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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.’’

Chapter Text

‘’……..so I told Jimmie go ahead, paint yourself blue and become a Thai belly dancer.’’

‘’I’m sorry?’’

‘’Kiki…..’’ Julie sighed, reaching across the table to lay a comforting hand on her best friend’s arm. She hated to see the woman like this. So ……..lost. They had to find a replacement for Sandy, quick; so he could spend more time with his wife and ……… Well, whatever the problem was, she was sure the two of them could work it out. They had to, she needed something in her life to be stable, and they were her best friends, so it was a total win-win if she could figure out a way to help. ‘’What’s wrong? Is it the food? I hear you’re quite the chef, maybe The Yacht Club’s not up to your standards?’’ Her joke fell so very flat and she started to be really, really concerned.

‘’I’m sorry, Julie.’’ Kirsten sighed as well, patting the hand on her arm. Figures that the woman would try to comfort her in the midst of her own problem (whatever it was). ‘’I’m just feeling a little …….unfocused. All those years I spent at the Newport Group, and now I don’t have anything to do. I thought I could focus on the boys, but….’’

‘’But Seth has his Summer and Ryan has his Taylor.’’ Julie finished for her friend, nodding in perfect understanding. Every attempt she’d made to re-connect with her daughter had failed miserably, usually ending in a screaming match. Since Jimmie had left, it had only gotten worse. Maybe it was time to call in reinforcements and bring Kaitlyn home. She’d stopped being a selfish bitch (okay, as much of a selfish bitch) the minute she had someone else to take care of. Maybe her oldest would reform for her sister’s sake if she wouldn’t do it for her mother’s or her own. ‘’Time with Mom can’t really compete against time with their girlfriends, can it?’’

‘’Oh, they try.’’ Kirsten fiddled with her water, smiling fondly at some memory or other. ‘’And the girls are so understanding about it, coming over for dinner or declaring a ‘girl’s night’ at the Roberts’. ‘’

‘’Still feels like you’re butting in, doesn’t it?’’ Julie shrugged at the other woman’s surprised look. They hadn’t been spending a lot of time together, it was understandable that her friend wasn’t aware of the subtler changes she’d gone through since Cal’s death. ‘’They’re boys about to become young men: graduating, going off to college. Spending time with their mother probably feels a little strange.’’ She bet it was pretty uncomfortable on both sides, trying to restore a connection that had altered shape. Blindfolded. ‘’They still need you, you know; just not for the same things.’’

‘’Or as often.’’ The blonde woman sighed again, leaning back to drop her napkin across her plate. ‘’I just don’t know what to do with myself.’’ There was a note of desperation to her voice and Julie felt a chill pass through her at the sudden premonition of a relapse. ‘’Cooking isn’t enough, I need something a little more challenging, some kind of venture; something that stands out.’’

‘’Well, that lets out catering, doesn’t it? I mean, whenever I threw a party, there were so many to choose from; it was almost ridiculous.’’ Julie frowned, something niggling at the back of her mind. She set her napkin across her plate as well. ‘’You need to find something that Newport doesn’t already have, something …..’’

‘’Excuse me.’’

‘’I don’t believe this.’’ Julie muttered at the interruption. The man was handsome, smiling; but this was the fifth damn approach and she wanted to spend the time helping her friend, not rejecting the advances of these idiots (cute as they were). She turned to face the man in question, raking her green eyes coldly over him. Nice body. Too bad he was a moron. ‘’Look, we’re flattered, really; but she’s happily married and I’m a grieving widow. So shove off, Skippy.’’

‘’I’m sorry, it’s been a long day.’’ Kirsten was obviously trying to defuse the situation. She was such a good-hearted person, so willing to give people the benefit of a doubt. This creep didn’t need the kindness, though; he needed a swift kick in the……

‘’Perfectly understandable.’’ The guy commented, smiling back at her with a triumphant grin that was entirely unwarranted. ‘’Maybe I could have your number? For when the grieving is over?’’ That had to be the lamest come-on, ever. He was about as sensitive as the rolls they’d had with their tilapia.

‘’Oh my God.’’ She fumed, amazed at his dim-witted persistence. ‘’No. Now get lost.’’ After standing there in confused hope for a few more moments, he shrugged and went away. Thankfully, because her next move would’ve been to upend her drink over his head; and they banned people from the club for things like that. ‘’What a jackass.’’

‘’Julie.’’ Kirsten was smiling, amused at her irritation. She supposed it was a little funny. Julie Cooper-Nichol, renowned man-chaser; turning guys away. She snorted, picking up her tea (non-alcoholic, to show solidarity with her friend) with the intention of draining the last of it.

‘’Oh, please, could you see me dating him? He’s probably about Marissa’s age. Kaitlyn could set …..’’ That niggling thought from before gelled and she paused with her glass halfway to her mouth, staring fixedly at her friend. That was it, that was so it, and it was perfect. ‘’Oh my God, Kiki, I’ve got it!’’ She slammed the glass back down onto the table, making the waiter jump when he set down the bill. She scrambled into her purse for her card, chattering in her excitement. ‘’It’s so you! You and Sandy are such the model couple, it makes for great promotion, and you won’t have to spend a dime on advertising. Throw an ‘opening’ party, and the rumor mill will do the rest!’’ Her Visa clattered on the waiter’s tray and he left hurriedly, apparently thinking she was some type of mental.

From the look on her friend’s face, she might be having the same thought.

‘’Julie, what are you talking about?’’ Kirsten appeared concerned for her stability, she glanced at the glass of tea with obvious suspicion. ‘’Are you feeling okay?’’ She ignored the implied accusation, swept up in the perfect thing to engage her friend, to help her friend re-enter society in style.

‘’A dating service! No one has one of those, not in Newport; and with all the divorcees and single trust funds looking for love ……..’’ She smiled brightly, excited about the expression of eager thought that passed over her friend’s face. The woman was considering it and, from the look of it, had several plans already. ‘’I mean, my God, Kiki; Taryn Douglass alone could support you through the first year.’’ Kirsten actually laughed (flushing a bit at the dig, but she still laughed) and shook her head. She didn’t seem to be rejecting the idea, just to be amused at the catty comment.

‘’I’m not sure about using my marriage for an advertising promotion.’’ Her friend remarked, leaning forward. ‘’You really think I can do this?’’ Julie cursed the fall from grace that had the woman doubting herself to this extent.

‘’Of course!’’ There was still a glimmer of uncertainty about the pale green eyes, so she cast about for a convincing argument. Fragments of their previous conversation clicked into place in her head, spurring her to continue. ‘’Look, what do you think of your boys and their girls?’’ She kept her eyebrows raised expectantly over her emerald eyes, waiting for the confirmation of her own assessment.

‘’Well…….’’ Kirsten paused, obviously giving the question serious thought. ‘’They’re a little young to be settling down, don’t you think?’’ Julie snorted.

‘’Just because they’re truly in love doesn’t mean they’re going to get married, Kiki. But your being able to see how deeply they’re connected is what I’m talking about.’’ Kirsten still looked concerned about the possibility of her children rushing into a bad decision because of starry-eyed romantic notions (probably inherited from Sandy). She hastened to reassure her, not wanting to lose the momentum of her point, but not wanting to twist her friend into knots, either. ‘’Those kids have far too much sense to go tying the knot right out of high school. Trust me.’’ She smiled teasingly, retrieving her plastic from the still-slightly-nervous waiter. ‘’You won’t have to plan the weddings until they graduate college, at least; so you’ve got plenty of time.’’

‘’Julie!"’ Her friend laughed again and this time, she joined her, ecstatic that she’d managed to cheer the other up this much. It was good to hear her enjoying herself, to see the confidence flooding back. ‘’Okay, then, I suppose I’ve got a party to plan.’’ She stood, gathering her purse and jacket. ‘’Can you come over for dinner? I’d like to run a few ideas past you; as a single woman, you can be a huge help.’’ The invitation warmed her and she made a note to cancel her appointment with the company that had made an offer to buy the Newport Group. They gave her the creeps, anyway, and she didn’t want to sell in the first place.

‘’Sure thing, Kiki.’’ Julie stood as well, picking up her purse and giving the loser from before a friendly smile. Not enough to encourage him (far too young to be her type) but she wanted to express her gratitude for the inspiration he’d inadvertently provided. ‘’You’ve got one problem, though.’’ She linked arms with her friend, smiling at the satisfied and excited (expectant) look on the other’s face. ‘’What to call it?’’

‘’Oh, that’s no problem, Julie.’’ Kirsten gave her ticket to the valet and grinned triumphantly. She knew the woman was capable of this (and more); she had a name already chosen, after all! ‘’I’ll be making matches in Newport, so……’’ She grinned back at the utter appropriateness of the name, enthused at the true return of her best friend.

‘’NewMatch.’’

Chapter Text

‘’Hang on.’’ Kirsten looked up from her planning to see Ryan walking in from the patio. He put his thumb on a button of his cell phone and gave her a curious look, blue eyes flicking from the papers scattered over the kitchen table to her face. She looked and her watch and blinked in surprise. Where had the time gone?

‘’I didn’t realize it was so late.’’ She started gathering the menu options and seating charts for NewMatch’s opening gala together, trying to clear the table. Sandy would be home soon, and Julie would be coming over; and she hadn’t given one moment’s thought to dinner; too caught up in her new business. ‘’I think we can throw something…..’’

‘’It won’t kill us to have take-out.’’ The boy reassured her, putting his hand on top of a pile, just managing to prevent it’s slide towards the floor. ‘’Despite what Taylor says.’’ She shared his smile, if not his amusement.

‘’I suppose not.’’ On one hand, she wanted to continue with her culinary explorations, but on the other…….On the other, she was fired up about helping people find their soul mates; or at least be less lonely. Not to mention that, now that she had stopped working; she was starved. She moved over to the drawer with the takeout menus, pawing through to find the one with the shortest delivery time. ‘’Korean barbeque sound okay?’’ They were fast, and filling, and she could take the opportunity to ask them about catering at the same time.

‘’Sure.’’ Ryan shrugged, unconcerned as any boy about what he ate so long as meat was involved. It was so cute, and such a relief from Seth’s picky appetite. As if cued by her thoughts, the son before her revealed the whereabouts of the other. ‘’Seth’s making another attempt to win Neil over….’’ Neil? Who……Oh, right. Doctor Roberts. The blonde boy’s habit of referring to adults by their first names often made her wish for a flow chart. Sometimes she didn’t know who he was talking about for a few seconds; sometimes it was longer, if he mentioned someone whom she hadn’t met or otherwise heard about. ‘’…..so he was wondering if it was okay for Taylor to come over for dinner?’’ There was a tiny vibration to his voice as he spoke the girl’s name, a slight deepening of tone. She’d noticed it the night of the carnival, but she’d chalked it up to the emotional trials of the evening. Now she wasn’t at all sure that was the case, and she wasn’t entirely sure she shouldn’t be worried on some level, despite Sandy’s reassurances.

‘’Of course.’’ Kirsten tried not to sound too eager about the chance to observe the two interacting. The prior two times the girls had come over for dinner, she’d been too caught up in making an edible meal and defending her attempts to her family to really pay attention to how they acted together.

That, and Seth and Summer could be a little distracting, even when they were getting along.

‘’Thanks.’’ He put the phone back up to his ear, releasing the button as he spoke. ‘’Seth? It’s okay with Mom, so tell Taylor to come on over.’’ Her heart clenched at the unconscious appellation. Just as he had when he’d called Sandy ‘Dad’, he didn’t even seem aware of his Freudian slip. From the way his brow furrowed, she bet her taller son was shocked just as silent now as he had been that night. ‘’Seth? You there?’’ A pause, then Ryan nodded, smiled at her, and made his exit back out to the patio. ‘’Yeah, bad connection………’’

Kirsten watched him chatting with (or, more properly, listening to) his brother, takeout menu frozen in her hand. His little slips of tongue were so revealing of the true nature of the emotions he usually kept to himself, hidden behind his ducked head and monosyllabic manner of speech. Even with how much he’d changed, he was still quiet and evasive about what he was feeling; the spontaneous and unaware flashes were endearing for the rare glimpse into his feelings, but mostly for their simple honesty.

Snapping herself out of the tender mood, she blinked sentimental moisture from her eyes and made enough selections for a fair-sized dinner before picking up the phone. Aware of the gentle smile tugging at her lips, she wondered if she’d ever be able to order Korean barbeque without remembering this moment, the first time he’d referred to her as ‘Mom’. She was still ordering when he came back in, nodding at the suggestive tilt to her head when the door bell rang. She hoped it was Taylor and not Julie arriving early, she wanted a little time to warn her son about the extra dinner guest. The two former adversaries hadn’t been in the same room since the hearing, and hadn’t said more than hello for months before that. It had occurred to her that having his current girlfriend at the same table with the mother of his ex-girlfriend might be a little …….tense.

‘’Kiki!.’’ Oh, shit; she thought to herself. She agreed to the delivery time and hung up the phone, turning around and sending an apologetic look over her friend’s shoulder (during the hug hello) towards her son. He looked like he was bracing himself for something, he dropped his gaze to the counter when Julie turned to look at him.

‘’I wanted to say thanks.’’ He shrugged, tracing the pattern of the tiles. Slowly, he raised hesitant blue eyes to look at her friend, relaxing a tad at whatever he was seeing in the other woman’s expression. She was proud of him for making the first move, there was no way that this was easy. ‘’For what you said, what you did.’’

‘’Nothing more than the truth, Ryan.’’ Julie reassured the boy, smiling at him with a sincerity that very few people saw. Kirsten was proud of her, too; of how far she’d come since the days when she’d threatened to send him back to Juvie. It was blatantly obvious with her next words. ‘’I figured I owed you for saving Marissa in TJ, saving Kaitlyn in June.’’ A little of the old Julie resurfaced as a teasing glint entered the emerald eyes. ‘’The look on your face when I called you sexy was priceless. Too bad I didn’t have a camera.’’ Kirsten hid a smile, remembering Seth’s plaintive comments about that same lack. The doorbell sounded again and he excused himself hastily, looking like he was reconsidering staying home for dinner.

‘’Taylor’s going to be joining us.’’ Kirsten took the opportunity to warn her friend, surprised at the mild reaction of a raised eyebrow.

‘’She’s a nice girl.’’ Julie commented disinterestedly, moving over to the table and picking up one of the papers she’d been sketching NewMatch logos on. ‘’Hmmm. Well, Seth comes by the ability honestly, it seems.’’ Kirsten accepted the attempted change in subject, but didn’t think it was really going to take with who was most likely at the door. ‘’You’re quite the artiste yourself, Kiki.’’

‘’Thanks, Julie.’’ She went over and started gathering the papers up again, less frantically then she had before. If they could keep to the topic of her new business, this dinner might not be as stressful as she feared. Especially if Sandy made it home in time for dinner; he could always keep the conversation from getting too serious or devolving into a fight. ‘’I’m having more trouble with the slogan, though. Help me out? Love is……… Love is………’’

‘’Love is a smoke made with the fumes of lover’s sighs; being purged, a fire sparkling in lover’s eyes.’’ She turned to see Taylor dimpling at her, the smile sincere and open as always, even when the girl’s hazel eyes landed on Julie. Long experience at translating the blankness of Ryan’s expressions told his mother that the boy was nervous. Well, that made two of them.

‘’Taylor, that’s lovely.’’ Kirsten observed, paying more attention to how her son’s eyes followed the girl walking towards them and tried not to grin. At least that was a normal teenage boy reaction, the portion of Taylor’s anatomy his gaze was focused on. Some things hadn’t changed so much, it looked like. Although (and she shot a concerned glance at Julie as the thought occurred to her) he’d never actually looked at Marissa with that air of reverent fixation mixed into the salacious appreciation.

‘’Shakespeare.’’ Taylor confessed, setting her purse near the phone as she advanced towards to the two older women. ‘’Old Bill’s always good for a line.’’ She came over to the table, glancing curiously at the papers still somewhat strewn across it’s surface. ‘’New project?’’

‘’NewMatch.’’ Kirsten declared, turning back to the task of clearing them enough space to eat. ‘’I’m opening a dating service.’’ There was a choked noise from behind them, and the only male in the room backed away from the trio of female stares directed his way. He made a stumbling excuse about waiting at the door for the food as he retreated. ‘’Well, that was supportive.’’ She was being sarcastic, the look of mild panic on Ryan’s face had nothing to do with her new business, she was sure.

‘’Probably just terrified about being the only guy in a room with three women discussing romance.’’ Julie stated, taping her pile of paper together. Taylor giggled, saying that she’d been about to make the same observation, and the tension Kirsten hadn’t even realized was there lessened a bit.

It lessened even more when Sandy arrived (in tandem with the food) and declared his support for her new venture with cheerful enthusiasm. More enthusiasm then she thought it warranted, but the identity of his dinner guest explained her husband’s overly upbeat mood.

Matthew Ramsey had decided that The Newport Group was far more ethical a company than the one he worked for. After learning that the offer they made to Julie to sell had no intention of continuing the woman’s work on the hospital or low-income housing projects, he’d applied for the opportunity to succeed Sandy. In two weeks, the man she’d married would be back in the public defender’s office. He’d complain about the coffee, and the work, and the less than understating judges……..

And he’d love every minute of it, was already looking forward to it; she could tell.

Kirsten enjoyed the celebratory atmosphere her new venture and Sandy’s good news had leant the evening, only missing Seth a little, every now and then. She was sure, though, that his reaction to his mother opening a dating service would be an entertaining way to start the day, tomorrow. Both Julie and Matt expressed an interest in becoming her first clients; wearing twin horrified expressions when Ryan suggested that she set them up with each other. Taylor giggled and told him he was ‘bad’ at which point everyone else realized they’d just been visited by what Seth had called (per Summer) ‘Senior Year’ Ryan. She didn’t know if she was ready for both her sons to be making jokes and teasing people.

Although, the prank he’d played on the taller boy that morning had lightened her heart considerably.

It was nice to see him acting like a regular teenager, too; actually laughing at some story of Taylor’s with his arm around the back of the girl’s chair. When Kirsten steered the conversation back to NewMatch, though, he turned his attention to Sandy’s briefing of Matt on the issues the younger man would face, working at The Newport Group. She didn’t pay much attention, honestly; being more involved in the ideas the other women were passing back and forth. Julie’s flamboyantly fashionable tastes and off-the-wall ideas were tempered by Taylor’s practical grasp of the intricate details of planning a party in Newport. Between the two of them, they made an excellent source of inspiration and assistance.

When it came time to clear the table, the boys retreated to the den citing table space as an issue. Considering that her discussion with the two party mavens had turned to relationship quizzes, she seriously doubted that was the actual reason for the relocation. Julie’s suggestions for questions were, predictably, a little risqué; but it was Taylor’s input that concerned her the most. Instead of the dreamily romantic queries a normal teenage girl would suggest, they sounded more like something a psychiatrist would ask. Kirsten was trying to find a way to gently ask where she’d gotten the questions when Julie snickered.

‘’What?’’ She looked around the table for what could be amusing her friend. Taylor’s cheeks were a little pink, but the youngster hadn’t really said anything that could be seen as funny.

‘’It’s just too cute, Kiki.’’ Julie touched her arm, nodding to the den. Wondering what the boys had gotten into, she looked into the den in time to catch her son glancing away from Taylor (and over to his father) with false nonchalance. She turned her head back to the girl across the table and the pink shifted a little more towards red. ‘’They’ve been sneaking looks at each other ever since the dinner party split up.’’ She couldn’t help the grin, because the other woman was right; it was so very cute.

‘’Sorry.’’ Taylor shifted in her chair and fiddled with the pencil she’d been taking notes with. Probably making plans for the next school event; harvest dance or something, she thought. She’d have to get caught back up on Harbor’s social scene, if her boys were ‘going steady’, to use her father’s term.

‘’It’s okay, honey.’’ Kirsten reassured her, wondering what was making the girl (who’d been handling Julie’s salacious inquires about Doctor Roberts with aplomb) so suddenly and obviously self-conscious.

‘’Perfectly understandable; the boy is ……’’ There was a lascivious gleam under the teasing light in the emerald gaze and she interrupted before the comment could be finished (requiring her to undergo further therapy).

‘’Julie!’’ Kirsten whispered the warning, reminding the woman by her tone that they were, after all, discussing one of her sons.

‘’Well, I wouldn’t know.’’ Taylor looked the redhead square in the eye, a trifle challengingly, Kristen thought. ‘’Despite what you may have heard, we’ve never actually had sex.’’ She wondered what was behind the irritated clenching of the girl’s jaw. ‘’He hasn’t even felt me up.’’

‘’Taylor.’’ She groaned it, closing her eyes, because she really didn’t want to know these things about her boys. Yes, she knew that they probably had sex; but she didn’t want to know about it in any certain terms. The times she’d walked in on Ryan and Marissa and (oh God) Lindsay were traumatic enough, she didn’t need to get the intimate details from his newest romance. ‘’I don’t really need to hear that.’’

‘’Sorry, Kirsten.’’ Julie mumbled something about not getting ‘the good stuff’ and she opened her eyes to see Taylor biting her lip, looking like she was reaching a decision as the girl discarded her irritation. ‘’We’re waiting until it’s right, for both of us. Just like admitting we love each other; it’s just not the right time, yet.’’ She saw the firm belief in those hazel eyes and felt moved to try and reassure the girl. Knowing Ryan as she did, she thought she might as well try and prevent the emotional damage that was sure to come from his reticence about discussing his feelings.

‘’You may have a long wait, Taylor.’’ Kirsten warned the girl, concerned at the smile, the amused shake of the auburn head.

‘’He may not say the words, exactly; but he lets me know.’’ She exchanged a look with Julie, concerned that Taylor’s expectations were somewhat unrealistic. The girl sighed and scribbled something. ‘’Here.’’ She glanced down at the scribbled question, frowning. ‘’Ask him that, see what he says.’’

Kirsten looked over to where the two men were caught up in what looked like a very involved discussion with the boy in question. Her gaze met the determined expression on the younger face and she told herself that he wouldn’t say anything too hurtful; not with her there, not with Julie (his ex’s mother) watching. She decided to ask the question all in a burst, to deny him time to think about his answer and get flustered into falling disastrously silent.

‘’Ryan, what do you look for in a girl?’’ She couldn’t bring herself to use the term ‘woman’ in regards to her son’s romantic interest. Her editing brought a disappointed look to Taylor’s face, a look that was replaced a split second later by giddy triumph at his unthinking, one-word response.

‘’Taylor.’’

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Sandy Cohen was the happiest man to ever live in Newport.

He could prove it, too.

Exhibit A: Kirsten was back.

His beloved and beautiful wife had returned from Suriak with a calm, almost unshakeable peace about her. She’d handled the news of drama over the summer with ease, even setting the date for the reading of her father’s will hadn’t shook her. The woman had remained a rock throughout the tense evening of the hearing, taken down Veronica Townsend (a tale he still couldn’t get enough of), and tackled her fear of cooking the very next day with an air of determined humor. Jimmie’s leaving had upset her, but not as much as he had feared. As she herself had told him, the man hadn’t been very supportive, not even sending her one letter during her time away. Now she had a new vocation to focus her considerable skills on and he, aside from one joking remark (obligatory by Cohen standards) about Rachel and Jimmie not being a good precedent for her business; supported her with his whole heart.

Exhibit B: Seth was making real strides into maturity.

Not to say that his natural-born son had given up any of the quirky habits that made talking to him such an adventure. No, the boy still chattered endlessly, and made inappropriate jokes, and listened to music that (occasionally) set his teeth on edge with it’s whining moroseness, and read stacks of comic books instead of his homework, and played endless video games, and talked to his toy horse, and……….

All right, so at first glance, Seth wasn’t that mature. Sandy had noticed, however, that he had a new tendency to talk about people other than himself. More importantly, he was thinking about people other than himself, and acting on those thoughts. His actions during the most recent crises were something to be proud of: being there for his brother, giving up time with Kirsten so that Ryan could have the comfort of their mother’s presence, providing comic relief at a time the family desperately needed it. That last may have just been a side effect of Seth’s natural behavior, but he was willing to give his son credit for it, regardless. The boy was also attempting to make friends with his girl’s father, a feat Sandy himself had only mastered in the last days of Caleb Nichol’s life. He considered that part of the problem might be the sheer entertainment value (for Doctor Roberts) of watching the boy squirm, and hoped Neil wouldn’t leave the kid on pins and needles for much longer.

Exhibit C: Ryan’s near-miraculous alteration in behavior.

If it had happened all at once, overnight; then he’d be more concerned. His adopted son’s transformation had been gradual, though. Starting with some majorly bad decisions before climbing up into a limbo of disconnected interaction that became the first steps towards the new Ryan he’d just had dinner with. The Ryan who laughed more easily and shared his emotions (so what if it was unconsciously, it was still sharing) and had no problem with putting forth his opinions if he knew he was right. It was if the hearing had purged the last of his uncertainty about his place here, his hesitance about his own ideas. Sandy had never been prouder of the boy than when he’d leaned forward to correct the planned layout for the low-income housing development to create a better environment for the future tenants. That easy confidence had lead directly to …….

Exhibit D: Matt Ramsey offering his son an internship at The Newport Group.

It was by no means certain, the younger man had only just been hired, himself; and might not have a secure enough position to be offering anyone a job, let alone the ex-boyfriend of the boss’s daughter. It was the contention between the boy and the former chairmen (Cal and his new bride) that had kept Kirsten from offering the internship in the first place. Julie had changed, though; look at her actions during the hearing, her handling of the Jimmie situation: she was definitely a new woman. And Matt had had a point: he was more a business-administration type. Give him a board to win over, or a budge to tackle, or proposals to assemble, (or any of the other office work that sucked up time at a development company) and the man was a certifiable genius. When it came to blueprints, models, or the nuts and bolts of construction, though………. Well, the older man could see where someone like Ryan (who had not only actually worked construction but had what Sandy thought might be a natural gift for architecture and design) would be seen as a God-send. They’d decided to wait until Monday to ask Julie, though. All that giggling at the far end of the kitchen table………..

Three men, none of them cowards, and not a one of them dared go anywhere near the kitchen until Taylor got up to leave (signaling an end to the evening, as the other two guests had made their exits soon after).

Exhibit E: Which had to be for ‘ego’, as he was anticipating his return to the public defender’s office with almost the same level of enthusiasm with which he’d viewed his wedding night.

Speaking of which………..

Exhibit F: Now.

Bedroom lights dim, guests gone, both sets of papers put away………his lovely wife smiling at him happily, warm in his arms ……… Solomon Burke playing softly in the background ……….boys safely home (or otherwise taken care of) …………..

Scratch that earlier assessment. Sandy wasn’t the happiest man in Newport.

Not even close, he thought to himself as he lowered his lips to kiss his wife.

I’m the happiest man on Earth.

Chapter Text

Taylor looked around the Harbor School dance hall and smiled. Summer’s little idea of ‘bringing the beach to Harbor’ really had turned out fantastically. She didn’t mind at all that the theme hadn’t been her own idea; it was just as much fun to support and plan her friend’s concept, with the added benefit of getting the brunette more involved in social committee. She knew that Summer was too busy enjoying her senior year to be thinking about college applications as yet, but she also knew that colleges wanted to see more than just good grades in a potential student. Thus, the involvement of her friend (and her boyfriend) in school activities that helped to prepare for the future merged well with availing herself of the company of people who actually liked her. The complete one-eighty of the student body after the hearing (where she was concerned, at least) was still a little hurtful and she focused her attention on the final walk-through of the ballroom, confirming that things were in place for the ‘Beach Party’ to start in an hour and a half.

She checked the visual equipment one more time, making sure that the endless loop of surfing footage would play for the necessary three to four hours. The decorations were easier to check; simple and unobtrusive, they nonetheless conveyed the feel of the beach. Surfboards were fastened to the support pillars and rested securely against the walls at random intervals. Khaki carpet over chicken wire implied sand dunes with the addition of sea shells, driftwood, and even some props from the set of ‘South Pacific’ (still in production). The use of cloth had been Terry’s idea, and received everyone’s full support when Taylor pointed out the benefit of not having to sweep up sand for the next six months. Or dig it out of their shoes, after the dance. Strings of white lights gave a sparkling, starlight-like glow to the room; they’d even secured some to the ceiling. It was still a little dark, so she’d sent Ryan, Seth, and Summer to the drama department for the tiki torches. One final touch before they all went home to eat dinner and change for the dance.

The concession stand staff nodded at her, signaling their preparedness. Piles of leis gave fragrance to the entry way and she made a note to have the windows opened, so the flowery scent wouldn’t be overpowering. She glanced over at the sound system, where Trevor and the DJ were hitting it off famously, both of them obviously appreciating the personal attention of the other. She would be spending more time teasing her old non-enemy (now an official friend), if she wasn’t distracted by the question of what Ryan had been talking to them about, earlier. He’d spent nearly half an hour talking (about the music, from the way he kept tapping the cd cases) and avoiding her gaze, finding someone who needed ‘help’ every time she tried to talk to him.

Okay, so Seth really had needed help after nailing his shirt to the surfboard he was trying to secure to the pillar; but that wasn’t the point.

The point was that her boyfriend was up to something.

Something involving the music. Something involving her? Drat. She was wondering about it again. This time, however, she wasn’t going to spoil the surprise like she had with the Atomic County thing. This time, she was going to be patient, and let him (and anyone else who was in on it) have his fun. She looked over at the two boys, now ignoring the turntable to flirt more intensely; biting her lip. It couldn’t hurt to take a little peek at the playlist, right? She’d still have tons of music to sort through, trying to find which song Ryan was going to dedicate to her. At least, that’s what she thought he might be doing. He might just be asking them to play her favorite songs, however. Sighing, she turned resolutely away to head towards the French doors (and fresh air, the perfume from the leis was starting to get cloying) and very nearly ran into someone.

‘’Oh, I’m so sorry, are you .........all right?’’ Taylor forced herself to finish the query, to keep the polite smile on her face, despite an utter lack of interest in the answer. Because the person she’d nearly knocked down was the absolute last person she wanted to see, ever again. The person she strongly suspected was behind the nastier turn the rumor mill had taken, lately.

‘’Am I all right?’’ Marissa huffed, brushing at her blouse as if to remove the stain of ‘Taylor’ from it, even though there hadn’t been any actual contact. Blue eyes glared at her, the girl practically snarled in response to her polite expression. ‘’That’s rich, coming from you, Townsend.’’ Taylor couldn’t think of anything to say (well, nothing that was nice, anyway) and so just kept quiet. There was a strange odor about the other, something herbal and weird-smelling. It made her head ache, a little, and she stepped back, clearing her throat. ‘’What, are you scared of me?’’

‘’No.’’ The honest answer seemed to infuriate the blonde, her eyes narrowed into little angry slits. She tried to think of something to say, some phrase or quote that would soothe the girl’s ire, or confuse her into going away; she’d be happy with either result, actually.

‘’You should be.’’ Cooper hissed, hands clenching into fists. ‘’Just because he got rid of my father……’’ Okay, what? ‘’’……..and managed to get Jack fired, that doesn’t mean…..’’ The tone of the girl’s voice as she named the ex-Dean of Discipline was telling; there was only one reason why someone would speak another’s name that sensually. She was too caught up in her racing thoughts to give in to the urge to vomit (or to laugh, because she doubted that Jack had revealed who’d been the original target of his lust).

‘’Jack?’’ Her own eyes narrowed in growing realization, her suspicions from the night of the carnival joining with certain things Summer had said, certain facts that hadn’t added up, before; now totaled up to an inescapable conclusion. ‘’It was you.’’ Was this how Ryan felt, when he lost his temper? This power surging through her veins, tightening her muscles, riding along with her soaring anger until she could barely think?

A tiny part of her liked feeling this strong, listened to the whisper, deep down, that said her once-rival deserved whatever she got.

‘’What?’’ The other girl was smirking at her (oblivious to the danger rising behind hazel eyes), crossing her arms over her chest confidently. ‘’You think I did something? Please. Who do you think is gonna believe you, Dorksend?’’

Taylor felt her blood boiling at the arrogance of the spoiled brat in front of her. All the frustration that had been building over the past few weeks was taking control, making her teeth clench and digging her nails into her palms. It did no good to respond to such comments as ‘whore’ and ‘slut’ and all the other things people whispered (in some especially cruel cases, shouted) at her; she knew that. It still hurt, though; and even Sumer’s friendship, the Cohen’s acceptance, her new position as social chair to a committee that supported her ……….no, not even Ryan’s welcome embrace could heal all her pain. She knew without a doubt where the poison was being spread from, now; where Hess had gotten the information on how to trigger a blind rage in her boyfriend. Everyone else who knew how violent he could become when people he cared about were threatened had his best interests at heart, after all.

Except for this girl.

This girl who had hurt him, twisted the gift of his trust and love into a perverted game that still had the power to make Ryan feel like he was worthless.

Marissa.

‘’You bitch!’’

Was that her voice, ringing from the corners of the room, strident in it’s hatred? That was her hand, stinging from the impact with the blonde’s cheek. That was her jaw, aching from the blow the other girl returned. She forgot every lesson her sensei had ever drilled into her and shouted something particularly vile in French as she grabbed that fragile throat in her hands and squeezed. The blow to her stomach knocked her back, gasping, and Harbor’s resident drama queen grabbed her by the hair. She may not have been thinking about her martial arts training, but her body responded to the pain with a disciplined maneuver.

She grabbed the other’s forearm in both hands, ignoring the blows being rained on the top of her head by the girl’s free hand, and twisted sharply, breaking the grip on her hair. Calling the blonde’s personal habits (mostly her atrocious taste in sex partners) into question in a mix of Spanish, Korean, French, and ghetto speak she’d picked up from MTV; Taylor tackled her opponent to the floor. She had just achieved a good position (straddling the other’s stomach, fingers locked once more on the narrow throat) when strong arms wrapped around her from behind, pinning her elbows to her sides as she was lifted free of the violent tangle. Somehow, something in her recognized the chest her back was pressed against; so her struggles to break free weren’t as effective (or aggressive) as they could’ve been.

Marissa was being helped to her feet by three other girls (where had all these people come from?) and everyone she could see was looking at her with confusion and fear. There were tears (so crocodile) streaming down from blue eyes, people starting cooing over the bruises forming on the other’s face. The triumphant smile that flashed across that face sent her returning reason right back out the door, and she lunged, kept in place by the familiar arms that had separated her from her enemy. Words starting filtering through the haze of her anger; spoken gently into her ear: Ryan’s words.

‘’She’s not worth it, Taylor.’’ She nodded, starting to feel guilty about the whole thing. What had she been thinking? Attacking the girl (deserved though it might be) wasn’t going to solve anything, or make anyone feel better about their situation. It certainly wasn’t going to win the student body over, not with the other’s experience at playing the sympathy card. ‘’Let it go, that’s it.’’ His hands rubbed soothingly up and down her arms, warming her in the sudden chill as her anger bled away as suddenly as it had come roaring in. She wrapped her arms around her now-sore stomach, head pounding with self-disgust and dismay. Mon Dieu, no wonder people tried not to lose their temper; the aftermath was horrible, like she imagined a hangover would feel. ‘’What happened?’’

‘’Your crazy new ‘girlfriend’ just attacked me for no reason.’’ The Cooper girl sobbed, letting some guy hold her, pat her back comfortingly. Taylor knew he wasn’t going to get anywhere with his actions, despite the hopeful look on his face. Hooking up with some random wasn’t part of the girl’s M.O., after all. At least, not where her ‘worshippers’ among their classmates could bear witness. ‘’Guess you two have something in common, after all.’’

‘’She’s the one who was following us, the night of the carnival.’’ His hands stilled, she could almost feel him putting it all together. From the chill to his fingers, she knew which of their stories he believed. She only hoped he was going to deal with the information more intelligently than she had. ‘’She told Hess how to push your buttons. I don’t know if she’s just trying to break us up, or if it’s part of some sick attempt to ‘punish’ you; but…….’’

‘’Okay.’’ Ryan put his hands on her shoulders, stilling her incipient rant. She felt shaky, nervous; like everything was swirling around her. Don’t say swirl, her stomach pleaded desperately. I don’t want to vomit. No, really I don’t. ‘’Marissa, I think you should go.’’ Everyone gasped at the cold suggestion, the hard implacability of his tone. She really didn’t want to see his expression, not right then. Seeing the harsh glitter of ice in his blue eyes scared her, sometimes; with how closed-off he got. Even she couldn’t reach him when he got like that, all tucked in behind the blank, unfeeling wall his face became. ‘’I think you’ve caused enough trouble, tonight.’’

‘’How can you believe her over me?’’ There was a murmur of agreement with the sentiment of the blonde’s question, and Taylor realized that the argument she’d been dreading, the face-off she’d hoped would never happen; was going down right now. The thrill that went through her was a little sick; because she was actually enthused at the opportunity to see him put his former love in her place. The surge of warm affection that passed through her at his answer to his ex’s question made her feel a little better. Even mixed with pride at his opening volley, it was still a more positive emotion than anything else she’d felt since laying eyes on the girl.

‘’Because, Marissa; unlike you, Taylor’s never lied to me.’’

Chapter Text

He didn’t know how he’d got roped into this, helping to set up for a school dance. This was interior decorating, damn it, just like he’d said; but somehow he was arranging carpet over chicken wire and hanging lights (actually, holding the ladder while other people hung lights, he wasn’t climbing up there; not even for her) and securing discarded surfboards to the wall and support pillars. With a smile tugging at his lips.

It was a little scary, the power Taylor had over him. She just had to look at him with those huge eyes, smiling that angel smile of hers and he was gone. Sometimes, he could tell what she wanted and found himself doing it before she even got a chance to ask. Like their current errand, to retrieve the tiki torches from the ‘South Pacific’ set. Just the observation that the room was ‘a little dark’ and the mention that candlelight would be more ‘appropriate’ and he was corralling Seth and Summer to fetch the things. Her dazzling, happy smile, the kiss she gave his cheek; that made the snickering from his best friend easier to put up with.

Seth was sure to be giving him an earful later on, anyway, during the next Seth/Ryan time, about how hard he found it say ‘no’ to his current girlfriend. Thankfully, Summer’s complete control of his brother gave him plenty of defensive ammunition, so it shouldn’t be too bad. Besides, it wasn’t entirely due to her influence that he was here, helping to transform the school’s ballroom into a beach. He was here to talk to the DJ about playing what he thought might be a good choice for ‘their song’ and the ‘lending a hand’ thing was just a cover. Not a very good cover, he knew she suspected something was up (she wouldn’t be Taylor if she didn’t) but he was hoping that once she detected the shape of what he was planning, she’d back off enough to let him at least try and surprise her.

‘’I can’t believe you won’t tell us what song you picked.’’ Summer pouted, shifting her small load of torches. He’d offered to carry hers as well as his (Seth was only carrying two, electing himself to open the doors for them) but the glare he got in response silenced him. She was hard to predict: sometimes insisting on being treated as ‘a modern, independent woman’ and other times demanding every old-fashioned courtesy she’d ever seen done in a movie. Ryan was glad it wasn’t his job to figure her out (Seth seemed to be okay at it, luckily); he just wanted her to stop pestering him about his ‘first grand romantic gesture’. The bear from the carnival, apparently, didn’t count, despite the fact he’d never given (or won) a girl a gift before in his life. Buying shoes was also not being tallied into his romance scorecard. He had an uncomfortable suspicion that the two of them had a color-coded chart, somewhere, denoting the level of his involvement with Taylor. ‘’You should get a female opinion before springing it on her. What if she doesn’t like it?’’

‘’She will.’’ He couldn’t explain his certainty, couldn’t put into words the feeling of rightness he’d gotten when the idea first occurred to him, when he first heard the song. He’d been listening to one of his new CD’s (purchased during that fateful shopping trip) and noting how many of the songs could relate to him and Marissa when an entirely different tune had started. He liked ballads, and this one had an amazing hook, but it was the lyrics (especially the chorus), that hit him as especially fitting and right for him and Taylor. Best of all, it was a romantic song that didn’t have the ‘L’ word in it; because it felt way too soon in their relationship to be digging that deep.

‘’Dude, you seriously need to consult on this; it took me and Summer weeks to settle on our song.’’ Seth was probably trying to help, but he had to fight the urge to roll his eyes.

‘’You two fight over how much foam to get with your latte.’’ Ryan told them, gaining twin sets of offended brown eyes with several minutes of blessed silence. They were just starting to protest his very valid observation when Trevor rounded the corner ahead of them, looking panicked. All he could think of was that one of those fucking surfboards had fallen and hurt Taylor.

‘’Ryan!’’ The guy looked relieved to see him, and not in the falsely overdone way he usually acted; really, truly relieved. He also looked really, really freaked, black eyes huge with obvious concern. ‘’It’s Taylor; she and Marissa started fighting when……’’

He didn’t hear the rest, shoving his torches into Seth’s startled arms and breaking into a run. The clatter behind him was drowned out by the pounding in his chest, in his ears. If he’d known that bitch was here, he never would’ve left Taylor alone. Of course, he was thinking of the nasty things she’d find to say to his new girlfriend; not a fistfight. Not that Taylor couldn’t handle herself just as well in a physical confrontation as a verbal one; he just didn’t want her to have to deal with the other girl’s drama, or miss out on their second ‘official’ date because of a bruised face.

The inevitable crowd was gathered at the far side of the ballroom, he only had to shove aside one or two people before the gathering realized who he was and let him through. Seeing Taylor sitting astride his ex’s stomach with her small hands around that fragile neck made him want to smile for a split second. Marissa obviously had had no idea who she’d been messing with, when she started her usual shit. The surge of pride at his girlfriend’s dishing out a well-deserved beating wasn’t strong enough for him to let her suffer the consequences thereof, though.

Ryan leaned in and wrapped his arms around her, pining her elbows to her sides as he lifted her tiny frame free of the bitch on the floor. She struggled a bit, still pissed, apparently; and he started trying to calm her down. On some level, she must know it was him holding her: otherwise, he’d be on the floor, hands cradling between his legs as he tried to breath past the pain. Finally, his murmuring pierced her anger and most of the tension drained from her body. He kept a grip on her shoulders, knowing how fatiguing it was when the rage was gone and you were left standing there, feeling like a wrung-out dishrag. Then he heard how the fight started, and why; and it was enough to start his own slow burn of irritation.

‘’Marissa, I think you should go.’’ That cold distance was back, that chill of manner and speech that his brother said reminded him of Caleb Nichol at his worst. He didn’t like the comparison (mostly because it was accurate), but it was the only way he knew to deal with this girl without screaming at her (or worse). ‘’I think you’ve caused enough trouble, tonight.’’ She actually looked hurt and surprised that he wasn’t taking her side, that his tone implied a desire to never see her again.

Of course, being an Atwood, he wouldn’t be that lucky, but that didn’t stop him from wanting her gone.

‘’How can you believe her over me?’’ Was she serious? He tried not to tighten his hands on the shoulders of his girlfriend as he answered her.

‘’Because, Marissa; unlike you, Taylor’s never lied to me.’’ There was a stunned silence, some people even gasped. Ryan didn’t care about the audience, he just wanted to see if the girl trembling under his hands was all right. He was turning her around to get a look at her face when his ex spoke up again.

‘’I’m not a liar.’’ She sounded like she actually believed it. He saw approval and permission to let go his temper and retaliate (verbally) against their tormentor in the beautiful hazel eyes of his girl. The red mark across one cheek was barely visible, but his relief that the night wasn’t going to be cancelled was overrun by the chill ire he felt over her being hurt in the first place. Maybe the public nature of this showdown would finally convince his ex-girlfriend that she was no longer part of his life, and that Taylor was. He nudged her gently with his palms towards the recently arrived Summer and turned to face Marissa.

‘’Girl, you’re nothing but lies.’’ Again, there was a stunned, gasping quiet. Despite the obviously eager people watching, he was going to do this and hopefully put an end to her interfering. ‘’All the mistakes I made, where you said you forgave me, but brought them up again and again. All the times I went back to you only to have you spend all your time with someone else and don’t tell me they were all ‘just friends’, either; I’m not that stupid anymore.’’ Her face was red, but she’d stopped trying to play the victim, glaring at him with her lip curling.

‘’Stupid enough to believe that slut hasn’t spread for…..’’ He interrupted her vitriol with a bark of laughter.

‘’I know a virgin when I kiss one.’’ Shit. He was gonna hear about letting that slip, later. Taylor hadn’t wanted to respond to any of the insults over the past weeks with the truth, preferring to take the high road in her high-class way. Not to mention that her rep at this place was bad enough without throwing that into the mix. Although, several people were looking over his shoulder (he presumed at her) with dawning realization and respect on their face. Now he was beginning to worry about the song, hoping it was a good enough fit to let her forgive his blunder. ‘’You really don’t want to get me started comparing the two of you, Cooper.’’ People in the crowd were starting to look like they were finally getting it, finally realizing that they’d been played. None of them looked happy about it.

‘’Because she’s just so perfect.’’ The girl was openly snarling now, most likely because she was sensing the withdrawal of support from their fellow students. Good, he hoped this little incident would serve as the final unmasking for her true nature. He tried not to think about whether the loss of popularity would drive her to finally get the help she so desperately needed, not wanting to get sucked back into her life by compassion for another human being.

‘’No one’s perfect.’’ He sighed, exasperated at her ability to misunderstand, to twist things to fit her perverted worldview. ‘’I just like more about her than I ever liked about you.’’ This time, the gasp also came from behind him, although that one sounded more pleased than surprised. He allowed a smile to cross his face, suddenly feeling more relaxed, and hooked his thumbs into his belt loops. ‘’I can list the reasons, if you like; but I think everyone would object to my talking all night.’’ Now there was giggling, smiles; a definite shift their way in the mood of the gathered witnesses. Marissa appeared confused by both the attitude of her peers as well as his words. How stoned was she, Ryan wondered, having recognized the smell, knowing she wasn’t quite this stupid. ‘’In case you’ve forgotten, there’s a dance tonight.’’ Several people checked their watches, one actually cursed, flushing when attention refocused onto him.

‘’You son of a bitch.’’ Marissa’s blow was easy to duck, he’d known it was coming: she usually tried to end their fights that way, after Lindsay. He stepped back, out of her reach, taking Taylor’s hand to keep her from attacking his ex again.

In a move that surprised him, the crowd pushed forward, blocking the blonde girl from making any further violent attempts while leaving her a clear path towards the door. Several girls crossed their arms over their chests, one (a girl he’d seen working the speed bag in the gym) cracked her knuckles pointedly at the fallen Harbor ‘princess’. Everyone waited, no one spoke or made a single movement, their distrust and loss of respect towards their former leader heavy in the room, like a physical presence.

They couldn’t have given a more telling indication of their adjusted attitude if they’d shouted it.

Ryan watched her walk away, wondering for the first time what (aside from the obvious) he’d ever really seen in her. She’d never believed in him, or trusted him, or even liked him (aside from the obvious), actually. He’d been just a symbol, to her; a way to rebel against her mother and another boy to string along as proof of her power, her desirability. A desirability that was seeming more and more far-fetched, the longer he knew her.

‘’We should finish setting up.’’ Taylor declared, glancing around as if she expected to see the torches piled nearby. Shit. He hoped none of the damn things had broken when Seth had dropped them.

‘’Oh, I think we can put up a few candles, girl.’’ Trevor reassured her, motioning vaguely to some other people from drama club; all of whom had tiki torches in hand. ‘’You go home and put on your face.’’ The guy gave her his usual ‘French aloha’ (pecking each other’s cheeks, one after the other) and waved his hands dismissively. ‘’Go on, you don’t want to miss the surprise your boy’s got planned.’’ Terrific. He knew he should never have told that guy, he was a worse gossip than Seth, even.

‘’I’m sorry.’’ They were in the Range Rover, heading to the Roberts’ to drop the girls off (on their way home to change and eat), before Ryan got the chance to apologize. Groveling should really be done privately, but he didn’t want to let his revelation of the status of her ‘experience’ fester and become some big issue. She wasn’t meeting his gaze in the rearview and he wished he’d let the little old Jewish man drive, for once. He needed to see her eyes, see how badly he’d damaged her trust. ‘’Taylor, I’m sorry I told about you being a virgin.’’ She sighed and finally looked at him, amusement strong in her eyes. While he was thankful she wasn’t hurt or upset, he didn’t get why she was entertained by his mistake.

‘’Ryan, it’s okay.’’ She shrugged, brushing her bangs away from her forehead. He pushed away the memory of what those silky strands felt like between his own fingers, what her lips tasted like, and focused on the words crossing over them. Sometimes, the sultry pull of her would just flare up, making him fight against the urge to pull her into his arms and never let her go. ‘’I don’t really care what those people think, anyway.’’ Her tone was a little uncertain, she wasn’t as unaffected by the rumors as she’d been pretending. She was probably still upset about the thing with her mother, too. He reached over and covered her hand with his, wishing he could go back and say something else to shut that other girl up. Wishing he could go back even further and somehow make Veronica treat her daughter like a human being. ‘’I just didn’t want to have our relationship under a microscope, with everyone butting into what should be just between the two of us.’’ He knew what she meant, sometimes he wished the Cohen’s didn’t know about them, either. Kirsten had started asking him these seriously uncomfortable questions, making him think about the relationship when he was just trying to relax and enjoy it. Sandy’s hints about meeting your ‘soul mate’ and Seth’s ‘dating tips’ weren’t any easier to take, even if he blushed less, talking to the other men in his family.

‘’I think you might be over-reacting a little there, Tay.’’ Summer spoke up. At least her suggestions had actually been useful, even if she was unaware she was making them. The remark she’d made about not taking people for granted had led to his asking Taylor to the carnival (even though they had already arranged to go as a group, with the other two) and it had been obvious how much that gesture meant to her. Summer’s comment about the female need for romance had been running through the back of his mind when he was listening to the CD, surging to the forefront when he heard the song that was going to be ‘theirs’, Taylor’s and his. So, when his brother’s little dynamo talked, he was willing to listen. ‘’Sure, you’ll be on the radar for a while; but it’s Senior Year. They’re gonna have their own drama to deal with, what with college and prom and everything else.’’

‘’She’s right.’’ Seth chimed in and he waited to see if it was going to be one of the new, helpful rants, or a ‘classic Seth’ ramble. ‘’I mean, as long as you two don’t have it on all over campus….’’ Classic Seth it was, then; he fought the urge to tune the guy out.’’ …..you should be pretty much ignored. When people search for gossip, they go for the drama and the bad news. Happy couples are boring grist for the rumor mill. ‘’ The smirk warned him and he narrowed his eyes, trying to will the other to shut up (which had never worked before, but it was worth a shot) before he said something stupid. ‘’Besides, after the way Taylor threw down, and with your well-established rep for punching people; no one should bother you guys too much.’’

‘’Seth!’’ Summer bopped his brother on the arm, shooting his girlfriend an obviously worried look.

‘’Sorry.’’ Taylor blushed, appearing guilty; and he squeezed her hand reassuringly. ‘’I don’t know what came over me; I just realized what she’d done and the next thing I know, I’m trying to strangle her.’’ She hung her head, and he saw her biting her lip in her fearful uncertain way as opposed to her bashfully lustful way. Shit. ‘’I understand if you want me to move out.’’ His stomach clenched at the thought, but a tiny, selfish part of him hoped that the other girl would say ‘yes, get out’, leaving his girlfriend nowhere else to go but his home, to sleep in a bed just a few (easily snuck through) rooms away. Thinking of how much she’d be hurt by that rejection, though, stilled that small amount of perverted desire, leaving him feeling vaguely dirty, and not in a good way.

‘’That skank got what she deserved, from both of you; so let’s not have any talk of people leaving or moving or breaking up or whatever.’’ Summer commanded, eyes darkening with apparent anger towards her ex-best friend. Ryan was glad that his faith in his friend was born out, and gladder still she was finally giving up on expecting Marissa to come to her senses; but not happy at all at the brunette’s next remark. ‘’You should be more worried about what tune Atwood’s picked for ‘your song’.’’

‘’Roberts.’’ He groaned with irritation at the spilling of those particular beans. Didn’t she understand that his only chance at surprising Taylor was to keep even the shape of the secret hidden? Of course; now that the secret was out, Seth had to join in on the fun.

‘’Seriously worried; this is a guy who picks his music by the cool car on the album cover.’’ His brother was courting homicide, again. That was far too many hints for someone as smart as his girlfriend. The odds of her figuring out the song before he could spring it on her had just gone up. He wondered if the planned pillow-suffocation of his best friend was too merciful. Maybe he should upgrade it to forcing the guy to eat his mother’s cooking. Wait, she could actually produce an edible meal, these days; thereby eliminating one of his favored methods of fantasy Seth-icide. And he couldn’t use ‘Sandy talks him to death’ because he doubted the older man would get a word in edgewise. Shit.

‘’Seth.’’ This groan of irritation had more of a resigned air to it, he was more than used to the other boy’s teasing, after two years. Taylor’s fingers twined with his and he saw her angel smile out of the corner of his eyes. Well, that was a relief. She’d already determined as much as his friends had just revealed, and had let him go on thinking it was still a secret.

‘’You already knew.’’ She nodded and he smiled at the annoyed outrage from the backseat. Ryan wasn’t put out: so long as she hadn’t guessed the rest of it, the important part was still a surprise. ‘’Have you guessed the song?’’ Auburn turned from side to side and he breathed a sigh of relief, secure that she wouldn’t be able to guess, not this song.

‘’You could give me a hint.’’ She prompted him, mock-pouting when he shook his head ‘no’. Taylor sighed, rubbing her thumb back and forth over his fingers. He swallowed hard, hoping it wouldn’t (and just as strongly hoping it would) occur to her to try and ‘persuade’ him to reveal the information. ‘’Well, if you’re not going to give me any hints, then I’m not going to guess.’’ Good. That meant he didn’t have to control his reaction, if she guessed a different song by the same band, or got otherwise closer to solving this little mystery.

Bad. It also meant he wouldn’t be getting any material for his fantasy about her tormenting him on silken sheets, wearing this really sexy black lace lingerie………

He needed help, if just holding her hand could do this to him. Ryan pretended he needed to have both hands on the wheel to make the turn into Summer’s driveway, relieved that his girlfriend would soon be removing her tempting presence from the passenger seat. Of course, she’d be getting back in after awhile; wearing something ‘beach style’, most likely involving a swimsuit or tank top. Her red swimsuit, with her hair all loose over bare shoulders……

That tore it, Seth could fucking drive on the way back to pick the girls up. No way was he trying to operate a vehicle in his current condition, and he knew (from recent experience) that all the cold showers in the world weren’t going to help, let alone the quick rinse which was all he had time for. The image of a soaking wet Taylor gazing smokily at him from inside his shower merged with the sight of her waving to him from the front steps of the Roberts’ place; he was barely able to stifle the whimper at the jolt to his hormones.

It was gonna be a long, har…….

It was gonna be a difficult night.

 

Chapter Text

‘’How do I look?’’

Summer glanced up from fixing the orchid in her dark hair and smiled. Tay had taken her suggestion and worn the red swimsuit Atwood found so hypnotizing; adding a white cotton skirt with a minimal red floral pattern and red-accented Candies. With her hair loose and curling around her shoulders, and the borrowed ‘passion’ lipstick; the girl looked fantastic. Her own outfit leaned more heavily towards white, with a few pink touches here and there, matching the trim on the flower behind her left ear. The contrast with her hair, eyes, and copper-tanned skin was stunning, if she did say so herself.

‘’We’re gonna have to pry him off you with one of those fire hoses.’’ Her friend giggled and she was cheered to see that the not-so-divine Miss M hadn’t managed to ruin their night. The most offensive thing, to Summer, about the whole mess had been the way Tay automatically assumed that she’d be out on her ear for defending herself against evil Coop. No one as cool as her house mate was turning out to be should lack that much confidence in her self-worth (on a personal level, she didn’t seem to have the same problem, scholastically speaking). Sometimes, she wished they hadn’t let Veronica Townsend off so lightly; she had a few choice observations she wanted to share with the woman, none of them fit for polite company.

There was nothing she hated more than to see her friends hurt; especially when they (by which she meant Ryan and Taylor) deserved to be happy, after all the stuff they’d been through (separately and together).

‘’You look absolutely amazing, as always.’’ There was no note of envy in the other’s voice, no suggestion of reservation in the hazel eyes as she delivered the compliment. Hint of teasing, though, so the next words weren’t entirely unexpected. ‘’I suppose you and Seth will be leaving a bit early, hmm?’’ Now the tone was suggestive, and the frank look Summer received was enough to make her blush. Time to change the subject; before Tay started talking about her own fella (in far more detail than she was comfortable with) again.

Eww.

‘’Figured out ‘the song’, yet?’’ She asked, turning back to the mirror to check her makeup one last time. Cohen had better not go off her choices for his attire, or she’d pound him.

‘’I’m not going to.’’ That surprised the brunette out of her thoughts, and she turned back around to stare at the other girl. ‘’Well, I’m trying not to guess, I mean. He’s tried so hard to surprise me, it’d be cruel to take that away from him.’’

‘’But ……’’ How was Summer going to find out what the song was (before the moment of truth) if Tay didn’t help to solve the puzzle? Seth was no help, his brother had refused to identify which album the song was taken from, so that potential lead was a dud. ‘’…but….what if you don’t like it?’’ Much as she loved her brother-type friend, she wasn’t sure his choice of music was going to be something her sister-type friend could live with.

‘’Then it’ll be my turn to select the next candidate.’’ Her friend seemed massively unconcerned about something that, to her, had achieved vital importance for the couple. Maybe the girl didn’t realize the significance of this event.

‘’You know, it’s the first time he’s done something like this; a romantic something. I mean, you know he hates to dance even more than most guys; and yet, here he is, picking out music and everything.’’ She thought her point had been made, Tay was quiet for so long. The door rang downstairs just as her friend was beginning to speak, making her want to scream. Rotten timing was her curse, today; she was still miffed at having missed seeing Evil Coop go down. The two girls collected their purses and headed for the stairs.

‘’It’s not that he hates to dance.’’ Summer gave the girl the odd look that comment deserved, remembering some of the more spectacular arguments about his reluctance to set foot on the dance floor. It was one of the few things he and Lindsay had fought over. Well, aside from ‘family’ issues, which she tried (as she was sure Atwood had and still did) to think about as little as possible. Her house mate continued, lowering her voice now that they were descending to meet their guys. ‘’It’s that it turns him on, that’s why he tries to avoid it.’’ What? That was stupid, it didn’t………Okay, it made a little bit of sense. Moving to the music, girl in his arms, bodies pressed together………

Eww. She wished her friend wouldn’t make these declarations, she didn’t need the mental images that went with them.

‘’Summer!’’ Cohen’s enthused greeting pushed the pictures (thank God) right out of her brain. ‘’You look transcendently radiant, a veritable angel, a glowing……’’ Then again, he did tend to go on and on (and on and on) until her fist (or her lips) put a stop to his rambling. Which tonight? Lips, she decided, kissing him tenderly hello. His beanpole frame replaced the stocky one in her head and she didn’t mind the imaginings so much, anymore, when the fantasy Summer joined fantasy Seth in her mind. Much better.

‘’Taylor. You….’’ From the strangled nature of his voice, he was very appreciative of his girlfriend’s attire. Summer hid a smile, nudging her guy to let him know she could see his smirk. Taylor came right up to Ryan, stood gazing at him with a little teasing smile. ‘’You look……’’ It was a valiant attempt, really, but the glaze to his eyes told Summer that he didn’t have a chance of finishing the thought anytime soon.

‘’I look nice?’’ Thankfully, her friend took matters into her own hands, moving past the guy towards the door. Blue eyes stared fixedly, aimed low.

‘’Yeah, nice.’’ Watching her boyfriend’s brother stare at her best friend’s ass was amusing, but they had a dance to get to. She pushed at his arm to get him moving, pulling her own guy along by her grip on his hand.

The drive to the dance was mostly her and Cohen trying to guess the song. She changed the subject to the recent events on The Valley when she saw his hand clenched whitely in his lap. Tay had been right, this was important to him, too. Refocusing her attention on her own boyfriend, the mood of the night lightened considerably. Summer didn’t know whether it was the jar of seeing a suit jacket up top, and beach shorts and flops down below; but Seth looked twice as goofily handsome as usual. Ryan had gone a reversal; wearing dress slacks and a nice pair of shoes with a wife beater and blue surf-patterned Hawaiian shirt that had probably been borrowed from Sandy.

Good thing Tay wore the ever-last lipstick, the way she kept biting her lip every time she glanced across the backseat at her guy would’ve worn off three applications, by now. It was a little funny, too: how Ryan couldn’t even look at his girlfriend without starting to lean in, tilting his blonde head towards her auburn one; like those little magnet-faced bears Hallmark had sold for a while. The glare he shot Seth every time her boyfriend interrupted the incipient kiss, though; wasn’t so amusing and was rapidly approaching homicidal. She breathed a sigh of relief when their vehicle entered the familiar dark shapes of the school’s parking lot.

No one brought up Marissa (who wasn’t there, thank God and even Moses) but nearly everyone had something nice to say to Taylor (mainly embarrassed apologies for their behavior) and most expressed sympathy to Summer for having to witness the throw-down between her old friend and the new one. Seth made some crack about them being in The Twilight Zone and she wasn’t that sure she didn’t agree with him. She knew everyone was making an attempt to be mature young adults for their senior year, but really, this was amazing. Her house mate pointed out that the seeds for the seemingly instantaneous turnaround had already been sown during the whole Hess disaster, blooming at the hearing, and now bearing fruit after Evil Coop had shown her true colors.

It was a nice metaphor, she only hoped there were no further ‘rotten apples’ to be thrown.

People came up and complimented her on the ‘Beach Party’ theme. Some of their outfits were pretty funny-looking. That friend of Tay’s from drama was wearing the bottom half of a tux and nothing else, which was appreciated by the guy running the turn tables, if not the rest of them. After the fifth time a slow song started (and the three friends pierced Atwood with expectant stares) Summer got her brother/friend to promise not to signal the DJ without her and dragged her boyfriend out onto the dance floor to bleed of their mutual nervous energy. Seth was just as (sweetly) concerned about the happiness of their friends as she was, she just hoped he hadn’t done anything to ‘help’. The tropical fruit smoothies were refreshing (and no one could spike them, which was a plus) but caused her to take a breather early in to put a wet towel against her forehead; trying to stave off a ‘brain-freeze’ reaction at the icy coolness of the drinks.

‘’Hey, Summer.’’

She lowered the towel to recognize the six queens of the romance gossip at Harbor. These were the girls that had known about Luke months before even Holly, and had the courtesy not to confront Marissa with the news although, now that she remembered, they had made several comments about how her former friend was ‘too good’ for the water polo player. They were also the ones who’d asked her (incessantly) if she was sure she wanted to be with Zach, during that whole fiasco, last year. And had led the cooing when Cohen had stood up on that table to declare his love and affection for her. Despite the concern on their faces as they eyed the damp towel in her hand, she knew they weren’t here for her relationship. She just hoped they were on the ‘light side of the Force’.

Wow, a geek reference. Seriously, she needed to start spending more time with Tay and girls like these (if they were on the right side, that is) stat.

‘’ Okay, ladies; weigh in.’’ She tossed the towel, now that her head was no longer threatening to throb; and waited. And waited. No one, it seemed, wanted to go first. ‘’Come on, I want to get back before Atwood signals the DJ.’’ He’d promised to wait for her, but not telling them that meant that she wasn’t going to be stuck spending the rest of the night in the restroom, waiting for them to make their opinions known. There was a gasp of anticipation as the significance of what she’d said registered, and Michelle was sent to watch the dance floor, so none of them would miss out.

‘’Townwood is so adorable.’’ Lily had similar coloring and stood nearly the same height as she did, her outfit consisted more of the peach side of the spectrum, though. Wait, Townwood? Something of her confusion must’ve shown on her face, because the girl continued. ‘’It’s what we call them: Townwood.’’

‘’Every couple; well, every major couple, has their own little name.’’ Lesley explained smoothing back hair that, now that she saw it in good lighting, Summer could see was brown instead of black. ‘’And it was a lot cuter than ‘Rylor’ or ‘Tay-an’ or something.’’ There was a friendly smile and then: ‘’Yours is Sethummer, by the way. Much better than ‘Summereth’, don’t you think?’’

‘’Yeah, much.’’ It actually was kind of cute, and it was a totally perfect distraction ploy for the next time her friend tried to over-share on intimate details. ‘’I have to ask……’’

‘’Why are we cornering you on this?’’ At her nod, Lily sighed. ‘’Because we’re ashamed we bought into any of that stuff about Taylor, and I mean over the years, and want to see if you know how we can make it up.’’ Several of them protested they hadn’t been fooled, at all; but she could see they were still a little embarrassed by the mis-step. They prided themselves on being able to ‘read’ couples, after all; so missing this pairing had to really grate.

‘’Just try and be her friend, her real friend, I guess. She’s got a really big heart.’’ Summer said, glad to see that there were more candidates for the growing Tay friendship circle. There couldn’t be too many members of that group, in her opinion. Sudden suspicion made her eyes narrow and she frowned. ‘’None of you better be after Atwood, because……’’

‘’Ew.’’ That was Michelle, on door watch; who apparently had her own guy (away at military school).

‘’Give us more credit than that.’’

‘’Yeah, we just think they’re so cute together.’’

‘’And hot, did we mention hot?’’ Donna’s observation was really hard to argue with; the way ‘Townwood’ stared at each other (on occasion) made her want to drag Cohen upstairs for some ‘alone-time’.

‘’It’s just like in this book….’’ Em pulled out a novel from her purse, chattering about this couple that Summer hadn’t ever heard of. She pushed her glasses back into place, black eyes sparkling with enthusiasm as she continued to compare the two with other literary couples, some of which were recognizable, some of which weren’t. The sighing of the others (and the eye-rolling) got more and more pronounced until Lily interrupted a side-by-side study of Ryan and Taylor versus Eros and Psyche (whomever they were, they sounded foreign).

‘’Yes, Em. We see that. Very astute.’’ The curly haired brunette was patted on the shoulder as everyone else muffled their sighs of relief. Em’s mournful look reminded Summer of Cohen, for some reason; and she smiled at the girl. It was hard to resent anyone who was so eagerly supportive of someone else’s happiness.

‘’I think they compliment each other.’’ Angel observed, checking her look, adjusting her green bikini top. ‘’They just seem to mesh so well, it’s not what you’d expect, seeing them separately; but it just ……works.’’

‘’The very definition of opposites attract.’’ Lesley put in, moving forward to check her own appearance. Reminded of their cover reason for coming in here, the others took position in front of the mirrors as well. ‘’Not that you and Seth don’t have chemistry.’’

‘’My God, do you guys have chemistry.’’

‘’That’s passion, any way you slice it.’’

While she agreed with their assessments about her and Cohen, Summer desperately wanted the conversation to turn back to her friends. Preferably before she stared to blush, blowing her rep as a cool, collected woman of the new century. Lesley, thankfully, seemed to pick up on her discomfort and steered the conversation back to it’s original direction.

‘’I guess what I’m saying is that he seems to calm her down and she seems to …….’’

 

‘’Make him happy.’’ Donna finished the thought, pursing her lips before capping her lipstick; obviously deciding she didn’t need the touch-up. ‘’My cousin’s in drama club with them, and she says that he laughs and jokes around all the time. My mother said he was even cracking wise during the hearing.’’ There were amazed murmurs, this was apparently new info to the others. Summer remembered the remark about ‘no kissing for a while’ and smiled. There was a comradely silence as the girls finished their primping and headed back out to the dance.

‘’It’s not everyday you can witness something that’s meant to be.’’ Angel whispered to her as they exited, eyes a little misty. Summer’s own eyes got the same way when the girl went on to say: ‘’With the four of you, we get to see it twice.’’

‘’Summer?’’ Seth enfolded her in his arms, eyeing the dispersing others with concern. ‘"You okay?’’ He was so sweet, and so very much (and very unexpectedly) her perfect match. Even when they were fighting, she still treasured every second of his regard. She rested her head on his chest, squeezing his ribs affectionately.

‘’I don’t suppose you could talk them into playing our song.’’ She sighed, smiling at the chuckle that vibrated under her cheek.

‘’A little too old-school for this crowd, I think.’’ Cohen murmured. He began to sway slowly back and forth, despite the wild throbbing of the actual music. He leaned his head down and sang a whisper into her ear. ‘’ My love must be a kind of blind love, I can’t see anyone but you.’ ‘’ The rest of the world fell away and she tightened her grip (but not too much) as her boyfriend sweetly, quietly, sang their song, ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’, to her alone; creating a tiny bubble of romantic perfection. Just as she was about to lift her head and reward him with a very fervent kiss, there was a scrapping noise from the sound system and the music stopped.

‘’I’m gonna kill him.’’ She lifted her head to see Atwood glaring towards the stage, where that bare-chested drama club guy was taking a microphone from the DJ. Taylor had both hands over her mouth, looking embarrassed and excited, all at once. People started looking back and forth between the stage and their side of the dance floor, beginning to whisper and smile; and the romance mavens appeared to be doing some kind of victory dance.

‘’So, my friend wanted us to play a song for his girl, sort of a trial for ‘their song’.’’ There was wild applause and drama-club guy had to pause for a minute.

‘’I’m gonna fucking kill him.’’ Ryan looked ticked off, red climbing up his neck.

‘’We can call it off.’’ Taylor suggested in a murmur. She saw that there was a calm acceptance of the desire to avoid public humiliation in the hazel eyes. Holding her breath as she watched him stare at his girlfriend; she didn’t hear the words from the stage in the roar of her fears, the chill in Cohen’s hands on her shoulders.

‘’Ryan?’’ The guy with the mike was starting to look uncertain, there was now a sense of dread in the crowd’s anticipation.

Her boyfriend’s brother walked to stand in the center of the dance floor, blue gaze locked into a glare at drama-club guy before he dropped his chin to his chest. Her heart sank, until he took a deep breath, raising his head back up and turning around to hold his hand out, arm extended, clearly inviting Tay to join him. Clapping, wolf whistles, and even cheering turned the girl’s walk to place her hand in his into a victory march. She clasped her own hands together, trembling under Cohen’s arm around her shoulder, and hoping beyond hope that Atwood had managed to choose something close to apropos for the tenderness of the moment. A melody was repeatedly plucked over guitar strings and she saw her two friends gaze deeply into each other, frozen into place until Ryan smiled the widest, happiest smile she’d ever seen on his face and began to move with the first words of the song.

Prison gates won’t open up for me, on these hands and knees I’m crawlin’

Oh, I reach for you

Well, I’m terrified of these four walls, these iron bars can’t hold my soul in

All I need is you

Come, please, I’m callin’ – and, oh, I scream for you (hurry, I’m fallin’) I’m fallin’

Show me what it’s like, to be the last one standing;

And teach me wrong from right, and I’ll show you what I can be.

And say it for me, say it to me; and I’ll leave this life behind me:

Say it if it’s worth saving me.

Heaven’s gates won’t open up for me, with these broken wings I’m fallin’

And all I see is you

These city walls ain’t got no love for me, I’m on the ledge of the eighteenth story

And, oh, I scream for you

Come please I’m callin’ – and all I need from you (hurry, I’ fallin’) I’m fallin’

Show me what it’s like, to be the last one standing;

And teach me wrong from right, and I’ll show you what I can be.

And say if for me, say it to me; and I’ll leave this life behind me:

Say it if it’s worth saving me.

Hurry, I’m fallin’

And all I need is you; come, please, I’m callin’

And, oh, I scream for you – hurry, I’m fallin’

Show me what it’s like, to be the last one standing;

And teach me wrong from right, and I’ll show you what I can be.

And say it for me, say it to me; and I’ll leave this life behind me:

Say it if it’s worth saving me.

Hurry, I’m fallin’

And say it for me, say it to me; and I’ll leave this life behind me:

Say it if it’s worth saving me.

The look on Tay’s face was as the couple finished their dance was approaching orgasmically ecstatic, not even the very public (and very brief) lip-lock (that got thundering approval from their audience) dimmed the glow of her friend’s expression. Summer knew why, too; that the girl had reached the same conclusion about what the guy was trying to say. ‘Saving me’ referred to them both, a mutual rescue from the loneliness and heartache they’d had, before. But the other refrain: there was only one application she could think of for that one.

‘Hurry, I’m falling’………….in love.

--xxx—

Chapter Text

‘’Marissa, honey?’’

Great, her mom. What a perfect way to start the night, after the horrible day. Marissa sat up, wiping tears from her face and wishing she hadn’t smoked the last of her pot, earlier. She could really use something to take the edge off, and she hadn’t been able to find any booze anywhere. Well, there was wine and champagne in the cellar; but nothing good, like whiskey or vodka. Her head was really starting to pound, too; and that was totally Dorksend’s fault, the psycho little slut. Anyone who bought her ‘virgin’ story was an idiot. No one could grow up in Newport and hold out that long, not even ‘death-breath-Seth’ (or his traitor-whore of a girlfriend) had lasted past sophomore year.

‘’Yeah, Mom.’’ She wondered what the woman wanted. Couldn’t she even bemoan the unfairness of her life in peace? Three years of service as social chair apparently meant nothing to the ungrateful morons at Harbor. She wouldn’t go back, either; let them be stuck with the stupidly juvenile ideas of their ‘perfect little princess’, see what it got them. Probably more lame nonsense like the ‘Beach Party’, going on right now.

‘’Honey, are you….?’’ Julie stopped short in the bedroom doorway, eyes going wide as she stared at her daughter. Marissa wondered which was more distressing to her mother; the fading mark on her face or the slightly more vivid bruises on her neck. Either way, the woman rushed over and put her arms around the girl in a satisfactorily soothing manner. ‘’Oh, ‘Riss.’’ It was about time she showed some concern for her own daughter, Marissa thought, instead of kissing up to the Cohen’s in the dim hopes of maintaining her place after Caleb’s will was read. No way that old geezer left his whore of a trophy wife anything, and her mom was fooling herself if she thought otherwise. ‘’What happened?’’

‘’It was horrible.’’ She buried her face in the designer blouse, wondering if she could get away with wiping her nose on it. The temptation was strong, but she decided against it. Just because her mother was the enemy was no reason to ruin a perfectly good Chanel. ‘’Taylor Townsend attacked me and……’’

‘’What? Why would she do that?’’ The soft caresses stopped, and the girl jumped to her feet, breaking free of her mother’s embrace.

‘’Why? Are you kidding me?’’ She should have known that the woman wasn’t really serious about comforting her. She was too far gone over to his side, for reasons that sickened her to consider. ‘’Does that little bitch ever need a reason? She’s always tried to take what I have! Always! And now that she’s got him helping her, the whole school is turning against me! They’ve ruined everything, and everyone thinks they’re sooo cute! It’s sick and perverted, is what it is! He’d be nothing, if it wasn’t for me; and this is the thanks I get! Beat up and publically humiliated and not even my own mother on my side!’’

‘’I didn’t mean it that way, Marissa…….’’ Julie stood as well, holding out a hand with a pleading look. Figures the woman would try to suck up, to maneuver back into her good graces so that it’d be easier for them all to stick it to her. Well, she wasn’t fooled.

‘’Like you didn’t mean to kick out Dad? To take away the only person who cared about me?’’ Her accusation caused the woman’s eyes to narrow and the hand dropped.

‘’Your father left because he was stealing money from Kirsten.’’ Her mother staggered back a step, hand flying the cheek where Marissa had just slapped her. Had she really expected to get away with such a vicious story? Why couldn’t she just admit the truth, that she’d gotten Jimmie Cooper out of the way so she could slut around town more easily, looking for her next gold-digging conquest?

‘’You lying whore.’’ She hissed, storming out of the house, fed up with the nonsense of pretending that bitch cared about her. All her mother cared about was how they looked to the rest of Orange County; not that she let that inhibit her behavior in the slightest. I mean, Marissa fumed, hello! Luke, anyone?

She really needed a drink. Or a smoke. Or a really, really good party.

Flames silhouetted a crowd of people on the beach, next to the pier. Drowning her sorrows in the fifth she’d hidden by the lifeguard stand came in a very poor second to the good time to be had with the boys (or even the girls) standing around the fire, drinking and smoking and having real fun (as opposed to the kid-shit going on back at school). She wasn’t going to think about that, she told herself; lifting a bottle wordlessly out of the cooler, enjoying their startled and appreciative stares. Yeah, this was a much better party. The liquid was cool and refreshing, easing the throb of her head, and she took the proffered joint gratefully, passing it on politely after a satisfying draw. That was more like it, she could feel the stress just slipping away into the pleasant buzz. Everything started to seem a lot less important, the faces around her a lot less clear.

But not so unclear that she didn’t recognize the jacket on the girl with frizzy red hair standing by some hot blonde guy with tattoos and a crew cut.

‘’Hey!’’ Someone near her jumped at her shout, several people turned her way. She ignored them all, stalking over to grab the other girl’s leather-clad arm. ‘’Where did you get this?!’’

‘’It’s not yours, so what do you care?’’ Her target yanked away from her, stumbling a bit in her drunken state. Brown eyes shifted away from her face to blink hazily at the boy, who was watching them both with a smirking tilt to his head. ‘’Why don’t you want to party anymore? Did Ryan break ……’’

‘’Ryan?’’ Marissa scowled, good mood destroyed. Well, that sucked. Was there anywhere she could escape from him? Even randoms on the beach were connected to his sphere of influence. ‘’You mean he gave you …..ow!’’ Her arm was the one being grabbed, now; as the boy who’d been watching them wrapped his fingers around her forearm.

‘’You know that guy? That Ryan guy?’’ His voice was intense, and there was a strange mix of fear and eagerness in his blue eyes. She couldn’t yank her arm free and quit trying when it occurred to her that the boy didn’t look like he wanted to know for any nice reasons. Well, well, well. This had possibilities.

‘’Yeah, I know him.’’ She stopped struggling entirely, eyeing the guy up and down. He was hot, in a rough-and-tumble kind of way. There was an air of danger around him, too; that reminded her of Trey, and Ryan (a little) when he first came to Newport. A very bad boy, then. Good.

‘’Where is he?’’ Blue eyes glittered coldly, even as he raked her with his gaze, taking her in as she stepped into his personal space. He swallowed, his voice got all husky and deep, though he didn’t say anything very romantic. ‘’Son of a bitch owes me a re-match.’’ On second thought, she liked that sentiment a lot. If the guy already wanted to pound the little bastard who’d ruined her life, this would be that much easier.

‘’So you want to beat him up?’’ She smiled, running her free hand across his chest, liking the solid feel of his muscles under her palm. He was taller than him, taller than her, even; and looked stronger than that short little shit could possibly be. She figured there must’ve been a lucky punch or something, for this obviously better fighter to lose to him. ‘’I can tell you where to find him….’’ She whispered, raising herself up onto her toes to ghost her lips towards his ear. ‘’…..tell you how to really hurt him.’’ His eyes darkened at her closeness, but he managed to make a last attempt to gain the upper hand in their bargaining.

Idiot. She was Marissa Cooper, no one could resist her, once she really put her mind to it. Not even Ryan would be able to hold out, when he’d been punished enough for her to forgive him, that is.

‘’I just want a rematch, now that I’m not drunk, like I was last time.’’ Bingo. That explained it, then. A grudge was very useful to her, but she needed him to follow her lead to make it good. What could she……..? She saw a flutter of red hair out of the corner of her eye and smiled. The other girl had moved on, over the cooler, and was drunkenly trying to twist off the top of a beer bottle, giggling at her lack of success.

‘’Do it my way, and I’ll make it worth your while.’’ She shot a suggestive look over her shoulder at the drunken red-head, then back to the boy still holding her by one arm. Neither one of her future bedmates were very bright, but it’d be totally worth it when he destroyed her ex, especially if they could humiliate Dorksend in the process. ‘’Completely worth your while.’’ She pressed her body to his, making sure he got her point. She’d have to make sure to keep her instructions simple, so that there wouldn’t be any screw-ups. Nothing like what had happened with Jack could be allowed to happen again.

No, this time Harbor’s new ‘golden couple’ (couple of jackasses, in her opinion) were going to be put back into their place very permanently and decisively.

‘’Sounds good.’’ He licked his lips, obviously thinking about it. Boys were so easy, she thought, knowing she had him. Sure enough, his hands moved to her ass, pulling her tighter to him, his acceptance of her offer hard against her stomach. ‘’What’s your name, princess?’’ She had him, it was all over but the hook. Give him a little now, and he’d be willing to do anything for another go-round, later on.

Anything at all.

‘’Marissa.’’ She lifted her head, intending to seal their deal with a kiss. No reason she should deny herself a little fun during the planning stages, after all; and he looked like a real wild ride. ‘’Yours?’’

‘’Kevin.’’