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The Last One Standing

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‘’I still can’t believe she talked you into drama club.’’ Seth shook his head in wonder from his usual seat in the pool house’s only chair. His brother shrugged, obviously not intending to answer as he gathered up his school work. ‘’That’s almost as scary as what Mom’s doing in the kitchen.’’ Blue eyes shot a brief question and he sighed dramatically, wondering if there was enough time this morning to get his friend talking, or if he should give it up until lunch, or wait until after school. ‘’She’s cooking, Ryan. Cooking. You know The Kirsten and the preparation of food doesn’t mesh well.’’ A vast understatement, to be sure, but it didn’t even impact on the other boy’s calm demeanor.

‘’Maybe she’s just trying to find something to focus on, something to do with her time.’’ That was a valid point and he said so, rising as Ryan had assembled the last of his study materials. His mother’s resignation from the Newport Group, coming only days after Jimmie Cooper’s, was a shock. With Grandpa gone, she’d said she wanted to concentrate on her family; which had lead to some very uncomfortable conversations with the two boys as well as the current dilemma involving breakfast. They so had find Mom a hobby, he thought desperately; surfing, golfing, anything to get her out of the kitchen.

‘’Morning, boys.’’ Kirsten set full plates at the end of the counter and Seth tried not to let his horrified expression be too obvious. From the way she was glaring at him, he wasn’t being that successful. ‘’Eggs Benedict.’’ She glanced at the cookbook, then the plates, then nodded. She wasn’t exactly instilling him with the confidence necessary to eat.

‘’Morning.’’ Ryan seemed unconcerned about the danger they were in, pouring himself a coffee and taking his seat. He watched his brother carefully for signs of choking or gagging as the blonde boy forked himself a bite and put it in his mouth.

‘’Mom, call an ambulance.’’ Seth instructed in a panic, patting his friend on the back when the other’s eyes immediately bugged after the first, tentative chew. ‘’ Spit it out, dude, just spi…’’

‘’Seth.’’ Ryan glared, pushing his hands away, washing the ‘food’ down with a swallow of coffee. ‘’It’s just a little spicier than I was expecting.’’ He forked off another bite, showing a level of bravery his brother thought was only present in the pages of a graphic novel. ‘’ ‘S’good, though.’’

‘’Thank you, Ryan.’’ Kirsten dimpled at the other boy and frowned at him where he stood in horrified wonder next to his chair. ‘’Seth, eat up, honey. It’ll get cold.’’

Feeling like he was taking a seat in the electric chair, he lowered himself down beside his friend. Tentatively, he cut off a tiny bite and gingerly put it in his mouth. Frowning, waiting for the blast of spices, he chewed the surprisingly palatable morsel and swallowed. Maybe a bigger piece? Which part had Ryan……… Seeing the way the other boy averted his gaze when he looked over to gage which part of ‘breakfast’ might contain the intense spice, Seth realized what was happening.

‘Senior Year’ Ryan was joking around.

‘’Very funny.’’ He remarked sulkily, swiping his brother’s juice and receiving a huge grin on his victim’s part. He forked off a bigger bite and placed it in his mouth more confidently. The guy was right, it was good. Sandy came in, stopping short at the sight of his sons willingly consuming his wife’s efforts. ‘’Hey, Dad, try breakfast. It’s amazingly good, for a change.’’

‘’It must be, if you’re actually eating it’’ Sandy shrugged at the irritated look his wife sent him. ‘’Sorry, honey, but some of your efforts lately have been a little…….’’ The man pecked her on the cheek as he poured himself a cup of coffee, obviously searching for a word to describe her past attempts without reaping her wrath.

‘’Vomit inducing?’’ Seth tried to help, twitching when his brother poked him gently with a fork.

‘’Trying to eat here.’’ Ryan chided him, seemingly very satisfied with his meal. Of course, the guy was from Chino, so his palate wasn’t nearly as sensitive as his, Seth’s. Thankfully, this morning’s offering was looking to be the most edible of all the prior ones; and the expression of pleased success on his mother’s face was reward enough for the possibility of the meal revisiting him, later on in the day.

‘’Maybe you should start a catering business, Kirsten.’’ His father suggested, blatantly trying to get back on his wife’s good side. She shook her head as she served the man his plate.

‘’There are over a dozen catering services in Newport, Sandy. I want something that will stand out from the crowd of deluded Newpsies playing at being businesswomen.’’ Seth didn’t like her tone of voice, her look of depressed loneliness. From the faces of the other men, they didn’t like it either. Time to break the tension, he decided.

‘’If you wanted to stand out from the crowd, Mom, improving your cooking skills wasn’t the way to go.’’ Off her bewildered look, he extended his arms as if painting a billboard. ‘’ ‘Newpsie Catering’: risk your health with our menu.’’ He smirked at the unsuccessfully smothered snickers from the other two family members.

‘’Thanks, sweetie.’’ His mother wrinkled her face at him in sarcastic appreciation of his joke before closing the cookbook firmly. ‘’I’ve got that lunch date with Julie, maybe something will come to me.’’

‘’So long as I don’t see your name on the interview list to take my spot.’’ The older man patted them both on the shoulder with obvious affection. ‘’Speaking of which, got to go put the last batch through their paces. Have a good day, boys.’’

‘’Good luck.’’ Seth averted his eyes, not wanting to see his parents kissing, even their brief morning exchange, and caught Ryan doing the same thing, for most likely the same reasons. The two boys traded a look of mutual sufferance and rose, placing their dishes in the sink.

‘’So, you and General Townsend seem good.’’ The nickname got a quirk of the lips from his brother, but nothing more. Frustrated, he tapped his fingers on the steering wheel, trying to think of another conversational gambit to draw the guy into talking about his girlfriend. Summer was lucky, Taylor had no problem sharing what was going on; but he had to poke and prod like a lion tamer to get the merest scrap of information. ‘’Come on, man, I’m not Mom, you know. Or Dad.’’ Memories of the uncomfortable discussion with his father about his sex life still made him flinch. Some things were best kept between men, and by that he meant men of the same generation. ‘’She really seems to like you, for instance. What’s up with that?’’ He’d meant it teasingly, but the statement tensed the boy in the passenger seat, directed the blue gaze out the far window. ‘’What? You don’t want her to like you? Because I know you like her; she makes you even more non-verbal than usual. Summer says she talks about you a lot, to a really annoying degree, actually.’’

‘’She say what she sees in me?’’ Ryan picked at the seatbelt, not meeting his gaze. Seth fought the urge to laugh. Was that it? Moses, this one would be easy.

‘’You’re kidding, right?’’ Making the turn into the student parking lot, he narrowed his focus to the usual morning hunt for a spot. Soothing his brother’s concerns wasn’t going to take any thought at all; he wished every problem he would ever face would be this simple to solve. ‘’I’m not going into the girl reasons, physical appeal, romance, stuff like that. I figure if Taylor hasn’t gotten through to you on that front, no one can. No, the main reason is the first thing I liked about you, the thing everyone else likes about you.’’ Seeing the still-blank look on the other’s face out of the corner of his eyes, he sighed, pulling into an available parking space. ‘’You care. About people who’ve screwed you over, about people who’ve let you down; sometimes I think you care too much. I mean, look what Marissa did to you, she really messed with your head. If you can’t see what Taylor does, you’ve got more problems then a new girlfriend.’’

‘’It’s just…..’’ The engine falling silent made the other boy’s search for words seem more dramatic, more dire. ‘’She’s so…..cultured and polished and……I didn’t grow up going to opera, or reading French poetry. We’re very different people, and I don’t know…..’’ They exited the vehicle, Seth searching for the right (non-gay) way to put his arguments as they scanned their fellow students for their girls.

‘’You really think she gives a crap about that stuff?’’ Ryan’s ‘thinking’ frown appeared, and Seth congratulated himself on getting through to the guy. It wasn’t always as easy as he thought, throwing his friend off a brood; but he’d been having a lot of success with it ever since the hearing. Okay, ever since Taylor showed up. He wasn’t about to let his brother’s issues ruin the guy’s chance at happiness, either. Aside from all the other reasons, his mother would never forgive him if he could’ve stopped a breakup and hadn’t. ‘’She cares about people too, that’s something you guys have in common.’’ From the look of startled remembrance, he knew he’d hit a nerve, probably brought to mind something Taylor had said. Or did. ‘’Look, she’s been really lonely, according to Summer; so I can understand how you’d think she’s just latching on. I mean; no one paying any attention to you, except to make you miserable: Dude, I’ve lived that life.’’ Bitter memories of his freshman year were faded, dimmer yet in the approaching glory of his brunette angel. ‘’But if she was doing that, going for the first guy who showed an interest in her; she’d already have a boyfriend.’’ Off the other’s confused look (the girls being thankfully still out of earshot) ‘’She hit puberty freshman year, a lot of guys were drooling after her. Even Luke made a play.’’ Now the frown was his ‘jealous, gonna punch something’ look, which eased into a normal, upbeat expression when Ryan caught sight of Taylor’s waving. ‘’Seriously, you two are like me and Summer, Mom and Dad, …….uhn……’’ He drew a blank, trying to think of another couple that was ‘meant to be’ that wasn’t fictional. All he was coming up with were actors from The Valley, and no way was he ever admitting that he knew who those people were.

‘’I get it.’’ Ryan smiled, his mood of self-doubt obviously fallen away. He smiled back, accepting the clap on the shoulder as his brother’s form of thanks. He knew there’d be a discussion later, as his friend worked through the embarrassment of doubting himself. Or not, he thought, seeing the peaceful expression that flowed over the other’s face as Taylor embraced him and tucked herself under his arm, chattering away about the day’s plans.

‘’What’s up?’’ Summer asked, pulling his attention away from the other couple. He kissed her cheek hello, controlling his urge to give her a ‘senior year’ memory with a deeper kiss. Sometimes, being around his girlfriend, those urges were really difficult to ignore. This morning, though, it was easy; mostly because of where his thoughts were. ‘’Cohen?’’

‘’Nothing bad.’’ Seth answered, taking her hand to pull her after the second half of The Core Four. ‘’Just suddenly wondered what my parents would’ve been like as high school sweethearts.’’ Her brown eyes flicked to the two climbing the hill ahead of them, understanding him like no one else could, or ever would. She smiled, squeezing his hand affectionately.

‘’A lot like that, probably.’’