Shane’s sitting at the bar alone, sipping his second Sazerac. It’s what you should drink in New Orleans, he thinks; it’s only right and proper. The last time he was here, nearly a decade ago now, he just inhaled shots of bourbon and enough shitty beer to float away on. Fun, but he’s too old for that now. Honestly, he was probably too old for it then.
He might have preferred the beer—rye whiskey was never his favorite—but in terms of atmosphere it feels right to rest his elbows on the big oak bar and wrap his hand around a slippery-sweating Old Fashioned glass. He enjoys the ceremony of the thing, the aesthetics of it, the history of it, more than the taste of the drink itself.
The establishment he’s in tonight, Bar Tonique, was selected because of its proximity to his hotel, the Best Western up the block. He had a full day of meetings today and he has an early flight home to San Francisco tomorrow morning. He’s too worn-down to brave going any further into the French Quarter tonight. He’ll stick to the outskirts, finish his second drink, and go to bed early.
A quiet night. As quiet as it gets in New Orleans, anyway, which means he can still hear the jazz music filtering in from the street whenever the door opens. He gets a burst of it now, that sudden bright, clear trill of saxophone, and grins into his fresh glass.
Shane’s about to ask the bartender for his bill when there’s a tap on his shoulder. He turns around.
It’s Ryan. It’s Ryan fuckin’ Bergara.
Shane’s glass nearly slips out of his hand.
“I thought it was you,” Ryan says. “I clocked you the second I walked in. I saw you sitting at the bar and I was like, I know that very long back. That right there is a tall-for-no-reason man.”
“Hey, man!” Shane says. He stands up and they do that awkward handshake-hug thing men do when they haven’t seen each other in a while but don’t want to be caught expressing a feeling. “Long time. Of all the gin joints in all the towns, etcetera. What are you doing here?”
“Bachelor party,” Ryan says with a feigned grimace. He slides into the seat next to Shane, gesturing to the barman. “One of whatever he’s got.”
“Sazerac, coming right up,” the bartender says, and Ryan shoots Shane a sideways glance like Shane’s penchant for form over function is entirely predictable.
“Where’s the rest of your party?” Shane asks. “Or, shit, are you the bachelor?”
Ryan laughs and shrugs. “Nah. They were a lot drunker than me, and when I got back from the bathroom at the last place they were gone. They could be anywhere by now, including the bottom of Lake Pontchartrain.”
“It’s not even six o’clock.”
“Well, they go hard.” The bartender slides an identical glass across the bar to Ryan, who picks it up mid-slide with the ease of a man who’s had the practice.
Shane sits back to get a good look at him. He hasn’t seen Ryan in person in, god, five years? Six? Not since Zach Kornfeld’s wedding, at least, and that must have been the summer of 2020. Shane and Sara left Los Angeles for San Francisco right after that, and keeping in touch got harder.
He looks good. Older, sure, but not in the way Shane’s certain he looks older. Ryan must be nearly—Shane does some quick math in his head—nearly 36. 36 next month. There are new lines around his eyes, the eye bags are a little deeper, the hairline a little further back, but otherwise he looks just the same. He’s still compact and strong, and his smile remains absolutely killer.
“What about you?” Ryan asks. “What brings you to the…” he thinks a minute, obviously trying to think of New Orleans’ nickname, smiling when he gets there. “The Big Easy?” He tosses his glass back, then makes a face when the spicy, intense, almost medicinal taste hits.
“You’re supposed to sip it, you heathen,” Shane says. You can take the bro out of the frat, but you can’t take the frat out of the bro. “I’m here for work.”
“You’re still at…” Ryan pauses, fishing, and Shane realizes Ryan has no idea where he lives or works. It’s not really his fault; probably Ryan hasn’t managed his own social media in years. And it’s not like Shane’s sending him yearly update letters for the fridge at Christmas.
“YouTube,” Shane says, waiting with a wince for the inevitable razzing. “Up in San Bruno. Original content division. I’m here talking to some people about a reboot of Treme, actually, set in the aftermath of Odette.”
Sure enough, Ryan slaps the bar and hoots so loud that a couple of other patrons turn to stare. Certainly louder than Shane feels a reference to a relatively recent and devastating hurricane warrants.
“Oh my god, you’re an executive. You work for the man,” Ryan says, shaking his head. “If only you from a decade ago could see you now. Hoo boy.”
The irony of it isn’t lost on Shane. He and Ryan used to sit around on Friday afternoons as the clock crept closer to three, watching their uploads stall and fail and cursing YouTube to high heaven. It’s undeniably funny that the platform’s paying his mortgage now.
“Yeah, well, the pay’s great,” Shane says. “And the hours are exceedingly regular.”
“Oh, you mean they don’t make you spend your weekends creeping around rat-infested nightmare houses and yelling your own name into a radio at three in the morning?”
Shane huffs out a laugh. “As a matter of fact they don’t.”
In that exact moment he feels a pang of nostalgia, sharp and deep in his ribcage like someone stuck a tiny blade there and twisted. Sure, he sleeps more soundly in his own bed in the beautiful but rickety old Victorian home he owns in the Mission, but he also doesn’t laugh until his sides hurt as much as he used to. He can’t even remember the last time he stayed up late enough to watch the sun rise, side-by-side with friends.
The silence that falls between them is awkward. It’s been too long; they’ve lost the knack for being alone with each other in the quiet. Ryan is the sort who needs to fill silences unless he’s really comfortable with a person, and that comfort level has faded away in the intervening years.
Ryan finishes his drink and slides a twenty out of his wallet and onto the bar. He claps Shane on the back.
“Well, it was good catching up,” he says, “but I’d better find the guys and make sure they don’t kill themselves. The bride would never forgive me.”
“Of course,” Shane says, holding out his hand for a farewell handshake. “Hey, it was good to see you, man. It’s been a long time.”
“Way too long,” Ryan says. “Let’s catch up when we’re both back in California. We can meet in the middle. You can bring Sara, we’ll do a weekend in Monterey or something.”
“That sounds great,” Shane says. “I’ll text you.” He doesn’t bother to tell Ryan that he and Sara broke up two years ago, when the question of kids-or-no-kids finally caught up to them. When she turned 37 and said it was now or never, and Shane looked at the science of the climate crisis and said never.
He doesn’t bother to tell Ryan he doesn’t have his number anymore. He knows the offer is a largely hollow one, anyway, that they’ll never get around to it. It’s just what you say when you see an old friend.
Ryan heads out the door with a backwards wave. Shane tries to watch him go without being obvious about it, but he needn’t have worried. Ryan doesn’t look back.
He kind of wants to text someone about seeing Ryan again, but he’s not sure who. He could text Sara—they’re still in touch, still close, he’ll never not love her—but for some reason that feels wrong to do. He could text any of their other mutual friends, maybe TJ, but now that Shane thinks about it he probably hasn’t spoken to Teej in the better part of a year either.
Shane closes his eyes, right there at the bar. He closes his eyes and he sees Ryan as he was, wide-eyed and running on coffee and burritos, all restless energy and the kind of larger-than-life laughter that could stop a room in its tracks to laugh along.
He hears the burst of sax again, that beautiful clear tone. It’s the sound of an undauntable city getting back on its feet for round three, at once optimistic and mournful.
“You know what, my friends suck,” Ryan says from behind him. “This is Roland’s second marriage anyway, so who gives a shit. Wanna hang out?”
Shane knows from experience that a night out on the town with Ryan is unlikely to be an early night, and he’s got that flight to catch in the morning. He should politely decline, let Ryan get back to his friends. But he never could say no to Ryan’s wild schemes, not then and apparently not now either.
“Yeah,” he says, “I’d like that. Know somewhere good?”
“Actually…” and here Ryan pauses. It occurs to Shane that he has no earthly idea what Ryan will say next. This person he used to know like the back of his own hand, someone he could read like the well-thumbed pages of his very favorite book, has become suspenseful again. “Actually, I was wondering if you wanted to go check out a ghost tour. For old times’ sake.”
The more things change, Shane thinks, the more they stay the same.
And that is how, a full seven years after the end of Buzzfeed Unsolved, Shane Madej finds himself once more tromping behind Ryan Bergara down a poorly-lit street, looking for ghosts that aren’t there.
“I’m getting the strangest sense of déjà vu right now, Ryan,” he says. They’ve fallen behind their guide a little, bringing up the rear of the group. Ryan’s more famous now than he was then, and even Shane still gets stopped on the street sometimes, hey, aren’t you that guy…?
Putting them here together, in the context of ghosts, is certain to ring some bells. By unspoken agreement they hang back.
“I know, right?” Ryan asks. “I’m sorry I didn’t bring the spirit box.”
“Don’t be. The people of New Orleans are noble and they have suffered enough.”
The walking tour Ryan picked is called the “French Quarter Ghosts and Legends Tour.” Shane wonders if Ryan still reads reviews of ghost tours on TripAdvisor, late at night when he can’t sleep. He wonders if Ryan still has trouble sleeping sometimes. For all Shane knows, he sleeps like a baby now, on piles of syndicated television money.
They find themselves circled up in front of, of all places, the Dauphine Orleans hotel.
“This hotel is the site of May Baily’s Place, the first licensed bordello in New Orleans,” their tour guide tells the group. “Guests here frequently spot the ghost of a woman dancing in the courtyard. Could she have been an employee at the bordello?”
“Nope,” Shane whispers. Ryan elbows him in the ribs.
“Another common sighting is that of a Civil War era soldier dressed in a Confederate uniform. He paces the halls at night, his footsteps echoing off the old oak floors.”
“Keeping all the poor innocent ghost-hunters awake when they’re trying to get a few hours of shut-eye,” it’s Ryan’s turn to whisper.
“And finally, there’s the ghost of Millie Baily, the sister of May herself. On the day of Millie’s wedding, her husband-to-be was shot and killed over a gambling debt. Legend has it that Millie still wanders these corridors in her wedding dress, looking for her long-lost love.”
Shane peers up speculatively at the façade of the beautiful hotel. He remembers it being beautiful inside as well as out, full of character if not of spirits.
“More chilling still,” he says, managing a passable mimicry of Ryan’s theory voice even after all these years, “rumor has it that the hotel’s lovely and well-appointed bathrooms contain jacuzzi tubs whose jets sometimes don’t work.”
Ryan doubles over with laughter, which earns them a glare from the tour guide, who’s trying to maintain an aura of general spookiness among the group of half-drunk tourists.
Shane feels it again, that sharp tug of remember when…? In truth, a lot of his memories from the Unsolved days are hazy now. Enough time has passed that most of their shoots have blurred together in his mind, one long indistinct trip of airport Cinnabon and generic motel and Dusty Old Place. Sometimes he runs across a stray clip or gif on the internet, and even as he watches himself he has no memory of having lived it.
New Orleans, though, he remembers. That trip stands out from the others, a whirlwind four days of loud music and spicy jambalaya and wild bar-hopping on sticky-humid nights. Ryan’s hands on Shane’s lower back and belly, bracing him through his sweaty shirt as Shane leaned out of a balcony to toss beads at the crowds below. His raucous laughter, so contagious you could die from it, but at least you’d die happy.
Standing back here at this place, with Ryan next to him once more, he feels his heart beating faster to remember it.
Ryan knocks gently into his side.
“That was a fun one, huh,” he says, and Shane knows that he remembers too.
“Hey, Millie,” Shane says to the warm, humid October air, pulling them back to surer ground. “My name is Shane. This is Ryan. Can you say Shane? No? Hm.”
“Ignore him, Millie,” Ryan chimes in. “He’s an asshole.”
“You know, Ryan, somehow I think she will ignore me.”
“Prick,” Ryan mutters, fond but quieter because the tour guide’s glaring at them again. A thrill rushes up Shane’s spine, all the way from the base to the warm back of his neck, a zing of electrical memory. The snap of something that had been askew finally aligning back into place.
They didn’t part on the best of terms.
Things at Buzzfeed got bad at the beginning of 2019, when the firings started. One by one their friends were let go. The Unsolved budget shrank to a shadow of its former self, and it was never huge to begin with.
Then over the summer, the Buzzfeed and Vox merger went through. They had an offer to keep the show going on Hulu, but to Shane’s surprise it was Ryan who decided to end it.
It had been a hard deal to walk away from, but it wasn’t what Ryan wanted. He wanted to direct; he wanted to do television, real television with a real writer’s room and a real budget, something his grandparents would understand as success. Shane couldn’t blame him for wanting any of that, or for taking advantage of a specific moment in time when an Asian-Latino guy had a hope of making it.
Well, looking back now, with the benefit of hindsight, Shane can’t blame him. At the time there had been plenty of blame to go around, and plenty of hurt too.
“This whole thing is your fucking show,” Shane had said, one of several late-night fights the week they broke down their stage for good. “We said we’d see this thing through together.”
“This is through,” Ryan had replied. “This is what through looks like.”
“We promised neither of us would call it until we were both ready to call it.” Shane had not been ready to call it.
Ryan had shrugged, sweeping all the clutter on their desk into a box, not bothering to be careful. “The universe is ready to call it,” he had said. “I’m just listening. You’re looking the other way and pretending not to hear it, exactly like fuckin’ always.”
Shane had been so mad, at the time, about all the things they planned and would never get to do. About the season of Ruining History that would sit unproduced, about the trips they’d talked through that they’d never take, about having to go job-hunting after five years of blissful stability. He’d been furious, too, to find he cared so much about a stupid ghost hunting show he’d been accidentally roped into in the first place.
There had been a lot of fighting and a lot of door-slamming, that month. It hadn’t felt like leaving a job; it had felt like a divorce.
And then, after, he puttered around at Vox for a while, putting off thinking about what he wanted to do. He’d been doing what he’d wanted to do. He’d had it.
He’d watched Ryan post on Instagram about auditions failed and—eventually—successful. He’d watched the bit parts as an extra turn into the small speaking roles, which turned into a guest run on the twenty-third season of Grey’s Anatomy, which turned into full-time gig on an honest-to-god hit. Publicly Shane had been over the moon for him. Privately he hadn’t been as gracious about Ryan’s success as he might have hoped.
It was Sara who got him back on track. It was Sara who nudged him to apply to the job at YouTube, and Sara who found the house in San Francisco online and said, “Look, Shane, this one’s cute!” and Sara who packed their cat into the carrier for the six-hour drive north. And it was Sara (and Marielle) who ran interference over cocktails and salmon at the Kornfeld wedding, so that a casual observer would hardly notice that Shane and Ryan were barely on speaking terms.
He’d swung her around the dance floor to “Moon River” that night, her lovely silver sequined dress spinning out in time with her curls, and it had felt like the end of an era. For the first time in a long time, he’d been at peace with that, excited for what came next.
That had been the last time he’d seen Ryan Bergara in person: six years ago, across a strobe-lit dance floor, headed out the door and into a new life. Shane had given him a little salute, containing an apology he wasn’t ready to say yet in words, and Ryan had nodded, and that had been that.
So it’s something of a surprise for Shane to discover, now, walking shoulder to shoulder with Ryan down Bourbon Street, that he feels no lingering resentment at all.
He is, in fact, elated. And a little drunk.
After the tour they find themselves, by some unspoken agreement, in a jazz club. It’s called The Spotted Cat, and Shane did select it specifically for the name, and for the jaunty logo of a leopard playing a trumpet embossed on the door. Inside it’s exactly as a jazz club should be, dark and smoky, with a jumble of mismatched seats crammed so close together it’s got to be a fire hazard.
They grab a little table in the corner, where they can see the stage but the stage can’t see them. Shane’s noticed that Ryan has become protective of himself, far keener to remain unseen than he ever was before.
There are more drinks. Shane can feel his morning becoming increasingly terrible, but he doesn’t care. It feels too good. He feels, in some vague and unspecific way, young again.
“What’s Sara up to these days?” Ryan eventually gets around to asking, as Shane knew he would.
“She just had a daughter, actually,” Shane says, and he’s interested to notice that saying it out loud doesn’t hurt as much as he thought it might. “Looks just like her. Giant mop of curls, big hazel eyes, the works. Tamar.”
Ryan opens his mouth to say something, and then shuts it again. He will have noticed that Shane said she and not we.
“Oh,” Ryan says. “That’s—wow. Good for her. She’ll be a great mom.”
And the thing is, she will. He can’t wait to see it. Enough time has passed that this, too, is a thing Shane can reflect upon with at least some grace
“I’m sorry,” Ryan says. “I wouldn’t have asked if…man. I really thought.”
“It’s fine,” Shane says. “It’s been a couple of years now, and it was mutual. What about you? I’d have thought married with like five kids by now, for sure.”
He’s already clocked that Ryan isn’t wearing a ring. He’d noticed it first thing, in fact, peeking at Ryan’s hand wrapped around his Sazerac to make sure he didn’t miss some big news he was supposed to have known about.
“Almost,” Ryan says with a shrug. “I was engaged about a year ago, but we didn’t make it to the altar. The show keeps me busy when it’s filming, and he wanted to marry someone he got to see more than an hour a day. Wasn’t meant to be.”
Shane does a double-take so aggressive that he nearly falls out of his chair.
When he’s done making a fool of himself, skittering around with his legs to pull himself upright again like some villain in a Looney Tunes cartoon, he looks up to see Ryan eyeing him over the rim of his glass, placid as a lake on a calm day.
“You did that on purpose,” Shane says, pointing his finger in accusation. “Are you…is that, like something I should have known? Is that a thing people know? Are, is it…” He has so many questions he really doesn’t even know where to start.
“Not really,” Ryan says. “I mean, it’s Hollywood. I wasn’t going out of my way to hide it.”
“What with the part where you were gonna marry the guy.”
“Right. But I don’t really shout about it either. It’s nice to keep some things private.”
“You could have told me, though,” Shane says. He’s trying very hard not to make this about him, but he is a little hurt. They lived out of each other’s’ pockets for years, after all. He figured it would at least have come up.
“What, eight years ago, on the floor of some dilapidated old demon hovel? I didn’t really think about it,” Ryan says. “I was young. Even when I wasn’t that young I was still, like, young. I knew I liked women and I was always in a relationship, so it was pretty easy to ignore the other stuff.”
“Yeah,” Shane says absentmindedly, already thinking about the other stuff.
“And anyway, you did know,” Ryan says. “Right? You knew. Even now you’re not surprised about the guy thing. You’re just surprised I told you about the guy thing.”
Knew is a strong word. Shane didn’t know shit, not really. He thought he knew a lot about a lot, but that was just the hubris of being thirty years old and slightly famous on the internet. Ryan was such a bro that it sort of overshadowed everything else, making it harder to pin him down about anything real.
Ryan scoffs. “I don’t think I was subtle. I don’t think I was even capable of subtle. The pigtail-pulling was a little much.”
“Haha,” Shane says, buying himself more time. “Yeah.”
And then, blissfully, the next band starts up. Ryan leans back in his chair, arms crossed, manspreading like crazy—that familiar posture Shane could sketch out in the dark if he had to. He tips his head back to enjoy the music, and all Shane can do is stare at his profile and wonder.
Something had almost happened between them, exactly once. And it had almost happened here.
This is a memory Shane’s gone over so many times he can no longer be sure he’s remembering it right. It’s the evening after they film the Voodoo ep, the day before the Dauphine. They’ve got a whole night off, them and the crew, and no shooting until later the next day, and they decide to go out.
And because it’s 2017, because the show won’t really gain steam for another six months, they can do so with a hope of privacy. Shane remembers that time well, remembers feeling on the brink of something. He remembers the exact moment they can no longer be in public together without being recognized, and New Orleans was in the blissful before.
As he recalls it, they go to a jazz club, and then they follow the crowd out onto the street after. Shane can’t find TJ or Devon, although he knows they must be around here somewhere.
“Let’s do some shots!” Ryan says, steering him by the elbow into the nearest bar. “Do people shoot bourbon? Who cares, we’re shooting bourbon.”
“I don’t really…shots are for college kids, right? Youths?”
“In NOLA shots are for everyone. Babies, even. Probably.”
“Ryan, how would a baby even take a shot? They can’t control their own arms.”
“Neither can you, big guy, but here we are.” Ryan waves his arms around over his head, Gumby-style.
The bar’s intense, three balconied floors and a rooftop bar, and every floor brings a new delight. On the first floor they play pool against two strangers wearing so many beads it must weigh their necks down; Shane and Ryan win the game of pool, and they win some of the beads.
“Look, we got beads without even having to take our shirts off!” Ryan crows, doing a weird little drunken full-body shimmy to make the beads clack against each other.
“Isn’t that a bug for you, as opposed to a feature?” Shane asks, knowing Ryan’s proud of his physique, knowing he becomes both thrilled and embarrassed by any opportunity to show off the work he’s put into it.
“Shut up, Shane,” Ryan says, but then the guys they just beat bring around another tray of shots, and Shane guesses this is happening.
On the second floor they stop in for some brief, inadvisable karaoke. They do "House of the Rising Sun,” which Shane selected for its thematic relevance and which Ryan only knows perhaps a quarter of the words to. It’s a surprisingly good karaoke song, though, dramatic in the way Shane likes; the whole crowd sings along at the top of their lungs, “There is—a house—in New Orleans!”
Up on the third floor, they dance. The beat is electric, they’re both totally wasted, and Shane gets that feeling like he’s floating above himself, looking down and watching. He watches from above as Ryan winds an arm up and around Shane’s neck, tossing sweaty hair back from his face as he throws his head back to laugh. He watches himself catch Ryan’s hand and duck under it in an ungainly spin.
He watches Ryan tug him out to the balcony, gulping in the air as they look down on the bacchanalia below.
“Who wants beads?” Ryan roars, phone out to record the scene for posterity. The crowd on Bourbon Street below roars back. Shane always sort of suspected that the level of hedonism on display in New Orleans was over-stated, but he sees now that it was not.
“I got them off a woman who died in the Titanic!” Shane yells nonsensically, leaning over the balcony railing to toss beads below. Ryan stows his phone away, giggling up a storm. Then Shane feels Ryan’s hands on him, bracing him so he won’t fall, fingers curled in at his hip and reaching around to his belly. Even in his heavily intoxicated state, he feels it.
“Watch yourself, man,” Ryan says quietly, and leaned over as he is, Shane feels the breath on the back of his neck. “This whole thing’s ruined if you splat that big melon head open on the pavement.”
“Tell my mother I died doing what I loved!”
“Yelling outdated pop-culture references at college juniors while they flash you?”
“Maybe,” Shane starts. He spins around to give Ryan a better retort. “You don’t know my li—”
He doesn’t get very far, though, because—and who could have seen this coming? Certainly not Shane—Ryan presses his mouth to Shane’s, crushingly, feverishly, frantically. Ryan’s hands are still on his hips, and Ryan’s tongue is in his mouth, and he’s held fast right up against the balcony by the dude’s freakishly strong arms.
He hears a few stray hoots. He shouldn’t do this, he can’t, but nevertheless he kisses back, just for a handful of seconds (Ryan’s thigh between his thighs, Ryan’s hand in his his hair, Ryan’s back drenched in sweat). And then he remembers who he is and he pulls back.
Shane wipes his mouth, breathing heavily.
“Ryan, man, hey, hey—it’s never gonna happen. I have a girlfriend. So do you.”
In this moment, yes, Shane wants him. But in this moment, as in all moments, Shane is head-over-heels for a woman who loves and trusts him. It would take more liquor than this city has to offer to make him forget it, and they are both better men than that.
Ryan cocks his head to the right, straightening his shirt where Shane tugged it askew. He grins, big and genuine, and delivers a tiny punch to Shane’s shoulder. “No way what’s gonna happen, dude?”
He shakes off the rejection easily, like the outcome of it mattered to him not at all, like kissing Shane was a booze-fueled whim he went with in the moment or maybe hadn’t even meant to do. Something so inconsequential as ten seconds of an unplanned, unlooked-for kiss can be shaken off just as easily.
Ryan’s smile now says no biggie, and Shane knows that this will be something they don’t talk about, not ever. Probably Ryan won’t even remember the next morning.
He’ll go home and he’ll tell Sara about it, apologetic, feeling like a cretin, and her eyes will go very big and she’ll joke, “Damn, Ryan, therapy much?” And when it’s obvious Shane feels like shit about it, about those few seconds when the only things that existed for him were someone else’s mouth and hands, she’ll reassure him that he was drunk and surprised and he did exactly what he was supposed to do.
And that’s true, it is—Shane put a stop to it, he was kind but firm, everyone took it with grace. No big deal. But Shane still thinks about it more than he thinks is appropriate. He thinks about how good it felt and how easy it would have been to say yes, if things had been different.
So yes, maybe Shane a little bit knew, and the rueful smile on Ryan’s face suggests he definitely remembers.
Pigtail-pulling, though. That suggests something a little more sustained, in Shane’s inexpert opinion. Something like a crush, perhaps? Man, this is going to eat at him.
They’re making their meandering way back through the French Quarter, and Shane wonders if it would be okay to ask about it, but then Ryan is checking his phone again and sighing.
“I guess the guys made it back to the hotel,” he says. “I’m told Roland is ‘thoring up,’ which means that unless he’s turned into a Norse god, I should probably get back there and make sure he doesn’t choke on his own vomit.”
“Even if he has turned into a Norse god you should probably get back there,” Shane jokes, and then he winces. He’s not sure he knows Ryan well enough to joke about this; he’s not sure if they’re back on teasing terms. “I’ll have to head to the airport by seven am anyway, so, yeah.”
“Where’s your hotel?” Ryan asks. “Do you need to get a cab?”
“Nah. It’s just the Best Western by the bar from earlier. I can walk back, no problem.”
Ryan laughs then, shaking his head in disbelief. “Coincidence. That’s also my hotel. What are the odds, right?”
But for once it doesn’t feel like a coincidence to Shane. He recognizes the irony of this too; for many years telling Ryan “Coincidence!” in a chirping, smug tone was his bread and butter. Now Ryan sees a coincidence and it’s Shane who sees something more in it. They’re staying at the same hotel for a reason. They walked into the same bar for a reason.
To Shane it feels more like fate.
When they get back to the hotel, it’s the easiest thing in the world for Shane to suggest a nightcap in the hotel bar. It’s only natural that Ryan should agree. They can end the night the way they began it, drinking Sazeracs and reminiscing about old times.
Shane’s sitting in a lounge chair at the hotel bar, watching Ryan sink comfortably into his seat and bring his glass to his lips. He’s thinking about missed signals and second chances. He’s thinking about how timing is everything.
Unless Shane is very much mistaken—and he doesn’t think he is, he’s dated a fair amount in the last two years—there’s a certain vibe happening here. Ryan’s eyes are dark, and his laugh is big, and everything about him is nervous. Shane can smell it on him, because Ryan nervous is as familiar to him as air. It takes longer than seven years to forget that twitchy, infectious energy. He leans forward to talk to Shane, looks him in the eye. He reaches out to touch Shane’s wrist to make a point.
Still, Shane goes easy. There’s no hurry. They play that game for a while where they name people they used to know, comparing notes about what they’re doing now.
“He and Kate just had their third,” Shane says. “He’s out in Burbank, your way. You should call him up, I’m sure he’d love to hear from you. What about Dev?”
Ryan shakes his head. “No clue. She dropped off the face of the earth. I heard from Katie a while ago that she moved back east, left the industry completely.”
Shane makes a face at that, the industry. He’d thought about it himself, after the break-up, had considered heading back to the Midwest to work in some totally unrelated field. But in the end he was just too addicted to creating, too into the actual process of it, to seriously contemplate a normal desk job.
“What about Ryan Bergara? I heard he’s a big famous TV star now. I heard his show just got renewed for a fourth season. I heard they let him direct some episodes and everything.”
Ryan rolls his eyes. “Come on, man. Not that famous. I’ll be on Dancing with the Stars in no time.”
Shane’s seen a couple episodes of “Weather or Not” here and there. It’s pretty funny; a sort of surreal workplace comedy about rival meteorologists in a small town that reminds him of Anchorman. The episode titles lean a little heavy on the weather puns for Shane’s taste, but he watched the one Ryan directed last year and enjoyed it.
“Don’t be so modest,” Shane says. “I catch it sometimes. I particularly like the part where they ask the audience to suspend our disbelief and accept you as a man of science with an advanced degree.”
“Hey, I know it’s not winning any awards, but it’s steady work,” Ryan says. “And I’m told I make a very convincing weather guy. Except I’m so bad at pronouncing the words that they had to write it into the show as an aspect of my character.”
Shane leans forward in his chair, deliberately lowering his voice. “Yeah? Speak meteorology to me, baby. Tell me about those hot, wet tropical air masses pushing in from the Gulf.”
Ryan cackles. He wets his lips with his tongue, and Shane doesn’t particularly hide that he’s watching him do it. “Uh. Well, I can’t do it on command. Jesus.”
“See, this is why you don’t have any Emmys yet.”
“Honestly, I think this will be my last season,” Ryan says, his voice taking on a confessional tone. “I’m ready to direct more, I think. And I miss horror, I’d love to do a horror movie.”
“We do already know you can shriek in terror with the best of them,” Shane says. “I’d hire you to scream for me in a heartbeat.” He doesn’t mean it to sound like a come-on (yes he does), but Ryan flushes all the same.
Yep, those are vibes right there.
Shane wants to go for it. He’s going to go for it. What’s he got to lose? They’re both adults here. Nothing that stood between them before (girlfriends, job security, incompatible sexual preferences) is an issue now. All the impediments that made it the wrong time seven years ago make it the right time now.
The worst thing that happens is that Ryan’s not interested, they shake hands, and they go their separate ways, back to the reasonably happy, successful lives they’ve made for themselves apart. Shane can live with that outcome.
“Stop me if I’m wildly off-base here,” Shane says. “But do you want to come up to my room? Your boys can probably manage without you.”
Ryan’s eyebrows go up. They’re a little more arched now, Shane notices, a little more defined. Probably there’s someone whose job it is to pluck strays when Ryan hits hair and makeup.
There’s an extended silence while he considers Shane’s offer. Here, at least, Shane’s quite sure his meaning comes across loud and clear. Nobody thinks he’s asking Ryan upstairs to watch HBO and play gin rummy, as they might have once done.
“You’re on base,” Ryan says at last. “You’re in the vicinity of the base. Now I’m, you know, thinking about bases, which is a pretty juvenile approach to this.”
“Well, I’ll let you round third if you pay for these drinks,” Shane says and he laughs as Ryan flails for his wallet.
He’s walked into so many hotel rooms with Ryan on his heel that it still has the well-worn feeling of a habit. They had a routine, once: Shane would ease his shoes off and toss his bag on the bed nearest to the window, because windows freaked Ryan out sometimes. Ryan would go wash his hands first thing, and then flip on the TV because he couldn’t stand the quiet.
Tonight it’s anything but routine. Shane tries to hide that he’s feeling strangely emotional about it, just as he tries to conceal the nervous shake of his hand as he presses his thumb to the keypad by his hotel room door.
Just like always, Ryan hops into the bathroom to wash his hands and toss water on his face. Anticipating his next move, Shane says out loud, “Hey room, let’s get some tunes. Not too loud.”
Soft music starts to play, some jazz crooner Shane should probably know, Billie Holliday or maybe Nina Simone. Seven years and the only thing that’s really changed here is the technological upgrades of the room.
“Sexy,” Ryan says, emerging from the bathroom, wiping his hands dry on his shirt. “Is this your move?”
“Yeah, this is what I always do when I bring old friends back to my hotel room for some smoochin’, which I obviously do all the time. A girl in every port.”
Ryan gives him a look and starts in on the buttons of his button-down, revealing the white t-shirt below. He folds the shirt up neatly (okay, that’s new) and sets it on the dresser. Even this Shane has seen a dozen times before or more, and he sits back against the headboard to let himself watch, savoring how the familiar and the unfamiliar are coming together into a uniquely sexy blend.
“You hardly look any different,” Shane says. “Like, truly. You’ve barely aged a day.”
He’s keenly aware that the difference between 35 and 40 is much more noticeable than the difference between 28 and 33.
Ryan’s muscles are a little leaner, probably because you don’t see a lot of super-buff meteorologists, but he’s still fit in the way that suggests multiple personal trainers and nutritionists are involved. He’s got a better haircut, which means he found a professional able to handle that weird cowlick.
“You look good too,” Ryan says with a smile. It ticks down into a frown when Shane shrugs. “No, really. I dig the beard.”
He heaves himself onto the bed and crawls up to Shane’s side, reaching out a hand to scruff at the short but fuller beard Shane’s rocking these days. He’d grown it after the move to San Francisco, ready to be anonymous again, and it had worked.
“I think I look old.”
“In Hollywood we say silver fox.”
Like Ryan, Shane’s managed to keep most of his hair, but he’s grey-streaked now, hair and beard both. His body’s okay; he’s probably in better shape now than he was then, in fact, because at home he walks and bikes everywhere. It just aches a lot more frequently, in mysterious and indeterminable ways, and he knows he’ll be paying for this night with a horrific hangover tomorrow.
That’s tomorrow’s problem, though, because right now Ryan is tossing a leg over Shane to straddle him, easing down astride his hips. He rakes both his hands through Shane’s hair, running greys between his thumb and pointer fingers.
“Forty, huh,” Ryan says. He shakes his head. “That doesn’t seem possible.”
For a moment they just look at each other. Shane finds he’s hungry for it, needing to catalog and memorize every difference, every new line. He brings his hand up to trace a small smile line, which deepens when Ryan smiles at the touch.
“What do you think, time for Botox?”
“No,” Shane says softly. “Don’t you dare. I like them.”
He does like them. In fact, he kind of regrets now that he wasn’t there to see the moments that made them—even though he was off making smile lines of his own, ones he wouldn’t give up for the world.
Ryan leans down to kiss him, and there’s still that hint of nervous energy around him, possibility fizzling and settling into action. He slides his tongue in to make the kiss deep and dirty, sooner than it would have occurred to Shane to do so. He presses down with his hips and out with his arms, finding Shane’s wrists and pinning them to the bed, using his body to keep Shane where he wants him.
Before long they’re both groaning and panting. Ryan’s as noisy as Shane always imagined and hoped he’d be, giving back small, crushed, validating sounds every time Shane slides his hands somewhere new. He doesn’t have enough hands for everything he wants to touch, for all the sounds he wants to wring out and collect.
Ryan sits back, looking like a messy-haired vision above him.
“What do you want?” he asks. “I don’t know if you—what you’re into. I’m flexible.”
“I told you, I want you to round third,” Shane says. “Pow, home run, baby. Right to the cheap seats. I’ve got stuff. I’d like to shower first, though, this city’s a swamp.”
Ryan’s up and off him like lightning, headed for the shower, leaving clothes in his wake. Shane had kind of been looking forward to undressing him, but the haste and disarray remind him so strongly of the Ryan he knew that he can’t be anything but charmed as he follows the trail of discarded articles of clothing into the bathroom.
Ryan’s already bent over, naked, fiddling with the shower to get the water temperature right. He looks back over his shoulder to watch Shane strip off his pants, smiling when Shane tugs his pants and underwear off together and kicks them into the corner.
“Into the shower, old man,” he says. “Let’s see what we can do to ease your weary soul.”
Ryan wastes no time at all getting Shane bent over at a sixty-degree angle, arms braced against the far wall of the shower, the water pounding on his back and thighs. Before Shane can say “clean as a fucking whistle,” Ryan’s sliding to his knees and investigating him with conditioner-slick fingers.
“Laissez les bons temps rouler!” Shane says under his breath, as Ryan simultaneously bites at his ass cheek and slides a single careful finger inside him.
“Excuse me?” Ryan says, and he’s not easy to hear over the noise of the water and the noise of Shane’s breathing. “You speaking in tongues already? I’m only just getting started.”
“It’s not tongues, it’s French Cajun, it’s a famous—you know what, never mind.”
Ryan slides a second finger in with the first and starts to work him over, slow and steady and deep. His mouth is right there too, tongue flitting in to lick around his fingers, moving down to get his mouth on Shane’s balls. Shane reaches down to jerk himself off, unbearably hard already. He goes as easy as he can.
“Don’t come,” Ryan warns him, stretching him open.
“Well, be less good at this, then,” Shane says at a groan, pushing back against the shallow press of Ryan’s tongue at his hole. Not only is his weary soul eased; he’s not sure he even has a soul anymore. He thinks it might be floating somewhere above his head, or else halfway down the shower drain.
“You know me, I’m a perfectionist.” Ryan adds a third finger, almost too soon, soon enough that Shane can feel it. He’ll probably feel it tomorrow, too, shifting in his seat in business class.
Ryan’s not really trying for his prostate but he winds up grazing it with every few thrusts of his fingers anyway, making Shane shiver and redistribute his weight, looking for more. When he cries out and has to take his hand off his dick, Ryan stops and pulls out. He carefully rinses them both down and turns the water off.
“Bed,” he says, and he snaps a towel lightly across Shane’s ass for emphasis, and Shane goes.
“This is not what I expected,” Shane says. They’re in bed, making out again, nice and easy but way, way naked. Ryan’s got his hand on Shane’s dick, barely moving, just circling a finger around the head like he knows how absolutely fucking crazy it’s making him.
“What did you expect?” Ryan asks. “No, wait. Let me guess.”
He rolls away, to the edge of the bed. Then he creeps back in, tentative.
“Hey, Shane, I heard a creepy noise and I’m, uh, I’m really losing my mind over here. Is it okay if I sleep here with you so the ghoulies and ghosties don’t murk me? And maybe I’ll accidentally pop a fear boner and you can make it all better?”
Shane wheezes, throwing his arm over his eyes so he doesn’t have to look at Ryan’s goofy, painfully sincere expression.
“Something like that,” he admits.
He just always sort of assumed that if this ever happened, he’d be the one showing Ryan the ropes, helping him feel comfortable, taking the lead. He always imagined Ryan as he was seven years ago, perpetually seeking attention and reassurance. This Ryan knows perfectly well what he’s doing. This Ryan almost married a man, so he’s certainly far more experienced than Shane. For some reason that’s kind of mind-blowingly exciting.
“On your back,” Ryan says, hustling him over so he’s lying flat. “I want to look at you.”
“Romantic,” Shane says, exaggerated and breathy. He flutters his eyelashes.
“I just want to make sure you’re not about to blow a heart valve while I’m giving it to you, old man. When was your last physical? Do you need a doctor’s note?”
Shane kicks out with his leg, connecting with Ryan’s shin. “Is ‘old man’ the new ‘big guy’? I have to say I liked the other one better.”
“Don’t worry, you’re still plenty big.” Ryan curls his hand around Shane’s dick again, stroking more firmly until Shane curls in on himself and cries out at the feeling.
The shower got him most of the way there, but Ryan’s attentive and careful, as Shane knew he would be. He finishes opening Shane up with efficiency and keeps him hard the whole time—no easy feat at forty, although in this case Shane would probably be hard enough to cut glass regardless. He’s been talking this particular boner down for the better part of a decade, and it’s obviously thrilled to be allowed out to play now.
“Come on Ryan,” Shane says, like a chant, when he can’t take it any longer. “Ryan, Jesus. Come on come on come on.”
“After all these years, I can’t believe what it still does to me when you say my name like that,” Ryan says. “Like you’re annoyed but also—not. I don’t know. Fuck.”
He does look like he’s kind of a mess about this whole thing, hair a wreck, eyes a little wild. He looks like Shane feels, which is to say: not so composed after all. He bends down for a kiss and then he’s rolling the condom on himself and bracing himself above Shane to slide home.
It’s been a while since Shane’s been so thoroughly and comprehensively railed that he can feel it in his teeth. He has a hunch that Ryan, who never used to do anything by half-measures and can’t have changed that much, will follow through. Shane’s definitely about to get demolished by a guy who once brought a water gun filled with holy water to confront a nonexistent demon, and he’s just got to make his peace with that.
It’s pretty easy to be at peace with it when Ryan starts to push in, one steady advance of sensation and pressure and, to Shane’s immense surprise, something like homesickness. He has the strangest sensation of driving down a road he’s driven a million times, his old favorite song on the radio to welcome him back. How that can be when he’s never traveled this particular road, he can’t say.
He tilts his hips, urging without words, eager for more of it. Ryan’s hips snap to meet him the rest of the way, aligning and bottoming out.
“Good, you’re good, that’s—oh, god,” Ryan says, closer to babbling than words. He smooths his hand up Shane’s chest to curl at his jaw, against the coarseness of his beard. Eyes up, look at me. Then his forehead comes down to rest for a moment on Shane’s shoulder, and Shane brings his own hand up to clasp the back of Ryan’s head to keep him close, and he thinks: fucking finally.
Shane’s hit with two mortifying realizations, one right after the other: first, he’s going to come way quicker than he’d like. And second, he’s definitely about to cry. He can feel the waves of nostalgia and longing cresting inside his belly, about to breach all the levees he spent the last decade building. I worked hard on those walls, he thinks to himself, more indignant than anything else. Fuck you!
“I’m so sorry,” Ryan says, around his thrusts and through his teeth. “I planned to be really cool about this. I saw you at the bar tonight and I thought, damn, I’m gonna fuck that guy just once for old time’s sake. I’m gonna blow his goddamn mind. This is…not that.”
Shane’s grateful Ryan can’t see inside his mind, which frankly is a little blown.
“Come on,” Shane says, because it’s all he trusts himself to say. “You know I’d never mistake you for cool. I know you.”
He’s becoming aware that this itch has been sitting inside him for years, waiting patiently to be scratched, and the satisfaction of it is so sharp that he could throw his head back and howl. Every thrust, every bite of Ryan’s fingernails into his side or his thigh, says I know you, I will always know you.
“I’m just saying, I’m usually, like, better,” Ryan says.
Ryan catches Shane’s hand in his and brings it to his mouth. He breathes raggedly against Shane’s palm for a moment and then presses a soft kiss to the inside of his wrist, where the skin is thin and vulnerable. It makes Shane feel thin and vulnerable, so thin he’s transparent, as if Ryan might see straight through his skin to his heart beating too fast beneath it.
“Ryan.” Shane can feel the tears welling up; he blinks them back, but a couple make their traitorous way out and roll back toward his ears anyway.
“Basically,” Ryan agrees. He leans down again to kiss one of the tear tracks away. It’s gentler and more crushing than Shane could have imagined. “Here, what if—”
He eases back a little, putting enough space between them to slide his hand in and down and fit it around Shane’s erection again. He’s punching out strangled, helpless noises now, trying to time his strokes to his thrusts.
“Ryan, I can’t,” Shane says. He wipes his forearm over his eyes where they’re wet and over his forehead where it’s sweaty, and Ryan catches it with his free hand and keeps it over his head.
“No shit, I can’t either. Come on, let me see you, sweetheart.” Ryan sounds desperate, entreating as he increases the frantic pace of his hand on Shane’s dick. “I only waited nine fucking years for it.”
His words—sweetheart, Jesus, that’s new—send the orgasm hurtling through Shane’s body, up from his toes and down from his blown-wide brain to meet in the middle, at the core of him. Ryan jerks him through it, muttering nonsense words Shane can’t identify, endearments for the sake of noise.
Then Ryan follows with a loud groan, burying himself as far in Shane as he can get. He rocks in so hard Shane has to spread his hand open to brace the headboard of the bed and prevent his head from knocking against it.
Ryan doesn’t pull out right away. He drops his head back into Shane’s shoulder, breathing heavily. Shane takes the opportunity to make certain his eyes are dry. He has the vague sense that a few rogue tears during sex are easily forgivable, but crying in the afterglow is just uncomfortable for everyone.
Finally Ryan eases out of him with a low hiss of a laugh, both of them too sensitive in surprising ways.
“Well, that was very—fun,” Shane says.
Ryan starts to laugh. “Chill,” he agrees. “A chill, no-strings-attached sexual encounter. I feel very normal.”
“I feel nothing,” Shane deadpans. “I have no particular feelings about this.”
Ryan rolls away to dispose of the condom, wrapping it in a tissue and chucking it with practiced accuracy into the trash can. Shane barely has time to miss the heat of him before he’s back, curling at Shane’s side to wipe the come off Shane’s stomach with a second tissue.
“So I guess I missed you,” he says.
In the morning, so early it’s still dark, they go for round two. This time it’s lazy and sweet and near-silent, fumbling for clothes under covers, rubbing against each other until they make a mess of themselves and the sheets.
They shower. They order room service. Shane’s car to the airport is due to arrive in fifteen minutes.
“Will your friends wonder where you were?” Shane wonders. “Ooh. Tell them you went back in time!”
“I guess I kind of did.” Ryan takes a huge bite of his waffle.
It would be wrong to say they should have done this years ago. There were reasons they didn’t, really good ones, and Shane wouldn’t change it. Apart, they’ve enjoyed love and success. Nobody could call these seven years wasted.
But now, sitting across from Ryan, drinking juice and spreading cream cheese on a bagel, Shane can’t help but feel like something he lost, something precious and irreplaceable, has been returned to him.
“I’ve been thinking,” Ryan says.
“Thinking? Someone alert the news media,” Shane says in his old timey ‘40s accent, dropping it when it gets the laugh he was after. “Wait, let me gird my loins.”
“I’m surprised there’s anything left of them to gird.”
“Anyway, you’ve been thinking?”
“I’ve been thinking,” Ryan starts again. “I don’t think you should reboot Treme.”
“What?” That wasn’t anything like what Shane had been expecting.
“I mean, it was a great show, but it had a good run. It had its time. You should find something that really needs a sequel, right? Where the story isn’t done.”
“Are you seriously pitching me right now?”
Ryan puts his fork down. “No, you idiot. I’m—it’s a metaphor. I’m saying let’s reboot us.”
Shane feels the unmistakable pull of unfinished business between them. He just doesn’t know how to reconcile that with the separate paths their lives have taken and the four hundred miles between them. He has a job, and a home, and a life. Ryan has all those things too.
He’s not saying they shouldn’t. He just thinks it’s possible Ryan’s life now is not compatible with the sort of thing he’s proposing. Maybe they had one night, and maybe that’s enough.
Then again, maybe not. As coincidences go, this one’s a stretch.
Shane scribbles on a piece of hotel stationery and hands it to Ryan.
“One step at a time, cowboy. Here’s my number, I got a new one a couple years back. Why don’t we try talking again, just see where that goes?”
Ryan folds the piece of paper up small and sticks it in his pocket. Shane knows from previous experience what happens to papers in Ryan’s possession; he imagines it fluttering to the floor when Ryan changes, or going through the washing machine, and that will be that. That’ll be his answer. If he expects it, he can’t be disappointed.
Shane’s phone lights up with a text then: the car service taking him to the airport.
“Well, that’s a wrap on the Big Easy,” he says. “I love this town. I, god. I missed you too.”
Ryan grins up at him. There’s a little powdered sugar on his chin from the waffle, and Shane wipes it away.
“The Big Easy,” Ryan says speculatively. “It’s fitting we should reconnect here, isn’t it? Get it? Because you’re big and I’m easy.”
“Ryan Bergara, is that a come-on?” Shane holds his hand to his chest, mock-scandalized.
Ryan half-rises from his chair to give Shane a kiss goodbye, long and lingering and sweet. It never occurred to Shane that Ryan might someday kiss him like that. He wonders how long it might take him to get used to it, and whether he’ll get the chance to find out.
“Text me, then,” Shane says. “Use the number.”
Damn, he wants Ryan to use the number.
He makes it about halfway to the airport when his phone goes wild, about five notifications right in a row, ding ding ding ding ding.
Unknown: hey old man its me save my number plz
Unknown: gonna blow this phone the hell uppppppp
Unknown: [dick pic]
Unknown: hey remember that time i fucked you til you cried real tears
Unknown: that was so dope
And then a sixth text, a moment later:
Unknown: oh btw this is ryan
Shane shakes his head, but he can’t keep the smile off his face. He’d forgotten what a true menace Ryan could be, and the years clearly haven’t dimmed his spirit at all. Shane’s a little dismayed to find he wouldn’t have it any other way. He saves the number as Ryan, Again (God Help You) and texts back.
Shane: Why are you like this. What have I done.
Ryan, Again (God Help You): i hear san francisco is very nice in the fall
Shane: It is.
Ryan, Again (God Help You): gr8 see you in three weeks
Shane tucks his phone away. It feels like an unlooked-for gift, this second chance. It feels like returning to your favorite book to discover the author’s written a part two, just for you; like sitting down in your favorite chair and cracking the spine to the first fresh, unread page. Like pressing play and hearing the familiar theme song, and feeling it hit a nerve inside you.
Shane had thought he knew how this story ended; he’d thought he was satisfied. Now he thinks that maybe, just maybe, he’s ready for the sequel.