Actions

Work Header

Nowhereville

Work Text:

Normally, Gerard doesn’t take the first shift.

The fact is, he’s not a breakfast person. At least, he’s not a breakfast person in tune with the rest of the town. He likes waffles and eggs just fine, and the buckets of coffee are a given, but when you usually wake after midday, well, technically, it’s not breakfast.

It’s why, most days, he clocks on at the diner mid-afternoon and works until midnight. It’s just better that way, when the lunch rush is over and Gerard can man the counter while working his way through his coursework. It’s easy enough to complete assignments when the most you’re expected to do is occasionally make small talk and serve a few meals in the afternoon lull.

Today though, Gerard’s standing at the counter, battling the urge to yawn in Patrick’s face as he arrives to pick up his order. Apparently it’s what he gets every day, Patrick rolling his eyes when within seconds of him walking into Greasers, Brendon rings the bell announcing a pick-up and yells, “Two breakfast sandwiches, one oink, one grassy for the Stumpster.”

As customer service goes it’s impressive. That’s something Gerard has to admit, even if the level of chirpiness is almost too much at this disgusting hour of the morning. Blinking, Gerard turns toward Brendon to be faced with a full-on Urie beam. “Two breakfast sandwiches to go?”

“Two breakfast sandwiches to go,” Brendon repeats, looking past Gerard and winking at Patrick. “I added an extra veggie sausage just for you.”

“Your generosity is astounding,” Patrick says dryly, unsmiling when Brendon passes over the wrapped sandwiches then bows, low and elaborate. “You’ll burn your forehead on the grill again.”

Brendon brandishes his spatula toward Patrick. “I did that once, and no tattling in front of the boss.”

“The boss knew already,” Gerard points out. It was impossible not to when he had to sign the accident book and Brendon wore a headband to keep his bangs back for over a week. “But yeah, don’t do it again. Bow in front of the sink.”

“As you wish.” Brendon turns smartly, flashing a smile at both Patrick and Gerard, before disappearing out of sight. No doubt to bow at the dirty dishes.

“You should bottle his energy and sell it,” Patrick says, pulling his wallet out of his pocket. Taking out a ten he hands it to Gerard, taking the sandwiches in return. “Keep the change.”

“Thanks.” Gerard drops the change into the tip jar that’s kept in front of the serving hatch, peering in at Brendon as he does so. Right now he’s gathering supplies, each pass across the kitchen made with spins and flourishes as he arranges squeezy bottles of ketchup and mustard next to the grill. It makes Gerard tired just to see him and he says, “If I could bottle his energy I’d drink it myself.”

Breakfast sandwiches in hand, Patrick makes a sympathetic noise and then asks, “Why are you even here this early? Is Andy sick?”

“On vacation. I forgot to schedule someone to take over his shift.” As mistakes go it’s basic, and one Gerard shouldn’t have made, not when he’s been co-owner of the diner for almost a year. Theatrically, he groans, thumping down on the stool that’s kept on this side of the counter. “How do you do it every day? It’s the middle of the night.”

“If I don’t open the shop I don’t get any money,” Patrick points out, and sighs as the bell over the main door jangles. “Tell me that’s not Pete.”

Gerard looks past Patrick, watching as Pete comes inside, grinning as he eases himself into the space next to Patrick, so close that they’re touching. “It’s not Pete.”

“I’m not actually blind,” Patrick says, turning to look directly at Pete. “Don’t you have forms to fill in?”

“I’m here to walk you to work,” Pete says, ignoring the question. Leaning in, he sniffs, loud and obnoxious. “You bought me an oink.”

“I bought Ryan an oink,” Patrick says, pulling the sandwiches away from Pete’s nose. “Buy your own breakfast.”

Undaunted, Pete rests his head against Patrick’s shoulder, his eyes closed and shoulders relaxed, like at that moment he’s completely content. “Ryan doesn’t eat.”

“Ryan eats plenty.” In a deft move Patrick ducks from under Pete and heads for the door, not looking back as he says, “Go to work. I’m going to help Ryan open the shop.”

“He’ll buy me breakfast one day,” Pete says, jumping up on a barstool and resting his elbows on the edge of counter, his whole body slumping as if it was only Patrick’s presence that was keeping Pete upright.

Sympathetic, Gerard stands and says, “You want coffee?”

Head in his hands, Pete stares into space as he nods, says, “A large to-go.”

As orders go this is one Gerard can do in his sleep and he plucks a to-go cup from the stack and fills it with freshly brewed coffee. Ensuring that the level is right, Gerard fits a lid and sets the cup next to Pete. “I heard you’re helping Ethel.”

Pete shrugs, taking the cup. Running his fingers over the rim he says, “Her sacking was bullshit, she’s got a case.”

From what he’s been told Gerard’s sure that Pete’s right, the same way he’s sure that, rightful case or not, there’s no way Ethel can afford to retain a lawyer, even a small-time one-man practice like Pete. It has to be yet another pro bono case, and Gerard’s got no idea how Pete’s surviving at all.

“Fucking supermarket.” Impulsively, Gerard takes the glass lid off of a serving plate and selects a breakfast muffin, dropping it into a bag before handing it over to Pete. “Fuel for the road.”

Bag held in his hand Pete stands and takes out his wallet. “I could be going to the office.”

“You could be, but you’re not.” While owning a diner was never Gerard’s life plan, now that he does he’s learnt the tricks of the trade. Which includes taking in the details of his customers, like the fact that Pete is wearing a shirt and tie under his hoodie and that there’s no sign of the ear buds he usually wears when he’s out walking. “Not unless you’ve started driving to work.”

“Not yet,” Pete says, all tiredness seemingly fading away as he jumps to his feet. “I’m a lazy bastard but I’m not about to drive a few blocks to the office.”

Gerard could assign many labels to Pete, but lazy would be last on the list. There’s no way he could be when Gerard’s seen him work late into the night at his office then come to the diner, hollow-eyed and keyed up, barely able to sit still as he eats before heading into the city for some kind of concert. It’s like Pete’s running on max always --- at least when he’s on show.

Seeing Pete start to open his wallet, Gerard waves him away, says, “It’s on me. Just give them hell for Ethel.”

“I intend to.” Pete bares his teeth, the curve of his mouth more snarl than a smile as he heads for the door. “The fucker’s haven’t got a leg to stand on.”

“I thought the rule was no more freebies.” Brendon waits until Pete is outside and then leans through the hatch from the kitchen. “In fact, I distinctly remember a memo stating that fact.”

“You’re right. Yeah. I’ll pay.” Taking out his wallet, Gerard pulls out the money to cover Pete’s breakfast, deliberately pushing back the accountant’s lecture to the back of his mind as he does so. Because okay, maybe Gerard is ultimately paying himself and maybe it is bad for the business, but Gerard’s not about to stop handing out freebies when they’re deserved.

Unexpectedly, Brendon jumps, sliding through the hatch and over the counter before landing next to Gerard with a thump. “We’re nearly out of milk. I’m going to run to the store.”

“What? No, you can’t,” Gerard says, flustered as he looks at the main grill and smaller standalone one that’s set to the side. While both are empty right now, they’re something Gerard doesn’t like to take charge of even if he does know how to cook on them both. “What if we get customers?”

Brendon takes off his apron, draping it over Gerard’s head. “We won’t, and before you say it. You’re not going for the milk either. Last time you left me here alone for over three hours.”

It’s a valid point, Gerard resigned as he takes hold of the ties of the apron, feeling the grease that’s soaked into the material. Still, at least it’s one of the good aprons and not the one made by Andy, Gerard likes to encourage individuality in the staff but there are limits, and Gerard’s is wearing something made from an old hessian sack.

Brendon runs his hands through his hair and takes money from the float kept under the counter, stuffing notes in his pocket before turning to Gerard and adopting a pose, his expression stern as he says, “Stay here. I’ll be back.”

“Going nowhere,” Gerard says, unable to help a smile as Brendon turns and hurries from the diner.

~*~*~*~

Most mornings it’s Andy who arranges the stock and buys more if needed. It’s how he passes the time on his shift, arranging and cleaning while conducting brief conversations with the morning crowd who just want to eat and then go. It’s a division of labor that works, but it means most days Brendon doesn’t get to leave during his shift at the diner.

Not that Brendon minds. He enjoys being in control in the kitchen, it’s his own tiny domain where no one cares if he sings while he cooks or that he has to wiggle his hips while flipping the eggs. So if it’s Andy that gets to rush to the store if they run out of essentials, well that’s fine, but it doesn’t mean Brendon isn’t enjoying the time out right now.

Hurrying past Note Wordy, Brendon waves at Ryan who’s shelving some books, while toward the back of the shop, Patrick is just finishing his breakfast. Normally Brendon would take the time to call in, but today he’s on a mission, one where he has to get to the store and back to Greasers as fast as he can.

Humming under his breath, Brendon crosses the road, his attention on the bollards outside of the store. Brendon supposes they’re meant to stop cars crashing into the door but mostly they’re used as a place to tie up dogs, or to attach signs about upcoming community events.

Eyes squinted against the sun, Brendon crouches and reads the latest sign about the farmer’s market taking place the next week and how one of Jon’s cats has gone missing again. Making a note of which one it is this time, Brendon glances around, and then runs, laughing as he leapfrogs over the bollard.

“Impressive.”

Brendon stumbles forward, surprised when a man appears from inside of the store. Despite appearing to be around Brendon’s age, he’s dressed in a suit and white shirt, the knot of his tie tidy and tight to his collar. It makes him stand out in the town; even Pete at his most businesslike not approaching this level of professional attire.

In comparison Brendon feels like some kind of kid in his sweat-damp t-shirt, jeans and scuffed sneakers. Self-conscious, he swallows before retreating behind a wide grin as he flexes the muscles in both arms “Thanks. It keeps me fit.”

The man takes a step forward and looks along the main street. “I take it this place hasn’t got a gym either.”

It’s a casual observation, but still, Brendon bristles, sure he can hear judgment hiding behind each word. “We don’t need a gym, the walking trails are awesome and there’s a skate park behind the launderette.”

“I’ll check it out next time I need to work out,” the man says, with no hint of a smile. Which is disconcerting, especially as Brendon’s convinced that somehow, he’s being mocked. Or at least, the town is, and to Brendon that feels like the same thing.

It’s tempting to push past and go into the store, but Brendon was brought up to be polite always, plus, as his mom used to say, it’s always best to kill them with kindness. “You should. If you didn’t bring your board Frank will have spares. He’ll probably let you use one.”

“And Frank is?” the man asks, taking his phone from out of his pocket and typing something onto the screen.

“Frank Iero, he helps his mom run the boarding house on the corner of Millway and Gertrude. You can’t miss it.” Pushing himself up onto his tiptoes Brendon cranes his neck until he can see the painted pink house that dominates the corner. “If you go there tell him Brendon sent you.”

“I’ll do that,” the man says, and while Brendon’s sure he’s lying through his teeth Brendon still responds when the man holds out his hand to shake. “Nice to meet you, Brendon. I’m Spencer.”

“Brendon. But I already told you that.” Brendon laughs, his hand still enclosed by Spencer’s. “I need to get milk. For the diner. I work there, I’m a fry cook.”

Spencer smiles, wide and bright, tightening his grip a little before pulling away. “Well I might see you there later.”

Brendon flexes his fingers, and while Spencer remains more polished than Brendon could ever hope to be, Brendon feels at ease and can’t help smiling in return. “If you do I’ll make you a burger, but I have to go....”

Still smiling, Spencer slips his phone back into his pocket. “To get milk.”

“Yeah. Gerard, that’s my boss, he’s not really a morning person. Last time he did this shift he fell asleep on the counter and managed to get the imprint of his pen on his cheek, then he knocked the sugar canister over and into his hair, he smelled like sugar for days and I’ve no idea why I’m telling you all this,” and Brendon doesn’t, the only possible explanation being Spencer seems genuinely interested as he listens, all his attention solely on Brendon.

“He sounds interesting,” Spencer says, and before Brendon can bristle again -- well aware of how interesting can be used in the negative sense -- he goes on, “I fell asleep and got gum in my hair once. It must have slipped out of my mouth, mom had to cut it out with scissors.”

Brendon glances at Spencer’s hair, which while cut short still seems a little long for the rest of his outfit. Not that Brendon’s actually seen many businessmen to judge, for all he knows the latest city trend is for long slicked back hair. “Okay, that’s worse than sugar.”

Spencer laughs, seemingly amused at the memory. “She threatened me with the clippers, and then did that mom thing about telling me it served me right for drinking so much.”

To Brendon it’s a situation as fanciful as a fairytale, one which he’s unable to relate to. “My mom would have gone crazy if I’d done that.”

“Yeah, well mine took pleasure in snipping close to my ear,” Spencer says, smile still wide. “I think she enjoyed it.”

“She must have been a sadistic barber in a former life, a female Sweeny Todd. Not that I’m saying that your mom’s a mass murderer or something. I’m sure she’s lovely,” Brendon finishes weakly, aware of how he’s started to babble. “Milk. I really need to go now.”

This time Brendon actually does go, getting away before he says something even more stupid. Waving he hurries from Spencer and into the store, coming to an abrupt halt when Lindsey stops him with a hand to his chest and says, “You were talking to that cold-hearted bastard. Why?”

“You mean Spencer?” Which, of course she means Spencer, but Brendon needs a moment to regain his footing as Lindsey scowls, her lip turned up into a sneer as she watches Spencer walk out of view.

“I mean that snake in the grass who just slithered out of here,” Lindsey spits, and while Brendon’s always known Lindsey was fierce, seeing her like this is disconcerting, her usual smile nowhere to be seen. “Low down, scum sucking parasite. I should have punched him in his face.”

“That wouldn’t be good for business.” Brendon looks down at Lindsey’s hand which she’s still got pressed against his chest, her fingers curled and gripping the material of Brendon’s t-shirt. Taking in her black-painted nails and dinosaur Band-Aid around one finger, he tries to work out what he’s walked into, and hopes that it doesn’t involve a punch to his face. “Erm, Lindsey....”

“Damn, sorry.” Lindsey loosens her grip and drops her hand, turning her attention from Spencer to Brendon. “He got me so mad, walking in here like I’d be pleased to see him. Like I’d actually want to hear a word that he was saying.”

“Sucks.” Considering he’s got no idea what was actually said, it’s all Brendon can think of to say. Looking toward the chiller cabinets at the side of the store he glances at the milk, but there’s no way Brendon’s about to walk away, especially when Lindsey remains so wound up. Hoping he’s doing the right thing, Brendon says, “If you want I can chase Spencer and punch him for you.”

Lindsey laughs, and Brendon would be insulted except she pulls him into a fierce hug, squeezing hard and pressing a kiss against his cheek. “I’m tempted but no. He’d use it against us.”

“Scum-sucking bastard,” Brendon says, smiling when Lindsey laughs again. “Who is he anyway?”

“Some kid playing at being a grown-up with a bullshit message I don’t want to hear,” Lindsey says, all laughter draining away as she steps back from Brendon. “He came to deliver the new proposal to buy us out. Bettabuy want to build a supermarket here too.”

“Ballatos? But, you can’t sell.” Brendon can’t imagine the town without Ballatos, it’s been here forever, and even if Brendon didn’t grow up in town, he’s been here long enough to know the store is a long-standing institution. From the old-fashioned till to the soda fountains to the photos of generations of locals that are hung on the walls. “You’re not selling, are you?”

“We don’t want to.” Lindsey sighs and pushes a strand of hair behind her ear, tidying herself up as she goes behind the counter and straightens the jars full of candy. “But Bettabuy are a juggernaut. A few businesses bought up and they’ll have room to clear the ground and then build.”

Brendon remembers Spencer, how he listened so intently and the way he smiled so brightly, as if he really was interested in what Brendon was saying. “And Spencer’s a part of that?”

“Yeah,” Lindsey says, stress showing through before she smiles and says, “Can I get you anything?”

It’s a hint Brendon knows how to take. Shaking his head he says, “Just getting some milk,” and hopes more than anything Spencer doesn’t take his suggestion and come into the diner.

~*~*~*~*~

With Brendon gone, Gerard takes the time to do some redecoration. What he should be doing is getting out his laptop and finishing his latest assignment from school, but there’s still time for that, and right now Gerard’s fingers are itching to sketch.

A last look at the grills to reassure himself that Brendon really hasn’t left any breakfast patties ready to burst into flames, and Gerard approaches the side wall. Painting it with blackboard paint was one of the first jobs Mikey and Gerard did when they inherited the diner, and even now, months later, the splatters of black paint on the floor still remain.

Grabbing a stick of red chalk from the box that’s attached to the wall, Gerard takes a moment to just look, and to ensure the messages and drawings left by the customers last night don’t cross the taste line. Not that Gerard is the best judge of that, but he does know curse words are a no no in a family diner, and that the sketch to the side of table three has people doing things that are anatomically impossible.

Resisting the urge to change the sketch to a position that actually is possible, Gerard settles for erasing it instead, using part of Brendon’s apron to rub away the chalk. Then stands back, considering his new theme and how it’ll fit with the rest of the wall, which is full of messages and drawings, from those obviously done by kids and then higher, ones done by the adults.

One of Gerard’s favoritethings is to read the messages, ever-changing notes and congratulations jumbled together, and in the middle of it all, Gerard’s contribution. At the moment it’s a family of humanized pizzas, their hands clasped together except for the biggest, which lies on its side, a bite taken out of its head.

Gerard especially likes the pool of tomato sauce under the pizza, but still, it’s been a week now, it’s time for a change. Using the apron again, he stretches up and quickly rubs away chalk, the pizza family disappearing and leaving a blank space. Now, all Gerard has to do is decide how to fill it.

Not that he’ll be able to start it just yet. Shoving the chalk into his pocket he turns at the sound of the bell, and sees Ryan come into the diner, ducking his head so the giant feather in his cap doesn’t hit the doorjamb.

“Patrick needs another breakfast sandwich,” Ryan says, and then, “If Brendon’s not back I can wait.”

“I can work the grill you know.” It’s something Gerard feels the urge to point out, and it’s true, Gerard is capable of working the grill, and in fact, did so when they took over the diner. It’s just, he prefers not to, plus, there’s no point when Brendon is so good at his job. “But you can wait if you want. Brendon shouldn’t be long.”

Ryan eyes the row of barstools that run the length of the serving counter, and then, predictably takes the one on the far right. Pushing himself up he turns to the side, legs crossed and elbow on the counter as he watches Gerard. “He’s talking to some guy who’s dressed weird. I saw them outside of Ballatos.”

Which considering this is Ryan speaking, means Brendon is probably talking to someone dressed in a polo shirt and slacks. Resisting the urge to check for himself, Gerard goes behind the counter and scoops up a tea bag out of the box, dangling it by the string in front of Ryan’s face. “Tea? Or are you back on the sodas?”

His eyes crossing as he looks at the teabag, Ryan says, “Tea. Patrick had me shelve four boxes of books this morning. I ate half my bodyweight in dust and a fly.”

“I hope it was dead.” Gerard’s accidentally swallowed a fly in the past, and while he’s sure it should be impossible, he remains positive he could feel it buzzing inside of his stomach. “Eating flies sucks.”

His face screwed up, Ryan nods, says, “It was inside of a book, I inhaled and sucked it into my nose.”

“You were sniffing the books?” Which okay, isn’t that off-base because it’s not like Gerard doesn’t enjoy sniffing his pens and new paper at times. Not like, in an addictive way -- that shit is well in his past -- but a hearty inhale when opening a new sketch pad. Yeah, he gets it.

“Examining them,” Ryan says, like that’s something Gerard should already know. “I have to do that, people leave all kinds of stuff in the books. I found a chicken wing once.”

That people are gross is no surprise. Gerard’s seen too many things in the past and while cleaning the bathrooms in this place not to know that, and plus, he’s no paragon of cleanliness himself. Still, chicken wings in books are just wrong. “Did you still sell it? The book I mean.”

“I put it in the bargain box with a label warning about chicken wing juice,” Ryan says and yet again Gerard’s trying to decipher his lack of inflection, never sure if Ryan’s joking or not. “They didn’t get the wing though. That went in the trash.”

Deciding that Ryan has to be joking, Gerard pours boiling water into a mug before adding the teabag, letting the tab drape over the side. Pushing the tea over to Ryan, Gerard’s attention goes back to the wall, and the clear space right in the middle. “I could draw a dragon, make its scales out of teabags.”

Ryan follows Gerard’s gaze and says, “A tegan, or dragbag.”

Gerard considers, turning both names over in his head. “A tegan. A dragbag sounds like it should be in a gay bar, or tucked under your arm.”

“I’d carry a dragbag,” Ryan says, curling his fingers around the mug and taking a sip of what has to be still too hot tea. “As long as it was big enough, and I could pull off a tea scale when I needed a drink.”

“Yeah. Yeah, it would be big. You don’t want a small dragbag,” or a space on the wall, and Gerard takes the chalk out of his pocket, already imagining the tea dragon that he’s planning to sketch.

“Did you know someone wants to buy up Ballatos?” Brendon says, talking as he walks into the diner, the bell still ringing as he comes to an abrupt stop next to Ryan. “I was talking to Lindsey. Some firm is buying up businesses; they want to build a supermarket in town.”

Ryan nods and puts down his tea. “Patrick got a call yesterday; they want to buy Note Wordy. He told them where to shove the offer.”

“Good.” Agitated, Brendon walks to the window, leaning on one of the booth backs as he looks outside. “People need to say no, they can’t....” Brendon stops talking, then turns, looking directly at Gerard. “If they’re buying the block they have to want Greasers too. You can’t sell, I know you didn’t grow up here and didn’t want to take over the diner, but you can’t. It’s too important.”

“You didn’t grow up here either,” Gerard points out, biting back frustration. Because yeah, maybe he didn’t want to relocate and take over the diner at first, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important now. “We got a call. Mikey said no.”

Brendon relaxes, slumping so he’s resting against the side of the booth. “Sorry. It’s just, this place is special. And not just to me.”

“We know,” and Gerard does. He knows the whole town is special, and full of people who were willing to help and take Gerard and Mikey into their hearts when they arrived, shell-shocked and clueless. “We’re not going to sell.”

And he means it.

~*~*~*~

Spencer doesn’t come into the diner that day, which is good, because if he did Brendon’s got a spatula and isn’t afraid to use it on slimy businessmen who want to destroy his town.

It doesn’t help that Brendon’s been talking to customers, and discovered that the potential buy-up is on a scale that makes him afraid. It seems like every store on the block has been contacted, and all it’ll take is one person to weaken and the supermarket will have their way in.

Brendon can’t imagine something so huge and new in the area. Strip lights and metal taking the place of weathered buildings that have been there for decades. More than that, it would mean people losing their livelihood and no doubt moving away. Brendon’s already lost enough, he can’t lose those people too.

Just thinking about it makes him angry, and that anger is centered on Spencer. Spencer with his easy smile and way of making Brendon feel that he mattered even in the few minutes they spoke. Spencer who’s nothing but a snake in the grass.

“I hate him,” Brendon says, voice pitched over the rumble of driers. “If he does ask for a skateboard give him one with a stuck wheel.”

“I’ll glue it myself,” Frank says. Red-faced, he takes an armful of sheets from out of a drier, dropping the bundle on the table that’s in front of the launderette window. Instantly Brendon feels the additional heat, his arm warm as he stands and grabs hold of the top sheet. Shaking it out, he waits until Frank loads the free drier with towels, frowning as he puts in four quarters.

Brendon holds out his arms, the corners of the sheet held in his hands. “How’s the washer/drier fund going?”

“Slowly,” Frank says, taking two corners and stepping away from Brendon. Efficiently, if not neatly, they fold the sheet, dropping it on top of the pile of pillow cases already stacked on the table. “At this rate mom’ll get them when she’s about to retire.”

More than anything Brendon wishes he could help. Having her own washer and drier at the boarding house would help Mrs Iero, both in terms of money and the time Frank spends in the launderette. It would also allow Brendon to give something back, to help someone who was there for him when he first came to town. The problem is, Brendon just doesn’t have any spare cash, and even if he did, Mrs Iero wouldn’t take it.

“I don’t think that asshole will ask,” Frank says, taking a new sheet and straightening it out with a snap of his hands. Two corners handed to Brendon, Frank steps back, already starting to fold. “He has to know he’s not welcome in town. Mom’s going to run him off with a broom if he comes back to the boarding house.”

Brendon can well believe it would happen, and if asked to bet between Spencer and Mrs Iero he’d pick Mrs Iero every time. It’s why he can’t help hoping that Spencer does go back, so he sees the blunt end of the broom.

Cheered at that mental image, Brendon says, “If he does, take a picture.”

Frank grins, wide and fierce. “I will, and then get Ray to put it online. But enough about him. “Are you in for tonight?”

Brendon should say no. He’s at work first thing in the morning and while he can exist on a few hours sleep, it’s something he tries not to do more than a few times a week. If he goes to the show tonight he won’t get home until well after midnight, but if he doesn’t go, it means another night alone in his room, while most of his friends have gone out.

A few moments to pretend that he’s actually considering not going, and Brendon says, “I’m in.”

Frank grins even wider, simply says, “Good.”

~*~*~*~*~

A bonus of being your own boss is you can set your own shifts. Not that Gerard takes advantage, he’s not the kind of shitty boss who won’t work the night shift or refuse to be flexible when needed. But what he does do is ensure there’s one night a week when he’s off the same time as Mikey. Not that they don’t hang out at the diner, or at home, or see each other every day. It’s just, it’s different being able to go out together, to get away from the responsibilities of the diner completely.

It’s why Gerard’s driving home now, his attention on the unlit road that stretches before him as he talks to Frank, and tries to ignore what’s going on in the back seat. Not that Frank’s being as discreet, not even attempting to hide what he’s doing as he watches via the mirror, laughing as he announces, “Mikey’s got his hand down Patrick’s pants.”

It’s not what Gerard wants to hear. First, because he doesn’t need that mental image. Second, he can’t help feeling bad for Pete, who’s squashed in the backseat too and is being forced to watch his ex make out with his crush. It has to be all kinds of awkward and Gerard vows to give Pete an extra hard hug when they get home. Which will hopefully be soon, because Gerard knows Mikey, and is well aware of his wily pants removing ways.

“He’s popped Patrick’s button now,” Frank says, looking impressed as he adds, “One handed. Kudos coming your way, Mikey.”

From the corner of his eye Gerard sees Mikey nod slightly, and while it’s no surprise he’s aware of being watched, Gerard can do without the reminder it’s something Mikey actually likes.

Foot down, Gerard drives a little faster, and definitely does not look in the mirror when Frank whistles and says under his breath, “Whoa.”

“Next time you’re designated driver,” Gerard says, not that it’ll do any good. Where Gerard goes Mikey goes and where Mikey goes Frank will follow. It’s just how it is, the same way Gerard knows Ryan, Brendon and Jon will be squashed into the backseat of Ray’s car while Bob studiously ignores any chatter and sleeps all the way home.

It’s a routine so familiar that sometimes it feels like they’ve been carpooling like this forever, the past year flashing by so fast that sometimes Gerard finds it hard to remember the past. The diner, and the immediate circle of friends it’s created, has become Gerard’s whole life. It’s a situation that should be stifling, and yet isn’t at all, especially as the relaxed pace of life is something Gerard can hang onto as he continues to put back together parts of his life.

“Brendon was telling me you got an offer too,” Frank says, twisting in his seat and turning his attention from the mirror to Gerard. “You’re not signing.”

It’s a statement not a question, and Gerard’s glad someone gets that the diner is now home, one Gerard and Mikey wouldn’t think of selling. “We’re not signing. No matter how much they offer.”

“This is our home.” A pause and Mikey sits forward, leaning against Gerard’s seat so he can rest his chin against Gerard’s shoulder. “And if I wasn’t there making milkshakes the town would revolt.”

“Your milkshake brings all the guys to the town,” Frank says, and even though it’s what he says always, both Mikey and Frank laugh as they slap their hands together in a modified hi-five. “I want a Mikey special tonight.”

Again, Frank giggles, and Gerard doesn’t want to know, he really doesn’t.

“I can do that,” Mikey says, as if he’s granting some huge favor and not something he actually enjoys -- which remains weird, who knew Mikey would be some milkshake connoisseur?

Taking a right when they hit the town, it’s only a few minutes before Gerard pulls into Greasers and parks under the giant neon sign of a burger and fries. Breath misting as he steps outside, Gerard shivers at the abrupt contrast in temperatures, stuffy heat replaced by the cool of late night.

Moments behind him, their movements clumsy due to the lingering effects of what they’ve been drinking and being stuck in the back of the car, Mikey, Patrick and Pete step outside. Standing in a loose group, Mikey visible shivers, hunching in on himself and then smiling when Patrick takes off his hoodie and drapes it over Mikey’s shoulders.

Instantly, Pete’s shoulders slump and he tugs at his own hoodie as if considering offering it to Patrick. Then he lets his hand drop, trailing behind Patrick and Mikey as they head for the main entrance into the diner.

“That’s just tragic.” Frank moves to stand next to Gerard, swaying slightly until he tucks himself against Gerard’s side. “And cold, and kind of pathetic.”

Gerard has to agree, to the first anyway, and he says, “Pete knows Patrick’s not interested.”

“Knowing and seeing are two different things, especially like this.” Frank snakes his arm around Gerard, hugging him briefly before pushing himself up and running forward, saying, “Hey, Pete, wait up.”

Pete looks back, looking surprised as Frank launches himself at Pete and clings on, forcing them into an awkward four-legged shuffle as Frank squeezes hard while still walking.

“Well that’s new.” Gerard nods, agreeing with Ray who’s standing near his car, watching everyone walk into the diner. “Pete and Frank are......”

Ray waves his hands in what Gerard guesses is supposed to be some approximation of them getting together. The very idea of which makes Gerard’s head hurt, not that the reality is much better.“Nah, just a sympathy hug. Mikey had his hands down Patrick’s pants in the car.”

“Oh.” Ray’s eyes widen and he puts his hands in front of his crotch, like he’s expecting Mikey to make some kind of hands down pants sneak attack, which okay, isn’t that unbelievable if it wasn’t for the fact Mikey’s actually inside the diner, and even his skills have their limits. “And Pete had to see?”

“Up close and personal,” Gerard says, and as much as he doesn’t want to, he knows in the near future he’ll have to have a talk about boundaries with Mikey. One that’ll hopefully actually work this time and not end up with Gerard rambling about birds and bees and giving away honey while Mikey gave his best blank face while laughing inside.

His mouth turned down at the corners, Ray says, “You should go hide the chalk, you know what happened last time.”

It’s a good idea, Gerard hurrying forward and hoping he’ll get to the chalks before Pete. The last thing Gerard wants is a repeat of the sweet little dude breakup situation, when Pete covered half of the wall with his words, and Gerard spent hours reassuring people Pete wasn’t about to go out and jump from the nearest high bridge.

Thankfully, Pete seems to have been hemmed into a booth by Patrick, Mikey unashamedly squeezing himself onto Patrick’s lap so he can lean over and talk directly to Pete. As situations go it seems a little callous, especially when Mikey kisses Patrick’s cheek before standing, Pete’s expression blank as he stares into the distance and ignores Ryan who’s sitting on the other side of the booth.

“Who else wants milkshakes?” Mikey asks, Joe conceding his place as Mikey takes his position behind the counter and brandishes the ice-cream scoop. “Talk now or get nothing.”

Instantly a clamor of voices break out, orders being shouted from every part of the room. Despite the chaos Gerard makes no attempt to help out, another of Mikey’s ninja skills the ability to hear specific conversations in the loudest of rooms, and an ability to remember each order.

“What the fuck are you doing here?”

The angry shout diverts Gerard’s attention from Mikey, Gerard turning to see Brendon coming back from the bathroom, and glaring at someone who’s sitting in the furthest booth from the door. Surprised, Gerard heads closer, needing to see who’s making Brendon so angry that his hands have clenched into fists.

“You said I should come in.” Gerard’s only seen Spencer once, when he called at the diner with the offer from his firm. Back then he looked professionally perfect, while now he seems softer, hair ruffled and gleaming under the low lights, his shirt unbuttoned and tie loose. His laptop open in front of him and papers scattered over the table, Spencer’s smile fades as he looks over at Brendon. “But if I’m not welcome I’ll go.”

More than anything Gerard wants to say that he is. Greasers is a safe place, a diner sure but also a place where the town gathers and knows they’ll meet friends. It’s a policy that Gerard and Mikey learned from their grandma, and one they’ve continued, where a stranger soon becomes a new friend.

That Spencer isn’t welcome now goes against that, and Gerard would protest except right now the feeling in the room is hostile, and the best thing is for Spencer to leave. Feeling sick Gerard watches Spencer gather his things, his mouth tight and movements abrupt.

“Thanks for the coffee.” Spencer pulls a handful of bills from his wallet, setting them down close to Joe. “It was nice talking to you.”

Dignity pulled close, Spencer walks from the diner, slow, as if he’s uncaring of the glares sent his way, or how Ryan’s jumped to his feet, staring at Spencer as if he’s just seen a ghost. The bell above the door still ringing when Brendon whirls toward Joe and says, “You served him? He wants to destroy our town.”

“I served a customer, I didn’t know it was him,” Joe says, and then hesitates, as if weighing what he’s about to say next. “I liked him. He had good stories and made me laugh.”

“Well I hope you’re still laughing when he buys up the town and puts us onto the street,” Frank spits, looking from Joe to the door as if debating running after Spencer and starting a fight “You should have spat in his coffee.”

“No he shouldn’t.” That’s something Gerard knows for sure, that no matter how much of an asshole they are, no one should be afraid to eat in the diner. “If he comes back serve him like normal.”

Instantly, Brendon bristles, “You want me to....”

“First moshpit milkshake is up.” Mikey cuts Brendon off, holding out a glass that’s brimful of chocolate milkshake with whipped cream on the top. Setting the glass down, Mikey licks spilt milkshake from off of his fingers and then reaches for the jar of cherries, plucking one out by the stem. “First one gets my bonus cherry.”

“In your dreams,” Bob heckles to laughter, bumping fists with Ray as Mikey sucks the cherry into his mouth, his own amusement there in the way his eyes gleam and the slightest curve of his mouth.

And maybe defusing a situation by mocking his own sexuality isn’t how Gerard would have played it, but hey, it worked. Sometimes Gerard loves his brother so much that it hurts.

~*~*~*~

Nearly a day later and Brendon’s still thinking about Spencer. While he hasn’t been seen in town since being run out of the diner, Brendon still can’t help picturing Spencer’s face each time he walks past the skate park or now, when he drops into Ballatos for his food for the week.

Not that Brendon gets much. One of the perks of working for Greasers is the free meals, but sometimes Brendon wants something to eat late at night or a bowl of cereal when he first wakes in the grey dawn of morning.

Basket held in one hand, Brendon wanders the store, selecting a box of Lucky Charms which he stands up next to his bread and packets of candy.

“Well balanced as always I see,” Lindsey says, teasing like always when Brendon starts unloading his basket. “Oh wait, you got Skittles, there’s all of your fruits in one bag.”

“It’s a rainbow of fruit flavors.” Elbows planted on the counter, Brendon watches Lindsey ring up his groceries, never able to drop the habit of ensuring each cent is correct. “Have you seen that guy again? Spencer?”

“His firm called, upped their offer,” Lindsey says, fingernails digging into the Skittles packet as she puts them into a bag. “But he hasn’t been back. Probably too scared.”

If he is Brendon can understand why, especially after the scene at the diner. It’s something that makes Brendon feel ashamed when he remembers, that he was so angry he lashed out without thinking. Not that Spencer didn’t deserve it, but Brendon knows what it’s like to be made to feel unwelcome, and he hates that he helped give that feeling to somebody else.

Cereal added to the bag, Lindsey rings up the total. “I’ve been thinking of staging a protest, something to unite the community, us against the supermarket.”

“Like chaining ourselves up in front of the stores and diner?” Brendon asks, enthusiasm rising as he imagines being tied up and singing defiantly as a bulldozer rumbles toward him. “The Ways have rope in their apartment; I saw it last time I was in there. Or we could get chains, those would be more visually striking. And Ray can hit the social media sites. Our protest could go viral.”

“Well I was thinking more a community fair with stalls but if you want to tie yourself up, go for it,” Lindsey says, grinning wide as she takes Brendon’s money. “But it’s a good idea, keep it in reserve if Bettabuy won’t go away.”

“Do you think they will?” It’s a question Brendon hasn’t allowed himself to think about too deeply. Right now he’s running on outrage and a hope that justice will win, but at the back of his mind he can’t help worry that despite the protests, the new supermarket will come out on top.

“Pete’s working on the legal side, and if they don’t get enough people selling it won’t be worth it to build,” Lindsey says confidently, and then, as if reluctantly admitting a secret. “I don’t know. They’re offering so much money. Once one goes I think others will follow.”

It’s not what Brendon wants to hear, but he’s learned that sometimes, no matter how hard you work, it’s not always the good guys who win. Not that it means he’s about to give up. “Then we need to get this protest going. Tell me what you want me to do.”

Lindsey thinks for a moment. “We’d need volunteers first, and a meeting to get things set up.”

“On it,” Brendon says, determined that when the meeting does happen, all his friends as well as other members of the community will be there. “We can have it at the diner. Say eight tonight?”

“Gerard and Mikey wouldn’t mind?” Lindsey asks, pulling a notepad and pen toward her. “If you get people there we’ll swap ideas. See if this thing will actually work.”

“It will, and they won’t mind,” Brendon says. It has to work because losing his home once was bad, twice would finish him off. Paper bag held against his chest, he starts to walk away, already thinking about who he’s going to see. “I’ll start with Patrick and Ryan, then text Ray, he had a home repair job today so will be up to his eyes in computer innards right now.”

“I’ll call Jon and Bob,” Lindsey says, writing their names on the pad.

“Sounds good to me.” A last smile and Brendon steps outside, resisting the urge to run as he crosses the road and enters Note Wordy. Finding it empty he looks around and says, “Hello. Patrick? Ryan? Is anyone here?”

“I’m down here.”

Brendon looks around, following the sound of Ryan’s voice until he finds him sitting on the floor between the stacks on the second-hand book side of the store. While he looks fine, Brendon’s well aware of Ryan’s lack of self preservation and asks, “Are you okay? You didn’t slip and break your hip.”

“I’m not actually a geriatric, despite what you say about my clothes,” Ryan says, staring up at Brendon. “I’m reading. You should try it some time.”

“I read,” and Brendon does, maybe not as much or the same things as Ryan, but it’s not like Brendon’s some illiterate philistine who struggles to sound out his letters. “I wish I could get paid for reading.”

“You get paid to flip burgers and dance with your spatula,” Ryan says, using a dried leaf as a bookmark before shutting his book. “And don’t think I didn’t hear you singing to the breakfast patties yesterday.”

“It helps them cook faster,” Brendon says, uncaring he’s been caught in the act of serenading the patties. Lowering himself down he puts his bag to one side and sits cross-legged, his feet touching Ryan’s. “And Gerard didn’t mind.”

“Gerard was asleep on his feet,” Ryan points out. Setting his book onto the stack at his side he says, “Not that I don’t want the company, but is this a social visit or do you need something?”

“Just you,” Brendon says, and can’t help laughing at Ryan’s look of alarm. “Not like that, I’m not into scrawny and bony.”

“I think you’ll find you mean slender and subtly defined,” Ryan says with dignity, only the twitch of his mouth giving him away as he taps Brendon’s foot with his own. “So what do you need?”

“You to come to a meeting tonight at Greasers, Lindsey’s organizing a protest against the supermarket.” Brendon hopes Ryan will say yes. While he’s a good friend, and someone who’s an important part of their crowd, Brendon’s still aware that Ryan’s dreams lie away from the town. “It’s just a first meeting, but we need people willing to help.”

Instantly, Ryan says, “I’ll be there.”

Impulsively, Brendon rocks forward onto his knees and pounces at Ryan, knocking him down so he’s flat on his back and engulfed in a full body hug. “Great. Can you ask Patrick when he gets back? The more people we get the better.”

Awkwardly, Ryan pats Brendon’s back, then lies still, apparently happy to have Brendon as his own personal blanket. “I’ll ask him, but later. He’s entertaining right now.”

“Entertaining, huh?” Despite himself, Brendon looks up, as if it’s possible to see through the ceiling to Patrick’s apartment over the store. “Mikey still working his magic?”

“He’s working something,” Ryan says, following Brendon’s gaze. “I don’t ask. I just stay here and do my job.”

Brendon looks back at Ryan, poking him hard in the side. “You mean you stay here and read.”

“That’s what I said,” Ryan says, and then smiles.

~*~*~*~

For such a last minute meeting, the turnout is impressive, Gerard and Joe kept busy serving drinks while Brendon and Mikey man the grill and counter. It’s a system that works, even though Gerard keeps getting tripped up by Pete, his heart panging every time he sees him sitting on one of the barstools pretending not to watch Mikey and Patrick.

Not that they’re doing much now, Mikey too busy making sandwiches and Patrick typing on his laptop, occasionally looking up to talk to someone passing by. The problem is, even if they’re not wildly making out on the counter -- which is something Gerard never wants to see again, thank you very much -- the intimacy is there. The little touches as Mikey pushes a sandwich in front of Patrick or how Patrick smiles at the sound of Mikey laughing.

It would be all kinds of adorable if it wasn’t for Pete, who looks even more exhausted than usual, his eyes shadowed and no hint of a smile, either real or the one he putson for show. It’s worrying to see, and on Gerard’s next run to get coffee he grabs hold of Mikey, pulling him over to the coffee maker and says under his breath, “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

Mikey looks past Gerard to Pete, something softening in his expression as he does so. “I do, don’t worry.”

Normally Gerard takes Mikey’s word always, but this time he can’t. In fact, he’s even more worried after realizing that whatever’s going on involves Mikey’s feelings for Pete. Still holding onto Mikey, Gerard says, “You broke up with him for good reasons.”

“I know that,” Mikey says simply, edging Gerard further away from the counter with a bump of his hip. “And those reasons haven’t changed. We’re bad for each other sometimes. That’s why we need a stabilizing center.”

“Oh my god.”Realization hits as Gerard finally understands just what Mikey’s been doing, something that’s so obvious now that Gerard doesn’t understand why he didn’t see it before. It’s just the kind of scheme that Mikey would try without thinking, both about what he’s actually doing, or what the consequences could be. “Does Patrick know what you’re doing? Does he even like Pete that way?”

Mikey gives Gerard a long look. “Of course he knows, I’m not some kind of non con threesome instigator. He’s always liked Pete, he’s just a bit full on for a one to one relationship.”

As someone who had to watch such a relationship between Mikey and Pete, Gerard gets that full well. Still, while he can see what Mikey’s trying to do, it doesn’t fit in with Pete, who looks miserable as he sits slumped in his seat. “So what, the plan is you and Patrick make out enough that Pete thinks fuck it and jumps you? Because if so, it’s not working.”

“No, that’s not the plan,” Mikey says, apparent outrage kept up for all of a few seconds before he sighs and admits, “I thought it would just fall into place. I like Patrick and I like Pete and I knew they liked each other.”

“It’s not that simple, Mikey,” but the thing is, to Mikey, someone who people are drawn to always, it probably is. “You need to say something to Pete. He’s miserable.”

“I didn’t mean that to happen,” Mikey says, sounding so dejected that Gerard pulls him into a tight hug.

“I know you didn’t,” Gerard says, his head tucked against Mikey’s neck. “But you did, and you need to fix it. Both of you.”

For a long time Mikey just breathes, Gerard holding on as Mikey admits softly, “I still love him. I never stopped. And Patrick will too. This can be good, Gee. I know it.”

“I hope so,” Gerard says, and with a last squeeze takes a step back. “Now go and fix him, I’ll cover for you all.”

Mikey smiles briefly and looks over at Patrick before inclining his head toward Pete. “I’ll take them up to the apartment. I’ll put a sock on the door if I have to. Or I guess you could just shut your eyes.”

“Or I could just stay here until you text,” Gerard says, gently pushing Mikey towards Pete. “Go, before Brendon signs you up for a stall.”

Mikey starts to go, then stops, says, “You won’t sign me up for something stupid?”

Gerard doesn’t even try to hide his grin, just laughs and says, “Go.”

~*~*~*~

Before, if someone had told Brendon he’d become someone with more than a handful of good friends, all of whom trusted him to help run a big protest, he’d have laughed in their face. It just wouldn’t happen, except, somehow it has.

Soda at his side, Brendon sits at the top of one of the ramps at the skate park, legs dangling as he reads from his folder of notes. This late there’s no one around, the kids gone home for the night while Frank will be helping his mom clean up after dinner. It means Brendon can take the time to relax, enjoying the gentle heat of the evening sun as all around, the graffiti-covered ramps turn gold.

Utterly relaxed and content with the world, Brendon flicks through the pages, mulling over suggestions, and whether they really can persuade Bob that dressing up as a cowboy and offering hayrides is something he wants to do. Personally Brendon’s not sure, but Gerard seems sure Bob will agree, which is great. Just, Brendon’s got no intention of being there when Bob’s asked.

Unable to help himself, Brendon grins at his mental image of Bob in a fringed shirt and chaps instead of his usual plaid and cut off pants. That alone would bring in the crowds and Brendon pulls off the pen clipped to the folder and makes a star next to Bob’s name.

“Brendon.” Surprised when he hears Ryan, Brendon looks up, and sees not only Ryan, but Spencer as well. They’re walking between the ramps, looking relaxed despite the jarring clash of clothes, Ryan’s velvet jacket and striped pants looking even wilder than usual against Spencer’s perfectly tailored suit. When they’re a few feet away Ryan touches Spencer’s arm and he stops walking, waiting as Ryan moves to stand next to Brendon. “This is Spencer.”

Brendon wants to laugh, but if he starts he won’t stop, because as oblivious as Ryan can be sometimes, surely he knows he’s seen Spencer before? “I know. He’s trying to ruin our town.”

“No he’s not. I mean, yes he is, but I don’t mean that.” Ryan looks back at Spencer, as if trying to think what to say. It’s something that adds an extra element of wrong, because words are Ryan’s thing to control. He always knows what to say, except for now when he screws his eyes shut, takes a deep breath and then sits next to Brendon. “You didn’t know me before I came here. I was a little bit fucked up.”

It’s no surprise, because even if Brendon didn’t know Ryan before, he knows him now, and knows the signs of someone who’s had experience of running away. What Brendon doesn’t understand is why it matters, or how Spencer is involved. Despite wanting to ask questions, he remains quiet as Ryan keeps talking.

“I had a best friend when I was a kid. He kept me sane back then, him and his family. But then I had to go away.” Ryan stops talking, the only sound the brush of his thumb over the velvet of his sleeve, until eventually Ryan says, “That best friend was Spencer. I didn’t see him at Note Wordy or his face that first time you talked, but in the diner, I thought it was him, and the name fit, so...”

“I told him to get out.” Guilt hitting hard, Brendon reaches out and rests his hand on Ryan’s bony knee. “You should have said.”

“He deserved it,” Ryan says with a shrug, ignoring Spencer’s sound of protest. “And I wasn’t sure it was him. It had been years and why would my best friend turn up in town? Miracles like that don’t happen to me.”

“Except he’s here now,” Brendon says, and as much as he has personal issues with Spencer, he has to be happy that Ryan and Spencer have found each other again.

“Patrick drove me to the Hettonville today, so I could go to the Bettabuy main office, I guessed Spencer worked there so I sat outside and waited,” Ryan says, and all the time he keeps looking up at Spencer, as if Ryan still can’t believe that he’s there. “I think the security guard wanted to call the cops. He kept coming outside and glaring.”

Spencer smiles fondly at Ryan. “Not many people camp out in the business district. As soon as I saw him I knew it was Ryan. He’s never changed. Just he’s swapped Turtle pajamas for velvet.”

“Velvet is awesome,” Ryan says, looking directly at Spencer. “You know you want to try on my jacket.”

“Somehow I doubt it’ll fit,” Spencer says, sounding amused. “I’ve grown since you last saw me.”

Ryan leans back, arms behind him and resting his weight on his hands. “Yeah you have. It’s been a long time.”

“Too long,” Spencer says, and this feels like a moment Brendon shouldn’t be watching. Like Brendon’s intruding on something that’s special, a reconnection where Ryan’s starting to lower his shields, even the ones he keeps up while surrounded by friends.

It’s something Brendon’s happy to see, but at the same time, he’s unable to separate this Spencer from the one that’s threatening the town. Spencer may be Ryan’s long lost best friend, but he remains someone Brendon can’t trust.

“I should get going. Mikey and Gerard’s Magic game is due to start soon.” Not that Brendon usually takes part, but today he’ll force himself to sit still and play if it means he’s got an excuse for leaving here now. “I’ll see... bye.”

Folder held tight Brendon heads for the diner and the company of friends. He never looks back, it’s just better that way, then Brendon won’t have to see Ryan reconnect with his friend. Someone who’s so obviously special, and someone Brendon knows he has to dislike.

~*~*~*~

Salt and sugar canisters removed and ketchup wiped from the counter, Gerard rolls out the paper and weighs it down at each end. Eyeing the blank expanse of white, he tries to figure out what to do, the best way to create a sign that’s both informative and striking.

“Remember, this is a family event so no zombies or monsters,” Ray says, sounding apologetic when he reminds Gerard of what they discussed at the last meeting. “No blood or guts either. I can’t put up with another lecture from Gwen.”

Gerard picks up a black marker, talking around the cap as he pulls the top off with his teeth. “Is she still bitching about that virus?”

“Not bitching,” Ray corrects with a long drawn out sigh. “Apparently she’s ‘merely informing me that someone has hacked into her computer and filled it was filth’. She suspects the secret police. Or aliens.”

“Damn aliens spreading their alien porn filth everywhere,” Gerard says, his marker held over the paper as an idea starts to form in his head. “What do you think about.....”

“No tentacles,” Ray interrupts. “At least not on the sign. Sketch them on the blackboard instead.”

As compromises go it’s a good one, a tentacled monster a good successor to the teagan that’s up on the wall now. First though, Gerard needs to finish this sign before Lindsey comes over to check on his progress. “I could stick to words.”

“Probably best,” Ray agrees, checking the list he’s got laid out on the table. “Jon’s getting his kindergarten class to do painted handprints, you could attach them around the sign.”

It’s something easy to imagine, and perfect to emphasize the feeling of community the protest/street fair is hoping to promote. In fact, only one thing would make it even more perfect and Gerard says, “We should all do handprints, and the animals at Bob’s shelter. They’re part of the town too.”

“Our handprints, yeah,” Ray says, bringing his pen to his mouth and chewing before he adds, “I don’t know how successful you’ll be trying to hoof print with donkeys. But the dogs should be fine.”

If Mikey’s special skill is milkshakes and Brendon’s singing to patties, Bob’s is his ability to control animals and Gerard’s confident when he says, “Bob will wrangle the donkeys, he’s a donkey whisper.”

Ray waits a moment, his mouth curling up into a smile. “True. Just tell me when you want to do it, I’ll get Frank to take pictures to put up on Facebook.”

“I will,” Gerard promises, and starts to draft the first letter, lines drawn freehand as he says, “How’s that going?”

“Great.” Pushing his half-full bowl to one side, Ray reaches behind him, and takes his iPad out of his bag. Opening the cover he rapidly brings up the screen for the Community Against Corporate Greed group formed the night of the first meeting. “Most of my regulars have joined, except Gwen, she says the book of faces is a covert government operation formed to steal information.”

Gerard takes a step back, checking the placement of the first C. “Not aliens?”

“No, the aliens only infect her computer with filth,” Ray says with a laugh. “One day she’ll catch her son in the act and her head will explode. Talking of, how’s things going with the new threesome?”

“Low blow, Ray,” Gerard says, narrowing his eyes he points his marker at Ray. It’s at times like this Gerard wishes he didn’t share so much with his friends, but at the time he’d needed to tell someone just to get the images out of his mind. “There was whipped cream involved, and more naked skin than I ever needed to see, and vegetables. Though at least Pete looked happy.”

His mouth dropping open, Ray pinches the bridge of his nose between two fingers, looking pained. “You didn’t mention the vegetables before, and no, I don’t want details now.”

If he was any kind of a good friend Gerard would shut up and leave Ray’s mind blissfully unscarred. But if Gerard had to see, Ray gets to know too. “There was a carrot and a few onions but I think they just fell when someone knocked over the vegetable holder. I hope so anyway because, ouch.”

“I hate you,” Ray says slowly. “I hate you so much.”

“I know.” Gerard grins, and waits for the perfect moment, when Ray thinks the conversation is over, puts his iPad to one side, and brings his spoon to his mouth, “Enjoying your carrot soup?”

With a splutter Ray spits, chunks of orange covering the table and Gerard can’t stop laughing. Sometimes it’s just too easy.

~*~*~*~

After always trying so hard to make friends, it feels weird to ignore Spencer. Brendon keeps seeing him around town, but for every sighting where Spencer’s obviously there on business, Brendon also sees him with Ryan. It’s all kinds of confusing because Brendon hates everything that Spencer stands for, but at the same time, he obviously makes Ryan happy.

It’s something especially impressive because, as much as he makes friends on the surface, it takes a lot for Ryan to let people in. It’s taken Brendon years to get to the level of confidence and ease that Spencer and Ryan show now, and if he’s honest, Brendon is jealous.

It’s like Spencer and Ryan have slipped back into deep friendship without taking a breath, neither caring that around town, Spencer remains hated. At least, Brendon doesn’t think that they care, for all he knows Spencer could be raging at the injustice of being the town pariah, but somehow, Brendon doesn’t think so. Spencer looks too confident as he strides through the town, alone or with Ryan. Or like now, when Brendon sees him sitting on the bench outside of the launderette, eating lunch and seemingly uncaring no one is stopping to talk or even acknowledge his presence.

A book in one hand, a Tupperware box at his side and his tie loosened, Spencer looks totally at ease as he eats a sandwich while reading. So much so Brendon’s about to walk past without speaking, but then stops, unable to ignore someone at close quarters even if they are a town-ruining asshole.

Awkward, and determined to ignore any mention of Spencer’s job, Brendon scuffs his foot against the sidewalk and goes for common ground. “Hi. Have you been to see Ryan?”

“This morning.” Spencer stops chewing and swallows, putting his book down on his lap. “He gave me a box of books to shelve while he talked to my mom on the phone.”

Brendon laughs, well aware of Ryan’s skill at putting others to work. “He does that. I ended up serving customers once. I only went in for a guitar string.”

“You play?” Spencer asks, and like the first time they met Spencer seems genuinely interested in what Brendon is saying.

Brendon nods, and while he’s not about to give personal details, he’s fine with sharing this part of his life. “A few things. I give privates lessons at Note Wordy sometimes.”

“You must be good then,” Spencer says, matter of fact as he takes the lid off of the box.

“At some things,” Brendon says, and grins as he remembers his last jam session with Patrick. “Others not so much. I’ve been trying to learn the bagpipes. Patrick said it was like listening to a cat being strangled and Mikey threatened me with bodily harm if I didn’t shut up. Which was stupid because one, I could take him, two, it’s not like he was sleeping. Because he doesn’t, sleep I mean. At least he wasn’t then, he does sleep sometimes I guess. Not that I know personally, apart from when I found him napping in the store cupboard that time.”

“Patrick from Note Wordy and Mikey from Greasers, yeah?” Spencer says, mouth curled into a small smile and never looking away from Brendon.

“Yeah,” Brendon agrees, awkwardness hitting as he realizesthat yet again he’s been babbling at Spencer, and not only that, the only reason Spencer knows Mikey and Patrick is because he’s been checking them out as part of his plan to destroy the town. “I should go, I need to grab lunch.”

Spencer tips up the box of sandwiches, seemingly uncaring about Brendon’s repeat offence of babbling idiot. “You can share these if you like. I know they can’t be as good as your burgers but I always make too many.”

“My burgers are awesome,” Brendon says, and as much as he knows he shouldn’t say yes, that Spencer could be using this opportunity to gain information, he still finds himself sitting, making sure he’s at the end of the bench. “But it’s my day off and Andy doesn’t add the secret ingredient.”

Spencer waits a moment and then prompts, “Which is?”

“Love.” Brendon draws out the word and if he was still standing would throw in a hip swivel as well. As he’s not, all he can do is shimmy and laugh at Spencer’s blank expression, as if he’s deciding if Brendon’s actually telling the truth. “No man, it’sWorcestershire sauce, but don’t tell anyone.”

“Your secret’s safe with me,” Spencer says, his smile returning as he holds the sandwich box toward Brendon. “They’re cheese and tomato, it’s all I had left, I need to go to the store.”

As sandwich fillings go it’s not Brendon’s first choice, but he’s learned not to be fussy with food. Sandwich in hand, he takes a big bite, chews, swallows and then says, “You should go to Ballatos. They’ve got a good selection.”

“MsBallato threatened to shove a broom where the sun doesn’t shine if I go there again,” Spencer says easily, and if Brendon wasn’t watching, he’d have missed the momentary flicker of emotion that suggests Spencer isn’t at ease as he’s portraying. “She looked like she meant what she was saying. I figured I’d stay away for a few days.”

“She took a shoplifter out with a broom once,” Brendon says, remembering hurrying out of Greasers just in time to see some stranger hit the ground, tinned goods and candy scattering around him. “She ran after him, tripped him and then pressed the end of the broom against his throat. It was awesome, like some kind of kung fu ninja shit. I asked if she’d been taking lessons from Andy but she said I wasn’t ready for the truth. Which is bullshit because I’m always ready for anything.”

“Yeah, I’ll stay away,” Spencer says slowly, and then, “Andy gives ninja lessons?”

“Only to people who measure up, he says I’m not there yet,” which okay, Brendon can see Andy’s point, it’s not like Brendon’s mastered the art of zen-like quiet. But to be fair, Andy hasn’t either. Sure, mostly he’s moves soft-footed and calm, but Brendon’s seen enough clashes between Andy and customers to know that, sometimes, Andy’s personally held views destroy any zen. “You should watch him chop onions. With his knife skills he could cut your throat in a second.”

“Sounds impressive, but I doubt I’ll be going to Greasers any time soon, either,” Spencer says, closing the box and slipping it into his bag. About to take another bite of his sandwich, Brendon drops his hand, noticing how the tense set of Spencer’s shoulders contradict the ease of his words. “It’s probably for the best, ninjas don’t like to be watched.”

“Andy does,” Brendon says, and it’s true. Andy’s always willing to show off his knife skills when asked. “A few weeks ago he carved an eggplant into a realistic looking heart, Gerard was going to ....” Brendon trails off, the story forgotten as Spencer turns, smile back in place and ready to listen, something that adds to the guilt that already, has pushed forward. Despite feeling awkward, Brendon knows he has to address the elephant that’s sitting between them. “About Greasers and the other night. You’re always welcome, and I’m sorry. I got mad and said things that I shouldn’t.”

“It’s okay, apology accepted.” Spencer looks down and stares at the book on his lap, remaining silent for a few moments before he takes a deep breath and says, “You were defending your town. I get that. It’s a beautiful place.”

“So why are you trying to destroy it?” The question slips out, Brendon’s frustration apparent in each word. “The supermarket will kill our community. We don’t need it, we’re doing fine as we are.”

Spencer flinches, then says,“Bettabuy are committed to bringing low-cost shopping to all that need it. Employment rates will go up along with visitors to the town. It’s an area ripe for redevelopment.”

It’s obviously a rote answer, and one that makes Brendon angry. “Employment didn’t go up for Ethel. You won’t know her but she managed a candy store in Darlo, she’d worked there for most of her life and then the store was sold to the supermarket with the provision she was given a job, and she was, hauling pallets of stock. She got the sack a day later because that’s what they do. Ruin people’s lives.”

“If she couldn’t cope with the job.....”

“She’s an old lady,” Brendon cuts in, unwilling to hear any of Spencer’s justifications. “She lives with her tortoise and comes to Greasers every Sunday after church to eat scrambled eggs on toast. For the last fifty something years she walked and then drove to Darlo to go to work. She’s tough and she tried, but of course she couldn’t cope with that job, and they knew that.”

A long pause, and then Spencer says, “I don’t know what you want me to say. It was wrong that they did that, but this is my job. Encouraging people to sell up is what I do.”

“I know,” and Brendon does, it’s why Brendon stands, knowing that, no matter how much he enjoyed this time with Spencer, they remain on opposite sides. “I need to get back.”

“Okay,” Spencer says, looking at his watch before picking up his book once again. “Have a good day.”

Brendon starts walking and makes no reply. More than anything he wishes he hadn’t stopped to talk. Because, if he hadn’t he wouldn’t have been reminded that despite what happened moments before, he actually does like Spencer, which sucks, because Brendon can’t like him. Not when Spencer wants to ruin the town.

~*~*~*~

While Gerard cooks when he has to, he’s in no way an expert, especially at baking. It’s why he’s surrounded by chaos now, with every flat surface covered in a dusting of flour and eggshells crunching underfoot when Gerard slides another tray of cupcakes into the oven.

When they’re safely inside he closes the door and goes into the main diner, wiping the sweat from his brow as he grabs someone’s abandoned soda and takes a long drink.

Frank looks up from where he’s carefully piping black frosting onto a cupcake, no hint of a smile visible as he says, “I could have spat in that.”

“Don’t care,” Gerard says, and takes another drink. At this point he doesn’t care what could be mixed in with the soda, it could be a half and half split with Frank’s spit and Gerard would drink it to get the caffeine hit he so desperately needs . “Who suggested making cupcakes for our contribution? I can’t even bake and it’ll be the breakfast shift in a few hours.”

“It was your suggestion,” Mikey says, because he’s a cold-blooded traitor, and one that right now, has blue frosting smeared over his cheek. “You said everyone likes cupcakes and it would help the community spirit.”

Gerard bats at his chest, causing the flour that covers his t-shirt to billow up, creating a cloud. “And you didn’t talk me out of it? Or suggest we offer ice cream instead.”

“I did suggest that,” Mikey says, glancing up as he frosts a deformed face onto a lopsided cupcake. “You said ice cream was too easy and to make it matter blood and sweat had to be involved. Well you got both.”

Frank frowns and holds up his piping bag toward Mikey, as if threatening him with frosting blast direct to the chest. “I still can’t believe you ate that cake.”

“It was only a few droplets,” Mikey says, as if he eats cakes infused with his own blood daily. “It would have gone to waste otherwise.”

“And it tasted okay,” Gerard puts in, yawning as he eyes the trays of cupcakes still waiting for decoration -- the many, many cupcakes, some of them lopsided and singed at the sides. “We’re going to be frosting forever. Explorers in the future will find our dusty corpses hunched over cupcakes and our bony fingers clutched around piping bags.”

“Or you could pick up a bag and help already, Gerard Havisham,” Frank says, plucking a limp piping bag from off of the counter. “Finish the smiley faces, Mikey’s look like they’re being tortured.”

“My cupcakes refuse to conform to one dimensional expression,” Mikey says, putting down his piping bag and displaying his cupcake, one with a grimacing mouth, a hooked nose and what looks like three eyes. “They’re rocking individual style.”

Frank narrows his eyes as he stares at the cupcake. “They’re rocking something.”

“They’re awesome,” Gerard says, blinking at the disordered rows of decorated cupcakes. Already a large part of the counter is covered, scowling faces lined next to spiders, next to spots, next to what looks like a three-legged donkey.

Mikey follows Gerard’s gaze. “That one’s for Bob. We’re going to make a cat for Jon and a book for Ryan, then for Pete we’re going.....”

“To have three joined lovehearts to celebrate the hot new threesome in town.” Frank says, laughing when Mikey responds with a glare. “Don’t even front, you know that polygamy is your new thing, and if you want to keep it secret you shouldn’t Google polygamous relationships when you’re supposed to be helping at the launderette.”

Mikey gives Frank a long look. “I did help, I put in the detergent.”

“Then sat and surfed on your phone for the next hour,” Frank says, reaching for an undecorated cupcake. “No man, I’m happy for you. But I need details, like, how do you spoon when you’ve got three spoons or are we talking a Way sandwich here? Come on, help a friend out. I need to add to my spank bank.”

As conversations go it’s not the most surreal that Gerard’s ever heard, but Frank asking about Mikey’s relationship with Patrick and Pete so he can jerk off to the details is up there. Of course, Gerard knows it’s a conversation that will inevitably turn from surreal to scarring when Mikey replies, which he will, no doubt in detail. Deciding to escape before that, Gerard makes a strategic retreat to the kitchen, and the five bowls of batter still waiting to be scooped out and baked.

Flexing his fingers, Gerard approaches the big spoon he’s been using, grimacing as he grabs hold and is reminded he meant to wipe down the handle before taking a break. Fingers slippery, Gerard keeps hold of the spoon and scoops up the first blob of batter, letting it drop into the prepared case with a splat. As jobs go it’s one that seemed easy at first, but now, hours and hundreds of cupcakes later, Gerard’s wrist and hand is aching and he’s tempted to just drop the remaining batter into a cake tin and say done.

“Do you want some help?” Without waiting for Gerard to reply Mikey walks into the kitchen and finds his own spoon, standing so close to Gerard that they’re touching. Easily, they fall into a rhythm, scooping together until soon, the next tray of cupcakes are ready for cooking.

“The others can come out in a few minutes.” Gerard takes a step back, standing so he can look out of the propped open door to outside. Not that there’s much to actually see at the moment, apart from the shadowy shapes of the dumpster against an outside wall and the chair Gerard uses while taking a smoke break.

Craving a break now, Gerard considers going outside, but leaving now wouldn’t be fair. Not with so much work left to do, and when both Mikey and Frank have taken the time to help with Gerard’s idea.

Instead, Gerard moves to where he can feel the cold air from outside, enjoying the escape from the heat as he looks over at Mikey. As always he seems shut down on the surface, expression blank when he’s not talking or hanging with friends, but Gerard knows that’s not true. He knows Mikey, his every tiny tell and right now Gerard’s seeing something important, a contentment that leads him to say, “You’re serious about this relationship with Patrick and Pete.”

It’s not a question, not really when Gerard already knows Mikey’s answer. But he still has to ask, to hear Mikey’s response in his own words.

“I’m serious.” Mikey moves away from the oven, standing so he’s resting against the edge of the cold grill. “I know it’s not going to be easy, but I want this. We want this.”

“Pete’s happy now?” It’s something Gerard has to ask, because while Mikey comes first -- will always come first -- Gerard cares for Pete, too.

“He’s as happy as he can get,” Mikey says, and looks directly at Gerard. “Sometimes that has to be enough.”

That’s something Gerard knows well, and something he’s struggled with. Knowing that no matter the circumstances, sometimes true happiness stays out of your grasp. It’s also a worry he carries for Mikey, usually able to push it to one side, except for moments like now. Tired, and working through Mikey’s latest choices, Gerard can’t help remembering all that they’ve lost. The city and scene and a job Mikey was loving before he agreed to follow Gerard. “You’re happy here?”

“I’m happy,” Mikey says instantly and pushes himself away from the grill, making no attempt to ask why Gerard’s asking this now. “It’s not what I expected to be doing but I like working here and I love my friends.”

Gerard doesn’t ask if Mikey is sure, he doesn’t have to, but still, he needs Mikey to know he’s got options. “If you ever wanted to go back I would. We could sell to someone who loves this place as much as we do and go back to the city.”

“Where you were miserable and I was on a fast road to addiction,” Mikey says, slipping his arm around Gerard and pulling him close. “I may not work here forever, but this is my home. You’re my home.”

Gerard relaxes, his head against Mikey’s shoulder, fitting together easily in the way they do always. “If you ever change your mind....”

“I won’t,” Mikey says, kissing Gerard’s cheek. “We’ve got plans remember. You’re going to finish your comic book and graduate school, and I’m going to make awesome milkshakes and bone Patrick and Pete.”

As Mikey’s plans go they’re downplaying what he’s sure to achieve, but that’s not a conversation for now, Gerard stepping back as he says, “Boning Patrick and Pete wasn’t on your life plan before.”

Mikey grins at Gerard. “Well I got to strike an orgy off of my list. I had a free spot.”

“That you are telling me about,” Frank says, making no attempt to hide he’s been listening as he walks into the kitchen. “No putting me off for later like with Patrick and Pete, I want details, and lots of them. You can tell me while we go decorate more cakes, and Gerard saves the ones that are burning.”

“The ones.... fuck.” Spinning around, Gerard all but runs to the oven, opening the door to a cloud of billowing smoke. Eyes watering, he pulls out the tray and pokes at one of the cupcakes, feeling the crispy surface. “They’re fine, some dark frosting and no one will see the black bits.”

“More spiders it is then,” Frank says, his hand on Mikey’s back as he steers him back into the main diner. “So, this orgy.....”

Quickly, Gerard puts in more cupcakes to cook and then follows.

~*~*~*~

Usually, Brendon talks out his problems. It’s not something that comes easy, even now when Brendon’s learned that it’s okay to share what he’s actually feeling and not to just fill any silence with meaningless chatter.

He’s got friends who he trusts to have his back always, and he knows if he told them about his feelings for Spencer no one would judge. It’s just, Brendon’s got no idea what those feelings actually are.

He likes Spencer, that’s not in doubt, but Spencer’s also the visual representation of an organization that Brendon’s come to hate. It’s a hate that shouldn’t bleed onto Spencer, Brendon knows that, but truthfully, sometimes it does.

It’s all kinds of confusing, and the more Brendon tries to work things out in his head, the more confused that he gets. What he needs is someone to talk to, but the problem is, who?

Lindsey and Frank are no good unless Brendon wants advice on taking Spencer out with a broom, and while Gerard’s a good listener, Brendon’s not in the mood for lengthy metaphors about life. Really, all his friends are out for one reason or other, except for one person, someone who can hopefully see both sides of this situation. His mind made up, Brendon leaves his room and goes looking for Ryan.

Not that he’s easy to find.

“Ryan left as soon as his shift ended,” Patrick says from where he’s crouched behind Mikey, his arms wrapped around him and holding his hands as he demonstrates a fill on the drum kit that’s set up in the corner of Note Wordy. “I’m not sure where he was going.”

“He was going to meet Spencer,” Mikey says. Stilling his hands he sets down the drumsticks and stands, laughing when Patrick does the same. “I’m going to go drag Pete out of the office for a few minutes. If you want to keep holding on you’ll have to come with.”

“Don’t tempt me.” For a moment Patrick tightens his hold then, with a sigh, lets Mikey go. “I need to get through this lesson with Ben then I’ll come find you. Tell Pete if he hasn’t eaten that sandwich I bought him for lunch he’ll be sleeping on the floor tonight.”

“Yeah, I can see that happening.” Grinning at Patrick, Mikey edges past the boxes of books at the side of the shop and stops next to Brendon. “I’ll walk with you.”

Before, when he was still suffering old wounds from being socially excluded, Brendon would think Mikey wanted him out of the shop for some reason. Now he knows that all Mikey wants is company, even if, at most, it’ll result in a two minute walk to Pete’s office. Still, two minutes is enough time to ask questions, and as soon as they’re outside Brendon says, “You don’t care that Ryan’s hanging with Spencer?”

“No,” Mikey says simply, and lapses into silence, a companionable silence, sure, but Brendon wants more. About to ask for clarification, Brendon keeps quiet when Mikey starts talking again. “I hated high school. It was full of people who judged on perceptions and not who people actually were.”

As comments go this is more Gerard-like than Mikey, but Brendon suspects he knows where this is going. “You’re saying not to judge Spencer?”

Mikey slows when they approach Pete’s office, a tiny two roomed annex stuck on the side of the butchers. “I’m saying that when we first got here Gerard and I stuck out like a sore thumb.”

“You still kind of do,” Brendon says, because okay, maybe Brendon has an inclination to dress up in suspenders and bow ties at times, but dress wise he’s got nothing on the Ways -- especially Gerard. “When Gerard wears those short shorts ....”

“Everyone looks, I know,” Mikey says, grinning at Brendon. “Mrs Elsbury dropped her cake last time he wore them.”

“Probably got blinded by his white legs,” Brendon says, wanting to both laugh and shudder in horror, Gerard’s bare thighs so close to the grill a memory Brendon is unable to forget. That mental image pushed to one side, Brendon looks up at Mikey, well aware if they’re not careful Mikey will go off on one of his tangents. Which is great when Brendon’s got time, he’s always willing to spend time discussing zombie sharks or the calorific value of lettuce, but right now, Brendon wants answers. “So you like Spencer?”

“I don’t know Spencer,” Mikey points out, looking both ways and putting his hand on the small of Brendon’s back as they cross over the one lane road. “But Ryan likes him and I trust his judgment. Usually anyway, he’s got some weird opinions about music and movies but Spencer’s none of those, so this time, yeah.”

A few steps from Pete’s office, Brendon considers what Mikey’s just said. “So it’s okay to like Spencer if everyone else hates him?”

Mikey stops walking, not even looking in the window to Pete’s office as he gives all his attention to Brendon. “I wouldn’t say he’s actually hated, and when it comes down to it, the most unpopular can be the most awesome. Just no one sees that.”

Brendon hopes that it’s true, but more than that, “I wish someone had told me that when I was in high school.”

Mikey shrugs, and momentarily, the confident and content person his is now is replaced by a glimpse of someone he was back then. “High school fucking sucks, but we got out and got past the judging bullshit.”

And that’s something Brendon doesn’t have to pick over. “I’m going to go find Ryan and Spencer.”

“Try the skate park.” Stepping away, Mikey looks through the window to Pete’s office, his whole face lighting up as he waves at someone inside. “I’m going to dig Pete out from under his books and into the sun for a while.”

About to walk away, Brendon comes to an abrupt stop, says, “You’re voluntarily going to sit in the sun?”

“Sort of.” Arm outstretched, Mikey opens the door to Pete’s office, looks over his shoulder at Brendon and winks. “There’s a window out back, if we open the blinds there’s plenty of sun.”

Which means Mikey’s plan is to make out with Pete in the small kitchenette. Giving his approval with a thumbs up, Brendon says, “Have fun,” then heads off to the skate park.

Not that he expects to see Ryan actually skating. It’s just not what he does, Ryan likes talking and hanging out and going to shows where he gives himself up to the music and the press of bodies around him. What he doesn’t do is speed down one of the beginner ramps on a skateboard, arms outstretched and coat flowing behind him, laughing without censor when he overbalances and falls at the bottom.

“You suck, Ry.” Laughing, Spencer appears around the side of the ramp, dropping to his knees so he can poke Ryan hard in the belly. “It’s been years, you should be able to stand up on the board by now.”

“I did stand up,” Ryan protests, and stays lying flat, his coat crumpled behind him and his board on its back, the wheels still spinning. “It’s that ramp, it’s broken.”

“Sure, it’s the ramp that’s broken,” Spencer says, folding himself down so he’s sitting with his legs stretched out and able to look down at Ryan. “Not your sucky balance or sporting ability.”

Ryan grins wide. “Broken implies I had them to start with.”

“True,” Spencer allows, and then, his tone changing completely, says, “It’s nice here, the town I mean.”

“It is,” Ryan agrees, his smile fading to something much softer. “The people here have been good to me. When I arrived I never intended to stay, but I did.”

It’s a conversation heading quickly toward personal, and one that’s carrying in the still evening air. Knowing he has to act now, Brendon hurries to where he’ll be seen and says, “Ryan, Spencer, hi.”

“Hey.” Spencer looks up and smiles, indicating Ryan with a sweep of his hand. “Ryan was just showing me how his skating skills have improved since we were kids. As you can see, they didn’t.”

Ryan frowns and crossed his legs at the ankles, looking perfectly relaxed as he stares up at the sky. “I told you, the ramps must be broken.”

Pointedly, Brendon looks toward the group of pre-teens skating the large ramps. “None of those seem to have problems.”

“I got a defective one,” Ryan insists, unmoving as Spencer jumps to his feet.

“Then I’d better test that before some other poor soul goes flying.” Using his foot, Spencer sets the board back on its wheels, then steps on the tail, picking the board up. “That is if you move your lazy ass out of the way.”

“I’m recovering after my near death experience,” Ryan says, groaning as he rolls onto his side and then to his knees, his coat falling into place as he pushes himself up. Dusting the palms of his hand against his thighs, Ryan moves to stand next to Brendon, watching as Spencer walks to the top of the ramp.

“Does he even know how to skate?” Brendon has to ask, because as out of place Ryan seemed, Spencer’s just as bad. Even if his tie is loosened and the sleeves of his white shirt pushed up, exposing his forearms, he’s still wearing dress pants and shoes that surely have no grips at all.

“He used to,” Ryan says, which would be reassuring if Brendon hadn’t just seen Ryan go flying.

Attention diverted between Spencer and Ryan, Brendon says, “Apparently you used to skate too and look how that turned out.”

Ryan laughs as he rubs at his back. “Yeah, but I sucked back then. Spencer didn’t.”

Dubious, Brendon keeps watching, and quickly realizes that yeah, maybe Spencer does know what he’s doing, even if he does board goofy-footed. A pause as Spencer effortlessly glides down the ramp, and Brendon asks, “Did you skate together often?”

It’s a question that, before, Brendon wouldn’t have thought about asking, Ryan’s past something he tends to keep hidden. But now, seeing him so relaxed while hanging with Spencer, Brendon takes a chance, relieved when Ryan doesn’t tense or divert the conversation.

“Enough to know that I sucked,” Ryan says, seemingly uncaring about just how bad he actually is. “He was always better than me, and when I moved away I never got on a board again.”

Board under his arm, Spencer comes running, his hair falling out of its gelled style and eyes sparkling as he bumps Ryan with his shoulder. “The ramp seems to be fixed now.”

“The ramp fairies fixed it,” Ryan says, his expression serious and voice at its monotone best. “They came running when you went to the top, we saw them.”

“We did,” Brendon agrees, enjoying the way Spencer rolls his eyes while trying to hide his amusement. “They were fast.”

“Super fast,” Ryan says with a nod, spoiling the effect when he cracks first, laughing as Spencer drapes his arm around Ryan’s shoulders and starts walking, steering them back to the ramp.

“In that case, guess you’d better try again,” Spencer says, and looks back at Brendon. “You should come help, between us both we might keep him upright.”

Brendon pretends to consider, looking Ryan from head to toe. “I don’t know, Ryan on wheels is unnatural.”

In fact, it’s almost as unnatural as Brendon starting to fall for the person who’s trying to destroy the town. But as Spencer smiles directly at Brendon, and Brendon’s heart quickens in response, he knows that, unnatural or not, he already has.

~*~*~*~

His sketchbook and pencils tucked under his arm, Gerard stops at the door of the diner and asks once again, “Are you sure you’ll be okay alone?”

Standing behind the counter, Mikey stares over at Gerard, waiting a beat before he replies. “I’m not alone, Joe’s here, and even if I was I’d be fine. Get out, go, finish your assignment.”

“Going.Going.” Gerard holds up his hands and takes shuffling steps back, the bell over the door jingling as he pushes the door open with his hip and steps outside. Instantly Gerard squints, pulling his sunglasses from off of the top of his head as he looks in both directions, trying to work out the best place to settle and work.

Not that Gerard actually knows what he’s going to do. Right now it feels like any creativity has been buried under the details of preparing for the protest, and as he turns left and starts walking, Gerard mentally re-reads his latest assignment from school. A scene from his home town, a capture-the-moment look at the people around him, something that should have been simple but isn’t at all.

The easiest response would be to draw Mikey, but Gerard’s already got books full of sketches of Mikey -- Mikey making milkshakes, Mikey clearing tables wearing an apron, Mikey lying on the hood of their car late at night. Gerard could replicate those with ease, but he won’t, because if he did he’d be cheating.

Instead Gerard keeps walking, hoping that inspiration will strike. Not that there’s much town to walk through. Five minutes and Gerard’s walking past the kindergarten building at the outskirts of the town center, the multi-colored ribbons tied to the fence fluttering in the slight breeze. Inside Gerard can see Jon, sitting on his desk with a book in his hand as he reads to the few kids in his class. It’s a scene that’s surely a moment captured-in-time, but to Gerard it doesn’t feel right.

Discarding cute, he walks a bit further, hating the heat and the sun and the fact that any and all ideas have gone into hiding. It’s all kinds of frustrating to deal with, and while normally Gerard has complete faith in his abilities, right now it’s a faith that’s starting to falter.

Overheated, his shirt sticking to his back, Gerard’s glad of an excuse to stop walking when his phone signals a message. Pulling his cell from out of his pocket, he opens the text, and can’t help smiling when he reads stop sit dwn & sketch smthing now.

One handed, Gerard types a reply to Mikey and then heads for a nearby bench, Mikey’s response -- Good. Draw!!!!!-- arriving as Gerard sits and sets down his sketchbook and pencils.

As a place to stop it’s perfect, and if Gerard didn’t know Mikey so well he’d suspect freakily cool mutant powers, the kind that lead to Mikey texting Gerard to stop at the exact perfect moment. Still, mutant powers or not, this is a good place, Gerard relaxing in the shade of the trees behind him, while in a paddock close by the donkeys from Bob’s sanctuary stand clustered close to the fence.

“Sorry, no carrots today.” Not that it’s actually Gerard that brings them, that’s a job for Brendon, or anyone not Gerard, who remains cautious of anything with sharp teeth and hooves. Eyeing the donkeys, Gerard watches as they flick their tails, ears moving when the kids from Jon’s class run outside for recess, yelling as the run in the enclosed yard. “Watcher donkeys....”

A wisp of an idea and Gerard selects a pencil, uncaring what kind as he turns to a new page in his sketchbook and turns sideways on the bench, his knees brought up as a makeshift easel. It’s not the most comfortable of positions, the metal arm of the bench digging in Gerard’s back and the wooden slats just that too far apart, but none of that matters.

This is what Gerard does, what he loves, art something that runs through his blood and something he held onto when his life started to take a turn for the worst. It’s why he fought so hard to arrange online art credits when he left school and came to this town, because sure, Gerard doesn’t need a piece of paper to show he knows art and is capable of finishing a course -- but he still wants it.

Giving himself over to the spark of an idea, Gerard quickly sketches out the outline of a donkey, one with fangs and a flaming tail, its huge ears pricked and head tilted to one side. As capturing a moment of time goes maybe it’s not technically accurate, but this is what Gerard does, take things that are normal and make them special somehow.

It’s why it’s easy to add to the picture, Gerard taking what he sees and making them more. Jon standing surrounded by children, a cloak flowing behind him and feet bare, showing his long taloned toes.

A last drawn in shadow and Gerard looks up, flexing his fingers as in the distance he sees Frank and his mom walking toward Ballatos, both carrying some kind of bag. A moment of thought and they’re part of the sketch too, Mrs Iero carrying a bolt of lightning as she welcomes solemn-faced strangers, her arm around them, keeping them safe, while Frank holds a guitar over his head, snarling at some indistinct form in the background.

The last of Frank’s tattoos sketched in, and Gerard stares at the page, how the people he’s drawn are grouped together, a united force against some unseen threat. It’s a message he never planned out, but now it’s one that’s clear to see, and while this isn’t a typical catch the moment scene, in Gerard’s head it's clear, reality retreating as he starts drawing again.

~*~*~*~

It turns out organizinga protest is a lot of work, especially a protest that’s become a sort-of town fair. Not that Brendon cares in the slightest, he loves the sense of unity as the town pulls together, and nearly every resident contributes in some way. Like now, when Brendon’s sitting on the patch of grass next to Greasers, Lindsey cross-legged beside him while Ethel sits in a lawnchair next to them both.

“And that’s three hundred,” Lindsey says, holding up her hand toward Ethel, who after a moment of confusion, holds her own hand up for a hi-five. “Brendon, can you string them up? I need to go help Gerard with some more banners.”

“Yeah, I can do that.” His lap full of bunting, Brendon carefully puts the needle he’s been using back into Ethel’s sewing kit and then stretches his hands, trying to ease the ache in his fingers. “Respect Ethel, you’re a hardcore sewer, I couldn’t do it.”

“You did do it,” Ethel says, ruffling Brendon’s hair before starting to gather up the bunting she’s personally sewn, a length easily three times as long as Brendon and Lindsey’s added together. “I can help you hang it up, I’m good on a ladder.”

“I bet you’re a ladder climbing demon,” Brendon says, jumping to his feet before Ethel actually tries to prove it. “But I’ve got this, you stay here and relax for a while, listen to Patrick practice.”

“It is rather nice,” Ethel agrees, settling back in her lawn chair and looking utterly content with the world, her foot moving along with the beat as Patrick keeps practicing, the door to Note Word thrown open so people can hear. “And I’m sure I’ll have a nice view from down here.”

His arms full of bunting, Brendon waits until they’re a safe distance from Ethel and then says softly, “She means the town right?”

“If it makes you feel better, sure,” Lindsey says with a grin, dropping her own bundle of bunting close to a ladder. “I’m going, try not to fall off and remember to give Ethel a good view.”

“You know it.” Still holding his bunting, Brendon turns and swivels his hips, ass pushed out and colored flags falling around his legs as he gives himself up to his internal music and wiggles.

“Don’t tell me, it’s the dance of the fifty flags.”

“Three hundred flags,” Brendon says in response, clutching the bunting tighter as he reluctantly turns to face Spencer. “I was just....”

“Dancing, I saw,” Spencer says with a grin. “It was very impressive, though MsBallato doesn’t seem to think so.”

Brendon shrugs, looking past Spencer to see Lindsey mouth ‘sorry’ before almost running into Greasers. “She’s seen all of my moves. I need a new audience.”

“Good thing I’m here then,” Spencer says, smile still bright as he looks over at Brendon. “I’m always up for watching flag dancing.”

Normally, Brendon’s got no issues in performing in public. A few cartwheels, a standing somersault, or even dorky dancing, he’s got no hesitation in showing them all. Now though, just Spencer watching is throwing Brendon off-kilter, enough that Brendon almost trips on the bunting as he takes a step and says, “I need to hang this up. We’re decorating the town, for the fair and the protest. The protest fair. Ethel helped me and Lindsey to sew the flags, they’re made of old clothes donated by people in town. I think this one is part of Jon’s shirt.”

“It’s a nice shirt-flag,” Spencer says, and when Brendon doesn’t reply, bends and touches one of the flags. “Is this leopard print pleather?”

“Isn’t it awesome?” That particular flag is one of Brendon’s favorites, and he reaches out too, pulling his hand back when his fingers accidentally touch Spencer’s. “I cut it out from some donated pants, I’m not sure who they actually belong to. They looked tiny but I guess they’d stretch when you put them on. Not that I did, put them on, I’m more of a less is more man, myself.”

Letting the flag drop, Spencer starts to untangle the bunting that Brendon is holding, wrapping it into a loop. “So you’re not wandering your apartment in pleather pants?”

Brendon holds out his arms, letting Spencer deal with the tangles. “My room, I live at Mrs Iero’s boarding house and no, no pleather pants. Mostly there’s no pants at all. I run hot and no one can see through the window so sometimes I save on the laundry by taking my clothes off when I get back to my room and fuck, I’m doing it again.”

More than anything Brendon hopes Spencer doesn’t ask what. Brendon hasn’t the words to explain how being around Spencer turns Brendon into some kind of babbling idiot, and one that’s just talked about wandering his room naked.

A slight pause, Spencer’s eyes gleam as he says, “Are you going up the ladder or should I?”

Thankfully it seems Spencer isn’t going to ask, instead he’s staring up at the lamppost as if he’s fully prepared to climb the ladder and start stringing bunting. Which is great, but Brendon can’t help feeling bad, that Spencer’s so willing to help with something that’s designed as a protest against his firm.

“You know this isn’t just a fair, it’s a protest against Bettabuy too?” It’s something Brendon has to say, not that he thinks Spencer’s going to throw down the bunting and stalk off when he finds out. It’s just, Spencer has the right to know.

“I know that it is.” Seemingly deciding that he’ll be the one to climb, Spencer stands on the first rung of the ladder, a string of flags hanging behind him as he makes his way to the top. On the highest rung, he stretches up, and starts tying the end of the bunting onto the post. “I’m glad that you’re protesting.”

It’s something Brendon never expected to hear, but trying to make sense of the statement is hard when he steadies the ladder and looks up, seeing Spencer stretched above him. From this angle Brendon can see how Spencer’s dress pants have been pulled tight and how, instead of the more usual black socks, he’s wearing a pair that are green with pink stripes.

“My sisters bought them for me,” Spencer says, looking down and catching Brendon staring at his ankles. Which, at least, is better than catching Brendon staring at his ass. “I have to wear a suit but they can’t control my socks.”

“Way to stick it to the man,” Brendon says, starting to hold his arm up for a fist bump when he remembers, that in this, case, Spencer actually is the man. “I mean.....”

“I know what you mean.” Carefully balanced, Spencer holds onto the lamppost with one arm and reaches down with the other, bumping Brendon’s fist. “You don’t have to censor what you say around me.”

“Yeah.I really kind of do.” That’s something Brendon knows for sure, that no matter how friendly Spencer appears, and how much Brendon wants to know him better, he’s still on the other side.

As statements go, it hasn’t to be something Spencer’s heard before, but his whole demeanor seems to change as he climbs down the ladder. The line of flags hanging over one shoulder, all previous good humor gone as Spencer looks at Brendon and says, “I know how it looks, but I’m not your enemy.”

“Maybe not to me personally,” that’s something Brendon can truthfully say, but that’s something that can only go so far. “But to the town you are.”

“We’re attaching them over the road?” Unsurprised in the change in conversation, Brendon nods and Spencer picks up the ladder and heads toward the lamppost next to Greasers. It’s a journey that takes all of a few seconds, Spencer remaining silent as he sets up the ladder and then hesitates, one foot on the first rung. “You know, we’re not that different, we’re both fighting, just I’m fighting for myself and not a whole town.”

Practiced in the art of conversations that jump always, Brendon considers what Spencer’s just said, and realizes he’s been told something important. As conversations go it’s probably not one suited to talk on a ladder, so Brendon sets down his armful of bunting, and says, “I’m thirsty. Do you want a drink? My treat.”

“Sure.” Spencer dusts his hands together and looks in the window to Greasers. “But if someone comes at me with a broom I’ll expect you to protect me.”

“I’ll throw my body in front of a broom for you,” Brendon promises solemnly, and pushes open the door. “Go sit down, I’ll get our drinks. Is soda okay?”

At Spencer’s affirmative reply, Brendon approaches the counter, and while normally he’d go to the fountains to serve himself, today he digs out his wallet and says, “Two Cokes, please.”

“Bob said yes to the petting zoo,” Mikey says in reply. Efficiently he fills two glasses with Coke adding two stripy pink straws before handing the glasses over to Brendon. “He’s going to bring a lot of the small animals, the friendly ones that don’t bite. I’m still working on him for the llama.”

Which means that it’s inevitable the llama will be a star turn. Taking a drink of his Coke, Brendon glances back, making sure Spencer’s found a seat and then asks, “How did you even persuade him? He was insistent it was a no at the last meeting.”

“I just asked,” Mikey says, as if him getting Bob to say was always a foregone conclusion. “The chaps are a definite no, though.”

“Shame,” and it is, though Brendon suspects it’s probably for the best, laughing at Bob never something that ends well. A smile at Mikey and glasses in hand, Brendon walks over to Spencer, pretending not to see Lindsey’s glare from where she’s talking to Gerard at the other end of the diner.

“If looks could kill I’d be dead meat,” Spencer says, accepting a glass from Brendon and taking a long drink. A very long drink, and one where Brendon deliberately doesn’t take note of how Spencer’s mouth looks as he sucks at the straw.

Settled in his side of the booth, his side against the window and legs carefully tucked back, Brendon says, “Before, outside, what did you mean about fighting, too?”

“All the talking you do and this time you go straight to the tough question?” Spencer says, his mouth curling into a smile when Brendon starts to say sorry. “No, it’s okay. I don’t mind. I just meant that this isn’t the job I always wanted to do.”

To Brendon, Spencer looks like every other young businessman he’s seen on TV, be that one that knows how to skateboard and enjoys climbing ladders. It’s why he can’t help asking, “You never wanted to be a town-destroying property master?”

Coolly, Spencer looks over at Brendon. “Well I did consider clubbing baby seals to death for a while. And there was the period where I considered being the person who destroyed waste food that could go to the homeless.”

“At least you didn’t want to kick puppies,” Brendon says, relieved when Spencer grins, showing that Brendon’s taken the right track in continuing the conversation. “But no, sorry. I didn’t mean that.”

“Yeah you did.” Spencer takes another drink and then plays with his straw, droplets of Coke hitting his hand as he takes the straw out of his glass and taps a beat against the table. “And you’d be right. I am part of the business that’ll destroy this town. But that doesn’t mean I like that.” The straw still, Spencer starts to talk. Stops, then starts once again. “Have you ever done stuff you don’t like to please someone else? Not bad stuff, but taking a path that otherwise you wouldn’t.”

More than anything Brendon wants to laugh. Spencer’s question summing up Brendon’s life neatly. At least until he got out and found out that, as scary as it was, taking your own path alone is better than hurtling towards somewhere you don’t want to go. “Yeah, I know what you mean.”

“Then you know how hard it is to fight expectations. My parents.....” Spencer trails off, the straw bent as he clutches his hand. “My parents love me unconditionally, I know that. All I’ve ever wanted it to make them proud, like they were when I accepted this job and started to climb up the ladder. When I got my first business card my mom pasted it into a scrapbook, she even dated it, and took a photo of me holding it up.”

“So because your parents are proud of you stay in a job you don’t like?” To Brendon that doesn’t make sense, especially if Spencer’s parents do love him.

“I don’t dislike it. It’s just not what I intended to do,” Spencer says, trying to straighten the straw. “So, what are we doing after we’ve finished the bunting?”

As subject changes go it’s obvious, and as much as Brendon wants to say more, now isn’t the time. Glass in hand he looks over at Mikey, says, “What do you think about llamas?”

~*~*~*~*~

Supplies arranged beside him, Gerard scratches at his cheek, trying not to smear the face-paint under his eyes. Though he suspects, at this point, his skeleton will be more blurry lines than the crisp edges he started with hours before.

“You can come over now, sweetheart.” Gerard smiles, the fact he’s hot and thirsty and his stomach grumbling forgotten as Anita runs forward, giggling as she climbs up into the chair. “Have you decided what you want to be?”

Anita kicks her legs and pulls at her t-shirt, showing Gerard the picture of Snow White. “A princess.”

“Okay, I can do that.” In fact, Gerard can do that in his sleep. Already his hands are covered in glitter and he’s become an expert on free styling princess make-up, enough it only takes a few minutes before Anita is done. Dusting pink glitter from off of his fingers, Gerard reaches for a mirror, holds it up before Anita and says, “There, what do you think?”

The reply is a huge, gappy smile, Anita wiggling out of the chair and attacking Gerard for a hug that leaves more glitter dusting his t-shirt. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Checking Anita’s parents are happy, Gerard watches as they take pictures, including one of his Gerard himself.

“You’re becoming a celebrity,” Mikey says, waiting until Anita and her family have gone before sitting in the vacated chair and handing Gerard a crumpled paper bag. “I bought you lunch.”

Gerard sits on the ground, resting against Mikey’s legs as he looks in the bag. “A tortured happy face cupcake. You shouldn’t have.”

“Only the best for you,” Mikey says and leans forward, showing Gerard his phone. “Ray’s been uploading pictures to Instagram. I like this one of you frowning at Brendon.”

Cupcake in hand, Gerard peels back the paper case as he looks at the photo, unsurprised to see it’s toward the end of the face-painting process. “Making Brendon into the Beast took forever, getting realistic fur shadows was almost impossible.”

“He looks great, though,” Mikey says, scrolling through the uploaded photos until he finds one of Brendon petting a donkey. “He’ll be finishing his set soon, then Patrick’s going to take over.”

Gerard cranes his neck and looks along the street toward the small temporary stage that’s been set up on the sidewalk outside of Note Wordy. For the last half hour Brendon’s been singing, Jon and Ryan providing back up and keeping the music going as Brendon jumps off the stage and starts dancing with an assortment of tiny princesses and pirates. “It looks like he’s having fun.”

Mikey pushes himself up on one hip, jamming his phone into his pocket. “He is, but Patrick’s hidden the bagpipes. Thank fuck.”

“Hey, smile.” At the sound of Ray’s voice, Gerard instantly smiles, his eyes narrowed against the sun as Ray approaches, checking the photo he’s just taken. “You know what would make this better? If Mikey had his face painted too.”

“You should.” Gerard takes a bite of his cupcake, swallows and turns so he can look up at Mikey. “You can have a skeleton face. Or I can paint your face to match Patrick and Pete’s. One theme with an individual twist.”

Ray sits next to Gerard, his camera beside him and making himself comfortable on the grass as he looks up at Mikey. “Make them princesses, Mikey would look good in glitter.”

“Yeah, not going to happen,” Mikey says, and then adds, “But Patrick looks good in a tiara.”

“Everyone looks good in a tiara.” It’s something Gerard’s always believed, that a little bit of sparkly headgear can cheer up the gloomiest day.

“I don’t,” Ray says mournfully. “When I tried it got caught in my hair, it took ages to get the thing out.”

Which brings up the question, just when has Ray worn a tiara. It’s a mystery Gerard needs to solve, right now, but any questions are lost when a car pulls into Greasers parking lot, and Spencer gets out, almost stumbling as he slams the door behind him and runs forward.

“Have you seen Ryan?” It’s an abrupt question, Spencer’s usual good manners nowhere in sight as he comes to a stop. “I’ve been calling but he’s not answering his phone.”

“He’s playing guitar for Brendon,” Gerard says, pointing to the stage where Ryan’s got his hands over his head, clapping along with the audience. “They’ll be stopping soon.”

“Thanks.” Spencer stares along the street at Ryan, and while Gerard only knows Spencer as the polished businessman bringing buyout offers for Greasers, he can still tell that something is wrong. Spencer’s too tense, no hint of his usual smile as he runs his finger under his shirt collar.

“Is everything okay?” Ray gets to his feet, reaching out so he can rests his hand on Spencer’s arm for a moment. “Is there anything we can do to help?”

“No, I’m fine, it’s just...” Spencer stops talking, his polished facade doing nothing to hide how stressed he actually is as he says, “I shouldn’t even be telling you this, but you’ll know soon anyway. We’ve had our first yes. The butchers have agreed to sell.”

It’s not what Gerard wanted to hear. Not now when the whole community is gathered together, united against one common enemy. Except, it seems, they weren’t fully united at all. Dejected, Gerard says, “Has anyone seen the Brogan’s today?”

Already texting on his phone, Mikey says, “When I went to Pete’s office this morning the shop was still shut.”

“And I haven’t seen them when I was taking photos,” Ray adds, picking up his camera and scrolling through the pictures as if to double check the Brogan’s aren’t there. “Did they come to the last meeting?”

Gerard thinks back to the last meeting. When the diner was full to capacity and everyone was sure that this was a fight they were destined to win. But no matter how long he pictures the scene, he can’t remember seeing any of the Brogan’s at all. “Not that I saw.”

Mikey looks up from his phone. “Pete says he hasn’t heard anyone moving in the store since yesterday morning.”

Which says it all, and for the first time, Gerard’s worried. That despite how hard that they’ve worked, how long that they’ve protested, one weak link will lead to disaster.

~*~*~*~*~

More than anything Brendon wants to cheer people up, but he knows right now there’s no point in trying. Two days since the fair fizzled out and already boards cover the windows of the butchers, a poster pasted on top announcing it’s now a Bettabuy building.

As reminders go it’s a constant, and Brendon can’t help watching the customers and wondering which one will fold next. It doesn’t help that he hasn’t seen Spencer since the day of the fair -- not that it should matter. It’s not like they’re actual friends, but Brendon misses him, and can’t help feeling a potential friendship has been pulled out of his grasp.

With the whole town feeling like already it’s mourning, all Brendon can do is get through the days, even if he doesn't feel like singing while he takes a late shift in the kitchen.

“Have you got any of those burgers with the secret ingredient? Because if so, make mine a double.”

Surprised to hear Spencer, Brendon looks through the hatch to the main diner, taking in that for the first time Spencer’s dressed casually and not wearing his suit. In jeans and t-shirt he looks younger, and also looks exhausted, his eyes shadowed as he takes a seat at one of the barstools that line the counter.

“I’ve got those,” Brendon says, already taking two patties from out of the fridge and dropping them onto the grill while talking to Spencer. “You want anything else with that? Like fries or onion rings?”

As taking orders go, talking through the hatch isn’t ideal, but with Gerard buried in final assignments and Mikey off doing something, Brendon’s been left on his own until Joe comes in for his night shift.

“Just the burger,” Spencer says, and spatula in hand, Brendon can’t resist a quick wiggle, happier now than he’s been for most of the day.

“You really do dance in the kitchen.”

Caught, Brendon grins and then twirls, bowing to Spencer who’s pushed himself up on his stool so he can see into the kitchen. “I do, you should have fun in your job.”

Instantly Brendon wants to take the words back. Not because he doesn’t believe what he’s saying, but because he’s remembering what Spencer said the last time they talked.

“I should try dancing at mine, see if it helps,” Spencer says and then sits, looking lost in thought before he adds, “No, that wouldn’t help.”

Brendon has to agree. As much as he loves singing and dancing in the kitchen, he can’t see it going over well if Spencer did the same while out on his rounds. Still, Brendon’s not about to dampen any potential dance outbreaks. “You could chair dance in your car, or your office if you’ve got one.”

“I’ve got a cubicle, there’s no room to dance in there,” Spencer says, and then smiles, faint but there. “And if I tried they’d cart me away for being insane.”

“Better do it in secret then,” Brendon says, cutting open a roll and placing it onto a plate. Expertly flipping both patties, he takes a sliding step to the other side of the kitchen, gathering cheese slices, ketchup and pickles. Then, his arms full, takes a moment to look out of the kitchen door and wiggle his ass at Spencer, the resulting laughter making Brendon beam as he waits for the patties to cook.

Which isn’t something that takes long. Scooping one up, Brendon rests it on the base of the roll and adds cheese before laying the second patty on top. A squirt of ketchup next, more cheese and a crisscross of pickles and Brendon can secure the top of the roll by adding a skewer.

“Food is up!” Brendon yells, and while normally he’d hand the plate through the hatch, this time he’s happy to take it through himself, setting the burger in front of Spencer with a cheery. “Enjoy.”

“It looks great.” As if he’s starving, Spencer picks up the burger using both hands, takes a bite and then chews, swallowing before he says, “Is that a mummy?”

Brendon looks at the skewer in Spencer’s burger, seeing which one he’s picked out of the pot. “Yeah, Gerard started adding decorations to the top of the skewers. Now it’s a thing.”

“Like the wall,” Spencer says, and looks over to the blackboard wall, where the elaborate middle picture is surrounded by messages, the majority saying simply, ‘Bettabuy Sucks’.

“Ah, yeah, those. Gerard and Mikey wanted to have somewhere our customers can express how they feel.” And right now that’s negativity toward Bettabuy and Spencer himself. Which Brendon understands, except, he’s beginning to see that Spencer himself doesn’t deserve that. “Those are old, though. I should have erased them.”

Trying for stealth, Brendon hurries to the wall and uses the edge of his apron to wipe at a particularly heated message, but stops when Spencer follows him over, and stands right behind him.

“A heartless spineless interloper that doesn’t belong and needs running from town, well they’ve got that right,” Spencer says, and while Brendon can’t see Spencer’s face he doesn’t need to, the ill-concealed hurt laid out to see. “I should go.”

“No. Wait.” Brendon turns, and finds himself only inches from Spencer. “You haven’t eaten your burger, and they don’t know you. Not really.”

“Neither do you,” Spencer says, and Brendon has to admit that’s mostly true. Except...

“I know Ryan smiles more since he found you again, and that you’re willing to help when not everybody wants you around. I know you love your parents and that you’re fantastic to talk to and always listen when I’m a babbling idiot like now. I know I like your smile and your ass looks great when you’re up a ladder and fuck, can you forget I said those last two?”

“I could, but I won’t.” Spencer takes a step forward, crowding Brendon close to the wall. “How do you feel about kissing the enemy?”

Glad that the wall is solid behind him, Brendon’s heart is racing as he reaches out and rests his hands on Spencer’s hips, steadying himself against a situation that’s suddenly become serious -- fast. But it’s also a situation that feels right, Brendon confident about what he’s about to do as he says, “Depends. If you make me wait I might be against it.”

“In that case,” Spencer says, his mouth brushing Brendon’s. “Consider yourself kissed.”

~*~*~*~*~

Brendon’s never actually taken anyone back to his room. Usually his dates are casual, and happen far away from the town. It’s just better that way; and means Brendon can let loose without being watched and his every move discussed.

Not that he particularly cares about being the focus of gossip, just, if he can, Brendon would prefer the coffee morning ladies to discuss something other than what he did on a date.

It’s why it feels so weird now, when he’s ushering Spencer into the boarding house, like finally the line between ‘his home life and his shaky attempts at having a love life is starting to fade.

“We can go somewhere else if you want,” Spencer says, his hand on Brendon’s arm, “I’ve got my car, or else we could go for a walk or bother Ryan again.”

Brendon opens the front door and looks inside, checking if anyone is around as he takes in what Spencer's just said. “No!” As answers go it’s abrupt – too abrupt, Spencer taking a sharp step back and dropping his hand. “I want you here.”

“Okay,” Spencer says, looking dubious and staying in place. “It’s just. You look like you’re about to jump out of your skin. And I know I’m not Mrs Iero’s favorite person so…”

“It’s not that.” And it’s not, even if Brendon is keeping one eye out for Mrs Iero running up with a broom. “It’s just. I know it’s only a room in a boarding house and I haven’t got my own place and it’ll be nothing like where you live, I mean, you’ve probably got your own bathroom for one thing. But, this is my home, and I’ve never brought anyone here before. Well, apart from my friends, they’re here all the time and one time Note Wordys was shut and I had to bring someone here for a lesson but a date. No.”

Spencer waits a moment and then says, “So what, you’re worried I’m going to walk out because you haven’t got your own bathroom?”

Momentarily, Brendon’s tempted to take the easy out and say yes. Instead he says, “No. Just this is a big deal. Me bringing you here.”

As replies go it’s a risk, Brendon aware that sometimes he takes things too fast. Like now, when Brendon’s admitted this is a big deal while still carrying the worry that the kiss from Spencer meant nothing but an impulsive distraction.

“Well in that case,” Spencer says, and moves next to Brendon. “I want to see everything. Show me around.”

Relieved, Brendon grins, unable to help himself as he steps inside, Spencer following behind. “There’s not much to see. Kitchen and dining room is along there, the TV room next to it. Mrs Iero keeps it stocked with books and games; we play sometimes when there aren’t any guests.”

“Sounds nice,” Spencer says, looking around at the painting hanging on the wall and the tiny reception desk built under the stairs.

“It is.” Brendon waits, letting Spencer take it all in.

Brendon remembers that first night at the boarding house, when Mrs Iero’s arm around his shoulders and an endless game of Monopoly were the only distractions against the devastation of finally stopping moving and the resulting thoughts and memories that came flooding back in to his head. “When I first arrived Mrs Iero came to my room and said she needed a third for the Iero family game night. Which surprised Frank, because until then there hadn’t been an Iero family game night.”

“She started it for you?” Spencer asks, following Brendon as he starts going upstairs.

“Frank told me months later, when I was offered the attic room,” the same day that Brendon had realized he’d actually found a new home. “It’s nice up there. Sunny, and I got to paint it how I liked once I’d cleaned it out.”

“Will I need my sunglasses?” Spencer asks, and when Brendon looks over his shoulder Spencer’s grinning wide as he gently tugs at Brendon’s t-shirt. “You like the primary colors.”

“I like all colors,” Brendon corrects, and wants to grin himself when he realizes that Spencer’s still holding onto his t-shirt as they take the last two flights of stairs. “Gerard offered to paint me a mural, but I decided to do it myself.”

“It means more then,” Spencer says, verbalizing what Brendon was thinking. “I painted my own room at home, but now I’m renting I’m stuck with cream shades. It sucks.”

“Colorful accessories are the key,” Brendon says, turning when he hears Spencer stifle a laugh. “What? I saw it in a magazine that got left at Greasers. Apparently shabby chic is coming back.”

Which means Brendon’s room is right on the design curve, at least that’s what he tells himself as he reaches his door and takes his key from his pocket. “It’s only small, but I have a TV and a sink in the corner.”

“I’m sure it’s fine,” Spencer says, finally letting go of Brendon’s t-shirt. Brendon opens the door, and for the first time, someone he’s, maybe-possibly-might happen in the future, dating, steps into the room.

“I’ve got an X Box if you want to play games, or we could watch a DVD or something,” Brendon says, trying to gauge Spencer’s reaction as he looks around the small room with its yellow painted walls, messily made bed and guitar carefully resting against the small fridge in the corner. There’s not even dirty laundry on the floor right now and Brendon’s thankful he made the effort to tidy up before going to meet Spencer. “If you want I can make you something to eat. I’ve got cereal, and milk in the fridge. Some soda too.”

Spencer seems to consider the suggestions, then shakes his head. “At the risk of sounding seedy, why don’t we sit on the bed.”

“Direct, I like it.” Eyebrows jiggling, Brendon takes a flying leap onto the bed and lands on his back, patting the space beside him. “Want to join me?”

“And you said I was direct.” Amused, Spencer toes off his shoes, setting them to one side as he loosens his tie and lies next to Brendon. “Next time we’re meeting when I’ve had time to get changed.”

“I like the tie,” Brendon admits, and taking courage from Spencer’s mention of a next time, Brendon takes hold of the tie, wrapping it around his hand and holding on as he rolls onto his side so he’s looking at Spencer. “Now you can’t pull away.”

Instantly, Spencer says, “Who says that I want to?”

“Well I….”

Brendon never gets the chance to reply. The tie still held in his hand, he keeps his eyes open as Spencer moves in for a kiss: a kiss that at first is barely a touch.

Brendon’s feeling off-balance, his heart racing as he gives himself over to the moment, losing himself in Spencer as the kiss deepens and Spencer wraps one of his legs over Brendon’s, pulling him close. It means Brendon’s forced to stay still, wanting to move – needing to move – but unable to do so as Spencer takes complete control, sliding his tongue into Brendon’s mouth and grinding against him, showing just how much he does want this.

His eyes closed, Brendon jumps when he feels Spencer’s hand against his hip, Spencer’s fingers warm as he slides them down so they brush agains Brendon’s belly. It’s a part of his body that, up till now, Brendon had never considered to be especially sensitive, but right now every slight touch causes Brendon to gasp, desperate for Spencer to give him something more than the tiny, maddening strokes of his fingers.

Already it feels like Brendon is falling apart, all reactions out of his control as Spencer moves his hand down. But slowly, far too slowly, and Brendon’s on the verge of begging, knowing he’s about to come in his pants like some overeager teenager on their first date.

“Hold on,” Spencer says, pulling back a little and frowning as he licks his hand and attempts to ease his hand into Brendon’s pants. Which is a good idea, the best idea, and Brendon’s trying to help, sucking in his stomach and trying his best to stay still. Something that isn’t easy, and then becomes impossible when Spencer gets his hand into place, his fingers wrapped around Brendon’s dick.

“Spencer, I’m not....” There’s no way Brendon’s going to last. It’s been too long since he last got laid, and on top of that, right now Spencer looks amazing. Face flushed and eyes half closed, his mouth glossy wet. That it’s Brendon that made him look that way is amazing, and as much as he is falling apart, he’s also revelling in his own power as he thrusts his hips wantonly, so Spencer’s hand is trapped between their bodies. Spencer moans at the contact, broken and low as Brendon fights for control of this rhythm. He thrusts again, shallow and barely there, but it’s enough and he bites hard on his lip, trying to hold on.

“Let go,” Spencer says then, the words barely audible as he presses his mouth against Brendon’s. The kiss is hard and bruising, taking Brendon’s air as he gasps, wet heat spilling between them as he comes.

“Fuck.” His mouth dry, Brendon swallows and loosens his grip on Spencer’s tie. His whole body buzzing, it’s an effort to move, but Brendon shifts slightly, not about to leave Spencer high and dry.

“Too late,” Spencer says, his face scrunched up as he pulls back his hand and plucks at the crotch of his dress pants. “Next time remind me not to wear pants that are dry clean only.”

Relaxed and smug that he’s made Spencer come in his pants, Brendon pushes himself up and says, “No pants are better.”

“That could be arranged,” Spencer says, and smiles at Brendon, something so warm and sincere that Brendon feels like he’s glowing inside. “But for now, can I borrow some pants?”

“Sure.” The moment over, Brendon stands and throws Spencer a box of tissues from the bedside table, then rummages through his drawers for pants that will both fit and not smell of grease. Finding an old pair of sweat pants, Brendon hands them over, considering if he should be changing his pants too.

Reassuring himself there’s no need, Brendon wipes at a sticky spot that’s smeared over his belly and then sits on the bed, unashamedly watching as Spencer kicks off his dress pants and boxer briefs, wipes himself down, and then pulls on the borrowed sweat pants.

“I think I need a t-shirt as well,” Spencer says, laughing at himself when he looks at his reflection in the window.

“I don’t know,” Brendon says, hiding his own amusement as he stands up and goes back to his drawer. “Sweat pants, a tie and white shirt could be the new look.”

“You saw that in a magazine as well?” Spencer asks, picking at the knot of his tie.
“Nope. That opinion is all mine.” T-shirt selected, Brendon puts it on the bed next to Spencer and sits, going back to staring. And there’s plenty to stare at, like how Spencer pulls the tie free with a quick jerk of his hand when finally he’s loosened the knot, and the first glimpse of his chest and stomach as he starts to unfasten his shirt, deftly working the small white buttons through the material.

“How did you end up living here?”

At first, Brendon doesn’t take in the question, his attention too focused on Spencer’s fingers, but when he does it’s like the easy feel in the room has been instantly changed to something tense with the potential for hurt. Not that Spencer seems to feel that as he looks over at Brendon, obviously waiting for an answer. “I can tell you love it here. Did you come when you were a kid or something?”

“Or something,” Brendon says, and tells himself not to laugh at the thought of his parents bringing him here.

Spencer stops unfastening the buttons, his attention solely on Brendon. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”

It’s a temping offer, but as much as Brendon tries to keep his past locked away, it’s not something he’s ashamed of. “I didn’t come here on purpose. Just got lucky I guess. I hitched a ride with a truck bringing Greasers monthly supplies, Elena, that’s Gerard and Mikey’s grandma, she used to own the diner before she died, looked the other way when I ordered a coffee and fell asleep in one of the booths. The next day she insisted I take breakfast on the house, let me clean up in the bathroom and then offered me the choice of Andy driving me to the nearest truck stop or a job deep cleaning the diner for a few days. I took the job.”

Spencer shrugs off his shirt and pulls on the t-shirt. “And you decided to stay?”

“More the town decided I should stay.” Which sounds weird but it’s something that Brendon’s always held onto. That Nowhereville is a place where the lost and unwanted wash up and find a place they belong. “Elena arranged for me to stay at the boarding house and for the first time in ages I had money in my pocket and people who cared where I was and how I was doing. Mrs Iero washed my clothes, Bob let me play with his dogs when I saw them out walking one day, and Lindsey shared her candy as we talked in the store. I didn’t know any of those people but they all seemed to like me.”

“I know how that goes,” Spencer says, and sits next to Brendon, their hands touching as Spencer hesitates and then adds, “You were running away from something?”

“My family.” It’s a simplistic answer and one that can be seen worse than it actually is, and Brendon says, “It’s not a huge tragic story or anything. They didn’t lock me under the stairs or feed me scraps. Just they didn’t get me and I had to get out. I’m everything they’re not. They’re steady, sensible, don’t rock the boat ever, highly religious and paragons of the local church community and I’m...

“Perfect,” Spencer says, ending Brendon’s sentence. Which isn’t true. Brendon’s not perfect, he’s a long way from being perfect, but as he looks at Spencer, and sees the way he looks back. Well, for a moment Brendon can believe it.

~*~*~*~*~

If asked, Gerard would never have guessed Brendon would end up falling for Spencer. Sure, now that he knows he can see how they’re happy together, but no matter how many nights they hang out at the diner, it still comes down to the fact that to most of the town Spencer remains hated.

“I thought he had more sense,” Frank says, sneering when he sees the ‘BU4SS’ that’s been chalked on the wall. “What is he, 13?”

Gerard takes a long drink of his coffee then says, “It’s too early for this, and you’ve used the wall plenty yourself.”

“For grown-up shit,” Frank protests, stomping across the diner to check out the wall. “He’s put his stupid tag under my foot. It could have been on the donkey’s side at least.”

Slowly, Gerard follows, preparing himself to bodily stop Frank if he tries to erase Brendon’s message. “I told you, it’s not really you.”

“I know, an artistic rendering of something based on my image, it still looks like me. “Head tilted back, Frank stares at the chalk drawing, a duplicate of the one in Gerard’s sketchbook. “I don’t see why Mikey always gets the cool powers.”

“Because he just does,” Gerard says, not about to explain something that’s not going to change. “And you’ve got cool powers too. You’ve got an electro guitar.”

“Thought you said it wasn't me,” Frank says, head tilted to one side. “Ray’s wearing a tiara, the fuck?”

“It’s the source of his power.” It’s a also a late addition for the diner wall only, one that Gerard’s about to explain when the bell over the door rings and Mikey comes inside.

“Spencer called. Someone else sold up, Bettabuy are going to start to demolish tomorrow.” As news go it’s what Gerard’s been dreading and he can’t understand how Mikey’s appearing so calm -- the real kind of calm and not the kind he usually portrays. “It’s okay though, Pete’s working on something.”

“Spencer’s calling you?” It’s not the part of the conversation Gerard would have picked first, but Frank does have a point. For all Gerard knew Mikey’s been working or hanging out with Patrick and Pete. Spencer’s never featuring into that at all.

Mikey yawns and takes Gerard coffee, draining the cup. “We swapped numbers a few days ago. He knew I was helping Pete.”

“With lawyer’ey stuff?” It’s not that Gerard doesn’t think Mikey could do that, it’s just, he doesn’t know when he’s had time.

Mikey nods, his eyes heavy lidded as he yawns again. “He had an idea, we’ve been helping him check out old cases. But if that doesn’t work out, he says to bring out the rope.”

“It’s coiled and ready,” Gerard says, excitement rising as he imagines tying himself up and protecting his town, an actual physical representation of the figures he’d sketched out. “And Bob says he’s got extra if we need it. Just to let him know so he can hose it down.”

“So we’re doing this?” Frank says, barely able to stay in one place as they talk. “We’re going to tie ourselves up and block the road.”

“We are.” Gerard reaches up, fingertips against the foot of the chalked Gerard. “We’re protecting our town.”

~*~*~*~*~

When he was younger Brendon always did his best to fit in. His theory was, if he was like everyone else, friends were a given -- except it never worked out that way. No matter how hard he tried, how wide his smile, he remained that weird kid, Brendon, the one who was always too much and ended up saying the wrong thing.

Now, years and what feels like a lifetime of experiences later, Brendon’s content in his own skin. Yeah, sometimes he is too loud and too energetic and sometimes runs at a ten when everyone else is below that. But the thing is, his friends don’t care, and whatever he does, they love him regardless.

Knowing that is something that helps Brendon gathers his confidence now. Standing in the middle of the road that leads into town, he tries to remain still as Andy wraps a rope around his waist. It’s the protest taken to the next level, and Brendon’s well aware of what could go wrong.

Imagining bodies squashed under the machines or his friends being carried away by the police, Brendon’s chest is tight as Andy tightens the rope and says, “They probably won’t hit you with the bulldozer, it makes too much of a mess.”

Despite working with Andy, and knowing he actually does have a sense of humor, even if it is skewed a little off base, that knowledge doesn’t help. Especially when Ryan moves to stand next to Brendon.

“Tie me up with Brendon.” Dressed at a Ryan-casual level, in that he’s wearing trainers along with what appears to be a smoking jacket and sweatpants, Ryan holds up his arms, letting Andy wrap the rope around him. “If we end up in prison I’m sharing your cell. I don’t like strangers.”

“Doesn’t work like that,” Andy says cheerfully, whistling under his breath as he tightens knots and indicates to Patrick to come over. “Just remember what I told you. You have to get the first hit in first. A kick in the balls and they’ll respect you.”

In theory it’s something that sounds easy, but Brendon suspects if he tried he’d end up flat on his back and marked for a beating.

“We won’t get squashed, or arrested.” It’s something Brendon has to believe, and even if sometimes those fears push through, Brendon’s doing this anyway. He has to. This is his town, his home, and he’s going to protect it.

Ryan tugs at the rope that attaches him to Brendon. “You okay?”

“Yeah” Brendon says, and the more that he stands there, watching Andy efficiently tie Joe to Frank, the more he believes it. “I think Andy’s enjoying this.”

“He is,” Ryan says, looking past Brendon to see the people who are already tied up. Lindsey to Gerard to Mikey to Patrick to Bob who’s at the end of the line, two dogs at his feet, their leashes wrapped around his hand.

Then those to the other side, to Frank to Mrs Iero to Ray, to Jon who’s waving at his class of kids, all of whom are cheering him on.

It’s a line of Brendon’s friends, people who matter, except for two who aren’t there. Spencer because he can’t be, and Pete, someone who tends to be front and centre in situations like this. Arm pulled back as he turns toward Patrick, Brendon asks, “Where’s Pete?”

“At the office, he’s still working on the idea he had,” Patrick says, frowning as he looks over his shoulder, as if expecting to see Pete appear out of thin air. “He said he had something. He just needed to double check.”

If he wasn’t tied up Brendon would do a celebration somersault for the positive news. As he is tied up, he restricts himself to a quick bounce in place, both Ryan and Lindsey jerking forward. “Sorry, sorry.”

“It’s okay, I get it,” Lindsey says, and does a bounce too. “It’s about time we had some good news.”

“He said not to get our hopes up,” Mikey says, pulled up close to Gerard in order to hear better. “But he seemed super excited. He’ll come through.”

“I hope so, because they’re coming.” It’s Ryan who speaks, his voice flat and expression blank. Except, Brendon knows Ryan and can see the nerves he’s trying to keep hidden as the sound of an engine gets louder.

“Remember, keep your line, show them we mean business,” Andy yells, running to take his place at the end of the line, becoming part of the living barricade that blocks off the road.

“Death by bulldozer, not how I expected to go,” Gerard says softly, and Brendon’s sure he’s talking to himself until he turns and sees Gerard is looking only at Mikey, ignoring the bulldozer that’s appeared on the horizon.

Mikey smiles for an instant, says, “A Way pancake, it seems fitting somehow.”

“Not as good as the ones I make,” Brendon says, clinging onto the joke as he reaches out his hands and grasps hold of Ryan and Lindsey’s, their fingers wrapping around Brendon’s. Holding on, Brendon’s barely aware of the photographer who’s appeared and started taking photos or how Jon’s class is being ushered away. All that matters is the bulldozer that’s still moving forward, and the car at its side, which has to be the high-ups from Bettabuy come to make sure the demolition goes ahead.

Except it’s not them at all.

A screech of tires and the car comes to a stop on the grass at the side of the road. The door opening as Spencer jumps out, running as he yells Brendon’s name.

Confused, Brendon can feel his hands sweat, his heart thundering as Spencer pulls off his tie and suit jacket, throwing them both on the road. His shirt follows, the white material fluttering down to the asphalt as Spencer keeps running in undershirt and pants only.

“I thought I was going to be too late,” Spencer says, wide-eyed as he sees the bulldozer run over his tie. A quick smile for Lindsey, and Spencer stands between Ryan and Brendon, indicating their joined hands. “Can I?”

“You took your time,” Ryan says, slipping his hand out of Brendon’s and into Spencer’s instead. Their fingers wrapped together, Ryan looks at Brendon, rolling his eyes when he sees Brendon’s not moving. “Hold his hand, idiot. He’s making a grand gesture.”

“I am,” Spencer agrees, his smile fading as Brendon still doesn’t move. “Unless you’ve changed your mind and you don’t want it.”

Brendon does. More than anything, but he has to laugh at the timing. That the first time someone does make a grand gesture it’s seconds from Brendon’s potential arrest or death by bulldozer. Taking a moment to wipe his palm on his thigh, Brendon says, “I do.”

“Good, this would be a sucky moment to be dumped.” HIs smile returning Spencer entwines his fingers with Brendon’s, unroped but still part of the protest as he says, “I gave up my job. It sucks and I hate it.”

“So you decided to come protest instead?” Brendon says, trying to understand the terms of this gesture. That Spencer’s given up his corporate career is obvious, but Brendon doesn’t understand why now, after Spencer’s spent so long holding on for his parents. “You’ve fallen for the town that much?”

“No,” Spencer says, and apart from the sound of the engine, everyone else remains silent. No more rallying cries or yells of protest, just people unashamedly listening in as Spencer adds, “I’ve fallen for you.”

Despite telling himself not to, Brendon’s unable to stop laughing, forcing himself to stop when Spencer’s face drops. “Sorry, sorry, it’s just. You pick your moments. Death by bulldozer, quitting your job and a declaration like that all in a few minutes.”

“It’s a go for it day,” Spencer says, and then, “We’re not going to die. I’ve just talked to Pete.”

“Oh fuck yes!”

Surprised, Brendon looks along the line and sees Mikey and Gerard jointly holding Mikey’s phone, reading something that’s made Mikey shout with delight.

“I think Mikey’s just talked to him too,” Spencer says, squeezing Brendon’s hand as the white shirt gets caught on the bulldozers treads and gets ripped apart within seconds.

“You’ve got good news?” Brendon asks, needing to know, but all Spencer does is shake his head and look over his shoulder.

“It’s Pete’s news to tell.”

Brendon looks back too, and sees Pete running, waving a sheaf of papers in the air as he comes close.

“You need to stop, now!” Uncaring of getting too close, Pete ducks under Mikey and Gerard’s clasped hands and skids to a stop, the papers held up toward the bulldozer’s driver. “These are proof that Bettabuy has no right to buy property in town. Any previous transactions have been made null and void and I have the paperwork to prove it.”

It’s more than Brendon ever dared hope for, and he looks at Spencer and says, “They can’t buy up the properties?”

“Not without jumping through a load of hoops, and I happen to know they didn’t even attempt those hoops,” Spencer says, his voice loud in the sudden silence as the bulldozer’s engine abruptly stops. “I figured Pete should know too.”

“You used insider knowledge to sabotage their buy-up,” Ryan says, and at Spencer’s nod, Ryan pulls Spencer into a quick hug, Brendon barely able to hear him whisper, “I knew you’d come through.”

“Does this mean that we’ve won?” Brendon’s sure that it does, but he still has to make certain, still gripping onto Lindsey and Spencer’s hand as Pete stands in front of the line, waiting for silence.

Finally, when everyone is looking his way, Pete says, “As of nine oh five Bettabuy rescinded any and all offers on properties in this town after they realizedtheir costs would be considerably more than expected. As such they’ve withdrawn interest in developing a supermarket in town. Nothing will be demolished, nothing will be changed.”

“You did it, you and Pete.” Brendon can barely believe it, unable to stand still a moment longer as he jumps up and punches the air. “You won!”

“You all won,” Spencer corrects, nearly toppling forward as all around people celebrate, the rope around Brendon’s middle pulled tight as he’s engulfed into a mass hug. Feeling Spencer’s hand start to slip away, Brendon tightens his hold and pulls, until Spencer’s part of the hug too.

“No escaping,” Brendon says, his face close to Spencer’s. “You’ve been part of this, too.”

“Mostly a bad part,” Spencer points out, pushed even closer to Brendon when someone bumps against his back. “I nearly sold your town.”

“But you didn’t,” and that’s all that matters. That and the fact that Brendon has Spencer right here, close enough to kiss. “I want to kiss you right now.”

“Then do it, before I do it for you,” somebody says, the noise and chaos meaning Brendon isn’t actually sure who. But he can feel someone’s bony knee jabbed against his leg and the smell of old musty books, clues enough that Brendon tugs hard on his rope.

“I’ve got this,” and Brendon does, as he celebrates the win with a kiss.