AN: Thanks for everyone who stuck by me in this story despite my sin of killing Seth. I appreciate all the reviews and people who've encouraged me to finish this. Ta-da!
Ryan watched as Monica's grandchildren chased bubbles on the beach.
Lindsay, Zach, Marissa, Summer and Luke were catching up and swapping stories on the patio and he saw Kirsten and Sandy cornered by Julie and Caleb near the grill.
It was a good day. Apart from the lack of Seth…it was one of the best birthdays he'd ever had.
"Hey, buddy," Trey smiled, sitting down beside him on the stairs. He pulled a cigarette from behind his ear and lit it, glancing to make sure Kirsten was far enough away.
"Hey. I'm really glad you could make it," Ryan grinned.
"Yeah. Me, too. Fresno's a lot different than I remember," Trey said.
"It was a long time ago."
"We never had birthday parties like this," he said.
Ryan nodded. Their parents hadn't really been the celebrating type.
"Remember the last year I lived at home? You took me out to the quarry and we drank all of AJ's whiskey and smoked all of mom's weed…that was a good birthday for me."
"You wouldn't even drive me home because you were fucking that blonde from the truck stop in the car," Ryan remembered.
"You didn't go home, punk, you went right to Teresa's."
Ryan nodded. True. He'd forgotten about that.
It was strange. He had lived so many different lives and he was only turning eighteen today.
Fresno and Chino with Trey and Dawn. Newport with Seth. Newport with Kirsten and Sandy.
"Don't start the Atwood brood, it's your birthday. What did I say?" Trey asked, reading him.
"I was just thinking. About…everything. I mean…how we ended up here. That was only a couple of years ago…"
"Ry. Some things are out of our control. You're where you belong. Seth would want you here. Yeah, he'd want to be here, too, but that's out of our control."
Ryan's gaze fell on the Cohens.
He loved them. He'd never give them up. "You would've liked Seth."
"I know," Trey winked, patting him on the back. "Now, while it's quiet, why don't you show me your guitar, I know you won't play it in front of everyone," he grinned.
Ryan got up and they managed to get inside before anyone even realized they were gone.
"I'll check in the house, Trey's gone, too, so they must be together," Summer told Kirsten as they got ready to put the candles on the second cake of the day.
Everyone seemed to be having a good time, she'd seen Ryan laughing more today than the past month combined, and his smiles were genuine, not polite.
Trey had apologized to her as soon as she'd let him in the house and after a few minutes of awkwardness, he'd admitted that he was seeing someone in Fresno and that there were no hard feelings between them. So she felt confident to go looking for him and Ryan.
She pushed open the door to Ryan's bedroom a crack. She recognized the melody from the radio, but not the soothing strumming. She was surprised to see Ryan.
Ryan was playing the guitar with his bare fingers and Trey was quietly advising him from across the room.
She leaned against the door and smiled.
Ryan seemed at peace for the first time since the fire that took Seth from them.
"Hey," Trey recognized her presence first. Ryan stopped playing and smiled at her.
"You really can play," she said.
He smiled back. "Thanks, Summer."
"Time for cake."
"More cake?" Ryan groaned.
"Come on," Summer said. "It's present time, too."
"Of course," she replied, walking over and pulling him to his feet. "Come on, Chino. You, too, punk," she nudged Trey.
Ryan embraced her suddenly. "I mean it. Thank you."
She put her arms around him. "You deserve it. You're my best friend and you deserve this."
Sandy closed the door as Monica and her family followed Caleb and Julie to their cars. Somehow, Ryan had been adopted into another family and seeing him play with Monica's grandchildren was something he'd felt blessed to see.
"Hey." The high-pitched helium voice startled him.
He turned around and Kirsten kissed him passionately, pressing him against the door.
Ryan had told him that they were acting like newlyweds, but he'd always loved Kirsten.
Since the first time he kissed her, he'd been in love with her.
She giggled and finally ended their kiss, leaving them both breathless.
"What's gotten into you?"
"I'm happy. Ryan's happy and you're happy and…"
"I didn't think I could ever be happy again…but…as much as I miss Seth…I can finally see past the fire. He's…watching over us, Sandy and I feel like he's happy that we're happy…"
He held her tight.
He loved her so much.
"Ryan's going out with the kids…want to go upstairs?"
"Honey…" he started.
She kissed his neck. "We'll make it quick…we can be fully clothed before anyone gets back…"
"Chino, what the hell are you planning? Why are we hauling around all these balloons?" Summer called, batting at one of the straw balloons that had floated into the front seat of the Hummer.
Zach, Lindsay, Luke and the comic book club were following and parked their cars in the lot outside the graveyard.
"I just think that we need to put these balloons to good use," Ryan said. "Besides, if we don't I think Sandy and Jimmy would have some kind of helium overdose."
All his friends had balloons in their hands, the ribbons grasped in their palms.
He led the way to the well-manicured grave with a picture of Seth's smiling face etched in the marble.
Summer's hand found his and he turned to face his friends.
"I just wanted Seth to be a part of this day. Thanks, guys, for coming out todayand for sticking with me. It's been…a rough few months and I know that all of you have been right there with me. I just…wanted to say thanks," Ryan said.
"Cohen loves balloons," Summer smiled.
After a long moment of silence, they let go of their balloons.
Ryan watched as the balloons floated up into the blue sky.