the laughing tale of the fool (laughingtale) wrote,
the laughing tale of the fool
laughingtale

The Return (The OC)

Title: The Return
Author: wordsaremyfaith
Fandom: The OC
Pairing: Ryan/Seth
Warnings: None.
Word Count: 8,742
Disclaimer: I don't own these characters and I'm making no money off of this.


Chapter 1: The Request
Brring!

The doorbell startles Ryan out of his slumber. As his eyes open, he looks around to find that he's fallen asleep in a chair in the kitchen. It must be late afternoon by now. How could he have just fallen asleep like that?

Brring!

Ah, yes, the noise that woke him up in the first place. Someone at the door. Lazily, he stretches and moves to answer it. Where is everyone, anyway?

He finally wrenches open the door and gapes, dumbfounded. "Sandy? What are you doing here?"

"Ryan," his legal guardian, once almost-father, answers, "We need to talk."

"Oh. Um. Right. Come in." Ryan leads Sandy into the small kitchen and waits expectantly.

"Sit down," Sandy says, which is when Ryan realizes that he's the one who lives here and he hasn't been a very polite host. "Oh, sorry. Have a seat." They sit across the table from each other. It's only been a week, but the man across from him seems almost like a stranger. Ryan is reminded of their first meeting, and he feels a sharp pain inside, thinking about where that let to, how the year had turned out. Thinking about the day Theresa went to get the abortion she never went through with, and all of the things he had planned to tell Seth that day that he never got a chance to...

But no. This is a dangerous road, one Ryan can't afford to venture down. "So? What's going on?"

"You have to come home," Sandy says.

"What do you mean? You know I can't do that."

"We need you. All of us. Please, Ryan, come back."

"But –"

"Seth ran away."

"What?" Ryan stares. How could Seth do that to his parents?

"He's gone. In that little catamaran. God knows where. Alone. He probably doesn't even have a compass. Kirsten hasn't gotten out of bed for the past few days. Ryan, think about what this is doing to her. She's now lost three children. Three children," he repeats to himself, still getting used to the idea of that first child, the aborted one. The one he never knew about. It took the loss of the other two to make her open up.

Ryan knows about that almost-child. Kirsten had told him before he left, in an effort to make him understand why Theresa was doing this. He had shrugged her off, but her words had sunken in.

"Please, Ryan." Sandy's voice is near tears. "Come home. For your mother. She needs something to hold on to. I mean, for all we know, Seth could be..." he trails off, unable to face that thought.

Ryan marvels at the words, "your mother." One year ago, it had meant the woman who gave birth to him, who had inadvertently hurt him over and over. Now, it means the rich, smiling woman in Newport who would never let him down. His heart goes out to her. How could Seth make her suffer?

A key turns in the lock and Theresa and her mother step in. Theresa blinks in surprise at their unexpected guest. "Hi, Sandy. What are you doing here?"

"I just came by to see Ryan," Sandy says. "To see how you two were doing."

"Oh. Well, we're great," she responds. "Mom and I were just grocery shopping." She turns to Ryan. "I'm sorry. We would have left you a note, but you seemed to be out cold, and we didn't think we'd be gone so long." She looks at Sandy. "It's good to see you. Stay for dinner."

He looks uncomfortable. "Actually, I've got to be going. It was good to see you, Ryan. Theresa." He starts towards the door, but Ryan stops him. "Sandy, wait. I'm coming with you."

Theresa turns to him. "What?"

He pulls her aside. "Listen. Seth ran away and Kirsten is desolate. She needs someone. It'll just be for the summer. I'll be back before the baby's born."

She looks unhappy, but she understands. "Okay. Thank her for me. And, Ryan?" He looks at her questioningly. "Give her a hug. She'll need it." He nods and follows Sandy out the door, not even bothering to pack a suitcase. He's got very few belongings here anyway, and he knows he's free to borrow anything of Seth's.

Theresa jumps slightly, involuntarily, as the door slams behind them.

***

Chapter 2: The Car Ride
"When did he leave?" Ryan asks immediately, needing to know if all this is his fault.

"About an hour after you did." Sandy's voice is solid, his eyes steady on the road, but Ryan knows that he's hurting.

"Oh." Ryan doesn't know what to say.

"He left us a note. It didn't say much, just that he was unhappy in Newport without you and that he was leaving. He didn't even say where he was going."

Ryan is silent, absorbing this information.

"He also left a note for Summer. There wasn't one for you, Ryan. I'm sorry. We checked everywhere."

"That's okay," Ryan says, and it is. It's not Sandy's fault. Seth's silence said everything, anyway.

For a long moment, Ryan wonders if this is because Seth's been feeling the way he's felt lately: unhappy around his – supposed – girlfriend, thinking that there must be something more than this. He's been staring at Seth a lot lately. But then he dismisses the thought. Of course Seth's not thinking about him that way. Why would he? They're practically brothers. It's really fucked up that Ryan's thinking about Seth like this; it can't possibly and shouldn't be mutual.

Sandy's speaking again and Ryan forces himself to pay attention. "I'm sorry to do this to you, Ryan. You know I wouldn't if the situation were different. You're free to go as soon as Seth gets home. Actually, you're not a prisoner or anything – you can leave any time you'd like. I think it might be nice if you stayed the summer..."

"Don't worry about it," Ryan says. "I'll stay until Seth gets back." He doesn't add, I wish I never had to go back. I wish there was no baby and I could stay here, home, the one place where I've actually got a future. He doesn't add it because Sandy could still make him stay, and as much as Ryan wants to, as soon as Seth's home, he has to go back, to be there for Theresa and the baby. He doesn't have choices these days, just like one year ago, before he ever came to Newport Beach, when he was just some kid who was destined to have no future. It seems bleak, but there it is. He's right back there. Except it's better this time, because now he knows what it's like to have a real family who loves you and wants what's best for you. Which is why he can't stay. Now that he's had this amazing year, how can he deny his kid that kind of family?

Sandy sighs and they pull into the expansive driveway. Ryan has this creepy sense of déjà vu as he gets out and stares up at the house.

"Well, what are you waiting for, kid?" Sandy's voice is gentle. "Mom will want to see you."

He walks up the steps with purpose, and Ryan follows, thinking only of poor Kirsten. He hopes he'll be able to help, no matter how little a difference he makes.

***

Chapter 3: Home at Last
He traipses warily up the too-familiar steps. As much as Ryan wants to be here, he doesn't want to get a glimpse of the life he could be having, only to have it taken away again.

So it is with a reluctant heart that Ryan knocks lightly on Kirsten's door. He is worried about disturbing her.

"What, Sandy?" She sounds weary. Ryan clears his throat. "It's not Sandy. It's Ryan."

"Ryan?" Her voice is suddenly hopeful. "Come in."

So he does. He pushes open the door, and there she is, in bed, looking the plainest Ryan's ever seen her. Her face is un-made up and her eyes red, as though she's been crying for days on end. She's under the covers, in some kind of nightgown (Ryan assumes), and there's a box of tissues sitting on the nightstand next to her. Of course, she never really looks plain, not even now: she's still Kirsten, of course, and she always looks beautiful.

"Hey," Ryan says softly, not knowing where to look. This feels strangely intimate, which makes him uncomfortable.

"Hey," she replies, matching his tone. Something has happened to her since he left. Her eyes seem duller, somehow, like his and Seth's leaving has zapped the energy out of them. He remembers thinking of her eyes as alive. He wouldn't describe them that way now.

How could we do this to her? he wonders, a bit sickened. It's not like neither of us had a choice. It's the first time he's admitted to himself that he didn't actually have to leave, but chose to. Even if it didn't (and still doesn't) feel like a choice.

Enough. He forces himself to be here, with his mother.

"Are you okay?"

"I am now." Her glowing smile convinces him that he definitely made the right choice in coming back for the summer.

He grins back. "I missed you."

"Oh, Ryan." She pats the bed. "Come, sit." He does.

"I'm just here for the summer," he tells her. Her smile fades, but only a little. The important thing is that he's here now. "I promise I'll keep in touch when I go back to Chino." If Kirsten notices that he says "Chino" and not "home," she doesn't mention it.

"Of course you will," she responds, as if the idea of letting him go completely has never occurred to her. "You're our son, aren't you?"

Damn it. Being here hurts. "Yeah." A tear wells up in his eye and he has to turn away from her. What happened to not showing emotion? Since when does Ryan Atwood cry?

"I'll be right back," he says, running to the bathroom to get rid of the lone tear before it makes itself obvious. When he gets back to Sandy and Kirsten's room, she's up and dressed.

"Want to go out for lunch?"

"I'd love to," Ryan says.

"Great. Let me just grab a purse. Where's Sandy?"

"Still downstairs, probably."

"Oh. Well, can you get him? Where do you want to go?"

"I don't know."

"Okay, we'll figure it out." He turns to go. "Ryan?"

"Yes?"

"Thank you," she says softly.

He doesn't know what to say to that, so he nods at her and goes to find Sandy.

***

Chapter 4: The Little Dumpling
Two weeks later, the phone rings. Ryan doesn't usually answer it, but Sandy and Kirsten are out, and whoever is calling is persistent. They haven't left a message, but they've called enough times that he's considering picking up the phone.

One more ring convinces him. "Hello?"

"Ryan?" Ryan's mouth drops a tiny bit. Someone's calling here for him? Marissa doesn't know he's here. Luke's gone, as is Seth. And it's not like Summer would ever call him. The voice is male, anyway. And sounds vaguely familiar. Actually, it sounds a lot like...

"Arturo?"

"Yeah, man, it's me." Ryan needs to sit down for this. "Listen, I hate to bother you, but Theresa miscarried. She's at the hospital right now and she keeps asking for you. You think you can get here?" His tone is light but sarcastic, as though Ryan isn't worth his time if he says no.

"Of course." Ryan wracks his brain, trying to come up with a way to get there, since Sandy and Kirsten have the car. "I'll be there as soon as I can get there."

"Thanks, man." Arturo's voice is flooded with relief. "See you soon."

"How is she?" Ryan asks, but Arturo has already hung up. "Now what?" he mutters to himself.

Summer. She has a car. He can't call Sandy and Kirsten – he doesn't want to interrupt their evening. And he certainly can't call Marissa. She doesn't even know he's here.

"Hello?" She sounds irritated to have to answer the phone.

Ryan swallows. "Summer?"

"Who is this?" He can picture her eyes narrowing on the other end of the phone. "Seth?"

"No, it's Ryan."

Now she sounds genuinely surprised. "Ryan? What's up?"

"I was wondering if you could give me a ride. To the hospital. Sandy and Kirsten are out –"

"Say no more. Be right there."

Click.

Well, that was easy. Easier than he thought it would be.

Summer must not have been far away, because she gets there five minutes later. She runs up to the door. "Ryan? What's going on? Who's in the hospital? What hospital are we going to?"

"It's Theresa," he responds, hearing her sigh in relief. "She had a miscarriage. The hospital's in Chino. I can direct you there."

Summer looks at him sympathetically, without asking anything more. They are at the car. "All right. Get in."

Ryan directs her to the hospital. Otherwise, they don't talk.

When they get there, Summer parks and gets out of the car with Ryan.

"What are you doing?"

"Going in there with you."

"Why?"

"You don't seriously expect me to drive an hour to drop you off without knowing what's going on or how you're getting home," she states. In that moment, Summer sounds so much like a mother.

"Actually, yes, I did. But since you're so set against it," Ryan reluctantly says, "Come on."

They walk right into the waiting room, and Summer scrunches up her nose. "Um, why does it smell in here?"

Ryan gives her a look. "Summer, just go with it. Okay?"

"Fine, Chino. Whatever."

They stare each other down for a long minute. Finally, Summer gives. "All right. I won't say anything. Even though it does smell like-"

"Summer," Ryan warns, "Don't say it."

"Okay, okay."

They walk silently up to the desk. "Hello. Theresa Ramirez's room, please?"

"Room 146. On your left."

"Thank you," Ryan says, leading Summer down the long hallway.

She looks around. "No elevator?"

"Summer."

"Why is she on the first floor? Does this hospital, like, only have one floor or something?"

Ryan doesn't respond. "Oh my god, it does? That's so ghetto, Chino."

"I thought we were clear, Newport," Ryan says. "And what's up with calling me 'Chino?' I thought we were past that."

She shrugs. "I don't know. Seth's gone." He waits for an explanation beyond that. When one doesn't come, he says, "And...?"

She just looks at him. "Seth's gone? That's your explanation? What the-"

"146, Ryan," Summer says, poking him and simultaneously pointing at the door. 146. Right.

"Maybe you'd better wait here," Ryan says.

"Are you kidding? And miss all the action? I'm coming in," Summer declares.

When they walk in, Theresa smiles palely up at them. "Hey, guys."

Though Arturo and her mom are right there, Ryan is instantly kneeling at her side. "Hey." His voice is soft, tender. His concerned voice, Summer realizes. "How're you doing?"

"Not so great," she says. Her gentle smile clashes with her words. "It turns out that, as much as I didn't want to be a mom, I'd actually gotten pretty attached to the little dumpling. See? I even named it. Kind of." She giggles, but Ryan knows she's masking her pain.

"Hey, guys?" He says to Mrs. Ramirez, Arturo and Summer. "Can we have a minute?" Mrs. Ramirez and Arturo immediately leave, but Summer is slower to get the message. He stares at her.

"What? I'm leaving!"

When the door closes behind her, Ryan takes Theresa's hand. "So how are you really?"

She instantly bursts into tears.

"Shhh," Ryan says, wrapping his arms around her. "Okay. I'm here."

When she finally stops sobbing, he pulls back and looks at her. "Do you want me to come back?"

"Well..."

"Theresa. Forget the Cohens. Forget your mom and Arturo. Do you want me to come back?"

"Yes," she whispers.

"Okay."

Well, that's that, then. Ryan loves Sandy, Kirsten and Seth, but if Theresa needs him, even for a little while, then he's there.

***

Chapter 5: The Secret
Of course, Ryan won't just leave. He'll go back to the Cohens' house first, to tell them before he just takes off. He's not irresponsible and insensitive, not like some people. If he gets back and they're not there yet, he'll wait for them to come home so he can talk to them in person, not just leave a goddamned note for them to find on the kitchen table.

Ryan kisses Theresa on the cheek, promising to return tomorrow. She'll be out of the hospital in a few days, and he'll go back to Chino with her. There's no point in going before she's there.

He walks somberly out of the room. Summer is waiting right outside, ready to take him home.

"So?"

"I'm going back to Chino."

"What? You can't go back. Ryan... Why?"

"To take care of Theresa."

"What about the Cohens? What about Seth? What about me? What am I supposed to do when you leave?"

Ryan is surprised at this. "What do you mean? We haven't hung out at all since I've been back. You knew I was here, but we've never done stuff just the two of us. And I'm not up to hanging out with Marissa. So what are you talking about?"

"I'm lonely," she admits. "I hate my friends, and Coop's a drag now that she's drinking again."

"She's –"

"Don't say it," Summer says softly, echoing Ryan's earlier words to her. She hears his voice harden with that one word and knows the anger that will come out if she lets him continue. But Summer, too, is tired and angry. Angry at Seth for leaving, angry at Marissa for drinking, angry at the stepmonster for existing and at Ryan for starting this chain of events that has left her high and dry. That's probably not fair, but she doesn't care. She doesn't want to be alone anymore, or angry anymore, and she doesn't want to hear Ryan voice her own feelings towards Coop. She's had enough. "I know. I think so too. Which is why I haven't hung out with her since the day after you left. I have no one here, Ryan." She knows she's begging, and it doesn't suit her. Since when does Summer Roberts ask a guy to stay around for her? There are always other guys and other friends to chill with. But, suddenly, there aren't. If Ryan goes back, there's no one.

"Really?" He is skeptical.

"Yes," she admits. "God, I miss Seth. I hate the asshole, but I miss him like crazy."

"Me too," Ryan says.

"So stay."

"Theresa needs me."

"There will always be some girl who needs something, Ryan. Stop saving people. Learn to live for yourself."

He looks at her, and for a moment she thinks he's actually considering what she's said. But then he says, "Theresa's not just some girl, Summer."

"I know."

"I can't let her go through this alone."

"I know." She is defeated. "Come on, let me drive you back to the Cohens' to get your stuff." She starts walking away quickly, expecting Ryan to follow.

"Summer," he pleads, catching up to her. "You don't understand."

"Yes, I do. You love her."

Ryan almost laughs at that. "No, I don't."

"I don't believe you."

"Trust me, Summer. There's nothing – She's a good friend, and she needs someone. But that's all."

"Really."

"Really! How can I make you believe me?"

"I don't know. Is there someone else?"

"Well..." Ryan trails off, thinking about Seth. "There might have been. But no."

"Coop?"

Now his face is cold again, and she regrets bringing up Marissa. "No. Someone... different."

"Ooooh, really? Who?" Summer is excited now, thrilled at the prospect of knowing something secret about Ryan, something that no one else knows.

"No one. You don't know hi- her."

Summer could have sworn Ryan almost just said "him," but she must have misheard. "How do you know? Try me."

They are back in the lobby at this point. Summer stops walking to stare at Ryan, trying to break down his defenses. His face turns bright red, and he turns away. "Just trust me. You don't."

As they walk outside, Summer stops again. "Uh-uh. You're not getting in the car until you tell me."

"Summer!" he groans. "Why do you care so much?"

"I don't know. Why won't you tell me?"

Damn. This girl is good.

"Well, it's just that – I don't know how to say this, Summer, since I've never said it to anyone before, but," he takes a deep breath, "I'm gay."

Summer gapes. So he was about to say "him." Well, this is an unexpected twist of events. "But what about Coop? And Theresa?"

"Hero complex."

"There has to be more to it than that."

"I'm not going to say I never had feelings for either of them, because I'd be lying. But the feelings were never as strong as what I felt for guys. So I guess I'm bi, but more gay than straight."

"You told Coop you loved her!" Summer accuses. Ryan avoids her eyes.

"I did like her a lot."

"Why would you tell her that?"

"I didn't want to lose her to Oliver. And I thought I would still come to love her. I just didn't... yet."

That's reasonable, Summer supposes. She hasn't been feeling particularly loyal to Marissa lately anyway. There's something about it that doesn't seem right, though.

"Okay, fine. So who's this mystery guy?"

"Please don't ask me to tell you more than that." This has to be hard for him. Ryan doesn't beg. But then, neither does Summer, and she was doing a pretty good impression of it earlier.

"Please?"

"No."

What would possibly make Ryan this set against telling her? Sure, they're not that close, but he just told her his deepest secret. Why would he still feel the need to hide anything? Unless...

"You're in love with Seth!"

Ryan pales under the streetlamp in the parking lot. "I'm right! You are!"

"Don't hate me," he says meekly.

"Why would I hate you? You two make perfect sense, actually. I'm amazed I didn't see it sooner."

"What is this 'you two'? Just because I'm in love with him... I mean, Seth doesn't feel that way about me."

"How do you – Ryan. Get in the car. How do you know?"

He gets in. "Well, if he did, then why did he leave? And why did he leave a note for you and Sandy and Kirsten, but not for me?"

"Oh, my god, you are so oblivious. He left because you left. That's what his note said. It said he couldn't bear to be in Newport without you, and that he loved me but he didn't think he could make it work. He loves you, idiot. And he didn't leave you a note because he was mad at you for leaving, probably."

Ryan gapes at her. "He really said that? That it was because of me and he couldn't be with you?"

"Yes. Are you still going back to Chino?"

"Yes. No. I don't know," Ryan groans. "I'll figure it out tomorrow."

Summer puts music on, a mix CD Seth made her months ago. Ryan smiles in recognition of some of the songs. They don't talk the rest of the way back to Newport. There's nothing else to say.

When he gets inside, Ryan meets an angry Sandy and distraught Kirsten. "Where were you? What do you think you're doing? Why didn't you call?" Sandy demands. Kirsten blows her nose. Her eyes are red.

Fuck. He forgot to call and tell them where he was. How could he be so forgetful? He can't keep playing with people's emotions like this, even if it's unintentional.

"I was at the hospital. In Chino. Theresa had a miscarriage. Summer drove me." His sentences come out the way he's feeling - disconnected, unsure.

Their faces instantly soften. Ryan can't deal with this right now. He's too exhausted. "I'm really sorry I didn't call. I meant to. I'm going to bed." He doesn't wait around for a reaction, hurrying instead to the pool house. Maybe - hopefully - everything will be clearer in the morning.

***

Chapter 6: The End of the Summer
When Ryan wakes up, he immediately feels disoriented, forgetting for a minute where he is. Then he remembers: the pool house. He groans audibly, thinking about the way he left things last night. Sandy and Kirsten will probably never trust him again. He doesn't blame them.

He gets dressed and walks back to the house, dreading the inevitable conversation. The conversation that will probably go something like: "Ryan, you need to stop being irresponsible and making us worry. If you're going to stay here, we're going to have to go over some rules. Otherwise, maybe you should go back to Chino with Theresa." Though, of course, he might do that anyway. Still, it's different to decide that himself than to hear them telling him to leave.

Sandy is in the kitchen, eating a bagel. "Ryan, hey. I think we should talk about last night."

"I know," Ryan says. "I'm really sorry. I didn't mean to make you worry. I promise to call next time. Not that there will be a next time."

"It's okay," Sandy says, and Ryan inwardly breathes a sigh of relief. "I mean, it's not okay that you forgot to call us, but I know you meant to. You're a responsible person, Ryan. I know that."

Ryan doesn't know what to say. Sandy continues: "What are you planning to do?"

He blinks, surprised. "What?"

"Well, are you staying here? Are you going to go back with Theresa?"

"Um, I don't know. I told her I'd go back if she needed me, but I'm not so sure that's really the best idea."

"I have to be honest, Ryan. I don't think it is a good idea. But you're going to do what you think is right; I know that. However, I think that it's not fair to anyone for you to leave again. Especially Theresa. She needs to learn to survive on her own, without you around to protect her. Because you're not always going to be around. And, of course, I want you here for my own selfish reasons, but that shouldn't influence your decision. I think you should think about this more before you decide anything."

Sandy understands more than Ryan would have given him credit for. "Thank you. I'm going to see her later today, if that's okay."

"Of course it's okay. Take the car. You shouldn't have to rely on us or Summer to drive you."

"Thanks," Ryan says gratefully, suddenly hungry. He grabs a bagel and begins buttering it with a fervor. "How's Kirsten?"

"She's fine. She was just a little upset that you didn't let us know what was going on, but she understands. She's still sleeping. I didn't want to wake her."

Good. She's fine. Fine is good. When did Ryan's brain start sounding like Seth?

Right on cue, Kirsten stumbles in to the kitchen, half-awake. "Coffee. Where's –" Sandy hands her a cup. "Mmm, thanks, sweetie." After a few sips, she notices Ryan standing there, unsure what to do. He is visibly awkward.

"Ryan, can I talk to you for a minute?"

"Sure." Okay, here it comes: the ultimatum. At least he's ready for it.

They walk into the living room. Kirsten sits on the couch and beckons Ryan to join her. He sits, still not knowing what to do with himself.

"Are you in love with my son, Ryan?"

What?

"Um," Ryan sputters. This is so not what he thought she was going to say.

"It's okay, you don't have to answer. But he's in love with you. I think you should know that."

Ryan still can't speak. He nods mutely, unsure what the correct response to this information is.

"Don't hurt him, Ryan. If you break his heart when he gets back... things will not be pleasant for you around here for a very long time." Her tone of voice lets him know that this is a huge understatement. So there is an ultimatum after all, just not the one he thought he was getting.

"I won't," Ryan tells her.

"Promise."

"Why would I break Seth's heart? He's my best friend."

"Promise." Her voice gets low, threatening.

"I promise not to break Seth's heart when he gets back."

"Good." Kirsten stands up, dismissing him. "I just wanted to get that cleared up." She starts to walk out of the room.

"Wait," Ryan calls. She turns back to him silently. "If... if I was, would that, I mean, would it be an issue if I stay here?"

"No," Kirsten says softly. "I'd be glad." And with that, she walks out.

Glad? That was about the last reaction Ryan expected her to have. Well, that's one more thing he doesn't have to worry about, at least.

xxx

When he gets to the hospital later that day, Theresa is gone. At least, that's what the nurse tells him.

"She went home about three hours ago."

"Great," Ryan mutters. Aloud, he says, "She told me she'd be here for a few more days."

"Well, that was the original plan." The nurse squints at him. "You wouldn't be Ryan Atwood, by any chance, would you?"

"Yes. Why?"

"She left a note for you." The nurse hands him a folded piece of paper, creased and wrinkled. Well, at least someone cares enough to leave me a note before leaving. He opens it.

Dear Ryan,

By the time you read this, I'll be back in Chino. You're probably wondering why I didn't call you, or wait for you, or something. I'm sorry that this is how you'll find out, but I shouldn't have asked you to come with me. You don't belong in that world anymore. You belong in Newport with the Cohens. You have a future now, Ryan, and that future doesn't include me. I need to learn to make my own life, without relying on you for everything. And you need to move on. If I'd had the baby, things would be different, but I can't ask you to put your life on hold otherwise. Now I need to go home. And so do you. Don't worry about me. I'll be fine. Thank you for everything. I can't believe the sacrifices you would have made for me. I think we'll always be part of each other's lives, no matter how far apart we live. I love you, Ryan. Now go home.

Theresa


There are tear stains all over the note, and Ryan can't stay mad at her for long. He wishes she'd talked to him first, though, before deciding this for him. But mostly he's relieved, both at having the decision made and at its outcome. He can't let this go without talking to her, so on the way home, he calls.

"Hello?" Her voice is weary.

"Hey."

"Ryan, what's up? Did you get my note?"

"Yeah."

"Where are you?"

"Going home."

"Oh. Good."

"Yeah."

She gets right to the point. "So why are you calling?" It's not mean or harsh, the way she says it, just straightforward. Curious.

"I just wanted to talk to you. Make sure you're really okay."

"I am."

"Good."

"Ryan?"

"Yeah?"

"Thanks," she says softly. "For caring."

"Of course," he replies, matching her tone. "I'll always care about you, Theresa."

"Me too."

"Then call me sometimes, okay? Just because I'm not there... we can still talk. It doesn't need to be an emergency."

"You too, okay? I'll miss having you around. And thank Sandy and Kirsten, too. For... letting you go."

"I will."

"'Kay. Bye, Ryan."

"Bye."

xxx

The days pass quickly, now that Ryan knows he's not going anywhere. Quicker than he would have thought with Seth gone. Theresa calls every week just to chat, which they've never really done, but it's nice. Summer comes over sometimes to hang out. They're getting closer. She thinks Ryan's crush on Seth is sweet, but he won't talk about it anymore. She reports that Marissa knows he's back, but she's pointedly avoiding him. Apparently, he's left and come back one time too many. Which is fine with him; he doesn't want to see her, anyway.

He spends a lot of time thinking about Seth. Missing Seth. The way he un-self-consciously wants to be with Ryan all the time. How his unkempt hair falls into his eyes in the morning, before he brushes it. His unique humor, which is just so Seth it couldn't possibly come from anyone else.

So when Summer asks how he's doing, he answers honestly, for once.

"I miss him."

"Me too."

"I've been talking to his stupid plastic horse. That probably sounds ridiculous, but it feels like I'm talking to him. A bit, anyway."

Summer smiles sadly. "It doesn't sound ridiculous. It sounds sweet. I talk to Princess Sparkle about him."

"Oh, right. I always forget that you have one, too."

"Yeah." The sad look is still on her face.

"Do you think he'll come back before school starts?"

"I don't know. I hope so."

"Me too."

"Well, I mean, he can't have, like, actually tried to sail to Tahiti, right? I mean, that's too much, even for Seth."

"I hope not."

"He might have. He was pretty upset."

"What did his note say?"

Summer pulls a worn piece of paper out of her back pocket. "Here."

Ryan opens it.

Dear Summer,

Please don't hate me. Please, please don't hate me.

I don't know if I can make this work.

I can't picture Newport without him.

I can't watch my life go back to what it used to be, before he came. You don't know what it was like, Summer. I was the biggest loser. No one would even acknowledge my existence – except for Luke and his gang of assholes. But then Ryan came and everything was different. I was different. Cool, somehow, if only by association. You didn't talk to me until afterwards, but it was bad. It's all going to go back to the way it was, as if he was never here, and I can't do that.

Because he was here, and he did change me, and I can't pretend.

I can't pretend to be some superficial yuppie anymore. Ryan's the only thing that's kept me sane for the past year. And you, of course. But I can't do this, either.

I need to go. I'm sorry. I know you'll never forgive me, but I hope you'll understand.

I love you. But not in the way you need me to.

Love,

Seth


Silently, Ryan hands Summer back her note. "You keep it with you?"

"That way I always have him with me." Her voice is muffled, and Ryan notices the tears in her eyes.

"God, Summer, I'm sorry. I haven't even thought about how this must be for you."

She sniffles and looks at him. "Yeah, well, it's hard. But I'm okay."

"Is this..." he motions to them, "... are we okay?"

"Of course. You can't help who you love. And," her voice drops, "neither can I."

Her eyes are still wet. Without thinking, Ryan wraps his arms around her. She jumps, then relaxes into the embrace. By the time she relaxes, though, he's pulled away.

"Sorry. I shouldn't have..."

"No, it was nice."

"Oh. Okay." Awkwardly, he tries again. They sit on the bed in the pool house like that for a long time, Ryan holding Summer and Summer trying not to cry anymore. Neither of them needs words; the moment speaks for itself.

***

Chapter 7: Quiet
The day Seth comes home is quiet.

He expects anger, disappointment, tears, yelling, something. Not this. This quiet house that doesn't feel like the house he's grown up in without noise and energy. Maybe it's because he left, but he suspects there's more to it than that. It's been a long summer.

When he walks into the house, he's surprised at the open door. And then the silence hits him. Where is everyone?

"Mom? Dad? Where are you?"

No answer.

Seth stands frozen in the hallway, the front door wide open behind him. "Hello? Mom? Dad? Anyone?"

"They're out."

The disembodied voice comes from the living room, which Seth immediately moves towards. That sounded distinctly like Ryan. But that's impossible. Isn't it?

Apparently not. Seth gapes. "Ryan? Dude, what are you doing here? Why aren't you in Chino?"

"Nice to see you, too," Ryan responds with just a hint of a smile.

Seth groans. "Of course it's nice to see you. I was just wondering why I'm currently seeing you. Unless, of course, you're a figment of my imagination, which is completely plausible right now. Are you? I mean..."

Ryan laughs. "You really don't make it easy to be angry at you, Seth."

"What? Why angry? What did I do?" Seth looks genuinely perplexed.

"You left. Or did you miss that little detail?" Ryan's voice is harder now, edgier.

"You left first," Seth points out.

Ryan sighs, exasperated. "Theresa was having a baby, Seth. Or did you miss that too?"

"No, that I got," Seth responds, feeling himself get angry right back. Then he realizes – "Wait a minute. Was? Did I miss something here?"

"You missed a lot. Your dad came to Chino a few days after you left, talking about you and how devastated your mother was and how I needed to come home. You really don't think sometimes. Did you ever stop to think about how you running away would affect your family? Or Summer? Or me, even? Huh?" Ryan pauses to catch his breath. "So I agreed to come back for the summer. Just for the summer. But then Theresa lost the baby and didn't want me to go back there. Which was a bit of a relief, honestly. But, god, Seth, it's like you don't think about anyone but yourself. Whatever happened to 'divided, someone gets shot?'" Seth looks like he's about to repeat, But you left first, but Ryan doesn't let him. "No. You knew I was just trying to do the right thing. That could have been my kid, Seth. I was there for you all year. The least you could do is be there for me once in a while. You didn't have my back with Oliver, and now this. You just take off when things get rough and expect everything and everyone to be the same as they were before you left. It doesn't work like that, damn it!" Ryan's run out of ammunition and pauses.

Seth just stands there, mute. Is this Ryan, stringing together these long sentences? I guess my influence finally paid off. Just as he's about to smile, he thinks about Ryan's words, which are a slap in the face because of their truth. No, he hadn't thought. Well, that's not really true. He'd thought about how hard he had it and how he needed to get out. But that was about it, Ryan's right. He opens his mouth in defense before realizing that he has none. Ryan has done the unthinkable: left Seth Cohen speechless.

Finally, he says, "Where are my parents?"

"They went out to a movie before dinner," is the weary reply.

"Oh."

"It's been strange without you here. Quiet."

Seth tries to think of a joke but comes up blank. Another first. Ryan's on a roll tonight: two for two.

He looks up at Ryan, whose face is calm now, gentle. It's as though he needed to get all of that out, and now he's ready to forgive Seth. But that can't be the case, because that would be too easy. Right?

Words finally pop into Seth's overwhelmed brain, and he opens his mouth. "I'm sorry. I know it's not much, maybe not anything, but I mean it. I didn't mean to hurt anyone. You're right – I only thought about myself and how lonely I was when you left. I knew I couldn't be here without you. And the Oliver thing – I thought we'd gotten past that, dude. I know I was a really shitty friend – brother – whatever we are. I mean, I don't really think of you as my brother, but..." Ryan looks at him sternly. "Right. Sorry. So not the point. Anyway, I didn't mean to be gone when you needed me."

"Just me? What about your parents and Summer?"

"I left them notes," he says weakly.

"Oh, so that's fine, then – leave a note and you're cleared of all blame and responsibility. Great logic, Seth."

He's not used to Ryan being sarcastic. It's unnerving. Ryan's anger almost makes him sexier, actually, if that's even possible. Seth has long ago gotten used to his feelings for Ryan. Walking on someone changing tends to make feelings like that hard to suppress. He didn't even try with Summer's father, honestly. At that point, he knew he wanted Ryan and was too tired to make the effort.

Now he protests, "No, that's not what I'm saying. I'm saying that I missed you. So much I couldn't breathe, sometimes, just sitting there on the Summer Breeze watching everything pass me by. I went to Luke's in Portland, you know. I even wound up forgiving him for all those years of horror, which, like, I can't believe I could ever have done that, but I did, because it was less painful than thinking that sometime I'd have to come back to a Ryanless Newport and attempt to get through Senior year without you."

He sees something in Ryan's face shift, becoming more... forgiving, maybe. Hopefully.

"I didn't love her, you know."

"What?"

"Theresa. I mean, we've dated, and you know I slept with her a few months before you left-"

"We left," Seth corrects.

"...before we left, but I didn't love her. I don't love her. She's a good friend, and I hope she'll always be that, but..."

"But?" Seth can't read Ryan's face. He really hopes this is going where he thinks it's going.

"But she's not the person I want to be with."

"And who is the person you want to be with?" Seth's eyes sparkle. So do Ryan's.

Ryan gulps. In that second, they both lose their nerve. "Marissa?" Seth asks. The look in Ryan's eyes fades.

"Are you kidding? She needs more than I can give her."

"Finally!" Seth shouts. "A breakthrough! Do you have any idea how long I have been waiting for you to realize that?"

"In my defense, we weren't even together for that long. I mean, first there was Luke, then we dated for a little while, and then there was Oliver, and eventually we dated for another few weeks, and then there was Theresa and the baby. I'd say the time we were actually a couple was about two months, total."

"Your point being...?"

"That's not really enough time to know a person. Or to know how much they need from you."

"True." Seth wishes he'd never asked about Marissa. Honestly, he doesn't really care, as long as Ryan isn't going to start seeing her again. Ever. "That girl is really messed up."

"I know."

The door opens, just as Seth is getting up his nerve to ask if the person Ryan wants to be with could possibly, ever, be him.

"Hey, Ryan."

"We're in the living room," Ryan calls out. Seth hears Kirsten ask Sandy, "We?"

"I don't know," Sandy replies.

All of a sudden there are emotional parents in the doorway. "Seth!" Kirsten launches herself at him. When she's done hugging, kissing and crying, she starts lecturing. "How dare you leave us like that?"

"Ryan left first," Seth says, but he knows he has no argument.

"You know that was different," Sandy, still in the doorway, tells him. "You promised, Seth."

Fuck. The one thing his father could possibly say that would make him feel like the biggest scum on earth. Seth hangs his head, unable to look Sandy in the eye. "I know, Dad."

"Fine. We'll discuss this more tomorrow. How about dinner?"

Thank god. They're not going to chew him out now. Not that tomorrow sounds any more appealing, but Seth's stomach is rumbling, and, really, he hasn't had good food in about a week. "As long as Mom's not cooking."

Kirsten looks mildly offended, but Sandy chuckles. "Of course not. I ordered Chinese. I didn't know you'd be here, of course, but there's probably enough."

Mmm... Seth can practically taste it already. He suddenly stops himself from dashing, head first, into the kitchen, when something else occurs to him. "How did Summer take it?"

He's surprised when Ryan is the one who answers. "Not too well. I've been spending a lot of time with her lately."

"Really?" Seth gapes.

"Well, yeah. What else did you expect me to do?"

"I don't know. I didn't expect you to be here, for one thing."

Ryan smiles. "Summer and I are pretty close now. We understand each other."

Seth just looks at him. He has missed a lot.

***

Chapter 8: The Minty Love
After his parents chew Seth out the next morning, Ryan pulls him aside. "What?"

"We should talk," Ryan says tensely.

"We should. Pool house?"

"Fine." They make their way out to the pool house and Ryan pulls the door closed. Seth sits down on the end of Ryan's bed and waits for the other boy to talk.

Nothing.

Finally Seth can't stand it anymore. "Well, did you have something you wanted to talk about, or are we just out here to stare each other down?"

"Sorry," Ryan says, a slight smile forming on his lips. "I just wanted to talk about what happened. I hate being angry with you, Seth. Especially since I..."

He trails off.

Especially since I...? Since I what? Seth thinks. He can't allow himself to hope, but there is a big piece of him that thinks Ryan might be about to voice Seth's own feelings. So, Seth being Seth, he eggs Ryan on.

"Since you what?" His voice is too eager, and Ryan backs off.

"Nothing. Never mind." Damn it. Seth keeps forgetting that this is Ryan he's dealing with, and the Seth School of Communication doesn't always work too well with Ryan. If he pushes too hard, Ryan will withdraw.

Unless, of course, Seth says it first. "Well, I."

"What?"

"You said especially since I. I was agreeing. I, too."

"Seth?"

"Yeah?"

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"I don't know. I..." Seth gestures around the room with his hands. "This. Us. Why I left."

Suddenly Ryan is all ears. "So why is that, exactly?"

"Um," Seth starts nervously. "Because you did."

"Yeah, I got that. I thought maybe you had some new light to shed on the subject."

"New light, huh? I guess I can do that. Ryan... you don't understand, do you? Newport isn't home without you in it."

Ryan is clearly disappointed by this response, as much as he tries to hide it. "I know, Seth. You told me that already. I'm like a brother to you. I know. I thought you were going to say... something else."

Seth is fed up with pretending that this tension doesn't exist. "Ryan. Stop telling me without telling me. This is ridiculous. We are nothing like brothers, and you know it." Ryan's face falls at this, and Seth realizes that Ryan thinks he's saying they're not close. "We're so much better than brothers, dude. I mean, come on. Would a brother do this?"

Ryan feels himself being kissed at the same moment that he realizes that Seth is trying to say the same thing he is. His eyes pop open and he stares at the side of Seth's head for a long moment, until Seth pulls away, mumbling, "Sorry."

"Why?"

"Um... I guess I misunderstood. I thought you... never mind. I should really be going now. Can we just pretend this never happened?" Seth sweeps out of the pool house before Ryan has a chance to blink. As soon as he catches his breath and processes what just happened, he's out the door, following Seth up to his room, where the taller boy is lying on his bed, talking to Captain Oats.

Ryan stands in the doorway and listens for a minute; Seth hasn't noticed he's there yet.

"...So I kissed him, which, in retrospect, was an extremely stupid thing to do. I just thought, I don't know, that he might feel the same way. Or something. I don't know what I thought. I mean, why does he think I left? Why would I have left if I didn't love him? I don't know what to do, Captain Oats." Seth's voice is full of emotion and Ryan wants to smother him in kisses to make up for what he just did.

At that moment, Seth looks up and sees Ryan standing there. His face instantly turns red.

"Hi, Ryan."

"Hey." Ryan makes a "can I sit" motion with his hands and Seth nods slightly. As Ryan moves to sit at the end of Seth's bed, Seth says, "So, um, if you heard any of that, I wasn't talking about you. I mean, you probably think I was, because of what just happened and all, but you know, the guys in Portland are pretty hot, and it turns out I'm kinda gay. By which I mean completely and utterly gay. Yeah. But, um, so, that wasn't about you, or us, because I don't like you that way, I mean why would I? You're straight, and I'm not stupid, so I wouldn't..."

"Who were you talking about? Luke?" Ryan's amused.

"Oh, god, ew, don't ever say that again. That's just... gross." Seth makes a sour face and Ryan laughs.

"Would it change anything if I said I liked you that way?"

"Um..." Suddenly nervous, Seth doesn't know what to say. Again.

"I'm sorry, Seth. I didn't mean to make you think that I wasn't into kissing you, because I was... am... I just, you surprised me."

"Okay," Seth says, a huge smile spreading across his face. "So what now?"

"Now I tell you that I've been lost without you and you tell me that you were talking about me and that you left because you're in love with me. And then we take it from there."

"Awfully confident about yourself, aren't you?" Seth teases.

"Seth. I heard what you said."

"Okay, okay. You're right. Fine. I admit it. I'm in love with you. That's why I left."

"That's why I came home," Ryan responds, and Seth just looks at him.

"What about the whole martyr complex thing?"

"It wasn't right, being with Theresa. Not when you were so far away."

"Oh."

Silence descends, and Seth starts talking again. "So. When did you and Summer start hanging out?"

"When I needed a ride to the hospital after Theresa miscarried."

"Dude, that sounds like quite a story."

"It is."

"Okay, so, start from the beginning. Don't leave anything out."

Ryan tells him the whole saga, starting with the day Sandy came to bring him home.

When he finishes, Seth says, "Wow."

"Yeah."

"Ryan? Is this... what are we doing?"

"We're being in love," Ryan answers.

"Well, yeah, but, I mean, what are we? What do we tell the parents? What about Summer and Marissa? Not to mention Theresa, if you guys are still in touch or whatever."
"We're... whatever you want us to be, Seth."

"Okay. But what about the rest of it?"

"Summer and your mom already know."

"What? How? This just happened. Are they, like, telepathic or something?"

"They know you, Seth."

"Oh. Right. Um. And Dad?"

"I don't know. I assume if Kirsten knows, Sandy knows."

"Dude, when are you going to start calling them Mom and Dad?"

Ryan makes an uncomfortable noise and looks away.

"Anyway."

"Yeah."

Ryan leans over Seth's legs and kisses him gently. It's sweet and just... right, somehow. He scoots up on the bed next to Seth, wrapping his arms around the other boy, and they sit, cuddled into each other, until Kirsten calls them for lunch.
Tags: [character] kirsten cohen, [character] ryan atwood, [character] sandy cohen, [character] seth cohen, [character] summer roberts, [character] theresa, [fandom] the oc, [pairing] ryan/seth, slash (m/m)
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