Afterwards

Chapter Five

Disclaimer: I do not own the O.C., or anything else you recognise.

Seth lay in bed, Captain Oates clutched tight to his chest as his brown eyes stared unblinkingly into the pale blue wall. Not even his favourite toy could soothe him now. Not when his father was sitting on the porch steps at six in the morning with his head in his hands, not when his mother was a tenuously reformed-alcoholic who'd unwittingly scattered egg-shells under everyone's feet.

Seth had poked his head through the curtains after being awoken by his cell phone's low-battery warning which had pierced even his dream sphere, pitching a thigh onto the windowsill to sit and think and stroke the Captain as he was wont to do, when he had spotted a morose figure on the steps outside the Cohen residence. Thinking the stranger at first to be a tramp, which he would later realize was very unlikely in a gated community, Seth rubbed his eyes only to realise the man was his father. Whose shoulders were shaking. Whose mass of black hair was still tousled from sleep yet appeared all the more unkempt from his hand occasionally running through it. Who was silently weeping.

Seth had sat there at the window, helpless. He didn't know how to help his father. He knew it couldn't be fixed with a hug and a lending of Captain Oates; it couldn't be fixed with his witty repertoire or his talent for drawing. He had felt embarrassed intruding on his father's grief, which he somehow instinctively knew was to do with his mother, but he had also, in that teenaged way, felt embarrassed by his father, and then there was the subsequent mortification that he was feeling this way. So he had slunk back into his bed with his embarrassment, and his own grief at the disintegration of the happy family he had known for so long.

It wasn't permanent. Things would get better. Seth knew no other way. He knew enough about Ryan's family, he thought, and he had been taught the dangers of alcoholism in one of the school's many health lessons. But he believed in the power of the Cohens, however corny that sounded, and he clung on to the belief that eventually all would be well because he couldn't conceive of it being any other way. But he didn't know how to help restore the equilibrium. He wasn't equipped to help his mother, didn't know how to interact with her even these days, and his father's feelings were all too close to Seth's own for Seth to even begin to comprehend tackling before his own. He was still very much the child, and had no clue how to help his parents. Thus he lay on his bed, worrying into the pit of his stomach that not even his beloved superheroes had a cure for this.

After maybe half an hour spent ruminating, Seth was no closer to finding a solution, however temporary. This was way out of his league. He sighed in resignation, then flung his dressing gown on and made his way to the door, hoping for some quality PS2 time, which would enable him to take his frustrations out on those imaginary monsters whom he had some chance of defeating.

Just as he got to his door, a soft knock landed on the other side of the wood.

"Seth?" came a low voice just above a whisper.

Seth opened his door in relief.

"Ryan, dude, fancy some quality time on the Playstation, just you, me, and Grand Theft Auto?"

Ryan scratched his head, looking more to the floor than to Seth.

"Uh…no thanks dude, I've actually been playing it a bit with your mother-"

"Yours too," Seth quickly interjected before the enormity of the scenario hit him. "Wait. You played the PS, not only without me, but with my mother?"

"Our mother," Ryan shot back at him playfully.

"Whatevs, dude. I can't believe you betrayed me like this."

"Well, since you're up anyway, you can help me with something."

"Ooh, a plan! A plan so cunning you could cut off its tail and call it a weasel?"

"Perhaps, bro, perhaps."

Ryan clapped Seth on the shoulder and manoeuvred him down the corridor.

"We, my friend, are cooking breakfast for Kirsten."

"Wait, what? At no point did I sign up for voluntary work, especially of a manual kind. I come from a long line of businessmen Ryan. We don't cook. We order in."

"Which is why it will be special for Kirsten," Ryan wheedled. "Come on Seth, she needs this."

Seth couldn't deny that his mother needed something. He didn't know if a full course breakfast was that something, but it was better than nothing.

"I think you might just have yourself a plan there, brother-from-another-mother."

Ryan stopped walking and narrowed his eyes.

"Don't ever call me that."

"No? Can't pull it off? It's the Jewfro, I knew it had powers of evil as well as good!"

Ryan turned as if to continue down the stairs but thought the better of it and raised a warning finger to his lips before he moved.

"Kirsten's asleep on the couch. Wake her and I will kill you myself."

"Whoa, dude, I get it. Stealth it is. I can be stealth, I'm very stealth don't you think Ry-oof!"

After a pointed nudge from Ryan, Seth fell silent. As he did though, another thought struck him. He pulled Ryan back a few paces.

"Dad's outside," he whispered.

"Uh, ok?" came the response, Ryan not really understanding.

"Dude, I think he needs this as much as her. Breakfast for two?"

"Breakfast for four," Ryan corrected.

Seth smiled. Ryan got it. Kirsten and Sandy weren't the only ones who needed help finding their way. What better way to do it than as a family? Even in dire situations the feeling that you aren't alone can be powerful enough to comfort you for awhile, and at seven o'clock in the morning if anyone needed comfort it was the Cohen family.

So the two set about making themselves busy in the kitchen. Ryan soon had the bacon sizzling, and an egg-related injury led Seth to relegate himself to table-setting duties whilst Ryan assembled the rest of breakfast. The mechanical routine of making breakfast had easily adjusted itself from one household to another, and Ryan idly calculated how long they had before the parentals should be summoned. He noted that Kirsten had not roused from her slumber despite the movement in the kitchen, and her slightly rosy cheeks testified to how deeply she had needed the rest. A rest that was soon to be shattered. Ryan looked at Seth sideways, unable to believe that he could be quiet for so long, when he saw the shiny silver inevitability of cutlery escaping Seth's grasp. As they tumbled towards the floor Ryan half-dived after it, hoping for a few more minutes' peace, but Seth was attempting to re-catch the fallen goods and the two collided, Ryan banging his head against the table, and Seth starting up guiltily as the metal clanged on the hardwood surface. The two froze, watching the sofa. There seemed to be no movement and they simultaneously heaved a sigh of relief.

Then Kirsten's blonde mop appeared over the top, a bleary-eyed mother looking confusedly at her boys. Seth and Ryan stood, attempting to shield the half-prepared kitchen table from her eyes. Kirsten looked at the two, trying to decipher their shifty faux-innocent looks, when…

"Do I smell bacon?"

"Uh…"

"Well…"

"Could you get Dad please? And not look backwards at all? He's outside. No looking now!" Seth called after his mother as she ran a hand through long blonde locks, tightening her dressing-gown and wrinkling her forehead in confusion. She opened the front door, and Seth turned to Ryan.

"Action stations Ryan! Run! It's the final countdown, the - oof!"

"Alright Seth, how about you sit down and try to leave the cutlery exactly as I am arranging it, then try not to touch anything as I serve up the food?"

Ryan's annoyance at Seth waking Kirsten up was dissipating quickly, and it was more from the shock of the loud sound punctuating the silence, so he tried to suppress a smile as Seth whipped him with a dishcloth from his seat and proceeded to put his quickness to the test.

Outside, Kirsten sat down next to Sandy. She knew instinctively that he'd been crying, his posture was one she'd seen very rarely, hunched and defeated and lonely. She put her arm around him, whispering nothings into his ear until he looked at her. The red-rimmed eyes were almost gone, Sandy had stayed out to try and rid himself of these tell-tale signs before he went back in, but somehow she had known. She always knew. He let her take his face in her hands, let her kiss him softly on the lips, let her stare at him with compassion and love and understanding.

"It'll be ok, Sandy," she whispered.

"How?" He looked at her helplessly, wishing he knew.

"Because it always is. It's hard, and it won't be easy, but we'll try. I'll try."

She kissed him on the top of his head and pulled him close to her. She ran her delicate hands through his shaggy locks and he spent a moment revelling in the comfort. He tightened his arms around her small waist, drawing strength from his wife, before shifting to sit up properly. He reciprocated her earlier kiss with a revitalized peck on her lips, a broad smile lighting up his features.

"I feel some Cohen-brand optimism is the order of the day," he smiled, lifting his wife onto her feet as he stood up. He drew her in again for a hug, and they spent a moment swaying on the porch. Sandy drew in a deep breath of hair, savouring Kirsten, because in that moment, there were only them.

He looked at her, a serious look piercing her very soul.

"I love you, and we'll deal with it together, ok? Together. Don't shut me out Kirsten, I know you don't always mean to but I need you to help me ok? I need you. I know it won't be easy, I know some days you just wanna curl up in a ball and let the world pass you by, but honey, we've got so much to live for, so much to do, so much to see. There will be days when you're struggling, hell, there'll be days when I'm struggling, but together, we're unstoppable. We're unbreakable. We're -"

"I think you should stop before you burst out into song."

"I can't believe you just salted my game."

"What?" Kirsten looked bemusedly at her husband. "Come on, I'm sure I smelled bacon before." She pulled Sandy inside, then turned around. "Thank you," she said earnestly, looking at him square in the eyes. "I couldn't do it without you. You and the boys are why I can get through this."

"It should be for yourself too, Kirsten."

The worried look was back, and Kirsten smiled noncommittally, pulling Sandy further towards the kitchen before Seth sprung out of the door, whether at pains to prevent the parents from entering the kitchen before Ryan could put the final touches on the table, or at pains to escape the wrath of Chef Ryan for leaving the table, who knew? But with a strange bow imitated from some French stereotypical chef which had never quite reached perfection, he announced, in a deep booming voice:

"It's a culinary delight, it's a meal fit for kings, it's…breakfast for the Cohens! If you'd like to follow me…"

Seth continued babbling as they sat down at the table, with Kirsten whispering in Sandy's ear "see, I told you there was bacon!", and Sandy approving the bagel selection, and Ryan took a step back to look at the family, happy in this moment. Breakfast was always their time, and the house never felt so alive as it did in the mornings, even when everyone wasn't rushing around. Kirsten noticed Ryan looking and pulled him towards the spare seat next to her, murmuring a heartfelt thank you and squeezing his hand as Seth and Sandy debated the best breakfast delicacy. Ryan smiled as he focused on his plate. Kirsten always knew how to reach him without making a scene, and he was glad she had perked up. He didn't know for how long, but then, none of them did. If Ryan had learnt anything it was that life wasn't about the big moments, no, that was all about reacting. It was in the small moments that he truly lived, and he thought if he could live a lifetime of moments like this, he would die happy. He tucked into his bacon, half-choking as Seth delivered the punch line to an extremely bad joke, before Sandy slapped a manly hand on his back to dislodge the food. A lifetime of ordinary was not a bad choice, indeed.