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Inch of Skin

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The two girls sitting in front of Patrick have been giggling all through Trig. It's not his best subject by far, but paying attention is even harder now because every time the teacher turns her back, there's a fresh burst of titters.

"No, really," says one of them, who has blue streaks in her hair. "They did, like, an analysis of when he was born and his blood type and everything. I heard those are, like, 80% accurate."

Her friend, who has a septum piercing, rolls her eyes. "None of these things work, Steph, don't tell me you believe this shit." She rubs her forearm.

Steph sighs dreamily. "Whatever. I'm gonna get it tattooed."

A boy sitting to Patrick's right snorts loudly and raises his voice. "Not if I do it first, bitch."

Steph looks at him, raising an eyebrow. "I thought Pete Wentz was for pussies." She draws the last words out with an exaggerated pout.

The boy laughs, a braying ugly sound. "So what? He's fucking rich. I'll tattoo a pussy's soulmark on me if means I never have to work."

“He’ll still find out it’s not real when he touches it,” Steph points out.

“Even better. By then we’ll be married and I’ll scalp him in the divorce.”

Patrick kind of doubts divorce courts would reward a high settlement to someone who faked a mark, but he’s not about to butt in. Steph makes the same point, with great vehemence.

With a leer, the boy adds, “Hey, still better odds than hoping he’ll fall in love with me anyway after he knows me, right?”

Steph turns an ugly, incriminating shade of red.

"Ugh," the girl with the septum piercing says with great feeling. She balls up a piece of paper and throws it at the boy. He ducks, laughing, and it hits Patrick instead. "Sorry," the girl says, half-hearted.

At that point, the teacher turns and they all finally hush.

Patrick opens the paper up when the teacher turns away again and the girls have moved on to discuss some TV show Patrick doesn't watch. He doesn't want to listen, would honestly rather focus on Trig, but the hushed conversation snags in his brain, words distorting and repeating. The paper provides some much-needed distraction.

It's an autograph—a picture of an autograph, rather, shiny paper cut from a magazine. The writing is all spiky and curly, jagged edge forming a little star, illegible the way soulmarks usually are. It could say Pete. It could say a lot of things. Patrick touches the mark on his own forearm, a little self-conscious.

Then the bell rings, and all thoughts of soulmarks get tossed aside in favor of plans for tonight's practice.

~~

In his interviews, Pete Wentz likes to joke about the soulmark. He went on a talk show once with his right wrist bared to show a temporary Care Bear tattoo. There was kind of a media uproar about it, which is the only reason Patrick knows this—he doesn't even follow media for musicians he likes. He's not going to do it for a pop-punk teen heartthrob who sold his soul to MTV.

But for a week every single headline was about the decline of modesty and mockery of traditional values and how millions of teens were going to ruin their lives tattooing Care Bears over their actual soulmarks.

It was kind of funny, actually, and Patrick found himself nearly fond of Pete Wentz until his neighbor started blasting his latest hit, Fall Off and Die, over and over again.

The moral panic was totally overblown anyway. Yeah, kids in Patrick's class spent lesson time drawing what they guessed Pete's signature looked like onto their wrists and there was a persistent rumor that someone's cousin legally had her name changed to Kristine because that was supposedly the name Pete Wentz was carrying, but that was just people being dramatic. Nobody was going to ruin their lives over some dude who wasn't even that good with a bass.

And now his signature is out. If it’s even his real signature: Patrick wouldn’t put it past Wentz to put a fake one out there just to fuck with his fans. Serves them right if one of them actually did get it tattooed.

~~

Dan, the rhythm guitarist in the band Patrick's playing with, spits whenever anyone mentions Pete Wentz's name. "Fucking sellout," he says, disgusted.

"I wish we could sell out," says Gina, their lead singer, kind of wistfully. "That's good money."

"Not unless you dropped fifteen pounds and started shaving your legs," Grant tells her. Gina flips him off.

"We need to practice if we want to sell out," Patrick says from his perch behind the drums. "C'mon." He clacks his sticks against one another, hoping to maybe get someone to play by sheer suggestion.

"I'm just saying," Grant continues doggedly. He was the one who brought up the subject of Wentz. "You know he used to be hardcore, right?"

"He was never fucking hardcore," Dan says, and leaves the room.

"Drama queen," Gina mutters.

Grant shrugs. "Did you know he used to be in a band with Wentz? This is personal for him, see."

Gina rolls her eyes. "I fucking see. So say what you're just saying already so we can go on with rehearsal."

Grant looks down on his guitar. "Wentz made it big, and so could we." He shrugs. "You know, if we ditched our ideals and any attempt at artistic integrity."

"I don't care about artistic integrity, but if you think I'm tweezing my eyebrows for anything, you better think again," Gina says.

Patrick starts laying the beat for their next song out of sheer self defense.

~~

Patrick's not sure he wants to go big. He just wants to fucking play music.

Sometimes, though, he thinks doing whatever dumb posturing the audience wants would be a fair trade for people actually listening during gigs rather than throwing bottles at their singer. Or, worse, treating them as fucking ambient sound. Patrick is willing to admit they kind of suck, but nobody in the audience even seems to pay attention long enough to realize this, all of them just milling around in bored little hipster cliques.

After the show, Grant sighs and claps a hand over Patrick's shoulder. "I, my friend, am in desperate need of a drink, and I suspect you feel the same."

Patrick's nodding fervently before Grant even finishes speaking.

They go to Gina's house, because she still lives with her parents and they don’t lock the booze cabinet. Everyone in the band get thoroughly sloshed, with the exception of Dan, who's straight edge. At least he doesn't judge them very loudly.

It still makes Patrick feel obscurely guilty. "You don't need to stick around," he tells Dan after tossing back his third shot of vodka. "You could probably get in trouble for, like, corruption of a minor."

This is why Patrick doesn't get drunk, beyond the pesky little detail of legality: it kills his brain-to-mouth filter and makes him remind his college-aged friends that he's still in high school.

Dan just snorts. "Gotta make sure none of you choke on your own vomit."

"Charming," Gina says, and takes another drink.

That night, though, Patrick lets himself go, get roaring, stinking drunk. He thinks someone moves him at some point, heaving him up to lie on the couch; a voice muttering in the background, rising sharply on, "You have to be fucking kidding me!" but at that point he's way past parsing why.

He wakes up in Gina's living room, slumped against the couch and in desperate need of a toothbrush. A text message alert shows up as flicks his phone open to check the time.

When Patrick checks it, the text turns out to be a multimedia message, one of the things his phone can inform him he received but not actually fucking open. Patrick doesn't recognize the sender's number, but he's too tired to figure it out, so he replies, can't receive pics to phone.

A minute later, his phone buzzes. There's a long-ass URL, and Patrick snorts, sending back, if you think I'm typing that up...

He follows it up with his email after a minute. No sense in acting like a dick.

~~

Patrick gets home, showers, takes some aspirin, and wanders up to his room with a mug of coffee. He gets distracted—there's a guitar riff that's been haunting him, and maybe he will be able to make it into a song. First he has to make sure it's not just something he heard somewhere, so he goes on a record-listening binge and suddenly it's nearly midnight and his mom wants him to turn off the lights.

Normally Patrick doesn’t check email often. The next day he’s got enough on his mind—fatigue and a lingering headache and a looming History project—that he might have forgotten all about the anonymous message.

When he comes back from school, though, his History partner has yet to text him, so Patrick fires up his email to see he missed something there. He’s silently praying that no new messages will appear as he's already late for practice and doesn't want to deal with the stupid project now.

There is an email, but it's not from his work partner.

The subject line says hope u match, and there's no message inside, just a picture attachment. The sender's not anyone Patrick recognizes, a string of letters and numbers, and he feels like an idiot even as he opens the file. Probably he'll get a virus from this.

Then again, Patrick's never seen spammers who struck up a conversation over text messages before sending viruses. He's curious.

The pic takes a while to download. Patrick debates going to rehearsal already before his study partner can actually catch up with him. What if is a virus, though? Patrick’s trying to figure out how to back up his music files when a picture file fills up the screen.

It's a semi-familiar picture he sees. Patrick blinks, uncomprehending, before he realizes that's skin—that's someone's wrist with Patrick's signature on it.

Without looking away from the screen, Patrick gets his phone, dials Grant's number from memory. "Gonna be late," he says, hanging up without waiting for a response. If anything merits missing practice, this does.

He can't tell a lot about the sender from the picture, except that they're a little darker than Patrick. Then again, Patrick's skin tone could serve as protective coloration in a snowy tundra, so that's not saying much.

He studies the picture for an embarrassingly long stretch of time before his phone buzzes, startling him. Patrick gets the phone with trembling fingers, but it's just his study partner. Patrick shuts the phone with a little more force than necessary.

Only then does it occur to him that if he wants to know more about this person with his mark on them, he could email them and ask.

As Patrick sets his fingers to the keyboard, though, he loses steam. Every question he can think of seems too forward, childish. Name? Patrick has this person's name right on his wrist, even if he can't read it. Age? Sex? What does it matter, really? The soulbond will take care of attraction, and in all honesty, Patrick doesn't care much about either. Asking about location just feels creepy when he hasn't even exchanged more than a couple sentences with the person.

So Patrick frowns at the screen, until he can think of a couple questions that matter and shouldn't be too rude. Unless the person answers them wrong, in which case, Patrick supposes even destiny and biology can make mistakes.

Just before sending the reply, Patrick sees the subject line again, and realizes it's a question. He hesitates, typing and deleting yes we match a few times, torn between the banality of it and wanting to give a clear response, before sighing and getting up to get his mom's digital camera. They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, after all.

The reply he gets starts with are u kidding? who doesnt like prince? and goes on for several more pages. Patrick touches his wrist and smiles at the screen, hunching in his hoodie.

~~

Patrick’s never paid much attention to soulbond stuff. Now, though, that shit seems to be everywhere.

It’s in the news when a rich CEO sues her underage bondmate’s parents for custody, the bondmate’s parents citing the need to continue his education before he marries and the CEO claiming she can offer the bondmate the finest education available. It disrupts Patrick’s class schedule when his English and PE teachers—in a move right out of a romantic comedy—discover they’re mates and disappear for a month-long honeymoon. Patrick has to spend a long, awkward afternoon listening to his mom and her friends discussing which of his teachers will have the upper hand in the marriage, with both of them being young and poor.

Possibly weirdest, though is how Patrick’s life carries on being more or less the same. Patrick goes to school and practice, mows the lawn when his mom asks him to, plays videogames, and actually does meet up with Chris to finish the history assignment. If he sometimes sees a message on his phone from a number that Patrick never saved—under what name would he put it?—but has memorized, it makes no difference. Basically Patrick just has a cool penpal.

A really cool penpal. They're passionate about music, if their tastes aren't exactly Patrick's. They're especially vocal about pop music, if not too consistent—defending it in one breath, denigrating it in the next.

do you even need me for this? he emails them after a particularly long rant. you could just have this argument by yourself, the way you play both sides.

They don't keep Patrick waiting long for an answer, they never do. always need u. i call u 'the person i need' when i think of you.

It's touching, if not especially subtle. Patrick grins as he emails back, you can call me Patrick if you want. it's shorter. though if you like 'person you need', you can keep that.'

This time, the response takes a minute, long enough for Patrick to get slightly worried that he overstepped somehow. how bout trick? shorter still. saves on postage.

you're ridic, Patrick answers, grinning, glad nobody's actually there to see him. He must look demented. He hesitates, before typing, how about you? what do you want me to call you?

grand emperor poobah under grace of god. But it's followed shortly by, or pete. pete's ok.

Patrick laughs out loud. A little too loud, enough to startle him: he forgot he was sitting in his silent room alone, rather than having a lively face to face conversation with this person. With Pete. He sends, think I'll go with Pete, your majesty.

~~

The girl with the septum piercing has been crying steadily through Trig. The seat next to her is conspicuously empty. Everybody else in class sort of ignores her, even the teacher.

Five minutes before the end of class, she turns to Patrick. "Got a tissue?" Her glare dares him to say anything, so he doesn't, wordlessly handing her a couple. "Thanks," she says, and blows her nose.

Patrick's next period is free, so he takes his time after the bell rings, pushing things slowly into his bag. Everyone else has cleared out. Eventually, he's all settled, so he just nods awkwardly at the girl and starts going.

"Wait," the girl says. "I. What's your name?"

Patrick blinks. "Patrick. You?"

She blinks right back at him, like she didn't expect him not to know it. "It's Brianna. I wanted to say thanks, that's all."

Patrick wrinkles his nose. "Uh, sure. Plenty more tissues if you need them."

She rolls her eyes. "Not for that. You've been the only person today who didn't try to pump me for shit about Steph."

It would help if Patrick had the faintest idea what she's talking about.

From her snort, his confusion must be evident. "You know, how she hasn't been to school since her bondmate came for her."

"Huh." Now that he's thinking about it, Patrick remembers the principal coming in a couple days ago, asking for Stephanie. He'd been too busy scribbling lyrics in the margins of his notebook to really pay attention. "Good for her, I guess?"

Brianna scowls at him. "Not good. He's, like, fucking thirty, and now she's dropping out of school to have his gross babies."

Then she starts sniffling again, so for lack of any better response, Patrick hands her another tissue.

"I don't get it," Brianna says, after blowing her nose again. "We were gonna go to college together, you know? I thought your bondmate was supposed to love you, how can someone who loves you tell you that bam, they're here so now you have to drop everything and have the life they want you to have?"

Sounds a lot like the standard line on soulmates to Patrick, actually, but he isn't going to say that. "Is she mad about it?"

"No." Brianna deflates, a mascara-tinged tear dripping down her cheek. "That's the worst part. She's so fucking happy, I swear she's glowing. She called me and all she could talk about was baby clothes and Blaine's car. That's his name," she adds, needlessly.

"Well, if she's happy," Patrick says, and hurriedly adds, "Not like there's anything you can do, right?" when Brianna glares at him.

She grimaces. "I guess. Her parents approved and everything." She starts shoving things into her schoolbag. Patrick takes the hint and leaves.

~~

The thought stays with him through the day, niggling. Dropping out of school isn't such a bad concept—hell, if Patrick ever finds a band that could go big, he'll leave school behind without a second thought. If someone's willing to support Patrick financially while he does it, even better. And it's not like anyone could keep him barefoot and pregnant: biological impossibility aside, Patrick doesn't ever see that being his life, locked up in a house in suburbia.

He only figures out what's bothering him when he sits down to reply to Pete's email. It's a sudden realization that has him deleting everything he's written and replacing it with, you wouldn't show up at my school out of the blue, right? and hitting send.

Pete responds immediately with u want me 2?

Patrick really doesn't, and he tells Pete so. Tells him about the situation at school, too, so Pete understands where he's coming from. He finishes it off with, I don't want to get married yet, I haven't even had a record go platinum.

Pete's quiet for so long that Patrick gets worried. Just as Patrick's mom calls him to dinner, he sees the new message alert, although he doesn't have time to actually read it. He rushes through dinner and makes it back up the stairs in record time.

ive got 2 platinum records if u want them, but we can wait as long as u want.

Patrick frowns at the screen. Pete mentioned doing something in the music industry—he said he was a shitty player so maybe he’s not an actual musician, but Patrick figured he might be a sound tech or a manager or something. Do they get platinum records too?

While Patrick's mulling over this, another mail alert pops up. This one says, nvm forget it. bad joke. im not the marrying type neway.

It's kind of a relief. I don't have a problem with marriage, Patrick writes back. but maybe not while I'm still in high school?

dont want u to end up 16&preg, Pete writes back. Patrick winces at the mental image and goes back to answering Pete's rant on his libertarian coworker and how fucking wrong she is.

~~

He meets Joe at Borders, and Joe asks him out, and Patrick has a moment of free-falling dissociation where he's not sure if he's supposed to say "No, I'm taken," or accept. He ends up stammering until Joe takes pity on him and asks Patrick if he wants to catch a show on Saturday, "and I'll bring a couple friends, too, anyone you want to bring?"

Patrick's social schedule is mostly made of his band and Pete, so that's a moot point.

It ends up in one of his letters to Pete, too. Not the asking-out bit—too embarrassing, too potentially messy: what if Pete does want him to date other people? What if Pete is dating other people even as they keep writing to one another? What if Pete isn't, and gets upset Patrick even thought dating anyone else was an option?

But he talks about the show, and signs it with, wish you could come. any chance you'll be in chicago this weekend?

He's sent it before he realizes that this is the first time he mentioned where he lives.

wish i could come, Pete sends in return. actually in europe rn. but chicago is home.

The rush of warmth those words send through Patrick is a little overwhelming, this mixture of "oh god he gets it" and "fuck yeah Chicago". there's this ice cream place I like, let me take you when you come back, he sends before he can think better of it.

looking forward 2 it, Pete says. did i ever tell u about the time i got lost in the zoo and accidentally kidnapped a penguin?

~~

its too cold, Pete emails him one morning.

Morning is actually a really generous way of putting it. It's barely past five AM. Patrick should be sleeping. Instead, he’s bitterly regretting the day he made his email alarm loud and distinctive. It's so fucking weird. He never used to check his emails more than once a week, tops; now he runs for his computer the moment he gets back from school. When he's out, he has half an ear listening for his SMS alert, waiting for Pete's short updates. It's better via email, though: Patrick's blown his texting plan once, and he's not in any hurry to repeat that conversation with his mom.

Cranky, he sends Pete back, what do you want me to do about that? He's half anticipating something cheesy and silly, a request to come warm Pete up or something like that.

Pete takes a while to answer, though, and when he does, it's a long, dense wall of text that has Patrick blinking and adjusting his glasses. nothing,nothing to do not ur fault it's the world that's screwed up not u,all the same tho its screwed, and it goes on.

Patrick sits there, his blanket wrapped around his shoulders, eyes half-shuttered against the light of his computer monitor. i'm sorry, he replies, inadequately.

y? u give me this rotten brain?

maybe I did, Patrick replies. you don't know what I get up to.

wish i did. the only good part of me is an inch of skin on my wrist.

Patrick can't quite explain why this fills him with fury. don't say that. don't ever say that!

fuck u. u gonna stop me all the way from chicago?

"Just see if I fucking don't," Patrick tells the empty room.

~~

Patrick can't get back to sleep after that, even though Pete goes quiet. Because of it, maybe. Then, halfway through Patrick's third period, he receives a cheerful stupid little text, just i got my dog a sweater emailin u pics. It's followed by an intermittent stream of Pete's normal, everyday nonsense.

It's better than freaking out because of radio silence, Patrick can admit that. At the same time, he's not buying the whole "lalala normal now" act, not in a million years. Whatever exactly that was last night, it was more than Pete having a random shitty mood, and Patrick's going to do something about it.

The how of it haunts him, though. Patrick's not a talker. He wishes, not for the first time, that Pete was in touching range, that Patrick could smack the stupid self-deprecation out of him and then cuddle him to pieces.

He's not, though. All Patrick has is a phone number and an email address, and he has to figure out something to do with them.

To make it worse, all through the day the words Pete wrote echo through his mind, repeating and mixing and intertwining into a sick melody. He sucks so much at band practice that even Grant starts to mutter, and Gina lobs a guitar pick at him and says, "Will you fucking pay attention?" when he plays the beat for the tune in his mind instead of the song they're trying to practice.

He gets home and doesn't even check his email, doesn't even say hello to his mom, just runs to his room and dumps his book and takes his guitar out of its case. It's a little out of tune, making Patrick wince as he tries to get the rudiments of the tune out of his mind and out to his fingers.

The only microphone Patrick has is a shitty little plastic thing that came with his computer, but he has a passable audio program that makes it sound a little better. He tunes the guitar while waiting for it to load, humming to himself.

The point Patrick is trying to make is all in the music. He sings the words softly along, just so Pete knows what he's doing, that inch of skin on my wrist goes with the almost-mocking diminished triads of the bridge, but that they say opposites attract, you're perfect and I'm just fucked is in minor key, earnest, swelling and receding into it's fucking cold, come warm me up, meet me when we're home again.

Patrick finishes the recording out of breath, his voice gone hoarse. He sends the file before he can rethink it.

~~

When Pete's replying email comes, two hours before dawn, Patrick's sleeping too soundly for the alert to wake him up. It says, i need to leave my job and become a chemist, nothing more.

Patrick reads it as he gets ready for school, blearily gazing at the screen. ??? he sends back.

need to discover a new metal. s.t. better than platinum. thats the album u shld have.

Patrick actually laughs at that, sudden and loud, until his mom knocks on the door and demands to know what's taking him so long.

~~

When there's a partnered project in Trig (why they have to write an essay about the history of polar coordinates, Patrick has no idea, but there it is), Brianna turns around and crooks an eyebrow at him.

She and Patrick talk, every now and then, about nothing in particular. Brianna seems amused with how little idea Patrick has about what's going on in school. On his own end, Patrick is still debating inviting her to one of his band's shows. He's not sure which notion freaks him out worse, the one where she thinks it's a date and publicly mocks him for daring invite her, or the one where she thinks it's a date and accepts.

Doing the project with her would be cool, though. Definitely better than doing it with some other random person in their class. Patrick has no idea what the names of most of his classmates even are. He can put up with Brianna's atrocious taste in music for a couple hours after school. Maybe he'll even get her to listen to some decent stuff for a change.

That optimism ends up turning on him, though, during a study break when Patrick is interrupted in reading Pete's texts by sharp squealing.

"Omigosh!" Brianna's all but jumping up and down, eyes rapt on her computer monitor. Then she seems to remember she's not alone and regains her composure. "Uh. Sorry. Just, Pete Wentz's new album got leaked." She looks at Patrick with large eyes. "I guess we should be studying, though. I could listen to it later."

They really should. At the same time, Patrick takes in Brianna's wistful look, and remembers how fucking shitty it was last month when Elvis Costello's released 45. Dan and Gina were away and Patrick had nobody to gush about but Grant, who met his stuttering excitement with a blank face and a shrug. "Fuck it," Patrick says. "Let's hear it."

The first track is pretty shitty, just Wentz yelling the same two phrases louder and louder over instrumentation that try as Patrick might, he can't turn into anything other than noise.

Brianna wrinkles her nose at it. "This track was out already, I don't really like it. Mind if we skip?"

The next is bland and pop-y. Patrick's not sure if he misses the yelling of the last track before it. In the absence of the overwhelming noise, though, he's surprised to realize he kind of likes the lyrics. Mouths the chorus when it repeats, getting the feel of them in his mouth.

And just like that, something shifts in Patrick's mind and it stops being shitty pop and becomes just music. He flags places for improvement as he listens, can't help it, but he does that with literally every single piece of music he listens to nowadays, ripping it apart in his mind for things to either fix or learn from.

Realizing he could learn something from Pete Wentz is kind of a revelation. At the same time it reminds Patrick of the time he tried to get Dan to listen to Mos Def only for Dan to fend him off with "I don't like that rap shit, c'mon."

Patrick's still not going to be Wentz's number one fan, but he's now listening to the fifth track by the guy in a row and his ears aren't bleeding out. There's even some catchy bits hidden in there, although Patrick finds himself mentally reworking them into something a little less obvious and a little more compelling.

The tracks after that are obviously works in progress, so much so that Patrick feels a little bad for listening to them. He spares them the brunt of his uncharitable thoughts. When Brianna rolls her eyes and says, "Mind if we fast-forward?" he nods gratefully.

Then they get to the last track, and the sound is odd, scratchy in a way the others weren’t. Patrick’s wrinkling his nose, trying to place the familiar guitar strumming when he hears his own voice ringing out at him from the computer.

He freezes, deer in headlight. His voice is weak and tinny and there’s unpleasant little pop!s every now and then, this painfully amateur recording that Patrick didn’t even stop to edit before firing it all over the web.

Even Brianna notices something’s up. “Is that a guest artist or something? Who’s singing?”

“I don’t know,” Patrick says, shoulders tight, feeling like the lie must be broadcast across his face.

Brianna shrugs. “Nice voice, anyway.”

Patrick just stops himself from giving a scathing critique of how fucking awful his singing is—he sounds like what he is, which is a stupid suburban white boy trying to emulate soul singers.

Brianna’s still staring at her screen, evidently itching for another listen through.

Patrick closes his notebook and gets up. “I don’t think we’ll get much done today, anyway.” Brianna opens her mouth to argue. He gives her a pleading look. “Can we finish this later this week? I just remembered I had band practice.” He adds, ”Great, thanks,” without giving her time to react, fleeing out the door while she’s still blinking at him in confusion.

~~

That evening he sits on his bed, alternately staring at his phone and his computer. He’s been getting periodic messages from Pete since his ill-fated study session—first Pete’s usual cheerful nonsense, then concerned, then pissed, now circling around to worried again and edging up on frantic.

Patrick hates that, knowing that Pete is freaking out somewhere out there, and he’s fucking pissed that he even cares after Pete lied to him.

Pete is Pete Wentz. He wasn’t kidding about those platinum albums after all. Also, apparently his real autograph isn’t the one that appeared in the tabloids. Patrick doesn’t even know why he’s surprised.

His phone’s ringing now. Pete’s never called him before. Patrick picks up, says, “You’re a fucking asshole.”

There’s a pause on the other end. Then a voice—older, polished, and female—answers, “That’s pretty rude. I haven’t even introduced myself.” She proceeds to do just that: she’s Eileen Murchison, with Time-Warner. “We’d like to offer you a contract.”

Patrick sits up abruptly, biting his tongue in the process. He just manages to turn his muffled curses into, “What?”

“We heard your demo,” she says, crisp and smooth, “and we’d like to offer you a contract, writing music for us. Possibly recording, depending on your—”

“What demo,” Patrick interjects. His voice feels weirdly rough, like it belongs to something else. “I haven’t sent you anything.”

Inch of Skin,” she says, like it’s obvious. “We realize that technically you sent it to Mr. Wentz, but as he’s under contract with us….”

There’s an insisting beeping in Patrick’s ear. Call waiting. “I have to answer this,” he says, numb. Even talking to Pete now seems preferable to continuing this conversation. “Hold on.” He tries to answer the second call, manages to disconnect both calls as he does.

He spends a couple moments staring at his cellphone, not sure if he’s relieved or apprehensive. When it starts ringing again, Patrick takes out the battery and shoves it under his pillow.

~~

Funny, how fast Patrick got used to Pete’s incessant messages. Going around school without speaking to anyone feels weird now. Lonely.

Patrick bites his cheek and wishes a million bad fates on Pete Wentz. To make things worse, he can’t even bring himself to wish anything genuinely awful, has to satisfy himself with imagining Pete getting papercuts and spilling his coffee and having his dog poop in his shoes.

Even his band calls him out on it. "Dude, I never thought I'd say this," Grant tells him, "but maybe you should check your phone more, you're all distracted and mopey."

"I told you," Dan starts, then shuts up with a distinctly guilty look.

Patrick turns to him slowly. "You told who what, exactly?"

Dan raises his arms: it's a weirdly defensive move, considering Patrick is roughly half his size. Not that this would matter, in Patrick's current mood. "I didn't do anything! I just gave Grant and Gina his email. And I told them it was a shitty idea to send Pete the picture."

Patrick sits back down, suddenly dizzy. "You. You sent Pete Wentz a picture of my soulmark." It's such a fucking stupid notion, Patrick doesn't even know where to start.

"We did," Gina says evenly. "Not Dan, so if you want to kneecap someone, Grant and I are your targets, here."

Damn Gina and her reasonable voice. Patrick deflates. In a small voice, he asks, "Why? Did you, was that your idea of a joke or something?"

Gina rolls her eyes. "It was our idea of bringing bondmates together. You got sloshed, showed some skin, Dan recognized Wentz's signature, we did the rest." She crosses her arms. "If you want us to take blame for that, fine. But let me tell you a secret, cupcake: fights happen. Even with soulmates. You don't solve them by pretending the other person doesn't exist."

"Watch me try," Patrick says darkly. He twirls a drumstick. "Are we going to play some fucking music or what?"

Grant says fervently, "I thought you'd never ask." Patrick just barely refrains from hurling his uncharged phone at him.

~~

"I told you not to eat those cookies earlier," Patrick's mom says reprovingly when he's too busy picking at his dinner to actually eat.

Patrick shoves some green beans as far away from him as possible. "Whatever." He didn't want to come down to eat anyway, preferring to stay hidden away in his room with his terminal embarrassment.

And, yes, okay, the cookie jar. Fuck it. He just found out his soulmate is a world-class douche, he's entitled to some chocolate chip comfort. His mom should be glad he's not dipping into the drinks cabinets.

His mom sighs. "Honey, are you sure--" She frowns. "Did someone just knock?"

"I'll go check," Patrick says, before his mom can pry further. His chair scrapes against the floor as he gets up.

As he gets closer, it becomes evident that someone is, indeed, knocking. Hard.

"Don't break anything, I'm coming," Patrick says, and unlocks the door.

It's raining heavily outside, and the guy who just knocked apparently got caught out, judging by his dripping-wet clothes. Patrick catches himself just before ogling the way the guy's t-shirt is clinging to his abs when he realizes that he knows who it is.

"Are you going to invite me in or leave me out here to die of hypothermia?" asks Pete Wentz.

Patrick's attempt to shut the door in his face is derailed by his mom showing up, exclaiming, "Oh my goodness, you must be freezing! Come in," and knocking Patrick aside. He watches, resentful, as his mother welcomes Pete in, offers him a towel and a cup of tea, and asks, "Are you a friend of Patrick's?"

"No," Patrick says, as Pete says, "Yes," just as empathetically.

Pete grins winningly at Patrick's mom. "Sorry about showing up uninvited," he says, "I know it's kinda late, but Patrick hasn't been returning my calls, and—"

"Yes, because you lied to me," Patrick says, even as his mom shakes her head in exasperation.

"It's like he forgets chargers exist, honestly," and Patrick can only watch in horror as Pete Wentz bonds with his mom. Over Patrick's completely justified cell phone habits.

~~

"I'm not talking to you," Patrick informs Pete. They're up in his room, his mom having sent Pete up there to "change out of these wet things, it's practically giving me pneumonia just to look at you", without even asking Patrick if he minded.

Pete shrugs. His shirt is off already, and Patrick is working hard to refrain from staring at the stray water droplets clinging to the smooth, inked skin of Pete’s chest. "Fine. Guess I'll have to talk to you instead." He struggles with his pants, which Patrick takes petty satisfaction with until Pete gets them off, and then he has to deal with the reality of Pete Wentz in his room in nothing but boxer briefs.

Instead of saying anything, Patrick throws another towel at Wentz, using slightly excessive force.

Pete just drapes it over his shoulders, unconcerned about dressing himself. "So I wanted to tell you I'm sorry," he says. "I'm sorry I lied. I mean, it was by omission, so not exactly lying, but I get that it's not the kind of honesty you might have expected. The kind you deserved."

Patrick crosses his arms and looks pointedly away.

Pete sighs. "And I'm sorry my label bothered you. That was shitty of them."

"Oh, fuck you," Patrick snaps before he remembers his self-imposed vow of silence. "Who gave them my number if it wasn't you? Whose idea was it to put the track I sent you on the album? What the fuck was that even about? Was it some kind of, of—" Patrick tries to grope for a possible explanation and finds none. He just gives Pete a looks that's probably more baffled than angry.

"I wasn't going to use your track on the album," Pete says. Patrick feels humiliation coiling in his stomach, which must show on his face, because Pete hurries to add, "Not like that! I wanted to talk to you first, get you to a decent recording studio."

Patrick studies Pete's earnest expression. "Or you could have sang it and released it yourself," he says. "They wanted to offer me writing credit. Which is better than just stealing the idea, I guess, and it's not like I expected anyone to let me sing in public."

As he speaks, Pete's face goes from painfully sincere to confused to actively angry by the end of Patrick's sentence. "Oh, fuck them," he spits. "Writing credit? Have those fucking assholes even listened to the track? You're seriously telling me they knew you existed and were going to ask me to sing it?"

"I shouldn't have to tell you this," Patrick says, "but you're kind of a popstar."

Pete makes a farting noise. "Have you heard me sing? Without autotune," he says when Patrick opens his mouth to reply. "I sound like a fucking cat being sat on. A cat with strep throat." He catches the smile Patrick is futilely trying to stifle and adds, "You think I'm kidding? You know the one track, Desolate?"

"The one where you scream two sentences over and over," Patrick says before it occurs to him it might be insensitive.

Pete just nods, though. "Exactly. When I was working on it there was a fucking cat in heat across the street, I couldn't sleep because all night it'd go," Pete lowers his voice and wides his eyes, "mow, mow, mow." Patrick's outright giggling, can't help it. "And I'm singing, and I think, Oh my God, I sound just like that fucking cat. And then I realize that probably it's literally a fucking cat, and I lose my shit right there in the studio."

Patrick bursts into helpless laughter.

Emboldened by this, Pete adds, "So my producer keeps trying to get me on point, but every time I sing the bit that goes So long for now, I’d sing So long for mow,” and he drops his voice again, “and I’d crack up, not to mention ruin the track.”

“Ow, I think I pulled something.” Patrick grabs at his stomach, still giggling. “You fucking asshole. Your poor producer, I would’ve killed you if I were him.”

Pete looks him in the eye, dead earnest, and goes, “Mow.

Then Patrick has to kill him, but all he has at his disposal is a couple of pillows. He makes a good shot of it. It helps that Pete is now also laughing too hard to resist, a loud braying noise that really doesn’t seem like the sort of sound that should come from a mouth that won a Grammy.

He also keeps catching Patrick’s eye at inopportune moments. He doesn’t say anything, too breathless with laughter, but just knowing Pete could start Patrick chortling again, a messy vicious cycle that ends with both of them on Patrick’s bed, gasping for breath and covered in fluff from Patrick’s poor pillow.

“Aren’t you supposed to be in Europe?” Patrick asks once he gets his breath back. He looked up Pete’s tour schedule once he found out. Couldn’t help from doing it, even if he told himself it was only to see if Pete had lied about that, too.

Turns out he didn’t, but now he’s here on Patrick’s bed, shrugging and saying, “I quit.”

Patrick sits bolt upright. “You what?”

“Quit. Broke contract. Tendered my resignation.” The look Pete gives him is weirdly even, and Patrick is suddenly reminded that Pete is actually an employed adult who probably has a pension plan and health insurance.

Which is really jarring given that Pete just told him the least responsible thing Patrick has ever heard. “But you had shows scheduled! Do you know how much those kids paid to see you?” Patrick struggles with the enormity of this. “Doesn’t breaking contract mean you lose rights to your music? And pay a fine or something,” he adds.

Pete snorts. “You call that crap music?”

“I do.” Patrick looks at him, intent. “Maybe not great music, but definitely something you could build on. And some of your lyrics are actually beautiful.”

At Pete’s doubting expression, Patrick reaches for his guitar. He’s kept it in better tune recently, fucking around with whatever came to mind—and a lot has, especially as he’s desperately attempted to distract himself from Pete over the last few days. The music flows effortlessly. “See, this is the basic hook you have on Dark Alleys and Dead Allies, right?” Then he plays it again, the way he heard it in his mind ever since he first came across the song. “See, like this it brings out the words differently, and instead of a cliche, it’s a deconstruction.”

For a long moment, Pete’s silent and still, looking at him. Just as Patrick starts feeling self-conscious—great, a teenager telling him “Your music should sound like the music I like,” that probably only happens to Pete twice a week—Pete says, “See,” voice hoarse, “that’s exactly it. I never want this stuff to see light unless you’re singing it.”

Patrick stares at him, speechless.

“Playing, too,” Pete says, “and obviously you should write the music, that goes without saying.” Patrick opens his mouth to protest how extreme this is—Pete is the professional, after all—but Pete keeps talking right over him. ”Did you realize you just picked the one line I actually wrote out of this entire song? And you made it sound right.” He’s vehement, voice picking up force. “I don’t really write my own music, the studio hasn’t let me since I became famous.”

Patrick can’t help a shudder at that.

Pete catches his expression and shakes his head. “Whatever, I just cared about the lyrics anyway. Giving up musical control for that was a breeze.” His expression goes darker. “The studio people would get some kid with a synthesizer mock up a tune for me to approve. You know how many tracks I went through on the last record? None of them got it right. You did on the first go.”

It takes Patrick a few minutes to come up with, “I guess the soulbond thing is good for something.”

“You don’t get it.” Pete takes his hand. In spite of his earlier brush with the weather, he’s warm, fingers familiarly callused. “The music you wrote doesn’t just sound right to me, it’s good. Like, objectively. I let a few people I trust listen to it, they all said it was amazing and to snap you up.”

Patrick’s tried to ignore it thus far, but he’s alone in his room with a barely-dressed and very attractive man, who’s now holding his hand and asking him to—what, really? “Are you trying to ask me to run away with you?”

“Yes.” Pete nods enthusiastically. “Give me a month, we’ll make platinum, and then we can get married in Vegas. Hemmy can be the flower girl.”

Patrick starts laughing again, going quiet quickly when Pete doesn’t laugh along, just gives Patrick this look tinged with something he’s beginning to suspect is adoration.

Then Patrick’s phone—his landline, the cell being still out battery—rings. He picks it up. “Hello?”

“Patrick,” Brianna says, sounding slightly freaked out, “why is your house on MTV?”

~~

Pete paces angrily around Patrick’s room. “They can’t do this.” He’s at least gotten dressed, which helps Patrick’s distraction, albeit not by much. Pete’s a little taller than him, but Patrick likes his clothes on the roomy side, so it works out okay.

Patrick rolls his eyes. “They just did.” Sending paparazzi after them is honestly the least terrible thing Pete’s label could do, in Patrick’s opinion. He’s about to say that when he hears his mom call for him.

“I’m glad you’ve been making friends, Patrick,” she says with a frown when he comes downstairs, “but this is a little late for a social call, doesn’t your friend need to go home?”

Before Patrick can reply, somebody’s knocking again. His mom’s frown intensifies and she opens the front door.

Patrick doesn’t recognize the professional-looking woman in the door until she opens her mouth to say, “Mrs. Stumph? I’m very sorry about the hour, but does Pete Wentz happen to be here?”

That’s okay, though. He’s halfway up the stairs by then, and he hurries to his room as his mom makes baffled inquiries of Eileen Murchison from Pete’s label.

“We have to get out of here,” Patrick says, opening the door to his room. Then he opens his window, the one looking out to the tree in the yard.

To his surprise, Pete doesn’t make it difficult, only lines up behind him as Patrick slips out and climbs down to the ground.

“Where to now?” Pete says.

Patrick considers. “I know where my bandmate hides his spare key.”

“Excellent.” Pete pumps his fist. “Your bandmate’s place. Next, the world?” His hair, which has dried up all fluffy in Patrick’s room, is getting wet again, water soaking the shirt he borrowed from Patrick, his grin triumphant.

Two hours ago Patrick thought they’d never speak again. Now he’s running away with Pete, or maybe Pete’s running away with him. He laces their hands together, touching soulmarks for the first time.

It’s not like he’s read, not at all, because in all the stories it’s a shock and surprise and something different, but Patrick looks at the guy who just made him laugh so hard he nearly cried, who made Patrick write music easy as breathing and then looked at Patrick with shining eyes like it was the best thing Pete has ever heard. He looks at Pete, feels the spreading warmth of the bond, and thinks, What, this? I knew this already. What else is new?

“Adamantium record,” he tells Pete. “I’m not settling for anything less.”