Title: Ghost
Author: Minttown1
Rating: T
Fandom: Young Americans
Pairing: Ryder/Will
Summary: Everything dies in autumn, sometimes without anyone's noticing. And occasionally there's a spark of life.
Disclaimer: This is a fannish work, not for profit. Recognizable characters are property of the WB and various other corporate entities.
Notes: Set during the autumn term following the series. Gratitude to Marita for reading over this, and to Ash for saying nice things about my writing.

It's almost Halloween. Even without the calendar, you'd know: your tan has completely faded, just in time to play ghost.

You kind of feel like one, too. Too busy to spend much time off-campus, and Scout's busy with football and Hamilton's busy moping. An hour a day with Finn, but other than that, you don't spend much time with anyone you know.

Well, there is one exception. You're up until one most mornings, fighting with algebra, but you're not alone in the common room. Ryder's there, always, sleeping on the couch; after the third night, he stopped saying a word, just glared warily and lay down. You don't say anything, either.

Some nights he only pretends to sleep. You know he's awake as certainly as you know he's watching you, and you don't think about why and don't want to know, but you never tell him to stop looking.

It's a week until Halloween. Everyone whispers about Rawley traditions, any excuse for a party, and you laugh off the suggestion that Halloween can be about getting laid instead of getting candy. At your age, the mention of sex should be enough, but you're thinking about smeared face paint and crushed faerie wings. Nothing works.

As October wears on and the common room gets colder, Ryder gives up any pretense of sleep, instead sitting in a chair by an open window and smoking. Sometimes he turns through the pages of an old book that you can tell he's not reading. Still, it's not your place to ask him what's wrong.

He glances up once and says to you, "Krudski." You look across the room, waiting, but nothing comes, no sarcastic insult and no heartfelt confession. He stares at you.

You didn't expect anything but you expected more than nothing, so after a minute you tear your eyes away, back to your work, and say, "What, Ryder?"

His eyes are focused on the top of your head. You know. He's watching you and he hasn't breathed since you looked away. Finally he stands, tosses his book on a table and his cigarette out the window, waits for you to look up at him again, then says, "I don't know why I spend my fucking time here with you."

Neither do you.

It's the day before Halloween. Scout tells you exactly why Ryder has been spending his fucking time with you: the second night of fall term, Ryder's roommate got tired of his bullshit and told him to stay out. It's not really allowed, but among teenage boys some things hold greater sway than administrative policies.

You wonder just what this roommate has on Ryder.

"What are you wearing tomorrow night?" you ask Scout, Ryder forgotten.

"I don't know, Will. Clothes." Scout pauses a moment, then laughs. "God, Will, it's not that kind of Halloween party."

That makes a lot more sense. You blush and look away.

"Just wear something nice." Scout throws an arm around your shoulder and stares off in the general direction of Rawley Girls'. "You could use a little love."

"Really?" you ask.

"Really. You might sleep better."

"I sleep fine," you tell him. "I just don't have time to do it." You're taking more credits than you have to. You definitely feel that you have something to prove.

You stumble when Ryder's hand makes contact with the small of your back, pushes. When you turn around, he's already halfway up the path, making a snide remark at another stranger.

"What's your problem?" Scout yells after him.

He doesn't answer, doesn't even turn. You rub at your back.

Everyone has something to prove.

It's Halloween. Finn reads Poe even though it has nothing to do with the syllabus. You're almost sixteen, but you still appreciate the nod to Halloween as something significant. You can remember running from house to house with Bella, you in your dad's old jersey and her in her dad's old work shirt, can remember being breathless and tasting chocolate and jumping in piles of leaves. The year you were twelve was the last year you went, and she kissed you in the pile of leaves and laughed and never mentioned it again. Girls, you thought at the time.

You're almost sixteen, but Halloween's still significant. You feel a grin on your face as the sun sets. Scout keeps throwing candy at you and you keep catching it and eating it, and you're completely buzzing when the party starts.

The high lasts all of fifteen minutes once you're inside, once you realize that the Rawley Halloween party is just an excuse to get the girls across the lake and onto your territory. Not that you were expecting to bob for apples or anything, but it's a bit of a disappointment, so you grab some chocolate off a table and head outside.

Red and gold leaves litter the surface of the lake, and you watch for a while as they swirl around, unconcerned about what's happening inside. You feel more like a ghost than ever, unnoticed, ephemeral, drifting along with the leaves.

You smell him before you see him, so it's a little like he's ghostly, too, a bit of smoke on the breeze that materializes into something corporeal at your side. You don't move or speak, but you wait, thinking that something is actually going to happen this time.

Nothing does. You wait a minute, feeling nervous with him right there and unspeaking. You watch his cigarette glow, more orange than the leaves at your feet, more orange than the pumpkins back on the stairs. When he throws the butt into the lake, you pull a piece of candy from your pocket and hold it out to him.

He takes it, reaching out slowly. His fingers brush yours, and he seems hesitant to pull away, but he does, foil glinting in his hand as it moves to his pocket.

"What are you doing out here?" you ask, because you can't let this silence continue, can't keep wondering whether you're really real. "There has to be some girl left who hasn't heard what a jerk you are."

He stares at you a moment, though you imagine he can't make out your features in the near dark any better than you can make out his. "Fucking cute, Krudski."

"Excuse me?"

"As if you haven't heard." He pulls another cigarette out, and you can see once it's lit that his hands are shaking.

"I haven't heard anything," you tell him, though you realize that you wish you had. Ryder's a jerk, but if something's up, you want to know what it is. You imagine he spends more time with you than with anyone else these days.

"Maybe my asshole roommate kept his mouth shut after all." Ryder shrugs, crosses one arm in front of his body.

You've never seen him so outright defensive, not even that day with Joe. It embarrasses you enough that you turn away. "If you're in some kind of trouble--"

He laughs, the sound short, cut off in his throat and on the air. "You're going to save me, Krudski?"

"Wouldn't be the first time," you say. Lying has become a little too easy, but it's hard to feel guilty for lying to Ryder. Except that he's giving you a look now, and it's not his usual stare-right-through-you routine. He's really looking at you.

"You're not a bad guy," he says slowly. His face is glowing, just a little, but you notice how worn and tired he looks, a jack o'lantern keeping the ghosts at bay. "Too bad I am."

He turns away and offers up the same short laugh. You can't help staring at the smoke that curls around his head, can't help breathing it in.

You take half a step toward him before you hear the sounds of half the party spilling out onto the lawn. He glances back just long enough to register how close you're standing. Then he walks away, as if you weren't just talking, as if you didn't watch him sleep sometimes, as if you couldn't maybe save him.

It really is too bad.

It's the second day of November. It snows. Not enough to really matter, but enough that everyone is so distracted in English that Finn starts reciting Frost at you. "'The way a crow / Shook down on me / The dust of snow / From a hemlock tree'--"

"'Has given my heart / A change of mood,'" you recite, "'And saved some part / Of a day I had rued.'" Scout chuckles softly, and Finn smiles.

"Go," he tells the class. "I can't compete with ice crystals."

"What kind of language is that for a wordsmith to use?" Scout asks, gathering his books and sounding scandalized.

"The honest kind," Finn answers, still smiling. That word still makes you uneasy, at least coming from him. You don't say goodbye before following Scout outside.

You have no idea where Ryder has spent the last two nights, but you see him now, halfway out on the pier, facing away from the school. Scout follows your gaze, but you ignore whatever remark he has to make. You pick your way down to the pier, walk out, and sit beside Ryder. He doesn't look up, but he doesn't push you into the lake or tell you to leave.

A few minutes pass, and you stay like that, doing what the two of you have done all fall, this silent holding pattern. When a cold breeze comes, he moves closer.

"Thank you," he says. That's all, but even that is unexpected, and you don't ask why the gratitude. You don't ask anything, because you don't even know which questions can begin a conversation you'll never have.

You don't ask any questions when he glances over his shoulder at the deserted lawn then leans in to kiss you, either. But you let him, because some part of you has recognized it as inevitable since September. You expected to be pinned against a bookshelf in the common room, or caught alone in the dorm. Something threatening, because that's what Ryder does with you.

You weren't exactly expecting this, a kiss on the pier in the snow, but you weren't exactly expecting Ryder, either. In all your life, the things you planned were never the ones that made the difference, so you kiss him back.

When he pulls away, you say, "You're still a jerk," reminding both of you.

He shrugs, lights a cigarette. "I know."

You sit until he leaves for class, and you can still feel heat where his hand rested on your shoulder just a moment before he left.

It's winter, and you sit in the snow, every cell burning. This, this thing with Ryder, could kill you. But for the first time since St. Martin, you feel alive.