TITLE: The First Step
AUTHOR: Caroline
PAIRING: Ryan/Kirsten
SPOILERS: "The Graduates"/"The Avengers"
RATING: PG-13
SUMMARY: "Ryan, you can't hide out here forever."


"When are you coming back?"

"Stop it."

"No."

Ryan huffed, glared over his shoulder at the blonde currently sitting defiantly, ramrod straight on his makeshift bed. "I didn't ask you to come here."

"And I didn't ask you to burst into my life three years ago and turn my world upside-down." Kirsten rose to her feet, folded her arms across her chest, and huffed back, "I'm here. I'm not leaving until you come with me. Deal with it."

"When did you become so stubborn?"

"Oh, you're one to talk!" she spat, then closed her eyes when she realized how she sounded. She tried a different tactic. "Ryan, you can't hide out here forever."

He shook his head and turned back to the dirty porcelain sink in front of him, rinsing his hands. "Didn't say I was going to, did I?"

"Look." Kirsten went to him, took long, quick strides until she was standing right behind him. "I know that what happened was tragic. Unbelievably so. I know everything that you're going through right now, Ryan, but you can't shut me out." Taking one more step forward until her chest was very nearly touching his back, she reached out... placed her hands on his waist and gripped the material of the beater he wore. Her voice got softer as she leaned her chin on his shoulder and slid her arms around him, begging... "Please don't shut me out."

She watched in the mirror as Ryan closed his eyes. He placed his hand over hers on his stomach and stroked her fingers. "Kirsten..."

"You need to be with people. Alone isn't the way to go. And..." She pressed her lips together and leaned her mouth against his shoulder, mumbling into his shirt. "I need you."

It had gone on for three years and no one had known. Not Sandy, not Seth... not Marissa. Nobody knew of the clandestine affair, of the physical-turned-emotional relationship between Ryan and Kirsten. It had been a carefully-guarded secret. In the beginning, it had been just sex; just a way of releasing some of the tension that had been between them since they'd met. Within that first year, however, it had quickly escalated into something neither of them had been prepared for. Love.

"Like how I needed you last year."

"Ryan, you know I had to--"

"I know." His voice was soft now, too, as he continued to rub her hands. "I know."

"And it was something that I had to go through on my own in order to come out of it successfully. This... what you're going through now... this is something you don't have to go through alone. I want to... I don't know, be here for you."

Ryan couldn't help but chuckle a bit, half-sadly. "You are here. And you're refusing to leave."

"I know. I'm impossible to deal with."

He chuckled again and turned around, leaning back against the sink as he reached out to pull Kirsten into his arms. She came willingly, as she'd been doing for three years, and wrapped her arms tight around him. When he turned his head and buried his face in her neck, Kirsten closed her eyes.

After a long moment in which they just held each other, she heard his voice... soft. "It shouldn't have happened. It shouldn't have been her."

"I know." She rubbed his back in comforting circles.

"I loved her."

"I know that, too." And for three years, she had gone back and forth between jealousy over Ryan's connection to Marissa... and understanding, knowing that she had her own unique connection with him. She knew she didn't mean more to him than Marissa, or less... she just meant something differently to him than the Cooper girl.

And it would take a long time for him to come back from what had happened. Watching someone die was something not easily erased. Having them in your arms as it happened would just add to the recovery time.

"And I love you," he mumbled into her neck, placing a kiss there.

Kirsten smiled and hummed lightly at the back of her throat, twining her arms tight around his neck. "Love you too. Always."

With a sigh, Ryan pulled back and searched her face with his eyes, brushing errant strands of hair affectionately out of the way. Then, he cupped her cheek and drew her in for a kiss... chaste, if a little awkward at first after months of not having kissed each other. Then, after a few moments had gone by and their mouths had gotten reacquainted with each other... they fell into it. Passion surged through Kirsten for the first time in what felt like forever.

Ryan's arms were tight around her and her hands were raking through his short-cropped hair. On autopilot, they backed together toward his bed -- the bottom bunk of an old, worn-out bunk bed set. The springs creaked loudly as Ryan sat down with Kirsten straddling his lap. Desire rekindled, each needing to reconnect, they undressed quickly; or rather, half-undressed. Kirsten's button-down shirt remained on though it was unbuttoned, and Ryan still wore his beater with his jeans around his ankles.

They breathed new beginnings into each other, their bodies joined, and when it was all over they sat twined together... arms around each other and exhausted bodies dusted with sweat. Kirsten planted kisses across his broad shoulders. "So does this mean you'll come back with me?"

"Kirsten." He stroked a hand through her hair to gain her attention, and stared into her eyes as he shrugged... struggled for the right words. "I can't just... go back like nothing's happened. I can't pick up where I left off at graduation. It's not that simple."

She swept a hand affectionately across his sweaty forehead and cupped his face in both hands, holding his gaze; her voice was soft. "I never said it would be. Of course it won't be. And you don't have to pretend like nothing's happened, like nothing's changed. Ryan, we all know everything has changed. Everything and everybody is different, and will be now forever. This is the most complicated thing you'll have to go through, but... I want to be there while you go through it. I want you back at the house with me."

"What do Sandy and Seth want?"

That was when they each started to dress -- mention of Sandy and Seth always incited that. Kirsten looked down to watch Ryan buttoning her shirt for her as she told him, "They want you to come back, too."

"Last time Sandy was here, he was suggesting I go see a therapist. Seth too, actually."

She latched his belt for him and resituated his beater. "I told them both you don't need to see one. But, the option is open should you ever want to talk to somebody who's a... professional."

He quirked an eyebrow and she smiled.

"You know what I mean."

"Yeah," he smiled back. "And thanks for... talking to them for me."

"Of course. Now... how about you talk to your manager, let him know you're leaving. Do you have to put in a notice or anything?"

"Subtle, Kirsten. Why not just hit me over the head with a brick and drag me out of here?"

She rolled her eyes and planted her hands on her hips. "I would, but you're too heavy for me."

He sighed, kissed her again briefly. "You really want me to come back?"

"I think you know the answer to that. Sandy and Seth won't stop whining about how much they miss you, and... I miss you too. In about a million different ways."

He hesitated, and looked up when he felt Kirsten grasp his hand.

"Ryan, you just have to take this one step at a time, okay? One day at a time."

"Yeah." He nodded. "Okay. Let me get my things together, alright?"

"Alright." She kissed him one last time. "I'll be out in the car."

"'Kay."

When she was gone, Ryan set about gathering his things; he stuffed all his clothes and his toothbrush into the one duffel bag he'd brought, then reached under his bed for the cardboard box of his belongings. As he lifted it, two pictures fluttered to the ground. He reached down to pick them up, studying each as he straightened.

One was of he and Kirsten, dancing at his bar mitzvah last Chrismukkah. They had stolen a moment alone together while Marissa had been off talking to Johnny and Sandy had been talking to some of Newport's most affluent businessmen about the Newport Group. A slow song had come on over the speakers and Kirsten practically dragged him out onto the dance floor -- not that he would've protested. He remembered she looked so beautiful that night. Though the dance had to remain innocent-looking, sparks flew the entire time -- as they always had. Seth had interrupted them shortly before the song ended and enthusiastically snapped the picture just to have proof that Ryan did indeed dance. He smiled at the memory and stuck that picture in his wallet.

The second picture, however, wiped the smile off his face. It was of he and Marissa, at graduation; him in his deep blue robe and blue lei, and Marissa in her deep magenta robe and pink lei. They were smiling brightly, each holding their diplomas, eyes alight with what the future would hold. Ryan shook his head at that picture. Little did they know...

He sighed and stuffed that picture back into the box and folded up the top, concealing it from view. Then, he slung the duffel bag over his shoulder and hoisted the box into his arms again. On his way out, he gave his immediate notice to the bartender on duty and then rushed out... to the car where Kirsten was waiting for him.

Ryan tossed his things in the back and climbed into the passenger seat, forcing a smile he didn't feel beyond his lips. Kirsten reached over and rubbed his knee encouragingly.

"I know this is gonna be hard for you, Ryan, but you're doing the right thing. You're taking your first step forward."

"Thanks." He wished he felt as optimistic as Kirsten looked, but... he also knew her optimism would pull him through it. One day at a time.


FIN

AUTHOR'S NOTES: Thanks to all that continue to read my Rysten fics even after I've been so horrible about updating "The Sleepless." I know you guys have been waiting months for a new chapter and I apologize. The muse is being a real bitch about it. Please hang in there. Hopefully I can come up with something soon, because believe me -- it's frustrating me as well. Thanks again for reading!