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"I'm not coming if Che's gonna be there," Ryan says firmly. He's learned his lesson about waffling on this issue, and he's not gonna end up trapped at a table with the guy ever again, listening to him ramble about veganism all throughout the main dinner course. Ryan never wants to hear anything about bovine growth hormone ever again, especially not right after he's finished his steak.

"Ryan," Summer whines. "I can't just uninvite him. It's not like he has other friends."

"Fine, then make sure he sits on the other side of the room or something. I mean it, Summer."

"You know that Julie is gonna seat us all together, and if I ask for special arrangements then she's gonna think there's like, a thing, and ever since she went back to therapy she's been extremely weird about talking to me about my personal life." Summer pauses, and Ryan can practically hear her shudder through the phone. "She shares things, Ryan."

Ryan bites the laugh back, with force. "Then I won't go. Problem solved."

"No! Problem not solved!" Summer exclaims in frustration. "Then it'll be just me and Che and Seth and Anna, and I'm not a fan of those numbers. Or that dynamic, in general. Ryan, you have to come, please - I am not above begging!"

"So you're asking me," Ryan summarizes, tapping his fingers on the wheel as he waits for the red light to turn, "to subject myself to a terrible party just to make your night a tiny bit easier, even though you're the one who invited all these people in the first place?"

"Che invited himself," Summer says weakly. "You know how he is. And Seth and Anna - "

"Don't even," Ryan says, already laughing. "I was there, I heard every word. You were like a cartoon character. A giddy, rabid cartoon character, who couldn't stop saying 'pals.'"

Summer groans. "Don't remind me."

Ryan pulls into the parking lot mindlessly, not paying all that much attention, focused instead on the memory of Summer rambling at the boardwalk, desperately trying to convey how totally cool and casual she was about Seth and Anna's rekindled romance, and weirding everyone out in the process. It is mindblowing to Ryan that a girl as calm and unaffected as Summer is in almost every other arena of her life will consistently lose her shit the second she's around someone they went to high school with. "Okay. Proposal."

"Listening," Summer says instantly.

"I come to the thing, and I make your life easier," Ryan says, "and you come help me change Julie's oil this weekend. And you don't complain when I tell you what to do, and you listen, and pay attention, because it's not that hard and you should know how to do it anyway."

Summer makes a noise not unlike a dying whale, unattractively loud into the speaker of the phone. Ryan laughs as he gets out of his car.

"I will accept no counter offers! This or I'm staying in and watching football."

"Ugh, fine," Summer says. "Fine, fine, fine. Like I couldn't just pay someone to do that, but whatever - "

"That's the point," Ryan says, jogging up to his apartment door, his attention still mostly on the conversation. "You don't have to pay someone, because you'll know how to do it yourself. There's no reason to pay money for something that you can do in twenty minutes - "

"What does it cost, like twenty bucks? And if it's so important to you, why don't you teach Julie to do it, instead of just doing it for her?"

"Are you fucking kidding? Yeah right, like I'm gonna sit down and teach Julie Cooper how to change her oil," Ryan says, and stops short at his front door, his keys frozen in his hand. On the sidewalk, only a few feet away, is his mother.

"Hi," says Dawn, smiling weakly. Ryan gapes at her, his mouth hanging wide open.

"Oh please, you know she already knows how to do it, she just pretends not to so that you and Frankie will do it for her," Summer says. Ryan only half hears her, caught in one of the most surreal moments of his life, with his present rambling in one ear, and his past standing right there in front of him, waiting for the other. You'd think he'd be used to it by now. "Fine, deal, but that means you have to wear something nice, okay? I wonder if Che will wear a suit this time. He was pretty embarrassed when he got turned away at that restaurant because of his board shorts."

"Mom," Ryan says faintly. Dawn takes a tentative step forward, her face hopeful. Every muscle in Ryan's body tenses, on instinct.

"What?" says Summer.

"Hey, baby," Dawn says nervously. "Um. Kirsten gave me your address. I tried to call, but you didn't pick up, and…"

"Ryan?" Summer asks. "What's going on?"

"Mom," Ryan says again, still holding his phone to his ear, like an idiot. "What are you...why are you here?"

"I was in town, and I...wanted to see you," Dawn says.

"Holy shit, your mom is there?!" Summer exclaims. "Put me on speaker."

"What? No," Ryan says, snapping back to the conversation with Summer.

"I didn't mean to intrude," Dawn says hastily, brow furrowing.

"Put me on speaker," Summer demands again, "come on, I wanna hear what she says."

"No," Ryan says firmly, holding up a hand to Dawn and turning his head away, hopefully to clarify who's talking to who, here. "I need to call you back."

"Ryan," Summer says seriously, "you don't have to let her in. You can just walk away. Promise me you'll remember that."

Ryan takes a long, slow breath. "I'll call you later."

"I'm giving you an hour, and then I'm coming over there," Summer says firmly, and hangs up. Ryan sighs, sliding his phone in his pocket, giving himself another fortifying moment before he turns back around.

Surprise, surprise, she's still standing right there. "Hi," she says again, giving him a little wave. Ryan stares at her incredulously, and her smile slips, just a bit. "Sorry. I didn't mean to...surprise you. I really did try to call."

"I don't really, uh," Ryan says, rubbing his neck. "I get a lot of spam calls. So if I don't have a number saved, I usually don't answer it."

"Oh." Dawn nods, looking down at the sidewalk between them. "Yeah, that makes sense."

"You could have left a voicemail," Ryan says, just on the edge of accusing. "That's what most people do, when they're trying to get in touch with me."

Dawn flinches like he'd yelled it. "I didn't know what to say," she says, scraped raw with honesty. She fidgets a little, looking nervously around at the parking lot. "Can we, uh - can we go inside? We can talk. I'd like to see your place." She smiles, hopeful again. "Kirsten says it's really nice, and if she said that then it must be practically one step down from Buckingham Palace." She laughs a little, urgingly, like she wants him to join the joke.

Ryan just rubs the bridge of his nose, blindsided as he always is by this particular habit of his family's - and feeling stupid for not expecting it, when they've done it to him so many times before. "Yeah. Yeah, okay. I have plans in awhile, though - I just came home to shower and change."

"Right, of course," Dawn says quickly. "I don't have to stay long, I just - well, we can play it by ear."

"Right," Ryan says dryly. You'd think he'd be used to that by now, too.

 

 

 

 

 

She certainly looks better, is his first thought, especially compared to the last time he'd seen her, at the party the Cohens threw him when he graduated from Berkeley. She'd spent the entire night at the bar, getting progressively wasted as the night dragged on, and resisting every attempt of Kirsten and Sandy's to help her stay discreet about it. Julie and Frank hadn't helped, of course, both of them angry at Sandy and Kirsten for inviting Dawn in the first place, and Julie in particular because Dawn had introduced herself to Leo as "your daddy's first wife," which was understandably a little too much even for the new and improved Julie Cooper to take. Ryan tried to play middle man, as usual, and ended up escalating the entire disaster into a four-way screaming match, with his hysterical little brother at the heart of it, and well - long story short, he hasn't seen his mom since.

She's a bit thinner now, but not unhealthily so, and her hair is brown again, like it'd been when Ryan was little. She's wearing slacks and a nice blouse - office clothes, clearly. Ryan realizes with a sick lurch that he has no idea what she's been doing to support herself, the last few years. He hasn't even wondered, if he's being honest with himself.

"Kirsten was right," Dawn says, "it is nice."

Ryan can't help but snort. "It's a shithole," he says, without preamble. The kitchen is a joke - more like a closet with a fridge - and his bedroom is barely big enough to hold his bed, let alone any decent walking room around it. Half the appliances don't work, the water pressure is shit, and his neighbors play video games so loud he's started to dream in Mario music. But it's all he can afford, at the moment.

"Well," Dawn says, with a shrug, "a shithole in Berkeley is still better than a shithole anywhere else, if you ask me."

"Whatever you say," Ryan says, tossing his keys on the counter. Conscious of the time limit Summer had given him, he says, "why are you in town, Mom?" If they're going to fight, might as well get it over with.

"I - okay, I wasn't in this town specifically," Dawn admits, pulling her purse off her shoulder and setting it hesitantly on the counter next to Ryan's keys, as if unsure of her place. Ryan doesn't react, unwilling to make this easy on her. "I'm actually staying in San Jose for a few weeks, for a business trip. It was kind of a drive I guess, but I figured - I was this close, and - "

"A business trip," Ryan interrupts flatly.

Dawn falters a little, but pushes through, her chin set. "Yep," she says, determinedly cheerful. "I'm a legal secretary now, can you believe it? I'm still in LA. Well, Lancaster - but I work in the city."

"That's great," Ryan says lamely. Realizing he's crossed his arms defensively across his chest, he hastily rips them apart, gripping the back of one of the barback chairs pushed up against the kitchen counter. "What's the trip for?"

"Meetings," Dawn says simply. "Mostly I'm here to take notes, but Rob - that's my boss, the lawyer - he's been letting me sit in on interviews with our clients. It's really interesting, actually! He's in personal injury, and so a lot of our cases are workman's comp stuff, and you wouldn't believe how people get fucked over, Ryan, I mean it's really incredible. Not incredible like - like a good thing, incredible like - wow, the world's messed up! But - anyway." Dawn laughs a little, visibly flustered. "There's a company based in San Jose that we're suing, and so the depositions are there. Not that that's super interesting, but - well - "

"That's great," Ryan says again, unable to seem to come up with anything better. Dawn smiles lamely. "That's...yeah, I'm happy for you, Ma."

"Thanks," Dawn says, her mouth trembling a little. She blinks at him in the dim light, her age showing in the lines on her face, now that he's close enough to see them. "God, Ryan, you - you look so much older. I can't believe it."

"That tends to happen," Ryan says. "Aging. You know - as time passes."

Dawn flinches again. "I was just saying," she says, defensive, but cuts the sentence off, before it even starts. "You look good, that's all. You've bulked up a lot!" She reaches out, slowly so he has a chance to pull away from her, and touches his arm softly. "Tattoos, too! Wow."

Ryan lets her look, even stepping a bit closer so she can push his sleeve up to see the full design wrapped around his bicep. "Kirsten's not a fan," he says, "but Sandy secretly digs it, I think. Not that he'll admit it out loud."

Dawn smiles fondly. "What does it mean?"

It means: Ryan and Summer and Seth were blackout wasted in New York on the two-year anniversary of Marissa's death, and sitting at a small table in their hotel room, Seth sketched out a tattoo idea in her honor, with increasingly incoherent input from Ryan and Summer. The idea morphed, and changed several times, jumping around from idea to idea, everything from an actual portrait of her face, to some oblique song lyric that Seth insisted was emblematic of Marissa's life, even though Summer told him privately that Marissa had never been able to stand Seth's whiny indie music, and just hadn't said anything because she hadn't wanted to hurt his feelings.

("The music she actually liked," Summer had said, wistfully, "was like, loud and twangy and very Melissa Etheridge-ish. If there was such a genre as 'lesbian country rock,' that was Coop." Ryan couldn't say he would've said that himself, if anyone had asked, but he couldn't deny the truth of it, once Summer had voiced it.)

On Ryan's twenty-first birthday, he finally did it: with Summer right there at his side, and Seth tagging along on Facetime, he found an artist and gave him the design and two sessions later, he had a map of Marissa's favorite beach on his arm forever, a silent tribute that was vague enough that he wouldn't ever have to explain it, unless he wanted to. Summer has a similar one, on her leg: ocean waves, in the same lined, geometric style as Ryan's beach. They don't talk about it, but it's not something they need to discuss. Much like their grief, it's simply there in the background of their lives - always present, but politely silent.

Ryan can't even begin to think of how to explain that. Much like every other time this has happened, he can't even process how to just...pick things up again, like all that absence and distance never happened. How he's supposed to just be her son again, after so many years not doing it. Not many people really understand that - that family is behavior, not blood. But Ryan does. He always has.

So Ryan says: "just a design," and steps back, away from her touch. Dawn lets her hand fall, her smile dropping right along with it. "Look, Ma - I need to get ready. How long are you in town?"

"Just under a week," Dawn says. "I was hoping - well, only if you want - that we could...talk? Of course, only if you have time, and - you're probably really busy with work, but I just thought - it's been so long - "

Ryan pulls out his phone, holding it out to her. "Why don't you give me your number," he says. Dawn takes it with shaking fingers, typing her number in quickly. "I'll call you, okay?" Ryan takes the phone back, refusing to be swayed by her sad, wobbly face. "We can text," he says, his only capitulation. "In the meantime, I mean."

"Okay." Lifted slightly, Dawn picks up her purse. "Can we...hug? Is that okay?"

Ryan wants to say no, but that feels a little too far. "Sure, Mom."

It's like a window into another time, being hugged by her - she still wears the same brand of perfume she wore throughout Ryan's entire childhood. He shudders as she pulls away, his sense memory bringing up a montage of things he usually doesn't like to remember.

"It's good to see you," Dawn says, still holding her smile up.

Ryan just nods. He still can't bear to lie to her, even now. Even after everything.

 

 

 

 

 

Ryan doesn't actually have plans. Well - technically he does, in that his plans consist of Summer, who comes crashing into his apartment, a few minutes early of the hour time limit. She surveys his empty apartment with both hands on her hips, a fierce look on her face, like he's hiding her in a closet or something.

"Hey," Ryan says, holding up an open bottle of wine in invitation. His only piece of furniture, other than the barstools and his bed, is an ugly, expensive couch Kirsten gave him from one of her model homes. It's the most comfortable thing Ryan's ever owned, but it's blood orange and fucking terrible to look at. Summer loves it, of course. "She's gone. Wanna get drunk with me?"

"Yes," Summer says decisively, and collapses on the cushion next to him. "I hope you have more than that."

"I have so much more than this," Ryan says, drinking straight from the bottle. He hands the rest to Summer, and reaches down to pull out a second. He's lined them up against the wall, next to the matching, blood orange ottoman, in preparation of her arrival. "All red, though. Sorry."

"I'll live," Summer says, with a shrug and a pull of her own. She grimaces. "Ugh. Where'd you get this?"

"Work." Ryan's boss is a boring middle management type, but his brother owns a winery, and so he gives out bottles as gifts all the time. It's not great wine, but it's fine for when you just want to drink something and not black out, so Ryan saves it up. "I think I've got a bottle of Moscato in the fridge, but it's open, so it's probably flat."

"Then why'd you keep it?" Summer asks rhetorically, taking another long drink. "Hm. It'll get better as we go, probably."

"Probably."

"So," Summer says. "Spill."

"She's a legal secretary now," Ryan says. "She's in town on a business trip."

"A business trip," Summer says, with the same exact flatness Ryan had earlier, saying the same words.

"Yeah," Ryan says, with a scoff. "I don't know, there's not much to say. She wants to talk."

"Hm," Summer says again, with a distinctly disapproving air. An entire monologue is contained within that 'hm.'

"Shut up," Ryan says, rolling his eyes.

"But I'm - "

"Yes, I know you're right, but I don't wanna hear it," Ryan says irritably. "Do you know - I did try to call? After the graduation party? I left her all these messages, and she never called me back."

"...Mmhm," Summer says.

"Frank still calls Trey," Ryan says darkly. "Leaves him a voicemail every month, like clockwork. I'd bet you my entire paycheck this month that Trey has never once called him back."

Summer lays her hand gently against the crook of his elbow, soft and unobtrusive. Ryan takes a deep breath, and another long, long drink.

"Shit," he says, wincing at the taste. "I don't even know if he's still alive. For all we fucking know, he got himself killed in a bar fight or something years ago."

Summer makes a wounded noise, and deftly takes the wine bottle straight out of his hands. "Maybe drinking's not such a good idea after all," she says critically. "I forgot you're a mopey drunk."

"I'm not mopey," Ryan says, offended. "You're mopey. You always start speaking in bad Spanish, too."

"My Spanish is not bad!" Summer says. "It's just rusty."

Ryan is skeptical, but decides not to pursue the point. "What should we do instead, then?" he asks. "Mope sober?"

"What do you want to do?" Summer asks, speaking low, from her chest, and slides neatly into his lap.

Ryan slides his palms up her thighs before he even realizes he's doing it, then moves up her waist, pulling her shirt with the motion. Summer arches her back, raising her arms to help, and just like that, easy as pie, she's already half naked. Ryan is forever charmed, and a little bemused, at how quickly she can go from absolute zero to absolute porn star, in the blink of an eye. "Well, I'm liking your suggestions so far. And I'd like to hear more."

"I've been telling you I could be a real benefit to this company, if you'd only give me a chance," Summer says, matter-of-factly, wiggling around a little as she gets comfortable. She's taken to wearing leggings lately, with long, drapey tops that are more like short dresses than shirts, so sitting there on top of him in just her bra, she looks like she does when she's getting ready for a party - walking around his apartment in just her tights and push-up, doing her makeup as she chatters about one thing or another. Ryan smiles, pressing his thumbs into the little divots in her waist, watching her squirm a little, already turned on, just from this.

"Kiss me," he says, impulsively, and she does, holding the sides of his face carefully. The other thing Ryan really likes about Summer is that she's always very gentle, when she touches him. It's not something any woman has ever done for him before.

"Hm," Summer says, when she pulls away. She smirks a little, slyly, as he laughs at her. "Do you wanna go to bed? I don't feel like being on top."

"Sure," Ryan says, pulling her back down for another kiss. At the last second though, he angles his face away, and kisses her neck instead, making her giggle a little. But he takes the opportunity to say it, now that his face is hidden, and he knows she'll really listen. "I don't want to take it out on you, though. You stop me, if I start doing that. Promise me."

"Oh, Ryan." Summer pulls back far enough to look at him. "Why do you always think the worst of yourself? When have you ever, ever done that?"

Ryan busies himself with one of her hands, just to avoid her sharp eyes, kissing her palm softly. "Not with you, maybe."

"Idiot," Summer says fondly, cupping his cheek with that palm, softer than she ever is outside of these moments. "Just take me to bed already. I'm not gonna wait around all day."

"Yes ma'am," says Ryan.

 

 

 

 

 

Their thing, which is a secret thing, if you're getting technical about it, started the same day as Ryan's tattoo. In the car afterwards, Summer had scrambled into the front seat and said, "let me see it again," in her bossiest voice, and Ryan couldn't help but obey. She unwrapped it carefully, peering intently - not daring to touch - and then wrapped it back up again, just as gentle, just as sweet.

Then she looked at him and said, "I fucking hate her sometimes. Do you know what I mean?"

Ryan did. They had sex for the very first time in the front seat, in the parking lot of the tattoo studio, Summer bracing her hands against the roof of his truck for leverage. Ryan's legs burned from her weight, and the effort it took to thrust, and his arm fucking hurt, both from the soreness from the tattoo, and the few times they slipped, and he rubbed the tender parts a little too hard against the seat. He made her come twice, but he couldn't get there himself, exhausted and worn out, emotionally and physically, and Summer just sat there for a long time, in his lap, still holding him inside of her, kissing the side of his face as he shuddered, trying not to cry. It was the worst sex of his life, but in a good way. A weird, intense thing, that somehow still felt...healthy.

They didn't talk about it. And they didn't have sex again, not for about half a year, until Summer left her job at G.E.O.R.G.E. to be Che's co-CEO. At the party to celebrate (there's always a party) Ryan found himself burning with jealousy at how close they were standing, the casual intimacy of their conversation, the way he made her laugh - much louder than she ever laughed with Ryan. Short of falling back on old habits and starting a fist fight, Ryan took the next best option, and pulled her into a bedroom to yell at her instead - what the hell he was even saying, he doesn't remember, just jealous bullshit - which ended in furious, angry sex against the wall of her father's bathroom. And ever since then - it's just what they do. They don't talk about it when other people are in the room. And they certainly haven't told the Cohens. But they don't fuck other people, and sometimes - if the moment is right - they say things neither of them have ever said to anyone else.

So much so, that Ryan sometimes loses track of what she knows and doesn't know. It feels as if she already knows everything, even when he knows she doesn't. That's the trick to talking, it turns out - you have to just find somebody who doesn't make a big fucking deal out of it.

"I never told you how I came to live with the Cohens, did I?" Ryan asks. Summer's in her favorite spot in Ryan's bed - the narrow space between the mattress and the wall, her shoulder wedged in beneath the windowsill. Ryan's sprawled sideways, his head on her bare stomach, and they're sharing their favorite after-sex ritual: a gigantic bag of sour gummy worms. Ryan buys in bulk, and keeps them in his closet. "The details, I mean."

"No. Marissa told me some stuff, but," Summer trails off. "Sandy was your lawyer, right? When you got arrested for stealing cars with your brother."

"I mean, it was just one car," Ryan says with a laugh. "But yeah, he was my PD."

"I guess we always thought that he just...offered," Summer says with a shrug. She looks alert, though. Listening.

"No." Ryan smiles wryly at the thought. "So he gets me out of jail, right. Just on bail, but my mom doesn't show up to pick me up, and I'm at this pay phone, calling everyone I can think of - you know, the three or four people I knew who would give a shit - and he's driving by, and he sees me on the curb there. So he takes pity on me and gives me a ride home, and when we got there...she was gone. Just - fucking gone. The house is completely cleared out. No note, no messages, nothing. Including all my shit - clothes, books, everything."

"Jesus," Summer mutters.

"So he says, 'just for tonight,' and he takes me back to his…mansion, I mean - you know what the house looked like. Especially to a kid like me, right?" Summer nods encouragingly. "And right away, Kirsten is not having it. They would have these arguments right in front of me - I dunno if they realized I was listening, but they did it all the time, even later after they took me in for real. They were just too wrapped up in each other to notice sometimes."

"A common trait in that town," Summer comments.

Ryan turns his face into her skin briefly, kissing the little bulge beneath her bellybutton. "No shit."

"I mean obviously I was around for some of the stuff afterwards," Summer says, chewing thoughtfully on a gummy worm. She tilts the bag in his direction, and he grabs a green and yellow one. She saves all of those for him, since they're his favorite - which works out, because she's greedy as hell about the blue/orange ones. "The model home thing, and the Luke and Marissa thing - "

"Ugh," Ryan says, remembering.

"When did it change?" Summer asks curiously. "With Kirsten, I mean."

"When Dawn came back," Ryan says truthfully. It was a hard thing to swallow then, and it's hard to swallow now, that his relationship with Sandy and Kirsten started out of pity, and then built itself up on desperation, and mutual need. The truth is they all needed something from him - companionship, affection, a cause, an ally in arguments, a tie-breaking vote on what movie to watch - whatever. But the mind blowing imbalance between that and what he needed - a roof over his head, food in his stomach, love and support and discipline from adults who gave a shit about his safety - has always stuck with Ryan in an unpleasant way. He doesn't like owing people things. And while he's come a long way since those first few months - hoarding food in the pool house, planning escape routes, desperate plans to extend his welcome as long as possible, just so he could make the food and warmth last as long as he could - it's still always there. Lingering, in the awkward spaces.

"The casino party," Summer says, with a tone of realization, as if she's remembering.

Ryan had forgotten that Summer had been there, that day. Watching the show right along with everyone else. "Right. Kirsten was the one who found her - that was her plan, to track Dawn down and, I dunno, guilt her into doing right by me, I guess. But then she actually showed up, and Kirsten saw...well."

"The reality," Summer supplies.

"She did the same thing when she came to visit me in lock up," Ryan confides. "She took one look around and realized, 'oh this is actual jail,' and two hours later I was back in the pool house."

"It's still so weird to me that that happened to you," Summer says softly. She moves her thigh a little, nudging his head, which Ryan lifts briefly so she can adjust her position on the bed. When he lays back down again, she reaches down and runs her fingers through his hair, casually affectionate. "I can't believe we live in a country that would put a person like you in jail. It's just...intolerable."

Ryan can't speak for a moment, his heart beating so hard he can feel it in his arms and legs, pulses of blood making his fingers tingle. "I did actually steal the car," he finally says, measuring the words out slowly.

"That's not what I meant," Summer says archly. She sighs dramatically, causing Ryan's head to rise and fall with the roll of her ribs. "Would you get mad at me if I told you I kind of hate your mom?"

"No," Ryan says. "I kind of hate her, too."

"Good. That seems healthy." Summer pushes the bag of gummy worms away with a little moue of distaste. "Take these away from me before I finish the whole thing."

"You always say that, and then you wake up in the middle of the night and finish them," Ryan says, sitting up to curl the bag shut and tuck it away into the drawer of his nightstand. Right next to the lube and the condoms - all his essential sex supplies, in one place.

"I'm a midnight snacker, I can't help it," Summer says, smiling up at him. He crawls back over to her, pulling her back towards the middle of the bed by her knee, grinning when she squeaks a little in surprise. "It's almost like you want me to get fat."

Ryan squints at her. "I'd still do you."

Summer bursts into a peal of laughter. "Pig."

"Well, it's true." Ryan rolls over on top of her - careful not to lean his weight on anything delicate, but also letting himself lean on her enough to make her make that cute wheezing noise. She doesn't disappoint. "Thanks for cheering me up, pal."

"Shut up," Summer groans, burying her face in his shoulder in embarrassment.

"No, I'm just really glad we could move on from our past and be buds, because I'm totally cool with that," Ryan says.

Summer pinches him. "You can't make fun of me when we're naked. It's part of the deal."

"There's a deal?!"

"Yes, I just made it up in my head," Summer says proudly, struggling to lift her chin up so she can make a face at him. Ryan grins, lifting himself back up just enough so he can kiss her. "Mm."

"Hm," Ryan says, still teasing her. Summer just shakes her head, burying her face in his shoulder again. "Hey. Hey, Summer."

"What," she says, muffled.

"Would you beat up my mom, if I asked you nicely?"

"I absolutely would," Summer says, baring her face again. Her expression is one thousand percent dead serious. "Are you asking? Because I've got some ideas. You know - creative thoughts on method and execution."

Ryan shakes his head and kisses her again. Sometimes, he thinks, this thing of theirs might just last. He's trying not to jinx it, though.

"Are you going to talk to her?" Summer asks softly when they finally part, practically a whisper.

"Probably," Ryan murmurs back, just as quiet.

Summer kisses his chin gently. "Okay," she says.

"That's it?"

"That's it," she says, tightening her hands around his neck, keeping him close. "You'll let me know." Ryan supposes he will.

 

 

 

 

 

Kirsten brings Sophie with her to lunch, which is a surer sign than anything that she knows he's a little mad. To her credit, she does look a little sheepish about it, but Ryan refuses to be swayed. Dating Theresa taught him well the art of quietly fighting over a baby's head.

"You couldn't have called me first?"

"She asked me not to," Kirsten says. She smiles at Sophie, who is happily occupied with the kid's menu and a small box of crayons, humming to herself and blissfully ignoring both adults at the table. "She said it would make you cut and run, and I thought she was right."

This, if anything, pisses Ryan off even more. "And I would've been justified in doing so. It should have been my choice to make."

Kirsten looks sympathetic, but firm, which Ryan imagines is the same face she makes at work whenever she's telling someone to do something ugly that she feels sort of bad about, but not bad enough to not do it. That's the secret to making real money, Ryan's discovered. Doing it anyway. "She deserved the opportunity to at least try - you don't have to talk to her, of course. You don't even have to pick up the phone. But she asked me, as your mother, and I didn't feel like it was my place to say no."

"She didn't just call," Ryan says flatly. "She showed up at my goddamn apartment."

"Language," Kirsten snaps, on instinct clearly, since her face blanches in the very next moment. "Wait - she showed up? In person?"

Ryan glances over at Sophie, who is intently focused on her drawing. She is eerily similar to Seth in her seemingly unending ability to ignore her surroundings. There was a period of time when she was just a baby that Kirsten and Sandy were concerned she might have some kind of developmental disorder, due to how she could sit for hours and hours with a single toy, not making a sound or even moving at all. "Yeah. She was just. There. She sat in her car in the parking lot for who knows how long, waiting for me to get home."

"Oh." Kristen sits back in her chair, her previous firmness all but evaporating. "Oh. I didn't know that."

"Clearly."

"She said she just wanted to call."

"She always says something," Ryan replies, still clinging to the anger. "She says all she wants is this, something small and reasonable, right? Just a ride to her friend's house, just a weekend away so she can relax. Then you give it to her, and she pushes a little further - a ride down the block turns into a plane ticket to Florida. The weekend turns into an entire month. And she always has the excuse ready. 'I was just so tired, I've been working without a day off for months, my husband's in jail, my son is mean to me.' And before you know it you're letting her get away with everything, and she's making you feel guilty for not doing it sooner."

"Well, I'm sorry," Kirsten says, starting to get defensive. "I should have asked you first, I know. But at the time, it didn't seem like too much to ask. You said yourself that you were worried about how she was doing - "

Ryan shakes his head, rubbing his face with one hand.

"I didn't give her your address. Just your number. I don't know what she told you, but - "

"I'm not saying it's your fault she showed up, I'm saying you should have warned me," Ryan snaps. Kirsten makes the regal, wounded face she always makes when someone gets angry with her. "You, of all people, should know what she's like."

"I guess I was hoping things had changed," Kirsten says, her voice hard and small, and Ryan doesn't even know what to say.

The waiter floats over with their food, a welcome time-out. Ryan looks at his salad with detached disinterest.

Kirsten occupies herself with Sophie, who is less than pleased with the interruption. "You can finish your drawing later, sweetheart - see? I'm putting it right here so it doesn't get messy."

"But I'm not done," Sophie whines. Her face scrunches up, a prelude to a tantrum, and Ryan quickly steps in.

"Looks good," he says, and quickly steals a bite of her mac and cheese. Sophie is momentarily stunned, looking up at him with wide eyes. "Mm. Cheesy."

"That's mine!" she exclaims, laughing when he goes to steal another bite. She flaps her arms at him defensively. "No!"

"Well, I figured if you weren't gonna eat it," Ryan says leadingly.

"I'm gonna eat it," Sophie replies, with determination, and picks up her fork. Kirsten smiles at him gratefully.

"You better clean your plate, or Ryan will steal it," she teases. Sophie giggles again, shoving a gigantic bite into her mouth. Ryan bites his lip, trying not to laugh at her too obviously - she's pretty sensitive about that. "Four is much worse than two, I'll tell you that," she murmurs to Ryan. "Thanks."

Ryan just shrugs, avoiding eye contact. The silence between them turns awkward.

It's not like Ryan isn't aware that his feelings for the Cohens are a tangled, complicated mess on even their best day, but therapy is expensive and tedious and he's got bigger fish to fry, at the moment. It was an ugly surprise for all of them that things got worse between them when Ryan moved out for college, not better. They were fighting, suddenly, over things they never fought about before. Bickering at the dinner table, stony silences, weeks of no contact at all, other than Sandy's stubborn 'doing ok? Need $?' weekly texts. (Which often just made Ryan angrier, if anything.)

They worked through it. Things are alright, for the most part. People at the office refer to Seth as his brother and Ryan doesn't correct them. Kirsten still insists on Chrismukkah photo shoots, and puts them up on Facebook labelled as 'family portraits', and it still makes Ryan feel warm, and a little embarrassed, but in a good way. Sandy calls him 'son,' and Ryan treasures it.

But secretly, Ryan knows the answer: he's more willing to fight with them now because he doesn't depend on them for survival anymore. This is the more honest version of their relationship: one where Ryan isn't afraid to disagree with them, to express opinions he knows they won't like, to make his own choices independent of what he knows they want, to get angry. An ugly pill to swallow, and he's not sure they'll ever acknowledge it out loud. He's afraid of what it would do to Sandy and Kirsten, if he ever admitted that he was terrified to do all of that before. He's ashamed of it, for some reason.

I mean, you haven't even known them for that long, compared to other families, is what Summer said, when they talked about it. You've probably only barely scratched the surface. But every family has their shit, right? And they love you to death. That's the part that you can count on. As always, she's right.

Still, the rest of lunch is unbearable. Ryan knows it's his fault, but anger is a privilege he's unwilling to give up, now that he has it.

"I'm sorry," Kirsten says, once they've finally escaped the restaurant, pulling him into a hug with Sophie leaning obliviously against her legs. "Honestly, Ryan. I am."

"It's okay," Ryan murmurs back. It feels better to forgive when he really means it. "I just need you to understand that it's different with me. You have to consider what you might not know when you make calls like that."

That hits home, judging by the look on her face. "I will," she promises, blinking rapidly and squeezing his elbows. "I promise, Ryan."

"I don't mean to hurt your feelings," Ryan says hesitantly, feeling bad.

"No." Kirsten hugs him again. "No, thank you for saying that. I love you for saying that."

"I love you too," Sophie chirps, chiming into the conversation randomly. Ryan and Kirsten both laugh into each other's shoulders.

"Sometimes you just have to remind us," Kirsten mumbles, pressing her face against his arm as they hang on just a bit longer, stretching the hug out as long as they can. "It's so easy to pretend like you've always been mine."

Ryan doesn't say anything, finding his throat too thick to speak through. Kirsten smiles at him when she finally pulls away, pressing her palm flat against the plane of his chest. Just a small gesture of affection, subtle, and yet - Ryan feels the warmth of it long after he's driven away.

That is, Ryan knows, what a real mother's love is like. He didn't know the difference before, which is why Dawn was able to get away with it for so long. But everything is different now.

 

 

 

 

 

"I don't understand," Dawn says, "all I'm asking for is lunch, I'm not - Ryan, I'm only in town for three more days."

Ryan's standing in the parking lot of his building, holding a cigarette he's not smoking. He keeps a pack in his car as a sort of safety blanket, but every time he actually lights one he finds himself disgusted by the taste, so he just ends up holding it while it slowly burns down.

"That's not my fault," he says, keeping his voice even and neutral. "It's just not a good week for me, Mom. If you had called to let me know, I could have moved some things around and made time, but - "

"You make it sound like you're the president or something," Dawn blurts, obviously already upset. "What's so important you can't reschedule? You can't spare even an hour to eat some food with me?"

"That's really none of your business," Ryan says, raising the cigarette to his lips on instinct. He stops the motion halfway, remembering himself.

"Fine, okay, you've made your point," Dawn says. "Listen. I know we left things on bad terms last time, but - how am I supposed to make up for it when you won't even talk to me?"

"You think I'm mad about the graduation party?" Ryan says, incredulous. He looks over at the skyline, trying to keep his temper contained, shaped into something constructive, so he can say what he needs to say, and not the angry poison he wants to spew at her. "Mom. If I held a grudge about every party or recital or soccer game you ruined, I would've cut ties with you years ago."

Dawn makes a wounded noise into the speaker of the phone, soft and hurt. Ryan's chest twinges in response.

"Do you realize I've had no idea where you were even living? Or if you were alive at all?" Ryan says, enunciating the words sharply. "You can't keep doing this - popping in and out like I'm a hobby you can keep coming back to whenever you feel like it. That hurts worse than sticking around and being bad at it. Do you understand? At least if you stayed, we could work on making it better."

There's a shuffling, sniffing noise that tells Ryan that she's crying. Ryan closes his eyes briefly, trying not to picture what her face must look like. "Your dad - "

"It's not about Dad. It's not!" Ryan shakes his head. "You have no idea what it's been like for him and me."

"I know you let him waltz back in after everything he did," Dawn snaps back, on the edge of hysterical. "After what he did to us in Palo Alto? And now he's married to Julie fucking Cooper, and you're eating dinner at his mansion like it never happened - "

Ryan takes the phone away from his ear abruptly, and finally takes a drag from the cigarette. His chest burns as he exhales, and even as the rush hits, soothing the nervous energy, he already regrets it.

" - what I'm supposed to think about that? Huh? Of course you don't care," Dawn is saying, when Ryan presses the phone to his face again.

He takes a deep breath before he speaks. "If you think," he says slowly, "that it was easy for me to forgive him, then you really don't know me at all. The point is that he showed up and he fucking earned it, Mom. That's how it works. You stick around and you do the work. But you've never been good at that part, and you never, ever understand how much it hurts to know that I'm not enough to make you want to try."

There's a long silence, and for a moment Ryan thinks she's hung up. But then, quietly, she says, "that's not true."

"Then prove it," Ryan snaps. "You want to be in my life? Then give me a good reason to trust you."

Then he hangs up. It's almost, believe it or not, empowering.

Or something.

 

 

 

 

 

The three days pass without another word from Dawn, and Ryan works hard on being surprised. In a stunning display of sensitivity, Summer withdraws her RSVP for Julie's party, and convinces Che to take the hot girl from marketing instead.

"You didn't have to," Ryan says, miserable and trying not to show it. "I know you wanted to work on Julie about the fundraising idea."

"She'll do it," Summer says dismissively. "She just wants to be wooed a little. But I can woo over the phone."

"You're very good at woo," Ryan agrees.

"Practically an expert," Summer replies, squeezing his hand.

They spend the weekend watching professional wrestling in bed, which is the only sport they agree on. Ryan emerges on Monday morning feeling just a little bit better, with the dawning knowledge that this is what the rest of his life is going to look like, if he manages not to fuck it up. It's a funny sort of combination of dread and excitement, which seems fitting for a woman like Summer: a healthy sense of awe coupled with a healthier dose of terror.

Somebody must have told Seth what was going on, because he's been in town for a full two days and has largely left Ryan alone, which under normal circumstances would've been indication of something drastic - a relationship-altering fight, or a severe depression. As it is, Seth turns up to treat Ryan for lunch like he always does when he's visiting, and manages to contain himself for a full twenty minutes before he blurts out the question.

"So I heard you finally kicked your mom to the curb," he says, and Ryan chokes on his iced tea.

"Finally?"

"No offense," Seth says quickly, blanching a little. "That was a biased statement based on my own feelings towards Dawn Atwood, which in turn are very much influenced by my protective feelings towards you, which I know you don't really need since you're a huge badass and all."

Ryan feels a bit dizzy, as is usual when engaging in the tennis match that is conversation with Seth. "I don't really want to talk about it, if you don't mind."

"Sure, of course, no problem," Seth says. He makes a face. "I'm just gonna say this one tiny thing and then I'm done - "

Ryan snorts.

"I'm proud of you!" Seth blurts, then mimes zipping his lips shut. "Okay, that's it. Let's move on."

"Proud of me," Ryan repeats.

"Yes. I am proud of you." Seth lifts his chin, visibly refusing to be embarrassed. "You did a healthy thing, and I'm proud. That's it - it's out there."

Ryan feels his grin stretching slowly across his face, the urge to laugh almost overwhelming.

"No take backs," Seth declares, and downs half his Sprite in one long gulp. "Okay, new conversation topic. Acknowledging your discomfort in talking about your life, let's turn it back to me: Anna wants to get a dog. Opinions? Thoughts?"

"Why on earth would she want a pet when she already has to take care of you?" Ryan asks, still grinning madly.

Seth sniffs. "Letting that one pass, on account of your recent emotional distress, I'm going to posit this: cats are way better. Am I crazy? That's just obvious, right?"

"Not even a little," Ryan counters, and they're off.

Sandy and Kirsten do their own checking in too, in their unobtrusive but totally obvious way, over the next couple of weeks: texts and phone calls and one very funny dinner in which Sophie is the only one present who isn't trying to emotionally support Ryan by giving him extra egg rolls. Ryan gives the mountain of leftovers to Summer, who in turn feeds them to her interns, which would be sort of like a good deed if Summer didn't then use that as an excuse to terrorize them even more.

("I don't terrorize," Summer says, "I motivate."

"Yeah, motivate their terror, maybe," Ryan replies.)

Frank, to his credit, doesn't say a goddamn word about it until Ryan brings it up, at their monthly beer-and-whatever-sport's-playing night. And even then, he seems hesitant about voicing an opinion until Ryan comes out and asks.

"Your mom has always been," he says, pausing to look deeply uncomfortable for a long second, "emotional."

"That's a fun way to say 'flaky,'" Ryan says, uncompromising. Frank shoots him a look out of the corner of his eye. "What? I'm right."

"I'm not gonna sit here and talk shit about your mother, Ryan," Frank says. "For one thing, that's childish, and secondly - when you forgive her eventually - which I think you will - you're going to remember this conversation and I don't want you to remember me being an asshole about it."

Ryan scowls at the TV. "Assuming I'll forgive her is assuming she's going to step up. Which is a pretty big leap, Frankie."

"Maybe," Frank says. He leans forward, snagging the remote to turn the television down. Contrary to Dawn's vision of what Frank's life is like now, he and Julie do not in fact live in a mansion - none of them do. Moving hundreds of miles away, having a couple more babies, and losing everything they owned in a devastating earthquake didn't exactly set any of them up for a life of luxury, and for that matter - Berkeley is a very different place from Newport Beach, and both the Cohens and the Atwood-Coopers were on the hunt for a new start. Frank and Julie's place is small, but charming - and they work hard to take care of it. Ryan is immensely proud of them both - which he'll never, ever say to Julie's face, since she'd probably kick him in the nuts for it (and he'd deserve it, too).

"Anyway, I'm not asking you to talk shit about her, I'm just asking you to tell me stuff I should already know," Ryan argues. "You said we should be more honest about things, but then we never actually talk about anything that happened before you got put away. We just talk around it."

Frank rolls his beer bottle between his palms, looking nervous. "I feel like we should be sitting in a therapist's office when we finally talk about that," he says.

"You gonna pay for it?"

Frank rolls his eyes at him. "What exactly do you want to know? That we fought a lot? You already know that - you were there."

"Just…" Ryan sighs. The truth is that he doesn't really know - he just has this urge to understand, which is heavily informed by an urge to make Frank the good guy somehow, to turn it all into a Bad Parent vs. Good Parent dilemma with an easy answer. "Why was it so bad? I was so young, I don't remember the details. I just remember...that it was bad. And I feel like I should know why."

"That's a really complicated question," Frank says heavily, and quickly holds up one hand. "I know that sounds like an excuse but it isn't - there's just a lot of different reasons why, and a lot of it I couldn't even tell you because I myself never figured it out." Frank sits for a moment, staring silently at the soccer match on the screen, still quietly moving on in the background of their conversation. "We were so young when we had your brother. I was barely 18, and your mom was even younger. I should've known better than to mess with someone younger than me, but I really was in love with her. I thought we could make something of it, you know? But we were just kids. We didn't know what we were doing."

Ryan drinks his beer, trying to picture it. What his life with Theresa would have been like, had the baby been his. Where they'd be now, if they'd hate each other as fiercely as they'd loved each other, then. He can see it, is the sad part. He knows exactly how it would've felt, to watch it slowly grind itself to dust under the pressure of their responsibility.

"She was so smart," Frank says regretfully. "You're a lot like her, you know. Which I know isn't the sensitive thing to say, but - it's true. She had that same...quiet wit that you've got, the same instincts. She always knew the answer, to every question, but she'd sit on it until she knew how to leverage it the right way."

For some reason, that more than anything else feels devastatingly sad to Ryan. "She did raise me, for better or for worse. Sixteen years with her, versus...what, eight or nine with you and the Cohens?"

Frank shakes his head, his face tight with pain. Ryan doesn't push him on it.

"I watched this terrible movie with Seth once," Ryan says, "about time travel. It was really depressing, about this guy who kept trying to go back and make his life better, and he just made it worse every single time. And he kept ending up in all these different versions of his life, all these different possibilities that could have happened. Different men that he could have been, if he'd made different choices. And I think about that a lot - who I would have been, if Sandy hadn't been my lawyer. Just that one choice, that one random thing, - that he happened to be the one on call when I was arrested. If Trey and I had waited just one more hour. Or if he'd been sick that day - whatever. It would've been someone else. And then what the hell would've happened to me?"

Frank swallows, hard. "I don't really like to think about that, if I'm being honest."

"Well, I do," Ryan says unforgivingly. "Because she left me. I know you know that, but do you really know it, Dad? I came home to an empty fucking house, and I had nowhere to go. And she knew what she was doing when she did it. She knew what she was doing to me."

Frank just shakes his head again, his face creased with grief.

"It's because I'm so much like her that I can't forgive her for some things," Ryan says. "I know how she thinks, Dad, because it's how I think. She did that to me to punish me. Her plan was to sweep back in a few weeks later and let me beg her to come back. And it all got derailed by the Cohens. She didn't have leverage over me anymore, and so she had to use different tactics. And it was always about her - never about me. She'd say 'I can't do it,' never - 'what do you want, Ryan?' I never came first."

"I'm sorry, son," Frank says quietly. "I should've been there."

"Yeah, you should've," Ryan says, but without anger. He takes a steadying breath. "You know what I was thinking about? When I was talking to her on the phone? 'What happens when I have kids?' That's the kind of thing I've been thinking about, lately. With Leo and Sophie...it's just been on my mind."

Frank grins at him weakly. "You're going to be an amazing father," he says fiercely. "Better than all of us combined. I'll tell you that right now."

Ryan truly doesn't have a reply to that. He looks away, his hands shaking a little around his drink.

"Summer's a lucky girl," Frank says lightly, clearly trying to lift the mood. "Whoops - forgot I wasn't supposed to know about that."

"Shut up," Ryan grumbles.

"It's okay," Frank says, still grinning. He reaches out and pats Ryan's knee. "Sandy and I are working on our 'shocked and surprised' reactions. They're getting pretty good."

"What about Kirsten and Julie?"

"Oh, Summer told them months ago, when she was mad at you about the Vegas trip," Frank says with a shrug. Ryan snorts.

"I guess I just wanted to talk about it," Ryan says, after a companionable pause. "We don't have to dig it all up again, if you don't want."

"No, you're right," Frank says. "We should stick with the honesty thing. It's worked well so far." Ryan concedes the point with a nod. "I'm not trying to say you should forgive her either, Ryan. I just meant...she always surprised me. That's why I stayed with her until the bitter end, even as bad as it got. She was capable of a lot of ugliness, but...she loved me so much, and she was still...a beautiful person, despite everything else. I just don't think you should count her out completely, is all."

Ryan nods, forcing himself not to dismiss it right away. Forcing himself to think about it, see the truth in it.

"Set your boundaries, and stick to them," Frank advises. "But don't close your heart, Ryan. That's no way to live. That's all I wanna say."

"Thanks, Frankie," Ryan says.

Frank claps him on the shoulder, smiling. "Oh, and Julie bought the beer for us this week. That's why I had this shit in my fridge."

"I was wondering," Ryan says, looking down at the sleek bottle of dark beer - the high end stuff, of course. Frank can't stand any liquor that you can't see through.

"She made sure to tell me to mention it," Frank says with a chuckle. "It's the Julie Cooper version of sympathy - so tomorrow morning when you're hungover, be sure to think of her."

Ryan laughs out loud.

 

 

 

 

 

Life, as it always does, rattles on. Seth and Anna buy a house together in Vermont, smack dab in the middle between their respective offices. Their commutes are almost identical, but in opposite directions, and Ryan teases them relentlessly about their compromise pet parakeet.

"I hear your dad's already drafting the pre-nup," he says. Seth just groans, his head flat on his desk. Anna, in the background of the webcam, is laughing into the doorframe of Seth's office. "He's got stipulations laid out for who chooses the movie on Friday night date nights, alternating naming rights for pets and kids, 50/50 split down the middle for the driveway - "

"Ooh, that's a good idea," Anna calls, still laughing.

"Don't say a word about my car!" Seth yells, muffled into the desk. "Roberta is very sensitive."

"Did you name your car?" Ryan asks in amused disgust.

"Of course he named his car," Anna says.

In April, Ryan gets a twenty percent raise and his own office, and moves into a new place of his own, with a decent kitchen and a balcony, which Summer instantly claims for her eclectic array of succulents. She's been on a tear for months now about a garden, but her own apartment is on the basement level, which makes it an excellent place to have noisy, terribly kinky sex, but a horrible place to try and grow basil.

"Okay, but," Ryan says, "these were all growing fine in your subterranean living room. Just saying."

"I'm starting slow," Summer argues. "Look, there's a plan. I have a plan. I'm going to start a plant at my place, and then - "

Ryan sighs, and turns to head back inside, already done with it.

" - when it gets big enough to be replanted I'm gonna move it here. Ryan! Are you listening?" Summer stomps after him. "Look, you don't even have to water them - in fact, I'd prefer if you didn't. I'm trying to be a grown up responsible plant mom, here."

"I'm not going to bring up the time that you made me take care of your lab rabbits for seven months," Ryan says, "but I'm just going to mention quickly that I never got my security deposit back on that place."

"Yeah, you're real subtle, buddy," Summer says dryly. "I did get them adopted. Eventually."

All except for one, a grumpy fat one that Summer promptly named Blanche. He was already pretty old (yes, the rabbit was male, despite Summer's fervent hope otherwise) and died fairly quickly of some kind of tragic rabbit complication that had to do with his oversized teeth. Summer was devastated, and to this day tears up whenever she sees the Blue Bunny logo, or a copy of Playboy on a magazine rack at the bookstore.

Ryan opts not to mention it. "Fine. But I'm telling you right now, I am not even going to open that door when you're not here, so if they die, it's not my fault."

"Thank you!" Summer squeaks, throwing her arms around his neck and gracing him with a sloppy, enthusiastic kiss. "And to show my appreciation, I'm going to cook you dinner tonight."

"Oh God," Ryan exclaims, "do you have to?"

Summer punches his shoulder, which effectively cuts off any other protest, and Ryan submits to her gratitude meekly. (She's not that bad - Ryan just likes to give her shit.)

Ryan's phone rings twice, while they tease each other over (only slightly dry) pork chops and caesar salad, and he doesn't bother to check it until almost two hours later, while Summer is taking a bath. Both calls are from Dawn, and there's a voicemail. It's been almost eight months since they'd last talked, when he told her to step up or stay away. Ryan sits on the edge of his bed, torn.

He's still sitting there when Summer emerges, warm and damp, pulling a comb through her hair. She takes one look at him and drops it on the nightstand with a clatter.

"What?" she demands, and pulls his phone from his grip. "Oh."

"Why is it always the same?" Ryan asks. Summer frowns down at him, touching his face with one of her hands. The other one is still clutching his phone, her grip white-knuckled around the case. "It's always a nasty surprise. It doesn't matter what I do to try and get ready for it. It never changes."

"Oh, baby," Summer murmurs, sliding into his lap. She wraps her arms around his neck and squeezes, while Ryan holds onto her waist and just breathes, in and out, until his heart stops pounding so hard.

"I should listen to the message," he says, after a while. Summer's hair is almost dry by then, they've been sitting there for so long.

"You don't have to," Summer says fiercely. She pulls back a little. "I could listen to it for you and tell you what it says, if you want."

Ryan stops short, struck by the idea.

"Only if you want me to," Summer says quickly, misjudging his silence for offense. "Obviously, if you want to listen, I'm not trying to like, intrude or anything - "

"Shut up," Ryan says affectionately, reaching up and kissing her chin. "Do it. I want you to. It's a good idea."

Summer blinks for a second, then smiles gently. She slides off his lap, holding her robe closed with one elbow. "What's your password again?"

"Don't act like you don't already know it," Ryan says, rolling his eyes. He flops back on the bed, stretching out his legs. He's got pins and needles from her weight.

Summer huffs, and disappears back into the bathroom. Ryan covers his face with his arm, trying to relax a little, and not obsess. Easier said than done.

It's only a minute or two, but it feels like much longer, for obvious reasons. Ryan tenses when he hears her come back out again, then deliberately unrolls his muscles, forcing himself to stay calm.

He uncovers his face when he feels her join him on the bed, and sits up a little. She's still in her robe, her hair a tangled mess, having air-dried half-brushed and pressed up against the side of her face. Her eyes are wide and serious, and she's got his cell phone pressed against her collarbone with one hand.

Ryan raises his eyebrows at her, and she says, "I love you."

She's said that before, but only a few times, and usually it's in the middle of an orgasm, so it feels like the first time. Ryan lets his head flop back down, feeling a little dizzy. "I love you too," he says, a little breathless. "Is it that bad?"

"No," Summer says, sounding a little choked up. He lifts his head to look at her again, and her eyes are watery. "I think you should just listen to it yourself."

"Really?"

"Really. Trust me."

Ryan takes the phone from her cautiously. "Because...it's good?"

Summer shakes her head wordlessly, then leans down and kisses him, tangling her fist in the collar of his shirt. Ryan kisses her back, still dizzy from the moment, and the warmth of her protection. Summer is, and always has been, a difficult person to get along with, but once you find the right combination - the perfect key to open her doors - she reveals an endless depth of compassionate attention. Ryan has never felt so cared for before in his life. All her bark is just that - a perimeter defense. Once he figured that out, it became more like a game, to tease and argue with her. This, right here - this is the real Summer. The girl with tangled hair and damp, sticky skin, kissing him carefully in the twilight of his bedroom.

"I love you," she says again, when she pulls back.

"I love you too," Ryan repeats, looking her in the eye, making sure she knows he means it, too.

She's crying a little, but not in a sad way, and reaches out and takes his free hand in both of hers. Sitting up a little, she urges him up too, settling down next to him, against the headboard. "Listen to it. I'll be right here."

Ryan leans into the circle of her arms, unlocking his phone mindlessly. The phone app is still up on the screen, the voicemail number at the top of the log. Ryan taps it once, and lifts the phone to his face, and remembers what his father had told him: keep your heart open. It's the only way to live.

He never wanted to stop hoping. That's the answer to his earlier question - why it always hurt so much. So it's easy, if he's being honest, to close his eyes, and let himself listen.