses, doctors and then the Cohens lean over him. Kirsten says, "You're going to be okay. The doctor told you that, right?" He nods. "I'm so glad you're going to be okay." She hugs him awkwardly around the tubes and bandages.

Seth brings comic books. "I know this was all my fault. I get that. But I won't do it again, okay? I'm really sorry."

"I think this is Donnie's fault, Seth." Ryan tries to move his hand and pat Seth's fingers on the edge of the bed. He could reach, but he's floating and moving is too hard. "Or mine. I'm the one who told you he was cool."

"It's definitely not yours. Mine, maybe, and okay, Donnie's. But he's in jail and Dad thinks he'll actually get off pretty easy which is just stupid. The criminal justice system is so wrong in this country." Seth smiles tentatively.

"Let me off, so I can't complain." Ryan can manage a smile. Seth smiles more and reaches for the comic books.

Summer brings a gift basket and talks his ear off about how brave he was to save them all and she was so wrong about him. Luke comes, too, holding Marissa's hand and says the same thing only with less words. Marissa looks at Luke a lot and doesn't meet Ryan's eyes.

It's a week before he can go home. He'll be fine in time for school, the doctors tell him. The Cohens insist on moving him into the guest room so he doesn't have so far to walk to the kitchen. Sandy and Seth carry the TV from the pool house into Ryan's new room so Ryan guesses they expect him to stay here when he gets better. He likes that idea.

He lasts ten minutes at Caleb's birthday party. He sees Marissa come in with Luke and he watches Caleb's girlfriend eye him from across the room. He goes to his room and sits on the bed, reading comic books Seth's left for him. After half an hour, Seth comes in and takes one from him. "I thought Summer was here," Ryan says.

"Sure," Seth says. "But she's just drooling over every investment banker she can find which is a lot. It's boring. More fun with you."

Luke comes by the next day, again, and brings video games. Seth stands in the doorway and looks horrified. "Seriously, I've been really thinking about things, Ryan, and I think we could be friends."

"That's, that's great, Luke. Thanks." Ryan sits back on the bed.

Seth steps in and says, "Really, Luke, wow. But Ryan needs his rest. We'll see you when school starts, okay? Great."

Summer comes by with another gift basket, this time it's all bath stuff. She sits on his bed and describes each item as she takes it out. "And this one will totally moisturize your skin. Like, all those hard summers working in the fields in Chino? Smoothed away." She grins and holds the plastic bottle out to him. "Try it!"

Ryan doesn't expect the Seth brush-off this time but it comes anyway. It's more "good to see you" and less "dear god, get out of my house now" but Summer only lasts ten minutes.

Over the next week, all the moisturizers and exfoliating scrubs and bath salts disappear from Ryan's bathroom. He's pretty sure they end up in Kirsten's.

He spends the last two weeks of summer home at the Cohens, hanging out with Seth. They read comic books and play video games and swim in the pool talking about video games and comic books. The Cohens keep waiting for Ryan to be traumatized by the shooting. He isn't. He's seen guns before, seen people shot. He's been beaten and abandoned. This has been the easiest thing to happen to him in years.

His first day at Harbor, Luke sits next to him in one class and Summer in another. Marissa says a tentative "hey," when she sees him in the hall and they even talk briefly. But she's with Luke and Ryan gets it, it's over. At lunch, Seth brings over Anna and they sit and complain about assignments and all the work they have.

Ryan had friends back in Chino, people he should call. School's started and Theresa is sitting down with their friends and probably talking shit about him. He decides to call her when he gets home from school.

On their second day, Anna pulls an inch thick pile of flyers out of her bag. "Okay, guys, we need extracurriculars. I think we should all sign up for at least two."

Seth nods and starts looking at the flyers. "Okay, chess club: no. None of us are that low yet. Sports: out for Ryan, doctor's orders." He starts rifling through the flyers and Anna slaps his hand. Ryan wonders why he needs extracurriculars at all, but Seth and Anna are thinking about college. Ryan should, too. He thinks college and decides to pay attention.

"Organized, Seth. We're being organized."

Seth and Anna decide on the lit mag together. Seth talks Ryan into Math Team, "which is lamer than Chess Club, but unlike Chess Club can sometimes get you extra credit and it totally helps on your SATs and you'll be able to beat up everyone on the Team even in your weakened state." Ryan wants to do well in math, but he won't say it out loud. It's scary enough as a thought in his head.

Anna holds up the last flyer and says, "Okay, Model United Nations. Seth?"

"No. They'll talk about Israel."

"Israel," Ryan says.

"See, I can't talk about Israel. People assume that I have an opinion because I'm Jewish and maybe they've met the Nana, but I really truly don't. And to not have an opinion has taken some truly spectacular work on my part, seriously. It's hard, there's two sides to every story and there's like 5 hundred to this one and I won't do it. Sorry, man."

"Okay," Anna says, clearly trying not to laugh. "But you have two already and Ryan and I don't. I don't have any issues with Israel, how about you, Ryan?"

He doesn't.

At the informational meeting for Model UN the only speaker is the club president. He's crazier than Seth. "You guys have to understand, this is our year where we have to shine. It's an imperative. Two years ago, this Model UN club was disgraced in the eyes of the world and the Harvard Model UN by behavior I will not even attempt to describe. We have not been invited back. We need to show we can rise above that, we need to go out there, to the Model UNs that will accept us, and we need to win awards and prove that Harbor is not just a haven of degenerate teens run wild, but a serious club that can kick some ass." Ten people clap. Anna looks at Ryan with fear in her eyes.

They sign up anyway.

So he has school and Math Team and the research for Model UN. Kirsten decorates the guest room and Sandy calls it "Ryan's room" often enough for Ryan to believe it. Seth even makes a nameplate and then because "it would be pretty minty for only you to have one," he makes one for his room and Sandy and Kirsten's. That one comes down pretty quick. Ryan likes his, though, even if it is very green. Seth adds a little picture of the United Nations building and a picture of Einstein after a month of school.

The Math Team meetings are long and like taking a very hard math test once a week. The other guys on the Team (and there's only one girl there every week) are all, as Seth said, kids he could have beaten up before he got out of the hospital. They all do better than he does with the first damn test.

But he gets better at the tests. The Algebra in class makes more sense when he thinks about the questions he had the week before on Math Team. He gets a C on his first quiz and a B+ on his second. Math Team, scary enough, is helpful.

*

"And we're Zambia, which Brian tells us with a clearly heavy heart --" Anna says, laughing.

"We'll never get to be a Security Council country, like the US or France or the UK," Ryan says.

"And he sounds so sad when he says the UK," Anna says. "Like that's the worst thing ever --"

"Maybe he's a big Anglophile." Seth is sitting on the floor opposite Ryan and Anna, laughing, too. "I just want some crumpets and scones to soothe my soul." Seth does a horrible English accent.

"Brian could use a lot more than crumpets and scones." Anna rolls her eyes. They have a pile of books and print-outs about Zambia and issues of vaccination in Africa. "You know, when you really think about it, it's appalling. How the West –-"

"Whatever," Seth says. "I'm not in Model UN, I don't have to care. I'll let you guys do it."

He's halfway out the door when Anna springs up and says, "Seth, wait a second. Can I talk to you, privately?" And then she walks out after him.

She should be asking him out. She likes him, she's said it to Ryan in not so many words. And Seth thinks she's great. Ryan wonders what Seth will say, though. It's been a long time since Seth went off about Summer being the best ever or talked about Anna is the most perfect girl in the history of Seth. Mostly, he thinks, they talk about school and classes and comic books and video games. It's like their conversations have no girls anymore.

Ryan touches his scar on his shoulder and starts reading the pages about vaccination rates. It was hard to find some of this information but he got Sandy to help. Sandy bragged about it at dinner for three days straight. "Ryan had me help him. I was a real help, wasn't I?" Seth kept laughing at his dad but Ryan sort of liked it.

Turns out, Seth said no to Anna. Ryan says, "Why? You think she's great."

"So? It would just lead to painful recriminations and then the horrible splitting up of the comic books we bought when we were young and in love. Plus, Ryan, this year at Harbor I have two friends which is two more than I've had, like, ever. And I think Phillip from the Math Team is getting to be a close pal which would get me up to three. I don't want to screw that up."

Ryan doesn't push but he knows Seth is lying in there somewhere.

On Thanksgiving day, Trey calls. Seth says, "I'll go with you. Keep you company, you know, long drive, I'll wait in the car for the visit. I just, I could totally go with you."

"Anna's coming," Ryan says. He doesn't want to go alone but he doesn't feel right taking Seth.

"Oh, come on, she loves my parents. They love her. It'll be a lovefest. She'll probably be happy not to have us around for a little bit, making her talk about Zambia and stuff. I'll call her, okay?"

Ryan overhears some of Seth's conversation. Seth says, "I know, I know," and Ryan finally gets it. Anna and Summer aren't the ones Seth likes anymore.

Which should be another reason to say no, along with all the other really good ones. Ryan agrees anyway and he and Seth drive to the prison and then to Arturo's. Theresa and Seth hit it off immediately which is scary.

Then they're finally driving home. "So that was exciting," Seth says. "You got to throw a punch again, getting away from the bad men with the stolen cars, which I bet you liked. Back to the roots. Should have taken a picture of that for the Math Team, huh?"

"Yup." Ryan leans back in the car and thinks he can't wait to go home. All the way home.

He shouldn't let the Seth thing lie, but he does. First Marissa and Luke break up and Marissa comes over after school every day for a week, sitting on his bed and telling him all the things Luke did. She's still beautiful and she needs him but he won't sit close to her. He thinks about it and then he sees the way Seth looks when Marissa comes into the house.

He tells himself he can't do anything with Marissa until he decides about Seth. It's a bad equation but math isn't life. He's getting better at math, he even likes it. But he likes the part where there are formulas and rules. It all makes so much more sense than Seth and whatever Ryan feels for Seth.

Then it turns out Luke's dad is gay and leaving his wife. Luke's had his back all year since the shooting so Ryan ends up with Luke taking Marissa's place sitting on his bed for another two weeks. This time, Seth comes in and plays video games to help in the cheer up Luke operation. Luke's not as threatening, Ryan figures.

*

"And you brought those position papers?" Anna rifles through her bag while Ryan drives. The big Model UN at USC where Brian is convinced they can make their reputation back.

"I brought them, Anna. We don't need them, though, we already submitted them, they'll have them there."

"Just in case, Ryan!" She laughs. "Oh, god, kill me if I turn into Brian, please?"

"It's a promise."

She stares at the road for a moment and then says, "Do you think Luke is over Marissa?"

Ryan glances at her. She says, "He's sort of cute, don't you think?"

"Not my type, but sure. I thought you liked Seth."

She laughs again, with a little more bitterness this time. "Yeah, like Seth could see past --" And she stops. So she knows.

He says, "Summer?" anyway, just because.

"Yup. Good old Seth, obsessed with Summer. Okay, seriously, Ryan, are you blind?"

"No." He keeps his eyes on the road. He really doesn't want to talk about this.

"Okay, then you're just cruel. Because if you know he's totally in love with you and you're still flirting with Marissa and not setting him straight, that's, that's wrong, Ryan." She sounds pretty worked up.

"I'm not flirting with Marissa. I don't want to go out with Marissa."

"Do you want Seth? It's okay if you do, you know." If he could see her, he's sure she'd have that 'I understand if you think you're gay' face. Like it's all so binary, black or white. 500 opinions about Israel, Ryan thinks. He still doesn't have one.

"It's not what you think."

"Then what is it?"

Ryan turns up the radio too loud for conversation. She could turn it down but she doesn't and he's very grateful.

Then they get to USC and go to their committee. At first Ryan is bored but whenever he looks at Anna to see if she's going to make fun of the other people there or something, she has the understanding face. So he raises his hand and starts participating.

He's excited on the drive home. It's the scariest thing of the last five months, getting excited about Model UN. He can understand liking math because that translates to better grades, better SATs, a chance at a good college. But Model UN, that's just wrong. By the time he drops Anna off and gets to the house, Kirsten and Seth are already asleep. Sandy is waiting in the kitchen with a cup of coffee, reading the latest issue of Legion. "Hey, kiddo," Sandy says.

"You waited up."

"I did."

Ryan puts his bag on the kitchen table and says, "That's nice."

"Look at you." Sandy smiles. "You had a good time at Model UN. Admit it, you did."

"Promise not to tell Seth?"

Sandy says, "I solemnly swear. But I'm going to tell Kirsten first thing in the morning." He's beaming again, like Seth got another comic published in the lit mag.

They win an honorable mention award for their committee and Brian is near tears as he hands the certificates to them. "You guys. You guys, this will be our key. We do this again, and Harvard might be ours again. Harvard." Brian hugs them both.

Anna looks horrified. "It's not the hugging, though that was frightening. I was suddenly excited about Harvard. The Harvard Model UN."

On the drive back, she says, "Okay, so it's not what I think. What is it?"

He knew she'd get back to that. He says, "The Cohens are my family now. Seth is like family."

She sighs. "Like family, or family?"

"I don't know. I just keep hoping it will go away."

"Him or you?"

He doesn't have the answer for that.

The Cohens already invited Anna for dinner. She whips out their certificates and waves them around and Sandy and Kirsten practically burst. Kirsten says, "We're getting this framed, Ryan. We can put it up in your room."

"No, thanks," he says, laughing.

"Good, then we can put it up in our room." Sandy looks like he won the lottery.

Ryan looks for Seth, to make sure he doesn't feel bad. He doesn't want Seth to feel neglected. He doesn't. He bites his lip and thinks that's an answer of sorts. Step one in a proof? He thinks about quitting the Math Team if it's affecting his brain like this.

Seth is beaming in the corner. He hugs Anna and then hugs Ryan. He thinks they should hang Ryan's certificate in the living room for all visitors to see. "And we can put candles under it and build a shrine. Maybe some Harvard banner to show what you're really striving for. The Harvard Model UN, guys!"

They have a great dinner from the new Thai place and Anna leaves. Sandy and Kirsten decide to buy a frame right now and drive off. Ryan goes to his room to think but Seth follows. He comes in and leans against the door, closing it. "I can't believe you had fun at Model UN, Ryan. That is so minty."

"I know," Ryan says. He looks up at Seth and says, "Seth." He tries to think of what to say. "I had this dream when I was unconscious, after I got shot, and I thought you were Tom Hanks."

"Tom Hanks? Oh, god. Not old Tom Hanks, right? It was just the hair, right? It wasn't some kind of ugly thing, right?"

"I was on a lot of painkillers." Ryan sighs. "Anyway, Seth, that's not the point."

Seth's face falls and he says oh like all the air has been sucked out. Then he looks at his feet.

Ryan says, "Seth." He needs to think of more to say.

"You know," Seth says quietly. "You know, let's not worry about it, okay? I'm fine, you're fine, let's just pretend it never happened."

"No," Ryan says. No pretending. "I just, um. I'm not sure where I stand here."

"Over there?" Seth sounds like he's whispering. And it's killing Ryan to hear him.

He gets up and goes to Seth. He holds Seth's face in his hands. And when he kisses Seth, he knows for sure. Not family.

When Sandy and Kirsten get home, they've pretty much decided not to tell for a little while, or a long while, maybe. And to do more than kissing when they get a chance.

Kirsten puts the certificate in the ornate wood frame they bought and hangs it in the living room. Seth tells her it's uneven and Sandy agrees and Ryan sits on the couch and laughs. Another good day of many.

THE END.

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