Ryan was late. Mrs. Fields had asked him to stay after AP English 4, and talked at him for nearly fifteen minutes about the importance of class participation for seniors applying to colleges, especially if that senior was hoping for scholarship money, and more to the point – an excellent recommendation letter.
“I know you have opinions, Ryan. I’d just like to see you raise your hand and share them with the class more often, instead of saving it up for essay exams. I worry when my students don’t know how to express themselves without the pressure of testing, you know,” she said, in what was obviously meant in a kindly manner.
Then Ryan had spent another ten minutes half-heartedly assuring her of his interest in academic achievement and promising to try to participate in discussions, all the while thinking, but it’s better if I do keep my thoughts between myself and my notebook. It, at least, won’t hold it against me. There would be no point in telling her how college seemed very far away, an impossible thing for someone who had no time for something as illusory as hope. Bishop Gorman High School was a routine he felt both comforted and trapped by. The misery had an expiration date. What would Ryan Ross be doing this time next year? Not attending Bishop Gorman. Bliss.
And now Ryan was too late to see Spencer practice ridiculous band formations and watch his face get more and more distant as he grew bored with “the endless fucking stupidity of wearing a stupid hat.” That was sometimes the best part of Ryan’s day.
Spencer was waiting at the edge of the bleachers, his orange jacket draped haphazardly over the benches. He looked up as Ryan approached and smiled.
That was something else Ryan loved about the written word. Once something was written down, you could tell if something had changed, if someone had reached out and edited for meaning, content, grammar. Ryan wanted to be able to see that in real life – to see the moment some god or laughing Fate had looked at the entry under Ryan’s personal encyclopedia for “Smith, Spencer James - the person who knows you best; semi-earnest explosion enthusiast; best friend” and added “the one who takes your breath away.”
If the basic definitions of Ryan’s life were going to change so radically, Ryan felt he deserved a look at the mastermind’s handwriting.
He remembered his lungs were for breathing. “So, no stupid hats today?”
“Nope! It’s too hot to put on our uniforms for practice, thank fu –the Lord,” Spencer replied easily. His expression turned gleeful. “You missed a great practice, though. That guy from the other school band, you know the one, the guy who’s excited about everything. So he took out an entire stack of folding chairs in an attempt to imitate the mascot dance. It was freaking amazing. Our director had to go offer first aid.”
“Wow, I’m heartbroken, Spence. Don’t tell me I now have to hold Mrs. Fields responsible for depriving me of the greatest pratfall to ever grace the football field of Bishop Gorman,” Ryan said.
Spencer got up and elbowed Ryan in the side good-naturedly. “Don’t be a dick. You’ll get to see them at the Homecoming game. Maybe he’ll stage a re-enactment.”
“Mmph.” Ryan had been so eloquent just that afternoon when writing about the angst of Frankenstein’s monster. Why couldn’t he say actual words when Spencer was being so wholly normal? He attempted to redirect his thoughts. “Wait, who are we playing for Homecoming again?”
“Palo Verde. The Panthers,” Spencer called over his shoulder as he led the way into the parking lot. “The team that won regionals last year. And the year before that. And the year before that.” He held the passenger door open for Ryan and patiently waited for him to get in the car. Ryan remained unaffected by this because he was not a girl. Spencer had been trained into it by his sisters. It wasn’t a big deal.
“Are you saying that you don’t read the articles in the very newspaper that you copy-edit?” Spencer’s grin as he shut the car door did nothing to straighten out (ha!) his thoughts.
“Shut up,” Ryan muttered, resorting to a habitual complaint. “I make the sophomores do the Athletics page. I’ve earned it after three long years looking at our mascot’s face. Why has no one realized his face literally looks like ass?”
“Yeah, yeah. Our mascot is uglier than your mom, I know. Now shut up. I need to drive.”
Spencer had practiced his driving over the summer and passed the test after their birthdays. He was currently obsessed with getting it all exactly right, because if they got caught in the car together while Spencer was driving, the restriction on driving non-family members could be extended another six months, which was such bullshit. Ryan would offer to drive, but apparently rediscovering your best friend as someone you would like to be intimate with like that went part and parcel with becoming the sort of horrible person who would ogle people on the sly.
Hands in perfect ten-and-two formation, fingers lightly gripping the wheel, alert to hazards of suburban roads and minivans: the very picture of a competent driver. It was so unfair, Ryan thought, that Spencer could make anything look good. He could even wear the ugly khaki uniform shorts without looking like a newly discovered species of ungainly mammal. Ryan felt like he expended so much effort into just looking human some days. His eyes drifted to Spencer’s knees. No, definitely not a card-carrying member of awkward adolescence.
Ryan should post some more pictures to his Livejournal. Someone was bound to be appreciative. Maybe Spencer would see them and actually say something for once. Maybe he would tell Ryan to stop baiting old men and creepy girls on the internet like last time. Ryan sighed heavily and lifted his head to find Spencer already looking at him at the rear view mirror.
Spencer was looking at him oddly. Their eyes caught one another in the mirror. The moment held.
Ryan couldn’t breathe again.
Thankfully, the stoplight changed and Spencer brought his eyes back to the road before Ryan had to come up with a good reason he’d been staring at his best friend’s shorts. Only a few more blocks before Ryan might have to answer anything. He dared another glimpse into the rear view mirror. The idea of a smile hovered around Spencer’s mouth. But the blush skating along Spencer’s cheekbones had to be a trick of the light. A hazard of living in the desert.
They rolled to a stop in front of Ryan’s house. The yard needed weeding.
“We’re here,” Spencer said unnecessarily. “Are you going to come over for dinner before we go to my grandma’s house? I think it’s lasagna tonight?”
“No,” Ryan didn’t want to face putting all those question marks into an ordinary invitation. “I’ve got to do stuff. Homework. College guides. Application essays. Terrible things that will happen to you next year. I’ll drive myself so you won’t have to be exposed at such a young age.”
“Right. Next year.” Spencer shifted away a bit, and Ryan jumped out of the car before Spencer could do something horribly familiar like open Ryan’s car door again. Hoisting his backpack up from the car floor, he caught the abrupt movement of Spencer’s head turning to look in the other direction.
“Smell you later,” Ryan said. Spencer nodded, his smile banked down to ten percent genuine. Ryan headed towards the house and listened to Spencer drive off. He heaved another heartfelt sigh, appreciated the way it reverberated in his chest, more solid than any emotion he could name.
His dad wasn’t home yet, wouldn’t be home until late. Ryan blasted Blink-182 in the kitchen so he wouldn’t have to listen to his own thoughts as he scrounged up a meal from the meager contents of the fridge and did a few days’ worth of dirty dishes. The album ended while he was sorting bottles into the recycling bin, and Ryan went upstairs.
In his room, Ryan selected his tightest pair of jeans from the closet. The shirt he wanted was harder to find. It had been Spencer’s once, but Ryan had worn it one Saturday morning after sleeping over and just never given it back. The internet had loved it. Spencer had never mentioned it at all.
He pulled on the yellow shirt and looked at the band posters lining the wall behind his desk. Stubborn faces and angry eyes stared back at him. Those bands had made it out of the garage.
Pet Salamander had made for a fantastic summer, but Ryan wanted to stop playing cover songs and start playing their songs. He just hadn’t mentioned it to anyone yet. Tomorrow he’d talk about it. Tomorrow he’d figure it out.
It was time for real band practice, and if Ryan was lucky, he’d only be a little bit late.
Ryan heard the crash of cymbals as he walked up the driveway to Spencer’s grandparents’ house. He opened the door and followed the noise into the garage; Spencer stopped playing when he noticed Ryan there.
“So, late again, Mr. Ross,” Spencer said, but he was smiling and Ryan knew he meant that one. Ryan relaxed. It would be fine. Spencer never let Ryan upset him for long.
“It’s the theme of the day. I’m auditioning for the role of the White Rabbit. I’m very method, you know,” Ryan joked back, grateful to fall into the easy routines of their friendship. “Brent’s not coming today?”
“No, his parents said he has to finish up his history essay and ace the vocab quiz if he wants to take Valerie Lyle to the dance after the Homecoming game.” Spencer shrugged and stretched his shoulders. “And I guess he likes her more than he hates history.”
“Shocker. Brent Wilson wants to get laid. ” Ryan ducked the jacket Spencer threw at him. “Alert the presses! Call VH1!” He collapsed into a chair next to the guitar amps. It felt amazing to laugh. The good times they had spent laughing at each other during the summer seemed very far away. They’d done their summer reading together, sitting in Spencer’s living room. Ryan had been animated over Dante’s Inferno and read entire sections aloud, and Spencer had called him a freak and began a debate over which of their teachers belonged in the circles of Hell. In return, Ryan had pretended not to notice Spencer tearing up over the last few pages of Tuesdays with Morrie and gone to see Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle twice without bitching about it.
And then a little over a month ago, Spencer had been teasing him about being elected Chief Copy Editor for the school newspaper (“Only you can hold up The Lance, Ryan! They are ‘supremely confident’ in your skills.”) Ryan had been ready to make a devastatingly witty rejoinder when he’d looked at Spencer’s happy grin and a little voice in his head had whispered: Yes. This.
It had been a very long September. October looked to fare no better. Ryan allowed himself the luxury of a tiny sigh. Hanging out with his best friend should not be so complicated.
“Can I ask you something?” Ryan hadn’t known his mouth could take control of his brain like that.
“You just did.” The “you freak” was implied in Spencer’s tone. But he added, quickly, his tone earnest, “You can ask me anything.”
Ryan frantically tried to come up with a suitable topic. What had he been thinking? “Um, well I was wondering. Since summer’s over and Homecoming’s coming up and. There’s just not that much time, and things might be different soon. So maybe, if you think it’s a good idea, maybe it’s crazy. We could stop being only a cover band?” He babbled.
That didn’t even make sense, Ryan thought miserably. Oh god, why isn’t he saying anything.
“Oh.” Ryan was instantly grateful that Spencer had no clue about Ryan’s complicated inner life. Spencer kind of looked like he had been expecting a cupcake and bit into a muffin instead. “Oh! You want to try writing our own songs?”
“Yeah, I think we could at least try a few…” Ryan trailed off, waiting for Spencer.
Spencer jumped in immediately, noticeably more enthusiastic, “Hell yeah! Let me just go get some more drumsticks from the basement. I broke one.“ And with that, Spencer fled.
Ryan was off-balance again. He had missed something.
Following Spencer out of the room, he tripped over something wedged just next to the doorstop.
It was an old book. The spine was damaged, the pages were stained with age, and on the faded red cover, Ryan could barely make out the title. THE LABYRINTH, it proclaimed in worn gold lettering.
He sat on the couch, opened the book and read.
Once upon a time, there was a beautiful young man whose mother had run away to travel the world when he was merely a babe, leaving him in the care of his father. And his father had been a soldier and knew little about the raising of children. Soon his father became the tavern-keeper’s best customer and his heart lost the knack of caring for his son whenever there was an open pint to be found. Left to his own devices so often, the young man grew lonely and strange. Often the people of the village would whisper to their families, “Keep away from that one! Something odd is afoot.” So the only people who visited him were those who viewed him with cautious curiosity, and they soon went away. But what no one knew is that the prince of the goblins had fallen in love with the young man, and granted him certain powers. So one night, when the latest visitor had left him hollow with disappointment after what had seemed to the young man an almost friendly conversation, he called on the goblins for help!
If only my problems were as easy to solve as that, Ryan thought. He turned the page.
"Say the right words," the goblins said, "and we'll take the villager to the castle, and you will be free!" But the young man knew that the Goblin Prince would keep the villager in his castle for ever and ever and ever, and turn him into a goblin! And so he suffered in silence. Until one day, when he was tired from a day of drudgery, and despaired of ever finding someone to know him, and he could no longer stand it...
Ryan felt pressure on the back of his neck, like someone was staring at him. He turned, but no one was there. Weird. Spencer’s grandparents were out on Thursday nights. He and Spencer should be alone in the house.
There was another sigh building in his chest, which was unacceptable. Ryan was never going to be able to breathe normally again. He closed the book and tipped his head back to rest on the couch. “I wish the goblins would take my problems away.” His words fell into the unnatural silence.
Instantly, a gust of wind swept through the house, slamming all the doors open. The lights went out. The trees in the yard rapped on the window. Ryan heard the scurrying movement of many little feet heading towards the basement.
“Spencer!” Ryan yelled, jumping off the couch. “Spencer!”
There was no answer as Ryan ran down the stairs. Ryan’s fingers slipped on the light switch. He couldn’t get them to work. He swore he heard giggles chiming in from upstairs. That was impossible. There was no one there. And even if there had been someone, the lights were out. How could anyone see?
Spencer was not there. Ryan felt chills crawling up his spine.
Where the fuck did he go? Aloud, Ryan called, “This is the worst joke ever, Spencer! You can come out now.”
More giggles. The hair on the back of Ryan’s neck prickled. He reached for the light switch one more time.
It came on, the flickering light illuminating the rickety basement steps. Ryan exhaled, slowly. The power outage was over. Everything would be fine. He turned around to look for Spencer again, and screamed.
“I’m hurt. That’s not very polite,” said the boy lounging on a pile of boxes marked “KITCHEN/BATH”. His legs were propped up against “CAMPING” and he wore the tightest pants Ryan had ever seen on an actual person –black leather and dripping in sequins. His loose white shirt was a beacon in the yellow light of the room. An incongruous top hat completed the outfit. He looked vaguely familiar.
Oh my god. Some lunatic from the Strip had a psychotic break and broke into the house, Ryan thought hysterically. “Who the fuck are you?”
“You invited me here to solve your little problem, Ryan! I’d heard all about how careless and distracted people are becomng in this modern age, but I’m still disappointed that you don’t recognize me. I’ll forgive you this time, though,” the boy pouted, coming to his feet in a motion Ryan couldn’t follow with his eyes. Light trails lingered in the air, following all his movements.
“I! am Brendon, Prince of Goblins, Duke of Those Forgotten Lands, Entertainer Extraordinaire, and your savior, even if you won’t recognize me as such.” Brendon’s smile was not reassuring in the slightest.
This isn’t happening. Stories don’t come to life! Ryan sat down against the wall, hard. Oh, shit. That hurt. This is a very realistic dream.
“I’m asleep. This is all a bad dream. I have a terrible case of food poisoning brought on by that turkey I ate earlier today.” Ryan glared at the vision across him in the basement.
Brendon laughed and snapped his fingers. Instead of the wall supporting his back, Ryan found himself on Spencer’s grandma’s floral patterned couch. The cushions made uncomfortable indentations in his ribs.
Brendon was suddenly right next to Ryan’s feet. The illuminated tracks of his approach made Ryan’s eyes close in protest, and he realized abruptly that he was blinking away tears.
“Now, now. There’s no need for that. I know you’re only too grateful, but there’s no reason to cry over my brilliance. How about a dance, instead?” Brendon suited words to actions, pulling on Ryan’s arms.
“wait,” Ryan said. He could barely hear himself, and pushed weakly at Brendon’s hands. “Wait. WAIT.”
“Yes, Ryan?” Brendon didn’t seem to care about the rejection, and began juggling sparkling objects high into the air.
“What happened to Spencer?” Ryan asked.
“Who? Spencer?” Brendon didn’t look at him. “Oh, you must mean that other boy who was bothering you. Why do you want to know?”
“Where the fuck is Spencer?” Ryan felt stronger by the second. Brendon would have to do more than a little fancy juggling to cow a Las Vegas native.
“You know the answer to that already. Spencer is at the castle –my castle –and will be staying there for the foreseeable future. He’ll make a very nice addition to my court, so thank you for the present.” The baubles continued their graceful arcs, Brendon’s hands making practiced, economical tosses.
“I want him back here.” Ryan said, remembering the paragraphs he had read. It felt like a lifetime ago. “I don’t want Spencer to – I don’t want Spencer to turn into a goblin!”
Brendon looked mildly interested and stopped juggling. All the objects hung suspended in the air. His face was the center of a lopsided constellation. “Well you are welcome to come for a visit with me, but you can’t have him back. It doesn’t work like that. You aren’t allowed to change your mind willy-nilly. We’d be out the family business then!”
He tapped his fingers faux-thoughtfully against his mouth and then offered: “How about a trade, then? You come visit my castle and I won’t turn Spencer into a goblin until after you decide to leave.”
“No!” Ryan exclaimed unthinkingly.
Brendon pouted. “I want your unswerving devotion, your still-beating heart, and to take you to a school dance!” He noticed the involuntary lowering of Ryan’s jaw. “They look like such fun! We haven’t had a party like that in the Underground.” Brendon’s eyelashes fluttered coquettishly. “Say yes?”
“No!” Ryan sputtered, but he couldn’t think of anything else to say. “Please, just let me have Spencer back. It was a mistake, I swear. I didn’t mean it.”
“Wouldn’t you like your dreams come true instead?” Brendon plucked a sphere out of the air and kissed it. “This pretty thing will let you live the life of your dreams, Ryan. You’ll never be miserable again. You will never have to worry, never have to cry. You’ll be tremendously happy –just take this and smile your days away.” He wrapped Ryan’s fingers around it.
“See! It likes you. It’s blushing!” Brendon said proudly. And it was blushing, or rather, it was pulsating a gentle pink. It certainly didn’t look horrible. Ryan gazed at his palm. It was a small reddish stone. Surely it wasn’t out to get him.
“That’s right. Isn’t it pretty? It just wants you to decide. Are you going to take the offer?” Brendon wound his arm around Ryan’s waist and whispered hotly into his ear.
Ryan shivered. All his dreams, sitting in the palm of his hand. He could just hold on and make a wish…
“No,” He said hoarsely. “How do I get Spencer back?”
Brendon drew away from him, looking displeased. “Is nothing good enough for you? First I take your troubles away because you ask. I offer to love you forever more. I place your every heart’s desire in front of you. No wonder your people are considered fickle. Always changing their minds.”
Ryan swallowed, trying to put moisture back in his throat. “Please. It would – it would make me happy.”
The Goblin Prince threw his hands up in the air and jumped on the couch. “Fine, then. I don’t have a choice. But when this turns out badly for everyone, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
And before Ryan could protest, Brendon snapped his fingers and a twirled of his top hat, melting the familiar surroundings of Spencer’s grandparents’ house into a sea of swirling color.
Ryan opened his eyes. When had he closed them? Spencer was going to laugh at him if he came back from the basement and found Ryan napping.
But he wasn’t anywhere near the basement.
He was on a hill overlooking a gigantic maze. It stretched endlessly into the horizon.
“Welcome back,” said Brendon, startling Ryan into movement.
“What is this place?” Ryan asked. It was the first sensible question he’d asked in a while, he was sure.
“Home. Welcome to the Underground. This is the Labyrinth,” Brendon gestured expansively, moving in a demented shimmy down the hill. “The castle, as you can see, is right at the Heart of it all.”
Ryan could make out the tall towers of a fairytale castle, distressingly far in the distance.
“And in order to rescue your friend, you must reach the Heart of the Labyrinth and claim your victory. Only then will you both be free to go back to your world.” Brendon threw Ryan a flirtatious look over his shoulder. “Are you quite sure you don’t want to stay with me and have a ball? I’m considered an excellent dancer.”
“I’ll take my chances with the maze, thanks. Should be a piece of cake, right?” People solved mazes all the time. Ryan could do it, too. He started determinedly toward the entrance.
“Oh, Ryan! I forgot to tell you something.” Brendon waited until Ryan was looking at him again. Waving his arms, he conjured a huge clock bigger than both of them. The guy was such a show-off. “You have thirteen hours to solve the Labyrinth!”
Ryan started to object, but then he looked more closely at the clock and noticed three things: 1) The clock was marked up to 13. 2) All the numbers were backwards – the 9 was where the 3 should be. And most disturbingly, 3) The clock was already counting down from 12:34.
“Hey! What happened to the rest of my time?” He demanded.
“You were asleep! The clock starts when we get here. Time flies when you’re having fun.” And with an exaggerated wink, Brendon vanished into a cloud of glitter.
At 11:13, Ryan was overheated and right back where he started. He’d gone for the entrance first, but the doors had tried to ask him some stupid riddle, and fuck that, Ryan had been climbing the tree by Spencer’s window since he was nine. He’d scrambled over the thick hedge, spared a second to bemoan the inevitable destruction of his clothes, and turned left, keeping a hand on the wall. He’d read before how all mazes had tricks and one of the most common keys was sticking close to the north wall and turning left. Ryan had figured it couldn’t hurt to try.
Now he was staring at the huge clock sitting on the hill, ticking softly. If he climbed over the maze wall he’d be back where it all began. He raked his fingers through his hair in frustration, and then winced. Chattering pixies had bitten him a few precious minutes ago for trespassing on their flowers.
The flowers hadn’t even been that nice. A particularly uppity daisy had scolded him for not wearing a cravat. Ryan had momentarily felt a keen solidarity with Alice. But then, Alice had woken up, hadn’t she?
What was he going to do? He was pretty sure the hedge was alive too, or at the very least, not exactly stationary. Eyes had followed him everywhere. The pixies had been vicious, the caterpillars suspicious, and the goat he had asked for directions to the castle had suggested he give up to save them all the trouble. It seemed no one had conquered the challenge of the Labyrinth in living memory. Human teenagers need not apply.
Ryan eyed the hedge calculatingly. Could it hold his weight if he tried to stand on it? Perhaps it would be easier to climb over all the shrubbery and risk more fashion advice. That way he could keep the castle firmly in sight and avoid going in circles. He placed his hands gingerly on the branches, wary of any more territorial pixies, and began to pull himself up.
“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” said a voice from just over Ryan’s shoulder. He lost his footing in shock and crashed back into tan arms covered with tattoos.
“Whoa there. Hey. I’m Pete,” said the man, setting Ryan back on his feet. He didn’t look anything other than human and friendly, but Ryan remained silent. He couldn’t quite put his finger on what Pete made him think of….
“And you’re Ryan,” Pete continued gamely, pretending Ryan hadn’t just been staring. “The one trying to beat the Labyrinth.”
“How do you know that,” Ryan asked, suspicious.
Pete waved his arms around, “Everybody knows. The little bumblebees know. The bears know. The trees know. It’s been a while since anyone wished something away to the goblins. We’re a practically defunct kingdom. It’s just not that popular of a story anymore. Advertising ain’t what it used to be.”
“Advertising,” Ryan parroted.
“Yeah! You had a kid you couldn’t afford or was abandoned, easiest thing in the world to wish them away to the goblins,” Pete rambled on, his passion blinding him to Ryan’s distress. “Nowadays the same things happen but people call an agency instead of the goblins. Fewer awkward questions, I guess, but really people just don’t believe anymore.”
Ryan didn’t know what to think. The way Pete was saying it, the Underground was a charitable institution designed to rescue kids from shitty situations. “But, doesn’t it ever happen to the wrong people? What if you don’t want to wish someone away?”
“That’s what the Labyrinth it for. It’s a balancing system. If the person decides, ‘No, I don’t want the kid back,’ then they don’t run the Labyrinth. If they honestly didn’t mean it, they agree and try to beat the clock. It’s a bit tough, but if someone is a crappy enough person to wish a kid away in the first place, maybe it’s better for everyone if they don’t win.” Pete was utterly matter of fact.
Ryan was going to cry.
“Oh shit, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean you! You didn’t know it would actually happen!” Pete swung an arm around Ryan’s shoulders and started hauling him down the path. “It’s been so long since I was Above that I forget how backwards everything seems at first. But you’ve got to move back to go forward sometimes.”
Broken out of his thoughts by Pete’s alarmingly quick pace, Ryan asked, “So could you tell me how to get to the castle, then?”
“Of course I can! I’m going to take you there myself. True love, right? A totally worthy cause.”
Ryan stammered out, “How did you know? Even he doesn’t know.”
“I am older and wiser, Ryan.” His already too-wide grin transformed itself into a leer. “Do you want any tips for winning his heart?”
“No!” Ryan said, more forcefully than he expected. He hoped, in a resigned sort of way, that Pete wouldn’t turn out to be some kind of pervert. Ryan had already been touched more today than he was used to.
“Alrighty then. If you change your mind, just say so. And we’re off to the castle!”
As the clock tolled the ten o’clock chimes, they were rounding the corner of what Pete assured Ryan was “a very tricky section”, when Brendon appeared before them.
“Having a nice walk?” he asked. He looked meaningfully at Pete’s guiding arm around Ryan. Pete removed it, shrugging casually. Brendon had changed into an old-fashioned velvet suit and his top hat had a bit of ribbon festively tied on the brim. The pixies that had been so nasty to Ryan earlier were dancing joyfully around the crown.
“Your Highness,” Pete said in a low tone. “To what do we owe the pleasure.”
“Well it’s a lovely day, Pete, and you two have come so far already. I came to ask if our guest would like to take a little sightseeing tour, maybe a picnic. We could waltz around the lawn and smell the flowers.” He smirked. “I can protect you from the biting fairies.”
“No.” Ryan replied. “I want to walk to the castle myself.”
Brendon grew agitated, “You guys are no fun! I get a visitor for the first time in forever, and no one wants to play. Fine, then. If you won’t make it easier on yourselves, I’ll just have to wait a few more hours.” He snapped his fingers and all the hedges rotated sharply to the right. The way in front of them was blocked.
Ryan was almost becoming accustomed to the cloud of glitter that appeared with Brendon’s dramatic exits.
“We’d better hurry,” Pete said grimly. “If we dawdle the castle itself might move.”
“But that’s not fair!” Ryan couldn’t help himself. It had been going so well.
“That’s just the way the game is played, kiddo,” Pete said.
They walked for a few minutes before Pete turned abruptly on his heel and asked “Hey, do you want something to eat? I’ve got food.” He presented Ryan with a sandwich. “We’ll just take a little break. I’m gonna go make sure we’re still on the right track.”
Ryan sat down and watched Pete consult with a butterfly. “Pete? How did you get stuck down here?” he asked.
Pete’s reply came just as Ryan was chewing: “I wished someone away.”
Ryan is on stage, having the time of his life. The roar of the crowd is deafening. His fingers fly over the strings of his guitar effortlessly. There are so many people that Ryan can’t even see the edge of the club. It’s like the walls are being stretched to fit.
The set’s almost over, he knows. The vocalist comes over to Ryan’s side of the stage and hooks his chin over Ryan’s shoulder. The crowd screams in approval.
They stay like that through the rest of the show, the music thrumming through their connection. It’s like a cat purring, Ryan thinks hazily. He is flying with happiness.
He feels like he is burning up – the hot stage lights on his face, the velvety roses crushed beneath his guitar, the sweat dripping down his face, the body plastered to his back—but he is a rock star, and this is best job in the world.
The crowd takes up the chant for an encore, and they oblige. Ryan wants to stay on stage forever.
He turns to grin at the person behind him, and stares. He knows this guy. His haircut and smile, his long coattails and skintight pants.
Their faces are very close together now. “hey,” the nameless guy whispers, their noses almost touching. “great show.”
“The greatest,” Ryan says because it is the truth. He wants that feeling. Again. Now. But the mystery of the guy’s name is throwing him off-balance. It’s not a difficult question: What is the name of your lead singer?
Surely he’s answered that question in hundreds of interviews.
Nameless must notice his bewilderment, and pouts. “Let’s go get you a drink,” he decides, and leads Ryan offstage.
Ryan follows easily, nothing more natural than following where your bandmates lead, and looks around. At the club. At the lights. At the stage. They must have overdone the smoke machine. Ryan can hardly see who else is on stage with him. He just feels Nameless’ hand moving him along.
The smoke must thicken some more, then, because Ryan can’t see the drummer at all. He knows they have one, of course. He could feel the beat in his bones not five minutes ago.
Ryan makes out the edge of the raised drum platform and a flash of light that he thinks might be reflecting off the cymbals. He concentrates a little harder and breaks out of Nameless’ grip.
No, that’s not a reflection. That’s a light-up drum kit.
Spencer would love that. They should get him one.
Wait. Where is Spencer?
He hasn’t been able to find Spencer in so long. Why is he lost?
Ryan runs toward the drum riser. He hears shouts behind him, the sound of rushing air. He crashes through the drum kit, hits the stage backdrop and keeps going, pounding his fists against what has to be an illusion. He spins around, frantic.
Brendon is standing not twenty feet away, looking despondent. Ryan feels this pull to fix it, fix the band. He moves forward.
Ryan picks up the chair that should be Spencer’s and smashes through the stage, once, twice, three times…
And woke up gasping for air, choking on a piece of bread. He spat it out and threw the rest of the sandwich away violently.
“What the fuck, Pete.” But Pete was nowhere to be found. Ryan collapsed on the ground and stared into the blue sky. It had been a trap. One of those tests for horrible people who wished people away accidently. Pete had all but told him.
Ryan was so stupid. Now he didn’t know what time it was, where he was, or what to do next.
He got up, brushed off his shirt, and chose a direction randomly. It was time to get moving.
He was hopelessly lost, and had been for ages. He wasn’t sure if it was that the hedges were still moving randomly or if all the paths looked the same. The only distinguishing feature Ryan knew to look out for were swarms of flying flower-dwellers.
So he was surprised when the path he was following opened up into a little grove of trees, not a hedge to be seen. At the center of the grove was an ancient well.
Ryan approached the well and looked down. He felt thirst parch his throat as he gazed at the water. It looked beautiful and clean and delicious. He hadn't had anything to drink since before his life had turned sideways on its head. Pete’s food earlier had put him off trying to eat anything the Underground produced, but he’d be more careful this time. And well, Ryan was a growing boy.
He set to figuring out how to lower the bucket on the rope and in good order managed to draw a pail of water. Ryan was proud of himself. Finally, something that he could do. He cupped his hands in the water and drank. He belatedly hoped that the Underground didn't operate on the same principles as Hades. Ryan would hate to be stuck down here because of something as simple as water, but it didn't really matter --if Ryan wasn't getting out of this crazy place, neither was Spencer, and he needed to get to the heart of the maze before he started worrying about being a modern day Persephone.
It was water, and unlike anything else he had encountered so far, exactly as it seemed. This put him in a better mood. Not everything was governed by double talk and illusion. He cupped his hands in the pail to take another drink. This time his fingers encountered rough objects at the bottom of the pail, and he pulled one out, carefully.
In his hand was a green stone with a shiny finish. Of course it would be shiny, Ryan thought bitterly. Everything in this place was a freaking masterpiece. He sighed, rolling the rock around his palm absently. Brendon probably used these to juggle. It was cool to the touch, but as he drew a finger over it, Ryan felt an electric shock go through his body, and he automatically dropped it back into the pail.
"Shit," He muttered.
Without thinking about it too much, Ryan reached into the water again and took out a different stone. This one was a watery blue with quartz flecks. He touched it delicately with the tips of his fingers.
And he was transported.
Spencer sitting in a great hall, his chair set next to an ornate carved throne, speckled with rhinestones and swirling patterns. He looked whole and unhurt, and for once the sigh that Ryan couldn’t control was one of relief.
Sure, the hall needed a good cleaning and the goblins had definitely chewed on the furniture, but they didn't look that scary -- they actually Ryan reminded of watching Chamber of Secrets with Jackie and Crystal, and having Mrs. Smith make them huge bowls of popcorn.
Ryan tried to reach Spencer, but he was as insubstantial as a breeze. Trying to move was more frustrating than treading water during PE. All his desperate motions got him no closer to the end of the hall. If only he had some way of talking to him. He wanted to tell Spencer that things would be fine, Ryan was almost to the center of the Labyrinth, not to worry.
Ryan wouldn't have believed any of those platitudes, and he had been years out of practice at lying to Spencer anyhow.
It was just as well.
Besides, Spencer loved horror movies. He had seen things plenty more horrifying than small, energetic creatures attempting to line dance. What Ryan could make out of his expression was more “you are a scourge upon my eyeballs” and less “get me out of here!” so that was reassuring.
But it would make Ryan feel better to say something, anything. So he shouted at the top of his lungs, "Spence! We're going to get out of here!"
No one seemed to hear him, but that was no surprise over the raucous carousing of the goblins. For a moment, Spencer had looked in his direction, and it seemed suddenly possible --wasn't this a land of magic? --that two people could make eye contact when one of them was invisible. Maybe...
And Ryan found himself once more sitting by the well, dripping water down his shirt. The blue stone was nowhere to be found.
Had that really happened? His hands shook as he scrabbled at the bottom of the bucket. This time he had retrieved three rocks: the green one that had shocked him before, a jagged red one, and one that looked like an amethyst. He gingerly touched that one first.
Again, Ryan was inside the rooms of the castle. The tapestries were grand and laced with cobwebs. Suits of armor lined the corridor. Many of them had been embellished with paint and drawings. Ryan could make out tiny palm prints on the legs.
He saw a bit of daylight sneaking in through the grimy windows and tried to move, but that part hadn't changed. Ryan would just have to wait until something happened, or it wore off.
He found himself starting to sigh and abruptly cut himself off. He didn't have time for that.
The door opened at the end of the passageway and Spencer came out, looking breathless.
Ryan’s heart started racing. Was Spencer all right? Was he trying to escape?
Brendon followed Spencer out the door, laughing. He didn’t look at all upset. In fact, neither did Spencer. They looked like they had done something thrilling together –pulled off the world’s most exciting caper. Their eyes were sparkling with merriment.
“I can’t believe you taught the goblins how to do the chicken dance. Now they’ll never stop,” Brendon was saying.
“It’s an exotic thing where I come from. Totally the rage all over. And if they never stop, then then the furniture will be safe. It’s a win-win.” Spencer, Ryan realized abruptly, was leaning into Brendon’s personal space. And Brendon was leaning right back.
No, I don’t want to see this. Ryan shut his eyes and tried not to listen to the giggling and soft whispers. Mercifully, they left out another door.
And a short wait later, Ryan was gone too.
Well, that figured. Of course Brendon would be attracted to Spencer. Spencer was exactly the sort of person Brendon needed to handle unruly goblins. Why would he want to waste his time on someone like Ryan? It had probably been hours since Brendon had last been around. He was probably too busy waltzing with Spencer on the castle lawn. Miserably, Ryan jabbed himself in the palm with the red rock without meaning to.
He was standing at a vanity mirror, and Brendon was sitting in the chair in front of it, talking to someone.
“But, Gerard,” Brendon was whining. Ryan didn’t think it was cute. “I didn’t have a choice. He wished Spencer away to the goblins. I can’t just ignore that sort of thing. It’s the reason my family left me behind.” Ryan couldn’t tell if Brendon’s tragic tone was all for show, but he certainly sounded sincere.
“I’m not telling you to ignore your duty, Your Highness,” Gerard said. He paused, for effect, and pointed accusingly at Brendon. “But how did Ryan even know about the goblins? Nearly all of those books aged past repair more than thirty years ago. We haven’t even issued a new edition. Tell me you didn’t drop that book right into his lap!”
Brendon squirmed in his chair. He crushed his hat nervously. “I can’t,” he said in a small voice.
Gerard looked disappointed and unsurprised. “I know you’ve been watching him for some time now, Your Highness, but what you did was wrong. Ryan might need help, might have asked for help –but he didn’t mean to ask for our help. There’s—“
Brendon interrupted him. “I know! I wish I hadn’t done it, now. I was so bored and lonely, and he’s so –“ He cut himself off, pausing to take a shaky breath. “I like him a lot, Gerard. I just wanted to talk to him.”
Ryan never was any good at watching other people cry, and apparently that extended to Goblin Princes who kidnapped his friends. He turned to look at the mirror so he wouldn’t have to see Gerard trying to comfort Brendon.
He stared fixedly into the mirror. And then he realized what he was looking at.
All around the edges were pictures of Ryan. He remembered taking those photographs, some at parties, some at school events, some with the Smiths. Brendon had inserted himself into every single one.
Sometimes Brendon’s hands were around photo-Ryan’s waist, sometimes Brendon would sneak his head under a raised arm, but in all of them, they were touching. Brendon had the goofiest expressions on his face, but photo-Ryan was completely unbothered. It was almost comical.
Under one picture of Brendon holding Ryan close there were glittery letters reading “Practicing for prom!” with a series of multicolored hearts at the end.
Ryan wanted to laugh and scream, but choosing either would have been too limiting. He wrenched his attention back to where Gerard had laid a comforting hand on Brendon’s shoulders and was murmuring platitudes and advice.
“You can’t keep them here. They have families. It goes against the entire principle of the Underground, the centuries of protection.” Gerard was saying.
Brendon looked even more downcast. “I know. But, how do I make sure Ryan and Spencer go home? I can’t mess with the spell too much. It might rebel.”
“Oh.” Gerard’s pensive face melted into relief quickly. “Mikey will fix it.”
The two of them turned to look at a tall, thin man who was sitting on the window sill. Ryan hadn’t realized there was another person there.
Mikey waved a negligent hand. “Sure,” he said flatly. “I’ll get a unicorn on it.”
“It’s a Possibility Well,” Pete said from behind him. Ryan started out of the vision. Could no one in this kingdom make noise when they walked? Or popped into existence?
Ryan didn’t bother to reply. Pete had shown his true colors already.
“Everything you see in there, might have happened, might be going to happen, might never happen. So whatever you’re so bummed about, cheer up.” Pete tossed the rest of the water and rocks back down the well and sat down next to Ryan.
“You’re an asshole.” Ryan said.
“I am what I am,” Pete said calmly. “Sometimes I’m an asshole. But right now I’m here to apologize. If you really were a thoughtless person who didn’t deserve his friend, you would have been stuck in that illusion way after the thirteen hour countdown. So I’m sorry, and I’m going to take you to someone who can actually set you on the right path.”
Ryan gave him a look.
“Oh, come on. I’m not that questionable a character. Let’s go.” Pete started walking back toward the hedges.
Well, thought Ryan, it can get worse, but I’ll chance it.
They turned a few corners and hopped a low fence. Ryan swore it looked familiar, even though every hedge was basically the same. It was when he noticed a pixie nibbling on a piece of bread that he realized why.
“Wait. Pete, this is your “tricky section” again. What the hell.” Ryan never wanted to be back here. He eyed the remains of the sandwich warily.
Pete looked baffled. “Well of course it is. Trick lives here. He’s the Wizard who’ll help you get to the castle.”
Pete hadn’t bothered knocking when they’d reached a shabby hut, so Ryan assumed the large DO NOT ENTER sign on the door was a suggestion.
He revised this assumption when Pete screamed and was attacked by a bear. Ryan had a foot out the door before he realized that the screams were actually squeals of joy.
“You remembered to get out my suit! You’re the best, Trick,” Pete was saying, cradling what was, in fact, a plush bear mascot outfit.
The only other person in the room was bent over a table, carefully putting an accordion back together. He ignored the cooing noises Pete was making with an ease that Ryan could only envy.
What had appeared to be a shabby hut from outside was actually a cozy musical workshop. Instruments of all kinds rested on shelves. The soft sound of chimes swaying above Pete’s head reminded Ryan of the ticking of a clock.
Ryan cleared his throat. “Um? Can we talk about my problem? I’m on a schedule.” Both men turned to look at him.
“A pet project, Pete? I thought we agreed you would stop that.” Trick murmured.
“I need something to do to while away the hours when you’re busy or away, Tricksy.”
Trick carefully set down the mechanism he was cleaning and said, “I’m so sorry, Ryan.” He rolled his eyes in Pete’s direction. “I’m Patrick. And you want to get to the castle.”
Patrick nodded. “If you open the back door, you’ll be able to cut through the Forest. It’s not the best option, but you’re running out of time.” He waved an arm at the back wall and there was a door there that hadn’t existed a moment before. Ryan tried not to look too surprised
The door swung open, but it was so dark outside that Ryan couldn’t see anything at all. He willed his eyes to adjust, and eventually he made out the rough outlines of trees.
“Stick to the path, that way all you have to do is keep on going straight,” Patrick advised. “And stay out of the dark.”
Ryan looked out into the woods. There was nothing but dark.
“You’ll make it,” Patrick warned. “You don’t have another choice.”
Ryan tried to keep to the path, he really did. But distinguishing dirt path from just plain dirt proved impossible after the first hundred yards.
That and the woods are really creepy.
At first, Ryan had thought it was just the normal sounds of a forest. Wind rustling branches. Squirrels eating. Birds building their nests. But what began as a soft background hum rose in volume to become hurried whispers, snatches of conversations, and grumbling. The words were unintelligible, which only made it worse. Ryan felt like he should be able to understand.
And then Ryan started hearing his name.
Ryan, sighed the wind through the branches. The leaves joined in the chorus. GEoRGE! croaked a contrary toad.
Stumbling away from the voices, Ryan beat back at the thick branches and forced his way forward. His pant leg caught in an upraised root and he fell to the ground, stunned.
As he tried to regain his calm, the clock tolled three times. Only three hours left. The damp ground seeped through Ryan’s shirt.
Even if I lose, Spencer won’t be a goblin. I’ll just be a visitor forever. Ryan thought. There is the chance that Brendon might feel bad about it.
NoPE! croaked the toad.
“Shut up! I don’t care what you think!” Ryan rolled to his knees. “I am getting out of here, even if it takes forever.”
Ribbit, said the toad.
“That’s right.” Ryan declared, getting to his feet. Something nudged him in the back. He froze, a catalogue of nightmare creatures running through his mind.
Whatever it was nudged him again, more insistently.
Steeling himself, he turned slowly. He was still completely unprepared.
It’s possible, he thought. He felt his mouth turn up in a smile. It’s totally fucking possible.
Right in front of him was a warm, real unicorn.
Ryan had left all apprehension behind him in the Forest by the time the unicorn stopped at the castle doors. Ryan slid off its back and patted it on the nose. The clock tower read 2:22.
“Thank you so much. And thank Mikey for me,” he said.
The unicorn butted his shoulder in response and galloped off, as silently as it had come.
“Okay,” he muttered to himself. “Showtime.”
He opened the door, expecting whatever was waiting inside to be the biggest obstacle yet. It swung open creakily, the hinges protesting every inch. A pair of chirping bluebirds flew out.
Ryan took a deep breath and went inside.
The entrance hall was echoingly empty, like the city had been before it. Ryan pushed down his trepidation and walked across, footsteps echoing hollowly.
“Hello?” he called, uncertainly.
“Hi Ryan,” Brendon replied. Ryan tripped, but didn’t fall. He pivoted to look at Brendon.
“Hi,” Ryan croaked back. Brendon blended into the wall with a black waistcoat and cravat. His hat was askew and dejected. His face looked pale -naked without the company of colorful flashes that had trailed after him-- and his eyes weren’t laughing anymore. There were no dancing flickers of light illuminating his face. “I’m here for Spencer.” Ryan added, even more unsure now in the face of Brendon’s obvious depression.
“I know,” Brendon looked up to meet Ryan’s eyes. “I’m so sorry, Ryan.” He moved away from the wall, and pasted on a smile. “I’ve behaved badly. Please believe that I never meant to hurt you. Or Spencer. I never would have hurt Spencer.”
“Then why…” do all this, Ryan finished in his head.
“I wanted your attention all to myself for a while. My family,” Brendon bit his lip. “They’ve been gone ever since I was old enough to be recognized as a Master of the Labyrinth. They write, of course, but we are very bad at keeping track of time down here, so I might get a letter every decade. I don’t have many friends my age.” Brendon shook his head as though to brush away old hurts.
“What I did was inexcusable. I manipulated you into coming here. I should have asked.”
Ryan looked at Brendon’s thin shoulders and the earnest line of his mouth and made a decision.
“I forgive you. Just answer me one question.” Brendon looked up, hopeful.
“Do you really have a collection of pictures of me?”
Brendon blushed furiously. “I’ll get rid of them!” he exclaimed.
The woebegone expression on Brendon’s face was too much for Ryan. He burst out laughing.
“No! No! Keep them. It’s alright!” He couldn’t stop the mirth from bubbling over. Every time he stopped to catch his breath, he looked at Brendon’s rueful face and started again.
“Thank you.” Brendon’s smile was wide and cheery, and filled the hall with sunshine.
He reached for Ryan’s hand, and asked, “Will you let me take you to Spencer?”
“Yes,” Ryan responded, and held on.
Spencer was waiting for them, and pounced on Ryan the moment he saw them. Ryan was engulfed in Spencer’s arms and put as much emotion in it as he dared.
After a long moment, Spencer pulled away and looked at Ryan oddly. Ryan realized he had been hugging Spencer while still holding Brendon’s hand. He tried to disengage casually, and Brendon let him.
Spencer must have understood the intense mortification Ryan was feeling, because he just laughed and said, “It’s been a hell of a weird day.”
Brendon nodded his agreement. “You’ll need to go up a few more flights of stairs to get to the Challenge Room. You won’t miss it. Good luck, you two.” And with a smile, Brendon vanished in one last puff of flashy sparkles.
They held hands up the stairs. Ryan needed to be sure of Spencer’s presence, and Spencer seemed to want the same.
“You know,” Spencer began, as they searched, “There’s something about this place. Everybody looks so familiar. I don’t know why.”
Ryan looked at him sharply; he had just been thinking the same thing.
“Except for the goblins,” Spencer continued. “They look like nothing I’ve ever seen. Did you know that they regularly do the Macarena?”
Ryan paused on the steps and looked at him again. “You’re joking,” he accused.
“Yes,” said Spencer proudly. “I am.” He raised an eyebrow. Ryan’s smile grew so wide his cheeks hurt. It was worth it.
There was one room left, and when they peered inside it was filled with clocks, all ticking down from 1:18.
“Well,” Spencer said. “This is it.”
“What now,” Ryan wondered. The room was waiting for something. They didn’t have a lot of time. He needed to get them out of here before people noticed they were both missing.
Spencer kissed him on the cheek. Words flooded into his brain, as he looked at Spencer’s flushed face. He’d never met that look head on –he admitted now that he’d gone out of his way to avoid it.
"Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Goblin City -" Ryan began. “To take back the child you have stolen. For my will is as great, and my kingdom as powerful.”
It wasn’t complete, there was a piece missing. Spencer’s blue eyes urged him on and his mouth opened: “Things will change for me, and that’s okay.”
A clock chimed thirteen times and melted the world.
Spencer shook him awake. “Hey sleepyhead, wake up.”
Almost before he was aware, Ryan pulled Spencer down to the couch with him and hugged him urgently, checking to see everything was fine.
Spencer tentatively hugged him back. “Ryan? Are you okay?” He didn’t sound upset.
“What? I was just. I was making sure. Don’t you remember?” Ryan couldn’t gather his thoughts together.
“Remember what?” Spencer’s voice was perfectly normal.
Ryan felt desperation clawing at him, and felt cheated. Why wouldn’t Spencer know? Had it all been a crazy dream? “I’ve got to go,” he said abruptly, untangling himself from Spencer on the couch and running for the door.
He heard Spencer calling after him, but what he needed was to go home.
He watched the clock. He’d tried watching his band posters, but the stubborn faces all seemed to stare at him accusingly.
Midnight. 12:30 AM. 1:12 AM. 1:44 AM. At 2:22 AM he rolled over and something dug into his side right under the hip. What the fuck… He reached a hand into his pocket and felt an almost-electric thrill. He jerked his hand back violently.
Again, he reached into his pocket; this time braced for the odd feeling and wrapped his fingers around the object. There was a cloud of glittery powder as he pulled his hand out, and there, in his palm, was a beautifully glossy pink quartz, like the ones found at the bottom of creek beds or for sale at museum gift shops.
It winked in the red light from Ryan’s alarm clock. Ryan stared at it. He was forgetting something. Something important. A long time ago, someone had dispensed a little priceless wisdom. Ryan could almost hear it. He balanced the rock between his fingers and slowly, oh so slowly, lifted it up to his ear.
Oh honey, a voice said earnestly, how about next time you want something someone else has to give you, you just ask?
“Oh my god,” Ryan said, shocked into speaking aloud. “What am I doing here?”
He’d thrown himself out the door and run the blocks to the Smith house. But now Spencer’s window wasn’t open. He looked fruitlessly around for a branch, a rock, something to throw up there. Their backyard was so obnoxiously well-maintained!
Out of options, he threw the quartz at the window. It resonated with a hollow thwack. Ryan waited, hopeful.
After what felt like forever, Spencer rolled open the window and glared blearily down at Ryan. That sleepy glare was a work of art. Maybe Spencer would teach it to him. After he forgave him for being slow.
“I’m coming up,” Ryan announced. He heard the low mumble of a “that’s what she said” drift his way on the night breeze. He wondered if the trellis would hold his weight. Trellises were surely more romantic than drain pipes or ladders? Ryan wasn’t sure if he trusted trees yet.
The creak of the front door interrupted his thoughts. “Get in here,” Spencer said, yawning. “You always forget you have a key at three in the morning.”
Ryan was glad Spencer couldn’t see in the dark. “I knew that.”
Spencer merely grabbed Ryan’s hand and tugged him inside. They held hands through the house and said nothing. They said nothing through the living room and nothing up the stairs and Ryan remembered another hand, other passageways, other stairs, leading him to the one place he most wanted to be.
He was already there.
They faced each other in Spencer’s still-dark room, and it wasn’t awkward or forced. They had been here so many times before, singing their favorite songs, reciting lines of half-remembered jokes, or whispering secrets to the ceiling. This would be easier than all that.
“Spencer. Spence,” He looked down at where he could make out the vague outline of their hands held together. “I’m sorry I’ve been so weird lately. But I’m not here about that really. I just. I need to ask you something.” He caught himself. “No, I need to tell you something.”
He paused. Dream or not, Ryan had finally learned the value of breathing. “I’ve always thought you were a cool kid, Spence. Way too awesome to really want to be my best friend. And lately I figured out that I like you as more than my best friend. But I wasn’t sure if. Would you like to be my awesome boyfriend?”
Spencer’s smile was enough of answer before he said, “Yeah, I’ll be your ridiculously cool boyfriend. Make all your friends jealous.”
Their lips met in the dark. Ryan kept breaking off to smile. It was perfect.
“Come to bed, Ryan.” Spencer tugged on their hands. “Some of us have to rest up for Spirit Friday.”
And they fell asleep, trading sleepy kisses in the dark, so much better than any of Ryan’s dreams.
The next morning he borrowed a set of Spencer’s uniform pants and stole another shirt. It was like any other day at the Smith house. No one even blinked at Ryan’s sudden appearance at the breakfast table. Mrs. Smith just put an extra pancake on his plate and asked if he had had a good night.
For once, Ryan was blushing too furiously to respond. Spencer brushed a hand against Ryan’s knee because he was a sneaky opportunist.
“Ryan can’t wait to get his last Homecoming over with, Mom. He’s becoming an old man.” Spencer said, straight-faced.
Revenge would be sweet.
The Gorman Gaels won the football game by narrow margin, which pleased everyone. Ryan had spent all of the game covertly holding Spencer’s hand and laughing at his disgruntled expression when halftime came and Spencer had to put the hat back on. The hat itself was truly hideous –bright blue with a fluffy orange crest on top – so Ryan made sure to take extra pictures.
The Panthers’ marching band looked less laughable in their green outfits and black hats, but there had been a spontaneous breakout of cartwheeling in the percussion section as they left the field at the halftime break. Clumsy Guy hadn’t knocked any chairs over or precipitated any minor disaster, so Ryan wasn’t sure if he had come with the group at all.
But later, when the game was over and Ryan had momentarily lost sight of Spencer in the mandatory swell of the spirit boosters to embrace the team, it turned out Clumsy Guy was there, after all. He was talking animatedly with Spencer, waving his hat around for emphasis. Ryan’s steps slowed down as he approached. He was experiencing the oddest tug of familiarity in his stomach. A tuba blocked his view.
He heard the sound of Spencer’s laughter and could just make out the sight of Clumsy Guy’s red sneakers in the air as he did a handstand.
“Ryan!” Spencer waved him over, so Ryan stopped staring like an idiot. Clumsy Guy turned around to look in the direction of Spencer’s hand.
Ryan made himself move forward and join them.
“Hey, this is Brendon,” Spencer was saying as Brendon performed another cartwheel on the grass. Brendon popped up, beaming.
“Your shoes really don’t go with the rest of your outfit.” Ryan said automatically. Spencer and Brendon burst out laughing.
“I know!” Brendon said tragically, but he was still smiling brightly. “But wearing the uniform boots totally gets me down – they’re that horrible. I need my sneakers for dancing.” He demonstrated a quick two-step in place, and then stuck out his hand. “Hi, I’m Brendon Urie.”
“Ryan Ross,” He said, shaking Brendon’s hand. “You’re on drums, right?”
Brendon looked delighted to be recognized. “Yes! One of the many loves of my musical life.”
Spencer looked like he had just had a brilliant idea. Ryan would find out later.
“So are you guys going to the dance after this?” Brendon asked, looking
“I’m not sure,” Spencer said, lifting an eyebrow at Ryan. “Are we going to be social tonight?”
“We didn’t buy tickets to the dance,” Ryan felt a smile start to curl up from his heart. “But come with us anyhow.”
And if Ryan saw something glittering just out of sight, he chose to believe it was the reflection of the stadium lights off of Brendon’s answering grin.