In His Shadow
Part 1: The Assignment
Sandy scanned the Cohen dinner table with a sigh of satisfaction.
Everyone was home. His wife and sons were laughing, trading take-out containers, arguing playfully about the food, filling their plates. There was something special about the sheer symmetry—two heads crowned with fine, blonde hair, two with unruly brunette mops, two quiet, reserved people, two—well, Sandy doubted if "loquacious" really conveyed Seth's ability to run verbal marathons, but it was as extreme a label as he was willing to apply to himself.
In all, Sandy thought, everything was damn near perfect. His chest clenched for a moment against a surge of fierce protectiveness, fueled by remembered fear. Over the last few months, Sandy had learned just how fragile family was; his own had come so close—much too close--to shattering.
Sandy shoved away those memories: Kirsten's alcoholism, her stint in rehab, the times she had lashed out and relapsed; Trey's death, the devastating guilt and grief that threatened to suck the life out of both his sons; Sandy's own burden of culpability, his exhaustion as he tried to keep the people he loved from splintering into pieces too jagged ever to mend.
But they were all there now around his table. They were together and life had resumed its familiar, comforting pattern.
"So, boys," Sandy asked, passing the salad, "anything interesting happen at school today?"
Seth smiled widely and hugged himself. "Ooh," he cooed. "I always get such a warm fuzzy feeling when Sandy Cohen becomes Papa Cliché. Don't you, Ryan? 'Did anything interesting happen at school'? That is just so Ward Cleaver of you, Dad . . . Mmm, sauce down this way, please, Mom. Must. Have. More. Sauce."
"Hey," Sandy protested, spearing a piece of ravioli. "Your mother and I happen to be concerned parents, thank you very much. We want to know what goes on in our kids' lives. So . . ."
"Okay then, since you asked, something pretty funny actually did happen today--" Seth began.
Sandy held up a warning finger. "Hold that thought, son. How about if we let Ryan answer first? He never gets a word in edgewise after the Seth Cohen filibuster begins."
"Man," Seth grumbled, scowling at a slice of radish impaled on his fork. "Once, just once, a guy talks for two hours straight, maybe two-and-a-half, and they act like he never shuts up."
"Seth . . ." Kirsten cautioned.
"Right." Seth popped the radish into his mouth. "Shutting up now. My mouth will open only to eat. But not to chew. Because that would be rude."
Sandy poured a glass of sparkling grape juice and passed it to Kirsten. "So, Ryan," he prompted. "Did anything interesting happen in school today? Feel free to expand the question, by the way—before school, after school, during lunch?"
Ryan held his fork in his mouth for a moment, considering.
"Dude," Seth whispered. "If you have to think about it that hard, probably really not so interesting . . . Hey!" He reached down and rubbed his calf, glaring accusingly at his mother. "Did you just kick me, Mom?"
"I don't know, sweetie," Kirsten replied innocently. "Did I? I was just crossing my legs. Sorry."
Seth stabbed a meatball, glowering. "Man, I am so not letting Summer spend any more quality time with you. Shopping," he scoffed. "Right. You guys haven't been shopping. She's been giving you shut-up-Seth lessons."
"Wonder if Summer's got an opening. I'd like to sign up for that class," Sandy teased, before turning his attention back to Ryan. "How about it, kid? Anything you want to share?"
Ryan took a deep breath and put his fork down. "Actually, Sandy, I . . . um . . . I'm taking a sociology course this semester."
"Damn!" Seth exclaimed. "Now that? Is fascinating. Okay, is it my turn to talk yet? 'Cause see, before third period today--"
Kirsten raised her eyebrows. She deliberately re-crossed her legs, and Seth scooted his chair away in alarm. "Tell us about the class, Ryan," she urged. "Seth won't interrupt you again. Will you, Seth?"
Shoving a mouthful of salad into his mouth, Seth waved his finger an emphatic no.
Ryan gave a lopsided smile. "Well, we got this assignment in soc today," he reported. His voice sounded oddly tentative, and he began to fold his napkin into a tightly furled fan. "It's . . . we're supposed to shadow somebody for a day. Find out what they do, what they enjoy about their jobs, what they dislike. You know, kind of a case study thing. And then we have to write a paper." Abruptly, he grabbed his glass, guzzling the water and coughing a bit as it rushed down his throat.
"Real-life experience. Sounds like an interesting assignment," Sandy observed. "Although I suppose that does depend on the person you shadow. Have you picked somebody, Ryan?"
Ryan's fingers twisted his napkin-fan into a pretzel shape. "Um . . . I thought maybe, you? I mean," he added hastily, "if it wouldn't be inconvenient or anything, Sandy."
Seth choked on a mouthful of pasta. "Dad?" he demanded. "You could pick anybody, and you want to spend the day following Dad around? Dude, that's just . . . it's pitiful, really. Hey, I met George Lucas once. Want me to see if he'd let you hang out with him?"
"I'm pitiful?" Sandy drawled. "Gee, son, thanks." He threw a mock-glare at Seth and then turned to study Ryan. The boy's gaze was fixed on his plate, eyes shadowed by his lashes, his cheeks faintly flushed. Clearly, Sandy realized, Ryan was uncomfortable, but he couldn't understand why.
"Okay, no, now see, I didn't say you were pitiful, Dad," Seth explained, with a placating grin. "It's just . . . the idea of spending a day with you? I mean, you're a lawyer. What's Ryan going to do? Watch you write a brief? . . . Seriously, man, about the George Lucas thing . . ."
"We're supposed to pick somebody we really admire," Ryan blurted. He gripped the edge of the table and looked up, swallowing hard. "The point of the assignment is to choose somebody who we consider . . . a role model . . . and spend the day finding out how he—or she—came to be such a . . . a good person, I guess."
There was a moment of silence at the dinner table. Something like panic flickered across Ryan's face as his eyes darted from Sandy to Kirsten to Seth and back again. Then Sandy smiled, reached over and squeezed Ryan's shoulder. "Thank you, kid," he said softly. "I'd be honored to have you shadow me for a day."
Ryan's bangs lifted under the breath he exhaled. "Thanks. Or, you're welcome? Anyway, good. That's just . . . it's good." He gulped some more water and added anxiously, "Kirsten? You know if I could have picked two people--"
"Oh, sweetie." Kirsten smiled, her voice as warm and reassuring as an embrace. "It's all right, really. In fact, it's wonderful. You made the perfect choice."
Relieved, Ryan risked a tentative grin, releasing his stranglehold on his napkin.
"So!" Sandy exclaimed exuberantly, raising his glass. "A toast to the unbeatable team of S. Cohen and R. Atwood." He waited while everyone took ceremonial sips of their sparkling grape juice. Then he suggested, "Let me check my appointment book, kid, see if I can't find a day when you won't have to spend hours doing something boring. Like watch me write a brief." Sandy wiggled his eyebrows meaningfully at Seth, who moaned and hid his head in his hands.
"Actually, Sandy, we can't choose the day. Unless there's a real problem, it pretty much has to be next Monday. Mrs. Suchan--the teacher—has already arranged for us to be excused from our other classes."
Seth's head bobbed up. "Whoa, whoa, wait up there, buddy," he ordered. "Let me get this straight. You get the day off school? Okay, see, suddenly your enthusiasm for this whole assignment makes sense. I mean, even Dad's not as boring as Dr. Hericks."
Ryan rolled his eyes. "Well, come on, Seth. What did you think? I was going to spend the day with Sandy and send my clone to class?"
"Okay, dude, now that's an idea." Seth laced his fingers together and propped his chin on them, peering at Ryan thoughtfully. "If you spent the day with George Lucas, you could probably learn how to do that. So, how about this . . . ?"
"Ryan," Sandy interjected. His face was grave, and his tone had become inexplicably serious. "You said next Monday? The sixteenth?"
"Yeah," Ryan confirmed, puzzled and a little concerned. "Is that a problem for you?"
Sandy pushed the ravioli around his plate absently. "No. No, it's not," he replied. "It'll be fine, Ryan. There's one appointment . . . But I'll reschedule it, that's all. Monday will be fine."
"Okay," Ryan agreed uncertainly. "So, what time will you want to get started?"
Sandy grinned. "Six o'clock," he said promptly.
Ryan's fork clattered back to his plate, splattering drops of sauce. "Oops. Sorry. But . . . six?" he demanded, scrubbing the table with his napkin. "In the morning? Sandy, you don't go to work that early."
"Nope. I surf. You'll need to be up by six so we can go surfing." Ryan's eyes widened incredulously and Sandy explained, "You're supposed to shadow me for the day, right, kid? Well, you know, I have a shadow the minute the sun comes up, and the sun is up when I go surfing, so . . ."
"So six o'clock," Ryan groaned.
Seth dimpled smugly. "Happy about your choice now, dude? Just wait until he sings along with show tunes in the car." He leaned over to whisper confidentially, "Dad knows hundreds of them. Literally. Hundreds, bro. Including all the songs to You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown."
Simultaneously, Kirsten kicked Seth under the table, Ryan elbowed him in the ribs, and Sandy tossed a roll that hit him on the chin.
"Hey, ow! Ow! And once more, ow! Fine," Seth muttered. "Shutting up again. Except, hey . . . doesn't anybody want to hear what happened before third period?"
Ryan planted his surfboard next to Sandy's and took a deep, reverent breath as he looked around. "You really like this, huh?" he asked.
Sandy smiled. He stretched, taking a moment to appreciate the purity of the cloudless morning sky, the raw energy of waves chasing each other to shore, the fine, firm sand beneath his feet.
"Oh yeah, Ryan," he breathed. "This, I absolutely love. It all makes me feel . . . clean, somehow. In proportion. Connected to the world."
Ryan nodded. He had stumbled down the path to the ocean, yawning, and squinting blearily against the sun, but now, standing beside Sandy, sensing the serenity and confidence that radiated from the man, Ryan suddenly felt completely awake. Every muscle, every nerve ending, asserted itself, and he bounced a little on the balls of his feet.
If he had been younger, someone else—a little boy out on the beach with his dad—Ryan would have slipped his hand inside Sandy's just as a gesture of trust, a way they could share the perfection of the moment.
"I get that," Ryan said softly. "Being out here . . . it makes you feel sort of like . . . I don't know . . . being reborn."
"Exactly." Sandy turned from the horizon to look at Ryan. His hands were clasped behind his neck, his head tilting upwards, and his eyes reflected the sky, guileless and blue. Impulsively, Sandy reached over and ruffled Ryan's hair, then slid his arm down to clasp his shoulders. "I am really glad to have you here, kid."
Ryan flushed. That open-ended "here", the brief embrace, Sandy's smile, wide and warm as the sun . . . Ryan could feel them all melting something tight and sharp that had been frozen inside of him.
"Thanks," he said shyly. His voice caught, just a little. "I'm really glad to be here."
"Okay then." Sandy rubbed his hands together, and then crouched down next to his surfboard. "Time to do this thing, kid. You ready?"
"I guess," Ryan answered, trying to sound more positive than he felt. "Um . . . Sandy. Did you surf when you lived in New York? In the Atlantic Ocean, I mean?"
"Nope. Never even thought of it, until I moved here. You know that New Age phrase—'find your bliss'? Well, Ryan, this is mine." Sandy's gesture encompassed the rolling waves, the hills framing the beach, the houses in the distance.
"So you've never thought about going back to the Bronx? Even though you lived there for sixteen years?"
Sandy considered the question, frowning slightly. "Sure, I've thought about going back. I've even done it a few times. But just to visit. That's not my home anymore." He sat back on his heels, waiting to continue until Ryan looked up and met his eyes. "Sometimes we find our true homes—even our real families--a little later in life, kid. We don't always belong where we grew up."
"We don't?" Ryan swallowed, keeping his eye downcast. "You really believe that, Sandy?"
"I'm sure of it . . . Hey, don't be stingy with the wax, Ryan. There's plenty more in the can. You need more right there, in the middle."
"Okay . . . ." Obediently, Ryan began to recoat his board. "So, Sandy, I was wondering, why doesn't Seth surf with you? I mean, he's comfortable with water—he sails. And he's always on his skateboard, so he's got the balance for it. Surfing seems like, I don't know, something he would enjoy."
Sandy pushed his hair off his face, squinting into the rising sun. "You'd think so, wouldn't you? And believe me, kid, I tried. When Seth was eleven, I finally got him down here—no easy task at 6 a.m., by the way. Because back then, getting that boy up before nine o'clock? Practically impossible."
"Yeah?" Ryan grinned ruefully, thinking about all the mornings when Seth woke him before a single sliver of light had splintered the sky. "Wish he hadn't outgrown that . . . So, what happened when he tried it?"
"He was doing great," Sandy recalled. "I showed him the basics, we practiced, he caught a wave, and he looked terrific out there, like a natural—but then he wiped out and it was all over."
"Yeah? Why? Did the board hit him or something?"
Sandy shook his head sadly. "He swallowed a fish."
"He—what? He swallowed a fish?" Ryan's eyes widened and he choked back a snort of laughter. "Seth—swallowed a fish?"
"Well, he said he did," Sandy explained. "He claimed he could feel it swimming in his stomach. For two weeks, he slept sitting up in a chair. Seth told us that if he laid down, the fish would swim up his throat and he'd wake up with it in his mouth." Sandy sighed, although his eyes were dancing. "I could never get him back on a surfboard after that."
"A fish. Swimming up his throat into his mouth. God, that is too—Wait. Sandy?" Abruptly, Ryan stopped chuckling and licked his lips. "That didn't really happen, though. It's just a Seth Cohen myth, right? I mean, if I wipe out this morning, there's no chance I'm going to swallow a fish, is there?"
"Guess we'll just have to wait and see, kid." Sandy grinned playfully and slung an arm around Ryan's shoulders. "You do like sushi though, don't you?"
"Now see, this is the way to start the day, Ryan," Sandy proclaimed as they ambled into the Cohen kitchen. "Fresh air, some exercise to get the blood moving, a bagel, a good cup of coffee, and—" He paused to pull Kirsten close. "A good morning kiss from a beautiful woman."
Ryan grinned. He poured himself a bowl of dry cereal, grabbed a mug, and was headed toward the counter when Kirsten stopped him.
"You forgot the last item on the list, surfer boy," she teased. She brushed a kiss on his cheek as Ryan ducked down and then ran her fingers across his chin, frowning. "Sweetie, didn't you put on sunscreen? You're going to burn."
Ryan touched his skin, wincing slightly. "Oh yeah. Forgot. It was six in the morning," he explained as he sat down at the counter. "Hey, Seth."
Seth rustled the newspaper he was hiding behind, but made no other greeting.
"Sandy," Kirsten scolded, "why didn't you remind Ryan to put on sunscreen?"
Sandy shrugged. "Forgot. It was six in the morning," he parroted. "We'll remember next time though, right, kid?"
"Okay, whoa now!" Seth protested. He slammed the newspaper down, staring accusingly from his father to Ryan. "What is this 'next time' business, Dad? Ryan? This was a one-shot, wasn't it, dude? You're not going to go surfing again."
Ryan popped a Lucky Charm in his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. "I might," he confessed. "I mean, if Sandy doesn't mind putting up with a novice. It was sort of . . ." He darted a glance at Sandy, gave a crooked smile and finished quietly, "It was nice."
"Oh no. No, no, and no. This? This is so not acceptable," Seth declared. "Come on, buddy, what about our routine? Seth-Ryan time? Do you know I went out to the pool house this morning, all ready to map out my day with you, and the place was empty?"
"Of course it was empty. You knew I was going surfing with your dad, Seth."
"I forgot! You forgot sunscreen, I forgot you were going out . . . You see how wrong this all is? Now my GP for today is ruined, thank you very much, RA," Seth pouted. "And you too, SC." His lower lip jutted out, but at the sight of his father's raised eyebrows Seth pulled it in quickly.
Kirsten and Sandy exchanged amused looks over Seth's head. "He's your son," Kirsten said pointedly.
"I know, I know," Sandy sighed. "You don't have to rub it in." He put his hand on Seth's shoulder. "Son, if Ryan wants to keep going surfing, you could always join us. Since you're up so early anyway . . ."
Seth choked on a mouthful of coffee. "Don't even," he warned. "That subject is so closed. Ryan, you're just humoring, Dad, right? You can't tell me that you really enjoyed the whole waves-spitting-at-you experience."
"Hmm." Ryan pursed his lips, considering. "I didn't enjoy getting up at six o'clock. But then," he pointed out meaningfully, "I never do. And yet somehow, I never get to sleep in anyway. On the other hand, I did enjoy being outside. And the exercise. And the company."
Seth shook his head in despair.
"Swallowing salt water, though," Ryan recalled. "That was no fun." He waited until Seth looked up hopefully before adding with a wicked grin, "But I guess it was better than swallowing a fish. A slippery, scaly, squirmy fish that would swim around and around in my stomach . . ."
"Dad!" Seth yelped. "You told! Please say you didn't spill the whole sleeping . . . throat . . . mouth . . . much panic and insomnia story."
"It slipped out," Sandy claimed, adroitly catching the bagel Seth threw at him. "Sorry about that, son. Okay, Ryan—we've got to get dressed if we're going to drop Seth at school."
Ryan grabbed a handful of dry cereal and headed for the door. "Be ready in ten . . . Hey, Sandy," he suggested, glancing mischievously over his shoulder. "Maybe you should sing songs from The Little Mermaid while Seth is in the car."
"You're not funny, Snoopy!" Seth yelled. Ryan didn't turn around, but he scratched the side of his head with his middle finger slowly and deliberately as he went out. "And I saw that!"
"Damn," Seth muttered, as Ryan reentered the kitchen, showered, dressed, and finger-combing his wet hair.
Kirsten smiled sweetly and tapped off the oven timer. "Eight and a half minutes. Pay up, Seth."
Seth dug into his back pocket, pulled out his wallet and reluctantly counted five singles into his mother's outstretched hand.
"Dude," Ryan laughed. "You never learn."
"Yeah, well, you'll be late one of these days," Seth predicted sourly. "Anyway, your hair's not dry. That should add two minutes to your time. At least."
Ryan shrugged. "Your dad said dressed. I'm dressed. There was no mention of dry hair." He shook his head vigorously, splattering stray drops onto Seth's shoulders. "Yeah, though, that does feel better."
"Hey, come on!" Seth protested, flicking the water off his vest. "You know, just for the record, this Comedian Ryan? Does not amuse. Stick with what works for you, dude. The brooding. The angst. The sideways glares. The silent threats . . . Yeah, see, like that one there." Seth took a few hasty steps backwards and slid behind Kirsten. "I think I'll just wait over here for Dad."
"Actually, Seth, don't you need to get the . . . um . . .?" Kirsten prompted vaguely, gesturing to the living room.
"What? Oh, right. The um." Seth bobbed his head and backed out of the kitchen, keeping a watchful eye on Ryan the whole time.
Ryan's brows furrowed. "The . . . um?" he echoed suspiciously.
"Oh, just a little something, that's all." Kirsten swept the damp hair back off Ryan's forehead. "Better," she said. "I like to be able to see your face."
"Is this all right? What I'm wearing?" Ryan asked, indicating his dark jeans and sweater. "I mean, Sandy said that I didn't have to wear a suit, but . . ." His mouth twisted into a self-conscious grimace. "I don't want to embarrass him or anything."
"You look fine," Kirsten promised. "And you could never embarrass Sandy. Now the other way around . . ." She raised her eyebrows meaningfully, and Ryan laughed, then shushed himself as Sandy came in..
"Good," Sandy declared, adjusting his tie and nodding with approval at Ryan. "You're all ready. Where's Seth?"
"Right here." Seth stepped back into the kitchen, holding something behind his back. "And Ryan's not quite ready. You need your school bag, right, dude?"
Ryan glanced around in confusion. "Yeah. And it should be on the table where I left it. Seth . . . do you have my bag?"
Seth shook his head. "No, bro, no, I don't," he replied. "Because today you are not Ryan Atwood, aka Kid Chino, Harbor High senior and sometime superhero. Today you are the associate of Mr. Sanford Cohen, Esquire. So today instead of carrying your school bag, you, my good man, will be carrying . . . This! Ta da!"
With a flourish, Seth produced a briefcase, waving it in front of Ryan's face.
Ryan's eyes widened. "That? I'm supposed to carry that?"
"Hey, my old briefcase," Sandy observed. He took it from Seth and stroked the leather affectionately. "Nice touch, son . . ." Giving it a final, nostalgic pat, he handed it to Ryan. "Here you go, kid."
"Oh . . . kay," Ryan said doubtfully. "I mean, if you want me to use it. Is my stuff in here, Seth?"
"Everything that you'll need today," Seth affirmed. "Laptop. Paper, Pens. Cell phone." He lowered his voice and whispered conspiratorially. "But don't worry, Ryan. I didn't put in any of your . . . special things. You know—the stuff you wouldn't want Dad to see."
"Seth!" Ryan's cheeks flamed. "Sandy—Kirsten . . . I swear. I don't have any special things. . . Shit, Seth," he growled. "Come on. Tell them."
Seth nodded solemnly. "Right. No special things at all." He smiled and put a finger to his lips. "You just stick with that story, Ryan. People will believe you. Sure they will."
Kirsten laughed and swatted Seth playfully. "Stop teasing, sweetie. You're making Ryan blush."
"Yeah? I thought that was sunburn." Seth danced away as Ryan swung the briefcase in his direction. "Hey, careful there, guy," he warned. "You don't want to bruise the leather. That's a relic. It dates back to Dad's days in the P.D.'s office."
"Really?" Ryan looked down at the briefcase with sudden respect, running his fingers reverently over the clasp. "The P.D.'s office, huh?"
Sandy watched him for a moment, his expression thoughtful and fond. "You know, you look good with it, kid," he said quietly. "Tell you what. Why don't you keep that? You don't have to use it, but I'd like for you to have it."
"Yeah? You would?" Ryan's smile started in his eyes and warmed his whole body. He hefted the briefcase experimentally, and adjusted his grip. "Thanks, Sandy. That's just . . . I'll take good care of it. Thanks."
Kirsten rubbed his arm affectionately. "Now, if you were wearing a suit, sweetie? You'd look just like a lawyer."
"Hmm. Ryan Atwood, Attorney-at-Law," Seth intoned thoughtfully. "Right. There's an appropriate career choice. I can hear his opening argument now: 'Ladies and gentlemen of the jury. My client is innocent. I'll prove it. Thank you.'"
"Hey!" Ryan protested. "That says it all, right? People appreciate it if you don't waste their time with meaningless words, Seth."
"Court stenographers would love you, dude." Seth picked up his schoolbag and grinned smugly as he started for the door. Suddenly he swiveled around, scowling. "Wait, wait now. That 'waste their time' comment? 'Meaningless words'? That was directed at me right?" he demanded. "Okay now, Ryan? I am officially offended. And just for that, I'm not going to speak to you from the time I get to school till the time I come home . . ."
"Coincidentally, the exact time that I'll be with your dad so you can't speak to me."
"Yeah," Seth conceded. "But no phone calls either, Ryan. Think about it. You'll get bored, you'll want something to break the monotony, some Seth-style entertainment, so what will you do? You'll call me. And I? Will not answer. Nope. Not a chance."
"You're not allowed to take or make cell phone calls in class, Seth."
"So not the point, dude! You mock, but I'm telling you, I shall be incommunicado. Mute. Quiet as the Sphinx. You will not get a word out of me . . ."
"Yeah? Could that maybe start now?" Ryan pushed Seth forcibly out the door, shaking his head as Seth's voice trailed on, making more threats of absolute silence.
Sandy gave Kirsten a quick, fervent kiss. "Our kids," he commented wryly. "Gotta love them."
"Yes, we do," Kirsten laughed. She held his hand and walked with him to the door. "Sandy, I hope you and Ryan . . . well, I just hope you have a really good day together." There was a degree of urgency in her tone. "Because spending time alone with you like this? I think it's more than just an assignment or a day out of school for him. It means a lot to Ryan."
Sandy nodded and kissed Kirsten again. "I know," he agreed. "It means a lot to me too."