Summary: An AU in season II. Seth is learning to cope without Ryan, but when Ryan returns, things still aren't the same.
Previous chapters can be read here
Thanks for being so patient with me. I've been having writers block and then every once in a while RL intercedes. You know they actually want me to work for that paycheck they give me twice a month. Go figure.
And Josh, if you saw my pay check you'd know that I don't own the O.C. or any of it's characters. I harbor no delusions.
Thanks again to TwirlGirlX for proofing. And I soappreciate everyone's reviews. It keeps me going.As another author so eloquently put it, those of you who are silently reading please feel free to let me know what you think.
Thanksgiving passed and you could feel the holiday spirit in the air. A Christmas tree was put up at the pier as well as an oversized menorah. Multi-colored lights were strung around the railings. The holiday shopping rush had started, but Seth made no mention of presents. He never brought up Chrismukkah and Kirsten was worried.
The boys had fallen into an uneasy routine. They went to school together, either using the Range Rover or getting a ride. They came home together, unless Seth had an appointment with Dr. Berger, but she didn’t see them sharing the mornings and afternoons like they used She knew Seth had told Ryan that he had joined a club at school, but she saw the dubious expression Ryan wore when Seth described his comic book club activities.
Kirsten missed Team Ryan and Seth. She missed their begging for a curfew extension. So it was Seth who usually did the begging, but Kirsten had learned to look at Ryan’s eyes. By reading Ryan she had been able to tell if he really wanted the later curfew or if he was just going along for Seth’s ride. She missed their PlayStation marathons. If Ryan played Seth was nowhere near and if Seth was playing, Ryan was in the shadows. Each existed in the Cohen house on their own. Team Seth and Ryan was becoming a distant memory.
Lately, Ryan had become a homework geek. His head was always buried in a book. He studied at the breakfast table. He had a book open while preparing supper or setting the table. He said there was a lot of work to make-up, but insisted that the load was not too overwhelming. Kirsten thought he was hiding behind his school work so he didn’t have to deal with the fact that Seth barely talked to him.
She had asked Seth about it the week before when she had picked him up from his session with Dr. Berger.
“Is everything all right between you and Ryan?”
“Sure.” He didn’t elaborate, but just leaned his head back on the head rest and fiddled with his I-Pod.
Kirsten hated the gadget, because lately Seth used it to tune her out. She resisted the urge to rip the headphones from his ears, and instead put a hand on his chin and turned his face towards her. She motioned at his ears and Seth reluctantly removed them. But he turned from her refusing to meet her eyes.
“This entire summer and fall, all you asked was that we bring Ryan home. Now he’s home and you’re ignoring him.” He didn’t answer. “Seth, look at me. I need you to talk to me. You and Ryan were best of friends. You ran away because Ryan chose to leave our family.”
“You let him leave,” he hissed. He felt the tears prickling at the corner of his eyes. He lifted his shoulder and bent his head slightly to wipe them away before his mother could see he was crying.
“Yes,” she agreed. “We let him leave. We thought it was the right thing to do. You know, your dad and I are human. We make mistakes. Letting Ryan leave was a huge mistake. We’ve all paid for it. But you’re not helping us ease back into a routine.”
“I don’t know what you want from me.”
“If it weren’t for you, I probably would never have invited Ryan into our home. You were invested in having him stay. But Seth, if it weren’t for you, I don’t think Ryan would have wanted to be part of our family. Has something changed? Are you angry with him for leaving; for choosing Theresa over our family?”
Seth shrank in the supple leather seat and played with the knobs on his I-Pod. He suddenly wished he was holding Captain Oats. His toy horse brought him comfort and gave him confidence. Confidence he could use at the moment, because he wasn’t sure what to tell his mother. He felt his mother knead his shoulder. She was trying to reassure him, like when he was small child. But he shrugged her off.
When he didn’t answer, Kirsten asked what was really on her mind. “Are you afraid that Ryan’s going to find out that you were being bullied while he was away?”
Seth didn’t say anything. He didn’t miss the fact that his mother used the past tense. She thought the bullying had stopped. She didn’t realize that it was just as bad as it ever was. As much as he wanted to keep Sandy and Kirsten in the dark about what was happening, what he feared most was that Ryan would find out. Ryan would think he was a wimp. Ryan would think Seth needed his protection. Ryan would start punching and fighting and get into trouble that could land him back in Juvie. All because Seth couldn’t stand up for himself.
“Seth, won’t you talk to me?”
“Can we just go home?” He put the earphones back on and turned his face to the cool glass. “I have a lot of homework to do.”
She hadn’t been anymore successful with Ryan.
“Hey. How’s it going?”
It was early morning. Seth wasn’t up yet. Sandy was out surfing. Kirsten hadn’t even hit the shower yet, eager for her morning cup of coffee. She hadn’t been surprised to find Ryan dressed and bent over an open book. She poured two mugs of coffee, brought one over to the table and then took a seat next to Ryan. She brought her knees up to her chest, and wrapped her arms around them. Her chin was leaning on the top of her knees as she sipped her morning cup of Joe.
Ryan shrugged. “Okay. Thanks for the coffee.” He held up the cup as if to toast her.
“What are you working on?”
“Physics. It’s hard.”
“I don’t miss school.”
“Yeah. Thanks for insisting I go.” He rolled his eyes.
Kirsten couldn’t help grinning. She was glad he could joke with her. “I did my time. It’s your turn now. Then, when you have kids, you can tease them and say the same thing.”
Kirsten wanted to bite her tongue. She searched his face for discomfort or sadness or anger; any reaction that might give her a clue as to how he felt about the baby Theresa and he had lost, because Ryan had never opened up to how he felt about losing his baby. Ryan didn’t flinch. He took a deep sip of his coffee, hiding his face with the oversized mug.
“Ryan. Tell me, what’s going on between you and Seth?”
He stared at his book, his hands hanging down under the table and his shoulders practically hugging the table. He wished the floor would swallow him up. He wasn’t sure how to explain that he wasn’t angry at Seth that he was just waiting for Seth to stop ignoring him. Take P.E., the one class that they shared. Seth always had an excuse to miss. He was constantly getting one teacher or another to give him a pass to the library. Then he would stay there during lunch. The one time during the school day that they could spend together and Seth chose to spend it someplace away from Ryan.
He shook his head, as if shaking the cobwebs from his head. “Hhhmm?”
“Ryan, please talk to me.”
“I don’t know what you want me to say.”
“I want you to tell me how you feel. I don’t want you to tell me what you think I want to hear or what Sandy wants to hear.”
He scratched the back of his head, his eyes flitting around the room, searching for an escape route. He felt like a deer caught in the site barrel of a hunter’s shotgun.
“Let’s start with you and Seth. The two of you are like strangers.”
“Not by choice,” he muttered.
Kirsten’s heart broke in two. So it was Seth who was keeping Ryan at arms length. Seth who was keeping Ryan from settling into their family.
“Seth went through a hard time while you were gone,” she started to explain. She wanted Ryan to understand, but she couldn’t betray Seth’s confidence. “Give him some time to come around.” She laughed. “He practically begged us to force you back home. I was tempted so many times. But I knew you needed to be with Theresa.”
The smile faded quickly when she remembered how Ryan had lied to them; telling them that he had stayed in Chino to help Theresa recover from the loss of their baby, when in fact she had moved away. She could feel the heat rising to her face. All those wasted months, when Ryan could have been home and their family could have healed. All because of Ryan’s stubborn foolishness and all because of her and Sandy’s liberal parenting. They had treated Ryan like a guest instead of a son.
“Chrismukkah is coming.” Kirsten tried to steer the conversation to something more cheerful. “Is there anything you really want? It would make shopping easier.”
“I don’t need any presents.”
“No one needs presents. But there must be something you want.”
For Seth to talk to me, thought Ryan. “Really, I don’t need or want anything. I owe you enough already.”
“You don’t owe us anything,” she admonished. “Ryan, you’re family. You’re a son to Sandy and me.”
He ducked his head, not sure how to respond.
“Come on,” she cajoled. “Don’t be like that. Give me a hint. Seth is so obvious, dropping hints for month beforehand.”
Usually, she thought. There were three weeks left until Chrismukkah and she had no idea what it was that either of her sons wanted for a gift. She had a sinking feeling in the pit of her belly. She felt like the worst mother in the world. Abruptly, she slammed her feet down to the floor, the bottoms hitting it hard and sending a wave of pain through her body. She took her nearly empty mug and spilled the last dregs of her coffee into the sink. Tears welled up in the back of her throat and felt like she was choking them.
She hoped her voice didn’t give her away as she said, “I made an appointment this afternoon with the photographer. For the Chrismukkah photo.”
“Oh. Okay.” It wasn’t like he had anywhere to be after school. He didn’t have many friends in Newport. Luke was in Portland. Summer had always been Zach’s friend and Marissa was dating someone else. Actually, he was relieved about Marissa. He wasn’t sure that he wanted to restart their relationship. The only one who came close to a friend was Lindsay. But they kept each other at arm’s length. He liked her. He liked her more than a friend, and he suspected she did too. But it was too weird. She was practically his aunt. “What time should I be h - back?”
Kirsten noticed he didn’t say home. She felt a small jab at her heart. She opened her mouth to answer just as Seth walked in.
“You know what,” she said instead. “I think today is going to be ‘the Cohens play hooky day.’”
“Huh?” Seth turned to his mother, his brows knitted together and his nose scrunched up.
“Have you finished your present shopping?” She pointedly asked her son.
Seth studied the kitchen tiles. “Um. No.”
“I thought so.” Kirsten turned to Ryan. “What about you?”
Ryan shook his head.
“That settles it. We all need to find presents. God knows your father does too. So I say we get a jump start.”
“What about school?”
“You can miss a day. I’ll call into the attendance office so it’s excused.”
“I can’t miss school,” Ryan said quietly. “I’ve already missed too much.”
“We’ll say your sick. They won’t expect you to come in sick.”
“Who’s sick?” Sandy breezed into the kitchen. His hair was wet and slicked back. His shirt was damp in a few places and stuck to his chest. He was smiling broadly and his voice was full of cheer. He must have caught a few good waves, thought Ryan.
“No one is sick,” Kirsten explained. “We’re all just going to pretend we’re sick so that we can do our holiday shopping. You too.”
Sandy clapped his hands together and smiled devilishly. “Sounds like a great idea. What time do you want to leave?”
Seth looked less than thrilled about his mother’s plan. But every time he opened his mouth to object, Kirsten stopped him. He finally gave up and figured at least he didn’t have to think up an excuse to miss PE. He was free for a day. He went back up to his room and changed. If he wasn’t going to school at least he could be comfortable in jeans and a tee-shirt. He layered a long-sleeve one under it while wondering what he would say to Ryan if they had to spend all day together.
When they got to the mall, it was worse than Seth imagined. Sandy took out his billfold and peeled off crisp new bills for both Ryan and Seth and told them to go off together while he and Kirsten chose their gifts. Ryan tried to give back the money, but Sandy refused.
“You live with us now, and we’re going to take care of you.”
“But I have money left over from my construction job.” He showed them his ATM card. The last paycheck had arrived despite his doubt and besides, there was still the money he had set aside for when the baby arrived. He hadn’t the heart to use it. But Chrismukkah presents were as good a reason to use it as any.
“I know. And feel free to use that if you want. It’s your money. But we’re giving you this money too.”
“You already give me an allowance.” Ryan heard his voice squeak and he knew he should quit arguing. It was a stupid argument, one he hadn’t won with the Cohens yet. But he just didn’t feel right taking their money all the time. Not when he couldn’t ever really be their son.
“Ryan, honey, Sandy and I want you to have that money. Now you and Seth go along and have fun. Spend it on gifts. Spend it on yourselves. We don’t care.” She looked at her watch. “Let’s meet by Book Soup at one. We can choose a place for lunch there.”
“Whatever.” Seth stuffed the bills into his back pocket and started to walk away from his parents, glad to be rid of them, but annoyed that they were forcing him and Ryan to spend time together. They needed lessons on being subtle. He didn’t look back to see if Ryan was behind him, but he could feel him trailing.
“Look,” he said, stopping short. Ryan nearly plowed into his back and mumbled an apology. Seth ignored him. “We don’t have to hang out together. We can do our own thing and meet up a few minutes before we have to hook up with Mom and Dad.”
Ryan shrugged. “I’m cool hanging out. If you are.” He looked at the floor and scuffed his big toe against the tile floors.
Seth shoved his hands deep into his pocket. “Yeah. It’s fine. I just didn’t think you’d want to…” He let his voice trail off. He didn’t look at Ryan; instead he focused on a sign above his head.
“You know,” Ryan said, his voice soft, but the confrontational tone there. “You’re the one who doesn’t talk to me. You’re the one who stopped e-mailing and talking to me when I was in Chino. You’re the one who wants nothing to do with me. I still want to be friends.”
God, Ryan felt like he was in third grade. I’ll be your friend, if you’ll be mine. It felt so juvenile. He just didn’t know how else to put it. Seth had been his best friend.
“I’m still your friend,” Seth whispered.
Ryan raised his brows. “You have a funny way of showing it.”
Seth took three long strides, moving out of the way of shoppers, until he reached a wall. Ryan followed him. “I don’t hate you.”
“Again, you have a funny way of showing it.”
“So tell me.”
“So did you.”
Seth slid against the cool granite wall, until his rear end hit the floor. He drew his knees to his chest and let his chin rest on the top of his knees. A stray curl fell into his eyes. Ryan sat down beside him, ignoring the stares of curious shoppers. They didn’t linger or ask what was wrong and he was glad for that.
“Would you have come back if Dad hadn’t come down to Chino to get you?”
Ryan chewed on Seth’s question, slowly considering what to answer. He finally decided on honesty. “No. I wasn’t planning on coming back. I don’t really belong in Newport. Theresa, she said I did. But I’m not Newport material. I stick out like a sore thumb. You’re my only friend here and now you won’t even be my friend.” Ryan blushed, feeling silly again for the childish words. It all felt so stupid. He should just punch Seth, tell him to suck it in, and let go of whatever grudge he was holding.
“You had Marissa, Luke, Summer, Anna.”
Ryan sighed again. “Luke’s in Portland. Anna’s in Pittsburgh. Marissa’s with D.J. and it’s just too weird trying to be friends and Summer was your girl. She just put up with me because of you.”
“Let’s not go there. Look, Seth, there a couple of times I thought about calling up your parents and asking if I could come back. But every time I thought about it, I would send you an e-mail, just to say hi and you’d ignore it. I’d get a return receipt, deleted without being read. It was obvious you wanted no part of me. So I wouldn’t call. If you and I weren’t cool, there was no point in coming back. Sandy forced me to come back and I wish he hadn’t to tell you the truth, because it’s worse than I imagined.”
He wiped his sweaty palms against his slacks. Unlike Seth, he hadn’t changed from his school clothes. Not that he ever really dressed for school, but Harbor had a dress code and jeans weren’t permissible. Pretty much anything else went. He left a big wet stain on his pants, but he didn’t care. Maybe he and Seth could talk it out. Not that he was much for talking, but if that was the only way he could get things to the way they were, he’d do it. He’d do anything to have Seth be his friend again.
“Just tell me what I have to do to make things right.”
“There’s nothing you can do. It’s not you. It’s me. Just let it go.” He stood up. “You don’t give yourself enough credit. If it wasn’t for you, I would never have hooked up with Summer. Marissa would never have talked to me. Luke would have still been kicking my ass. They were only my friends because of you. You made yourself more of a home in Newport than I ever could. You don’t need me to do that.” He looked at his watch. “We’re going to have to meet Mom and Dad soon. We better go find some presents.”
Slowly, painfully, as if he were an old man with aching limbs, Ryan got up. He and Seth were still nowhere closer to reconciling. He knew Seth was wrong. Maybe he had made it possible for Seth to find a place in Newport but it had been Seth who had made it possible for him to find a place. They needed each other. Alone they were nothing.