Author's Note: And here, after a stupidly long wait, my epic Cory and Shawn tale comes to an end. I want to give a sincere thank you to everyone who's been reading and/or commenting along this whole time. Writing this story was a nice distraction during a difficult time in my life, and knowing that folks were enjoying the story and invested in it has meant so much to me. I truly appreciate every reader, reviewer, and commentator. Thank you all so much.
As he sits in the courtyard of the banquet hall, thinking about the certainty of the decision he has just made, Cory feels relief wash over him. The decision is absolutely right, he knows this. And in this moment of realization, all the weight of the day, the past few days, the past few weeks, the past few months, lifts off him. A sort of pure happiness bubbles up inside of him and Cory finds that he is smiling.
It's at just this moment that a message notification dings on his phone. Cory's first reaction is horror-this means that his ringer was on all throughout his grandmother's wake and funeral. Had anyone happened to phone him, send him an email or a text message, it would have been mortifying. But that didn't happen, he reminds himself, and shakily picks up the phone, in no real hurry to return to the gloom of the luncheon when he's finally feeling good and certain about things again.
The notification was for an email message. He pops into his inbox to have a look. It's an email from Dipthi, of all people-the woman from their rival production company he'd gotten to talk to a bit at the conference. The email reads:
Hi, Cory Matthews!
It's Dipthi Singh from Colorbox. Heard through the grapevine that you've parted ways with dear Tom. Don't know if you're already on board with anybody else yet, but I've got some contract work I thought you'd be a good fit for. Give me a call if you're interested.
P.S. Tell your smart brother I said Hi. It was delightful talking with him.
In the automatic signature line are Dipthi phone and fax numbers at Colorbox. Without hesitation, Cory dials her number.
"This is Dipthi."
"Hi, Dipthi. It's-"
"Cory Matthews! Nice to hear from you. And so soon-what did I send that? Thirty seconds ago?"
"Yeah. I'm actually at my grandmother's funeral luncheon right now."
"Oh, my gosh. I'm so sorry..."
"Eh, it's okay. I'd actually love to spend a couple of minutes talking about something that has nothing to do with death and family."
"You're an odd bird, Cory Matthews."
"I can't argue that. Okay to talk, though?"
"Do you want me to tell you why I left Tom's company?"
"Don't really care, to be honest. I used to work with him. I can use my imagination."
"Oh," Cory pauses. This certainly isn't the response from a prospective employer that he'd been expecting. "Okay, then."
He swears he can hear Dipthi smile. "Alrighty," she says, "Wanna hear a bit about this project?"
Cory's shoulders relax for the first time in days. "Yeah, please. Tell me all about it."
Barnabus is screeching again. The problem now is not that Shawn is trapped in a compact rental car beside him. The problem is that Eric has handed Barnabus to Shawn and promptly wandered off to locate his wife.
"Shhhh, shhh," Shawn hisses at the infant, "Please stop screaming, baby."
Their table was supposed to be comprised of Shawn, Cory, Topanga, Morgan, Robbie, Eric, Sarah and Barnabus. Sarah is no where to be found, Eric has abandoned Barnabus with Shawn and walked off after her, Morgan and Robbie are having a hushed conversation on the other side of the room (it doesn't look good the one time Shawn ventures a glance their way), and Cory has disappeared to God knows where. Shawn feels the pull to go after him, see if he's alright, but he's stuck here with this screaming infant and his only company is Topanga who's giving him what he's sure is meant to be a sympathetic look but is just making Shawn irrationally irritated.
"Can you help me?" he finally snaps at her, "You're the one who needs the practice with this."
Topanga is wearing her patented "patient saint" expression (Shawn remembers being annoyed by it many a time in the past) as she stands up and takes the baby from him. Shawn is secretly quite pleased that the baby doesn't immediately stop wailing once he's in Topanga's arms. She jiggles him and coos, but none of it has any effect. Shawn glances at the door Cory had left through and is about to go looking for him when Topanga says, "Please don't leave me alone here."
Shawn looks back at her and the table with its eight empty chairs and relents. He throws himself down in front of his untouched plate of salad and watches her struggle with Barnabus. A year from now, he thinks, she'll be doing the same thing with a baby that looks like Cory, all dark curls and Hershey syrup eyes. And Cory will be at her side. And Shawn will be somewhere else. Probably knocking around his now too-big apartment, lonely as fuck, just counting down the days between visits from Sadie and trying not to think about the eleven happy months he got to have once upon a time before it all got taken away.
Then Eric and Sarah return, only to scoop up Barnabus and announce that he needs some ear drops they've left at the hotel so they're leaving.
Topanga and Shawn just watch dumbly as they depart, taking their still-screaming child with them.
"Have fun with that," Shawn says to her, nodding in the direction of the departing baby.
Topanga gives him a forced smile, and sips from her water glass.
"I should go find Cory," Shawn says and starts to stand, but Topanga reaches out to stop him.
"No," she says, "I think he needs a little time to himself. If he wanted us to be with him, he wouldn't have walked off by himself. He's really shaken up, Shawn."
I know he's shaken up, Shawn thinks bitterly, but doesn't say it out loud. Instead he sinks back into his chair. He defers to Topanga's decision about what Cory needs. She's the one in charge now. She's the one who won.
"It's nice to be back in Philly," Topanga says brightly, obviously trying to direct things in a more pleasant direction, "Even if it is for such a sad occasion."
"Do you still have any family here?" She asks, "Any of your uncles or cousins or anything?"
"Nope," Shawn replies. His Uncle Mike is technically still nearby, in the state prison, but he doesn't feel like mentioning that.
"Where's Jack living these days?"
"Oh, wow. Do you see him often?"
"Are you going to eat your salad?" She tries again.
"Do you mind if I eat mine?"
"That's what you're supposed to do, right?"
"Well, it's always a little awkward to be the only one eating."
Shawn wants to pound his head against the table. Was she always this annoying? But he makes a conscious decision not to lose his temper. He's too exhausted and defeated to muster the energy for it. Besides, what good would it do? It wouldn't change anything. He takes a deep breath and reaches for a roll. "I'll keep you company," he says.
Topanga gives him a real smile then, and he softens a little. He starts tearing off pieces of his roll and popping them in his mouth while she eats her salad. He tries to think of something nice to say, but everything he's contemplating sounds crabby. He finishes the roll while he's thinking, then wonders if she somehow engineered that on purpose to get him to eat. Probably. How did he forget how smart she is? Finally, he thinks of something to say.
"Did Cory tell you Sadie's smart?"
Topanga looks at him, confused.
"She's like you," he explains, "Testing off the charts and everything. She's like, way beyond her classmates."
"That's wonderful. You must be proud."
"Yeah, but, I'm terrified too. I don't know what I should be doing for her. I'm afraid I'm gonna...I dunno, mess her up or not help her live up to her potential or whatever because I don't have any idea what to do for a smart kid."
Then Topanga smiles one of those big, sweet smiles that reminds Shawn that he never really hated her. She's always been tremendously kind to him. "I'm sure you're doing just fine," she says. "Is she in gifted classes? It's important that her work's challenging."
"We're actually switching her into private school because of that. Anna and I are scoping out our top two schools next week. We're hoping we can start her at one of them after Christmas."
"See? You're doing fine."
"Yeah," Shawn sighs, rolling a cherry tomato around his salad plate with a fork, "School is school, but what should I be doing?" He looks over the little red ball intently, "What did you need from your parents?"
"Yeah. What do smart kids need from their parents? I have no idea."
Topanga laughs. "They need the same things any other kids need: love, support, attention. It sounds like you're already doing a really good job of giving her that."
When Shawn does not appear convinced, Topanga elaborates. "I actually really admire the way you and Anna are making things work. It sounds like you're putting Sadie's needs first and not letting all the relationship baggage and history between you two get in the way of that. My parents never managed to do that and I wished so much they did."
Shawn hadn't even thought about the fact that Topanga's parents split up, about the way the problems in their relationship always seemed to consume them, Topanga left to look out for herself so much. It occurs to him then that, had her parents been less distracted, she might never have given up the chance to go to Yale. She might never have married so young and, ultimately, so unhappily. For the first time in his life, Shawn doesn't feel jealous of her. He feels empathy toward her. Her parents screwed her over nearly as badly as his did. He wishes he'd realized this back then. He might have felt a lot less alone.
"But you turned out okay," he says.
"So will Sadie. She'll turn out great. Just keep loving her and being there for her. Keep putting her first."
And then a bit of the pain returns. "Like how you guys are gonna put your kid first?" he can't help but say.
"Absolutely," she smiles, "I'm looking at you as the model."
Shawn doesn't know how to take that statement, but he doesn't get a chance to puzzle it out because Cory returns then with a great big grin on his face.
"Hey," Shawn greets him, "Where'd you go?"
"I just needed some air," Cory says, brushing off Shawn and Topanga's concerned looks, "And then I got this email and ended up having a really interesting phone conversation. I just got offered a job."
"What do you mean?" Shawn asks, just as Topanga claps her hands together and says, "Oh, Cory, that's great news!"
"Yeah," he replies, looking a little dazed, "I mean, it's just a contract job, not long-term, or anything, but if it goes well, it could lead to some good stuff."
"Yes!" Topanga cheers, and Shawn recognizes her putting on her lawyer demeanor. "Okay," she says, laying her hands flat on the table, meaning business, "I want to hear all the details and then we're going to hash out a game plan."
Cory looks a little taken aback but not displeased as he sits down beside her. "Do I need a game plan?"
"Cory," Topanga says, laying her hand over his, "You're getting a second chance. No offense, but I am not letting you screw it up."
"Okay," Cory nods, "Tell me my game plan."
Shawn stops listening then as Topanga coaxes Cory into giving her all the details about the contract job, this new production company, everything he and this Dipthi woman discussed. Shawn just feels left out. He'd have no idea how to form a "game plan" for Cory. He'd just be happy for him, probably take him out somewhere to celebrate. But once again he reminds himself: Topanga is running the show now.
After a while, he excuses himself, saying he needs to go to the mens room, and neither of them pays him much mind. Once he gets to the lobby, though, Shawn doesn't head to the mens room; his heart has started up racing again. Instead, he makes he way through the lobby, flanked by several other banquet rooms, and spies an entrance to the enclosed courtyard. Outside there is a fountain and some urns with large plants in them. There is also a small bench set into a niche that cannot be easily seen from inside the building. He lowers himself onto the bench and immediately puts his head in his hands, glad to finally have found a place where he can be alone.
He tries to breathe again, like he had learned from the mediation CD Cory had bought him. He tries to picture himself someplace quiet and calm, tries to mentally slow down his heart. It does little good, though, and he starts thinking about escape. He wonders if anyone would care (or even notice) if he left right now. He could head back to New York, get a jump on starting his life over, ripping off everything Cory-related like a Band-Aid. Maybe he'll sell the apartment-too many memories. Hell, maybe he'll move to New Jersey, be closer to Sadie. He could see her a lot more, maybe walk her to school, pick her up from her tumbling class, take her to the movies on the spur of the moment...and he wouldn't have to worry about running into Cory and Topanga, pushing their kid around in some $700 stroller, acting like everything turned out just like they always planned it.
As he's lost in these thoughts-fantasizing about running away feels almost as good as actually running away-Shawn suddenly becomes aware of the fact that someone is standing in front of him. He lifts his head from his hands and follows the legs of a gray tweed suit up to their attached body, then the head, and finds himself looking up at George Feeny.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, Mr. Hunter. Would you mind terribly if I took a seat?"
Although he's at his Grandmother's memorial luncheon and the day has been a deluge, drowning him in difficult emotions, Cory can't stop himself from smiling. Everything is finally falling back into place. He can look out across this bland banquet room full of mourners and see each step of the rest of his life laid out before him. His job, his family, his child, his love life...all of it is now clear to him and reassuring in its rightness.
He glances over at Topanga and knows that part of what's felt so off lately was the fact that she was no longer present in his life. Having her back, knowing that he can be with her, talk to her, reach out and touch her every day if he wants to-makes Cory feel so much better. And grateful. He wants to tell her this, thank her for coming back into his life and helping him to remember just how much he needs her. Instead of saying this, though, he just gives her a smile. He hopes-no, he knows-that she understands.
"I gotta go see what happened to Shawn," he says eventually. They've long since finished talking about Topanga's game plan for Cory's new job, started in on their chicken and asparagus, and still Shawn hasn't returned.
Topanga gives him a little nod and Cory heads off. There's no sign of Shawn in the mens' room, in the lobby, or in any of the other banquet rooms as far as Cory can tell. Then he thinks to poke his head out into the courtyard and sees Shawn seated beside George Feeny. Cory turns back quickly, not wishing to disturb them, and returns to the luncheon. Shawn's in good hands.
Topanga's engaged in conversation with one of Cory's great aunts when he gets back, so he just takes his seat and tucks into his meal. He watches her face, so animated and attentive to whatever Auntie Helen is saying, and Cory feels an almost overwhelming affection for her. He can't imagine a better woman he'd want to have a child with, raise a child with, grow old together with while holding hands and being partners. Cory never wants to lose her again.
Auntie Helen shuffles off back to her table after a bit and Topanga notices that Cory's watching her, smiling. "Why are you looking at me like that?" she asks him.
Cory looks into her big, pretty eyes, her kind, warm face, and he wants to tell her about what he decided he's going to do, the question he wants to ask. But the timing doesn't feel quite right. Instead, he just says, "I love you."
"Oh, Cory." Topanga looks pleased and a little embarrassed. She gives him a quick kiss on the cheek then returns her attention to her plate.
Cory passes her his roll because he knows for all the events they've attended here together that she likes them a lot. He also knows that in a short while, when the cups of rice pudding get served, she'll give hers to him, just like she always did.
It's good to be back to knowing everything that's going to happen. It feels right. It feels safe.
George Feeny is sitting beside Shawn, smoking a cigarette. Mr. Feeny is sitting right next to Shawn. And Mr. Feeny is smoking. Shawn's just about jumping out of his skin at the weirdness of this situation.
"Is something the matter, Mr. Hunter?" Mr. Feeny asks following a long drag, exhaling through his nose.
Shawn almost chokes but manages to say in a strangled-pretending-to-be-calm voice, "I just didn't know you smoked."
"Is it bothering you?"
Shawn just nods, feeling like this is what he's supposed to do. The smell of cigarette smoke is one he actually doesn't mind. It makes him nostalgic. His dad and his grandma always smelled like tobacco, and it's a scent he associates with being very young, sitting on the carpet and watching TV while Chet and Grandma Hunter shared a pack of Parliaments on the sofa. It's kind of a surprise to Shawn that smoking was the one bad habit he never picked up. He's still not sure why it never happened.
"I gave it up as a daily habit in 1973," Feeny says then, sounding a bit nostalgic himself, "And then years later, at my mother's funeral, I wanted one more than anything, so much so that I was distracted by it and missed the entire sermon. Since then, I've found that if I allow myself the ritual of a single cigarette when I attend a funeral, I have no craving for them the remainder of the time. I suppose sometimes it takes forgiving ourselves an indulgence now and then in order to move past the continuous desire for things we wish we didn't want."
Shawn has no idea what to make of this confession. Mr. Feeny has always seemed like the most refined, intelligent person Shawn could imagine. It's difficult to amend that image to allow for him having any sort of bad habit or addiction. That's the sort thing only stupid people like Shawn have to deal with. He can't picture Feeny even purchasing a pack of cigarettes, let alone struggling to give them up, keeping it all a secret. Feeny's not supposed to have any weaknesses like that, any problems that aren't easily solved. Feeny is wiser than anybody.
But it's just cigarettes, after all. Shawn wonders what Feeny would think if he knew about all the far worse things that Shawn got caught up with over the years. How much less would Feeny think of Shawn if he knew that he spent years in drugged-up haze, using anything and everything that was offered to him? What would Feeny say if Shawn explained how a day doesn't go by where he isn't tempted to go out and find something like that again, float away in that glorious numbness and temporary relief from his problems and his life? How disappointed would Feeny be to know that Shawn can't even keep a promise to Cory not to drink for more than a few weeks, that at the first bit of bad news he receives, he's right back at the bottom of a bottle, feeling simultaneously sorry for himself and ashamed? Does Feeny even realize that all his faith in Shawn over the years was misplaced? Does he realize what a colossal fuck-up Shawn Hunter turned out to be?
"You seem troubled," Feeny says then, startling Shawn out of his self-flagellating thought spiral.
"Nah, nah, I'm fine," Shawn replies, but then he finds himself going on anyway, since he's never been able to lie well to Mr. Feeny, "It's just...you were there last night. You heard about Cory and Topanga."
"Ah, yes. Remarkable news."
"Yeah," Shawn says with an obvious lack of enthusiasm. "Good for them. I couldn't be happier." He stews over these empty statements for a bit before he continues. "But it means that's it for me and him, you know? He's gonna go back to her and pretend like nothing ever happened."
It's unclear whether Feeny's surprised by this. Shawn is adamantly not looking at him, just facing forward. It's hard enough saying all this stuff; Shawn can't be expected to look at him as well. And when Feeny replies, his tone is as inscrutable as always, "Is that what he's told you he intends to do?"
Shawn starts to say 'yeah,' then realizes it's not exactly the truth. Cory hasn't told Shawn he intends to do anything. But he's so damn predictable-Cory Matthews is nothing if not predictable-that Shawn knows this is what Cory is going to do.
"He's too in love with that image of his life to pass up the chance," Shawn says, "It's what he's always wanted. Now he has the perfect excuse to finally have it."
"And this vision of his life doesn't include you?"
"Oh, sure. I'll be the guy who shows up on holidays 'cause he doesn't have a family of his own, and they feel sorry for me, and his kid'll call me 'Uncle Shawn' and maybe if I'm lucky Cory'll have me over once in a while for a secret rendezvous when Topanga's out of town, and then after that I'll have to listen to him cry and be guilty about what he's done, and then someday, of course, his kid is gonna find out about us and be scarred for life, or something, and Topanga will tell him he can't ever see me again, and I'll be the bad guy all over again, and I'll have to go away again just like I did before. Then I'll be, like, a million years old at that point, and I'll have nobody because I wasted my whole damn life pining over that idiot but, really, I'm the idiot because I couldn't just go out and make myself love someone else 'cause that would be the smarter thing to do. And then I'll be old and alone and bitter, drinking my days away, probably getting fucked up on drugs again, because that worked out so well the last time, and not learning from my mistakes and being a weak-ass screw-up is kinda my M.O..."
Shawn's almost panting, he's talking so fast. He can't believe he's told all this to Mr. Feeny. And, yet, he can't seem to stop himself from going on.
"It's stupid, but he's breaking my heart. Again! And I'm mad at him for that. And mad at me for letting him do it again...I'm mostly mad at me. I'm not handling this well. I don't handle anything well, really. I guess I'm kinda getting sick of how not well at all I handle things. I'm sick of being me. Shit-" he cuts himself off, realizing that he is babbling and if he continues on any longer, he's going to start crying. His heart has started drumming against the inside of his chest in twelve-eighths time, and it seems that when that happens, Shawn's natural instinct is to try and outrun it, even if it's just his mouth that's doing the running.
They sit in silence following this monologue and Shawn does his best not to wonder what Feeny is thinking about him now. Shawn's hands have started shaking, as if to match his heartbeat, and he shoves them into the pockets of his suit jacket to try and cover this up.
Then, finally, Feeny speaks. "The idea of how we expect our lives to be is a powerful thing."
Shawn grunts in response, thinking Feeny's talking about Cory's infatuation with his dumb 1950s fantasy life, but then he realizes that Feeny might actually be talking about Shawn and the vision he just laid out of how his life is going to be. Or maybe Feeny's talking about both of them. Dammit. Why does Feeny have to be so Feeny?
"What am I gonna do?" Shawn asks softly. He finally brings himself to look at Feeny, desperate for whatever guidance he might offer.
"I suspect you'll do what you have always done when adverse situations have come your way." Feeny stubs out his cigarette and gives Shawn a wry smile, "You'll find a way to persevere and triumph. You always have."
Shawn is about to scoff at this, point out all the ways in which this is the exact opposite of the truth, but he stops as Feeny says, "Which reminds me," and starts to reach for something from the interior breast pocket of his suit jacket. Shawn holds his tongue, curious to see what magical totem Feeny is about to produce. To Shawn's surprise, Feeny takes out a small hardback copy of the first Cheaty O'Zero book.
"It's a first edition," Feeny says, sounding, well, sounding proud, Shawn thinks, as he sets the book onto Shawn's knee, "It's a bit self-serving, I suppose, but I was hoping I might have a moment today with the author, that he might be gracious enough to sign it."
Shawn gazes down at the book. He's seen the book about a million times, can probably recite it word for word, he spent so long revising it. And yet, it looks different at this moment. It's no longer just a silly book with a cartoony cover that one might find squashed between the mattress and the wall of a hundred thousand kids' bedrooms across America. In Feeny's hands it has indeed transformed into a kind of magical totem. It's a reminder of the time Shawn thought his life could not get any lower and he somehow managed to turn it around, to refashion his life into something better than he ever dared dream it could be. He did it before. He can do it again. He will do it now not for himself, but for Sadie and for Cory and for Amy and Alan and Mr. Feeny and for everyone else who has believed in him and loved him despite his many, many flaws and failures.
As Shawn takes a pen out of his own breast pocket and turns to the title page of the book, he writes the thought that he is feeling most deeply in his heart right now:
Breaking from the pattern of the rest of the day, Shawn finds himself riding home from the funeral in a car with Cory. And Topanga, of course. The three of them say very little, all preoccupied with their own thoughts. It turns out that they have the house to themselves as well. Amy and Alan have taken Josh and gone to spend time with some of the out-of-town cousins they haven't seen for a while, Eric, Sarah and Barnabus have not returned from their hotel, and Morgan and Robbie have not been seen since the beginning of the luncheon. The house is eerily quiet with everyone gone, though. The three of them sit in the living room and continue to not really talk, uncertain what to do with themselves. Then Topanga takes out her phone and begins responding to work emails. Cory volunteers to put on a pot of coffee and heads into the kitchen.
In the kitchen, Cory leans back against the sink as the coffee brews. He's not in any hurry to go back out there. The conversation he needs to have with Shawn is frightening him suddenly, making his hands feel numb and his breath hard to catch. He closes his eyes and tries to compose himself.
This is for the best. This is what I want. I know that.
He nearly leaps out of his skin as Morgan bursts in the back door and throws her purse onto the kitchen island. It skids across the countertop, though, and lands with a heavy thump on the floor. Morgan ignores it, heading straight for the refrigerator. She yanks open the freezer door and glares at the contents until she finds what she is looking for-a bottle of vodka. She unscrews the cap and begins drinking straight from the bottle.
Cory doesn't know what he's more surprised by: that his parents keep a bottle of vodka in the freezer, that Morgan seemed to already know this, or that she is currently gulping it down like a Siberian mineworker.
"Hey," he says, reaching for the bottle, "Slow down a little."
Morgan jerks back, keeping the bottle out of his reach. She narrows her eyes at him, but does lower the bottle and stops drinking to say, "Robbie and I are over."
"Oh," Cory says, not sure the best way to respond. He wasn't especially crazy about the guy, but he and Morgan had been together for while. "I'm sorry."
Morgan just takes another swig of vodka.
"Kinda crummy of him to break up with you at your Grandmother's funeral," Cory can't help but add.
Morgan's eyes grow wide behind the mouth of the bottle. She lowers it and points it at Cory in a forceful gesture, splashing a little vodka in the process. "You should talk!" she snarls.
"Now you're just gonna drop Shawn like that? Go back to Topanga and pretend like nothing ever happened? What the fuck is wrong with you?"
Cory freezes. Morgan's face is furious and full of disgust and he can't take his eyes from it and its accusation.
"Why-why do you think that?" he finally manages to say, his tongue feeling limp and difficult to maneuver between his teeth.
"He told me."
Cory just stares at her for a horrified, sick second. Then he stomps past her back into the living room hollering, "Shawn!"
But Shawn's not there anymore. Topanga doesn't take her eyes from her phone as she continues typing with one hand and gestures toward the stairs with her other hand.
"Goddamit," Cory mutters, tromping across the room. He takes the stairs two at a time, growing angrier with each step.
When he reaches his old bedroom, he is not at all surprised to find Shawn sitting on the window seat, his suitcase packed up beside him. Shawn doesn't appear to have heard him enter the room, and Cory stands in the doorway for a moment, just taking in the scene and allowing his anger to steep, growing more potent in his veins. He looks at the familiar set of Shawn's narrow shoulders, the way the breeze from the open window is ruffling Shawn's newly shorn hair, how he has one foot on the floor and the other foot on the bench beside him, poised for flight. There has never been anybody in the world that Cory's loved so much, nor been capable of being so angry at. Shawn has always pushed Cory further than has ever been comfortable, but Cory wouldn't change that for anything. And he's not about to let go of that experience now. No way in hell.
Shawn is caught off guard when Cory yanks him by the shoulder, knocks him from the seat, and tackles him to the floor.
"Ow! Jesus!" Shawn shouts. Cory straddles him, putting his full weight on Shawn's hips and uses his knees to pin Shawn's shoulders to the carpet.
"You're not leaving!" Cory yells into Shawn's face.
Shawn doesn't looks at him, keeps his eyes to the side and starts to say something but then doesn't. It's as if engaging in this fight with Cory isn't even worth it. This enrages Cory further, bringing him back to how he felt when Shawn revealed he'd thought Cory was cheating on him with Tom and saw no need to even protest it. Why does Shawn have to shut down? Why won't he fight back?
Cory digs his knees in harder, making Shawn inhale sharply through his teeth. Cory's glad to hear his pain, glad to be getting some kind of a response beyond apathy. They are going to have this out once and for all. "You're not leaving," Cory repeats.
Shawn glares up at him. "I'm not staying. I'm not going to go through that again. You do what you want, but I'm not putting myself through that again."
"What I want," Cory parrots back in distain, "What I want...What do you know about what I want? You don't have a clue."
"Oh, fuck you," Shawn says, then bucks Cory off with surprising strength. Shawn scoots back toward the bed as Cory scrambles to regain his footing. He lunges toward Shawn again but stops as Shawn screams, "Don't touch me!"
Cory steps back, holding up his hands in a show of peace.
"Just stop," Shawn says, his voice hoarse but defiant, "Stop forcing me to do what you want. It's not going to make anything easier. I'm done, Cory. I'm done being some pinball bouncing off of everything in your life. Do what you want to do, but stop expecting me to just stick around and be some sidekick. I'm not. I'm not your fucking comic relief."
"No. Please, Cory. Stop..." Although he's trying to maintain an air of firm authority, Shawn's eyes are wild with fear and his hands are trembling. His heart must be pounding ten miles a minute. Cory feels his anger draining away, and all he wants to do is to hold Shawn and reassure him. Acting on this desire, Cory takes a step toward him, but Shawn takes a corresponding step back, putting up his arms as if to ward off an attack.
Obediently, Cory stops. He backs away and takes a seat on the cot. It has been such a long couple of days, weeks, and months. Cory can feel all of it settling heavy on his shoulders. He'd thought he had it all figured out, everything finally falling into place...but he'd never taken into account how it all must look to Shawn. What would've happened if Cory had come upstairs fifteen minutes later? Would Shawn have already been gone, lit off into the night like the teenage runaway he's always going to be in his heart? Would Cory have ever seen him again? How close have they just come to that disaster? How close is Shawn still to it?
"You get to do what you want to do, but so do I. It's only fair," Shawn says resolutely, "I do what I want. You do what you want."
Cory sighs, exhausted. "You don't have any idea what I want."
"Please. You want the same thing you've always wanted."
And then the anger is back. "Yeah," Cory sneers, "What's that?"
Shawn's big mouth forms itself into the most bitter smile imaginable. "You want to be married and have your kids and have a house with a picket fence and meatloaf on the table."
Cory sits there, looking at Shawn, all of the pieces coming together. It always comes back to Shawn feeling like he lost out to Topanga. It always comes back to the belief that, in some fundamental, unchangeable way, Shawn Hunter isn't good enough. It only took one childhood to hammer that belief into his beautiful head. Cory doesn't know if the whole rest of their lifetime together will even be enough to yank it out and kill it once and for all.
"And good for you," Shawn continues, bitterness dissolving into resignation, "You're gonna get everything you want. That's great. You deserve it. But, please...Please, Cory. Stop expecting me to just hang around and watch. I can't take that again. I can't. I can't do it."
He is lucky, Cory knows this. He has always been too lucky, so much good stuff in his life that he didn't even know how to recognize it, let alone appreciate it. And now all this? First getting to be with Shawn all these months, then a job he loves, and now a baby? It's humbling. "I don't deserve any of this," Cory says softly.
"Well, you got it," Shawn grumbles, "You've always gotten everything you wanted. God sure likes just handing you stuff. Must be nice."
Cory bristles at this last little bit of self-pity. "Do you have any idea what it was like all those years, knowing I screwed up the most important thing in my life? Knowing that you were out there somewhere and I was never going to get to be with you because I was a big, dumb idiot and a coward? Do you know what it was like, staring at the years of that life I had ahead of me?"
Shawn shrugs. "Now you're gonna have your kid, so it won't be so bad. You'll live."
Cory wants to strangle him and his stupid defensiveness. But Cory calms himself and says carefully, "Shawn, you know I have to do what's best for my kid. Before I consider everything else."
"Sure," Shawn agrees, the sarcasm dropped from his voice, "I get that. I really do."
Cory's relieved to be talking to Shawn the grown-up now and not Shawn the hurt kid. "I know you do. 'Cause you love Sadie so much and you're such a good dad. I want to be as good as you are at it. But that doesn't mean I have to be miserable. What good does it do my kid if Dad's miserable all the time?"
Shawn climbs to his feet, shaking his head adamantly. "I'm not gonna be Uncle Shawn and you're not gonna fuck me on the weekends."
Cory has to stop himself from laughing at this because Shawn looks so pained as he says it. Unable to contain his amusement, though, Cory replies back, "Oh, you're definitely gonna be Uncle Shawn. And I'm definitely going to fuck you on the weekends. Weekdays too."
"What, do you think you're being cute? You think this is a joke? Fuck you, Cory. I'm not gonna be your piece on the side. I'm not gonna be your fucking secret."
"You're not gonna be either of those things. You're my best friend."
"Yeah, well, not anymore. I can't do that for you. I love you, Cory, but I can't do that again. Please stop asking me to do that to myself again."
Cory can't help himself. He stands up and forces a surprised Shawn over to the window seat because of course this is where it needs to happen. Cory sits Shawn down and kneels in front of him.
"Shawnie," he says, looking up into his furious face, "I'm not asking you to do that. I'm asking you to marry me."
Shawn could not look more confused than if Cory had just produced a dead fish and slapped him across the head with it. "What?" he asks.
Cory laughs nervously, suddenly terrified. This is so, so far from how he pictured this going, all these months since he first started contemplating the idea. "You're absolutely right," he tells Shawn, taking a step back in the conversation to help explain himself, "That is all I've ever wanted. The nice life with the house and the kids and the marriage. I'm boring as it gets. I've always been that way and, god help ya, you seem to love me anyway. But the thing is, I don't want to be married to Topanga. If I didn't spend the last ten years figuring that out, I'm a bigger idiot than even you think I am. I do wanna be married. I like stability. I like knowing I can count on something. You used to say it yourself-I was practically born to be married. But this time I want to get it right."
Shawn looks as though Cory has been rolling on the floor before him and speaking in tongues. Cory takes both of Shawn's hands into his and squeezes them tight.
"Marry me," he says, "It's more than I deserve, more than anybody should rightfully give me, but, dammit, I want it anyway."
Shawn opens his mouth wide as if a great speech is about to tumble forth but instead all he does is croak out, "Why?"
"Because I love you, you big stupid. And I want to know that you're here for me and not going anywhere. And I want you to know that I'm here for you, and I'm not going anywhere either. Ever." Cory closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, feeling like he's said a thousand words and none of them has adequately communicated what he wants. Then he opens his eyes and says evenly, "I want to be clear about what I want. I want it to be plain as day. No confusion. No misunderstandings. No assumptions about what you think I want. What I want is you. Forever. And I want a legal, binding declaration that this is it. Forever. You and me until the end of time. No one else."
And goddamn if Shawn doesn't turn into a trembling mess all over again. Cory tries to hold Shawn's hands tighter to reassure him, but Shawn yanks them away and stumbles to his feet, stepping over Cory roughly. He waves his arms frantically in the air. "What about Topanga?" he shouts.
"She's going to be the mother of my child. My partner in that but not in this. She's not that to me. She never was. Why on Earth would I try and pretend that again?"
"Shit, shit," Shawn mutters to himself, burying a hand into his hair as he thinks. Cory knows that Shawn is running through all the possible roadblocks, unable to trust Cory's declaration. "What about your kid?" he asks, practically pulling the hair out of his scalp, "You gotta do what's best for your kid. You said so."
"This is what's best."
"No, no, no, Cor. Stability. Like your parents. Your childhood. Happy, sane, married parents who stay in one spot-that's what's best."
Cory cocks his head in confusion. "I don't see how this isn't that."
"No. You and Topanga. You're, like, perfect parents. Like, you've been perfect parents in waiting your whole life."
"Well, thanks, but, I think we'll still be good parents even if we're not married to each other."
"No! No, that's insane. You're supposed to be just like your parents. You had a perfect childhood. That's what every kid's childhood should be like. Mr. and Mrs. Matthews. 2.0. That's what you guys are supposed to do."
Cory is surprised at how invested Shawn is in this notion. For all his resentment and cynicism, his romanticization of Topanga and Cory as a unit of what happy, well-adjusted people should look like has stayed strong all these years. Cory never realized how much Shawn envied their empty playacting at All-American normalcy. Of course he would, though. All he ever wanted was Cory's parents and Cory's life, and Cory and Topanga were on track to recreate it from the start.
"When did you get so conservative?" Cory teases him lightly.
"I'm not fucking joking, Cor. That's what kids are supposed to have. Two responsible parents in a nice house with a happy, predictable life. If you can give that to your kid, why the hell wouldn't you?"
Food on the table, no bills hidden in the microwave, parents to show up at school conferences, and nobody dumping you off in the care of strangers for months at a time. Those are all the things Shawn doesn't say, but Cory understands this is exactly what he's thinking about. He smiles at Shawn wryly. "So, why don't you and Anna get hitched and make it happen, then? You both want what's best for Sadie, right?"
"That's not the same thing."
"You guys actually love each other."
"We do, Shawn, but not like that. Not like you and I do. Topanga and I are friends. That's all we ever should've tried to be. And partners. I think we'll be good parents. I think you're right. But one thing I know, one thing we've talked about, is that we don't want to do to our kid what Topanaga's parents did to her. It's not good for two people to pretend to be in love just for the sake of their kid, just because that's what 'normal' people do. That's bullshit. She knows that better than anybody. We've never once considered that as an option in the past twenty-four hours. She would never in a million years want to be a parent like hers were. And, even if for some reason she did, I sure as hell wouldn't go along with it. I don't ever want to be the person I was when I was married to Topanga. I don't want my kid to know me like that. I want to be the person I am with you. I want to be happy."
Shawn frowns and bores his eyes into the carpet. Cory has fantasized about asking Shawn to marry him a lot over the past eleven months. Cory imagined delight, tears, jokes...he never imagined a response like this.
Cory sighs. "Aren't three happy parents better than two unhappy parents?"
"Three?" Shawn realizes as soon as he has asked this what Cory means and scowls. "Hey, I'm not a part of that."
"Of course you are. Why on Earth wouldn't I share the best thing in my life with my kid? You think my kid should have a childhood that was as great as mine was? A big part of that was because you were there. I'm not letting my kid not have you in their life. Sorry. Marry me or don't, but you're not getting out of that."
Shawn crosses his arms and looks up at Cory as if he's finally run out of anger and fear and jealousy and all that is left is his heart. "You really want to marry me?"
"Yes," Cory smiles, "Absolutely."
Shawn sits back down on the window seat gingerly. "It doesn't really change anything, though," he says, "It's just a piece of paper, right?"
"Not to me."
"Jesus," Shawn mutters in disbelief.
"Oh, god," Shawn looks up from his shaking hands, "We can really do that, can't we?"
Cory nods. "It's legal now."
"Yeah, but hardly. Where would we have to go? Massachusetts? Hawaii?"
"I was thinking Vermont, actually."
Cory shrugs. "I made a promise a long time ago I'd take you there. I'd still like to do that. You know, if you still want it. There's actually this place that seems really perfect. We could basically rent out a whole block of little cabins for all our family to stay in and have all these grounds pretty much to ourselves."
Shawn looks at him in amazement. "You've actually been thinking about this? It's not just some Hail Mary pass to save our relationship?"
"I've been thinking about it ever since I moved in with you. I just wanted to wait until some perfect time came up to ask. And, honestly, I was kind of embarrassed. I didn't want you to think I was just rushing right back to the idea of being married again."
"Isn't this rushing, though? We haven't even been together a year."
"Shawnie, we've been together forever."
Then he gets a real smile out of Shawn. It's faint, but it's there. "I always wanted to see the leaves in Vermont," Shawn says.
Cory sits down beside him on the window seat, puts an arm over Shawn's shoulders. Shawn relaxes against him. Cory can feel Shawn's heart thumping through his chest still. He kisses the side of Shawn's head and swears he can taste the relief in his skin.
"So, are you gonna marry me?" Cory asks.
"Fuck me, and I'll think about it."
Cory laughs and starts to pull Shawn toward one of the beds, but Shawn stops him. "No," Shawn says, "We can't defile this room. This place is sacred."
"Shawn. Three boys have gone through their adolescence in this room. It's been defiled many, many times."
"Still. No. I won't be a part of that."
Shawn bites his lip as he thinks. "Treehouse?"
Cory doesn't hesitate a second before he throws open the window and starts climbing out into the tree branches.
The treehouse is tinier and more cramped than Shawn remembers, and they're trying to be as quiet as possible so as not to draw attention to themselves. Somehow that makes it hotter. It feels illicit, like all Shawn's boyhood fantasies about getting to have his way with Cory with no one knowing have come true.
"Oh, god," he murmurs, pulling at the button placket of Cory's dress shirt with his teeth, urging him to hurry up with getting it off.
Cory struggles to unbutton his shirt with one hand while grabbing Shawn by the necktie with the other hand and pulling him up from his chest for a kiss. Shawn obliges him briefly, all tongue and teeth and force, before returning his attention back to getting Cory undressed. A small, white shirt button flies off in the process, pinging against the wood of the tree house wall.
"Shit," Cory complains, then forgets the button instantly as Shawn grabs Cory's cock through the fabric of his pants. Cory squeaks and Shawn shushes him.
"Don't want Feeny to hear," Shawn teases, unbuckling Cory's pants as he says this.
"Shit. I forgot about Feeny."
"Never forget about Feeny," Shawn grins, yanking Cory's dress slacks off his hips, taking his boxer shorts half with him.
"Hey," Cory says, sitting up and pushing Shawn over. He yanks his boxers back up and starts working at the buttons on Shawn's shirt, a look of hungry determination on his face. Cory wants Shawn just as bad as Shawn wants Cory.
Shawn bites his lip and makes no move to help, enjoying the amusing sight of Cory fumbling to get Shawn's shirt unbuttoned and to figure out how to un-do a necktie from the opposite side.
"Come on," Cory hisses, "Help me. Somebody's gonna come looking for us soon."
"Somebody?" Shawn asks, feigning confusion, "Like Topanga?" Even now, he can't help but be a little bit petty. Part of him likes the idea of Topanga discovering him fucking her still-husband. He doubts he'll ever fully get over his years-long resentment that she was the one who got to do that for so long.
"Yeah, or my parents." Cory snaps, and that is effective motivation. Shawn scrambles to get his shirt, tie, and necktie off. He yanks his dress shoes off, throwing them one at a time across the treehouse, only wincing slightly when one of them tumbles down to the patio below. Then he pulls off his socks and pants, accidentally smacking Cory in the face when he pulls his belt out of the loops.
"Fuck," Cory whispers.
"Sorry." Shawn pauses to put a gentle kiss on Cory's red cheek and make it better, then resumes stripping as Cory struggles out of his last items of clothing.
The sight of Cory buck-naked in the treehouse, his form outlined by the golden light of the setting sun is almost too much to bear.
"God, I love you," Shawn says.
Cory smiles. "Don't ever forget it."
"I won't," Shawn vows, committing this image to memory and telling himself he will remember every detail of it always.
Then Cory's on him like a mad dog, and Shawn fights back. He kisses every bit of body he can connect with, grabs at Cory's shoulders and chest, squeezes Cory's ass like it's Shawn's to own and do with what he will. They wrestle like this for several jumbled but wonderful minutes until Shawn can't take it anymore and throws Cory up against the wall. Cory gasps and submits as Shawn begins prepping him.
And then he's in him and, holy fucking mother of god, it's incredible.
"Marry me," Cory says as Shawn thrusts in him.
"You marry me," Shawn hears himself say, thrusting again. Sweet Jesus.
Shawn thrusts again and pauses to moan. His brain is on the verge of short-circuiting, but he manages to reply, in a bizarrely casual-sounding voice, "Sure."
Cory whimpers and readjusts his position slightly, just in time for Shawn's next thrust. "Why don't I ever get to do the asking with this?"
Another thrust. "You already did."
"But you haven't given me an answer. Aw, fuck. Fuck! God."
Cory comes, but Shawn's barely aware of anything at the moment aside from how good his own cock feels, and, yet, some part of his brain is continuing the conversation. "You wanna marry me?"
"Yes. You wanna marry me?"
"Yeah, sure. Why not?"
"Really? You can't give me a better answer than that?"
Shawn thrusts three times quick. "What's a better answer than yes?"
"You didn't say yes. You said 'yeah sure.'"
"Okay. Fine. Whatever. Yes." And then Shawn comes. He and Cory collapse against each other and slide down to sit, side by side, with backs against the treehouse wall. They're both panting and Cory pats Shawn's thigh with a floppy, exhausted hand.
Shawn no longer gives a shit is anyone finds them. He no longer gives a shit about anything except that he's sitting beside the love of his life, and he is happy and satiated. He puts his head on Cory's shoulder and sighs.
"That was pretty good," Cory says.
"Yeah," Shawn says, "It was all right."
Cory laughs a little, kisses the top of Shawn's head. "So, we're really doing this?"
Shawn can't bring himself to say anything for a bit. He thinks about how Cory is the sweetest, most naive person he's ever met. He's the kind of person who believes, truly believes, that anything can be fixed with a kiss or that asking someone to marry you is the perfect, endgame solution to all problems. Cory has no idea what he's getting into, asking Shawn to be legally bound to him. He's only ever thought the best of Shawn. He's only ever been a fool when it comes to him. It's time for Shawn to step in and save him, give him an out.
"You don't want to marry me," Shawn says.
"Really, you don't know what you're getting into."
Cory scoots closer to him so that the sides of their chests are touching and Shawn can feel Cory's pulse. "Pretty sure I do."
"I'm a fuck-up."
"Jesus, Shawn, with everything you've accomplished in your life? Come on."
"I'm still a fuck-up."
"No more than anyone else."
Shawn is quiet, then says the thing he hasn't wanted to admit for all these months, all these years, really. "I'm an alcoholic."
"Yeah," Cory sighs.
"I'm sorry about last night, Cor. I'm sorry I let you down."
"That was yesterday. It's a new day now."
Shawn sits up straighter, moving himself away from Cory's gentle heartbeat. "How can you even let that go? The first chance I got, I screwed up."
"It wasn't the first chance you got. But, anyway, I'm not letting it go. I haven't forgotten about it. But I trust you. I trust that you're gonna keep working at it. And letting me help you. We're gonna keep working at it together. It's gonna get easier for you."
"What if it doesn't? What if I just keep screwing up again?"
"Then we keep working at it. We have our whole lives to work on it. That's the whole point of this, Shawnie. I'm not going anywhere. No matter what you do, you're not getting rid of me."
Shawn takes a shaky breath and allows himself to relax back toward him. He puts his head against Cory's chest. "What if I leave?"
"Then I'll kill you."
Shawn laughs, despite himself.
"I'm serious," Cory says, "No more running away. That's what I'm getting out of this: a guarantee that you don't go either."
"What if I need to run?"
Cory takes a deep breath. "Then you better come back. When you're done running, turn right around and come back home."
Home. Shawn thinks about that idea. All his life he's been jealous of people who had a place to come back to, a place they could count on that stayed in one spot and didn't change or disappear, but remained a constant. Home was a kind of concept of "safe" that Shawn never had but longed for more than anything.
Isn't it funny, he thinks, that all those years of resentment and hopelessness and rootless wandering, he had a home and just didn't realize it. Cory is his home. Has been forever. Maybe it's time Shawn finally acknowledged that.
"Okay," he says, taking Cory's hand and weaving their fingers together tightly, "Let's do this."
Cory smiles but looks hesitant as he asks, "You trust me?"
"Yeah," Shawn smiles back and takes a leap of faith into the rest of their lives, "I do."