Summary: Ryan finds out who his (and Chad's) friends are. Part of the Coming to Terms 'verse.
Ryan walked into Earline's and went up to the small counter at the front of the restaurant. Earline came out of the back and smiled warmly.
"Hello, Ryan," she said. "This is a pleasant surprise. We don't usually get to see you for lunch on a weekday."
"It's a pretty unusual day," Ryan replied soberly as Helen came over.
"Hi, honey! We just began lunch service, so you can have any table you want," she said, picking up a menu. "Will Chad be joining you?" Ryan's features immediately darkened.
"No," he said with a sigh, "and I'm actually here for takeout. Chad's in the hospital."
"What?" Helen cried.
"What happened?" Earline demanded as the other waitress, Agnes came over to listen. Ryan quickly explained the circumstances of Chad's hospitalization.
"You must be beside yourself with worry," Helen said, rubbing his shoulder soothingly. "Sit down, honey. Tell us what we can do."
"Well, I need a pretty big favor," Ryan began shyly as he took a seat in his usual booth near the window, "unless you've got chicken pot pie on the lunch menu."
"That's a dinner item, sugar," Agnes volunteered.
"I know," he sighed. "He was planning to meet me here for dinner last night. Chad was looking forward to having one."
"No problem," Earline said as she slid into the seat opposite him. "I've already made a batch of pie crust and I have a pot of filling on the stove. If Chad wants a chicken pot pie he'll get a chicken pot pie," she declared. "And what do you want?"
Since that day several months earlier when Ryan convinced Earline to prepare takeout pancakes for Chad, she'd begun to offer takeout service for all her customers. As a result, business increased dramatically. He knew she would have made Chad a pie regardless of the circumstances, but because she credited Ryan with breathing new life into the little restaurant he didn't feel as guilty about asking her for one as he might have.
"I need lunch for Chad's parents, too," he said.
"And what would they like?" Earline asked. Ryan shook his head; he was in no condition to recollect the Danforths’ preferences.
"How about club sandwiches?" he suggested.
"Three? You need to eat, too, honey," she said in a tone that brooked no argument, not that Ryan was about to gainsay her. He hadn’t eaten anything other than a slice of coffee cake all day and he was feeling hungry. Earline made a notation on a pad and went off to the kitchen. Helen took her place in the booth and reached out to place her hand over his.
"You look tired."
"I am tired," Ryan confessed. "I didn't sleep well last night."
"Oh, honey," she said soothingly, rising to get him a cup of coffee. "How long will he be in the hospital?" she asked as she filled his cup.
"That depends on the results of his tests."
"Well, you make sure to let him know that we're all praying for a complete and speedy recovery," she said, giving his hand a squeeze. Ryan placed his free hand on top of hers and smiled.
"I know you just want him healthy and back here so you can try to steal him from me," he said impishly. "But I appreciate it all the same."
"Sweetie, if I thought I stood half a chance with Chad I would have started slipping thallium into your coffee months ago," she said with a wink. "But anyone with half a working brain could tell at a glance that you two only have eyes for each other. I just want him back so I can enjoy the eye candy." Helen grew serious and leaned forward to speak softly. "You two really brighten up the place and I know that come the fall, your visits here will be few and far between. I'm going to miss you boys when you go off to college."
"We'll miss you, too," Ryan replied. "And I, for one, fully intend to drop in whenever I'm back home for a visit. I know Chad will want to come visit, too."
"I'm going to hold you to that," she said with another squeeze of his hand.
Dr. Emory peered into Chad’s room just as Chad’s father finished adjusting his pillows. Chad’s mother was sitting at Chad’s side, knitting. Classical music was playing softly in the background and Chad looked relaxed, showing no sign of his earlier distress. The physician smiled at the quiet domestic scene. When Chad looked up, she entered the room and approached the bed.
"Chad, you’re looking much better. How are you feeling?"
"Well, aside from the throbbing in my head, the aching pains on my whole left side and the fact that my boyfriend is MIA, pretty good," Chad replied impertinently. "Oh, and my eyes still hurt, too." His father gave him a reproachful look. Dr. Emory sensed that something significant had happened since her last visit, but she ignored her curiosity and turned her attention to the handsome man standing at Chad's side.
"Hi, I’m Dr. Emory. You must be Chad’s father," she said as she extended her hand.
"Earl Danforth," he replied. "I take it you have the results of his CT scan?"
"Yes, and I’m very pleased to report that we’ve found no evidence of new bleeding or other indicators of brain trauma."
"New bleeding?" he said warily.
"Well, there was a little blood on his brain when they brought your son in yesterday but it will dissipate on its own. A larger amount of blood could form a potentially life-threatening clot. Now, in Chad's case…" She held up two pictures of Chad’s brain and showed them to the Danforths, who listened to her explanation with great interest. Chad, however, looked at the clock on the wall and wondered what was keeping Ryan.
"Here we go," Earline said, placing a large shopping bag on the table. "Three club sandwiches and a chicken pot pie for Chad. I took the liberty of throwing in a few cookies and a piece of chocolate cake for the patient."
"Thank you," he said rising. He pulled out his wallet and started to select a card. "What do I owe?"
"It’s already taken care of," Earline replied, pushing his hand away.
"What? No, I can’t let you do that," Ryan protested.
"It’s already been done," Helen said.
"But--." Ryan looked at the three women and knew that it would be pointless to defy them.
"Some things are more important than money," Earline said, pulling him into her arms for a brief hug. "We want to help. We can’t run off to the hospital to see Chad. We can’t be there to hold your hand and support you while you’re trying to be strong for him. We can feed you; we’re good at that. Let us do this."
"You’re wrong about that," Ryan said warmly. "I feel your support right now and it’s definitely going to stay with me all throughout this trial. Thank you. Thank you all for being so--." He averted his eyes and shook his head, suddenly fighting back tears. Agnes reached out for her hug before Helen took her turn.
"You know exactly how to repay me," she said with a wink that was suspiciously watery. Ryan kissed her cheek.
"As soon as possible, I promise," he said. He kissed Agnes and Earline in turn. She held onto his hand.
"Are you okay to drive?" she asked in a motherly tone.
"Yeah," Ryan said, smiling fondly. "I don’t know why I’m so emotional today." Agnes, Earline and Helen looked at each other. None of the women wanted to state the obvious, so they hugged Ryan and sent him on his way with warm greetings for Chad.
By the time he returned to the hospital nearly an hour had passed. His eyes immediately sought out Chad, who appeared to be asleep. Mr. Danforth looked up and folded his newspaper, rising from his chair beside the bed to cede his place to Ryan. The nearly soundless movement was enough to make Chad stir and open his eyes.
"Dude," he said hoarsely. Ryan immediately reached for a cup of water on the nightstand and handed it to Chad. He took a few sips before attempting to continue. "Where have you been?"
"I scored you a pie," Ryan said cryptically. He held up the bag.
"I'll get another chair," Mr. Danforth said, moving toward the door. Ms. Danforth raised Chad's bed position and then brought over his table so that Ryan could serve up Chad's food.
"I got lunch for all of us," Ryan announced, placing a stack of clear plastic containers on the table. Each one held a sandwich and a handful of homemade potato chips. Ryan next drew a cardboard box out of the bag and set it in front of Chad, reverently folding it back to reveal a steaming pie. "Earline baked it just for you. By the way, all the girls send their love and wishes for a speedy recovery." Chad smiled up at him briefly, but his attention was primarily focused on the pie.
"What girls?" Mr. Danforth asked, setting a chair down on the other side of the bed.
"The ladies at the restaurant," Ryan replied. "They adore Chad."
"They adore both of us," Chad said. "Did you bring a fork?" he asked eagerly. Ryan dug into the bag.
"Here; you're going to need two," he said, producing a container bearing a slab of cake.
"I'll get us some drinks," Mr. Danforth volunteered. He went back down the hall to the lounge as Ryan sat down and opened his sandwich. Chad observed him closely as he began to eat.
"Chad?" his mother said, frowning. He glanced at her and turned his attention to his food. By the time her husband returned, she was growing wary of the silence between the two teens. "I've got the entire staff at the library going to Earline's regularly," she said, trying to start a conversation.
"I promised Helen we'd come in as soon as you were feeling up to it," Ryan said, glancing up at Chad, who nodded abstractedly.
"Where is this place?" Mr. Danforth asked.
Slowly but surely, conversation materialized. Chad didn't say very much, but everyone attributed that to his condition. Besides, he usually focused on his food at mealtime, preferring to talk after he'd eaten. His mother and Ryan carried most of the conversation, with the two Danforth males occasionally weighing in.
"I've never had their chicken pot pie," Ms. Danforth said.
"Too bad," Chad replied, spooning the last of it into his mouth.
"Maybe we should all go to Earline's for dinner sometime," his father concluded after hearing all the praise for her cooking.
"What do you think, Chad?" Ryan asked. Chad shrugged with his good shoulder.
"Why not? Any excuse to eat more of this is okay by me," he said, pushing away the remains of his lunch and reaching for dessert. "No milk?" He pouted.
"I'm sure I can find some in the cafeteria downstairs," Ms. Danforth said.
"Maybe later," Chad said, pushing the container away again. He shut his eyes and winced. The Danforths exchanged a look.
"Chad?" his father said worriedly.
"I'm all right. I just want to rest a little."
"Okay, honey," Ms. Danforth said as she began to collect the now empty containers. Her husband rose to help her.
"What do we owe for the lunch?" he asked Ryan.
"Oh, there's no need," Ryan began, but Mr. Danforth insisted on paying for it. "Seriously, there's no need. It was on the house. Earline said that some things were more important than money. She--well, they actually--wanted to do this for me and Chad," he said with a shrug. "I couldn't say no. They're sweet little things but they've all got spines of steel." Chad smiled knowingly.
"Well, then we're definitely going there when you're better," Mr. Danforth said. "I'd like to meet these ladies."
"In the meantime, why don't we go down to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee and give Chad a chance to rest?" his wife suggested. Ryan immediately started to rise to his feet. "You'll keep an eye on him for a little while, won't you, Ryan?" He sat down again.
"Yes, ma'am." Ryan watched the Danforths gather up their things and leave the room. "What was that about?" he asked, mainly to himself.
"Come here," Chad said. Ryan turned back to Chad and leaned over the bed. Chad's hand shot up and lightly punched him in the shoulder.
"Ow! What was that for?" Ryan demanded.
"Why'd you disappear on me earlier?" Chad countered.
"I went to get you lunch," Ryan answered, rubbing his shoulder for effect.
"Uh huh," Chad said, letting his eyes slide shut. He'd taken off the shields when he returned from getting scanned earlier and even with the curtains around his bed there was enough ambient light to worsen his headache.
"I thought you'd want a little time with your dad."
"And that meant you had to leave?"
"He'd been away--."
"For two days," Chad interjected. "He's been going on business trips since I was a toddler, Ryan. I'm used to it. And he's seen me lie in bed and groan in pain more often than he'd care to admit."
"You know," Ryan said, examining his bicep, "in some states you could be charged with domestic abuse for hitting me."
"Wouldn't I have to be your domestic partner first?"
"Why would I want to live with you if you're going to abuse me?" Ryan asked reasonably. Chad rolled his eyes, immediately regretting it. He put a hand over his eyes and held it there for a few seconds. Ryan stopped looking at his arm and frowned worriedly. "Chad? Are you all right?" he asked, pulling Chad's hand away to peer at his face.
"Headache," he said. "They gave me something for the pain just before you got back. It hasn't kicked in yet."
"Is there anything I can do?" Ryan said, reaching out to lightly stroke his hair. Chad sighed and seemed to relax into his touch. Ryan bent to kiss his forehead. Chad lifted his face. Ryan gently kissed his mouth twice and then pulled away.
"I'm not going to break, Ryan," Chad said breathily.
"Yesterday you complained about it hurting when I kissed you."
"I did? I don't remember that," Chad said, frowning. "I don't remember much about yesterday." Ryan sat down again, holding Chad's hand.
"What can you remember?"
"I remember holding my mom's hand and telling her not to cry. I remember you, Princess and your folks being here last night--and eating a hamburger." Chad glanced up at Ryan, who looked troubled. "Did that happen?"
"Yeah," Ryan said vaguely. "What else?"
"Not much; I don't remember anything about the accident. Mom said that I regained consciousness in the ambulance and was answering the doctors' questions when she arrived at the emergency room, but I don't recall anything about that."
"What about before the accident? What's the last thing you remember?"
"I remember eating lunch outside with you, Taylor and Kelsi. Princess decided to join us and we couldn't sit together because she was in full cock blocker mode. When she tried to make you eat some lame avocado wrap I offered you half of my Italian sub in return for a blow job just to freak her out," Chad said with a cheeky grin. But Ryan wasn't smiling.
"That's the last thing you remember?" he asked warily, calculating that Chad's last memory was over three hours before the accident.
"Yeah; why?" Chad asked warily. Ryan regretted his words. He didn't want to unnecessarily alarm Chad.
"I did a little research on concussions this morning and learned that sensitivity to light, nausea, and inability to hear, taste or smell are common side effects. Memory loss is also common, too."
"You spend too much time with my mom, you know that?" Chad quipped, but Ryan knew that he was concerned. He reached out and stroked Chad's hair, smiling softly as Chad closed his eyes and seemed to melt into the pillows. "They said that the other stuff would probably come back but I'd probably never remember the accident itself."
"Yeah, all the literature said that the victim doesn't recall the incident that caused the injury," Ryan said, sitting on the edge of the bed.
"I have no idea what happened to me."
"Does it matter? I mean I'd consider it a blessing if something awful happened to me and I couldn't remember it."
"I want to know," Chad said, frowning. Ryan gently smoothed out the crease in his brow. Chad closed his eyes again as Ryan lightly rubbed his temples. He weighed the pros and cons of what he was about to do. In the end, he decided that Chad had every right to know what happened. He took a calming breath before he spoke.
"You and Gabriella had just left a shop in the mall and were walking to your car--."
"Why was I shopping with Gabriella?" Chad said, opening his eyes.
"Troy was with you, too. The three of you went shopping for graduation outfits."
"You'd never let me go shopping without you," Chad said disbelievingly. Ryan smiled back at him.
"I had no choice," he explained. "I had something else to do that afternoon and you'd already made plans. I did forbid you to actually buy anything except underwear, though."
"I bought graduation underwear?"
"I don't know," Ryan said soberly. He took hold of Chad's hand. "All I know is that Gabriella wanted you to help her pick out something for Troy, so she sent him to wait in your car while you two shopped. When you left the shop and were walking toward the CR-V, a car came speeding by and sideswiped you," Ryan said, hearing the screeching of tires and Gabriella's screams in his head. He inhaled deeply to quell the feeling of queasiness that assaulted him. "You probably saved Gabriella's life by pulling her out of harm's way a second before you were hit."
"Where were you when it happened?"
"I was across town," Ryan said vaguely. "Troy called me."
"There's more to it than that, isn't there?" Chad persisted when Ryan fell silent. "I can see it in your eyes."
"No," Ryan said, avoiding Chad's gaze. "I'm just really tired. I didn't sleep well last night." Chad reached out to caress his cheek.
"I didn't get much sleep, either."
"Chad!" Ryan said exasperatedly, his own sleep issues momentarily forgotten.
"Hey, some sadistic night nurse thought it would be fun to come in and wake me up every two hours," he replied bitterly. "Apparently, that's standard procedure for patients with a diagnosis of a moderate concussion. Wake him up, poke at him for two minutes and then tell him to rest."
"Yeah; I just want to go home, curl up around my favorite honey bunny and sleep for a week."
"That sounds like a wonderful idea," Ryan said, smiling sweetly. He took hold of Chad's hand again and rubbed his arm. "Why don't you try to rest now?"
"I want to spend some time with you," Chad replied, although he was clearly tired. "I've barely seen you."
"I'm not going anywhere," Ryan promised. "Go to sleep." Chad pouted slightly. Ryan rose briefly to kiss it away. He sat down in the chair and rested his head on the edge of the bed. In seconds, he was asleep. Chad drifted off a few minutes later, holding Ryan's hand.
"Did they settle things?" Ms. Danforth asked, looking up from her knitting as her husband entered the lounge.
"Hard to say--they're both fast asleep," her husband said, returning to his seat. "What was going on between them, anyway?"
"I don't know. Everything was fine this morning, as far as I could tell."
"So what happened to make Ryan so skittish? And why was Chad so sullen when he left?"
"Well, Chad's behavior could be related to his condition. The doctor said he might be subject to mood swings. I have no idea what got into Ryan, though. Whatever it was, they seem to have reached a truce--at least for the time being," Ms. Danforth said. Her husband smiled wryly.
"Do they remind you of anyone we know?" he asked impishly. His wife looked at him quizzically. "Come on, we used to get up to the same sort of thing when we were dating. You'd suddenly get all shy around my family and I'd catch an attitude about the way you were behaving. We'd both sulk about it for a while until one of us forgot we were supposed to be mad." Ms. Danforth laughed openly.
"You'd better not let Chad hear you talking like that," she said. "He'd accuse you of feminizing Ryan. You remember how pissed off he got when Troy asked him which one of them was the girl in their relationship; Chad ranted for days about how heteronormativity privileges traditional gender roles and how disappointing it was that Troy could only reconcile his relationship with Ryan by casting the two of them along masculine and feminine stereotypes."
"Yeah," Mr. Danforth said, grinning. "Wait till he gets to college."
"I hope the people at the University of Albuquerque will be more open-minded."
"Never mind that. I'm just afraid his bitching will be even harder to comprehend."
When Chad awoke again sometime later, Ryan was still asleep, his head resting on his folded arms. Chad reached out and stroked his hair. He felt better just having Ryan close by. Ryan would probably awaken with a sore neck but Chad figured it was worth it. They'd needed some quiet time together. Ryan looked peaceful and relaxed. Chad rolled onto his right side and shut his eyes again, absently stroking Ryan's head and shoulders. He opened his eyes a few minutes later and saw his personal physician standing at Ryan's back. Chad's hand froze momentarily.
Dr. Franklin had been his doctor since birth and she was also one of his mother's closest friends, so Chad had practically grown up with her daughter, Chandra, who was in a couple of Chad's classes at East High. Dr. Franklin tried to persuade Chad to ask her out every time she saw him. The fact that he'd never shown any romantic interest in Chandra didn't seem to faze the doctor. The reason for that should be fairly obvious to her now, Chad thought, and as he laid there--one hand lovingly posed over Ryan's cheek--Chad wondered what was going through Dr. Franklin's mind. A second later, he decided that it didn't matter. After all, what could she do? Tell his mother he liked boys?
"Chad?" she said, her voice conveying shock and disapproval. Chad immediately shushed her a second before his brain told him that doing so was probably a bad idea.
"He's asleep," Chad said, nonetheless, rolling over onto his injured side and gesturing for her to move to the other side of the bed. His tactic worked but she glared at Ryan suspiciously over Chad's shoulder.
"Chandra called me from school and said that you'd been in an accident," she said, turning her attention back to Chad. "Since I was here to attend to another patient I thought I'd stop in and see how you are doing."
"I'm okay, I guess," Chad replied, running a hand through his hair, which he was sure was a mess. He wasn't even going to try to tame it until his headache subsided. "I'm just waiting for them to tell me I can go home."
"What did your doctor say?"
"To be honest, I wasn't listening," he admitted. "Something about seeing how well I held down food and checking my eyes. I should get out of here today, but not until I pass some test or other."
"Would you like me to take a look at your chart?" Dr. Franklin asked, her eyes wandering to Ryan once again.
"Why don't you just talk to my mom," Chad suggested, rolling back onto his back. The pain on his side was too great and he hissed as he attempted to get comfortable again. Ryan abruptly sat up, blinked until his eyes focused on Chad.
"What's wrong?" he asked worriedly.
"Nothing," Chad lied. "Would you go get my mom? Tell her that Dr. Franklin is here."
"Sure," Ryan said, slowly getting to his feet.
"Your mother's here?" Dr. Franklin said, her surprise evident.
"Yeah; she and my dad are in the lounge."
"Well, in that case, maybe I'll walk down there and have a word with them," the doctor said. She turned and strode out of the room.
"Yeah, I just bet you will," Chad said with a pained sigh.
"Who was that?" Ryan asked, scratching his head muzzily. Chad smiled at him. He always thought Ryan looked adorable when he first woke up.
"That was my pediatrician."
"You have a pediatrician?" Ryan asked in confusion. "Why?"
"What do you mean why? Don't you?"
"No; I'm not a child."
"Neither am I," Chad said wearily. "But pediatricians treat kids from birth through late adolescence."
"Well, it's time you got a real doctor."
"She is a real doctor."
"I mean a grown-up doctor."
"She is a grown-up, Ryan," Chad said with a smirk.
"You know what I mean," he replied, exasperatedly.
"Yes, I know what you mean. And I do have a new doctor. Haven't met him yet, though--Dr. Franklin did my physical for the U of A." Chad sighed and reached for the button to adjust the bed. "And she's probably down the hall giving my folks an earful."
"Why?" Ryan asked as his phone began to vibrate. He drew it out and glanced at the display. "Troy" he said, reading the name. "Probably wants an update. You feel up to talking?" Chad smiled and reached for the phone.
"Make this quick, Troy," he said. "The consensus around here is that I need my beauty sleep."
"Dude!" he replied, wincing. "Inside voice, okay? I'm feeling a little delicate."
"Sorry, man. I wasn't expecting to hear your voice."
"Yeah, I got that."
"Chad?" a female voice said.
"Hi, Gabi," he replied with a smile. He was used to having the Golden Couple tag team him on phone calls.
"How are you feeling?"
"We won't keep you," Troy piped in. "We called Ryan to find out how you were doing."
"I feel surprisingly good at the moment," Chad replied, "save for the headache, the soreness and the fact that I really need to use the facilities."
"Are you home?"
"No, but with any luck I'll be released later today."
"Tell Ryan to give us a heads up if you're released." That was Troy again. "We'd like to come by and see you."
"I'll do that."
"Take care, man. It's really good to hear you sounding--. You sound good."
"Thanks, Troy," Chad replied, feeling oddly moved by Troy's uncharacteristically emotional tone. "I'll see you later, either way, right?"
"Yeah. You rest up in the meantime, all right? Bye."
"Bye." Chad handed the phone back to Ryan and reached for his shields. "Help me up."
"Shouldn't we call the nurse?" Ryan asked worriedly.
"If I want to go home today I'm going to have to be able to do this," Chad said, sitting up slowly. "Come here," he said, slowly swinging his legs over the far side of the bed. Ryan jogged around the bed to help him, but for a moment, Chad just sat. He took a few breaths the way Dr. Emory had taught him.
"Tell me what you need me to do," Ryan said. Chad nodded and placed his hands on his shoulders. Ryan took a step closer and gently pulled Chad into his arms. "I've been wanting to do that for the last twenty-four hours," he said as he gently rubbed Chad's back. Chad drew away after a few seconds and looked up, smiling.
"Later; I really need to use the toilet," he declared as his parents entered the room with Dr. Franklin. "Let's do this."
"Chad?" Mr. Danforth said when he saw his son trying to rise. He started to move forward, but Chad stopped him with a hand.
He slowly stood up, leaning on Ryan for support. They walked slowly over to the bathroom and Ryan helped him inside. Chad closed the door and Ryan stared at it, feeling unequal to whatever was going on behind his back. A few moments later, Ryan heard the toilet flush and stepped aside as Chad opened the door. He reached for Ryan's shoulder again and Ryan placed his hand under his elbow to guide him over to the sink. Chad quickly washed his hands.
"Home, Jeeves," he quipped, slowly turning around. He caught a glimpse of his parents, who looked simultaneously worried and proud, the way they looked at him during sporting events. Dr. Franklin was assessing him critically. He ignored her and moved toward the bed. Mr. Danforth reached for the controls and lowered the height so that Chad wouldn't have to climb up. "Thanks," he said. He laid back and smiled at Ryan. "That went so much better than the first time."
"Good," Ryan replied, grinning as he patted Chad's left shoulder. He immediately yelped in pain. "Sorry! Sorry," Ryan said wincing on Chad's behalf as he reached for the sheets to cover his bare legs. Mr. Danforth helped arrange the covers from the other side of the bed as Dr. Emory returned.
"I see you've found the boyfriend," she said lightly as she moved into the room. "Mind if I squeeze in here for a moment and check his vitals?" she asked Ryan. He started to back away to let her work, but Chad grabbed his hand.
"Don't you dare leave again," he hissed.
"Actually, I think I'd like to call my mom," Ryan replied. Chad looked him in the eye for a moment and released his hand. "I'll be right back," he promised. Chad nodded and Ryan slipped out of the room. He looked at his mother, who nodded and followed him.
Ryan went to the lounge and called his house again. Once again he was connected with Maria, who told him that his mother out to Lava Springs to deal with some minor emergency. Ryan concluded that her phone must be turned off because she was tied up in meetings, so he left a message with Maria and another one on his mother's cell before pocketing his phone.
"Ryan? Is everything all right?"
"Did Chad tell you to keep an eye on me?" he asked Ms. Danforth with a smile. She sat down on a sofa and patted the space next to her.
"I would have come anyway. We're both a little worried about you."
"Me? Why?" Ryan asked as he sat beside her.
"You seem--. You're not yourself."
"I know," he admitted readily, rubbing his eyes. "I didn't sleep much last night. And I'm not sure I'm of any use to Chad like this."
"Nonsense. All he wants is for you to be here with him."
"He's got you and Mr. D."
"Are you kidding? When have you ever known him to prefer his parents over you?" Ms. Danforth teased. Ryan smiled crookedly. "Come on, let's get back. He was really upset the last time you left."
"Please can I go home now?" Chad said plaintively. "I promise not to over-exert myself, I promise not to go anywhere on my own, I promise to eat my vegetables--I'll promise anything you want. Just let me sleep in my own bed tonight." Dr. Emory suppressed a smile and made a notation in her chart.
"Well, you drive a hard bargain, Mr. Danforth," she said mischievously. "Here are my terms: I want you to stay in bed for a few days, at least until the dizziness subsides. Then you can begin to resume normal activities--slowly and only if you feel up to it." She continued the litany of restrictions, warnings and conditions of his release. Ryan and Chad's mother returned just as Chad promised to follow every single one of them. "I'll go get the release papers," she said before leaving.
"You're going home?" Ryan said eagerly.
"Yes!" Chad said, pumping his fist. "Did you bring me some clothes?"
"I did," Ryan said, walking over to fetch the duffel bag he'd left on the vacant bed. He brought it over to Chad, who was beaming like a maniac.
"Slow down, big fella," Mr. Danforth said. "Take it nice and slow like you did earlier or you'll end up right back in that bed."
"Yes, sir," Chad said, his smile slightly muted. He looked at Ryan. "Help me get dressed?"
"Sure," he said, not knowing precisely what that entailed, but the Danforths immediately made their way to the door with Dr. Franklin following closely behind.
"The boyfriend? Just how friendly are those two?" she asked when they were far enough from the room so as not to be overheard by Chad or Ryan.
"What do you mean, Laura?" Ms. Danforth asked innocently. But her husband was in no mood to be coy.
"They've been dating since October," he said bluntly, ignoring his wife's open-mouthed glare. It was the first time she'd ever heard him acknowledge her son's sexuality outside of the very small circle of friends who knew about the couple.
"Chad is dating a boy?"
"Our son is gay," Mr. Danforth said, turning to look her in the eye. "Do you have a problem with that?"
"I must say I'm rather shocked," Dr. Franklin said honestly.
"Well, I can deal with shock," he said, taking hold of his wife's hand and continuing down the hall to the lounge. "But I won't tolerate any disapproval."
"Earl," Ms. Danforth said warningly.
"He's still our Chad," Mr. Danforth continued in a milder tone. "The fact that the person he's fallen in love with is male doesn't make him one bit less than the wonderful young man you've always known. The only thing that's changed is that you'll have to give up any notion you've ever had of making him your son-in-law."
Ryan drew the curtains around the bed as Chad slowly sat up again. Ryan opened the bag, pulled out some clothes and the travel kit he'd packed, along with a thick, fluffy towel he'd snagged from Chad's bathroom.
"Do you want to shower?" he asked.
"I'd rather do that at home," Chad said.
"You sure? Your hair looks pretty gnarly," Ryan confided. Chad smiled at his reluctance to state the obvious.
"In other words, I have the world's worst case of bed head and you'd be embarrassed to be seen with me."
"No," Ryan insisted, digging into the bag again. "I brought this." He produced a bandanna and handed it to Chad, who pulled him into a hug.
"You're the best," he said in a tone that was only slightly mocking. But Ryan didn't care; he was happy to be able to hold Chad in his arms again. Chad rested his head on Ryan's shoulder and sighed happily. "So what did you bring for me to wear?" he asked presently.
"Well, I agonized about jeans…" Ryan replied. Chad kissed his nose.
"Dope," he said affectionately.
"But I decided that you probably wouldn't want to wear them anyway, given your soreness. So I brought you some sweats instead."
"Good," Chad said, reluctantly pulling away. "Let's get me out of here."
Ryan pulled out a tee shirt and unfolded it while Chad pulled at the snaps that held his gown together at the shoulders. Ryan gasped when he saw the bruises on his shoulder and ribs. He immediately began to choke up.
"Ryan," Chad said, pulling him into his arms again. Ryan resisted only for a second before moving closer. "I'm fine." Ryan shook his head, and Chad smiled indulgently. "All right, I'm not; but I will be. All right?" Ryan nodded. "Good," Chad said, kissing his hair. "Now let's do this before the doctor changes her mind."
Ryan helped Chad into a pair of boxers and the sweatpants, but decided against trying to fit him into the snug-fitting tee. Instead, he helped Chad into the sweatshirt and zipped it up. When he was done, he looked at Chad's hair.
"Do you want me to--?"
"Did you bring a brush?"
"Yeah, but--." Ryan sighed and handed it to him. Chad took a few strokes and tossed the brush down on the bed.
"Get my mom, please?"
"I don't care," Mr. Danforth said. "I didn't appreciate the way she was looking at Ryan."
"Well, honey, you can't blame her for being surprised! She's known Chad since he was an infant. And--."
"So have I!"
"You're his father!"
"Yeah, and I took it better than she did," Mr. Danforth said crossly.
"She took it fine, Earl! Laura's no bigot. You know she's been volunteering at that AIDS clinic for years. And she sits on the board of--."
"None of that has anything to do with Chad and--." He cut off his next words when he saw Ryan standing at the entrance to the lounge. "Ryan?"
"Chad wants you," he said to Ms. Danforth, who nodded and made a hasty retreat, avoiding his eyes as she passed. Ryan waited until she was gone before taking a few steps forward. "Problem?" he asked boldly, feeling entitled to ask since his name had been brought up during the argument. Mr. Danforth sat down on the sofa and ran his hands over his bald scalp.
"That woman was Chad's doctor," he said as Ryan sat down. "She just found out that Chad was gay."
"So I gathered," Ryan said carefully. What he really wanted to know was why the Danforths were arguing. He gazed at Mr. Danforth, who sat back, shaking his head.
"When all this began--when Chad came out to us--we were concerned about protecting him. We didn't want any trouble at school and we--I guess I'm the one who wanted Chad to take things slowly in case--."
"In case he changed his mind about being gay?" Ryan said wryly. Mr. Danforth shifted uncomfortably, silently acknowledging the truth of Ryan's words. "My dad did the same thing," Ryan said generously. "He figured that I'd come around eventually."
"I just didn't know what I know now," Mr. Danforth admitted. "I admit I was naïve. Anyway, my wife and I agreed that Chad should come out on his own terms when he was ready. We've been really careful about that. But after I saw the way she was looking at you--Dr. Franklin, I mean--I lost it."
"Lost it," Ryan repeated uncertainly.
"I told her that Chad was gay and that you two had been dating for months. My wife thought I was wrong to out you two, but I wanted to make it clear that I knew about and approved of your relationship with Chad."
"Oh," Ryan said, frankly surprised.
"I won't have anyone thinking of you as a corrupting influence," Mr. Danforth said fiercely. "You're in his life--and ours--by choice."
"Mom," Chad whined as she entered the room.
"What's the matter, Boo?"
"My hair; I can't go out like this. Not with Ryan, anyway," he said smiling disarmingly.
"I'm not sure I'd want to be seen with you, either," Ms. Danforth quipped, opening her purse. "Did Ryan bring you a brush and comb?"
"Yeah, but that's not going to happen," Chad said, holding them out of her reach. "I just need to tie it back somehow. I'll shower and wash it when I get home and then you can braid it for me."
"Okay, honey. I've got an elastic band in here somewhere," she said as she dug around in her purse. "What were you and Ryan up to when Dr. Franklin came in?" she asked conversationally.
Chad's mother looked up with an expression that demanded a better explanation.
"Nothing! I was just waking up and Ryan was still asleep."
"Ryan was in bed with you?"
"No! He was in the chair. He had his head on the bed, though. And I was playing with his hair."
"And that's all she saw?"
Ms. Danforth found a hair elastic and turned to Chad, holding out her hand for the brush. She gently dragged it though the worst of the tangles, just enough to be able to pull it back into a rough ponytail.
"Why?" Chad repeated as she tied his bandana.
"Your father just told her about you and Ryan," she said in a clipped tone.
"I think that was probably redundant," he replied easily. But he frowned at her expression. "What did she say?"
"What she said doesn't matter. I'm more concerned about what your father said."
"All right; what did he say?"
"He outted you, Chad!" she said furiously. "After everything we talked about--respecting your privacy, letting you and Ryan decide who to tell--."
"It's all right, mom," Chad said soothingly. "I really don't mind. And if she tells Chandra and people find out at school, so what? I'll be graduating next week. That part of my life is over." Ms. Danforth looked into her son's eyes. Her frown slowly faded as he smiled at her. "It's all right."
"Boo," she whispered as he rested his head on her shoulder. She pulled him closer and he hissed in pain.
"Not so tight," he warned.
Chad rode home in the back of his father's car. It was more spacious than his mother's and it enabled him to comfortably snuggle against Ryan and doze on the ride home. Ryan pulled out his phone and sent off a quick text to Troy, so he wasn't surprised to find him sitting on the front lawn when they pulled into the driveway. Gabriella was there, too, holding a cluster of balloons and an enormous card. Ryan shook his head fondly and gently roused Chad.
"We're home," he whispered softly. Chad opened his eyes and yawned as the car came to a stop. He looked out of the window and saw his mother speaking with the young couple. Ryan got out of the car and opened the door. Chad carefully slid out and held his arm as he made his way around the car to greet his friends. Gabriella immediately reached out to hug him and Chad put his hands up defensively.
"Easy," he said, hugging her on the right side. "I'm still a bit sore."
"I'm so sorry," she said, squeezing him in spite of the warning. He grit his teeth and endured it, exhaling when she let him go.
"Let's get you inside, Chad," Mr. Danforth said. Ryan let Gabriella and Troy take over and went to grab Chad's personal effects. Mr. Danforth turned his attention to putting his car in the garage, only to find Ryan's Corvette in his spot. He sighed and left the car on the driveway beside Chad's. He walked up to the CR-V and peered inside. He found Chad's backpack and a few bags from the mall and took them into the house.
"Would you rather go straight up to your room?" Troy was saying to Chad, who was sitting on the living room sofa.
"No, I'm good for now. I want to rest up a bit before I try the stairs," he replied, looking around. "Where's Ryan?"
"I'll go get him," Troy said. "I think he went upstairs." He found Ryan in Chad's room, turning back the bed. "There's something I never expected to see an Evans do," he quipped. Ryan looked up.
"Well, if it were your bed, you'd be on your own," Ryan admitted frankly. "I just want to make sure Chad's comfortable." He opened the bag he'd brought to the hospital and began to unpack and put away things.
"How's he doing, really?" Troy asked. Ryan emerged from the closet in time to see him pick up the neatly folded tee shirt and take it over to the dresser.
"Third drawer on the left," Ryan said. If Troy thought anything of the fact that Ryan knew where Chad's clothes belonged, he didn't show any sign of it. "He's tired and sore and he needs a lot of rest. But he's a lot happier now that he's home. I think he'll heal faster here, too."
"Maybe we all will," he said, sitting on the bed. Ryan instinctively bristled, but then he stopped worrying about the bed and sat down beside him. "I couldn't concentrate worth a damn today," Troy confessed. "Gabriella was even worse. She totally blames herself for what happened to Chad."
"That's crazy," Ryan replied, frowning.
"I know, but we all do it," Troy said, nudging his arm. "Don't tell me you haven't second-guessed yourself. I know I feel as though I should have been with them instead of letting them go into that store on their own."
"That's as crazy as Gabriella blaming herself."
"I know," Troy said. "But that doesn't stop me from thinking about it."
"No," Ryan confessed. He rested his elbows on his knees and stared into space for a moment. "Chad asked me about the accident today. I told him what happened and he asked where I was at the time. That's when I did it."
"Did what?" Troy asked, confused.
"Began to second-guess myself," Ryan said, shutting his eyes tightly. "I did try to talk Chad out of going shopping without me when he told me his plans. Maybe if I'd been more--. Gah!" he said, shaking his head and rising to his feet. "This isn't helping anything. There's no way anything either of us did would have prevented that accident. But…"
Ryan gave him an exasperated look.
"But you do it anyway and you hope Chad never wonders why you weren't there to protect him," he said before heading for the door. Troy caught up to him at the top of the stairs.
"He won't do that," Troy assured him, placing a hand on his shoulder.
"Doesn't matter," Ryan said grimly. "I'm already doing it."
"You protect him far better than I ever have," he replied. "He's lucky to have you and don't think for one minute he doesn't know it. He says so all the time." Ryan turned around and stared at Troy. "You make him happy. And you know what? Maybe only five or six people at East High know about you and Chad, but I can't think of a single one of Chad's friends or acquaintances who hasn't commented on how much happier he's been all senior year. So stop worrying and just keep on doing what you already do so well."
"Or you can stay here and catch flies. I'm going to visit Chad," Troy said with a wink before he galloped down the stairs. Ryan smiled crookedly and followed.
The two teens went downstairs to the living room where they found Chad and Gabriella on the sofa. His feet were propped on the coffee table and he was leaning against her, reading all the words of support and encouragement on the get-well card she'd given him.
"I think the entire senior class signed this," he said, turning the card to read.
"You can look at that later," Ryan said, pulling it out of his hand. "You remember what the doctor said about straining your eyes."
"I already have a mother, thank you," Chad said impertinently.
"And she heartily agrees with him," Ms. Danforth said, setting a tray down on the coffee table. She picked up two glasses and handed one to Gabriella and the other to Chad. "You're welcome to stay about fifteen minutes more and then he's going to bed," she said.
"Yes, ma'am," Troy said, reaching for a cookie. "Want one, Chad?"
"No, I've got cake around here somewhere," Chad said, looking up at Ryan hopefully. He rolled his eyes and went off to the kitchen. He returned with the cake on a plate and a glass of milk. Chad smiled warmly, exchanging the glass of lemonade for the offered milk. Gabriella took the plate from Ryan and held it for him. Ryan slumped into a chair and observed the two of them. Gabriella fed Chad cake and Troy read all the messages on the card out loud.
Ryan's phone rang and he absently reached for it as he listened to what Ms. Darbus had written on the card. He answered it without looking to see who'd called.
"Ducky! I'm so sorry I've been out of reach today. There was a gas fire in one of the kitchens out at Lava Springs, nothing too serious, but it meant shifting around a number of upcoming events. We have two weddings on site tomorrow and we--." Ms. Evans paused and seemed to remember herself. "How's Chad?"
"He's fine," Ryan replied with a smile, just as Chad looked over and winked at him. "We just got home from the hospital."
"I'm so glad to hear it. And how are you holding up? I know you must have had a terrible night all alone in Chad's bed."
"Yeah, it was pretty bad," he said with a sigh. Across the room, Chad looked up and frowned. "Mom, can I call you back? Chad needs me."
"Of course, honey. I'll be home the rest of the evening. Call me whenever you have time."
"And give Chad my love."
"Can I kiss him for you?" Ryan asked impishly. He said goodbye and put away his phone as he rose and crossed the room. He sat down next to Chad and leaned in to give him a kiss on the lips. "That's from mom."
"Yeah, like she'd ever kiss me there," Chad replied.
"She's probably never seen you with a mouthful of chocolate cake," he deadpanned. "You about ready for a nap?"
"Yeah," Chad said reluctantly. "I'm pretty tired."
"We'd better let you rest, then," Gabriella said, spooning the last piece of cake into his mouth.
"Want to give me a hand, Troy?" Ryan asked as he helped Chad to his feet. "I don't want him to have any problems on the stairs."
"Sure," Troy said. Before he could take Chad's arm, Gabriella leaned in and gave him a gentle hug and a kiss.
"Bye, Gabi," Chad said. "Thanks for coming and please thank everyone for the card."
"I will," she promised. She stepped back to let Troy take Chad by the arm and lead him to the stairs.
"Ready, Boo--big guy?" Ryan said, catching himself. Chad glared at him for a second and then leaned over and kissed his nose.
"Thanks for taking such good care of me," he said. Behind his back, Troy gave Ryan a triumphant look. "You, too, Troy. Let's go." They gently led him upstairs just as Mr. Danforth came back into the living room.
"Ryan and Troy just took him up," Gabriella reported. Mr. Danforth nodded. He started toward the stairs but stopped himself. He trusted that his son was in good hands.
"By the way, I found some stuff in Chad's car," he said, reaching for the bags he'd left by the door. "Do any of these belong to you?"
"Yeah," she said. "With everything going on yesterday I guess neither Troy nor I thought about our stuff. We were just worried about Chad."
"I understand," Mr. Danforth said.
"Will he be able to come to graduation?"
"I'm pretty certain we'll have a very hard time keeping him away," he replied with a smile. "But we'll see." Troy came downstairs and entered the living room rubbing his hands together.
"The patient has been safely delivered to his room," he said. "Ready to go?" Gabriella nodded. They said goodbye and left. Mr. Danforth collected Chad's backpack and the remaining shopping bag and took them up to Chad's room.
He knocked on the door and heard no answer. After a moment, he pushed it open. Inside, he saw the two young men lying on the bed together, fast asleep. He placed the bags on the floor by the closet and withdrew.
"Did Chad get upstairs okay?" Ms. Danforth asked when her husband returned to the kitchen with the refreshment tray from the living room.
"Ryan's looking after him," he replied cryptically.
"He always does."
End of Part Three
On to Part Four