It’s one thing to be friends your entire life with a younger son; to know that he’ll be married off into a prosperous family to protect the dwindling family fortunes, and possibly to pay off the gambling debts of his father and older brother. It’s quite another to tag along when he’s being fitted for the outfit he’ll wear when he’s presented to society. On the one hand, “My God, Ryan, how on earth did you manage to make the seamstress hate you so much already?”
Spencer doesn’t even know what to do with the expression of complete bafflement on Ryan’s face; he gestures vaguely at the entire getup. “It’s a vest. Made entirely of roses.”
“Not entirely.” Ryan’s head is ducked, and it kind of looks like he’s blushing, which is enough for Spencer to guess that it’s probably not a horrible punishment for making the tailor’s assistant cry or anything, but something Ryan actually wanted. Spencer lets the subject drop.
Partially because Ryan hasn’t exactly had tons of new things in his life and partially because ...well. On the one hand, tagging after Ryan to his clothes-fitting means he gets the first look at what is probably the most absurd garment of all time. On the other hand, though, the vest is boned like a corset, with lacing up the back of the ridiculous, brocaded thing. Ryan has always been small, gangly but slim. Now, though, Spencer is momentarily sure that if he were to lay his hands about the trim line of Ryan’s waist, palm on each hip, thumbs hooked around and pressing lightly against his abdomen, his longest fingers would overlap over the lacing at the small of Ryan’s back. It’s kind of an arresting mental image.
Spencer can’t help that he suddenly remembers an errand his mother had asked him to run while he’s in town.
It’s just, Spencer has always known that Ryan would be presented to society before Spencer himself makes his way from their little country town to try his luck in the city, because Ryan is a year older and that is how society works. He hasn’t always known, though, how desperate Ryan’s family is to make him a good match.
He also hasn’t always been aware enough of social conventions to know exactly how unlikely that is. Between the fact that his dower is practically non-existent and the twin poor reputations of his father and brother as a boozer and a gambler respectively, there isn’t much left of the family name to trade off of. Add to that the lingering shame over his mother’s defection to the continent and subsequent abandonment of the family, the fact that he has no sister whose son will inherit the property, or what’s left of it, and the disarray that will leave the inheritance in, and it generally won’t matter that Ryan is lovely and well read and funny and sarcastic and a fantastic rider.
That’s what Spencer’s mother says, anyway, all sad shakes of her head. She seems to be convinced that if Ryan is to make a match at all, it will have to be with someone too repellent to be appealing to anyone of breeding who has the luxury of choice. Spencer doesn’t believe that, but he still uses it as an argument to go to town and enter society a year early. His own worries are more that Ryan will end up matched and married before Spencer makes it into society, and they’ll never have any fun. Ryan’s season will end and he’ll be whisked off to whatever estate he marries into, and Spencer will rarely see him again. It’s a valid worry.
His mother apparently doesn’t think so, though she tells him ‘no’ with an apologetic look on her face, and he surmises pretty quickly that her denial has something to do with the fact that they can’t quite afford to establish him in town this year, at least not to the degree which he ought to be, according to his title. If cost is at the root of the problem, there’s really no use in arguing against it, and Spencer hates to be the cause of that particular crease in his mother’s brow, so he lets the matter drop. “Still, though,” he tells Brendon later, “It’s not fair.”
Brendon nods, looking sympathetic, and Spencer feels vindicated for a moment, but then Brendon has to go and ruin it by saying, “I told you, you should have started courting him last year.”
Usually, Spencer is fairly good-natured. Usually, he is amused by Brendon’s complete inability to be serious for any amount of time. Usually, though, he isn’t talking about the end of life as he knows it.
“Seriously?” Brendon says. “And I always thought Ross was the over-dramatic one.” After a minute, as a kind of afterthought, he says, “I wasn’t kidding, either, you know.”
Of course he’s kidding, it’s an ongoing joke, something he’s been ribbing Spencer with for years now, the way the only time the chivalry he’s expected to display as the heir to his family name becomes apparent is at weirdly inappropriate times, usually involving Ryan. They’ll be riding breakneck down along the riverbed, throw themselves into the grass, exhausted, and not move again after the horses are seen to, unless it’s to strip down and take a quick swim. Normal things, a scene from any year of their childhood, except that since they were thirteen or so, every once in a while Spencer will get the strange, inexplicable urge to offer Ryan--who’s been taller than him most of their lives, and even after Spencer’s growth spurt is still nearly of a height with him--a boost back into the saddle.
Or they’ll dine at Spencer’s and he’ll absentmindedly pull out Ryan’s chair, or by some completely unwelcome instinct offer Ryan his arm at one of the local dances, or--“And you never try to guide me around puddles.”
“That was once. And you generally are aware enough of your surroundings that you don’t try to walk through puddles.” Once in public, anyway, and Spencer is certainly not going to admit to anything more.
Brendon waves the objection away like it’s beside the point, saying, “You’re both kind of obvious, really. And now you’re worried that he’ll go to town and be married off by summer and you’ll have missed your chance, and Spence, you’re kind of right.”
Brendon cuts him off. “I’m sorry. I know it’s not my place. Do you think, though, that maybe you should say something before he goes?”
Spencer is not going to say anything about Brendon’s ridiculous theory. Ryan is his friend--people don’t go around marrying their friends--it’s not how the world works. Besides, when it comes to prospects, they would never suit. Spencer stands to inherit a good name and a small property; ideally he ought to look for a mate who will provide the wealth to match his own respectability, or if not, one with enough familial political connections to ensure that Spencer might work towards adding to their wealth himself. To do otherwise would be to shirk his duty to his family, and Spencer is nothing if not aware of his duty.
Ryan, on the other hand, has little but himself to recommend him, and ought to look to heirs of the most prosperous families who have little need to add to their wealth. He might also set his sights on an eldest girl, but for the fact that most families are very sure to keep their lines of succession free of scandal, and the Ross family name is hardly free from taint. No, from a purely practical standpoint, they’re all wrong for each other. It’s a ridiculous idea, and Brendon ought to understand that; he knows both of their situations as well as his own.
Still, there’s something that catches in his throat just before Ryan leaves, and Spencer thinks it’s what he’d feel at the loss of any friend, even for only a few months. He thinks so, but he doesn’t know, and he tries not to think about it, pulls Ryan into a rough hug and makes him promise to write and then lets go, but still, he wonders.
Ryan does write, long letters about the music in the city, and his new friend Z and her fiance, Alex, both of whom he seems a little in love with, though he never says so outright. He writes of the things he’s reading and all the cutting things he can’t say in polite company, though they fill his mind on the dance floor. He doesn’t write a single word about his on-and-off courtship with the notorious Pete Wentz.
The only reason Spencer hears about it at all is that Wentz and his affairs regularly make the gossip columns, which Spencer swears he’s always been interested in, no matter what his sisters say. He maybe is a little bit interested to see if Ryan’s going to be mentioned, but that’s hardly unusual. A friend’s name in print is an uncommon thing. Still, he’s not exactly expecting it, since Ryan never so much as mentioned meeting Wentz, he’s surprised enough that he chokes on his breakfast when he reads that there is speculation that the reason for the younger Lord Wentz’s broken engagement is the fact that he’s been seen in increasingly intimate settings with the newly presented younger son of George Ross.
He asks, but Ryan’s reply, when it comes, days late and Spencer isn’t sure whether to blame Ryan or the post, is that, “Pete is just a friend.” (“Like he’s ‘just a friend’ to you?” Brendon asks. Brendon is a cad.) The rest of the letter is short and kind of stilted, though he obviously made an effort to sound as normal and as dismissive of the issue as possible. In any case, nothing comes of it, or nothing so far as Spencer can see. There are no further mentions in the paper, and there’s certainly no news of an engagement. Spencer attends a few dances in town, but spends most of the rest of the season hiding in the library or at Brendon’s which is always crowded enough that no one notices another body, and then the season is over and summer is come and Ryan is home.
Spencer likes Pete. He hadn’t expected to, when Ryan had told him, oddly nervous, that a friend was coming to stay, and had spent nearly a quarter of an hour dissembling before finally revealing that this friend is none other than Lord Wentz, who he’d always been so vague about in the past. Pete is witty, though, funny in an odd, off-kilter way that almost reminds Spencer of Brendon, but with more sharp, defensive edges.
Pete is fine, and Spencer is aware enough to separate that basic feeling of goodwill towards the man from the simmering anger he feels whenever Pete offers Ryan his arm to walk to the dining room, casually, like he has that right, or the churning sickness he feels when Ryan ducks his head to look at Pete from under his eyelashes--an awkward, coquettish move that is hundreds of miles from anything Spencer’s best friend would even consider doing. Still, somehow they manage to have an amusing, or at least civil, week until the mail comes from the city.
Spencer rides over to the Ross estate after breakfast. He’d have gone before, but the twins already tease him enough abut the way he’s hovering over Ryan and Ryan’s house guest. Mother always glares and shushes them, but Spencer is trying really hard to avoid thinking too much about what the root of the anger in that glare stems from, so that’s not exactly helpful, either. He’s done the same every day for a week, though, and at this point he just lets himself in through the back, with a nod to the cook, who has worked there as long as Spencer can remember and only smiles affably at him.
It’s turning into something like a routine, but when Spencer slips into the breakfast room, Pete, who hasn’t, in the last few days, been very lively at any point before noon, is grinning enough to split his face. He tells Spencer, “Patrick wrote. He says to come home and we’ll work it out.” Spencer looks inquiringly at Ryan, who mouths, “Fiance,” at him, curiously blank look on his face. Pete is standing now, bouncing on the balls of his feet. “If I pack now and leave for the village in less than an hour, I can get the noon coach into the city.” He turns to Ryan, still grinning, and Ryan smiles wanly back at him.
“Seriously, Ross, I owe you. So right, I swear.”
“Yeah,” Ryan says, smile still hovering at the corners of his mouth. “Any time.” Apparently that’s all Pete needs, his cue to fly up the stairs, determined to race back into the city. Spencer feels a curl of vicious satisfaction at that--at the thought that no matter what Ryan sees in Pete, who is charming and wealthy and older, Spencer still is the one who knows him well enough to know that something is wrong. The satisfaction is short-lived, though. He looks at Ryan’s face and something is wrong. Spencer can’t sustain any kind of feeling of triumph over that.
“What is it?” He asks, entirely sure of the fact that as certainly as he can read the wrongness in Ryan’s face, Ryan will know exactly what he means. Pete’s footsteps are obnoxiously loud overhead. Ryan says, “It’s nothing,” but it’s a weak attempt at a brush-off and he must know it. He says, “I’ll tell you later,” with a nervous glance at the ceiling, and Spencer will take that. It might be better, even. Depending on what Ryan says, it might be better that Pete is out of easy range of physical violence when he says it, for all of their sakes. Spencer nods and sits down to breakfast.
“I didn’t break up their engagement,” Ryan says, and he sounds far sharper and more defensive than he really ought, considering the fact that Spencer hasn’t really said a word since he bid goodbye to Pete as he darted out the door. Or maybe that’s the problem. Ryan goes on, “They were doing that long before I came along. You’d think it wouldn’t be problem that they’re enamored of the same lady, especially since she seems pretty fond of both of them, but they just couldn’t work it out.”
“As...” Spencer stops for a second, trying to think about how to say any of this. When he comes right down to it, though, simple is better, less chance of managing to misunderstand each other. “As utterly sordid as that sounds, I don’t care. What about the part that has to do with you?”
“Can we not do this? It obviously didn’t work, can we just--”
“I like him. And they were on the outs and he needed someone to talk to and I like him, and he likes me alright and he’s...”
“And he’s rich.” Spencer hears the words even if Ryan won’t say them.
“Yes, alright? He’s well-off enough that he can choose who he wants, even if he wants someone like me. And they broke off the engagement and I thought if I could make him like me before they worked it out--so I told him he should flirt with me a bit to make them both jealous, that he should come up to stay because absence makes the heart grow fonder or whatever, and I thought--”
“What did you think?” Spencer doesn’t remember allowing that much sharpness into his tone, but he’s not sure it’s unjustified, either. He stares across the table, unblinking, trying to look as unyielding as he can.
Ryan sounds cold and distant as he says,“I thought I could make him love me so that I won’t have to live on the street when my brother drinks himself into an early grave and the ownership of the house goes into dispute. Obviously, I was wrong.”
The ownership of the house has actually been a knot of heated legal debate for a good many years, since Ryan’s mother had left the country at the death of her brother, who was in possession of it. By law, it was supposed to go to Ryan’s brother, his uncle’s heir, but he’d been in the schoolroom at the time, and his mother, the natural trustee, as the parent through whom the inheritance passed, had been unavailable. Ryan’s father’s dominion over the house continues to be highly irregular, but Spencer had been sure that the issue was settled years ago.
Still. “You don’t--I mean, Ryan, even if something happened, you can’t think I’d let anything happen to you, you can’t--” Spencer’s the one who’s starting to feel kind of desperate now, and he knows it shows, but, “You’re too good to be anyone’s second choice, anyway, Ryan.”
Spencer leaves soon after that, Ryan’s dark eyes and solemn expression following him silently out of the room even as he sat, still at breakfast, even, still and alone.
Spencer tugs at the starched-stiff shirt-sleeves and takes one last glance at himself in the hall glass before following his uncle out to the carriage. Two weeks since he came to the city and still, everything feels stiff and strange. Parties and events and places to see and be seen, and Spencer is making contacts; he’s always wanted to go into politics, and to do that he has to be someone who is known in society. This is what he’s always been preparing for, and he’s trying not to let the way things have been stiff and awkward with Ryan since the summer get in the way.
Brendon is angry at him, too, which doesn’t help anything. Even Ryan isn’t angry at him (and why would he be? Spencer has done no wrong), just a little distant, withdrawn. Spencer is half-convinced that it’s just that they’re growing up, though if that were so, he’d have thought it would have started happening when they were sent to different schools, years ago. He thinks they’ll probably both be at the gala he’s attending tonight, and he doesn’t look forward to Brendon’s unsubtle version of the silent treatment. Even less, though, does he want to bear witness to the social dynamics of the room.
From his time in town, Spencer has managed to surmise that the group of friends Ryan spent most of last year writing to him about are a rather wild set, known for pranks and carousing and a certain amount of moral tarnish on their reputations. Apparently, last season, Ryan had dodged being painted with the same brush through a certain amount of care in the amount he allowed himself to be associated with them--a certain degree of care which this year is absent. Brendon, on the other hand, is biding his time.
Brendon had announced his intention, at the tender age of fifteen, to join the Navy when he was of age--a respectable enough option for one of many younger sons, and even a sensible one, since it was not available to younger sisters, of which Brendon had many, all of whom would need some token form of dowry. To his friends’ dismay and confusion, the scheme was met with expressions of horror from his parents, who had been quietly planning a life in the church for Brendon. Spencer still can’t understand why. This season, though, is the compromise, the season of truce. If Brendon finds another life for himself here in society, the debate will be banked forever. If he does not, both parties hope they can be convincing enough in the meantime to sway the other to their side.
If Brendon were not determined to make Spencer pay the price for some imagined crime, he’s sure his friend’s time frequenting glittering townhouses would be much more enjoyably spent talking to people he actually likes (Yes, like Spencer--they’ve been friends for years, he doesn’t think he’s being arrogant in thinking Brendon ought to be acting like it.), than jittering nervously on the edge of the dance floor, not making conversation with anyone but the musicians, whom he pounces on when they take their breaks.
(That’s not true. Brendon talks to Ryan sometimes, but it’s always whispered confidences and ducked heads and it makes something sick knot up in Spencer’s stomach that he thought he’d banished after the debacle with Pete. They never look in his direction, which Spencer doesn’t think is quite fair, since they’re both his friends, and even when they were getting along, they’ve both always seemed closer to him than to each other.)
Tonight doesn’t look like it’s going to be all that different, if for no better reason than that none of these events seem that distinctive to Spencer. He doesn’t see anyone he knows well, a few acquaintances and a horde of strangers, but the room is buzzing with gossip as he makes his way across the crowded parlor to pay his respects to the hostess before dinner. Her ladyship gives Spencer an odd look when she greets him, but he doesn’t know her well and assumes it’s nothing but unfamiliarity.
He thinks little of it, makes as though to move to the edge of the crowd, get a little air, and looks up to see Brendon determinedly making his way towards him from across the room. He doesn’t look frustrated, the way he usually does with Spencer lately, just tired and a little sad, and the difference throws Spencer enough that he doesn’t notice the sharks closing in until it’s too late, until he sees dismay cross Brendon’s face and glances to either side of him to find himself flanked by gossips.
“You know him, don’t you, Mr. Smith? You were children together, were you not?”
“Give the boy some space to breathe, he may not have heard yet--”
“--Not have heard? Everyone knows how that young upstart ran off with Berg’s oldest girl, and she properly betrothed, too--”
“--Young nobody, from what I heard, that layabout Ross’s spawn--”
“--Eloped to Paris--New York--No, India, I heard. Left only a note!”
Brendon’s face is the first thing that seems really solid as he wades through the chattering group and asks levelly, “Smith, a word?” Following Brendon out to the hall feels like a herculean task, but once they’re there, he almost feels like he can breathe, which is nice.
“So, yeah,” Brendon says, twisting his fingers in that nervous way he’s supposed to have trained himself out of by now, Spencer is sure he remembers that, and equally sure that if he just focuses on stupid things like Brendon’s nervous habits, he can ignore the rest of the sentence, but somehow it permeates his thoughts anyway, “Um, Ryan eloped with Elizabeth Berg.”
There’s a rushing in Spencer’s ears as he asks, “Were they even courting? Wait, isn’t she--”
“--already engaged? Yes, to Alex Greenwald. I don’t know, Spencer, that’s just what everyone’s saying, I guess it’s possible that it isn’t true, but the rumor mill seems pretty set on this one, and all three of them were supposed to be here but none of them are, so.”
Spencer silently finishes the thought. So yes, that all seems pretty damning.
It isn’t the shock of hearing it that’s the worst, or even hearing Ryan’s reputation ripped to shreds over and over again on the dance floor. No, the worst comes later, after the dinner and dancing, when by rights it really ought to be time to go, and Brendon makes their excuses to Spencer’s uncle and drags him off to the club. When they step in he calls for a private room and a bottle of something strong. Two drinks in, Spencer says, “I thought you were mad at me.”
“I was.” Brendon is smiling, but he looks sad. Spencer doesn’t know how he does that; it’s a pretty remarkable skill. Three drinks. Spencer can’t stop talking, can hardly remember why he ought to, even. “He should have told me. I could have helped. We never used to have adventures without each other.”
Four, and he’s not even trying to express anything anymore, just gazing down at the rough grain of the table and thinking that right now, Ryan is probably married. He’s probably in bed with his new bride, he’s probably kissing Z, with her coin-bright hair and mischievous smile, she’s probably laughing that bright laugh Spencer knows from across drawing rooms, or no, something softer, probably. Private. With her long fingers twisted tightly in his shirtsleeves, if he’s even wearing a shirt.
Probably he’s not, and Spencer can picture that, too, though his mental portrait is a few years out of date, Ryan standing in the partial sun, skin looking particularly pale under the dappled shadow of the leaves on the trees by the riverbank, shoulders surprisingly broad above his slim build, smiling like there’s nowhere he’d rather be, like it should be summer always, warm and sticky and just the two of them, roaming through the woods.
That is the worst part.
Of course, it doesn’t last long--three days in and someone’s cousin has already seen Ryan and Z, cloaked and giggling, dining in the back garden of Alex Greenwald’s family townhouse, obviously no bad blood between the three of them the way a broken engagement and rumored elopement would lead one to expect. Before long the story comes out--a joke, a prank, a statement on society, carefully (or carelessly, depending on who you ask) plotted between the three of them. Z and Alex emerge into society relatively unscathed--they remain engaged, rather than either parting or planning a hurried wedding to hide an indiscretion.They’ve always been known as kind of a rackety pair, and this doesn’t lose them that reputation, but it doesn’t worsen it either.
Ryan doesn’t fare so well.
At first, the disparity isn’t readily apparent. There is gossip, but there is always gossip. It’s got more of a gleeful edge than a malicious one, even, like the speakers are glad for something so unrepentantly absurd to go on about. In person, though, the difference is unmistakable. It’s one of the first main social events since Z and Ryan’s little disappearing act, and when Z and Alex walk into the room arm in arm, there is a ripple of conversation spreading in a murmur through the crowd as they pass, there are some smirks hidden quickly behind fans, but their reception is mostly cordial, at least from the same people who ever were friendly to them.
When Ryan walks in, though, there’s a kind of hush, and then a determined continuation of conversation, backs turning to him as he passes. It is, Spencer thinks detatchedly, a very genteel kind of shunning. Z and Alex looked defiant, walking in, but they were standing arm in arm; hardly alone. Ryan looks a little lost for a second,before zeroing in on Alex by the punchbowl and making his way over. He doesn’t even look for Spencer. Spencer’s heart aches. Before he knows it, he’s making his way over to the table at the edge of the room as well.
“Can I, um--” Damn. This sounded smooth in his head, but Ryan startles at the sound of Spencer’s voice, turns and oh, he’s still waiting for the end of that sentence, and Spencer doesn’t even want to dance anymore, but it still seems like the best way to get Ryan--what is Spencer trying to achieve again? To show the room, to show Ryan, that Spencer is standing with him? To get Ryan away from Alex, from Z, because they’ve always seemed pretty decent to Spencer but right now he hates them regardless? To get Ryan under his hands, warmth from his skin seeping up through the fabric of his clothes a little, to prove to himself that he still has that right? To see if they still know how to move together? Probably all of those. “Do you want to dance?”
Ryan quirks an incredulous half smile at him as the music rises--a waltz,of course. They’d both always hated waltzing in the schoolroom, avoided it at all costs. Still, Ryan extends a hand without a word and turns to the dance floor, and for the next three and a half minutes, Spencer’s mind quiets, narrows, until the insipid music and the gaudy ballroom are the only place in the world he wants to be.
The silence shocks him, after.The sudden lack of prescribed steps shakes him, and he stumbles. Ryan laughs and Spencer glares, and really all he want to do is shoot back some kind of cutting, childish remark, but when he opens his mouth, what comes out is, “You could have told me.”
And just like that, Ryan is gone.
Spencer makes it through the rest of the evening, not about to go haring off after him. He calls at the Ross townhouse the next day, though, as early as is decent. It isn’t early enough. The footman says that Mr. Ross departed that morning for the country--Spencer has come in the midst of the servants closing the house for the season. Had he come an hour later, there would have been no one to answer the door at all. Spencer doesn’t particularly care.
He’s already mentally calculating which coach he can take, how to stop at home just long enough to borrow a horse, hopefully avoid any confrontation with his family on his way to the Ross manor house, slipping in the back door. It should be only just after dark, with no delays, and Ryan stays up late and Spencer...
...Spencer knows which floorboards creak. He makes his way to the library without running into another living soul except the scullery maid, who actually looks pretty relieved to see him, for some reason. At the door he doesn’t pause for more than a moment before pushing his way in, still quiet, unwilling to knock. Unwilling, if he’s honest with himself, to give Ryan the chance to send him away just yet.
He’s chosen the right one of Ryan’s customary hiding spots, anyway. Spencer is glad, both that Ryan hasn’t changed that much in this last, strange year and that if he’s here, Ryan probably isn’t hiding specifically from Spencer.
He doesn’t say anything yet, just goes and takes the other chair by the fire, aware of Ryan’s sharp gaze following him, but unwilling to do anything more to break the silence than sit in the rickety armchair and lean forward to rub his hands together near the flame. The quiet stretches on, though, a several moments long stalemate, and Spencer didn’t come here to do battle. He says, “That wasn’t very polite, running off like that last night.”
“They weren’t very polite,” Ryan says, low voice sounding creaky with disuse.
“But that didn’t stop you, not until I wanted to talk to you,” Spencer is aware of the plaintive note creeping into his voice. He’s aware,but that doesn’t mean he knows how to stop it; not without halting this discussion, anyway, and he came here to have an actual conversation. he’s not about to let a sudden inability to control his tone stop him. Ryan just shrugs, though, looking back at the fire and nestling into his own chair like he never intends to leave.
“And then you’d left town by the time I came to see you this morning.”
Ryan laughs a little bitterly at that, a little surprised, “And what would you have me do, Spence? It’s pretty obvious that there’s nothing there for me anymore.”
“There’s nothing less there than there ever was,” Spencer argues a little desperately, “For you or anyone else.” He’s not sure why, but in his mind it is suddenly and utterly vital that Ryan return to London.
“Spencer,” Ryan says, though, and he must hear that desperation, because he sounds almost gentle now, “I’m a laughingstock. And it’s my own fault, I know that, but can’t you see that there’s no way I can make myself a life there now? It’s not so bad. I think Brendon might have the right idea, actually.”
Spencer can’t help it, he shoots an incredulous look Ryan’s way. Ryan catches the look and laughs a little, softer and more sincere this time. “I know. A first time for everything, right? But the Navy. That might work, Spence. Respectable, the kind of thing where you can work your way up--”
“Ryan. You can’t join the Navy.” Ryan glances back at him, annoyed. “The country is at war,” Spencer presses on. “People die in wars, Ryan.”
“Oh? Is that so?” Ryan cuts in, sharp, brittle, “And what would you have me do with my life?”
Spencer suddenly doesn’t even need to think. Ryan’s posture is tense and his mouth is set in a thin line, eyes dark in the flickering light, and the only thing Spencer could possibly say is, “You should marry me,” so he does.
He may not have had any idea how Ryan would react, but he really hadn’t expected him to laugh. “Is the idea of marriage to me really that absurd?”
Ryan sobers at that, and he never could stomach any of Spencer’s adolescent fits of insecurity, always quick to reassure him of his own worth, even if he often did so in a kind of hackneyed, backhanded way. This reassurance though, isn’t much better, said as it is in that tone that Ryan takes when he wants to make sure Spencer feels every moment of the year of age between them. “You don’t want to marry me, Spence. You want to do well for yourself and your family, you want to be sensible, and if you’re not going to do that, you’re only going to give that goal up for some kind of grand love story.”
And that doesn’t even make sense. “Ryan. I never wanted that.”
“No,” Ryan grins back a little ruefully, “That’s what I want for you. You could use a little shaking up sometimes, Spencer. But it’s really got to be some kind of crazy, romantic fairy tale. If you’re going to set aside your duty, it needs to be worth it for you.”
“You’re kind of presuming a lot about how I feel, aren’t you?” He is, there’s really no question, and it’s starting to make Spencer angry.
“Well--I know you.”
It’s true. He does. He’s even almost right, but, “Why can’t you be that for me?”
That stops Ryan short, and Spencer can count on one hand the number of times in the many years of their friendship that he has managed to render Ryan truly speechless, but he rallies before long, saying cautiously, “I--It’s not that I couldn’t be, it’s just that I’m not--”
“Ryan.” Spencer is through with keeping a safe distance, he stands and steps closer to the worn armchair Ryan has taken up residence of, says, “I didn’t--when I thought you’d married Z, I didn’t know what to do, not just because you hadn’t told me, but because I realized that at that point I’d missed my chance, that I was never going to get another chance to...”
“To what?” Ryan practically whispers, he’s not moving a muscle and Spencer feels odd and clumsy and too large for the space, standing and looming above him. “To--” and this is his moment, maybe his only moment, maybe his only chance ever. He leans, and the angle is odd, cramping his back, at a strange height because Ryan leans up to meet him, but that’s good, it’s better, even if half of Spencer’s brain is preoccupied with worry that he’ll over-balance and topple them both. The other half, though, the other half is just as invested as it ought to be in the softness of Ryan’s mouth, the rasp of stubble beneath Spencer’s hand when he raises it to steady himself--no, he knows better than to lie within his own mind. He reaches out because he wants to touch, not because he thinks it will make him feel any more steady or unlikely to stumble.
When he pulls away, he takes a second to breathe before saying, “So this was my chance, but even if you don’t--even if I’m not that--that crazy love story for you, you could be that for me and I could--we’re still friends, and my family is respectable enough, and I don’t need to marry into power, Ryan, I’ll look after my family whether you want to be a part of it or not--I think even if I’m not, not that for you, I think we could be happy, maybe.”
Spencer’s heart is in his throat, and when Ryan breathes, “Don’t be a moron,” he can feel it constrict, can actually feel less air reaching his lungs because he thought he’d set out a fairly decent proposal, surely marrying Spencer had to be better than joining the navy--but maybe Ryan agrees, maybe Spencer really has been a moron, or at least has been missing a crucial piece of the puzzle, because now Ryan is standing, too, stepping into Spencer’s space and whispering, “Of course you’re that for me,” against his lips.