"Sandy, guess what?" Ryan says, walking into the kitchen.
Things have finally settled down around here. I can trust Ryan again. "What's up, kid?"
It's been a long road and things are far from perfect, but I feel like I recognize him again. He's relaxed, no longer trapped like an animal, no longer doubting everyone's motives.
"I got a job today," Ryan says, sitting down at the counter. He looks just like he would have looked last year at this time, apart from the painted arms and still bleached hair.
"Yeah," Ryan says.
Kirsten says that he started making the most progress when they let him start riding his bike again. They'd let him use the Rover to go to his meetings and sessions with Willa, but they'd waited a couple of months before handing the keys to the motorcycle over.
Ryan loves that bike. Spends at least an hour a day in the driveway fine-tuning it.
He's gained weight and he's finally starting to look healthy again. "What kind of job?" I know he's been looking, he finally feels strong enough to face the Newpsies again at Kirsten's fundraisers and he needs to feel useful.
"Well, it's not a really good job, but it's a start. Willa needs a maintenance man down at the center and I can fix just about anything so she's hired me. I'll be troubleshooting for them, fixing the plumbing in the auditorium and working on the oven in the kitchen. That way I'll have lots of time to study for those placement tests the tutor needs me to take."
I can see the excitement in his eyes and it fills me with a hope that I try to hide. He's talking about the tutor, studying. Moving on from this hole he's dug himself without our urging.
"That sounds great, Ryan. Kirsten's going to be disappointed that you don't want to be her gopher down at the Newport Group," I say and smile when he laughs.
"I don't want to push my luck with Caleb these days. I think this will be good for me. Like, I can do it on my own terms," Ryan admits.
I pat him on the back with a grin. "I'm happy for you, kid."
"Thanks. I hope it works out," Ryan says. He glances at his watch. "I have to meet Seth and Summer at the diner. I'll see you guys later."
I watch him hurry out of the kitchen.
When I found him in that house in Chino, I never imagined that I could get him back.
And I still don't have him back, not the kid that I knew, but he's slowly surfacing.
My family's coming back together.
I park my bike in my normal spot at the center and tuck my helmet under my arm. I hate this damned helmet but it's the only way I can keep Kirsten from following me in her car everywhere I go.
I'm not usually at the center this early but the parking lot's already half full.
I'm early and Willa's Honda isn't in her space so I walk over and take a seat on the bench and light a cigarette.
"Well, well. Hey, stranger."
I barely recognize Marissa when I look over to see her sit beside me.
She's gained about twenty pounds and the weight has only made her more beautiful. It feels like a lifetime since I knew her.
"Hey. I've been hearing about you, but I'd started to think that you were a figment of my imagination," I smile, accepting her friendly hug.
"Yeah, Willa's awesome. She really helped me out," Marissa smiles.
"Me, too. Thanks for introducing her to Kirsten. She's great," I tell her.
"I wanted to see you…but I didn't think that I'd help that much when you first got back. I'm still struggling to stay sober myself and I didn't want to mess you up again," she says.
"Yeah. I was pretty messed up. I'm just now starting to feel…like myself again," I tell her honestly.
"You don't look like the Ryan Atwood I fell in love with," she says, studying me.
"I'm not the Ryan Atwood you fell in love with," I answer evenly. She was in love with an image, she never really knew me.
"The summer sucked, didn't it?"
"Yeah. But…but I'm home now, and things…they'll get better again. Maybe one day I can find out what normal's like."
She laughs and it's nice.
"So, you're our new handyman. Are you going to walk around shirtless so we can take our cigarette breaks with some scenery?" she asks.
"You might not like the scenery," I tell her. The tattoos are a part of me now.
She puts her hand on my arm and sighs. "I doubt that, Ryan." She hesitates. "You're always going to be my first love, but I have to admit, we are the absolute worst couple that anyone could imagine putting together. I'm an addict and you're an enabler. You would do anything to help me, to make me happy and the type of person that I am, I'm always going to let you take care of me. But we both need to start taking care of ourselves. I think we're nicer people separate than we ever were together."
"Wow. You've really got the lingo down," I joke, but I appreciate her words. She's right, if there was a textbook, then we'd be pictured to the left of the blurb.
"You changed my life, Ryan. I know that sounds cheesy but you were the wakeup call that I needed to put my life in order," she says quietly.
"Marissa," I start, not following her. "I left you…"
She smiles. "You were never really mine, Ryan. But you were the reason I got clean. I made a promise to myself that if I ever met up with you again that I would make you proud of me, that I'd be clean."
And she is. "So, we're friends now?"
"And coworkers, can you believe it?"
"It is a little far out," I admit.
"So, Summer says you have a girlfriend."
I roll my eyes and feel the heat rush my cheeks. Marissa Cooper always has that effect on me. "Not really dating…just…sleeping together."
She laughs. "Can't fight those bad boy roots but so much, right?"
"She's nice, but I'm not really ready to get involved with anyone right now and neither is she. It works for us," I say, thinking of Lari. She's been a little distant lately but considering we only see each other to have sex, that's not saying much. But she's been quiet at the meetings, too, when she goes.
We both glance over as Willa pulls into the parking lot.
"Well, there's the boss, I better start the coffee, but I'll see you around," she smiles, patting my knee before hurrying inside.
"Punctual. I like that. Come on in and I'll show you your locker," Willa says plucking the freshly lit cigarette from my fingers and raising it to her lips for a drag.
"Tough night?" It shows on her face.
"Yeah, kid. It's nice to see a friendly face about now," she sighs.
"If I've learned anything from you, it's that it's always nice to see a friendly face, Willa. Or should I call you 'Boss'?" I ask and I'm pleased when she smiles. She's helped me out more than I can ever repay and it's the least I can do to make her smile.
"Hey, Seth, you made it," Ryan grins when I walk in.
"You said you were hungry and you've brought me lunch enough times that I had to return the favor," I tell him. Granted, the reason he was always so eager to bring me lunch was to get out of the house, but I wanted to see where he works. "So, how goes it?"
"It goes," he shrugs, taking the bag of take out from me and leading me into a small break room and kicking out a chair for me without breaking step.
The smoothness of his action reminds me of the way I used to think that Ryan had everything together. He has a talent for seeming in control in every situation. But I know now, that it's all an act. He's always alert, looking out for danger so he's always orienting and preparing himself.
He just handles his fear differently. I get nervous and babble and Ryan protects himself at all costs by being cool.
I think we understand each other better now than we ever did before. It's like he respects me more now that I get that he's just a kid finding his way just like me.
"What's up? Why are you so quiet? Afraid you'll get robbed by a junkie on your way out?" Ryan asks, smirking.
"Nah, dude, just thinking," I grin. He jokes now, usually when it's just me and him, but it's still a stark different from the scary dude we brought home from Chino a couple of months ago.
"Saw Marissa today," he says casually, taking a bite of the burger.
"Yeah? How'd that go? You guys have your whole Felicity moment?"
He wrinkles his eyebrows.
"You know, you went 'hey', she went 'hey', and then everything was like a movie with the chick music…"
"Dude. Shut up," he says.
"Spill," I urge.
"It was nothing. I think we've both moved on. Which is nice because I think she'll be a good friend," he shrugs.
"How's Lari these days?" I ask, mentioning Ryan's unseen female companion. He still hasn't introduced her to my parents, or me but Hailey assures us that she exists.
He shrugs again, chewing. "She hasn't been around lately, I called her yesterday but got her machine."
"You worried?" I ask.
"Not really. It's not like we're dating or anything," he says.
Summer's talked to me about the way Ryan seems to have shut his emotions off to everyone not in his inner circle. The casual way that he talks about Lari concerns her. Not that he's the type to mistreat women, but the disposal bed partners and strictly physical relationships that he leans toward worries her.
"Where's your other half, anyway?" Ryan asks, changing the subject.
"Hanging out with her dad. She'll be over for dinner. What time do you get off?"
He folds the leftover half of the burger in the wrapping and tucks it back into the bag. "Around four. Willa's going to start squeezing our sessions into our break times here so we don't have to meet as often in the afternoons. She thinks I'm doing well enough to cut back."
"That's cool, man…" I say.
"I guess. But…I feel better, Seth. The structure, the support…what if I can't stand on my own?" he asks quietly.
I can't believe he's asking me something so personal. I've never known a Ryan to be so openly vulnerable.
But that's what I'm here for.
"Ryan. You know you can do it. Stop doubting yourself. We're still going to be here for you. You've been doing it on your own for a while now. Things change. You changed when you went to Chino and you've changed since you came home. You're never going to be alone like that again."
He nods and meets my gaze for a split second. "Thanks."
"No problem." And it isn't. Because I've matured since I met Ryan, since I gained a brother. We balance each other out. I try to teach him to have fun and he's always teaching me how to be a man.
Now talking's just a waste of breath
and living's just a waste of death
--Fall Out Boy
I knock on Lari's door, trying not to bang, but needing to be heard over the pulsing music.
She'd left me a message while I was at the eight o'clock meeting.
Despite Seth's reassurances and my blissfully uneventful day at work, I've been having the cravings.
I'm shaky. I don't like it. Willa says it'll get better but that's not helping my immediate problem.
The door opens a crack and I see her eyes peeking through the door. She closes it and unchains the lock, letting me inside.
"What's up?" I get out before she pushes me backwards against the wall, kissing me.
I can taste the sour taste of liquor immediately and have to stop myself from falling into her kiss.
"I missed you, babe," she smiles. Her eyes are glassy and I can tell that she's been fucking with more than a bottle.
"What's going on, Lari?" I force myself to take a step back. "You okay?"
"Oh, I'm better than okay…did you know yesterday was my birthday? I know you didn't, but I'm telling you now, and since I've been clean for so long, I decided that I needed to do something just for me, to prove to myself that I'm doing better, that I'm totally okay and I'm not an addict," she says in a rush, distracted already from me and searching the immediate area until she locates a burning cigarette balanced on the table by the door.
"Lari…maybe you should call your sponsor…"
"I'm not relapsing, Ryan…" she says immediately. "I'm just…indulging. I'm better now," she starts but I stop listening.
I turn away from her voice and light a cigarette of my own. My hands are shaking.
Willa says that I'm not a conventional junkie, because I hate addiction to anything, but I'm still an addict. Even though I hate what the coke does to me, I hate who I am when I'm using, I know that if I ever taste it again that it would take a force of nature to tear me away.
Lari's Roxie all over again. I should've followed the program, I should have listened to Hailey and Willa's warnings about dating someone with a drug problem.
I've been fucking around with Lari, broadcasting my ability to be close to someone without becoming involved, but I said the same thing about Roxie and she…
She was important to me.
Lari's important to me.
But is she important enough for me to lose what I've worked for?
"Baby? Are you mad? Please don't be mad, I brought enough for both of us…" Lari says, beside me now.
And all the things that you never ever told me
And all the smiles that are ever gonna haunt me
Never coming home
Never coming home
Could I? Should I?
And all the wounds that are ever gonna scar me
For all the ghosts that are never gonna catch me
If I fall
--My Chemical Romance
"Sandy, stop, the boys will be home any minute," I giggle as he licks my ear again, his hand roaming under my blouse near my bellybutton.
"We'll hear the bike pull up, and Seth will be talking, we'll have warning," he murmurs, capturing my lips in his mouth.
"And you're going to have to listen to Seth with that pillow on your lap again," I laugh when we stop to catch our breath.
I love Sandy Cohen. I feel like a schoolgirl lately with the urge to scribble our names on my business notes.
He's such a great father and together, we've got two healthy boys again.
It's never easy, but somehow it isn't hard with Sandy.
The roar of Ryan's bike keeps us from going back down on the couch but there will be plenty of time for making out later.
When Ryan first came home, I didn't think that he was going to make it, that our family was going to make it. But he's one of the strongest people that I've ever met and he's slowly becoming the man that we all knew he could be. The strongest people are always the hardest to repair.
Sandy glances at me when the door doesn't open immediately.
"He's probably just smoking," I say.
"I know. But…"
"Go make me some hot chocolate and I'll get him," I say, kissing him softly.
I step into my slippers and make my way to the garage.
The door's still up and I can see Ryan's silhouette hunched over in a cloud of smoke. "Hi."
"Hey, Kirsten," he says softly.
"You okay?" I put a hand on his back and I can feel him trembling through the leather jacket.
"Lari's high," he says quietly, not looking at me as I put my arm completely around his shoulder and pull him close.
"Oh, honey…" I whisper. I don't ask him if he's high, I don't have to. He wouldn't be here if he'd used.
"I…I messed up. I should have left her alone…just like Roxie, I should've just left them both alone…"
"You have a weakness for beautiful women," I tell him, trying to lighten his dark mood.
"For damaged women," he replies. "I saw Marissa today…and she pigeonholed me, perfect, said that I always try to fix things, I always try to make things better…but I only make them worse, Kirsten…I…I can't help Lari…"
"It's not your job to fix Lari…"
"But…you guys are here for me, you guys are fixing me…"
"No, Ryan, you're doing this yourself. We've helped you when you needed it…but you can't help her if she's not ready…"
"She's all alone, her parents…"
"Ryan, what do you really know about her?"
He sighs. "Nothing. I thought…I thought if I didn't know anything that…that it wouldn't be like this…"
"You care. It's one of the reasons we love you so much. You always care."
He still won't look at me, but he takes a final drag off his cigarette and drops it in the decorative ashtray Hailey bought for him for his 30-day sobriety chip.
"I called her sponsor. It was the only thing I could think of," he says, steadying himself and turning to face me. "I couldn't stay there. I needed to come home."
"Welcome home," I say, and he steps closer, pulling me into a gentle hug.
I keep an arm around him, needing to tether him but he's not shaking as badly.
"I ordered you a helmet today, it's about time you went for a ride on the bike," he says as we walk by his rolling death machine.
"I've almost talked Sandy into buying a Harley with a sidecar," he smiles as we walk inside.
AN: Thanks to everyone that stuck with me through this one.