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Lions and Tigers and Bears

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“We didn’t break up, we redefined,” Z will say later, when people start to get curious enough to ask. Then she will lean her Christmas-sweater-clad body against Ryan’s matching Christmas-sweater-clad body, tilt her head back, kiss his cheek, and tell Tom or Rachel or whoever was asking, “Breaking up implies some kind of separation.”

In reality, it goes a bit more like this: a week and a half after they really, genuinely do break up, and breaking up doesn’t do anything to help the mess Z has been making of her personal life for years before Ryan Ross ever came along, she’s sitting on the curb outside Dave’s sister’s new favorite club, knees knocking together and bare feet probably picking up a million different diseases in the gutter of the fire lane, strappy heels dangling from one finger, and Ryan steps out, all leather jacket hugging slumped shoulders, gelled-up hair and dazed, stoned smile.

He looks over at Z and says, “Hey, what’s wrong? You keep looking like that and our friends are going to start thinking I broke your heart,” and then, face growing a little concerned, “I didn’t, right?” The breakup itself had been pretty amicable but, she can almost hear him thinking, sometimes the fallout from that kind of thing can be really hard to predict.

Z shakes her head, laughs a little and says, “Nothing to do with you, I swear,” and looks back out at the traffic. She’s sure that will be it, that he’ll walk away, so she raises an eyebrow when he walked over instead, sits next to her on the curb and knocks a leather-clad shoulder against her goose-bump-covered one.

“Come on, what’s wrong?” He asks her, then says, “You can tell me, I swear, I’m a way better friend than I am a boyfriend.”

She snorts, says, “Now that I believe,” which is maybe a little bit not quite fair, since she hadn’t been much of a girlfriend either, most of the time. She does believe it, though, is the thing.

“I don’t know,” she says.

“Yeah you do,” he tells her, and it’s true enough that it should be infuriating, but somehow, maybe just because she’s tired enough, it isn’t.

“Okay, maybe I just don’t want to tell you,” she tries, switching gears. “God, I want a cigarette.”

“There’s a corner store down the street,” Ryan tells her, quirking an eyebrow. “You can tell me your sordid, film-noir secrets on the way over,” and then Z is laughing because okay, alright, she really can never get it right, can she? The bad-idea boys she never should have dated to begin with make the best friends later, and the friend she wouldn’t kiss because she didn’t want to mess anything up isn’t talking to her anyway.

“Alright,” she says, pushing herself off the curb till she’s standing, then turning to offer him a hand up, “Yeah, okay, fine, let’s do this shit. I’m not telling any secrets unless you do, though, reciprocity makes the world go down, or some shit. Mutually assured self-destruction.”

And that’s how they don’t start to get inseparable till after they break up.

Ryan gets a kitten, and this is good, it’s great, it’s a positive step in a mature direction for his life.

Z refuses to acknowledge that he’s done so.

It’s a tricky thing to manage, with a tiny, whisker-faced, furry creature peering up at her through adorable, shining eyes, but she perseveres for seventeen entire minutes. Ryan is baffled the whole time.

“You’re supposed to be happy for me,” he tells her. “Look, look at his little face. How could you not love that face?”

Z takes a hold of the last dregs of her indignation as they try to slip away and reminds him, “You’re supposed to be a dog person. All of our stupid friends are cat people, but you’re supposed to be on my team, you’re supposed to be a dog person with me.”

“I can’t like both?” Ryan sounds a little like he’s laughing at her.

Z decides, “You just haven’t spent enough time around dogs or dog people recently. They’ve infected you with their catliness.”

She peers down suspiciously into the eyes of the kitten who is playing with her shoelace. “You’re not as cute as you think you are,” she tells it.

Ryan laughs, a stupid, snorty giggle, and leans down to pick the little cat up. “He’s exactly as cute as he thinks he is,” and then, looking down at the squirming kitten, “Don’t let her tell you you can’t be anything you want to, baby.”

Then he turns to Z and holds out the still-struggling kitten. “Come on, just get to know him.”

“Well, he clearly doesn’t want to be known right now,” she says, taking the kitten from Ryan’s hands and setting him on the floor. She feels a pang of sympathy when the kitten darts a glance at her, then runs under the cabinet.

Ryan didn’t spend much time with Bones back when he and Z were still ostensibly dating, so it’s probably weird that he’s not entirely surprised when she drops him off on Ryan’s doorstep the week after their conversation outside the club. “You remember Mr. Bonejangles, right?” she asks him from behind giant sunglasses and a floppy hat that render most of her face invisible. “He gets lonely and I’ve got shit to do, I was wondering if you’d be up for dogsitting for a couple of hours?”

“Sure, yeah,” Ryan doesn’t have anything particular planned, and nothing in particular with a dog is generally better than nothing in particular without one, so Ryan holds out his hand for the red leash-handle, which Z hands over before crouching down, tilting down the sunglasses with two fingers to look over the top rim and look the dog in the eye.

“You’re going to be good for Ryan, right?” she asks the him, face still and serious. “You got what you wanted, you don’t have to be home alone, but that means you’ve got to prove you’re mature enough to handle those kinds of choices.”

Bones waves his fluffy white and black tail back and forth a little, a sort of listless, wavering motion as he pants at her till she cracks a smile and ruffles the fur on his neck before standing up and asking Ryan, “It cool if I come back for him around four?”

“Of course. You could stick around for a bit then, too, if you wanted,” Ryan offers, offhand and half not sure why he’s doing it, “Stay for dinner? I think there might actually be food in the house, and we could set something on fire in the yard.” Now that he’s said it, it doesn’t sound like a bad way to spend a Wednesday night.

Z smiles, tells him, “That sounds great, but I’m actually supposed to meet Jenny and Alex later for karaoke. It’s why I’d feel so bad about leaving this guy home alone now, since I’m already going out tonight. You’re totally welcome to come, though.”

Ryan thinks he probably won’t, but he nods and says, “Yeah, maybe. If Mr. Bones here doesn’t tire me out too bad. We’re going to take such a long walk, aren’t we, boy?” It’s a sunny day, Ryan is awake and alive and adrift, and nothing in particular with a dog is better than nothing in particular without a dog. He thinks there’s a park probably not further than half a mile away, but longer if he gets lost. It seems like a pretty good day for an adventure.

Ryan gets a little more lost than he was planning on the way back, but seriously? There were so many Canada geese in that park, and trying to get a look at them without letting the dog scare them off had been a pretty full-attention job, he doesn’t think anyone could blame him for being a little distracted and losing track of his sense of direction.

Then he and Bones fell asleep under a tree a little bit, kind of lost track of time, and they were only just getting it together to leave when Z texted that she was on her way back, so by the time they come into view of Ryan’s front steps, Z has been sitting there, feet dangling into the empty moat, for what was probably quite a while.

“There you are!” she calls out. “I was starting to wonder if you’d kidnapped my dog.”

“I thought about it, but I figured you’d probably hunt me down—”

“—damn straight—”

“—and it would probably just be easier all around to just steal his affection and plant the seeds of resentment in his mind so he runs away to me on his own.”

The way Bones’ ears perked up and tail started wagging as soon as Z came into view show the obvious lie for what it is, but Z smiles anyway, launching herself forward to kneel in front of them, taking Bones’ face between her hands. “Hey baby, I missed you, yeah, hey cutie,” she addresses the dog, then looks up at Ryan and says, “Thanks for taking him, by the way. Ready for karaoke?”

For a group of people who make their living playing music in front of people for money, Z thinks they’re making a little bit of an embarrassing showing at karaoke tonight. This is largely because Alex is in another experimental phase, Jenny is, for reasons that don’t bear exploring, in the thrall of a brief but violent Madonna phase that doesn’t quite suit her, though she seems to be having fun, and Alex’s date (who he hadn’t even said he was bringing, but Z guesses she can’t complain, she did spring a surprise Ryan Ross on them, too) is enthusiastically and undeniably tone-deaf.

Ryan isn’t adding to the melee, choosing instead to keep messing with the straw from the same drink he ordered an hour ago, stirring through the dregs, drinking a bit more of the water from the ice every few minutes as it melts. Z isn’t sure, but she thinks it’s odd enough that her new-old-new role as completely platonic friend means she should maybe ask him about it, but the stranger on the stage is belting out “One Way or Another,” and it really doesn’t feel like the time.

Alex looks over at Ryan, and Z thinks maybe the charm of his date is wearing off after her last on-stage butchery of an already barbarous Miley Cyrus song, maybe he’s looking for a distraction, but he glances over at Ryan, takes in his appearance, specifically the way the t-shirt Ryan didn’t change before coming out with them is covered in dog fur, and says, laughing, “Nice threads, man.”

Ryan looks down and nods, tells Alex, “Yeah, Z’s dog fell asleep on me, I’m thinking of suing for damages.”

“Don’t be an asshole,” Z tells him, matter-of-fact.

“And emotional distress,” he adds. “Do you see how she’s emotionally distressing me? You’d be my witness, right?”

“Fine,” Z says, “See if I ever do anything nice for you again.”

“Um, using me for free dogsitting isn’t nice, it’s opportunistic, but I can see where you might make that mistake.”

“You’re suffering from a lack of fuzzy things in your life,” Z tells him with as much feigned dignity as she’s got in her, throwing herself into the jokey tone with all she’s got. “I was just trying to do my own small part to address the deficit. And you can’t deny my dog is awesome.”

“No, I can’t,” he finally acknowledges, raising his mostly-empty glass to her before taking another slurp of the melting ice water.

Karaoke is fun, in a weird way Ryan wasn’t expecting, but it’s also not exactly his bag, and definitely not what he was planning to do with his night, so when Z hangs back from the group as they make their way out of the karaoke bar and try to figure out where to go next, he hangs back with her.

“What’s up, superstar?” she asks him.

“Not much.” Ryan finally did cave to peer pressure, years of being half-raised by TV and he still hasn’t managed to take to heart all those after-school specials, he’d be ashamed if he cared, or if it lead to anything more painful than a weird, end-of-hours duet with Z of “California Dreaming.”

Z nudges him with her elbow, glancing ahead to watch Alex and Jenny debate when that place closes, you know, with the fish tanks and the lights? Ryan isn’t sure, but he thinks they might actually be talking about different places. “Hey, what was with the drink thing?”

“Drink thing?” Either Ryan has no idea what she’s asking, or she’s asking something he’d rather not answer enough that he’d play dumb anyway.

“Even setting aside the fact that karaoke reaches its optimal amount of amusingness when you’re semi- to three-quarters trashed, you were being a little weird. Not like you.”

Ryan thinks giving her what Spencer always called his “dead eyes” when they were teenagers is probably the best way to shut this line of inquiry down. He gives it a shot, but Z isn’t looking at him, so it doesn’t do much.

“I mean,” she says, “it’s your business, or whatever, but you didn’t even let the poor busser take your empty glass away for, like, an hour.”

“I was still working on it.”

“There wasn’t even any ice left,” she points out, and she’s annoyingly right, and he never did get around to reciprocating much, that night when she told him about things with Tennessee. Maybe he owes her something. Besides, it’s not like it’s a big deal.

“If I gave up my glass,” he says, “I might have ordered another one.”

He looks over at her, but she hasn’t got much of an expression on her face, so he thinks maybe that wasn’t quite enough of an explanation. “Sometimes I stop at one when I don’t want to, to remind myself that I can,” he says finally, voice a little quiet in the darkness as Alex and Jenny and Em slow as they near the crosswalk.

“Okay,” Z says, and Ryan is surprised to find that he pretty much trusts her to leave it there, not to ask any follow-up questions. “Alright, cool.”

The next time Z brings Bones over for a play-date, Ryan raises an eyebrow at her and says, “I could have plans, you know.”

“Yeah, right,” Z starts, then realizes that’s a little meaner than she meant. She ups the performer-tone in her voice till the eyelash-fluttering is implied and finishes, “More important than me?” all faux-shock and horror.

“Fair,” Ryan says, stepping aside and gesturing her in. There’s something in his smile she doesn’t quite trust, and he proves her right when he makes his way over to the stereo and presses a button, and a song from Z’s own second-to-latest album comes blasting out.

“You were just waiting for me to stop by, weren’t you?” she asks him.

“You’re the one who started the game of twenty questions,” he tells her, and then, when she looks blank at that, “The other night, after karaoke.”

That’s not the same thing, and she knows he knows it, but this might have been a long time coming, too.

He’s not a boy that you can tame, don’t let it taunt you, Z’s own voice sings to her, though the guy in front of her doesn't look particularly wild, just tired and a little amused-confused.

He says, “I don't want this to be one of those ‘you’re so vain’ moments, you know,” he says, and she wants to stall, she wants to answer, she wants to lie on the floor with her dog asleep across her stomach and not deal with the awkwardnesses that can arise from the weird juxtaposition of public and private lives required by their chosen profession. She sings, “You probably think this song is about you,” against the grain of her own voice coming from Ryan’s speakers as Bones bounds off to annoy the cat.

Ryan smiles at her and says, “That sounds good, you should cover it some time,” but he also presses on, says, “It is, though, right?”

Z nods.

“But we hadn’t even—you know, anything yet,” and he doesn't sound angry, he just sounds confused. Z thinks maybe he doesn't get it yet.

“Not just you,” she tries, the usual disclaimer, an amalgam of people in my life at different times, the excuse that always works because it’s always a little bit true, even if you don’t mean it to be, but he just waves his hand in a dismissive gesture, like he knows the trick, and he probably does, he’s probably used it himself. He says, “Yeah, of course. But it is, right?”

And Z nods again, because there is the vagueness that comes from canned excuses, that’s one thing, but the thing that comes after that, if that doesn’t work, is either the truth or lying, and Z feels way too tired to lie right now.

Ryan doesn’t look upset, exactly, which helps. He just stands quiet, waiting, and Z hadn’t planned to spend the day coming clean, but there are worse things, so she doesn’t mind too much.

She says, “I had an idea, how it would go with us, for a while before it did.”

He doesn’t say anything to that, but she still doesn’t think he looks angry, so she cant quite get a read on him—in his place, she thinks, she’d be quietly and self-consciously pissed, but that’s just her. She asks him, “Didn't you?” and he shakes his head.

He’s not a boy that you can save.

He asks her, “If I said ‘I never do,’ would that be too emo for words?”

“It would,” she confirms. “You even think about it and I am cutting you off from Beat poets or ‘90s rock for a month, I swear.”

Z knows she’s been spending too much time with Ryan lately as soon as she thinks of it. She’s still kind of attached to the idea, though, so she brings it up to him at the Home Depot, because he said last week that if she thinks he should have a hummingbird feeder so badly, she’s definitely coming along to help him pick one out.

“I,” she announces, slight dramatic pause and all, “Have decided that I’m going to come out via tumblr.”

“Tumblr, huh?” he asks, reaching for a really horrific feeder, the kind that is actually shaped like a hummingbird. He’s lucky she’s there to save him from himself. “That’s the one with the pictures, right?” he asks, and yes, she knew Ryan was the right one to discuss it with. Definitely his kind of idea. Probably his fault she even had it.

“Yes,” she tells him, batting his hand away from the garishly colored box, “It’s the one with the pictures.”

“You mean, like, you’ll make some kind of announcement there? ‘By the by, I might be bi?’” he asks, turning to look her in the eye in the obvious and vain hope that she won’t notice that his hand is still reaching for the hot pink hummingbird feeder.

Z makes a grab for his hand, stilling him and grinning wider, “No, that’s the best part, I’m just going to start reblogging all kinds of super queer shit and linking it to my twitter, it’ll be great, all under-the-radar and casual.”

“Can I have my hand back?” Ryan asks, and says, “Don’t pretend you weren’t wearing the exact same color on your body last week,” and, “I’m sure that’ll go about as well for you as coming out through a fictional storyline in a music video did.”

“Just because it looks hot on me does not mean it needs to be in your yard, or your yard would need to be a lot bigger, if that was the rule,” Z begins, because first things first, right? She’s a little miffed by his response, not least because if it’s not the kind of thing he would do, that means it’s all her own bad idea, and her bad ideas are generally a lot less fun. She’s still going to do it, though, she knows that much about herself, so she doesn’t say anything more to his second point than, “Yeah, well what do you know, anyway?”

He doesn’t say that there was a brief time when he was more famous than she ever wants to be, but it’s somewhere in his tone when he says, “Bet you the price of my hummingbird feeder it doesn't work. Seriously, bet me. You’ll know you win when any interviewer ever asks you about it.”

She doesn’t know she’s right, but she’s determined to pretend she is, which is actually a lot sturdier of a position most of the time, anyway. She shakes his hand on it, but she still doesn’t quite follow how it leads to her paying for the hummingbird feeder.

Tennessee still has a picture of Z from high school in her wallet, but when Z-from-now calls her, she doesn’t answer very often, and calls back even less. The day Tennessee decides to tell the whole world about the picture via instagram, Z decides to steal a ball of yarn from her mother’s brief knitting craze, bring it over to Ryan’s and let his cat claw her arm to shreds as she dangles the threads in front of its face.

His face, Z,” Ryan reminds her, exasperated.

“His face. Sure,” she agrees, not particularly concerned.

“Want to tell me about it?” he asks her, which startles her a little. How does he know there’s anything to tell? Z has a kickass poker face. And she spends plenty of time with him when she’s not crisis-ing, doesn’t she?

“Not really,” he tells her, and he doesn’t sound too concerned, either. Maybe that’s the problem, that they’re both just not particularly concerned people. Maybe their lack of concern is the thing that keeps blowing up in their faces, and they’re just too close to see it. Ryan’s still talking, saying, “Well, either you are or I am usually, anyway. It’s probably nothing personal, we just keep both happening to have shit go down.”

“Maybe,” she allows. It’s no bleaker a picture than the one she just sketched out in her own head, she has no reasonable grounds for objection. She shakes the yarn again, but she’s losing the little hellbeast’s interest, she can tell.

It’s not like Z is alone—right now, for instance, she’s with Ryan, and even later tonight when she goes home and she will be, technically, alone, unless you count her dog, she won’t be alone-alone, because she’ll know that she could probably call Alex, and that Langley’s going to text her at three in the morning when Z’s drifting off to sleep to send a picture of whatever project she’s working on, or another French film Z can nab stills from for her tumblr-project, which Langley seems to be treating like it’s performance art, rather than another example of Z being too chickenshit to have basic, non-symbolic conversations out loud.

She could even come back here, later, if her house starts to feel too empty, probably, and pretend to play with this obnoxious cat for a while. Z’s got no reason to feel lonely, even when faced with a piece of a memory from a time when she had people she hasn't got now. She determinedly twitches the strand of yarn in front of feline forepaws, but she’s sat too long in contemplation, she can tell. She’s lost him.

Ryan can tell, too, he’s laughing at her, it’s awful. He’s awful, he’s a terrible excuse for a totally understanding and weirdly patient close friend who never seems to mind when she drops by unannounced. “Here,” Ryan says, holding out his hand for the yarn that’s turned all ineffectual in her hands, “snake it around a bit, like it’s alive, you know? Let me show you.”

“No,” says Z, who refuses to need lessons in how to play with a cat, “I don’t think I will.”

Ryan shrugs at her. “Your call. When you’re done with your snit, I’ll be over here finishing what I started before you descended like a plague of locusts.”

He makes his way over to the couch, where some kind of weird, low-budget home-improvement show is paused.

It looks terrible. Z leaves the yarn on the floor and follows him over to curl up on a couch cushion.

“Ugh, bored,” Z proclaims about three hours later, flopping out along her spot sprawled across Ryan’s couch.

He looks up from where he’s stretched out over the carpet, turning his eyes away from the muted rerun of Househunters on his TV screen, and said, “We could always, you know, do something. Go somewhere.”

She appears to think about that for a moment, then purses her lips and shakes her head. “Sloth was always my favorite deadly sin,” she tells him.

Still, now that she’s said it, he realizes there’s something a lot less satisfying about the dimness of the room, the way he can see the sunlight spilling out near the floor from beneath the curtains. Ryan shoves himself to his feet and holds out his hand to Z on the couch. “Come on, you can sloth around in the sun, I’ve got an idea.”

She still hasn’t told him what she came over all in a mood about, but whatever it is, he thinks he knows what’ll make her feel better. She’s still not taking his hand or standing, so he figures he might as well grab supplies first. He wanders off to the kitchen to locate the slightly stale and ill-advised loaf of bread in the back of the middle shelf of the fridge. What was he thinking? He never makes sandwiches. It’ll come in handy now, though. He grabs car keys and sunglasses off the hall table and walks back to the living room, standing in front of Z with his hands on his hips.

“Come on, this house is a no moping zone.”

“Since when?” she asks, which is fair enough but also annoying.

“Since now, come on.” It’s not a very good reason, but it’s direct enough, which Ryan thinks is probably why she responds by pushing herself into an upright position and leaning down to put on and lace up her shoes.

“This had better be good, Ross,” she says, but her heart isn’t in the grumbling, so he just grabs a book he’s been reading off the end table and makes his way to the front door, whistling an odd, off-key, dirge-like rendition of that Katie Perry song that’s been everywhere lately. He doesn’t look behind him.

In the car, Z puts her feet up on the dash and looks over at Ryan. He looks older than he did when they met, by just a little, but then, it has been a few years now. Or maybe it’s just that she looks closer at him now than she did then, that she can see tiny, thin-fine lines spread lightly across his forehead like horizon lines of hills.

“When did you start to get to be the driven one?” she asks, a little disgruntled, then stops, smiling into the tangle of her own words. “Ha, driven,” she says, glancing down at his hands on the steering wheel.

He laughs, and her first thought is it wasn’t that funny, but her second is that it’s far too bitter a sound to be a response to her not-actually-a-pun.

“Pretty sure this is the only sense that I’m driven lately,” he says, tapping the steering wheel with two fingers in time to the song coming faintly from the speakers.

“Is that self-pity I hear?” she asks. If he can demand an end to her moping, she’s certainly not about to let him start his own, especially now that they’re on a car-requiring mystery errand. Mystery errands that take a turn for the melancholy seem like a recipe for tragedy to Z.

“Nope, just reality,” he replies, which means it definitely is self-pity, but said blithely enough that she can ignore it if she wants to. She thinks it over a moment, then decides she’d rather get to the bottom of this, if she can manage it.

“Is this a music thing, or a relationship thing?” she asks, just to get it straight. She thinks she knows, or she wouldn’t have waded into these waters, but she is really only just barely equipped to handle one of those two options at the moment. If another one pops out at her, all unexpected, she thinks there will probably be tears, or blood, or something.

“Music,” he says, which was the answer she was hoping for, though the curtness doesn’t seem particularly promising.

“Well that’s easy to fix!” she says, trying for a kindergarten-teacher kind of brightness. “Did you bring your guitar?”

He turns slightly narrowed eyes in her direction as he slows for a stop-sign, asks her, “Did you see me bring my guitar?”

Now that he mentions it, it’s an excellent point, but Z’s not about to back down from this topic of conversation over something as trivial as good sense. She’d rather commit herself to utter blasphemy, as she does when she opens her mouth next and says, “There’s an app for that.”

Blasphemy or not, she’s pretty sure she’s right, but his not-so-bitter-now laughter is probably a better result than any attempt to take her seriously would be, so she lets it go, reaching for the radio dial.

By some massive miracle of fate, there is an on-street parking space less than half a block away from the park with the duck pond. Ducks aren’t as cool-looking as the Canada geese, Ryan thinks, but they are nicer, and since they live in the pond here, instead of just wandering around like the geese seem to, there’s probably a much better chance of actually seeing them today.

“Come on,” he tells Z, who is apparently taking a moment to pout into the driver’s side mirror of the car ahead of Ryan’s, “We’ve only got a little bit more sun today.”

“You know, I might be more inclined to hurry if you told me what we were doing,” Z says, which is fair enough, probably.

“Bird-watching,” he tells her, grabbing her wrist and tugging her towards one of the painted green benches encircling the artificial water feature. “We are going to feed the ducks.”

“I’m not sure that counts as bird watching,” Z grumbles, but Ryan is pretty sure she’s just complaining because she thinks it’s good for him not to get his way too often again, and now that she’s told him that’s what she does sometimes, he’s never going to take her more halfhearted protests seriously again, so he doesn’t even dignify that with a response, just reaches for the twisty-tie holding the bread bag closed.

After he’s thrown a few crusts the ducks’ way, when they’ve got a bit of an angry mob of waterfowl surrounding them, Z reaches for his slightly crumb-covered throwing hand and twines her fingers with his. She reaches across him into the bag of bread for another piece to throw, then says, “This should have been our engagement photo.”

It is probably a pretty great image, Ryan thinks. He and Z have always looked good together. “Guess that’s why most people don’t jump in with the engagement photos too early. Wouldn’t want to jump the gun like that.”

Most people get engaged first, too,” Z says, but it’s only a moment before she’s backpedaling. “Not that—I mean, I wasn’t trying to hint that—I, seriously, Ryan—”

He’s kind of tempted to let her go on, dig herself deeper, since she’s certainly headed in that direction, but she’s clearly not having the best day already. She’s off her game. No shame in that, everyone has off days. He cuts her off as kindly as he knows how. “Relax. Don’t worry about it, I’m not going to ask you to marry me. Or even fake-ask you to fake-marry me again.” Z is still holding his hand, so he squeezes it, and hopes that doesn’t send a mixed message.

“Good,” Z says, and she sounds more collected than she did a moment before, which is good, he guesses. “Kind of a bummer, too, though. That was a kind of fun fake-engagement. Does the fact that we’re not real-dating mean we can’t get fake-married?”

“We can do whatever we want,” Ryan says, which is only semi-true in the grand scheme of things, but in this case is probably accurate. He trusts Z to get the limitations in the statement. “We can get fake-married another day, maybe.”

Z throws another piece of bread at the ducks, who have been watching the exchange with beady little eyes that are actually starting to look faintly menacing. She looks up after that, though, and keeps looking, until Ryan follows her gaze to the sign posted on one of the streetlights surrounding the pond. It reads DO NOT feed the ducks.

Z’s eyes dart back towards him, questioning, and he shrugs. “Fuck it. We can do whatever we want, right? It’s not like we’re drugging them, they could always say no.” He pulls out a chunk of bread and then deliberately tosses it towards the edge of the duck-pack, where a shrimpy little duck has been consistently failing to fight its way through to any of the bread from.

The chunk of bread lands at the runt’s feet, and it ducks it’s head to scoop it up. It is almost, almost but maybe not quite fast enough, and a bigger duck next to it bites off half of the bread from inside the shrimpy one’s open mouth, just before it swallows.

“Survival of the fittest, babe,” Z says, and then she sighs.

“When you’re somewhere with the geese, too, even the big, mean ducks hardly get anything,” Ryan tells her, and it feels like he’s admitting something.

Z darts a glance at his face and asks, “You come here often, Ross?” But her tone is pretty light, so even if she’s picking up on whatever it was, it sounds like she’s not going to give him a hard time about it.

Ryan shrugs. “Now and again,” he tells her, and, “You’re a lot better to bring with me than your dog, he always scares them off.”

Z snorts, but he thinks she gets that it wasn’t totally a joke because she just says, “I like geese, too.”

Z goes home sun-warm and sleepy, determined to pick up takeout and eat it on her living room floor while listening to something soothing—Joni Mitchell? It feels like a Joni kind of night—and then turn in early. She’s been out in the sun today, she’s walked around, she’s had conversations involving some of the things she is actually thinking and feeling, there is no reason for her not to be able to sleep tonight, and she fully intends to take advantage of that.

Three hours after she climbs into bed, she admits defeat and climbs out of it again. Instead, she makes her way across the room to her desk, flips open the computer, and scrolls up to the google search bar in the top right corner of her browser.

Half an hour after that, she gropes towards her phone, eyes still glued to the screen, and then finally looks down when the screen lights up, like a bug drawn to the light in her still-dark, three-in-the-morning room.

She dials, taps her foot through the ringing, and tells Ryan’s sleepy voice on the other end of the line, “Never again.”

“What?”

“With the ducks, and the bread. Never again.”

“I thought you said it was good?” he sounds dazed enough that he must not be having any trouble sleeping, Z thinks viciously.

“It was, it was,” she doesn’t actually want to be a bitch, it had been a really nice day, a nice gesture, but, “I was looking it up online, though, it’s so bad for them! For their little tummies and their little survival instincts and, and shit like that.”

On the other end of the line, Ryan lets out a sharp, quick breath. “Never again, then. Shit, okay.”

“We can still go back and watch them?” she offers, suddenly aware that this might sound like a rejection of the weird kind of comfort he’s been trying to offer, and she doesn’t think she wants that.

“Of course,” Ryan said, and maybe Z doesn’t need to worry, because he doesn’t sound offended, just concerned. “We need to see how the little shrimpy one makes it.”

 

Ryan goes on a date and Z doesn't know that’s what it was until after she shows up at his place the next morning and his door is locked.

He drives up around ten, and he’s definitely got an I got laid smirk on. Z isn’t totally sure why she’s still sitting on his front porch, but she’d brought tea, and now she’s finished hers as well as most of his, and she hums “Walk of Shame” as Ryan makes his way towards the front steps where Z is sitting.

She knows it’s not the height of good taste to quote your own songs, but it’s just so apropos she can’t help it.

Ryan raises his eyebrows when he sees her, but he doesn’t question her presence out loud, at least, just sits on the step beside her and steals the almost-empty cardboard cup of tea.

He tastes it, makes a face, and asks her, “Green? Really?”

“It’s good for you. Antioxidants” she reminds him, then asks, “What are you doing getting home so late? I thought you were just grabbing dinner with a couple of friends. That’s exactly what you said,” she reminds him, “A couple of friends.”

His smile grows, he looks insufferably smug. He says, “Yeah, it was a good dinner.” By the time he says, “They’re a nice couple. And very good friends,” his grin is reaching Cheshire Cat proportions. Z shoves at his shoulder and he flops back against her and laughs.

“I’d tell you more but I, uh, don’t want to jinx it,” he says, and Z suddenly kind of wants to cry. Not because she minds, but because it’s been a while since she’s felt that kind of cautious euphoria, and she misses it. Maybe she should start going out more. She drops her head onto his shoulder and they sit there for a while in the sun, until Ryan slaps the surface of the stair by his side and says, “Come on, I have to go feed Cap.”

Spencer went to rehab and Ryan went to the park.

He’s gone there again pretty regularly since then, because it’s quiet and it’s a good place to think, and this particular park is a place he’s never been to in the presence of anyone he’s ever been in a band with or had a horrible breakup with, so it’s relatively association-free, except for that one moment, every time, when he steps across the curb and onto the grass and thinks this is where I went when Spencer went to rehab.

It’s inescapable, but it’s also rarely more than a moment, so it’s not enough to keep him from coming back.

The park is a good place to sit on a bench and stare at geese, which, Ryan guesses, is what he’s been doing lately in the place to talking about his feelings. It’s better than some of the other things he’s tried over the years to avoid talking about feeling things, or, alternately, to avoid feeling things at all, but it’s still avoidance at the root of it, which is, ostensibly, not good. Baby steps, Ryan tells himself, watching the baby geese trip all over each other in a rush to keep up with their mother. The proportion between little baby geese and the kind of scarily large adult ones is fucking insane, but he guesses it probably makes sense. They have a lot of babies at once, and he read once that human twins are smaller, on average, than non-twins. Triplets are smaller still. All competing for the same nutrients, or something. Or maybe he made that part up.

Instead of thinking about it further, he fishes his phone out of his jacket pocket and calls Z.

“They’re here again,” he tells her, instead of hello. He should have called her as soon as he saw them, but he’s always been a little selfish, almost everyone he’s ever loved has told him so, and the geese were his first, he’d wanted a moment alone with them which, jeez, sounds stupid and irrational even inside his own head. He resolves not to say any of it out loud to Z.

“You went without me? Again?” Z sounds a little put out, but Ryan isn’t going to feel any sorrier for it than whatever comes naturally, so he ignores the question.

Instead, he says, “I’ll be here a little longer, if you want to come join.”

“Because I’ve got nothing better to do with my day than look at geese?”

“Do you?” Ryan really wants to know. It’s working for him right now, but he could probably use something better to do with his days eventually. Looking at geese is not exactly a career that’s full of longevity and advancement.

“Not really,” Z admits to him, after a pause. “Are you in the place you told me about?”

He is, and tells her so. Then he swings his feet out in front of him, crossed at the ankle. If he hasn’t got anything better to aspire to than a life of leisure, over-thinking things and geese that still haven’t run away from him, he is damn well going to look the part.

Z goes on a date, and Ryan knows all about it before it’s even over—she starts sending mocking group texts to Ryan and Langley around the time the guy tells her how much he likes Phish and doesn’t stop until he drops her off at her door.

I am never going on a blind date again for the rest of my life is the last one she sends out.

Langley sends her virtual laughter and an emoticon hug, and Z is too tired to figure out if she means them ironically or not. Instead, she climbs into bed and calls Ryan.

“How’s my baby?” she asks him.

“Woah, there,” he says, “I thought that chapter of our relationship was over.”

“Don’t be a jerk,” she tells him, “Or I am never having you dogsit again, you’re a bad influence when you’re an asshole.”

“Alright, okay,” he agrees, “He’s had a better night than you have, though, haven’t you, boy? We watched TV, and chased the cat, then I stopped him from chasing the cat and took him on a walk down to the store for cigarettes, then I forgot I couldn’t take him in to the store, and I wasn’t going to leave him out there at night, so I walked home to drop him off and then walked back, which was long enough to remember that I quit again last week, and then, Z, your dog totally laughed at me when I got back again still empty-handed, I swear, he’s as bad as you are.”

It’s a comfortable kind of chatter, Z smiles into it and pictures them, knows that Ryan is probably letting Bones sleep on his bed, even though he’s not allowed to at home, because Ryan is a terrible pet-spoiler. She reaches for her computer and opens up tumblr, scanning the usual-suspect pages for more vintage lesbian erotica to reblog as she hums out agreeing sounds or laughs at him, depending on which is the appropriate reaction as Ryan continues to talk half to her and half to her dog in the background.

Z is actually petting Ryan’s cat when Langley texts her the date she’s getting back into town.

Ryan sweeps into the room in a new hat that, he’s promised, she is going to be totally jealous of, it’s too perfect, he swears. It’s okay, though, Z isn’t supposed to worry, he promises he’ll leave it to her in his will, since she is clearly the second-most-deserving person to wear it.

Z looks up. It is a pretty good hat.

She guesses that smile is still on her face, that stupid, goofy grin that thoughts of Langley have started calling up now and then, because he says, “You know I’m glad to see you guys getting along, but I know that look is not just about my cat or my hat. What’s up?”

“I can’t just really like your hat?”

“You can,” he allows. “You should, even, you really should, this hat deserves all kinds of admiration. I just have an inkling that this might be about something else.”

“Maybe.” Z isn't about to say anything about the soaring, maybe-feeling out loud, yet. She’s not really into jinxing things either, she totally got where Ryan was coming from the other day. She dimples in his general direction a little longer, though, and she tells him, “Langley’s back in town soon.”

It’s enough, he doesn’t ask anything more.

She’s actually asleep when Ryan calls, dreaming about driving her old car over the ocean, and she thinks she can smell something wrong with the engine, so it’s a twitchy sleep, but still, sleeping, which is a miracle in and of itself and also why she hangs up on him as soon as she hears his voice. He calls right back, though, which she would be madder about if she hadn’t called him in the wee hours three times in the last month. As little as she likes to admit it, she’s probably owed a wakeup call or two.

Still, she answers the second call by asking, “Who died?” and then, when he doesn’t answer right away, “Someone better have died if you’re not taking my hanging up on you as a hint.”

“But what about my cat?” Ryan asks, and Z briefly considers the possibility that this might actually be a dream, too. It would explain the lack of conversational cohesion, but not the exhausted pounding in her head or the crust of grit in the corners of her eyes, so on balance, she decides it’s unlikely.

“What about it?” she asks, and then, remembering her own opening question, “He didn’t get hit by a car or anything, right?” If something has happened to Ryan’s cat, she is going to feel so guilty for acting pissy at him for waking her up, and also for not bothering to learn the cat’s name.

“No, he’s fine,” Ryan says, to her relief-combined-with-annoyance, because, again, why is she awake?

“Then what are you talking about?”

“He’s just a baby,” Ryan says, “If I go on tour he’ll grow up without me and I’ll miss it all and he won’t even know me.”

That sounds like a sort of melodramatic worst-case scenario to Z, and also a bit of a case of putting the cart before the horse. She asks Ryan, “Please tell me that is not actually the reason you aren’t writing songs, seriously.”

“No,” he tells her, but he sounds reluctant and also sad, and Z hopes that’s not him wishing it was the reason he wasn’t writing songs, because it’s a very stupid reason.

“I just—” he says, and Z restrains herself from trying to rush this heartfelt confession along, but she can feel her eyes already adjusting to the dim light from the window, instead of the darkness of her closed eyes pressed against a pillow, and that’s always the beginning of the end of an easy time falling back asleep. “I really want whatever I do next to go right,” he finally says, and that, that Z can sympathize with.

She closes her eyes and gentles her voice and says the thing that’s next on the script, the thing that has to come next, that he wouldn’t have said this out loud if he didn’t want to hear. “Well, you know, it can’t go right if you don’t start it, and it doesn’t go at all.”

He sighs, but it sounds almost relieved, like he knew that that was the next line on the script, too—like they’ve given a solid performance. “Yeah,” he agrees, drawing the word out with the length of his breath.

“I’m going to sleep now,” she tells him, “I swear, babe, it’s like you’ve got a sixth sense so that whenever the insomnia takes a night off, you can take over.”

Then she feels momentarily like a horrible person when he actually apologizes, and she promises, half-coherent, “It’s okay, you’re okay, we’re okay. I’m asleep now, but we’ll talk soon, yeah?”

It’s a moment of half-awake reassurances she remembers from childhood, big sister to a little brother who got nightmares sometimes, not often, but often enough that it’s instinct to mumble something reassuring and scootch over under the covers to that he can creep into her monster-free bed, if that’s what he needs.

Z has never for a moment felt sisterly towards Ryan, but there are early instincts tied to affection that are hard to shake. She mumbles, “Everything’s okay,” and, “G’night, sleep tight,” and she falls asleep when she hears the click as he hangs up the phone.

So Ryan may be a little bit right, no reporters or bloggers or overly-entitled listeners ask her about her tumblr campaign to share stylish vintage photos of naked women with the world until the world collectively gives up and admits she likes the ladies. Admittedly, this could be partially because she gets distracted sometimes and starts reblogging art that’s completely devoid of either nudie or even clothed women, just because it looks cool, which might muddy the waters a bit, but she did think that the series of vintage lesbian erotica novel covers was pretty telling, anyway. And it’s kind of refreshing to have a social media platform that she’s not using to promote her music at all, too.

Actions do speak louder than words, though, at least to the people who know her well enough to look for it. Her parents aren’t quite into the internet enough to pick up on it, and wouldn’t exactly bat an eye either way, Ryan already knows what she’s doing, Alex doesn’t care, Langley has said outright that she doesn’t quite get what Z’s hoping to achieve, here, and Laena would always rather talk about music. The list of other people who know her well enough is pretty short.

She and Charlotte aren’t really talking, these days, but they manage to be snippily civil when they run into each other at parties, and, now that a less-than-pleasant-but–probably-cathartic encounter after Charlotte first heard Narcissus has cleared the air a bit, they occasionally text. Z really shouldn’t be as surprised as she is when Charlotte texts her, what do you want, a cake?

It’s out of the blue enough that even though Z has an inkling what Charlotte means, she’s certainly not going to admit it. ? she texts back.

Charlotte’s response doesn’t come for another 15 minutes, and when it does, it’s the screen-shot of a smirking pair of bright-red lips Z remembers reblogging this morning, and the words, I always knew you were this passive aggressive, but go out a winner, Elizabeth, and give it a rest?

It’s annoying enough to get a bit of a rise out of Z, and she texts back, Not everything is about you, Charlotte.

No, but things that are about you and Tennessee are always a little bit about me Charlotte responds far too quickly, and then, after a moment, Z’s phone buzzes again with, if you had to steal my best friend, you could at least have taken care of her.

That’s it, that’s enough. Z sets the phone down quietly on the floor by her bed, leaves it there, grabs her keys of the bedside table and heads for the door.

There was a time, Ryan thinks, when he would have been surprised to find Z on his doorstep at 11:30 on a Wednesday night.

Now, though, he just takes in the wild hair that says she had the top down in the car driving over, despite the dark and cooling night air, the sweats and jean jacket that say this was a last minute outing when she had taken off the day’s costume and was planning on staying in for the night.

“Come in,” he says, and then, “Do you want anything? I’ve got tea, beer, vodka? Celery stalks, I think?”

“Celery stalks?” she asks him, and there’s something forced in the lightness of her tone as she pads after him into the kitchen, leaving her sandals by the door in the hallway.

“Delicious and nutritious,” Ryan intones, partially because it’s true and partially because he has no idea how the celery ended up in his home. It just—appeared, one day. Ryan hadn’t been about to question it until Z brought it up.

“I—no, I’m fine,” Z says, and there’s something strangely subdued in her tone. “I just—”

Ryan has a feeling this is going to be another one of those things where something is wrong, but she’s not going to tell him what, just sit there and be sad in his presence until Captain Knots falls asleep on her shin and purrs her into a better mood.

“It was probably Rachel,” he says, reflective, half thinking it out, half filling the silence. “She wanted to do bloody marys the other day, I think? But then we got distracted.”

Z doesn’t bite on that conversational thread, though at another time, she’d probably be jumping on it. It looks like he’s right about the lack of addressing the issue that’s going to happen when she swings herself up to perch on his kitchen counter and asks, “So how is the hummingbird feeder working out? Have you got millions? Can I see?”

“It’s dark out,” he tells her, in case she didn't notice on the drive over, but she just raises and eyebrow at him and says, “Not now, obviously. But I think it’s shameful that we haven’t had a hummingbird date yet, especially since it was my idea.”

“You usually don’t get hung up on waiting for an invitation,” Ryan observes, but it’s mostly just to fill some verbal space. Z’s voice is as bright as it ever is, but her face looks like a storm is threatening.

“Are you implying that I’m rude?”

He wasn’t, but if that’s what she wants to take from it, she’s welcome to. Ryan replies, “There have been a few, actually. Hummingbirds,” he clarifies, remembering that they’ve strayed from the point a bit. “They’ve got such crazy wings, there are never enough, you know? But there have been more, with the feeder, for sure.”

“Just as well,” she says, and, “I think you lost our bet,” and “Fucking Charlotte,” which means that whatever happened is not exactly anything to do with the actual term of the actual bet, which Ryan is pretty sure was related to official interviews, but is still something that means enough to her that he’s very much not going to contradict her.

“Charlotte noticed?” he asks, just so that he can at least tell himself he tried for a little directness and clarity.

She doesn’t take any notice, though, just uses the heel of her hand to swipe beneath each eye, tears streaking black eye makeup stretching out across each cheekbone like shadowy comets.

Ryan figures that’s probably his cue. He crosses the tile floor to stand in front of her spot on his counter, legs dangling, feet thudding lightly against the cabinets below. He reaches up, because perched like this, her head stands a little taller than his own, and puts one hand on her shoulder. Ryan’s instincts don’t generally run towards hugging, but he’s definitely willing to make the offer, if that’s what she wants right now.

Z sniffs messily, then says, “I mean, Charlotte always knew, it’s not like this is a big deal,” which is something, “It’s just—she thinks—I think she thinks I’m trying to mess with Tennessee.” Z stares at a point somewhere past Ryan’s shoulder.

He doesn’t step away when he asks, “Aren’t you?”

It’s such a perfectly wrong thing to say, and he knows it, but there’s enough truth in it for Z, she wouldn’t have come to him if she wanted something different, so Ryan is not surprised when that’s the moment that she makes a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob, and leans down to wind her arms around his neck and duck her head against his own.

“I’m not messing with her, I wouldn’t.”

“I know.”

“I’m just trying to say something to her.”

It’s nothing more than Ryan has expected for a while, but it’s still surprising enough to hear out loud that he tells her, “You know, there are more direct ways to do that.”

“Yeah,” she sighs, breath rustling against his ear. Ryan holds on.

“We could have sex again,” he offers, a few minutes later, into the silence, as he detaches himself from her long enough to hoist himself up onto the counter beside her and slip an arm back around her waist. It’s not comedy gold or anything, but he thinks it’s probably at least enough to make her laugh. “You know, if you wanted. If you think you’d feel better.”

Z snorts a stuffed-up, tearful chuckle into the shoulder of his t-shirt. “Yeah, right,” she tells him, but she hugs tighter, anyway, and he tightens his arms around her in return. “I don’t know what kind of lies Dan and Rachel have been filling your head with, but you are not that good.”

“Yeah,” he whispers into the soft flyaways of hair along her part, on the crown of her head. He’s not made for this kind of thing, he is not made for comforting, but maybe he can fake it. He asks her, “Do you feel like distraction, or wallowing?” Ryan can roll with either, there is no judgment here, and he definitely knows how satisfying both can be under the right circumstances. He hopes the sentiment translates in his tone.

She’s quiet a moment, and he’s not sure if the question was a misstep, but when she answers, “distraction,” a little tentatively, he thinks she was probably just giving her options due consideration.

That’s good, it’s great, he doesn't even think she’s crying anymore, and the only real problem with it is that it means he actually has to come up with a distraction, now. The moment stretches on, so, finally, he offers the first thing that jumped into his head, the thing he then tried desperately to think of an alternative to.

“Hey,” he asks her, “Do you want to hear some songs?”

Z laughs herself sick when he gets to “You’re Invited.”

Put yourself on the mattress my ass, you fucking douchebag,” she tells him, voice still breathless, but this time with amusement, before punching him amiably on the shoulder. “It’s catchy, though, I’ll give you that.”

Ryan grins at her a little wildly, all dimples and piano-key-teeth, like a third grader, which is very much not what the song is going for, clearly. Because Z is in a benevolent mood, she doesn’t mention it, just says, “Promise me it’s not your single and I’ll buy you a beer,” then, when he looks dubious, “Or a six-pack? A lap-dance? Come on, give me a hint, here, help me help you, what should I be bribing you with?”

He bites his lip and looks down, then up again, into her face. “Backing vocals for something else, a song I finished last night?” He sounds way too uncertain about that, does he really think Z is going to say no?

“Sure, of course,” she says, and then, after a moment’s pause, “Okay, what am I singing, can I see what I just agreed to?”

He hands her some sheet music and then retreats across the room to fiddle with the odds and ends on the window sill like they’re new to him, and not every-day fixtures in his home.

She says, “Sheet music and notation? Christ you know how to make a girl feel special, all this fancy shit,” but she really is sort of touched, there’s something charmingly old-fashioned about it.

He looks down at the pages and shrugs, says, “Brendon always liked to, guess I picked up the habit.”

Z stares down at the pages as seconds turn to minutes ticking by, and Ryan pretends not to watch her read from across the room.

Finally, she looks up, and can’t quite resist stating the obvious. “This isn’t backing vocals, the female part here. This is—Ryan, this is a duet.”

The hard part, Z told Ryan once, weeks and even months, plural, before they even started to date, is trusting people to know what’s best for themselves enough to trust them to leave you before you get the chance hurt them too badly.

Ryan told her he didn’t have that problem, because he always broke things before they got to that point—straight-up destruction rather than a slow fade. He was wrong, Z would know with a blinding certainty later, after Keltie and moments before she kissed him. At the time, though, she just envied him, wishing she could say the same.

Z is always good at regret, though, too good to waste a perfectly good agonizing sulk by heading off a bad situation before it reaches the worst it can get, so she hung on long enough to give herself the chance look back with dismay and wish she’d said goodbye to Tennessee years before she did. That might have involved more drama and determination than she’d actually had at the time in the short run, but, in the long run, might have involved less blinding, horrifying, music-video-worthy guilt.

She’s never sure whether she or Ryan had a more realistic vision of themselves back then, but she thinks they both had good intentions, which is something to hold onto no matter what. If he can forgive her for all the things she has and hasn’t done, sometimes to him, but mostly to other people, she can’t entirely be the irredeemably bitch she thinks she is sometimes. If she can still love him as he drifts further and further from anyone either of them recognize as the boy she first met, then she has to be growing, too.

She doesn’t know whether he gets the same kind of weird validation from their continued relationship, but he’s got to be getting something out of it besides access to Z’s dog, she’s pretty sure.

“Yeah, it’s a duet,” he says, and then, “I’ve been listening to a lot of old White Stripes lately,” and, “We sounded pretty good together at karaoke that time.”

She smiles at him, a crooked, off-center expression, and says, “I don’t know what you heard, but I don't start a band with just anybody I do karaoke with. I’m not that kind of girl.”

He shakes his head. “Yeah, no, let’s not be in a band. Most of the people I’ve been in bands with aren’t talking to me.”

“Or you’re not talking to them,” she feels honor-bound to point out. She knows of at least one and a half people that’s the case with.

“Or that,” he agrees easily. “Same difference, really. Let’s not have a band. I just thought maybe you’d sing a song with me.”

That much, Z can do. That much, Z can pretty much always do, even when everything else she has ever known goes to pieces. She thinks he knows that, though. She thinks it’s probably why he’s asking.

“Yeah, okay,” she says. “Let’s sing a song, Ryan Ross.”

[end]