She Smiles

He thinks he'll never be able to breathe again. He thinks he's doomed to sleep walk through the rest of his life. And part of him thinks that's not a curse at all, part of him thinks that's the only humane thing that could be done for him. He's split into a million different pieces, the only thing any of them have in common is that they miss her. He thinks about her every waking moment and when he's asleep he dreams about her. He can't escape her and the scariest part is he doesn't want to.

He would rather hallucinate about her than be with anyone else.

Sandy keeps telling him that it will get easier, but he thinks Sandy is full of shit. Because Kirsten is alive, he and Seth are alive. Sandy doesn't understand, he can't understand… He wasn't there that night, he didn't hold her bloodied body as she lay dead on the side of some cold concrete road.

She's dead. He tried to deny it at first. He tried to will her back to life, but he failed. The first minute after he actually realized she was gone, he thought he'd died with her. There was a splitting pain inside of him, some horrible piercing sensation that sucked all the breath out of his lungs and made him feel like he had a huge gaping whole in the middle of his chest. But he survived it, and by the second minute he was numb. He didn't mourn her, because he couldn't. She was just a dream, the beautiful girl, with the long flowing hair and a smile that never failed to break his heart.

He dreamed about her sometimes, but they always ended up nightmares. In the end when he would reach out to touch her she would just keep moving further and further away until he couldn't recognize her anymore. They always ended with him jumping up in the middle of the night terrified to go back to sleep and feel the pain he could remember all too well.

He knows he'll never fall in love again. He won't let himself. He's a lot of things, but he's not a fool. He used to think he was for going back to iher/i each and every time. But now he knows that was the best thing he ever did. He wishes he could erase all the bad times, all the times they spent apart, but it's impossible to separate any of his memories now, they all just blur into this grey area of her… of Marissa.

He can't say her name. Sandy does. Even Kirsten occasionally gets the courage up to actually utter her name. But Ryan won't. If he says her name, then he thinks about her, and eventually it all leads back to that fateful moment when she died… when she left him for good. He always thought they would find their way back to each other, there was always that unspoken promise between them. But it's gone now, shattered into a million little pieces. Part of him hates her for that hope, hates her for deserting him when she knew he would never stop missing her… needing her.

He gets up early in the mornings and runs now. It's the only time he ever feels free from the chaos going on inside of him. He's trying to escape her, trying to run so far and fast that he'll forget her. Sandy keeps telling him he never will. Sandy thinks that's what he wants to hear, but Sandy is wrong. Ryan wants to forget her, wants to erase every last piece of her from his life. But he's smart enough to know he never will and stupid enough to keep trying… to keep running. He never gets very far and in the end he always has to return home, to her ghost, to the people she left behind, to the one mess Ryan will never be able to fix for her.

He used to resent always having to save her. Time after time, mistake after mistake he had to chase after her and clean up the wreck she'd made of her life. She was a human tornado, and she never seemed to learn her lesson. But despite all her faults, despite the constant crap she put him through, he still loved her. He doesn't understand why the one time it really counted he wasn't able to save her. He doesn't understand why she's the one dead, and secretly wishes it was him.

She was so much more.

There are days when he feels like drinking himself to the bottom of a bottle and never waking up. But then Kirsten would cry and Seth would flip out and Sandy would feel just like he does now. He won't do that to them, no matter how much he wishes he could, not even to be with her again.

This is who he is now, and he's accepted it. That's why when Taylor blows into his life, he doesn't know what to do with her. She's Seth and Summer's friend, that annoyingly, persistent girl from high school he barely ever thought about. He doesn't get her and doesn't feel like trying. But she's in trouble, and some small part of him isn't ready to stop being the white knight, even if it's a different girl this time.

Taylor isn't Marissa though. She's crazy in a different way. He's not sure if that's good or bad, or if he enjoys it or it drives him insane. All he knows is she keeps coming around, talking to him, laughing at all the non funny things he says. He's sure she wants something from him, but he doesn't have the energy to figure it out. So he says fuck it and most times doesn't send her away, just lets her chatter on and on until it all fades to black and all he can see is her lips moving.

By the fifth night her lips become more fascinating. They're different from Marissa's, different from any other girl he's ever known. Once again he's not even sure if he likes this about her, but it keeps him occupied. He still doesn't hear her, but he watches her closely on that fifth night, and she seems to notice the shift.

She seems happy about it.

On the eighth night she sits beside him on the bed instead on across from him. She leans in kind of close when she laughs and he realizes she smells like peaches. This makes him smile before he can even think of concealing it. He calls her out on it, and she has the good grace to blush for a moment before launching into this long story about her new perfume and how she bought it for him… to make him happy.

He doesn't get it. He doesn't understand why she wants to make him happy. Why she even thinks about him at all. She doesn't really seem to get it either, but the thing he's learning about Taylor is, she isn't as put together as she pretends to be. She's vulnerable, but strong at the same time, a contradiction Ryan doesn't know how to deal with. So he sends her away early that night, and the look in her eyes sparks something unknown inside of him.

He feels bad.

He feels something that has nothing to do with Marissa.

That scares him, so the next night he disappears around the time he knows she'll show up. When he comes back later he expects that she'll have given up on him by then, but she hasn't and he finds her curled up on top of his bed. He goes over to jostle her awake, but something stops him, that feeling inside of him… the one that has absolutely nothing to do with Marissa. So he watches her for a while. She's a restless sleeper, twists and turns a lot.

He thinks it's cute.

That's when he wakes her up. He immediately puts a wall between them, making sure that she can tell he's angry with her. She can tell alright and seems extremely miffed that, one he stood her up and two he made her worry. He doesn't get why she'd worry, and that pisses her off even more so she grabs her insanely ugly purse and stomps out of the pool house.

She doesn't come back the next night.

And he misses her.

The next night he waits again, and once again she doesn't show up. This time it bothers him enough that he seeks Seth out to get her number. Seth is surprised and full of unwanted questions, and Ryan wishes he had never even asked. At the point when Ryan is ready to just scrap the whole thing, Seth finally gives it up.

Ryan calls her and she doesn't answer. He refuses to call her again. He doesn't have to, because an hour after he's called her she shows up on his doorstep. She still seems a little angry with him, but he ignores that and opens the door wider offering her entrance. She lectures him on his attitude with her to the point where he just wants her to leave. She seems to sense this and shuts the hell up for once.

It doesn't last for long, because she begins telling him in great detail about what she did the night before when she wasn't with him. Apparently she had a date, when she tells him this she leans in extra close and examines him like he's some test subject. The proximity and the clinical look on her face makes him uncomfortable and he moves away from her.

She gets pissed off again. He can tell because her eyes go a darker shade, and her nose kind of twitches. It's cute… it's sexy. He moves farther away from her. Her nose continues to twitch. The conversation becomes more stilted than usual, and instead of pressing her luck like she usually does, she's the first one to suggest it's time to say good night.

He's disappointed.

He walks her all the way outside tonight, instead of just to the pool house door. If she notices the change, for once she mercifully doesn't mention it. She jabbers a little more about the guy she went on a date with, until Ryan is willing to do anything to shut her up.

So, he does the most natural thing and kisses her.

She lets him.

In fact she more than lets him, she grabs him by the bottom of his shirt and practically fuses his body to hers. He thinks it should feel wrong. He knows he should stop. He doesn't want to though, so he doesn't and when she runs her tongue along his bottom lip, he not only doesn't pull away from her, he encourages her by returning the gesture.

'Ryan…' she says his name in this breathless way, that makes him want to drag her back inside and lay her out on the bed. This is the thought that finally startles him into reality and he violently pushes away from her.

She looks up at him with big stunned eyes and he almost wishes he hadn't stopped. But he had to stop, he had to stop before the inevitable rush of guilt would hit him when he began thinking about her again. He doesn't have time to think about Marissa though, because the girl in front of him now is more than he can handle.

She opens her mouth to say something, something he's pretty positive won't be nice. But then she shuts her mouth just as quickly. She repeats this motion so many times, that he's ready to lean back in and kiss her again, when she reaches out and shoves hard at his chest. He's so surprised that such a small girl could pack such a big punch that he stumbles backward and nearly falls right on his ass.

This makes him smile.

She doesn't.

She walks away from him and he's too tired to chase after her. He chased after one girl for three years and he swears he'll never do it again. So he lets her leave and returns to the pool house. He can't sleep and nearly two hours later there is a knock on the door. He thinks it's her and immediately goes to it.

It's not though, it's Seth.

Once again, he finds himself disappointed that she's not there… with him.

'What did you do to Taylor?'

Seth looks tired and annoyed, not a surprising combo on Seth. Ryan suspects that Taylor made a beeline to Seth the second she left him, and for some insane reason he's jealous. He's jealous that she spent time with Seth, that he wanted to spend with her.

That scares the hell out of him.

Ryan acts like he has no idea what Seth is talking about with a few well placed words. This is why people accuse him of being quiet. He doesn't care, just like he doesn't care about most things in his life.

This is when he realizes, he cares about her.

This puts a serious crack in the carefully placed façade he's been walking around with for months and Seth seems to sense the change. Seth being Seth he pushes and pushes until Ryan realizes he either has to kill him and break Kirsten's heart, or try to explain the weird attachment he's grown for Taylor. He's not sure which is the lesser of two evils.

He ends up opting for the thing that won't send him to jail.

He tells Seth that Taylor's been coming around for a while. Seth apologizes and makes some crack about her being an 'eager beaver'. Ryan isn't sure why it bothers him, but his defenses go up and he shuts down again. It's a mistake because Seth instantly realizes that Ryan isn't telling him the whole truth. He's Seth, so he's a little slow, but he eventually puts two and two together and realizes Taylor told him the truth about…

The kiss.

Seth is appalled and that pisses Ryan off, so he tries to make him leave. Seth backtracks though and immediately begins telling Ryan how he can do damage control before Taylor locks her sights onto him. Ryan hadn't even contemplated Taylor liking him until Seth begins talking about it like it's a foregone conclusion.

Suddenly it all makes sense.

Taylor likes him. That's why she shows up every night. That's why she wears that weird perfume that's a mix between peaches and vanilla that should smell too sweet, but on her doesn't. And that's why she looked like he'd sucker punched her when he pulled away from her.

She cares about him.

The truly terrifying part of these revelations is that he thinks he might like her too. At the very least he's attracted to her and he can no longer deny the fact that he cares about her. He doesn't say any of this to Seth, though something in the way Seth looks at him changes and he suspects his friend knows.

The next night Taylor shows up with a peach pie and Ryan regrets ever telling her that peaches were his favorite fruit. At this point he's on overload. Taylor never ceases to overdo something, he has a feeling this is in the fiber of her very being and if he's going to be around her he better get used to it.

It scares him that he's decided she's going to be in his life. He doesn't know when it happened, but she completes his days. Those dreams he has of Marissa are changing. He still has them, but when he reaches for her now he can touch her, she smiles and he lets her go. He still wakes up upset though and he doesn't think even Taylor Townsend can change that.

If she did, he would resent her for it.

Ryan eats only a few bites of the pie, before he closes the gap between them and kisses her again. She is stunned to say the least and immediately tries to talk about it.

He shuts her up by kissing her again.

They spend most of the night fused at the lips and most other places after that. He maneuvers her onto her back, and he's surprised at how uninhibited and eager she is. He expected her to be more timid, to stop his hand when it traveled up the smooth expanse of her stomach.

She doesn't. She pushes it higher.

For the longest time he could never imagine touching another person the way he touched Marissa. He thought for sure that had gotten short circuited like the rest of him. It hasn't though, and with Taylor writhing beneath him, he's sure it's never worked better.

Afterwards he lays in bed beside her waiting for the all consuming guilt to come. She holds it off for him for a while, by chattering about unimportant little things that amuse him even when he knows they shouldn't. And when that doesn't work and she sees him drifting she starts kissing him again, and the sweet torture begins all over again.

Even she can't stop it after a while, and just like he knew it would, the guilt floods inside of him, until it's hard to breathe again. He gets out of bed as fast as he can and pulls some pants on. She watches him unashamed, and he can't help but respect her for that. Taylor is the kind of girl who lives her own life according to her own rules.

He likes that. He likes her. But he still asks her to leave.

She doesn't look that upset this time. She does however look a little disappointed and he gets the feeling that her patience is wearing thing. He doesn't know what she expects of him though. He made her no promises and he swears he never will. All he has to offer her is in that bed, everything else is already spent.

She can take it or leave it.

She takes it for a while. Night after night. Sometimes she even shows up at his work and drags him into the back room. At first he's shocked at what an exhibitionist she turns out to be. He loves it though and tries not to focus on where she could have learned all that stuff. When he actually lets such thoughts in, he feels something akin to jealousy. He refuses to go there, so he pushes it all back down and drives into her even harder.

Nearly two months later they're laying in his bed together, and in a rare show of affection he's wrapped her in his arms. There is a knock at the door, it's Kirsten wondering if he's going to be around for dinner that night. He looks beside him at Taylor who's stirring from the impromptu nap, and he feels himself getting lost in her.

That's the moment he decides it has to end.

She comes by again the next night, eats dinner with the Cohen's and then follows him into the pool house, followed by some wise crack made by Seth. She complains about Seth being 'sulky' without Summer, but he's barely listening to her. She realizes this and tries to kiss him, but he holds her at arms length. He's not sure how she knows, but there is a look in her eyes that tells him she gets it.

She doesn't say anything, a totally un-Taylor-like thing. Instead she just smiles at him. It's different from Marissa's smiles, it's from a different girl, a girl no matter how hard he tries, he can't push out of his life. At least that's what he thought until she leans up, kisses his cheek and walks out of his life.

He feels numb again.

He feels angry.

He resents that she left him without a fight.

He refuses to chase after her.

She comes back to him.

The year since her death is coming to a close. Sandy, Kirsten, even Seth all seem determined to let him deal with this anniversary on his own and he's grateful for that. He doesn't think he can face her and them in the same day.

He begins drinking from the moment he wakes up from one of those horrible nightmares. He's back to having the same old one, where Marissa is just out of reach. She's never smiles in these, she always looks pained, and it always rips him to shreds.

When there is a knock at the door he's already halfway into oblivion, so close to being with her again it scares him. He thinks it's probably Sandy, he can never help himself from meddling. Ryan opens it ready to turn him away and then he sees Taylor.

She's beautiful. It hits him like a stack of bricks and he staggers back from the door leaving it wide open. Half of him hopes she'll just get the hell out, but he knows her well enough to know she won't drop whatever mission she's on now.

She throws her stuff onto a chair and somehow it falls into a neat pile. That's such a Taylor thing that he smiles. She catches him, and he's sure she almost smiles back, but something stops her.

He hurt her.

It's another thing in a long list of thing that makes him feel guilty. He used her, he can admit that to himself now. God knows Seth has dropped enough hints, even Summer ripped into him last time she was in town. He thought they'd be angry at him for betraying Marissa, they weren't. They accused him of stalling his life and dishonoring Marissa.

He avoided them both for the rest of Summer's stay.

'You look gross.' Taylor tells him matter of factly, and makes this face that lets him know she's not even remotely attracted to this incarnation of him. Some part of him wants to change her mind. He knows that if he kisses her now he can convince her to go to bed with him. He's equally sure it would only make things worse, so he just stares at her.

She tells him not to look at her 'like that'. But he doesn't know how to any other way, so he turns away from her. Usually people are begging him to let them in, but she doesn't seem interested in that anymore and that hurts him. He feels angry with her, and then he feels like a total bastard for even thinking he has the right.

He ended it. He stomped on her. She walked away. It feels like the same old tired cycle and he refuses to do it again. He won't be miserable in yet another relationship. He won't invest his heart. He will not love her. He just won't.

He's thinks he already does.

He hates her for that. He hates her because he knows she's gonna walk out of there later that night. She's gonna leave him just like Marissa did. Maybe she won't die, maybe she won't stick around him long enough for the curse of his life to take a toll on her. He hopes she doesn't. He hopes she's smart enough to recognize a lost cause when she sees one.

She takes the bottle of Tequila he's been chugging and pours it down the sink. He watches her from the doorway of the bathroom and he can't keep his eyes from straying up and down her body. He can still remember how she feels, how she tastes… how she makes him feel. When she turns around she sees the look in his eyes and warns him not to try anything. She says her therapist told her he was a bad influence on her life.

He agrees with the shrink.

She moves out of the bathroom, but he stays in the doorway. This seems to annoy her, because she marches back over to him and grabs onto the bottom of his shirt before dragging him towards his bed. She stops him at the end of it and begins pulling his shirt off. He raises his arms a little to help her, interested to see where she's taking this.

She finishes stripping him of his shirt and then shoves him hard on the chest so he's sitting on the bed. She kneels down on the floor and begins working on his shoes and socks, before pushing him flat against his back and moving to the zipper on his pants. He reaches out and stills her hands then and realizes she's actually trembling. He's not sure he's ever seen her this vulnerable before, and it terrifies him.

'Taylor…' He whispers her name and he's almost sure he sees a tear running down her cheek. He reaches out his hand to her and twines their fingers together. She lets him do this and he grows bolder, applying a little pressure and urging her down to him on the bed. She sits beside him quietly, refusing to ever meet his gaze.

'Taylor.' He whispers her name again and she tries to move away from him.

'I'm sorry.' He can't believe the words have actually left his mouth no matter how long he's thought of saying them to her.

She smiles at him.

He smiles back.

She squeezes his hand and lays back down against the bed beside him. They stay like that for a long time, minutes turn into hours and before he knows it the morning has come upon them. She begins to stir. He can feel her warm breath against his head. Sometime in the middle of the night his head found it's way into the nook of her neck.

It felt like home, so he stayed.

He moves away and steps out of bed, expecting that she'll be gone when he gets back from the bathroom. No matter what he can't trust her to stay. He can't trust anyone to stay.

She's still there when he comes back. She looks up at him and there's something in her eyes, something written on her face that warms him. It's in that moment that he realizes he survived the night without a single nightmare. He knows it's because of her. He knows that's why she came, to get him through the night even though it cost her.

He decides he's ready to move on.

He'll always love Marissa. She was the first girl he ever loved. She cut him to the bone, as he did her, time and time again. But he doesn't regret a single moment with her. Not even the last one. But she's gone, and for the first time since that night one year ago, he thinks he can let her go. He's ready for a new life.

He's ready for Taylor.