“I’m not the mom,” Shane says, drowsily appalled.
Ryan raises his eyebrows. “I didn’t say you were the mom,” he soothes, sincere in the way that Ryan kind of always is, even when he’s being sarcastic. “I just said they reacted to you as if you were the mom.”
“It’s -- that’s the same fuckin thing,” Shane protests, but quietly, because he has a tiny ghost perched on his hip and he doesn’t want to wake her. It. Whatever. It’s kind of hard to tell, because they don’t look like people, exactly, more like -- outlines.
Actually, ironically, what they really look like is people covered in sheets, round at the top and kind of vague at the bottom, but Shane has stopped trying to say that because Ryan gets mad about it. He thinks it’s disrespectful.
Shane thinks it’s disrespectful that he was made step-parent to a bridge full of baby ghosts without anybody asking him, but sure. Pointing out that they look like sheets is the problem.
Admittedly, this is ... kind of Shane’s fault. He’d challenged the Goatman, and the Goatman lost, and ownership the bridge transferred. There wasn’t any paperwork, no sparks or sounds or spooky shadows, just Shane’s finger pricking with blood, and the startled realization when they stood that the world has shifted slightly to the left.
Shane can’t explain it, other than that; it was like they’d gone onto the bridge in one world and left in a world that looked exactly the same, except they could see some ghosts, and those ghosts wanted to hold Shane’s hand.
“They don’t like me,” Ryan whines, glaring across the table from under his hat. Shane is cutting his pancakes into tiny bites for the ghost babies to eat, which feels stupid, because it’s not like they’re going to choke to death. Still, they’d looked very overwhelmed when he’d offered them one of his own bites, and they’ve been through a lot in the last couple of days, what with the Goatman abandoning them to him and Ryan’s care and everything.
“They like you,” he soothes, which might be a lie because there are currently eleven ghost babies crowded on Shane’s side of the table and exactly zero on Ryan’s. “You’re just -- you’re a very high-energy person, Ryan. I think they’re feeling overwhelmed.”
Ryan folds his arms over his chest and slouches against the booth. “You didn’t even believe in them two days ago,” he grumbles. “You swore at them. You called them names.”
Shane fights the urge to clap his hands over all the ghost babies’ ears. They already know he swore at them; they were there. They’re all looking at him now like they think Ryan made a good point, so he offers up a pancake bite to buy back their love. They converge on it like little cartoon monsters.
Ryan is still pouting, so Shane spears another bite and holds it out across the table, a fresh offering. Ryan hesitates, leans forward and then back and then forward again to bite the pancake off Shane’s fork. He chews with a frown, but the wrinkles on his brow have softened, so Shane is counting it as a win.
They’re driving to Dallas, because that’s where Ryan thinks the ghost babies came from. He’d done research, that first night, and found reference to a school bus that had overturned on the bridge, years and years ago. They’d been on their way back from an overnight trip, and all eleven elementary schoolers had perished. It was really sad, Shane can admit. He’d softened toward the ghost babies after that, let them crowd around his legs like cats. He’d even dropped some funyuns on the floor for them to fight over.
So far, they haven’t seen any other ghosts -- they never even really got to see the Goatman, to Shane’s disappointment and Ryan’s enormous relief. Ryan’s theory is that the Goatman had their spirits trapped, on the bridge. So they’re bringing the ghost babies home, basically, on the off chance that this will cure them of their shared delusion.
“It’s not a delusion. They’re real. They’re on your lap.”
“Yeah, and doesn’t it seem improbable that eleven baby ghosts could fit on my lap?”
“Not really. You’ve got like four miles of leg. That’s a football field of thigh alone.”
Shane reaches out to punch Ryan’s shoulder, careful not to jostle the pile of infants huddled on his legs. “Some women have birthing hips. I have lap-sitting legs. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature, baby.”
“Your whole personality is a bug,” Ryan grumbles. “You’re like -- of course they’re drawn to you, they probably think you’re one of them, all spindly and pale and -- fucking -- consumptive-looking.”
Shane blinks. “Consumptive?” he repeats. “Ryan.”
“Shut up, Shane.”
Shane lets himself sigh, long and slow, like he imagines the consumptive heroine of a Victorian romance novel would. Ryan glances over, then away, keeping his eyes determinedly on the road. He tightens and loosens his grip on the wheel a couple of times. Shane grins and grins and grins because he kind of loves when Ryan gets like this, panicky and irritated; he can’t help it. Ryan feels things so immensely, like they’re too big for his body, and Shane can’t keep himself from just ... poking at it, until he gets a reaction, usually in the form of a flush creeping up the back of Ryan’s neck. Sometimes, when he says exactly the right thing, he can trigger a proper Ryan Bergara verbal anxiety spiral, and it’s the best.
Honestly, the main reason Shane prefers the supernatural seasons is because nowhere is it easier to get a rise out of Ryan than on a room he thinks has ghosts in it.
Still, the only thing Shane likes more than riling Ryan up is winding him down, so he nudges one of the ghost babies in Ryan’s direction. The baby looks at him, then back at Ryan, then at him again. Shane nods encouragingly, until the baby slowly slides into Ryan’s lap, sitting delicately at first and then relaxing into his perch.
“This doesn’t -- you’re still an asshole,” Ryan protests, patently and obviously lying. He’s beaming. He holds himself very still around the wheel so that the baby won’t startle.
The baby looks over at Shane as if to ask whether he’s stayed long enough, and can come back. Shane gives a tiny shake of his head. “See?” he asks. “I told you they like you. Probably you just -- vibrate on the wrong, like. Frequency or whatever.”
“EVP isn’t real, Ryan. The spirit box can’t capture ghost frequencies, Ryan,” Ryan sing-songs, but without any heat. He’s still glancing down at the ghost baby with a face-splitting grin. “At least this definitively proves that I’m right and you’re wrong. I guess if eleven ghosts that dislike my ‘frequency’ is the price to pay, I can accept it.”
Shane rolls his eyes. He reaches out absently to pet the head of whichever baby is most corporeal at the moment. It feels weird -- kind of like running his hand against silk hanging from a line, there and not there at the same time. “In terms of the question ‘are ghosts real,’ sure, I cede that at least eleven ghosts are real,” he admits. “But that doesn’t mean any of your devices work, or that the places we go are haunted, or that ghosts can turn fuckin flashlights on. Look at these little guys. They can’t even adjust the radio.”
One of the other ghost babies nudges the one he’s petting out of the way and takes his spot. Shane chuckles, giving it a pat. They’re kind of growing on him, these little snapchat icon-looking goobers.
It feels less huge that he’d thought it would, when he’d thought about what life would be like if Ryan ever actually got proof. He doesn’t know if that’s by dint of his nature, which has always been more or less even-keeled, or if something happened on that bridge that just ... made him accept this. But Shane doesn’t necessarily feel like his worldview is any different. He’s still pretty sure demons aren’t real; it seems unlikely that if the Goatman was one of the hell creatures Ryan’s so scared of, he’d have given up and signed over parental rights to Ryan and Shane without more of a fight.
“Was he nice to you, babies?” Shane asks gently, looking down at the pool of ghosts in his lap. They crowd up against his chest like they want to burrow in, but can’t (another point for Shane: clearly ghost possession is not a thing). “Was daddy Goatman a good guardian? Do you miss him?”
Ryan gives a full-body shudder, and it startles the ghost baby out of his lap and back to Shane. He looks a little verklempt, but also like he’s trying not to be obvious about it. “Please don’t call the Goatman ‘daddy,’” he begs.
“What do you prefer? Father Goatman? Papa Goatman? Goatdad?”
“He’s just the Goatman, Shane, jesus. Or should I start calling you mama Shane?”
“Call me whatever you want, baby.”
“Also, I’m not the mom.”
“You cut up their pancakes for them. They’re sitting on your lap like you’re about to start reading them a story and braiding their hair.”
“Dads can do both of those things, Mr. 1949.”
Ryan laughs, wheezing in the precious way that Shane pretends not to always be angling for, and says, seemingly without thought, “Yeah, but you just have that like, soft mom energy.”
Shane blinks. “I have ... what?”
Ryan looks embarrassed, keeping his eyes on the road but glancing nervously at Shane, like he’s been caught doing something he shouldn’t. “Uh,” he says. “Nevermind.”
“No, Ryan, not nevermind. I want to hear more about my soft mom energy.”
Ryan sighs. He scrubs at his forehead with the tips of his fingers like he does when Shane is reading the hotdaga. “Oh, for -- look, it’s just. You’re really ... soft, sometimes, fuck, I don’t know. Whatever.”
Shane looks out his window to hide his smile. He tries not to feel quite as touched as he does, but he can’t help it. “You can say ‘dull’,” he says, offering Ryan a way out. “It’s okay.”
“No,” Ryan snaps, looking over at him now, his brow furrowed with a determined line. “I don’t mean dull. I mean soft. You’re like -- just looking at you sometimes feels -- it’s -- fuckin cozy, man. You’re just. You’re cozy. Your vibe is soft and cozy and, like, I don’t know, it’s like drinking a cup of tea to fucking look at you, sometimes, shut up. No, don’t answer, shut up, I’m right.”
His voice pitches up at the end, panicky, and Shane really looks at him: his grip on the wheel, the way his eyes are darting from Shane to the road and back again, the twitch of his shoulders. It’s Ryan at his most brave, Ryan standing in a room full of ghosts and asking them to talk to him.
“Okay,” Shane gives in, his voice gentler than he meant it to be. “Um, thanks.”
“Yeah,” Ryan mutters. “Whatever. Stop talking to me, I’ve got to watch the road.”
Shane isn’t, actually.
Even-keeled, that is.
Or: no. He is, but not -- it’s more like his emotions are in a particularly steady boat, rather than that it’s all calm waters. It takes a moment, is all, for feelings to filter upward. They go through so many filters and nets in his own brain, parsed on their way up like cotton being shredded. By the time they get anywhere approaching his outward expression of them, they’re just ... slow. Laconic. Like a tiny wave created by a hurricane somewhere way off the coast.
It isn’t that he never gets scared, it’s that fear filters through him differently, more slowly. Like sludge rather than a splash -- it makes him less susceptible to jump scares but more likely to look across the car at the way the pink light of sunset is splashing across Ryan’s shoulders and know, bone-deep, that he won’t ever say anything about it, that he’ll just ... sit still in this, forever, because the risks are too big. Boats tip over when you try to stand in them, so Shane stays seated.
Ryan fills the car up with gas, leaning against the passenger side door and scrolling through something on his phone. Some of the ghost babies have left Shane’s lap and are floating interestedly around the car, poking at the wheels and tugging at Ryan’s shoelaces. He’s ignoring them, or pretending to, probably because he thinks if they realize he’s looking at them, they’ll flee.
“So what’s the deal, though, actually?” Shane asks the ghost babies who haven’t left him, who are still curled up in all the places where he’s angled: his lap, the crook of his elbows, the place where his shoulders meet his neck.
They don’t answer him. He doesn’t know if they can’t talk, or won’t, or if they even really understand what he’s saying.
“He wants you to like him,” Shane scolds gently, reaching out to boop the place on one of the ghost faces where the nose would be, if they had faces and not just ... dark spots where he guesses their eyes are. “He wants everyone to like him. It’s probably driving him nuts that I’m the favorite.”
“I can hear you,” Ryan snaps without looking up from his phone. “Stop talking shit about me to our -- to the kids.”
“Awww,” coos Shane. “Our kids.”
“Shut up. That’s not what I meant.”
Shane laughs. “Yeah it is, man,” he teases. “You love our ghost babies. You’re Papa Boogara.”
“Fine, I’ll be Papa Boogara, I don’t care,” Ryan says in a voice that suggests that actually, he cares a lot. “Pretty rich coming from Mama Madej, though.”
Shane hates that “Mama Madej” has a nice ring to it.
“We can both be the dads,” he argues. “Stop being so heteronormative.”
He means it kind of flippantly, but Ryan’s shoulders tighten. He still hasn’t looked up. Shane winces, because he knows he’s put his foot somewhere he wishes he hadn’t, right onto the bruise that lives in Ryan where no homo plays on a loop when you press on it. He’s been trying, Shane knows; trying really, really hard the last year or so to excise the instinct. Shane has seen him open and then determinedly shut his mouth, has felt him stiffen when their shoulders brush and then forcibly relax, on camera. He stopped building the pillow wall when they have to share a bed.
But he hasn’t wanted to talk about it, either, so Shane doesn’t apologize. Instead he says, voice light, “Then again, I dunno. Mama Madej does have a nice little alliterative lilt to it, don’t you think? Mama Madej made many mirages monday morning.”
He’s rewarded with a soft wheeze and a fond look over Ryan’s shoulder, just as the handle of the gas pump pops.
The ghost babies around Ryan’s feet startle at the sound and skitter back to Shane. He counts them, careful to make sure all eleven are there; the thought of leaving one behind makes his heart twist. They’re, like, his. For whatever reason, for however long, they love him and they were entrusted to him, and he’s not going to just ...
“Mamabear Madej, more like,” Ryan teases gently, sliding into his seat and looking at Shane with all the affection in the world, open and easy to read. Ryan’s better at that then Shane has ever been -- he just ... feels things, and it’s right there on his face. “Look at you, counting. I half expect you to tell them to put their seatbelts on before we go.”
“I want to hear eleven buckle-up sounds or we’re not moving,” Shane says, pitching his voice up in a vague approximation of his mom. The idea kind of warms him, somewhere deep in his chest: him, Ryan, and their litter of ghost babies, who can’t talk but sometimes make melodic little cooing noises.
As if answering him, he gets eleven little pops, like lips smacking together, one from each. Shane feels his face spark up with delight. Ryan claps a hand to his chest as he laughs.
That night, in the hotel, Shane lines the ghosts babies up on the edge of the bed and experiments.
“Okay, you’re going to be Steve,” he tells the first one. Steve doesn’t move, just kind of blinks. Or at least, Shane thinks he’s blinking; anyway, the dark holes of his maybe-eyes kind of go vague then sharp.
Ryan, stretched out on the other bed with his hands folded behind his head, huffs out a laugh. “Don’t pretend you can tell them apart,” he accuses. “They all look exactly alike.”
“Like snapchat ghost icons, you mean?” Shane taunts. “Like sheets?”
“They don’t look like sheets. They’re spookier than sheets!”
Shane reaches out to scratch Steve’s chin. He doesn’t know if it actually does anything for them, being touched, but they don’t seem to mind it, anyway. “I don’t think you’re spooky,” he tells Steve reassuringly. “I think you’re cute.”
“They ... they can be cute and spooky,” Ryan grumbles.
“Maybe that’s why they don’t like you,” Shane reasons. “They know you’re spooked by them.”
Ryan sits up, chewing on his lip worriedly. “Do you think that’s it?” he asks. “Do you think -- because I -- ?”
Shane shrugs. “I dunno, man,” he says honestly. He turns to the ghosts, who are still lined up patiently, watching him. “Guys, it’s time for a family meeting. Papa Boogara is sad that you don’t love him as much as you love me. It’s true he thinks you’re spooky, but he loves spooky things. It’s essentially a compliment, coming from him.”
Ryan frowns at him, but doesn’t protest, because Shane is right and they both know it.
The ghost babies swivel to look at Ryan, then swivel back to Shane.
“Steve, you’re the oldest,” Shane decides, somewhat arbitrarily. “Will you lead by example and give Papa Boogara a kiss?”
“I really need you to stop saying Papa Boogara like that,” Ryan mutters, wincing. “It sounds -- ”
But he breaks off when Steve floats off Shane’s bed and over to his, nudging up against his cheek. It’s not a kiss, because they don’t really have mouths, but it’s the gesture; the rest of the ghost babies follow, all in a straight line, bumping up against his jawline dutifully before circling back to Shane’s bed to gather round one of his pillows and sink into it as if they were going to sleep.
Shane doesn’t realize he’s holding his breath watching until he meets Ryan’s eyes and notices that Ryan is, too, his eyes wide and bright. A smile overtakes his face, so bright that Shane sees sunspots.
“Thanks man,” Ryan says softly, voice warm warm warm warm warm.
Fuck, thinks Shane.
“Yeah,” he says, voice scratchy. He climbs into bed and closes his eyes, so that he doesn’t have to look at Ryan or at the ghost babies or at anything at all. “Yeah, man. No problem.”
Shane is a light sleeper, always has been. When he opens his eyes it’s already light out, and Ryan is sitting on the edge of his bed, his hand held out to the pile of ghost babies, tentative. They’re looking at him, not moving toward his hand but not edging away, either. They’re stacked up against Shane, almost as if he’d gathered them up in the night. Who knows? Maybe he did.
“’Morning,” Shane says croakily, squinting. “What’re you doing?”
Ryan startles, and his hand falls, landing on Shane’s bare side. Shane blinks down at it, then back up at Ryan. His brain hasn’t fully woken up yet, and can’t quite catch up to anything that’s happening. He brings a hand up and curls it around Ryan’s, not really sure why except that it feels like the thing to do.
Ryan lets him.
“Did I wake you up? Sorry,” Ryan whispers. “I just -- I really wanted to -- ”
“You didn’t wake me up,” Shane murmurs back, which is a lie. He doesn’t know why they’re whispering. He’s having a hard time fighting through the fog of sleep. He’s still holding Ryan’s hand. His thumb is -- making soft circles on it, what the fuck. “What time is it?”
“Almost eleven, I think.” Shane keeps waiting for Ryan to pull away, but he doesn’t. He just sits there, absolutely still, staring at his hand in Shane’s.
All at once, the ghost babies stir, circling Ryan with excited little -- hops, almost, as if they wanted him to pick them up. Shane, somewhat regretfully, lets go of Ryan’s hand, so he can reach out and touch their heads, taking count.
“Eleven,” Ryan says. He’s not looking at Shane anymore. He’s looking at ... anything that isn’t Shane, actually. “Got ’em all.”
Shane nods. He thinks he’s awake now. His fingers tingle. He’s -- this is a new thing, for Shane, not having absolute control over what his body is doing.
Fuck. Maybe ghost possession is real.
Ryan gets up abruptly and walks to the bathroom, closing the door firmly behind him without a word. The ghost babies turn to look at Shane and he points a stern finger at them.
“Whatever you’re doing, stop it,” he scolds. “No shenanigans. This is a shenanigan-free ghost roadtrip.”
The ghost babies stare mutely at him, bobbing up and down like buoys. Fuck, they’re cute, in their own weird way. Shane wants to snuggle them. He feels like something has been knocked loose, in his chest, but he can’t explain what it is or even what it was connected to.
“No shenanigans,” he says again, very firmly, and turns away to pack up his stuff.
The ghost babies are quiet and obedient when they can back into the car, still crowding Shane’s space and avoiding Ryan’s, but the air feels ... different. Shane can’t explain it. He keeps reaching out to run his hands along the tops of their heads, heart skipping a little when he makes contact. He’s usually not this -- tactile. Maybe this is the result of being mom to eleven tiny ghost babies he can barely get his hands around.
“We can’t keep them,” Ryan tells him, voice amused.
“I know that,” Shane snaps, harsher than he means to.
Ryan looks over at him, eyebrows raised in surprise, and he frowns a little. Thoughtful. Shane leans his head back against the headrest and closes his eyes, not wanting to look. “Shane,” he says after a minute, tone gentler. “You okay, man?”
Actually, Shane feels a little wretched, like he’s been thrown from the boat and his ghost babies are still it, looking silently down at him.
“Yes,” he answers automatically, but at Ryan’s look, slumps a little. “No. I don’t know. I think I’m getting attached to them. They’re making me -- ” He shrugs. “I feel kind of like, unmoored about it.”
Shane knows he’s being dramatic. Shane knows this is very unlike him. He can’t seem to stop.
“Yes, unmoored. Like I just -- they’re really little, Ryan. What if the afterlife isn’t good? What if we bring them to Dallas and they all get, like -- dragged to hell, or something?”
The surprise on Ryan’s face is deeply irritating, and Shane wants to snap at him, but he recognizes that he can’t really trust what his emotions are doing today, so instead he stays quiet. Eventually Ryan says, “They’re babies. I don’t think babies can go to hell. I’m pretty sure that’s like, in the Bible.”
“Maybe the Bible is wrong!”
“Do you want to call Father Thomas?”
“No I don’t want to call -- ” He breaks off. “Actually. Maybe I do want to call Father Thomas. I want to ask Father Thomas what my legal and spiritual rights are, as the guardian of eleven tiny ghost babies. I desperately want to hear what he has to say.”
Ryan laughs. He has such a nice laugh. Shane wants to taste it, kind of.
Stop it, he thinks at the ghost babies. It’s not that he’s never wanted -- it’s not new, looking at Ryan and thinking ... well, a host of things. But feeling this kind of panicked, uncontrollable edge to it is new. It’s ghostly, is what it is, and Shane won’t stand for it. He’s the grown-up here, and that means he’s in charge, and he’s putting his foot down. No more ghost feelings! Keep those to yourself!
“I think they do want to touch you,” he hears himself say. “The babies, I mean. I think they want to be near you but they’re scared that they’ll -- that if they do, going home will be harder.”
Ryan says nothing, for a long time. Shane looks out the window and hates himself and also his children and also, unfairly, Ryan. He especially hates the Goatman, whose fault this definitely is. Who kidnaps eleven ghost spirits and holds them hostage on a bridge, anyway? He should have let them go to heaven the second he realized they were there. That would have been the responsible demon thing to do, and also it would have prevented Shane from ruining his own life by dramatically declaring that the ghosts were going to fall in love with Ryan and forsake eternity for him.
He glares down at the babies in his lap. They coo cheerfully back up at him, nestling in, nudging up behind his ears and around his chest and under his chin.
“Is that, uh,” Ryan begins tentatively, “did they ... tell you that?”
Shane shoots him a glare. “No they didn’t tell me that,” he says. “They can’t talk, Ryan. They can barely make those weird little -- bird sounds.”
He pats one’s head. Ryan was right: he doesn’t know which one was Steve. They really do all look exactly the same.
“Hm,” Ryan answers, noncommittal.
“Don’t be a detective about this,” Shane tells him, hating the whine in his voice. “Just let it go.”
“Okay,” Ryan says, easily enough that Shane looks over at him, suspicious. But Ryan has his eyes on the road, and doesn’t push. Shane is beginning to suspect that he’s not the only one being affected by the ghost babies emotional manipulation, because Ryan’s whole thing is pushing. There’s never been a mystery Ryan hasn’t wanted to get to the bottom of, even and perhaps especially the ones that scare him.
Still: Shane knows better than to look a gift horse in the mouth, so he takes the W and says nothing else.
They stop at a campground to eat lunch. It’s just gas station sandwiches and a liter of soda, but Shane is grateful for the chance to stretch his legs. The ghost babies are thrilled to be outside, zooming around the other picnic tables and tormenting people by blowing their napkins away and knocking over their cups.
“I can’t believe every time I have a picnic after this I’m going to be stuck wondering whether it was a breeze or a ghost fucking up the picnic blanket,” Ryan muses. “Investigations are gonna be so weird, after this.”
“What do you mean?”
Ryan shrugs. He takes a too-big bite of his sandwich and talks around it, a smattering of crumbs dotting his lower lip. Shane doesn’t reach out to brush the crumbs out. He sits on his hands. “Well, like -- I used to be so scared of everything, you know, and now, like -- I mean, on the one hand we have real, definitive proof that ghosts are real and I was right -- ”
“Only one of those things are true, but go on.”
“And I was right,” Ryan repeats, louder. “But on the other hand, I mean, they’re just tiny babies, and not really that scary? Like -- I guess it’s proof that, that other stuff is out there too, scary stuff, but it’s kind of like how I’m not scared of wolves because I’ve only ever met dogs.”
Shane chews slowly, thinking it over.
“That makes sense,” he decides. “I guess I’ll have to be less of a sceptic now, at least, theoretically. Though I’m still pretty sure your spirit box is fake garbage. In fact, I’m twice as sure now, given that we’ve got eleven ghost friends and not a one of them can say a word.”
Ryan puts his sandwich down. Shane thinks, uh oh.
“Did -- did you mean what you said? About them ... wanting, um. To touch me?”
Shane sighs. He should have known Ryan wouldn’t let it go. “Yes,” he says. “I think they like you.”
“Then -- then why do you -- I mean, what is it about you that makes them not -- that makes you, like, the person whose lap they want to sit on?”
Shane a few days ago would have made a crack about how Ryan could sit on his lap too, if he wanted, how his lap was big enough for everybody, but now that feels just a shade too close to the truth for Today Shane, so he shrugs instead. “I guess because they can’t connect with me the same, so it’s -- so they’re not worried about getting attached.”
Ryan frowns at him.
“What?” he asks. “You think -- dude, they’re like, in love with you. They’re so attached to you they keep literally falling into one another to get close to you.”
“That’s,” Shane feels himself blushing, which he hates, and he stares hard at his sandwich. “It’s not the -- I think it’s just, like, I’m here, you know, and I’m -- warm, or -- it’s that soft mom energy, I guess,” he tries, cracking a grin like it’s not a joke Ryan will see right through.
“Shane,” Ryan says, looking serious, sounding serious, leaning in close enough that Shane can smell his aftershave. “Do you think our ghost babies don’t love you?”
Shane rolls his eyes. “No,” he says. “I mean -- yes, obviously, they’ve only known me four days.”
“That’s like, half their lives, probably,” Ryan points out. He’s still frowning. Shane doesn’t know how to make this conversation stop. “Do you ... do you think -- Shane, do you think that I don’t -- ”
Shane stands up. “Right! Time to go,” he announces. “STEVE! EVERYONE ELSE! GET IN THE CAR.”
The ghost babies zoom back to him like they’re being pulled by strings, and Shane flees.
Yes, is the answer.
Yes, Shane thinks that Ryan doesn’t love him.
Obviously Ryan likes him, obviously Ryan cares about him, obviously Ryan is glad to have him along, Shane’s not crazy. But no, Ryan doesn’t look at him in the pink light of sunshine and get stuck in a cycle of thinking about how warm it might make his skin. Ryan is his best friend and he is Ryan’s but that’s a different thing, born of the show, tied up with the show, kind of belonging to the show. Shane is fine with that.
He pulls his knees up to his chest, propping his feet against the dashboard, and the ghost babies are irritated about it, abandoning him to huddle in the console. They keep prodding him, trying to find space, but he wraps his arms around his knees and looks out the window and ignores them. They’ll be in Dallas in just a handful of hours. There’s no point in -- in encouraging attachment, or in getting attached himself. It’s just -- there’s no point in it.
Ryan gets into the car a little slowly, looking over at him and then quickly away. They drive in a silence broken only by the soft coos of the babies, knocking up against him again and again like waves.
Ryan parks at the graveyard, but doesn’t kill the engine or undo his seatbelt. They sit silently in the car, Shane feeling stubborn and Ryan just ... looking at him. The babies hover anxiously between them, crowding Shane’s space. He puts his knees down and lets them in, because they’re about to leave him forever, so. He might as well.
“You ready?” Ryan asks, tentative. “We could ... wait a few days. I’ve got some sick time saved up, I could -- ”
“Let’s just do it,” Shane interrupts. He’s sad now; he’ll be sad later. The idea of a few days stretching out between now and when he has to say goodbye feels unbearable. It’s all very stupid -- they can’t even talk to him. He can’t even tell them apart. He’s just got to get rid of them, and then he can go back to normal, and he’ll be fine. Sad, and then less sad, and then fine.
Ryan nods slowly, still watching him, but turns the keys off and follows Shane out of the car. They walk to the memorial slowly, the ghost babies encircling Shane tightly, like they’re nervous. He’s a little nervous too.
“Okay, pals,” he says when they reach their destination, a bronze statue of a bus with eleven little faces peering eerily down at him. “Here we are. You’re home.”
The ghost babies blink up at the bus, then at Shane, then Ryan, then each other. Finally, one of them -- Steve? -- floats up to Shane’s face and nuzzles his jawline. He thinks he feels almost a kiss, what would be a kiss if they’d had mouths. Steve bops at Ryan, a kind of full-body nod, and then goes up to one of the faces in the memorial and disappears into it.
Shane feels, rather than sees, him disappear; the world shifts, just a little, back to where it belongs. One less ghost that Shane can see. The rest of the ghost babies follow suit, nuzzling Shane and nodding at Ryan and then going up to the bus and to whatever happens after that.
When the last one is gone, the world righted again, Shane looks over at Ryan and waits to feel back to normal. He waits and waits, looking at Ryan and Ryan looking back without any readable expression on his face.
“They’re gone,” Shane says.
Ryan nods. “How do you feel?” he asks.
Shane tries to take stock of his own internal landscape; he shakes his head. “The boat’s long gone,” he says, which he knows will make no sense to Ryan. “It’s open water in here, baby.”
Ryan reaches out and grabs Shane’s hand. “Let’s -- go somewhere,” he suggests. “Decompress.”
Shane shrugs, helpless against the way his throat is tightening. They were just little -- emojis, really. He had them for four days. It’s stupid to feel -- it’s stupid to feel.
“Sure,” he agrees, and lets Ryan lead him back to the car.
Shane gets very drunk.
Shane says: “I know you -- I know,” to Ryan, leaning messily against a bar. Ryan is leaning messily back at him. They’re always -- they always do this, Shane thinks dizzily. They tip forward toward one another but they don’t spill over. “It’s just that it’s different.”
“Different how?” Ryan asks. Shane has no idea if he knows what they’re talking about. He doesn’t care, particularly.
“Than me,” he explains. “Ryan, I was the ghost babies.”
Ryan blinks at him. Smiles. Puts his head down on the counter and passes out.
In the morning, Shane wakes up somehow still alive and in a hotel bed. Ryan is curled up next to him. There isn’t a pillow wall. He’s still sad, reaching out automatically for the ghost babies and not finding them. He’s hung over, mouth cottony and dry, his eyes burning. His breath tastes like maybe he had a cigarette at some point, which is a bummer.
Ryan stirs, shifting closer.
“Time to get up, Papa Boogara,” Shane tells him, poking his side.
Ryan shakes his head without opening his eyes. “Fuck,” he grumbles. “No. I don’t want to be awake. I want to be dead.”
Shane nods in agreement. “Maybe there’s room service,” he muses. “I need coffee, or a bullet to the head. But I’ll bet they’ll only bring coffee.”
With a soft wheeze, Ryan opens his eyes. He peers up at Shane and breaks out into a smile that makes Shane dizzy. He shifts, reaching out to splay his hand across Shane’s stomach, and Shane freezes. He can’t look away from where Ryan’s fingers are expanding and contracting, tracing soft lines into Shane’s t-shirt.
“You owe me $500,” Ryan says quietly. He’s also watching his own hand.
“What?” Shane asks, distracted, adrift. It’s open water in here, baby, he thinks, somewhat nonsensically.
“You said if I ever figured something out, you’d give me $500.”
“What did you figure out?”
Ryan beams up at him, eyes wrinkled and warm and close, close, close. And Shane can see, suddenly, everything: the glint in Ryan’s eyes on late night drives to locations, the way he leans into Shane when he is scared; the smile he works so hard to hide during the hotdaga, all the drawings he spends hours and hours animating, just to let Shane tease him; the rides home, the unasked-for coffees, the caving in to playing Shane’s music in the car; the -- God, the year and a half of teaching himself not to flinch away whenever they got too close; and this, most of all, Ryan curled up next to him with his hand low on Shane’s stomach, fisted in his shirt, not letting go.
“You,” Ryan says, and laughs with delight as Shane leans down and kisses him.