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The Outside In

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"I can’t keep letting your parents pay for everything.’’ Ryan squirmed in his seat as Seth dropped money on the tray. From the amount sitting there, lobster was pretty expensive. Flush from sailing lessons or not, he couldn’t keep doing this to Seth.

"Dude, it’s their job, they work for us.’’ Seth shrugged at the look he got. "Okay, then, what do you want to do?’’

``Get a job, I guess.’’ He hadn’t seen any ‘help wanted’ signs around, but that didn’t mean people weren’t hiring.

"You should call Taylor.’’ Seth declared.

" Are you seriously suggesting that I hit a girl up for money?’’

``No, of course not, relax. It’s just….Taylor is the man with the plan ….and by man I mean really great girl who’s into you.’’

``Who hasn’t returned any of my calls.’’ He’d been avoiding thinking about this since Cotillion. His and Seth’s tuxedo jackets had been delivered from a dry cleaner’s with two embossed thank you cards signed by Taylor and Summer, respectively. Since then, he hadn’t heard anything from her, nor had Seth heard from Summer.

``She’s probably helping Summer with Marissa. You know, being a friend.’’

``Or her mom shipped her out of the country.’’ Ryan felt a sickening lurch whenever he thought of Taylor’s mother. Aside from Theresa, he’d never been good with the mothers of the girls he’d…. he supposed ‘dated’ wasn’t quite the term.

``It’s like Cotillion never happened.’’ Seth slumped into his seat. ``Summer even changed her voice mail to warn me not to leave her any more messages.’’

``That’s because you left her 30 messages in one day.’’

``Okay, I thought maybe she was losing the signal, or that I was dialing the number wrong, or that the messages weren’t being recorded and don’t think I didn’t see that smirk, my friend, because I happen to know someone who didn’t even wait until the next morning to call his lady in question.’’ Ryan blushed.

‘’I was just making sure she got home all right.’’ Seth’s ‘uh-huh’ was smugly sarcastic, so he had to thump him on the arm.

‘’We can’t just sit around.’’ Seth said as they moved outside. Ryan worked the lock on his bike. ‘’We have to do something. Some grand romantic gesture. Hey, that’s right up your alley, right?’’

‘’Seth…..’’

‘’C’mon, man, you were seriously sua-ve. Did they have a class or something? Some old romantic movie of my mom’s on late night? Secret reading of romantic novels? I won’t tell anyone about that, if it’s true.’’

‘’Seth…..’’

‘’Look, we need to step up our game, obviously, …uh-oh.’’ Ryan straightened up to see what he was looking at. Luke was headed their way with two of his friends. He felt his heart start racing. Luke alone was no problem. Luke with an audience of his friends was trouble. Usually painful trouble. ``We should just go.’’ Seth blurted, unfortunately just as the three larger boys reached them.

"Cohen, Atwood.’’ Luke nodded at them both. His friends stared at him.

‘’What are you being nice to these queers for?’’

‘’Queer.’’ The guy shoved Seth, who stumbled a bit.

‘’Hey!’’ Ryan stepped between his brother and the others, just as Luke whirled around and shoved the guy who’d shoved Seth. His shove was harder, knocking the boy back so hard he almost fell.

‘’I said I wanted to talk to them. No one invited you pansies.’’

‘’They’re the pansies. You queer for pansies, Luke?’’ There was real challenge in the other boy’s tone, real threat. ‘’You forgetting who your friends are?’’

‘’Where were you bitches when the fire went down, huh?’’ Ryan squinted at the other two, realizing that they had been there that night. ‘’I stepped up, took responsibility while you two were partying down. Where were you when your testimony could’ve kept me out of jail?’’

‘’You didn’t go to jail, not really.’’ The two shot nervous looks at Ryan. ‘’You didn’t tell the cops we were there, did you?’’

‘’Yeah, Chino, did you?’’ The same guy who’d shoved Seth reached out to shove him, but dropped his arm when Ryan stepped forward.

‘’You two best remember who’s Captain on both teams at school before you shoot off your mouths. Now, blaze.’’ Luke glared at the two. ‘’My peeps and I got bi’ness.’’ They moved off, surprised expressions coloring their faces. Ryan didn’t like the dark looks they were shooting him. Great. He just traded trouble with a jealous boyfriend for harassment by two morons with homosexual issues.

‘’Okay, I have to ask, who the heck are you and what have you done with the real Luke Ward? Are you an alien? Is this some kind of conquest? Some sort of freakish mind control weapon?’’ Seth moved his skated board nervously back and forth under one foot. ‘’I know; you were abducted and experimented on. Complete reversal of personality. Or they switched your brain with some nice guy. Right now, there’s some guy who used to be nice pounding the heck out of helpless geeks….unless he was a geek….’’

‘’Is he always like this?’’ Luke asked as Seth continued to ramble.

‘’Pretty much.’’ Ryan finished securing the bike chain and started pushing his bike along the pier. The other two fell into step with him, Seth with one foot on his board as they moved. There was a long silence, as they each hunted for a safe topic.

‘’I always wanted to learn to do that.’’ Luke nodded towards Seth, who stopped short in shock. He ran after his board, which hadn’t stopped with him.

‘’Okay, I’ve got it. Ryan….’’ Seth had a very serious expression. ‘’We’ve entered into the twilight zone. Or some alternative universe. One in which Luke doesn’t punch people and our girls don’t call us back and…’’’

‘’You haven’t heard from them, either?’’ Luke asked. ‘’Because I’ve called Marissa, like, a dozen times.’’

‘’She’s going through something right now.’’ Ryan pointed out.

‘’No, I know, that’s why I was calling.’’ He shrugged at the looks they gave him. ‘’After Holly’s pre-Cotillion bash, we talked and she said she wanted me to be more ……y’know, attentive. I want to be there for her…..no matter how gay that sounds.’’

‘’It’s not gay to support your girlfriend.’’ Ryan told him.

‘’You have to listen to him, dude, he is the master of the romantic.’’

‘’Will you stop?’’ Ryan was beginning to get exasperated. Seth was making such a big deal of this. It just made him feel worse each time Taylor didn’t call.

‘’Sorry.’’ Seth was quiet. For all of five seconds. ‘’We need to do something, though, we can’t just let the girls think we’ve given up. Because I am not going to give up. Operation Summer was just getting started, she even smiled at me…’’ Seth looked pleadingly at Ryan. ‘’You can’t be that afraid of her mom, dude. Just go over there, ask Taylor to help me. And you. You know she’d be up for the helping. It’s a win-win, Ryan. Oh, and you could check on Marissa’s situation while you were at it.’’

‘’I think you’ve got something there, Cohen.’’ Luke clapped him on the shoulder, not seeing the other boy’s wince at the strength of the blow.

‘’You think I should talk to Taylor about Marissa?’’ Ryan could well imagine how well that conversation would go over.

‘’No, man, we should talk to their moms.’’ Luke smiled. ‘’Once you make the mother your friend, it’s easy street.’’

‘’Summer doesn’t have a mother.’’ Seth observes. ‘’Well, okay, yes, she has a mother, obviously; but not one we can talk to. Her step-mother is kind of…..’’

‘’Tanked?’’ Luke laughed. ‘’Yeah, Sum says the woman is stoned all the …..’’ He seemed to realize that the other’s expressions weren’t friendly, anymore. ‘’What?’’

‘’Luke, my friend, and I assume from your behavior that we’re friends now? I would greatly appreciate it if you didn’t refer to Summer by any pet names or appellations that you may have used in the past. I mean, this is my Dulcinea we’re talking about.’’

‘’Who’s Dulcinea?’’

‘’Don Quixote’s love.’’ Ryan told him. The other two stared at him. ‘’From the play?’’

‘’It’s also a book, dude, and seriously, you really have to ‘fess up, because it’s really starting to freak me out.’’

‘’Yeah, what gives, Atwood?’’ Okay, puppy dog looks from Seth he was used to. Guy was kind of like a Chihuahua or something. But Luke? He looked like a Golden Retriever who’d bit you once and now wanted to be forgiven. Weird.

‘’There was this girl…..’’

‘’Somehow I figured it would start with that phrase….’’

‘’She got me this job building sets for this community college theatre. I was there a lot, when there were rehearsals and ….I guess some of the stuff just stuck in my head.’’ He didn’t mention he’d only been thirteen at the time, although he’d told the girl he was a small fifteen, and had lost both the job and girl when the truth had come out.

‘’Wow, okay.’’ Seth nodded. ‘’Yeah, makes a lot of sense.’’

‘’So, we on to charm the mothers?’’

‘’Absolutely.’’ Seth nodded. ‘’We should go back to the house and plan things out. Flowers, chocolate, …’’ he grinned at Ryan impishly ‘’ …tranquilizer gun….’’

‘’You’re not helping.’’ Ryan frowned at Luke’s snickering. ‘’Neither are you.’’

‘’Sorry, man, but Veronica Townsend?’’ Luke shook his head. ‘’You sure don’t like things easy, do you, Atwood?’’

Ryan shrugged.

*

There was a new Triad in town, and it boggled the mind. Seth couldn’t believe the events of the last twenty four hours. Luke had been civil, he’d been cool, he’d even played video games with them. Pro Skater One, but still. If anyone had told him even a week ago that Luke would be sitting on the floor in his den, working the Play station and not going ballistic when he lost, he’d’ve given them directions to the asylum. Or the rehab centre. Either or.

The plan to charm the mothers, or in his case, the father, was set to go today. Luke was going to pick them up and drive them out to the Townsends’. Ryan had protested, with the minimum of words, to going first, but relented in the face of their logic. Luke’s target was dealing with the same crisis Marissa was going through, his girl had a father, not a mother; thus leaving Ryan to face the dragon first. Or, in this case, the dragon lady. They were slipping through the living room when they spotted his father hiding out from the Newpsies. Gaining a brief on the situation, they overheard the gossip about Jimmie Cooper.

‘’Will they be talking for much longer?’’ Ryan asked.

‘’Are you kidding? They’ll be dining on a scandal like this for years.’’

‘’Way to miss the point, Dad.’’ Seth rolled his eyes.

‘’Oh. Well, I hope they disperse soon.’’ Sandy checked his watch. Ryan got a determined look on his face.

"Go wait out front.’’ Seth and Sandy looked at him. He shrugged. ‘’Go on.’’ He stepped into the kitchen and headed for the table.

Seth watched, horrified, as his friend and brother casually strolled into the midst of the Newpsies. While the women were all staring, he and his father slipped out the front door like a couple of commandos. They stood on the front steps and waited for Ryan to come running out, screaming. Okay, so maybe he was the only one expecting that scenario.

‘’Hey.’’ Ryan joined them after only a few minutes, briefcase in hand. Seth raised his eyebrows at his brother’s expression. He seemed ….cheerful. Although, with Ryan, it was hard to tell.

‘’Kid, someday you’ll tell me how you did that.’’ Sandy took the briefcase from him. Checked his watch again. ``Just not today. See you at dinner.’’

Luke passed his father on the way in, so there was no opportunity to debrief his brother. Operation Charm the Mom was underway. They piled into the truck, Seth trying not to be nervous about having the center seat. Luke may be showing signs of reform, but old habits died very hard. Not to mention his taste in music sucked. It was only the second time he winced at the DMX coming from the stereo that Ryan reached out and switched the radio off.

"What gives, Atwood?’’

"Drive around for a while.’’ Ryan told him.

‘’Putting it off isn’t gonna make it any easier, man, and you need to catch Veronica before she leaves for the office.’’ Luke answered back.

‘’No, I don’t.’’

‘’Look, you can’t back out…’’

‘’Go easy on him, dude, he had a serious Newpsie encounter this morning.’’ Seth reviewed his brother’s behavior and determined that, yes, the change had come over him after the briefcase rescue.

‘’Newpsie.’’ Luke snorted. ‘’That’s great.’’

‘’So you probably got a little gun-shy, no problem. We go straight over to Veronica’s, get right back up on that horse.’’ Seth was sure that Ryan’s natural confidence would carry him through whatever scare the Newpsies had put into him. ``The whole plan to win the girls hinges on….’’

‘’They’ve been out of town.’’

‘’What?’’ Seth was thankful Luke kept control of the truck. He pulled over to the side of the road. ‘’Okay, Atwood, spill.’’

‘’They were talking about it, the Newpsies. Marissa, Summer, Kaitlyn and Taylor have all been away at this spa thing. Taylor set it up.’’

‘’Makes sense.’’ Seth nodded. ‘’Mom’s been talking about this getaway she and her friends are going on for weeks. Guess Taylor thought it was a good idea.’’

‘’That’s a great girl you got there, Atwood.’’ Luke slumped back into his seat. Obviously he was relieved at not having to face Veronica Townsend, even from a distance. ‘’Any idea when they get in?’’

‘’This afternoon.’’ Ryan smiled.

‘’We should totally set something up.’’ Seth enthused. Summer hadn’t been ignoring him, she’d been….doing girl things….with her friends. He wanted her to tell him all about it. ‘’A welcome-home thing.’’

‘’Not something too intense.’’ Luke advised. ‘’They probably just want to relax.’’

‘’Marissa’ll be home alone with her sister, won’t she?’’ Seth pointed out.

‘’Yeah, ….hey, yeah!’’ Luke turned the car around, heading them back to Seth’s house. ‘’Kaitlyn loves me. I could totally hang out, help Marissa with her sister….play board games….what? I do have two younger brothers, you know.’’

‘’I could go over to Taylor’s.’’ Ryan looked a little doubtful. ‘’Her mother won’t be there then.’’

‘’Summer Roberts coming over to my house…..’’ Seth smiled, his universe had just snapped back into order. Life was good. Life was very strange, but life was good. ‘’Gentlemen….we have a plan. Operation Girlfriend is underway.’’ He imagined what she’d be wearing, what they’d talk about….or not talk about, as the case may be. He reminded himself not to get too far ahead of himself. One wrong move at this point could derail the whole Operation. He couldn’t help but smile wider. All his dreams were coming true.