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Ryan didn't know whose party it was. He didn't know half of the people there, either, and it felt like a strange and brilliant disconnect to walk through an unknown living room. He felt a little dizzy, the lights flashing oddly. He half-wondered for a moment if someone had slipped something into his drink, and laughed. He tasted his soda, trying to hold it on the tip of his tongue, taste anything odd, but it tasted like Sprite, and Ryan thought that this kind of messed up was just his head playing old tricks.

He still smelled like the strip club, could feel it on him, the smoke and sweat and sex. He'd hated it. He didn't know why he thought he wouldn't have. It had been a stupid idea, the latest in a long run of them, and now Ryan had another song that he couldn't sing properly and a funny taste in the back of his mouth and no real way of getting home. He could call Spencer to come get him, he supposed, knowing already that he would. He would, and Spencer would take his parent's car and get grounded, and he'd be angry and upset when he saw Ryan, and Ryan would do it anyway. Ryan would do it every time. He'd already been pretty self-indulgent tonight; he figured he might as well go all out.

Someone bumped up against him, grabbing his elbow. "Hey, man, hey," the guy said, the one Ryan had met on his way out of the club, who'd told him about the party in the first place. He grinned, big and winning, like he was aiming to get Class President or something. A campaign poster smile, Ryan thought, and stared blankly at him. The guy cuffed Ryan's shoulder lightly, and asked, "You having a good time?"

"Amazing," Ryan said. "I am having an amazing time."

The guy laughed, kneading his knuckles into Ryan's shoulder. Ryan shifted a little but the guy didn't take his hand away. "Fucking awesome, man, isn't it?" he said. "People are wasted." His eyes were glazed; Ryan was willing to bet he'd had a bit more than alcohol tonight. Probably letting him drive Ryan to this place hadn't been such a great idea.

The guy's hand was heavy on Ryan's shoulder. Ryan licked his lips and tilted his hips to the side, shifting and settling under the guy's touch. "Probably people are ready to make some mistakes," Ryan suggested, and the guy was drunk enough that Ryan didn't even feel embarrassed about the line, watched the guy's face steadily.

The guy stared at him incomprehensibly, then looked a little perturbed, took his hand back too obviously. "Ha, yeah," he said. "There's some chick out the back losing her clothes. You should come see."

"A theme for the night's entertainment," Ryan said, and the guy laughed loud enough that Ryan knew he had no idea what Ryan was talking about. Ryan fell into step behind him anyway, pushing their way through the crowd of people. Someone fell against him, clutched his arm and screamed something a little hysterical, and Ryan shook them off without looking back.

There was a girl kneeling on the table outside. She leaned forward and down and kissed someone standing in the crowd, a possessive hand in his hair. Ryan watched and turned away, walked along and around the pool. It was all lit up, glowing blue in the night with the overhead lights reflected in it. There were a few people swimming already, and Ryan watched them splash and shriek. He wondered when he would call Spencer, when exactly he'd admit that there was nothing here for him. It was cold out here. Ryan had left his jacket at the door – another dumb idea, now he thought about it – and his t-shirt was too thin. He was on the verge of shivering, trembling with pent up tension.

He walked along the edge of the pool. He'd lost his soda somewhere, he didn't know how, so he stretched out both his arms and walked along on tiptoe. Nobody was looking at him. Nobody cared. Ryan grinned up at the sky, baring his teeth, and took a few steps at a run, darting quick over the slippery tiles. For a second, he felt like a dancer, ridiculous and graceful. Then he slipped and staggered sideways and only windmilling his arms kept him from falling straight into the pool.

He breathed in sharply, taking a stumbling step backwards and onto firmer ground. Someone laughed, short and sharp. Ryan turned to look. It was another guy, with curly blond hair, a little taller and broader looking than him, raising one eyebrow. "Wow. That was almost a sight to see."

Ryan shrugged his shoulders, cheeks hot. He really didn't need a frat boy deciding to pick on the awkward looking skinny kid, and he glanced away, wondering if he could make a quiet exit somewhere.

"This party's only a step away from a wet t-shirt contest already, anyway," the guy said. He took a step closer, pose open and inviting, thumbs hooked casually into his belt. Ryan blinked, revaluating.

"I'm not so sure that's my thing," Ryan said.

"Yeah?" The guy grinned. "Pity." Ryan raised his eyebrows and the guy laughed, holding out a hand. "Nice to meet you."

Ryan looked at the guy's hand without taking it. "Okay," he said.

"Jesus," the guy said. "You're a scrappy little thing." He took a step closer, in Ryan's space now, and said, "You're a smoker? Wouldn't have picked it."

Ryan hesitated for a moment, confused, and then he remembered the strip club. "Sort of," he said. "Sorry to disappoint you."

"Not in the slightest," the guy said, and Ryan almost wanted to laugh at how obvious he was. Ryan stepped away, walking forward and past him. The guy called out after him, low and amused. "Come on," he said. "Do you need me to be obvious?"

"I kind of think you already are," Ryan said, smiling very slightly in the corner of his mouth.

The guy laughed. "Yeah," he said. "And you totally like it, c'mon. What's your name?"

"Do you really need to know?" Ryan asked, and turned and walked further, towards the garden wall. He leaned up against it, feeling the scrape of his lower back against the bricks as his t-shirt rode up. The guy grinned at him again, possessive and gleeful.

"Not at all," he said. He walked forward to meet Ryan, pressing him back further against the wall and kissing him. Ryan twisted his hands in the guy's shirt and pulled him in closer, spreading his legs enough that the guy could fit between them, the rough scrape of denim on denim making him harden in his jeans. The guy kissed Ryan hard and firm, licking his way into Ryan's mouth, and Ryan bit at his bottom lip. He wondered what Tarah had been thinking about. He wondered what his dad had been thinking about, last night when he'd methodically smashed every empty bottle in the house. Ryan was enjoying his weekend a whole fucking lot.

"Watch it," the guy said, pulling back enough to talk. Ryan growled and tugged him back in, sliding his hands into the back pockets of the guy's jeans, rubbing up against him. The guy laughed but started kissing him properly again, and Ryan closed his eyes and pressed up into it, the hot mouth, the rasp of stubble against Ryan's skin. This was what he wanted, just this, someone to push him up against something and take away his need to over-think every goddamn thing on the planet. The guy bit a line down Ryan's jaw, grinding against Ryan's leg, and Ryan rocked his hips up against the guy's and opened his mouth on a soundless noise.

He opened his eyes and noticed for the first time the people staring at them, huddled in groups – some watching inconspicuously, some very much not. Not all of them looked particularly amused; as Ryan watched, one tall, nervous looking guy shouldered his way into another group and started talking very quickly, waving his hands around. Ryan closed his eyes again, arching his hips lazily forward. They could look all they liked.

The guy pulled back, though, and when Ryan opened his eyes there was a girl standing next to them, with curly dark hair and a smug sort of grin. "Hitting on the kids again, honey?" she said, and Ryan's guy laughed, leaned into her side to nuzzle against her hair. Ryan blinked in disbelief. His fucking luck, seriously. The girl winked at him and said, "Run along, kiddo. I think it's a school night, right?"

Ryan pushed off the wall, kissed the corner of the guy's mouth. The guy smiled easily at him. "Have a good night," he said, and Ryan turned and walked away, trying to saunter without feeling stupidly uncomfortable, turned on and cold all over again and conscious of everyone staring at him, some laughing. Behind him, someone shouted at him, and he sped up his steps a little.

"Fucking typical," someone said, close by, "faggy little show-off—"

Ryan smiled lazily and turned around, opened his mouth.

"I really don't think that's a good idea, um," a dark-eyed boy next to him said, and grabbed Ryan's arm, pulling him away. Ryan blinked, stumbled along for a few steps and then went with the boy just to keep himself from looking even stupider, staring in disbelief at his face. He looked younger than Ryan, dark hair that was kind of rumpled – not in a cool way – and glasses with red frames. He was wearing a pink hoodie.

"What the fuck?" Ryan said.

"There's a lot of them," the boy said, "and, um, they're kind of pissed and also drunk and I just don't think it's a good idea if you – they were watching, before, when you were, um." He flushed bright red, and Ryan raised an eyebrow.

"You watching too?" he asked.

The boy swallowed. "You were kind of making a spectacle of yourself," he said, and offered Ryan a tiny smile. "I mean. I just think confronting them is probably not the best way to go about it. Do you have any friends here?"

"No," Ryan said.

The boy blinked. "Um," he said. "Okay. How did you get here?"

"A guy gave me a lift," Ryan said. "He invited me. We were at a club together."

"The guy you were – um, with?" the boy said, and Ryan shook his head. The boy took a breath, said, "Okay, uh. Are you going to stay? I mean, obviously I'm not going to – to tell you what to do, but." He glanced nervously over his shoulder, leading Ryan back into the house. "I don't think that's such a good idea, maybe?"

Ryan stared at him. "What the fuck are you doing here?"

The boy made a face. "I got invited," he said. "It's my first week at a new school, I just." He looked around. "I didn't know this was what it was going to be like."

"This is a high school party?" Ryan said in disbelief. The girl had just been talking about hitting on kids, and he'd been invited on his way out of a strip club.

The boy laughed. "I think it got crashed," he said. "But come on, man. You're not that much older than me. You're still in school, right?"

Ryan glared at him. "I'm a senior," he said.

"In school," the boy agreed. He smiled, bright and true. "I'm Brendon. I'm a junior. Now come on."

They made their way out of the main living room and into a hallway. There were a few couples making out in various corners, pressed up against walls, and Ryan's throat felt suddenly tight, like he wanted to throw up. People had been looking at him, fuck, and he knew he had looked good, but that wasn't meant to be – he didn't know what he wanted to do tonight, what he wanted to be. He wanted Spencer, suddenly and desperately, and he was just going to make Spencer angry and sad. Angry he could deal with, especially the heat in Spencer's eyes when he was watching Ryan, the way it made Ryan want to press his hips forward and get shoved up against something, close his eyes and let Spencer take everything that Ryan was. But Ryan hated it when Spencer was sad.

Brendon tugged him out the front door – Ryan snatched up his jacket from where he'd left it lying on the way – and suddenly they were outside, a different kind of outside to the backyard behind them. Ryan breathed in the cool air and closed his eyes.

"Fuck," he said, and stumbled to the edge of the garden, hitting his knees and retching into the bushes. After a moment, he felt a tentative hand touch his bag, Brendon kneeling down beside him.

"You alright, dude?" Brendon asked. "Did you – take anything—"

"I haven't even had a drink," Ryan said, and laughed hoarsely. He sat back, wiping his mouth with the heel of his hand, grimacing at the taste. Brendon hovered over him, bright-eyed and anxious, and Ryan looked up at him and said, "My girlfriend broke up with me this morning."

"Oh," Brendon said.

"With me," Ryan continued, "even though she was the one cheating."

"That sucks," Brendon said. "I'm sorry." He looked away and Ryan laughed. Brendon took his hand and uncurled Ryan's fingers from a fist, placed something right in the middle of his palm. Ryan looked down. It was a breath mint. He felt suddenly, stupidly immature.

"Thank you," he said, and put it in his mouth.

Brendon nodded. "Do you have a way to get home?" he asked.

Ryan shrugged one shoulder. "I can call my friend," he said. "He's going to be mad."

"Okay," Brendon said. "Um. I have to catch a bus soon, but I can sit with you for a while."

"There's still buses running?" Ryan said.

"Yeah," Brendon said. "I mean. I'm going out past – Lakeview High, if you know it?"

"Oh," Ryan said. "Yeah, I. I go to the Catholic school just down from there. St Paul's."

Brendon smiled, slow and careful. "No kidding?" he said. "I – do you live nearby, then?"

"Yeah," Ryan said. "Just around the corner."

"Well, I mean," Brendon said, "we can catch the bus together, it stops just outside. And then you don't have to make your friend mad?"

"I don't have any money," Ryan said. He'd spent the last of it on a coke at the strip club. He'd asked for a whiskey and had to swallow back bile at the thought. The barman had only given him an incredulous look anyway.

"I can cover you," Brendon said, and tugged him up to his feet. "Come on."

The night was cold and Ryan shivered despite the jacket he had on, crossing his arms across his chest and hunching his shoulders. His mouth felt kind of swollen and prickly, his chin rough, and he knew he had beard burn or something, looked pretty debauched. Beside him, Brendon didn't say much, but he was humming under his breath. He darted a look at Ryan every now and then, like Ryan was a savage dog trailing tamely alongside him for reasons Brendon wasn't entirely sure of.

They lucked out and made it to the bus stop an odd thirty seconds before the bus rolled up. They were the only people on it, and Ryan picked a seat towards the middle, sliding into the window seat and resting his forehead against the cool glass. Beside him, Brendon touched his shoulder lightly. "Hey," he said. "You okay? You're not gonna be sick again?"

"I'm okay," Ryan said. He looked at Brendon. "You like your new school?"

Brendon shrugged one shoulder. "It's okay," he said. "Someone in it told me about a friend who's looking for a guitarist in their band, so I might try for that. And there's one girl, Victoria. She seems pretty cool."

"Oh," Ryan said. "Pretty cool, huh?"

"Yeah," Brendon said. He kept looking at Ryan, truthful and steady. "Not like that, though. It's – I'm not really into girls."

"Good plan," Ryan said. "I fucking hate them."

"I like them just fine," Brendon said.

"Yeah?" Ryan arched an eyebrow.

"Girls are nice," Brendon said, and drew in a breath. "I just don't really want to date them."

"Huh," Ryan said. "That the kind of thing you normally tell people you've just met?"

Brendon stiffened. "Why," he said. "Should I hide it?"

"You don't look like you have much practice," Ryan said, and Brendon's mouth twitched.

"Maybe not a lot," he said. "But I'm thinking, based on your activities tonight, you're not really going to judge."

"No," Ryan said. He pulled his knees up closer to his chest, resting battered Converse on the seat. He stared at his feet for a long moment and then turned, repeated, "No." Brendon was all wide, dark eyes and a pretty mouth this close up. Ryan leaned forward and kissed him, soft and cold, sharing his last breath of air. Brendon closed his eyes and leaned in, and then he pulled back and drew in a shuddering breath, shoulders rising, pointing up through his shirt.

"I don't think that's such a great idea," Brendon said quietly, and smiled at Ryan.

Ryan swallowed hard. "Why not?"

"You're a little bit messed up, dude, in case you haven't noticed," Brendon said, and then he said, "this is our stop, come on," and stood up.

Ryan trailed off the bus after him. The streetlights were very bright all of a sudden, standing directly under them.

"I go that way," Brendon said, jerking his thumb in the opposite direction to Ryan.

"Okay," Ryan said, and turned around, set off on his way back home. He wondered if his dad would be asleep. Probably not.

"Hey!" Brendon called, and Ryan stopped, looked over his shoulder. Brendon looked like something else under the streetlight, older than before. He was probably the best thing Ryan had come across that night, that weekend. Ryan didn't know many good people, besides Spencer. Who even did that, took some stupid crazy stranger home? Ryan thought about the cold touch of their mouths. "I don't even know your name," Brendon said.

Ryan shrugged and turned around, kept walking. He counted the streetlights until he reached home.



Spencer woke up with Ryan's hard-on pressed against his hip. He opened his eyes, and Ryan was asleep, face tucked against Spencer's shoulder. Ryan was frowning a little, mouth open just slightly, and he rutted shallowly against Spencer's hip. Spencer's breath come in a gasp; he closed his eyes again, resisted the urge to press his hand over his own dick, hard and aching in his boxers.

"We really need to stop sharing a bed," he told the sleeping Ryan, and then rolled out of bed when Ryan didn't respond. Ryan made a disgruntled noise before he shifted and took over Spencer's pillow, pulling the covers further up around him. Spencer went to jerk off in the shower.

When he came out, dressed and clean, Ryan was sitting at the kitchen table in his pyjamas eating cereal and listening to Crystal expand on her new theory of why she hadn't gotten a letter to go to Hogwarts yet. It had something to do with the difference between British and American schooling systems; Spencer had never listened long enough to work out the exact details of it.

Ryan looked up at him, clearly only half-awake, and Spencer waved hello. Ryan stretched and yawned in response, shirt riding up to bare his stomach and the dark hair below his bellybutton. Spencer looked away, rolling his eyes at himself. This whole thing was stupid, and he wasn't going to be the one to mess everything up. Not after Ryan had pressed his forehead to Spencer's shoulder a few weeks ago, not when Ryan had clung to him and said, "It's not, it's like. I mess everything up."

Spencer had said, "I'm not that easy to get rid of, Ryan," and that had been that. If Ryan would just stop sleeping in Spencer's bed, everything would get a lot simpler all over again.

"New guy today," Ryan said, like Spencer might have forgotten, like Ryan hadn't been bringing it up every day for a week now, ever since Tarah broke up with him. He'd come over to Spencer's the next day red-eyed and sleep-deprived, smelling like smoke and sex, and clutching a few sheets of scrawled lyrics. A new guy today, who played guitar and bass and keyboard and God knew what else, recommended by a friend of a friend. Ryan was almost frantic about it, desperate after Travis had gone and then Brent and now they were back to the two of them, like they'd never moved beyond Blink covers. Like The Summer League had never happened, had never died its unspectacular death. Spencer almost liked it like that, really, liked that it was the two of them again, starting things over.

"Yeah," Spencer said, and Ryan grinned at him, waking up a little now. Spencer slid into the seat next to him, yawned against his fist. "Did you eat all the Lucky Charms?"

Ryan looked guilty. Spencer shot him a narrow look and took Ryan's bowl, ate the marshmallows before he gave it back. Ryan made wounded noises but didn't retrieve it, which meant he knew the punishment he deserved as the douche who stole the last of the Lucky Charms.

"I'm making toast," Crystal announced. "You want me to put in some for you, Spence?"

"Thanks," Spencer said, and looked at Ryan, putting his hand on Ryan's knee under the table, stopping him from jiggling his leg and making the table vibrate. "Stop it," Spencer said. "It's gonna be good or bad, and if it's good that's awesome, and if not we can find another guy to try out. We're going to need another person, anyway, if you want two guitars. Just chill out."

Ryan blinked up at him. "I'm totally chill," he said flatly.

Spencer laughed, punched his arm. "Fuck you," he said.

"'Chill', seriously," Ryan said, shaking his head. "I don't even want to know what you're being influenced by."

They went out to the garage pretty soon after that. Ryan showered and made some small pretence about going out to see a movie, or taking their skateboards down to the park. They still had a few hours before the new guy showed up. Ryan's fingers were twitching, though, and he kept darting glances at the door leading into the garage, then at the clock, back at the door.

"Ryan," Spencer said. "It's going to be okay."

"Yeah," Ryan said.

"Let's go play for a bit," Spencer said, and Ryan was opening the door and grinning at him before Spencer had had time to pick up his favourite sticks from the counter.

They played covers for the most part, Blink and Counting Crows, and then Ryan tossed him an absurdly shy look and led them into "Time To Dance". Spencer grinned at Ryan's back, kept smiling until Ryan turned to look at him, because it was rough and really not meant to be just a drum-and-guitar combo, but it was a song and it was theirs and it was good. It was a good song, and every time either of them were feeling lost or frustrated or fed up with their stupid lack of a band, this was enough to get them back on track. This morning it seemed particularly apt, and they played it through three times, ironing out kinks, experimenting with the rhythm. Spencer changed the end into a beat from The Police, and Ryan actually wailed "Rox—anne!" into the microphone before he broke down laughing. Spencer beamed at him.

After a couple of hours of messing around, Ryan wandered over to Spencer, holding the neck of his guitar. His hair was falling in his face and he was dressed pretty casually, for Ryan, skinny jeans and a v-neck t-shirt. Spencer tried to look at him normally, not to focus on Ryan's narrow hips or the way he pushed them forward unconsciously a little, the way his guitar looked slung across him.

"You think this is going to work?" Ryan asked.

"We haven't met him yet," Spencer said.

"Yeah, but." Ryan was almost vibrating, rocking up onto his toes and back down again, drumming a restless pattern on his guitar. Spencer desperately wanted to correct it, but that was the kind of thing that got him punched. "A feeling, Spence, come on." He grinned, reckless and brave. "Intuition. What's your instinct?"

"My instinct is we haven't met him yet," Spencer said, and Ryan laughed. He turned away and played a D-chord and then A on his guitar in quick succession, frowned, lingered for a moment over a G then went back to D.

"It's going to be good," Ryan said. "I want it to be good."

"Well," Spencer said. "Make a wish."

Ryan smiled. "Come on," he said, and started on the D again. This time he played out the notes and Spencer got the song, settling into The White Stripes. He wondered what had made Ryan choose this song; they played it often enough that Spencer knew the whole thing by heart, but not that often, not up there with their most frequent covers. Ryan leaned forward and sang, "Well, I guess I haven't grown," and Spencer watched him play, sent them slamming into the final chorus with a crash of his cymbal.

He startled when he looked up and a guy was lingering uncertainly at the open door to the garage, half-smiling, looking pleased and surprised. Spencer put his drumsticks down, and it took Ryan a moment to catch on, still halfway through "if there's anything good about me—" when he stopped and looked around, frowning. Then he froze, staring at the guy.

"Hey," the guy said, stepping forward, smiling hugely. He pushed his glasses up his nose. "Hey, wow. We meet again."

"You're – Brendon?" Ryan said. Spencer glanced between them.

"You know each other?" he asked, and tried to equate the tiny, dark-haired guy with the way Ryan was staring at him, like he was embarrassed and shocked and – and grateful. A guy Spencer didn't know, and Spencer was willing to bet that he didn't go to Ryan's school. Ryan didn't have any friends at school.

"Um," Brendon said after a moment, when Ryan didn't respond. "Sort of, we – we ran into each other at a party last Saturday."

Spencer stiffened. "Saturday?" he said. He laughed, short and surprised, because there was no way he could fit this guy into his image of what Ryan had done last Saturday. "You were at the str—"

"Spencer," Ryan said suddenly, and turned and shot him a warning glance.

"You, uh, got home alright, I see," Brendon said, and Ryan looked away, and then back at Brendon, like he couldn't help it. Spencer stared.

"Yes," Ryan said. "Thanks, I." He cleared his throat. "You play guitar, then?"

"I think I mentioned it," Brendon said shyly, and laughed, pushing his hair behind his ear. He had a backpack on, and a guitar case clutched in his other hand, and he raised that in salute. "Yeah, and – bass, too, and keyboard. I can drum a bit, too, and uh, I used to be in the choir, and I've done some cello, though I'm kinda rusty on that."

Spencer blinked. "Um," he said. "Okay, great. Well, I'm Spencer, and I guess you already know Ryan—"

"Ryan," Brendon repeated, low and serious, and Ryan ducked his head, hair falling over his eyes. Brendon bit his lip, smiled like he had a secret, and when he turned slightly to look at Spencer, his grin just widened, like he was including Spencer in it, like Spencer would know exactly what was going on. Spencer was confused and a little jealous and kind of worried about Ryan, but he couldn't help smiling back.

"Spencer, right," Brendon said, shaking his head a little. He took a step towards Spencer. "It's a pleasure. I'm Brendon."

Spencer nodded. "Patrick's friend, right?"

"Not really," Brendon said. "I'm – I'm new at Lakeview? But the guy who showed me around, Pete Wentz, he's best friends with Patrick or something, mentioned that you guys were looking for someone. Is Patrick in the band, too? He didn't say, but—"

"No, Patrick's just a friend," Spencer said. "I used to go to the same music school as him. He's a fucking awesome musician, but Pete's a little grabby."

"I kind of got that impression," Brendon said, grinning and stepping closer. When he leaned a knee against Spencer's kit Spencer didn't get the urge to punch him like he usually did when strangers touched his drums. "He was, um. Intense."

Spencer laughed. "I've heard that," he said. Brendon was leaning in close, eyes bright with mischief. Spencer wasn't really used to anyone besides Ryan invading his space like that. His heart felt a little faster than normal.

Ryan cleared his throat. "Did you guys want to play something?"

Brendon did. Brendon played the most exuberant version of "All The Small Things" that Spencer had ever heard, smiling at the both of them like he couldn't help it, cracking up halfway through a line. Brendon played guitar really, really well.

More obviously: Brendon could sing. Spencer gave up trying to drum along halfway through in favour of leaning forward and staring; Ryan actually sank to the floor, sitting cross-legged and gazing up at Brendon, chin resting on his fists, looking absurdly young.

"Okay," Spencer said when Brendon was done, and he looked over at Ryan. Ryan looked like all his Christmases and birthdays had been given to him at once. Spencer laughed, said, "okay, okay." He couldn't stop beaming.

Brendon said, almost nervously, "Okay?" and Spencer laughed again.

"Fuck," he said, "that was awesome." This wasn't the way they should be doing these things, Spencer thought, there were only two of them and they had two songs to their band's name and they should be holding some semblance of professional behaviour between the two of them, trying to show they took it seriously, but, but. Ryan was staring at Brendon like Brendon had created the world, and Spencer couldn't stop smiling.

He looked at Ryan, and Ryan grinned at him, big and bright.

"So, hey," Ryan said, turning back to Brendon. "You're a singer. You never mentioned that."

"Um," Brendon said. "Not really, I don't—"

"Really, really," Spencer said, and Ryan stood up, holding his guitar carefully.

"Do you want to be in our band?" he asked.

Brendon bit his lip. His eyes were shining. Spencer's heart thumped oddly in his chest. "Yeah," he said. "Yes. I do."


"Brendon'll be over in fifteen minutes," Spencer said, and Ryan looked suddenly hunted.

Spencer waited. Ryan stood unmoving outside Spencer's gate for almost a full minute before he pushed it open and came through, treading with unnecessary care, crisp footsteps on the gravel.

"What are you guys doing?" Ryan asked. He managed to sit down next to Spencer, smile at him, and bump their shoulders together in a friendly sort of way without once letting his guard down. Spencer had known Ryan for over a decade now, and he was still unwillingly impressed.

"Movie," Spencer said, rolling his eyes. "To celebrate the beginning of summer? You planned it with us, Ryan. Did you forget?"

"Guess so," Ryan said. He looked at his hands, tugging at a finger idly until his knuckle cracked. Spencer waited for Ryan to do all ten before he touched Ryan's knee, warm through the ragged denim of his jeans. Ryan scowled at him.

"You'll mess up your hands one day," Spencer said. Ryan shrugged one shoulder, corner of his mouth twisting down. "Ryan." Ryan didn't look up. Spencer tapped Ryan's knee again and said, insistently, "Ryan."

"What?" Ryan kept his gaze fixed on the ground, and Spencer fought to keep himself from curling his hands into fists.

"You know Brendon's not doing so good," Spencer said lowly. "His family and church and – and the band, it's just. You know it's not good right now."

"Yes," Ryan said. "So?" He sounded bored. He was really very lucky that Spencer knew him so well, or he would have been getting punched right about now.

"So go easy on him," Spencer said. "Just. Don't be – you know. Not tonight."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Ryan said, and Spencer looked down to where Ryan's hands were clasped around his knee, watched them shake.


"We're going to miss the film," Ryan said half an hour later, leaning against the garage door and looking furious. He tapped his foot, and Spencer resisted trying to even out Ryan's beat. Probably it wouldn't be appreciated just then. "Where is he?"

"Don't know," Spencer said, and pulled out his cell to call Brendon for the tenth time in as many minutes. It went straight through to voicemail again, and Spencer hung up rather than leave yet another stiff, short message.

"So fucking selfish," Ryan said, and Spencer looked up at him.

"Seriously, Ryan?" he said. "He's the selfish one?"

Ryan closed his eyes. "Making us late to a movie and not bothering to say why seems to suggest—"

"That's not what I'm talking about," Spencer said. "You know it's not."

"Do we really have to talk about this?"

"My chances of getting you to are less than nil, I know," Spencer said. "But just." He scuffed at the dirt with his foot. Ryan made him feel so young sometimes. "I don't get it."

"I don't get you," Ryan snarled, wheeling on him. "We – we made a decision! We were good! And all of a sudden, what, the repressed Mormon kid changes your mind?"

"The repressed Mormon kid," Spencer said, "kind of pointed out to me that we were being sort of stupid."

Ryan gaped. "He said that?"

"Not in so many words," Spencer said. Actually, Brendon had said it in exactly those words, draped across Spencer's lap one night, casually nuzzling at Spencer's ribcage, whispering about how he wasn't going to play favourites, how none of them had to play favourites, if he had it his way.

Ryan wasn't looking at him. "Ryan," Spencer said, softly, "you ever get the feeling that, like. We forgot we weren't the only people in the world?"

"No," Ryan said.

Spencer bit his lip. "I think we did," he said. "I think we did, and it's like – we live by this set of rules that I'm only just starting to realise make no sense."

"And group sex is going to fix that," Ryan said, and Spencer froze. None of them had ever said anything like that aloud before, and when Ryan turned around his eyes were wide and shocked, like he'd surprised himself. Spencer stared at Ryan, wondered how to tell Ryan that he was terrified too, without making it sound like a judgement, without making it confirmation for Ryan's cause.

Ryan's cell vibrated on the stoop where he'd left it. Ryan swooped down to pick it up, answering with a terse, "Yes?"

A second later he looked over at Spencer and nodded, and Spencer sat down on the steps again and breathed out. It wasn't so much that he had thought Brendon had been horribly murdered, but Brendon was always early and it wasn't like him not to answer his cell. Which, case in point—

"Why the fuck aren't you picking up?" Ryan demanded. "Where are you?" Spencer mouthed put it on loudspeaker at him, but Ryan ignored him, turning slightly, his whole body curling in around his cell, clutching it with white knuckles. "Okay," Ryan said. "Well, we're really fucking late, so I don't know if – oh. Yeah, alright. Okay, fine, whatever." He tilted his head to the side and grinned, unexpected and bright, totally undetectable in his flat voice. "I said whatever, okay, I'll sit and listen to your latest – yeah, yeah. See you in a bit then."

He hung up and Spencer said, "Well?"

"His phone's out of battery," Ryan said. "He called from a payphone, only knew my number. Says he's got something to tell us."

Spencer blinked. "What?"

Ryan shrugged. "Fuck knows. He's meeting us at the movie theatre. C'mon, if we walk fast we can make it for the previews."

"Ryan," Spencer said, and reached out to touch Ryan's elbow.

Ryan swayed into him for a moment, then jerked away. "I liked it when we were the only ones," he said, and started for his car.

Brendon was waiting for them on the steps, clutching an enormous tub of popcorn and two large slushees. There were movie tickets sticking out of his back pocket, and Spencer resolved to slip a couple of twenties into Brendon's wallet at some stage in the evening. Brendon hadn't totally given up on the magic of grand gestures yet, despite consistent exposure to Ryan shutting them down, but he really couldn't afford this, not even with the compulsive saving thing he had going on.

Brendon made his way down the steps towards them, beaming, and shoved a slushee in Spencer's face. "Hi!" he said, and Spencer took the drink carefully.

"What's going on?" Spencer said. "What happened?"

"I met this guy," Brendon said, perfectly normally, but Spencer stiffened, could feel Ryan standing straighter beside him. "At Starbucks, on my way to your place? He was awesome, he saw my pin of Seth and Summer and added vanilla syrup to my drink for free, it was great. He's really cool and funny, and he said I should come by anytime and he'll give me free top-ups and stuff when he's working if I keep him company."

Spencer blinked. "Just like that?"

"Well, we talked for like an hour," Brendon said, bouncing on the heels of his feet, smiling at the both of them. His eyes were very bright, and for a split second Spencer was furious, at himself and at Ryan, at Brendon for giving up so easy. Then Brendon said, "He's a photography major, and he plays bass and techs for his best friend's band," as though he was confiding some of the secrets of the universe, and Spencer just felt suddenly tired, like he wanted nothing more than to go home, skip the movie, not see Ryan or Brendon ever again, live a life devoid of any trace of them, no matter how much that hurt. Brendon said, "He has kittens. Two of them."

"Awesome," Ryan said flatly. "I'm going to get a drink." He shoved past Spencer and Brendon and made his way to the entrance, shoulders hunched forward. Spencer swallowed hard.

"Ryan," Brendon said, and Ryan took another step before he turned, reluctant. "I got you one," Brendon said, holding out the other slushee.

"What about you?" Ryan asked, and Brendon bit his lip on a smile.

"I think I get a few sips of yours," he said. "Seeing how gentlemanly I'm being and all."

"Right," Ryan said. "So really you got me half a drink." Spencer started up the steps to join him, Brendon warm at his side.

"Yeah," Brendon said. "And tickets in my back pocket, if you want them." He leered spectacularly at Ryan, and Spencer rolled his eyes.

"What's his name?" Ryan asked, deadly casual. "Your barista?"

"Jon," Brendon said. "Jon Walker."

"Hmmn," Ryan said, and lingered a moment too long sliding the tickets out of Brendon's pocket.



Jon handed over the photos with such a hopeful smile, and Brendon hated Ryan for the look of dismissal on his face. He flicked through the stack of photos too quickly for Brendon to really know what he thought, to get a hint of what was going on in Ryan's head before Ryan handed them back over and said, "I don't think so."

Jon swallowed. "I thought maybe this one," he said, and dragged out one from the middle, handed it over to Spencer. Spencer leaned up against Brendon. It was the four of them crowded onto the couch in Spencer's garage, Jon still looking a little harried from setting the camera up. Spencer had his hand on Ryan's knee, and Jon was tucked in tight on Ryan's other side, and Ryan. Ryan was smiling, stupid and glad, his very best smile, and he was looking at Brendon, over Jon to where Brendon was raising his eyebrows at the camera. Ryan was looking at Brendon the way Brendon got to see only very rarely, and it was something hungry and warm and lovely all at the same time.

Spencer said, very softly, "I like that photo."

"Me too," Brendon said.

"No," Ryan said.

"Okay, uh," Jon said, and handed over another. In it Brendon had his arm hooked around Spencer's neck, grinning like he'd won a prize, and Jon was laughing at the resigned expression on Spencer's face. Ryan was watching Jon, chin propped on his hand, smiling soft and glad. He looked much younger than usual. He also looked happier.

Ryan stared at it. Brendon could see his throat working. "Jon's not even looking at the camera in that one," he said.

"Yeah," Jon said, "but—"

"No," Ryan said.

"Ryan," Spencer said. Ryan looked up, turned around with his mouth open, only Spencer was staring straight at him, and it wasn't an angry look. Brendon watched as Ryan flushed, took an unsteady step towards Spencer, hands open by his sides, fingers twitching. Spencer watched Ryan steadily and Ryan licked his lips; then he closed his eyes and stepped away.

"No," Ryan repeated, and went over to pick up his guitar. "I think we're done for the day. Brendon, you still need that lift home?"

Jon was holding the photos loosely, watching the three of them like he didn't understand what was going on. Brendon wanted to cross to him and hug him tight, press up against him, apologise for bringing him to this place where Ryan Ross had no idea what the fuck he was doing to them, or had every idea, and that was worse. It would be a lie, though. Brendon wasn't sorry. He was selfish and greedy and he wanted them all, and if Ryan would just stop fucking with everybody's heart, that would be awesome.

Jon looked upset and confused, but he still looked at Brendon and tilted his head. Brendon knew the offer that was being made there, the excuse to get away from Ryan. It was probably a good idea. He shook his head anyway.

"Thanks, yeah," he said, and Ryan turned around.

"Get your stuff," he said.

Spencer had his arms folded, lips pressed in a tight line. Brendon bumped his shoulder against Spencer's as he walked past to get his guitar and his bag, following Ryan out of the garage. There was something hot and tight in his throat, in his stomach. Fuck you, he thought, staring at the long line of Ryan's back as he walked out to his car. The thought felt a little like exhilaration.

It was a short drive to Brendon's place, a little under ten minutes in Ryan's car. Brendon stayed mostly quiet for it, humming "Lying Is The Most Fun" under his breath, tapping his fingers idly on his own knee. Ryan didn't look at him, hands securely in the ten and two position, but his fingers were white-knuckled when he clasped the gearstick. Brendon wasn't fooled.

"So, hey," he said, when they were about two minutes away. "You were a bit of a douche to Jon just now."

Ryan swallowed. "I didn't like the photos," he said.

"Yeah," Brendon said. "Why not? It's not like you were cross-eyed or anything."

"I don't think they suit the feel of the band," Ryan said. "These are – I know it's just MySpace but it's important that we look like a band. That we look like – I don't think we're what those photos make us look like."

"Or you don't want us to be what those photos look like," Brendon said softly.

Ryan was silent for a moment. "No," he said, finally. "I don't."

Brendon sucked in a harsh breath. "God, you're an asshole," he said.

Ryan pulled up in front of Brendon's house and turned to look at him, glaring. "How?" he demanded. "How am I an asshole, Brendon, seriously, you guys are living in a fucking fantasy world and I'm just—"

Brendon took his seatbelt off and surged across the seat to kiss him, pushing Ryan up against the window, biting at Ryan's bottom lip, demanding access to his mouth. Ryan gasped and Brendon climbed over the gearstick until he was half into Ryan's lap. Ryan groaned and spread his legs seemingly automatically, letting Brendon settle into him, grind down against him. Brendon thought about the first time he'd seen Ryan, Ryan cool and on display and letting some stranger press him up against a wall.

Brendon ran his hands along Ryan's shoulders, cupped his face for a moment and curled his fingers in Ryan's hair. Ryan was scrabbling at Brendon’s back, tugging him in closer, mouth open and greedy. Yes, Brendon thought. He could feel triumph searing through his veins. He felt stupidly present, anchored under Ryan's fingers, Ryan's hands, Ryan's mouth hot against his, and he pulled back to see, to look at the way Ryan was looking at him. Ryan's mouth was open and swollen red. He was panting, staring up at Brendon with his pupils blown and his eyes darker than Brendon had ever seen before.

"You can't change it," Brendon told him. "I know you think you can, but the photo was real and this is real and you're not a good enough coward to keep yourself from us."

Ryan swallowed hard, and then he pushed Brendon hard enough that Brendon tumbled backward, a moment of pressure on his hips and then he was falling. He hit his head against the back window, landing sprawling and awkward on the passenger seat.

"I don't want you," Ryan said. "How many times do I have to make that clear, Brendon? How many times do I have to make it clear to all of you? I don't want you."

Brendon breathed in sharply, his head aching. He knew how cruel Ryan could be. He wasn't going to let Ryan get rid of him, not this easy. "You do," he said. "Ryan, you – fucking look at yourself, how can you even pretend to believe this stuff?"

"You're hot," Ryan said, and something shivered down Brendon's spine. "You're hot," Ryan repeated, "and I like making out. But you think I'd – what, you want me to be your boyfriend? Yours, and Jon and Spencer's, too? Spencer's been my best friend since I was six. I don't even want to think about him like that. I barely know Jon. And you think because you met me when I was kind of – when I needed something, you think that something is you."

"Ryan," Brendon said.

"It never has been," Ryan said, staring straight at him. "It never will be. You're a moron."

Brendon closed his eyes. "You look at us—"

"Maybe," Ryan said, "maybe you just want me to look at you like that. You ever thought about that?" Brendon breathed in and looked at Ryan, stared at him. Ryan smiled, reached out and touched Brendon's nose with the tip of his finger. "I told you," he said. "Delusional. All of you."

"No," Brendon said.

"There's only so long I can be kind, Brendon," Ryan said, "before it just gets really boring."

Brendon thought about the time he'd been late meeting them at the movies – because he'd met Jon, had spent an hour leaning over the counter at Starbucks, talking and talking with his heart beating way too fast, thinking, oh, god, not again – and Ryan had been almost frantic by the time Brendon finally got there. He thought about falling asleep curled up with Ryan on the spare mattress in Spencer's room, the way he woke up draped across Ryan, Ryan talking to Spencer in a low voice, stroking his fingers idly through Brendon's hair. He thought about the way Jon made Ryan laugh like Brendon had never heard before, thought about the way Spencer could ground Ryan with a touch, the brush of his fingers at Ryan's waist, a nudge to Ryan's ribs. He thought about it as hard as he could, but it all seemed very far away. Brendon was good at wanting things. He wondered if he was maybe too good.

He breathed in. "Ryan," he said.

"I mean, I want a band," Ryan said. "Not some sort of Mormon-style gay collective."

Brendon fumbled blindly behind him for the doorhandle, almost fell out all over again when the door swung open behind him. He snatched up his bag from the seat and stumbled out onto the pavement, covering his mouth like Ryan had hit him. Probably it would have been better if Ryan had.

He slammed the door shut behind him and went to the sidewalk so Ryan could back away properly. Ryan drove forward a little though, and wound his window down.

"Brendon," he said. His eyes were so dark they were almost black. "Don't forget your guitar." Brendon swallowed around a sob and went to the back door, opened it up and pulled out his case, rougher than he would usually be. Ryan nodded, half-leaning out the window, and said, "Okay. I'll see you Thursday at practice."

Brendon stared after his car, even after Ryan had turned the corner and disappeared from sight, as if any moment Ryan was going to come back and say – Brendon didn't even know. Something that would take away the bitter taste in Brendon's mouth, something to keep him from listening to the last of that conversation on repeat in his head for the rest of his life. Ryan didn't come back, though, and Brendon leaned against his neighbour's white fence, ran his hand along the peeling white paint. He thought about taking out his cell, texting or calling Jon, but he didn't know what he'd say. He didn't know what he'd say to Spencer, either. He wondered if Ryan would tell them similar things, or if it was just Brendon who got this lucky, Brendon who got the brunt of all of Ryan's anger and boredom.

He picked up his guitar case and started towards his house. About halfway up the drive, he stopped. His mom and dad were standing out the front, waiting for him, and when Brendon got closer he saw that their expressions were quiet and cold. His mom's eyeliner was faded, even though he'd seen her applying it this morning in the bathroom, knew that the kind she used stayed dark all day.

Brendon got closer. Something terrifying was churning in his stomach, like the one time in middle school when he'd been caught cheating on a test. "Hi," he said, slowly.

"Hello, Brendon," his mom said. "Was that Ryan you were with just then?"

They knew it was Ryan. They'd seen his car before; he'd even come in, once or twice, to pick Brendon up at the door, twitchy and shy but polite enough for Brendon's mom to take a liking to him, decide that he was too skinny. Probably, Brendon thought, Brendon's mom didn't have much of a liking for Ryan anymore. Brendon drew in a breath, wondered whether or not laughing would be a bad idea. He knew, objectively, that it would be; at the same time, though, he didn't think much of anything could make this worse.

"Yeah," he said. "It was."

"Do you want to clarify anything about what we just saw, Brendon?" his dad asked.

Brendon said, "Uh, we're not dating? He kind of rejected me," and then closed his eyes so he didn't have to see the expression on his parents' faces.

Half an hour later, with an extra bag, he walked back to Spencer's place. It was a short drive, a long walk, especially loaded down with as much as he'd been able to fit into his two bags, especially with his breath hitching in his chest, his eyes sore, his nose running. He hadn't cried a lot in the house, which was good. He was vaguely proud of himself.

It took him forty minutes to get back to Spencer's, anyway. When he got there, the garage door was still open and Spencer and Jon were pressed close together on the couch. Spencer had his eyes closed, his head tilted back against Jon's shoulder.

"Um," Brendon said, and they both turned and looked at him. Jon got to his feet; Spencer stared. Brendon didn't want to know what he looked like.

He took a breath. "Can I stay here tonight, please?"



The apartment was a godsend. Jon was well aware that with Spencer and Brendon and Ryan fucking Ross there was more than enough drama in the band without him having to add to it, but sometimes he did freak out a little bit at the idea of what might have happened if Tommy hadn't moved out of his old place at exactly the right time. Spencer's parents were awesome but Brendon didn't like charity, and Jon didn't like to think about what Brendon might have gone and done in a little while if they hadn't found the place. It was big enough that they shouldn't have been able to afford it, three bedrooms and a tiny kitchenette and lounge room, but Tom's grandma owned it and she gave it to them cheaply. Brendon's job at the Smoothie Hut and Jon's pay rise at Starbucks covered it, just, and Jon had some ideas about someone else putting in, too.

It wasn't a good idea to mention that to Spencer and Brendon, though. Mostly the two of them sat around looking horribly depressed. Jon was kind of stupidly in love with both of them, but they were being just a little bit frustrating at the moment, and even Brendon cornering him in the kitchen this morning to press him up against the bench and kiss him, slow and thorough and kind of clingy, didn't quite make up for how depressing they were being. (Well. Maybe just a little bit.)

The week had been good for the most part, or at least on the surface. An apartment all to themselves was pretty exciting. Brendon seemed caught between happiness and loneliness every time he walked in, but Jon could understand that – he and Spencer had spent a very fulfilling afternoon planning out an elaborate fantasy wherein they beat Brendon's parents to a pulp. Last night had been the official housewarming, but they'd spent the past week moving in. It had been stupidly hard, with the awful trip to Brendon's house to pick up the rest of his stuff. Brendon's parents hadn't even looked at him. Brendon's hands had been shaking so badly that he had trouble getting things into the car Spencer had borrowed from his parents.

The apartment still felt empty, too, no matter how much Brendon and Jon moved into it, no matter the contributions Spencer made. Brendon had flopped down on the couch and fallen asleep there, the first night, rather than his room. Jon and Spencer had ended up dragging out Jon's mattress onto the floor beside Brendon and sleeping there, so Brendon wouldn't wake up alone.

They hadn't slept much that night. Jon had just been drowsing off when Spencer sat up beside him, resting his elbows on his knees and staring into the dark. He hadn't moved, not even when Jon rolled over and put his hand on Spencer's back. "What's going on?" Jon had whispered.

"I'm so mad at him," Spencer whispered. "I'm so – he makes me so furious."

Jon swallowed. "It wasn't his fault," he said. "He couldn't have known, and Brendon's parents are—"

"Not that," Spencer said. "The stuff he said, and. He wants us."

"Kind of sucks," Jon said, "how our lives revolve around Ryan Ross these days."

Spencer had looked at him then, eyes sharp in the dim light, like he knew how Jon was daring him. "Try it for thirteen years."

"Unlucky number," Jon whispered, and Spencer blinked.

"Wait, you don't think – you know I want – Jon." Jon waited, and Spencer flushed slowly. "Jon, I'm so—"

"Is it morning?" Brendon said sleepily, and then rolled straight off the couch and onto Jon, landing with an oof.

"Jesus," Jon said, and started laughing, and Spencer darted a look between him and Brendon and then leaned in and kissed Brendon, warm and soft.

"My life doesn't only revolve around Ryan," he had whispered a while later, Brendon making tiny, helpless noises under their hands.

For a while, things had seemed okay. Jon had been able to ignore the strange aching in his chest for the way Spencer looked at him, all dark-eyed and startled like Jon was something he had never expected and always wanted, for the way Brendon slept curled into Jon, ass pressed back against Jon's hips.

On Thursday, though, they'd had band practice again. Ryan had shown up, stubborn as ever, not looking at any of them, and Jon had spent an hour and a half watching Brendon and Spencer pretend like they still didn't want Ryan, still didn't love him. He hadn't bothered pretending himself. He was a pretty shitty actor. The band had sounded awful, too. Jon didn't think even the music was going to make things hang together much longer, though he was almost definitely sure that was high up on Ryan's list of reasons why he was being an asshole.

Now, as he watched, Spencer flicked off the TV. "There's nothing good on," he said. Brendon sighed in acknowledgment, nuzzling in closer to Spencer. They sat staring gloomily at the black screen.

Jon went to them and bumped his knuckles against Spencer's shoulder, ran them up along Spencer's neck. Spencer looked up at him and smiled, tired and young, and Jon leaned down and kissed him, the barest brush of their mouths. It hit him again, suddenly, a little guiltily, that Spencer was the youngest of them all. Spencer was the most practical, possibly the most capable, and the most equipped to deal with all of Ryan's shit, but at the same time: he hadn't left home, in dramatic fashion or not, he hadn't lived with an alcoholic and a messed up head for most of his life. Jon kind of wanted to put Spencer to bed, curl up behind him and sleep with Brendon on Spencer's other side, the three of them wound together as close as they could get. They'd done that last night, though, and it hadn't helped much.

Spencer nipped at his bottom lip, light but enough to make Jon's mouth fall open on a sharp breath. It was enough to let Spencer curl his tongue against Jon's for a second. Jon leaned forward more, resting his hand on the couch above Spencer's shoulder, and Brendon said, breathless, "Um."

Jon smiled against Spencer's mouth. Spencer was smiling too, enough that the kiss kind of went to shit. When Jon pulled back, Brendon was staring wide-eyed and open-mouthed at them, still hadn't gotten the hang of this, the three of them falling into each other. Jon giggled, couldn't help it. Spencer was laughing up at him, too, and Brendon said, grumpily, "Oh, what," and head butted Spencer's ribs, which made them laugh harder. For a moment, things were good, but when Jon sat down on Spencer's other side, Spencer only smiled a moment longer before he sighed and combed his fingers through Brendon's hair. Then he went back to frowning at the TV screen.

"Okay," Jon said, and stood up. "This has gone far enough." He picked up his coat and scarf from the armchair and put them on, glaring decisively at Brendon and Spencer as he did so.

Brendon looked down. Spencer pointed his chin up and said, a little defiantly, "What?"

"I'm going out," Jon said.

Brendon drew in a breath. "You're coming back, though," he said, and then, in a tiny voice, "right?"

"Jesus," Jon said, and leaned down, kissed Brendon hard and warm. "Yes, I'm coming back. I'm just. I'm going to go get something to cheer you two up, because it's too fucking miserable around here. This is not a housewarming party, okay?"

"The housewarming party was technically yesterday," Spencer pointed out. "I brought cupcakes."

"Also there were blowjobs," Brendon said, and he turned red but his voice didn't wobble when he said it, which was a dramatic improvement. "I think the party was a success."

"After the cupcakes and blowjobs you guys sat around and sighed heavily for the rest of the night," Jon said. "An activity which you have been dedicated to ever since. Seriously, I'm going to go pick something good up, and then everyone can just – be happy again, alright?"

Brendon's mouth twitched. "Alright," he said. "Something good?"

Spencer looked up. "Like donuts?"

"Sure," Jon said, and left.

The drive to Ryan's was quiet this time of night. It was later than Jon had thought; edging onto one AM, and he spared a moment to wonder if maybe it was a bit insensitive to come and wake Ryan up. Then he blinked at himself in the rear view mirror and said, "Seriously?" His stomach was twisting and his hands were trembling a little around the steering wheel, so he turned on Weezer and sang along loudly to make up for it.

Outside Ryan's house, he texted him with beep beep. There was a light on in Ryan's window, and Jon grinned up at it, wondered if he could aim well enough to throw stones. Probably not, he decided, and sent Ryan another text that said have bden & spence hostage, and after a moment's consideration, another: come outside if you ever want to see them alive again.

Up above him, Jon could see a shadowy form at the window. He opened his door enough that he could lean out and wave up cheerfully, and sent a final text that said: ahahahahahahahaa!

The light in Ryan's room went out, and Jon waited, bouncing his knee. In a moment, he'd have to try and shimmy up the drainpipe or something, and that would only be embarrassing for everyone involved. He closed his eyes for a moment, thought, come on, Ross, and when he opened his eyes Ryan was slipping out the front door.

He stood up, grabbed Ryan in a bear hug and pulled him in tight. Ryan struggled but Jon didn't let go. "Tricked you," he said, low and warm. "Now I've kidnapped you."

Ryan pulled out of Jon's grasp and turned around, plucking at the material over his elbows. "Is something wrong?" he asked, not looking at Jon properly.

Jon breathed in sharply. It was one thing, he thought, to have big plans, big hopes; it was another to come and turn up at Ryan's house in the middle of the night and be greeted with all of Ryan's defences. Yes, Jon thought. Everything's fucking wrong, and you know it. He opened his mouth, and Ryan darted a look up at him. Jon saw the fear in Ryan's eyes, suddenly realised what this must look like, showing up unexpectedly in the middle of the night.

"No," he said. "I mean – not anything big."

"It's one in the morning," Ryan said.

"Fuck you, Ryan Ross," Jon said, and shoved him into the car. Gently.

Ryan sat in the passenger seat with his arms folded, head down, refusing to look at Jon. Jon got in the driver's seat and stared at him for a moment, but Ryan didn't move, so after a moment Jon reached across him, pulled Ryan's seatbelt on, lingering in his space. Ryan didn't move and Jon closed his eyes for a moment, stayed there, breathed in Ryan's aftershave and resisted the urge to press his mouth against Ryan's skin, his neck. He moved back and started up the car.

"I have to go to school tomorrow," Ryan said. "You know, just so you know." Jon didn't say anything, and Ryan huffed, slumping lower in his seat. He stared out his window and Jon watched him out of the corner of his eye, the pale flashes of Ryan's skin, his sharp cheekbones, the line of his eyelashes against his skin when he blinked. Jon didn't know quite how this strange group had seduced him, Brendon laughing bright and open and Spencer's hand curled loosely around his wrist and Ryan Ross in all his unfathomable glory. Jon had never been so furious at someone in his life. He'd also never wanted to kiss someone so bad.

Ryan said, "Where are we even going?"

"My place," Jon said.

Ryan screwed up his nose. "We're going to your fucking college?"

"No," Jon said, "I moved out of the dorms. I'm showing you my apartment."

"Awesome," Ryan said. "I'm psyched."

"You should be," Jon said, and Ryan was silent again.

Jon didn't say anything, not even when Ryan started darting him expectant little looks. Eventually Ryan said, in a low, angry rush, "I thought you were going to fix us."

Jon looked at him. "What?"

"I thought you were going to – to date Brendon," Ryan said. "Or just. Calm everyone down. I thought you were going to fix it and you just fucked it up more."

"Maybe it didn't need fixing," Jon said, something tight and furious in his chest. "Maybe it never fucking needed fixing, Ryan, did you ever think of that?"

Ryan laughed hollowly, shaking his head. "You guys are so fucked up," he said.

"Don't pretend like you don't want it," Jon said. "I'm not Brendon Urie, I don't think you created the universe in your spare time. I'm not going to believe what you say, no matter how well you say it."

"It's selfish," Ryan said, tripping over his words, voice stumbling and affected, "and I'm selfish in every other way, I'm not going to give you that—"

"We're here," Jon said blithely, and pulled into his parking space. Ryan was looking at him, dark and resentful, and Jon grinned and got out of the car. He had to sit on the car hood and wait about ten minutes before Ryan came out as well, but Jon was a patient guy.

Ryan slammed the door shut behind him and said, "Come on, then, hurry the fuck up," as if Jon was the one who'd kept them waiting. Jon led the way up the stairs anyway, darting up quickly, looking over his shoulder now and then to make sure Ryan was still with him.

At the top, he opened the door and said, "Oh, and I've got guests," and grabbed Ryan's wrist so he could drag him in before Ryan ran. Ryan froze, even though Jon would bet that Ryan had known all along, known what to expect, Spencer and Brendon lying on opposite ends of the couch, legs tangled together.

"Um," Ryan said, and they looked up together. Brendon looked frightened. Spencer looked pissed.

"You said you were going out for donuts," Spencer said.

"Uh-uh," Jon said, shaking his head. "I said I was going out to get something that'd make you guys feel better."

"And then I said, 'Donuts?', and you said, 'sure'," Spencer said, still looking pissed. "Where are my donuts?"

Jon gave him a sheepish look. "I forgot," he said.

"Okay," Ryan said, "I'm gonna go, you – you lied, Jon, it's not—"

"I didn't lie," Jon said.

Spencer said, "What the fuck, then, you were going to go off with Jon when you won't even speak to us?"

"I didn't exactly get a choice in the matter," Ryan snapped, and drew in a breath, looking around him. He frowned, taking in the lounge room. They hadn't done a lot of decorating yet, had only been moved in a bare two weeks, but Ryan looked around at the posters and the throw rug and the extensive Disney collection by their crappy TV and said, "what the fuck, did Brendon just give you all his stuff as a housewarming gift?"

"I live here too," Brendon said, very softly. Jon risked a glance at Brendon; he was wide-eyed and curled in on himself, but he hadn't taken his eyes away from Ryan.

Ryan blinked. "I. What?"

"I moved out," Brendon said, "of home, I moved out of home."

Ryan swallowed. "But – your family – why?"

"They kind of kicked me out," Brendon said, and Spencer curled his hand around Brendon's ankle. Jon wanted to go over and press up behind his back, curl around Brendon for the rest of the night, but he was pretty sure that if he stopped blocking the door Ryan would make a run for it.

Ryan was staring at Brendon, mouth open slightly, still frowning. "Why?" He flushed. "I mean, things weren't good but it's not like they didn't—"

"They saw me with you," Brendon said. "The other. Three weeks ago. They saw me with you."

Ryan was suddenly very white, and he pressed his hand against his mouth. "Fuck," he whispered, and Jon reached out, touched his shoulder. Ryan flinched away from him, taking a violent, stumbling step towards the wall, away from all of them. "Fuck," Ryan said. "Brendon."

"Oh," Spencer said, standing up. "So now you're sorry." Jon made a face, and Ryan flinched, darting a look at Spencer that was equal parts guilt and surprise.

Jon took an uncertain step forward, touched Ryan's back. "Hey," he said. "Hey, Ryan—"

"No." Ryan glanced up, eyes wild, staring at Brendon. "Brendon, Brendon, I said, I—"

"I know what you said." Brendon's voice was completely blank. "I was there."

"But," Ryan said, and breathed in sharply, like a sob. He turned away, rolling his forehead against the wall. "It was me."

"I think it was me," Brendon said. "You were kind of incidental to them. Just, you know. Catalyst."

"Fuck," Ryan said. "Fuck, Brendon, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, please—"

"What are you sorry for?" Brendon asked, and Ryan closed his eyes, like it hurt too much to look at all of them. Jon stared at them all, open-mouthed. He didn't know why he'd thought he could make this easy. He didn't know why he'd thought this thing could be easy, ever. Ryan was right, sort of. He was just also mostly wrong.

"Listen," Jon said uncertainly, "maybe we should all just—"

"I'm going to go home," Ryan said. "It was a bad idea, coming here. It was – I wasn't thinking properly, I wasn't—"

"You haven't been thinking properly for weeks," Spencer said, sounding decidedly grumpy about it. Brendon got up from the couch, started around towards them. He stopped at Jon's shoulder, leaned against him. Jon wrapped an arm around Brendon and tugged him in.

"I'm the only one thinking properly," Ryan said, and he sounded wrecked. "You think we can just – all four of us, seriously? How the fuck is that going to work? Even in your head, how does it work? Nothing like this happens in real life."

"Like you've ever wanted that," Spencer said. He stepped forward, and Jon watched him come towards them. He moved slowly, not like he was wary of Ryan, more like he was still making a decision. Jon wondered suddenly how Brendon had ever gotten up the courage to insinuate himself in with Ryan and Spencer in the first place.

Ryan stared at Brendon, eyes huge in his pale face. "I'm going to be the one who fucks it up," he said. "You watch. You think I'm being an, an asshole now, you should – I always mess it up. I'm going to mess you all up, and I already have, and it's not fair to make me think I can have—"

"You've always had it," Brendon said. He breathed in, still and warm in Jon's arms. "Ryan. I didn't even know your name. You've always."

"I need to go," Ryan said, turning around, suddenly frantic. "I need to – give me some money and I'll call a cab, I'll pay you back, I need to go—"

"No, you don't," Jon said, and Ryan made another tiny, angry noise.

"Ryan," Spencer said, and Ryan looked up and startled, like he hadn't known how close Spencer was. Spencer looked furious and intent, and he put his hands on Ryan's shoulders and said, "Stop it."

"Spencer," Ryan whispered.

"Listen to me," Spencer said. "I'm telling you to stop."

Ryan drew in a breath, and Spencer ran his hand up Ryan's shoulder, along the curve of his face and knotted his fingers in Ryan's hair. He tugged at the curls there slightly, until Ryan looked up at him.

"You're going to have to trust us," Spencer said. "Me, Ryan. It's just me."

Ryan drew in a shaky breath, and Spencer turned Ryan around, hands gentle and forceful on Ryan's shoulders. Brendon kissed him.

Ryan wavered for a moment, hands caught restless in the air, and then he screwed his eyes shut like he was going into battle and melted into Brendon, wrapping himself around him, bumping his nose against Brendon's awkwardly in his eagerness to kiss him. Jon looked at Spencer, eyebrows raised, and Spencer nodded, just once.

Brendon staggered backwards, hitting the wall, and Ryan was everywhere, kissing the side of Brendon's face, nuzzling into his hair, nipping at Brendon's jaw. "Sorry, I'm sorry," he was saying, and when Jon came closer, put his hand on Ryan's back, Ryan moaned and tilted back. Brendon kissed Ryan's throat, then bit at it, focused. Jon was pretty sure that was going to be a hickey tomorrow, and Ryan was shivering under their hands.

Spencer touched Ryan's hip and Ryan turned, and stared at Spencer, all wide eyes and red mouth. Spencer was frowning a little, and Jon knew that Spencer was like him, wasn't going to get so wrapped up in moments and declarations that he thought everything was fixed now.

"Ryan," Spencer said, and his voice was rough. "You said—"

"I'm right," Ryan said, and he sounded miserable. "I'm right. I'm going to fuck this up. Watch me."

"I've been watching my whole life," Spencer said. He kissed Ryan, and Brendon leaned over Ryan's shoulder to kiss Jon. Ryan was caught between all of them, the three of them, and he didn't move, stayed right where he was. He barely moved at all, really, except to wriggle in closer, except to reach behind him and take Jon's hand.



Ryan was running out of time. He swore, checked his watch, wondered if maybe he could barricade the door to give himself a bit more time. He and Spencer had done that last night in Ryan's bedroom as a joke, and then Spencer had fucked him to the sound of a very confused conversation coming from the other side of the door between Brendon and Jon about why the handle wasn't working properly, and were Spencer and Ryan trying to keep them out deliberately, and what were they even doing in there, anyway. Spencer had covered Ryan's mouth to keep them from hearing him moan or laugh, both of which were happening on a pretty frequent basis.

Anyway, the door jamming thing might work for the second time in a row with Brendon and Jon, but Spencer would see through it in a moment. Possibly if it was just Ryan, too, they would start freaking out again, and Ryan didn't need that on his conscience. He had enough.

They were a little bit late, though, and Ryan was moving quickly, so he just managed to finish by the time their footsteps rounded the corner. Spencer was laughing stupidly, the kind where he got all breathless and pink-faced, so when they came in Ryan was smiling, sheepish and glad at once, and he was standing right in the middle of the room with the photos all around him.

Brendon noticed right away, of course, even though they'd only moved into the new practice space two days ago. "Oh," he said, and covered his mouth with his hands. His eyes were very shiny. "Ryan."

"Hi," Ryan said, and Jon made a gasping little noise that made Ryan laugh despite himself.

Spencer looked confused. "What?" he said. "What's going on, I don't – oh, hey."

Ryan shrugged, looked at Brendon. "The kind of band we are, right?" he said. Brendon was staring at him the way Ryan didn't know how to handle, Ryan's heart jumping around in his chest.

"Where did you even get them?" Jon asked, and Ryan shrugged.

"I raided your room for negatives when you were out," he said. "Sorry."

"That's okay," Jon said, grinning. He walked over to one pinned up near the keyboard, a photo of Jon's hand in front of the camera, giving it a thumbs up. Just out of focus in the back of the photo, Ryan was smiling stupidly at Jon. Ryan still felt kind of shy and frightened about them, too much of him on display in those photos – the shy wonder in his eyes in the one where Brendon was sprawled across his lap, the laughter on his face in the one where Spencer was giving him a piggyback. It had been hard to include photos of himself along with the other three, especially because Ryan hardly ever took photos of himself smiling, and he always smiled when Jon was taking the picture. He'd done it, though. He wanted to show them. In Ryan's head everything was complicated, but he was trying his best to make it less so, trying to trust them if not himself. Staying away had been harder than going to them could ever have been.

"It kind of sucks that you're the photographer," Ryan said. "There's not enough of you."

"You managed to get all of them, though," Jon said, raising his eyebrows, and Ryan had, even the shaky one that he himself had taken, Jon and Spencer tucked into a corner of Spencer's garage, talking to each other, faces intent and smooth and utterly trained on the other.

"Ryan," Spencer said, and Ryan heard the question there. He stared at Spencer, wondered how to say: I was wrong, and I'm sorry, and I know I can't fix it or you or Brendon's family but I'll spend as long as you give me trying to make it better. Then Spencer smiled, and Ryan thought that he probably didn't need to say anything at all. Need wasn't all that he had in mind, though.

"I just thought," he said, "that everyone should see who we are."