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"I don't know if I can actually handle being in the same room as Ryan Ross," Brendon said, fluttering his eyelashes at Spencer. "I mean, won't I spontaneously combust from his aura of sheer genius? What if he blinks at me and I immediately turn into a beam of light just to highlight his perfect hair?"

"Stop it," Spencer said, bored, flicking through a magazine.

Brendon drew himself up taller, putting a hand up to his forehead. "Oh, Ryan! I can't believe you've come all this way—"

"Two blocks," Spencer said, without looking up.

"—on such a dangerous mission—"

"Retrieving his scarf," Spencer said.

Brendon changed tack. "I know, dude. Like, no offence, I get that you've been best friends forever since you were too young to know better, but coming around just to get his scarf? Kind of weird."

Spencer gave him a narrow look, the way he always looked at Brendon when Brendon dared to badmouth Ryan Ross. Stupid Ryan Ross. He was in the year above them at school, apparently, but Brendon had never seen him, and he figured Ryan didn't bother showing up very often. If it wasn't for the fact that Ryan was the most unlikely imaginary friend Brendon could think of, he'd be sure that Spencer had made Ryan up. It wasn't fair, that Spencer was so stupidly defensive of a guy who was barely ever around. Brendon had moved to his new school a year ago now, and for the first time in his life found someone who was funny and awesome and who wanted to hang out with him, and goddamn Ryan Ross had gotten there first.

"Apparently," Spencer said, "it's a special scarf."

Brendon squinted at him. "Okay," he said. "You realise what you said just now, right?"

Spencer's mouth twitched. "Brendon—"

"You know what, I think there might be something else going on here," Brendon said, wagging his finger at Spencer. "I mean, this full throated defence? This indulgence of scarves? Spencer, I think you might love him."

"Oh my God," Spencer said.

"It's tragic, really," Brendon said. "The best friend pining away – don't worry, Spence, I'll help you sort it out."

"Please don't," Spencer said.

"Soon you'll be safe in Ryan Ross's loving arms," Brendon said. He turned around and wrapped his arms around himself, stroking as well as he could up and down his own back like the games they used to play in elementary school. "Oh," he moaned, tossing his head back. "Oh, Ryan, Ryan, yes, touch me like that, oh, yeah, Ryan—"

"Um," someone said. Brendon turned around, arms still hooked over behind his back, and blinked at the guy standing in the doorway. He had dark eyes and a red, red mouth. There were beaded bracelets falling around his wrists, and he was twisting them round absently, with – Brendon's mouth was a little dry, huh – really nice fingers. He was wearing a v-neck yellow shirt, and Brendon followed the line of it automatically, the dip of the guy's collarbones, his pale skin. Brendon wanted to bite it.

"Hi, Ryan," Spencer said. He was grinning like Christmas had come early, getting up off his bed and giving Brendon the most evilly delighted look of all time. "You know Brendon, right?"

"I – sort of?" Ryan said uncertainly, and Brendon belatedly unwrapped his arms from around himself.

"Hi," he said. He wanted to die.

"Here's your scarf," Spencer said, crossing the room and handing it over.

"Thanks," Ryan said. He held it close to his chest, cradling it protectively and giving Brendon another sharp, freaked out look. "Um. I have to go."

"Okay," Spencer said, beaming. "See you later!"

"Bye," Ryan said, and turned to scuttle out of the room, swinging the door shut behind him.

Brendon turned to Spencer. "Oh my God," he said weakly.

Spencer threw himself back onto his bed and laughed until he cried.

¬

---

Chemistry was not, Brendon was willing to admit, his best subject. It was sort of unfair, because it wasn't like he was too nervous or whatever – Brendon was entirely comfortable being around things that had the potential to explode – but Mr Woods seemed to see that as a deficiency. Most of the time, Brendon was relegated to being Spencer's lab partner, handing things over when Spencer told him to rather than actually ever doing any work.

There was one advantage. Brendon liked things exploding, and the homemade fireworks Spencer had promised to help him with for his birthday this year promised to be awesome. Spencer was quite content to do their lab work on his own – he liked the boring shit, frowning over exact measurements in his Chemistry goggles like the gigantic nerd Brendon had only just realised Spencer was – which meant that Brendon could occasionally hand Spencer things and write results into their workbooks. The rest of the time he devoted to stealing magnesium.

If he got enough, they'd be able to slip bits of it into the homemade fireworks, and then they'd be really spectacular. Brendon had been building up his supply for months now. There had been a slight setback when Mr Woods cottoned on and started making him empty his pockets at the end of class, but Brendon had overcome that with style.

He darted a wary glance around the room, then tucked another little strip of magnesium under the waistband of his briefs, half of it sticking up against his skin, where his shirt had ridden up. When he looked back up, Spencer was rolling his eyes.

"Potassium chloride, please," he said. Brendon handed it over with a winning smile.

Mr Woods had seen fit to give them a larger strip of magnesium than usual today, and Brendon hummed cheerfully to himself as he twisted off another little strip and tucked it into his underpants.

"Hello," Ryan Ross said. Brendon looked up with a start. Ryan was staring at him, eyebrows raised high, and Brendon swallowed once, twice, searching for any kind of excuse. He was busy exposing both his bright red underwear – stupid low-rise tight jeans, damn them to hell – and the little line of magnesium strips in there, though, so he didn't think there was much chance of that.

"Hey, Ryan," Spencer said, sounding surprised and pleased. "What are you doing here?"

"I'm an office aide today," Ryan said, still staring at Brendon. "I had to give this to you."

He held out an envelope from the Music Department with Brendon's name on it. "Oh, it's probably about the music camp," Brendon said, reaching out to take it. Their fingers brushed, and Ryan snatched his hand away like he'd been burned, cheeks pink, like Brendon was too weird to risk touching without getting freak germs or whatever. Brendon's mouth twisted down sharply. "Thanks," he said.

"Um," Ryan said. His eyes darted down to Brendon's exposed strip of skin. "You have—"

Brendon waited. If Ryan was going to be that condescending, he was actually going to have to say magnesium in your pants. Brendon wasn't helping him out.

"… never mind," Ryan said weakly. "I'll see you later, Spence."

"Bye!" Spencer said.

Ryan turned and left, and Brendon slumped over their workbench, sighing wistfully.

"Ryan's mean," he said.

"Ryan's the lamest person I know," Spencer said absently, and then glanced at Brendon and grinned. "Well. Almost the lamest person."

"Fuck you," Brendon said.

"Gimme the sulphuric acid," Spencer said. Brendon handed it over.

---

"Can we play something that's not James Brown?" Brendon asked. "I mean, not like I don't appreciate James Brown, but we've been appreciating his entire back catalogue for two hours—"

"You could always go get ready for class," Ian suggested.

Brendon grimaced. "That wasn't very nice of you," he said. "You should be nice to me, Crawford."

"Oh, yeah?" Ian stretched out on his back, plucking lazily at the guitar strings. "Why's that?"

"Well," Brendon said. "Because we belong together."

Ian's expression got pinched. "Please don't."

Brendon grinned, triumphant, picking up his guitar and finding the chords. "She wears short skirts, I wear t-shirts!" he wailed. "She's Cheer Captain and I'm on the bleachers!"

"I'd say that this comes under cruel and unusual punishment," Ian called over the noise.

"Dreaming about the day when you wake up and find," Brendon sang, "that what you're looking for has been here – oh, holy fucking Christ."

Ian looked up. "I'm pretty sure Taylor doesn't sing anything like that," he said, sounding interested.

"I left my book in here," Ryan Ross said, hanging in the doorway, eyes huge and fixed on Brendon. "Um. Before lunch."

"Of course you did," Brendon said. Probably Ryan left stacks of personal belongings all around the school, just ready to be picked up as soon as Brendon was doing something particularly embarrassing in the vicinity.

Ryan gave Brendon another weirded out look and came in to pick up a notebook from a table in the corner. His hair was curling at the tips, Brendon noticed mournfully. Probably Brendon would never get to push Ryan's hair back behind Ryan's ear. Probably Ryan wouldn't so much like a magnesium-stealing, Taylor Swift-singing, creepy moaning guy touching him at all.

"Do you – like Taylor Swift?" Ryan asked.

"Love her," Brendon said flatly. "I have posters all over my walls."

"Oh," Ryan said. "Really?"

Brendon scowled. "No."

"Okay," Ryan said. "It's just. You knew all the words."

This was seriously it, this was how Brendon was going to die. "Aren't you supposed to be in class?" he said.

Ryan rolled his eyes. "Like you can talk," he said. "You have English now."

"Oh, shit!" Brendon said, and jumped up, grabbing his bag and putting the guitar away. "I'm going to be so late, God. Bye, Ian!"

It wasn't until he got to class, out of breath and just in time to get a detention, that he thought how weird it was that a guy a year above him knew when Brendon's English class was.

---

Brendon missed the days when detention had just been sitting in a room and trying to sleep unobtrusively. Actually making them do work was totally unfair. Especially when it wasn't even their work; homework that Brendon could get out of the way early. Oh, no, it was community service – restocking shelves in the library while the last few students yet to leave at the end of the day murmured to one another around him.

He'd been working on autopilot for long enough that it took a little while before he noticed Ryan's voice, coming from the other side of the shelf he was working on. When he finally did, it was only because he jerked alert at the sound of his own name.

"I'm just saying," Ryan said. "Brendon Urie is the weirdest fucking kid I've ever met."

"Ryan." Brendon recognised the other voice as Jon Walker; he was in the school band with Brendon, usually dozing out of sight of their conductor on Tom Conrad's shoulder. Brendon sat with him sometimes. He was alright, even with the slightly strange obsession with his cats. "You've been stalking him for, like, a year. How have you not worked this out yet?"

"I haven't been stalking him," Ryan said, sounding indignant. "I just. You know. Pay attention."

"You have his schedule off by heart," Jon said. "You're a big creepy creep."

"He's Spencer's friend!" Ryan's voice was higher pitched than usual. "I can't help seeing him around!"

"Sure, okay," Jon said, a smile in his voice. One of them pulled a book off the shelf right near Brendon's head and he jolted backward. "Anyway, my point stands. Brendon's a nice kid, but pretty weird. I thought this was common knowledge."

"He's a freak." Ryan sighed loudly. "Which makes me a freak for liking him so much, and I can't—"

They turned the corner abruptly and Ryan broke off, face going white, then pink. Brendon stared back at him, and Ryan took a stumbling step, neither forward or back, and somehow managed to drop his armful of books.

"Oh," Brendon said, and Ryan stumbled to his knees, hair falling over his face as he fumbled with his books. Brendon's breath caught in his chest and he crossed the floor to help, dropping to his knees and reaching for Ryan's scattered pens. Above them, Jon slipped quietly away.

"Shit," Ryan mumbled, and Brendon stacked the last few books carefully and added them to the pile in Ryan's arms.

"Here," he said.

Ryan looked up at him, eyes dark and upset, cheeks red. "I didn't," Ryan began, and then, "You weren't supposed to hear that."

"It's cool," Brendon said, caught unpleasantly between a heavy sense of misery and the rapid rate of his heart. "I get it. I mean, I promise I'm not a disaster all the time, it's just like you have a sensor for walking in on me being really weird. I'm. I'm not that dysfunctional."

"What?" Ryan looked confused. "I – that wasn't what I was talking about. I'm. Were you even listening?"

"Yeah." Brendon swallowed. "Yeah, but I. I mean. You think I'm a freak." His hands were fluttering awkwardly in the space between them; he didn't know what to do with them. "And you're – really cool, and Spencer thinks you invented the universe, pretty much, and I'm just. You know. Like you said."

Ryan's mouth was slightly open. "No," he said. "No, you."

"It's cool," Brendon repeated. "I mean. I'll stay out of your way, or whatever."

"Please don't," Ryan said.

Brendon's heart jumped. He bit his lip, and watched Ryan's gaze drop to his mouth. Be brave, he thought. There's nothing really left for you to fuck up.

"You said," Brendon said quietly, "That you, that you liked me, even though—"

"There's no 'even though'," Ryan said. His cheeks were still pink. Brendon wondered if they would be warm to the touch, what it would be like if Brendon cupped Ryan's face in his hands. "I shouldn't have said that. There's no 'even though' or 'but' or anything. I just – I just like you."

"Oh," Brendon said, and smiled, hope bubbling strange and bright in him. "Okay."

Ryan still looked embarrassed. He wasn't looking at Brendon, and his arms were full of books, so Brendon figured that it was only fair that he was the one who leaned forward and caught Ryan's mouth with his, just slightly off-balance, holding on around Ryan's shoulders to keep from falling over. Ryan's lips parted on a sigh, and he turned, settling into Brendon properly, mouth soft and sweet on Brendon's. Brendon closed his eyes, heard the soft thump of Ryan's books hitting the carpet again, and then Ryan was leaning in closer, clenching his hands in Brendon's shirt, licking into Brendon's mouth, sucking on Brendon's bottom lip.

Brendon broke away, shivers chasing down his spine, breath coming ragged. "So," he said. "I, uh. You're stalking me."

"Oh," Ryan said, bright-eyed. "I. No. Jon's a liar."

Brendon raised his eyebrows. "You did know when I had English," he pointed out. "Are you sure? No lying."

"Well," Ryan said. "Maybe just a little bit."

"You freak," Brendon said, and Ryan smiled like it was the best thing he'd ever heard.