It starts with solid, ivory bone. Ryan wasn't born with them. He never had to hide them away during his childhood. It happened in his twenties, possibly a few days after his twentieth birthday. One would think that Ryan would remember the exact date, hour, minute, second that it happened, but he really doesn't. He thinks that the mind-bending pain had something to do with that.
He was in his bedroom. Spencer was asleep in his own room down the hall after having pulled an all-night shift at the convenience store downtown.
The pain had hit Ryan suddenly, like an electric shock burning through his skin, tearing through his flesh, and his mind blanked to anything but the tremendous amount of pain he was feeling. Nothing was registering; one minute, he was standing in his room, and the next second, his knees had slammed into the flimsily-padded floor, his fingers clutching the dingy carpet. Somewhere, Ryan thought that he could hear himself screaming.
By the time the pain stopped, Ryan was folded on the floor, his lithe body shaking. He could barely register the pair of bare feet standing in his doorway. Ryan couldn't manage to lift his head, but he knew that Spencer was there.
"Ryan," Spencer breathed, sounding terrified beyond anything else Ryan had ever heard before. The thought made his stomach drop. Little aftershocks of pain coursed through him, his body no longer feeling like his own. He got a hand on the floor and pushed himself up into a kneeling position.
There was a loud, scraping noise and more sharp pain scorched through Ryan's frame. He looked up into Spencer's face. His eyes were wide and scared, doing nothing to ease Ryan's mind.
Ryan felt cold air against his face, sticking to the tear trails that he didn't know were there. His back ached. He reached a hand back, trying to stroke the skin just below his shoulder, the point where all the pain was originating from, but his hand didn't find soft, warm skin. His hand found something smooth, cold, hard. Whatever was there felt like it was rooted in his back. He couldn't find an entry wound, though, no place where he could've gotten stabbed.
He looked up desperately at Spencer. He needed an answer, something.
"What's – " His own voice was rough and it took several attempts for him to get the next words out. "What's wrong with me, Spencer?"
Spencer's eyes were still wide and a little wet. He almost had the look of someone who was seeing something both terrifying and beautiful enough to bring tears to his eyes. Ryan was finding it hard to breathe.
"I don't – I don't know."
Ryan's wings aren't beautiful; no one would ever describe them that way. Ryan's wings are hard and white like bones, gnarled and featherless. Ryan often says there was a mistake, that he only got the frame and never the insides, never the fleshy meat or skin.
Ryan once associated wings with angels, sacred, graceful images. That's not his life, those aren't his wings. He doesn't even really ever call them wings and no one officially told him that they were. All he had was Spencer searching things on the internet and telling him in a voice quiet with anger – not anger directed at Ryan, but anger at the situation and the fact that this was even happening to them – "You have wings."
For a while, it was just Spencer and Ryan who knew. Spencer worked all night and slept nearly all day while Ryan puttered around the house, feeling huge and bulky and awkward. They had taken all the mirrors down – well, Spencer had taken all the mirrors down – and put them away. Ryan knows that it's for his sake, but he also thinks that, sometimes, he'd like to just sit and stare at the crude, ugly things erupting from his back.
So, for a while, it was only Spencer who knew of Ryan's condition, and then there was Brendon. There was Brendon, because Brendon was their friend, because Brendon was studying to become a veterinarian.
"I'm not a goddamned animal, Spencer," Ryan snapped. It was right after Spencer had suggested bringing Brendon around. "I'm not a case to be studied." He felt guilty for snapping at Spencer when he had been nothing less than remarkable in caring for Ryan.
"I know that, but I also know that I can't do this on my own anymore."
"I'm too much for you to handle," Ryan said.
"This isn't me giving up," Spencer told him. "This is me asking for help."
When Brendon met Ryan for the first time, he didn't act amazed. Even though Ryan could see the excitement burning bright and alive in his eyes, Brendon managed to keep his face calm, pleasant, when he shook Ryan's hand.
"This is kind of unbelievable," Brendon said, moving around to Ryan's backside. He must have looked at Spencer for permission, because Spencer nodded and then Ryan felt a hand on the hard bone of his left wing. It was strange. Ryan never expected to feel when someone touched his wings, but he did. It felt like just another piece of him, like Brendon was stroking his arm.
Brendon ran nimble fingers down the bending white bone and skeletal fingers where he'd said the feathers would be if Ryan had them. Brendon touched all along the starkly white bones of his wings, running his fingers down the naked feather lines. In some weird way, it felt too intimate, too much like they were holding hands.
"What do you think?" Spencer asked. Ryan looked up at him through his bangs, feeling small, like some creature lower on the scale than humans, like a child with an incurable disease being talked about and inspected but not allowed to voice his own opinions.
The hands on Ryan's wings stopped. He won't ever admit that, as soon as they were gone, he already missed the feeling.
"I think I've never seen something so beautiful in all my life."
Before Jon, it was Spencer, Brendon, and Ryan. Brendon hadn't moved in with them officially, but he might as well have. He's over all the time. When Spencer worked and Brendon didn't have class, he'd come and sit with Ryan, talk with him. He didn't ask how it happened or why Ryan thought it happened. They talked about normal things, almost as if Brendon didn't even notice how the wings made Ryan different from everyone else, how Ryan hadn't been outside in months.
Brendon wouldn't leave when Spencer got home, either. Spencer would bring home take-out and the three of them would sit and eat. Spencer and Brendon ate at the table and Ryan on the floor – chairs were impossible now, just like shirts were impossible, just like leaving the house was impossible. Ryan was never that social to begin with, but now he was downright isolated.
Spencer looked tired all the time, dark circles around his eyes and his uniform stinking like beer and microwaveable hot dogs. Brendon made him laugh, made him dinner sometimes, and Ryan saw the kind of happiness on his face that Spencer used to have.
Sometimes, Brendon spent the night, sleeping on the couch, and sometimes, Spencer came into Ryan's room at night when Ryan was lying on his stomach and his wings were aching. Spencer would sit on the bed and smooth a hand down the middle of Ryan's pale back, between the wings. He'd let his work-rough fingers trail around the roots of the wings where hard, tooth-like bone met soft, giving skin.
Ryan hummed softly. It felt good. He could practically hear Spencer smiling.
"How long has it been since you've been outside?" Spencer asked. His voice felt loud in the quiet of Ryan's bedroom. Ryan's wings twitched. Sometimes, they'd move on their own when he couldn't quite control them yet. Brendon had been saying that the reason they moved was because that was their job, that it had been too long since Ryan'd unfurled them, since he'd flown, but Ryan had never flown before, never even thought of it before.
The closest to outside Ryan had gotten in all these months was sitting on the roof of the apartment building at night. He hadn't left the safety of the building, couldn't go to the library anymore, the movies, couldn't visit Spencer at work and bum free drinks off of him. Ryan couldn't be a normal twenty-three-year-old.
Spencer hummed like he was considering something. "Halloween is coming up."
Ryan almost spat out a "So what?" Who gives a shit what holiday it is when you can't celebrate it like everyone else? Then his mind connected with Spencer's words and Ryan's condition and it all made perfect sense.
"What? You really think I can?" Ryan asked, turning his head to the side to see Spencer. Spencer leaned over, making it easier for Ryan to see his smiling face.
"As long as you're dressed up as a guy with wings, then sure, why not?"
Ryan felt so overcome by sudden happiness that he wanted to reach out and hold Spencer, but he felt his wings twitching and didn't want to move too quickly, didn't want to hurt Spencer with the razor-sharp tips of his wings. Instead, he sat himself up, the points of his wings stabbing into the overly-soft mattress. Ryan leaned in close and wrapped his arms around Spencer's shoulders, smiling against his neck.
Spencer rested his hands on Ryan's sides, tracing the line of his ribs, and they both laughed softly, happily. Ryan's eyes might have sparked with tears, but if Spencer noticed, then he never said anything.
Ryan met Jon on Halloween. Much earlier that day, Brendon came to the apartment after his classes. He sat behind Ryan, undoing his backpack, and pulled out a small can of glittery, golden paint. They opened a window and Brendon sat behind Ryan with a brush in his hand to match the can of open paint. Brendon slowly, carefully turned the stark white of Ryan's wings into a deep, solid gold.
Ryan was nervous that night. He hadn't been around more than two people in five months and, tonight, he was going to a bar, to large groups of costumed drinkers. Brendon and Spencer dressed up as well. Brendon threw on a cape and false fangs and called himself a vampire; Spencer dressed up as a Jedi and had Brendon fawning over him the second he stepped out from his bedroom.
As soon as Ryan left the apartment, it almost felt like too much. Spencer and Brendon were there, though, and Ryan felt instantly better about being out in public. Nothing had changed. He didn't actually expect the world outside of his apartment to change that drastically in a mere five months, but it still felt foreign to be out in public, to have people looking at him and seeing him, the real him, but paying no notice. It no longer felt like a world that Ryan was a part of.
Ryan still felt exposed and panicky, but Spencer and Brendon wrapped a hand around each wrist and led him down the frosty city streets and to the club they were drinking at tonight. The nerves Ryan had been feeling slowly eased away once he started drinking. People came up and complimented his costume, telling him that they'd never seen more realistic-looking wings in all their lives. Ryan just smiled wide and thanked them.
Brendon and Spencer were drinking, as well, and laughing, looking happy and at ease. Ryan watched them for a moment, taking in the way Brendon hanged off of Spencer's side, how Spencer's smile always came easiest when it was aimed at Brendon. Ryan thought that it should have always been this easy, that they should have always been this happy. He dropped his gaze to his amber-colored drink and sighed. They couldn't be at ease because of him, because of how much of a burden he'd become.
Just then, Ryan felt a hand on his shoulder. He tilted his head up to see a handsome man staring at him, smiling wide and lazy.
"Are you Ryan?" he asked, circling around to Ryan's front and dropping down onto the stool next to Ryan's. He wasn't dressed up, as far as Ryan could tell, and his flip-flop-covered feet instantly twined around the metal legs of the stool. Ryan tilted his head and bit his lip. Did this guy know?
"Yeah?" he answered uneasily. The guy grinned.
"Cool. I'm Jon." He offered his hand to Ryan. "I'm a friend of Brendon's. He told me I should meet you."
"Oh." Ryan wasn't sure what Brendon had said to Jon, if he had said the most important thing, the one thing that he'd promised Ryan and Spencer that he'd never say. Ryan's wings felt restless, like they wanted to stretch out as far as they could, yearning to be free.
"Cool costume," Jon said. "Let me buy you a drink."
They all get fucking wasted. Ryan felt human again; not below the spectrum or above it, but just a person with plastic, faux-gold-painted wings. Spencer was the least drunk at the end of the night, so he was the one that called the cab. Jon pushed himself inside their cab while Brendon perched on Jon's lap to make room. Ryan rested his head against Spencer's solid, warm shoulder and made a quiet realization that this was the best night of his life.
The morning after Halloween, Ryan padded out into the kitchen to get a drink of water. The gold paint had dried up and was falling off the skeleton of his wings, chipped pieces raining down in a trail behind Ryan. The happy buzz he had gathered last night had faded. It would be a whole year before Ryan could feel as free again.
Ryan heard movement when he gulped down his icy water, so he turned to find Jon, bleary-eyed, standing in the living room, staring at Ryan with a confused look and messy hair.
"Dude, how'd you sleep with those things on? Halloween is over, man."
Ryan sat the cup down, his wings trembling with the need to break free.
"I..." Ryan had never felt more out of control than in this moment. His body was shaking with the effort of keeping his wings closed and straight against his back. Ryan held them back too much, more than he ever had before, because they seemed to have developed a mind of their own and were desperate to sprawl open. Ryan could feel the sharp tips pressing against his lower back, threatening to break the skin there.
"Hey, I was just kidding. I don't mind," Jon said, taking a few steps towards Ryan. Ryan's wings fought harder to open themselves, to show Jon what they were. Ryan didn't know why Jon evoked this kind of emotion from him, from his body.
Ryan squeezed his eyes shut, his entire body trembling and spiraling out of his control. It was so hard to hold on. "Spencer!" Ryan called, his voice thick and quaking as badly as his body. It didn't come out loud enough the first time, so he tried again. "Spencer!"
"Ryan? Are you...what's wrong?" Jon asked. Ryan shook his head furiously. He felt the same hard ache in his back as the first night he got his wings.
"Spencer! Spencer! Spencer!" Ryan screamed over and over again. Their secret was about to be exposed all because he couldn't hold on around Jon.
Finally, finally, Ryan heard Spencer coming to him, but he was already stretched to his limit. It was already too late by the time Spencer asked, "Ryan, what?"
Ryan felt his body let go and his wings break free, stretching out as far as they could go, chipped gold paint clinging to the naked, skeletal white. There was a hot, stinging heat at Ryan's lower back and he knew he had been cut by his own wings, could feel the blood covering the tips and running in slow rivets down the back of his spine.
"Ryan," Brendon said slowly, but Ryan wouldn't open his eyes. He didn't want to see the mess he'd made, the disgust that was sure to be in Jon's once-warm eyes. Ryan wanted to freeze time and live in yesterday forever.
Ryan couldn't stand any longer, so he fell to his knees, the fingers of his wings scraping loud and ugly against the wood of the kitchen floor. Ryan was crying and bleeding and felt less than human, like a gruesome creature that deserved to be put out of its misery.
Ryan heard a dull, thudding noise and felt warm hands pulling him close. The hands were too large to be Brendon and the fingers too short to be Spencer. Ryan realized with a shock that it was Jon. Jon was holding onto Ryan and pulling him closer, letting him bury his face in Jon's neck and sob with reckless abandon.
Ryan felt other hands on his skin, small hands that must have belonged to Brendon, cleaning the blood off the small of his back; familiar hands that must have belonged to Spencer, placing a bandage down over the shallow wound. Jon was whispering quiet words against Ryan's bare shoulder.
Afterward, Ryan was lying on his stomach in his bed, Spencer at his side, his hand resting just above the fine slivers on his back. Ryan could hear Brendon and Jon talking in hushed voices out in the living room.
"He said he won't tell anyone," Spencer said.
Ryan's eyes felt swollen from the tears and his back burned. His wings, though...they no longer had the same ache that had been plaguing him for days.
"Is he going to leave?" It was the only thing Ryan found himself really wanting to know.
"Is he going to go home, you mean?"
"Is he never coming back, I mean."
"Do you want him to? I thought him being around you caused a bad reaction."
"I think," Ryan started. He reached a hand out and rested it on Spencer's knee. "I think that, somewhere deep down inside, I wanted him to know. I wanted him to see and accept the real me."
Spencer rested his hand over Ryan's and his thumb rubbed small circles against the back of his hand.
"You scared the fuck out of me today," Spencer admitted.
"We'll have to figure out a way to make sure the ends don't cut you or anyone else."
"I'll let you sleep now," Spencer said. Ryan's hand slid away and Spencer stood up from the bed. His hand was close enough for Ryan to reach up and twine their fingers together.
"Tell Jon I'd like him to come back."
Spencer smiled and nodded, squeezing Ryan's fingers before leaving the room.
All of those events lead to now, to the four of them.
Spencer still works nights at the convenience store. Brendon's moved into their apartment and goes to his college classes while Spencer sleeps. Brendon's taken up a minor in avian studies as a way to help Ryan. Jon doesn't live with them, but he comes over enough that it feels like he does.
Jon works at the coffee shop downtown, but he only works every other day, which means that, on his off days, he can be found at the apartment, hanging out with Ryan.
This isn't one of those days.
Spencer is asleep and Brendon is in class and Jon is working. Ryan? He's left to his own devices. He's lying on his stomach with the remote in his hand, flipping through channels. He stops on some nature program, which is fine until it switches over to talking about birds – more importantly, flightless birds.
Ryan grimaces as he learns about penguins and their lack of flight. He's never considered himself in the same family as penguins or ostriches or any other bird that can't fly. He can't fly because he's not supposed to fly. He has wings, but he's not supposed to have those, either.
He won't lie and say that he never considered it. In most people's minds, wings are the equivalent of flight. It'd be interesting to know what it was like but, even if he could fly, he doubts that he'd be able to do so in the city. There are too many people and too many chances to get caught.
The more Ryan thinks about it, the more he wonders if he can fly. He's never tried, so how does he know? What if he can? Maybe he'd regain some sense of freedom that he'd lost with the appearance of the wings. The curiosity is too much to bear.
Ryan switches off the TV.
He quietly slips on his shoes and grabs a blanket off the back of the couch. The blanket smells a little like all of them, one corner smelling like Jon's cologne, the other like Brendon in the morning, another like Spencer fresh from the shower. Ryan winds the blanket tighter around his shoulders, hiding his wings enough for no one to know what they are.
Ryan leaves the apartment quietly so as to not wake Spencer. Brendon and Jon won't be home for at least an hour. There's no one to stop him, no one to say that he shouldn't try. Ryan climbs the flights of stairs, passing by each door, each person inside with their own story. At this point in his life, Ryan's sure that he'd trade with just about any of them.
Eventually, Ryan reaches the door that leads to the roof. He pushes it open and heads out into the chilly afternoon air. It's December and it's snowing faintly, white flakes dropping and sticking in Ryan's messy mane of hair. He passes by the empty spaces that some of the residents of the building use as a garden in the spring and summer months.
Ryan shuffles out to the concrete edge of the building and peeks over the edge. The cool air rushes up at him, pushing under the shelter of his blanket. Ryan stares down the many floors, down to the streets below, where the people look as small and insignificant as Ryan feels on a daily basis.
Ryan takes a breath to steady himself, the cold air hurting his lungs. He loosens his grip on the blanket and the wind catches it, pushing it off of his shoulders and onto the ground of the roof. Ryan shakes his head and keeps his resolve that this is something he wants to do, wants to try. He gets a foot on the ledge and that's when he hears the door burst open hard enough to hit the stone wall.
"Ryan!" It's Spencer. Ryan hears his voice clear as a bell even through the constant whistle of the wind. Ryan looks over his shoulder, over the stretch of bone from his fully extended wings. "Ryan! Get down!" Spencer yells. Ryan realizes how this might look.
"I just...I wanted to try..." Ryan starts. He thinks his voice might be lost to the wind.
"Ryan!" Spencer yells again when Ryan doesn't make a move to get down. Ryan lets his eyes fall closed, his wings twitching in the cold from the air. Right when Ryan's about to let himself go, fall forward into the afternoon air, he feels strong arms wrap around his waist, pulling him back from the ledge, from his chance at freedom.
Spencer releases Ryan's waist but still holds on tight to Ryan's thin wrist. Ryan manages to grab up the blanket and Spencer lets him go once they're back to the door of the roof. Ryan wraps the blanket around himself while Spencer looks on, fear and disappointment etched onto his soft face.
They don't talk again until they're in the safety of the apartment, their cheeks tinged pink from the cold air and the blanket wrapped securely around Ryan's shoulders.
"How'd you know I was up there?" Ryan asks. Spencer rolls his eyes and goes to the coffee maker, starting up a pot. Ryan glances at the clock and feels bad. Spencer still had an hour-and-a-half left to sleep.
"I heard you leave the apartment and I know the only place you go is the roof."
"I wasn't trying to kill myself," Ryan says. He doesn't know why Spencer would think that when the thought never even crossed Ryan's own mind.
"What was I supposed to think? I come out there and find you with one foot on the ledge. What other possible explanation could there be?"
Spencer is standing there, waiting for an answer, but it's not like Ryan has any other one besides "I thought it'd be cool to see if I could fly." He knows what that answer will get him: a whole lot of reasons why he shouldn't try.
"I don't want to be like a penguin."
"What the actual fuck, Ryan?" Spencer snaps at him. By the looks of it, his coffee can't get done soon enough.
"It's easy to be pissed when you can actually leave this place. I get one day a year, Spencer. It's not enough."
Spencer opens his mouth to say something, but then the front door opens and Brendon and Jon enter the room. The two of them had been laughing about something and Brendon is carrying one of those drink holders with a coffee for each of them in it. The smiles and laughter die down when the two of them see the tight look on Spencer's face and the hurt look in Ryan's eyes.
"What's...what's going on?” Brendon asks carefully. He slips his backpack off and sets it against the wall next to the door. He sets the coffees down on the kitchen table. Jon also looks concerned and his gaze flicks up to Ryan's face.
"I found Ryan on the roof, standing on the ledge of the building."
Brendon whips around to face Ryan. "Ryan..."
Ryan shakes his head wildly. He wants them to understand. "I wasn't trying to do that."
"Then what is it? You wanted to fly? You can't, Ryan. Birds need skin, meat, feathers to fly, not just the frame!" Spencer shouts.
"You never know! I could fly!" Ryan insists.
"Humans aren't supposed to have wings, but...Ryan does. Don't put flying past him," Jon interjects. Spencer glares at him.
"Don't encourage him."
Ryan feels his wings trembling again, fighting to be open and free. Ryan drops the blanket out of fear of ruining it.
"Spencer just wants you to be safe, Ryan," Brendon says. He squeezes at Ryan's shoulder.
"We can't just keep him in a cage," Jon adds. "What kind of life is that?"
"One where he’s actually alive," Spencer sneers. Brendon is trying to defuse the situation, but it feels heavy, dangerous, like it's been a long time coming. "And I was taking care of him long before anyone else. If anyone knows what's good for him, it's me."
"You're trying to live his life, Spencer," Jon snaps.
Ryan's body is trembling again and Brendon looks over at him, a knowing look on his face.
"Please stop arguing, I wasn't...it wasn't that, but it's really not worth it when you know that you'd all be better off without me, anyway," Ryan points out. His body shakes and his voice is thin. Spencer rolls his eyes.
"You cannot be serious."
"I'm a problem! A genetic fuck-up! Maybe if I weren't around, then you and Brendon could just be..." Ryan trails off, seeing as he doesn’t know how to finish that. Spencer grimaces and Brendon's cheeks flush a light pink.
"It's not...we're not..." Brendon tries to explain. Ryan feels dizzy and hot; he can barely keep his eyes open, let alone keep his wings in check. Ryan's state of conscious is floating in and out and his whole body feels like it's screaming for a release that Ryan doesn't know how to give.
Spencer and Jon continue arguing. Ryan feels lowly again, feels like a pet, feels like he's something to be kept inside a cage and not valued for its own mind and thoughts and feelings. He feels stretched to his limit and his wings are fighting him again, screaming with the urge to open and be free, escape from this situation.
"Ryan," Brendon says suddenly, but once again, it's too late. Ryan can't hold his wings back. They break out, stretch open; Ryan feels just a little better, at least for a few seconds. He gets those few brief seconds of relief before he registers Spencer's pained grunt.
Ryan feels a warm, wet heat engulfing the tip of his right wing. He turns his head to the side and everything freezes, running in slow motion. Spencer is standing there, his mouth gaping open and his body shaking just as badly as Ryan's had been seconds before. The razor-sharp end of Ryan's wing has pierced Spencer's stomach, blood staining through the bright-white t-shirt that Spencer is wearing.
Ryan's mind freezes, but he doesn't dare move, unsure of whether or not he should pull out the sharp piece of wing.
"Spencer! Spencer! Oh, fuck, fuck!" Brendon is panicking and he moves to where Spencer is still standing. Spencer coughs and Ryan sees blood ooze thick and dark from Spencer's wound. Jon's already got his cell phone out, frantically dialing 911.
"I didn't...Spencer, please...I didn't do this on purpose!" Ryan says, his eyes locked with Spencer. It's not...Spencer was in the way...Ryan would never, never hurt Spencer on purpose. Spencer backs himself up and the tip of Ryan's wing slides out of Spencer's stomach. Dark, dark blood, Spencer's blood, stains the tip of Ryan's wing, dripping off like a bastardized version of raindrops on concrete.
Brendon helps lower Spencer onto his back on the hardwood floor. Spencer's breath is coming out shaky and broken. Ryan tries to kneel down next to Spencer, but Brendon glares at him, shoving Ryan away. Ryan falls back on his ass on the floor, his wings clacking loud and heavy in the quiet of the room.
"Haven't you done enough, Ryan?" Brendon snaps.
"I know...not your fault," Spencer breathes, his voice thick with pain. Jon looks down at Ryan. He doesn't look angry, fear and worry stuck on his face.
"The paramedics will be here soon, Spence. Don't worry," Jon says carefully. His eyes rake over Ryan once again and Ryan knows what he's thinking. Ryan pushes himself off of the floor, forcing his wings to settle down into flat lines against his back, and goes to hide in his room. Spencer is bleeding in the living room because of Ryan and Ryan can't even be there to comfort him because the paramedics can't see him. Ryan hears when the paramedics arrive; he listens to them load Spencer up. They ask Jon what happened and Ryan tries to watch from the crack of his almost-closed bedroom door. He can't actually see anything, just the pale white of the hallway that leads out to the living room.
"Was...accident," Spencer manages to spit out. Without missing a beat, Brendon finishes the lie for Spencer.
"There was a knife stuck in the garbage disposal," Brendon explains, the lie sliding off his tongue easily. "Spence was trying to get it out and, when he did, it caught him in the stomach."
Ryan rests his forehead against the wood of his bedroom door. He closes his eyes and guilt wracks through him. He hurt his best friend, the one person he could trust the most in the world. Ryan decides that he'll never hurt anyone else ever again, not with his wings.
Ryan goes to the middle of his bed and digs through the nightstand. He doesn't pull back until he finds the nail file. Ryan sits and forces his wings to curl around the front of his shoulders, the tendrils brushing against his stomach like ice-cold fingers.
Ryan grasps the end of his left wing, pulling the tips towards him, and files down the sharp end. It hurts, just like if he was to scrape the file against his teeth or flesh, but Ryan doesn't stop. He doesn't stop until the points of both wings are dull and rounded, until they can no longer scrape or cut anyone. There's a thin layer of fine white shavings from the wings covering his hands and the comforter of his bed.
He hears footsteps and then Jon is pushing open the door to Ryan's room. Jon leans against the door frame and Ryan is relieved that he doesn't look angry like Brendon had; he looks worried, but he still looks like Jon.
"The doctors said that Spencer will be fine. He'll need some stitches and won't be able to work for a while, but he'll live and that's the most important part," Jon says. Ryan lets out a breath of relief and some of the worry, the indescribable hate that he feels for his own existence, ebbs away.
"When will he come home?" Ryan asks carefully. His wings twitch painfully, a reflex from Ryan filing away the nerve endings of said wings.
"They're keeping him in the hospital for the rest of the week," Jon says. "They said you just barely missed Spencer's vital organs."
"You know I never wanted to hurt him, right?" Ryan asks. "You believe me, right, Jon?"
Jon comes and sits at the end of the bed like Spencer used to do. If Jon notices the grounded-up bits of bone covering Ryan's comforter, then he doesn't say anything. His hand comes out and rests on Ryan's frail shoulder. Jon's touch is firm and sure, unlike anything else in Ryan's life. Jon rubs against his skin, blunt fingers brushing over the bones hidden away under his skin, skimming down his back, and then they're there, touching at the roots of Ryan's wings.
Ryan shivers, but he doesn't tell Jon to stop. Jon's never touched his wings, not like this. He's touching them like it's the first time he's really noticed them and wants to explore them. Jon's fingers trace white, hard bone, following the dips when the wings curve slightly, playing against the grooves and the chips. He's seeing and touching all of the imperfections of Ryan's already-imperfect wings.
"I know. And Ryan...you know Brendon didn't mean...he was just scared. We all were."
Ryan nods, his hair slipping into his eyes. He does know that Brendon didn't mean to push him away, but he's also not naive enough to not notice just how important Spencer has become to Brendon. He doesn't feel like he's being replaced; a person can't really feel like they're being replaced when they never even counted themselves as an option. Jon's still touching him and it's really...soothing when it's up near the tops of his wings. It's the bottoms, the ends, that are bruised and ruined, aching.
"So what were you doing up on the roof?" Jon asks after their silence has dragged on long enough that Ryan forgets that they were even talking in the first place.
"I had this idea. It might sound idiotic now, but I was going to...I wanted to try to fly." Jon doesn't say anything to that; he's just watching Ryan with careful eyes, so Ryan keeps going, "I mean, like you said, I'm not supposed to even have wings, so who knows whether or not I can fly, right? Maybe I can?"
"Maybe," Jon starts and Ryan braces himself for the same angry snap of words that Spencer had already given him. Ryan drowns out any thoughts of Spencer because, right now, they hurt way too much. "Maybe you should start small? Jumping off hills or something? Because what happens? I mean, what if you actually can't fly?"
Ryan shrugs and his wings tingle in pain at the motion. "Then I fall."
"And that doesn't worry you? That consequence doesn't scare you?"
"Like you said, what kind of life is this? Spending my days locked in this apartment."
"With us, though," Jon says. "You're with us."
"Then you'll be the ones I miss the most."
Brendon stays up at the hospital for as long as the nurses let him. They eventually make him come home and Ryan hears him come home sometime around three in the morning. Ryan's in his bedroom, lying on his stomach with his window cracked just slightly, just enough to let the night air come inside. Ryan doesn't know why, but the cold air has been helping the ache of his wings. He hears Brendon come down the hall, towards Ryan's and Spencer's rooms. He hears Brendon stop right outside his door, but Ryan doesn't tear his gaze away from the window, his head pillowed on his arm. Ryan watches fat, fuzzy snowflakes drift in from outside; they fall slow to the floor of his room and melt almost instantly, only perfect for a fleeting moment.
Ryan thinks Brendon might come into his room, might want to talk to him about Spencer, and he'd be up for it, he'd do it, but then he hears Brendon sigh out, his breath small and scared, and the footsteps are leading in the opposite direction...into Spencer's bedroom.
Brendon's not like Jon. Brendon notices what Ryan's done to his wings.
Despite all that happened the day before, the instant Brendon sees Ryan, he comes over and gives him a warm hug, whispering apologies into the skin of his chest. Ryan's about to speak when Brendon's hands find his wings; they trail downwards like they always do because, unlike Jon, Brendon always touches Ryan's wings. Ryan can feel the moment Brendon knows what Ryan did last night. Ryan can feel the twinge of his wings crying out in pain.
Brendon pulls back and looks up at Ryan with wounded eyes.
"Why did you do that to yourself?" Brendon questions.
"Because I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I ever did anything to any of you again."
"You have...there are nerve endings! You can't just..."
"What's wrong?" Jon comes out from the kitchen, carrying cups of coffee for the three of them. Brendon looks back at Jon from over his shoulder.
"He filed his wings down last night."
"It didn't hurt that bad," Ryan insists. It's only a little lie; it hurt, but it's nowhere near the worst pain Ryan's ever felt in his life. That pain is a toss-up between the night he got his wings and last night when he stabbed Spencer. Brendon arches an eyebrow and his face takes on a suspicious look. Brendon barely touches at the ends of Ryan's wings and Ryan's whole body arches forward, a groan spilling from his mouth without his permission.
"Ryan...you hurt yourself last night?" Jon asks. Okay, he really must not have noticed last night.
"The best way I can relate the pain to you or I, Jon, would be to say that it's like getting a root canal done sans the anesthesia."
Jon cringes and his eyes go big and worried like they were last night.
"But at least now I suppose we won't have to worry about you trying to fly," Brendon adds.
"What? What do you mean?" Ryan asks, confused. He hadn't mentioned it to anyone yet, but he was already forming another time, another way he could attempt his chance at flight. Brendon looks confused like he didn't know that Ryan doesn't understand the obvious magnitude of what he did to himself.
"Well, I mean, you can't fly anymore, Ryan. You've basically clipped your own wings." Brendon touches lightly at the area above the tender points of his wings. "See, it should be longer, here, and you need those pieces to fly, really. I suppose flight isn't impossible, but it definitely lowers the odds that it will be successful," Brendon explains. Ryan feels something akin to a crippling sadness, a dark chain wrapping around him, keeping him grounded just like every other human...but he's lower than them because he can't even be outside.
Brendon reaches up and cups Ryan's face, letting his thumb dip in the hollow of Ryan's cheek.
"Flying never really was an option for you," Brendon whispers. Ryan knows he's not trying to hurt him, to crush the tiny spark of hope that Ryan was desperate to keep alive, to keep burning until it turns bright and strong. Ryan knows Brendon is only saying it to keep him safe, to keep things as they have been the four of them together.
Brendon takes a week of classes off; he spends all his time at the hospital with Spencer. Jon goes a few times, mostly while Ryan is sleeping. When Ryan is awake, Jon is usually home. Ryan's been sleeping a lot or, alternately, just lying in his bed until he get's hungry enough to eat, tired enough to sleep again. Jon will come and sit with him and they'll talk; he'll bring home whatever book Ryan wants to read, whatever food Ryan's craving, whatever simple little thing Ryan wants.
Ryan feels lazy and useless. He talks to Spencer on the phone and Spencer sounds normal; he's excited to come home, he says he's excited to see Ryan, and Ryan know him well enough to know when he's lying. He knows Spencer isn't. Talking to Spencer does make him feel better and, for a day-and-a-half, things are alright. Things are fine until the ends of Ryan's wings begin to grow back.
It hurts like his bones are being stretched, broken, and pulled out. It reminds him of the time he and Spencer were younger and their elementary school went on a field trip to see taffy being made. Ryan remembers watching the candy being stretched out as far as it could go, again and again and again. He feels like the taffy, which is an altogether ridiculous metaphor, but he doesn't care because it hurts.
He's lying in bed suffering; he's arching and sweating and the pain is driving him out his mind. He can hear Jon and Brendon talking out in the hall.
"I don't know how it's happening, Jon. For all purposes it shouldn't be, but his wings...they're growing back."
"Maybe it's a second chance."
Ryan's heart lifts at the words despite the pain he's in. Ryan hears Brendon scoff.
"Don't give him ideas. Do you want him to die?" Brendon whispers harshly.
"I want him to be happy," Jon states simply.
"And you think we don't? Spencer works hard every day to make sure Ryan is happy."
"I know," Jon says. "But I also think that we're not...we're not enough to make him completely happy."
Ryan watches Jon and Brendon's shadows moving against the white of the hallway. He sees the point where Brendon leans into Jon, resting against him with a tired body, and Ryan sees where Jon rests his hands at the back of Brendon's shoulder blades, no wings to get in the way.
Ryan's wings finally stop growing back in, the sharp points back in place. Ryan's not stupid enough to do it all over again, to ground down his bones. Brendon is visiting Spencer; he's coming home tomorrow. Jon's in the living room and Ryan's in his room, staring out the window at the city ten floors down. It's snowing again, those fat, fuzzy flakes drifting slowly towards the streets, resting against the earth.
It's then that Ryan decides that he wants to try it again.
He wants to fly.
Ryan goes out into the living room where Jon is messing around with a guitar; he looks up when he sees Ryan and he smiles, bright and wide. Ryan returns the smile and feels the anticipation, the eagerness, that's building up in his body, coursing through his wings, begging to be free.
"What's up, Ryan?" Jon asks. He sets the guitar down and pays all his attention to Ryan.
"I want to do it, Jon."
Jon tilts his head in confusion.
"Fly," Ryan elaborates. "I want to fly."
Ryan is expecting Jon to say 'no,' to tell him to sit down and watch a movie, to say anything but "Alright."
The two of them are on the roof of the apartment building now, Ryan with his blanket wrapped around his shoulders, covering his wings, and Jon standing behind him, a hoodie on but unzipped, the air catching inside and blowing it out behind Jon.
Ryan releases the blanket and the wind pushes it off his shoulders like a pair of hands lifting it off of him. Jon bends and picks it up. Ryan's knees press against the ledge and he stares out at the horizon, at the landscape in front of him. For a few brief seconds, he wonders what it would feel like to crash to the earth. He shakes the thoughts away and looks back at Jon with a smile.
"Spencer will never forgive you, you know," Ryan says with a small laugh. There's a letter folded up under the pillow in his bedroom, an apology, just in case things decide not to play out the way Ryan wants them. Jon shakes his head.
"Do you...you really think I can do this?" Ryan asks. He's not stupid; he knows the odds are against him. The wind sweeps over Jon, mussing his hair and catching his breath.
"I think, at this point, people should never count you out. You're something special, Ross."
Ryan turns all the way around so that he's facing Jon. He leans in carefully, quickly, and Jon's slow enough that Ryan can easily lean in and press a kiss to his mouth. It's sweet and gentle and it makes the knot in Ryan's stomach loosen. Ryan pulls back and Jon's grinning again. Jon reaches out and cups the back of Ryan's head.
"So, I'll be here when you get back," Jon tells him. He's confident like he knows Ryan will make it, that Ryan will soar through the sky and only stop when he's tired and satisfied and then they'll go back inside and welcome Spencer and Brendon home. Ryan nods and Jon's fingers scrape against his scalp with the motions.
"Okay," Ryan whispers. He's not afraid as he turns back around, faces the ledge and the horizon. There’s not fear but hope as he climbs atop the ledge; no one's going to stop him this time. Ryan lets his wings stretch out as far as they can. He moves them and they flap, whistle with the empty wind pushing at them. Ryan can feel Jon smiling behind him and he smiles, too. He closes his eyes and he does the only thing he's ever been one hundred percent that he's needed to do.