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Unexpected Places

Chapter Text

He climbed down the tree, falling with both feet firmly set on the floor. After a long time of practice, he could finally do so without getting hurt. He looked ahead, smiling when he set eyes on a shadow that moved toward him. What he felt was a slap to his hand, sand in his eyes and the scent of smashed berries invading his nostrils. Blinking hard, the boy got up, teary-eyed. He was six years old, with a fragile, slender body, brown hair which fell all the way to his shoulders, despite his mother's insistence that he let it be cut, and dark, inquiring eyes. The delicate features - even for a child - gave him slightly feminine looks.

"Come on, Gabriel!", shouted he, sitting on the floor and rubbing his eyes with his little hands. "I don't like it when you act like this!"

"It's not my fault if all it takes for you to fall is a touch", answered the other.

Gabriel was older, taller, better built and loads more arrogant than the other. He was twelve and, despite not always looking like it, the mission of his life and the only reason why he put up with the kindergarten teachers was to protect his smaller friend. In that moment, he had slapped the little hand to keep him from getting a caterpillar-burn from the insect that swayed through the berries the little one had held. The tiny animal lay stomped, drowned in a thick berry-sand sauce.

"You ruined the berries", explained the smaller one, pouting.

"You could have hurt yourself, Willy", retorted the older one, pitiful of his friend's naivety.

"I don't like it when you call me Willy, too."

"Oh, but where's the fun in calling you William? It is too serious a name for such a sweet child..." He smiled.

"I am a boy! Boys are not sweet!"

"Willy, you look like a little girl..."

"No, I don't!" He stood up, narrowing his eyes. "I told you I'm a boy!"

"Not my fault if you're cute", whispered Gabriel.

William folded his arms, childishly puffing his cheeks, and refused to look at his friend. Instead of reacting, Gabriel pushed the long strands away from the little one's eyes, caressing them in a distracted and gentle way.

"You know... It's ok, Willy. Whether you look like a girl or not..." He bended, kissing the puffed cheek and whispering on his ear. "... I will like you forever."

Chapter Text

A strangely dense, inebriating sound found its way to his brain without either his permission or knowledge. He turned his face, brown hair sliding to his closed-eye face. He could vaguely feel the steady weight of something on his legs, which was comfortable enough to encourage him to keep on dreaming. He didn’t truly understand why he was awake. His fingers meddled with his temples, massaging them slightly, as a sigh suffered its way from his lungs. Where the hell was he anyway? He couldn’t grasp the unsteadiness, the turbulence…

Connecting another sigh to a mumble, he pushed his hair away from his eyes and hammered the head to the window he now knew was beside him. He could recall, bit by bit, Peter Wentz’s phone call, he who was the owner of the label who had launched his band, asking them all to fly to Florida for some reason he absolutely failed to comment - and he obeyed, what was left to do?

He slowly opened his eyes, repositioning himself in the chair. He heard someone moan by his ear, which fully awoke him in an instant. Just then he realized that the weight on his legs was a body. A warm, living body, grabbing him like a teddy bear. The boy’s legs cradled his, the long arms held his neck, the head was nestled on his shoulder, untamed hair nuzzling at his nose.

“Sisky!”, shouted he. “What are you doing on top of me?”

The boy grumbled instead of answering. William tried to kick his friend from above himself, failing completely.

“Bill, come on, don’t be a dick.” He hid his face on the taller guy’s neck. “I just wanna sleep a tad more.”

“You can use your chair to do so”, replied the other, dry as sand.

“I can, but I won’t.” He yawned. “You’re more comfy and lots warmer.”

“Get off me, Siska”, ordered him, his voice high-pitching.

“Hey, both of you, shut up!” The voice that shouted it was steady but sleepy. Apparently, the not-at-all-low conversation they were at was waking the others on the plane.

“Oh, you shut up, Butcher, let the couple argue…”, grumbled a voice, pasty with sleepiness, which was vaguely recognized as belonging to Tom.

William felt his body heat up in anger.

“Couple my ass! Bite me, you--”

Sisky’s hand shut William up vehemently. The boy tried to break free, but the other wouldn’t let him.

“Slow down, Bill. Don’t try to fight the guys while they’re half-asleep. It’s worthless.”

Apparently, he was right. Both Tom and Butcher collapsed into silence right after, so William took a breath and kept himself quiet. He looked through the plane’s window again. There was still nothing weird about the clouds. What had he been dreaming about anyway?

Oh, yes, he murmured to himself, mentally. Gabriel.

He couldn’t say it wasn’t a recurring dream. When he was little, he used to have a great friend, perhaps the best he had ever had. William went to a school in which being the small kid, besides dangerous, was really hurtful - bigger boys were always up to fight him. One day, a new boy was transferred to that school. He looked foreign, according to the minimum knowledge a kid under seven could have about this kind of stuff. Nevertheless, it didn’t take long for him to realize that the foreigner liked him, even seemed to be particularly interested in defending him from everyone else. The boy was at least a foot and a half taller than him and had a much better built completion. He was also six years older and could stand any kind of reprehension the headmistress put him through for trespassing the first grade area, even if just out of a protective impulse toward his little unfortunate friend.

William could vaguely remember asking Gabriel if he wanted to be his older brother. The other had laughed loud and said he'd rather wait for him to grow up a bit. He hadn't understood, and still didn't - or else, forced himself not to. Afterall, it was a very distant past. Gabriel had moved away, left school, and they hadn't seen each other since William was seven. He didn't entertain real hopes of ever meeting him again. Still his thoughts found haven in his views of the older boy. Sometimes, when he was alone in some room, wrapped in those strings of drowsiness before sleeping, William wondered what was his friend up to. But it all ran from him in the morning.

He was plunged out of his thoughts by the sound of a body dropping by his side in the chair emptied by Siska’s currently sleeping figure. He took a look at the newcomer and couldn’t quite figure out whether what he felt was surprise for seeing Butcher collapsed there.

“Here’s the deal, chap: you woke me up, I can’t go back to sleep”, groaned him, absolutely unhappy. “Are you satisfied now?”

“Try using him as a pillow or chair, Butcher”, inviting Sisky out of nowhere, making William jump in surprise beneath him, as the curly-haired guy indicated the one he was upon with an ample gesture. “It works wonderfully for me.”

Before William could stand up for himself, Sisky was already moving, front-facing the singer, his chest pressing the other’s, his face fit exactly as it had been several minutes before, on his shoulder. He spread his legs real wide, hugging William’s hips with them like if that position was truly comfortable - at least for him. Butcher stared at the length of legs still available and, shrugging shoulders, decided to set himself there. The singer had not the slightest chance to complain when he felt another weight lowering itself onto him: with Sisky attached to him, he couldn't open his mouth without swallowing curls of untamed hair.

“Butcher, move over a bit”, asked Sisky, seeming to be bothered.

“Why would I?”, asked the other. “I’m comfortable here.”

“Yeah, and your pack is comfy-ing itself on my bun.”

“Don’t be that gay, Sisky.” He laughed at the smaller one. “Let’s exchange places, if it bothers you that much.”

William waited until they had moved to protest, but Sisky’s hand was again laid on his mouth. Would he really have to be a pillow for them? The answer became a more than potential “yes” when Butcher’s chest met his and Siska’s weight returned to his lap. Patient as a monk, he waited for them to make themselves comfortable. It was not that he was really pissed off with them, it was just that… Well, he would be suffering from numb legs forever after that, so he probably shouldn’t be so passive about it, right?

“Sisky, can you…” Butcher moved closer to the singer. “Yeah, it is complicated indeed. Why couldn’t you have longer legs, Bill? How are you supposed to make two guys fit properly in so tiny a space?”

Beckett’s eyes narrowed to a thin, thin line, and despite the hand still on his mouth, he gnarled an answer in the rudest of tones. “And since when am I a chair?”

“If chairs complained and moved as much as you do, no one would buy them”, replied Sisky seriously, pouting at the interruption of his beauty sleep.

William had even opened his mouth to say something, but a reprehensive voice muffled his. Michael Carden had just entered the room, and he seemed to be a tad bit not happy at all with all the ample moving and loud talking that were coming from Beckett’s mouth and lap. He walked towards him, arms folded, to face the three of them. Slowly, Butcher and Sisky climbed off William’s lap, grinning wide to try and prove their innocence.

“Now that you’re done goofing around”, said Carden, acid pouring from his voice, “sit your asses down and fasten your damn seatbelts, ‘cause we’re a foot from landing, you queers.”

Everyone obeyed him immediately. Michael himself took his place, fiddling with his seatbelt for a moment before clicking it fastened. William rested his head on the chair, closing his eyes. Beside him, Sisky groaned.

“And in the end, I was the one lacking sleep.”

The singer would have laughed, if he wasn’t feeling so lethargic. He had never cared much for airplane traveling; lately, though, they were becoming every time more frequent. The last tour he had been in had not been organized anywhere in the neighborhood - fewer presentations, in cities several miles apart from each other - which was why he had spent quite some hours stuck in that same prototype airplane. Aggravating an already serious situation was the fact that he couldn’t sleep, tense and filled with adrenaline as he was, for a long time now. With the end of the tour, he had hoped to get some decent sleep, but Peter had crashed every single one of his hopes with a midnight call. Therefore, he was having to be ok with that nap, which had started right before the plane’s took off and wouldn’t happen again until they had landed, most likely covered with warm blankets up to his ear, tucked in some soft mattress with a few drops of alcohol nested inside his being.

Fortunately, landing was alright and they faced no trouble with luggage or anything else. William walked away from the arrivals’ area, leading the others while hearing some fans blasting their ears with their screaming. He had no idea of how had they found out they’d be there, but trust fans to scoop the whole damn internet to its bones to find someone. He really didn’t care about that anyway. Fixing his face with a wave of his hand and feeling euphoria start to bubble inside him, he smiled at them. Sisky was harassed, like every single one of them; Butcher even had to give up his shirt to one of the girls. After a while, they finally got to the two cabs which would carry them to the studio - something William was not at all comfortable with. He wanted to take a shower, brush his teeth and get some sleep before he could be put face to face with the guy who steered them to success. Unfortunately, nobody asked for his opinion, so the car slid down Florida’s streets and alleys in its way to Wentz.

It wasn’t the first time William went to that place and, pressed between an asleep Sisky and a restless drumming Butcher who was using the driver’s seat as a tambourine, he gave the driver the directions, since he seemed to be fairly new to the city. When he became sure that the man had begun to follow his intents, the singer laid his head back, staring at the carpeted ceiling uninterestedly. What would Peter want with them all of a sudden? He knew they had just finished a tour, shouldn’t they rest before starting any project? These had been Wentz’s words, not long ago. Perhaps he’s about to do something stupid and needs us to be against it, thought William, sounding unconvincing even to himself. Or maybe he is simply bored and thinks caging us inside a studio for no known reason might amuse him a little.

“Is this the place, sir?”

The driver had stopped in front of the studio, so William nodded silently. He poked Sisky to wake him up, signalized to Butcher to carry the half-dead colleague and left the vehicle. Helped by the driver, he took the two cases from the trunk - they were all the luggage they had allowed themselves to bring - and paid the man, who left hurriedly, leaving tire burns on the asphalt. A second car pulled over, spilling Carden and Tom out, holding a second case and recruiting the others to pick up William’s acoustic guitar, the only instrument that had come with them on the plane and hadn’t been sent to their hotel room. The singer himself hurried to take it, while the others shared the weight of the cases.

They entered the studio, the silent hallway oppressive to their ears, after the ecstasy of singing live and the humming of the travel. They left the luggage - but not the guitar, which was still firmly tied to William’s back - in a room who was both wardrobe and storage room to artists and producers, then set off to Wentz’s office. His secretary, a beautiful red-haired young woman, asked them to sit down and wait. It didn’t take long before Peter himself opened the door and fled to the hallway like a hurricane, heading to a recording room and literally pulling Mike with him - bringing, therefore, the rest of the band on tow.

There was no telling that particular room from the others spread all over the building, but for the presence of four very well-settled people sitting in soft pillows on the rubber floor and chatting gaily. There were three guys and a girl, all very cozy inside that place. Peter entered it, followed by the other five who still weren't able to guess what the heck they were doing there. Had he possibly made them travel that long a distance just to be paraded to four little-more-than-teenagers newcomers?

Analytical, William stared vaguely at the group, while his own co-workers joined the ones who were already sat. Peter kept them company. The guys were all wearing blue jeans and white tees; one of them was quite tall, with a face half-hidden beneath exaggerated sunglasses, the second was shorter than Siska, with a childish face and haircut almost as non-styled as his, and the third had still not said a word since they were inside the room, but his hands moved precisely on his left thigh, so he was most likely professional enough. The girl had long brown hair and piercing eyes, wore a black leather skirt and a white tee and seemed entertained in whatever conversation Tom had started with her. Will reviewed his first thoughts. They had to be above twenty, perhaps twenty-five. If they were younger, their behavior would have been much less ordered than that - they’d probably be all over the place, looking for things to do and touch.

“Now, let’s make acquaintances here.”

Only when Peter’s voice sounded did William realize that while he was at an evaluation odyssey, they had already begun interacting properly.

“Well, on this side of the ring”, announced Wentz, indicating the newcomers, “we have Victoria Asher, keytar, Ryland Blackinton, guitar, Alex Suarez, bass, and Nate Novarro, drums. These over here are William Beckett, vocals, Tom Conrad, guitar, Michael Carden, guitar, Adam Siska, bass, and Andy Mrotek-”

“The Bucher”, interrupted the drummer.

“Drums.” Peter smiled with a maniac hint. “So, feel acquainted now, and go have a tour around the neighborhood, while daddy here makes some phone calls.”

“What do you think we are, Wentz?” Victoria laughed openly. “Stupid teens who need babysitters? We can handle ourselves, relax.”

“I like my bands to interact. Since The Academy Is… is the only one you haven’t yet encountered, I thought it would be nice if you started seeing each other as soon as possible. We are already planning tours and your names will be side by side in set lists whether you like it or not, so you’d better get to know your peers.”

They seemed to be ok with that obvious excuse, although William was becoming every time more ill-tempered for having to show up there just to speak to another band. Which was its name, by the way? It had probably been one of the things Peter had said while he was off. He’d have to ask someone; perhaps Sisky if he had himself paid that much of attention.

“So, have you started recording or something?”, asked the singer, not thinking of any particular one to answer him, though his eyes were conveniently set on the tall guy named Ryland.

“Yeah, but we needed to take a break”, intervened the girl, a little smug. “Our singer’s fucked up, so we’d rather let him recover before we get back on track. Meanwhile, we’re working with arrangements, sometimes he even pops to comment something.” She smiled. “We’re not in a hurry.”

William hummed, understanding, while Victoria carried on her conversation with Tom, and pulled Butcher aside by his arm. The drummer stared at him, distrustful and not excited about being interrupted in the middle of his dialogue. “So, who are they?”

“You’re so delicate, William.” Butcher rolled his eyes. “Cobra Starship, a thumbs up from some guy Peter met God knows where.” He took a look at the newcomers. “But they seem to be quite good, don’t they? Your tall chap there has been in a band with the quiet kid. I don’t know about the others yet. Personally, I’m fond of the girl.”

“As usual, you’re into the girls.” William snorted a brief laugh.

“Better girls than men”, replied him. “Now can I go back to where I was?”

The singer left them and soon enough he himself was chatting with the rest of the bands, his sleep momentarily forgotten by the slender body. They left the studio, their feet carrying them straight to My-Oh-My Coffee Shop, a place where Decaydance members - including affiliates, bands, producers, temps, supporters, employers and employees and whoever else was on the job - usually met to talk and eat, a habit the newcomers would get used to very soon. It wasn’t for an exceptional food or very low prices - it was cozy, lewd and nice. It was really close to the studio and therefore an obvious choice. Used to wait tables to every kind of weird people, waiters and barmen saluted them with smiles.

They chose a table at a corner where they’d all fit loosely and began to arrange themselves onto the seats. William ended up a Sisky away from Victoria, his guitar carefully set on the small wooden shelf behind the seat. The singer was not that comfortable about eating that close to the girl, once she seemed to know much more about him, and the others, and the reason why Peter had called them in than anyone else in that cafe. She therefore acted like if she were the group’s mother, but they all knew she wouldn’t put up with too much before leaving them to mind her own business in any case. Beckett had never been fond of judging people so hastily, although her smug know-it-all behavior didn’t give him much space to avoid it.

William was responsible for placing orders to the whole crew. Carefully, he asked what everyone was into and transmitted the information to the waiters. There were two of them, who took the gigantic order of a two starving bands who could eat like teenagers. In the end, the singer was sure that a large amount of money would be needed to pay for it all and felt, with an uncomfortable stinging on the pitch of his stomach, that he would pay for it all. Mentally, he shrugged. If he could have his bed when the day ended, it would have been worth it.

They small-talked until the food arrived. They spoke about themselves, birthplaces, recent commitments, pet’s names. Nothing work-related or which would set fine on the cover of a magazine. When the waiters finished setting the table, though, everyone started trying to organize that army-sized breakfast feast which was all but sliding off the white smooth surface. Since no one could check on one’s own orders, Victoria got up, instantly drawing every attention to her.

“I think it will be easier if we redistribute...” She shook her brown hair off her shoulders and stared at William, who got up too and nodded. He was sleep-numb and quite useless, but he wanted a bed to crash on and they were not getting to the hotel before the end of that food party, so... “Right, who asked for pancakes?”

Two hands raised pronto in the air, Tom and Nate, to which she and Beckett gave the maple syrup coated plates.

“Grilled cheese?”

It was Sisky’s turn to volunteer. Practical and clear, the girl went on, giving out a whole-wheat bread sandwich to Ryland, fried eggs and bacon to Butcher – who covered them in ketchup without a single moment of hesitation, got herself a lonely cappuccino. William picked up from her hand the hot bitter cocoa beverage that he appreciated so much and his eyes stared into hers for a while, when their fingers touched. Why did he feel like he knew that girl already...? The eye-contact didn’t last more than an everlasting second, parted as soon as Victoria let her lips stretch into an honest smile. They then carried on with the improvised delivery system till the last plate, after which Beckett slumped on his seat to look at his drink’s dark surface. What was it with that girl?

With quite some self-conscious effort, the singer’s attention let itself get back to the conversation. After some random babbling, they were now discussing careers, which was a topic that could summon him from his inner thoughts even when, like then, he was too sleepy to do pretty much anything else. William was sure that he wasn’t being the brightest of all colors in the room, which was an awful first impression. He could bet that not even his bandmates were putting up with him, let alone the newcomers. So he just threw himself out there.

“Well, I think we’re quite chilled this year, right?” He forced himself to play cool, a task made bearable by the fact that he was finally putting some hot caloric thing inside his body.

“Oh yeah, for sure”, commented Tom.

“Fueled by Ramen released an album of yours, right?”, asked Ryland curiously, swallowing a mouthful of his sandwich.

“Yeah, though now we’re hitting Decaydance too”, answered Butcher, smug as a peacock.

“It was a huge sacrifice”, completed Carden, eyeing William sideways.

The other members of TAI looked at each other then fell into general laughter. Delicately, Victoria poked Sisky to ask what the heck was going on.

“No, no, it’s just that...” Sisky was inhaling large amounts of air in an attempt of holding back tears of sudden laughter. “You know, Beckett and Carden belonged in rival bands, back there in Chicago. When they decided to work together, which is a story no one knows many facts of for sure, their partnership was a kinda unwanted fruit, you see, a mix of hate, envy and disgust...”

“And after a month they were so close that they looked like brothers”, explained Tom, clearing his throat. “Which made us mock them all the way because the first words William said when the band was good to go were ‘working with you, Carden, will require a huge sacrifice’.”

Even the girl laughed at that. William held his hands up, surrendering to the general mocking that always followed that story. He would never be forgiven for being so hardheaded and smug at first. Honestly, working with Carden was being a very smooth ride which culminated in the developing of the band’s first album, a very satisfactory achievement.

“Well, I only remember being summoned from God knows were to join this freak show”, said Nate, squinting as if to force his brain to dig up a clearer memory.

“We can always ask Gay when he’s back”, answered Ryland, shrugging it off.

“Asking whom?” Tom frowned.

“Gay. Our singer”, explained Victoria. “But he’s unaware of us calling him like this, so lay low, alright?”

The fact that Victoria could do something so childlike behind someone else’s back eased something inside William’s guts. Perhaps she was just perceptive, she might even be fun, who knew? He could find out in time.

After that, the conversation just flowed. They discussed politics, favorite bands, last read books, upcoming and rejected projects, dog’s breeds (Victoria was an enthusiast of dogs, William found out), house architecture, weird musical instruments, booklets’ layouts, paparazzi. They argued about vanilla ice cream tripping the chocolate chips one and if there was anything in the world which tasted better than a warm brownie with gelato and frosting. They considered the issues of having nachos as a pizza topping and how fun Mexican food was, how were perfumes made and why did they always remained imprinted in everyone else’s brain. They even discussed about Victoria’s preferences when it came to wardrobe and if there was a band which was not supposed to exist. Everything seemed a bit off, but they could really measure how likeable and easy to handle another band was just by engaging in fruitless conversation with them. It hadn’t been different when they had been introduced to Peter's own band, Fall Out Boy, or when they picked up Panic! at the Disco.

It didn’t take long for them to finish eating and, therefore, for William to have to stand up and pay the bill, since no one else of TAI’s guys had any money to spare. Without even frowning, he decided he’d pay it all and take back on them later. Nonetheless, Victoria stood up too, asking to pay at least for the newcomers’ share of food, which was about fifty percent of the overall amount William had to pay for. He thanked her politely and they paid it all, going out then into the beautiful day like long-lost friends, chatting and joking carelessly. William had put his guitar draped over his shoulder and was discussing with Ryland about the guitarist sunglasses.

“I can’t give you my guitar for the glasses”, said the singer, for the third time. “What’s the problem of lending them to me? I won’t vandalize them. Much.”

“Well, what’s the problem of you lending me your guitar? I won’t vandalize it either.” Ryland smiled mischievously. “Well, perhaps a little.”

“It’s not fair”, replied the other, impatient. “There’s a difference between freshly-acquired glasses and an instrument, especially one who is being used for the past twelve years like mine.”

The guitarist whistled. “Twelve years? And does it still work?”

William went suddenly pale. What did he mean by that? Of course it worked! Why wouldn’t it? The singer took care of it, there was no reason why it shouldn’t work. Unbelieving, he said it to Ryland. The other asked him to see the instrument, to what he stopped, leaning on a low wall in front of which was a bench, willing to show off to his colleague. Realizing that they had stayed behind, the rest of the group went back. Before William could undo the zipper, Carden asked him what the hell he thought he was doing.

“I’m showing this guy”, he said, pointing indignantly to Ryland, who was laughing low, “that my sweet darling still works!”

“Yeah, baby Becks?” Carden laughed. “And what do you think will happen if you decide to show it off here, in the middle of the street with so many people around? Most of them are already thinking it strange that there are so many people walking in a pack; if you start to play, we’re never leaving this place.”

Beckett’s pride was undermined by this statement. Breathing deeply, he zipped it again and stood up. Mike slapped his head, ordering him to stop being so abnormal while he took the reins in the coming back to the studio. It was always like that. It didn’t always seem like that, but it was Mike who was always in charge of the group – unless they were touring, when this responsibility fell whole onto William’s lap. The singer absorbed it without complaining, using his every persuasion ability – which was not that little – to keep people focused on something that wasn’t bringing complications to the band. Of course they went out for drinks, of course they left bars tripping and babbling, or course they did some stupidities, like throwing pizza on each other, of course they were hung-over and could barely wake up the night after. But what mattered was that they never missed a concert, no matter the reason why.

It didn’t take long for them to reach the studio, where they rejoined inside one of the recording booths to keep talking. Beckett’s sleep was still taking over him, starting to veil his senses in a way that made him lean on the wall, rubbing his eyes with his wrists in a childish gesture that he couldn’t leave behind. He slowly and effortlessly descended into a state of half-conscience that nobody seemed to notice. From there to being completely unconscious was just a speck of a moment that he couldn’t even realize.

 

He was sitting down in a chair by a desk by both the door and the window, quiet and bored, while the teacher sang the alphabet he already knew by heart. She treated them like babies, which he hated so much. He actually liked the woman, there was no reason not to, but he thought he could be treated like a more grown-up boy. His parents were not that condescending, why would his teacher be?

He was preparing to lay his head on the desk in a clear showing of a preposterous lack of interest when a couple of subtle knocks on the window called him back into focus. The boy outside was luring him out, excited, almost hopping. William stared at the very quiet classroom: some kids were copying whatever it was that the teacher was writing on the blackboard, their infant calligraphy wriggling lines in notebooks. The door was open, as always, so the inspectors wouldn’t have to interrupt the class to make sure everything was ok. In a swift, silent move, little Beckett sneaked out of the room, through the door and flattening himself at the nearest wall right after, wide-eyed about this transgression. A steady hand lay on his mouth, interrupting the hurried flux of his breathing while another hand went about leading him to the outer wall, behind the berry tree. The sparkly brown eyes faced his captor and both boys smiled.

“Are you ok, Willy?”, asked the other boy, letting go of him. William murmured an affirmative sound, alongside with a shy nod. “Good, I thought I was getting in your way.”

“You know I already know what miss Morley is teaching.” He was really smug about it. “What about you? Do you already know what you miss is teaching?”

“Mister, Will.” He laughed. “And yes, I already know what he’s teaching. Stop worrying about my academic course.”

“Once you can’t worry on your own, I have to do it for you.” He crossed his little arms, serious.

“Oh, God, where did my little William go? Was he abducted? Because I don’t like this grumpy kid and I don’t want this one anywhere near me.”

Beckett seemed to not expect that statement. Was Gabriel being serious? The taller boy held him by the chin, facing him for a moment to smile broadly then.

“I’m joking, silly.” His voice was intertwined with tenderness. “I’m just here to give you these.” The older kid proffered a discreet jar with half a dozen of fresh baked cookies with white sugar frosting. “I know you like them. Mom did these especially for you.”

The little boy took the gift, thankfully hugging his friend.

“Well, I’m leaving now, my boy. Can’t be around much longer, I’m abusing my bathroom pass.”

William naïvely laughed at both the teacher’s innocence and his friend’s smartness. Gabriel started to leave but, as if suddenly remembering something, he went back to the kid. His face touched the smaller, flushed cheek and he whispered almost soundlessly. “I made one of these.” He pointed at the cookies. “Try figuring out which one was it.”

Only then he really left to return to his classroom. When William entered his, it seemed that nobody noticed he had gone, or was back.

“Dude, I think he’s dead.”

“Hope not. It was a fucking problem finding a decent singer and now he decides to black out? Really nice of him.”

“William? Beckett?” Someone was shaking him insistently. Unnecessary to say that the crashed guy wouldn’t even hear of opening his eyes. “Beckett? WILLIAM, WAKE UP, YOU FUCKING ZOMBIE!”

He took a shallow, surprised breath and his eyelids lifted heavily. He was too tired to help it. Sisky, Butcher and Carden were crowded around him, with Tom and Victoria right behind them and the other guys further behind.

“Why haven’t you told us you were already like this, huh?”, asked Carden, his voice dry.

“Like this...?” William was thinking in so low a pace that his brain seemed to be manually operated.

“Exhausted”, explained Victoria, lending him a glass with something that looked like dirty water.

“Exhausted...?” His head was hurting. He was trying to remember what he had been thinking of, but it was useless.

“Yeah, exhausted”, said Ryland. “You blacked out completely, man.”

“What do you man, ‘blacked out’?” He massaged his temples, sipping the awkward water and frowning at the disgusting taste and texture.

“Don’t complain, you shithead, just drink it.” Butcher was really serious, almost threatening. “You sat down and passed out, Bill.”

“Seriously?” He still felt dizzy.

“Seriously, dumbass.” Carden seemed to be furious, confused, frightened, amused. All at once. “You had not eaten before getting into the plane, right?” He denied with a single move of his head. “I knew you hadn’t! And you didn’t eat at the coffee shop too. You also have not been sleeping more than two hours straight for the past four nights...”

“I thought I could sleep when I got here.” His voice faded to heavy murmur. “My bad. I should have told you I had to rest.”

“Yeah, you should have.”

Strangely, the person who said so bitter a phrase had not been one of his bandmates but Victoria, who folded her arms and looked extremely crossed now that she knew he was out of danger. William faced the girl, failing to understand what was happening. What was it? If not even Carden, who had every reason in the world to be bitching about responsibility to Bill, was that mad with him, why would Victoria Asher be?

“Ahm, guys?” Tom tried to make everyone stare at him. “What about...” He whistled, signalizing a way out with both his index fingers.

“Yeah, let’s grab something eatable for Bill.” Sisky came in to rescue them from that sea of sudden awkwardness. “Nobody should have to drink soluble glucose.”

Two by two, they left the place not making any rumor and not taking any longer than a few seconds, leaving William and Victoria on their own. The singer stared at that girl, confused. It was becoming pretty obvious now that she knew much more about him than he did about her. A fan, perhaps? Someone he had met before, a face he had so utterly forgotten? She gave her back to him, then looked at him again, opening her mouth as if to say something. Something restrained her, though, and she turned again, arms still folded. Dumbfounded, the guy frowned, drinking some more of the weird liquid and refraining from spitting it out. It was unpleasant, thick, felt like mud inside his mouth, but was helping him to get back to earth, which was now indispensable. He knew he shouldn’t have taken just the cocoa beverage. It had been like a bomb to his famished stomach.

Victoria went about “looking, wanting to speak and turning away” for about a minute more. Meanwhile, the singer only watched her. She was not reacting like if they had just met. She was reacting as if William actually mattered to her, personally speaking. For Bill, it was not exactly likely, but she didn’t seem to notice how awkward she was being. Finally, she stared at him without faltering. William waited for her to say something, but she didn’t, so he came forward.

“Ahm, Victoria... Would you... want to tell me... something?”

“No.” Which was an obvious lie, said in a acid monotone.

“Have I bothered you somehow?” William was trying, drinking some of the water just to have something else to do rather than have Victoria’s eyes drilling into his eye sockets and through his brain. She made him feel like a criminal.

“No.” Same tone.

“Didn’t you... like me?” Yet another trial.

“No.”

“No, you didn’t?”

“No, that’s not it.” She shifted a little, easing William’s apprehension a bit, although not enough to keep him from giving space to a sliver of anger. He needed every inch of his self to behave so he wouldn’t scream “then what the fuck is it?!” like he wanted to. He went for politeness instead, ignoring his background headache.

“Could you please tell me what was it then? Because I can’t figure it out and you seem to be too focused piercing my eyes to give me any hints.”

For a moment, Victoria felt like if she was going to laugh – which didn’t happen. The girl let go of her frustration in a loud, deep, long sigh, followed by the unfolding of her arms. “Nevermind, Beckett. I’m overreacting.”

“Call me William”, said the singer, autopiloting. She frowned for an instant.

“Please don’t do it again. I can’t be worrying about you too.”

Swift as a reptile, she turned away.

“Hold on, Victoria!” He tried to get up, failing miserably and leaning on the wall not to crash back on the floor. “Why do you care? Victoria!”

But the girl was already gone.

Chapter Text

When William’s faculties were finally recovered enough so he could leave the room where he had passed out, the group who had left him was already coming back, a pack of somewhat Chinese food safely held by them. There was no sign of Victoria. Sisky waved at his friend, pointing gaily at the pack. The singer tried to reciprocate his joy but felt like failing miserably. The way Victoria had stared at him had disturbed him, she seemed really upset by the fact that William had passed out. They hadn’t known each other for a day, yet; how come could she develop such strong, protective feelings towards him?

“Beckett, Earth calling!” Butcher screamed by the singer’s ear. The taller guy raised a hand to cover it, pressing and massaging it, his face contorted in both pain and surprise.

“Damn it, Butcher, you’re a jerk.” Ryland laughed out loud. “Whazzup, Beckett, y’ ‘k? If you’re already standing...”

“And here I thought that Vicky-T would shake him even more”, followed Nate, shaking his head desolately. “I’m so deluded.”

“Oh, no, dude.” Carden got himself in the middle of it, snoopy. “Lil’ Bill here doesn’t mix work and private life. He doesn’t know what he’s missing, but...”

William cleared his throat, making sure to do it loud. He raised an eyebrow before speaking.

“In case you haven’t noticed, I’m still here.”

The others laughed. “Yeah, you are, aren’t you?” Tom clapped a friendly hand on his shoulder. “What do you think of us crashing into Wentz’ office to eat all of this?”

“Conrad, where does all that food go?” Alex’s brow raised really high. “Nobody told you you just had breakfast?”

“And since when is it something that should stop me from having Chinese?”

“You’re lucky your metabolism’s a bit too quick, Tom.” Carden laughed. “Otherwise, we’d be TAI and the rolling stone.”

“Oh well, compared to the four of you, Tom is fat as shit”, tried Ryland, jokingly. Butcher reacted in a single spat. “Fuck you, Blackinton.”

Everybody laughed at it while they moved towards Peter’s office. It was always open and the meeting table was certainly the best to hold a meal, even if it wasn’t its traditional purpose. In fact, FOB’s bassist had already asked them a gazillion times not to eat in his office, but it was as unavoidable as having Butcher splash ketchup on his fried eggs. As a poor way to compensate the transgression, they kept from being messy and made sure the tough oak remained as clean and shiny as when they entered the room whenever they left.

“There’s not enough for everyone”, warned Carden, setting the six little boxes on a blue checkered tablecloth and picking up a dozen pairs of hashi from his own pockets. “We’re giving our little anorexic here a major part of it so lay low.”

He slapped Beckett’s head, which the other took without objections. They had the right to be infuriated with him, afterall he had been irresponsible like a six years old kid. Even so, they had kept him alive. Somehow, it must be something good... or at least so he thought.

“I’ll have the yakisoba!”, screamed Siska, picking up the little box and staring at the other in a mean and maniac way.

William just raised his brows, heading to the bandmate and proffering a hand. Like if hypnotized, the bassist gave the box up onto the singer’s hand, being rewarded with both a smile and a caress on his curly, untamed hair. Somehow, the smaller man seemed to melt down, shrinking into the chair and sliding stupidly till his knees touched the ground. Sisky was always a goof but William could acknowledge the effort behind that particular action. It was a distraction, one that he would gladly welcome and take part in. Therefore, everyone else saw the bassist splay on the floor – except for Beckett, who was opening the box of food and whose stomach rumbled contently in sounding hunger – and also laughed openly when Sisky tried to get up just to hammer his head heavily on the table top.

“This is cruel”, murmured he, massaging the top of his head while his eyes filled with tears. It had probably been an unwanted outcome.

“Oh, little crybaby, do you want uncle Bill to kiss your booboo?”, asked Butcher jokingly, talking like a child.

“In fact, I do.” Sisky turned to face the other, looking hurt. “Wally, I have a booboo.”

He pointed at his own forehead, where a beautiful red mark was forming. Soon it would become a brilliant shade of purple. William just smiled with his lips only while he chewed on a piece of chicken – he couldn’t wait to eat until after the show was over. He swallowed, cleaned his mouth on a napkin and called for the wounded mate, kissing his forehead with honest but theatrical tenderness.

“Wanna sit on my lap?” The question was made by William in a caring voice. “I can give you food, once these monsters won’t but torture my boy.”

“Thank you”, murmured he childishly, giving the others a tongue.

Sisky sat on William’s lap while Carden slapped his own forehead, unbelieving. Beckett was actually playing his part and feeding the poor bassist, while everyone else popped the rest of the boxes open and dove into the food. Despite only Conrad being capable of manifesting the wish for the meal, they all seemed more than willing to share it.

“Well, what do you intend to do today?”, asked Nate, fighting his hashi to make them stab a piece of meat.

“Who the hell knows.” Tom had his mouth full, but he swallowed before going on. “We’re just here ‘cause Wentz ordered us to. No clues about the reasons why.”

“Meeting the new band, you dope.” Carden’s patience was giving in. “Although knowing Pete a little...”

“Hmm, knowing Pete a little, yeah?”, tried Ryland suggestively.

“... I don’t really think he’s called us here just to present us to a new band.” He gave no attention to the interruption. “No offense”, added he politely. “Pretty sure y’all great, Pete knows his shit, but he’s much more practical than this. There’s no reason to summon us up and spend tons of cash just for it. Honestly, I think he could have waited a tad more, like two days, when the tour would be officially over and we’d be heading back to Florida anyway.”

“Why the hell whenever Carden says something everything sounds so fucking obvious?” Butcher frowned deep. “Dude, he’s right, Wentz wouldn’t bring our furry asses all the way down to here for anything less than an urgent contract.”

“Agreed’, said Alex in a sure tone, shaking hashis that held a broccoli; being so skilled, the vegetable barely oscillated in the wooden grip. “Peter is a practical. We should in fact have been presented to the other bands only when a minimum of fifty percent of the album was, if not finished, at least on its way. Even so, he decided it might be ‘interesting’”, and he quoted using his free hand’s fingers, “if we were here today. We are not even recording! He said we should relax till Gay could come back.”

“Which means Pete’s deceiving us.” William’s hand was distractedly laid in Sisky’s thigh, not restraining the other while he helped himself from the box in front of him. “Any ideas of why?”

“Why don’t you ask him so?”

After fighting the owner of that voice in an eye battle for neverending minutes, Beckett couldn’t possibly mistake it ever again. Victoria got into the office, sitting on the table on the corner closer to the door and crossing her legs deliberate and unsexy.

“Oh, yeah, sure, Vicky-T, and how are we supposed to do so?” Nate was obviously not amused by the suggestion. “Something like ‘hey, hi, Wentz, we were just thinking... what the fuck do you truly want from us?’ I dont really think he’d answer us. I mean it.”

“I doubt he wouldn’t”, insisted her sharp and firmly.

“Mates, calm down.” Tom interrupted them before it became an argument. “Peter never held a secret before, he’s like all poker face and shit but he spills, we have but to wait. So shush and relax.” Victoria frowned at him, unagreeable.

“It’s true, Vicky-T”, carried on Sisky solemnly. “If you haven’t noticed it yet, you probably don’t know him as well as Carden here.”

The comment was rewarded with a slap to the back of Siska’s head, from Carden. The bassist choked on the food he had just put inside his mouth. William tapped him vehemently on the back to try and make him stop coughing.

“I in fact think that Peter’s playing this game because he needs all of us”, tried the singer, in a pensive tone.

“And why, in life, death or every Christian hell would he need all of us?”, asked Ryland, skeptical.

“Because it won’t work unless it’s with all of you.”

Wentz’s voice interrupted everyone’s reasoning, making them petrify in their chairs. Only Victoria kept herself at ease, swinging her legs softly while staring at the newcomer.

“Hi, Pete”, saluted her with a wide smile. “Wanna join us?”

“Hello, Vicky-T.” He wasn’t angry, but still there was an unavoidable layer of authority and seriousness in his voice. “How are you?”

“Quite fine, thanks? What about you?”

“Worried as fuck.” He sighed. “And let me tell you, knowing that you’re suspicious of me doesn’t make my life the least bit more bearable, you know...”

“Give us a break, Wentz”, said Butcher, squishing through the remains of content in one of the boxes with his hashi, looking for anything that didn’t look like noodles. “You pick us up from an awesome tour to shut us inside a studio for apparently no reason and you’re all frilly that we’re suspicious of your intent? Come on, dude.”

“Well, perhaps it is too much to ask, but could you put a little more faith in me and trust me for once?”, begged him.

“We can try, although...” Tom raised a brow. “Come on, Wentz, you know us, why don’t you just spit it out and we’ll see what we can make of it?”

“Because you’re gonna kill me if it doesn’t work.” Again he sighed. “It’s not only you into it, mates. There’s plenty of people, like, too many now. Gimme some time, ‘k?”

“Wentz, you got a thousand times”, answered Nate, tapping and drumming with the hashi on the oak table. “Tell us what’s up!”

For a moment, it looked like Peter would spill the truth. It lasted only a second, though, and the next they knew FOB’s bassist was out the door, running away from the bands he had helped to raise. Sighing deep instead of excusing herself, Victoria fled after him. Everyone else stared at each other, confused by the strange apparition and outcome. William was the first to shrug his shoulders and carry on feeding both himself and the still eager Siska on his lap.

“Hey, Bill, you’re really not giving a rat’s ass about what’s going on, are you?”, tried Butcher in a stingy, sarcastic voice.

“Not really”, answered the other, refraining from yawning wide in a way that made his cheeks stretch and eyes flood with tears. “He’ll tell us, eventually. He needs us after all.” He stretched himself and slapped Siska’s thigh in a brief movement, signalizing him to get up so he could do so to and being promptly obeyed. “The only thing I’m all in is crashing down and passing out.”

Seven pairs of eyes faced him, narrow and laser-ed. William laughed and tried to get them back into talking, which worked for about half an hour more before they actually had to part. He was dead tired, willing to go to his hotel and tuck himself in bed, so he’d have to pick up his guitar and bag in one of the spare rooms – where Carden said they’d put them – before heading to the band’s apartment. He was well into the hallway when he heard heels clashing on the floor behind him. Thinking the girl one of Peter’s secretaries, he went closer to the wall to let the person move past him, imagining it could be an important call or meeting. When he stopped moving, the footsteps became lighter, though, and the other person moved just close enough to reach out and touch his shoulder. Frowning, he stared at the girl.

His lips stretched in an uncontrollable smile when he looked at Victoria, wearing a whole other outfit, cheeks flushed for trying to run in high heels. She wore a striped sweater that clung to her curves, black shorts and high-heeled sandals. Her hair was up in a lazy bun and her make-up had been re-done in a heavier but not unnatural way. She was obviously ready for a photoshoot, which made William’s brows to furrow even more at seeing her in front of him.

“Hi, Beckett”, saluted her, taking a deep breath. “Can I borrow you for an instant?”

“Ahm...” The frown deepened. “I don’t know?”

“It’s just that... I could use some company right now.” She blushed slightly. “There’s this thing for a magazine, I completely forgot it was today. I know you barely know me, but you’re experienced in interviews and stuff and I’m...”

“Scared.” She nodded, looking little like the girl from an hour before. “It’s your first?” She nodded again. “And they left you alone?” Victoria shrugged her shoulders once.

“I thought it would be ok, but I’ve never done it all by myself. Usually Gay stays with me, but once he’s sick... at least you’re tons more trustworthy than the other guys. They’re lovely but I’d hardly call them behaved. They could embarrass me without noticing and this is important.”

“I see.” He stopped for a moment and thought out loud. “Are you sure I can go with you?” Again she nodded. “Ok then, let’s go.”

He turned on his heels and went with her, making sure not to take very long strides. Although Victoria wasn’t short, she wasn’t as tall as him. She stopped in front of a door and took a deep, steadying breath before opening it. It was an interview room, decorated like a studio but obviously not cut for recording, with a big couch and a cushioned armchair. Two photographers waited for her, talking with a red-haired woman that stopped on a dime to look at her. She smiled, giving William enough time to recognize Elena Yowerl, one of the most prominent and nice interviewers in the world. She saluted Victoria and William and asked them to sit once again.

“Hello again, then, Victoria”, said her, an European accent popping at the end of her every phrase. “William Beckett, right?” He nodded. “Are you here to hold her hand?”

William laughed, looking at the spot in the couch where their hands had intertwined.

“No, not really, I’m staying in the same hotel and we’re sharing a cab afterwards.” It wasn’t exactly a lie, but it wasn’t the truth either.

“I see... well, let’s get started then.”

Victoria’s hand pressed his for a moment before letting go. The woman started the interview with simple questions to make Victoria ease a little. The photographers were nice enough to wait a little before starting to shoot the candids that would be featured inside the magazine. She then asked about her career, the way it had begun, the way she had been contacted to be a part of Cobra Starship, her opinion on other bands, her role models, her idol. Almost every answer ended up being commented by Beckett, who was sure at the moment Elena finished the recording that he would be featuring on the interview. While the interviewer moved away and the photographers began to move lights and equipment to settle things for the cover and promos, he murmured to Victoria:

“I am sorry for ruining your solo.”

She smiled brightly.

“Oh, Beckett, what did you think I had called you for?”

The answer took him by surprise. Victoria blinked at him before starting to be instructed on the poses to be shot. It became a sassy, spontaneous shoot, a lot less sexy than the clothing might suggest, but tons higher. She did the pictures with grace and poise, with joy and attitude. William laughed sometimes at her faces and poses; after some time, she proffered her arms and pulled him to join her.

“It’s your shoot, girl!” Beckett smiled, shaking his head and trying to go back to where he had just been.

“Come on, you showed up in the interview, do me a favor and shoot some pics with me!”

The photographers didn’t mind, so Victoria dragged William with her and played him a little until he finally gave in and started working with her in front of the camera. They ended up with a bunch of pictures, none of them couple-like: they felt and looked ten times more like friends than anything else; sometimes they could even be mistaken with kids. She was the one to call the photoshoot to a halt, bent with laughter. In the end, she left the room with William, grateful and radiant. He too felt light and warm-spirited. Victoria was a girl who wanted to be someone, but she would do it being nice and decent, which was something he could both relate to and admire. In the end, he realized he actually truly liked her.

They went back to the storage room where William’s guitar and case had stayed, but apparently Siska (he hoped it had been him) had found it better to take them somewhere else, perhaps to the hotel. Victoria calmed his slightly apprehensive self by telling him that there were security cameras everywhere, so even a prank would be unmasked in no time. He nodded and took a cab with her, sharing the cost once their hotel was the same. Unfortunately, as he remembered himself when he got to the hall, Carden had been the one to name the reservation, so it would be impossible for him to get in before the other showed up. After laughing briefly, Victoria invited him to go and stay with her for some time, at least until the guys showed up – when they asked on the desk, a receptionist said that the occupant of the room that would be TAI’s had authorized the luggage to be sent upstairs, but hadn’t yet picked up the key.

Beckett followed her to the floor where she was installed – it was a regular hotel, but Peter was so picky that he had reserved an entire floor to the Decaydance team. TAI, Cobra, Panic! and Gym Class Heroes were all in there, in apartments with two to five rooms. William could honestly say that he wouldn’t be surprised to find out that he would be staying in the hotel too, although he had a house in town. In anyway, he went with Victoria, watching her open the door and invite him in. Cobra had a three-rooms’ apartment, one of which, the smaller, belonged to Victoria. She sat in the bed and untied her sandals, leaving William to close the door to the apartment. He then got into her room, evaluating it. Besides the impersonal, tidy hotel regular decor, some objects lit it up: some books on the bedside table, a chair piled up with coats and dresses, a huge headphone on a stool beside the small wardrobe. Except for it, everything seemed to be untouched.

Victoria kicked her shoes and threw herself on the bed, smiling wide and stretching her sore, tired body. Her sweater went up, showing the black satin shorts, and the singer was quick to turn his head to avoid looking at her. She laughed at it, jumping off the bed. She strode her way to him, asking him to help her with the sweater’s zipper. Taking a deep breath, he unzipped the piece of clothing, watching a spot on the wall while the keytarist undressed and re-dressed. She poked him and looked at him with a smile.

“I’m already dressed, mr. Paranoid.” She laughed again, brief and softly. “Wanna help me disassemble this hairdo?”

William felt slightly uncomfortable about the intimate and mother-ish way in which he was being treated, like a green, young teenager that knew little but, at the same time, as a very dear friend he didn’t think he was for that girl – he knew he had just helped through an interview, but there again, it was plain camaraderie with someone he cared about... wasn’t it? William knew that his faculties were really disable whenever he got too sleepy or else had his sleep-eat routine drastically changed, for his body was always working on the verge, with low fat reserves and almost no sleep storage because of endless nights of playing and partying. Still he thought that, although he had already understood that he liked Victoria, that it wouldn’t be a problem to have her as a friend, the speed in which the borders from being acquaintances to being intimate enough to see him into her room were breached was beyond his comprehension. If that girl had a secret agenda towards him, in that mind state, he’d do nothing but let her have it. If he had not read her wrong (which hardly ever happened, once William had learned to recognize danger far before he was able to conceptualize it), she’d be good to him. He felt it in his guts that the entire experience of being back to Florida would. He couldn’t justify it. He just knew.

With unpracticed but quick fingers, he helped her in the long and thorough task of removing every clip and band that held her hair up, piling everything up on the bedside table. Her hair, now shiny and wavy, cascaded all the way to her shoulders and a little past them. She then lay on her bed again, seeming indescribably content. William couldn’t hold back a smile. She was so weird. Weird as everyone of them, in fact... She belonged to that industry, she had the spontaneity, the vivacity of those who were born to be artists. It was contagious.

“Sit down”, said she, indicating the bed with a wide gesture. Obediently, William did as she bade him. “Are you still sleepy?” Before he could think of restraining himself, Beckett nodded with a swift head movement. She smiled, crawling towards him and facing him as an angel would, as if his redemption was on her hands. He couldn’t doubt it. The closer she became to him, the more he wanted her to be. It was both amazing and annoying, trusting someone so instantly and therefore being incapable of lying or leaving. “So why don’t you lay here and sleep for a bit? This bed is huge; it won’t be an effort to make a guy of your size fit it. Besides, if you faint again, we’re gonna have a discussion that’ll be worse than whatever thing you could ever have with mother, father, girlfriend, neighbor or police officer.”

He couldn’t keep himself from laughing loud. “I should refuse it, Victoria.” He yawned sleepily.

“But you’re too tired and therefore won’t”, completed her, persuasive. “I understand you, it’s ok. Don’t worry.”

“Vicky-T, I’m serious...”

“I know you’re serious, and so am I, dear.” She pulled him close and caressed his hair. “I don’t mind you sleeping here. I don’t fear you in anyway, you’re tired... I want to see you as a friend, William. Spare me the same courtesy, will you?”

“Victoria...”

“That’s my name.” She kissed his forehead, protectively, smoothing down the frowning that had come to happen between his brows. William wished he was strong enough to get up and leave, but Victoria was expertly leading him to drowsiness, to a limbo where the dreams were just a step forward. He felt like giving up, giving in, felt his entire body soften under her sisterly care.

“Why are you doing this?”, asked he in a pasty voice. “You barely know me... Why are you worrying about me?”

“Once you can’t worry on your own, I have to do it for you.” William’s heart faltered, remembering that phrase. Where had he heard it before? “For the last flipping time, lay down, Beckett. I’ll watch your sleep.”

“You don’t even know who I am...” He was mumbling more than murmuring already, snuggling up on the mattress and feeling some bedcovers being wrapped around him.

“I know you even more than you could possibly imagine, pal.” Again she brushed her fingers through his hair.

“Does it even mean something?”

“It will. Now sleep, please, William. I’ll be here when you wake up and we can pick it up where we left off.”

She carried on caressing his hair, cozy and soft and warm while the singer slid into heavier drowsiness, followed by the lethargic loss of movement that would eventually – in a very short time-spam – make him sleep like a baby. He didn’t understand Victoria’s reasons, not a single one of them – would he ever? They had known each other for hours but now, unavoidably and obviously, that thing between them was in fact a friendship.

 

It took at least an hour for everyone else to show up on the hotel. The scene they found in the apartment was a movie-like one: William, soundly asleep like a baby, had nested his face on her shoulder; she had a hand amidst the brown half-curls of the man and seemed quite pleased with the arrangement. Tom looked at Carden and the other guitarist laughed, understanding what remnants of censoring expressed through Conrad’s eyes. So William didn’t mix work and private life, huh?

“Victoria Asher!”

The sudden outburst voiced amidst such silence made everyone inside the bedroom halt and jump, including the ones still asleep. Victoria woke up very swiftly, but William was so drowsy that he actually seemed to be slipping on and off conscious, as if deciding if he should wake up. Rolled up to his ears in a red blanket, a man heighted about 6’4” showed up, his navy blue checkered pajamas peeking from a gap in the blanket-roll and an awkward bright red wool cap covering his head till not much of his face could be seen, but for the reddish eyes, runny nose and pouting lips. His voice was steady and inarguably coarse, probably a remnant of a throat ache. The guy seemed to be pretty unpleased for seeing them both laying there. Vicky-T, recognizing him as soon as her eyes were truly open, stood up very quick, leaving a semi-conscious William more or less waking up behind.

“Saporta, go back to bed.” It was an order, hissed low but clear and audible. The boys – except the sleepy, drowsy, incapable William – exchanged looks. Nate giggled inwardly.

“Du’ wanna”, murmured the tall guy, pouting. “Y’ won’t treat ‘e like this, Vy.”

“I can sleep with you too if I really must.” She sighed deeply. “Let’s go.”

He held the stranger by his arm, willing to push him back to his own room before any damage was made, but William decided to finally get back to reality in that precise moment. “What’s going on in here?”, asked he, rubbing his eyes with his palms.

“There’s a guy stealing your girlfriend, mate”, played Sisky in a suggestive voice.

“Oh. So I slept here.” Victoria confirmed it with a nod and a wide smile.

“You would have slept more and better wasn’t for this dope here waking us up as if the building were on fire.” She signalized to everyone else. “If you came to my room, it means there’s something that must be said. Can we go to this unholy creature’s room so I can tuck him in and make sure he won’t get any worse?”

Nobody discussed anything as she led them out of her room, through a living room and into another room. That one smelled of people, although not of sickness. Sensing it, Nate asked if he could open the windows, to what Victoria nodded vehemently, even though Saporta complained loud about it. She tucked him in and caressed his hair for a bit. William was the last to get into the room, walking like a zombie. The man in bed frowned deep enough to make Beckett’s notorious crease between the brows look like a child’s.

“I don’t think we’ve met...” He let his index finger point, hovering from Carden to William.

“Oh, God.” Victoria seemed to be close to snapping.

“Well, it might be ok for you to have strangers sleeping and feasting in your room, Vicky-T, but I won’t have such absurdity going on beneath my own roof.”

“Right, right, you prima donna.” She pointed to each and every one of TAI’s members. “Carden, Conrad, Sisky, Butcher, Beckett. Guys, this is our worthless lead singer, Saporta.”

“Pleasure”, said the guys in one voice. William found it slightly strange that someone wearing a bright red wool cap would be so conservative as to make people introduce themselves like that, when it was obvious that everyone else knew them, but anyway. Asking for Victoria’s permission in a single glance and receiving it pronto, he slid to the bed, sitting awkwardly in a slump pose.

“Yeah, yeah, right, stop the chatter, kids.” Everyone stared at Ryland for a moment in a sort of confusion - except for William, who was still this close to dozing off, and Saporta, who was staring and frowning at the man that sat a palm away from him in the slightly wider single bed. Ryland carried on, both hands resting on his hips. “Do you want the damn big news or not?!”

“Spit it out, Black”, asked Victoria, suddenly excited. William stared at her in sheer disbelief. How could she do it? He took at least twenty minutes to wake up, after opening his eyes for the first time after any decent sleep.

“Ok, so here's the deal...” Butcher stopped talking, letting the need for the news build.

“What is it? Did your mind crash? Shoot it!” Saporta was not showing much of patience, but there again, as someday it would be clear to them all, he never did.

“Don't you rush me or else I can forget it!” The drummer folded his arms and pouted.

“Butcher, if you don't talk at once, Imma make you forget your teeth all over the floor”, threatened William, brushing his right temple with circling fingers, more than sick of waiting and more than willing to go back to sleep, finally taking part in the discussion.

“Hell yeah!” The sick guy agreed, proffering a hand and seeing Beckett slap it. “I'm not whole but I'm big enough to be of some help.”

“Shut the fuck up, Saporta”, said Ryland, rolling his eyes. “You can barely get up without tripping on your blankets and falling off the bed.”

“D’y wanna bet?”, growled the tall man in bed, his eyes growing narrower in the half-shade the cap provided.

“Better not”, murmured William, shaking his head briefly and holding the other’s fist, which was already starting to show, by the wrist. “If we kill them, Peter for sure won’t tell us what the news were.”

Saporta stared for a moment at his trapped wrist, then relaxed his arm and took a deep breath, exhaling all at once. He nodded and let himself fall back on the mountain of pillows again. His wrist didn’t struggle to leave William’s hand but the other singer let it go when the taller guy eased. His stomach felt a bit fuzzy, a bit sick. There was something very familiar about that guy, he just didn’t know what. It was even worse than with Victoria. The touch of his hands on the sick guy’s skin had produced something like a current, quite like static, but much deeper. Was it possible that he knew the people in Cobra from previous times? Although it certainly hadn’t felt like that with Ryland and the others...

“Okay, so now that the lovey-doves are all good again...” William grabbed a cushion from the floor beside him and threw it at Carden with the most of force his numb-y limbs could have. He hit the guitarist head with a soft thump. “Fuck, Beckett, this is heavy! Ouch!” He massaged his forehead for a moment. “Well, supposing we can be serious now... What happened was that Peter decided to tell us what the heck was going on. That thing about needing us all and so on, so forth.”

“Well, finally!” Victoria’s left brow arched high. “And what was it, Carden?”

“A contract.”

“And Butcher scores once again”, interrupted the drummer, like if he was a winner to some kind of prize.

“Yeah”, continued Michael nonchalantly. “But it’s a contract that convolves the entire Decaydance team, to make the soundtrack for a new movie. We don’t have much about it, except that it is about an in-flight terrorist attack with snakes and vipers of some sort.”

“Bit psycho, isn’t it?” Victoria frowned at it.

“Yes. But it’s a job.” Nate stared at Cobra’s singer, narrowing his eyes at him. Suddenly, that little man looked like the most dangerous creature in the room, and Ryland moved a side step away from him. “So here’s the following: we’re going in-studio in two weeks, to see the sets, get inspired and so on. They’ll pick a theme song and a band, or a bunch of assorted people from a bunch of bands, to perform it. Either case, you’d better show up whole, Saporta, or else we’re having you hanged, comprende?”

“It’s cool, Nate, I’ll be fine.” The sick guy sunk even deeper under the blanket. “But I think I should sleep now. And I think this mate over here should do so too.” He poked the half-asleep William that was holding his head as if in fear of it falling down. TAI’s singer looked up, trying his best to focus at someone.

“If you don’t mind the idea of being fugly down with some wicked sort of flu, you can stay here”, said Victoria, shrugging her shoulders. “I’m leaving to fetch us some food and I’d rather not leave my room unlocked; last time Blackinton flung my panties up the chandelier. I guess Gabe won’t care if you stay. He never does.”

“Thanks for talking about me as if I wasn’t here”, commented Saporta, not really seeming to be anyhow disturbed by it if truth would be told.

“Yeah, share the bed with Saps, Bill”, teased Tom, smiling wide. “We’ll be drinking and hopping around the streets and no one will spare any time to babysit you or carry you to bed.”

“You’re jerks”, sentenced Beckett, rolling his eyes and setting them on Saporta. “Do you mind?”

Gabe shrugged. William took it as a no and crawled under the blankets too. It was a bigger, longer bed, so he fit much better than in Victoria’s. For a moment, it felt weird to be in someone’s bed, and although he could blame it on his sleepiness, it wasn’t the only reason. He could make some effort and head to his own room, even if it was to be alone for some time... The thing was that they’d wake him up in the middle of the afternoon with loud talks and noisy moving, so he’d be on and off sleep for some time – Siska was supposed to share a room with him, for Christ’s sake. Other than this, he was too lazy to move, and what the hell, it was a fine bed. William pulled the blankets up to his ear and snuggled himself into a fetal position. Saporta laughed inwards, shaking his head and shooing everyone out of the room, a little dazed by the fact that the sort-of-unknown singer wouldn’t feel the least bit uncomfortable with sharing his bed – he couldn’t possibly know that he usually shared his bed with someone, be it Sisky or Butcher or both, so it was not strangest in the least. Victoria was the last to leave, making sure to glare at Cobra’s singer in a threatening way and making him giggle once again.

Saporta turned to look at Beckett for a while. He smelled like innocence, which was weird to say the least. He curled under the blankets too, moving a bit closer to the other. He was sick but not dead, and that boy was cute.

“Hey, kid”, murmured him, brushing his lips against the other lad’s ear. He felt him shiver. “How do you crawl into my bed like this, hm? You can’t even say you know me. I might enjoy ravishing boys like you. Have you given it any thought?”

“I have”, replied William, already dozing back to sleep. “But I wanna sleep and Victoria knows you. I trust her enough.”

“Yeah?” He touched Beckett’s earlobe a bit more lasciviously with his lips, nipping briefly at them.

“Yeah.” The shiver ran up and down his spine once again. “Now get some sleep, Saporta. I’ll do so too.”

Saporta giggled once again, embracing William and pushing himself against him just the slightest. Beckett didn’t shove him away or objected anyhow. Rationally, he knew he should, he got hyperaware even when Siska played him, the childish prank that was his way to tease the singer. That embrace, though, that embrace was too cozy to be of any danger. It felt like home. It felt like if we had been waiting for it for a long time and had finally found it. So he let it be, giving in to sleep without a second thought.

Chapter Text

The touch was caring, ghosting across his skin with plenty of lasciviousness and intention. A thin, long-fingered hand crossed the path from his chest to his lower belly, playing with his underwear’s waistband before sliding further, too insistent to be accidental. Something was happening there, something wrong, so, so wrong. Every millimeter of his body was tingling in awareness, in excitement, while the faceless stranger touched him, pushing all of his buttons to the threshold of pleasure, right before it could actually become pain. He felt his own breath’s loosened pace, the panting, the dryness that climbed up his throat until it burst in a rough, sore, pained cry...

He started out of sleep in a slow, continuous way. It didn’t quite wake him up, like it usually didn’t. What had happened? His eyes were heavy-lidded, his breath a bit too unsteady, his mind flowing in a river of semi consciousness. Something about his body seemed to be a little off, he could feel it like a peripheral impression. A male arm was slumped across his stomach, cuddling him close in a comfortable way. He recognized the sheets by touching them while he patted the fabric close to his jeans’ front pocket, looking for his cellphone so he could check the time. Something moist and warm was splashed on the bed. His heart sunk deep and began to beat rapidly as his fingers ghosted to the front of his jeans. Shit, thought him when he realized that the thick fluid had flowed from his unzipped pants. Great, Beckett, your only wet dream after you became sixteen and it had to be in a coworker’s bed. And it was bad. It was really bad. He couldn’t possibly make Saporta let go of him without waking him up and he couldn’t run the risk of letting him see that disgusting thing. Well, the thing itself wasn’t really disgusting, but seriously? In bed with Saporta? What if Cobra’s singer thought that he was a pervert that couldn’t be touched by anyone, man or woman, without getting horny? He wasn’t like that, and he didn’t want the other to think he was.

He heard a moan by his back. Saporta loosened his grip on him, moving a swift hand to rest on William’s hipbone. Beckett’s eyes popped open immediately. The other singer was dangerously close to the crime scene. William had no option. He had to clean it all up and get lost as soon as his legs could make him. Slowly he started to move away from the other man, feeling a slight resistance from the numb limbs still trapping him. In an insane effort, he managed to pull away from the embrace and the bed, being greeted by an enormous white stain on the creamy sheets. He ran towards the bathroom, grabbing a towel and pouring some water on it before going back to face the situation. He rubbed the towel against the fabric with as much force as he could gather, praying that it would become at least more or less clean. He was so focused on getting rid of those shameful traces that he didn’t notice that his coworker was not in bed anymore.

“Hello, Beckett”, murmured the taller man, naked but for a towel wrapped around his waist, right behind the desperate young singer.

William let out a startled cry, jumping onto the mattress while his heart thumped loud and fast in his ears. He heard the peerless noise of a wooden structure being disrupted when the bed gave in, throwing him out of balance. He hit his head on the nearest wall and fell sitting and disoriented on the floor by Saporta’s feet. The sick guy stared at him for a couple of seconds before laughing out loud, so carelessly that William narrowed his eyes and asked himself if that man was truly sick. He faced him, massaging the back of his own head, his eyes filled with un-cried tears. Not paying much attention to the man on the floor, the taller guy focused on the stained sheets.

“What is this?”, asked him, furrowing his brows.

“Nothing!” William got up too quick, slid on the towel he had been holding and hit the bedside table with a narrow hipbone. Ignoring the pain, he unsuccessfully tried to hide what happened from the other man.

“It doesn’t look like nothing to me...” He frowned even deeper, getting closer to the stain. “Unless...” His eyes looked at the sheets and then at Beckett’s unzipped jeans. He smirked and licked his index finger, rubbing it on the dry stain and bringing it to his nose. For a moment, William’s heart stopped when Saporta held out his tongue and slid it on the same finger, smiling manically right after. Beckett felt himself freeze and get close to fainting. He not only had come on a coworker’s bed, but also that same coworker had seen it, smelled it and tasted it. What kind of person even did that?! “You have got to be kidding me!” He laughed a little. “Dear Lord, my boy, how old are you?”

“I turned twenty-one in February”, murmured the younger man, facing his feet.

He must have been amused enough to set back to laughing. If William weren’t so shocked, he could have joined him. Wiping tears of laughter from his face, Saporta smiled once again before holding out his arms and embracing the other man with sudden tenderness and understanding.

“Here, here, my pretty boy.” He petted William’s hair in an attempt to calm him down. “It was an accident, it happens to me all the time. Now zip up; go take a shower and change your clothes, ok? I’ll clean it up, don’t worry.” He placed a kiss on the other singer’s forehead, holding him close for a bit longer. “It’s no reason to feel ashamed, alright? I’m flattered that it happened while you shared a bed with me. You’re a beautiful lad and you taste very good too.” William felt himself blush to the tip of his ears. Saporta giggled. “My, oh my, look at you, you’re dying here. Sorry, kid, you must be much greener than I thought... You probably don’t even know how to react to this. So do as I told you, ok? Wash it off and let go.”

Again he kissed William’s forehead, pushing him the slightest just to signal that the comforting was over. When Beckett left he felt a tad less heavyhearted, but still there was a lot of embarrassment, shame and humiliation going on inside his head. It never – not even when, weeks later, he recalled the incident – crossed his mind that such a big stain could never have been his own and only doing.

Pacing slow and steady, William got to his own room. The apartment was similar to Cobra’s: three large bedrooms but a slightly smaller common room. He was supposed to share his bedroom with Siska, who was sitting on top of the second bed in the room, earphones on, playing a soundless melody on the bass. He smiled carelessly at William and carried on with what he was doing. On the bright side, having him as a roommate was awesome: Sisky had very little reserves about subjects and could be counted on to lighten the singer’s mood, although Butcher, the other that shared his bedroom often, was in fact a better listener.

He took a shower, brushing himself until his skin turned flushed red, like if it could erase the shame and the ghosting impression of the other singer’s touch on his skin. It more or less worked, in the end. When he went out and got dressed again, in fresh new clothes that still presented the marks of the folding from his bag, he already felt lots better. It had been no more than just an accident, right? It could have happened to anyone. It didn’t matter who he had lain with but what he had dreamed of... right?

“Biiiilly!” Sisky smiled and jumped on top of him at the precise moment he sat in the big single bed. The bass clashed on the ground, alongside with the earphones, and the sharp noise made William startle.

“Siska!” The older man was vehement. “Take it easy, these beds break easily!”

The bassist got up, faking respect, disdain and giving in to goofiness.

“Ooooh...” He laughed. “You have already been breaking beds with someone? Don’t tell me you did it with Gay?” He poked at William’s ribs, teasing him. “Oh, it was him, huh? It was, it was, wasn’t it?”

“Sisky, please, stop it.” William felt his face fever. “Seriously.”

“Ooooh, you can’t do it, we’ve just arrived and you’re already replacing me with someone else?”

“My darling, I’m never going to replace you”, replied the singer mellifluously.

The bassist hugged him by the waist, hard and brief. William held his breath for the tiny second it lasted before Sisky got up and left, humming a song. Beckett knew he was heading to the living room to grab a phone and ask for more food, perhaps from the room service this time. The taller man collapsed in bed again and his thoughts derailed straight to the apartment across the hall, where he had left the other singer. Why the hell had he the awkward feeling that he had already met that Saporta before?

Over a week passed before both bands met again. Gabe had gotten even worse, Pete had become nuts, and Carden and Butcher had asked everyone in the band to get things going and nevermind everything that was happening inside Decaydance until further notice. William had had time to relax a little about Saporta, to form tighter bonds with Victoria and to give some long calls to Christine, whom he missed so much. When they finally got all together, on a Wednesday, under the watching eyes of Peter Wentz, William tried to sustain the mischievous, secretive look that Saporta tried to exchange with him, unsuccessfully. He ended up avoiding Gabe’s eyes altogether. Victoria was the only one to notice, and why she was so aware of every single movement William did towards Gabe, it was something that only herself could explain.

The easing of William’s biggest doubt in that moment – where had he met Saporta before that – came under Carden’s insistence that they tried to become much more excited about producing and performing a song. They were divided between composing a brand new song to get into Snakes on a Plane soundtrack, and therefore having a chance to be the theme song, or just using a remix of something that suited the movie. They were all tired from the tour and not having their proper rest after it was a mood killer. At last, Carden tried to rescue some of that mood by hopping Fueled By Ramen videos on shuffle in Youtube, which led them, after a couple of clicks, to one of their own music videos. Slow Down began to play, and they got lost in commenting bloopers from its production. Seeking for a bit more of fun, Butcher pulled a unremarkable CD from a case filled with papers that Carden used to pull around whenever he had label issues to solve. They had been presented to it by a very straightforward letter from Peter a few weeks before, right before they went to Florida. Butcher put it into the CD drive and The Phrase That Pays began automatically. The tiny dialogue scene in the beginning made William smile with the memory of Brittany Snow, a cute little kid that had been very supportive to them by accepting doing the video. “You think you know, but you don’t. I do.” He had said it like he had meant it, which was true to the scene and an obvious lie about himself.

Having seen that video about a dozen times before just to make sure that everything was in place, he let his eyes wander about the people there, observing details. They were supposed to launch it in July only and although everyone in the band had given Peter the thumbs up almost a month ago, he held firm to the date. William noticed that he had hyper-articulated the entire song – which was clear not only from the video but also from the song itself and was something that would become one of his trademarks between coworkers. He took in the mischievous, almost indecent little smile that Carden had let escape right before he got to the bridge of the song, the blasé look in Conrad’s face when they were into the chorus – that was not new, he had an ability to do so. He smiled wide to the way Butcher slammed the drums like a maniac and laughed loud when Sisky himself pointed out that he had never seen his own hair that tamed before. Butcher commented about having to have a workshop of blasé with Conrad to be able not to laugh or even smile while Brittany moved schizophrenically in front of him. And then, all of a sudden, he pushed himself forward and hit the spacebar in the keyboard like he hated it.

“Christ almighty, Bill, who are you trying to keep from getting murdered tonight?!” The question was made by a shocked Butcher that had received part of William’s weight and was really relieved that the singer’s hand had been place on his left thigh and not on his crotch.

“That man!” He pointed frenetically at the screen. “Zoom him in, I know him!”

He was pointing at a tall figure with a mop of black hair on top of his head, dressed in a dark suit and holding a teddy bear. The four other guys looked at each other before erupting in laughter. William frowned, upset with the laughter but trying to make sure of the man from the outline he saw. He couldn’t be that mistaken. Yes, he had never seen Saporta in a suit, but it had to be either him or his evil twin... right? Pulling him to sit down again, Tom smiled and explained.

“Mate, sure you know him, it’s Saporta.” Part of William’s self exhaled in relief and part of it tensed beyond measure. Why hadn’t he remembered before? The video had not been recorded that long ago. Could he have blamed it on the sleep? Well, perhaps when they first met, but he hadn’t been sleepy throughout that entire last week... “He was lead singer to Midtown when it happened. We wanted someone to give Freddie to Carden and he offered himself to do it.”

“Don’t you talk about Freddie like this!” Sisky was infuriated about someone being mean to his teddy bear. He hugged the bear – Freddie was the most precious thing Siska had, even before his bass, and it was impossible to keep him from the teddy when night came – and tapped his ears. “He’ll be feeling like an object!”

Beckett kept his focus on the stilled video, although the three other were already laughing from Sisky’s pouting. They had to admit that life without that guy was much less fun. Finally, Beckett tapped the screen twice, enlightenment blooming in his face.

“I don’t remember him on the set, but haven’t we made a tour with Midtown?”

“The reason why you don’t remember him in the set is because you were not there when we recorded this one. You were out for food”, explained Carden. William nodded, remembering vaguely of the time when he had had to leave and buy everyone some macaroni and cheese for they were starving before the filming was in its half. “And the reason why neither of us remembers Midtown much is because they were already thinking of disbanding back then, but they had an album that was new, so it was pretty bad for them.” Everyone looked at Carden as if that information was new to them. “I keep myself posted about stuff, dude. So, they were having a hard time with dealing with some ego issues and although they were all nice and stuff around us, they were around much less than, you know, McMahon or Jorgensen or DeCicco.”

“The few times we met Midtown after concerts, we were so drunk that I couldn’t tell you from Saporta”, added Butcher, seeming to regret it a little. “You have to remember we were pretty green, you know, it was our first year on the road. Higgenson told me that we behaved well on the last tour. I asked.” They all laughed loud. “You have come to be a marvelous babysitter, Beckett.”

William sighed and smiled. “Yeah, but just because we spent our first touring season competing to see who would wake up with the most badass hangover and I swore we’d never be through any of that ever again.” They laughed. “Ok, great, now I can rest in peace. I was getting mad by not knowing where Saporta came from.”

“Welcome to the world of alcoholic amnesia”, said Conrad solemnly, to what William laughed again and finally made himself breathe steadily and carry on with the video.

So that was it. That was where he had first met Saporta. He must have seen him quite a lot because of the shows, but he hadn’t become friends with him or anything. It eased even the depths of his being, those that asked him almost daily why he had been able to share a bed with him: having been drunk alongside Saporta somewhere, he probably known, deep in his subconscious, that he could more or less trust that man – sureness strengthened by Victoria, yes, but anyway. It was only fair and reciprocal, too, that if William couldn’t remember Saporta he had not to remember the other singer too. In the end, it was just his inner self feeling his pride wounded because he had been incapable of remembering Gabe. It was soothing; for several days he had been feeling that he had forgotten something truly important.

He was light as a feather when he followed the guys to the main Decaydance studio, to be familiarized with sets and teasers and meet the coworkers that were going to join them in that one experience of having a song made to a soundtrack album. The newer newcomers, apart from Cobra, were the boys in Panic! at the Disco. They seemed to be much more confident since the last time William had checked on them. Beckett had developed, as their senior under the command of Wentz, a healthy relationship with that band – except for Wilson, that had been very hard to handle and ended up parting ways with the others. He had a nice rapport with Spencer, something a little more intimate with Brendon and an actually very sane and deep friendship towards Ryan. He had been the one to drag them into the world of being a band and being known, although he was not that into it himself yet.

William spotted Ryan right upon entering the studio. The boy wore jeans and a white shirt and was talking effusively with Brendon about something. He walked towards the guitarist, throwing an arm carelessly upon his shoulders, smiling wide when the other recognized him and hugged him briefly. Brendon proffered a hand and shook William’s in a theatrical, exaggerated manner, just for the sake of doing it.

“So, Ryro”, said William, messing with the already messy hair of the smaller man, “how are things going around here?”

“Everything perfectly fine, thank goodness.” He smiled wide. “We’re slaving our asses off for the will of Wentz and he finds it interesting to drag us into a soundtrack...”

“Oh, it’s good publicity.” William shrugged it off as if it were nothing. “You have to trust that shorty. By the way, have you got access to the script so we can know more or less what’s waiting for us?”

“We have a preview, a few teasers and general imagery, but Peter said he was aiming for something a little more definitive and substantial before actually starting to hush us into working.” Brendon was pondering something. “Well, we’re already in for a remix. We had a little discussion and, honestly, no good publicity will make us build a brand new song to go against the others here. Especially Cobra. That Saporta is a spawn of the gods when it comes to songwriting, he has piles and piles of things written just waiting for an opportunity. Trust me when I say he’ll fill for the main song and it will be a brand new one.”

“It’s a risky bet, we have people from outside Decaydance that will be working in the soundtrack too”, said William with a frown.

“Mark Brendon’s words, man. They will succeed.” Ryan said it solemnly, with a sureness that made Beckett uneasy.

“Are you sure that this is not an excuse for the two of you to just keep from writing a new one?” He quirked an eyebrow up.

“Oh, well, Audrey is draining Bden’s energy”, answered Ryan, poking the small singer in the ribs.

“And Keltie’s draining yours!” Brendon was vehement but yet he smiled.

“So you are having trouble with women.” The three of them laughed. “Well, I still want you around, so you make sure to leave some days to go out with me.” He hugged both guys and placed a mocking kiss on each of their foreheads. You can have the Saturday, Brendon, and Ryan will share the rest of the week with Sisky.”

They had just started to laugh when a rough-edged voice got to them. “Why are you giving him only the Saturday? There’s not much that can be done in a single day...” Gabe had showed up right behind William, who startled and let go of the others pronto. “You can give him your Sundays too, right?”

Brendon held his hands up and made sure he could justify the little joke. “Hey, hey, I’m not into having this kind of Saturdays or Sundays or any days with Bill! No offense, pal”, added him, looking at TAI’s singer and taking in the brief sign of “none taken” made by him.

“Oh, well. This is not a problem.” Saporta smiled wide and manically, hugging Beckett from behind and frowning just the slightest at the sight of Ryan’s face, torn between shock, laughter and anger. “I can keep your entire weekends, and holidays too.”

William felt his face flush brighter than a street light. Very few people disturbed him that much, but there again very few touched him like that, that carelessly, that intimately. Sisky did, innocently in a way that made him feel dirty for being uncomfortable sometimes. Victoria, for she was so agreeable and so sympathetic to him that he could not keep from swaying in gratitude around her. Brent, P!atD’s former bassist, with his mechanical, dry ways that made him shudder. Even Ryan had his own reservations about touching him, particularly because he understood what it was like to be hyper-aware of people around himself sometimes. And now there was that Saporta, so free and extroverted, after his first reservations about William had gone to waste. Beckett enjoyed the joyful fun time he had when he played around with his mates, even when the jokes were so absolutely explicit in their sexual content, even when he reprimanded them in a mock disgust or rage. He had a few issues about Sisky’s timing... and every issue about that Saporta. He could see also that not even Brendon, who was so easily drawn to people and so likely to like newcomers, was truly comfortable around Cobra’s vocalist. Still flushed, Beckett turned to the singer glued to his back, unwrapping himself from that suffocating embrace.

“I’m not selling my weekends and holidays to you”, shouted he seriously, “you... you... you Freddie Astaire’s molester!” The other stared at him, not recognizing the insult. Beckett flushed even harder for not being able to call him some other name but saw in it a chance to take the attention from himself. “He got Sisky’s bear!”

The strategy worked better than he thought. Ryan’s eyes widened and Brendon’s mouth fell open. Everyone knew, almost as an urban legend, that nobody could touch Siska’s brown bear, Frederic Siska Astaire. Everyone that had tried to do so, even if just for a few moments, for a friendly prank, had been woken up with rotten food spread all over one’s body. It had created the legend and nobody dared to go against it.

“What a lie, William, I just held him.”

“You can’t be believed, Saporta”, sentenced Ryan, playing along to save the still flushed singer. “You’re not trustworthy, if you kidnapped Freddie...”

Before Gabe could decide if he was going to laugh or carry on being punished for that one favor he had once done for another band, Ryland strode his way resolutely to meet the singer. He saluted everyone briefly and turned to Saporta.

“Victoria’s calling. You better rush.”

The other man laughed briefly, humorless. Sighing deeply, he spoke to the others. “Well, I’m being needed. We’ll get back to Siska’s bear after they’re done with me, ok?”

On his way out, he put his hand for a moment on William’s head, meddling with his hair for a little while. He murmured in a very low, very coarse voice: “you’re a terrible little kid, Will”. Just that, before following his own way out. TAI’s singer froze where he was, absorbing the impact of the phrase he wasn’t sure he had actually heard. Strangely aware like he always was, Ryan noticed it.

“Hey, Becks.” He poked him on the ribs. “Let’s go. I’ll show you what we have of the script, so you can start thinking of a decent song to work.”

The guitarist knew that while Beckett was reading those pages, flipping them back and forth, sharing what he thought relevant with the others around him, he would be also thinking of someone else, a very specific one. Even knowing so, Ryan thought that it was worth the shot, if it would distract him even the tiniest bit. Well, according to Victoria, they’d have enough time to make up for that weird time. Oh, Victoria, dear, perceptive Victoria, only she had every piece of that puzzle. Ryan could not deny her any kind of help, even if he didn’t know what was going to come out of that enterprise. There’s nothing you won’t do for those you love, Vicky-T, thought Ross, smiling tenderly at the circle in which the guys from Cobra sat.

In that circle, Victoria saw William be removed from the center of the studio and tucked inside a second room with some other people that were going to work with the script. Later she would find out that The Academy Is..., just like Panic!, had chosen not to go for a brand new song, choosing Black Mamba to be remixed by Teddybears, a band indicated by the film producers. In that precise moment, though, she had sprawled herself on Saporta’s lap, enjoying the armchair the singer had provided himself and the shouting and admonishing of Alex, Ryland and Nate that echoed everywhere around her. They were providing rumor enough so she had not to worry about what Saporta was confiding her.

“... and, well, it’s strange that I can barely remember him, you know, visually.” He sounded both confused and unhappy. “I mean, yes, I remember TAI, but he wasn’t there when we filmed and I’m sure he wasn’t there and I only saw him when the video was done and it was so brief that I remembered him but vaguely. He’s handsome, have you seen him? He’s marvelous. And he’s so young. I mean... God, this is so strange.”

“Gabe. My dear. You have to focus.” Victoria kissed his left temple. “What are you feeling about William right now? Try hard to tell me, please.”

“I don’t really know, Vy.” He scratched his head for an instant. “And I’m bothered by it. I mean, there’s something. There’s certainly something. He has been around before. They had been in my last tour with Midtown; I could remember now that they’re around and we’re interacting again. But he... about him there’s something else. I feel like I should be closer to him. Like if I should go for having him closer.” He kept from saying the rest of it. Like if he was the one. It was obviously not possible. He had searched him for years and given up now; his mind could barely entertain the possibility. His voice lowered to an almost inaudible murmur instead. “We shared a bed...”

“I remember it, I was there.”

“No, this is not what I mean. I mean that we have... I mean, I have... well, we didn’t actually sleep together, but...” He exhaled like if he had been hit in the stomach. “We came together. Here, this was it.” Victoria frowned at the confession. “I touched him, Victoria. I don’t know why, and I don’t know for how long, but I did. Vy, you know me. I’ve never touched anyone that had not asked to be touched before. Never. I’ve shared plenty of beds with plenty of people and I haven’t touched any of them unless they explicitly told me to. But he accepted it, he was all but numb from sleep and he was so willing, he gave into it so naturally. He hugged me afterwards. He thanked me. He fucking tried to kiss me, Victoria. I don’t know if he’s a sleepwalker or what the hell was that but I woke up from my own vivid dream with his hand in my crotch and come all over my underwear and his lips half an inch from mine. I had to flip him over to keep him from kissing me and to keep myself from accepting it. I fucking cuddled with him, Victoria.” She had never seen her friend that confuse. “And when he woke up he was so shocked that I couldn’t bear to tell him what had happened, I think he was so tired that he went too deep into sleep and I shouldn’t have let him do any of it or let myself do any of it and... God, I’m a bastard. I am doing to him the same thing I did to you, I’ll fuck him up just like I did to you.”

“Oh, now you’re just being batshit stupid.” She forced herself not to show a pang of hurt. The wound Gabriel was referring to had very little to do with him, despite his own beliefs, but it was still open raw. “Gabe, there’s nothing alike in any of the situations. I’ve told you you’ve never had anything to do with what happened between me and Michael. And William... he’s strong and unharmed. You don’t need to worry about it right now, I’m sure he forgave you and if he didn’t, you can explain it to him later.”

“I hurt you. I had not even quite recovered from hurting you and I abused him, Victoria. How could I?”

“For the way you told me, you were both coincidently having wet dreams side by side. Don’t start freaking out about it, Saporta. About any of it, you dope. Seriously. You have to stay focused. We have an album to get done. We have a soundtrack to get going.”

“Ah, Vy... If I had my little boy with me, none of it would have ever happened. He would have been with me. He would have been in my bed and I wouldn’t have messed up someone else’s head. I wouldn’t have to find a way to fix it all now.” He sighed so deep that Vicky-T felt her heart quiver. “I wish he was my boy, Victoria. My little Beckett.”

“Gabe...”

“I know it would be impossible. I know it is impossible. I am not dumb. I know there are a gazillion of men called ‘William Beckett’ around and I don’t even know if he’s alive, let alone if he is in the US, let alone anywhere near. But I wanted it. I am so tired of never finding him. I am so tired of raising hopes just to find out that it’s not him.” He took a long look to the close door behind which Ryan had hid William. “I could accept this William just because he looks and feels so much like my William, and they have the same name and age like so many others before and after them. But there again, I’ve felt it before, I’ve met other Becketts like him before, beautiful and young and fresh and so like him, and it turns out... it turns out that I don’t want a doppelganger. I want him.”

“Don’t you think that... maybe...?”

“Coincidences like these do not happen in real life, Victoria.” He smiled a sour, wicked, disdainful smile. “And I have but a bunch of old pictures of those years. I’ve tried to memorize them every single day and search for him until my feet hurt and my heart pounded, but I’ve never found the real ‘him’. I just can’t trust myself to recognize him anymore. Not anymore. I don’t even bother trying anymore.”

Victoria had to clench her teeth to keep herself from telling him the truth, for she had realized it the moment she got William under her sight. There was quite some bitterness to Gabe’s voice, one that made her skin prickle. She knew he needed to find out by himself, he had to remember everything, and he had to trust himself to do so. She knew that there should be no shortcuts there. She would try to help him, yes, but she couldn’t do it for him. Not for him, not for William – and yet, she struggled so much not to give in and just present them to one another in the proper way. She was afraid that they might not fall for it. She was scared that she might ruin them. William had been seven when Gabriel left. He couldn’t remember properly, and Gabe didn’t want – or else was too scared of being broken by it – to.

She was about to say something else – a soothing, warm something – when Nate completely freaked out.

“Hey, lovey-doves!” Saporta jerked his head up and Victoria sat up straight. “We’re fucking driving each other mad here trying to find a song we could use and it’s impossible to do it on our own.”

Victoria stared at Gabe, and she saw the moment when his eyes steeled and grew fierce. He had just devised a plan. A strange, wicked kind of plan. Oh God. It couldn’t be good. She’d have to monitor him closely from then on.

“We’re not remixing one of the songs from the album.” The other four stared incredulously at him. “I’ll write a new one. A brand new one.”

“Gabriel Eduardo Saporta, this song needs to be ready in two to three days.” Alex stared at him as if were completely nuts. “Tops, unless we want Wentz to castrate us!”

“Stop calling me by my full name.” He laughed, steady, low, brief and humorless. Just like Victoria had asked him, he was focused – in a bad, bad way. “You have to trust me. I’ll make it the official single for the soundtrack, believe me.” He proffered a hand and Ryland handed him his cellphone immediately. “I just need to call Travis and ask him to bring Katz and Hollander along.”

“You mean right now?” Ryland’s blue eyes widened to the size of Olympic medals. “Gabe, this is fucking ridiculous, McCoy is working in his own song.”

“He’ll come.” Saporta dialed the numbers on the phone and waited for a moment. “Travie! I need you and Katz and Hollander. Yes, those who have helped you all through Papercut Chronicles. Yes. Yes, right now. We’re in the main studio.” A long silence followed and Gabe walked away from the rest of the group. Victoria motioned to follow him but Ryland asked her to stay still while the singer went even farther away. “Great, we meet in an hour then. Yes. Yes, I’ll need your rapping skills and an opinion about something I’m willing to do. Yes, I want more people, I want to make it big. I want a lady too.” On the other side of the line, Travis whistled and then mumbled. “No, no, Vicky-T can help us now but she won’t do. I have a plan.” McCoy suddenly became eager to help, like he always did when Gabe used the word “plan”. “We’ll be promoting Decaydance and fixing up the last shits I’ve done all at once, but I’ll need you to convince her and to help me make Pete fall for it. Yes. Yes.” The singer smiled wide and clenched his fist, restraining not to punch it to the sky in a victory sign. “Great. You’re the man, McCoy. Thank you so much.”

When he returned, the four other members were waiting for him, faces closed and expectant. He sat down again.

“So?” Alex folded his arms, staring him intently.

“Katz and Hollander are in. McCoy will rap for me. I might need your help too.” He slid down and kneeled on the floor in a way to ask for both their trust and forgiveness. “I know I’ve been useless these past weeks. It was not just the sickness; I am facing a little existential crisis...”

“You’re always facing existential crisis, Saporta”, said Nate, quirking an eyebrow up. “But still we care for you and it won’t change right now. We trust you’ll do your best. We just hope it’ll be soon enough.”

“It will”, promised the singer. “Thank you so much for your support, fellas. Thank you so, so much for it.”

“Just make sure you’ll be fine and good to go and trust us to make the same for ourselves”, asked Victoria, serious like they had never seen her. “Don’t start trying to solve stuff that is not yours to solve. Let things roll a little and focus in what’s important now, which is us and our work.”

“I will. I’m not letting you down.”

Victoria knew she could engrave that promise in a stone slab, but she also knew that Gabe always cared too much for people. She knew that the reason why he came to be sick in the first place was because he had seen her crying to sleep and had spent the night sleepless, caring for her. She had been remembering Michael and she knew that she shouldn’t have done it so close to Saporta. She knew he felt bad for having been around and not doing anything to prevent the breakup, although Vicky-T was sure that he couldn’t have done a thing to make Michael stay with her. She had forgiven her ex, but the pain still remained, even after almost three years. She also knew that he was worried sick about her and she pledged herself not to make a single comment about that while he was around. She didn’t know yet but she was going to break that promise because of him, in very specific circumstances that would be Gabe’s fault that time. Meanwhile, they had to trust each other and try not to let things run out of control. Somehow.

Chapter Text

Peter had woken them up again. It was annoying to wake up with the landline booming in that insanely loud volume but it was understandable. They were late. They had been supposed to give him a preview of the new song Saporta had promised them but not even a single tiny piece of paper with a bit of lyrics on it. The deadline was done in exact third-two hours, fourteen minutes and twenty-eight seconds and Nate was already pacing up and down the entire hotel, impatient as a father waiting for the birth of his first kid. To make things slightly worse, Gabriel had vanished from the face of the Earth. He wasn’t answering his phone, hadn’t told anyone where he was going, had not come back to his room not even to sleep. He had met Travis that same day he made the phonecall to the other singer and there had not been a trace of him ever since. McCoy was just as unreachable. Not even Victoria knew where Saporta was that time.

William knew about it. A few hours before, in the middle of the night, Vicky-T had showed up, pale and flushed, before their front door, asking for the other singer. Beckett told her that he didn’t know where Saporta could be and had invited her in to sit and drink something warm, perhaps soothe herself a little. She had taken some time to be able to actually breathe in and out without cursing at Saporta every single time. William hugged her shoulders and let her rest on his chest.

“You don’t know how hard it is to take care of Gabe, Will.” She sighed deeply and took another sip from her mug filled with warm, scented cinnamon tea.

“He seems to be a handful, in fact.” He smiled tenderly at her, stroking her hair with gentle fingers. “He’s been your friend for very long, hasn’t he?”

She snorted a laugh. “Yes, he has. And he’s a bastard for all he cares about it sometimes.” She caressed her mug and bit her lower lip. “But, you know, he’s my best friend. I want him to be happy and somehow music does it to him.”

“You’re not worried about the song, are you?”, tried he, accurate as a nicely-shot arrow.

“Not really”, confessed her. “I’m worried about that creature. He’s got something in mind and trust me, Beckett, you’ll know it in an irreversible way far before you can prevent yourself.”

“I will?” She nodded clearly. “Why?”

“He feels like he’s done you wrong.” William frowned acutely. “I’m not saying that he has. He thinks he wronged me too, because of something that happened a long time ago. He’s so used to taking the weight of the world on his shoulders and never asking people to pick up their shares of the load that he probably can’t even know he’s doing it now.”

“But he seems to be so careless...”

“Oh, yes, he is, with everything that he feels alright with. But people he likes and his music are two things he won’t have scruples to protect.”

“He likes me?” He quirked an eyebrow up.

“He thinks you’re nice.” She laughed. “He’s weird, Beckett. He’s definitely weird.”

The singer murmured that he knew it, and she laughed out loud. They went on talking for a couple of hours more, before they both collapsed on the couch, sleeping soundly, just to be woken up by a desperate Peter that was calling from a suite to the next looking for his bands. He needed Cobra’s song and also had to tell TAI that their remix was ready to receive their approval. Everyone had been done till the deadline but them. Falling apart with tiredness and muscular stress, he picked up the phone when it was ringing for the eighth time.

“Hey?”, said him, his voice wobbly from sleep.

“Beckett?” The guy on the other side of the line seemed to be truly relieved. “Thank goodness I found you. Listen, have you forgotten you’ve got work to do, yeah? I’m here since 5 a.m. calling you so you can come grace us with your presences to see if the remix is going according to your plans and make the official indication of the song but apparently no one can pick up a landline and no one sleeps beside a fucking cellphone!”

“Mine’s dead, Carden lost his, Sisky let his fall into the hotel pool and has put it out to dry, Butcher cancelled his line and is without service and Tom... Well, Tom could get ran over by a marching band and still he would sleep soundly, imagine if he would wake up with a cellphone ringing under his pillow.”

“Yeah, yeah, right, Beckett, cut the crap.” Peter sounded like he had a dog biting on his ankles. “You have two hours to be inside the studio to say your oks or else I’ll send it without your approval. By the way, you wouldn’t have seen Saporta around, would you?”

“Nope”, answered William sincerely. “Vicky-T was looking for him too, but apparently he went missing. According to her, it’s not unusual, but he might lose the deadline.”

“That fucking bastard, he’s gone with McCoy and a song and now I have to wait for a song that’ll have to be arranged and edited and mixed and recorded and produced and it’ll have to be done in less than thirty-two hours.”

“Saying that no one has heard from him since before yesterday wouldn’t cheer you up, would it?”

Peter snorted in disbelief but laughed right after.

“No, Beckett. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t.”

Without as much as a “so long” or a “goodbye” the producer hung up, leaving the slender vocalist to sneak back to the couch where he had cuddled with Victoria. The girl woke up when he crawled back beside her and patted his chest, pulling him closer to her to protect her face from the morning light. He smiled at her.

“Good morning, Vy”, murmured he, kissing the top of her head. They had talked for so long the night before that he felt like he finally knew her decently and therefore could finally feel like a friend for her. “How was your night?”

“More or less...” She yawned a little. “I’m worried sick about Saporta. He does it often but he has been sick lately and I don’t know...”

“Well, let’s hope that he’s reasonable and rational.”

“Beckett, statements like these is what makes it obvious that you don’t know him the least bit”, declared her, shaking her head with a tiny smile.

“Perhaps I don’t...” He felt warmth taking over his body when he thought of how strangely well he felt he knew the other singer. “But I don’t feel like there’s much hidden underneath his surface. Despite it all, he seems to be professional, you said so yourself, his music is a valuable asset for him. Professionals don’t just disappear right before deadlines. He’s working, rest assured of it. I often retire from the world when something about a song feels odd.”

“If you ever ran away like this, Carden would have you shipped back even if it were from Tibet.”

William laughed out loud. “Yeah, he most likely would.” He tapped her gently on the shoulder, carefully adding in an endearing tone. “You’ll be alright, Victoria. All of you. Stop worrying.”

“In moments like these I wonder how much Carden must get pissed about you sometimes.” She laughed openly, sighing deeply right after. “Yeah, right, I think we’ve done all we could. I should probably have a shower and get dressed into something a little less pj-like, shouldn’t I?”

“If I’m to be honest, I think you’re adorable the way you are.” He grinned widely when the keytarist threw a pillow at him. “You should spare the trip and just shower here. I was planning to go underwater now too.”

Victoria frowned deeply, facing the singer in a clearly unbelieving face. “Are you asking me to shower with you?” She was obviously repressing laughter.

Beckett couldn’t help but to hesitate.

“That did sound weird, didn’t it?” He licked his lips, blushing the slightest bit.

“Yeah, it did.” She was still fighting the funny awkwardness of the scene.

“In my defense, you already know I don’t deal sleep very well.” They both smiled, accepting the fact and remembering pronto of their first meeting. “Further in my defense, it’s a huge bath tub. We fit the five of us in it, and I’m serious, we’ve tested it. If you don’t mind wearing a robe to get back to your room, we could yes have a shower together.”

She thought for a moment before nodding slowly. “Right... Will you rub my back?”

“I’m your maid, now?” He laughed out loud. “Yeah, sure, why not. I owe you for the bed that day.”

“You sure do. Get things ready and I’ll be right back.” William looked at her with questioning eyes. “I’ll clean up the living room, Beckett. We made a pretty damn mess there and soon your mates will be up.”

“Then I’ll heat the water and so on so forth.” Victoria nodded again, like if she had expected it. “Ok.”

“Ok.”

Beckett acquiesced one last time and got into the bathroom, while Victoria turned away to fix what mess they had done. It was strange, to say the least, that she had accepted it like that but there again, they had shared a bed twice already. Intimacy didn’t seem to be a problem to the girl and Beckett was feeling quite brotherly towards about her then. It was not much unlikely how he felt towards Courtney, except for the intensity – it didn’t matter how much he cared for her, his sister would always be a different matter. But things with Vy were nice and agreeable and he didn’t have how to complain about any of it. He turned the tap open, adjusting the temperature to something along the lines of slightly warm. He did not much care for bath salts so his tubs always lacked it; if Victoria was one to enjoy them, it could be provided.

William undressed quickly, throwing his pajamas aside, where Carden was likely to have started piling up dirty clothes, if he were to judge by the amount of underwear set by the room’s corner. He tested the water and sat on the border of the tub, thinking longingly of his family. He had been raised well, nothing had ever lacked in his house nor to him. His parents were severe but caring, highly supportive and very happy to have kids – even now that both of he and his sister were grown-ups. Every once in a while he’d call his parents to brief them about his career and ask where his sister was at the time. Courtney was given to traveling and it was hard to contact her sometimes. Last time he had heard of her, she was in South America, photographing for a traveler’s guide. It had been hard for young Beckett to accept his sister – at the beginning, Courtney had been seen as an intruder rather than like a potential friend. It was with his patient and thorough admonishment and Gabriel’s much less patient poking and hurting of his pride as the only Beckett boy that he’d been able to overcome that feeling. It had developed towards a protectiveness that Court had already jokingly said that suffocated her, but she had never been serious about that.

If he were to be honest, he knew that the turning point, the final, ultimate one, had been right after Gabriel had left him. It was absolutely unsurprising to think of it, since every major change during his childhood had happened either with Gabriel by his side or right after he was no longer there. It was a way to keep him minding his childhood friend even when the boy in his memories had had his face blurred to the point of being barely recognizable. He remembered a few pictures where he looked fondly at the older boy. There were a few he recalled decently – he on top of a berry tree, preparing to assault the reading Gabriel beneath it; a time when they had first used William’s mom oven to bake cookies and ended up with a bunch of car-shaped chocolate chip biscuits; a strangely endearing picture where they slept side by side, holding each other like brothers but not quite. It was weird but he knew that, although he had always been surrounded by people who loved him and cared for him, no one had ever loved and understood him like Gabriel did.

He was ready to sigh deeply and give up that unprofitable train of thought when Victoria triple-knocked on the half-open door. He turned to see her in a robe – she had probably subtracted it from Siska’s pile, because it almost fit – already half into the bathroom. “May I come in?” She smiled and Beckett nodded simply.

“Aren’t you afraid of walking the corridors undressed?”, asked he while the girl closed the door behind her, not locking it up. She giggled soft and rough-voiced. “I know everyone on this floor, Beckett, and apart from Saporta, they’re above harmless.”

She gave her bathrobe up, hanging it on a hook by the side of the tub. The vision of her naked body made William blush scarlet and instantly turn away to give her room. Victoria laughed openly. It was ironical to say the least, once William was the most naked he could be and yet he was not ashamed of himself.

“Christ almighty, Beckett, am I that hideous that you can’t stand staring at my body?”

“I don’t wanna be improper.”

She patted him on the shoulder and got to the tips of her toes to level with him. “We are having a bath together and I think of you as a brother. I undoubtedly care for you and have no suspicions about your motives. Besides, you’re as vulnerable as I am, my friend, you’re as naked as when you’ve come to world – except for the mops of hair on both your heads.” William had to laugh at that. “Now get into that tub and brush my back while I’ll tell you how I’ve met Saporta and why that kid is so much of a prick.”

The guy obeyed her, submerging once and then holding out his arms to help her in. Victoria was like a force of nature: strong, delicate but fierce, great and exquisite and incomparable. She was like the sea; a steady, beautiful sea. She would embrace those around her and make them feel good but she was also merciless about beating them to make them grow bigger and better. When she had already wet her body – but not her hair, carefully done up – she gave William the sponge and a flask of liquid soap. He squished it and made some bubbles before touching her with it. The wet body moved to stay between his legs, absolutely not minding William’s nudity. She leaned forward, exposing her back and hugging her knees. The singer felt the way her breath shifted before she spoke.

“You know, William...” She hardly ever called him William, so he knew it should be serious. “Gabe has his own issues. I complain a lot but he’s not that bad all the time. Just when he gets like that.”

“I never thought he would be”, protested him. “But he’s weird.”

“Yes, he is.” She smiled fondly. “We’ve met in a shopping mall. He asked me to give him an opinion on his underwear.”

“He what?!” Beckett frowned and the movement of the sponge stopped. “Underwear?”

“He was shopping for boxers. Hideous ones. For a date.” With a William, she should have said, but didn’t. “Beckett, he was willing to pick up a Spider Man one. For. A. Date. He desperately needed help.” They both laughed and Beckett got back to rubbing Vicky-T’s back. “When he left, I gave him my number, for he asked for it. Honestly, I thought he would not call.”

“But he did.”

“He’s Saporta, of course he did.” She stretched and opened her arms wide so he could rub them too. “He told me that the date had been a shame but he had gotten laid anyway.” The phrase made William frown a little and a weird feeling, very much like jealousy, crept up to his chest. It couldn’t be jealousy, that he knew, but it was very much like it indeed. “He said he was out of that ONS’ place already and wanted to go out for tequila. You never accept this weird sort of invitation, but it was tequila and for fuck’s sake, he had been shopping Spider Man underwear. How much of a perp he could be?”

“So you hooked up, drunk as skunks, and decided it didn’t work out and that friendship was better?”

“In fact, not quite. We got drunk and slept in the middle of a private wood. Almost got arrested. Shit was crazy by then. Eventually, we got to the hook-up-drink-and-drop part. A few months later.”

“Well, still can’t see how you’ve come to be friends.”

She smiled beautifully. “I’ve played the piano for him. And sort of found out how much I loved him. As a friend, yeah, but love is love regardless.” She giggled. “He’s hypnotizing. He’s enchanting. Loving him is easier than being hungry. It’s just as natural.”

“But right now you’re not loving him much, are you?”

“Oh God, William, the last time he vanished in thin air like this I had to bail him out of prison!” She sighed deep and her voice lowered to the tone of a confession. “I hate him. Sometimes I hate him even more than I can love him. It’s utterly ridiculous but I want him to grow up and be responsible. And happy. Right now, I’m so worried that I think I could punch him and spit on his face, just because he is who he is and he just can’t see how I hurt whenever he does things like these.”

“Have you ever spoken to him about it?”

“And more.” She lowered her face till her forehead touched her knees. She seemed to be exhausted. Her voice carried on a little muffled by her skin and the warm, soapy water. “He pays attention to nothing. Nothing of the important stuff. He can memorize his fourth ONS’ shoe size but he can’t make sure he won’t dehydrate and end up in hospital.”

“He’s young.” William tried to shrug it off but it was not that easy. He wasn’t that irresponsible.

“He’s 26.” She rolled her eyes. “He should have developed his brains already.”

“He has groins. I don’t think brains come along with those.”

Victoria couldn’t help the frown. “Groins?”

William flushed again. “Nevermind.”

“No, no, no, no, no, ‘nevermind’ my ass.” She actually turned as much as she could to see him. “William, did you two actually...?”

“No!” He was quick to answer, although he wasn’t that sure of it himself. “Christ! God, no, of course not!” The blushing turned wine red. “I happened to see him au naturel that day.”

“Oh boy.” She laughed hard. “Poor kid. Isn’t his dong impressive?”

“Victoria!”

“I’m just kidding! Relax!”

They laughed and carried on teasing each other till she splashed him with water. From there, they derailed to a childish water fight until they got tired. Victoria was still panting from laughter when she leaned against William’s chest and closed her eyes. He embraced her sweetly. They were on the water for over forty minutes; if it wasn’t for the internal heat system of the tub, which kept the water more or less at a constant temperature, they’d be really cold by then. Victoria sighed.

“I’m grateful that you’re here. That you’re trying to distract me and make me less hysteric about him.”

“Do you think you’ll forgive Gabe when you see him?”

“I think I’ll show him how I feel. It won’t be pretty for him but he deserves so.”

“You are truly mad at him.”

“Till I fix him, I have the right to be.” She smiled. “You’re cozy, has anyone ever told you so?”

“Just don’t nap.” He kissed her hair. “You’re amazing, Vy. I couldn’t put up with this kind of thing like you do.”

“Wait until you fall in love with Gabe”, murmured her. William found the statement ambiguous, so he consciously thought of the platonic side of falling in love. Yeah, he could fall in love with Gabe that way. He was lovable. He was definitely lovable. His mind wandered to the day he hugged Beckett and reassured him that everything was ok, that wet dreams were normal. He had felt so kind and caring by then... Definitely lovable.

They fell silent, just enjoying the quietness and calm of the morning and the coziness of the embrace while trying to postpone the moment when they’d have to get up and leave for the studio – till the door banged open against the wall and a tall, ecstatic Saporta got inside.

“Victoria! Vy, I’ve seen your clothes in the living room, Nate told me you were here and--”

They all sunk into an awkward, tough silence. Gabe’s arms fell to the sides of his body and he gulped visibly. “I didn’t know you were busy.” William felt the hurt in his voice but when he tried to let go of Victoria, the girl did not let him. “I’ve finished the song.” The girl in the tub held her chin up high. Her anger was boiling again. Once she didn’t clear the situation and William was obviously too shocked to speak, he carried on. “Sweet to see you hooking up so intimately.”

Although his voice did not show any remark of sarcasm, a speck of bitterness, displayed as the slightest hint of irony, could be felt. Victoria glanced coolly at him. “Are you envious?”, teased her acidly. Apparently, the keytarist meant it when she said that it wouldn’t be pretty, but William could see that she didn’t mean to offend anyone. She was just teasing a bit harder. “Because you had to write your miraculous song to fulfill a promise and I, after chasing you all through Florida, am sharing a bath tub with Beckett to try to chill out and keep from killing you? Are you jealous because you wanted to be here?”

William could see that she was upset, but he also felt, from the way Gabe’s eyes narrowed once and his body tensed, that she had somehow gone a tad too far. Gabe bowed deeply and this time his voice was beyond sarcastic. “I apologize for the inconvenience. I’ll deliver the song straight to Peter, then, and refrain from asking your opinion.” Beckett felt that it was bad. Victoria must have felt it too, for she moved closer to the edge of the tub. Saporta turned swiftly on his heels, towards the door. “By the way, your comments were unnecessary. I was just concerned and you needed not bring William into it.”

“Oh, fuck”, murmured Victoria, when Saporta used his long legs to disappear from her field of vision in two strides. She hid her face on her hands for a moment and then scrambled to her feet, remembering to pick up the robe and dressing it as she went. William was sure that he’d have to return her clothes later for she was sure to have forgotten them. “Gabe!” She shouted like a mad woman and almost hit the door that the other singer had left half open. She banged it against the wall too and William saw it move tremblingly to the preferred half-open position. “Gabe! Gabriel! Gabe, I am sorry! Please, Gabriel, listen to me!”

Her voice went on, fading while she ran past the living room and into the hotel’s hallway. In the tub, William had slid further into the water, his chin just above its line, disturbed by what he had just seen. So Gabe was a Gabriel too. Like his Gabriel. And he was a Gabriel that care for him too. It was the first Gabriel he met since that childhood one. It made his stomach sick with anxiety and a hundred butterflies that looped around in every possible move.

“Gabriel...”

He got up from the bath tub and let it empty itself while he turned the shower above his head on. William washed his body thoroughly, letting go of every remnant of soap still there from what he had used on Victoria and cleaning himself meticulously. Although his hands were moving very steady and nicely, his mind had already wandered, moving over a decade back in time to another of the memories that were assaulting him full-forcedly for the past weeks.

“Ouch! Gabriel, don’t do it like this!”

His breath had grown heavy while he, the smaller boy, had leaned on the wall, panting loud. Gabriel had smiled, getting closer to his little friend. They were at the bigger boy’s house, incredibly happy because William’s mother had let him sleep there. Gabriel’s parents had left home for a while, to find a piece to repair the shower before nightfall, with express orders that were to be followed unrestrictedly by both of the kids: no one should be close to windows, stoves or the tank of the miniature shark. For everything else, Gabriel had been obviously left in charge.

“I am always scaring you, ain’t I, my boy?”, had asked he, holding William’s delicate hand.

“You don’t make noises when you walk, Gabriel.” He had pouted in an extremely resented and cute way. “You walk like a ghost.”

“I know, I know.” He had meddled with his own hair, disheveling it embarrassedly. “I am sorry. It’s just that... well, I like it how you look when I’m not with you. You look like you’re younger. Slightly girlish.”

“I’m no girl, I’ve already told you so!” He had stubbornly folded his arms. “If you keep saying things like these I’ll call mom to come pick me up!”

“No!” Gabriel had embraced him, pulling him very close. “Don’t do it, my boy. It took me too long to make your mother allow you to spend the night with me.”

William had mumbled about it for a while, but when he had finally left Gabriel’s arms, he was already smiling again. The taller boy had moved towards the kitchen to pick up the freshly-baked cookies so they could decorate them; in the living room, William had suddenly lowered his head.

“Gabriel...” The other boy had made a signal to tell that he was listening. William had started to lightly tap at the shark’s aquarium. “Why do you like me? No other boy does.”

“The other boys are stupid”, had answered Gabriel without staring at him. The kitchen was apart from the living room but only a low marble counter divided the rooms.

“Mom said that ‘stupid’ is a bad word.” The voice had not held a single speck of emotion.

“You’re right, Will, it is a bad word.” He had sighed really deep. “But the other boys don’t understand that a boy of your age and size can be someone so cute.”

“But you didn’t know it before. Why have you come to talk to me when we first met?”

Gabriel had not been able to refrain from smiling. “Because you were the prettiest boy on that berry tree. The swiftest, too; you were like a little squirrel.” He had shrugged to conceal the overflow of emotion and had stretched to pick up the cans where his mother used to keep sprinkles, cocoa and every kind of sugar. “I thought such an impressive boy could not be that bad. More than that, you always seemed to be the most fragile.”

“The most... what?” Finally, some curiosity had crept up to his tiny thin face.

“Nevermind it, Willy. Wanna help me with the cookies?”

“We’re not going to use the stove, are we?” His face had been somewhere between seriousness and concern.

“You put your hand on Gonzales’ aquarium...”

They had looked at each other and laughed out loud like accomplices to a crime. William then went to the kitchen to pick up the sprinkles and finally decorate their joined-baked cookies – just like Gabriel had promised him he would let him do, from the first time.

“Fragile...” William mumbled at himself, exhaling forcefully. “I was fragile indeed, Gabriel. And when you left, I went on a highway to hell. I wish I could have followed you.”

Somebody knocked at the half-open door. William shouted to signal that the bathroom was being used. Siska’s voice came through the door, clear and shouted. “Bill, are you done with your shower? Carden wants us ready and good to go in twenty minutes tops so we can drive to the studio before Peter gets here to rip our balls off. And I’m quoting.”

William smiled at Peter’s typical threat and Carden’s belief that he’d go all the way with it. “Just give me another five minutes and I’ll be downstairs, Sisky.”

“Okie dokie.”

He got out of the shower and took a few deep breaths before drying his body and hair with a towel and ushering out to find something to wear. He put some jeans and a tee on and stuffed his feet inside his favorite boots before picking Siska up at the living room, where he had been waiting, and going headfirst to the car – probably rented by Carden – that expected them outside. It was a black sedan, completely inconspicuous if it wasn’t for the strange way in which it appeared to hop and sway while parked. When William opened the back door, being run over by Siska, that entered the car before he could, he understood the reason: Butcher was awake, completely and inexplicably awake and drumming at every surface available, from seats to windows. By his side, leaning against the back of the car seat, Tom snored audibly, completely passed out. Beckett shut the door closed and sat down on the front seat, beside a very, very ill-humored Carden.

“Finally, ladies.” He raised an eyebrow, displeased. His feet moved swiftly and the tires left marks on the asphalt when he maneuvered to leave his spot. He hit the road fast and dangerously. “I thought you had drowned.”

“Or maybe got lost between the sheets.” By the rearview mirror, Beckett could see Butcher’s devilish smile. “You know, having sex on a bath tub is kinda dangerous, but the sheets themselves are not that safe either. What’s the deal about exposing what has been given to you by Mother Nature?”

“Easy to say for someone who stays half-naked all through the day”, murmured William, referring clearly to Butcher’s blatant lack of upper-body covering – except for the tattoos. “I wasn’t shagging anyone, just thinking.”

Carden snorted a laugh at that statement and spoke in an acid, monochord voice. “Yeah, I saw how much of thinking you were into... I woke up while you talked to Pete. Were you in a threesome at that time in the morning already, Bill? You, the new girl and Saporta? In the tub?”

“What the fuck, Carden.” He frowned deeply, disliking the insinuation clearly. “Wipe this mouth before you even get started about Victoria. You’ll see what I can do if you don’t.”

“Jesus, mate, what bug bit you?”, asked Butcher, not understanding a thing.

“I don’t want insinuations of any kind being made about Victoria, people.” He spoke slowly, thorough. “Did you hear me? She’s a friend and I expect you to treat her with the same respect we spare each other.” William gazed at Carden till the guitarist’s skin began to prickle. At last, the dark-haired man nodded. “Good. She’s probably trying to convince Gabe that I’m not going out with her, so I’d rather have you keeping from feeding this bonfire, ok?”

Butcher whistled. “Was it that bad?”

Since he sounded genuinely concerned, William just let go of his breath, shrugged and sunk a little on his seat. “I don’t know. She said that Saporta may be complicated sometimes.”

“I don’t think this means he’s with her, does it?”, asked Siska curiously. “It’s not that kind of problem, right?”

“No, I don’t think so.” Again, Beckett shrugged his shoulders. “I think he’s upset for being left by her. Maybe he expected her to wait for him like a mother would, I don’t really, really know. He is indeed complicated.”

“He sounds like a piece of work”, stated Tom in a mumble that made both Siska and Butcher startle, before letting his head rest by the bassist’s ear, once the shoulders were a bit too low then. “Good thing we work not with him.”

“Christ, Conrad, wake up before getting into the conversation.” Sisky moaned and groaned while he pushed him back to the previous spot. “Carden, I think Tom is dead, he smells.”

“He’s just hangover, Sisky Biz. His hair is scented with Cheap Pub n. 5.” Michael picked up a bottle of mineral water and passed it to William, who then gave it to the small bassist. “Clean his face and he’ll wake up.”

“I’ll get the car wet.” He frowned. “Are you sure that this seat doesn’t stain?”

“It’s insured.” Carden shrugged like if he didn’t give a damn – which he truly did not. “Just go for it.”

Sisky shrugged and asked Butcher to hold Tom’s shoulders while he indiscriminately threw cool water in Conrad’s face. The guitarist gasped and spat, waking up all of a sudden and hitting his head on the carpeted ceiling. His anger turned into laughter only a brief moment after it sprung, making them all laugh along. Conrad was not one to be resentful of that kind of thing and perhaps it was the reason why he was still a victim of it. He dried his face on his tee, brushing his partially wet hair aside and back to put it in place.

“I am awake. Are we there yet?”

“Haven’t you showered, you fucker?” Carden’s voice was a groan and a threat. “Hope that the love of your life in inside the studio so she can see how much of a pig you are.”

“I had just got to the hotel when you woke me up, gimme a break.” He yawned wide. “But I’ve brushed my teeth.”

“For the sake of mankind, I thank you.” William faked an unfeasible bow and smiled. “We are going to the main studio?”

“In fact, Peter didn’t say, but since he’s still working with Cobra’s song, I think it much more likely.”

William’s eyes widened. “They gave it to him?!”

“Of course they did, they’re professionals.” Carden frowned as if William had made the most stupid of all questions. “They’re running for main single.”

William had not thought about how much of a surprise it was until he realized that his surprise was due to the fact that about twenty minutes earlier Saporta was asking Victoria to check a preview. Later he would find out that Travis had gone straight to the studio and Gabe had texted him to give Wentz the song the moment he left TAI’s suite. While they moved around the streets of Florida to the studio, though, Beckett just let his head rest and chilled out a little. He knew that they’d have to listen a lot from Peter when they finally met him.

It couldn’t have been otherwise. Peter lectured them on professionalism, on deadlines, threw pieces of rubber and paper clips on McCoy to keep him awake. He was so pissed that not even Patrick’s admonishment was enough to keep him from releasing every beast he had kept on TAI and Cobra. The others, much more sentient people that had had enough brains to deliver their samples and check their previews on time, were there to sign the cession contracts, in which they’d give the producers of the soundtrack and movie full right to use their songs however they found fit in order to promote the movie. McMahon, friends with some of the people in Decaydance, was there, as were the other guys from Gym Class Heroes, Fall Out Boy, Panic! and The Hush Sound. William was eager to check on Tyson Ritter and Nick Wheeler, both his friends from his musical beginnings and respectively singer and guitarist for The All-American Rejects, since they had a song on the soundtrack too, but they were not there that time.

When Peter finally thought that they had had enough, he dismissed everyone, giving the bands that were alright their contracts and shooing Cobra and TAI to the studio part of the building. McCoy went along with them. They packed up in a bunch of people to move through a few corridors, gradually increasing the number of strides between each other to prevent themselves from stepping on one another’s heel or toes. It was how William ended up closing the procession – or, as he was about to find out, sort of.

“Hello, William.” He didn’t even have to turn to recognize who was speaking to him. Icy cold as if death had come to reclaim his being, he stuttered a shaky “Gabriel” and moved two steps away before turning to see him. A second was all it took for Beckett’s breath to lose its pace and for anxiety to creep up his torso. The voice that had spoken to him was so neutral and dry that he knew not what to expect from its owner. His escape routes were found and he was preparing to leave in a run when Gabe grabbed at his belt and pulled him closer, serious as a businessman. William gulped. “Gabriel is my name, yes.” The grip on the belt tightened and Saporta’s voice softened completely. “Listen, about earlier--”

“Is Victoria ok?”, interrupted Beckett at the moment he realized he was safe. Gabe frowned.

“Of course she’s ok, I was just jealous.” He managed to let out a half-smirk, something along the lines of embarrassment with a hint of malice. William had never seen someone who could manage so many smiles as Gabe could, that had to be said. He had one for each situation.

“You were jealous of her?” Beckett was torn between disbelief and sarcasm. “Of the woman that puts you above herself?”

“Yeah. Well, yeah, yeah, that too. I mean, I was jealous. Wrongly. I was absolutely wrong. Sorry ‘bout that, I’m fucking dead and thinking straight is hardly on the menu.” William just looked at him skeptically. “Just another thing... about that day we--”

“Oh, no, no, no. I don’t wanna know.” William didn’t need any more information to realize what he was willing to talk about. He had already been warned by Victoria that Gabe thought he had done Beckett something wrong and would try to compensate somehow. TAI’s singer was not willing to see it happening right there. “I don’t need to know. You told me to forget and I did.”

“Come on, you’ve been avoiding me, I mean, it’s just--” He sounded upset, but Beckett was vehement.

“I think I’ll go check the remix, we can talk later, can’t we?” His eyes were pleading so shamelessly that Saporta had no choice but to accept it. He let go of Beckett’s belt and lowered his head.

“Yeah. Sure.” Saporta stared straight into Beckett’s eyes. “Do you promise?”

“Oh God, how old are you? Six? Yes, I do promise, I’ll meet you at your suite when we finish, ok?”

Saporta nodded, smiling happily and pulling Beckett close once more, to place a chaste kiss on the corner of his lips. For a moment, William froze completely. Had he moved his head to avoid it and his lips would have collided full-frontally with Gabe’s. Whoa. He was not ready to deal that guy on his own yet, not at all times anyway. Embarrassed with both the kiss and the calm, complacent face that Cobra’s singer showed after it, he saluted and left to the cabin where Wentz was checking the remix.

Later that day, when they returned to the hotel, William had already more or less forgotten his promise when he saw Victoria’s clothes on his living room couch. Damn it. He’d have to go there and talk to Gabe. It was not that he was eager to, even knowing that the man was probably just going to... apologize, maybe. He had not sounded actually mad on the studio... The thing was: if William wouldn’t go to his suite, there was a huge chance that Saporta would get inside TAI’s, and that would be awkward. Although the guys had no problem about discussing wet dreams or the reasons behind them, Beckett was sure that he would not be comfortable to have his bandmates knowing about what had happened between him and Saporta. With that in mind, he left his suite to meet Cobra’s singer.

When he got there, it was visible that the door was held open with a piece of... a slipper? It surely looked like a hotel slipper. He didn’t know what the reason behind it was but he pushed the door and entered the living room, making sure to put the slipper back in its place and set Victoria’s clothes on the couch. He thought of shouting but perhaps they didn’t want to be bothered and the slipper on the door was precisely for people not to need the shouting and screaming. Once he knew where Gabe’s room was, he moved closer to it and knocked on its door.

“Gabe?”, called he, reluctant. “Saporta, we were supposed to talk now.”

“Yes!” The sound came from behind the closed door in an excited, high tone. “Be right there! Take a seat and don’t touch our stuff!”

Beckett sat down obediently with both his knees pressed tight against each other. He looked around the apartment. He had been there before, yes, but his attention to the decoration had been little. Apparently, Victoria had got on with turning the place in a somewhat of a home: a clothes hanger was filled with Gabe’s and Ryland’s obvious vibrating colored hoodies and jumpers, a little stand had a dozen sunglasses piled up on it. Above the fireplace, a series of photo frames was lined up, all aluminum, silver-colored and pretty dull if it wasn’t for the signatures of those in the pictures scribbled all over the metallic surface. Curiously, Beckett got up to check on them. The first picture was a Midtown one, with all its members – he had to say that Gabe’s hair was the weirdest of the things in it; the second one had Cobra’s guys holding a Victoria in a horizontal position at Gabe’s and Ryland’s hip lines; the third was Gabe and her playing in a paintball. It was the fourth, though, that won his full attention.

It was an old picture, taken by the analogical precise cameras that were not sold anymore. It showed a black-haired boy in his twelves, face painted with white frosting, messing with the hair of a cute little kid of six who held and chewed on a car-shaped biscuit. William’s heart froze at the amount of details that he could see: the smile of both the boys, the disheveling of the younger’s long hair, the missing button in the older boy’s shirt. He reached out to pick the picture, not even remembering Gabe’s warning. Cold sweat was blooming on his skin, fromthe back of his neck to the tips of his fingers and toes. Shaking slightly, he held the picture, facing it. Oh, no. It couldn’t be.

The door opened and Gabe, naked from the waist up, dressed in jeans and barefoot, with a towel carelessly thrown around his neck, showed up. He looked at the picture on William’s hand and although his voice didn’t even shake, his face grew a pit pale. “What a curious cat.” He smiled, but Beckett knew that it was not sincere. It couldn’t be. “I thought I had asked you not to touch anything, but...”

“I am... I’m sorry.” His mind was a complete blank. He rationally knew that Saporta was not mad at him but his rational side had gone on vacations right then. He was beyond reach, beyond words. he was taking in the vision of Gabe’s muscled body, the broad shoulders, the long neckline, the pronounced jawline, the mop of black, slightly curly and unruly hair. It was as if he had never seen that man before. He had acquired a brand new, deep, significant dimension. It was dumfounding and frustrating.

“William? What is it?” Gabe moved a little closer but William moved away from him.

“I... I am... I didn’t... I don’t... I...”

“Hey. Relax, kid.” He sounded like a lion tamer trying to regain control of his beast. He didn’t know what to expect from Beckett there. “Just give me the picture, sit down and tell me what’s wrong.”

“I... I didn’t... know...” His eyes wandered from the photo to the man in front of him and back to the photo. “I swear I didn’t, I’ve never--” He swallowed like if a rock was sitting on his throat. Gabe frowned deep for a moment, getting a step closer and staring intently at the picture still held by Beckett. He obviously knew what picture was that, he had remembered the story with Victoria when they had found it among the singer’s stuff. Face to face like that, his doubts and fears were vanishing fast and his hopes were heightening like rockets. His eyes widened in a built-up and fateful understanding, which didn’t go unnoticed by Bill. Oh God.

“William--” He held out his hand to touch the other, but Beckett flinched and let the picture fall to the ground. The sound of shattered glass filled the void between them.

“Don’t touch me!”

“For fuck’s sake, William, wait!”

He reached out for the other unsuccessfully. Beckett moved like a deer after being released from the headlights. Saporta tried to go after him but his foot stepped flat on the shattered frame and he cursed when he felt the skin disrupting beneath him. Shit. Shit, shit, shit. He had not wanted him to see it. He had not wanted to scare him. He had not wanted to know. Suddenly tired, he let himself fall on the couch, running his hand through his hair in sheer despair. It was done.

A few meters away, William had stopped running and entered the elevator, letting himself slide till he piled up like a rag doll on the floor. The picture could never lie. He had a copy of it in his own place, in a photo album. It had been taken when Gabriel had gone to his house to help him bake. The picture was the only thing that could never lie.

Gabriel Saporta was his childhood Gabriel.

Chapter Text

His eyes were filled with tears, in a moist mixture of disbelief, pain and joy. The amount of feelings boiling up inside his body was way too much to let him even breathe steadily. William let his forehead rest on his knees and embraced them tightly. Somehow, it didn’t feel that bad that he would be his Gabriel. Something when they had first met should have sent a better message to his brain, from the way Gabe had held him and calmed him down. He had been, after all, the boy who had given Beckett cookies and biscuits and protected him from every older boy in the school. He had been his best friend. He had been the best person he had ever had. He had been the only person who would throw everything away just to be with him.

Still, he couldn’t believe it.

They were on Florida. Florida. Miles away from Chicago. He had been left there by Gabriel fourteen years earlier and no one could have ever said that the boy he had met would become a singer, a musician, anything like it. His Gabriel was not as competent with music as Beckett had been ever since he was a child. He didn’t even seem to be fond of music, not like that, not as desperately as William had been. It was absurd. How would have he become a musician? Of the same label? How had he gone touring with Beckett and failed to recognize him? How had he not understood who he was at the moment they met in Florida again? He saw his childhood’s best friend half-naked adult body, for Christ’s sake! He had embraced it! And, worst of all, he had not recognized him.

He realized the elevator had gone all the way down and there was someone else inside the stunningly small box with him. For a moment, Beckett thought of not raising his head, not meeting this stranger’s eyes – till he side-glanced and realized that the lad was by his side, sat on the carpeted floor and mirroring his position. The only exception was his head, which was turned and whose right side rested on his knees, staring at the other. The heavy makeup gave him away pronto and Beckett couldn’t help but to give away a relieved sob.

“Can I sit closer?” Beckett nodded, clenching his teeth and drying his eyes on his sleeves. Ryan moved closer, their hips touching, and threw an arm cozily around William’s shoulders. “Do you think you can talk to me?” The taller man shook his head. “Do you think we can at least leave the elevator? I’ve stopped it but I don’t know for how long we’ll be able to keep it this way.”

Only then did William realize that there was a backpack holding the doors of the elevator open. Slowly, he nodded, being brought to his feet by a full-dressed, photoshoot ready Ross. He pointed at the guitarist’s face. “Don’t you have somewhere else to go?”

“I’ve asked Brendon to call it off for a while. He re-scheduled it.” William nodded thoughtfully and Ryan embraced him by the waist. Panic!’s room was closer to the elevator, so they headed straight for it. Ross opened the door and drove William to the couch, where he collapsed shamelessly. His trembling enhanced and the quiet, small crying became a nervous breakdown. Ryan’s eyes widened and he ran for Spencer’s cabinet, picking up a half-drank bottle of whisky and pouring two glasses. He pushed the fuller to William, but the singer refused it. He was so tired and so strained and so panicked that even swallowing was not an option.

“Bill, come on. You’re a grown man. Help me out here, I’m this close to downing the whole bottle myself.”

William could make up a sort of laugh and keep from trembling for long enough to actually hold the glass. Ryan sat on the center table and stared at him intently. Instinctively, he leaned on the couch, looking for support the way he had once received when he was little, when he was bullied. He felt the cushions and nothing else, which caused another surge of panic to build up inside him. He couldn’t remember properly why he had been that scared that time, but he had, and Gabriel had been there and that had been the last time in his entire life when his hopelessness had met someone he could trust doubtlessly. The memories twisted and swirled and turned inside his brain; he shook a little more.

“I can wait.” William nodded, knowing so. “But trust me, whatever it is that is on your system, you gotta get it out, Beckett. You’re fucking choking on it. Come on.”

Ryan had been honest when he said he could wait, but it was paining him to see Beckett willing to say something that he couldn’t actually put to words. It had been really freaky to find him in the elevator, trembling and crying, not much unlike he was then. Ross tapped the glass and William sipped a little of the golden-maple liquid. His face twitched and he felt like throwing up, but the burning was soothing in a crazy, unsteady way. He swallowed a couple of times and waited for Ryan to finish his own glass before speaking.

“I know Saporta.”

The voice had been too low for complete understanding, but Ryan knew enough. He had seen Victoria, had been dragged to that game to make things easier for William. Right then, he had no idea of how he would do so, but he’d sure as hell try his best to. He didn’t know the extent of the story, nor why it was so complicated and why it made William feel like that, but he was smart enough to understand that the thing was far deeper than Victoria had let him know – so he just nodded, and waited some more.

William sipped more scotch before opening his mouth again. “We know for quite long.”

“Midtown long?”

“You know Midtown?” Beckett frowned and tightened the grip on the glass.

“Bill, they’re famous as fuck, of course I know Midtown.” Incredibly, he wasn’t lying. At least where he had been raised, they were fairly popular. “Every teenager and young adult around our age knows them.”

“Well...” He bit his lower lip a couple of times. “It was previous to... Midtown. Previous, definitely.”

His voice caught so much that Ross thought he would choke. He proffered a hand to touch the other guy’s arm, but William flinched away. “Sorry”, murmured him shamefully. “I’m not ok yet.”

“I can see so.” The guitarist sighed and poured some more in his glass. “You were doing fine, carry on. All I know about you is what sharing a trailer on tour let me.”

“Ryan...”

“Come on, Bill. You want me to guess? You won’t like my guessing and you won’t agree with it.”

William acquiesced, knowing that it was true. Ryan had a capability so annoying, that one that made people aware of their own, of their feelings and desires, that Beckett knew he couldn’t handle it then. He drank a big gulp of his drink, hearing the other man’s clapping hands as his eyes watered severely. God, that thing was strong. Ryan smiled, but didn’t give him any more space.

“He went to school with me. When we were kids.”

“Was he your best friend?” William nodded and tears came to his eyes pronto. “A childhood best friend?”

“Yeah.” He lowered his head and forgot to breathe for a moment. “It’s a very old childhood. Like, from fourteen years ago, when he left and I... I was forced to stay. Just stay.”

Alone. Alone, all of a sudden, alone like he had never been. Alone like a bear cub left to die in the woods. He had never felt so helpless, so small, so powerless. Even the feeling he was feeling at that precise moment could not possibly overcome what had been that Christmas’ morning. The letter. Gabriel’s writing, so small and square, his t’s perfectly straight and crossed all at the same level. He still had it. He had not been able to let go of it, of the letter, the pictures, the small, cheap ring that went with it.

“Willy, my boy”, he had started. He had read those words so many times that he knew them by heart. They were printed on his soul. “I am a coward. I am such a helpless coward. I couldn’t hug you and say goodbye. When you read this, don’t come looking for me; I’ll be gone already. I had to go, William. Please, you have to believe me. I didn’t want to. I never wanted to. I still don’t. Please. Please.” Those were the lines where the ink had stained the most from what seemed to be tears. “If we were old enough, I’d run away and marry you. I would protect you forever, Willy, you know I would. Please, don’t hate me. Please. I love you, my boy, I love you so much. I’ll never forget you. If we ever cross paths again, like the old books Mama read me when I was little said might happen, please don’t walk away. I know I won’t.”

He had finished the letter tying the ring to it, and William had worn it ceremoniously for three years, first on his middle finger, then on his ring finger and finally on his pinky, from where it had been put on a chain and only left in a box when he started feeling serious about Christine. It had been the ultimate effort; he knew that, he knew how much Gabriel hated to write those kinds of stuff, to have to let his true self show. He couldn’t even write the English classes’ essays because they were too personal! William had been little but already he knew that Gabriel had been honest. But it didn’t stop his despair.

Little Beckett had cried for three days and three nights before his parents realized that there was nothing they could do to soothe his pain. They kept comforting him, they kept holding him and promising that everything would be fine while he screamed till his throat was raw that no, it wasn’t going to be fine, it would never be fine ever again. He was too young to see suffering as something that should be hidden, so he cried in sheer daylight, he held his sister and felt his little heart crumble in pain. His parents were so alarmed that they had sought for a psychologist, a very sweet-voiced creature that told them that it was highly unusual that kids of his age could go through that kind of loss in such a developed fashion, but if he was there, he should be given caring and respect and space. She had also told them that the wound might never heal, as it didn’t, for William could still feel it snapping pieces of him inside his body fourteen years later.

His father had given him his own piano that New Year’s Eve. Music proved to be cathartic to him and brought him to where he was then: meeting Gabriel once again. Feeling everything again. For a moment, he wished he hadn’t even thought of it again.

William didn’t realize that his tears were streaming down again until he raised his glass to drink and brushed his hand against his own skin. He wanted to laugh at the resemblance of Gabriel’s departure and his comeback but he knew that doing so would take the pin out of a grenade that was much better kept disarmed. He was not a child anymore. Feeling anything as much as he was feeling was beyond dangerous. Knowingly, he sighed and downed the dose under Ryan’s critical eyes, then put the glass down. Oh yes, he’d cry some more, and feel a lot more, but not with an audience. He was not a kid anymore. Ross gestured to touch him again and he managed to utter something along the lines of “I’m fine”.

“Are you sure you’re fine? You certainly don’t seem to be.” William shrugged and the other man paused for a moment before carrying on. “Do you even feel something about him?”

“I don’t even know him, Ryan. I don’t even fucking know him.” He snorted a laugh. “I know the boy he has been, but who knows if that boy still lives.”

That was a tremendous lie, one whose roots only William could see. Although Gabe had changed a lot –physically and psychologically, he was still the same deep down inside. Oh, come on, who else would have treated him so nicely? He was every bit the same when it came to caring about people. Of course, he was way sassier. He was almost too sassy for his own good, William would risk saying. But he was still the same caring person of before. And that person, that little Gabriel, Beckett would never cease to love.

“Bill, if you don’t feel anything for him, then maybe not all is lost. Maybe you can be friends again. Perhaps colleagues, to say the least.”

“He lied to me, Ross. He left me.”

“He was a child. What could he have done?”

“I don’t care.” William reclined on the couch and took a breath. “I don’t care at all. I just wish I hadn’t figured it all out.”

He was so worn out that he felt like dropping in that couch. Ryan must have noticed, because he got up and patted the singer on the top of his head. “You know what? Just stay here for a while, ok? Take a nap. I’ll tell Brendon and Spencer that they can party without me, and later we can reunite and have some food, all of us.”

“So you’ll babysit me for a while?”

“Haven’t I always?” Ross blinked at him and sighed deeply. “You need a break, and we both know you won’t find it anywhere else in this hotel. Unless you want me to try to reach Tyson and see where he’s staying at, I think this couch is as good as it’ll get.”

William found the nerve to actually laugh. “Thanks, Ryro.”

“You’re welcome. Now let me make a few calls.”

Beckett nodded at him and sighed before kicking off his boots and curling on the couch. He didn’t know if he would be able to sleep, but closing his eyes and keeping from further thoughts felt like an awesome idea.

In another room, Gabriel Saporta was finishing the boring task of removing the shards of glass from his wounded foot. He had managed to give room service a call and got a first aid kit and a metallic hospital-basin, which was very gently filled with warm water by the maid who brought it. The shards of glass were being gently disposed in the cardboard box in which had been the roll of gauze, currently waiting by his side for the time when it’d need to be used. The glass was ordinary enough to shatter beautifully, in sharp and thin pieces. The photograph had somehow remained intact. He was already sighing and feeling his back hurt when Victoria showed up. She took a glance around the room and to the basin by his feet and placed both hands on her hips.

“What the fuck have you done in here?” Her question was not rhetorical but Saporta shrugged anyway. “Gabe, come on, you’re bleeding. We’ve talked about it. You can’t shrug me off if you’re bleeding. We have a deal.”

He laughed humorlessly. “William saw the picture.” Victoria’s face went suddenly pale and she swallowed once, speechless for a moment. Gabe shrugged again. “I wasn’t expecting that reaction. He ran away. He didn’t even let me touch him.”

“God in heaven.” She bit her lower lip. “How did it happen?”

“I was going to apologize and offer him the part in the song, but I was naked, so I asked him to wait and stay put, which, of course, he didn’t.” Saporta massaged the still bleeding foot, trying to see if there was any shard left inside the skin. Victoria frowned at the dripping blood. “Sorry for this vision, but I was barefoot and I couldn’t keep from trying to reach him.”

“God, Gabe, I am so sorry.”

“Why? Because I’m an idiot that can’t recognize the person he’s loved his entire life?”

“I shouldn’t have used the picture. I knew it was risky.”

“Used?” It was Gabe’s turn to frown. Victoria diminished perceptively. “Victoria, you knew?”

“Gabe, it was so obvious.” She gulped but didn’t try to hide or lie. “William Beckett, long brown hair, from Chicago, loving music, went to Barrington Elementary?” She also didn’t try to smile. “You were too frustrated to see it for yourself. It was the entire truth, rubbing at your face. Oh, Gabe, come on! That day in bed? Gabriel, you’ve never been that nice with a kid you’ve barely known. Ever. I’ve seen you bitching about your sheets and personal space for ages now. You’re only sociable and sassy like that in a bed when you want the person beside you or else when you’re too drunk to care, and come on, none of these applied to Beckett. I can’t believe you actually held him and shared a wet dream with him and didn’t notice.” Seeing from her eyes, it was genuinely absurd, that was true. But it was also true that Saporta had forced himself to lose hope ages before. It was true that he didn’t want to keep his entire life searching for a ghost. “Where is he now?”

“I saw him going in with Ross.” To Panic!’s bedroom. To somewhere where he couldn’t reach him. To somewhere where he was not that welcome. To someone who would be able to touch him because they didn’t have such a past. Gabe forgot the fact that his hands were bloodied and ran them through his hair. It was despairing.

Victoria, though, seemed to consider something, very focused on it. “Ross is safe ground. He knows.”

“Even Ryan knows?”

The girl shrugged and leaned to help him bandage his foot. “I needed someone who could keep him from you and soothe things on the other side, and Butcher and Siska were too new to me.” Saporta felt betrayed. “I didn’t tell him anything! Just that he might want to keep you and Beckett away from each other if things grew uncomfortable. Just this. I didn’t tell him why.”

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me. You knew how much I wanted him.”

“Gabe, every time I tried mentioning him you ducked. Every time I made you confront the possibility that it might be him, your frustration hit me so hard that I could barely stand it.” She pursed her lips for a moment and sighed. “You had to do it by yourself or else you wouldn’t believe it.”

Hearing those words hurt, but he knew they were true. Gabe was too skeptic to feel anything otherwise. He had tried for too long already, he wouldn’t stand being wrong again. He would break if he did, and he knew it. There was still a slight, deeply discouraging part of him that made him think of the thing as a prank, as something immensely cruel perpetrated by youngsters. This part was being suffocated by the others every time Gabe took a breath and remembered William’s face when he saw the photo, but it was the heritage of his previous attempts and it wouldn't fade in a snap. Inside his chest, his heart faltered.

“What am I going to do, Vy?” He hadn’t noticed before, but he was trembling in shock and fear. “I can’t stand losing him again. I swear I’ll die if I do. I have to touch him, to let him know how much I love him, how much I care. I can’t be without him again. I can’t be forced to.”

“Gabriel, calm down.” She patted his shoulder and kissed his hair. “First, you need to finish to tie this wound up and clean up; your head is covered in blood. And then, you have to give him time. Let it sink for, I don’t know, a couple of weeks. He needs it.”

Gabe nodded, staring at his half-bandaged foot. Although Victoria’s words were clean, thoughtful and simple, they did little to ease the despair that threatened to take over him. He obediently accepted her leading, cleaned up and made it to bed, where she left him with an anxiolytic and a glass of water. Gabe knew better than to try to ignore it, so he took the pill and hoped that it wouldn’t make him dead till morning. Little did he know that when he woke up again Victoria would have done more of her tricks.

 

It seemed to William that he had had a fair amount of sleep when he noticed that he was being observed. His trembling had eased and his stomach was gnawing at his insides in a hunger so devastating that he felt like starving. Being free of emotional outbursts such as the one that had just happened for his entire teen and adult life, he couldn’t recall how extenuating it was to be always minding words and touches and gestures and finding out disturbing new information all the time. His exhaustion was nothing but natural, hunger and sleepiness included. He rubbed his eyes and stretched a little before actually facing his observers. Sat in chairs around him were Victoria, Siska and Butcher. Ryan was sitting at his feet. Somehow, none of those appearances was a hundred percent unexpected and their reasons were obvious. He nodded at them and sat up, yawning wide. He could understand how much of a mess he might look like. He felt like havoc, but his insides were more or less whole. They were presentable, so he’d go for presentable and try to keep bad thoughts away from his mind then.

“Do we need to talk?”, asked him, his voice still rough. Outside, it was deep at night already.

“I think we do, yes”, said Vicky-T solemnly. “I think we should clear some stuff up.”

“I don’t need clearing. I need peace and distance from him.” He clenched his teeth. “It is really him, isn’t he?”

Victoria breathed and nodded. Sisky was staring at them like a lost puppy. Butcher, by his side, was serious as William had never seen him before. He knew little about Beckett’s childhood, but the little he knew included a Gabriel, so when Victoria asked him to go with her to check on William, he extracted the rest of the story from her and connected the dots himself.

“I am sorry for the picture”, murmured the girl, very quietly.

“Don’t be.” Beckett tried to shrug it off but it failed completely. Strangely, he didn’t think it that bad that she hadn’t wanted to tell him the truth decently. “I should have noticed.”

An awkward silence descended upon them for a while before Butcher spoke. “So he’s that Gabriel.” William nodded. “He’s your childhood sweetheart.” Beckett frowned, but he couldn’t see how correcting Butcher’s words would bring more sense into the conversation. He had loved Gabriel. Completely, madly, devastatingly for a seven-years old. Perhaps “sweetheart” should be the word, so he nodded again. “But he’s not your sweetheart anymore?” William hesitated, but shook his head. Butcher folded his arms and lay on the chair, not buying that denial. “How could you get so tangled in something so fucking absurd, Beckett?”

“It’s not his fault”, said Siska, defending the other.

“I’m not saying it is”, answered Butcher in a low, smooth voice. “I’m saying this is novel material. Did Saporta know?” It was Victoria’s turn to deny it. “Jesus Christ. Do you think he cares?”

The question had not been directed to anyone in particular, but he expected to see either William or Victoria, those who knew something, answer it. It was Siska who spoke instead. “He cares.” Beckett looked at him and frowned, his forehead creasing like thin paper. Why would Sisky, of all people, say it? “I know you, Bill. I’ve known you for long now. You wouldn’t have sought refuge unless you were too disturbed, and I can’t see why you would be disturbed to see Gabriel again unless there was still something between you.”

“There’s nothing between us, Sisky. Nothing at all.”

He was pale like a ghost when he said that, trembling a little and perched so on the edge of the couch that they were afraid he would fall from it. Victoria signaled that the conversation should be over, so Sisky shrugged his shoulders but, just like Butcher, he was not buying any of William’s denials. Ryan patted William on the thigh. “I think we should go eat something. We can probably discuss anything we want over some dinner.” The others nodded, thinking of the singer first. When they got up, Victoria hugged William, tight and caring.

“You will be fine. I swear you will. I won’t let any of you get hurt, I promise you.” Her murmurs were oaths, actual promises, things she wouldn’t break for the world. “Trust me.”

Beckett nodded and smiled faintly at the girl, right before Ryan came back from the room where he had just been, putting a dark green jacket on. “Brendon just texted me that they have received the results of the approvals for the soundtrack and he’s with Pete, Spen and Trick in a restaurant around the corner to celebrate.”

“The approvals are all set?” Butcher sounded genuinely surprised. Ross nodded while he tucked the cellphone back into his pocket. “That was fast. Are we in?”

He nodded again, smiling from ear to ear. “We are so in that they’d need surgery to pull us out.” Sisky fisted the air and hi-fived everyone. Victoria tried to hide her smile, but she was actually joyful about the news. Even William managed to forget what had just happened a little and cheer with the others.

“Wait a minute.” The singer raised a very thin index finger in the air. “Who got the main song? The single?”

Victoria lowered her eyes like if she knew already. Ryan confirmed it. “Cobra. Remember, we said it would be them. The song was made exclusively for the movie. It’s amazing, I was there when McCoy showed Peter the preview.”

Instead of sulking for not making it, William found it in himself to urge the other guys and congratulate Victoria with hugs before they carried her outside the room and into the elevator. For a moment, his thoughts went straight to Gabe, to Gabriel, to how he would he react when he found out; he thought right after that he probably knew it already and shut every thought regarding the other singer out for the night. Only when he crashed on his bed, with an alert Siska quiet and faking a sound, snoring sleep, he finally felt the whole weight of the day, of those weeks. Only then did he sob and cursed, with his mouth on the pillowcase, in a mediocre attempt to muffle the sound of his anguish – louder than all the rest.

Chapter Text

A little healing came after an entire week without seeing even the shadow of Saporta. He thought that Victoria had not only a finger but a whole hand in it, because he knew he wanted to see Gabe again, despite his ramblings about needing time and space, and he was not nearly as obsessed as the other, so why would he have disappeared like that? It had to be Victoria’s doing. William had had to handle Carden’s disappointment and the intermittent, although very shadowed and hidden, criticism. Somehow, they couldn’t help but to wonder if they could have been main song if Beckett had been in good shape and able to write a brand new track. Between that and the urge to create new songs to prove himself that he was still able to, he had had very little time to actually mind his problem with Saporta. Victoria, Ryan, Sisky and Butcher were like a squad whose goal was to keep him busy at all times, with playing, eating, walking, gambling, talking or whatever they could pull out of their sleeves. It was nice and inspiring, but William knew that someday he’d need to face Saporta and get things done with.

That opportunity seemed to show itself when Peter called a label meeting in the office, in that same table in which Cobra and TAI had eaten Chinese together. Despite the vehemence of his protests and the unconditional support that Sisky gently offered, William could not be left behind. Carden wanted him there and he was threatening to rip his skin off of his bones in case he didn’t show up. He didn’t know about the whole Gabriel drama; Sisky and Butcher were the only ones to know in the band and Beckett wanted to keep it that way.

Beckett had two entire days to put his head in order and make sure to be able to face Gabe in a somewhat decent fashion. No ignoring. No crying. No discussing the past. He shut his cellphone down, which he knew would earn him a gigantic argument with Victoria and Ross, but he begged Sisky and Butcher to keep the others informed of his currently smooth mental state, so he thought that it would not be that bad. He managed to rummage through every one of his memories of Gabriel – from when they were kids to every little one he could collect from the tour with Midtown (those were not plenty, to be fair) and the time they had spent inside the studio. Slowly, he built up a very thin, very fragile armor that would probably get him through the day, supposing that he was not in direct and loud confrontation with Saporta.

He felt like someone trying to escape a death penalty when they showed up at the studio, Mike, as always, crossing the smooth streets of Tampa in serious risk of getting everybody inside the car killed and Conrad, as always, dead as a dog. William had found himself a short leather jacket that he zipped up to his neck and pants with pockets, deep, deep ones, in which his hands were stuck up to the first inches of his forearm, his lean, straight figure hunching in apprehension. Knowing what expected him was nice, but not necessarily awesome. It didn’t ease him much anyway.

The first person to acknowledge his presence inside the studio was Victoria. She smiled before punching him serially on the shoulder and then hugged the tall figure, strong and caring, with a concern that was in equal parts mixed with compassion, relief and joy. She kissed him in the cheek and slid her hand to his back pocket, where a still turned off cellphone lay. Tapping the keyboard a few times, she switched it on and tapped the screen vehemently when the device began to buzz hysterically.

“Do you see these?” She was pointing to the number of missing calls and unseen messages, which was escalating quick enough to bring him to the edge of vertigo. It stopped in a general account of over fifty. “You leave this shit turned off again and I’ll run a tractor through your door and your bodyguards”, she pointed at Sisky and Butcher, currently talking to each other, without distracting herself from William’s face, “and I won’t even be sorry for that. You should thank Ryan, ‘cause he’s the only reason why you’re still alive. He’s the one who actually made it through to telling me that you were not a reckless bastard. Not that I don’t think you are. I just thought you could be reckless if you were guarded. But it’s done now, ok? Don’t do any more shit like this.”

He had to laugh at the insanely smiley and psychotic way she was using to refer to him. From the messages, about a dozen were from Ryan, two from Christine and a single one from a number William did not recognize; the other twenty were Victoria-originated. The phone call’s score was Ryan: 1 X Chris: 2 X Victoria: 15 X strange number: 4. Apparently, he had left people kinda worried – except for Victoria, who had been worried sick and was incapable of letting go of him. When she started slapping and punching him like a spoiled little princess would do to a servant who had denied her pudding, he held her wrists and smiled as wide as his mouth allowed him to.

“I was gathering my strength to some useful confrontation.” He petted her hair, to which she actually gnarled. “I’m good.”

“You good my ass”, murmured her, quirking an eyebrow up. “Even I can see that your armor is as thin as tracing paper.”

“You’re underestimating me”, answered him, pouting visibly. She laughed out loud.

“No, my dear, I’m counting on Gabe’s ability to be a son of a bitch.” She patted him in the shoulder and gestured towards the office. William didn’t know what was expecting him. He couldn’t understand Gabriel yet, and how could he? After so many years apart, she was happy that they were all alive yet. In that story, probably the only one who could do something about anything was Victoria, and as the player she was she would wait for the best time to do so. “Wanna come in? He’s gotta be somewhere, but I don’t think he’s in there yet, so we can just sit down and chill out for a while. Your bodyguards have gone inside already.”

Docile, he took her lead in. The table was too small for everyone that had to be around it, so some of them were already standing. William sat down in the chair between Siska and Suarez, each band coalescing to its own side. The chair had been Victoria’s, so the girl just spread his legs open and sat on his lap, her knees between William’s legs. There were really several people in there: everyone in TAI, with Conrad being held up by a half-naked Butcher, and everyone in Cobra, except for an undetectable Gabe; Panic! beside them, with Ryan standing chatting amiably with Patrick, who was up too, by Joe’s side, while the rest of the band remained sit; there was also Gym Class Heroes, with a hopping Travie almost kicking his bandmates’ chairs. The rest of the bands involved in the soundtrack were not there, but William knew that Peter would probably have that same conversation with them later.

Peter called everybody to a halt and started to speak. For William, it was a hopeless speech; he got from it fairly little. It was a discussion about the remixes’ rights, a call that the soundtrack producers had done to ask for “fresh and vibrating channel-separate previews for each voice and instrument used in the making of the songs”, God knew why, the fact that a music video was in the contract and would have to be filmed and the overall idea that the main single, that had been heard by everyone a few days earlier would begin its recording in about ten days. Beckett actually listened to it all, but there was something very disturbing about the room, something he couldn’t pick up just from feeling it. It felt like being stared at, but there was no one who could be doing so; he had checked as much as he could with a girl on his lap. He felt anxious until Vicky-T slapped him hard on the thigh and asked him, in a threatening murmur, to stop bouncing on his chair.

Incapable of carrying on with his search, William picked up his cellphone to check on his messages. The first he opened was one from Christine, her first, which asked for the news and told him that Chicago was surprisingly alright, but she missed him. The second and third messages were about a meeting she had with his parents, and the fourth was the one that actually showed some apprehension. It read “Please call me, you’ve been too quiet lately”, a phrase that sunk Beckett’s heart. He loved that girl and he was not proud to say that she had not really crossed his mind for the past days. Swift, he typed a brief and enthusiastic response, explaining that the soundtrack thing was getting to him and that he had found some old friends from the beginning of his years as a band, so he was keeping up with their news, which meant very little free time between them and Peter’s admonishments. Of course he didn’t mention that the old friend that was giving him the most trouble was also the one she had had to help him overcome, years ago.

He kept on going, reading the messages from Ryan first – most of them asked him to please answer Victoria even if just to say he was alive, although a very serious one warned him that he might want to raise Sisky’s and Butcher’s life insurance, for Vicky-T was this close to killing them – and then going to Victoria. The range of her emotions was pretty rollercoaster-y; he found sweet, loving messages asking him if he was fine or needing anything, half-mad ones that said he was being as irresponsible as Saporta and she knew how to handle people like him and infuriatingly distressed ones that called him names he didn’t even know before threatening to kick his ass down a crowded avenue to see if he would then learn not to worry her. There was even a very scary message with two skulls and a few crosses, that she happened to overlook while he read it, making sure to translate it into a gesture, her thumb going across her throat – but she was smiling, so it was far less terrifying.

In the end, there was the unknown number. He didn’t know whose number was that at all; it couldn’t possibly ring fewer bells to him. Still, the person had been worried enough to call four times and send a message after that, so he decided to read it and possibly answer it, even if the creature was not someone he actually knew. He could always say he had lost his contacts’ list and ask who it was. The message was pretty long and fairly well-written, although touchy. It was probably someone he knew little of. “I’ve heard that you’ve been kinda not feeling well lately... Hope it doesn’t put you down. Your music is awesome and it should not be jeopardized by anything. If you want to talk, give me a call; perhaps I can help you out of it. E.” E. He had known very few E’s in his life, none of which would be of any help there. In any case, he wrote back: “Thanks for caring, mate. I don’t really remember you but I may call when I need to if you’ll tell me who you are. For now, I’m ok.”

After that, he was once again dragged to Pete’s half-monologue, interrupted every now and then by some of the artists under his charge. The meeting could have lasted an hour, two days, a week, a month, fifteen minutes or his whole life and the time spent in that room would have been as nauseatingly boring as it had. He didn’t know why Carden insisted to bring them all, if he was the one who handled all of those things. It was an unwanted and unnecessary possibility of confrontation: he could see Saporta and he would have barely profited from any information that was being given there. There was a part of him which was so ecstatic with the idea of never seeing Saporta ever again that he felt like swooning in pleasure every time he thought of it; its counterpart was a very intense care-dependent part that longed for Gabriel’s arms and the comfort, the protection, the love they gave him. This not-little-at-all part would give itself whole to understand why he had left and why he hadn’t spoken to William ever since. It was a sleep-depriving dilemma and William hated it to the bottom of his guts.

He was half-asleep when the meeting ended and people started going out. Victoria got up and kissed him in the cheek, asking him to go with her, but he denied the invitation. He wanted to stay quiet for a while longer, just thinking, just enjoying being in a Saporta-free part of the studio. She seemed like she wanted to say something, but instead she just nodded and left, closing the door very cautiously when William asked her to. He sighed and stared at the ceiling. What could he do? He couldn’t rub his will for an explanation on Gabe’s face, he probably didn’t – or did? – have this right, although Gabe was in fact the wrong one, for William had been what, six? Seven, for fuck’s sake, what did he know about life and loss? He didn’t even know love entirely.

“Boo.”

That simple word, sounding at just above hearing’s lower-limit, was enough to make him jump off his chair, his eyes opening wide as plates. His heart began to thump so much and so loud that he could feel it in his fingertips, in his temples. His stomach fell to the floor when he saw that torturing ghost and a sudden conscience almost knocked him down: Saporta had been there through the meeting. He had probably walked in right before Pete closed the door, he had been probably behind William’s or Suarez’ chair, right next to him. That was it; that was the origin of that awkward feeling. He was too dumb to notice him but his entire body was already signaling that Gabe was there, that he was around.

In a quick, sudden gesture, Gabe held the chair and shoved it away discreetly. William was shaking, in the verge of unconsciously crying like a child out of shock, maybe fear. The taller guy proffered a hand to touch him, but he flinched and almost squealed, so Saporta couldn’t bring himself to actually lay it on Beckett.

“I wanna apologize for my behavior.” TAI’s singer was very focused at trying not to stare at him at all. “I should have been more careful.”

“About the picture.” It was not a question, but Gabriel nodded anyway.

“Yes, about the picture.” His hand was tentatively moving forward, but this time William was not paying that much of attention, so he barely jolted when Gabe tried to caress his forearm. His mind was racing, bringing up and discarding things to be presented, to be said, to be demanded. Things he didn’t want to feel or talk about but perhaps that chance would be his only one.

“You didn’t expect that. You didn’t think you’d find me.” Saporta shook his head vehemently, in a sign that could be both a full denial or a sign that William was taking it all wrong. Beckett chose the first possibility. He believed that one. “You didn’t know it was me. You didn’t recognize me.”

“No, I didn’t.” The older guy ran a hand through his hair, so close to Beckett now that even when he let go of the other, the proximity of both bodies was still enough to trap William. “I was so tired of building my hopes up that I couldn’t see what was in front of me.” He sighed, looking unable to find the right words. “William... God, this is so awkward.”

“Why?” It sounded like sheer curiosity, but it stung like a bee. “Because you thought you’d never see me again?” Beckett knew that his voice was coming out dry and rude, masqueraded by a thin coat of sugar, but he couldn’t care less. “You thought you’d never have to see how I came out? You thought that you’d never have to contemplate the consequences of your doing?”

The way he was almost smiling was not even close to be a good one. Gabe noticed it and bent slightly over him, the height difference not enough to make Beckett feel intimidated. “Willy, please, don’t be so bitter.”

His voice hardened and he stared right into Saporta’s eyes. “Don’t call me Willy. I don’t know you enough.”

The door opened and recalled their attention all of a sudden. Brendon entered the room, followed by the fading lights of several flashes that seemed to have hunted him down the hall. That was weird enough, since Pete had a strict “no paparazzi” rule while they were on studio. It was slightly deafening outside, but he closed the havoc behind him before walking towards the duo. He was flushed but smiley, which couldn’t be good.

“There are paparazzi outside”, said he, breathing heavily. “Plenty. They’re even breaking Pete’s pap-rule. Wentz said that the movie’s production sent them for publicity. They want pictures of us and you’re the only ones who have not been there yet. Peter said you should go because it would be free advertising; those pictures will be like, everywhere.”

It took a moment for the words to sink into William’s head. He detached himself from Gabe, processing the information slowly. They had been in the middle of a row. William had been this close to giving in to the temptation that was asking Saporta the reason why he had left. In his mind, he thanked Brendon for interrupting them; Gabe had been too close, too powerful on him. He didn’t know he was not free though, before Saporta moved. Shrugging his shoulders in a very lean, professional way, his confessional looks vanished altogether, Gabriel walked towards the door, his hand grabbing William’s as he went. Beckett could not leave it; Saporta had clenched his fingers around the other man’s so tightly that they felt like breaking. It was puzzling to see the same man who was almost crying in front of him regaining composure so quickly, becoming so stern, so suddenly. How could he?

Apparently, someone had shooed the paparazzi to the outer side, but when they finally reached it, there were really plenty of them. William knew exactly what they wanted; he had had his quota of cover and general pictures. His body moaned in hatred for those who were able to make him feel like merchandise in the most improper times of his life, but it was for the band and Decay, so he would handle it alright. He smiled, hugging Saporta in brotherly embraces, fooling around with him till the rest of the guys marched in and photobombed what had previously seemed to be a private shoot. Still, Gabe seemed to be enjoying the opportunity; his arms were all over William almost all the time. He even managed to put his lips to William’s ear and mumble something along the lines of “I hate it too”, which no one else listened to.

When they were finally released, William started to walk away as quick as he could, but Gabe held him by the wrist. “We still have to talk.”

“I’m not staying.” William pulled free from Gabe’s grip, but the other grabbed him again.

“William. Please. You need it as much as I do.”

An awkward silence took hold of the two of them, permeating to those who had not left yet. Before William could say or do anything, his cellphone vibrated. It was Christine, which relieved him beyond measure.

“Gotta answer this one”, said he, excusing himself and getting inside the studio, entering the first available room there was without bothering to look behind. When he got there, the incoming call sign had already disappeared; cautious, he started typing the number to call his girlfriend back. He was halfway through the long sequence of algorisms when Gabe entered the room, strong and firm, his presence pushing him straight to the nearest wall.

“I’m busy.” Beckett’s voice was incredibly steady.

“It can wait. We can’t.” Gabe moved a couple of inches to try and touch him again, to soothe him, but William slapped his hand with such force that it actually hurt. It made some of his control snap. “God almighty, Beckett, can’t you lower your fucking defenses for once? I am sorry, ok?! I told you I had no choice. I was twelve! My family owned me.”

Beckett was not convinced, but he put his cellphone away anyway. Chris could wait. He had to figure some stuff out first. He had to know. He had to find out.

“What about later?” He crossed his arms, standing firm on both his feet and moving towards Gabe, accusing him with both his body and voice. “I’ve never moved. I’ve stayed there hoping you’d come back.” Again, his voice was dry and rude, no sugar-coating this time. Again, he couldn’t care less. “You never did, not even to say ‘hi’. You fucking disappeared from my life like if you had never been a part of it.”

“William, I couldn’t go back, you wouldn’t understand it back then. You should know it now, after all you’ve been through. You should--”

Gabe’s voice caught and he lowered his head, fighting back the surge of desperation that threatened his vocal chords. He couldn’t tell William the truth. He couldn’t say that he was afraid of ending up leaving his family for him, that he was afraid of going after William and never returning, that he was afraid of how much it would hurt when he were forced to leave again, and again, and again. He couldn’t say that he had wanted to be with his little friend so much that he had caused his parents to argue because his father wanted to go back and his mother thought he was too dependent on William and should stay away from him. He couldn’t say that his parents had divorced shortly after and he had spent an entire year without speaking to his father because his mother had made the court tell him that he couldn’t move back to Chicago with him. He couldn’t tell him that he had ran away once when he was older and seen a twelve years old Beckett playing with a girl in a courtyard. He couldn’t tell him how much that had hurt, to see the age difference, to see how little he seemed to care that Gabriel was not there. He couldn’t possibly say that he returned there every year for the next four years, till he didn’t see Beckett there anymore and thought he had been gone. It was awfully disturbing to see a man of his size crumbling so clearly. Saporta proffered a hand and grabbed William by the wrist, making the other guy stare at him in confusion, anger and disgust.

“I couldn’t stay. I couldn’t go find you and get back into your life just to disappear the next day.”

William fisted his hands, his lower lip trembling. “I would have traded an entire year of my life for another day with my best friend.”

It was entirely true; William had not a doubt about that. He would have traded his own life to live a few more days with Gabriel. He would have traded anything for a couple of days with him, back then. It was not even an exaggeration.

“Can’t you just forgive me?” Gabe was pleading like the child he had once been. “I was trying to keep you safe.”

That was the last drop. William felt himself burst before he could stop it. “Safe from what?! From the pain? From the hurt, from the abandon? How do you think that not having you around would help me?! Enlighten me, please!”

Forgetting how they were trying to keep their distance, Gabe embraced him. William paralyzed at first and then wanted to break free from it, but the taller man was stronger and his arms were clenched so tight around him that he couldn’t do it, not without seriously hurting himself and Saporta – which he didn’t want to do – yet. For a moment, Beckett let a sob escape and closed his eyes fiercely. He wasn’t going to cry. He didn’t have to. He had not been wrong; he had been a kid, for Christ’s sake.

“When we were younger, you asked me to be your older brother. I told you back then that I’d rather wait for you to grow up”, murmured Cobra’s singer. “You have no idea of how much it hurts to admit this thought, to admit how I wanted to keep you for myself only when I left.” The knot in William’s throat tightened even more. “I’ve waited even more than I thought I would. I can’t do it anymore. I can’t stay still and let you slip away again when you are so close now.”

The embrace loosened a bit, making William stumble half-out of it. Suddenly aware of how despaired the other man was, his hurt seemed to synch with the other’s, keeping him put for a while longer. He had not slipped away, he had been there. Gabriel was the one who had not, right? He had said he would wait for him to grow up. He had intended to stay. Why hasn’t he? Before he could say a word, though, he felt how heartbreaking such mass of feelings was, when Gabe pressed his lips against his forehead, kissing the creased skin with wholehearted tenderness, just like he had done when they had parted years ago.

“Don’t make me wait anymore”, begged Saporta, eager to have him in his arms. His lips touched the tip of William’s nose and brushed along his cheek till his half-open, wordless lips. “I’ve missed you so much.”

He pressed his lips gently against William’s, sweetly, smoothly. Beckett thought of pushing him away, but Gabe was being so insufferably kind, so needy. So him. The long fingers of the Cobra’s singer adjusted to his jaw and he felt himself involuntarily giving in to the kiss. Warm, quietly, William felt his lips disobeying him, opening wider under the softness and dryness of Saporta’s. It wiped away everything: the hurt, the pain, the suspicion, the hate. All he could feel was the clove-like taste of Gabe’s mouth and his strong arms pulling him closer. He didn’t want to embrace him, he didn’t want to give in that completely, although his mind was taking that little, slightly arousing moment and making it a happening in which butterflies were making a mess out of his guts. Tentatively, he sneaked his hands up Gabriel’s chest, willing to push him, to let go of his mouth and arms and release himself from that spell; it was a worthless attempt. When he felt like losing control over his body and his mind was almost clear from everything but the feeling of being home that accompanied Gabriel’s embrace, Ryan opened the door with a bang, calling out Saporta’s name real loud. They both parted and fell silent, petrified, awareness creeping into their bodies. Ross found them icy as statues in the corner.

“Victoria wants you, Saporta.” For a moment, it seemed that the singer would not obey. “She said now. She said you’d regret being alive if you failed her.”

White as a sheet and with an apologetic look, Gabriel left Beckett, walking towards the door and out of it in quick, swift long strides. Awareness assaulted William like a missile; he felt the fugacity of his illusionary home, felt it vanish while his mind brought back the fact that Gabriel was leaving again, that it was all happening again and that he had known it would happen. He remembered everything that the kiss had made him put aside, all at once, while Saporta left. When the door closed, after what had seemed to be hours, William piled up on the floor beside Ryan’s feet – and broke down.

Chapter Text

His pockets seemed to be even deeper when he forced his fists down inside of them, deforming the black hoodie. He wandered around the street, the night nipping at his heels, careless and reckless. The moon was full, beautiful, glistening, bathing the desert suburban street in a pale silvery light in that men and godforsaken hour. It should be around eleven o’clock, maybe midnight in a Tuesday; his long strides made him look like a shadow more than like a lad. But he was a lad. A broken, lost, shattered by love lad but a lad anyway. And God, that had hurt, it was hurting and burning inside his chest. It was overwhelming and immoral but now it was done and it was too late to think about that.

His boy had had no fault at that. It was stronger than him, that he wanted to hug and hold and just be with his little boy so much. He wanted it so badly that he tried by all means to keep it hidden, so hidden that he ended up hurting his boy just to keep from scaring him somehow. It hurt himself too and he hated it enough to want to die if it would buy him half a dozen of words to explain himself in a proper, decent way.

He had stopped in front of a house. The Christmas décor had looked strangely spooky although genuinely upbeat. A vinyl Santa Claus had faced him, the plastic good and condescending look giving him the creeps. Inside the house, a happy family had been smiling and playing with a little six-years-old boy. His little boy. In the fenceless house, there had never been anything to separate him from the window. Unsure, he had stumbled towards the door; his mixed up feelings and senses couldn’t have noticed anything but what happened in front of him. His knuckles had knocked on the hardwood thrice and a very gentleman-like man had opened the door, smiling wide at him.

“Hey, Gabriel, it’s an honor to have you here! Come in, let’s have some coffee together.”

“Thank you, Mr. Beckett, but I can’t. I... I wanted to talk to Will.

“Hm...” He had seemed to hesitate and it had made Gabe freeze. He might have known. Maybe he hated him. “Yeah, sure, I’ll call him.”

A joyful cry of excitement had been heard right before short, bear-pajama-clad little legs appeared in a rush and hugged the boy in a hoodie. William let himself be in Gabriel’s arms, feeling his ice-cold cheek touching his, and smiling.

“You came”, had said him, stating the obvious.

“Yes”, had answered the other boy, solemn. “Mom is waiting for me, Willy... It’s just that... I just wanted to say...” Suffering much harder than he had thought he would, broken in two halves inside, Gabriel had laid a kiss on the smaller boy’s forehead. “Happy Christmas, my boy.”

After that, he had given him a letter and let go of the kid, letting him go back to his warm house, innocent of everything that was happening right there, right then. A couple of hours later, they would be set apart by such a big distance that they’d become strangers under each other’s gazes.

Until that moment.

He moved out of the cities but the roads kept being the same. The Christmas lights were not there but the houses still seemed to be so much happier than him, like they had always been. The moon was the same, the days had changed. The time had changed, it was three a.m., isolated and calm; the dead hour in the civilized world was somewhere between two and four a.m., when the clubs were full but the streets were deserted. It was the way the world worked, perfect for some thinking. Just thinking was fine.

He had to put his thoughts back together. What he had just done had been very reckless, very good and very dumb. He had revealed himself, depths and all, to William, in a very inerasable and indelible way: it’s almost impossible to forget a kiss given by your best friend from your childhood, the boy with whom you used to sleep when little, who could be counted on all the time for anything. He didn’t know what would be his boy’s reaction but he knew it wouldn’t be movie-like; no, William wouldn’t run to him, snuggle himself up in Gabe’s arms and say that he had waited him for all that long. If he did, everything about the chase would be utterly lost. In that moment, Gabriel was still unaware of how important that little show was. How real it was.

Gabe was not nearly as stupid as he tried to seem. He had not gone to William to do what he had done. He had gone after the singer to ask for his forgiveness, to explain what he had thought of about William and Victoria when he had found them in the bath tub, to tell him that he was still that same Gabriel of his childhood, except bigger and lewder. He had wanted to explain why Victoria didn’t tell neither of them who they were, had wanted to tell him that he had not recognized him not because he didn’t care but because he just couldn’t. Besides those reasons, there had been a doubt, a not very strong one, that maybe William wouldn’t remember their childhood. Even if he did, would he understand that the most part of Gabe’s reasons back then had not been just friendship-related? It bothered him to think that his childhood, so pure and orbiting around that boy, would be seen as something dirty by a grown-up William. He had tried to avoid it, but apparently his overall need had thought differently.

He paid attention to the apartments, the houses, and the people inside them. He envied them to the point of jealousy, and how couldn’t he? Those people, most of them, were probably unaware of what it meant to abandon the love of their lives because being around the one was not only illegal but also hurtful. He had been driven into thinking it when he was younger and fairly little had changed about those thoughts: it was not illegal anymore, but it was not well-seen and it was definitely not what William had been expecting. His sureness was not much about anything, but he knew that what he felt about his boy was still too much to be handled by William.

He stopped in front of a building that seemed strangely familiar to him. The apartments were obviously expensive and elegant, all windowpanes and dark glasses, most of them lit at that time in the night. There was a sign that said, in bold red letters, “For rent: 24/7 attendants in loco”, not much unlike one he had seen at his own apartment, back in New York. Finding it a strange coincidence, he walked in to check on it. It was a mixed-building, managed by the same company of his NYC home, where there were apartments owned by people and some that were like big, full-functional hotel rooms, minus the room service. He was dragged to meet one of the for-rent ones by an overly-enthusiastic 21-years-old girl, even though he said he wanted to just look around because it had seemed an interesting system.

A couple of hours later, he had rented an apartment.

It wasn’t really big, but it didn’t have to be: he wasn’t planning on staying there for over a month at all, since they were supposed to be flying to Burbank around the end of July to do the music video. It was just that he needed some space, he needed privacy. Although he trusted everyone in the band, no exceptions, he didn’t want to be accounted for the asshole he knew he was about to become while dealing with that whole William-issue. Decaydance would not pay for that apartment, but he had some money to spare and the people there had been incredibly nice with splitting the payment, adding half of it to the bill for his NY rent the next month when new money would be available in his bank account. He supervised while they changed the locks and handed him three keys, asking him to take extra care with them because a second lock change would not be included. It was a perfect arrangement.

The apartment was very bold, with a furnished master suite, living room, mini-kitchen and bathroom, plus a spare room that could be used as a guest room, although its décor was far behind what would be expected when accounting for the rest of the place. The master suite had a queen-size bed, a large TV, bookshelves, everything pretty neutral-colored and functional. One of the living room’s walls was bright red; a black, shadowy silhouette of a couple having sex had been painted on it. Gabriel had laughed warm-heartedly, appreciating the boldness of whomever it had been who had done that. It felt like home. The bathroom was tiled in white and had a huge mirror on one of the walls. The bath tub could have three people inside without any effort; for a moment, Gabe thought about who had been in that apartment before him, but he soon realized that he in fact didn’t want to know.

He was still slightly excited about the new place when he went back to the hotel, to meet the bed that brought him memories before he could move some of his belongings to the new apartment, early in the morning. He picked up the spare key, thinking about it for a moment before he opened the door to meet a sleepless Victoria sitting on the couch, arms and legs folded. He crashed beside her and elbowed her, smiling faintly.

“Hello, Vy.”

“Hello, my favorite asshole.” She managed to say it in a very smooth voice. “I’ve already been informed. Poor William doesn’t want to see you painted in gold.” She sighed. “You’ve been a hell of an idiot, but I think you knew it already.” Gabriel lowered his head, laughing humorlessly. Yeah, he knew that already. No geniality was required to get to that obvious conclusion. He was not proud, but it was done, utterly and completely done. Victoria waited for a couple of seconds before carrying on. “So what are you going to do to fix it up?”

“I beg your pardon?” He frowned deep. William wouldn’t see him. William would probably kick him in the balls if he went anywhere near.

“Fix. It. Up. Fix it up, Saporta.” She almost spelled the concept, as if saying it slower would make it get any further in that man’s head. “What are you going to do to fix up this horrid situation between you and Beckett now?” Gabriel remained as silent as he could. He had thought of doing that thinking in his apartment, not there, where Victoria could see him and poke him about his decisions and choices. “Don’t you dare telling me that your immediate plans did not include any kind of damage control.” He cleared his throat. He knew he’d have to give some explanations, but did it have to be now? Vicky-T’s eyes widened. “Gabriel Eduardo Saporta, your fucking fag! I can’t believe that you made out with your poor childhood sweetheart and won’t even dare to explain him a shit!”

“Vy, it’s far more complicated now.” He breathed in, deep and tired. “He’s not six anymore.”

“Thank goodness he’s not, or I would turn you in for pedophilia, you son of a bitch!” she got up, looking furious while she grabbed him by the collar of his shirt, pulling him along to his room. “I can’t believe you! He trusts you!”

“I don’t think so. You didn’t see the way we argued, Vy. It was pretty bad.”

“He does.” She wouldn’t lose that battle, so she shoved him to his soon-to-be-former room and made him sit down. “Gabe, do you remember that day, a couple of weeks ago, when you took part in that kind of… sort of… sexual little happening”, she said the words with a hint that made it pretty clear where she was heading to, “which was, by the way, your own doing?”

“Remember me to stop telling you the dirty details, Victoria.” Gabe rolled his eyes and sighed in a mean way. “You have the awful habit of throwing them back at my face in the most inopportune moments.”

“Which means you remember”, said she triumphantly, ignoring the sarcasm in the comment. “You hugged him, Gabriel. You cuddled with him. You took him in, you made him believe that nothing of that accident would leave that room.” The other raised an eyebrow, but Victoria discarded the implicit censorship expressed in that gesture with a wave of her hand. “I can’t be counted, I pretty much made up your bed.”

“Yeah. Because you knew. You and your fucking photographic memory.”

“Yeah, me and my fucking photographic memory. You and your fucking dissimulation and jerkiness. And Beckett and his fucking innocence. We all have our fucks and we gotta learn how to handle them, but none of it can be forced upon the others. It took me years to understand how dissimulated you can be and how fake your self-assurance is sometimes. Gabe, I had to sleep with you to understand how much of a jerk you are. I can finally say I know you but I’ve paid the price, the whole lot of it. Beckett didn’t. He was willing to, yes, but it was ages ago. Even if in that body there is still that little boy you protected from the older boys in school, even if there’s still that tiny kid that won your heart, Beckett is probably suppressing him very hard now, Gabe, because it’s been so long.” She sighed bitterly. “Time doesn’t heal anything, it just opens the wounds wider. And you have to remember you left him, Gabriel. You’ve left him that day, that Christmas’ Eve, and you’re leaving him now, right before the recording of a soundtrack that can launch his band, like it’s doing to us. You’re associated to loss, Gabe, in his mind, you ruin everything that matters. Don’t you think that Christmas was important to him? His parents split up shortly after, Gabe. Three years, maybe four. Don’t you think those supposed-to-be-happy memories are tainted by the absence of his best friend?”

The sureness with which she said those things was not making things easy for him. He couldn’t ignore the depth of that issue now. He didn’t know the Becketts had divorced too. That was a trend among that era’s parents, apparently. It had probably made Beckett much more wary of losing people. He lowered his head.

“It sounds so much worse when you say it.” He was regretting it already. Oh boy, should he be regretting that? He didn’t plan on leaving that time. He didn’t, he swore to himself that he did not.

“It would sound much worse if he was the one to say it.” She was pulling her dry and truthful persona, one that Gabriel knew was only used in certain situations. “Gabe, Beckett doesn’t have the emotional stability required to face the ghosts of his past right now, even the most stupid of all beings is capable of saying so and be about 99% sure.”

He gulped. “Do you think I have it?” Her eyes rose to focus intently on his. “I may look more stable but you said so yourself, my self-assurance is fake. Do you have any idea of how hard it is? As far as I knew, he could be dead, in Russia, enlisted on the army, turned into a hippie, God only knew! It’s not easy at all to meet him here, beautiful as fuck, just a few steps away from me.” The hurt was surging against him again. Victoria touched his shoulder as he felt the taste of William’s lips on his. It had not been bittersweet. It had been like dreaming. It had been like finally belonging to someone else, even if for so little time. It had been all he had always envisioned it would be. “It hurts like fuck. I had to control myself not to jump over him and get him naked before he could complain. He’s my ghost too, Vy, he’s the one that’s been haunting my nights for ever now, don’t you think it’s this way about me too?”

“He was seven, you were twelve. You’re always gonna be…” She hesitated, but better words didn’t come up to her head. “You’re the lead in this relationship, even if it may sound like a terrible thing to say. The head of it. You have to take the steps, Gabe, like you did in kindergarten.”

“I don’t even know what to do yet. You’ve interrupted us when I had the chance, and now I fear he won’t stop and listen to me again. It was hell to make him look at me and not feel like coiling up.” He ran his hands through his hair and collapsed on his back on the bed. She sat beside him. “Should I run to him again and tell him I’ve never lost hope? Should I try to condensate all I’ve felt in a couple of words? And that’s it? Just let him try to move towards me after knowing how I feel? What if he never does, Victoria? What if he decides to let me go forever? I can’t handle a forever now. I can’t. Not again.”

“You have to look him in the eyes and tell him what you feel, Gabe.” She caressed his soft curls, caring and tender, worried about her favorite asshole. “It’s the only way he’ll know. Did you apologize?”

“I’ve tried. He didn’t accept it.” He snorted a laugh. “Apparently, leaving your best friend on Christmas’ Eve is not something that can be forgiven that pronto.”

She nodded slowly, thinking of what he had just said. Finally, she sighed.

“You have to keep on trying to win his forgiveness.” Gabriel stared at her, wide-eyed and confused. “You have to do something, anything. Apologize again, if you will, or ask him out, or make him new promises. There’s a lot more than just your prostituted love-life at stake here. Think of the guys in TAI. Damn it, Gabe, think of us! Think of me! How do you think I get any time you’re close to each other? I feel like an incompetent radioactivity doctor leaving an atomic bomb unattended! It’s horrible!”

It was true. He could feel it in every single one of Victoria’s words, but nothing grew any simpler when he realized it. All he felt now was that he needed to check on William, as fast as he could. He held his new key and stared at the door.

“You’re right as usual. I’m gonna talk to him.”

“Right now?” She held him as if he was crazy. “It’s six in the morning, Gabe. No one can think straight at six in the morning, except for Wentz and we both know that the word ‘straight’ does not define him in any way. Get some sleep now and talk to Beckett at a decent hour.”

Gabriel sighed and nodded, staring again at the ceiling. “But I will talk to him no matter what.”

“I know you will”, said she, kissing his forehead. “You’re going to do the right thing” Or, thought she, very gravely, the less wrong, I hope.

She left him to sleep, but Saporta rolled a lot in bed and slept in fact fairly little. At nine in the morning, he couldn’t stay still any longer. He had waited and the waiting had built-up his anxiety to the point where he was mentally organizing the new songs he was composing, brand new material to be featured God knew in which album. There was a nice one that he wanted to put in that one they were producing, but it had no title yet and he was really close to let it go with the working title anyway. The choruses were not really finished yet too, so he’d have to refine them in the end. Nate and Ryland had once gendered Cobra’s style as porn-dance-rock, and so it had stuck. Saporta was referred to as the band’s porn-maker, the pimp and other nicknames equally lovely. He, of course, did not care. In fact, he found the idea terribly nice, since some of their songs were so bold-faced that every possible album cover had granted their “parental advisory – explicit content” seal. It was wonderful that their first album was clear enough to receive it without being straightforward, meaningless pornography.

He got up to the sight of very neatly arranged magazines on the center table of the living room, where Victoria had crashed after probably reading a couple of articles in one of them, tired from the conversation and the full day. Gabe knew she had not been sleeping enough lately but he didn’t know yet how serious it was. Perhaps he would be able to fix everything before it got really bad. He took a glance at the magazines. They were the promotional ones and none of them seemed to be actually interesting. As daily press focal-points, every person in a band under the tight command of FBR, DecayDance and “that ruthless fucker Wentz” had right to a weekly supply of the main magazines in the business – which included a cheap, very hipster and terribly non-trustable one that was champion in publishing rumors and overall non-verified facts about the members of the world’s music scenario. That magazine was called Gossip and counted with two other divisions: GossOnTour, a band-chaser that followed everyone who thought of touring anywhere in its reach, and Remembering Gossips, one that would go through several old articles about music icons, such as Michael Jackson and Freddie Mercury, from any magazine and republish them whenever it was deemed reasonable by the actionists.

If he had read that week’s edition of Gossip, he’d probably have refrained from talking to William so soon.

Leaving a note to Victoria telling where he’d be and begging her to go look for him in case he went suddenly missing, for William could have reacted pretty badly and maybe even injured him, he left the apartment he would no longer share with his bandmates. He was willing to just talk to Beckett, to explain that he didn’t want to force anything but it was not being possible, like it had never been, to forget that little boy he had loved before anyone and anything, so he’d want to go for it if he wouldn’t object. Being sensitive was not the biggest of his qualities – he was much more prone to action anyway – but he’d give it a huge shot.

He knocked at TAI’s room, trying to keep himself as worry-free as possible. After deciding something, following what he had thought was not that hard. It could have been fairly easier if he had not been so thrown off-balance by the sudden comeback of a human being he thought practically dead to his daily life. The one to answer to the knock was Sisky, curled hair intertwined and untamed like a bird’s nest, his red, bloated eyes screaming and begging for a decent night’s sleep. Holy God. So Gabe was the one to spend a sleepless night and the others were those that showed hangover’s signs?

“Hi, good morning, Siska.” He smiled as sympathetic as he could. “Can I talk to Will?”

Sisky seemed to wake up completely and out of a sudden when that name was mentioned. He blinked in a brand new non-sleep-related haze before he could manage to answer the question, hesitating as if he had a gun pointed at his back.

“I don’t really think this is a good idea, Gabe.” He cleared his throat. He wasn’t the most difficult guy to convince in the band and, apparently, he was the only one awake. “He’s kinda… tired, you know? Really tired. Really not in a good mood to talk right now.”

“C’mon, Siska, lemme in.” He stepped a friendly step towards Siska, smooth but unquestionable. “I’m just wanting to talk to him for a couple of minutes. It won’t take long at all.”

Siska seemed to consider the idea for a time that felt like quite long to the over-excited body of Gabe. The taller guy took another step, not so friendly this time. It was not in Siska to argue that much and he knew he could not wake the other guys up, or else he’d be in actual trouble, so he took a step back, inviting the taller guy in with a very decidedly unpleased face. Everything was a mess inside that place, somehow like the remnants of a hurricane disaster. There were several bottles of beer and vodka on the floor, alongside with a half-dead Tom who hugged a red-haired girl that Gabe was sure was one of Peter’s assistants. For a moment, he considered if William’s room would be in that bad a state, but he knew better than that.

Just like his inner, trustful-self thought, Beckett was sound asleep, well-behaved and completely alone except for a second pillow which was being asphyxiated by the tightness of his grip. He could count about half a dozen bottles of beer and nothing else, everything clean and very organized, put aside with care and precision. Saporta was pretty aware that William had never been one for OCD, so it had been probably a drunken game or diversion of some – lonely – kind. It didn’t seem to be much fun but the way in which William’s body was curling around that pillow stated that fun had not been what he had wanted that night. With a smile that pretended to be sweet, revealing a threatening and unavoidable undertone, Gabe waved Sisky out, noticing how much that kid didn’t want to leave them both alone. William’s sleep had remained undisturbed.

Cobra’s frontman sat on the mattress, his body as close as possible to the sleeping boy’s. Beckett kept the same angel-like, delicate, serene face from when he was a kid while asleep. The taller man touched his face, remembering the hot, sexual urge that had almost got over Gabe when they kissed, and slammed his own knees together to stop it. That was not the time or the place. With a candid smile, he lowered his face, almost touching William’s ear with his lips.

“Will… Willy… Come on, my dear, wake up… I wanna talk to you, my boy…” It all felt like time-travelling to fourteen years ago, for that was the way he used to wake up little Beckett when they were young. His heart filled with warmth and pride when William muttered something and rolled in his sleep, objecting weakly to stop sleeping. Apparently, he had not forgotten Saporta’s ways anyway. “Come on, Willy, wake up, sweetheart. Let’s talk like good boys do…”

William woke up with the recognition of the Uruguayan’s voice, sitting up and straight, eyes still hazed with sleep. Gabriel couldn’t help but to laugh.

“What are you doing here?”, asked the younger guy vehemently, while Gabe got up and locked the door.

“I came here to talk to you. Again. Are you ok enough for me to even try it?”

“It doesn’t matter what I am or not. I want you to leave. We have nothing else to say each other.”

“You’re a smart boy, you know we do.” Gabe sighed deep. “You have to want to know something. To clear something up. I am here now. You can ask me anything.”

“You want to explain your reasons?” William seemed to gather strength from the bottom of his guts to face Gabriel and keep his voice low. “You want me to believe that you want to explain any more than you’ve done already?”

“I meant everything I said, Willy”, murmured Saporta, apologetic. “I swear I did.”

“I don’t care, Gabe. I’m not a child anymore.” He managed to laugh a heartless, humorless brief laugh. “You can’t just say you’re sorry and keep doing the same thing. Not even my girlfriend has ever made me suffer as much as you did.”

“I know I can’t apologize enough, but--”

“You’re right, you can’t.” William sucked his lips in for a moment before continuing, as if making a decision. It was a decision, in fact. A pretty difficult one. He wanted to ask so many things and to talk to Gabe because his inner child was almost jumping to the taller man’s arms. “Good thing is: you don’t have to. We don’t need to be anything apart from what we are right now. We’re coworkers. That’s all.”

Gabe shook his head. “But I don’t wanna be your coworker only.”

“You have to stay away, Gabe.” He threw a magazine at him. “Page 72.”

The headline was beyond big: it was huge, colorful, attention-seeker. It read “The provocative backstage of a soundtrack making: what’s going on between TAI’s singer William Beckett and Midtown’s ex-frontman Gabe Saporta?” and the article that followed it was long enough to fill three text pages, not to count two full-page pictures. Reading it like a professional, he let his eyes run the lines and apprehended some small pieces of very weird sentences, such as “provocative poses”, “Gabe’s knowingly sexy personality”, “William’s pretense shyness”. There was nothing good going on in that article, but Gabe had had enough of those to know that they never lived on for long. It was incredible that they had been so close to the truth in such disgusting a way, and so fast. Gabe could bet his eyes that the article had been assembled in a couple of hours, right after the photos they had taken the day before, and sent to print in hyperspeed. It smelled like rushed rumor-selling speculation, like the one thing you put to make sure the magazine will sell despite the rest of it. Gabe couldn’t help but to thank briefly that they were not serious about searching and didn’t go as far as digging out their childhood together.

“It’s editorial trash, Willy. It fades away.”

Beckett seemed to take his words as a personal offense. “No, it’s not, Gabriel. It’s my career and I don’t want it sinking because of you.”

“It won’t. You’ll live.”

“Not if you keep haunting me.”

“Listen, kid, you can’t let it get to you that deep.” He was serious enough to draw attention to himself. “You’re famous now. There will be people willing to track your every step and putting up shit like this in the speed of light to see you freak out for it. If you fall for every shit that goes out about you, you won’t succeed in the industry.”

William’s face went blank. “So now you’re giving me advices?”

“I’ve always done so.” He bended over the slender singer, touching his shoulder and pressing him softly against the mattress. William shivered, his hands trembling, eyes widening. He was a step from raising his knee and hitting Gabe full-forcedly in the groins. “You have to believe me, Willy. I am the same guy, only adult now.”

“I can believe you’re the same, but I know I’m not. I got over you, Gabriel.” He didn’t even blink to say so. “It took me forever but I did.” His shaking hand found a spot on Gabe’s chest and pushed him in an admonishing way. “Don’t come crashing this whole childhood sweethearts shit on my head again. I’ve stitched it close but it’s still too raw a scar to be poked by you.”

“I don’t want you to get over me, William. I want you to stay by me and love me like I love you.” He gulped and his eyes filled with sorrow. “I know I never got over you. I’ve never even tried.”

The other singer’s voice sunk. “You never hurt like I did.”

“The thing is that I did, William!” He squeezed the younger guy’s shoulders with enough force to bruise them. “I cried every single hour of every single day for three weeks, every night for over a year! I wore the pair to that ring I gave you until it snapped because it got too thin! I went berserk looking for you and monitoring you from a distance because your mother said to my father that if she ever saw me around your place again she’d file in for a restraining order.”

“My mother would never do so”, murmured him suspiciously.

“Even my mother would. I was eighteen, you were twelve; you were a kid, for fuck’s sake! I was a grown man. She was scared. This is what mothers do, William, they protect those they love. Then you found that girl and I… I couldn’t stay around anymore.” He tried to smile, but his will failed him. “I never got the chance to approach you again. I knew I’d have to leave again and I didn’t want to.”

“You’re lying.”

“I am not! I’ve waited for your sixteenth birthday to be able to start looking for you without having to worry that I’d be harassing a child. You vanished. You completely vanished. I couldn’t reach you for the world.”

“My parents divorced. I moved.” That was not a lie, despite Beckett’s first claim that he had never moved. When his parents divorced, William had already lost hope of seeing Gabriel ever again so he didn’t even bother trading houses. “I went to Barrington High. It had been ten years, don’t you think things would have changed?”

“I still wish they hadn’t.” He took a deep breath and buried his face in William’s neck. The younger guy startled, but didn’t hit him while he breathed in William’s scent, something skin-like, no cologne or aftershave to conceal it. “Oh, God, Willy, Willy, Willy…”

“Why are you doing this?” He gave up keeping his composure, letting his body slouch and shake. “Why are you here? What do you want, Gabriel? What do you have to tell me that’s so important that you can’t keep your fucking hands off of me?”

He said that trying to break loose from his hands, failing since the attempt had Gabe’s body weight working against it. He felt Saporta breathe on his neck once more, lowering his voice to a whisper when he called his childhood’s nickname once more. He couldn’t do that again. He couldn’t hurt like that again but it was Gabriel. He had waited for him for years. He had done so many things to keep his heart from breaking and now he had the chance to get it over with forever but he didn’t really want to. He wanted to be safe and his mind was having a hard time trying to convey the fact that Gabriel was no longer safe and that being away was the best thing to do. It was somewhat like oxygen: it destroyed everything inside you but you couldn’t even think of trying to live without it. He knew he had never tried to live without Gabriel. He had learned to miss him less, to put him in a dark corner of his mind, but he had never left. He could never leave.

“I am so sorry for that awful Christmas’ gift, Willy.” It was still a whisper, so low that it was hard to listen. “I meant something else entirely.”

William felt his body shiver in fear and anticipation. Gabe relaxed both his hands and let them move, one arm going to the mattress to sustain his weight and the other going down to William’s waist. He moved swiftly, trapping William’s knee gently and terminating his possibility of assaulting Saporta’s groins. He didn’t hug him or hold him close, but a weight went straight to William’s stomach when Gabe’s hand moved back from his waist to the back of his neck, where it lay for a second too long. He blushed like a child when he saw what Gabe was about to do, distressed with the lack of malice in the gesture and the inevitability of it. He could run away if he wanted to. He could hit Gabe’s nose. He could but he wouldn’t.

As expected, Gabriel’s lips met his in a chaste, childlike kiss. There was no passion, no permissions asked, no invasions to be done. It was as pure as a kiss could be. It was love and thankfulness and William felt his heart sink like a broken ship while it lasted. That was a kiss like the ones from his childhood. That was the kiss he had longed to have again. That one kiss.

“This was your Christmas’ gift, Willy.” Gabe touched William’s face with tenderness. “It’s over fourteen years late… But it’s here.”

William clenched his teeth together but couldn’t keep his lips from trembling. That was too much. That was beyond what he was willing to take. That was everything.

“Why, Gabriel?”, asked he, finally regaining enough self-control to push him with both hands, too devastated to even cry. “You should have come so much earlier.”

He stopped a sob before it could emerge, but Gabriel’s long arms could still touch him from the little distance interposed between them, and they did. He shoved them away with a little more force than planned. Staring at him, William found enough voice to murmur:

“Go away, Gabriel. I can’t do this right now. You’re ruining me.”

Those words were probably the most difficult thing he would ever have to say to him, but they were true to their core. He wouldn’t keep up with being shattered and putting his pieces back together every day. If they wanted to get back together, in any way, they’d have to find time and space to do so. They’d have to do it in another way. They’d have to meet each other again, to grow acquaintances again. That thing, that suddenly, was too much. Gabe nodded sorrowfully and got up, something tingling in his hand when he put said something on the closest drawer, right before unlocking the door and closing it behind him. William turned his face to the opposite side of the door and his hand wandered mindlessly to where Gabe had been. His heart throbbed. It was too much.

Chapter Text

The hesitating knock on the door told him who was behind it as if the other had announced himself. William sunk face-first on his pillow while Sisky entered the room with extreme caution. The pitiful state Beckett was in scared the hell out of him but he refrained from mentioning it just the same. It was already uncomfortable enough that the taller guy had to feel like that; it wouldn’t make him any good to have other people noticing the fact, as Adam knew well, since he was his friend. He knew how Gabriel was making him feel.

He perched himself on the edge of the bed, sighing deeply. William had not yet taken the face away from the white pillow and Siska was aware that he would not do it that soon. Oh, damn it. He and Gabe had been in that room for twenty minutes, perhaps, if he would go for a long shot. How could someone leave him that way in so little time? The girls before – oh, well, the girl – had never been able to. Christine. Could it be that he, when he was with Gabriel, remembered his girlfriend? Did William remember that he had a girlfriend, a kind, gentle, trustworthy person with whom he had lost his virginity and that always took him for everything he was?

It was indelicate to even think about it next to him. William was suffering and nobody besides him, Gabriel, Victoria and, in a very smaller although not despicable scale, Sisky knew why. Right when they had the time of their lives unfolding in front of them, the vocalist’s past showed up to haunt him without him asking for it. Who could stand it? It was not something simple to handle; no, it was far from it. Sisky embraced his own knees, rocking himself smoothly back and forth. William seemed to notice the movement a tad more intensely and moved too.

“Siska?” He hesitated, facing his friend. Sisky tried to produce a kind of sympathetic, concerned smile. “What are you doing here? You should be asleep.”

“Someone had to open the door.” His voice was apologetic to say the least. “And it was definitely not Carden.” He forced a smile, willing to cheer his friend up rather than depressing him.

“Oh. Yeah. Gabriel was here.” And the pillow returned to his face before Sisky’s next breath.

“Yes, he was.” He sighed. “Did he do something to you?” William denied it, a move rendered difficult by the fluffy thing on his face. “Bill, if I wanted a lie, I wouldn’t have asked you anything. Just shoot before we have to go to the studio.”

When Siska said those words, he never thought that William would crash the way he did. If he had known, he’d have asked for backup. The pillow was put aside and his eyes, now unveiled, were glistening with tears. Not knowing what else to do, Siska offered him a hug, which the other accepted pronto.

“We’re good, dude. Calm down.” He patted him on the back, trying to feed him some reassurance. “Just tell me what happened.”

“He… he kissed me, Sisky.” He was not as embarrassed as he was ashamed of letting Gabe do that, of wanting that. “Like he did when we were little.”

“He used to kiss you when you were little?” Adam tried not to sound astonished but it permeated anyway. Slowly, Beckett denied it and parted from the other, sensing the bandmate’s reaction.

“But I used to dream that he did.”

William loved Siska a lot, but he couldn’t possibly tell him that. He’d die if he tried, he didn’t have to be a genius to know so. He could feel it in every muscle of his body. How could he be that obtuse? It was plain important… He’d never admit that out loud, not now and probably not ever. What kind of credit one’s supposed to give to a child for that kind of reaction? But when one’s twenty-one and still thinks about that one time when one’s older best friend met oneself under the berry tree… The thought felt strangely impure so William let go of Siska. Those memories sent shivers up his spine. His one-man-only little party had been because of those memories. It was different when he was little. It had never felt that bad.

It had been early December. A howling wind coordinated with very low temperatures that made the tree house all but freezing inside. Still, William couldn’t be admonished to stay inside the warmth of Beckett’s house, as he’d rather catch a debilitating flu than keep from enjoying the last days before winter. The day outside was bright with the occasional glimpse of a steady white sun that did little to diminish the cold. Inside the tree house, waiting for William’s mother to call them for the afternoon snack, they lay, Gabe sitting straight close to the window and the other boy dozing off amid half a ton of blankets and duvets that Saporta had insisted he brought up to keep his little toes from freezing. It was the twentieth-or-so time that William’s mother left him under Gabriel’s sentient care, which the youngest found very nice and slightly amusing of her, since he always felt like she didn’t enjoy sharing her child at all. William loved Gabriel. The oldest was one of the few who talked to him like he was capable of fully understanding him and not only didn’t mind answering his multitude of shallow-to-clever questions about pretty much anything but didn’t seem to feel the least bit tired after doing so. They used to play, run and laugh all day long, innocent and fun. They got along just fine and had the age gap not been that big they might have ended up sooner as more that best friends. Anyway.

“It’s cold.” William puffed his cheeks as childishly as he could.

“Yes, it is. Mind another blanket?” The question was purely rhetorical, once Gabe was giving his own blanket away to pill up on top of the boy’s. The child crawled a little, pulling every one of his blankets along so he could rest his head on Gabriel’s legs and hold his hand.

“You are always so warm”, murmured William, intertwining their fingers and pulling Gabe’s hand closer to his face. The tallest shifted to accommodate him better. “It seems like the cold never gets to you.”

“I’m a tad extraterrestrial, Willy.” They laughed. “My blood’s warmer, I guess. They say Latin people have warm blood.”

“Feverish-like?”

“Feverish-like, maybe. But without the whole being sick thing.” He used his free hand to caress the boy’s hair. It was hard not to give in to sleep after having played in the cold, but he had to stay awake to wait for Mrs. Beckett’s call so he kept mussing his hair and trying hard not to close his eyes.

“I’m tired”, mumbled William after a couple of minutes. “Can I get a kiss so I can sleep?”

Gabriel smiled faintly. “Sure.” Slowly, he placed a kiss on the younger boy’s forehead, hoping he’d doze off for real right after. William laughed heartily instead.

“Not like this, you silly!” He beamed at his best friend, looking even younger. “The way grown-ups kiss themselves good night!”

The taller boy took his time to frown deep. “You’re not a grown-up, Willy. Neither am I.”

“But mom said that we only kiss the people we really, really, love on the lips when we kiss goodnight.” His face turned slightly dubious. “You love me alright?”

“Doubtlessly.” William regained his composure then. “But do you know the person you really, really, truly, forever, love, Willy, my dear?”

“Of course I do, I’m not stupid.” He sounded resolute. “It’s you, Gabriel. I love you and you love me, like it’s always been.”

“I don’t think you can love like a grown-up, Willy”, tried the other, stepping on eggshells.

“I know I can’t, I’m a child. But soon I’ll be an adult and we’ll be loving like grown-ups then, aren’t we?” Gabriel couldn’t restrain a giggle. “Aren’t we?”

“Of course we will, my boy. But how about taking a nap now?”

“Only if you kiss me goodnight. The right way.”

Gabriel subsided with a peck on the boy’s slightly cool lips. William didn’t mind the briefness of the contact, recoiling to sleep soon after. He had been so sure of what he had wanted then. He had always been so sure around Gabe. He could remember the touch if he tried hard enough. He could remember how smooth and how tender that kiss used to be, and now he had a taste to add to it and an urgency to keep it alive. He wanted to run from that bedroom straight into Gabriel’s arms almost as much as he wanted to bury his face in the mattress and suffocate until he couldn’t know where or who he was. It was probably one of the hardest things he had to do, but it still didn’t trip the feeling he had felt when Gabriel went away the first time. William didn’t know for sure if he wanted to try to relive that memory live and technicolor. He had known he would never relive it until then. Until Gabe came back.

Sisky could understand a little of what William felt but if was not nearly enough to help him for real. He had never lived anything like that, as many people hadn’t. Nobody but William himself would ever be able to fix that thing and how would things turn out unless he did so? Both bands would have to work together and not just on a soundtrack; Peter was planning tours already. If they wanted to keep things going, they’d have to be professionals – both he and Gabe, for that matter.

“Come on, Will, you can’t sulk forever.”

“I won’t make it, Sisky.”

“You have to, dude. For us, you know. Do you remember what you used to say when we got too drunk?”

“Do as you please but leave it off work.”

“It has always worked for us, so why would it fail you? You don’t have to choose for real now, you see. Just get yourself out of this rock bottom then find the right thing to do.”

William bit back the couple of words he wanted to stutter. He didn’t want right, he wanted an end. He wanted to stop that feeling before it could restart the bubbles and butterflies it had always been made of. He knew though that Siska’s most caring words still wouldn’t reach that little pool of warmth and despair that has been surging inside his guts. He knew that Sisky, being one of his closest friends, would understand how much giving Gabe away would hurt if he got a step closer to the heart of the matter, and he knew that Sisky would do his best to be around when William fell. What he didn’t know then was that he would fall: completely, irreversibly, stupidly. He didn’t know that he would go for it like there was no tomorrow, despite all of his senses begging him otherwise and despite the blow his career would suffer when it end – if it did. Right there, he just sighed and collapsed again before getting up and dressed to face another day.

 

A quick glance would make for an overall body count of a dozen, maybe a couple of dozen, people.

“So, children, that’s it. Summarizing, we’re finishing the script for the music video, that has alas nothing to do with the rest of it, thanks Brendon for beginning to ask so, and--”

William and Sisky tried their best to sneak in unnoticed, failing when Peter interrupted his speech to spread his arms open and salute them.

“Hallelujah, God-brought creatures. Did it hurt your asses to find the damn way down here, misses?”

William pursed his lips and tried not to blush. Sisky failed at his non-blushing attempt and scratched the back of his neck embarrassedly. They both took their places at the table, sitting in the empty spots available, the taller of them comfortably set between Victoria and Siska. Peter waited for their moving patiently so he could resume what he had been saying.

“Now that you’re finally all here, let’s carry on: you must be aware that the song chosen by the producers and New Line was ‘Bring It’, from our newest crew in town, Cobra Starship. We didn’t get much of a say in it but I think we have all come to terms with the idea that they deserved it pretty bad.” He stared at those reunited there very thoroughly. There were representatives of Panic!, Cobra, TAI, GCH and FOB all assembled, not to count every other random person sitting by the bands, everyone waiting for Peter to spill the news. He was an amazing tension-builder. “About the music video, they asked us to do something movie-related but we’re not contract-bound to anything they say. Gabe, Victoria and I had a very long conversation and decided that we should probably do some interlacing here. We’re going for a terrorist quartet: three big guys and a smoking hot girl.” William couldn’t help the shiver. God almighty, something awful was about to happen. He wouldn’t have brought so many people together for nothing. Peter liked building expectations but he was far too touchy about breaking them. “The first guy involved is, of course, Gabe, for he’s the lead singer and we should use that. The second one, following the logic, must be you, McCoy; I need you clean for the filming and you must go through your part of the lyrics with Saporta, cause he apparently changed a verse or whatever because your rapping in the preview was pretty unintelligible sometimes.” Travis gave him a thumbs up and sunk deeper in his chair. Wentz turned to where William sat then, smiling manically. “You’re our third man, Bill. Victoria’s got your part and is going to help you suit it to your voice.” William felt like a bomb had exploded inside his chest. Vicky-T signaled that they could talk later, but he barely noticed, his shock melting into a mild rage for Saporta. “The smoking hot girl…” Everybody instantly stared at Victoria. “Don’t even get started. It’s not Vy, she refused.” The eyes in the room widened; Vicky-T just smiled, a tad bitterly, if William were to be honest. “Gabe gave us another option. A very tempting option, by the way. Males in the room, hold your hormones. I’d like to introduce you to Maja Ivarsson.”

The girl who showed up had very blonde hair and a fascinating presence. Even William found it in himself to be astonished by the way she walked into the room, blue (or gray? maybe green?) eyes shimmering, body too thin to be standard sexy but exhaling sensuality nevertheless. She wore heels too high for proper balance and William was sure that more than one guy in the room was drooling over her. Peter touched her shoulder and smiled wider.

“She’s The Sounds’ lead singer and our fourth terrorist.” He then gestured to another guy, who remained sit but was acquainted to William somehow, he thought. “This is Nick Wheeler, The All-American Rejects’ guitarist. He’ll be helping with instruments behind the scenes.”

The details of the music video just stated that Peter was looking for a huge thing. He gave each one of the involved airplane tickets to Burbank, California. They were schedule to fly there in about a month. The music had to be done in one week and a half, tops, and William shivered when he thought that he’d have to learn a song and perform it with no hard feelings with Gabe. He sighed more than once during the rest of the meeting. That would not be easy.

Once he was released from the meeting, William went out of the room with Victoria and Sisky, willing to go somewhere they could talk and clear things up about his participation in that video. He was about to go out the door when a big, long-fingered hand clapped his shoulder and turned him around. In that briefest of moments, Beckett expected to see Saporta, but it was the light, smiley, face of Tyson Ritter who stared back at him.

“Tyson!” He grabbed the guy’s hand, hugging him partially then and tapping twice at his back. Victoria, at the door, looked at him inquisitively. “Vy, this is Tyson Ritter, singer in The All-American Rejects.” She looked at him again, recognizing the blue-eyes guy. “I’ll keep up with him for a moment, then we’ll talk. My-Oh-My?”

“Are you sure he doesn’t want to join us?”, asked her politely.

“Sorry, I’ve got to pick up a friend in a couple of minutes.” Tyson excused himself with a smile. “I’ll just talk to him for a very brief instant and then he can be reinstated to your company.”

Sisky, knowing the strange kind of relationship that went on between William and Tyson, admonished the girl to join him somewhere else, confirming to William that they’d be waiting at the coffee shop. He knew better than anyone that Victoria wouldn’t want to see that, but it was not his secret to give away. They left chattering; Tyson pulled William closer and to a very secretive spot, behind a big potted plant and a decorative modern-constituted column, the second they were alone in the hall.

“I’ve missed you”, murmured he, right before his lips crashed against one another’s.

“Fucking liar.” William’s response came between pecks and a fairly obscene share of rubbing. “We’re not even drunk.”

“We don’t have to be, do we?” He laughed and eased the pressure on the other’s hips. “I’ve missed you for real. Not just our fanservice thing. You’re a good friend but lately you’ve been unreachable.”

Beckett didn’t restrain a smirk, brushing his hips lightly against Ritter’s groins. They had the strangest of relationships: they were drink-and-date companions, had hooked up more than a couple of times simply because they had found the opportunity and, deep down, beyond the magnetic sexual attraction that none of them could explain, William knew that Tyson nurtured a fondness that could never be compared to anyone else’s feeling towards him. The whole story had been creepily complicated, involved a jealous ex-girlfriend from Tyson’s side and a fallen out with Christine from Beckett’s, other than an insanely crowded private strip club, more tequila than any of them could remember and absolutely no money to pay for their expenses. They had promised to both keep it secret and never let it happen again, but less than three weeks later William had received a call from a nightclub to pick up Tyson’s useless body from one of the bathrooms and after that they decided there should be no more promises. William had always made it clear that it was just messing around, no love interest involved, and Tyson sure as hell accepted that alright. Young and reckless as they were, none of them thought of that as neither cheating or dangerous.

“I need to escape this place.” William’s statement came clear and quiet. “I need to escape all of this, Tyson.”

“What the fuck happened? You look like terrified.” He tenderly touched William’s cheek. “Come on, Beckett, you’re better than whatever it is that’s keeping you all ruffled up like this.”

“There’s this guy, and he sort of says he likes me and I sort of don’t know if I’m supposed to do something about it and he’s seriously getting to my nerves, both emotional and physically.” The truth was easier to spill to Tyson because he knew that the other singer had already had experiences on that front. He had had experiences on all fronts. “I know I am going to love him like life if I give him space to approach me further. I am in a years-long relationship, Tyson, I don’t wanna screw it like this.”

“Jesus Christ, Beckett.” He placed a kiss on the corner of the other’s lips. “How can I help you?”

“Ease this shit for me. Someone had to and I just can’t.”

Tyson chuckled lightly and embraced him warmly. “There, there, kid. We’re gonna find a way to get you out of this shit, don’t freak out just yet.”

“I’m so screwed. I’m so damn screwed.”

“Why, of course not! I haven’t touched you in the slightest yet!”

William’s laughter burst out of him with such surprise and unabashed joy that Tyson was quick to suppress it with a kiss. He kept half laughing against Ritter’s lips, easing slowly into his arms. It couldn’t compare. It was not anywhere near what Gabe had ever made him feel. His feelings towards Gabe had always been of the insane, love kind, tempered with reassurance but tainted by longing and desire, while Tyson had never been on that romantic specter nor restrained to give him a shoulder to lean on. With him, it was fair and simple, an equal’s relationship that had something to do with compensating each other’s flaws but very little with actual passion. The kiss deepened in a soft, grounding way that was like an opioid shot, calming and soothing every nerve it could reach. If he had to define Tyson in a couple of words, he’d be called his IV-tranquilizer with a hint of a hallucinogen trip afterwards.

Had they been making out a little harder, William would have missed the observer trying to discern them. He tried to hide behind Tyson but he knew the other had seen them. It took him a second to recognize Gabriel, after the mind-numbing haze of meeting Ritter again, and just another speck so Tyson could notice he had noticed something. Gabe and Ty greeted each other in a clumsy, rather embarrassed way before Saporta could freeze William’s core with a look and walk away, not saying a word to his former childhood friend. Tyson felt the sudden grip on his arms and turned to the man in his arms.

“You can’t be serious that the man who’s willing to love and fuck you is Saporta.” William barely found the forces to nod silently. “Jesus fucking Christ, Beckett.”

“We have a past”, murmured he, too ashamed of his lack of reaction to raise his voice to anything more than just audible.

“For the way he looked at you, you might as well have been married.” He hugged the other again. “I can ease any kind of sexual feeling he’s making bubble up inside you and I can hold you if you feel too overwhelmed, kid, but it’s Saporta. He won’t stop before he’s done with you.”

“You’re not helping”, whispered Beckett, all but sighing.

“I in fact am helping very much indeed.” He touched the tip of William’s nose and smiled. “Now come here. I’ll make you forget all about him if just for a moment.”

Needing that one moment like the air he breathed, William let himself be dragged to the kindness of Tyson’s lips. If all the peace he could have would be summed up in just one blissful moment, then he’d take it willingly.

Chapter Text

Working in the making of a song with the guys in Cobra was being ten times more of a handful than he had ever expected it to be. Victoria had shown up in his bedroom in his hotel room and sat with him for over eight hours to force and compel him to focus on the song like a perfect dictator in thighs and high heels. The recorded preview was far from clean, one channel, just barely mixed, almost acapella, and what would now be William’s voice was, at that time, Ryland’s. Vicky-T played Maja’s part, which William didn’t think sounded bad at all, although she had just flung a pillow at him when he had said so. She read and reread the lyrics with him, then practiced the vocals and pitches with him, teaching him how to control his voice on the high notes he couldn’t sustain because the demo showed Gabe’s voice. Victoria was that much of a sadistic to keep it running on the background while he tried to raise his voice higher and louder than Ryland’s because she knew that, deep down inside, it was Gabe’s voice that kept William going somehow.

After some time, they got to each other’s nerves in every way they could. She took him off his cellphone while he was in a call with Ryan and prevented Tyson from visiting, aside from not letting anyone contact him in anyway, which made him throw his phone at her. She outsmarted him, dodging and hitting him hard with her elbow. He had bent over the bed and spilled his guts on the floor and after that they had become almost civilized with each other. William had been one to release stress while working, but his stress was all about working with Saporta and Vicky-T wouldn’t have any of it. She had taken upon herself to make them be fine with each other by the time the recording process was over, or else she’d lock them up in the same room and bury whoever died first. She couldn’t understand the scene they were making: so William had a girlfriend and Saporta was not worth his weight, what was the big deal about that? They had to grow up and it didn’t matter what they’d lose along the way – because they would lose something. Their innocence, maybe. They’d have to make concessions, which was never an easy thing. Later that night, the day before they had to record their separate channels and finish the song, Victoria had let her big sister’s side show up and took a sleepy William in, his head resting on her legs on top of the bed, in her bedroom, curled up like a baby boy. He held her knee with gentleness and a hint of possession; she raked her hands through his hair in small, caring movements, close enough to sleeping too. Gabe had not come back to sleep in Cobra’s apartment after having found his own. She thought hazily of how things would turn out once they got into the plane, once they reached California, once the script for the music video was fully finished. She prayed that they’d come out alive and that was all she could hope for.

Victoria’s dreams that night were wilder and more vivid than any other she’d had during the previous weeks. They all ended in a black hole that remained for a couple of minutes before she woke up. It was a riled up night, filled with wicked premonitions and reliving of old fears, not all of them referring to Gabe and Beckett. All in all, Victoria had her demons too, a past she thought best unrecalled and things she’d soon have to face.

They were woken up by a very excited Nate who knocked them out of bed with loud screams and some drumming at the door. Sleep-drunk, they took a look at the clock marking precisely noon. They had gone far last night but William was finally ready. Maja, alongside with Nate, stared at them too. She had spent the night with Ryland, although no one could pinpoint how sexual that “spend the night” had been, and it was his the shirt she wore over tight jeans. Everyone would recognize Ryland’s shirt but she couldn’t care less: she’d record whatever she had to exactly like that. Victoria took in the deepest of breaths and poked William, admonishing him to go shower while she’d do the same. She chose cold water, which seemed to pierce through her skin but woke her up. It was their first testing, that day, the first forced cooperation. She knew that after that, the trip would be the biggest of their problems and resurface everything they were trying to hide. Anxiety didn’t come close to defining what they felt.

When William showed up, looking dragged from his beauty sleep for the hundredth time in a row, Victoria was sitting across the sofa, a long distance put between her and Maja. Beckett didn’t pay it any attention, especially when the brunette got up and hugged him while they walked their ways out of the hotel and into the cabs. The boys spent their time talking about general nonsense while Maja and Vicky-T had only their silences to keep them company. When they reached the studio, Gabe was at the door, waiting for them. Peter had threatened them with imprisonment and murder: if they didn’t show up at the appointed time, they’d have to record the whole song in a single channel, which would make up for dozens of hours. He was inside the open room, giving them his oks and signaling them all in. William frowned.

“Hey, Beckett!” Travis saluted his, showing up from behind Gabe and half-hugging the other. “Hey too, Maja. Imma get in, Gabe wants to be the last but I don’t think he will; what are you gonna do?”

William shrugged and entered the studio, Victoria giving Gabe a despicable look when he saluted Maja with a quick peck on the lips. Peter waited until everyone was inside to explain what they were about to do. Gabe would go first and they would follow, maybe listening to what he had sang, maybe not, while synching their voices. Victoria raised her hand slowly, very Hermione-like, and asked him if William would go right after, because in case he didn’t they’d fetch themselves some breakfast. Wentz all but yelled at her, since it was afternoon already, agreeing to let William do his part later to avoid him collapsing inside the studio. They decided what they’d do and left, Vicky-T and William, sliding to their everyday coffee shop to grab anything they could eat. Beckett raked his hands through his hair, his elbows firmly set on the table while Victoria bought him an espresso and a blueberry muffin and chose herself something else. Now that he had to actually sing the song they’d been practicing so much, he realized he didn’t feel like it. Having seen Gabriel and noticing that he barely looked at him had been a minor but sturdy blow to his ego and he didn’t enjoy the feeling. He could but thank that Peter didn’t feel the need to lock them all up together, although there was a hint of disappointment inside his guts he didn’t seem to be able to get rid of. Decidedly giving up, he stretched his arms on the table, head following suit to rest partly on them, partly on the gleaming material beneath them. When Victoria came back, he didn’t bother looking up.

“You see, you’re not the brightest of stars today.” She sighed and pushed a doppio to him. “Would you mind cheering up? Peter is dying to get at you for profaning the hall by making out with Ritter and you’re giving him a hell of an excuse to.”

William’s brows furrowed deep when he looked at her. “He saw?” How could he have? They had been hiding, after all. They were good at hiding.

“According to Gabe, every living creature with functional eyes who came from a certain corridor did.” She smirked. “Made quite an impression on him, the lot of you.”

“I can’t believe Gabriel talked to you about it.” He toyed with the fading coffee foam on top of his cup.

“Well, and why wouldn’t he? He was understandably upset. Called you a few fouls. Looked concerned.” She sipped her coffee, licking away the milk foam in her upper lip, and picked up a tiny macaron. “He’s worried more than anything, I guess.”

“I have a feeling I was not supposed to be acknowledging it”, said William in a murmur, burning the tip of his tongue with the heavenly hot drink.

“He didn’t bid me to keep it secret.” Victoria shrugged. “Now spill. Tyson is not a guy to shit around and neither are you.”

“He’s a friend”, answered him through almost-gritted teeth. “He keeps me company and is a nice distraction.”

“By sticking his tongue all the way down your throat.”

“You don’t have to approve it.” He turned the cup a few times before sipping some more coffee.

“I just want to understand it.”

“Look, it’s just young fooling around, ok? He makes me feel normal and hormonal without the perks of romantic involvement. It’s cozy too, because he doesn’t fret over silly favors we do each other and I know it’s just lust-relief so I don’t have to be ashamed of it.”

“Will, look at me.” He clasped both hands around the cup before shyly doing so. “Is Ty part of the reason you’re not resorting to Gabe?”

She looked so tired William couldn’t lie to her. “Gabriel is the reason I’m resorting to Ty.”

“Oh, for crying out loud.” She munched another macaron angrily. “I’m sick and tired of being in the middle of you both and your ramblings. I can’t figure you out. If you’re doing and dropping with a guy you don’t love already, what keeps you from doing Gabe instead? It would be good for both of you.”

He parted his muffin in half and ate one of the crumbling pieces in long chews, downing it with gulps of the unsweetened coffee. Victoria kept staring intently at him. Eventually she got tired of it and sighed wearily.

“You know, I can see why you’d think my question rhetorical but it wasn’t.”

“But you answered it yourself.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Yes, you did. When you said I’m d&d-ing a guy I don’t love.”

William.”

“What do you want me to say, Victoria? I might get back to loving him.” He shrunk in his chair, fiddling with his cup. His eyes lowered fast, hiding their true intent from Victoria, afraid that she might read them for what they were showing, instead of what he wanted them to show.

“Not even you believe it completely.” She shook her head wanly. “Other than that, would it kill you?”

“It might as well. Leaving almost did.”

“Can’t you let go of this fucking fear of leaving?” The words were rude but she stretched a hand to touch his with tenderness. “He’s a coworker now. You have my number. The only way any of you is leaving is if one of you dies.”

“I can’t.” He pulled away from her, holding the cup tighter and shaking his head vehemently.

“You bloody well can, Beckett.” She rested back on the chair, folding her arms. That was going too far from where she wanted him. “And if you at least care about me, you will. I am really tired.”

She ate some more and finished the rest of her cappuccino with deep lines of frowning clinging to her face. William did the same, the food scratching its way down to his stomach. Coughing and drinking the rest of his coffee, he sighed almost as unenthusiastically as she had not long ago.

“I didn’t mean to be a liability, you know. If it soothes you, I will find a way to make things work with him somehow. Even knowing I should not forgive him yet for the sake of my sanity, I will call in a truce, ok?”

And give in eventually, he thought in a suspiciously calm corner of his mind, never saying it aloud. She took his hand on hers. He returned the grip with far more sureness than he felt. “I know I’m asking a lot, William. Thank you for understanding.”

They chatted for a while longer before they decided they had wasted enough time away from the studio. When they got back to where they were supposed to be, they found out that Gabe was not anywhere to be seen. Inside the booth, Maja performed her part, her voice inaudible although she was visibly singing at the top of her lungs. By a chair, sprawled on the floor like a puddle, Travie counted the lines on the ceiling while he waited for his turn. Victoria stood in front of his collapsed body until he acknowledged her being there. He smiled and raised his hand to an awkward high-five with the brunette, who only then sat on the chair by his side, throwing her legs casually over its left arm. William took a seat in the chair across the narrow hallway, overlooking their interaction with anything but true interest. He might even have dozed off while Vicky-T questioned McCoy about Gabe’s whereabouts and the quality of his recording. Beckett took in tidbits of random information: Pete was almost satisfied, Maja entered before Saporta was completely done, the mixer was supervising the quality of the channels with Wentz, and Travie had changed some of the lyrics to his part. In no more than fifteen minutes, he was already joining Travie on the floor, both guys’ legs, stretched side by side, taking most of the walking space. McCoy joked about it but he really barely paid attention to it.

He didn’t know how long it had taken for Maja to leave the studio and he missed the moment when she was replaced by McCoy and vice-versa. Instead of talking cheerfully to Maja as she had with Travie, Vicky-T started rummaging through her cellphone, looking for something and typing furiously after a couple of minutes. Ignored but not hurting, Maja touched William’s ankle with her feet, throwing him out of balance enough to call in his attention. She smiled beautifully, sliding to his side and holding out a perfectly manicured hand. She had mildly callused fingertips, one of the signs that said she could play at least one string instrument with some practice if not sheer ability. William’s fingertips where just the same, maybe even less sensitive especially right below his trimmed nails, but his digits noticed that the rest of her finger’s skin was as smooth as Victoria’s. They shook hands like the first acquaintances they were and she presented herself formally. He replied with his full name, to which she smiled, and made a movement to let go of her hand. She never let him. Maja picked up his other wrist instead and threw his arms on top of her shoulders, smiling yet more absentmindedly when he instinctively pulled her closer.

“You’re cold”, he noticed with a hint of amusement. Somehow, he never took Maja for a cold person.

“Damn right I am.” She had an accent to her voice that William couldn’t quite pinpoint where it came from, but it was hardly American. “Recording drains my strength like nothing ever could.”

He nodded understandingly. That he could relate to. Recording required so much of his body that the only things he could do that took more of him were live performances. He was prone to overdo himself in a stage, which his bandmates thought too dangerous when he was already not the best person to eat and sleep properly under stress.

“Are you up to eating something?” He didn’t know why he was offering, but it felt like he should do it, so he did.

“Thanks, but I’ve had a candy bar already. Gabe knows how things are with me and he gave me one before taking the call.”

“What call?” William didn’t mean to intrude, of course not, although not many people took calls when recording… Cellphones were forbidden inside the booths because of the distortion they could cause.

“His mother, I think. Something about his half-brother, if I’m not mistaken. I think she wants him to go home for Christmas, but he’s not very fond of this idea, you know? It was very hard for him to get over the divorce, although he does love his little step-brother. His little brother is a whole different matter. In fact, if I’m to be honest, I don’t even know how many brothers he actually does have. I know he’s got at least three, but hellhounds bite me if I’m certain of their ages and stuff. He’s cut some ties after their parents’ divorce and my impressions are that they were never rebound.” She shrugged and yawned, smiling even wider once she was done. “But how far did we go! Hope I wasn’t TMI-ing you. Gabe’s kinda prig when it comes to his past.” She giggled inwardly. “Well, scratch that: he’s a whole fucked up matter when it comes to his past. Sometimes I wonder if there’s anything of it that he retained and chose to keep close. He never speaks of it, you see. Neither of his family nor old friends or lovers. It took me forever to find out he’s Jewish. I think he erased it all for some reason, although you can only count on Vy to know it for sure. He likes keeping people he doesn’t really trust in the dark, and who the fuck can blame him for that.” She didn’t seem to be put off by the fact that according to her reasoning Gabe didn’t really trust her. “It’s harder than it sounds, trusting people. Showing your vulnerable self to them, letting them in. It’s even worst to allow them to stay. People are treacherous; they are despicable in the most obnoxious ways. I for once am never gonna let anyone that close to me again.”

William knew that he was staring at her with dumbstruck eyes, his face a placid reflection of a thrilled listener. There was an unexpected prejudice being taken down with a strike there: Beckett knew very little about Maja and Peter had presented her based on her music and scenic skills; he had never thought her capable of going into such profound conversation without intermissions of any kind. Very few people really could when confronting someone they knew so little about. There was a thin layer of honesty in every word she spoke, a little of her life unveiling for him, for someone she’d barely ever seen at all, despite her claim that she wouldn’t let people close. That took courage and self-sufficiency in ways Beckett could not begin to imagine.

Maja must have noticed the way he was staring at her, because she nudged at his chest with an uncomfortable giggle that sounded somewhat like a highschooler’s. “Hey, you can speak now. There’s no need to let me monopolize this conversation.”

“I was thinking your considerations of utmost importance to me, actually.” He knew he wasn’t lying. “I know very little about Gabe and it is not helping us getting to work together.”

“My, this is unexpected.” William quirked an eyebrow up, which made Maja shrug her shoulders once. “Saporta never goes on with something that might damage his career or that of those around him. He’s very self-conscious when it comes to his money-making strategies. Nothing ever shows up for long enough to jeopardize it.” She frowned. For an incomprehensible reason, William looked up, but Victoria was not there. He felt bad for not having seen her leaving. The sound of Maja’s voice took him from what would certainly be an overreaction before it could spark up. “Are you sure he’s not making efforts towards you? No, wait, this came out wrong. Gabe’s not one to make efforts like this, I’m afraid. What I mean is, seeing that the both of you are not working together the way you were supposed to, hasn’t he sought any kind of relieving of these tensions?” William’s mouth remained shut, a gesture Maja took as a negative. “That’s remarkably unusual. I wonder if Victoria has spoken to him already. She’s got a keen eye on such matters, especially when Gabe’s fails for whatever reason.”

“I think she’s spoken to him”, murmured Beckett in a thinned voice.

“And you’re still not working well together?” Her electric-blue eyes pierced right through him in a much less delicate way than Victoria’s had ever done. “Are you sure you’re not the one withholding the development of whatever it is that must blossom between you so you can make it? Maybe you’re a truster and haven’t realized it yet.”

“I’m a what?”

“A truster.” She underlined the word, staring at him impatiently. “Maybe you need to know those you work with to be able to work with them. Maybe you need to know that they’ll be there for you too, that you won’t suffer through everything on your own. I can relate ‘cause this is just how I am. It’s pretty damn hard to work with Gabe at first if you’re a truster, but he is trustful, that I can assure you. He makes lifetime commitments. He held Midtown together until they all decided they had to break. It was a popular topic not long ago; everyone knew that it wasn’t his fault. Gabe made it look like it was not anybody’s fault, in fact. That’s just who he is.” She clapped her right hand on his knee twice. “Just in case you’re a truster, which I don’t know if you truly are but still, come clean with him. Don’t fuss about shit that ain’t worth it.” The seriousness wiped itself away from her face and she smiled. “But then again, that’s just me. You go do what you think you ought to do.”

William couldn’t help the smile and the snorted spasm of laughter that escaped him. He almost expected to see Maja picking up a teacup and sipping from it very diplomatically. Still laughing inwards, he relaxed a little. What the hell had happened to his life in the past days? Why the fuck everyone suddenly had an opinion towards his relationship with Gabe? Was that a set up? Were things that bad? He sighed. Maybe he was already late in getting going for a truce after all. When Carden and Butcher started picking on him because of it, he’d know things were too far gone already. Siska was ok; he knew a lot about his private life and usually managed to understand him in speechless ways that saved his life when they were touring. Carden had no interest at all in William’s private life and Butcher only intervened when Sisky went to him begging him to please help William out of whatever bottom of hole he had reached. Siska had already dragged Butcher along the day William found out that Gabe was his Gabriel, so something inside him whispered quietly that said begging was not far from becoming real.

He was so tangled up in his own thoughts about strategies and ways to get over that fear of Gabe that he missed the moment when Maja closed his eyes, that was followed by Victoria’s return and McCoy’s leave from the booth. Travie poked at him hard with the side of his shoes to take him out of his reveries.

“It’s your turn, dude.” He made a signal towards the booth, where Peter awaited. “Go on before the imp gets mad. He’s being a pain in the ass today and believe me, you don’t want your ass pained.”

William nodded absentmindedly, holding Maja for a few moments until she opened her eyes and sighed. She had not been truly sleeping, but he felt bad for disrupting her peace still. She waved him off, begging him to go inside and record, and Beckett was surprised to see Victoria going in alongside him. He held out a hand for her, feeling the coolness of her hand in his and smiling faintly.

“You’re coming in?” Peter frowned at her, his eyebrows becoming one.

“Can’t I?”, asked her innocently.

“The hell you can’t. You’re pretty much the only one who has managed to get anything outta Beckett for the past weeks.” He locked them in and walked to his spot. Beckett adjusted the mike and the headphones, splaying the chart of his lyrics on the music stand. Peter’s voice boomed over their heads, preceded by a minor distortion. “Right, I know Victoria has practiced the entire lyrics with you, so warm up with them, ok? I’ll give you the bass line and one of the guitars only and we’ll see if your timing isn’t rotten.” He nodded. “There’s water in there somewhere, too. If you faint today, I’ll get you dismembered and sent overseas.” He nodded again. “Great. Hold Victoria’s hand if you might.” Beckett didn’t restrain the smile that plastered itself on his face. “Take your time.”

It was incredibly easy to focus on the song inside a soundproof booth, with only Victoria as his active audience. There was one big window on one of the walls that showed the corridor. The shutters were not closed, but that part of the studio was deserted except for them that day. He missed the beginning of the song several times, causing Pete to curse at him every time and Victoria to burst in rapid laughter after the fifth time. He had sang-along, and Vicky-T would never be one to tell him, but she knew he had been using Gabe’s cues to find his. After some time, though, when his voice had warmed up and he was feeling several times freer inside the booth, he finished the entire music, choking a little in one of the high notes. Wentz praised him like an owner would his dog, making him carry on soon after he took his water. A quick, subtle tap on the window showed that Maja was staring at him, observing him as if she had never seen anyone recording before. Travis was by her side, giving him thumbs up just to tease him. Pete tried to shoo them off, but they reappeared in the middle of the song. William had no problem with them, as long as it was just them.

“Good but not awesome, Beckett.” Wentz’ voice was nowhere near happy. “You’re still coming in too early. I know we can just mash your voice into the song, but seriously, you’ll have to make do with this song eventually, so you’d better nail it now, don’t you think? It can’t be that hard.”

Beckett had just signaled his understanding when Victoria asked him to open the channel. “Put Gabe’s voice in.” William’s eyes narrowed at that request. “Let him remember the song as it originally is for once, Wentz. You’re not that much of a fucker, come on.”

Wentz seemed to disagree, but he indulged the girl nevertheless. At the window, Maja and Travie made gestures that comprehended a wide amount of expressions along the lines of “what the hell happened”, to what Beckett just shrugged. Pete decided to carry on with the version with Gabe’s voice, recorded earlier and somehow a little rougher than he expected it should be. As Victoria wisely thought, he didn’t miss a single timing that time. His highs were still not high enough, though. There was a hesitation in his voice that made it tremble. Pete noticed it, of course, and knocked on his window, asking him to stop.

“I think we should just take five.” He raked his hands through his hair and took an awfully deep breath. “Your timing has come back to what it is, but you’re dead inside, Bill. How am I supposed to fix the sound of your voice? You managed beautiful things with ‘The Phrase that Pays’ and now you’re shitting me when there’s so much at stake. Your highs are sounding like an impaired chicken giving birth. Go hydrate and make some respiratory exercise to see if that goddamn trembling comes out of your voice.”

Victoria smirked. “Maybe he needs someone to hold his hand.” William glared at her, but she kept staring at them innocently. “What, it’s only fair you have someone, since you’re the one who had less time to practice.”

“I don’t need any hand-holding, Victoria”, growled he, taking the tap off his bottle. “I just need to warm up a bit and relax.”

“She might not be that wrong, you know.” Peter’s voice was pensive, calculating. “Wait a minute.”

He went out of their field of vision, leaving Victoria to giggle and William to draw air in and let it out in the sequence of breathing exercises that helped him relax whenever he was faced with a strange song. He knew that there was still some uneasiness regarding Gabe inside of him that was dangerously close to anxiety, the kind of anxiety that meant something grand had been achieved and left his throat dry and rough like sandpaper. He knew that it was probably what was strangling his highs, but he didn’t know what was happening exactly. He was even feeling more condescending towards the other and he hadn’t even looked at him yet.

When Pete came back, he was holding someone’s arm. Beckett felt it before he saw it: Gabriel’s presence, mounting and hovering above him the moment the other entered the booth. He recklessly wiped his mouth on his arm, nodding to greet him. Inside him, his stomach churned. Hell if Wentz wouldn’t know just how to give voice to all his fears. Actual voice, that time. He invited Gabe to sit down and looked at both guys.

“I want you two to find Beckett’s chords and bring them back to life before I slap you. And don’t even finish this smirk, Saporta, because today was not one of your top performances and I’ll make you do it all over again as soon as I’m done with William.” He breathed in like an exhausted mother. “I’m taking five myself, with the channels out. Figure yourselves out and make me understand why the hell you are always biting each other but make the best things you can with your voices side by side. Both of you are sucking big time today and I hope it will be solved by the time I’m back.”

He grabbed Victoria by the wrist and went away with her, locking them up again. The click of the locket was not audible from inside the booth, but William could bet that they would not be able to open the door by themselves. Shaking his head, he picked up a bottle and tossed it at Gabe, who caught it with a perfect flick of his wrist. The taller guy thanked him, taking in a huge gulp of water and putting the bottle down to dangle in his hands, between his knees.

“Guess we fucked up our great marketing opportunity, didn’t we?” Finally, he smirked. There was nothing negative about his face. “Vy has told me you were doing great before.”

He shrugged and folded his arms, crossing his ankles. His bottle hung on his fingers by its lips, still open and almost emptied. “Lost the spark, I guess.”

“We both did, then.” Saporta drank some more, looking at William expectantly then. “Pete wants us to rely on each other for this song. He says our performances are the ones that are giving him trouble and he suspects it’s because of our personal issues, though he didn’t verbalize it.”

“He suspects?” William laughed out loud. “How blind of his.”

“He believes we’re past that. We’re not, though, are we?” William shrugged again. “I thought so. Do you think you can lean on me so we can finish this bloody song and go live our lives?”

“I don’t know. Can I?” There was very little sarcasm in his voice, being the uneasiness and the first drops of a binding initial trust the things that Saporta would get a grasp on more effectively.

“You have to tell me.” He shrugged, making it sure that it would be his own choice to do so. “You rely on other people all the time and they are not half as important to your future as I am right now.” Beckett bit back a response that would remember Gabe that the others had never been as close to him as Gabe had been. Maja had already cleared that for him. It was enough to his mind that out of everything Gabe had chosen to keep from his past, he had been the one he felt good with. He sighed instead.

“If you’re referring to Ty, he’s just a friend. I was confused and he took me in, as he’s always done.”

“Being straightforward, William, you still are. Confused, I mean. You can’t get a grip on yourself to sing, for fuck’s sake. I can’t either, but I know how to stop it and I’m trying it now, so if you’d be as kind as to help me figure yourself out so we can get on?”

William chewed on his bottom lip for a moment. “Have you ever considered that we’re singing this song with each other, to each other?”

“And?” He didn’t show any signs of impatience.

“And we’ll be singing it to each other when the video production starts and after it too, if Pete gets his way and send us on tour like he intends to.”

“And?”

“And I don’t think it will be nice, Gabe. I don’t. I’ll be your partner then and I think I won’t make it because I don’t trust you.” He stared intently at the other. “Maja said I’m a truster, and what if she’s right?”

Gabe giggled, unbelieving. “Yes, Maja would know that about you.” He shook his head and got up, leaning on the wall close to William. “Willy.” He smiled broadly. “You are my partner already. We are making a song together. We’re in the same label. We’ll tour together eventually, you said so yourself.” He laid a hand on Beckett’s shoulder. “You can trust the amount of work I’m putting into this song, if you can’t trust me for myself yet. Unlike my earlier suggestions, we don’t have to fuck each other to be able to trust each other and work together, my boy.” He withdrew his hand and folded his arms. “You know, when I saw you and Ritter, I was so shocked I got drunk and spilled my emotional and actual guts on Vy. But you’re not my boyfriend and according to her you’ll never become anything close to it unless I give you time and space to figure yourself out. So take your space and get used to me again, if you must.”

“Why are you being so rational?” There was an edge of suspicion to William’s voice that could not be denied.

“Because one of us has to. One of us has to know that, regardless of what we once meant to each other and regardless of where we stand now, we’re partners. We’ll work together. We’ll be seeing each other on a daily basis. You’re friends with quite some of my friends. I can’t keep from feeling what I feel, but I won’t shove it down your throat anymore. There’s no reason why our relationship can’t become somewhat like the one you and Ty have, for an example. And it’s just an example. We can end up like you and Sisky, or Victoria and I. What I mean is… there are no reasons for us to treat each other differently. It pains me to acknowledge so, but things are what they are and not what we want them to be. I’ve tried to win you back and it’s all backfiring at me. It’s tiring. I don’t give you space to become comfortable around me and therefore we never get to know each other properly. Maybe I can find out that I like you very much and don’t yet love you like I thought. You might find out you don’t despise me as you want to. And that’s fine. You have to understand that discovering each other is just fine.”

William munched at his own lips for a couple of moments. “What about the…” He motioned his hands in the air, gesturing vague and widely.

“Physical contact?” He nodded embarrassedly. “I swear to God that the next breach in our work-only scheme will come from a whim of yours, not of mine. After that, it will be your choice. I’ll make sure it remains your choice.”

William raised a brow at the prophetic tone of Saporta’s voice but chose not to comment any further since Pete took that moment to open the locket to the room. Gabe mussed Beckett’s hair up, a gesture that didn’t ring as intimate now as it would have some days before. A light glowed inside William’s heart at that. With Tyson being so eager to ease the sexual tension between them, now William thought that he could try to relate with Gabe. Hadn’t he been able to talk to him in a decent way? It had been a marvelous experience not to feel his heartbeat raising in volume and speeding up frantically while he tried to come to terms with the other.

“Just consider what I said, will you?” He smiled fondly at him. “We’ll talk again by the end of the day.”

William compromised with thinking at the same time that Pete opened the channels and asked them to move their sorry asses to their recording positions so he could evaluate them both before dispatching Saporta and wrapping things up with Beckett. They cleared their throats and Gabe helped himself to a headphone, although there was just one microphone on the room. William noticed it and, unlike anything he would have done before, he stepped aside to let Gabe take his place by his side and use the same equipment. Wentz was right. They had to figure themselves out and if Gabe was willing to make himself available to be trusted, William wouldn’t be the one to sneak off of his responsibilities. Running away had given no results so far; maybe concessions would do better.

He realized that their new approach to each other was probably the best when Pete chimed in, after some repetition, and approved of both of them. “Now I think you can record without sounding like someone’s skinning a cat.” They had to laugh at that. “Saporta, out. I’ll get back to you when this one’s done.”

Gabe stared at William while he gave his headphones up, nodding in trust and something that looked remarkably like joy at him. Beckett acquiesced slowly, willing to take that trust that time. Maybe he’d have to evaluate it every time, but he’d try. He knew what his answer to Gabe’s proposition would be already when he turned his back to him and began singing like there was no tomorrow.

Saporta closed the door to the booth and walked towards Victoria, who had been expecting him with a smile such as those of queens. She opened her arms and he hugged her close, pulling her slightly from the floor. She petted his hair, still smiling. “I’m so proud of you.”

“It’s taking all of my self-control and every bit of my love for him to stick to it already”, murmured the guy, tightening the embrace.

“I know, and it makes it all the more worth it.” She kissed his cheek slowly. “Look at him, Gabe. He needed this truce just as you did. This renewal of trust is the best thing that’ll happen to you.”

Saporta stole a glance at the booth, where William sung at the top of his lungs, his eyes closing when he reached what Victoria and Gabe knew had been a perfect high in a very long “goodbye”. His heart shrunk a little when he realized how deep his scar on William had been, so that he needed to be freed by Gabe in order to carry on. He sighed and put an arm around her waist to stare at him. “Do you think he’ll take it?”

Victoria laughed inwardly, resting her head against his shoulder. “Gabe, dear, he already did.”

They kept looking at William and discussing Gabe’s approach for some minutes; when he started repeating specific parts, told by Peter to do so, Victoria picked up Gabe’s attention by asking him his plans for the music video. He could talk about it for several minutes, and he did so, only stopping when Peter asked him to go do his job. It was William’s time then to sink on the ground with Victoria by his side, snuggled up against his chest. He caressed her hair slowly while he stared at the window. Gabe had made it on purpose, positioning himself in the way that would allow people to look at him with less effort, so William stared shamelessly. He was a natural; that had to be said. He made singing seem effortless, made the song perfectly audible just by the movement of his lips. It was a gift and, for a daydreaming moment, William wondered if it wouldn’t be nice for him to be a part of that gift. He could get used to being in good terms with Gabe, he thought to himself.

Victoria was still being cuddled when Travie and Maja showed up excusing themselves by saying they still had issues to tend to and they’d like to get going before it was too late for them. Wentz had obliged since they had been the less problematic that day. William thought that it was a good sign, but it probably also meant that Pete would exploit Gabe and him some more. After saying their goodbyes, Victoria told William that Gabe had rented a car and could drive them home, if he didn’t mind being in the same vehicle as the other. Beckett shrugged, knowing that the true meaning of the offer had been to hide Victoria’s tiredness, and nodded slowly. His hands carried on raking through her hair and caressing her back; sooner than he thought possible, she was asleep, her breathing carrying on in sudden puffs as if the exhaustion was too big to let her indulge in a peaceful nap.

Beckett gave in to the fondness that had been surging inside his chest and kissed her forehead tenderly. Victoria had been honest when she said that she was too tired. He could see it now that he wasn’t just worrying about him and Gabe. He knew that he would have to repay her attention and care and he would do it of his own free will, as soon as possible.

Time drained around them; when Gabe showed up again, William had lost track of it. Victoria mumbled something in her sleep and moved, urging William to hold her closer. Saporta noticed it and kneeled beside them.

“Is she ok?”

“Just asleep.” He smiled affectionately at her before staring at the other, the remnants of the smile still on his lips. “Are you done yet?”

“For good, if Wentz’ keeping his word.” He slumped on the floor next to the other two. “Is Maja around?”

“Nope, she left with McCoy not long ago.” William yawned. “I had forgotten how recording could be tiring… Victoria said you’re to give us a ride and I didn’t object.”

“I told her I would, yeah.” He stared at the sleepy woman and then back to Beckett. “Pete’s gonna give me the heads up soon; we can leave then, but not before.”

“I understand.” William chewed his lips absentmindedly. “Look, there’s a snack machine in the lobby. You should pick something to eat. Maja told me you gave her your candy bar and Victoria would be pretty pissed if she found out I let you leave without eating anything.”

Gabe smiled hearteningly at the other, but nodded without saying a word. William thought he had done it to buy him some time away from Saporta, but no: he was really caring about the other singer. It didn’t feel that much different from caring about Vy or Tyson or Siska, so he shrugged it off and indulged in caressing the brunette’s hair some more.

Gabriel returned with chips and some Snickers, tossing one of the candy bars at him and getting back to his first sitting position, taking his time to open the bag of salty goods and munching a handful of them before offering it to Beckett. He denied the offer with a shake of his head. Gabe didn’t insist. He had already taken the candy bar and Gabe thought there was no need for him to push him any further. They ate in silence, hearing some of the loud yells and shrieks that went to them from the half-open door of the studio, where Pete was assumingly chatting with the chosen mixer.

It was about six o’clock when Peter finally told them the channels were ok and they could go. They knew they had stick by the studio to supervise the first settings and Wentz had them do so to make sure there was no need for remakes of any kind, just as Saporta had thought. William tried to wake Victoria up, being rewarded with quite a resistance and a lot of nonsense mumbling that sounded really annoyed. Gabriel laughed at that and at Beckett’s desperate look, kneeling and brushing the crumbles away from his clothes before picking Victoria up. She was not light as a child, of course, but Gabe was not complaining. It seemed to be something he had done before.

They followed to the parking lot with little exchange of words, mainly because Gabe was putting most of his effort in carrying a grown-up sleeping woman. He did ask for William to pick up his keys, though, and the symbol on it was enough to make his eyes widen. Somehow, Gabe had a put his hands on a metallic-graphite M5, its lean lines showing perfect care from whoever had been its renter before Saporta. The interior was sleek, dark leather with satin-like patches of water-resistant red fabric where stains were more likely. The transmission was manual and the back seat had a lot of space. Saporta encouraged him to go on when Beckett looked from the car at him, mouth agape.

“Open it and help me put her back here.” He nodded, doing as Gabe said. Victoria entered the car still more asleep than awake, found a sweater and hid her face in it, looking like a little girl hugging a teddy bear. They closed the back doors and Gabe stared at him for a while, smiling broadly. “I reckon you enjoyed my car choice?”

“Are you crazy? Who wouldn’t? This car is something.” William’s hand caressed the vehicle with a gentle touch. “It must be costing you a fortune.”

Gabriel shrugged. “I’ll only have it for some days. Pretty sure my bank account can handle this luxury.” He tapped the hood of the car and quirked an eyebrow up. “Wanna drive?”

William did his best not to answer with a shrill laugh. He was a skilled driver, but he felt his shoulders hunch. He hadn’t practiced enough for the past months. Being an artist gave him little time to indulge in such earthily pleasures. Gabe pushed him a little.

“Come on. It reaches 199 mph, according to the guy who lent it to me. It’s in perfect conditions, engines and all, and with a full tank. Victoria is perfectly safe and tied back there. We can take a less traveled road.”

“You want me to fly an M5 through a semi-deserted road in Tampa?” His fingertips went white when they pressed against the car. “I don’t know, Gabe. What if I hit something?”

“Nonsense! We have airbags, insurance and money. We won’t be running like maniacs, you know.” He entered the car on the passenger side and opened the driver’s door. “Come on. You’re running out of time if you’re intending to have room service bring you something not on the re-heated side to eat.”

William realized what little choice he did have, sliding to the driver’s seat with the surge of power taking over him. He was proud of never having been in a car accident ever since he got his license. He knew he wouldn’t ruin it then. He had always been one of those people who could fly a car for sheer pleasure, for the knowledge of the horizons passing him by in high speed, for the adrenaline rush that fustigated his cheeks and flushed him scarlet when he so much as thought of it. He felt the steering wheel beneath his fingers, the rubbery feeling driving him to the over-conscious state that made him such a good driver. He maneuvered out of the parking lot and into a dimly illuminated speedway that would represent a huge curve on their everyday route. Gabe didn’t seem to mind. He tapped the buttons on the car and a string quartet began to play a quick, motioning melody. Victoria didn’t even move as he sped up and felt the car react to his every wish like nothing else ever would.

He was running at 80 mph, a steady, light pace. There were few curves and the car was stable enough not to tilt on them, even at a somewhat high speed. Gabe followed the music on the car with his fingers playing an imaginary instrument, leaving William free to enjoy the ride. He didn’t worry about his own safety. He trusted William too much to think that he could put them at risk. He knew that, even if Beckett had been suicidal, he would never hurt Victoria, and he rejoiced in the fact that he’d probably never hurt him too.

They eventually reached the hotel. William parked with a screech of the tires, checking Victoria out and smiling brilliantly at Gabe when he noticed they were whole. He was exhilarated, flushed, a mild tension installed on his shoulders. He looked obscenely kissable and beyond fuckable. Saporta almost hid his own groins with both his hands at the sight of him, so free, so careless, so young. He was a sin he could, would make. Someday.

Beckett stretched his fingers a couple of times and thanked Gabriel for the opportunity. It was very different to see him at ease. He was more approachable and exquisitely happy. The vision of it helped Gabe’s heart to soothe and make some peace with Vy’s suggestion of truce. Speaking of which…

“Have you considered what I proposed you?” William’s eyes narrowed for a moment before he nodded, still rather hazily. “And you’ll take it, I guess?”

He seemed to think it through for a while before nodding. That couple of subtle head movements drained away the last remnants of his willpower that had been building so many walls against Gabe. Saporta knew better than to smile, especially because it was not that happy an occasion – yet. It was a deeply serious one. Something good could come out of it, but also a great load of nothing could greet them from the other side of that decision. He had no guarantees and no will to push him any further to achieve them. William had been the pusher when they were little. He used to have the looks, powers and persuasion to force Gabe to bend under his every commanding whim. The main reason why the boy inside Gabe failed to recognize what he was doing – and he did not recognize it, had never – was the wrongness of the moves used. Gabe wasn’t really supposed to push.

“What changes?” William’s voice came out between weak and coarse, barely audible but all the most exciting for it. Saporta stared clueless at him, trying not to give away how much that conversation was straining him. “Come on, Gabe, you’re smart. You wouldn’t make me such an offer if you were getting none with it. So please, don’t make fools out of us.”

That time, he smiled. “First of all, this changes.” He gestured at the whole atmosphere inside the car: light, calm, fight-free. “We get to be civilized around each other and this is a lot to start with.” William nodded, but it was clear he expected the rest of Gabe’s reasons. He could have lied then. It would have been so damn easy to just say he had grown up during the past days and seen the light. He could have said that he loved William too much to put him under such remarkable amount of stress or that his prior behavior had been fairly inexcusable to say the least, but he couldn’t lie to him. He was trying to rebuild some trust in there. If they turned out to become anything, he wouldn’t forgive himself to know it had kind-of-started with a lie, no matter how white said lie had been. He lowered his head for a moment before facing the other again. There was a half-smile that looked embarrassed and he scratched the back of his neck. “Well, in the end, this is… well, Victoria. Have you noticed how tired she is?”

“I did, yes. She’s not been sleeping. She’s been worried with something, but I don’t know what it is. I must say that between the recording and this”, he motioned his hand towards the space between them, “I didn’t have much time to figure out what’s wrong.”

“We are wrong.” Saporta shrugged. “She told me so explicitly.”

“Yeah, same here.” Gabe only nodded. The guilt and the reassurance in that little gesture were enough to make Beckett give it a try. It was all or nothing, it had ever been with them. He stared at Saporta intently, not his eyes nor voice ever faltering. “Are you willing to commit, Gabriel? Willing to understand my reservations or their lack thereof and back me up instead of taking every chance you have to make me feel goddamn uncomfortable?”

“Yes.” He could have said something much more elaborate, such as the typical “if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here”, or the blunt “of course I am, I love you”, but what William was asking him was not just an answer. He wanted honesty and clarity; he wanted Gabe to be clear for once. It was harder with him because he could get grips on pretty much any innuendo left behind by anyone. “I am willing to respect you, William. It includes your personal space, by the way.” Beckett found it in himself to smile. Not smirk, not scowl, but truly smile, almost grin. Gabe did the same and held out his hand. William frowned and hesitated, but took it anyway. It was a firm, subtle handshake; still, none of them let go for a while. “I want us to face our fears and grow up for good. I am not willing to have you if doing so will break you and it’s important that you acknowledge so yourself, in your own time. I’d rather be like this for the rest of my life.”

William’s hand twitched in Gabe’s grip. He didn’t pull it out, though. “You can start by not being that clear as of your intentions towards me supposing I’d let you do as you please.”

“Oh.” Gabe’s hold loosened and he was dumbstruck when Beckett enveloped his hand with the other too.

“It’s not bad, just uncomfortable. You disturb me more than anyone else.” Gabe kept staring at his eyes, unable to deflect the innocence in that look. “You mess with my head because we have a past. You mess with my body because you are gorgeous and I do desire you. I am young, Saporta. I like sex as much as the boy next door. But I can’t do to you what I do to Ty and did to Ryan because I can’t be sure you’d be willing to take it as a joke or stress-relief like they do.”

“I could do it if you wanted me to.” Saporta controlled himself not to bit his lower lip. He was not so sure how long he could play friends with benefits with William if the opportunity arose, but he’d try his best to find out.

“Right now, I don’t want you to. I don’t need you to. Right now, it’s enough that you are listening.” William sighed and gave up completely. “I know we’re not bound to be a fling, Gabriel. You know that too. We’re going hard or going home.”

Gabe squeezed William’s hand and felt his heart leap inside his chest, fearing that it would be visible to the other. “I know.”

“Good.” Beckett let go of him and unbuckled his seat belt. Saporta’s heart somersaulted erratically, his fingertips numbing when William held his face with both hands and got closer. Was that it? A single conversation had been enough? He wouldn’t take it. He couldn’t take it. William smiled and looked into his eyes. Gabe was not dumb enough to think that look meant nothing. “Thank you.” He turned Gabe’s head and placed a quick kiss on his cheek. Saporta had lost count of how many walls had tumbled down there and then. He feared for a moment that it was the adrenaline speaking, but would adrenaline unleash such honesty? He realized he didn’t want to know. “Now let’s take Victoria upstairs.”

Chapter Text

Victoria was literally tripping from sleep when she finally stumbled into the room. William had rather take her to his own apartment, instead of barging through Cobra’s door to deliver her like a package and Gabriel had been keen on it. He didn’t even think the guys in Cobra were actually in their suite right then. Leaning on her friend, she walked the few steps to Beckett’s bed. For a moment, he wondered why he had never realized how big that mattress was. When he was beginning to freak out, not knowing what to do with her – Gabe had left to park the car –, Maja came up out of nowhere, hurrying to Victoria and murmuring what seemed to be comforting words to her. In the meantime, William was rummaging through his wardrobe to find something more comfortable for her to wear.

“William, she needs a shower too,” stated Maja, helping her to get up again under storming protests. “No, Vy, trust him.”

He wasn’t really getting what was going on but still he held the keytarist and helped her go to the suite’s bathroom. It was when he entered the bathroom that he remembered that the room had not always been his; he had traded rooms with Carden right after the last time Gabe showed up in there. He had spent little time in there at all, since he and Victoria carried on practicing in her room. They sat Victoria in a plastic stool and Maja began to undress her delicately. It didn’t seem to be something the brunette was used to, but she protested very little. Her body shut her down every once in a while, making it impossible for them to keep her up straight to shower for very long. She managed to clean herself up and let William hold her while Maja washed away the remnants of soap foam. Gabe entered the room when she was stepping out of the shower, a very wet William helping her walk. Maja and Gabe helped her dress a T-shirt and laid her in bed while William took a quick shower and got dressed as fast as he could. He entered the room to find Gabe sprawled on his bed, Victoria held close to his body and slender hands raking slowly through the girl’s hair. Maja was perched on the mattress at the feet of the bed, clumsily caressing her legs in soothing movements. William thought he wasn’t needed – there was barely a stripe of room in that bed for him and they seemed to have everything under control – but Gabriel begged to differ. He asked the younger man to join them, pulling Victoria closer so that he could sit on the bed too. He did nothing at all: he knew that Victoria was receiving even more attention than she could possibly want and the girl was that close to completely drifting off to sleep in any way. Instead, he kept a mild, whispered conversation with the conscious ones inside the room, coming to the terms of an agreement between them in which they’d have to be much more sensitive to Vicky-T’s needs since she was neglecting them in much the same way William was used to. At that time, Beckett didn’t know that Victoria was soon to become his second concern, behind a certain now-not-quite-phantom figure.

When Victoria finally fell asleep, completely and irreversibly, Gabriel let go of her, sneaking out of her embrace and, helped by William, tucked her in. Maja left the room as soon as she felt comfortable to, waiting for William outside. She didn’t know if William would be the one to leave but something told her it’d be so. Inside, Beckett insisted that Gabe kept the bed, looking after Vy for the night. He was keen on leaving and driving back to his own apartment, an idea William not only thought terribly inconsiderate but also plain stupid. He may not be as exhausted as Victoria, who had been sleepless for the past two nights, or himself, who was in the drawback of an adrenaline rush that could knock him down at any minute but still he shouldn’t be driving and William told him so.

“I guess I can hit Cobra’s suite tonight.” He shrugged.

“No, no, you stay here. You’re more familiar with Victoria and I’ve been in several couches in my lifetime. Pretty sure my back can handle some more.”

Gabe quirked an eyebrow up. “William.”

“What?” he asked innocently.

“You’re over six feet tall, dude. The couch outside is a three-seater, you know.”

“I know. Been there already. Just…” He sighed. “Just keep Vy safe, ok? I’m right on the other side of the door in case you need me.”

“Sure you don’t wanna stay?” Beckett eyed the bed. It was big enough for the three of them assuming two of them could cuddle for the whole night. It was obvious that they’d keep Victoria in the middle, so she wouldn’t roll over in her sleep and end up injured, but the idea was uncomfortable in the most innocent of senses: sharing a bed with Gabriel had never hurt him before but he didn’t want to risk squishing Victoria between them. William reassured him and Saporta didn’t insist. It felt really nice that he didn’t. “If I need you, I’ll let you know.”

“Good. There are chargers in the first drawer. You should recharge your cellphone just in case, you know, someone tries to get in touch with you.” Gabe nodded. “Right. I, huh… I’m leaving then.” For a moment, he wondered if he should kiss Gabriel goodnight, which he obviously didn’t. Yet. Gabe waved him goodbye with his fingers gently splayed on air.

“Thank you for today. And for, well, everything. Just thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

He left the door ajar, just in case Gabe wanted to say something else, but he didn’t. William strode to the couch, where Maja was half-sitting, reading a very battered copy of a European-looking book he didn’t know. Her eyes rose to meet his when he entered her field of vision and she smiled. He plopped by her side on the couch and felt her arms embrace him tight, a chaste, quiet kiss planting on his temple. He caressed her arms lazily, sighing weightlessly.

“Tell me you’re ok,” he murmured, tired.

“Never felt better, sweetheart.” She patted his thigh. “I eat and sleep properly, have a very healthy, very careful-although-active sex life and don’t overindulge in my vices at any times, especially when I’m recording. Which is, by the way, something I don’t think you can say for yourself, young man. How much are you weighing? You seem to have put off at least fifteen pounds after the picture McCoy sent me of you and I am sure it was taken less than six months ago. It was from Wentz’ archive, the one he keeps so he can send people after you when you’re missing.”

William grunted something unintelligible.

“Just as I thought. I took the liberty of ordering food, and I mean actual food, for all of us except for Vy. I asked the boy who takes care of this floor to send someone up with midnight snacks in case she wakes up starving in the middle of the night.”

“You’re so mother-ish.”

“Only girl, lots of boys. Pretty sure Vy can tell you how it molds our personality to take more responsibilities than what would be reasonably expected if it were an all-boys band.”

“Except when one of the boys is Trick.”

She chuckled.

“Now off you go, there’s someone at the door and I’m this close to dying of starvation.”

He got up to pick up the food and Maja went to Beckett’s room to see if Gabe was still up. He was, so she dragged him along to the living room and sat him down to munch something. It was from a Thai place: Jasmine fried rice, larb gai (including a meatless one for Gabe) and veggie gyoza. Gabe thanked her for remembering his lack of predisposition towards meat – Gabe was becoming quite an active member of PETA, which William knew nothing about only because he had never seen Gabe eating or prodded him on the subject. They ate and spoke a lot, mainly about Gabe’s ideas for the music video. It was the first time that they were all discussing that together. Beckett had thought that the whole point of those things was that they were to be properly discussed with Peter only, since he was the one in charge of turning that soundtrack into something to boost the company’s artists and show them all to the world. Gabe proved him wrong when he explained the idea, the close-ups and the walking. It was kind of impressing that he was willing to give Beckett an unreasonably long alone-time with the camera when he was not the lead singer of their quartet. Maja asked him to just stop with the modesty and let Saporta do what he wanted to, because it would be better for all of them.

The conversation carried on that tone, hushed to prevent them from waking up the others. Siska was in the apartment, but the rest of the band was exploring Tampa. They had their flings and friends all over the state ever since Peter first brought them there. It was very likely that they were not even together. For a moment, William felt some spearing nostalgia. He and Sisky had the same friends in Tampa and he was supposed to be closer to his bandmate and likely best friend. It was not real guilt, but it made him feel bad just the same. He missed Gabe’s last goodnight and was pushed by Maja to brush his teeth and settle on the couch. She snuggled up with him and his thoughts of Sisky where pushed to a corner of his mind when she sighed the longest and most desperate of sighs. He huddled with her, kissing her cheek.

“What’s up, stranger?” he asked. She half-smiled. “We are barely acquaintances, but you can open up to me, sweetie.”

She sighed once again. “Who’s being mother-ish now?” He shrugged. She didn’t say a word, although her big, bright eyes glistened, focused on him. William leaned down and let her kiss him. It was just that once. The kiss built up slow and thorough, in an incredibly innocent fashion. Maja’s body was too thin and fragile in his hands when he steadied her to keep her from slipping off the couch. They parted soundlessly and William was amazed that he didn’t feel the least bit aroused. Had it been Tyson or Chris kissing him like that, he’d be willing to go all the way – or sort of, in Ty’s case.

“I’m concerned about Victoria.” She shut her eyes. “She’s not that strong and we haven’t parted in the best terms the last time we met but she’s still a very dear friend to me when she can get past the havoc I wreaked in her life.”

“Care to enlighten me about that?”

She shook her head. “Not yet. It’s not my story to tell, I’m afraid. I’m also afraid that she won’t be willing to spill her guts about it any time soon. I just… what would you do, William? If you had someone you really, really love, and that love made someone else you really love suffer, who would you pick?”

“I don’t think you’re supposed to pick between those you love.”

“Yeah, I thought so too, but it’s so damn hard to know your refusal to let go of a loving one for at least a moment can unleash so much pain on someone else.”

Well, that he would be relating to very soon. Right then, William just hugged her and tried to soothe her until she slept. He followed right after, unaware that things were going to change dramatically in few hours.

The next morning greeted them with loud laughing coming from Carden’s room, damp luminosity cascading across the mat from the crack on the curtains and Gabe offering them a couple of lattes from somewhere so far from there that William had never heard of it. He took the beverage contentedly, sipping from it and beaming when he realized there was no sugar in it. Gabe nudged them a little and sat down by William’s side, placing his arm on the back of the couch, careful not to touch the just-awaken singer. Victoria showed up while they drank their coffees and small-talked. William was supposed to be in a Gym Class Heroes’ track and would probably record it in the next week, before they left to Burbank. Maja asked him to sing the lines and he gasped – a treat from his roughed-from-sleep voice. They were laughing when Gabe noticed the girl coming in. He spread his arms open and welcomed her like a brother.

“How are you feeling, my dearest?” asked he, kissing her forehead when she sat beside him to pick up the remaining coffee – obviously hers.

“Hungover.” They laughed. “But I needed that sleep. Thank you.” She frowned. “What are you doing here?”

“You didn’t expect Willy to be able to take care of you on his own, did you?” Gabe smiled at her. “We shared a bed and these two shared a couch.”

“Shared how?” There was an edge of suspicion to her voice.

“Like you did,” said William.

“Not enlightening, Beckett.” He stared from her to Gabe a couple of times. “Just to be clear, always assume Gabe has fucked everyone you know. It’s… just to be on the safe side.”

“You two? Seriously?” His left eyebrow shot up in disbelief.

“She’s gorgeous, I’m gorgeous…”

“We were skank-drunk,” added Victoria, stressing it to sound as important as it was. Gabe laughed.

“Shit happens, that’s my defense.”

“I’m not judging,” hurried he, putting his palms up. “Just questioned.”

It should not be that much of a surprise to him that people so close and so young would have slept together, especially given his own history of second-basing guys he considered his closest friends, but it was. A hint of jealousy brewed inside him at that thought, at the protective, brotherly way Gabe was around Victoria, at the fact that they looked that close because they were that close, which also brought out that the only reason why he wasn’t closer with Gabe was his lack of will towards it – supposing it could be consider a lack of will since he was trying to patch things up with the guy exactly because he wanted to befriend him properly or even more.

Ok, too many thoughts for that early in the morning.

“Gabe, don’t we have to go have our measures taken to send to Burbank?”

Victoria was staring at him very intently and the man slapped his own forehead. “I forgot.”

“I know you did.”

“Guys, what are we talking about?” William rubbed the remnants of sleep from his eyes and yawned one last time.

Victoria smiled. “Today we’re going to take measurements for your clothing for the music video.”

“I thought we were wearing our own clothes.” Maja frowned.

Victoria and Gabe exchanged a look and laughed. Gabe shook his head. “Peter wouldn’t let us. You need a suit jacket and a vest. Maja needs a suede jacket and a jumper. I, apparently, need a makeover, because even my pants will be custom made.”

“I want pants too!” William grinned and got up, almost spilling the rest of his coffee. “I know exactly the kind.”

“Wentz won’t pay for those,” warned Victoria, raising an eyebrow.

“I will. Trust me, it will be good.”

“Beckett, your fashion sense sucks.”

“Go to hell. It will be good.”

Victoria shrugged and gave up, finishing her coffee in large gulps. Gabe frowned. Maybe next time they should take less caffeine at once.

Taking measurements was usually not an exciting task, but the tailor was agile and capable, so they were done with enough time to get lunch and take a stroll down a couple of stores so the William could buy some underwear and maybe one or two handkerchiefs. The jokes were unavoidable once William showed up with a Superman boxer, but even Gabe recognized the quality of the fabric, and ended up taking a Batman one. They found a light blue suitcase that Maja thought perfect and it came in handy when they went shopping for groceries – mostly water, yogurt, chocolate and chips. They had lunch and chatted like long-time friends, talking about the challenges of having a band to take care of, discussing faces and looks for the music video, competing to drink the sweetest dark beer they found. When they entered the cab to take them to Gabe’s apartment – it was on the way to the hotel and they felt like chilling a little before going back to the rest of their mates –, they were slightly drunk and terribly happy. It seemed like the day before had happened weeks ago.

The cab pulled over around a commotion of a truck, a van and a couple. Someone moving in, William imagined. They got out of the cab and William went on helping with the bags and the enormous, kind of heavy suitcase. Victoria and Maja started checking if everything was ok with the groceries while Gabe went a little away.

“Hey, Gabe!” William shouted, trying to catch his attention. “Where are you going?”

“I’ll help a neighbor! Hold on!”

William shook his head and got back to the cab’s trunk, trying to ignore the post-noon scalding sun. No wonder Gabe wanted to help the neighbors if the alternative was to see them melt down in puddles while trying to carry their furniture inside the lobby and into the lift – and that was to suppose they fit in there.

They left him to help the neighbors – very nice people, they seemed – and went to take the bags upstairs. Victoria took the key from Gabe’s pocket and the lift arrived fast; before they noticed, they were at Gabe’s apartment. When about five minutes didn’t bring a red-faced Gabe back, William decided to check on him.

“Maybe it’s too much furniture. Maybe something happened.”

Victoria shrugged. “Maybe. Go find him, then.” She gave William the keys. “Don’t worry, the door locks automatically. It’s in case we get bored and find something to do. We don’t want to leave you outside because we didn’t hear you knocking.”

William acquiesced and thanked her, kissed both her and Maja on their cheeks and went into the lift to the first floor. The doors opened to the lobby to reveal the lady neighbor pushing a heavy box onto the building.

“Hold the elevator!” she said, and William did so. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” He smiled at her. “Hey, have you seen my friend? I think he’s helping your husband… Tall, purple hoodie, sharp tongue?”

She laughed with the last of her breath. “They are taking the couch upstairs. We’re moving into the sixth floor, apartment 612.” She kicked a much lighter box into the lift. “Can you do me a favor and take these up? My sister is coming to help us, she just needed to pee, but I have to finish taking things from the van.”

“Sure,” William answered, because, really, he didn’t knew what else to answer to that.

“Great.” She gave him a keychain that held a shiny new key. “This is the key. They will probably need you to open the door for them too.” William nodded, aware that the woman was giving the key to her house to a stranger she had met not five minutes ago. “By the way, my name’s Amanda.”

“William.”

“Thank you very much, William.”

The lift took him back up, and he put a heavy box to hold the door while he took the rest of them to the front of apartment 612. It was all new, shiny doors and everything, and William thought that maybe that was the reason why Gabe liked that place better than the hotel. It felt like somewhere people could build a life in.

He was just taking the box holding the door when he heard the louds puffs and saw the silhouette of a tall, waist-up naked man showing on top of the emergency stairs. He moved quickly to open the door for him and recognized that face.

“Hey, Willy.”

“Hey. Do you want me to keep the door open?”

“Would you? That’d be good.”

Gabe’s tee was stuck between his jeans and the purple hoodie, which was laced around his hips. He was sweating and the veins in his arms were popping from the effort, but he seemed to be taking it all quite well. William tried not to look too much at the set of naked muscles and wet hair, although it was not something he could really avoid, since it was moving about an inch from him. The man holding the other end of the couch was tall but heavy, and sweating much more than Gabriel. He thanked William and smiled very kindly at him, ignoring that William didn’t seem too prone to answer. The singer’s head was focused on something else entirely.

William was almost run over by Amanda, who had a cardboard box in her arms and could barely see straight ahead. Gabe and the neighbor placed the sofa where it was supposed to go, then helped William, Amanda and her sister to bring the boxes in. When they finished, William’s back was hurting a little; he stretched, unaware of the way Amanda’s sister stared at him because of it. Swiftly, Gabe appeared beside him, sweaty and still shirtless. His arm snaked around William’s waist, pulling him closer in a possessive manner.

“You’re sweaty,” William stated obviously, rolling his eyes.

“Come on, you don’t mind it that much,” Gabe purred, smiling gently. The girl moved away from them quickly and Gabe turned to the newcomers. “Welcome to the building, people! If you need anything, call apartment 314.”

They thanked them profusely; Gabe let go of William as soon as the door closed behind them. He was up to his lungs with Gabe’s scent – sweat, yes, obviously, but also a hint of cologne and salt and alcohol. It was strangely appealing to his tipsy brain. William couldn’t help but to steal glances at Gabe’s body every once in a while as they rode the lift down and Gabe introduced him to his house. It was plain when it came to décor, except for the gigantic velvety couch in vibrant red, paired with the wall right behind it. It was overly-cushioned and big enough to sit a small army.

“Do you like it?” Gabe asked when he noticed where William’s stare had stopped.

“It looks comfortable.” He dived for it, stretching on the gloriousness of that fabric. It was darn comfortable indeed. “Expensive much?”

“Not really. Garage sale.”

“It suits the room. Makes it a little too much.”

Gabe laughed out loud. “You haven’t seen the bathroom yet.”

Before William could ask further about it, though, the door was spanked by furious fists. Gabe opened it to see Maja and Victoria coming in with what looked suspiciously like booze in their hands.

“We need to leave,” said Maja. They laughed like they were drunk. “Out the window. Go, Vy!”

“What happened?” William asked, sitting properly.

“Can’t say.” Victoria opened the window in haste. “We’re going.”

Victoria disappeared through the window as Maja queued behind her.

“Don’t open the door!” she screamed, before running down the fire escape following Vy’s trails. William opened his mouth to say something but she vanished before he could. When he turned to Gabriel, he had gone to the door and closed it properly. Only a key could open it from the outside, so they were safe.

“So she meant it?” Gabe greeted him with a confused “what”. “Maja. She meant it when she said to keep the door closed.”

“Oh, yes, she did. It gives us about five minutes to devise a plan that won’t get me kicked out. You have no idea of what they’re capable of when they’re together, Willy. Trust me: you’ll want to be inside, safe and sound, when the cops come after them.”

“Cops? As in police?”

“Yeah. Believe me.”

Gabe hurried to the windows and closed them, drawing the shades down to prevent anyone from seeing whatever was going to happen in there. William got up and folded his arms, spreading his legs and taking a solid base on the ground.

“So tell me, what’s you plan? You wanna confront the police or what?”

“Oh, I’m lousy at confronting the police. The only time I did it I ended up imprisoned. I’m a shitty liar.”

“Do you want me to?” William’s proposal had a knack of fear embedded in it and Gabe hesitated.

“Could you? I don’t want you to do it and get framed.”

William bit his lower lip and sighed. He was not good at lying too. “Did you ever escape the cops before?”

“Yes. Usually by kissing the girl that was not the one to bring the cops to me.” He shrugged. “People are always thrown off balance when they have to interrupt a couple making out.” The idea make a shiver of excitement run up and down Beckett’s spine. William raised a brow, as if the next step should be obvious. Gabe chuckled nervously. “I’m not making out with you.”

Beckett felt his heart sink and his stomach grow cold. Put in such bold terms, it looked very dangerous, but after seeing Saporta helping that neighbor bring a sofa upstairs, all that naked skin that was still showing, the muscles stretching and relaxing in a ballet he knew he could appreciate, well, what the hell. He was willing to give his desires a tiny, time-limited chance and he had a pretext now and maybe he was still a bit under influence and so what? He liked to make out with people. It wasn’t a fucking crime.

Gabe could read want in William’s eyes and it made him shiver. “I promised I wouldn’t, didn’t I?”

Beckett nodded and asked him to come over. Shit. Shit, shit, shit, was that a point of no return? Would that mean he would have to fuck Gabriel in the end? Would that mean they’d have to do that again? Saporta towered over him since he had his own legs parted. Shit. Oh, screw it, he would do that like he had done to Tyson and chastise himself after if it became necessary. They could turn it into a try-out. He held Gabe’s face with both hands and pulled him down to an open-mouthed kiss. He liked preambles and preliminaries but they didn’t have the time. Gabe was startled at first, but it took him very little to hold William by the waist and embrace him closer. William felt himself tremble and give in further. There was a different thing going on there: it was lust, so much and boiling so hot. Gabriel’s legs weakened; he managed to walk to the couch and collapse on it with Beckett on his lap. The feeling of his lips on William’s was inebriating and warm, salty, moist. It was somewhere he didn’t want to leave.

“God, William,” murmured Gabe, breaking the kiss and gasping for air. “What happened to you?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He pressed a quick peck to Gabe’s lips. “I just don’t wanna get caught.”

“Oh, you’re caught alright, my boy.”

He smiled before falling back into the kiss. His hand, so quietly put on Beckett’s body to avoid going to places it wouldn’t want to come back from later, dug deeper in William’s skin. William decided it was not enough: he ran his hands up Gabe’s chest and moved, readjusting on top of him, which made Gabe hiss quietly. He chuckled again. It made him feel so incredibly powerful, seeing Gabe beneath him, so restrained, trying to be polite and nice to him. Doing that was not that different from what it had been with Ty and the familiarity was good, but the fact that it was Gabriel’s body that his fingers were running on made him dizzy. Arousal throbbed inside his pants and he knew, just knew that if those cops didn’t show up pronto he’d do things he’d regret later.

It was the Providence acting that someone knocked on the door. Gabe cursed and William refused to let him go. The knocking grew insistent and strong but they were too caught up in themselves to notice much. In the end, someone with a master key opened the door. William recalled a little too late that he probably shouldn’t be seen making out with someone so hard, although he doubted he could keep his head clear for long enough to care.

“Mr. Saporta?”

William detached his mouth from Gabe’s but didn’t turn to see the guys who had broken in. “He’s busy.”

“We need to speak to you, sir.”

Gabe only nodded, too mesmerized by the flush in William’s face and the ruby-red of his lips. He held William’s face and kissed him briefly again. It made him laugh inside when William seemed to wake up from a dream and blushed crimson while keeping a mean grin on. Some of the naivety of the young Beckett he once knew showed through the blush and it hit Gabe like a shot to his heart. Why had he agreed? Now he would never be able to forget that. William hid his face on Saporta’s neck and Gabe hugged him gently, entwining his right hand on his hair and trying very hard not to mind the stiffness of both his and William’s lower bodies. He prayed the boy wouldn’t move, because Lord, it would grant him a night in jail if he moaned in front of the cops. “Do you mind being quick? We’re in the middle of something.”

One of the cops cleared his throat. There were two of them – the landlord had left already – and they debated brief and audibly whether they should ask William to leave, before agreeing that it was probably for the best that he was still on top of the other. In that very little meantime, William’s lips found one of Gabe’s soft spots on his neck and, shielded by the curtain of brown hair, he sucked gently at it. Gabe’s hands tightened on William’s waist and he murmured very quietly that if he got in jail for public display of sexual acts or anything of the sort, Beckett would go with him.

It didn’t stop the mischievous younger guy, who decided to lick that spot exactly when the taller cop asked Gabe if he had seen any hooded little fellas running around with a bottle of Ace of Spades. Saporta asked them to repeat the question in a hoarse voice, trying very hard to pay attention to them while his neck was violently attacked by a very mean singer.

“Two guys, maybe tall girls, black hoodies, bottle of de Brignac Ace of Spades. The champagne? The very expensive champagne? One of the clients claims they stole it.”

“The door was locked and, ahm…” William bit his neck as a warning. No lying. “Guys, I mean it, I haven’t seen anything, so please let me go back to my duties.”

“Well, apparently you’re the only person here who’s used to hooded guests coming over. Do you mind if we give your apartment a quick search?”

“Just go.”

The officers seemed eager to get things over with soon, judging by the way they stood up and scattered around the apartment. Gabe’s grip on William’s hair intensified and he pulled it, making William stare at him. “What do you think you’re doing, you gorgeous mean thing?” he hissed.

“Playing you a little,” murmured Beckett, taking his time to brush his hips against Gabe’s until his legs spread and he managed to sit between them, his own legs still thrown across Gabe’s thighs. “You’re salty,” he said, licking Gabe’s neck and smiling against his skin. Gabriel’s breath caught in sync with his when the space between the fronts of both jeans became zero to allow it and William’s fingernails marked crescent shapes in Gabe’s torso. “That’s better. Little Gabey was pressing hard on me.”

“Fucking teaser,” said Gabe, lowering his hand to Beckett’s ass to pull his hips even closer. “I’ll have to jerk off when we’re done with this scene.”

“Me too, but who’s complaining?” He chuckled. “Does it mean you know what I’m doing here?”

“Oh, yes, I do. Lots of brushing and passionate kissing and you’ll leave me to finish myself off like you usually do to Tyson.”

“Great, so we don’t have to stop,” said he, licking Gabe’s lips. “I’m enjoying it very much.”

And he was. More than any other make-out session with any other friend.

“Fucking. Teaser.”

Those were the last words Gabe directed to him before pressing their mouths together again. The lust rush that took over William made his hips buck up and he bit Gabe’s lower lip. Saporta was trying very hard not to manipulate Beckett’s movements but he was almost begging him to.

A loud clap made them startle. The short officer was staring at them with inquisitive eyes. “We haven’t found traces of the bottle but that’s a hell lot of hoodies, sir.”

Gabe lost it completely. “For God’s sake, ask the landlord to buy another bottle and put it on my monthly tab if you think I did it but I am trying to get laid here and you’re not helping me.”

“We could land you in jail already, you know?”

“Officers, please. I don’t know anything and I haven’t seen anything but I am willing to pay for some peace of mind. Go find the description of the bottle and I swear I’ll pay for it, you can write it down. I won’t, however, leave unless you prove I’ve done wrong because this boy here took me literally years of courtship and you have no idea of how hard it’s being to keep quiet while he’s on my lap.”

The blunt statement threw the officers off balance for a moment before the tall one decided to write things down, including Gabe’s number and e-mail, so they could contact him later in case the delivery was not set. Gabe thanked them profusely and warned them he wouldn’t see them out, to which the cops merely nodded before leaving and closing the door behind them. The next second, William stared at him in amusement.

“So I’m worth an agreement with the cops and a bottle of de Brignac?” He quirked an eyebrow up and tried to move, much to his regret.

“You’re worth so much more than that.” Gabriel smiled and eased his hold on him. “Ouch. I’m so hard it’s hurting.”

“We can try to talk it down,” said William, getting up and walking a little stiffly to the side of the couch. Sitting down was not to be considered. Gabe tried to follow suit but it was difficult to get up.

“Sweetie, I’m gonna jerk off so quick that you won’t even see it.”

“You’re disgusting.” William chuckled and stared at his bulging hard-on. Things were very tight inside those jeans. “I don’t remember getting this excited while kissing Tyson.”

“You hadn’t been eating him with your eyes for quite a few minutes before.” William’s attention whipped to him. “I’m not blind. You wanted a piece of me the moment you saw me with my shirt off.”

“Cocky motherfucker.” William winced a little. “Can I use your bathroom?”

“Can I be bold?”

“We’re not fucking.”

“I wasn’t planning on it.” Gabe grinned and finally managed to get up, walking really slowly towards the other. “Do you remember your wet dream?” William nodded embarrassedly. “Did you know I was the one to solve it because you were humping my leg?”

“What? No!” Red dots blossomed at William’s face.

“My fingers can do wonders for you, my boy, if you’ll just let me.” He managed to get to William, wriggling his fingers in the air. “You don’t have to pay me back and you don’t even have to look at me.”

William’s breath became deeper and he swallowed. “And it won’t be recurring? You won’t go putting your hands inside my pants unless I expressly say you can?”

“Promise, promise.” He hooked his fingers on William’s jeans’ waistline and pulled him awkwardly off the wall. “But you’ll want to get rid of the jeans first.”

William nodded and did as he was told before sitting, boxers-only, on the couch’s extra-cushioned arm, facing the wall and the back of the couch. They still needed some support; William wouldn’t try it against a wall, where a wrong movement would land Gabe into him. Taking the hint, Gabe sat behind him, mimicking his position. William gasped when it made him brush a bit against the fabric. Even the cushioned arm was too much for his arousal and he felt himself tense. One of Gabe’s hands went up his stomach, under the short shirt, pushing a little until he rested against Gabe’s chest. They breathed a couple of times before his other hand started going down. William grabbed it by the wrist.

“We have a truce.”

“I know.” Gabe lowered his head to William’s shoulder, biting the V-neck shirt and pulling it to the side to reveal his skin.

“This is not breaking it,” said William in a slightly trembling voice when Gabe kissed his shoulder and moved quietly to his neck.

“I know,” he murmured against William’s skin while the singer tilted his head to the side. “This is about relieving a friend.”

William nodded a bit awkwardly given his neck being exposed for the other and let go of Gabriel’s wrist. The large hand snaked its way down, trailing his lower belly to the top of the boxers, caressing him over the fabric until William eased against him. He smiled against his neck and went up again to go down inside the underwear. William gasped and rested his head against Gabe’s shoulder when warm fingers pressed against his cock. Gabe was kind and slow to caress its length and his balls before pulling them out of the boxers and raising his hand. His voice was quiet when he asked if he could spit for him. William sighed, his mouth dry.

“Do it for me,” he asked in a half-voice.

Gabe obliged and licked and spat on his own hand, dripping saliva onto it before going down on William’s cock again. The coating was not ideal but it would do, he decided when he started going up and down in long, thorough movements. William hissed and grunted a little. Gabe bit his neck gently.

“You like it slow?” William just moaned when Gabe’s thumb began to manipulate his foreskin playfully before going down very slowly. William whimpered and pressed against Gabe, whose own erection was still bulging. He half-startled, bucking his hips up in the tight hole of Gabriel’s hand. Saporta chuckled. “Easy, tiger.” He started to pump William in a quicker pace. “Let’s make a deal?” He licked William’s neck and barely noticed the nod. “The louder you moan, the faster I’ll go.”

A warning sign popped in William’s mind at that, but he nodded nevertheless. His mouth opened at its own will, and the first moan was slow and long. Gabe had to blink into focus so he could match his hand’s movement and that sound.

“Yes, just like this,” he praised to try to avoid the fact that his own cock was throbbing and hurting – but he promised William it would be about him and it would be about him. William began to moan louder and louder, and Gabe kept the deal going, until he was going so fast that Beckett was already fucking his hand and bouncing on the couch’s arm. He decided to stop holding back and used his free hand to cup William’s balls, which made them prop themselves up, one knee firmly set on the couch and the other leg taking a stand on the floor. William threw an arm back around Gabriel’s neck and Gabe bent over him, thanking when William used the other hand to lean on the wall.

He came with a loud cry that shot down to Gabe’s groins and pinned him to William’s body. Shit. William was panting in front of him and it was with a serious tone that Gabe begged him not to turn around. Dazed, Beckett nodded, but didn’t let go of Gabe even when he heard the zipper being opened and began to hear and feel the heavy panting behind him. So this was what Gabe sounded like when he was aroused. He tugged at the hair on Gabe’s nape and felt the panting grow heavier, until he put his mouth to the crook of William’s neck and came with a muffled, reverberating moan. William felt little splatters of hot liquid hitting the tiny patch of flesh on the small of his back that the shirt’s hem didn’t reach and smiled.

“Feeling better?” he asked in a murmur.

“Why?” Gabe’s voice caught and he tried to clear his throat, but couldn’t.

“Why not?” He lowered his arm and felt the twitch of pain run up his muscles. He slipped to the couch to sit down and pulled Gabe to do the same, his sore parts complaining after such effort. “Let’s stay for a moment before cleaning up, right? I’m dead.”

Gabriel had the heart to chuckle and enveloped William’s torso with both his arms, keeping them in the previous position. William leaned back and sighed, before closing his eyes. “That was good.”

“Yes, it was,” said Gabe. “Will you sleep now?”

“Not yet. Just give me a moment.”

Gabe nodded and relaxed, caressing William’s skin with his eyes closed. He couldn’t believe it. He had just masturbated the boy of his dreams and it had been completely consensual. Oh, it had also been really hot. He’d have to dry-clean the couch but honestly, he couldn’t care less about that. What he thought would be hard was forgetting that had happened. It didn’t seem to be a nice way to start a truce. Between his legs, William stirred and sighed deep.

“Ok, where’s your bathroom?” he asked lazily.

“I’ll show you.”

They got up very slowly and Gabe didn’t resist the temptation to hold William by the hand while guiding him. The other man didn’t complain, following quietly until they reached the bathroom, when he whistled loud. Gabe grinned and opened his arms, embracing the room in that gesture.

“Do you like it?” He moved towards the bathtub and started tapping buttons and turning levers. A murmuring sound of running water took the bathroom as the tub began to fill. The pressure made the surface a mat of ephemeral bubbles and ripples that deformed the mosaic tiles on its floor. The last rays of sunlight had little force to enter the bathroom, giving it a reddish color that was soon to fade. “It’s awesome, isn’t it?”

“One could live in here,” said William, staring at everything with half-attention.

“Suppose yourself single and unable to pick up people in nightclubs and you probably would.” They laughed. “Listen, there’s bath salts on the shelf, towels in the cabinet and soap by the tap. Suit yourself and don’t drain the tub, I’ll enter later.”

That said, Gabe sat on a couch close to the door, staring at the ceiling. He didn’t want to see William strip, for he knew the vision would make him aroused again and he probably shouldn’t push luck that much. He listened to the rustle of clothes being taken off and controlled his breathing and will to avoid lowering his eyes. There was a lot of fiddling with the salts and liquid soap but Gabe didn’t hear anyone entering the water. When he finally decided to see if William was alright, he met his naked body in front of him, a devilish smile on his face that was a lot like the one he used as a child when he wanted Gabe to disobey their mothers.

“Bathe with me.” Three words, three bold, obviously joking words, said in a very mean whisper, and Gabe jolted up to try to block the vision of William. He swallowed and didn’t answer. “I’m serious, Saporta. There’s room for both of us and I believe you won’t try to rape me.”

“William, as much as I’d love to, I don’t trust myself to keep my hands off of you.” He looked at him fondly. “You’re teasing me and you know it. This isn’t fair.”

“Just let me kiss you again, then.”

“No. This is going places you don’t wanna go.”

“How do you know?”

“Because you made me say it. It was just to relieve a friend, William. I’m not going to build a whole new sexual frenzy with you now, my boy. You’re in a post-coming haze and if you start brushing your gorgeous body against me like I know you will when we enter that tub, we are going to do stuff we’ll both regret.” William pouted. “Now don’t be childish, come on. I’ll rub your back.”

William still sulked a little as he tied his hair up before entering the tub, but going into the water both woke him up a little and relaxed his body. He felt the warm around him start undoing the knots on his shoulders and ease the beginning of cramps in his legs. He hadn’t wanted to say he was actively testing Gabe but he was, and something sparked to life inside him, blooming hopefully when he concluded the man had passed said test. Slowly, Gabe, who had followed him and was perched on the edge of the tub, picked up the sponge and started to brush his back in small, careful movements. Mmm, that was good. He was humming something William only vaguely recognized in that state of mind, but it was relaxing and calm.

“What’s this song?” he asked, indulging in Gabe’s gentle touch.

“Just some melody I’m working on.” Gabe left the sponge and asked William to rinse himself with a tiny movement of his hand. “Feeling better?”

“Much better, thank you.” He sunk deeper into the tub, until the tips of his tied hair touched the water. “Can I stay?”

Gabe got up and moved to the other side of the tub, so he could face him. “Well, of course. The guest room is not fully decorated yet, but we’ll figure it out.” William nodded, half-smiling. “Finish your bath, my boy. I’ll be waiting.”

William knew he should have let him go, but he couldn’t. His hand was faster, holding Gabe’s wrist in a swift movement. Chuckling, Gabe kissed his knuckles and put his face closer to his, silently questioning his reaction. William bit his lower lip, then brought Gabe’s hand up to his wet face, brushing his lips against Gabe’s wrist. It was just a touch, but there was no denying the intrinsic intimacy of the act. Gabe shivered under the touch, sliding closer to him.

“William… you’re making it all so hard.”

“Are we that much of a mess, Gabe?” He closed his eyes and slid his lips up Gabriel’s arm, kissing the palm of his hand. “I don’t know how to explain how much I want you right now.”

“It’s what happens when you’re attracted to someone, my boy. You shouldn’t be.”

“But now that I am, now that I tasted you and I liked it, now you’re going to send me away?” He turned his bright brown eyes at Gabe, defiant but slightly scared too.

“Do you want to kiss me?” William blinked rapidly at the words. “You can kiss me if you want to. And you can just feel me close to you if you want to too. Would it sate you?”

William thought for a moment before nodding, thanking high heavens that Gabe hadn’t just point blank told him off or disregarded his feelings. It was so awkward that he wanted to be with him so much. He had been masturbated by men before; it wasn’t that. It was something else, something he didn’t think should have happened, but had.

He was falling for Gabe, although he couldn’t yet admit it to himself. But if the past was something to go by, it would be a hard fall.

 

When Gabe finally entered his own bedroom, William had recovered from his post-sex weakness and found an album by The Kooks, which he played in the superb sound system at one of the corners of the massive room. It had a California king bed with a fucking canopy of red sheer fabric, two bedside drawers, one of which held a picture of William, a rug so fluffy it was like walking on clouds and dark walls of a deep red, except for the focus wall, from where three pictures of Gabe hung, black and white, and were what William was staring at when Gabe slapped his bum with his wet towel.

“Fucker,” he spat, turning to his host. Gabe was stark naked, rummaging through the drawer on the adjoined closet, from where he picked up a boxer identical to the one William had stolen from him. “Bit narcissistic, aren’t we?”

“A bit.” He laughed and moved closer to the other after towel-drying his hair and ditching all of the used towels in the laundry basket. William’s hair was still humid at the tips when he touched it. “Aren’t you gorgeous in my underwear.”

William laughed at that statement. “It was either this or going commando. I somehow don’t trust my naked ass around you.”

“Wise of yours.” Gabe kissed his pale shoulder and threw himself onto the mattress, putting his arms behind his head and closing his eyes. “Wanna sleep here? Better bed, you know. Huge one. You’re a big guy.”

“You are taking this truce much further than it was originally intended to be, right?” Gabe made an innocent face. “Fine. But no fucking. No kissing, no BJ’s, no fondling of any kind.”

“Can we cuddle?” tried Saporta, smiling the dirtiest of all smiles.

“Maybe. It depends on your behavior.”

“Ay, captain.” He patted the mattress and Beckett lay down beside him. “I have some movies, if you want to see any.”

William munched on that thought for a moment. “You wouldn’t happen to have C.R.A.Z.Y., right?”

Saporta’s smile was even dirtier this time. “Oh, my boy, you wouldn’t dream what kinds of things I have here.”

It was like that that they started the movie. Gabe went to make popcorn as William picked some beers for them. On his way out of the stern clean kitchen, he found a jar of biscuits and brought it with him. The trailers were gone and the opening sequence was about to start when they finally reached the bed. William hopped onto it at the same time that Gabe did on the other side, which prompted popcorn to fly all over the covers. Saporta picked the stray units and popped them into his own mouth, one after the other, warring Beckett as he did the same in front of him. They were laughing by the time the remaining popcorn was put between the two of them, and had to rewind the movie a bit.

It was a nice movie, although Gabe couldn’t help but discussing the status of French as a Romanic language, which he found preposterous, and it made Beckett laugh more than he would have otherwise. When it ended, the popcorn was long gone and all four beers were no more either. They were a tipsy again, but all in all happy. Gabe got up, cleaned the mess and tossed a brand new toothbrush to William. He raised an eyebrow.

“You have spare toothbrushes?”

Gabe shrugged. “Sometimes some girls spend the night. I’m a clean guy, y’know.”

“Oh.” William shunned the jealousy the phrase prompted inside him. “You usually have… visitors, then.”

“Sometimes,” he repeated, moving towards the adjoined bathroom. “It’s pretty lonely in this bed at night, amigo.”

“Right.” William got up to join him behind the sink. That bathroom was smaller, less convenient. There was a shower but no bathtub, nor any of the comfort of the other. It was almost poor in comparison and William silently questioned the reason for its existence. “So shouldn’t I leave?”

He hated that his voice was somewhere between envious and jealous. Gabe frowned, his mouth full of toothpaste foam. He spat into the basin.

“Of course not. I don’t wanna sleep with a girl tonight.”

“You’d have sex from a girl, if you wanted to.”

“Yeah, but it wouldn’t be you. That’s the thing about the others, William. They’re not you.” Gabe smirked and rinsed his mouth. “Now come on, brush your teeth and meet me under the covers. I didn’t stand people talking a barely Romanic language so you could fuck off right after.”

William brushed his teeth and lay in bed again, feeling much lighter. They smiled at each other as if they were partners in crime. William had taken his time, processing and subduing his feelings slowly, so Gabe was a bit gone when he pulled the covers on top of them.

“Have I behaved?” Gabe asked, sleepy. William smiled.

“Yes, you did.” He saw as the man opened his arms as an invitation and edged closer to him. “No fondling.”

“Hm.” Gabe’s hum was mainly teasing, but the way it reverberated inside William made him shiver. “If you change your mind and decide you want me to relieve you, let me know.”

William smiled in his arms as they hugged him, pulling him closer until his body was flush against Gabe’s. He wasn’t even worried this time. The fact that Saporta had handjobbed him and still remained calm, friendly, caring towards him was enough proof of his intentions. He was willing to keep the truce, and so would William. And, well, in case he did want a reprise, maybe Gabe would actually give him one, right?

“Gabe?” The other singer moaned something along the lines of a “yeah?” but William wasn’t entirely sure. “You sure that touching each other doesn’t break the truce?”

Chuckling, Saporta kissed him below his ear. “Yeah, I’m sure.”

“Doesn’t mean anything, right?” William tried again, running his thumb on the skin of Gabe’s hand.

“No, my boy. It means nothing but friends being friendly.” He kissed William’s neck, still sleep-drunk.

“And so it means we’re not… exclusive, are we?”

Gabe sighed, pressing his nose between William’s naked shoulder blades. “Yeah, we’re not.” He kissed his back, gently, once, twice. “So you can’t be mad if I fuck someone else, alright?”

“I won’t be,” he promised, closing his eyes and kissing Gabe’s fingers. He forced his newly-found jealousy down with an intake of breath.

“Then we’ll be fine, my boy.” Saporta caressed his stomach and drifted his hand down to William’s left hip, where it remained perfectly still as he whispered against his skin. “Now sleep, yeah? I’m tired as fuck.”

It was with Gabriel’s face burrowed on the back of his neck that he fell asleep, held tight in those arms like he hadn’t ever since he was a child. He slept like a log and not once, during the entire night, did his body leave the warm closeness of Gabe’s.