"You're needed in the pens," Rolof says, and leans against the fence, his elbows hooked over the orange-painted slats. He yawns, making no attempt to cover his mouth. "You'd better hurry. Roll out's in an hour."
Ryan doesn't look up, just keeps folding his outfit, each crease deliberate, careful. "There's been a delivery? I thought Horace couldn't get anything new?"
Rolof rubs at the side of his head, smearing black liner from the corner of his eye. "No delivery, it's a capture that chose to come here." He heaves himself upright and looks over his shoulder, toward where the main arena is already half collapsed and surrounded by men. Rolof pulls in air through his teeth and fixes Ryan with a pointed look. "No hints this time."
"Right." Ryan opens his bag, unfastening the grimy strings. It takes him a few moments to pack away his outfit, his comb, the pouch containing liner and grease and the stub of blush. His fingers ache as he refastens the knot and straightens the strap, making sure it rests just so on his shoulder before he stands. Upright, he brushes dust off his knees and picks straw off his tunic. "No hints."
"Good," Rolof says, and takes a step back, attention divided between Ryan and an engine that's starting with a squeal of sound. "Go. There's not much time."
A last glance around and Ryan goes, his chin held high, defiant against the cat-calls from the breakers as they collapse the booths and get ready for roll out. He meets each blatant stare with one of his own, but he doesn't slow. He never slows, not when he's alone -- touching isn't allowed but there's always someone ready to push the rules, reaching out and grabbing hold of merchandise they could never afford.
Water squelches as Ryan steps from the pen and onto the planks that stretch across the field, make-shift wooden paths that wind through the pens -- almost fully collapsed now, blankets and mattresses stacked in piles -- and past the waiting rows of engines, each one pulling a wheeled large gilded cage. Shivering in the cold wind, he skirts a row of metal trunks and steps over a flag pole that's lying on the ground, its yellow and blue stripes splattered with mud.
"Gonna give us a freebie, Willow?"
Shoulders tight, Ryan looks at the breaker who's dismantling the arena walls. He's holding a painted panel, white-tipped fingers against a picture of a kneeling man, and he grins, wide and lecherous as he deliberately looks Ryan up and down.
"You know you want to take on a real man. Some of this and you'll be paying me."
Ryan's heard it all before and doesn't bother to respond, there's no point and it's not like the words can physically hurt. Never increasing his pace he ducks between two engines, nose wrinkling as he walks over soiled straw and into the other remaining upright pen. It's part of the red quadrant and scarlet streamers hang from the wooden fences that surround each sectioned small space, the beds inside already stripped and ready to be packed away.
"Willow, over here."
Ryan follows the sound of Pete's voice and walks through a narrow gap and emerges into what's left of the red showplace. It's almost empty now, the raised platforms and material walls stripped away leaving a bare wooden floor and one last table surrounded by chairs. Sitting on the chairs are two men -- boys really -- and Ryan feels cold as he takes in their threadbare clothes and easy smiles. It's a combination that screams naivety. Ryan doesn't know their story but he can guess how it goes. It's all too sadly familiar and all he wants to yell is run. No matter how it seems, this isn't the best option at all.
Pete smiles when Ryan gets close. The fake smile he uses when he performs, all teeth and false cheer. He's sitting on the table and taps his fingers against his thigh as he swings his feet, the toes of his sandals brushing against the floor. "This is Brendon and Jon, they're joining us."
Metal chair legs scrape against wood as one of the boys stands and holds out his hand. He grins wide, says, "Hi, I'm Brendon."
Ryan exchanges a look with Pete and Pete shakes his head minutely. A warning that no matter how Ryan feels he has to follow the rules, there's too much at stake to risk giving anything away. Ignoring Brendon, Ryan sits and puts his bag on his lap, pushing aside his guilt when Brendon's smile fades and he drops his hand.
Sliding to the edge of the table, Pete stands, his smile vanishing. "They're with you. Fill them in about the usual stuff."
"Wait." Ryan reaches out and grabs Pete's arm, stopping him from walking away. "I thought. They said Sp... Sunshine would be back in amber today."
Pete shrugs and doesn't push back his bangs when they fall into his eyes. "They say a lot of things."
"But I've done what they said," Ryan protests. He's still holding onto Pete's arm, fingers gripped tight and he can feel how Pete's trembling under his outwardly projected calm. "I did everything."
"I need to go." Pete steps back and Ryan loosens his hold, watching as Pete flashes a fake grin toward Brendon and Jon before almost running from the area.
"Is he okay?" The other boy -- Jon -- is leaning back in his chair, head tilted to the side as he watches Pete leave. He's got long dark hair that curls against his neck and he absently tucks it behind his ear. Ryan can see why he's been signed up, why they both have. Aesthetically they fit, too thin, too young, an air of desperation pushing close. They're perfect for the fair and they're going to be eaten alive.
"What did Pan tell you about this place?" Ryan asks, hoping that Pete's already explained the details of what they do. It's always easier when he does and Ryan's relieved when Brendon leans forward, his eyes widening slightly.
"He didn't say much, but Horace said we'd get regular food and somewhere to sleep in return for performing."
Which is all technically true, but Ryan has to bite his lip, remind himself Spencer in order not to reveal the reality of each promise. That food is the most basic of rations, the beds for sleeping, straw. Licking his tongue over the raw spot on the inside of his mouth, Ryan says, "You know what kind of performing, yeah?"
"Sex stuff, we know," Jon says. "That's fine, and it's a hell of a lot better than being sent to the labor camp."
"Yeah, sex is fun, building stuff not so much." Brendon's tapping his foot against the floor and Ryan wants to press his hand against Brendon's knee and stop him moving. "And we get to see the world. That'll be awesome."
"Yeah," Ryan comments, and doesn't add that Brendon will be lucky if he ever sees the outside of the fair again. He shifts in his chair, trying to get comfortable. "When we get to the next city you'll need outfits. We'll discuss names on the way."
Brendon jumps to his feet and turns on the spot, one arm bent like he was swishing an invisible cape. "Can I get a cape? And what names?"
"No cape," Ryan says, and stands too, but slower, his hips protesting. "And the names are what you'll use here. For the shows and johns."
"You're telling me Willow's not your real name?" Jon smiles, slow and easy. "Shame, it's a cool name."
Ryan doesn't smile back, but he does relax a little, his shoulders dropping at the lack of mockery in Jon's comment. "Thanks." He starts to walk and winces when the edge of his bag bounces against the fist-sized bruise that trails from under the waistband of his pants. Readjusting the bag, Ryan presses the flat of his hand against his hip and then, even though he knows he shouldn't, he has to ask. "The papers, you've already signed them?"
"First thing we did," Jon says, and picks up a small pack which he shrugs onto his shoulders. "Horace said it was better if we did, otherwise the camps could insist on us going there. I really don't want to spend my life rebuilding cities with my bare hands."
Angry, Ryan turns away, before he's unable to stop himself verbally smashing down Horace's gilded lies. Before, when Spencer wasn't held in red, Ryan would have tried to help, giving hints that Brendon and Jon need to change their mind and join the labor camps, that at least there all they'd face was crumbling buildings and radioactive hot spots. Now he's got no choice but to play along, and ease anyone new into this life as best as he can.
"How do we travel? I was never allowed to go see the fair leave town." Brendon's looking around, interest caught by everything he sees. He walks backwards, looking up at a breaker who's high up on a ladder, taking down a line of flags that he lets flutter to the ground.
Up high the flags look crisp and colorful, but up close the edges are tattered, the material worn through and in places, holed. Brendon crouches and picks up the line of flags, holding them out to the breaker who's sliding to the bottom of the ladder. "Do you want a hand to gather the rest? I can help."
"Don't," Ryan says sharply, and despite not knowing Brendon he reaches for his arm, holding on and pulling him away. "He doesn't need your help."
"Says who?" The breaker takes a step forward, crowding into Brendon's space. "I'm sure he can help me in lots of ways. What do you say hot stuff, want to give me a freebie? Show me what that cock-sucking mouth can do."
Ryan pushes himself between Brendon and the breaker, says coldly, "Back off. Now!" It takes all of Ryan's nerve to stand his ground. While the rules of the fair say no touching it doesn't mean it doesn't happen, sex-starved workers too poor to pay taking despite the consequences. Thankfully, this time the breaker steps back, looking scornful.
"You know it." The back of his neck prickling, Ryan turns and pulls Brendon away. "Come on."
"I don't...." Brendon sounds confused and looks between the breaker and Ryan. "Did I do something wrong?"
"No. Yes." Ryan keeps hold until they're out of earshot then drops his hand, rubbing his palm against his tunic. "You can't offer to help the breakers, you can't even talk to them. They're not like us."
Brendon looks past Ryan to where the breaker is coiling the flags around his arm. "Because they do physical work? That's stupid, we're no better than them. You can't judge like..."
"It's not that," Ryan cuts in, hating how Brendon's looking at him like Ryan's some kind of elitist snob, which is so wrong it's almost laughable. Ryan's well aware of his position in life, and it's right at the bottom. He steps off a plank and muddy water seeps into his sandals, making his feet slide unpleasantly as he walks. "We're sold for sex; that comes with a label, and some people take advantage."
"We'll take care." Jon sounds sincere and he gives Brendon a quick reassuring smile. "Is there anything else we should know?"
Ryan could tell him hundreds of things. Never allow yourself to be tied down by someone who's obviously high. The best ways to fake enjoyment while being fucked in the arena. How to take care of bites and bruises with water and soap. They're all things that need to be learned, but not yet, when they don't even know the basics that'll keep them alive.
"Just keep away from the breakers. They have their own wagons and sleep areas, and make sure your brand is showing when the john's are around."
Brendon swallows hard and crosses his arms across his chest. "Brand? Horace said we'd need to be marked but I thought he meant a collar or bracelet. That's what he meant right? You've got a bracelet hidden under your tunic."
Ryan's foot slips out of the front of his sandal and cold water is pushed between his toes as he stops walking. Holding out his left hand he shakes his arm so his tunic sleeve slides back, exposing the brand that's burned into onto the inside of his wrist, white scar tissue making a looping design. "No bracelet."
"Fuck," Jon says softly, and reaches out as if he wants to touch. Then stops himself as Ryan takes an instinctive step back. "Did that hurt?"
Truthfully Ryan can't remember, time and countless other hurts stacking up since it was done. He curls up his hand, fingertips touching the swirl that extends onto his palm. "It's over quick."
"That's not reassuring." Brendon's got his hand wrapped around his wrist like it's already aching, and he looks solemn as he tries to look at Ryan's brand.
Ryan shrugs. It wasn't meant to be reassuring and no matter what he says it's still going to happen, all he can do is try to lessen the hurt. "When we get to the next city ask Pan to do it, not Horace. He likes branding too much."
"Isn't Pan traveling with us?" Brendon asks. He's still holding his wrist but he's gone back to looking around, taking a keen interest in everything they pass.
Ryan shakes his head. "He's part of red quadrant. They've their own engine."
"Right." Jon's looking past Ryan, as if he's trying to remember something he's been told. "Red is the hard-core shit, yeah? Kinks and stuff."
Before Ryan can reply Brendon's talking, turning so he's walking backwards again as he looks between Ryan and Jon. "I saw one of those kink shows once. My brother took me one night, we snuck out for some bro bonding time, but we got separated and I ended up at this performance. They had someone suspended from hooks, through his back, legs and arms and it had to be staged because who'd want hooks through their skin? And he was hanging there with all these other guys jerking off around him." Brendon rubs at his face and licks at his lips. "We won't be hung on hooks will we?"
"Not while you're in amber. We get the mainstream stuff."
"Good," Brendon says, sounding relieved. "I can do that. The performances, too. As long as there've no hooks."
Jon grins and digs Brendon in the side with his elbow. "You just want an excuse to get naked."
With a swipe of his hand, Brendon indicates the length of his body. "I have an awesome body, it's a shame to cover this up."
"Like you make much of an effort to do that." Jon's mouth remains quirked into a smile as he turns to Ryan. "He's always getting naked. How he hasn't got frost bite I'll never know."
"Because I'm hot like fire, baby!"
Brendon's whole face is lit up and yet again Ryan can see why Horace has taken him on. Brendon looks happy and so painfully young that it's inevitable he's going to be popular as soon as he's offered for sale. Stomach cramping, Ryan says brusquely, "We need to hurry up."
"Going, sorry." Brendon keeps smiling as he falls in next to Ryan, walking so they're side-by-side as they leave the viewing area and walk outside. Brendon's on the sodden grass and not the plank and each one of his footsteps is a squelch, water quickly soaking his shoes . It doesn't take long to get to the engines, and the closer they get the more the air is full of the scent of diesel and smoke. Sometimes Ryan thinks he's got the smell ingrained in his skin, smoke and spunk and dirt, layered on no matter how often he washes and scrubs at his body.
"We're traveling in cages?" They've arrived at the row of engines, each one hooked up to a gilded cage and Jon's mouth is open as he looks at them all, taking in the piled up straw and colored banners that hang from the top bars. "Horace didn't mention that."
"He wouldn't," Ryan steps over a puddle onto the mud which is lined with crisscrossing tire tracks. He's heading for Mikey who's sitting on one of the trunks that holds the props for red. He's got his legs brought up to his chest and his head resting on his knees, his eyes closed as if he's asleep. Perching himself on the edge of the trunk, careful that he's not unexpectedly touching, Ryan says softly, "Shadow, hi."
"Ryan." Mikey opens his eyes, showing that they're blood-shot and red-rimmed. He yawns and pushes his hair out of his face, and Ryan sees that his arms are covered in fresh burns and dark bruises circle each wrist, showing off his brand in sharp relief. "Pete says there's fresh meat."
Mikey's talking slowly, his words thick but he's present enough that Ryan rests his hand on Mikey's knee, pressing a warning. "They're right here. Shadow, this is Brendon and Jon."
"Fuck," Mikey swears under his breath and he mouths a sorry to Ryan before turning his attention to Brendon and Jon. Mikey wiggles his fingers in their direction. "Hi."
"Hey," Jon says, and he smiles at Mikey as Brendon waves his own greeting.
A pause, and Ryan needs to know about Spencer, but not while Brendon and Jon are listening. Pointing toward the amber engine he says, "Go wait over there. I'll be right over." It's taking a chance, they've been put in Ryan's charge and they're so new they should be chaperoned at all times, but Ryan needs to pass on this message, and he watches as they walk away, their heads together as they talk.
"They keep getting younger." Mikey's eyes are closing again and Ryan squeezes his knee, needing Mikey to be aware.
"Mikey. How's Spencer?" It's been nearly a week since Spencer was taken away and Ryan's about out of his mind with worry. He's existing on brief public meetings and the messages he can pass via Mikey and Pete but it's not enough, it can't be enough. Second hand reassurances doing nothing to ease the separation. "Is he on the red wagon already? I haven't seen him."
"He's not traveling with us." Mikey blinks hard, trying to push back the effects of whatever drug that's in his system. "He bit someone last night. They threw him in solitary."
"What? Why didn't you tell me?" His stomach leaden, Ryan wants to shake Mikey until he gives every detail. "I could have. Could have tried. Something."
Mikey clasps his hands around his legs, his fingers blanched white where they're laced together. "I only found out this morning. It was a hard night. I'd have stopped him if I could."
Ryan counts to ten and reminds himself this isn't Mikey's fault, that there was nothing he could actually do. "Tell me what happened. Exactly."
Mikey brings his hand to his mouth and nips at the skin on the side of his thumb. "I didn't see it happen, I was with a john, he got off on the smell of burned flesh and by the time he was done Spencer had been taken away. Pete saw, though. Spencer's john wanted him to take a whip to Bryce, he refused and when the john tried to make him there was a scuffle and Spencer bit the guy's arm."
Ryan's whole body feels weighted down and all of his strength drains away. All he wants to do is see Spencer, the loss so great it's a physical thing lodged deep in his chest.
"He's a fucking hero," Mikey goes on, and Ryan agrees, but at the same time, he wouldn't wish solitary on his worst enemy and part of him wishes Spencer had pushed aside his principles just once.
Listing to the side, Ryan rests his weight against Mikey, knowing he won't let him fall. It's not often that Ryan initiates contact, but it feels good to touch someone who feels safe and Ryan allows himself a full minute, his head against Mikey's shoulder. "I miss him, Mikey."
"I know," Mikey says, and Ryan screws shut his eyes, fighting for the control he needs to get through the day.
It's the sound of a whistle that gets Ryan moving. Opening his eyes he flashes Mikey a small smile before sliding off the trunk and making his way over to Brendon and Jon. They're standing next to the cage for amber, looking inside and plainly overwhelmed. Making his way to the entrance, Ryan pulls it open and climbs inside. Hands wrapped around the metal bars he looks down, says, "If you need to piss go do it now. We won't be stopping."
Brendon steps close to the cage, looking through Ryan's legs. "There's no bathroom in there?"
"Sure, there's an invisible one right over there," Ryan snaps back, and feels like he's kicked a puppy when Brendon jerks away, looking startled.
"I just thought. I didn't think we'd travel like this. On display."
Ryan rests his forehead against the bars. A headache is taking hold and he breathes in deep, trying to relax. He's still got so much to tell and feeling so wound up won't help. "It's what we do, Brendon. You'll have to get used to being on display."
Brendon nods and smiles, but even now, after so short a time it's fainter than before. "I can get used to it. It's only people looking, that's nothing, right?"
"Right," Ryan replies, and knows Jon hears the lie when he looks at him sharply. "If you don't need to piss you should get inside. We'll be moving soon."
Regaining some of his enthusiasm, Brendon jumps inside, not bothering with the step. Wandering around the cage he inspects the piles of straw, finding the stack of blankets and tarpaulin. Seeing it his expression tightens slightly, but he makes no comment, just throws himself down, wiggling on the ground until he's hidden in the straw. "Not bad. I could sleep in this."
"The best spot is here," Ryan says, and he sets down his bag at the end of the cage close to the engine and its generated warmth. It's where Ryan and Spencer have slept for the last year, and instinct has Ryan picking up two blankets before he remembers and lets one drop back to the ground. "Grab a blanket and some straw."
Jon picks up two of the rough wool blankets and throws the red one at Brendon. He clutches the other one to his chest, frowning as he looks outside. "I don't get it. They want to show us off sleeping or just sitting around? It doesn't seem much of a draw."
He walks to the bars and the cage rocks slightly. Automatically compensating for the movement Ryan puts his blanket next to his bag and then joins Jon. "There's side covers for most of the journey. They let them down when we're away from the cities."
Jon narrows his eyes against the sun as he looks up at the coverings that are folded up at the top of the cage. "There's nothing over the top."
"No one sees the top," Ryan says, and it's not like the side coverings provide much protection either. They're mostly there for advertising purposes and if he could get away with it Horace would leave the cages uncovered at all times. As it is regulation state he needs to provide some weather protection and Ryan usually enjoys traveling in the semi-dark. It's the only time he gets any kind of privacy at all and normally he'd curl up with Spencer, becoming lost in the sound of the road and talking about anything but work.
"How long do we travel?" Brendon's blanket is in his lap and he's got one of his hands pressed against his stomach, when he sits up there's straw in his hair. Plucking a strand free he puts it in his mouth so it hangs out of the corner. "And do we get fed on the way?"
"You didn't get to eat?" Ryan asks, and suppresses a sigh. "Of course you didn't."
The straw moves in Brendon's mouth, like he's chewing on the end. "The authorities took us straight to Horace as soon as we made the choice to come here. We were in the holding block before then."
"So you haven't eaten at all today?"
"We had something a few days ago, before we got caught," Jon replies, trying to sound unconcerned. "We're fine."
Ryan doesn't want to deal with this. He wants to burrow under his blanket and sleep, not take on more worries, especially when they're worries centered on two people he doesn't even know. Furious, at Horace for taking advantage, at Brendon and Jon for being so naive, at Spencer for being so fucking principled, Ryan snatches up his bag and jumps outside. "I'll be back in five minutes. If Ronan comes tell him I've gone to see Pan."
Ryan doesn't need to look back to know they're both watching him go. It's why he doesn't look back, just hurries through the bustling chaos that signals imminent departure until he spots Pete, who's sitting in the open entrance to the red cage. He's resting his head against the metal bars and close behind him Ryan can just see Mikey, covered over with a blanket and apparently fast asleep.
Pete watches Ryan come close. "I know you know Spencer isn't here."
"I'm not here for that." Ryan looks around, making sure that no one is within hearing distance. It's bad enough that he's asking for a favor, having people know he's doing so wouldn't be smart at all. "Brendon and Jon haven't eaten today. I know you keep stuff."
It's no secret that Pete usually has a stash of food. Neither he or Mikey tends to eat much and saving the left-overs leads to valuable trade currency with the other performers and staff. Not that Ryan's ever indulged, at least until now. Reaching behind him, Pete pulls a bag from under the straw that's piled next to Mikey. Usually Ryan sees the bag on Pete's back but today he positions it on his knee and unfastens the ties. "I've got sausages and half a sandwich, an orange too. It's a bit dry, though."
"That's great," Ryan says awkwardly and takes the napkin-wrapped food that Pete hands over. "I don't. Whatever you want in return I'll do it."
Pete fastens his bag, his face hidden by his hair that falls into his face. "I don't want anything." He looks up and pushes back his bangs and they stay slicked back with sweat. Ryan scratches at his own scalp, it's been an unseasonable hot day and it seems like forever ago since he'd managed to properly wash.
"I can't just take it."
"You're my friend," Pete says. "It's not a trade."
Ryan clutches the small bundle of food. He feels touched and embarrassed and more than anything, wishes Spencer was here to help when he feels so awkward. In the end all he can think to say is, "Thank you."
Pete shrugs one shoulder and brings up his feet so his heels are tucked against the edge of the mental floor. "You'd better get back, we'll be moving soon."
Ryan nods sharply, and then heads back to his own cage. Most of the planks have been taken up by now and by the time he gets back his feet are soaked, the straps of his sandals chaffing against his ankles as he climbs inside. He finds Jon and Brendon standing close together and stealing glances at Ronan who's in his usual spot, curled up in one corner and surrounded by straw.
Brendon's frowning, and as soon as Ryan's inside he immediately moves close and says, "Does he talk? We said hi but he ignored us and lay down."
"He talks when he wants." Which used to be a lot more until Timothy was found dead and his john covered in blood. "Here." Ryan hands over the food to Brendon, and then sinks down into a pile of straw, resting against the bars at the back of the cage.
"You got us food." Brendon sounds surprised, and he shows the napkin-wrapped bundle to Jon before moving to sit next to Ryan, so close they're almost touching. Shifting over slightly, Ryan blinks when Brendon starts to tear the sausages in half.
"I got them for you."
Brendon hands half a sausage to Jon, who's folded himself to the floor next to Brendon, and then tries to give the other half to Ryan. "Take it."
Ryan stares at Brendon, seeing how he's eyeing the sausage hungrily even as he holds it out to Ryan. "I'm not hungry."
Brendon tears his gaze away and looks directly at Ryan, studying him as if he's trying to see the lie in Ryan's statement. It makes Ryan feel uncomfortable: he's used to being watched, it's part of what he does, but Brendon's not watching the lines of Ryan's body or shouting approval of some flexible position, he's actually seeing Ryan. Which is something Ryan doesn't like at all. "You look hungry. Do you even eat?"
"I eat," Ryan shoots back, and he pulls his bag close, tightening the straps as an excuse to look away.
"Thank you," Jon says then, and when Ryan looks up he's biting into his part of the sandwich, talking through a mouthful of stale bread and mystery meat. "We owe you."
"No, you don't," Ryan says quickly. He slumps back, the metal bars digging into his shoulder blades and all around is the sound of engines revving up and people shouting. Directing these last frantic parts of roll out, when the fair is completely packed away leaving behind nothing but memories and flattened grass. Conserving the last of his energy, Ryan looks blankly ahead as the first engine starts to move, the red flags attached to the cage fluttering wildly as it bumps over the grass toward the road that heads toward the city.
The engine slows when it gets onto the road, easing around the tight corner and Ryan watches as Pete kneels over Mikey, no doubt urging him to stand. Ryan knows he has to do the same and he rubs at his eyes as he twists onto his knees and hauls himself to his feet. One hand wrapped around the bars he ruffles his hair and pinches at his cheeks, staggering slightly when they begin to move. Already the red engine is driving onto the road which gives him a few minutes to get Jon and Brendon ready. Which isn't enough time, but thankfully leaving an area is never a big deal compared to the arrival.
"They need to get up." Ronan has taken his place along from Ryan and is busy unbuttoning the top buttons of his tunic.
"I know," Ryan says tersely, and notes that Jon and Brendon have followed Ryan's lead and are already standing, swaying in place as the cage is towed over the sodden ground. "You need to stand here. They're be people waiting on the roads, they always are."
Brendon stands next to Ryan, but he's watching Ronan tug at his pants so they're lying lower on his hips. Teeth digging into his bottom lip, Brendon says uncertainly, "Should I do that too? Because I don't look like him, or you. People won't want to look."
"You look fine." Ryan unfastens his own tunic so it hangs open, exposing his stomach. There's a smear of something, running from his ribs down and Ryan drags his thumbnail over the top, dislodging the flakes. Most nights he manages to give himself a thorough wash with the hose but it's harder with Spencer away. Ryan's got no one to watch his back and he'd only managed a cursory rub with a wet rag before bedding down for the night.
Jon looks past Brendon, and while he looks relaxed there's tension in his voice when he says, "So, we just stand here and be ogled?"
"Yeah," Ryan says. "Just stand there and keep smiling. Show them you love working for the fair." Which as lies go is so laughable that if Ryan started he'd be unable to stop. "And if they. If they say stuff. Ignore it."
"Stuff like what?" Brendon asks as the engine reaches the road, making the cage bounce as they move from grass to cracked asphalt, onto the road that's lined with small groups of people.
It's not the biggest crowd Ryan's ever seen. The traveling fairs tend to be a big draw, attracting people desperate to see those brazen enough to sell sex. Mostly they tend to stay back, government matched couples who want to mutter together and gawp, but there's always groups that disapprove. The ones that campaign against the right for legalized sex outside marriage, the ones that think sex is only for conception, the ones that hate any sex at all. Then the ones who think the entertainers are some kind of animals, there to be mocked and jeered and scorned. Sometimes Ryan thinks he should hate those most of all, but he doesn't. He hates the ones who affect outrage, the men with their wives at their side, silently condemning while days before Ryan had writhed on a bed, their cocks balls deep in his ass.
Brendon takes a deep breath and tries to smooth the wrinkles out of his pants, his smile fixed as they approach the first group. "I don't understand. Why are they here? We're leaving, right?"
"Human nature, they like to look and think they're better than us," Ryan says, and he knows he sounds bitter. He can't help it when he hears the first whispers and then, ribald shouts.
"Going to perform for us whore? Give us all a show."
"Get on your knees and suck the little one off!"
"Who'd pay for sex with that?!"
Usually Ryan deals by slipping away mentally, going to a place that's safe. It's something he can do easily, keeping up the posing and enticing looks while his mind is elsewhere. Today that's impossible, he's too distracted by Brendon and Jon, who're trying their best to look unaffected by the comments that are flung their way. Ryan runs his hand down the length of his chest and stomach, fingertips just under the waistband of his pants as he glances at a man who's staring his way "We'll have passed them soon. Keep smiling."
Eventually, when Jon looks pinched and even Brendon's smile is little more than a curve of his mouth, the crowds thin, and then dwindle to nothing. As soon as there's no one watching Ryan steps back from the bars and buttons his tunic before starting to unhook the coverings from the top of the cage. Fingers twinging he unties the knots while Ronan does the same at the other end, and then, together, they let the covering drop. It's made of canvas, The Amazing Horace's Traveling Sex Show painted in what was once bright gold. Now most of the letters are peeling and there's a hole in one corner that seems to get bigger by the day.
Minutes and the other two coverings are let down, shadows filling the interior of the cage. Welcoming the much needed privacy, Ryan walks back to his blanket and eases himself down, says, "Take the time to rest, you'll be busy later."
Jon indicates the area next to Ryan. "Is it okay if we stay there?"
Ryan wants to say no, that this is his and Spencer's place. Instead he shrugs and unfolds the blanket so it covers his lap. "If you want. We should talk anyway."
"About the names, right?" Brendon grabs his own blanket and when he sits down he clutches it to his chest, his chin against the rough material. He looks at Ryan, then away. "Is it always like that?"
"Most time it's worse." Ryan can't see any point cushioning the blow, they'll find out soon enough and at least this way they're warned. He tucks his hands under the blanket and rubs them together, trying to ease the pain in his joints. "You get used to it, sort of."
"I didn't think it would be like this." Brendon sounds defeated and looks just as bad, his chin to his chest and shoulders slumped. Suppressing a shiver Ryan tries to push back his fear. If Brendon goes out like this he'll be one of those that don't survive. Again, Ryan wishes for Spencer, for Pete, anyone that can give encouraging words and reassurances that are beyond Ryan right now. Each time he tries, opens his mouth to tell Brendon everything will work out okay, the words get stuck in his throat, trapped by a harsh reality that screams to be heard.
Ryan flexes his fingers and looks directly at Brendon, says flatly, "You signed the papers. You've got no choice."
Brendon collapses in on himself even further, and Jon pulls him close in a hug. "We could run. We've done it before."
"No. No you couldn't," Ryan says, and remembers bodies lying on dried grass, blood and broken bones and last cut-off gurgling screams. "You'll be caught, they always are."
His arm around Jon, Brendon sits up straight, fear draining away to be replaced by sudden determination. "We'll stay here then, be the best performers ever."
Ryan's unsure if it's faked bravado or if Brendon's pulled on some hidden inner strength. Not that it matters, all Ryan cares about is survival, and for that no one can appear weak, however that's achieved. He leans forward and pulls off his sodden sandals, setting them to one side to dry before grabbing a handful of straw and using it to dry his bare toes.
"You said we needed names," Brendon says, and there's no hint of his former smile. "Tell us everything to be the best."
Ryan begins to talk.
Arriving at a new city is much more of a production than when they depart. At the sound of multiple whistles Ryan starts out of sleep, his heart racing as he sits, the blanket crumpling around his waist. Yawning, he stretches out his foot and pokes his toes briefly against Jon's leg and says, "You need to wake up now." Jon wakes easily, he's still in a normal pattern where sleeping is done at night, and it looks like he's been more dozing than actually asleep. It's the same for Brendon who looks wide awake as he sits but Ryan's still exhausted, the talk with Brendon and Jon cutting into his much-needed rest.
Every part of his body hurts as he struggles to his feet and stumbles to the bars at the end of the cage. Steadying himself against them he pulls back the covering slightly, squinting shut his eyes as he looks outside. There's nothing interesting to see, the usual jagged horizon of broken buildings next to new but for now they're traveling on an isolated road that's bordered by fields full of crops covered by huge plastic bubbles. Taking the opportunity Ryan unfastens his pants, keeping the covering held back with one hand, his forehead against the bars as he pees outside, leaving a trail that joins two others, and he knows up ahead people are awake in red.
"Hm, efficient," Jon says and takes the covering from Ryan, pulling it back even further and holding it in place as he unzips his pants.
Ryan shakes off and pulls himself right, his stomach growling as he fastens his buttons. It'll be a while before he can eat, they need to get to the new location and wait as pens are set up and the arena assembled. The only plus is the potential to see Spencer and Ryan intends to sneak to the isolation wagon as soon as he can. Until then they have to get through the journey into the city and then sometime today find Pete for a branding. Running his fingers over his own brand Ryan kneels on his blanket and pulls out his bag. Reaching inside he pulls out his blush and liner and sets them both on the floor. Usually this is something he does with Spencer, their own ritual as they paint on the make-up that takes them from Ryan and Spencer to Willow and Sunshine. For the last week Ryan's been doing it alone.
Brendon's watching him curiously, but he makes no attempt to touch, just sits with his chin resting against his clasped hands. Picking up the liner, Ryan brings the pencil up to his eye and carefully positions it close to the corner.
"Don't you have a mirror?"
"Don't you think I'd be using it if I did?" Ryan says back as he glances at Brendon, who's leaning forward and frowning slightly.
"I could..." Brendon pulls in a deep breath, as if he's gathering courage. "I could do that. It would be easier."
"No," Ryan says. He doesn't even consider saying yes, there's only a few people he'd willingly let close and not one of them are here. Keeping his hand steady he begins to draw a line under his eye, hoping he's close to the lashes. When he's done he runs his finger over the line then starts on his other eye, always careful of the bumps in the road. He'd managed to jab Spencer in the eye once, when they were both new and clueless. It had hurt more than anything Ryan has ever done to himself.
"Where do we get that stuff?" Jon indicates Ryan's make-up, unashamedly staring as Ryan swaps liner for blush and brushes on a line of color along his cheekbones. "The same place we're given our outfits?"
"If there's anything left," Ryan says flatly. "Horace doesn't stock up often."
Brendon leans back on his hands. "Figures."
"That's all he cares about," Ryan says, and looks up, surprised at the resulting laughter.
Brendon smiles, wide and bright. "You made a joke. I didn't think you had it in you. No offence."
"None taken," Ryan says, perplexed that Brendon apologized for something that isn't even an insult. Putting away his stuff Ryan fastens his bag and stands getting ready to roll up the coverings. The trip through the city, the set up of the fair. Brendon and Jon's first night as performers. It's going to be yet another long day.
They pull up in an area on the outskirts of the city. Close by buildings tower into the sky, the top floors blanketed by smog, but here they're on scrubby grass and surrounded by trees, their branches spindly and leaves spotted with black. As soon as they stop moving Ryan pushes open the cage door and jumps outside, his knees buckling slightly when he hits solid, unmoving ground. The engines that pull the huge trailers have parked on the outskirts of the field and already the breakers are rushing to re-build the fair. They're a well-oiled machine, setting up the perimeter fence first and then walls and floors slotting into place. Ryan knows this is the perfect time to see Spencer. It's also the worst time to leave fresh meat alone and Ryan knows he's going to have to take Brendon and Jon along.
Ryan looks around, his arms wrapped around his body. Despite the short journey it feels colder here and the air feels damp, making him cough as he breathes.
"What happens now?" Jon's standing an arms-length away, looking calm and steady, as opposed to Brendon who's trying, but seems unable to stay still. Ryan can't blame him, it's been over a year now but he can still remember the sheer terror of his first night, and the sickening realization he was in over his head.
"Now we get you outfits, eat and then see Pan. No, wait." Ryan stops himself talking. "Pan first then eating."
Jon blanches slightly, going pale under his tan. "I'd hoped you'd forget."
"Sorry," Ryan says, taking note of how the first of the pens is already half-standing. "We need to get going. But first, I need to go talk to someone."
Brendon sweeps out his arm, urging Ryan forward. "Lead on."
Ryan hesitates; he's not sure what to make of Brendon, who remains playful despite his obvious nerves. It's been a long time since Ryan's been around anyone who laughs so easily. Sure, there's moments when things seem lighter, when he's hanging out in some period of rare spare time with Mikey and Pete. Then, more often, the times he spends with Spencer, when they remember times past, when they had families and food and days could be lived without hurts. But Brendon's different, he hasn't lost his sense of fun and while it's a welcome change, it's a little jarring as well.
Jon takes a small step closer, says, "Willow?"
"This way." Ryan begins to walk. He's not actually sure where the isolation wagon would have pulled up but a small metal container is hard to conceal, especially when it's mounted on wheels. Just thinking about it makes Ryan feel sick, he's only been inside it once, when fighting back with a john led to being thrown in solitary for two days. Ryan had thought he was about to go mad, driven insane by heat and suffocating claustrophobia. Still, he'd swap places with Spencer in an instant.
It takes almost ten minutes to find the wagon. It's been parked under one of the trees and partially hidden by the portable toilets and Ryan's relieved there's no guards in sight as they walk close. All the nearby breakers are busy constructing one of the pens and Ryan sidles close, his heart racing as he stands under the tiny window and knocks hard against the metal walls.
"Sunshine. Spencer, are you in there?"
Relief hits hard and Ryan has to rest against the wagon, his forehead against the cold metal. Reaching up as high as he can, he curls his fingers through the open space and almost instantly he feels Spencer taking his hand, wrapping his fingers around Ryan's. "I'm sorry."
"For what?" Spencer's voice sounds raspy and Ryan presses himself against the wagon, needing to feel this illusion of being close.
"For warning that kid about joining the fair. If I hadn't done that you wouldn't have been in red and wouldn't have bitten that john."
"Jesus, Ryan." Spencer squeezes Ryan's hand; hard. "This isn't your fault. The kid was called Jed. He was fifteen years old. If you hadn't warned him I would have. So stop with the guilt already."
Which is easy to say and harder to do. Ryan stands on his tip-toes so he can ease more of his hand through the gap. "Did they hurt you?"
"Nothing I can't handle," Spencer says immediately and pure white hot anger runs through Ryan's body.
"I hate them, Spencer."
"I know." Spencer's running his thumb over Ryan's hand, a gentle rhythmic pressure. "I'm okay, Ryan. I promise. I'll get out of here and we'll be put in the same quadrant again."
Ryan pushes back the rage, forcing it down with all the other useless emotions. "And what if we're not?"
"Not going to happen," Spencer says immediately, sounding sure. "I'll be out of here soon and we'll grab something to eat together. Can you believe I'm missing that slop?"
Ryan closes his eyes, hoping if he can't see the wagon it'll easier to imagine Spencer's right there with no barrier in-between them. "Solitary's driven you insane. No one misses the slop, it moved yesterday. I had to beat it down with those bricks they call bread."
Spencer laughs, rough but there and Ryan pictures his smile, the way Spencer's eyes crinkle at the corner. "Oh don't even, I know you like that shit."
"Once. Once I liked it. When it had that meat in it, you know, the stuff that tasted gamy."
Spencer laughs again, louder this time. "You know that was road-kill, all they did was scoop up those raccoons and throw them in the pot. I got a mouthful of fur in mine."
Ryan shrugs, and then remembers that Spencer can't see. "It still tasted good."
"If you like raccoon chunks," Spencer replies.
Ryan smiles a little before looking over his shoulder when he hears a shout. It's the breakers, a group of them hauling on a rope as they pull up the arena walls. In the last five minutes they've constructed almost half of the building and Ryan knows he's running out of time to get Brendon and Jon to Pete. Reluctantly he says, "I need to go. I'm looking after fresh meat and need to get them ready for tonight."
"Have they been branded yet?" Spencer asks. "If they haven't you need to go now, find Pete."
"They haven't," Ryan says, he wants to keep holding on, just stand here as his arm cramps and his feet go to sleep but Spencer's already pulling back his hand. A last squeeze and the contact is gone, and part of Ryan is lost again.
"If I don't get out today...."
"I'll come and see you again," Ryan promises, and he will, whatever it takes. Hand against the metal wall he lingers for a long moment and then steps away, heading toward Brendon and Jon. "Let's find Pan."
They're making their way past the half-built pens when Brendon finally speaks. For the last few minutes he's been sneaking sideways glances at Ryan and if he were a better person Ryan would have given him an opening to talk. The truth is though, Ryan doesn't want to deal with the questions because they'll be about Spencer, that's inevitable.
"Back there." Brendon steps over the panels of wood that are lain out on the grass. With each step his pants leg rides up exposing his bony ankle and a small bruise on the bottom of his shin. "They keep people in metal boxes? That's.... they can't do that."
Ryan studies Brendon, taking in how angry he seems. It's a reaction he'll have to lose because the simple fact is, they can do that, and a lot worse. "They can do what they want."
"Well they shouldn't." Brendon's brows are drawn together, his mouth a thin line as he increases his pace, kicking at the ground with each step. "The person inside, can they even stand up?"
Ryan remembers the ache of his shoulders and back, sitting cramped on the floor as the temperatures soared and plunged. How Spencer had helped him to stand when Horace had finally allowed him out, opening the door and grabbing hold of Ryan's arm and hauling him out to sprawl on the grass. Memories pressing close, he's relieved to see Pete, the distraction allowing Ryan to slam back barriers that had threatened to crumble. Ducking under a string of tattered green flags, Ryan makes his way over to Pete.
"Willow. New people." Pete's stretched out on the grass while nearby, Mikey's sitting in the shade of one of the mobile generators. He looks much more alert today, wiggling his fingers at Ryan when he gets close. Waving in return Ryan goes and looks down at Pete.
"They need branding."
Pete's got his hand held in the air, shading his eyes as he looks from Ryan to Brendon and Jon, his gaze sliding down to take in their bare arms. In a smooth fluid move he gets to his feet, says, "I'll go and get the stuff."
"We'll be behind the generator," Ryan says, picking a place where they'll be hidden from Horace and his sadistic touch in creating a brand.
"How much is this going to hurt?" Jon asks, when they're behind the generator and hidden out of sight. Surprisingly it's Mikey that answers as he follows and holds out his arm, showing the brand on his inner forearm.
"It's over quick, and Pan's good at getting it right first time." Mikey runs his fingers over the whorls and swoops that end at his wrist, his fair falling forward into his eyes. "You'll be okay."
Jon smiles, his attention solely on Mikey. "I trust you."
Mikey's head jerks up and he looks surprised, emotions laid bare before his own shields come crashing back down and he looks away, as if unsure what to say.
"So we get these and our outfits, then what?" Brendon asks, filling the silence that's beginning to get awkward. "Do we get something to eat because I'm fucking starving."
Back against the generator, Ryan slides down to the ground, taking this time to rest. He gasps a little on impact, still sore from the day before and rubs the flat of his hand over his hip. "We'll eat first then costumes, once we get to the pens we won't be leaving for a while."
"I was meaning to ask," Brendon begins, but whatever he's about to say is cut off when Pete comes back carrying a cloth bag that's looped over his wrist. Kneeling, he sets the bag on the ground and takes out a small wooden box which he opens, revealing a piece of metal complete with curved raised ridges, that once heated will apply the brand. Getting that heat right is an exact science and one that Pete does well, as opposed to Horace who always heats it too hot and leaves it too long, taking pleasure in the resulting pain.
Jon kneels too, leaning forward slightly so he can see into the box. "So what does that actually do? Do you put it into a fire or something?"
"That's old school branding." Pete picks up the metal, turning it to show the controls on the back. He switches it on. "This is self-heating. Get to the right temperature, press down and you're done."
"Right," Jon says dubiously, and he holds out his arm, fingers splayed as he exposes his wrist. "Let's get this over with."
Pete looks up from where he's testing the temperature, brushing his fingertips against the already hot metal. "Throwing yourself into stuff, I like you."
"More like getting it done before I lose my nerve," Jon admits, and Ryan notices how his fingers are trembling slightly.
"Do you mind?" Obviously seeing that too, Mikey's moved and has his hand just under Jon's arm, close but not touching. "You can't move when he starts, it makes it worse."
"It's fine, thanks" Jon says, and swallows as he looks at Pete. "Do it."
"Try and stay still," Pete says quietly, and he waits until Mikey steadies Jon's arm, and then positions the metal. When he's sure it's right he presses down, and this is the part Ryan hates the most, because no matter how good Pete is there's still the scent of burning flesh and the sizzle as white-hot metal meets skin.
"Fuck," Jon gasps, his mouth open as he draws in a breath and Mikey holds tight, making sure Jon doesn't move for long seconds. Then finally, finally it's done, and Pete pulls back. Using his free hand, Jon wipes at his eyes and looks down at the angry burns on his wrist, says weakly. "Thank you."
Mikey loosens his grip and says to Pete. "I'm going to get the cream."
"You know where it is," Pete says and turns his attention to Brendon. "You should get it done now, before it cools."
Brendon's looking after Jon, who's holding his arm away from his body as Mikey helps him to his feet. Hand cupped under Jon's elbow, Mikey steers him into the shade and urges Jon to sit, doing the same as soon as Jon's settled.
"This is good shit," Mikey says, groping for Pete's bag which he's been carrying on his back. Putting it on his lap Mikey rummages inside and brings out a small tub. It looks like the tub of grease Ryan keeps in his own bag but when Mikey untwists the lid the stuff inside is a weird pinkish color and drips off Mikey's fingers when he scoops up a glob. "I know it doesn't look like much but it stops things hurting."
"Good," Jon says, and hisses as Mikey gently rubs cream over the fresh burns, careful to ensure each line is fully covered.
Brendon's still looking at Jon, but when Pete speaks he turns to him, and despite looking afraid, holds out his own arm. "I'll try not to move."
Ryan's never been touchy-feely, even before he came here and learned that most touches only brought pain. He'll curl up next to Spencer, sometimes Mikey and Pete, but usually contact is bought. It's why he hesitates before moving to Brendon, and feels a pang of guilt at the way Brendon smiles when Ryan says, "I can help."
Ryan shrugs and looks at his fingers where he's holding Brendon's arm. The skin there is unblemished, blue veins just under the surface and all Ryan feels is twisted inside. Brendon doesn't have a clue what the brand means, how once it's applied it means he's available for a price.
"Ready," Pete says quietly, and brings the heated metal down. Brendon stiffens, a moan torn out of his throat as Ryan holds on and tries not to gag, until, finally, Pete says, "Done."
Ryan looks up in time to see Mikey throw the pot of cream, snatching it out of the air he goes to hand it to Brendon, and then abruptly changes his mind when he sees how Brendon's trying to control his shivers and blink back the tears that are gathering in the corners of his eyes. "This'll help." Ryan unscrews the lid of the tub and scoops out some of the cream. It's warm and smells like something has died and been liquefied, but Ryan knows how well it works. Brendon flinches at the first touch and his skin is hot, the burns smooth under Ryan's fingers.
"Well, that sucked," Brendon says weakly, and holds his arm away from his chest. "Thank you."
Ryan's not sure who he's actually thanking, not that it matters and he throws the cream to Mikey who drops it back into Pete's bag. "Are you coming to eat? The kitchen should be set up by now."
Pete sets the hot metal on the ground, waiting for it to cool down. "I need to see someone first." Which means he's off to make deals with the breakers, exchanging food and money for the meds that he needs.
Ryan rubs his hands against his arms, making sure they're clean. He wants to ask Pete to use his contacts to find out about Spencer, but it means asking yet another favor and Ryan hesitates, then says, "If you can find out about Sunny. When he's getting out."
"We'll ask around," Mikey promises, and gives Jon a smile before clambering to his feet. "Look after that. Keep it clean."
"You're not coming to eat?" Jon asks.
Mikey shakes his head, says, "I'll grab something for later, the first night's always rough."
It's obvious that Jon doesn't get what Mikey means, just sits watching as Pete gathers up his things and then stands. The bag wrapped around his wrist swinging in the air as he loops arms with Mikey. "Shall we?"
Mikey rolls his eyes but he's also smiling as Pete takes a moment to lean his head against Mikey's shoulder before walking away.
Jon rests his fingers against his arm, where the skin is an angry red almost to his elbow. "They're together, right?"
"Yeah," Ryan says, and gives Jon a narrow-eyed look, because Mikey and Pete's relationship is one of the things Ryan hangs on to, that despite the hardship, the degradation and the struggle to get through the days, they've stayed together, stronger as a unit than one.
Jon holds up his hands, wincing a little as he does so. "Just asking."
"As long as you are," Ryan says and then sniffs, smelling the distinctive odor of cooking slop. "Come on, we need to eat."
When they leave their sheltered spot the fair is well on the way to being fully built. The arena takes up a central position, the walls covered in panels depicting pornographic images. Set to both sides of the main entrance are the pens, the red and yellow flags flapping in the breeze. While scattered around those are the smaller booths, their paint flaking and revealing the raw wood underneath. Passing between two of those booths, Ryan leads the way to the kitchen for the performers, which is hidden at the back of the fair. As they walk the sound system groans into life with a shock of white noise which is quickly followed by the cheery music that Ryan's come to hate.
"What is that?" Brendon asks, his expression pained at a particularly tinny sequence. "I could play better in my sleep."
Ryan shrugs. He used to enjoy music but now all it is is meaningless noise. Even when he's scheduled to perform in the arena the music is just another prop, all enjoyment of it stripped away.
"That's not right," Brendon says, and he looks up at the ancient speakers as if he can physically see the wrong notes.
"Get used to it, it won't be shut off for hours," Ryan says, a lot of hours in fact, when the last john has finally gone home allowing the performers to stumble back into their stalls.
"And I thought the branding was bad," Brendon says quietly, seemingly talking to himself.
"The branding fucking sucked." Jon bypasses a pile of narrow mattresses, all of them covered in multiple stains which will end up covered by dark sheets. "The cream's good stuff, though."
Still glaring up at the speakers, Brendon nearly walks into the mattresses, just missing them when Jon reaches out and tugs at his tunic. Taking a stumbling step to the side Brendon smiles a thanks and then stands on his tip-toes so he can see over a tall fence. "Is that where we eat?"
"For what it's worth." Ryan leads the way along the fence, put there to hide the fact that the performers have to eat and shit and have actual physical needs. On the other side of the fence is an expanse of grass where Jacob stirs a vat of something on the stove set up in the small open-sided hut. In all the time he's been here Ryan's never heard Jacob actually speak. All he does is dole out food, his eye downcast and that doesn't change today when Ryan grabs one of the metal bowls and holds it out to be filled.
With a twist of his wrist Jacob scoops up a ladleful of the slop and pours it into Ryan's bowl. If Spencer was here they'd be arguing over the origin of the grey tinged lumps that float to the top, but he's not so Ryan takes a spoon and sits with his back to the fence as Brendon and Jon get their own food. When they've both got filled bowls they sit next to Ryan, and Jon uses his spoon to poke at his slop.
"Is this even edible?"
"No one's died from it yet." Ryan brings his spoon to his mouth, trying not to look at what he's actually eating. Thankfully it doesn't taste that bad today, and he swallows another spoonful, suddenly starving.
Dubiously, Brendon tries one of the grey lumps, his mouth working furiously as he chews. "No wonder Shadow didn't want to eat."
Ryan brings the bowl up to his mouth, too hungry to use the spoon. Swallowing almost half of the contents of the bowl in one go, he wipes at his mouth with the back of his hand. "He didn't eat because the johns in red are always extra demanding the first night. He'd just puke it back up."
"Seriously?" Brendon puts down his bowl, and slop spills from the side, pooling on the grass. "I know he works red, but why would he puke?"
Ryan wants to laugh or to grab Brendon and shake him for being so fucking naive. Not even trying to soften his words he says, "Shadow pukes because people get off on hurting him. He'll puke because he walks into that pen knowing there's people coming who'll ask to beat him until he's covered in blood and bruised from head to toe and then fuck him while he's unconscious. He'll puke because he'll be shot up with drugs that leave him defenceless, drugs that are sold in one of the booths. He'll fucking puke because he knows it's happening to Pan, too and if I can't stop it, Spencer."
"Oh god." Brendon's got his hands over his mouth and Ryan would feel bad at letting that all spill out, but he's too tired, too worried about things he's got no chance to control.
"Spencer. That's Sunny, yeah?" Jon says. "The one in the metal wagon."
Ryan leans back against the fence, feeling the rough wood through the thin fabric of his tunic, says, "Yeah."
Ryan examines his tiny stall in the pen, making sure it's set up to his liking. There's a narrow metal bed jammed in one corner, fresh sweet-smelling straw strewn over the grass and Ryan's bag half hidden under the trailing black sheets, in easy reach for when Ryan needs to grab hold of his grease. By the end of the night he won't need it, fucked loose and sloppy after a parade of men, but at first it's always a necessity, and he's learned to keep it close.
Brushing his hand over the sheet, he sits on the edge of the bed, needing this quiet time to get ready for the night. He can hear people walking outside, their footsteps clumping against the floor as they attend to last finishing touches. The fabric that's tacked up on the viewing area walls, the price lists for extras pinned to the entrance, faded velvet cushions dropped onto the chairs. Ryan runs his hands through his hair, slicking it back then looks up when he hears a hesitant knock at the door.
"Can we come in?"
Brendon, and Ryan can't help the pang of irritation that his quiet time is being interrupted. "Come in."
The door opens and Brendon comes inside, followed by Jon. Already crowded, the space seems even smaller with three people inside and Ryan shuffles to the end of the bed, and jerks his head to the side, indicating that one of them should sit down. It's Jon that does so while Brendon remains standing, shifting from foot to foot and looking uncomfortable in his costume.
Brendon tugs at his tunic, trying to pull it down so it meets his pants. "They gave us stalls, mine's next door, Jon across the aisle."
Ryan nods, he'd expected as much and it's not like there's many stalls to choose from, even if Brendon and Jon weren't new and needed to be kept close. Ryan picks at a loose thread on the sheet, feeling uncomfortable when Brendon says nothing else, but keeps glancing at Ryan, until Ryan says, "Is there something you wanted to know?"
"I guess," Brendon draws out the word and looks miserably at Jon. "It's just. Rolof showed us the viewing area and our stalls, and they're cool, I mean, black sheets are awesome. It's just. After. I don't. I mean. My parents are religious, like a lot, and they believe in the teachings, you know, that sex brought down the world and I'll do it. I will. Just. I haven't."
Confused, Ryan tries to understand what Brendon's actually saying and then takes a sudden sharp intake of breath when he adds things together. "Tell me you've had sex before."
Brendon looks toward the ground, his cheeks flushed.
"Are you insane?!" Ryan hisses, and bites back the urge to scream at Brendon and tell him how stupid he is, how fucking reckless with his own life. "I thought you two were together. Why would you even join somewhere like this if you're a virgin?"
Brendon looks up, anger bleeding through his humiliation. "We're friends and the fair sounded better than the labor camps, we had to choose somewhere."
Which Ryan understands, he does, but Brendon doesn't get that anywhere would be better than this place. He turns to Jon. "You've had sex, right?"
"I have," Jon says, and that's one less worry for Ryan as he frantically thinks of ways to protect Brendon.
Ryan stands and looks over the short door to the stall, already the viewing platforms have been set up, the tables and chairs grouped in the middle of the room. Soon the first of the johns will arrive and once that happens Brendon's on his own. There's only one thing Ryan can do. Brushing past Brendon and Jon he pulls out his bag and takes out the small tub of grease, handing it over to Brendon. "You need to prepare yourself with this. Now."
Brendon takes the pot but makes no attempt to move. "I cant take this, you'll need it."
"Not as much as you," Ryan says, and adds when Brendon still doesn't move. "You do know what to do with it?"
Brendon's posture is rigid as he snaps back. "Yes I know."
"Well go and do it then, the johns won't ease you into it."
For a moment Brendon stares back at Ryan, then he abruptly leaves the stall and almost runs the few steps to his own. When Ryan hears the squeak of the bed springs he sits on his own bed, deliberately not looking at Jon and trying not to listen to the soft sounds he can hear through the thin wall.
The viewing area is little more than a dressed up name for what is in reality a few raised platforms covered in dirty thread-bare orange material. It's a place where the performers are forced to stand and be viewed like animals by the men who cluster together around the tables making obscene remarks, as if by paying the coins to get in makes them somehow superior. Personally Ryan thinks it makes them pathetic.
The crowd tonight is varied, a group of men who seem more intent on drinking the heavily marked up beer than actually having sex. An old man, stooped over and leaning heavily on his cane as he selects Ronan and escorts him back to his stall. Then finally, a man wearing his best clothes who keeps to the edge of the group and keeps stealing hesitant looks at Brendon. Ryan hopes that he'll bite, while he's been wrong at times mostly he's a good judge of the johns and that one is the best one here, with none of the cruelty in his expression that Ryan's learned to fear.
When the man looks away Ryan takes a side step closer to Brendon and says under his breath. "That john, the one with the eye glasses. Smile at him, he's interested."
Jerkily, Brendon nods, and when the man looks again he gives his best smile, so wide and bright that Ryan's not surprised when the john immediately comes forward, taking Brendon's arm. A frantic look at Ryan and Jon, and then Brendon's stepping down, looking small and afraid before he stands up straight and smiles a smile that's obviously false if anyone bothered to look close. The john doesn't, just keeps hold of Brendon's arm as they walk toward the door to the stalls.
Which leaves Ryan and Jon, and Ryan plasters on his own smile, hoping he'll attract one of the beer drinkers who're finally taking interest in something other than their drinks. Not bothering to lower their voices they debate as a group who would be better, the skinny looking fag or the one who's ugly with a fuckable ass. As they keep talking Ryan imagines punching them hard in the face, blood flowing and teeth loosened, anger helping push back the misery of seeing Jon's smile fade as the group discuss each perceived fault.
"I'm taking the skinny one!" One of the men drains his glass and then stands, sending his chair crashing to the ground. Unsteadily he walks forward and grabs Ryan by the wrist, tugging him from the platform. "I'm going to rock your world, show you what sex with a real man is like."
It's a line Ryan hears daily and he keeps his smile fixed as they walk back to the stall, the john pawing at Ryan's clothes. When they pass Brendon's stall Ryan can't help looking inside. Usually he wouldn't, the unspoken rules of the performers to give the illusion of privacy any way that they can, but he needs to know Brendon's okay. At first it's impossible to tell. Brendon's kneeling on the bed, his head down and face pushed against the sheets while his pants are lying crumpled on the straw and his tunic has slipped up his body, exposing the long line of his back.
Concerned, Ryan looks at the john who's got his eyes closed and one hand braced against the wall as he slams into Brendon, making him jerk forward with each thrust. He's also whimpering with each thrust, and while Ryan hates the sound at least it tells him Brendon's alive.
"Come on, princess, my cock's primed and ready to go." Ryan's john crowds close, his breath sour as he bites at Ryan's neck. "I paid plenty and I intend to get my money's worth."
"You'll get it," Ryan says, and draws on all his skills to become Willow, because Willow doesn't gag when he's clumsily kissed, or fight back when he's thrown back on the bed, bouncing up once before the john lies on top, weighing him down. Willow's able to keep breathing when his pants are pulled down and a thick finger jammed up his ass, pain searing inside and an involuntary whimper turned into a seductive moan. Willow's able to wrap his legs around the john's back, pretending he loves it as he's fucked hard, his head slamming against the wall as the john yells obscenities obviously designed to be heard. Willow's able to lie still when the john sneers and wipes his flaccid cock against Ryan's hip.
Willow can keep going as Ryan wipes himself down and pulls on his pants before going back out to do it again.
When the last john finally leaves Ryan feels wrung out and raw. His thighs ache and his mouth feels swollen as he uses a handful of straw to wipe the come off his stomach. It's an inefficient way to wash up but it's all Ryan's got at the moment, a time when he feels so dirty he'd do anything to feel clean. Throwing the soiled straw in the corner Ryan fastens his tunic and gingerly bends to pick up his bag, looping it over his shoulder. Running his hand through his hair he knows he's as tidy as he's going to be, and steps out of the stall and walks to the one next door. He knows Brendon's in there, Jon too, Ryan's heard them talking for the last few minutes.
"Brendon," Ryan says, and knocks on the wooden wall.
Brendon looks up from where he's half-reclining on the bed, his legs bent and propped on one hip. "Not Brendon. Apollo."
"Sorry," Ryan says, understanding Brendon's need to distance himself from what he's just done. "Apollo. I'm going to wash up and grab something to eat."
"We're coming." Jon's sitting next to Brendon, bent forward slightly as if he's been talking in whispers. When he stands Jon's movements are sluggish and he yawns wide as he rubs at his eyes. "Where do we sleep? I'm exhausted."
Ryan steps away from the door and further into the space between the pens, his shadow stretching out long and dark due to the harsh artificial lights. "It depends, you can sleep here if you want but most people go back to the cages." Which is where Ryan always sleeps, even if it's colder and uncomfortable at least he's away from the stink of sweat and sex.
"Works for me." Jon edges past Ryan, limping slightly as he makes for the exit.
"Me too," Brendon says, no hint of his former cheer remaining as he makes to follow Jon. While he's not surprised Ryan can't help feeling a pang of loss as they walk through the empty viewing area, the tables covered in dirty glasses and half-eaten food ground into the floor. The door to outside is propped open and a cool breeze makes the fabric on the walls ripple like an angry ocean. Stepping outside Ryan takes a deep breath and inhales deeply, trying to shake off the previous hours.
As opposed to earlier the only people visible are moving slowly now, most of them performers heading off to eat and wash. Ryan nods at Wolf and Hare who work the arena, Alex who sells buttered popcorn from a red-striped cart, Jem who can suck his own cock and proves it when asked. They're all people Ryan knows and yet doesn't at all. He's aware of how they look naked, how they act when they're being fucked, but not what they like or even their actual real names. There are only a few people Ryan knows like that, and he's relieved to see Mikey and Pete heading for the kitchen.
"Willow." Despite his black-eye and split lip Pete grins when they get close. "How are you this beautiful night?"
"Wondering if you've been at the happy pills again," Ryan replies and yelps when Pete grabs him before dancing them around in a circle. "Now I know you've been at the happy pills."
"Just high on life." Pete stops the dance, dipping Ryan with a final flourish as he says quietly. "I've news."
It's uncomfortable looking at Pete from this position, and Ryan stands upright, positive this is about Spencer. "Tell me."
Pete gives Ryan a look and squeezes his hand before turning to Mikey. "Go and grab us some food, and that means for you too," he looks at Brendon and Jon, adding. "Make sure he gets something for himself."
Mikey frowns. "I don't need a babysitter," and his voice is little more than a gruff whisper.
Sympathetic, Ryan looks at Mikey's neck, unsurprised to see the ring of bruises. "Another breathplay novice?"
"The fucker about killed me," Mikey rasps. "I had to knee him in the nuts to get him to stop."
"I hope it was hard," Jon says, and takes a step closer to Mikey, his expression darkening as he looks at the bruises. "He tried to choke you?"
Mikey tilts his head to the side, exposing more of his neck. "He'd read about auto-erotic asphyxiation and wanted to try it out. It's no big deal."
"How can you say that?" Jon reaches out, and when Mikey doesn't pull away, gently touches a dark bruise. "He could have killed you."
Mikey shrugs. "But he didn't."
Jon opens his mouth as if he's going to protest but Pete cuts him off by giving Mikey a smacking kiss on the cheek before linking arms with Ryan. "I see you're in good hands, I'm off to chat with Willow."
Abruptly, Jon takes a step back. "I wasn't. I know you're together. You don't have to worry."
Pete's smile fades and he looks utterly serious. "Shadow's more than capable of looking after himself. I don't worry."
Which is one of the biggest lies Ryan's ever heard Pete utter, but he also knows Mikey can look after himself so he tugs at Pete's arm and says, "You wanted to talk?"
"I did," Pete says, and he blows a kiss to Mikey before walking away.
They're almost back at the pens before Pete actually talks, long enough that Ryan feels like he's about to jump out of his skin, worried that Pete's concealing some bad news. That Spencer's not going to be let out or transferred to another fair, anything that'll keep him away from Ryan. Then Pete does talk, and says something that Ryan could never have expected.
"I'm getting Mikey out of here."
"What?!" Pete's unlinked their arms and Ryan turns to face him, trying to understand what he means. "How? No one gets out of here alive."
"I've been planning." Pete says, and he looks at the ground, his arms wrapped around his own body as if needing the scant warmth. "A while back Mikey told me about his brother. They lived in New Jersey together, and then. Well, stuff happened and Mikey ended up here."
"He never said."
"He only told me a few times," Pete says. "But I remembered, and when I knew we were traveling close to where the brother lived I called in some favors."
Ryan thinks of all the trades that Pete makes, the careful way he's built up a network of contacts and can't help wondering how long he's been working toward this point. "They found him?"
"They found him," Pete repeats, and when he looks at Ryan his expression is fierce. "Mikey loves his brother, Ryan. Fucking loves him and none of this should have happened. He shouldn't have been here, he shouldn't think it's okay if some fucking pervert tries to choke him. Gerard's coming here tomorrow, and I don't care what it takes but he'll be taking Mikey home."
"Mikey's brother's coming here?" Ryan can think of a thousand ways this could go wrong, but Pete looks determined, as if he's sure this is the right thing to do.
"I've sent a message to request a private room with me, that way he won't see Mikey by mistake."
Ryan holds up his hand, trying to keep up with Pete's plans. "He doesn't even know about Mikey?"
"What was I supposed to say? Send him a note telling him the brother he hasn't seen for years is a whore in a traveling sex fair. This way I can soften the blow."
Ryan can't imagine that the blow will be softened by being told in person. This Gerard is still going to find out that his brother is a whore, and that's going to hurt no matter which way he's informed. Then there's Pete, and Ryan's heart clenches when it begins to sink in that Pete's going to try and send Mikey away. "What about you?"
"What about me?" Pete asks, his expression set.
"Don't bullshit me, Pete," Ryan says. "You know exactly what I mean. You're always together. Are you going to go, too?"
Pete shakes his head and tucks his hands under his armpits, trying to hide how they're minutely shaking. "I'm staying here. As far as Gerard knows I'm just someone that knows Mikey, nothing special to him at all."
"But you can't," Ryan protests, because the thought of Mikey and Pete separated is wrong. "You're always together, he needs you."
"What he needs is his family, and I'm getting that for him." Pete pulls in a shaky breath and then fixes on a false smile, as if he can distract Ryan from how miserable Pete actually is. "I was talking to Rolof. Spencer's getting out tomorrow, he's going back in red but at least he'll be out of solitary."
Relief leaves Ryan weak at the knees and he leans against the side of a booth. "Did he say when?"
"After breakfast. They want him ready for the afternoon session."
It's not what Ryan wanted, but he knows it's the best result he's going to get. There's no way Horace will let Spencer back into amber, not when he's still smarting about Ryan scaring potential performers away.
Pete's watching Ryan's reaction, and he says, "We'll look after him."
"I know you will," Ryan says, that's something that he's never doubted. Just, it's his job to look after Spencer and right now he can't. But it doesn't mean he can't be there when Spencer's let out. "You said after breakfast."
Pete nods. "After Rolof's eaten."
One more sleep. A few hours. Ryan can do that.
If he could Ryan would stuff the bread in Rolof's mouth and then chew it for him. Instead he sits and picks at his own watery bowl of porridge, trying to force some down. It's not going well, Ryan's too nervous to eat and when Rolof finally clears his plate Ryan thrusts his bowl at Brendon. "You can have this."
Brendon's kneeling, his own bowl held close to his chest and he looks confused when he's suddenly holding two. "Aren't you hungry?"
Ryan's already standing, watching as Rolof makes his way over to Pete. For a moment they talk, Pete looking bored as he rubs the side of his sandal into the grass. It's only because Ryan's watching so closely that he sees the sudden flash of anger from Pete. It makes Ryan anxious, worried that something's gone wrong and Spencer's not going to be let out. Then Pete looks over and jerks his head and Ryan's following as they exit the eating area.
"You're pushing it, Willow." Rolof looks over his shoulder, seemingly unsurprised to see Ryan. "Sunshine belongs in red now."
What Ryan wants to say is Spencer belonged to Ryan first, but he bites his tongue, unwilling to give Rolof an excuse to send him away. "I won't interfere, I just want to see if Sunny's okay."
Rolof shrugs. "Whatever."
After that they walk the rest of the way in silence, even Pete's being quiet, only nodding greetings to people they meet on the way. When they get to the wagon Ryan feels another wash of anger but is careful to hide it away. Deliberately he keeps back as Rolof pulls out a huge bunch of keys, sorting through them all before holding up one of the smallest. The wagon rocks as Rolof stands on the step, unlocking the door, then yawns.
"I'm going back to bed. Make sure he's in the pens for opening." Stepping back down, Rolof walks away, never looking back as Ryan springs forward and Pete opens the door.
Ryan pushes past Pete, needing to get Spencer. It's cold in there, the early morning sun doing nothing to take the chill from the metal walls. Already feeling claustrophobic Ryan breathes through his mouth, his eyes watering at the strong scent from the full piss bucket in one corner. Hunched over, Ryan reaches inside and grabs Spencer, who's lying curled on the floor, his hands together and pressed against his chest.
"Spencer," Ryan repeats, and he knows Spencer is alive, he can see him breathing, but that still doesn't stop the sheer rush of terror as he shakes Spencer's shoulder.
"Um." Spencer opens his eyes to slits, then wider when he sees Ryan. "Ryan. What?"
"You're being let out," Ryan says, and hooks his hands under Spencer's armpits and starts to pull. "Come on."
Spencer tries to help, pushing himself with his feet, but even through his obvious relief he stops helping before they get to the door to outside and gives Ryan a searching look. "Does Horace know about this?
It's an understandable question. Spencer wouldn't even be here if Ryan hadn't keep pushing, trying to scare people away while challenging Horace's authority, but Ryan's also learnt his lesson. He's never going to do anything that could hurt Spencer again. Ryan says, "He knows."
"Good," Spencer grits out, his teeth clenched and eyes screwed shut as Ryan helps him out.
"Hey," Pete says, reaching for Spencer and helping Ryan hold him upright. Head down and legs shaking, Spencer tries to stand but each time he fails and Ryan's vowing vengeance on Horace, on Rolof, anyone that helped put Spencer in isolation.
"Ryan." Spencer manages to lift his head and looks at Ryan through a tangle of his dirty hair. Ryan reaches up and pushes it out of the way, needing to see Spencer's face. "Ryan. I'll be fine."
"He will be," Pete agrees, when Ryan can't speak through the fury that's gathering in his chest. "I've stuff in the red engine. Food, meds, he'll be good to go soon."
"Right," Ryan manages to say, and he tightens his hold on Spencer, uncaring of the lingering stench of piss or how Spencer's hand is filthy against Ryan's chest.
Getting back to the red engine takes much longer than Ryan would like. By the time they're half way there Spencer's wincing with each step and Ryan can only imagine how his body must be hurting, muscles forced to work after so much time cramped in a small space. If Spencer would allow it Ryan would have scooped him up and carried him, but the one thing Spencer's got left is his pride. If he needs to walk back Ryan will support him all the way, even if it takes hours.
Thankfully it doesn't, and even if Spencer's whole body is trembling by the time they get back he's still on his feet, smiling when he sees Mikey sitting by the red engine, a bucket of water at his side.
"Spencer." Mikey pushes himself up and taps the bucket with his foot, making the water ripple. "I figured you'd want a wash, and there's food inside."
"Awesome." Spencer's smile widens and he looks genuinely pleased as he carefully lowers himself to the ground and dips his hand in the bucket. "It's warm."
Mikey sits in the entrance to the cage, swinging his feet. "I asked Jacob to heat it up."
Ryan has his mouth open to protest that Mikey shouldn't have done that but is self-aware enough to know that the protest is more to do with jealously and an intense need to look after Spencer himself and nothing to do with Mikey asking for favors that will need returns.
"Thank you." Spencer flashes a last smile at Mikey and then dips his hand further into the warm water and wiggles his fingers, causing dirt to cloud. He pulls out his hand, water dripping onto the grass and trickling down his arm as he begins to unfasten the buttons of his tunic. "What time are we opening?"
Pete clambers past Mikey and pushes aside straw until he finds a paper bag. Tucking it under his arm he keeps looking, and from somewhere pulls out a small bottle of pills. Eying the contents through the brown plastic he kicks the straw back in place and then jumps to the ground positioning himself between Mikey's legs as Mikey leans forward and hooks his chin on Pete's shoulder.
"It's only bread," Pete says, sounding apologetic, "bread and painkillers."
Spencer slowly takes off his tunic and drops it next to the bucket, exposing the bruises that have turned his back and sides into varying shades of black, yellow and green. One bruise, low on his hip and still almost black after almost a week, is in the distinct shape of the sole of a sandal and Ryan wants to turn around and punch the nearest wall.
"Those are perfect," Spencer says, and holds out his hand. Taking the pills Pete hands over, Spencer swallows them dry and then takes the slices of bread. Tearing one, he holds out a half to Ryan. "Here."
Ryan shakes his head. "I've already eaten."
Spencer gives Ryan a look and keeps holding out the bread. "A few spoonfuls of porridge I bet. Eat."
Well aware of how stubborn Spencer can be, Ryan takes the bread and bites off a corner. "There. Happy?"
"Perfectly," Spencer says, and holds the other slice out toward Mikey and Pete.
"We really have eaten." Pete's resting his cheek against Mikey's. There's no hint of his usual smile, either real or the one he uses to deflect attention and Ryan's reminded about Gerard which makes him feel bad that he's forgotten until now, his thoughts only with Spencer. Catching Pete's eye, Ryan tries to signify a question, asking if he's okay without words. Pointedly Pete looks away.
"And we need to get going." Mikey turns his head slightly so he can press a kiss against Pete's cheek. "Fucking Rolof's put me in the arena this afternoon, the bastard knows I hate performing in front of an audience."
Spencer swallows the bread he's been chewing, looking confused. "Didn't he say you had all the entertainment value of a dead dog last time?"
"A dead cat," Mikey corrects, wrapping his arms around Pete. "I don't know what he expects, there's not much I can do while I'm being fucked in the stocks."
"You could have sung, all about your pain as a prisoner," Spencer says. He dips his hand in the water, splashing it up his arm. "I hate those shows, dressing us as a cowboy. Fuck."
"I like the ones where we can wear the fur suits," Pete says, and finally does smile when Mikey jabs him hard in the side.
"We know you do, weirdo." Mikey stands, easing Pete forward. "Come on, you can help me get into my costume."
Pete grins, wide and bright and obviously false, so much so that it's good that Mikey's not actually paying close attention, because if he had there was no chance he'd think Pete was okay. "I'll help you into your costume, hot-stuff."
Mikey rolls his eyes but it's obvious he's amused as he bumps Pete with his hip to get him moving. "Go," he looks down at Spencer then, his gaze assessing before he brushes a touch against Spencer's shoulder. "We'll see you later."
"Yeah," Spencer says, and moves on to washing his chest as he watches them leave, his eyes narrowed and lips slightly pursed as if he's trying to figure something out. As soon as Mikey and Pete are out of sight Spencer turns to Ryan. "What's going on?"
Ryan sighs tiredly and drops to his knees behind Spencer, reaching past him and cupping water in his hands so he can wash Spencer's back. Gently, Ryan trickles water over the bruises, carefully rubbing away the old sweat and dirt, "Pete's meeting Mikey's brother this afternoon. He's called Gerard, supposedly he and Mikey were close."
Spencer winces when Ryan touches a still black bruise, but waves away Ryan's apology. "And Mikey doesn't know?"
Ryan stills his hand, watching the beads of water that trickle toward Spencer's lower back, splitting and reforming around the bumps of his spine. "Not a thing."
"Damn." Spencer leans back against Ryan, letting him take his weight, as if now they're alone he can finally show how exhausted he really is. "How'd he even find him?"
"It's Pete," Ryan says, and that's all the answer he really needs because despite his standing Pete knows everyone and everything, so much so that Ryan often wonders why he's actually here. "He said he wanted to tell Gerard in person to soften the blow."
"And you think?" Spencer asks.
"That he wouldn't let Mikey go to anyone that wouldn't love and look after him."
Spencer makes a sound of agreement and turns his head so his mouth his against Ryan's neck. "I've missed you."
Ryan wraps his arms around him and holds on.
There tends to be a lull in customers in the late afternoon.
While the fair doesn't close in that time, there is a half hour period where the entertainers can take a short break, grabbing food and water before the evening sessions. It's then that Ryan sees Pete, and for the first time, Gerard.
He's not like Ryan was expecting and it takes a while before he can see the family resemblance, faint but there in the bone structure and the way Gerard stands, all steely determination as he talks to Pete. They're half hidden in the doorway of one of the small huts, the pricey ones only the richest and most private can afford and Ryan urges Jon and Brendon to keep walking. Ryan himself stays, surprised when Gerard pulls Pete into a sudden fierce hug before hurrying away in the direction of Horace's private caravan. Left alone Pete collapses in on himself, chin against his chest and arms around his body, not even looking up when Ryan moves close.
"He's nice," Pete says blankly. "Really nice, he's been looking for Mikey for years. He doesn't even care what he's been doing."
"Good, that's good, right?" Ryan takes a step closer and Pete looks so utterly destroyed that Ryan glances over his shoulder, hoping to see Spencer coming back from red. "Is he taking Mikey home?"
Pete's biting hard at his bottom lip and his fingers are digging hard in his arms, blanching the skin white. "He's rich, Ryan. Really fucking rich. He's going to see Horace now."
"And do what?" Ryan asks. "You can't buy private sex slaves."
"Everyone's got a price," Pete says softly. "And Gerard's willing to pay anything to free Mikey. He said he wasn't leaving without him."
"That soon?" Ryan swallows hard, trying to comprehend the fact that Mikey could be going.
Pete nods slightly. "He sent his friend to the bank for the money and you know Horace will take it."
There's no way Ryan can keep watching Pete shatter inside and he closes the distance between him, gathering him into a hug. Pete doesn't move, just stands still and immobile. Ryan holds tighter, says softly. "I'm sorry."
For a brief moment Pete relaxes into Ryan's hold and takes a shuddering breath, then stands upright again before pulling away. "It's for the best. He needs to be away from this place and he'll have his family back. He doesn't need me."
"Of course he needs you," Ryan protests. "He loves you."
"I know," Pete says. "And I love him too. That's why I'm letting him go."
It seems that Gerard has more influence than even Pete could imagine.
Ryan's sitting in the eating area with Spencer, watching every bite of mystery stew he takes while Spencer tries not to so obviously roll his eyes in response. Not that Ryan cares when Spencer's still an awful grey color and each movement is an obvious effort. Seeing the way Spencer flinches when he lifts his spoon or shifts position Ryan is spitting out increasingly venomous ways to make Horace suffer, taking satisfaction that not only does he get to imagine each one, but that they're making Brendon laugh, too, something he plainly needs.
It's when Ryan's describing something involving a pitch fork and a vat of tar that it happens.
Bowl of stew held in one hand, Mikey's frowning at the contents when he suddenly looks up and gasps, "Gerard."
Mikey's brother is standing next to the fence, and is looking at Mikey as if he's the most precious thing in existence. It's an expression mirrored by Mikey, for a moment at least, and then he starts to back away, shaking his head. "You can't. You can't see me like this. What are you doing here?"
Gerard's expression softens as he keeps staring at Mikey. "I'm here to take you home."
Mikey's blinking hard, and there's not a sound in the eating area as he indicates his body with a swipe of his hand, the bruises and burns, the brand that's prominent on his wrist. "I am home, this is me, Gerard. I'm a whore now, someone to fuck."
"No," Gerard says, and finally he takes a step forward. "You're my brother."
"No. You can't." Mikey's obviously torn between fear and hope, and he looks to Pete, reaching out for him. "I can't. I'm used goods, there's nothing out there for me."
"There's me." Gerard takes another step forward, the strain of moving so slow written in his face and the way he's got his hands curled up tight against his body, as if stopping himself from running to Mikey. "Come home, Mikes."
Mikey shudders, as if the nickname has struck hard and then looks at Pete, who all this time has been standing frozen in place, and looking like he's about to shatter into pieces. "I can't. Pete. I can't leave him. I love him."
With those words Pete does shatter, but he covers his reaction instantly and if Ryan hadn't been watching he'd have missed the moment Pete hides devastation with an easy smile.
"You should go."
"What?" Mikey asks, looking confused when Pete takes a step away, and normally there'd be no way Mikey would be taken in by the false smile or the way Pete is affecting casualness, but Mikey's distracted by Gerard, and Pete's putting on the performance of his life.
"I said you should go," Pete repeats, and his smile fades a little as he says. "You've got a chance to get out of this dump, you should take it."
Mikey's staring at Pete, but keeps looking back at Gerard like he's some illusion he's afraid will fade. "What about you?"
"What about me?" Pete asks, as if Mikey's asking something insane. "I managed perfectly well without you and I will again. It's not like this was going to last forever."
Mikey looks like he's been struck, says quietly. "You don't mean that."
For an instant there's a flicker in Pete's composure, then he looks sideways at Gerard and says, "I'm not saying it hasn't been good, because it has, but life goes on. You'll go home, I'll find someone else to share my bed. It won't be hard to find someone else in this place."
It's one of the most hurtful things Pete could say and Ryan can barely look as Gerard finally steps forward and takes hold of Mikey's wrist, wrapping his fingers around the brand. "Mikey, are you ready to go home?"
This time Mikey nods, and, plainly stunned. allows Gerard to steer him toward the exit. As he does that Gerard looks over his shoulder at Pete and mouths, thank you.
Pete doesn't say anything in return, doesn't move, just stands watching until finally Mikey is gone -- it's then that Pete runs.
It's late and Ryan shifts restlessly, trying to get into some position where he can actually get to sleep.
Straw is sticking in Ryan's back and the blanket is itchy, rubbing against sensitive skin. He scratches at his neck and lies on his back, looking up through the bars at the pin-prick bright stars.
Ryan turns his head and sees that Brendon's awake too, his eyes gleaming in the moonlight. There's a small bruise on his jaw and he runs his tongue over his swollen bottom lip, evidence of Brendon's face impacting against a wall. Ryan had heard the thump in his own stall but had been unable to check for almost an hour. When he'd found Brendon fully naked and kicking blood-stained straw into the corner.
"Willow," Brendon says again, and he turns on his side, his movements deliberate and careful, so unlike they were when he first arrived. "I know we're not supposed to ask, and I wouldn't, it's just. I don't understand."
Ryan turns on his side too, so he's looking directly at Brendon, who's got his blanket pulled up to his neck, holding onto it with one hand. "Understand what? I can't answer if you don't give me a question."
Brendon laughs awkwardly, looking away from Ryan before he says, "Pan. I don't understand why he stayed. If Shadow's brother could afford to buy him out why not Pan? It seems cruel leaving him behind."
"He didn't know," Ryan says, and pulls at his own blanket, needing the warmth as he remembers Pete's face as Mikey walked away. "Pan...Pan loves him," Ryan stops talking then, trying to think of a way to explain that won't expose all Pete's secrets. "He thought Shadow would be better off without him."
Brendon looks at his blanket, picking at the rough fabric with his thumb nail as he considers. "If you love someone set them free."
"Something like that," Ryan says, though personally he's more of the mind that Pete reacted without thinking things through, and as a result has lost part of himself he'll never regain.
"I'd never leave Jon." Brendon uncovers his arm and reaches back so he can touch Jon, who's lying on his front, fast asleep in a nest of straw. "We haven't been friends for that long, but I couldn't, it would be wrong. Like you and Sunny, you're friends, could you leave him?"
Ryan's instinctive reaction is to say, no, never. A lifetime of memories means their lives are entwined and Ryan could never leave. Then he thinks more, about Mikey going back home, the times that Spencer's protected Ryan, how he's been hurt and cold and afraid. Stomach twisting at the thought, Ryan realizes that while he could never leave Spencer, if he could send him to safety he would, even if that meant never seeing him again.
Not tired in the slightest and needing to see Spencer, Ryan sits and pushes aside the blanket, brushing straw off his back and out of his hair. "I'm going for a walk, want to come?"
Brendon looks surprised, but he's already throwing off his own blanket, laying it over Jon. "We're allowed to go out at night?"
"As long as we keep away from the perimeter," Ryan says, and looks toward the gate, where two guards are standing under the bright perimeter light. Pushing his feet in his sandals he makes for the door, stepping lightly until he can jump outside.
Brendon lands with a soft thump and looks around, at the buildings made indistinct with shadows, at the flags that hang limp. He gives a full-body shiver. "It's spooky out here."
"I like it," Ryan says. The grass is chilly where it brushes against his bare toes and everywhere is peaceful, so different to the constant noise of the days.
"Are we going to see Sunny?" Brendon asks. He's walking along the edge of a patch of moonlight, following the curve with his arms outstretched, like he's balancing on some kind of line. When Ryan looks at him Brendon laughs, spinning in a tight turn. "It wasn't hard to work out, we were talking about him."
Ryan looks toward the red engine which is a dark shadow against the hitched up cage. He thinks he can see someone outside, sitting on the grass, but it's only when he gets closer that he realizes it's Spencer. He's wrapped in his blanket, close to Pete who's lying on his back, staring up at the sky.
"Second star to the right and straight on to morning."
Ryan raises an eyebrow at Spencer, who shrugs his shoulders and extends his arm, holding out his blanket for Ryan, who sits and curls in close, the blanket around them both. Spencer rests his head against Ryan's shoulder, says softly. "He keeps saying it. I don't know what he means."
"It's out of one of those old moving movies." Brendon sits on the ground and braces his hands behind him, head tilted back as he looks at the stars. "My parents used to watch, one of the few they'd let us download from the history archive."
"Is it some kind of ancient star map movie?" Spencer asks, but Brendon shakes his head.
"Entertainment. It had brothers and a sister," Brendon says, sounding wistful. "It reminded me of mine, just, my brothers and sisters can't fly."
Ryan can't imagine having siblings, even with the laws he remained an only child, his mother applying for a new match when she couldn't get pregnant again. If he's honest he can't imagine any kind of family, at least not the kind approved of by law. Mother, father and a brood of children, it's what's expected, but Ryan never had that, and never will. What he does have is Spencer, and that's all the family he needs.
Spencer sighs, and Ryan knows he's thinking of the family he was forced to leave behind. "You think Pete wants brothers and sisters?"
"No," Brendon says and lies down too. "I think he wants to get away from here, go somewhere he can try to forget."
Ryan looks up at the stars and counts two to the right. Which is stupid he knows -- he does it anyway.
The next few days aren't easy. Pete remains locked in his own world and deals with his grief by chemical means, working his way through pills that leave him glassy-eyed and by turns almost comatose and then hyper. As a result the others in red have to work harder. Spencer's not getting the chance to rest and heal and each day he becomes gaunter, the weight falling off him as he tries to keep up with demand. It means the complaints about the red quadrant keep flooding in, how the performers are sub-quality and not worth the money and Horace has taken to stalking the grounds, screaming threats and wielding a whip which he snaps next to anyone he sees not working.
It's not much better in amber, where Jon and Brendon are struggling to cope, leaving Ryan and Ronan to take up the slack. He can't remember the last time he was able to rest and Ryan feels hollowed out, every part of his body hurting at all times. He's worried about Spencer, about Pete, about Brendon and Jon who're becoming harder by the day, their innocence corroded away by the act of surviving in the fair. The problem is, there's nothing that Ryan can do. He sleeps, eats, fucks, is fucked. Occasionally he's made to perform, re-enacting some stupid cliché as the crowd yell obscenities and throw sticky tissues that bounce off Ryan's body and litter the ground.
It's obvious they need more performers, but no one arrives, even the johns start to keep away toward the end of the week, and while it should be a welcome break Horace reacts with fury, cursing the protesters that gather outside of the fair's gate. At first there wasn't many but they've grown by the day, an army of people who line the road and watch the men who want to get in.
Ryan doesn't understand why the protesters are there, they look too young for the usual anti-sex protesters and they're not attempting to drive the fair out of town, just stand watching at all times of the day, holding their home made signs. Ryan's got his hand shading his face, trying to read a sign when Brendon comes running, his tunic open and panting as he points back at the pens.
"You need to come. Pan."
Brendon's panic is contagious and Ryan runs, heading toward the crowd he can see gathered around the entrance of the arena. At first he can't see what they're looking at, but then he gets closer and sees that Pete is sitting on the ledge the circles the roof, kicking his bare feet against the panel of the man being fucked on a table. Pete's sandals are lying on the ground and he keeps listing to the side, making the crowd gasp at each near fall.
"Pan. Don't move." Jon's standing under where Pete's sitting, arms outstretched as if he intends to catch him if he falls. "Brendon's gone for help. Fuck. Stay still. Please."
Angry at the people who are standing gawping, Ryan pushes his way through until he's standing next to Jon. He looks up, noticing that the soles of Pete's feet are black with dirt. "How long has he been up there?"
Jon shakes his head, his mouth twisted into a thin line. "I don't know, some john came in yelling about a crazy fucker being on the roof and when they all left I followed and saw Pan. He won't come down, I think he's taken something."
Ryan knows Pete's taken something, it's there in the way he's swaying in place and lost in his own private world. Ryan looks around and sees a breaker lounging against one of the booths. Ryan waves to attract his attention. "You need to go get a ladder."
The breaker grins. "I don't think so, princess."
"You can't just leave him there," Ryan says, wanting to yell but afraid any sudden noise will startle Pete.
The breaker's grin widens he deliberately slouches back further. "Says who?"
Ryan clenches his fists, wanting to hit but he knows it'll do no good. He's no fighter and the breaker knows that, laughing mockingly as Ryan turns away, his cheeks burning.
"If we get one of the props chests I could climb up and get him," Jon says, looking into the arena. Personally Ryan doubts if Jon could reach even if he was standing on a chest, but Ryan could and he's about to go grab one of the chests when there's a shout and Horace shoves his way through the crowd.
"What the fuck are you doing!?"
He's staring up at Pete, his face red and furious as he lifts his whip. "You'd better get down, now!"
Pete doesn't move, and Ryan knows things are about to go wrong. The tension in the air thickening as Horace takes a step forward and brings up his hand.
Horace pushes Jon out of the way and then cracks the whip forward, making it wrap around Pete's ankle. Seeing where this is going Ryan jumps forward, but he's too late, and Horace tugs, making Pete plummet to the ground. He lands with a sickening thud, eyes wide open as he tries to curl on his side.
"I'll teach you to show me up, boy!" Horace raises the whip again, and Ryan can't see another of his friends hurt, not when he's so defenceless. Ryan jumps forward so he's standing over Pete, shielding him with his own body.
"Don't! Can't you see he's hurt?"
"Does it look like I care?" Horace spits, and he's pulling back his arm again. If he was smart Ryan would step aside. He doesn't, even when he's so scared he wants to vomit, knowing what's coming. Steeling himself he keeps facing Horace and gasps when the whip hits, supple leather coiling around his forearm in a fiery burst of pain. "Get out of the way."
"No." Ryan hisses as Horace jerks back the whip and it slithers around Ryan's arm, taking more skin. Shaking, Ryan keeps his guard over Pete as the whip lands again pulling Ryan forward. Stumbling, he lands hard and crouches over Pete, protecting him with his own body. Trying to spread out as far as he can, Ryan covers Pete's face with his hands and screws shut his eyes when the whip keeps hitting his back, the lashes criss-crossing until the pain from each one bleeds into another and it's all Ryan can do to keep breathing.
"Ryan! The fuck?!"
Spencer. Running and pushing through the crowd. A john goes down and Spencer jumps over his prone body, hand outstretched as he goes for the whip. Horace turns, teeth bared and furious.
"If you mark him we'll be down another performer." Rolof steps close to Horace, looking bored as he stares down at Pete and Ryan. "I doubt Pan will be good for anything today, Willow either. You need Sunny."
"I should throw them all in solitary." Spittle flies as Horace yells, but he's dropped his hand, the whip lying lax on the ground. He kicks at Pete's leg, making him groan. "Make sure he doesn't die, but put that one in solitary. No one defies me like that. No one!"
Ryan's arms are trembling as he fights against collapsing fully, scared of what injuries Pete has after falling. Head down he watches as blood from his chin drips down, landing on Pete's face, and then, with a last snarl, Horace finally leaves.
"You, take Pan back to the engine," Rolof says, pointing at Brendon and Jon. "I'll be there to see him after I deal with Willow." He looks around the crowd of johns, all of them crowding forward like this is part of the entertainment. "Gentlemen, as you can see we've had a situation. Apollo and Zen will be back soon, and normal service will resume."
One of the johns steps forward, small and heavily tattooed, he looks hungrily at Ryan and Pete. "How about it resumes now? I'll pay extra to fuck them both. Especially if that one stays unconscious."
Spencer steps forward, his hands in fists. "Don't...."
"Unfortunately that won't be possible," Rolof interrupts smoothly. "But I'm sure we can sort something out with our other entertainers." He looks over at two of the guards who have come running at the commotion, says, "Take Willow to solitary, I'll be there soon."
The guard step over to Ryan and each one grabs him by an arm, hauling him to his feet. "Get up."
"Stop it, you're hurting him." Spencer pushes in front of the guards, cupping Ryan's chin and lifting his head. "You're an idiot."
Spencer's touch is cool and Ryan wants to leans against him and see if he can extinguish the flames that are consuming Ryan's body. He looks down, sees that Brendon and Jon are carefully picking up Pete, who looks deathly pale and lax in their arms. "Pan?"
"They've got him," Spencer says, and drops his hand when one of the guards push him to one side. "I'll come with you."
Each step hurts and Ryan's trembling badly by the time they're out of ear shot of the crowd. He can still feel blood dribbling down his chin and he moves to wipe it away when Spencer does it for him, wiping it away with his thumb. Ryan's breath hitches and he says, "I had to do it."
"I know," Spencer replies and he holds up his hand, looking at his bloody thumb. "Seeing you standing over Pete was one of the bravest things I've seen."
Ryan shakes his head, he doesn't feel brave. He feels like crying and hiding away, especially when he sees the solitary wagon, the metal walls glinting in the afternoon sun. Approaching it is torture, but Ryan knows there's no point running, they'll just be found. They get closer and stop walking, the guards stepping to one side, allowing Spencer to slip his arm around Ryan's shoulders. The touch hurts but Ryan says nothing, because any amount of pain is cancelled by having Spencer so close, holding him as they wait.
Finally, longer than it should have taken to pacify one demanding john, Rolof arrives, wandering slowly through the painted booths. Seeing him, Spencer rests his head against Ryan's, says, "I'll visit you all that I can."
"I know," Ryan says, and despite feeling faint he stands up straight when Rolof gets close, and without a word to Spencer or Ryan, opens the door. "Tell Pete I'll kill him if he dies after this."
Spencer laughs a little, a brittle sound as he brushes a kiss against Ryan's mouth. "I'll tell him."
"Good," Ryan says, and head held high, he climbs into the wagon alone.
Ryan's cold, shivering violently as he props himself against the wall, knees bent and arms wrapped around his body.
Ryan's going insane and he wants to scream, kick the walls to get outside so he can breathe. It feels like he's been in here forever, but if he concentrates hard and counts sunrises and sunsets Ryan knows it's only been two days. Enough time for Spencer to leave, and then come back as often as he could, standing outside as Ryan knelt on the hard floor, his cheek against the wall as he held onto Spencer's hand through the small opening. Each time it's dark when Spencer finally leaves and now it's light again. A sunbeam illuminating a small rectangle on the floor. Ryan stretches out his foot as far as he can, his toes bathed in sunshine and he tells himself that it's helping, that he's warming up from the outside in.
He's not. No matter how hard Ryan tries to pretend he feels freezing cold, sick, his head pounding and he knows some of the whip marks must have become infected. He can feel that his tunic is stuck to his back, tugging painfully each time that he moves. Nauseous, he curls in on himself, chin against his knees and eyes closed. Then opens them again when the wagon rocks and someone suddenly opens the door.
Rolof, looking his usual impassive self as he looks inside, his upper body blocking the door. "We've had a special request for you, the guy who wanted you and Pan when he fell from the roof. You need to come with me."
Ryan looks past Rolof, at the back of a nearby booth, flags flapping against a clear blue sky. The thought of moving is excruciating, to move only to be handed over to someone who wants sex is even more so. Ryan swallows back bile, his head swimming.
"I don't think...."
"You say that as if you've a choice." Rolof reaches in through the door and wraps his hands around Ryan's upper arms, and then drags Ryan across the floor. Head swimming at the abrupt movement he fights to stay conscious, gagging as he feels something thick and wet slide down his side as Rolof drags him fully outside, dropping him to the floor. "He's waiting for you, we have to go."
"I should wash," Ryan says. He feels horrible, wet through with sweat, his hands covered in dried blood. He doesn't want to imagine what his back looks like, it feels bad enough as he tries to get onto his knees.
Rolof grabs hold of Ryan's arm again, hauling him upright. "No washing, he wants you like this. He paid good money."
Ryan's heard stories of johns that like to play with wounds. His whole body throbbing he considers refusing, but the simple fact is, he's got nowhere to go. Even if he could get past the guards he'd be hunted down within minutes, but most important of all, he could never leave Spencer.
Accepting the inevitable he allows himself to be pulled along to one of the private rooms, where the tattooed john from before is impatiently pacing outside.
"About fucking time, I paid enough for him."
"My apologies," Rolof says. "Willow is ill at the moment and couldn't walk fast."
The john smiles, showing all his teeth. "Which is exactly why I want him. Now get him in that room, I have plans for that boy."
Ryan tries his best to suppress a shudder, concentrating hard to stay on his feet when Rolof lets go. Slowly Ryan walks forward, the world spinning around him as he steps into the room and says, "Where would you like me?"
The john looks over his shoulder, leering as he indicates the bed with a jerk of his head. "On the bed, on your front."
Resigned, Ryan approaches the bed, and almost collapses down on it, his legs on the floor and head on the blessedly cool pillow. When he hears the door close he struggles to lift his legs onto the bed, steeling himself when he feels a hand on his shoulder.
"Ryan. Hey, Ryan, stop. Let me help you." Confused, Ryan tries to understand how the john knows his real name, because the johns never do, they're not allowed to. But this one seems to, and his touch is gentle as he helps Ryan lie flat on his stomach before sitting Indian style on the floor next to Ryan's head. "You are Ryan, yeah? Mikey described you."
"Mikey?" Ryan's even more confused. Trying to get a better look at the john he moves wrong and feels something split on his back. Unable to repress a whimper, Ryan presses his mouth against the pillow.
"Fuck," The john spits out and he reaches out before stilling his hand next to Ryan's hip. "Don't move for fucks sake." He takes a deep breath, and goes on. "I tried to get to you before, when that bastard went at you with the whip. My name's Frank, I'm a friend of Mikey's. We're going to get you all out."
Ryan looks at Frank over the fold of the pillow, wishing his mind was more clear. As it is his thoughts are slippery and he's struggling to understand what's going on. "You're Mikey's friend?"
"I am," Frank says. "We've been looking for him since he went missing, and then Pete got in touch."
Ryan stares at Frank, seeing how his expression softens when he talks about Mikey, and while Ryan doesn't trust him just yet, he's willing to listen. "Is Mikey okay?"
Frank hesitates before he replies. "He's safe, missing you all, especially Pete."
"We miss him, too," Ryan admits, his eyes closing despite himself. Seeing that Frank shuffles closer, appearing deadly serious.
"Ryan, you have to listen. We're getting you all out of here but you need to help. Gerard's fucking loaded but he can't buy you all out. It's too dangerous, especially for him." Frank scowls and then forces himself to relax. "The only thing we can do is break you all out. Tomorrow night. More of our people are here, Bob's with Spencer and Ray's with Jon right now. But you need to pass the word too, get people ready to go."
Ryan's heart is racing and he clutches the pillow tightly. The thought of getting out of the fair is a dream, but he doesn't know Frank, for all Ryan knows he could be making things worse, talking about things he has no hope of achieving. Or even some kind of set up, Horace testing his performers and staff.
Frank keeps talking, and he leans forward, his elbows against the side of the bed. "I know it's a lot to take in, and you've no reason to trust me. Hell, you don't even know me, but I am Mikey's friend and we are going to get you all out."
It's like everything Ryan wants is within reach and all he has to do is stretch out his hand, but he's afraid if he does that he'll get burned. Needing to know more he asks, "How?"
"Are we getting you out?" Frank asks, and at Ryan's nod says, "Gerard's got this comic series, it's a sideline to the stuff that gets the big bucks but he's got a fucking huge following, mostly kids that want to make a difference. Gee put an anti-fair message in the last issue."
"The protesters," Ryan says softly, thinking of the crowds of people at the gate. It feels weird that strangers are actually protesting, like Ryan's actually worth saving, but even so. Ryan shakes his head. "You can't use kids to get us out. They could get hurt."
"They won't." Frank runs his hand through his hair, his brow creased as he explains. "They're a distraction, nothing more. Gerard's got pros to actually get you guys out. All you need to do is get to the gathering point at the right time, they'll do the rest."
"But why?" Ryan's shaking and he presses his hand against his mouth.
Frank kneels and takes off his jacket, carefully draping it over Ryan's back. "Why what?"
"Why's he doing this?" Ryan doesn't understand. He gets why Gerard would come for Mikey, and even why he'd come back for Pete. But why Ryan? Or Spencer? Or any of the other entertainers? It doesn't make sense.
"Mikey hasn't really said much," Frank says, and he sits in his former place, his knees drawn up as he talks. "Maybe he has to Gerard, I don't know, but that first night he was home I got up to piss and found him sleeping on the floor. Not even in the bedroom, outside on the porch. He about scared me out of my mind. I went to wake him up..." Frank hesitates and takes a deep breath, glancing at Ryan before he goes on. "I woke him and he opened his eyes and looked so fucking scared and all I wanted to do was grab hold and tell him things would be okay. But I didn't, because he was already sitting up and pretending he was fine, even though he was sitting outside in Gee's over-sized pajamas and lying on a blanket."
"That's what you have to do," Ryan says. "Never show weakness."
Frank grimaces wraps his arms around his knees. "We talked a bit that night, I had so many questions but all he talked about were you all. How Pete had helped him when he first arrived. How you and Spencer agreed to coming here to stay together. How you're his friends, and if you're friends of Mikey's you're friends of mine, and Gerard's. And that means we're not leaving you all here."
Ryan tugs at the pillow trying to find a cool spot, the material feels rough against his skin and his head is throbbing as he tries to figures things out. Because it can't be that easy, nothing in life is that easy. Except, no matter how hard he tries he can't hear any lies in Frank's words. "Where should we go and when?"
"One am and near the kitchen," Frank says. "There's a road on the other side of the trees, they'll be vehicles waiting to take you away."
"We'll be there," Ryan promises, his eyes sliding closed.
"Good." Gently, Frank touches Ryan's side. "I would have brought stuff for your back, Lindsey makes this amazing salve but it fucking reeks. I've got painkillers, though."
Eyes heavy, Ryan looks at the pills Frank's holding in his hand. There's only a few and what Ryan should do is keep them for later, when he needs to be up and moving. The problem is, he hasn't got his bag and has nowhere else to hide them, no matter how small they actually are. Ryan reaches out and takes the pills, swallowing them all. "Thanks."
"The least I could do," Frank says, and tucks the jacket more securely around Ryan. "Sleep. I bought you for two hours, you might as well take advantage."
Ryan doesn't need telling again.
When Ryan wakes Frank has already gone, and taken his jacket with him. Which is a relief because no way could Ryan explain why he had it.
The inside of the room is stuffy now, sunlight bleeding under the door and through the cracks in the wooden walls. Curled up on the bed, Ryan gathers the courage to move. He knows it's going to hurt, a lot, but he also knows he can't stay here. Bending his knee he slowly turns on his side and then pushes himself upright, his arms shaking as he pants for breath and silently thanks Frank that the pain is dulled a little.
The door opens and Ryan pushes his hair out of his face, trying to compose himself as Rolof steps into the room. Which is when Ryan realizes a flaw in Frank's plan, because there's no way Ryan can get to the meeting place if he's locked in solitary. Desperate, he tries to think what to do, willing to try anything to stay free.
"It's time to go," Rolof says, leaning against the door-frame and completely blocking the exit.
Ryan struggles to his feet. When he's semi-upright he takes hesitant steps forward, his mind racing. "The john liked my back, he liked touching it."
"He can do what he wants as long as he pays," Rolof says, sounding indifferent.
"And others could too, you could put me in red until I heal, swap me out for Bryce." Ryan hopes he sounds logical and not pleading, then sways, his knees buckling as he reaches for the wall for support.
Rolof shakes his head. "I'm not an idiot, I know you want to be with Sunny but it's not going to happen. You can barely stand."
Frustrated, Ryan tries to straighten up, feeling scabs on his back crack open. "I can stand and you need me. You're down too many performers as it is."
"Which is why Horace has merged the quadrants for now." It's something that's only happened once that Ryan can remember, when half the fair went down with a stomach bug that had them squatting in the bushes for hours on end. It's also bad for all the performers, especially the ones in amber that are forced to provide services they've never tried.
"So, what? You're going to throw me back in solitary while everyone else has to double up? That's stupid."
Rolof shakes his head and doesn't look at Ryan as he takes a right outside of the room. "No, you're going to stay with Pan and make sure he doesn't die. Some lily-livered do-gooder shoved his nose in and reported Pan falling."
Which is so far from what actually happened that Ryan has to stop himself laughing. "So where's Pan?"
"In the red cage," Rolof says and keeps striding forward, making Ryan push himself to his limits to keep up. "I've decided it's your job to keep him alive."
"My job?!" Ryan says, because while he's got no issue with looking after Pete, if Pete does die Ryan knows where the blame will fall. Not that he's going to allow that to happen. Pete's going to live, whatever it takes.
Ryan steps over the wooden walkway that leads to the arena, and Rolof heads toward the main doors. "Someone has to do it, and you're good for nothing else right now."
He pulls open the doors to the arena and Ryan briefly sees Spencer hanging from a series of ropes, Brendon kneeling at his feet. Ryan can't help thinking in any other circumstance he should be jealous of the way Brendon's sliding his hand up Spencer's leg, or the way Spencer's obviously enjoying the attention, but seeing them like that means nothing -- sex never does.
The door eases shut and Ryan keeps walking, between two booths, Ken in one, looking bored as he rearranges the display of performance enhancing drugs, Daniel in the other, who nods at Ryan from where he's watching chunks of meat roast on a spit.
The smell of the meat makes Ryan feel hungry, and his stomach is rumbling as he approaches the red wagon. Hand pressed against his stomach he looks through the bars, and sees Pete lying in a nest of straw and blankets. He's covered with another blanket, red and ragged, and his bare feet stick out the end, one of his ankles swollen and discolored. It's strange seeing him lie so still. Pete's never still and Ryan wants to shake him, tell him to wake up and say things will be okay. It's what Pete does, for all his laughter and jokes, his smiles in the face of serious situations he's also the person who's been here the longest. He knows how things work and goes out of his way to help when he can, with his trades and passing of information, and often, reassurances that no matter how bad they get days can always get better.
Ryan wants to hear that now, or see Pete's stupid toothy grin. He doesn't; all Ryan hears is his own wheezing breaths as he painfully clambers into the cage and eases himself down next to Pete. Reaching out his hand, Ryan rests it against Pete's brow, careful of the deep bruise that darkens the side of his head. Despite his own fever it's obvious Pete is burning up, and Ryan's scared. He doesn't know what to do and he hates that.
Exhausted and hurting badly Ryan shuffles down until he's propped on his side, and takes hold of Pete's lax hand. Looking around he checks that no one is within hearing distance and then says, "You need to hold on. We're getting out of here, Mikey's brother is arranging it all. I'm not sure why, but he is. He's coming for you, to take you back to Mikey. So sleep now but don't you dare go anywhere. You know Mikey's a mean fucker when he gets mad."
Pete doesn't reply.
Ryan doesn't sleep. He wants to desperately but even though his eyes keep sliding closed each time he forces them open. He has to watch Pete and he can't do that when he's asleep so instead Ryan talks. He tells Pete stories about when he was a kid and treated Spencer's bustling family as if it was his own. About later, when he realized that Spencer was more than his best friend, and later still, his disbelief that Spencer felt the same way.
As the sun begins to set, golden sunshine replaced by black shadows he curls around Pete, craving body warmth and needing to feel Pete breathe. Hand against Pete's chest Ryan keeps talking, mouth close to Pete's shoulder as he tells stories that normally he tries to forget. The day the authorities found out about his relationship with Spencer. His dad's face as the charges were read aloud and the choices given.
Later still and his voice almost gone. Signing himself over, Spencer at his side, neither of them aware of just what they'd agreed to. How Pete was there waiting, refusing to back away despite Ryan's hostility and Spencer's caution. "You never backed away," Ryan says. "You stayed there through everything and you have to stay here now."
"How is he?"
Ryan jumps, cursing under his breath at the resulting pain. It's not often people manage to sneak up on him and he scowls up at Jon, who's climbed into the cage and is kneeling down next to Pete. "Stop creeping around."
"Sorry," Jon says, and he sounds apologetic as he looks at Ryan and the touches Pete's face with the back of his hand. "I've brought you some bread."
"How did you know I was here?" Ryan asks, and tries hard to suppress the pained sounds as he sits and takes the hunk of bread that Jon takes from under his tunic. "I hope this wasn't down your pants."
"You'd still eat it," Jon says, which is true and Ryan takes a bite of the slightly stale bread, chewing hard as Jon continues. "Ken said you came this way, he told me when I was passing on the message."
"Yeah?" Ryan sets the bread on his lap, suddenly not hungry. "You saw one of Mikey's friends too?"
Jon nods and looks around him before saying quietly. "He was called Bob. He said, well he didn't say much, just the important shit, like we're getting out tonight."
"At one," Ryan adds, already working out how he'll get Pete to the meeting spot. It'll take a lot of hard work but Ryan's ready. As long as he knows one thing first. "Sunny knows, right?"
"He knows. He had this guy called Ray, they had quite the talk." Jon stops talking when Pete makes a tiny sound, looking at him expectantly. "I wish he'd wake up, it's been too long."
Which Ryan agrees with, but there's other things he needs to know right now. "The guy Ray?"
Jon swallows and looks away from Pete. "Yeah, Ray. From what Sunny said he said the same as Bob. About Gerard arranging this to get us out. We didn't get to talk long. Horace is restless, he's making sounds about moving on tomorrow."
Ryan's not surprised. Horace was already angry, add in Gerard illegally buying Mikey and the dwindling johns and moving on is the logical thing to do. It means that this escape has to work tonight, and now that he knows that Spencer's been told Ryan can concentrate on planning how to get Pete to the kitchen. It's not far and Pete's not heavy, but Ryan's nowhere near his best and he doubts he could carry Pete that distance. He knows someone will come back if they can, but he can't rely on that, not when the timing is so tight. He looks through the gilded bars, trying to see anything that could help.
"I need to get going, I only got a five minute break." Jon rests his hand on Pete's shoulder and then stands, the cage rocking as he makes his way to the door. When he gets there he looks back and clears his throat, says, "I know we haven't been here long, and tonight might go fine and I'll feel stupid in the morning. Just. Thank you. For all the help you gave me and Brendon. We wouldn't have made it without you. You and Sunny."
Ryan considers Jon, the way he's standing slightly hunched with his legs apart, the brand on his arm a fiery red, looking exhausted and still taking the time out of his break to bring Ryan some bread. "Spencer," Ryan says. "His name's Spencer, and I'm Ryan."
"Ryan." Jon says the name like he's trying it out, and then smiles. "It's nice to meet you Ryan."
"You too," Ryan says, and realizes that for the first time in days he's smiling too.
Ryan wraps the blanket around Pete and then ties it in knots at his neck and feet. When he's sure that they're secure he grabs Pete's bag and slips it over his head, wincing at the pressure against his back. A last look around the cage and Ryan crawls backwards toward the door. Straw and dirt stick to his palms and he keeps listening, hoping that someone will arrive to help; but they don't. All he can hear is the sound of tinny music and the shouts of the johns as they finally head toward home. Ryan takes hold of the blanket and pulls, dragging Pete across the floor. "You know, you weigh a ton for someone so small."
Pete doesn't reply, Ryan never expected that he would, but Ryan talks anyway, his voice hushed as he pulls Pete to the entrance inch by torturous inch. "I'm going to tell Mikey how you laid there and slept. You always laughed at him for sleeping when he could. Think of this as payback."
More silence and Ryan's about out of his mind. Normally he doesn't mind being alone, not that he gets the chance often, but when he does he likes to sit back and enjoy the thoughts in his head. This kind of alone is like torture and Ryan's jumping at every shadow as he worries about getting caught, about getting Pete to the meeting spot, and most of all that this is some huge con and he'll get there to find nobody at all.
He's also worried about Spencer. Ryan hasn't seen him since the night before, and even then that was talking through the metal walls. Making this escape without Spencer at his side feels wrong, like Ryan's running toward safety and leaving Spencer behind. Which he's not, he never would, but that feeling still remains. "He'll be coming, I know he is," Ryan says, never doubting that for a moment. Finally he feels his toes go over the edge of the cage. Scrambling back Ryan drops to the ground, taking a moment to lean against the bars as he regains his breath.
It takes a while and Ryan feels dizzy when he straightens and continues to pull at Pete's body until his legs are hanging out of the cage. When he'd planned this Ryan had pictured slinging Pete over his shoulder and carrying him that way. Now that he's here he knows there's no way that will happen. Ryan just doesn't have the strength and he wipes at his eyes, frustrated at his own weakness. There's only one thing he can think to do, and he rests his hand on Pete's knee, says, "This won't be very dignified. Sorry."
Gripping the blanket under Pete's chin, Ryan braces his feet and then pulls hard, trying to hold on to the blanket when Pete falls to the ground. Ryan manages, to an extent. Pete still hits hard and Ryan's pulled over, landing on his side. Curling in on himself he screws shut his eyes, his mouth open as he tries to get air into his lungs. Something that's impossible for a while until finally, finally Ryan's gasps, his back on fire as he lies still. It's tempting to stay there, his cheek against the cool grass and say enough, because Ryan's about at his limit. What he does is start moving, tiny amounts at first, straightening his fingers, his legs, then he's slowly sitting and then finally, wavering as he gets to his feet. The bag is pulled tight around Ryan's neck and he runs his finger under the strap and tries to ignore the feeling of something running down his back, soaking his pants at the waist.
"Sorry for dropping you," Ryan says, anxiety clawing as Pete remains deathly still. Crouching, Ryan slips his hand between the folds of the blanket, needing to feel that Pete's actually alive, his hand trembling until he finally feels a shallow breath. "Bastard, stop pretending like that." Taking hold of the blanket at Pete's feet, Ryan looks at the moon, calculating the hour, and then begins to pull, knowing he's running out of time.
It's a journey that seems to take hours. Worried about being seen by the wrong people Ryan stays in the shadows behind the stalls. The grass is longer there, untrampled by feet and Pete's body makes a slithering sound that accompanies Ryan's pants for air. Once he sees Rolof, arms full of a bear costume as he heads for the storage chests that are stored behind the arena. Terrified, Ryan presses himself against the back of the booth, praying that he's hidden in the dark.
Thankfully Rolof's occupied with holding the large black pelt and snarling head, and Ryan relaxes a little when he disappears around a corner without apparently seeing Ryan at all. Giving Rolof a minute to get further away, Ryan starts to walk again, falling into his previous routine. A step, a pull on the blanket, Pete tugged forward a few inches. Another step. Another pull. Ryan's caught in the sequence, senses thrown outwards as he listens for danger.
It's how he hears the footsteps, someone running, and then like some kind of miracle Spencer is there and grabbing hold of Ryan in a fierce hug.
"I went to the red engine, you'd gone and I thought. Fuck. I don't know what I thought." Spencer squeezes again and then pulls back, his mouth turned down as he looks at his palms that gleam wetly. "Shit, your back. I forgot."
"Doesn't matter," Ryan says, the sheer relief of seeing Spencer stronger than any pain. Reaching out, he wraps his fingers around Spencer's wrist, over the smooth skin of his brand, taking a much needed moment before moving again. "We should get going, we're going to be late."
Spencer glances up and nods, looking worried. "I would have been back before but Horace was sitting in. The fucker didn't let us have a break. Not even between johns."
Ryan looks at the way Spencer's holding himself, the careful way he moves as he looks down at Pete. "Are you okay?"
"Better than you are," Spencer says dismissively, and takes hold of Pete, hefting him onto his shoulder. "Fuck, he weighs a ton."
Ryan smiles a little. "That's what I said." Then abruptly stops talking when there's a loud series of bangs from the direction of the front gate. "The hell?"
"That has to be the distraction Ray was talking about, you know, the protesters," Spencer says. An arm around Pete's legs he uses the other to grab hold of Ryan. "Come on!"
They start to run as fast as they can, which isn't fast at all between Ryan feeling like he's going to collapse at any minute and Spencer having to carry Pete. Still Spencer pushes the pace, dragging Ryan along as they give up on staying in the shadows and move onto one of the main pathways, their feet pounding against the wooden planks. It's a risk but one that's diminished because the whole fair is in uproar.
Ryan looks toward the brightly lit main gates, and sees that the crowd of protesters has swollen in numbers. Each person is dressed in black, holding up signs and blood-red flags that flutter in the wind. At the front are a line of drummers and it's those that are making the noise, pounding out a beat as the people behind chant and press forward as the guards stand their ground.
"That's one hell of a distraction," Ryan says, caught in the formation and drama of the scene.
"It's not a distraction for you," Spencer snaps, and tugs at Ryan's arm, keeping him moving.
They reach the kitchen area and Ryan starts to think this might work. Before he'd trusted Frank, that he wanted to get them out, but the plan had seemed too rushed; and even if Ryan had gone along with it there was still part of him that expected it to fail. Now he's standing at the back of a group of performers and other staff, all of them watching as a stream of black-clothed men burst out from behind the kitchen cabin.
One of the men moves to the front of the group, raising his voice as he says, "We have vehicles waiting on the other side of these trees. We've disabled the electric fence and will escort anyone that wishes to leave in small groups."
There's a buzz of protests at the last and the man holds up his hand. "It has to be that way. There's no path and we can't use lights or we'll attract attention. We will have everyone out of here within five minutes."
He sounds sure of that and Ryan's feeling reassured when he realizes Brendon and Jon are nowhere to be seen. Praying he's overlooked them somehow in the constantly moving group of people Ryan checks again. Sees Jack and Ronan, Bryce and Ken, every performer and menial worker that keeps the fair running, except Brendon and Jon.
Spencer looks around when Ryan grabs his arm. "What's wrong?"
"Can you see Brendon and Jon?" Ryan hopes that somehow Spencer can see them when Ryan can't, a hope that's crushed when Spencer looks around and then shakes his head.
"They were in the stalls, Jon was picked by a john that should have been red. Brendon was unlocking him when I came for you." Spencer looks around again and then makes a move toward one of the men who are arranging people into groups. "My friend. Can you take him? I have to go back."
There's a moment when Ryan thinks the man is going to refuse, when he peers at Spencer through the eye holes cut into his mask, then he holds out his arms, says, "You'll have ten minutes then we're covering our tracks."
Ryan doesn't know what covering tracks will involve, but he suspects it can't be good. Which is something that doesn't stop him getting ready to go back.
Carefully, Spencer hands over Pete, cradling his head until the man easily holds Pete in his arms. He turns to Ryan then, kissing him on the lips. "Go with them. I'll be back soon."
"I don't think so," Ryan says. There's no way he's going to leave Spencer alone, no matter what anyone says. Ignoring Spencer's scowl Ryan turns and begins to run toward the exit to the main fair. "Hurry up."
"You're a fucking idiot." Spencer's angry, that's obvious, but he also takes Ryan's hand, entwining their fingers as he says, softer, "Thank you."
Running to the arena takes every bit of Ryan's endurance. He keeps stumbling, feeling so ill the world spins around him and all he can hear at the sound of drums. A constant throbbing beat as they crash through the doors to the pens, looking in all the stalls until they find Brendon and Jon.
Naked, Jon's shackled to the wall next to an upturned bed, his arms bloody as he frantically tries to pulls his hands through the metal cuffs while Brendon scrabbles on the floor, searching through the straw.
"I dropped the key." Brendon doesn't look up, just keeps searching. "I'm so fucking stupid. I dropped it and he couldn't get out and fuck."
"It's okay, we'll find it," Spencer says, sounding calm, but Ryan can see beyond that, how Spencer is fighting to keep the panic out of his voice as he drops to his knees. There's no room for Ryan to do the same and he moves next to Jon, seeing the bloody welts that circle both wrists.
"It was my fault." Jon's shaking and Ryan pulls at the blanket that's on top of the bed, wrapping it around Jon's waist as best as he can. "He was unlocking me and I jumped when I heard the drums. I knocked the key out of his hand."
"We'll find it," Ryan soothes, and they will, he just doesn't know if it'll be in time. The drums keep increasing in volume, in tempo and both Brendon and Spencer are frantically searching, throwing straw outside of the stall.
"You should go, leave me," Jon says then, and Brendon looks up at him, his expression fierce.
"No. No fucking way, Jon. We came together and we go together."
"Before you say a word, that goes for us, too," Ryan says, giving Jon a look.
"But, you don't even know us well," Jon says, and leans back heavily against the wall, making the whole thing shake. "I don't get why you're staying."
Ryan steps close to the wall, running his hand over the rough wood. "I like the drums."
"You like the drums, of course you do," Jon says weakly, and takes a step to the side when Ryan bumps him with his hip.
Hand flat against the wooden plank where the shackles are secured, Ryan pushes, feeling it give a little. "Spencer, forget about the key and come and help with this. I think we can break the wood."
Immediately Spencer stands and puts his hands next to Ryan's. Together they push, and the wood starts to bend outwards, causing Jon to be pulled back.
"Sorry," Spencer says, but he keeps pushing, the muscles in his arms standing out as cracks begin to appear, and then, with a loud snap, the plank breaks, the shackles falling, allowing Jon to drop his arms.
Hands against his chest, he rubs at his wrists and then gathers up the chains, holding them close. "Time to go."
"Time to go," Ryan agrees, and all he can hope is they'll be in time as they run outside. Stepping from wood to grass the only people visible are at the gate, the guards still holding their line and the protesters, chanting faster now, keeping time with the drums. Other than them there's no one, and Ryan's starting to think they'll do this, that they'll get back in time. Which is when Horace appears from behind one of the booths and stands in the middle of the walkway, his whip held in one hand and a gun in the other.
Frantically thinking how to get away, Ryan takes a step to the side so he's shielding Spencer, his attention on the gun as Horace waves it in the air. It's the first gun that Ryan's ever seen but he's heard about them, enough to know that the situation has rapidly become worse.
"I'm not letting you leave," Horace yells, his face red and his teeth bared. Ryan tenses, sure Horace is about to start shooting. "You're not leaving because you belong to me. I own you. I own you all."
Technically it's true but whatever Horace says Ryan's not staying, none of them are staying. Painfully aware of every passing second Ryan pulls himself to his full height, shoulders up and chin held high, says, "We're going and you can't stop us."
Horace aims the gun at Ryan, says, "Try me, whore."
Ryan knows this is it. He got so close to freedom only to have it ripped from his grasp, but he's not going without a fight, all he can hope is Spencer can get away, and he shouts, "Run!"
"You all need to run!"
Surprised when he hears Rolof yell, Ryan sees him run out of the arena, Rolof's long tattered coat flowing behind him as he heads directly for Horace.
Gun still pointed at Ryan, Horace reaches out his hand as if to push Rolof away. "Back off. Now! Remember who you are."
"I never forget who I am," Rolof says, deadly calm as he pulls back his tunic sleeve to expose his old crudely applied brand. "And I've had enough. I'm done."
"You're not done until I say," Horace spits out, screaming obscenities as Rolof jumps forward and grabs for the gun.
Which is when Ryan runs. Each step he takes Ryan expects to feel a bullet in his back, is sure of it when he hears the gun go off and someone scream. Slowing, Ryan's jerked forward when Spencer grabs him and shouts, "Don't you dare slow down."
Ryan doesn't. He runs despite the temptation to look back, the fact that he's hurting so badly now, pushing himself to go even faster.
It's still not fast enough.
They get to the kitchen area and it's empty. No men in black, no performers, no other workers. They've all gone.
"Fuck," Spencer yells and kicks at an abandoned bowl, sending it across the ground where it hits the fence with a clank. Which is when someone runs from behind the kitchen hut, tearing off his mask.
"About fucking time. I was about to leave."
Ryan takes a step closer. "Frank?"
Frank grins wide. "In the flesh. Now are you ready to get out of here or do you want to go save someone else?"
"We're ready," Ryan says, following Frank toward the disabled electric fence. "Spencer, this is Frank. He's Mikey's friend."
"Thanks for waiting." Spencer climbs through the fence and then steps into the trees, waiting for the others.
"I wouldn't dare go without you," Frank says, bending over to untangle Jon's sheet that's become snagged on the fence. "Mikey would kill me."
"You did get Pete, right?" Ryan asks, worried at Frank's words, because it's Pete Mikey will want safe.
Frank moves to the front of the group, serious as he peers into the darkness before starting in on an invisible path. "We got him. You'll see him in a few minutes, but we need to get moving. Clean up starts soon."
"Clean up?" Brendon asks, and then looks up when something streaks through the night sky, briefly lighting up the trees and ground before landing with a crash somewhere behind them. "That something to do with you?"
"That's everything to do with us," Frank says, his smile manic as he starts to move again, pushing aside brambles and warning for the overhanging branches that loom in the dark.
Pulling on the last of his strength, Ryan follows, his feet slipping on the rotting leaves and twigs getting caught in his hair, Spencer's hand on his shoulder a constant at all times.
When he hears the first crackle of flames from behind him, Ryan feels nothing but relief. He knows most people will have left the fair already and the ones that haven't have time to escape. If they don't -- Ryan can't bring himself to care. Glancing behind him he sees the bright glow of light through the trees. Heart racing he forces himself to look away, to keep on running, but soon he's slowing until it's only Spencer that's pulling Ryan forward then practically hauling him up a small bank that leads to the road.
There's a wagon waiting, one with high sides and the back already open. Ryan takes a step forward, but he's got nothing left to give, not even to get inside.
Everything goes dark as finally Ryan goes down.
Ryan wakes up briefly and he's got his head on Spencer's lap, the sound of the road a steady thrum. Ryan tries to talk but he feels so sick, so weak the words are lost within seconds. He imagines them trapped in his throat, caught and turned to ash by the fire that rages inside his body. They hit a bump and the wagon jumps, all Ryan can do is whimper. Spencer runs his fingers through Ryan's hair, says softly, "It's okay, we have to be there soon. It's okay."
Ryan hangs onto those words, hoping that they're true as he shivers, his whole body shaking. He opens his eyes and looks around, feeling lost and scared despite the way Spencer's so close. He tries to focus on the people that surround them, Pete lying on a pile of blankets, Brendon and Jon slumped together in one corner, Jon's sheet now made into some kind of toga. Frank and Jacob, who used to make food. Everyone looks shell-shocked and exhausted, their faces grey smudges in the weak light of dawn.
"Ten minutes," Frank says suddenly. He stretches out his legs in the available space and rolls his head around his shoulders, adding, "Gee's hideaway in the forest. It's just up ahead."
Spencer rests his hand on the back of Ryan's neck. "G. You mean Gerard, right? Mikey's brother."
"Yeah." Frank leans back, his body moving with the wagon. "He wanted to come but we persuaded him he was better off staying and making sure the place was ready for more guests."
Ryan closes his eyes. He's exhausted from trying to follow the conversation and it's taking effort to keep things in focus, faces blurring and morphing into things Ryan knows aren't really there. A john in the corner, smirking as he holds up a bloody knife, Horace, his whip held high, shadowed people, all of them whispering, whore.
"As long as there's a place for me and Ryan to curl up it'll be fine," Spencer says, and his words are solid, pushing back the shadows.
"I'm sure we can stretch to finding you an actual bed," Frank says, sounding amused. "I don't know about clean bedding, though. No one's been there for a while."
The last time he can remember sleeping in an actual bed with sheets and blankets Ryan was sixteen. It was the night before they'd been seen by Father Grayson, and Ryan had spent the night curled up around Spencer, burrowed in sheets that smelled of sunshine. Since then he's slept on straw and itchy woolen blankets that always smell like damp, no matter the time of year. It's why he's not surprised when Spencer says, "That doesn't matter."
Jacob clears his throat. "What happens if we want to leave?"
"We won't stop you," Frank says immediately. "You're not prisoners, none of you are, but if you're branded it's going to cause problems. Sex slaves can't be seen walking around free."
Ryan tries to concentrate. He knows there's something strange about what Frank's saying, he just doesn't know what, and each time he attempt to think his thoughts slip away.
"I want to go home," Jacob says, sounding small and scared. "My parents were so happy for me when I got the job at the fair. I mean, they're government sanctioned, they had to be okay. But I hated it, I didn't even perform and I hated it. I just want to go home. Please."
Frank says, "We'll make sure you're okay, I promise, and if you can go home we'll get you there."
Spencer tenses and Ryan remembers Ginger's tears, the way sentence was laid down, an engine arriving on a bright summer day. Painful reminders that hurt, no matter how good Frank's intentions are -- not everyone has a home where they can actually return.
They drive into a forest and the bumping gets worse. Frank's got one hand on Pete's chest, holding him still while Ryan's trying his best not to cry out, his muscles pulled tight. Dappled sunlight causes shadows to dance across the floor and under the immediate stench of dirt and infection Ryan can smell trees, and even at some points, flowers.
"If we're staying a while he needs to get this fixed," Frank says, as they lurch to the side, his body impacting against the side of the wagon with a thud. Scowling, he rubs at his head and climbs to his feet, pushing himself up on tip toes as he looks over the side. "Thank fuck, we're here."
Ryan wants to know what here looks like, but it's impossible to move and he lies still as Brendon scrambles up and stands next to Frank. "Is that a dragon?"
"Gerard likes dragons," Frank says, swaying when they finally come to a stop. "He likes lots... oh hey, Gerard!"
There's the sound of people running, yelled commands and other engines pulling to a stop. It's ordered chaos and Frank's pulling at ties to let down the back panel of the wagon. When the last tie is free he pushes the panel to one side and sun floods the interior causing Ryan to squint shut his eyes.
"Frank!" More running and the sound of Frank jumping to the ground. Opening his eyes a little Ryan sees he's being embraced by Gerard, who holds on tight before taking a step back so he can scrutinize Frank from head to toe. "I've been fucking worried."
Frank grins. "It went like clockwork. Mostly. I don't know how you found those guys but they're good."
"Bob said they were," Gerard says, and then moves closer to the wagon, looking at each person inside. "You found them all, thank god."
"I promised Mikey I would," Frank says, and then looks behind him. "Where is he? I thought he'd be waiting."
Gerard runs his hand through his hair, the excitement of their arrival dimming. "He's sleeping, Ray gave him something." There's obviously more Gerard wants to say, Ryan can almost hear the untold words but instead Gerard turns his attention to the wagon. Hands braced on the edge he looks inside. "Spencer, Ryan, Brendon, Jon, sorry, Mikey didn't tell me about you, but hi, I'm glad you're here." Then, when he looks closer. "What's wrong with Pete?"
"Pete got pulled off a roof," Spencer says, his hand on Ryan's shoulder when Gerard clambers into the wagon. "He hasn't woken up since."
"Fuck." Gerard's shoulders are slumped and he's biting at his bottom lip as he looks down at Pete. He brushes back Pete's hair so he can see the bruise on the side of his face. "I'll get Lindesy, she's around somewhere."
"She'll need to see Ryan too," Frank says. "His back's fucked."
Gerard turns in the tight space and Ryan stares at Gerard, defying him to show pity.
"That's fucking nasty," Gerard says, and there's no pity at all, just kindness as he looks directly at Ryan. "I'll get her to see you too."
Ryan nods, says, "Thanks," as Gerard climbs back outside and starts taking charge.
"Frank, go call the doc, tell her we've got new patients. If you see Ray tell him to check the ground floor bedrooms, we'll need two at least. Bob, can you come and help here?"
"Can we get out?" Brendon's standing at the back of the wagon and while still visibly tired he's shifting from foot to foot, needing to move.
Gerard waves his hand, says, "Sure."
Immediately Brendon's going forward, careful of where he's stepping, then jumps outside, waiting to help Jon climb down. When he does so Jacob follows, and there's only Ryan, Spencer and Pete left inside. It feels like a lot of space after the cramped journey but what Ryan wants is to be outside, off this hard surface. Hand flat against the floor he attempts to push himself up, but it's impossible and he falls back with groan.
"Lie still, moron," Spencer says, and squirms from under Ryan. "Let me help."
"Better still, let me."
The man standing looking at them is dressed all in black, blond hair peeking out from under the black bandanna he's got wrapped around his head. He also looks coolly efficient as he leans against the side of the wagon.
Ryan scowls. "I don't even know you, why would I need your help?"
"Fine," the man says. "I'm Bob, I like dogs, old entertainment clips and messing with tech. You're sick with a back that looks fucking fetid. Now we're introduced I'm going to help you into the house."
"And what if I don't let you?"
Bob shrugs. "If you do manage to stand up you'll collapse within a few steps, probably land hard and we'll have to scoop you up and carry you in. If you do it my way I'll take you inside with no fuss and you'll be getting the shit you need within minutes. Your friend too."
Ryan really wants to say no, to insist that he can manage on his own, or if he has to, with Spencer's help. The problem is, he knows that's not true. Pushing aside his pride he says, "I hate being carried."
"I hate carrying people," Bob says, looking at something out of view. "Especially people who don't know what's good for them."
"Pete should go first," Ryan says, worried that it's been so long since Pete last moved or woke. "I can wait."
Bob shakes his head. "Gerard and Frank will get him. There'll be more room once you two are out of the way."
It's a pointed hint and one that makes Ryan say, "Fine. Do it."
Bob climbs inside and kneels next to Ryan. "I'm going to lift you up on my shoulder. You won't like it, it won't be dignified but it'll keep pressure off your back. And if you puke on me I'll drop you." While Bob's tone is gruff his touch isn't and he gently takes hold of Ryan, easily lifting him up onto his shoulder.
Ryan hates it. How he feels so helpless as Bob holds on to him and climbs backwards and outside of the wagon. He hates how dizzy he feels, his head toward the ground and breathing shallow as Bob's shoulder jams into his belly.
Spencer walks alongside them, looking anxious. "Don't drop him."
Bob snorts. "It's like carrying a sack of sticks. I'm not going to drop him."
As insults go it's tame. Ryan doesn't even try to respond as they approach the house -- a two story stone building complete with shuttered windows and a giant black painted front door. It's a house that belongs firmly in the past, a relic in comparison to the small boxy tower-blocks of now.
"It doesn't look like much from here but there's more at the back," Bob says, heading for the steps.
"There's a donkey around the back," Brendon announces, appearing around the side of the house. "It tried to eat Jon's sheet. It was awesome."
"For you." Jon holds up the bottom of the sheet, showing how a chunk has been torn out. "That could have been my leg."
Bob frowns. "The fucking thing is evil. It got a mouthful of Ray's hair the day we arrived."
"Why keep it then?" Spencer asks.
"Because it belongs here," Bob replies simply. They're passed by groups of men in black, and then Gerard and Frank, carrying Pete between them. There are people Ryan knows and some he hasn't seen before and normally he'd be taking in everything new, looking for everything he needs to survive with Spencer. Right now it's all he can do to lift his head.
They go inside and Bob asks, "Where shall I put Ryan? He needs to be on the ground floor."
"Use the bedroom next to the stairs."
A new voice and Ryan would open his eyes, but even that's beyond him now. All he can do is keep breathing, listening to the sound of feet against wooden floors as Bob carries him into a room, one filled with sunshine and with an actual bed. Ryan shakes his head, says weakly, "Put me on the floor, I'm filthy."
"Like hell," Bob all but growls, and Ryan feels soft blankets and an actual mattress as he's lowered onto a bed and then turned onto his stomach, his face against a soft pillow. Then a touch against his shoulder as Bob says, "I'm going to tell the doc where you are. I'll be back soon."
More footsteps and Ryan's drifting when the bed dips and Spencer says, ""Ryan, hey."
Ryan forces open his eyes and sees Spencer, arms on the bed as he looks at Ryan. "Hey."
Spencer smiles, small but there.
Ryan lets himself drift away.
Ryan wakes up hurting, so badly he's got his face pushed against the pillow, trying to suppress his cries. He feels hot, nauseated and so ill that it's taking all his energy to just keep breathing. When he hears someone come into the room Ryan tries to lie still, too drained to even think about hiding. Hands clawed against the covers he listens. It's not Bob, the footsteps are too light and it's definitely not Spencer, the sounds are too wrong to be him, but it's someone. Tense, Ryan reminds himself that he's somewhere safe, that Spencer would never leave him in danger. Still, he's ready to try and spring up and run away when someone says.
"It's okay, you're safe."
Confused, Ryan turns his head and blinks, trying to focus as the room swirls around him. "You're a girl."
"So I've been told." The girl -- woman really -- laughs and walks further into Ryan's sight-line. "I'm Lindsey, the doctor in these parts."
"A doctor?" Ryan doesn't mean to sound so disbelieving and normally he'd add explanations, but it's all he can do to lie still and try to stop shaking.
Lindsey snorts inelegantly and drags a small solid wood table close to the bed, setting a large scarlet bag on the top. She opens it up and takes out a plastic bag which she rips open, taking out a folded square of paper which she opens with a flick of her wrist. "Women can have professions too, you just need to want it enough."
"Sorry," Ryan manages to say.
Lindsey flashes a grin and starts to take things from her bag, setting them on the paper. "Don't worry about it. Let's get you fixed up, okay?"
"Okay," Ryan agrees, and his eyes are closing when the door opens and Bob walks into view, carrying a spotted green bowl.
Pulling a chair forward with his foot, Bob sets it down. "Spencer's following with more water."
"Good," Lindsey says, and Ryan doesn't even hide the fact he's watching the door, where Spencer soon appears, a large blue bowl clutched to his chest.
Spencer puts the bowl on the floor and moves to sit next to Ryan. "Sorry I left, they needed hot water. I thought you'd be sleeping."
"Not yet." The truth is Ryan feels too gross to sleep easily. His back hurts with every movement and the smell of infection is a constant at the back of his throat. He's dreading anyone touching, but knows it has to be done, and shoves his trembling hand under his pillow.
"I'm sorry, I'll be careful, promise," Lindsey says, and Ryan doesn't understand why she's apologizing. She's going to hurt him, sure, but not on purpose, and that difference means everything.
There's a soft pop as Lindsey pulls the stopper out of a bottle and then she's pouring something into the water. "It's disinfectant. I'm going to soak your back to get your tunic off. It'll be a little uncomfortable."
Uncomfortable in an understatement. Ryan clutches at the sheets as Lindsey tucks towels against his sides before methodically pouring water over his tunic. Each time she does so Ryan shivers, the disinfectant-laced water seeping into the open lash wounds.
"I need to cut this off now," Lindsey says softly, then she's cutting up the back of Ryan's tunic. He can feel the blades of the scissors, cold against his over-heated skin, and when Spencer reaches for Ryan's hand Ryan gladly takes hold, clinging on when Lindsey sets down the scissors and starts to peel away fabric. Ryan isn't sure how long it takes, after the first minute he's lost in a place where the only thing that exists is burning pain and Spencer's hand, anchoring Ryan down.
Then, finally, the pain begins to ease, fire dampened by something cool that Lindsey's plastering on.
"It's antiseptic gel, it'll help," Lindsey says, and her hand is cool against Ryan's shoulder. "I'm going to put on some dressings, but take these first."
Vision blurred, Ryan tries to focus on the pills in Lindsey's hand. He shakes his head, unwilling to take anything he's unsure of. "I'm okay."
"Sure you are." Lindsey kneels so she's in Ryan's line of sight. "They're painkillers and antibiotics. You need them."
"He needed them ten minutes ago," Spencer says, sounding angry. "If you have painkillers why keep them until now?"
"Because he could have puked them up and I haven't got an endless supply on me," Lindsey replies, fixing Spencer with a look. "I'm not some kind of sadist, I didn't enjoy hurting him."
She's telling the truth. Ryan's seen people who enjoy inflicting pain, Spencer has too, and Lindsey's not one of them. Squeezing Spencer's hand, Ryan says, "I'll take them."
"Good." Lindsey starts to put the pills into Ryan's open mouth and then brings back her hand. "Do you need some water?"
Ryan shakes his head, he'd lost his gag reflex a long time ago, two small pills are nothing. Swallowing them down he turns his head on the pillow, finally relaxing as the pain dims even further.
"Ryan. Ryan, listen to me. You need to open your mouth."
There's a hand against Ryan's face, someone kneeling at his side. Eyes closed he opens his mouth, his throat dry as he tries to push himself up and rasps weakly, "You can fuck my mouth, I like it."
Someone sounding distressed and Ryan tries harder to push himself up. If they won't fuck his mouth he'll have to suck them. He's good at that, a few minutes and maybe he can lie down before the next john. He licks at his dry lips and tries to open his eyes, but they're heavy, so very heavy.
"Hey kiddo, I know this is cruel but so's brain damage."
Ryan gasps as something wet and cold hits his body. He tries to get away but someone's holding on, keeping him still. He opens his eyes but it's dark, he's surrounded by shadows. So cold. So wet. Ryan keeps struggling, needing to escape. He yells for Spencer. Spencer will save him. But Spencer doesn't come. Just claws against his chest, demons emerging from the dark, holding Ryan down.
"Ryan, drink this for me."
Spencer this time. Ryan would recognize him always. His hand under Ryan's head, providing support. Ryan opens his mouth and swallows. Sleeps as the water spills out of his mouth and down his chin.
"Spencer." The words hurt to say. Ryan's throat feels raw and he's barely able to stay awake as he touches Spencer's shoulder.
Spencer opens his eyes. He looks exhausted, pale and drawn as he swallows hard and gathers Ryan close and whispers, "Don't you ever do that again."
The next time Ryan wakes he's on his own and the room smells like roasted meat. He's lying on his stomach and his feet are bare, a thin sheet covering him up to his neck. Hesitantly he tries moving, his head, his arm, then inching toward the side of the bed. It's not an easy thing to do, Ryan still feels sick and weak and he can feel each individual lash as lines of burning pain that crisscross his body. Running his tongue over his swollen bottom lip, Ryan takes a deep breath then pushes himself up, sliding his feet off the bed and then turning so he's sitting.
Hunched over, Ryan looks over his shoulder and sees multiple large dressings all over his back and sides -- snowy white against the irritated red of his skin. Cold, Ryan waits a while, letting his stomach settle then takes the sheet and wraps it around his shoulders before standing, and finding himself facing a large mirror that's been propped on a dresser. It's been a long time since Ryan's seen himself so clearly, and he recoils from how much he's changed. His cheekbones are sharp and fingers dirty where he's clasping the sheet. His hair is lank and his skin is grey. Ryan's surprised anyone would want to look at him, never mind want sex.
Repulsed he considers climbing back in bed and hiding away, but his stomach is growling and he needs to find Spencer; for that he needs to leave this room. Slowly, Ryan makes his way to the door, pulling it open so he can look outside. There he finds himself facing a staircase that sweeps around in a curve, the spindles made of delicately carved wood. Following the line of stairs Ryan looks up and sees the ceiling is painted with stars, and also covered in cobwebs that stretch from the moldings to the huge black crystal chandelier that hangs over the hall.
"They're beautiful aren't they? They're partly why Gerard bought this place."
Ryan jumps and take an involuntary step back, hitting against the frame of the door. Gasping, he blindly reaches out for the wall, needing support, but it's the man who's just walked out of the next room that takes hold, gripping Ryan's arm.
"Sorry, that was stupid," the man says, sounding genuinely apologetic. "I'm Ray. Do you want me to help you back into your room? Or I can go and get Lindsey. You probably shouldn't be walking around alone just yet."
"It's not my room," Ryan says, and pulls back his arm. The last thing he needs is someone else to see him as weak and he's determined to stand on his own. "I'm going to look for my friend."
"Spencer, right?" Ray says, and Ryan has to bite back the urge to reply that no, it's Sunny. This person doesn't know Spencer, he can't know him. "I've just seen him in the kitchen, he was taking his dishes back."
Ryan looks toward the windows on either side of the front door, seeing how the sunlight floods through them, illuminating the cracked tiled floor. "I've slept until breakfast?"
Ray smiles. "Try dinner."
Confused, Ryan tries to work out times. It was in the early hours when they'd left the fair, daylight when they arrived here, but it feels like he's slept for more than a few hours. There's only one thing he can think of. "I slept all day?"
"More like a few days," Ray says, and gently urges Ryan forward with a touch of his arm. "Spencer'll be pissed. He's been staying with you all this time and you woke up as soon as he left."
"Yeah, I'm awkward like that." Distracted, Ryan allows himself to be steered toward an open door and then into a kitchen. He can't remember the last time he got so much sleep and he makes a mental note to go back as soon as possible to wash the sheets before anyone sees the stains and dirt he's left behind.
"I knew it." Spencer's carrying a large white mug, steam coming from the contents. He's been cleaned up since the last time Ryan saw him, washed and dressed in clothes that are slightly too big. With his shining hair and clean skin he looks like a much thinner version of the Spencer Ryan used to know so long ago, and stupidly Ryan feels awkward, standing there in his tight pants, bare feet and a sheet. Setting down the mug on the counter Spencer's shaking his head as he makes his way over to Ryan. "As soon as I leave the room you wake up. It's like you do it on purpose."
"I do," Ryan says, and he takes a step to the side so he can rest against the wooden units that line the side of the kitchen. "I lay there until you walked out, then got out of bed."
"Annoying bastard," Spencer says fondly. He looks Ryan from head to toe, nodding slightly as if satisfied with what he sees. "You look a bit better."
"I feel better," Ryan admits. Which is mostly true, while his skin still feels too hot and drawn tight over his bones he also feels more present. He also feels hungry and he tries to see what Spencer's drinking.
"Fuck, I'm not thinking." Ray steps past Ryan and Spencer, heading for a giant stove that seems to be more rust than metal. Two cast iron pans sit on top, next to a deep tray that's covered with what looks like someone's shirt. "It's clean, promise," Ray says, plucking it off and throwing it over his shoulder. "There's stuff left from lunch, bacon and beans mainly. There'll be bread too. I know it's not much but we weren't sure how many people would arrive. Supplies are down."
Unsure of what he's supposed to do Ryan watches as Ray battles to light the burner, blowing hard at the sputtering flame. It's something Ryan hates, feeling so lost and out of place. He hated being in the fair but at least he knew what he was supposed to do and say, here he's lost; except for Spencer, who, as always, is the one solid presence in Ryan's world.
"Sit down, I'll bring you something over." Ray uses a spatula to point at the table. It's a small table, covered in what looks like cracked blue plastic and is surrounded by a miss-matched assortment of chairs, ranging from a crate to something that looks like an ornate golden throne.
A brief hesitation and Ryan heads for the table, sitting at one of the cushioned chairs without a back. Tucking the sheet more securely around his body he looks at Spencer, who's taken the throne chair and is examining the dragon carved on the arm. "Tell me you didn't spend all night watching me?"
Spencer runs his finger over a plume of flame. "I didn't spend all night watching you. Lindsey threw me out and told me to take a shower."
Which is the answer Ryan wants but he doubts Spencer would have left for long and he vows they'll take a nap together as soon as they can. First though, he needs to find out about the others, ease the anxiety that keeps rearing each time he thinks of them huddled in the wagon, Pete so deathly still. "The others, where are they? Are they okay? What about Pete? And Mikey? Have you seen him?"
"I've seen Bryce, Brendon and Jon. They all called in when you were asleep. They all seemed fine. Mikey looked in too, I think. It looked like him anyway but he didn't stop. Pete is." Spencer pauses then, and starts to trace the dragon again. "Pete's....."
Ryan swallows hard, feeling sick and dizzy. "Tell me he's not dead."
"He's not dead." It's not Spencer that replies, but Ray. He's stirring the pot of beans but turns to the side so he can see Spencer and Ryan. "He's got a busted leg and a nasty bash to the head but Lindsey says there's no reason he won't wake up. She thinks he needs the rest."
It makes sense. Out of them all Pete was at the fair the longest and also worked the hardest. Taking on the johns in red while running his own system of trades and favors. Ryan can't remember the last time Pete slept for more than a few hours. If he needs to catch up now, well that's fine, as long as he does wake up.
"What about Mikey?" Spencer adds, and Ray seems to wilt a little while also stirring faster.
"He's with Pete. He did come to see you, though." Ray stops stirring then, letting the spoon rest against the side of the pan as he admits. "He's angry with me right now. Because I gave him stuff to sleep."
Ryan considers Ray, taking in how he seems so sad when talking about Mikey, and then turns back to Spencer, raising an eyebrow in question. Spencer replies with the slightest nod of his head and Ryan knows Spencer thinks Ray can be trusted, too. "Mikey isn't mad with you, not really."
"Sure sounded like it," Ray says and starts to spoon beans onto a plate. Adding two rashers of bacon on top he puts the plate in front of Ryan before grabbing a knife and fork and pre-sliced bread. Setting those down Ray pulls out a chair and sits. "There's more if you finish that."
Ryan isn't even sure he can speak but he manages to say, "This is fine." It's more than fine, it's more food than Ryan's seen just for him in a very long time. That it actually looks appetizing is nothing but a bonus. Carefully, Ryan starts to cut the bacon into equal pieces, but he doesn't eat, not until he's given Ray something in return. "If Mikey is angry it's about other things, you'll have been the closest target."
Ray leans back in his chair, looking lost. "He's changed so much. We used to go to these parties and the girls were lining up to be his match. He'd have had a list to choose from when he was ready to join. Now, now I haven't even seen him smile."
Ryan thinks of the times that he has seen Mikey smile. The small curl of his lip when Pete sidled close at the end of the night. The rare toothy grins that happened when Mikey managed to throw off his surroundings and lose himself in conversation. They're scarce but there, it's why Ryan says, "He used to smile sometimes."
"I'm glad," Ray says. He rubs at his face, gaze skirting over Spencer and Ryan. "I don't know details about what went on in that fair, but I helped get Mikey settled here and went there to talk to Jon and I can put pieces together. I know it had to be bad."
The truth is, Ray has no idea how bad it actually was. He can't, no one can unless they've lived it themselves, and Ryan's glad that Ray doesn't know. He's also not going to give any details, those are Mikey's stories to tell.
"I think I'll go see him," Ray says, and stands, pushing back his chair. "I need to find Gerard too, see if he's sorted a shopping trip yet. We'll be eating bread and sugar for tomorrow's breakfast at this rate."
Which sounds fine to Ryan but he says nothing, just watches as Ray leaves the room, leaving Spencer and Ryan alone. Stabbing his fork into a piece of bacon, Ryan holds it out to Spencer. "Here."
Spencer shakes his head. "I've already eaten. Frank brought a plate of food."
"And you had enough?" Ryan asks, needing to know before he takes a bite.
"More than enough." Spencer sits back in his chair, looking satisfied when Ryan finally begins to eat. "They've been looking after us well. Everyone's been fed and Gerard even found clothes, though god knows where from. Brendon's wearing something that looks like a dress."
Ryan wraps a piece of bacon is soft doughy bread, says, "Are you sure it isn't?" before taking a small bite.
"Not according to Gerard. He says it's a robe, and that they were the height of male fashion back in the day." Spencer holds out his arm, showing off the embroidered sleeves of the shirt he's wearing. "Apparently so were flowers."
"I like it." Ryan takes another bite of bacon and bread, chewing slowly so he can savor the taste. As he eats he looks at Spencer's shirt, liking the way the brightly colored flowers twine up the arm, and especially that the sleeves are long enough to hide Spencer's brand.
"There's stuff there you'll like," Spencer says and then adds with the smallest if smiles. "Or more dresses like Brendon's."
"I'll pass on those." Ryan eats a forkful of beans and knows that it's impossible to eat more. Stomach aching he pushes pieces of bacon around the plate but can't bring himself to say that he's finished, not when there's food left uneaten.
"I threw up my first plate of food," Spencer says unexpectedly. He flushes slightly, as if ashamed of the memory. "I was so hungry and Bob brought in a bowl of stew. I ate and ate, past the point where my stomach was aching."
Ryan sets down his fork and rests his fingers on his brand, his stomach churning. "Did he beat you? Because if he did I'll hunt him down."
"He got a towel and cleaned me up, then got me more to eat. I don't think they'll hurt us, Ry."
The woman from before comes into the room and Ryan tenses, caught between anger and worry at being overheard. Holding the sheet tight he watches her come closer, wanting to demand to know why she was eavesdropping but so unsure of his place he bites back the words.
"I wasn't listening in on you," Lindsey says. She's got her hair tied up in pigtails and holds up her hands, showing she's carrying a small plastic bag. "I've been re-dressing Brendon and Jon's arms. I need to come through the kitchen to get to the furnace. Hold on a moment."
She goes to a large door and pulls it open, then there's the sound of footsteps going downstairs followed by a loud clang then more footsteps before Lindsey re-emerges. Heading to the sink she turns on the hot water, vigorously washing her hands with a block of bright green soap that causes tiny bubbles to slide down her arms. Rinsing them off she looks around for a towel, and Spencer stands and grabs the shirt, handing it over.
"Ray was using this earlier."
"Figures," Lindsey says, sounding amused. "As long as it's clean." Drying her hands she hangs the shirt over the back of a chair and looks at Ryan. "How are you feeling? You look better than yesterday."
"Fine," Ryan says, his immediate instinct to lie. Not that Lindsey seems to believe him as she tilts her head to one side slightly as she looks at Ryan.
"Okay, this is what you're going to do. Spencer's going to show you the bathroom and you're going to take a long bath. There's a tub in there, a big one and you're going to lie and soak for a while. I'm going to get you some antibiotics and Spencer'll grab you some clean clothes. Then you can take a nap."
"What if I don't want to do that?" Ryan asks flatly, even though right now a bath sounds amazing.
Lindsey shrugs. "Then you can stay in your dirty clothes and stink up the house. It's your loss."
It's been a long time since Ryan's seen an actual doctor, but he can't remember them being like this. "Aren't you supposed to tell me I have to do it for my own good?"
Lindsey pulls out a pink painted chair and sits down, attention totally on Ryan. "I think you've had enough people telling you what to do."
Ryan swallows and looks over to Spencer for help. It's taboo for women to visit the fairs so it's been years since he talked to a woman and he's never met one who so casually talks about sex. Ryan doesn't know what to do or say, but he does think Lindsey has his best interests at heart, despite the way she declares that.
Spencer looks intently at Lindsey then over at Ryan. "They've got hot water, lots of it."
Ryan makes a decision, says, "I think I'll take a bath."
"Good idea." Grinning, Lindsey stands and takes Ryan's plate. "Go on, I'll wash this. This time."
It takes Ryan a while to get to the bathroom. His muscles are stiff after the short walk and his back is thumping with pain. He can feel that the sheet is sticking in places and Ryan keeps his head down as he walks, looking down at his bare feet shuffling against the cold tiled floor. Then looks up again when he hears running footsteps.
"Ryan, you're awake." Brendon skids to a halt, his feet hidden under the long length of the robe, one that really does look like a dress. It comes down to ankle length on Brendon and is cinched in by a wide golden belt. Brendon holds out his arms as he spins in a tight circle. "Isn't it awesome? Gerard says it's what men wore back in the twenty-first century."
"I like the color," Ryan says, stopping himself from touching the burgundy material.
Brendon beams. "There's another one, but no one else would take it. I told Jon he'd look amazing but he decided to be boring."
"I suit boring better than that," Jon says, and he does look good in a simple outfit of pants and shirt. "We're going to see Mikey and Pete."
"And then Bob wants help to make dinner. I told him I'm good at chopping." A last smile and Brendon starts to hurry away, then skids to a stop, the light flooding through the windows exposing the deep violet smudges under his eyes and the way he's constantly fidgeting, even when he's supposed to be standing still. "I'm glad you're up and about. I was worried."
Being close to Brendon is like standing close to a tiny contained whirlwind and once he's gone everything feels flat. Concerned, Ryan turns to Jon, says, "Has he even slept yet?"
Jon picks at the edge of the bandage wrapped over his lower arm. "Not since we escaped."
It's what Ryan feared, Brendon's too manic for anyone that's not walking on an edge and he wishes he could do something to help. As it is it's taking all his energy just to stand upright and Spencer takes hold of Ryan's arm.
"Bath, we'll find everyone after."
There's few people for whom Ryan will willingly give up control. Spencer's number one on that list and he allows himself to be pulled away as Jon goes to find Brendon. Walking close to Spencer, he slowly makes his way along the corridor and Ryan looks into the room where he slept. He sees the sheets have been changed and the bed made and can't help making a soft sound of distress.
"I was going to do that," Ryan says quietly, ashamed when he thinks of anyone having to handle the stained sheets.
Matter of fact, Spencer says, "Well now you don't have to."
Ryan tries to think how to explain, but the words aren't there. Normally Spencer knows what Ryan's thinking and he should know how Ryan feels right now, how he's something dirty in this house. Before the only people they saw were the other people at the fair and the johns, and none of them were clean. Not like Frank or Ray or Lindsey. Being around them just emphasizes how sullied Ryan actually is.
They reach another door and Spencer pushes it open, but before they go inside he moves closer to Ryan, says, "Listen to me Ryan Ross. You're an equal to anyone in this house. No one will look down on you, and if they do I'll make them regret it."
Ryan doesn't believe the fierce declaration, but he wants to, and if anyone could make him believed it would be Spencer. "You'd fight people for me?"
"Every time," Spencer says simply.
They go into the room which is bigger than all the stalls in amber quadrant put together. There's a huge claw-footed tub in one corner, a cubical shower in another while the toilet and sink are lined up on one wall. The walls are also papered in the most amazing pattern that Ryan's ever seen; swooping swirls of colors that circle dewy-petaled flowers.
"Hideous," Spencer finishes, urging Ryan to sit on the closed toilet. "When I came in here last night I thought I was seeing things. But at least there's hot water and plenty of it."
"I was going to say amazing," Ryan says, wincing as he reaches back to run his fingers over the raised paper.
Spencer looks over his shoulder from where he's putting the plug in the tub. "Are you sure you didn't freeze your brains while you were in solitary?"
Ryan traces a purple swirl. "My brains are fine. It's colorful, I like it."
"If you say so," Spencer says, screwing up his face. He turns back to the tub and turns on a faucet, water immediately gushing out. Soon steam fills the air and Ryan can feel sweat break out along his hairline and at the back of his neck. He rubs at his face with his hand and watches as the mirror over the sink fogs, droplets sliding down its surface. "I think that's enough."
Ryan looks away from the mirror and sees that Spencer's turned off the faucets and the tub is over half full. Dipping his hand in the water, Spencer seems satisfied and he stands up straight. Ryan does the same, biting at his bottom lip as his body protests at moving again. Taking it slow he approaches the tub, trying to remember the last time he actually had a bath.
"It was a few days before we were caught," Spencer says unexpectedly. He takes hold of Ryan's sheet and starts to peel it free when Ryan drops his hands. "Mom and the girls had gone out and we'd been shoveling coal for the furnace. When we'd finished we were both filthy so decided to jump in the tub."
Ryan remembers black footprints against sparkling blue tiles, how they'd had to squeeze together to fit into the tiny tub. "I had blisters from shoveling."
Spencer tosses the sheet to one side and unfastens Ryan's pants, tugging at the ties. "You were only shoveling because I bribed you."
"You gave good rewards." Ryan grimaces as his pants are pulled down, the material stiff and glued to his skin in spots. Waving off Spencer's soft apology Ryan kicks them to one side, and, with Spencer's help, gets into the tub.
"Is it too hot?" Spencer asks, holding onto Ryan's arm as he lowers himself down.
Ryan sighs when he's finally sitting, and then slides forward so his body is fully submerged in warm water. It feels good, better than good, and while his back is painful it's less so than before. "It's perfect."
Spencer's got his arms hooked over the side of the tub, and he smiles as he looks at Ryan. "No falling asleep, I don't want you to drown."
"No sleeping," Ryan promises, and runs his hand through the water, creating tiny waves that lap against his face. It's peaceful, calming in a way he's missed for so long.
"Do you want me to wash your hair?"
Spencer's voice is muffled through the water, but Ryan hears enough to say, "Please."
It doesn't take Spencer long to find the things he needs. Ryan lies still and stares at the ceiling, listening to the sound of Spencer's footsteps as he walks around the room. Then he's back in his previous place, holding up a bottle which has turned yellow with age. "I don't know how long it's been here but it worked for me, so."
Reluctantly Ryan sits, droplets streaming down his body and pattering against the water, which already is filmed with dirt. Elbows against the sides of the tub he wiggles his toes imagining they look like white slugs swimming in the murk. "It's fine, it's not like the water's going to be clean anyway."
Spencer reaches down and picks up a jug, one shaped like a fish with its mouth wide open. "It'll be clean for the rinsing, I'll get water from the faucet."
"Does that thing even hold water?" Ryan asks, trying to sees the fish jug before Spencer puts it back down.
"I couldn't see any holes," Spencer says, and squirts shampoo onto the palm of his hand. "Close your eyes and head forward, I don't want any suds getting on your back."
It's not the first time Spencer's washed Ryan's hair. It's something he's done often, from when they were young and saving precious bathroom time by showering together to the times at the fair when Spencer used the hose to wash Ryan's hair when it was sticky with come. This is like none of those times. The bathroom is warm and steamy, quiet apart from the sound of dripping water and their breathing as Spencer digs his fingers in just right. Eyes closed Ryan shivers as Spencer massages his scalp, taking his time to work in the shampoo. Neither talk, so comfortable together that it's not needed. Until finally, Spencer pulls back, rinsing his hands in the water.
"Stay there," Spencer says.
Ryan keeps his eyes closed, feeling the tickle as bubbles slide down his face. He hears the squeak of the faucet being turned on, a splash and the sound of Spencer filling the jug with fresh water, then Spencer's got his hand over Ryan's eyes, shielding them as he begins to rinse. It takes five jugfuls before Spencer is satisfied and by that time Ryan's back is rapidly moving from aching to actually painful.
Hand braced against the side, Ryan straightens, his wet hair clinging to his neck and shoulders. The water he's sitting in looks even grosser now, with even the bubbles filmed grey. Ryan pokes at one of them, making it pop. "I'm getting dirty again sitting in this."
"That's easily sorted." Spencer's sleeves are soaked but he pushes them up his arm anyway as he delves for the plug. Tugging it out he looks at Ryan, says, "Stay there."
Ryan wraps his arms around his body as the water drains away. He's not cold but it feels weird sitting in an empty tub, looking down at his wrinkled feet and white legs. Using the jug Spencer rinses away any clinging dirt before putting the plug back in and turning on both faucets. Kneeling at the foot of the tub he swishes his hand through the water, making sure it's mixed until finally, the tub is half full once more.
Luxuriating in being surrounded by warmth, Ryan starts to slide down but stops when Spencer reaches out and takes hold of his wrist, says, "Hold on."
Ryan watches as Spencer strips off his own clothes, picking up each item and carefully folding and setting them to one side. He's totally unselfconscious doing so. Years of being in the fair means nakedness is nothing shocking. Still, Ryan enjoys the sight, the flex of muscles as Spencer picks up his clothes, the slightest hint of freckles across his shoulders and especially the way Spencer grins when he catches Ryan looking.
"Enjoy what you see?"
"Always," Ryan replies, pushing himself forward when Spencer steps into the tub behind him and sits, sliding his legs alongside Ryan's, fitting together easily as Spencer gently urges Ryan to lie back, cradled against Spencer's body. Right then Ryan feels warm, safe, and he tilts back his head so it's resting against Spencer's shoulder.
Spencer wraps his arms around Ryan, always careful of his back while holding him close. He turns his head and presses a kiss against Ryan's forehead, says, "We're going to be okay, Ryan."
In that moment Ryan believes him.
It's getting to be a habit that Ryan's alone when he wakes. The last thing he remembers is being wrapped in a giant black towel while leaning heavily against Spencer, trying to stay awake as Lindsey changed the dressings on his back, her laughter a tickle of sensation against his neck as she told some distracting tall tale. Then nothing. Ryan's getting annoyed at sleeping so much, especially when it happens so suddenly, but he has to admit the waking up is nice. The room is full of sunshine and the blankets are clean, the pillows soft under his head and Ryan feels warm and almost pain-free. He knows that'll change, already he can the familiar burn licking at his skin, but for now he lies still, enjoying the moment.
As he's lying still the door opens. Ryan's expecting Spencer but it's Mikey who appears in the doorway. He looks different to the last time Ryan saw him. Cleaner, dressed in clothes that are too big rather than skin tight, but he also looks thinner, worn away to sharp edges and painful lines. Mikey curls his hand around the door jam, says, "I didn't know if you were asleep."
"I was," Ryan says, and starts to sit up. It's a little easier than before, in the way that he can actually breathe through the pain and keep moving until finally he's sitting upright.
"Hold still a moment," Mikey says, walking over to the bed. Taking Ryan's pillows he plumps them up before arranging them against the ornate wooden headboard. "You can lie back now."
Ryan does so, shifting a little so the back of his head isn't resting against the carved griffin that stands guard over the bed. When he's comfortable he looks up at Mikey who's taken a step back, his arms wrapped around his body and looking miserable. Ryan pulls aside the blanket, uncaring that he's sleeping naked. It's nothing that Mikey hasn't seen before and right now it looks like he needs a friend. "You look cold."
Mikey hesitates a moment then kicks off his shoes before sitting on the bed and bringing up his legs so he's under the blanket. He slouches down so he's leaning against the headboard and his body is cold against Ryan's. "I came before, but you were sleeping."
"Ray told me," Ryan says. He worries at a loose thread as he looks at Mikey, trying to find the words to ask if he's okay. The thing is, Ryan already knows that he's not. The same way Ryan's not or Spencer or Pete.
"Gerard drew you," Mikey says unexpectedly. "He was arranging the break out and I told him that he needed to make sure to get you. He needed a description. I told him and he drew you."
Ryan's unsure what to say. "I didn't. I mean, I understand you'd want Pete, but..."
"You're my friend," Mikey cuts in. "Of course I told him to get you. Pete and Spencer, Brendon and Jon, too."
Ryan blinks, trying to take that in. He knew he was Mikey's friend in the fair, of course he did, but he'd never expected it to extend beyond that. That Mikey could leave but go on to ensure that Ryan could follow. Ryan feels a glow that's got nothing to do with his back.
"It's funny," Mikey goes on. "I was telling Gerard all about you, Spencer and Pete, and I thought we'd finished but then I started talking about Brendon and Jon. I don't even know them that well, but I could picture them so vividly."
"I'm glad you did, they didn't belong there." Not that any of them did, Ryan knows that, but Brendon and Jon still retain elements of their true selves. The fair hasn't had the chance to change them completely, and for that Ryan has to be glad.
"I've just seen them with Spencer," Mikey says. "Going for breakfast. I told them I was coming to see you. Lindsey's with Pete."
"How is he?"
"He woke up a little last night." Mikey slides down the bed further, his head on Ryan's pillows. "When he wakes up for real I'm going to kick his skinny ass for lying to me."
That's something that'll never happen. Ryan still needs to say, "He did it for you."
Mikey sighs, staring up at the ceiling. "It was Pete that told Gerard where I was. He plotted it all out and I didn't have a clue."
Ryan doesn't tell Mikey he already knew, it's not the right time and it's knowledge that won't help anyone. Still, there's a knot of worry in his stomach as he asks, "You guys are okay, right?"
"As okay as we can be when he's unconscious," Mikey says with a wry smile. He turns to Ryan then, adds, "I was mad at him at first, that he lied and sent me away on my own. But I'm not now. He couldn't have known what it would be like."
Mikey's tensed up even more as he talks and Ryan's beginning to suspect just why he looks so lost and alone. "You're having issues coming home?"
"It's not my home," Mikey says quietly. "It's Gerard's. My home's four years ago and there's no way of going back. The same way Gerard can't get his brother back."
Ryan turns his head so he's looking directly at Mikey. "That's not true. You're here."
"I'm not the brother he wants." Abruptly, Mikey pushes back the blanket and sits. "You want to go get breakfast? You'll be hungry."
Ryan is hungry, he's also aware that Mikey's finished with this conversation and pushing will achieve nothing. Hand braced against the mattress Ryan pushes himself upright then slides his legs off the bed. "Can you see any clothes? Spencer said he'd get some."
Mikey walks over to the dresser and pulls open the top drawer. Looking inside he rummages through the contents and then pulls out pants and some kind of red shirt. For a moment he holds them out for inspection then throws the shirt on the bed before kneeling at Ryan's feet. "Feet up."
"I can dress myself, you know," Ryan says, but he holds up one foot then the other. Helping each other when they're hurt is nothing new and Ryan feels perfectly at ease as Mikey feeds the pants legs over Ryan's feet.
"I know that." Mikey stands, remaining still as Ryan does the same, then he bends and grabs hold of the waist band of the pants, pulling them up. When they're fastened they'd just the slightest bit short and Ryan runs his hand over the corded brown fabric, enjoying wearing something that feels soft and looks clean. "These are nice, I was expecting a dress like Brendon's."
Mikey smiles slightly and unfolds the shirt before gathering it up to slip over Ryan's head. "Gerard's convinced it's a gentleman's robe. Whatever it is, Brendon looks good."
"He does," Ryan agrees, and tries to resist the urge to rub his cheek against the fabric of the shirt when it slithers over his arms and chest.
Mikey straightens the shirt, says, "Your sandals are getting cleaned, they were covered in rotting leaves."
It's not something that bothers Ryan and he shrugs and runs his hand through his hair, his back twinging in protest. "You said Spencer was going to eat?"
"I did." Mikey shoves his feet in his own shoes and then heads for the door. "If we're lucky they'll have left us something."
It turns out that they've been left a lot.
The kitchen is full when they get there, the table surrounded by multiple people. Each chair is taken and Gerard's standing at the stove, a black-striped apron wrapped around his waist as he pokes a spatula at something in a pan. Close by Bob's filling plates, his face flushed as he forks sausages from a tray with one hand and flaps away smoke with the other. It's ordered chaos and Ryan hangs back until Lindsey sees him and waves him over.
"Ryan, come sit down already."
Ryan nods and looks for Spencer, finding him sitting between Jacob and Ken. There's the smallest slither of space on Spencer's chair and Ryan heads toward him, used to sharing space, but Ray stands, offering his chair. "Sit here, I need to go feed the hell beast anyway."
"Give Mikey that seat, he's...." Ryan looks behind him and realizes that Mikey isn't there. "He was there."
"I'll make him up a plate, someone else can take it," Gerard says, his shoulders slumping. "What do you want to eat? We've been shopping so there's sausages and eggs, bacon if you want it."
"Gerard makes a mean scrambled egg," Spencer says, watching as Ryan sits, and while he doesn't ask, Ryan can tell he's making sure things are okay.
"Eggs sound good." Ryan's sitting forward in his chair, arms crossed on the table. He's between Frank and Lindsey and she leans forward, head tilted to the side as she looks at his face.
"You're getting some color back, good."
Lindsey smells nice and her hair is glossy, tied back with a wide red ribbon, her nails painted a matching red. Ryan forces himself to sit still, even though all he wants to do is pull away.
"Willow. I'm going home!" Jacob bursts out suddenly, he's been practically vibrating in his seat and he leans across the table, seemingly not seeing Ryan's wince at the use of his name. "Gerard's been in touch with my parents. He told them everything and they're fine with me going. Bob and Ray are taking me home soon, Ken, Simon and Ronan, too."
Ryan tries to gather some enthusiasm. "That's great," then hesitates, thinking about Ronan. "But. Ronan can't go home, he's branded. As soon as the authorities see that he'll be recognized as a runaway and hung."
Jacob shakes his head, looking pleased that he knows something Ryan doesn't. "Gerard sorted that too. Ronan's going overseas, to somewhere safe, where slavery is banned."
Ryan's heard of those countries, the ones that rebuilt and repopulated without the tight confines of government control. He also knows they're almost impossible to get to, the borders permanently closed. He looks at Frank, remembering his promise to get Jacob home, at Gerard who could rescue Mikey and a whole fair within days. It doesn't make sense and Ryan opens his mouth to ask questions when Bob puts a plate of eggs in front of him and says, "Eat."
Ryan does. The eggs are good, fluffy with some kind of seasoning sprinkled on top. Ryan eats every bite, but he's also trying piece things together though and he keeps watching Gerard as he heaps left-overs into bowls.
"You haven't seen the hell beast donkey, have you?" Lindsey asks suddenly and Ryan jumps, his fork clattering to his plate. He's also confused, because Lindsey should know he hasn't been outside. She stands and holds out her arm. "Come take a walk with me. It's not far and the fresh air'll be good for you."
"I've got no shoes," Ryan says, not that it matters, he's gone bare foot outside plenty of times.
"That's no problem." Lindsey smiles over at Bob. "Bob will lend you his slippers."
Bob stops scrubbing at the counter top with a sponge and looks over his shoulder with a frown. "I will?"
"You will," Lindsey says and urges Ryan to stand. "You don't want Ryan to get cold feet do you?"
"That would be tragic," Bob says, deadpan. He kicks off the slippers and Lindsey gathers them up, bringing them back to Ryan. "Put these on and we'll go and see hell beast, if you're lucky you'll be able to pet him."
Frank shudders violently. "I wouldn't. That thing about ripped my ass off."
"Because you tried to ride him," Gerard says, looking distressed and pointing a spatula at Frank. "I told you he's not a riding donkey."
"He'll be a donkey stew if he tries to bite me again," Bob mutters, and goes back to attack his cleaning with renewed vigor.
Lindsey clicks her tongue and pushes the slippers closer to Ryan with her feet. "He's not that bad, now come on, before you make a lady feel abandoned."
Ryan pushes his feet in the slippers. They're warm inside, some kind of fur brushing over his toes and when he stands his heels hang over the end. About to walk away from the table he stops when Lindsey holds out her arm again and says gently, "Do you mind?"
Ryan does, but he's not about to say no to someone who's been so kind. He links his arm with Lindsey's, soothed a little when she smiles in return.
"I'm coming too."
It's a relief when Spencer stands, and Lindsey doesn't seem to mind at all, her grin widening as she holds out her free arm and says, "Two gentleman escorts, I'm a lucky lady."
Spencer looks taken aback for a moment, then he rallies, linking arms as they all head for the door to outside. They're walking slowly, even if Ryan does feel better he's not okay and when they have to go down two steps he leans heavily on Lindsey until they're standing on the gravel that covers the ground.
"He's just over there." Lindsey points at a wooden fence on the other side of a small courtyard. Ryan swallows hard, memories pressing close. Of being bent over the fence in the stalls, a john slobbering at his neck and dirt under Ryan's fingernails as his hands claw against the rotten wood. He can see Spencer falter too, and Lindsey looks at them both, confusion flashing briefly before she says, "We can go back if you like?"
Ryan shakes his head, determined not to show weakness. He starts to walk forward again, the gravel crunching under his feet. "I'm fine. Promise."
"Me too," Spencer adds, and Lindsey makes a soft sound of agreement as together they approach the fence.
When they get there Ryan sees the fence surrounds a large field. In one corner there's a shelter complete with a large barrel of water, while in the middle there's a small donkey, chocolate colored with one ear that hangs down. There's also scraps of material littering the grass and despite the way the donkey's head is drooping, like it's carrying the weight of the world on its shoulders, Ryan sees the glint in its eyes, and knows he's looking at a survivor.
"He's beautiful," Ryan says, but makes no attempt to reach over the fence, just watches as the donkey glances their way while eating.
"He's a fighter."
It's no surprise to hear Gerard. Ryan had suspected something was up as soon as Lindsey asked him to go outside. Unlinking his arm, he turns, resting against the fence as Gerard comes close. He's holding a woolen blanket, grease splattered down the front of his shirt, and Ryan suddenly realizes that whatever Gerard's secrets are he doesn't need him to tell. Ryan can trust that he's trying to do the right thing.
"You were wanting to ask questions in there." Gerard looks at Lindsey, communicating silently with expressions alone. "And we're going to answer them."
"Not here though, over there." Lindsey points to a tree covered in golden leaves. There's a metal bench set under it, a mug abandoned on the ground and Gerard moves it to one side as Ryan and Spencer sit down. Unfolding the blanket he drapes it over their laps, shaking his head when they start to protest.
"You're not wearing coats and its chilly."
Ryan doesn't point out that neither Gerard or Lindsey are wearing coats either. Instead he tucks his hands under the blanket, welcoming the trapped warmth as Spencer says, "You were going to tell us something."
Gerard's pacing, his feet crunching against the gravel. He stops, touches his face and pushes back his hair, then eventually says bleakly, "When Mikey disappeared I didn't even realize for a few days."
It's not where Ryan was expecting the story to start, but he keeps listening, wanting to find out where this is going.
"I was in a bad way back then," Gerard goes on, and Lindsey moves closer, though she makes no attempt to touch, allowing Gerard the space to move. "Really fucking bad. I can't even remember what I said to make Mikey leave but I put him through so much shit and he never walked away. Then he did, and I didn't even know until I woke up days later."
"You looked for him then?" Spencer asks, and Gerard laughs bitterly.
"I wish I could say yes, but no. I consoled myself with more knock-off alcohol and by the time I'd sobered up he was long gone. When I realized that I made a vow to myself that was it. I was done with the drinking."
Under the blanket Spencer reaches for Ryan's hand as Ryan sits frozen. He can't help feeling angry, that Gerard lost Mikey like that when so many other families were torn apart against their will.
"Tell me you started looking then," Spencer says, covering the awkward silence.
Gerard nods. "I started looking and never stopped until I got Pete's message. I talked to Mikey's friends, his friend's friends. I walked the streets and checked the clubs. We all did. And the more I talked the more I found out. About people who were ordered into labor camps for loving the wrong gender or some other perceived sin. About sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends who disappeared, and it was all government sanctioned. Labor camps and traveling sex fairs, it's nothing but legalized slavery."
"So what?" Ryan says coldly, because this is nothing he didn't know. "You decided to soothe your conscience by asking a load of questions."
Gerard flinches but he doesn't deny it. "That and found myself a job. One that paid enough I could work on my side projects."
"Your comic," Ryan says, remembering what Frank said back at the fair.
"At first." Gerard scratches at the side of his face, and exhales a long breath. "The comic took off. I had the product people wanted at the right time, and it meant I got paid a lot. Like, a fuckload a lot. Enough that I could start helping."
It's what Ryan's been waiting for and he leans forward, says, "How?"
"Helping fund the abolitionist underground mainly," Gerard says. He starts to pace again, hands pushed deep in his pockets. "I found out about all this shit and I wanted to do something, but by that time I was too high profile to help physically. I was Gerard fucking Way, creator of comic strips and new darling of the re-emerging art world. I couldn't go out and help destroy labor camps or help slaves into the underground. What I could do was give funding, and I have ever since."
Spencer's staring at Gerard, as if figuring him out. "That's how you knew how to get Ronan to safety, and get us out of the camp."
"I've learned a lot over the years and have good contacts. Usually I help from a distance but when Pete got in touch I had to do more." Gerard trails off, then continues, his voice soft. "It was Mikey. I'd have done anything to get to him."
Still trying to get his head around the fact an abolitionist underground actually exists, Ryan asks. "So when you came to the fair, you already knew what Mikey was?"
Gerard's shoulders are hunched up and he looks directly at Ryan. "I didn't know for sure. It didn't work like that. I'd give money where it was needed but I never had details. But I knew enough to suspect when Patrick passed on the message. He was furious when I told him I was going in. They have protocols in place and I went in and paid an extortionate sum to get Mikey back. But I couldn't leave him there. You have to understand that."
Ryan does, and some of his anger drains away. "You said it didn't work like that."
This time it's Lindsey that replies. "We've told them we're getting more directly involved. Seeing Mikey was a reality check, money isn't enough anymore."
Gerard straightens, looking determined. "We're going to help save people. I'll make Mikey proud."
Head thumping, Ryan leans against Spencer, wishing he had the words to tell Gerard that while that's a worthy plan, what Mikey needs right now isn't someone who goes out and saves slaves. What he needs is his big brother.
Gerard and Lindsey leave and Spencer looks at Ryan, says, "Want to walk?"
Ryan nods. He feels restless and right now going back inside doesn't sound appealing at all, too enclosed, too warm, too many people he still doesn't know or fully trust.
Spencer takes the blanket and carefully folds it, setting it on the end of the bench before helping Ryan to stand. "Want to try for around the house?"
"Sure," Ryan says. He wants to see where they actually are, and while he knows he won't be able to walk for long, around the house sounds doable. Before they do though, Ryan tugs at the sleeve of his shirt, exposing his brand. Then stops, feeling stupid.
"We'll get used to it," Spencer says. He's got his hand wrapped over his own brand and is running his thumb over the swirl that extends onto his palm. Then adds quieter, "I hope so."
"We will," Ryan says, trying to sound certain. He starts to walk, tiny stones jabbing into his heels with each step. "No one will care when we're overseas. We'll be like everyone else: free."
Spencer sounds as doubtful as Ryan feels. Which is understandable because the facts are, no slave is ever set free. Sex fairs, labor camps, death -- freedom is never an option. It's why despite Gerard's money and network of people, Ryan's afraid. Of being re-captured, of losing Spencer, of getting used to freedom and having it inevitably snatched away.
Spencer takes a deep breath and then lets it out slowly. "We always said we'd travel. Guess we'll get our chance."
Ryan remembers hours spent in the stuffy meeting place of their childhood town, listening to Father Grayson preach against the evils of casual fornication, the way his spittle would glint in the air as he hit his stride and how Ryan would sit in the back row with Spencer's family, Spencer listening raptly as Ryan entertained with whispered tales of magical sail boats and lands ruled without fear and control. It feels like a lifetime ago and Ryan wishes the thought of travel could be magical now -- but it's not; at all.
"I want to go somewhere warm," Ryan says, shivering at a sudden gusty breeze. He ducks his head as leaves are blown from the trees that surround the house, one stinging against his cheek.
Spencer blinks against the wind. "That's if we get a choice. It can't be easy moving slaves."
"I guess," Ryan says. "They can send me to the moon as long as it's with you."
"I don't think you'd like the moon, you know, with the lack of oxygen and everything," Spencer says, and he smiles at Ryan before elbowing him gently in the side. "You know I wouldn't go anywhere without you."
"Good," Ryan mutters and then he's looking around before moving forward, pressing a quick kiss against Spencer's mouth. He doesn't linger, this isn't the start of anything and Ryan doesn't want to be seen. Not because he's ashamed, they've been watched having sex multiple times. But the sex was Willow and Sunny, this is private, something prompted by the love Ryan feels for Spencer. The difference is huge.
They've stopped walking now, Spencer's hand curled against Ryan's side. This close it's easy to see how Spencer swallows before saying, "I should contact my family, say goodbye before we go."
"Will you?" Ryan asks.
It takes Spencer a long time to reply, long enough that Ryan's starting to shiver when he eventually says, "I don't want them to know. They'll blame themselves."
Spencer has changed, there's no denying that, but Ryan can't imagine that making a difference. "Your family loves you."
"And I love them," Spencer replies. "That's why I'm not telling them."
He sounds sure and Ryan wants to protest, but he can't. Not when he feels so dirty himself, especially next to people who don't get it, the ones that seem so clean. "It'll be better when we get away. It will."
It's a jump from what Spencer was saying, but he seems to understand as he rests his head against Ryan's, standing close, two against the world.
Ryan's freezing when they get back inside. The house is much bigger than either he or Spencer had expected and by the time they're climbing up the steps to the front door Ryan's back is throbbing and his legs are shaking. Spencer's holding his arm, looking pinched and guilty as Ryan pushes himself to keep walking. Through the doorway and into the house, past the jumble of shoes on the floor.
All Ryan wants to do is crawl into bed and sleep, but when they're walking past an open door Brendon says, "Spencer, Ryan, in here."
"I'll put him off," Spencer says under his breath, but when Ryan peers inside he's looking into a bedroom, one dominated by a huge four-poster bed. Pete's propped up in the middle of that bed, his leg on a mound of pillows and Mikey curled up at his side. When Pete waves Ryan goes inside, the cold and pain forgotten.
"It's about time you woke up."
Pete grins and looks sharply at Ryan. "I've missed you too. Now come sit next to me before you fall down."
Ryan's not about to refuse. Still leaning on Spencer he walks past Brendon and Jon, thankful when he can finally sit down. Kicking off the slippers he eases his legs onto the bed, leaning forward slightly to take the pressure off his back.
Pete's watching, and despite the lingering smile he looks concerned. "Mikey told me what you did. What the hell were you thinking?"
"What the hell was I thinking?" Ryan says back, taken by surprise. He turns slightly, enough so he can look fully at Pete. "I wasn't the one climbing on the arena roof."
"At least I didn't volunteer myself for a whipping." Pete reaches out, as if he's going to touch the still vivid mark on Ryan's chin, then drops his hand, looking fierce. "You shouldn't have done that, Ryan."
"What was I supposed to do?" Ryan asks, and the whole room is hushed, listening to the exchange. "He was going to kill you. Or did you want that?" As soon as he speaks Ryan wants to take back the words, especially when Mikey's watching, his expression set. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean...."
"Yes you did," Pete says tiredly. He wipes his hand across his face and tightens his grip on Mikey's hand. "I don't know what I was thinking, I was missing Mikey so much and everything was black. I wanted to climb up and reach the stars, but then I was falling and hoped I'd never stop. You saved me."
Ryan shakes his head. He's never saved anyone, all he'd done was protect a friend. Anyone would do that. "I didn't do anything."
"Yes you did," Brendon protests, he's sitting cross-legged on the bottom of the bed, his bare feet sticking out from under his robe. "You protected him, even when you went down you protected him, like some kind of hero. It was awesome."
Ryan's about to say it didn't feel awesome when Spencer sits next to him, deflecting the conversation as he looks at Pete's leg. "Your foot's like, twice the size of the other one."
"You should see it without the bandages," Pete says and he sits upright. "It's seriously gross."
Mikey reaches out, trapping Pete's free hand. "Remember what Lindsey said."
Pete sighs and slumps against his pillows. "I'd have only shown them the top bruises. It doesn't take that long to re-bandage."
Mikey gives Pete a look. "Do you really want to risk it?"
"Spoilsport." Pete rests his head against Mikey's shoulder and looks at Ryan, his eyes bright. "I owe you."
Ryan starts to deny that, but then he changes his mind, says, "No, it makes us even."
Some people could say it's not the same thing. That hoarded food is nothing compared to taking a whipping. Ryan knows they're wrong. It's not about balance, it's about Pete always being there, about friendship. To Ryan that's the most important thing of all.
For a moment Pete studies Ryan, then nods slowly as he holds out his hand. "We're even."
Ryan clasps Pete's hand, then lets out a huff of surprise when he's suddenly tugged forward, landing safely on Pete's chest. "Pete?"
"Ryan?" Pete replies and he holds Ryan close as he adds. "You've got a friend for life, Ryan, don't you ever forget it."
Held close, the thump of Pete's heart under his ear, Ryan knows he never will.
Lunch ends up being a picnic on Pete and Mikey's bed.
There's a rapid series of knocks on the bedroom door and then Frank's looking inside and says, "I've brought lunch. Is it okay?"
It's a question that doesn't really make sense but Pete waves his hand, indicating Frank should come in even as he asks, "I don't know you do I?"
"Nope," Frank says. He's crouched over slightly, pushing a small trolley that's covered in plates of sandwiches that clink together as the trolley wobbles and abruptly changes direction. Frank scowls and kicks at the wheel. "Fucking thing, I told Gee I could carry them in just as easy."
Brendon's eyes are wide as he looks at the heaped plates, and his mouth drops open a little when he looks on the bottom level of the trolley. "Are those cakes?"
Frank follows Brendon's gaze. "Gerard sent us shopping this morning. They're chocolate cupcakes with butter frosting and ..."
"Sprinkles on top," Mikey finishes levelly as he sits up, his back against the headboard. "Our grandma used to make them. They were my favorites."
"Well I hope you still like them, there's plenty." Squeezing past the trolley Frank makes his way to the head of the bed so he's standing next to Pete. "Sorry, we have met before but you've kind of been unconscious both times. I'm Frank."
"Mikey's friend, Frank?" Pete asks, and when Frank nods his smile changes, becoming less of a performance and more something that's real. "And you've brought us cakes."
Frank grins. "Cake and sandwiches. I was bringing a plate for you anyway, and Mikey's been eating in here, so I figured why not bring food for everyone?"
Jon scratches over the top of his bandage. "Thank you."
"It's nothing." A last small smile and Frank starts to move back toward the door. "There's plenty so help yourself. If you want more just yell."
Brendon starts to reach for a plate then stops himself, hand held in mid-air. "You're not eating with us?"
For the first time Frank looks unsure as he glances over Mikey. "There's stuff I need to do. The potatoes won't put themselves away."
"They could if they grew legs," Mikey says, and Ryan looks at him, wondering if Mikey's finally snapped. But Frank's taken a step forward, looking heart-brokenly hopeful.
"Potato men with fat bodies and tiny legs."
Mikey nods. "They'd march forward and huddle together in sacks, waiting for their own death by knife or boiling water."
"Because they're fucking brutal," Frank adds, taking another step forward.
The whole conversation is crazy, and so delicate it feels like it could shatter at any moment. Then Mikey tucks up his legs and says, "You should stay."
Frank does. Eyes alight, he takes a spot next to Mikey, sitting cross legged on the bed. They're not touching and Frank's ensuring that doesn't unexpectedly happen, careful to leave space when he's reaching for a sandwich or telling some tale that requires elaborate hand gestures. Seeing that effort means Ryan relaxes a little too, sure that Frank's not about to spring over the bed and attempt to grab him. Not that Ryan thinks he would, just, Frank was there at the fair, was acting as a john. Even if Ryan does know it was make-believe the anxiety clings on.
"These are good." Jon's lying on his stomach, legs bent and bare feet in the air as he eats. "I like the green stuff."
Frank nods and swallows the last of his sandwich. "There's a market in town. I about cleaned out the farmer's stock." Brushing crumbs off his shirt, Frank frowns as he adds, "I'll have to go somewhere else next time or they'll get suspicious of how much food we're buying."
The sandwich he's eaten feels like a rock in Ryan's stomach. He's never considered being found here but now all he can think of is being hauled back to the fair or the burn of a rope tightening around his neck.
Spencer reaches out, soothing Ryan by rubbing his arm. "It is safe here, though? No one knows?"
"Only the ones that have to," Frank says. "And I trust those people with my life."
Frank sounds sure and Ryan tries to believe him, reminding himself that they're safe, nobody bad knows that they're here. That this is what Gerard does.
"I can't remember the last time I ate cake," Jon says. He's got his chin propped on his hands and gives a reassuring smile at Ryan before tapping Brendon with his foot. "Are you ready for cake?"
"I'm always ready for cake," Brendon says seriously, and he slides off the bed and takes hold of the plate of cakes. Then holds them in two hands as he tries to find a place to set them down, because, despite being so huge the bed is crowded with seven people. Eventually Brendon balances the plate on Pete's knees and then goes back to his place next to Jon.
Ryan can't help staring. Like Jon he can't remember the last time he ate cake and they look almost too delicate to eat, the frosting in soft swirls and the sprinkles a riot of color. Ryan licks his lips, wanting to taste so badly, but he doesn't reach out. None of them do, until eventually, Frank breaks the mood, grabbing one of the cakes and taking a big bite.
"They're delicious," Frank enthuses, a red sprinkle stuck in the corner of his mouth. "Grab one before I eat them all."
"I want a blue one." Brendon leans forward, grabbing a cake, and then it's a free-for-all, hands reaching for the plate until all that's left are two cakes and a lot of crumbs.
Ryan holds his own cake in his hand. He's not hungry but he can't resist taking a small bite of the frosting, shivering a little at the sugary taste. He takes another bite, letting the frosting lie against his tongue, savoring the sweetness. He can feel sprinkles stuck to his lips and licks them away, taking another small bite of frosting before putting his cake on his lap.
"You don't like it?" Frank asks, and Ryan flushes, looking away.
"I'm full." Reluctantly Ryan picks up the cake again, holding it so Frank can see. "I haven't eaten much. I'll scrape the bit away I touched, someone else can have it. It won't get wasted"
Immediately Frank shakes his head, and Ryan's face is burning. He should have known they wouldn't eat something he's already touched. Then Frank's standing and going to the trolley where he bends and then stands, holding a roll of paper towels.
"No one can say I don't know how to throw a picnic." He tears off a length of towels and gives them to Ryan. "Wrap it in that. The frosting might get a bit papery but this way you can keep it for later."
Ryan takes the paper towels and carefully wraps up his cake, making sure it's completely covered, the ends tucked in to make a small parcel. When he's done he holds the wrapped cake in his hand, feeling almost uncomfortably full and drowsy. If Frank wasn't here Ryan would curl up and sleep with the others, he's done it before and it feels comfortable to be surrounded by people he knows. But Frank is here and Ryan taps Spencer on the arm, says quietly, "I'm tired."
Spencer yawns wide and goes back to wrapping his own cake. "Me too. " A twist of the paper towel and Spencer stands, helping Ryan to his feet. "Thanks for the lunch."
Frank waves away the thanks, says, "No worries," as he wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.
A flurry of goodbyes and together Ryan and Spencer leave the room, heading back to where they've been sleeping. Ryan's holding his cake by the paper case and he can feel the ripples under his fingers, so uniformly perfect. He's thinking about where to hide the food, considering behind the curtains or under the bed. In the end he hides it in the top drawer of the dresser, pushing the cake to the back, and then does the same to Spencer's when he silently hands it over.
Ryan shuts the drawer and immediately feels unsettled, torn between knowing he doesn't have to hoard food and the compulsion to do so anyway. Fingers curled around the brass handle he considers taking out the cakes and setting them out in plain view -- but doesn't.
"Come and sit down," Spencer says. He's kicked off his shoes and is sitting in the middle of the bed, his head tilted slightly to one side to avoid the griffin. He's also got the blanket folded back but is making no attempt to get under the covers.
Ryan climbs onto the bed, lying against Spencer. "Are you okay?"
Spencer's brows are pulled together, his mouth turned down at the corners. "I've been thinking about when we leave, about how we'll have to go overseas."
"It could be fun," Ryan says, trying to be optimistic despite his misgivings. He positions himself as comfortably as possible, his head against Spencer's shoulder. "We'll go exploring."
Spencer nods, then adds in a rush, "I don't what I'd be able to do."
"About what?" Ryan asks.
"About earning money. We need to live somehow, Gerard can't be expected to keep us, and we need to eat, but how? I don't know how to do anything except have sex. Agitated, Spencer's breathing hard, his hands curled into fists. "That won't support us."
"Spencer." Ryan cups Spencer's jaw and turns his head, needing him to see what Ryan's saying. "You've got plenty to offer. They should line up to hire you, if they don't they're stupid. You're more than sex, a lot more."
"It doesn't feel like it," Spencer says softly, turning his head into Ryan's hold a moment before pulling away. "Earlier you said about contacting my family, and I started to think about it. What I'd say to my mom about what I'd been doing while I was gone. All I could think of was sex and how am I supposed to tell her that? That I've learned how to deep throat and take double penetration. That I can suck like a professional and get it up enough to fuck my best friend in front of an audience. That's who I am, Ryan, it's all I've got to give, and I hate that."
Ryan shakes his head, his stomach twisting with shared misery. "That's not who you are. It's not."
"But it feels like it," Spencer says, his voice cracking. "I need to be able to support you but I don't know how and they'd see the brand and know I'm nothing but a whore."
"Don't say that. You're not a whore," Ryan says fiercely. He takes hold of Spencer's arm, fingers over the brand. "And we support each other, if that means I have to get a job moving rocks I'll do it."
"I don't know, you're not much a rock hauler," Spencer says, and while Ryan's thankful for the hint of a smile he's not finished. He's not going to let Spencer's hide behind his usual shields of efficiency and distracting smiles just yet.
"I'd still do it." Needing to be face to face, Ryan sits so he's looking directly at Spencer. "If anyone calls you a whore I'll break their nose."
Spencer touches their foreheads together, and momentarily the exhaustion and fear Ryan's been carrying is swept away as Spencer says, "I love you too."
"Ray and Bob can start once they've finished outside and we'll be back in a few hours." Ryan slows when he hears Lindsey, unsure if they should interrupt her conversation with Gerard. Then the choice is taken away when she sees them, greeting with a smile. "Hey, did you enjoy your walk?"
Ryan nods. It's a beautiful fall morning and he's been enjoying the warmth of the sun, slowly circling the house with Spencer before heading to visit Dobby. It's there that they've found Lindsey and Gerard and while Ryan would prefer to keep walking, he changes direction so he can lean against the fence. "It doesn't hurt as much today."
Both Lindsey and Gerard grin, looking genuinely pleased. "No overdoing it though," Lindsey warns, pointing at Ryan.
"He won't," Spencer says seriously, plainly meaning every word.
Lindsey's grin gets even wider. "You're good at that, I need someone like you to keep all my patients in line."
Gerard clears his throat. "I can do that."
Lindsey kisses Gerard's cheek, leaving behind a smudge of red lipstick. "You're the biggest soft touch I know. You'd let my patients go dancing on freshly broken legs."
"That happened once," Gerard protests. "I didn't know you'd already said no."
They're not arguing, Ryan knows that but he still feels awkward. Trying for a distraction he asks, "Are you going somewhere?"
"To see my publisher." Gerard pushes his hands deep into the pockets of his pants and sighs. "I tried to put him off but no go. Ray, Bob and Frank will be here, though."
Lindsey turns and looks past the donkey paddock. "Bob and Ray are working on the fence and Frank's waiting for an important call, but if you need anything just go find them, and help yourself to stuff to eat. Dinner may be late."
Spencer bites at his lower lip as if he's considering whether to talk, then says, "We could do that. I mean, make dinner. It's no problem."
"I'll be for a lot of people," Gerard warns, giving Spencer an assessing look. "But if you think you're up to it."
"We are," Spencer says, trying to look certain.
"Fantastic." Lindsey links her arm with Gerard's and starts to tug him toward the kitchen door. "Help yourself to whatever, Frank's vegetarian but anything goes for the rest."
A last smile from them both and Lindsey and Gerard go inside. As soon as they're out of sight Ryan rounds on Spencer, wanting to know what he was thinking. "We can't cook. The last time we tried we set fire to the cookies."
"We were eight then," Spencer says, and he sounds a little shaky, as if he's just realizing what he's offered to do. "We've grown since then, it can't be that hard."
Ryan isn't so sure, but he is sure of Spencer and if he thinks they can make dinner for a houseful of people Ryan believes him. Together they go into the kitchen and Spencer opens the fridge, looking inside. It's packed full of food, half of which Ryan doesn't recognize.
"Worst case we make sandwiches," Spencer says faintly, and Ryan's nodding his agreement when Brendon appears with Jon, joining Spencer and Ryan staring into the fridge.
"Why are we staring down the tomatoes?" Brendon asks, his eyes narrowed.
"I offered to make dinner," Spencer says and rubs his hand over his face. "I've got no idea what I'm doing."
Brendon grins and pushes past Ryan and Spencer, his upper body and head in the fridge as he looks at the contents. "I used to help my mom cook, I can help." He hesitates, his voice trailing off. "That is, if you want me to."
Spencer elbows Brendon in the side. "Are you kidding? Yes."
"Awesome." Brendon turns and looks over his shoulder. "I'm thinking something simple, like soup and rolls."
Ryan blinks. "You know how to make rolls?"
"I was making rolls before I could walk," Brendon announces grandly, and shuts the door of the fridge, clapping his hands once. "Jon, can you look for some pans, the bigger the better. Spencer, potatoes, they need peeling. Lots of them. Ryan, wash your hands and then sit down, you can do the carrots, I'll start on the onions."
It's interesting to see this side of Brendon. Ryan's seen him joking, scared and in pain, but right now he's perfectly confident in what he's doing as he issues orders and gathers chopping boards and knives, setting them down on the table. Once Ryan's washed his hands and dried them -- thankfully on an actual towel -- he sits where Brendon's placed two bulging bags of carrots. They've still got their tops and feathery fronds brush against Ryan's hands as he picks one up.
"You need to peel and chop them into rounds," Brendon says from where he's washing his own hands. Once he's done he sits opposite Ryan and pulls a bag of onions toward him. Selecting one from the bag, Brendon efficiently slices off the top and bottom before peeling away the skin. The kitchen fills with the sharp scent of onion as he starts to chop. "When I made this with mom I always sliced the potatoes, I had my own special knife, one without a sharp blade."
Ryan looks up from his own cutting, concerned with how fast Brendon's chopping. "You do know how to use that, right?"
Brendon grins and holds up his hand, wiggling his fingers. "I haven't lost a finger yet."
"I've got pans," Jon announces from where he's been crouched over, looking in one of the low cupboards. Setting the two pans on the table he asks, "What can I do?"
Brendon looks around, considering. "You should help Ryan, it's going to be next week before he's finished with those."
Ryan frowns and continues to chop, ensuring each carrot round is the same width. "It won't take that long."
"Long enough," Brendon says with a laugh. "Mom always said it didn't matter what the stuff looked like going in, as long as it tasted good."
Jon pulls up a chair and steals a bag of carrots and a knife. "Your mom's a wise lady."
"She is," Brendon says, and then his grin fades. "About most things."
Before Ryan would have run from this subject. Never asking personal questions was one of the unspoken rules of the fair, but they're not at the fair now. He's talking to Brendon and not Apollo, and Brendon is Ryan's friend.
Hesitantly, Ryan asks. "Is that why you left? You had a fight with your mom?"
Brendon keeps chopping the onion, until it's little more than mush. "Sort of. My family is religious, like a lot. They fully believe the new teachings, that things changed because the world had become immoral. The whole crazy scripture, fire rain and radiation sent by a vengeful God." Brendon scoops up the onion mush, dropping it in the pan. "They're not bad people, you have to believe that. It's just. They're set in their ways and couldn't cope that I didn't think the same. So I decided to go."
Spencer turns from where he's peeling potatoes at the sink, his hands muddy and his shirt wet through at the front. "They threw you out?"
"I ran." Brendon ducks his head and swallows before grabbing another onion. "I had no choice, I couldn't keep pretending I fit in."
"I'm sorry," Ryan says, and Brendon looks so sad Ryan wishes he hadn't asked the question.
Brendon acknowledges him with a flash of smile, says, "If I hadn't ran I'd have never met Jon, and if I hadn't met him I wouldn't have met you all."
"I am kind of amazing," Jon says, and starts laughing when Brendon grabs a carrot by the fronds and launches it at Jon's head. Who promptly snatches it out of the air and throws it back, hitting Brendon square on the forehead. Seeing Brendon's O of surprise, Ryan can't help laughing, and realizes for the first time in a while, at this moment he feels genuinely happy.
"That smells amazing."
Ryan looks up from where he's trying to scrape dough off the table top. Frank's lifted the lid of one of the pans, head close to the simmering soup.
"You made this?" Frank replaces the pan lid and then looks inside the oven, blinking against the blast of heat. "And rolls?"
"Helped make them, Brendon's the cook," Ryan corrects. He glances around but he's still alone with Frank, the other three not back from taking out the trash and feeding carrot tops to Dobby. Ryan wishes he'd gone now but his back's aching and someone needed to watch the soup.
Frank grabs a glass and pours himself some water, then sits at the table with a sigh. "Schedules make my head hurt."
Ryan isn't sure if he's allowed to talk about saving slaves, but Frank looks tired, and it's awkward sitting in silence. "Is everything okay?"
"It is now." Frank takes a long drink and then sets down the glass. "One of the engines broke down and threw the connections into chaos. I managed to arrange a replacement but it means some people won't go until tomorrow."
"Tomorrow," Ryan says faintly, already half-standing. "I need to tell Spencer."
"Hold on, kid," Frank says, holding out his hand. "That doesn't include you, or any of your friends. You're not well enough to travel and even if you were you'd go a different route. It's too risky to travel cross-country with your brand."
Ryan feels stupid as he sits. "Sorry, I thought..."
Frank waves off the apology. "It's my fault, I wasn't thinking straight. Two hours finding a new engine is fucking ridiculous. Then the bastard tried to overcharge."
"Sorry," Ryan says. It's all he can think to say and looks at the tabletop as he rolls a small ball of dough under his fingers.
Frank laughs a little, slumping down in his chair. "At least I wasn't fixing fences or going to the city. I'll take scumbag traders any day. Then tonight there's a bath and book with my name on."
"There're books in the house?" Ryan asks, trying to sound nonchalant but failing completely. "Like a library?"
Frank shakes his head. "Not a library but there're books. I found them in the attic with the clothes."
Disappointed, Ryan goes back to scraping up dough. It's been years since he's read a book, seen one even and a library would have been magical.
"You should come up to my room, see if there's anything you like."
Ryan jerks up his head, shocked at the offer. "That's, I mean, I'd love to but no." The problem is, as much as he wants to no way is Ryan going anywhere with Frank alone, not that he'll say that. "I need to watch the soup and rolls."
Frank taps his fingers on the edge of the table, looking at Ryan. "How about I watch dinner and you go up? With Spencer though, I don't want you falling down stairs."
"You'd let us go into your room alone?" The trust is unexpected, but Frank seems unconcerned.
"There's no reason not to." Frank yawns again and jumps to his feet. "I'll go and get Spencer, you can go up now before dinner."
"Wait," Ryan says, but it's too late, Frank's already ran outside and Ryan can hear him calling for Spencer.
Ryan's still sitting when Frank comes back, Spencer following him in. Spencer looks confused and raises an eyebrow at Ryan in question. "We're going to Frank's room?"
"He found books, he said I could see," Ryan says, and Spencer's expression eases.
"That explains it." Spencer flashes a smile at Frank and then heads through the kitchen, touching Ryan's shoulder. "Come on then. It'll probably take an hour to get you up the stairs."
It doesn't actually take that long, more minutes than hours. Still, by the time he's climbed the curving staircase Ryan's heart is pounding and he takes a rest at the top, hands on the curled knot of the banister as he breathes through the pain in his back.
Spencer's standing on the step below Ryan, as if he's going to physically catch him if he stumbles. At least he'd try, Ryan thinks they'd both end up in heaps at the bottom if Ryan did actually fall. Which is why he starts moving, his hand against the wall, trailing over the flocked wallpaper that feels dusty under Ryan's fingers. Corridors go off from the left and right and Ryan remembers Frank's directions, that his room is the second door on the right. Heading in that direction Ryan passes a suit of armor and a stack of blank canvases propped against the wall, then finally, Frank's door.
It still feels wrong to go inside, but Frank did say it was okay. Finally Ryan pushes open the door.
It looks a lot like the bedrooms downstairs, but obviously more lived in. Clothes are folded up on the dresser and there's a towel hanging over the ornate bed rail. There's also a stack of books on the bedside table, and it's those Ryan makes for. Sitting on the edge of the bed he picks up the top book and gently runs his fingers over the cover. It's not a book Ryan recognizes, but that doesn't matter. All that does matter are the words, ready and waiting to sweep Ryan away.
"This one," Ryan says, making the decision.
Spencer sits close, looking at the book Ryan's holding. "You sure? You don't want to see the rest?"
Ryan shakes his head. This one is perfect.
Ryan opens his eyes, suppressing a groan when he moves. In the last two days he's almost finished the book, reading when he's not taking walks with Spencer or hanging out with Pete or doing the gentle chores that Lindsey allows. It makes Ryan feel better when he's allowed to help and he enjoys spending time with his friends, but he also loves slipping into the story, reading about dragons and daring adventures.
The last thing he remembers was curling up in the corner of the green leather couch, his feet in Spencer's lap and a woolen blanket over them both. Now Spencer's leaning over him, shaking Ryan's shoulder.
"Ryan. Bob needs help fixing a door. I said I'd help, we're just outside."
Drowsy, Ryan slides back down, his hand on the book to stop it falling on the floor. "Go help, I'm fine."
"If you want anything...."
"I know where you are," Ryan says, already falling back into sleep.
The next time he wakes can't be more different.
Ryan opens his eyes and the room is dark, there's something tight around his body and across his mouth and his back is on fire. Whimpering, Ryan tries to move but his arms are trapped and he's gasping for air, seeing somebody in the shadows, hearing Horace's footsteps as he walks across the wooden floor.
A hand on his chest and Ryan's shaking, desperate to get away, his throat dry as he tries to protest, because this isn't his life now. He got away, this isn't the fair.
"Ryan. Wake up!"
Someone shaking him and Ryan's back in a stall, his legs in the air, someone pounding into him. Fingers pinching into his shoulders, a tongue in his mouth, spittle sliding down his chin.
Finally Ryan can speak, gasps, "No, please. No don't."
"Fuck. Ryan. Ryan, it's okay, hold on."
The hands are still there, holding, tugging. Ryan keeps himself still. If he's good maybe they won't hurt him so much. If he's good maybe they'll leave Spencer alone.
"Ryan. Listen to me. I'm not going to hurt you, I just need to untangle the blanket."
Despite himself a tear rolls down Ryan's cheek. He lies still, his chest burning, and then finally, finally, he can move. Ryan pulls up his legs and pushes himself back until his back is against a soft surface. Terrified he keeps his eyes closed, his hands pressed against his mouth.
"That was stupid, I'm sorry. I know better than to touch."
Someone talking, their voice pitched low and calming.
"I'm going to put a light on, okay?"
There's the sound of footsteps, a click of a light being switched on. Ryan opens his eyes and sees Gerard sitting on the opposite end of the couch. He's back-lit by the lamp he's just switched on, looking concerned as he watches Ryan.
"You remember who I am?" Gerard asks gently.
Ryan nods. He feels stupid, so foolish he wants to sink through the floor. "I'm sorry."
Gerard's making no attempt to touch, just keeps to his own end of the couch. "There's nothing to be sorry for. You had a nightmare, they happen."
"I don't want them to happen," Ryan whispers. He feels wrung out and shaky, humiliated in a way no degrading sex act has ever make him feel.
Gerard settles back, looking worried as he watches Ryan. "I'm sorry. I wish I knew what to tell you, what to do to help."
Ryan wishes he knew that too, but the reality is, there's nothing anyone can do to help. He has to deal the best that he can. It's just, there's no easy way to explain that and Ryan hates how Gerard looks so sad. It's why Ryan says, "I could drink a glass of water."
Gerard stands, holding out his hand toward Ryan. "I can do that."
Which isn't what Ryan expected. He hesitates but Gerard never moves, just stands still, patiently waiting.
Ryan reaches out his hand.
Days pass and Ryan's saying another goodbye, the gravel crunching under his feet as he stands with Spencer, watching as the engine pulls away in the dim light of morning.
He can't help wondering when it'll be his turn. When Bob will seek him out and say, you're going tomorrow. Even the thought makes Ryan feel sick. He's beginning to love this house, the warm kitchen and comfy couches, the tub and constant supply of hot water. He already does love Mikey and Pete, but Ryan knows he'll be leaving them behind. They're not guests in this house, not like Ryan.
Needing distraction, Ryan's about to suggest a walk to see Dobby when Lindsey appears. She's clutching an overflowing folder and her bag bumps against her bare leg as she walks down the steps. "Ryan, Spencer, hey."
"Hi," Spencer says and Ryan flashes a small smile.
Lindsey tugs at her short skirt and tightens her hold on the folder. "I need to ask a favor." When neither Ryan or Spencer reply, Lindsey goes on. "Gee's got this big exhibition in a few months. His investors like the personal touch so I've hundreds of invitations to write out."
Ryan lets out a breath, because nothing that Lindsey is saying sounds bad. "You want us to help write them?"
"Please," Lindsey says. "Ray and Bob won't be back for hours and last time Frank helped we had to say the ink blotches were a stylistic choice."
"They were a stylistic choice." Frank's walking down the stairs followed by Ronan, Jon, Brendon and Ken. "We're going for a walk."
Brendon's got a floppy hat pulled down over his head and he looks at them from under the brim. "Frank says there's mutated squirrels in the woods."
Frank nods. "They've got fangs and glowing red eyes."
"If we don't come back tell Dobby it was nice knowing him," Jon says seriously, and Ryan reminds himself that Jon's joking; he's not going away today.
"We'll do that," Lindsey says, and then turns her attention to Frank. "Don't go near the east side."
"Not planning to," Frank says, and then jumps up, grabbing the hat off Brendon's head before running away. Immediately Brendon runs after him, laughing as they disappear into the treeline, Jon, Ken and Ronan following more sedately.
"Rabid squirrels." Spencer shakes his head and starts to go inside, holding open the door for Lindsey and Ryan.
"They could be out there," Lindsey says with a grin. She's looking up the stairs as if planning to go up, then changes her mind, heading for the kitchen. "We'll stay down here. Everything's a mess up there with all the planning that's been going on."
Ryan's relieved. The kitchen is a place where he's began to feel safe and he sinks down into his usual chair as Lindsey puts down the folder and tugs her skirt down her thighs before sitting. Opening the bag she pulls out a wooden box full of pens and a large pile of thick parchment paper. Each sheet is printed with Gerard's personal header and Ryan leans over, looking at the design which seems to be an interlocking series of letters being held by a winged monster.
Lindsey points at the creature. "He designed that before we met. It's one of the most personal things he lets people see."
Lindsey doesn't say why and Ryan doesn't ask, knowing if Gerard ever wants them to know he'll tell. Pulling a piece of paper toward him Ryan picks up a pen, waiting as Lindsey puts an example invitation in the middle of the table. "We just copy that?"
"Yeah." Lindsey uncaps her own pen and then pushes the box to Spencer. "I know it's boring but it has to be done this way. They like to think Gerard's taking the trouble to write to them personally."
Spencer selects a pen and takes off the top. "It's a good tactic to get more money."
"Exactly." Lindsey starts to write, her ponytail trailing over one shoulder. "Gerard's good at talking up his commercial art and getting donations, but laying the groundwork like this helps."
Ryan brings the pen nib to the paper. The last time he wrote something it was his name on his contract to Horace. Nervous, his hand is shaking and he pulls back the pen, afraid of making a mess.
"Last time Bob helped like this he put the pen through the paper; twice," Lindsey says. "Once Ray knocked over a cup of coffee and ruined two hours of work." Ryan cringes, imagining the mess, but Lindsey doesn't appear concerned at all. In fact she's smiling as she writes, glancing up at Ryan. "It's just paper. If you make a mistake you can start over."
Ryan puts the pen back on the page, his fingers clutching the pen tlightly as he begins to write.
The day is gone before Ryan knows it. He spends hours writing, listening to Lindsey's stories and then later, more time at the kitchen table, helping to make dinner. Diligently chopping his way through bagfuls of carrots as Frank attempts to juggle tomatoes and Bob slices onions, his eyes red and tears flowing down his face. Now Ryan's lying awake in bed, sweating, his hand over his mouth as he tries to suppress his whimpers, frustrated that a good day has turned into a bad night.
It's one of Ryan's familiar nightmares. Spencer lying carved up on a stall floor, his eyes wide open and chest ripped apart. Ryan can taste the blood in the air, feel it dripping down his arms and his throat is raw from screaming when Spencer rolls over in bed, says, "Ryan. Ryan. It's okay. I'm here. I'm alive."
Ryan nods, then realizes Spencer won't be able to see in the dark. He drops his hand and manages to rasp out. "Sorry. I woke you."
Spencer wraps an arm around Ryan, their heads together. "It doesn't matter. I don't care." He brushes a kiss against Ryan's cheek and lies heavily against him, warm and sleepy.
Despite his slowing heartbeat Ryan's still too keyed up to go back to sleep and he licks his dry lips, reminding himself that water isn't rationed now, he can have as much as he wants whenever he wants. Ryan sits and shakes his head when Spencer starts to get up. "No, stay here. I'm just going for a drink. I won't be long."
In the dim room Spencer's face is blurred, his eyes dark, but Ryan can tell he's watching, assessing if Ryan really doesn't mind going alone. "I'll keep your space warm."
"You're a superstar," Ryan says, and pushes aside the blanket, climbing out of bed. He'd fallen asleep in his clothes so there's no need to stop before making his way out of the room, heading for the door. Easing it open he sees moonlight is streaming in through the windows in the hallway, enough that Ryan can easily make his way toward the kitchen. He intends to go in and grab a drink, maybe some milk if there's any left, but when he opens the heavy wooden door he finds the light already on, and Gerard sitting at the table while Mikey leans against the counter, his arms crossed and looking at the floor.
"Fuck, sorry." It's the first time he's seen them in the same place for a few days and Ryan starts to back away, but Gerard jumps up, looking a cross between relieved and concerned.
"Are you okay? Do you need anything?"
"I was coming for a drink," Ryan says, and vows to grab one and go, the atmosphere in the room suffocating in the few seconds he's been there.
"Do you like hot chocolate? I could drink some of that. I'll make it." Gerard makes his way to the fridge, the door giving the usual pained squeak as it's pulled open. He grabs a bottle of milk and then shuts the door with a bump of his hip. "Mom used to make Mikey and me the best hot chocolate, she'd put marshmallows in it and we'd drink it before bed. Can you remember that, Mikes?" Gerard asks, sounding hopeful.
Mikey shrugs. "It was a long time ago."
"You liked the pink marshmallows best," Gerard goes on, and his knuckles are white where he's grasping the bottle. "You used to watch them melt and say it was pink blood, that they'd been nuked like the birds in the hot zones. You have to remember."
Again Mikey shrugs. "I don't know what to tell you."
Deliberately, Gerard puts down the bottle of milk as he says softly. "How about why you're acting like this?"
Mikey looks up then, as closed-off as Ryan's ever seen him. "Acting like what? This is me, Gerard."
"No, no it's not." Gerard takes a step closer to Mikey. "This isn't you. This isn't my brother."
"Your brother's gone. He's been gone for a long time." Mikey holds up his arm, his hands shaking as he yanks back the sleeve of his shirt exposing his brand and the line of healed burns that are scattered over his skin. "This is me now and believe me, you don't want this."
"Mikey, wait." Gerard starts to follow when Mikey turns and almost runs from the room.
"Don't." Ryan steps in front of Gerard, flinching when Gerard reaches up, as if he's going to push Ryan aside.
"I'm not, sorry." Gerard drops his hands, looking stricken. "I'm not going to hurt you, I wouldn't, but I need to find Mikey."
For a moment Ryan almost steps aside. He's tired, worn thin by his own emotions without taking on more. Except, he's watched Gerard and it's impossible to miss how he loves Mikey, how he misses him desperately. It's there in his every action and word, and the only person who's not seeing that is Mikey himself, and Ryan needs to tell Gerard why. "Don't go after him yet. You need to listen to me first. Please."
It's obvious that Gerard is torn, but eventually he nods curtly and walks to the table where he pulls out one of the padded chairs and says, "You should sit down."
Ryan does, trying to gather his thoughts as Gerard takes a seat opposite. When he's settled, Ryan says, "Once five guys wanted to fuck me at once. I don't know why, it wasn't my place to ask, but they all came back to my stall and went at it one after another. By the time they'd finished I was fucked so raw I could barely walk."
Gerard grimaces and presses his hand against the tabletop, as if he's stopping himself reaching for Ryan. "I'm sorry."
"You didn't do it, you've nothing to be sorry for." Ryan shrugs his shoulders and picks at the edge of the table, digging his thumb nail into a chip of paint. "I'm telling you because that night I knew I was lucky. Later Spencer helped hose down my body and got me back to the engine and while he was doing that I saw Mikey. He worked in red, did he tell you that? He was thrown to the johns who got off on pain and humiliation and that night he was so strung out he didn't even see us when he staggered out of the quadrant.
"He didn't tell me that," Gerard says, sounding distressed. "He hasn't told me anything."
Ryan hates seeing him like that, but he has to press on. "What do you want him to tell you? About the time he was tied up outside and forced to suck off anyone who walked by? The time he had his arm broken while shackled to a wall? That he had to dress up and perform in the arena, be fucked while watched by an audience pointing out every perceived flaw?"
Gerard flinches at each question. "Stop. Please. I don't...."
"Don't what?" Ryan goes on. "All these things, they're only the beginning. Mikey's one of the strongest people I know because he kept going. Always. But that doesn't mean he's okay. He's tired and hurt and ashamed and right now he doesn't need you to be a freer of slaves, he needs you to be his big brother and tell him everything's going to be okay."
"He won't listen to me," Gerard says. "I've tried."
"So try again." Exhausted, Ryan leans back, too tired to even keep himself upright. "Stop with the memories and pussy-footing around and tell him how you feel. You missed him didn't you?"
"Like a piece of my heart had been carved out."
Ryan rubs at his eyes. "Then tell him that. It's what he needs to hear. That no matter what he's done you love him."
"I can do that," Gerard says. Standing he starts to head for the door and then stops next to Ryan. "Do you want me to walk back to your room?"
"Go. I'm okay." A last look and Gerard does go. Left alone Ryan slowly stands, hand braced on the table. Focusing on one step after the other he puts away the milk then heads back the bedroom where he climbs into bed and snuggles up to Spencer, needing him so badly it physically hurts.
Ryan opens his eyes and finds Spencer's looking right at him. They're sharing the same pillow and Spencer's arm is over Ryan, holding him close. It's almost too warm in the bed but Ryan doesn't want to move. All he wants to do is lie here with Spencer, where it's warm and comfortable and safe.
"You didn't come back last night," Spencer says, he reaches for Ryan's hand, entwining their fingers. "I fell asleep waiting."
"I was talking to Gerard. I told him stuff, about Mikey." In the light of day Ryan isn't sure he's done the right thing and his stomach twists as he remembers what he said. "He needed to know but what if I made things worse?"
"Then we'll fix it," Spencer says, and squeezes Ryan's hand before moving in for a kiss. Pressing his mouth against Ryan's he slides his tongue over Ryan's bottom lip, the briefest of touches that's worlds away from the kisses that left Ryan gagging, a john's slimy tongue invading his mouth. Foreheads together he adds, "You ready to get up?"
"Not really." But Ryan rolls onto his side and pushes back the covers. No matter how much he wants to stay in bed he can hear people walking in the corridor, the sound of an engine warming up outside. There's no way Ryan would stay in bed when yet more people are leaving.
Ryan yawns as he walks, trying to untangle his hair and vowing to take a bath later in the day. Opening the bedroom door he blinks at the strong light and sees the front door is thrown open and a group of people standing in the hall. He can see Ken, Simon and Ronan clustered together. Bob carrying a bag as Ray sits on the stairs, studying a map as Jacob sits close. They're obviously close to leaving and Ryan walks over to Ronan. "You're going now?"
"Yeah," Ronan says. He's got a small bag resting against his leg and indicates it with a jerk of his head. "Gerard sorted out some clothes, money too. For starting out in the new country."
Spencer moves next to Ryan. "I hope you'll be happy."
"It's better than here," Ronan says, then picks up his bag at the sound of a whistle. "I need to go, I'd say it's been good to know you, but...."
"We know," Spencer cuts in. "Be safe, Ronan."
A brief smile and Ronan goes, following the others outside. About to follow Ryan stops when Ray says, "They'll not be leaving for about ten minutes. Bob's still checking the route and Patrick decided to pick up in person."
"Patrick?" Ryan questions, and jumps when Brendon answers from behind him.
"Patrick's amazing. He knows Pete but I don't know how. Not when Pete was at the fair." Brendon's expression is puzzled as he looks at Pete's closed bedroom door. "He arrived first thing this morning, just swept in and grabbed hold of Pete and didn't let go. It's a good thing Mikey wasn't there."
"Where was he?" Ryan asks, worried anew.
Ray puts down the map, frowning as he tries to fold it. "In the living room last time I saw, he's sleeping on the couch with Gee."
Relieved, Ryan rests against Spencer. "They're still there now?"
"Yeah." Finally getting the map folded, Ray stands and stretches before coming down the last few stairs. "In fact, could one of you go wake them up? Gerard will want to say goodbye, and someone get Patrick too."
"I'll go get Gerard," Ryan says, needing to make sure they're okay. He looks at Brendon who's still watching Pete's bedroom door. "I'll let Brendon get Patrick."
Brendon grins wide. "You need to meet him, he's awesome. He's got this ship and sails it overseas. It's what he does, take slaves to their new lives. Jon likes him too."
"Well if Jon likes him." Spencer smiles at Brendon. "Where is he anyway?"
"With Patrick and Pete, he fell asleep in there last night so Mikey said to leave him."
"Hold on," Ryan says, trying to catch up. "So Jon slept in Mikey and Pete's bed and Mikey slept on the couch with Gerard. Where were you?"
"In my bed, but I was up early helping Lindsey make pancakes and feed Dobby."
"You made breakfast?" Ryan asks, looking at Brendon. "Is it safe to eat?"
Brendon grins wide. "I was making pancakes before I could..."
"Walk, we know," Ryan interrupts and he can't help laughing at Brendon's smile widens even further. "I'll go and get Gerard."
"And I'm going to see Patrick the magnificent," Spencer says, trying to smooth down his hair when Brendon takes his arm and pulls him forward. Left alone Ryan retraces his steps, past the room where he's been sleeping until he finally comes to the open living room door. Inside it's full of faded couches, purple curtains complete with tassels pulled over the window that looks out toward the back of the house. Enjoying the faded grandeur Ryan walks further in the room, and then stops when he sees Mikey and Gerard.
They're curled up on one of the couches, Gerard spooned around Mikey and his chin against Mikey's neck. Despite the blue checked blanket that's covering them they're so close Ryan feels like he's spying on some private moment, still, Ryan knows he has to wake them. "Gerard."
Gerard shifts slightly, opening one eye. "Ryan, hey. Is everything okay?"
"Ray sent me," Ryan says. "People are getting ready to go."
"Fuck." Gerard screws shut his eyes and then opens them, looking at Ryan. "I meant to get up early, but we talked. Like you said. It was light when he fell asleep."
Ryan starts to back toward the door. "I'm glad. I hope it helped."
"It did." Mikey this time, and he peers blearily at Ryan. "Gee wants me to stay. Me and Pete."
"I can't believe you thought that I didn't." Gerard pulls Mikey into a sudden fierce hug. "Moron."
Mikey rolls his eyes and waves his hand. "Hello, escaped sex slave here. It's kinda illegal for me to be here. And that's without the other stuff."
Gerard sits up, wedged between Mikey and the back of the couch. "I don't give a damn if it's illegal, and we'll work the other stuff out together."
"It won't be easy," Mikey warns, flopping onto his back.
"I don't care," Gerard says, and it's so obvious that he means every word that Ryan has to leave the room. He's happy for Mikey and Pete, but the fact is, they're getting a home and Ryan isn't, he can't help being a little jealous.
Patrick doesn't leave in ten minutes.
Ryan sits on the steps of the house, basking in the golden mid-morning sunshine as Bob explains about crossing borders and false papers while Ray, Brendon and Lindsey ease a giant metal bat sculpture into the high-sided wagon.
"It's the excuse for taking the wagon," Bob explains, shaking his head when the bat thumps down, making the wagon sway. "Once we've done drop-off at the ocean we'll deliver the ugly thing. People pay a fucking fortune for Gerard's work."
Bob sounds perfectly casual, as if he's not talking about moving slaves as well as an ugly sculpture. "It's that easy? You can just drop people off?"
"Patrick knows what he's doing," Bob says. "But no, it's not that easy. Gerard pays a fortune in bribes at the port."
Ryan thinks about that money, how Gerard will have to pay for every slave to leave the country. It makes his stomach ache to think about leaving and he asks, "Do you think Brendon and Jon will be able to travel with me and Spencer? I don't know how it works. If so many of us can go to one place."
"I thought...." Bob cuts himself off, sounding confused as he looks toward where Mikey is standing talking to Frank. "Mikey said...."
Ryan doesn't get to hear what Mikey said, because at that moment Jon comes outside, chatting with some strange guy that has to be Patrick. They're also supporting Pete between them, holding him up as he hops, his hurt leg held in the air.
Hands on her hips, Lindsey stares at Pete. "I said you could go to the bathroom with help. This isn't the bathroom."
Pete grins, paling slightly as he's eased down to sit on the top step, his leg propped up on pillows that Jon's been holding under his arm. "I heard voices, and I was missing Mikey."
Dusting off her hands, Lindsey passes Ryan and Bob and crouches next to Pete. "You'd better not have touched that bandage."
Pete widens his eyes. "Would I do that?"
Lindsey snorts then stands. "In an instant. Don't you dare try moving from here."
"He won't," Mikey says, leaving Frank to sit on the step below Pete's. He leans back and Pete links his arms around Mikey's neck, holding on. "I'll make sure he doesn't."
"We need to get going," Patrick says, pulling his hat further down over his eyes. Edging past Pete he moves down two steps and bends, gathering both Mikey and Pete in a hug that leaves Pete beaming and Mikey looking surprised.
Sighing, Bob stands too. "We really do. Tides to meet and ugly sculptures to sell."
After that it's ordered chaos as Patrick and Bob ready the engine and yet again people say goodbye. There's no hugging, none of them are friends, not really, but Ryan wishes them well as he stands with his arms wrapped around his body, watching as people climb into the wagon. The last to go is Bob, and Ryan sees him slip over to Gerard, saying something that makes Gerard frown.
"The tide, Bob." Patrick's standing looking over the side of the wagon, the only things visible his hands, hat and eyes.
A last quiet word to Gerard and Bob climbs into the engine, taking his place next to Ray. With a last whistle, the engine rumbles away.
About to find Spencer and go inside, Ryan remains seated when Gerard approaches and says, "Can you stay here? We need to talk."
Ryan nods, feeling sick. He knows this is it, he's going to be told it's time for him to go and that's okay, he knows he can't stay. He's just worried they're going to make him go without Spencer, and that's not going to happen. It's not and then there's Brendon and Jon. Mikey and Pete. Ryan can't imagine them not being there. Not now. Ryan can feel his chest tightening and he crumples in on himself, trying to stop shaking.
"Ryan. Ryan, it's okay."
Mikey, his hand against Ryan's shoulder and then Jon's sitting at Ryan's side, Brendon leading Spencer over and then Spencer's sitting, holding Ryan close and he's surrounded by people, by his friends, which should help, but it doesn't. All it does is remind Ryan what he's having to leave.
"Ryan. Bob told me you were asking about leaving." Gerard's clasping Lindsey's hand tightly as he stands at the foot of the stairs. "And that's fine, we won't stop you if you want to go. You, Spencer, Brendon or Jon."
"What? No," Mikey interrupts. "I told you. I want them to stay here."
"I know." Gerard sounds pained, as if it physically hurts to go against what Mikey wants. "But if Ryan wants to leave...."
"He doesn't," Mikey says, and Ryan's looking between him and Gerard, words blocked by the ball of misery that's lodged in his throat. Because no matter how much he wants to stay, where it's warm, safe, but most importantly, with his friends, he knows he can't. This isn't his home. This isn't his family. There's no reason Gerard would allow Ryan to stay. Not when Ryan's still a stranger.
"Mikey," Gerard says gently. "You have to let Ryan speak for himself. It'll be dangerous to stay here, he might not want that."
Ryan shakes his head, he knows the consequences of being caught as a runaway, but he doesn't care. It's not about that at all. Aware everyone is looking at him, he takes courage in the way Spencer's squeezing his hand, says. "It's not that. We did stuff. All of us, why would you want us, want me?"
"Of course we want you to stay, we all do." Gerard runs his hand through his hair, his gaze directly on Ryan. "Why wouldn't I?
Ryan's got multiple reasons, the only one he can actually say is, "Because it's not our house, we're not your family. Risking keeping Mikey here makes sense, and Pete with him. But why us?"
For a long moment Gerard doesn't reply, then he says, "Stay there."
Running, he goes into the house and Ryan blinks rapidly, refusing to cry, but then Gerard's back, holding sheets of paper in his hands. Going to his previous place he holds up one of the sheets, showing that it's a picture of Ryan. Except it's not Ryan as he saw himself the week before. In Gerard's picture Ryan's wearing his clothes from the fair, but he looks clean, his hair shiny as he sits on the grass, pointing at something in the distance, his mouth quirked into a smile.
Gerard hands over the picture to Ryan. "That's what you are to me. When Mikey described you he told me how you liked to tell stories sometimes. How you'd sit together while eating and you'd make up stories about the people you'd seen."
Ryan takes the picture, trying to see himself through Gerard's eyes. Then looks up when Gerard shows another picture, Spencer this time, his smile wide as he stands in a patch of sunshine, hands on his hips and obviously amused. Gerard hands that one to Spencer.
"That's how I see you. Someone who kept smiling always."
Another picture. Pete, no hint of a smile but looking at someone with utter love in his eyes. Gerard gives it to Pete, who takes it while holding on tight to Mikey
"Just hearing Mikey talk I knew how much he loved you, and that you thought the same in return."
"You've a picture of me?" Brendon says, sounding awed when Gerard holds up the next picture. "I didn't think you would."
Gerard hands over the picture of Brendon, one where his arms are outstretched and head back as he laughs. "Mikey said you weren't there long, but it was enough for him to see you as a friend."
Then finally, the picture of Jon. Bare-footed, his toes curled in the grass, looking calm and relaxed. "You were both his friends."
Ryan pulls his gaze away from his own picture and looks at the others. How they're all filled with sunshine, friendship and love. "That's how you see us?"
Gerard nods and Lindsey says, "Yes. We want you to stay."
It feels like there's something light inside Ryan, finally pushing the dirt away, not completely, nothing's as easy as that, but a start. He looks at Brendon, at Jon, at Mikey and Pete, then finally Spencer, who's looking right back as he says. "Where you go, I go."
Ryan smiles, says, "We'll stay."
Ryan yawns as he steps outside. It's been raining overnight and all around are droplets of water, gleaming as they cling to the grass. Within seconds the bottom of Ryan's pants are soaked as he makes his way to the paddock, Dobby's sack of feed held in his arms. When he reaches the fence he lets the sack thump to the ground and hooks his arms over the fence. The wood feels swollen, damp against his hands and for a moment Ryan's thinking of another time -- of painted stalls and blood-stained straw. They're memories that have faded over time, but they're never completely hidden, and Ryan's glad when he hears footsteps and then, Spencer.
"Morning," Spencer says, and he wraps his arms around Ryan from behind and props his chin on Ryan's shoulder. "Do you know what day it is?"
Ryan grins but doesn't move. "Your day to make breakfast, slacker."
Spencer shakes his head, his hair tickling against Ryan's ear. "Wrong."
Ryan bites back a laugh. "It was pizza last night, it has to be Monday."
"Wrong again," Spencer says, and he turns his head so he can gently bite the lobe of Ryan's ear. "One last try and then I'm feeding you to Dobby."
"Harsh, Spencer," Ryan turns in Spencer's arms. When they're standing face to face he says quietly, "I know what day it is."
Spencer rests his hand against Ryan's side, fingers brushing the scars on his back. "I can't believe it's been a year."
Neither can Ryan. Sometimes he still feels like that boy in the fair, the dirt, pain and degradation stubbornly clinging. He thinks they all feel like that at times. He sees it in the ways Brendon will suddenly stop smiling, or Jon tense up. How Mikey will flinch at an unexpected touch or Pete retreat back into his head. How sometimes Spencer will wake up screaming.
Mostly though, mostly those feelings are hidden. Replaced by the love and support of good friends. Ryan's got a purpose now, he helps people, there for the other slaves who turn up frightened and ill.
I think Gerard and Lindsey are planning a celebration dinner," Spencer says. "I heard them planning a visit to town."
"Yeah?" Ryan can't help smiling and he grabs Spencer in a sudden fierce hug. "I'm glad that we stayed."
"Me too," Spencer says, and Ryan wants to remember this moment forever, where he's held by Spencer and knows beyond doubt that he's loved. Except of course he can't, and he reluctantly pulls back when he hears footsteps that have to be Pete.
"You're hugging without us." Despite his protest Pete's grinning, only limping slightly now as he walks hand in hand with Mikey toward Spencer and Ryan. "Didn't I tell you the new rules prohibit hugging without my involvement?"
"You did," Spencer says. "We're ignoring you."
Pete sighs, long and tragic. "That's okay, you stage your revolution, I've got Mikey."
Spencer looks at Mikey, head tilted to the side as if he's considering. "That is a plus."
"It is," Pete agrees, grinning when Jon appears and heads their way, his bare feet leaving smudged tracks in the grass. "Jon will support my hugging rules."
"What hugging rules?" Jon asks, looking confused.
Mikey yawns, looking half asleep where he's propped against Pete's shoulder. "Pete says all hugging has to involve him."
Jon grins wide, looking at Pete. "Oh that. I was just ignoring him."
Mikey yawns again and wraps his arms around Pete's waist. "It's usually best."
Pete frowns, says, "I hate you all."
"We know," Jon says easily, and moves to stand close. Then turns, watching the kitchen door. They all are, because as right as this moment feels there's somebody missing.
Then finally, Brendon arrives running, almost skidding to the ground when he hits the gravel. Seeing them waiting he slows, and while there's no hint of his usual grin his happiness is plain to see as he walks close. "I was looking for you."
"You've found us," Ryan says, and he reaches out, taking hold of Spencer's arm, wrapping his fingers over the brand, and then, like a chain Spencer does the same. His fingers are wrapped around Pete's brand, then Pete's around Jon's, Jon around Mikey's, Mikey's around Brendon's and then finally, Brendon completes the circle, his hand over Ryan's.
Ryan looks at them all, says, "To a year. To being free."
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