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When Day is Night Alone

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Brendon's life goes to hell one sunny September afternoon. Exhausted, his hands and knees throbbing, he slumps into the back seat of a Greyhound bus and leans his head against the window, closing his eyes as the bus pulls away, leaving the last of his old life behind.

No, strike that. Reverse.

Brendon's life goes to hell on the last Sunday in June, when his mom unexpectedly walks into his bedroom. She's carrying a basket of freshly ironed clothes and drops it on the floor, jeans and t-shirts falling around her feet as she catches him with his hand down his pants, jerking-off to a stolen magazine. Not that she knows it's stolen, but that doesn't matter, there's nothing Brendon can say to explain. The sticky centerfold of the naked guy says it all.

Seven days of painful silences, tense phone calls and increasingly frantic explanations, and a small bus pulls up outside Brendon's home. It's dark blue and the windows are tinted and when Brendon steps inside it seems like another world. One where the sun doesn't shine and the clouds are grey and you have to sit on uncomfortable seats that creak when you move.

It feels like a mobile prison. One where the door closes with a bang and Brendon is left alone, hands against the glass as he peers outside, hoping at least his parents will wave.

They don't.

~~~~

The Organization for Spiritual Enlightenment runs multiple programs. Brendon's sent to Shepard House, the centre for wayward teens.

He's got his own small room: one bed, one night stand, one set of drawers for his clothes. There's a bathroom at the end of the hall and he shares it with four other boys, but they're not allowed to talk. They shower for five minutes, pull on robes and brush their teeth and hair--always looking forward, never to the side. The rules say it's to stop the sharing of sinful words and behavior. Brendon thinks it's to drive him insane.

Another label to add to his list: angry, guilty, fearful, but mostly, ashamed.

Which is ridiculous, because Brendon's got nothing to be ashamed of. He knows that, logically, in the part of him that doesn't want to cut out what makes him different--the part that's so deviant that it made his parents send him away.

~~~~

"Your urges are a sin against God, an abomination," Alan yells.

Brendon is pressed back against the wall. Alan looking down at him, so close they're sharing the same air and Brendon keeps his eyes half-shut against the spittle that's landing on his face. He wants to close them completely but if he does he knows it'll be a struggle to open them again. Brendon's exhausted, homesick and wrung-out, and when he gets back to his room there's still a pile of books he's expected to read.

Usually he's good at that. It's what he does, because when you're lonely books make excellent friends. These books, though--it's hard to read when each word is designed for maximum shame. It doesn't help that Brendon is beginning to see elements of himself in each accusing paragraph. Someone without morals and who has urges that disgust the world.

"Man does not lie with man," Alan goes on. He leans in even closer, looming over Brendon so he feels small and caged in. "Would you go against God's will, Brendon? Would you land your parents with the shame of having a deviant son?"

It feels like every part of Brendon is exposed, thoughts and memories laid bare and he reminds himself it's okay to feel like he does, that it's fine, it's normal. Still, shame burns along his spine, radiating out to consume his whole body. He clenches his hands and rounds his shoulders, looks down at the floor. Alan's wearing polished leather shoes that are laced tight, the bows perfect, unlike Brendon's sneakers with the curly orange laces that spiral free.

"The bible states you shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination. Is that what you're doing, Brendon? Are you disagreeing with your God?"

"No. I..."

"Would you throw away your faith, Brendon? Abandon your God for sins of the flesh?"

The thing is, Brendon's thought about this. From those first terrifying weeks of finally admitting to himself he really did like guys, when at any moment he expected to be struck down, to now, over a year later. He's lurked on forums, always deleting his laptop's history each time, gathering strength and acceptance via a series of names. Anonymous strangers the world over, from his church or no church, his own unknowing network of online support. He relied upon them until he was ready to research the Bible's take on homosexuality, taking those first tentative steps until he discovered how easy it is to twist written words and how little Christ actually said on the matter. Of course knowing that in the safety of his own home is different than here, where the urge to fight back is blurred by exhaustion and the harsh reality of being alone.

"Answer me, Brendon."

Brendon tries, it's impolite not to, but the words won't come, and all he can do is blink hard and keep looking at the floor.

"It's nearly dinner," Alan says then, tone and volume changing suddenly, as if he hasn't been shouting for the last twenty minutes. He curls his fingers under Brendon's chin, tilting up his head. "This would be so much easier if you admitted to all your sins."

Alan's hand is warm and he moves his thumb so he can brush the corner of Brendon's mouth. Brendon swallows hard and remains motionless, painfully tense until finally, Alan steps away and leaves the room.

~*~*~*~

Spencer was taken away when Ryan was thirteen.

He's been gone for twelve placements, three group homes or, going by time, nearly four years. Sometimes Ryan misses him so much it's like a physical ache.

They keep in touch as best they can; with occasional visits and phone calls that are never enough, can't be. Weeks worth of talk have to be compacted into mere minutes, and each time Ryan plans what to say, teasing the words in his head into order, but somehow it never works out how he expects. They talk about Spencer's new room mate, Mrs. Golden's dog, the fact of the people in Spencer's old house having put up a swing set, everyday stuff that lets them pretend things are fine. Ryan never says how he walks five minutes out of his way so he doesn't have to pass the intersection on South Street, or that every Sunday he goes to the cemetery, putting wildflowers on each grave, mourning Spencer's family as if it were his own.

He thinks Spencer knows that anyway, the same way Ryan knows that despite what Spencer tell him, he isn't fine. It's obvious in his non-answers and the careful way he's built up a façade--telling in itself, because Ryan's an expert at hiding behind walls. There's no way he could miss Spencer doing the same.

~~~~

The secret to talking to his dad is picking the right time. Ryan waits until mid-morning, when he's tidied the house and made coffee and toast.

His dad walks into the kitchen and takes the mug of coffee, scratches at his stomach and sits at the table. His hands shake slightly and he keeps them curled around the mug as Ryan adds peanut butter to the toast before sliding the slices onto a plate. Sitting, he takes one and pushes the rest toward his dad.

Ryan takes a bite. The bread was just this side of stale and the toast breaks in his mouth as he chews. Methodically he eats the whole slice, waiting for the perfect time, when his dad has eaten his breakfast and gotten his coffee fix and is as happy as he tends to get.

"I need to go see Spencer," Ryan says.

"Where is he now?"

It's a good start, sometimes his dad forgets that Spencer has moved at all, sometimes he just doesn't care. Today he leans back in his chair and looks at Ryan, waiting for him to speak.

"It's a new placement, somewhere called The Manors," Ryan says, trying to gauge how far he can push. "I'll need bus fare, or a ride."

"Right." Lifting up his hips, back braced against the chair, his dad takes out his wallet and pulls out a twenty which he puts on the table and pushes across to Ryan with two fingers. "That should be enough, get yourself a soda, too."

"Thanks." Ryan takes the bill and folds it up, pushing it into his jeans pocket before his dad remembers they don't have money to spare. Standing, he puts the plate and mugs into the sink, giving them a quick rinse before setting them on the drainer to dry. When he's done, he wipes his hands on a towel, all too aware that his dad's watching, which is disconcerting, because Ryan's not used to being seen.

"I'm going now." Ryan pushes his hair out of his eyes and makes for the door, stopping when his dad touches his arm.

"Tell Spencer I'm asking about him."

"I will," Ryan says

"I always liked that boy, you always had fun together, all those hours playing in the back yard." Ryan watches as his dad goes to the window, looking outside at the too-long grass and cracked patio furniture. "I think I'll do some yard work today."

"Good idea," Ryan says, and he goes while they're both pretending to believe the lie.

~~~~

Ryan doesn't tell Spencer he's coming. The home doesn't out and out say personal calls are banned, but each time Ryan's tried he's been told Spencer's unavailable, and he's in no mood to be denied.

It takes over an hour to get to The Manors. Ryan's sharing a bus seat with an old woman who clicks her teeth each time she talks and the baby in front keeps crying despite the way his mom murmurs and rocks him in her arms. It doesn't help that Ryan isn't really sure where he's going, he knows vaguely but he still has to look out for the right stop, and when they finally get there he's left alone on a deserted street.

Checking the address written on his hand, he begins to walk. The houses are set back from the sidewalk and Ryan looks at each one as he passes by. He takes in the ones with brightly colored toys scattered on the patchy lawns and those with the flamboyant native planting. His favourites are the ones with brightly painted doors and plastic windmills hidden in the flowers or wind chimes hanging from trees. He likes the way they spin and clink, frivolous things that mean nothing but look nice anyway.

He keeps walking and the houses keep getting bigger and further apart, until finally he's outside the group home. There are no flowers here, no toys or windmills, just a closed door and barred windows. Ryan crosses his arms across his chest as he thinks what to do. He could sneak around the back and look for Spencer, or wait and hope he comes outside. What Ryan does instead is march up to the front door. Spencer isn't a prisoner; they can't stop Ryan from seeing him.

He knocks, rapping his knuckles against wood, and steps back to wait. He's about to knock again when he hears the sound of footsteps and a key turning, the door opening and revealing a woman who's smiling until she sees Ryan, then her expression changes, as if she's smelling something bad.

"Can I help you?"

Ryan doesn't do smiling, but for Spencer he's prepared to try. He curls up the corners of his mouth and says, "I'm here to see Spencer. Spencer Smith."

"He's studying at the moment, come back another time," she says, and Ryan steps forward, so she's unable to shut the door.

Ryan refuses to look away from her hostile look. "I won't stay long."

"You won't stay at all."

"I'll wait until he's finished," Ryan says, determined to stay until he sees Spencer, even if it's only for a few minutes. "I've come a long way and haven't seen him for months."

There's a long moment when she just looks at him, and then over her shoulder as if checking something inside, before thankfully, she finally nods sharply and says, "Very well. Wait here."

Ryan steps back then, letting her close the door, then sits on the stone steps, wrapping his arms around his bent knees. It's just past noon and he feels overheated, like his skin is too tight for his body, which is weird, because normally Ryan loves the sun. Today though, it feels wrong. It's too bright, throwing everything into too sharp relief and Ryan squints as he pushes up his sunglasses, rubbing at the sweat that's gathered under the rims.

"Ryan."

Ryan looks around when the door opens and Spencer walks outside. At first glance, he looks the same as always, and maybe with other people Ryan wouldn't look carefully enough to see the deliberate way of moving or manufactured smile, but this is Spencer. Ryan sees it all. Ryan stands, his anger rising, even as he pulls Spencer into a hug.

"It's good to see you," Spencer says, and he doesn't seem surprised that Ryan's there at all. They cling for a bit and then pull apart, Spencer looking behind him. "I've only got an hour. Let's walk."

Ryan's seen Spencer a handful of times since he went away, time and distance always an issue, but they fall into old routines easily, walking so close that their hands brush with each step. Spencer isn't talking yet, just looks deliberately forward when Ryan glances his way. It's frustrating because Ryan's all too aware of passing time, and now he's positive something is badly wrong.

"We could get a drink. There's a store around the corner, if you have money," Spencer says. "I'd buy, but you know."

Ryan doesn't know, not exactly. What he does know is Spencer is wearing clothes that are too small, the hems of his pants exposing his ankles and his t-shirt pulled tight over his ribs.

"I've money," Ryan says, and pats his pocket. "Enough to share a Slurpee."

"Feeling indulgent?" Spencer says, and for the first time his mouth curls into a smile.

"I haven't seen you in forever, I can choke one down."

"Even if I mix the flavors?"

Ryan considers. He hates when Slurpee flavours are mixed, they always go a funny color and never have an identifiable taste. He shrugs and says, "Sure."

When they get to the shop, Ryan does buy a Slurpee -- a cherry one complete with a red-striped straw. He picks it out especially, knowing the insistence on matching colors will make Spencer hide a laugh while rolling his eyes. It does, and Ryan would endure a thousand convenience store clerks thinking he's insane if it leads to Spencer's shoulders finally loosening as they pay and go outside.

They walk around the parking lot and the air is thick with heat and the scent of gasoline. When they pass an overflowing dumpster Ryan kicks at an empty soda can, sending it rolling across the asphalt, landing at the base of a wall. Ryan jumps up on the wall and wiggles in place, trying to get comfortable, which is a losing battle because the wall's hard and Ryan's got little in the way of padding. Eventually, resigning himself to being uncomfortable, he takes a drink, enjoying the feel of his mouth freezing as he swallows. When Spencer holds out his hand, Ryan passes over the cup, and starts kicking the heels of his sneakers against the wall, trying to think what to say.

It should be easy, because words are what Ryan knows. He studies and manipulates them until they're made his own. Except, what's so clear in his head never seems to sound the same on his tongue. Normally with Spencer that isn't an issue. They've got their own kind of short-hand that's survived despite the separation, but right now Ryan needs more.

"Spencer..."

"I just hate it there," Spencer says. He puts down the Slurpee and touches his foot to Ryan's. "That's what you wanted to ask, right?"

"Then you'll know I'm going to ask why."

"I don't want to tell you."

Ryan stays silent, though, waiting, because as much as Spencer doesn't want to, he wouldn't have gone this far if he were going to stop now. Spencer proves him right: "If I tell you, promise me you won't hit anyone."

Despite the heat, Ryan feels cold, but Spencer's not saying a word, and Ryan knows he won't until he gets that promise. "Fine. Fine. I promise, no hitting. Now tell me."

"It could be worse," Spencer says, as if he's cushioning what he's about to say. "Food's always—like, there's usually not enough for seconds, and the TV and games systems are locked away. We're mostly allowed in when there's inspections, otherwise it's by request, and, y'know, they don't have to say yes. They're strict, like, really strict. No talking after eight, stupid stuff really." Spencer rubs his palms, as if easing past hurts. "But that's not it, there's this long-termer, Colin. He rules the house, the little kids are terrified of him."

"And you?" Ryan asks, icy calm.

Spencer looks at Ryan, then away. "He's got this gang and none of them fight fair. They cornered me in the laundry room last week. I fought back, but there were too many of them."

"They hurt you," Ryan says. It's not a question, because it's like looking in a mirror right now, and Ryan can easily read the signs. "How bad?"

"Bruises mainly, my ribs hurt but I didn't see a doctor so. And there's this." Spencer shrugs and then hooks his fingers under the hem of his t-shirt. He lifts one side, exposing an expanse of yellowing bruises, and to one side, a shallow cut that curves along the bottom of his ribs. It's scabbed over, on its way to being healed, but Ryan feels sick with the knowledge that someone hurt Spencer like that, cutting through flesh and skin.

"I fought back, so he pulled a knife." Spencer rubs at the skin that surrounds the cut then drops his t-shirt and looks at Ryan, his expression fierce. "He wouldn't have got me if he'd been alone. He only got in the hits because I was held down."

Ryan doesn't ask if Spencer told. The simple fact is, you don't, and even if you do it does no good. "You need to get out of there."

"And go where?"

"We've room, you could stay with us," Ryan says immediately.

Spencer smiles and taps Ryan's foot with his own. "We'll watch late night TV and sleep in blanket forts."

"With pillows and books and I was thinking--terriers can curl up small."

Lips pursed, as if he's considering, Spencer nods. "They can, as long as she doesn't eat our food supplies."

"She won't," Ryan promises. "The jelly beans and Cheetos are safe."

"Good," Spencer says. "The jelly beans are sacred."

And they are, they have been since they started this plan, back when Spencer first left and Ryan really thought he could change his dad's mind. Reaching out, he rests his hand gently on Spencer's side. "I could ask again."

Resting his own hand briefly over Ryan's, Spencer shakes his head. "Why go looking for trouble? I'll be fine." He slides off the wall then and brushes off the seat of his pants. "I need to get back."

Ryan jumps down, the cup of the Slurpee bending under his fingers as they start to walk back to the home.

~*~*~*~

Before, Brendon enjoyed movie nights. He'd curl up on the sofa with his family, his bare feet pushed into the cushions and a bowl of popcorn at his side. He hates them now.

There's no popcorn and no comfy sofa, just a hard plastic seat and a projector screen attached to a plain white wall. Brendon tries to get comfortable, but the edge of the seat digs into his thighs and he's all too aware of the wall-mounted camera that's pointed his way, recording his every move. He blinks hard, rubs his hands across his mouth and crosses his legs. Looks down so his hair falls in his face and twitches his foot to an internal beat of sound, one that gets faster as Alan loads the movie and then hits play.

The movie starts innocently enough, and Brendon can't help hoping that this time it'll be different, that's there's some kind of schedule that says sometimes he gets a break. Then a man walks into view on the screen, and Brendon knows he's out of luck. The man has dark hair, pale blue eyes, and is totally naked, already hard as he settles himself on a bed.

"Do you like that, Brendon?"

Alan has taken the seat next to Brendon's. He's wearing brown cords today, a shirt that clings damply under his arms and as always, his shoes are perfect, the laces in neat bows. Light flickers across his face as he looks at the movie, his mouth curling in disgust as he watches the man on screen run his hands over his own body, across his nipples and cock.

"Do you want his hands on your body? Would you like him to touch you like that?"

Brendon swallows hard and bites at the inside of his lip. The stupid thing is, until he was sent here he'd seen nothing like this. Porn movies were for other people, not Brendon with his music and his books and his imagination that never seemed to get beyond a kiss. Now he's seen it all, fucking and sucking and acts he never thought possible, and with each new thing he's forced to see, his reaction is watched and noted

On screen, another man sits on the bed, this one blond, his hair cut short, and he looks at the camera, his mouth open as he slides to the floor and onto his knees.

"Do you want to be sucked like that? Do you want his mouth down there?" Alan says, and he's so close Brendon can feel the warmth of Alan's breath against his cheek. "His mouth on you, sucking. Would you find that pleasurable?"

Biting harder, enough that he can taste that first split of raw skin, Brendon tries not to react, but he can't help jumping when Alan suddenly reaches out and rests his hand on Brendon's crotch, his fingers digging in painfully.

"Answer me, Brendon. Would you find that pleasurable? Has it made you hard? Were you thinking of his lips? His body? Do you want to fuck him? Be fucked?"

Brendon pushes himself back in his seat, trying to pull away, but Alan isn't going anywhere. He's staring at Brendon, breathing hard and Brendon feels sick, shivering as Alan curls his lip, as if he can see something rotten.

"You disgust me with your filthy thoughts, your clear rejection of God. Are you a sinner, Brendon? Do you want to wallow with the filth of society? Do you want to be one of them?"

The screen fades, changes, and Brendon knows what's coming. He tries to look away, but Alan grabs hold of his jaw, his thumb over Brendon's lips, forcing him to still and watch scenes of bloody death, lesion-covered skin, needles in veins, children crying, crowds of people yelling, their faces twisted with hate. Quick-fire images designed to distress and Brendon's breathing hard as he takes them in, needing fresh air. All he can smell is Alan – the tang of old sweat. Alan's fingers are almost wholly in Brendon's mouth. Alan grips harder, sliding his thumb over Brendon's bottom lip to his teeth, his other hand still against Brendon's crotch.

"Look at your future, Brendon, one of depravity, held in disgust by the righteous man," Alan says, his words cutting and laced with scorn. "No wonder your parents sent you away." He lets go then, stands and starts to leave the room. "You disgust me. Go do your chores, then pray. Pray that your God will forgive you."

Brendon presses his hands against his mouth, trying to stop them shaking as he looks away from the screen, his jaw aching almost as much as his stomach, where guilt lies, heavy and painful.

~*~*~*~

Pen gripped between his teeth, Ryan bites down as he stares at his notebook. The page is full of crossed out lines, the few words he'd managed to pry free almost immediately scribbled over and scored through. He's got multiple things he wants to say -- hopes and fears and closely-held dreams -- but when he writes them down they all sound wrong.

It's frustrating, especially when normally the words come so easily. Taking the pen out of his mouth, Ryan wipes the spit wet end against his arm and then places the pen in the middle of his notebook before closing the page. There'll be no writing tonight, there hasn't been for a while, because his words have been overwritten by thoughts of Spencer. The small bruises on his arm, the cut on his side, the look he tried to hide when Ryan left him alone. Ryan remembers it all.

All he wants to do is fix things, but after thinking of and dismissing a series of elaborate plans, all Ryan keeps coming back to is the cold fact that Spencer needs to run away. It's the only thing that will work, and if he does that, Ryan will have to go too, because there's no way he can be left behind. Which is a problem, because Ryan's scared. This is his home, his bedroom, these are his things, this is where his dad is. As drunk and as cruel as he can get sometimes, Ryan still loves him.

Except, he loves Spencer too, he has for a long time, and in the end, despite the decision being heartbreaking, Ryan can – and will -- choose.

~~~~~

Ryan talks to Spencer for five minutes on a Sunday afternoon. It takes him three minutes to explain his plan and Spencer two seconds to say yes. Ryan tries not to think what that means, just sits crouched over on the bottom stair, arm pressed against his stomach as they agree where to meet.

Five am at the bus station the next day. It's Spencer's way of giving Ryan time to change his mind. Ryan knows he won't.

~~~~~

Methodically, Ryan spoons tomato sauce into the small plastic bag. He'd made spaghetti for dinner, far too much for two, and now, hours later he's dividing up the leftovers -- drop in a tangle of spaghetti, add spoonfuls of sauce, press together the seal. He places each one on the counter, eight bags, four days for two -- more than a week for one.

Transferring the empty pan to the sink, Ryan fills it with hot water and liquid soap, picks up the sponge and starts to scrub at the crusted on sauce. He can hear his dad in the next room, he's snoring, a snort-grunt of sound that's Ryan's background music as he washes up and sets the dishes to dry on the rack. There's a bottle on the floor and he picks it up, rinsing it out before throwing it in the trash outside -- they don't recycle glass, not these bottles at least.

Finally, there's only the floor to clean and Ryan crouches down, using the small dustpan and brush to sweep up the mug that was broken when his dad came home. The pieces clatter against the bottle when Ryan throws them away, and he instinctively looks toward next door. There's no one there, the windows remain dark, no shadowy watching figures this time.

Relieved, Ryan shuts the door and locks it, putting the bags of spaghetti and sauce in the freezer before taking a last look around. Satisfied that everything is tidy, he clicks off the light before going into the den. His dad's lying on the couch, the blanket Ryan draped over him trailing on the floor. His head is tipped back and his mouth open, his hands twitching, as if even in sleep he's trapped in a fight.

Falling into familiar routine, Ryan eases him onto his side, using a pillow to keep him in place. His dad mutters as he's moved, waking enough that he looks at Ryan through half-closed eyes.

"You're a good son."

It's difficult to hear what he's saying, but Ryan drops to his knees and leans in close, wrinkling his nose at the smell of alcohol and sweat.

"I'm sorry," his dad says, words slurred almost beyond comprehension, but Ryan hears them, understands.

"Me too," Ryan says, and he briefly rests his hand on his dad's shoulder, relieved that he's saying goodbye to the man he loves, and not the one that more and more frequently takes his place. Ryan doesn't like that man at all.

~~~~

 

It takes Ryan twenty minutes to jam clothes in a small bag. He adds his toothbrush and a selection of photographs, two of his favourite books, his notebook and a handful of pens. He takes the money he's been saving -- almost $100 dollars stuffed in an old tin -- and hides it at the bottom of the bag, then finally, picks up his guitar.

It's a last minute decision to take it, but Ryan rationalizes to himself that it's security of sorts, if they need to busk or have something to pawn. Mainly though, it's a comfort thing, and Ryan grips the handle as he takes a last look at his room. The bed is made, his school books stacked neatly, and in the middle of his desk, there's a note to his dad.

He won't find it until much later today, maybe not even then, but he'll find it eventually, and that's important, because the note contains vague explanations, and Ryan's final goodbye scrawled over one torn-out page.

Bag on his back and guitar case in his hand, Ryan clicks off the light and leaves the room. Carefully, he goes downstairs, avoiding the step that always squeaks and deliberately not looking into the den. It's cool outside, it won't be for long, but the cold of the desert night hasn't yet fled. Locking the front door, Ryan hesitates a moment then shoves the key in his pocket before looking at his watch. It'll be a good hour walk to get to Spencer, but it's the only way. The buses don't run this early, not here anyway, and taking a cab isn't an option.

Not that Ryan minds walking, he concentrates on the thump of his feet against the sidewalk and ignores the shadows that make the houses seem so unfamiliar, distorted with dark shapes. Head down, he plunges through the patches of shadow and listens to the distant barking of dogs, and from one house where a window suddenly spills light across the lawn, the wail of a baby. Ryan hurries past that one and increases his pace, his bag thumping against his back as he begins to run. Away from home or towards Spencer, Ryan couldn't say. All he knows is it feels good to sprint along the road, leg muscles burning as he leaves the suburbs, houses giving way to shops and offices and finally, when Ryan is panting for breath, the street that leads to the bus station.

Ryan slows and presses his hand against his side. Setting his guitar case down, he rubs his hand against his thigh and flexes his fingers, then picks up the case again. He begins to walk, past the 24-hour gas station and the café filled with workers coming off the late shift, coffee mugs close at hand as they eat dinner and pretend that night is really day. There's no sign of Spencer, but Ryan's not worried, not yet. The closer he gets, though, he can see that Spencer's not there, and all he can think is: what if Ryan's too late? What if Spencer couldn't get away?

Ryan looks around, double checking that Spencer isn't hiding beside the group of tourists that are sitting against the wall, laughing as they hold onto their tacky plastic casino cups, surrounded by bags. He's not there, or in the bathroom, or next to the woman who's tapping her fingers against the barrier, ear buds firmly in place.

He pushes panic back, because Spencer is fine. Ryan moves to the information board that's attached to one wall. He looks at each destination, far away places he's read about but never seen. When Spencer arrives they'll decide where to go together, pick a place and just go.

Ryan just needs to wait, because Spencer will come. He will.

~*~*~*~

Brendon runs away early on a Tuesday morning, as the sun rises and the first birdsongs fill the air.

At least he thinks that's when it is. He knows he's taken twenty-nine showers, tried to sleep for thirty nights and seems to have spent days on his knees being forced to pray. So yeah, Tuesday, when the house is quiet, Brendon forces open his window and clambers down, feet slipping as he clings to the drain pipe and slides. He only falls once, that last jump from porch roof to ground where he lands awkwardly in the gravel and sprawls backward.

Biting back a gasp, Brendon looks toward the main door, but no one appears, and he scrambles to his feet, fear making him run despite the ache in his ankle and the torn skin of his palms.

He runs from the property, over the long drive and past the main gate, keeps running across roads, past grass and hard-packed dirt, sheer panic-fueled adrenalin keeping him going until he reaches town. It's a small place, one row of shops, each one deserted, the windows dark expanses of glass. It feels weird walking down the street, as if he's interrupting an area that's still asleep, but Brendon shakes off that feeling and keeps looking, needing a phone -- needing to call home.

It takes almost five minutes to find one. It's next to a small boutique and Brendon keeps his back to the display of dresses and hats as he picks up the receiver and puts in a collect call. When the operator comes on the line Brendon starts at the sound of her voice -- calm, level, professional, no scorn in it at all.

She repeats the number he tells her and Brendon crouches down, phone line pulled taut, his legs so shaky he can't stay standing up straight. Crouching, his ankle complains as it takes his weight, and the area he fell on reminds him loudly that it's bruised—most likely bone deep.

"Brendon?"

Brendon closes his eyes. His mom sounds like always and all he wants to do is go home, smile sheepishly as he jumps onto the bathroom counter and hear her tut about his hands. She would clean them before applying Band-aids and a kiss to his forehead. It's what she's always done -- patched up every hurt. Brendon misses her so much it's hard to breathe.

"Mom." It's all Brendon can say, anything else is trapped by how much he needs to go home.

"Honey, where are you? It's so early."

Brendon looks around and says, "I don't know."

"You don't know?" She sounds surprised and then there's a moment of muffled sound, and Brendon can imagine her motioning for his dad, telling him to pick up the other phone. "Brendon, sweetheart, aren't you at Shepard House?"

"I hate it there. They show me stuff, and say things, and...."

"It's all for your benefit." There's a dull thud, the sound of a door opening and closing and Brendon knows his mom will be in the kitchen now, leaning against the counter and looking outside, the way she always does when she's on the phone. "You have to understand that. We're doing it for you."

"I want to come home, please."

"I..." There's a hesitation, then his mom speaks again, her voice firmer this time. "You can come home with the program is complete, dad's going to phone Shepard House, they'll come get you."

"Please," Brendon says. "I'll be good."

"When you're cured, you can come home then. I need to go now, honey. I love you."

She hangs up and Brendon lets himself fall, sitting on the ground, the receiver hanging in front of his face. He wraps his arms around his bent knees and mumbles, "I love you too."

~*~*~*~

Spencer finally arrives when Ryan's been waiting almost an hour.

He's got a backpack on his back -- small and blue, like the one he used to use for school. Despite the way he walks into view, shoulders back and head held high, when Ryan greets him with a hug, Spencer feels tense, like he's holding himself together by force of will alone. This close it's also easy to see that he's got the remains of a black eye -- yellow and green bruises smeared over his skin -- and a split lip, the raw edges starting to scab. Along with fury Ryan feels at the sight, there's relief. If they're being so careless now, striking where the results can be seen, Ryan knows running was the right decision for sure.

"Sorry I'm late," Spencer says, his face pressed against Ryan's neck. "Some of the others were awake, I had to sneak out."

"It's okay," Ryan says. "You're here now." He listens to the frantic beating of Spencer's heart, squeezes him one last time, then turns to the board, pointing at the list of names. "Any preferences?"

Spencer looks too, taking his time as he studies the list. "What about Chicago? It's a long way from here and you said the music scene was good."

"It is," Ryan says. At least, he's read that it is, and momentarily he imagines himself playing at a club, sharing his music with the world. Of course, it won't be that easy, nothing ever is, but Ryan feels better now they've a destination in mind, like things are starting to fall into place. "Chicago it is, we should get in line for tickets."

Ten minutes later the ticket office opens for business, the shutters rattling up with a crash of sound.

Seventeen minutes later and Ryan's standing at the counter, Spencer pressed close to his side as the gum-clicking clerk turns a terminal so they can look at the screen with its list of fares.

Twenty minutes later and Ryan realises no way they can afford tickets to Chicago, in fact, with the money he has they'll be lucky to get anywhere at all.

Twenty-one minutes later and Ryan looks at Spencer, neither saying a word as they turn and go.

~~~~

"We need to vet the drivers first, no getting in if they give off bad vibes."

Ryan shrugs his bag further on his back then swaps his guitar to his other hand. They've been walking just over an hour and his t-shirt is damp, clinging to his back, as well as under the bag straps. Normally Ryan loves the heat, but today it's just another strike against them as they hurry along the streets, constantly looking out for anyone they know. "Most serial killers look perfectly normal."

Spencer gives Ryan a look. "Well, that's reassuring."

"I just meant, not all freaks show signs."

"Right," Spencer says. "And here I was expecting skinned bodies in the back seat, or gnawed bones hanging from the mirror."

"Too obvious, they always hide evidence of their despicable crimes in the trunk."

"Really?" Spencer says, sounding amused.

Ryan smiles. "Yeah, I've seen CSI. I'm telling you, always the trunk."

"Okay, fine. So we don't get into any cars with suspicious trunk leakage."

"Sounds good to me."

"Now that's settled, we should cut through here." Spencer indicates the parking lot of a McDonalds, and the scrubby bank behind it that leads to the highway. From where they're standing it's just possible to see the tops of trucks, their cabs flashing light from the sun and their trailers made hazy by rising heat.

"We'll be away from here soon," Ryan says, and while mostly it's relief, there's loss too, curled deep inside with his memories of home.

"You can still go back."

It's as if Spencer can read Ryan's every thought, but his wording is significant. You, not we, and Ryan changes direction, striding toward the parking lot. "Come on, the sooner we start the better."

Spencer grins. "Lead on CSI Ross."

~~~~

The side of the highway is littered with trash -- ragged scraps of plastic, cigarette butts, and drinks cans faded by the sun. They're walking on brittle grass, more grey than green, and the air is filled with the choking scent of fumes. Ryan keeps his chin tucked down, breathing as shallowly as possible and flinches slightly each time a truck speeds past, making the ground shake and the air tumble through his hair. Despite his eyes watering from the thrown-up dust, Ryan feels dried out, throat scratchy, his tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth.

Licking his lips helps for all of a few seconds, but spit only goes so far, especially in the main heat of the day. Ryan licks his lips again and keeps on walking. His feet hurt and one of his socks feels wet at the heel, because even the most comfortable of shoes rub after walking for hours.

"The truck stop should be close," Spencer says. He's walking a few steps in front and Ryan watches the rhythmic flash of his ankles and feet, pale skin, tatty sneakers and white socks, one with a yellow band, the other blue. "We'll get a ride there for sure."

Ryan nods, hoping Spencer's right, because there's no way that they'll get one here, the traffic is going too fast for anyone to stop, even if they wanted to, they couldn't.

"One of the truckers will take us, we'll go to Chicago, see some shows."

"Get jobs and rent an apartment," Ryan says, verbalising the place he keeps safe in his head. "We'll put posters on the wall and find furniture, a sofa and book cases."

"And a small table, big enough for two."

"Yeah," Ryan says. "And beds, with beige covers and soft pillows."

"Or just one bed." Spencer looks over at Ryan, then away. "We could share. It'll be cheaper."

"Sensible," Ryan says and he reaches out, brushing his fingers over Spencer's arm. He stops walking when he realizes what the sign ahead actually says, shading his eyes with one hand he squints as he reads. "There's a sign, for the truck stop."

Spencer grins, relief obvious as he looks toward the sign then back at Ryan, a boost of energy making him bounce on his toes. "Come on, last one there buys water."

Which is no kind of incentive because it's not like Spencer has any money, still, Ryan's caught in the moment and starts to run, long legs propelling him forward and past Spencer as they follow the road off the highway. The truck stop is set back from the road, with its fast food restaurants, shops, and a service station. Best of all, there's a long line of trucks and cars, their tickets away from this place.

~~~~

Sitting on the a picnic bench, his leg bent and twisted to the side, Ryan looks at his heel. It's been rubbed raw, the skin all ragged edges, flesh oozing clear liquid. Ryan can feel it throb in sync with his heart.

"You need a Band-aid on that." Spencer's holding his bottle of water and takes another drink before putting it down. "Toilet paper won't cut it."

Ryan looks at the wad of paper he's taken from the toilets, he's sure if it's folded it'll be fine, but Spence's not backing down, just keeps looking at Ryan until he finally gives in and reaches for some change.

"Here."

He doesn't say anything else, that Spencer is right or that they shouldn't be spending money they can't afford, because Spencer already knows, just takes the money and heads toward the shop without a backwards glance.

Left alone Ryan pokes at the reddened skin and wiggles his toes, making pain flair sharp and fierce. He pokes again then straightens, looking around at the parked cars. They're sitting in an outdoor eating area, the shops and fast food outlets at the back, picnic benches scattered over patchy grass. The garbage cans are full and a young family sits at a bench near some cactii, laughing and taking pictures of their children, two boys, dark haired and gap-toothed.

Ryan looks away before they see him watching, turning his attention to the old couple ambling along the sidewalk, holding hands, the winkles of their faces deepening as they smile. Ryan imagines their story: they're off to see their grandchildren, surprise them by arriving unannounced with arms full of gifts, and beaming smiles.

"I got the waterproof kind."

Ryan jumps when Spencer steps in front of him and holds up a box. Ryan takes it, looks at the front. "They've got Scooby Doo on them."

"They have," Spencer says. "They cost the same as the regular kind and I thought...."

"Good choice," Ryan says, knowing what Spencer had been thinking. He could remember Saturday mornings watching cartoons, lying on their stomachs, feet kicking in the air.

"Glad you approve." Spencer crouches down and untwists the lid of his water. "Stay still."

Ryan does, even though the cold water hitting his heel feels like daggers jabbing into his skin, but it doesn't last long, pain fading into an ache and Spencer is using the toilet paper to pat the surrounding skin dry, before carefully opening a Band-aid, stretching it across Ryan's heel.

"There." Spencer stands and puts the backing of the Band-aid and the paper into the trash, then sits down as Ryan pulls on his sock. The sock is all kinds of disgusting, completely soggy at the back, and Ryan grimaces as he tugs it up, then pulls on his sneaker, easing the back away from his heel as he pushes his foot inside.

"I was thinking," Spencer says. "If we stood on the on-ramp, people would have time to stop."

"We should have made a sign, but yeah." Ryan stands and picks up his bag, putting it on his back. It presses his t-shirt against his skin, cold and clammy, and Ryan shudders at the feel. His guitar is under the bench and he picks that up too, then follows Spencer as he heads for the road.

They pick a spot near the yield spot to the highway, far enough away people can stop. Not that anyone does, not for a long time.

Ryan stands just off the shoulder and sticks out his thumb, trying to look as non-threatening as he can. He doesn't smile, he leaves that to Spencer, who clutches his bag and holds out his thumb and always keeps smiling, even when it becomes increasingly strained. Ryan wants to tell him to stop, that it doesn't matter, the drivers will stop or they won't, it's got nothing to do with how wide Spencer can smile. He doesn't, because Spencer needs this. Needs to know that he's doing all he can.

An hour and forty minutes later a car finally slows then stops. Ryan feels excited, apprehensive, and thankful as the middle-aged driver stretches across the passenger seat, rolls down the window and looks outside.

"You boys haven't got a sign, where're you wanting to go?"

"Chicago," Spencer says, and the man inclines his head toward the back seat.

"I'm going in that direction, jump in."

Spencer nods slightly and Ryan opens the back door. "Thank you."

The man closes the window, waiting until both Ryan and Spencer are settled. It's cramped, Ryan has to keep his guitar on his lap and his knees are jammed against the back of the passenger seat, his bag between his feet. The air is stuffy with old smoke and the artificial scent of roses from the palm tree-shaped air freshener that swings from the mirror.

Spencer sees where Ryan's looking and digs him in the ribs. "See, no bones."

"No bones," Ryan says, sharing a grin.

They pull into traffic then, and the man looks back briefly before pushing a CD in the player. "I hope you boys like Patsy Cline."

"Love her," Ryan says and settles against the seat, head back, watching the scenery as Patsy begins to sing.

~*~*~*~

It's Alan who picks Brendon up.

He arrives in a black estate car, the windows tinted dark, and when Brendon gets into the back, he notices the doors have no handles--no way to open the windows or get back outside. Not that Brendon cares; it's not like he has anywhere to go.

Sitting in the middle of the seat, he pulls up his knees and rests his forehead against the blood-spotted fabric of his jeans. He keeps his eyes open, but what he sees is another time, when he had a family, a home.

The car dips when Alan sits. He slams the door and presses a button, making all the locks click into place. He doesn't talk, hasn't since he arrived. He just hauled Brendon up by his arm--fingers digging in as he held Brendon upright--and steered him to the car. They set off, and a journey that took Brendon so long passes in minutes. They leave the just-waking town, its windows bright, a few early commuters wandering the streets. Turning onto country roads that wind and turn, they finally pass through the gate of Shepard House, wheels crunching across gravel as the car enters the drive.

They stop, and Alan steps outside, opens the door and then steps away, never once looking in Brendon's direction while ordering, "Go to your room and stay there."

Brendon gets out of the car, nods and goes inside. He walks fast, head down, feeling as though he's being watched all the time. Past the meeting rooms and kitchen, the counselling suit and up the stairs, past the bathroom until finally, he gets to his room. Brendon goes inside, and all he can do is stare, because it's been stripped bare. No covers on the bed, no pillows, no curtains, no clothes in the wardrobe, there're none of his things left at all.

There's hardly anything left of Brendon at all. He lies on the bare mattress and curls up on his side, cheek pressed against the surface, his hands tucked up against his chest.

~~~~~

He gets up again two hours later, stands and wobbles on his weak ankle . He examines his palms, bruises blooming under a raw criss-cross of cuts, still home to gravel and tinier, more insidious dirt. There's a piece of gravel stuck just under his thumb and Brendon hooks under it with his nail, prying the fragment free. It falls to the ground without a sound. He looks outside then, noticing the nails that have been hammered between window and frame. There's no one out there, just the usual expanse of grass and the long curving drive. It's the road to freedom, except in Brendon's case.

It's enough to make Brendon angry, because this sort of thing happens to him all the time. He tries; he puts everything into making friends, works at being a good son, the best person he can be, It's never enough, though, and every time he only ends up back where he began.

So he always tries harder, smiles wider, finds better things to say, but still it's never enough. And now he's here, in this bare room and his body hurts and his hands hurt, but not nearly as much as he hurts inside, coming to the stark realization that there's nowhere for him to go, nobody who will take him in. But that's okay, that's fine, because Brendon has the beginnings of a plan. He's spent his life fitting himself into places where he doesn't belong. He'll listen to Alan, pretend to take in what he says, act like the person they expect him to be. If he can be someone else, if he can change himself—at least the parts they see--maybe that way he'll get to go home.

Decision made, Brendon goes to the door, ready to find Alan and apologize, to vow it'll never happen again. Except the door is locked and no matter how long he knocks, how loud he shouts, no one responds. Eventually he accepts that all he can do is sit on his bed and wait, hands on his knees, feet on the floor, back straight as Alan's shoelaces.

~~~~~

The sun sets and still no one comes. Brendon watches as the walls turn gold, red, a dusky maroon. He picks at the threads of his jeans, letting fragments flutter to the floor. Sitting cross-legged, he acts out a scene from Beauty and the Beast, using different voices for both Beast and Belle. He sings: church songs, pop songs, songs from musicals; belting out the words, taking them in until he feels less alone. He lists the full names and birthdays of all his family, reminding himself that there was a place where he belonged at one time.

When he can't sit still any longer, he clutches his stomach and paces the room. When everything falls into shadow, when he can't hold it a moment longer, he pees against the wall in the corner, then wiggles out of his hoodie and his t-shirt, dropping the undergarment on the puddle in an attempt to conceal the mess.

His stomach growling, Brendon lies down and tries to sleep. Exhaustion finally claims him just as the first flush of daylight lightens the room.

~~~~~

"Wake up! Wake up, now!"

Brendon wakes up to the shout, then gasps when he's doused with freezing water. Shivering, he jumps to his feet, his heart racing, his mind confused.

"You disgust me! Your lack of control disgusts me!" Alan stands over Brendon, yelling directly in his face, each word accompanied by a blast of sour breath. "Not that I'm surprised: a filthy mind breeds a filthy body. If you want to rut like an animal why not piss like one too?" Grabbing Brendon's arm, Alan marches him to the corner and forces him to his knees. "Shall I treat you like a dog, rub your nose in it? Are you a dog, Brendon? You want to get on your knees and be fucked from behind, so why not treat you like that at all time?"

"No," Brendon manages to say, bent almost double, Alan's hand pressing against his shoulder, keeping him in place. He looks down at his sodden t-shirt -- there's a dinosaur on the front, purple with a long tail, his sister bought it for him while on vacation and she had smiled when she passed it over, laughing as he hugged her in thanks. Her hair had smelled of sunshine and her hands were soft and Brendon had put on the t-shirt right then, stripping off the old one and....

"Are you listening to me?!" Alan brings back his hand and strikes Brendon's face, an open-handed slap accompanied by a sharp crack of sound. "Look what you made me do! You push me too far, Brendon. Always defying, is that what you're doing Brendon? Acting out. Defying me, your family, your God? Is that why you've cultivated these shameful urges, because you want to be a rebel? You want to be special? Because you're not special. You're nothing, you're less than nothing. You're scum, the lowest of the low." Alan steps away then, breathing hard. "There's a bucket outside. Clean up this mess, scrub away your filth from the whole floor."

He leaves but Brendon can't move. Not at first, when his cheek, hands and knees throb from being thrown to the floor, being held there. His eyes prickle with tears, but he won't cry, he won't. Eyes squeezed tight, Brendon breathes deeply, deliberately, slowly -- then stands. Just outside the door is a bucket. It's filled with hot water and smells strongly of bleach. Through the milky water, Brendon can see the outline of a brush. He sets the bucket down, steels himself and puts in his hand. Immediately the bleach seeps into each cut on his palm, and Brendon can't help mewling with pain as he grabs the brush and crouches down.

He starts scrubbing at small bloodstains, twin spots showing where he was forced to kneel, the wood cutting into his bare knees, splinters poking at the skin, the scabs on his palms opening right up under the pressure. They're diluted by the water, pulled out in faint tendrils that Brendon keeps scrubbing until they're faded, faded, gone. He moves his t-shirt then, picking it up and dropping it in the bucket, then scrubs at the damp patch left behind. He puts everything he has into each movement, forward and back, a steady two-point rhythm that he maintains as he cleans the whole floor. When he's finished, Brendon's arms ache, the muscles engulfed in fire. Dropping the brush in the bucket, he sits on his bed, lifts up his feet and waits. Again.

~~~~~

Alan returns when the sun is high in the sky. He doesn't look at the floor, or Brendon, just says, "Go to the bathroom, you've got ten minutes to clean up," then leaves.

There's no one in the bathroom today. In fact, Brendon sees no one at all. Each bedroom door he passes is shut tightly and the only voices he hears are distant, muted, the sounds of the others getting lunch. While he's not hungry anymore, Brendon is thirsty and he bends over the sink, placing his mouth under the stream of water and letting it run over his throbbing cheek as he drinks. When his thirst is quenched, he straightens and looks at himself in the mirror. His eyes are nothing more than dark shadowed, his skin pale. There's a bruise spread along one cheekbone and his hair is wet, pushed back off his face.

It's something Brendon hates to see – he's too exposed, too raw, the marks on him are too telling. He looks down, at the cracked white tiles and forces a smile, looks back up at his reflection and assesses the change, because the smile means everything. If he smiles no one can see how he really feels.

"What do you think you're doing!?"

Turning at Alan's shout, Brendon takes a step back, striking his hip against the edge of the sink.

"The bible says, remove far from me vanity and lies. Vanity and lies, Brendon. I come here to offer you forgiveness, to allow you time to explain your wicked ways and what do I find? I find you flaunting the word of our God. Vanity is a sin, a sin which you seem intent to indulge in the most shameless of ways. Do you like how you look? Do you wish others to look upon your face and body and feel lust?"

"I was checking I was clean," Brendon says, attempting to explain. He tries to smile again, but it fades when Alan comes completely into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him.

"And now you attempt excuses and lies, like the serpent with its tongue of wickedness and untruth."

"No. I--"

Brendon doesn't get to finish, his words cut off when Alan strides across the room and grabs hold of Brendon's shoulders, violently turning him around so he's facing the mirror, trapped between the cold porcelain of the sink and Alan's body.

"Tell me, what do you see? Do you find your eyes pleasing? The slant of your nose compelling? Do you look at your lips and imagine them around another man's cock?"

"Please, don't." Brendon tries to turn away, but Alan grabs hold of his jaw and chin with one hand, tightening his grip so Brendon is unable to move.

"Tell me what you see!" Alan is yelling now, his voice echoing throughout the bathroom, and Brendon has no choice but to look at his own face.

"Do you know what I see?" Alan asks, his voice lowering as he moves his head so it's close to Brendon's, so close he can talk directly into his ear. "I see someone who made his mother cry. Did you know that Brendon? Did you know she phoned and cried over the loss of her son? I see someone riddled with disease, someone who disgusts me, someone who loves his own face. And for what? How could anyone love something so ugly, so riddled with sin? Are you looking? Look closer!"

Alan yells this last and pushes Brendon closer to the mirror. All Brendon can see is his own face, how ugly he really is: his flaws and imperfections are so clear, so close, and he begins to struggle, wanting to get away.

"Do not defy me, Brendon, you will not win," Alan says, but Brendon keeps struggling, trying to twist his head out of Alan's grip. When he does manage to move, though, his lips brush against Alan's and suddenly Alan rears back and shoves Brendon away, making him fall against the sinks, barely able to get his footing before Alan brings back his hand and slaps him full force across the face.

"You harlot! You slut! Do not attempt your disgusting practices on me! I will not respond! You will not tempt me onto the road of sin and evil!"

Alan is breathing hard, his face red and his hands bunched into fists. Bringing one hand up to his face, Brendon carefully touches his finger-tips to his swollen face and starts to back away.

"Running will get you nowhere, you have nowhere to go, no one to run to. All you have is me, Brendon. I'll drive the sin from you, burn out those disgusting urges."

Frantic, Brendon looks toward the door, waits until Alan goes over to the controls of the showers and then runs. He grabs hold of the door handle and pulls -- the door won't open, no matter how hard Brendon tries.

"I think you need this." Icy calm now, Alan holds up a key. "Self-locking doors, you'll leave when I allow you to do so, when I've washed away your sin, because this time you kissed me. But what about next time? What if it's an innocent? A child? No boy child is safe around you, you have to see that. Admit to your sins, Brendon, let me help you. Take the path of our Lord."

"I didn't kiss you," Brendon says, because that's one thing he is sure of. It was an accident, nothing more, and he stands with his back pressed against the door, watching as Alan turns up the heat on the shower. The water hits the tiled floor and creates steam that fills the room, misting the mirrors and Brendon swallows hard, fear prickling at his neck as Alan deliberately takes off his watch, his shirt, exposing the sweat-matted hair on his chest and the defined muscles of his arms.

"You force me to this Brendon, to punish you, to scour the sin from your body because you must learn. You came onto me Brendon, the person who's here to lead you to redemption."

"It was an accident, I didn't mean to," Brendon says frantically, and when Alan starts to walk across the room Brendon turns and starts yanking at the door, yelling "Help! Someone help me, please!"

No one comes, and Brendon ducks out of the way when Alan reaches for him, but there's nowhere to hide. Within seconds Alan grabs hold of Brendon's arms, grip brutal as he drags him toward the shower. Fighting back, Brendon digs in his heels, but his shoes slide across the slick tiles and there's nothing he can do to stop himself being thrust under the water. Alan is too tall, too strong, and Brendon screams as boiling water hits his body, soaking right through his clothes.

Terror and pain give him strength and he lurches, desperate to get out of the cubical. He twists away from Alan--the feeling of his arm being all-but wrenched out of its socket preferable to the burning. He keeps twisting. When he feels Alan's grip loosen slightly, he barges forward, hitting Alan's body full force with his own. Yelling, Alan falls backwards, pulling Brendon with him, and they both end up on the floor, Alan under Brendon's prone body.

"You dare attempt to defile me like this! You dare touch me like a lover! With this you've gone too far!"

Brendon doesn't have a chance to move before he's suddenly flipped, his head hitting the floor as he finds himself on his back. His skin is screaming, raw from the burns, the feel of the floor too much too much too much and for a second he thinks he'll black out. When he can focus again, Alan is kneeling over Brendon's legs. Pain shooting through his head, Brendon fights for air, scrabbling against the wet floor as he feels his shirt being pushed up, hands at the waistband of his jeans.

"No. Stop. Please." He keeps fighting, struggling to get away but Alan is beyond all reason as he rips off the button to Brendon's jeans and pulls down the zipper.

"You think you're a real man, Brendon? I'll show you a real man," Alan growls, obviously hard as he moves so he can grind against Brendon's body. "I'll show you that defying me is sinful. I am a man of God, I am your light in the darkness of sin and depravity. I'm doing this for you, Brendon, showing how painful, how disgusting the act of sodomy can be."

"No!" The feel of fingers pushing under his jeans fuels his terror and Brendon twists violently to one side. It gives him enough room to throw a punch--one lacking any force, but enough that Alan's distracted. It gives Brendon an opening to pull himself back.

"Oh no, Brendon, you stay here. You'll stay here and be educated, and then pray to your God for forgiveness, to forgive you for your disgusting sin." Re-situating himself, Alan sits up slightly and tugs at Brendon's jeans so they're bunched around his hips. It's then that Brendon acts. He throws himself back, gaining enough space to reach for Alan's arm, pulling it to his mouth. He bites, hard, keeps biting as he feels blood well into his mouth and Alan shouts with pain.

"You really are a dog, a dog that pisses and bites and wants to be fucked. I can do that, I can fuck you like a dog." Enraged, Alan pulls his arm back, tearing his flesh from between Brendon's teeth. "You drove me to this, remember that when I'm thrusting into you. Remember you drove me to these acts of sodomy with your sinful ways."

Brendon doesn't reply, just spits blood on the floor and prepares to fight because he's not going to let this happen, he's not. Gasping for air he forces himself to wait, painful seconds while Alan kneels. As soon as there's space between their bodies Brendon pulls himself back and jumps to his feet pulling up his pants.

"Do not defy me!" Alan stands too, and he's taller than Brendon, stronger, but right now that doesn't matter. What matters is that Brendon has fear on his side. He attacks, jumping forward as he pushes Alan toward the wall. Alan staggers, but doesn't go down, not at first, just makes a fist and lashes out, catching Brendon in the mouth.

Blood flows down Brendon's chin, into his throat, and this new pain is almost his undoing, but panic is better at providing focus than any distracting pain, and Brendon finds the strength to attacks again. This time Alan goes down, his head cracking against the sink as he falls to the floor. Shaking, Brendon prepares to jump away, but Alan doesn't move. Just lies still as a pool of blood begins to spread from under his head.

"No no no no no," Brendon says, and his hands are shaking as he staggers away, vomiting next to the shower, bloody bile being washed away with the now-cooling water. He stays there a moment, bent over, his whole body hurting, gathering up the courage for what he has to do. Spitting up more blood, Brendon finally goes over to Alan, bends over and looks for the key. He finds it after twenty seconds of looking.

It takes a minute to open the door, as his hands shaking while he attempts to fit key into lock. It's another five seconds to go back and take Alan's wallet, a last impulse before Brendon runs. He's almost overwhelmed by fear as he takes a final look back and sees that Alan has opened his eyes; he's struggling to stand.

It's one fifteen on a warm afternoon when Brendon leaves Shepard House for the second time. He never looks back, just keeps running, panic-stricken, in pain, and all too aware that he's totally alone.

~*~*~*~

"Are you sure you want to stay here?" Robert asks, sounding dubious as he looks around.

Ryan doesn't blame him, this truck stop's nothing like the one before. There's only one small cafe -- the window plastered with neon-colored cardboard signs, a menu with prices scrawled onto the items with black pen -- and the parking lot is almost empty. There are a scant few trucks lined up, their windows dark. In some cases, the curtains are pulled across to conceal the insides of the cab.

Ryan stretches, cramped after sitting stuffed in the back seat for almost four hours. "Positive, we need to keep going east."

"Well, if you're sure."

"We are," Spencer says. He smiles then, projecting confidence. "Hope your grand-daughter has a good birthday party."

"I'm sure she will." Robert pulls out his wallet and opens it, looking at the picture of a golden-haired child inside, her chubby arms wrapped around the ruff of a glossy haired black lab. "She'll be spoilt rotten, same as always. But how can you help yourself with someone that cute?"

"Gorgeous," Ryan says and mouths, what? when Spencer turns away, grinning wide.

"Okay boys, I need to get going. Take care of yourselves."

"We will, thanks for the ride," Ryan says, and watches as Robert gets into the car, waves once, then drives away. He turns to Spencer, then. "What's so funny?"

"You," Spencer says. "I know for a fact you were admiring the dog, not the kid."

"It's a beautiful dog." Ryan shrugs, completely unapologetic.

"It was," Spencer agrees, then takes a look around. "You think we should ask around? Or go stand at the roadside?"

Spencer sounds unsure, and Ryan can understand. All day they've been walking or traveling or planning. It's only now that they're here, in a strange place and at a standstill, that the enormity of what they've done is hitting. It's an unsettling feeling, apprehension plus a little excitement, the realization that right now they could go anywhere, do anything--there's no one around to say no.

"I think we should go celebrate first," Ryan says, needing to mark this moment somehow. "We can splurge for milkshakes this once."

"Excellent plan." Spencer rubs at his stomach and looks toward the cafe. "We could share some fries."

"With lots of ketchup?"

"Of course," Spencer says, and he starts to walk before coming to a stop, looking serious as crosses his arms over his chest. "I just wanted to say, um, thanks. You…well, y'know, you didn't have to."

"Are we having a moment?" Ryan asks. "Because if we are I need to put down my guitar." He does so, and despite the way Spencer is frowning, the way he's standing with his posture closed. Ryan impulsively moves in for a hug. He wraps his arms around Spencer and holds on, not letting go until he feels Spencer relax. He says, softly, "You're right. I didn't have to. But I wanted to--don't forget that."

Ryan steps back then, picks up his guitar and heads for the entrance of the cafe, breaking into a run when Spencer tries to beat him to the door.

It's warm inside, a warmth that seems to come complete with a layer of grease. Ryan licks his lips as he heads for a table, picking one in the window and sliding onto the cracked vinyl of the bench seat. There's a plastic tomato on the table, sauce crusted around the top and miss-matched salt and pepper shakers, one blue, one inexplicably shaped like a glossy black duck.

Spencer and Ryan are the youngest diners by a long shot. Most of the other customers are much older men, sitting alone with newspapers folded on the table behind their food, or looking up at the small TV that's attached to the wall. It's showing some football game, Ryan doesn't recognize the team and he's not interested enough to find out. Instead he picks up the menu -- a sheet of laminated plastic -- and reads down the list. Fries and burgers, and, near the bottom, a baked potatoe. Ryan screws up his face and points at the offending word.

"Look."

Spencer shrugs and takes the menu. "It doesn't matter."

Which is true, but Ryan can't help being bothered by such a remedial mistake. Reaching over the table, he turns Spencer's hand so they can both read at the same time. "Vanilla milkshakes and a bowl of fries?"

"If they're up to your standard," Spencer says, so dry that Ryan knows Spencer's laughing at him on the inside.

He kicks out, aiming for Spencer's ankle. "That makes no sense, the quality of the food doesn't relate to spelling mistakes."

"You'd think." Spencer makes no effort to hide his grin this time, so Ryan kicks him again, because seriously, how's it so wrong to expect things to be done right?

Thankfully, before the kicking escalates to full out foot war, the waitress appears at their side. She's wearing a beige dress, her hair pulled back and she smiles as she takes her pen and notepad out of her pocket. "What can I get you boys?"

"Two vanilla milkshakes and an order of fries, please." Spencer says.

"Coming right up."

She walks away, and Ryan rests his elbows on the table, his chin on his linked hands. "I was thinking, yellow walls or turquoise?"

"How about neither," Spencer says. "We had yellow walls in the bedroom at the home, I think they were going for cheery, but it was more like living in an egg yolk."

"No yellow then." Ryan takes a mental note, because their house is going to be perfect, and that means no bad memories allowed. But Spencer mentioning the home brings up other questions, and Ryan has to ask. "Do you think they'll come after you?"

Spencer shakes his head. "I doubt it, not unless they report it, which means they get less money. I think they let kids disappear all the time and just…y'know." He shrugs.

Ryan sits up and reaches out his hand, his fingers brushing gently over Spencer's lip. "Who did this?"

"It was no one," Spencer says. "No one worth bothering about now."

It's not the answer Ryan wants, but he knows it's all he's going to get. He sits back in his seat. "I think, once we've eaten we should clean up and then go hitch at the roadside, we've a few hours before dark."

"Sounds good to me."

"Good." Ryan stretches his leg, but not to kick this time, just enough so that their feet are touching, his own display of hidden comfort.

"Here you go, boys." Their waitress appears and sets a tray on the table. On it are two vanilla milkshakes in tall glasses, the tops covered in whipped cream, and also a large bowl of fries, so hot they're still steaming. Efficiently she passes them out, says, "That's eight dollars, please."

Unzipping his bag, Ryan takes out a ten, says, "Keep the change."

"Thank you." She tucks the money into her pocket, but doesn't move away, just stands, the tray held at her side. "I might be talking out of turn, but there's usually a rush in an hour, people eating dinner before traveling overnight. If you hang on, there'll be more chance of a ride."

"Thanks for letting us know," Ryan says, but doesn't ask how she knew they needed a ride. He waits until she walks away, then looks at Spencer, at his own reflection in the mirror, but to him they both look the same as before. Same faces, same clothes, same everything.

"The bags probably gave us away, that and your guitar." Spencer picks up the plastic tomato and squeezes ketchup all over the fries. Setting it down, he picks up a handful, chews then swallows. "They're good."

"Well don't eat them all." Ryan grabs his own handful, and then takes a long swallow of milkshake, sucking hard around the red-striped straw.

~~~~~

When all the fries are gone, Ryan runs his finger through a blob of ketchup and then sucks it into his mouth. While he's not full, at least he's not hungry, and he feels sleepy, the warmth of the diner a dangerous combination with how long he's been awake. Yawning, he rubs at his eyes with the backs of his hands and then looks at his watch. They've been here for almost thirty minutes now, which means by the time they wash up, the evening rush should hopefully be underway.

Sliding out of his seat, he slings his bag over one shoulder and picks up his guitar. Spencer and he wave at their waitress and then go outside, to the bathroom block next to the cafe.

Stepping inside, Ryan wrinkles his nose at the smell - an unpleasant mix of old food and urine and backed up sewers. What he wants to do is turn around and go right back outside, but he also needs to pee and maybe brush his teeth. Ryan hasn't decided about that last yet. On the one hand, it may be his last chance today. On the other, he really doesn't want to use his toothbrush in here.

"I wouldn't go in there if I were you," Spencer says. He's standing next to one of the stalls, looking faintly nauseated after looking inside. Running his fingers through his hair, he looks at himself in the cracked mirror, then at the bank of urinals, all of which are mottled green and brown inside. "Maybe we could find a bush?"

"And get arrested for indecent exposure? No, we do it here and get out." Steeling himself, Ryan walks to the nearest urinal and unzips.

It's the first time Ryan's been to the bathroom all day, and he has time to read the graffiti that's scribbled on the wall: numbers to phone for a good time, obscene drawings, and a poem that really doesn't scan. Ryan reads the words, again and again, and is about to complain when Spencer steps back from the urinal he's been using and holds up his hand.

"I swear, if you say one word about the structure of a poem about sexual diseases I'll lock you in here."

"Wasn't going to say a word." Ryan finishes off and zips up his pants. He steps past Spencer to the sinks, making the pipes rattle when he turns the faucet. Surprisingly the water is hot, and Ryan carefully cleans his hands and splashes water on his face. He picks up his guitar and is about to go outside when he can't keep it in any more, exclaims, "But gonorrhoea and gonna see her don't even rhyme!"

Spencer just looks, says, "You're a freak."

Ryan grins. "But you love me anyway."

"Well." For a moment Spencer pretends to consider, then says, "Yeah."

Ryan tries to hide his pleased smile, but it's bleeding through anyway and they're having this ridiculous moment where they're standing outside scuzzy toilets and grinning at each other like loons. It has to be an effect of being so tired, because normally Ryan doesn't feel the need to be so outwardly happy. Then again, he's with Spencer, and that always makes a difference, like life is more tolerable when Spencer's around.

"I think I need some sleep soon," Ryan says, and for a moment thinks longingly of his bed.

"If we get a ride we should be able to sleep." Spencer looks at the row of trucks in the parking lot, empty apart from one man who's leaning against the cab of his truck, looking their way. He's wearing dark sunglasses, oil-streaked jeans and a plain grey t-shirt.. "Think we should ask if he's going our way?"

"It can't hurt," Ryan says.

They start to walk, off the sidewalk and onto the road, the asphalt warm and slightly soft-seeming under their feet. They approach the truck -- the cab shining red, a lion painted on the front and side. The trailer is painted with pictures of waffles, the sides tied down with black straps. All the while the driver watches them, never moving until they're close. He stands up straight then, one side of his mouth rising as he asks, "You boys wantin' a ride?"

"Yeah," Spencer says. "We're headed for Chicago."

The man nods and looks at them both. "And your parents know you're going?"

It feels like a trick question, like if they give the wrong answer they won't get their ride. The problem is, Ryan doesn't know what answer the man wants to hear. He settles on the truth -- mostly.

"We've no parents that would care."

"So you're traveling on your own, and no one knows?"

Unsure, Ryan says, "Something like that," half expecting to be hustled inside and told to wait as the man calls the authorities. That doesn't happen at all.

"Name's Si, I can take you part way." Si steps away from the door then, pulling it open. "Go round and climb in, throw your stuff in the back."

"Thank you, I'm Ryan, this is Spencer," Ryan says, and when he's around the front of the cab, where Si can't see, he shares a high-five with Spencer, because hitchhiking is surprisingly easy. At this rate they'll be in Chicago before they know it.

Spencer climbs into the cab first. He has to stretch up, exposing the skin between the hem of his t-shirt and jeans as he gets up to the first step to sits inside. He turns around and puts his bag behind him, and then reaches for Ryan's guitar and bag. After he's passed those up, Ryan climbs in too, and sits next to Spencer, trying to appear nonchalant as he looks around. There's a huge steering wheel and controls, a sleeping area behind, magazines and a ragged plushie smurf lying on the dash.

It smells of dirty clothes and coffee, despite the air fresheners that hang from the ceiling at the mirror and doors. It's also hot, the seat warm against Ryan's legs and back. Still, he's comfortable and feeling accomplished as he reaches out and pulls shut the door, ready to set off once again.

"I'd say go to the bathroom, but I know you've already been," Si says as he climbs in and settles down. He pulls shut his door and starts the engine, but before he pulls away he reaches behind his seat and pulls out a book of CDs. Flipping through them he looks at each disc, seemingly torn between two. "What do you think, Michael Jackson or Oasis?"

Ryan looks at them both, considers, and says, "Michael."

"Michael Jackson it is." Si takes out the disc and slides it into the player, puts the truck into gear and pulls away.

~~~~~

It's comfortable in the truck. Ryan leans against the door, head against the window, eyes half closed as he listens to the music. Next to him, Spencer dozes, head against Ryan's shoulder. He's breathing deeply, evenly, and Ryan's tired, so tired. He knows falling asleep already is rude, but the more he struggles against it, the heavier his eyes seem to get. The sun lowers, lowers, sets. Ryan sleeps.

~~~~~

He wakes hours later, neck aching and head caught in that muddled zone between awareness and sleep. It's dark, the only illumination being the glowing lights in the console of the cab. Outside cars overtake them, tail lights moving into straight red lines, easier to look at than the too-bright shining eyes of the approaching headlights. Ryan yawns and Si looks at him briefly, at Spencer who's still sleeping, curled up as much as he can while still sitting upright.

"Want a drink, kid?" Si picks up a cup from the holder, and while Ryan's wary of sharing, he's thirsty. His throat is dry and his skin feels tight, like he hasn't drunk anything for days. He reaches past Spencer, takes the cup and drinks. It's soda, slightly warm and flat, but Ryan takes several sips before leaning over and putting the cup back in its place.

"Thanks," Si says. He's taken his sunglasses off now and when he looks forward, his eyes are dark with shadow, his face bleached white. They drive on, the radio playing now, a local station with country music and a presenter that talks too fast, too loud for the quiet of night.

Ryan rubs at his eyes, trying to stay awake. Spencer shifts slightly, his body heavy against Ryan's, and Ryan instinctively puts his arm around Spencer, holding him still.

"You been friends long?" Si asks suddenly, still looking forward, hands resting easily on the wheel.

"Since we were kids."

"And you've lived close all that time?"

"Sort of," Ryan says, and he can't help wish Spencer was awake to help deal with these questions, because Ryan doesn't want to share their story, what he wants is to pack it away and only share when he wants, if he wants. Trying to deflect attention, he looks out the side window, at the endless expanse of darkness, the ghostly blur of reflection that's his face.

"If you want, you can get in the back, I won't be sleeping for hours yet," Si says suddenly.

"Erm, yeah. Thanks," Ryan says, and he can't help feeling ungrateful for wanting to hide. He forces a smile as he shakes Spencer awake. "Spencer. Come on, wake up. Come sleep in the back with me."

Eventually, Spencer wakes. His hair is a mess at the back and his eyes are more closed than open, but when Si slows, they both climb around the seats and slip into the back, into the mess of a rumpled quilt and pillows and a soft mattress that feels good as Ryan lies down. When he does so the quilt smells musty, and a book digs into his back, but he sets it to one side and straightens the pillows. When Spencer lies down too it feels like second nature to curl close, their bodies pressed together. Ryan whispers, 'goodnight' as he pulls up the quilt. He's asleep within seconds.

~~~~~

"Si?"

Ryan opens his eyes when he hears Spencer. He turns his head and sees Si at the side of the sleeping area, his knees against Spencer's exposed back. Si holds up his hands, says, "Sorry, I needed my stuff." He leans over them both and picks up a pack of cigarettes, then stands. "Come on, I'll buy breakfast."

Ryan nods, and when Si goes back to the front, he looks at Spencer and asks quietly, "What's up?"

"I woke up and he was just there, watching me." Spencer moves so his face is close to Ryan's. "I thought. Back at the home I learnt to sleep light, and I thought I felt him touch me, but I guess it was an accident."

"Are you sure?" Ryan asks, already bristling, but Spencer doesn't seem concerned, just thoughtful as he keeps looking at Ryan. He nods. "Yeah, it'll have been an accident. He was reaching for something and slipped."

"We could leave now, go somewhere else," Ryan says, refusing to allow Spencer the lie. "He's not the only trucker around."

"No, but he's the one giving us a ride, and the less walking you do the better"

"It's only a skinned heel," Ryan protests.

"Which could be become infected." Spencer sits then, the quilt bunching around his knees. "I'll keep an eye on him, things will be fine."

"Right," Ryan says. "But anything else weird and we go."

Spencer nods, says, "Sure."

~~~~~

Si takes them for breakfast, plying them with refills of orange juice and giant plates of bacon and eggs, syrup-drenched pancakes and greasy links of sausage. Ryan can't remember the last time he ate so much or so well. When he's finished his pants feel tight, and he has to cover his mouth and belch. Which prompts Spencer to do the same, louder and longer and they're both laughing as Si looks on with tolerant amusement. He refuses Ryan's offer of money, just tells them to amuse themselves for a few hours as he catches some sleep.

They do, people-watching and sitting in the shade of a tree, well-fed and comfortable. When Si finally wakes, he waves from the cab of the truck, and Ryan stands, hurrying to get inside. He's eager to be on his way.

~~~~~

Three hours later, things start to go wrong. They're still on the highway, but Si's been twitchy for the last hour. He's silent, no questions or singing along to his CDs, and Ryan feels tense, because something's up and he doesn't know what.

"Si? The hell!?" Spencer jerks back, and Ryan sees Si has his hand on Spencer's thigh, gripping it tight.

"Come on, Spencer. You didn't think you were riding for free did you?"

Spencer grabs Si's hand, trying to push it away, but Si doesn't move, just keeps driving one-handed.

Ryan leans over, grabs hold too and starts to pull. "Let go of him."

"This is none of your business. It's Spencer here that's going to settle your debt. One nights sleep, two breakfasts, sodas, I'm going to park up soon, and I figure one roll in the back will pay for it." He looks at Ryan, smiles a cold smile. "Maybe two, you did eat a lot."

"Let go!" Ryan yells.

"Or what?" The question is calculated. "You'll phone the police?" He lets the reality sink in before hitting again. "Your parents? No one cares that you're here. No one knows. I could do anything to you, you're lucky I'm an honourable man and all I wanna do is fuck."

"I don't think so." Spencer starts to struggle, wincing as he pulls Si's hand from his leg. "Let us out, now."

"I'll let you out when I'm ready, and not a moment before." Previously calm, Si begins to get angry, and he grabs for Spencer's hair, holding a handful and pulls so he's forced sideways. "You're mine. I'm going to take what you owe, and then I'll think about letting you go."

"You'll let us go now." Furious, Ryan stands as much as he can, anger making him reckless as he hits at Si's face. It's a stupid move because they're still thundering along, but Si begins to slow as Ryan keeps hitting, putting everything into each blow. "Let go of him!"

Finally, Si does, bringing his hand up to protect his face. Sensing this is their chance, Ryan reaches behind him, groping frantically for their stuff. He manages to find his guitar, the strap of a bag, and clings onto them as he tries to open the door.

At first it won't open, pushed back by the wind, but Si keeps slowing as Spencer claws at his face, and finally Ryan has enough space. He looks at the ground, so far away and feels sick, because even if they have slowed, they're still going too fast to even think about jumping. But they're going to, better that than staying here.

"Spencer!"

"Go! I'm right behind you!" Spencer yells.

Holding onto his guitar, the bag, Ryan jumps, hits the ground with a sickening thump. The world turns, his body impacting painfully against the ground. He rolls. Again and again and again. Stops.

~*~*~*~

Brendon runs. He keeps running until he's gasping for breath and his chest burns with the need to stop. Still, he keeps going.

Finally, minutes, miles, two turns, one field, a curved road later, he drops to his knees, collapsing down without thought of prior hurts. Shaking, he steadies himself with his hands, palms flat against the damp grass, back bowed and head down. He thinks of blood spreading, red against white. He whimpers deep in his throat and pushes himself upright before he collapses completely to the ground.

Brendon's pants are still loose, the fabric wet through. It takes four tries before he can thread the button. When they're closed, the zip secure, he looks around, listens. There's a row of trees behind him, tiny blue flowers growing within the grass. The sun shines and the birds sing and the world keeps turning, which is wrong, because things should have changed, because Brendon nearly killed someone, got close to taking a life with his own hands: more sin to add to his shame.

He wants to scream and cry. He wants to call his mom. Panic pressing close, he fights for focus, pushes back bad memories to deal with later, because one thing Brendon is good at is pretending. He knows how to pretend that he fits in, that he's fine, that everything is okay. And it is. It will be.

Repeating that thought: I'm okay, I'm okay, everything's fine, Brendon opens Alan's wallet looks inside. There are credit cards, library card, a picture of Alan and someone who has to be his wife -- everything is fine, is okay -- pulls out the money and folds the bills, shoving them deep in his pocket. Brendon throws the wallet away then, sending it sailing into the trees.

He starts walking, but this time he goes in a different direction, unwilling to risk the same town. The road he's following is quiet, and when Brendon hears a car approach he hides at the roadside, body pressed against the rough bark of a tree, waits and watches until he's alone once more. Not that he sees anyone looking. He hasn't seen any police, anyone from Shepard House, but it can only be a matter of time. It's why Brendon doesn't stop walking even when he's exhausted, when everything hurts and all he wants to do is lie down. If he does that, he'll never get up again.

It's late afternoon when he sees a town. Relieved, Brendon pushes his pace, ignoring the burning in his knees, his hands, his heels, the way his skin still scrapes against the inside of his hoodie with every step, and his ankle has the constant desire to turn under him. When he turns a corner and sees the McDonalds, the golden M eye-catching against the surrounding green, Brendon takes a chance and moves close, checking for police before he goes inside.

There's a girl waiting at the counter, a man shaking fries in the kitchen area. An older couple and a family with a baby in a high chair are in two of the booths that line one wall. They all glance at Brendon as he walks inside, but then quickly look away, going back to their own lives and conversations and Brendon smiles at the girl before heading for the bathroom.

It's small, only two stalls and a row of sinks -- metal, not porcelain, clean, no blood -- and Brendon is fine. He turns on the water and blinks away tears when he puts his hands under the stream. He pulls out handfuls of paper towels and carefully dabs at his knees, cleaning away dried blood that cracks and falls to the ground like tiny red flakes of snow. Brendon doesn't check his feet. He'd only have to put back on his socks and shoes.

Finally he splashes cold water on his face – just the idea of warm water makes him nauseated -- head down so he can't see in the mirror. When he's done, he goes back into the restaurant, not feeling better, but looking better, at least.

"You ready to order?" The girl behind the counter smiles, and Brendon smiles right back.

"Sure, a large coke, two cheeseburgers and a large fry to go, please."

"Coming up."

Hip cocked against the counter, Brendon looks between the girl and outside, ready to run at the first sign of the police. No one comes, in fact, hardly anyone passes at all. Which is reassuring, but Brendon still keeps a lookout while paying for his food and walking outside.

Brendon drinks as he walks. He's drank half the Coke and had two bites of burger when he has to stop and puke it all up again. Nauseated, he spits bile and throws away the bag of food, keeping the cup so that he can rest it against his face. It doesn't help, not really, but it's just enough to take off the edge of the throbbing that stretches from ear to nose.

The further into town Brendon goes, the more people surround him. He sees how they look at him, taking in his bruised face and blood-stained knees, the way he's limping badly and keeps his hands curled protectively at his sides. There's pity in some glances, contempt in others, and Brendon hates feeling so exposed, like if they look closely enough they'll see how rotten he is, his dirty secrets there for all to see.

Brendon hasn't acted so well in his life. He keeps his head up, manages to smile sometimes, looks into shop windows as he searches for the nearest bus station, the fastest escape. When he finally gets there, his mouth is dry and his chest tight, but Brendon stays calm as he stands in line, pulling out the money from his pocket and counting.

When he gets to the front he asks, "What's the next bus out of here?"

The man behind the counter types and then turns the monitor, pointing at the screen. "There's a bus to Chicago. It leaves in ten minutes."

"One for there, please," Brendon says, and he counts out the money, taking his ticket before going back outside. The bus is already there, the driver standing at the front, checking luggage and tickets. Brendon hands his over and then climbs on-board. There's an empty seat at the very back, and he slumps down, hands curled and jammed under his thighs in an attempt to stop them shaking. It doesn't help. Brendon can feel them trembling, no matter what he tries, what he tells himself. He's okay. Things will be fine. He rests his head against the window, closes his eyes, and tries to believe.

~*~*~*~

Ryan wakes and all he can think is, hurts.

There's not a part of him that doesn't hurt, and he tries not to move, not to breathe, because even the simple act of taking in air is almost too much. Then he thinks, Spencer.

Frantic, Ryan tries to roll onto his side. It's not a good move. He feels something crack inside his chest, a sickening sensation of bone made suddenly unstable. Ryan flops flat onto his back, eyes closed and head spinning.

"Spencer," Ryan says, his voice weak. There's no reply and panic gives Ryan the strength he needs to push past the pain. He opens his eyes and counts: one, two, three. He carefully pushes himself upright, then, keeping his hands braced against the ground as darkness pushes against his vision, wanting to pull him back down. Ryan fights back, counting each shallow breath and leaning forward slightly to spit out the blood coating his tongue and the inside of his mouth. He spits again -- dark blood mixed with saliva. His tongue feels swollen, his bottom lip torn. Ryan runs his tongue over his lip, feeling the small flap of skin that hangs down. He brings up one hand and sees the cuts marring his arm, how his palm is blood-stained and his nails jagged, embedded with soil. He remembers jumping, hitting the ground and rolling. He remembers Spencer being just behind him. Ryan looks around, calling, "Spencer!" His voice cracks over the word.

Spencer is lying in a flattened patch of grass. His hair covers his face and he's got his arms tucked under his body, his knees bent. His t-shirt is torn at the side, and the ground under his body is stained red.

"Spencer," Ryan says, and his own pain is forgotten as he gets onto his knees, crawling forward through the grass, pleading, "Spencer, answer me, please."

Spencer doesn't reply, he doesn't move at all.

"Spencer, oh God, Spencer. Wake up, talk to me. Please." Ryan falls down at Spencer's side and pushes the hair back from Spencer's face and then holds his hand over Spencer's mouth, willing himself to stop shaking until, finally he feels a faint brush of breath. "Good, good. You're in there, I knew it."

Ryan eases himself down and rests his hand on Spencer's chest, trying to think what to do. If he climbs up the bank and flags someone down, they'll end up back where they began -- that's a given. If he stays here with Spencer obviously hurt, it could make things worse. He's no doctor. He knows how to bandage up cut hands, how to deal with bruises and burns, but nothing like this.

"You need to wake up and tell me what to do," Ryan says, looking at Spencer and taking note of each visible graze and bruise. Spencer doesn't move. Ryan says, "Okay, you don't want to wake up yet, I guess that's okay. Sleep, I'll watch over you." Ryan looks up the steep bank, and knows that just out of sight vehicles thunder past, but right now, right here, Ryan feels like he's cut off from the world. It's only himself and Spencer and seemingly never-ending expanse of grass. Ryan's never felt so alone, so afraid.

"I guess we can stay here, rest a while," Ryan says, and he keeps his hand on Spencer's chest, settling in to wait.

"Ryan?"

Ryan hasn't been sleeping, not really, but even so, he's taken by surprise when Spencer speaks, his voice so low, rough, that at first Ryan thinks he hasn't heard it at all. "Spencer!"

Ryan starts to smile, but stops when he feels the sharp pain in his lip -- evidence of ragged edges pulling apart. Putting his hand to his mouth, Ryan wipes away the fresh spot of blood and shifts so he can see Spencer, who's alternatively blinking and screwing shut his eyes.

"What are we doing here?" Spencer asks, and Ryan's stomach clenches and he thinks, brain damage, amnesia. He should have gone for help, consequences be damned.

"What can you remember?" Ryan asks, steeling himself for the reply.

Spencer looks at Ryan and rolls his eyes, his intent still obvious despite the mask of dirt and bruises. "I know we ran away, that we hitched and had to jump, but why are we lying here? You should have woken me up."

Ryan sits up straight, breathing painfully as he resists the urge to just grab hold of Spencer and shake him, because Spencer doesn't know how Ryan had to sit and wait and hope, miles beyond scared, numb at imagining Spencer never waking at all. "I thought you were dead, you didn't move."

Spencer's becoming more aware by the minute, lying still and watching as Ryan speaks. Suddenly, he reaches out and grabs hold of Ryan's hand. "I'm not dead, Ryan."

"Obviously, you wouldn't be talking if you were."

Linking their fingers together, Spencer repeats, "I'm not dead, I'm fine."

"You could have internal bleeding, or swelling of the brain, or...."

Spencer squeezes Ryan's hand. "I don't. I'm not leaving you. Not now, not ever."

"You can't make promises like that."

"I can do anything I want," Spencer says, with so much conviction that Ryan can't help but believe, that Spencer believes what he says anyway; it's the rest of the world Ryan is unable to trust.

"Right, so you're fine."

"A bit bashed up, but I'll live." Spencer looks at Ryan then, from head to toe. "How about you?"

Ryan shrugs. "I've been better."

"Not good enough. Details, Ryan."

The thing is, Ryan knows Spencer. He knows that when he asks in that tone of voice that answers are inevitable, which means Ryan will tell. Not that he wants to -- he hates exposing his weaknesses, even to Spencer, whom he knows would never take advantage. "I think I've bust a rib, the rest are cuts and bruises, I was lucky."

"Yeah," Spencer says. "We were."

Ryan agrees, because this could be so much worse. Still, it's bad enough and he knows they can't stay here. Arm pressed against his chest, Ryan stands, biting back a cry of pain. Shakily, he reaches out with his free hand, and immediately Spencer reaches up, providing support. Ryan holds on, using him as an anchor until he can blink away the spots that float in his vision. He looks down then, asks, "Want a hand up?"

"Please," Spencer says, and he starts to stand, then falls back when he puts weight on his right ankle, all color in his face draining away.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck." Spencer lies back, hands over his eyes. "Okay, so I'm more than a little bashed up."

"You're an idiot," Ryan says. "What were you going to do, hop and hope I didn't notice?" He kneels and pulls at the leg of Spencer's pants, exposing an ankle that's visibly swollen, the elastic of the sock digging into the flesh. Bruises are already climbing up Spencer's leg. Gently, Ryan runs his fingers over the joint, more for comfort than anything, because even if Spencer has broken his ankle, it's not like Ryan will know.

"I think it's just sprained." Spencer leans forward and starts to loosen the laces of his sneaker, easing it open. He's still pale, his eyes filmed with tears and all Ryan can do is stay close, lending his support by way of a hand on Spencer's knee.

"You're leaving your shoe on?"

"It'll act as a sort of splint," Spencer says. "And anyway, I can't walk barefoot."

"You're not going to be walking at all," Ryan responds immediately. "Not yet, anyway."

"We can't stay here." Spencer indicates the area around them. The grass, patchy the closer it gets to the bank, the litter that covers the ground near the edge of the highway. "We need to get hitchhiking again."

"No, what you're going to do is sit there and rest up. I'm going to go find our stuff." Ryan looks around, then at Spencer, hoping against hope. "Did you manage to grab the other bag?"

"I tried, but I couldn't reach before I jumped." There's guilt in Spencer's reply and despite his own dismay -- they needed that stuff -- Ryan shakes his head.

"It's okay, it doesn't matter."

Of course it does, and Ryan can see that knowledge in the look Spencer gives him, the way he's so still. It's as if one wrong move will crack his carefully maintained facade. Ryan hates seeing him look like that, and he pulls Spencer into a quick one-armed hug. "It's okay, really."

Brushing a kiss against Spencer's forehead, Ryan steels himself to stand again. He does so, his movements careful, each one measured for the minimum of effort. He looks to the left and right, before starting to walk in the direction they've traveled from, hoping to find the stuff he was able to grab.

Ryan's panting for breath when he finds his guitar, the case battered but still closed. It's lying against a large rock. He finds Spencer's bag close by, the straps looped and tangled. Ryan's bag has to be miles away by now, his books, his clothes, his money. All gone.

~~~~~

Spencer's bag contains: one pair of jeans, three pairs of socks, three pairs of boxer shorts, two t-shirts, a hoodie, a comb, half a bottle of water, a box of Scooby Doo Band-aids and two photographs. One is of a much younger Spencer with his family, arms around each other and grinning at the camera. The other is of him and Ryan -- both of them laughing, before they each forgot how to smile for real.

Ryan carefully folds the clothes and places the photographs safely in the pocket of the bag. He eyes the Band-aids before putting them in, too. There's not a Band-aid big enough to tend all their hurts, and he suspects it would do more harm than good by sealing in the dirt.

Zipping shut the bag, he makes his way slowly back to put it on the ground next to Spencer's foot. He says, "Put your foot on here; you need to elevate it."

Spencer nods and lifts his leg, holding it still while Ryan makes sure the bag's in the right place. When he's sure Spencer's as comfortable as he's going to get, Ryan starts to stand, but stops when Spencer shakes his head. "You can't go anywhere tonight. It'll be dark soon."

Ryan doesn't deny he was thinking of going to explore. What he does do is look up at the darkening sky. "I could find some help, get us out of here."

"Like what?" Spencer asks. "A sled made from grass and plastic bags so you can pull me out of here? You're not McGuyver."

"I know that," Ryan says, and he does. He's not McGuyver; he's not able to fix things or make complicated contraptions out of nothing. He's only Ryan Ross, and right now he's just plain scared. "I could carry you out."

"Right." Pointedly, Spencer looks at Ryan, because even if Spencer is skinnier than he used to be, he's still bigger than Ryan. Not that such a thing would keep Ryan from trying -- he's willing to carry Spencer forever if he has to.

"Or I could stay here." Giving in, Ryan lowers himself to the ground, lying so he's half propped against Spencer. It's not a comfortable position at all -- the ground hard. Now that he's stopped moving, every part of Ryan's body hurts, all pulses of pain, none of which throb to the same beat. Cheek against Spencer's shoulder, Ryan says, "I'm sorry."

"Why?"

Ryan thinks that's obvious, but Spencer sounds confused. "I said we should do this, and look at us now."

Spencer reaches across his own body and rests his hand against Ryan's arm. "It's not your fault. It was my choice to run. Anyway, right now I feel safer than I have in months."

"It was that bad?"

"Worse."

Lying still, Ryan listens to the beat of Spencer's heart, feels him swallow hard before speaking again. "This sucks, but at least you're here. I wouldn't trade that for anything."

"Me too," Ryan says and he tilts back his head so he can see Spencer's face. "I missed you."

"I would've come back if I could've." Spencer leans in and brushes a kiss against Ryan's cheek. "I'm not letting you go off alone."

"I'll come back," Ryan says, because he knows in the morning he'll have to leave Spencer behind. But Ryan will come back; that's one promise he'll always keep.

~~~~~

When Ryan wakes the next day it takes all his willpower to move. His muscles have stiffened and his chest is burning. Despite his aching lip, he pushes his mouth against the back of his hand, muffling his groans as he forces himself upright. He pants, sweat breaking out along his hairline and neck as he sits.

Spencer's still asleep, the shadows under his eyes dark and his lips starting to crack. Ryan thinks of the half bottle of water that's in the bag, and knows they'll have to move. The problem is, where? Getting back up the bank will be almost impossible, but even if they do, no one would be able to stop. All they'll do is get in touch with the police, and that's the last thing Ryan and Spencer want. Still, they have to go somewhere, because Ryan has no intention of sitting here and waiting to die.

"Spencer. Spencer." Carefully, Ryan shakes Spencer's shoulder until he opens his eyes. "I'm going to go for a look around, don't go anywhere."

"I think I can manage that." Slowly, Spencer sits and moves his foot off the bag. "Take the water, you'll need it."

"I'll be fine."

"You'll be walking, I'll be here sitting on my ass." Opening the bag, Spencer takes the bottle of water and hands it to Ryan with a fierce scowl. "Take it."

"Only if you have a drink first." It's something Ryan's not going to budge on, and he waits until Spencer takes a tiny drink, then keeps looking until he takes another. After that he takes the bottle, taking a sip of the warm water before standing. The motion sucks, more than Ryan ever imagined it would. He can't breathe right and he's so dizzy it feels like he'll fall right back down. If not for Spencer's hand against Ryan's thigh, he probably would.

Finally, when the world has stopped spinning, Ryan inclines his head toward the right. "I'm going that way, I think I remember a rest stop, remember, that Walmart truck was parked up there?"

"That's miles back," Spencer says.

Ryan starts to walk, saying, "I know."

Leaving Spencer behind is more painful than standing, but Ryan knows he's got no choice. Spencer can't even walk right now, and Ryan needs to find them some place that's safe, and he will, even if he has to keep walking all day and night. He probably will, because the best pace he can manage is hardly faster than a crawl. It doesn't help that the way is treacherous, the grass long and hard to navigate.

Ryan keeps going. At some point he passes the mangled remains of some animal -- when he sees those he picks up his pace, thoughts of coyotes an unwelcome addition to his list of fears. He often thinks about stopping, taking a moment to catch his breath, but he knows if he does he'll never get going again. Already it's taking every bit of willpower he possesses -- along with thoughts of Spencer, alone and hurt -- to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

It's after three hours, four agonizing coughing fits, and five times he's been close to breaking down, that Ryan realizes that the slope to his side has gotten lower. He can see the tops of trucks now, and this new realization urges him forward, until finally, he arrives at a place where the slope has leveled out to a gentle incline. When Ryan warily approaches the top he sees that, finally, he's arrived at the rest stop he remembered from the day before.

There's no trucks there now, just the long patch of dirt ground set back from the highway and hidden by bushes and a few sparse trees, two metal trashcans, and a sign set between them, warning people to dispose of their trash. There's a small brick toilet block, two vending machines chained to its wall. Hoping that the toilets are unlocked, Ryan goes to the door, pulling it open. It's cool inside, two stalls and one sink and suddenly, the thirst that's been a constant the last few hours becomes impossible to ignore, and Ryan's hurrying forward, wincing as he bends over the sink and turns on the faucet.

Unable to wait the brief amount of time it would take to open and fill his water bottle, he cups his hands, letting them fill with water that he shovels into his mouth. He drinks, again and again, water dripping down his neck and chin, dampening the front of his t-shirt. Finally satisfied, he straightens and looks at himself in the mirror. It's one made of metal, and Ryan's reflection is blurred, but it's easy to see how tired he looks and how he's got grass tangled in his hair. Tugging it out, he drops it in the trash. He fills his bottle of water, drinking it all and filling it again before going outside.

It's still quiet, the road empty, and Ryan considers waiting a while. He could get lucky, someone could park up and help him go back for Spencer, bring him back here and then drive on. Except Ryan knows the world doesn't work that way, the only people he can rely on are Spencer and himself.

Ryan makes himself think. He needs to see about getting something to eat. If he had money he'd raid the vending machines, but he doesn't, and he knows there's only one thing he can do. Mind made up, he approaches the first trash can, already hating what he's about to do. Looking inside, he rummages through the crumpled papers and empty cups. He finds old newspapers, empty cigarettes boxes, used tissues and finally, a half-eaten sandwich.

Ryan picks it up and checks the sandwich for mold or maggots. It seems clean, so despite the way his stomach rolls, Ryan takes a bite, chewing fast in order not to think too long about what he's doing. He doesn't feel hungry, but he knows he has to eat. There's a bag of apples in the other can, bruised and soft and while normally Ryan would be the one throwing them out, today he picks them up and looks around for a place to hide them. Eventually, he pushes them under a bush. He'll take the sandwich back to Spencer, let him eat before they come back here, where they can rest up and eat and hopefully get a ride from someone who stops. That is, if Ryan can make himself get into another truck; right now he's not sure.

Getting back to Spencer seems to take twice as long as leaving. Ryan's so tired that he has to keep rubbing at his eyes to keep them open and by now his chest hurts so much that he imagines there has to be a sharp bone poking at his skin, ready to work its way out. He even checks once, running his fingers over the area where the pain is the worst, but he can't feel any suspicious lumps. He's sure all he's got is a cracked rib, but knowing that doesn't stop it hurting. Ryan wishes it did.

He drinks a little under a quarter of the water, swallowing slowly. He can't seem to stop poking his tongue against the raw skin of his lip, worrying at the flap that still hangs loose. When he thinks he's close to Spencer, Ryan tries to shout, but he can't take in enough air and all he does is say, "Spencer. Spencer, it's me."

At first there's no reply, and Ryan imagines the worst: that Si came back or rabid dogs or even the police, hauling Spencer away before Ryan had the chance to get back. He moves faster, arm pressed against his chest as he weaves through the grass, and finally, sees Spencer's bag. It's abandoned, no sight of Spencer at all.

"Spencer," Ryan says, and then stumbles back when someone screams, and a stick whistles past his head.

"Ryan, fuck, Ryan. Are you okay?" Spencer drops the stick he's still holding and hops over to Ryan. "I heard footsteps and I wasn't sure who it was. You should have shouted."

Ryan tries to say that he did, but all his time is taken with remembering how to breathe, how to get enough air into his lungs and he's bent forward, on the verge of passing out as Spencer rubs at his back.

"I'm sorry," Spencer says. "Breathe, Ryan. Come on."

Spencer keeps talking and keeps rubbing and eventually, Ryan's world starts to come back into focus and he takes shallow breaths, enough to say," I'm fine. Promise."

"If you're sure," Spencer says, but he still looks worried as he sits, patting the ground next to him. "Come sit down, tell me what you saw."

Ryan does so slowly. He sinks to his knees, then further, easing himself down until he's sitting. It's only then that he hands over the sandwich and sets the bottle of water on the floor. "I brought you some take-out."

Dubious, Spencer takes the sandwich, looking at the bites taken from both sides and the curling crust. "You got this out of the trash didn't you?"

Ryan debates lying, but it's not like he's got any lies that could even resemble the truth. He nods. "Yeah."

"Just checking," Spencer says, and takes a bite. He chews slowly, stopping when half is gone and hands it over to Ryan. "Not bad, it tastes better than that banana and beet sandwich you once made."

"That was a culinary triumph," Ryan says, because it was, the banana took on the color of the beets and the combination of flavors was just right.

"Banana aren't supposed to be red."

"Your point?" Ryan takes a bite of sandwich, the memory of making sandwiches in Spencer's kitchen helping it go down more easily.

"My point is, they were gross."

"And yet you ate them."

"Because you did, and we had to match." Spencer smiles then, looking at Ryan. "Mom thought it was cute."

"Even when she was going through pounds of bananas a day?"

"Even then," Spencer says. He picks up the bottle of water and takes a sip, screws back on the top and then looks at his watch. "We should get moving, or it'll be dark before we get there."

Ryan really doesn't want to get up again, but he knows Spencer's right, walking in the dark wouldn't be a good thing at all. Except, right now, he doesn't think he can move. "I think I need a few more minutes, then we'll go."

"Sure." Spencer leans back against the tree and puts his foot back on the bag, then holds up one arm. "Here, come lie on me, rest a while."

Ryan's already moving close, tucking himself in safely against Spencer's side. "Don't let me fall asleep, we need to walk soon."

"I know," Spencer says.

~*~*~*~

Normally Brendon hates being stuck in one place. He likes to jump and run, to meet the world at full speed. Since he got on the bus, he's hardly moved at all. They've stopped at rest stations and Brendon's followed the other passengers outside. He's gone to the bathroom and once he bought water and a bag of Cheetos that he tucked between his thigh and the wall of the bus -- then promptly ignored until the chips were little more than bright orange dust.

Each time he comes back to his seat, curls up small, cheek against the window, eyes open as he watches outside. When it gets dark, Brendon half closes his eyes and lets the world become a blur, which is better than having to see his own reflection.

He opens them fully when the sun begins to rise, soft light illuminating a new day. Normally Brendon would take delight in the things that he sees. The way the people seem different somehow, walking by wrapped in coats and scarves that flap in the wind, but all Brendon feels is guilty, grimy, disgusting, all the things he told himself he wasn't. It turns out Brendon didn't know himself at all.

When the bus pulls up at the final stop, conversations become louder, people who've spent hours traveling stretch and gather their bags. Listlessly, Brendon stands and follows them outside, bypassing the older woman who runs forward, her arms outstretched toward a young girl. Brendon watches them embrace and has a surge of missing his own family so great it manifests as physical pain, a dense ball of misery lodged in the middle of his chest.

He shoves his hand into his pocket then, feeling for the coins he dropped in there two stops before. It's only a handful of quarters, and without thinking the action through he heads for the nearest phone booth, stepping inside. Pushing coins into the slot, he leans heavily against the wall and tucks the receiver against his ear as he calls home.

He doesn't know what he wants to say, just, he needs something, someone to hold him and say things will be okay. If he can't have that, his mom's voice will do. At first there's empty noise, then the call connects and Brendon tightens his hand, hoping desperately that someone will be home. Finally, ten rings later, someone picks up. "Hello?"

"Mom," Brendon says, and his head is swimming, words jammed in his throat. I'm sorry. I love you. Come get me. Please. She doesn't reply, and Brendon swallows hard. "Mom, it's me. Brendon."

"I'm sorry, you've got the wrong number. I don't know anyone by that name." Her voice wavers, and for a second Brendon thinks he might have a chance, one chance, but she hangs up before Brendon can say another word.

Deliberately, each movement measured, Brendon puts the receiver on the hook, then steps outside the booth. The ground of the bus station is tiled, the air filled with fumes, and people push past Brendon, jostling him, talking, laughing, humanity pressing close. All Brendon feels is alone.

There's no place for him here, with these people who smile and hug and talk. There's no room for Brendon anywhere. He begins to walk.

~~~~~~

It's late at night when he stops. Brendon's left the bus station far behind, turning corners at random, and now, hours later, when he finally looks up he sees that he's ended up close to a club, one where a line of people stretch from the glittering red doors and the sound of music pours out, only slightly muted. The bass line catches Brendon's attention: loud, thumping and deep despite the walls that strive to contain it. It leaks out, becoming louder each time the bouncer opens the doors, letting people inside.

Despite the cold and his hunger, how much he's aching from walking all day, he stands still and listens. He takes in the music and concentrates on the way it feels, melody and beat and for the first time in days – weeks -- Brendon smiles for real.

"Hey, retard, get out of the way."

Brendon stumbles, shoved forward by a hand against his back. He turns and is faced by two couples, the men wearing tight t-shirts and the girls hanging onto their arms, their hair long and glossy, their lips shining red. It's one of the girls who's pushed Brendon and she laughs, mean and loud as she shoves him again.

"I said move."

"Sorry," Brendon says, and he smiles as he starts to step out of the way.

"I think he likes you, Jess," the other girl says. She steps forward, staggering in her heels and smelling of alcohol and smoke as she looks at Brendon. "Look at him, he wants you."

"No, I don't," Brendon protests, and he begins to back away.

"You don't want me?" Jess steps close and tugs at the neckline of her dress. "You seem to like looking at my tits."

"I...no." Brendon looks away from the girl who's so close, just there.

"You're looking at my girl's tits?" The man shakes his head and laughs as he looks at his friend. "You want my girl you'll have to fight me for her."

He makes a fist then, laughing meanly, clearly in the market for trouble. It's unfair, because all Brendon was doing was listening to the music, and now he's going to have to run again. He can't fight. Even if he'd ever learned. His mind conjures up images of blood and water, pain and the sound of groaning, the thud of flesh and blood against tile. All four laugh as Brendon turns and runs.

~~~~~~

It's twelve twenty-seven in the morning when Brendon checks into the hotel, the cheapest one he can find. He's carrying a paper bag -- a saran-wrapped sandwich inside, egg salad, the last one in the shop at the corner of the street -- and a bottle of water. The clerk checking him in never looks up as she passes him a key, just keeps watching the small TV behind the counter. Brendon smiles at her anyway, says, "Thank you," before going to his room.

It takes almost ten minutes before Brendon finds number twelve. The lights in the corridor are dim, half of them missing bulbs. Brendon flushes when a woman walks past, her skirt short, her top low-cut. She gives him a wink as she opens a door and urges a man to go inside. Brendon's own room is at the end of the hall, and he steps into it, turning on the light.

There's a bed inside, the cover pale blue, a stain at one corner. A tiny bathroom with a tub that has rust streaked at one end sits to the side. The TV is attached to the wall by a chain and static fills the screen when Brendon turns it on. At this point he's too tired to care and he flops down on the bed, dropping the bag and bottle, both of them falling to the floor.

Hands fisted, Brendon pushes them against his eyes, willing himself not to cry. He's inside, he's safe. He's got enough money to stay here for two days. He's fine. Uncurling his hands, Brendon reaches down and picks up his sandwich and water. Grimacing, he untwists the top of the bottle.

He looks at his palms, at the scratches, some of which are puffy and inflamed. It feels like a lifetime ago when he hurt them, and Brendon pokes at the side of one of the red lines, watching as puss oozes free. It's all kinds of disgusting, and he feels sick as he takes a long drink, then eats the sandwich, hoping it'll ease the empty ache in his belly.

When he's finished it all, Brendon lies down, squirming under the covers. He doesn't turn off the light, or the TV, just listens to white noise until he finally sleeps.

~~~~~

It's hours later when Brendon wakes. He blinks against the sun that streams through the thin curtains, then winces as his stomach cramps hard. Throwing himself out of bed, Brendon runs and falls to his knees in front of the toilet, throwing up the sandwich and water. He keeps dry heaving until his eyes are streaming and his entire torso aches. Cheek against the seat of the toilet, Brendon reaches up blindly and flushes. He feels water hitting his face, water and no doubt more, but moving isn't an option -- not yet.

Breathing shallowly, Brendon swallows hard and tries to ignore the cramps in his belly, how he feels cold and clammy. Shivering, he debates the wisdom of going back to bed.

When he does move, his hand pressed against his stomach, head swimming, Brendon only gets half way back to his bed before abruptly changing direction, fumbling with his pants and pushing them down before rushing to the toilet. Sitting, he starts to heave once more and reaches for the small trash can, holding onto it as he throws up stomach acid and bile. Throat sore, stomach aching and miserable, all Brendon wants is his mom -- anyone. No one comes.

~*~*~*~

"I was thinking," Ryan says. "Beanbags would be awesome, they've got that retro feel, plus, they're cheap."

"I hate beanbags." Spencer stops walking and leans heavily against Ryan. "In fact, right now I hate everything."

"Beanbags are cost effective and comfortable, also, easy to match decor wise."

Spencer frowns. "They also burst and I'm not picking up a million tiny balls."

With a last scowl at Ryan, Spencer starts walking again, limping so badly that Ryan holds back on his lecture about beanbag care. For a minute anyway, when he can't hold it in anymore. "They don't burst, not if you don't flop down on them."

"It was ten years ago, Ryan. Let it go."

"I have," Ryan protests, because this isn't about Spencer doing a dive from the top of the bed and bursting Ryan's favourite ninja turtle beanbag, not at all.

"Doesn't sound like it." Pushing his hair out of his eyes, Spencer asks, "How far is it now?"

"Not far." Thankfully, this time it's the truth, which is good because Ryan's exhausted and he knows Spencer has to feel just as bad. It seems like they've been walking for days and if Ryan never sees grass again it'll be too soon. Still, there's nothing they can do but keep going, slowly, always so slowly, as Spencer's limp worsens and the burning in Ryan's chest becomes a constant, one that's made worse by having to carry his guitar.

Sometimes, when every part of him is hurting, Ryan thinks about leaving the instrument behind. It would be easier to go on without it, but he can never bring himself to actually set it on the ground and walk away, because Ryan's already lost so much. He can't lose this, too. Plus, they'll need it to make money, so Ryan can busk while they get jobs and their own place. That's part of the plan.

"Is the bank getting smaller?" Spencer asks suddenly, and relief rushes over Ryan, because yes, it is, and that means they'll be at the rest area soon. Able to sit and rest and drink. Knowing that is the boost Ryan needed. He increases his pace a little, enough that he's walking faster, but still remains close at Spencer's side.

"The rest area is just ahead," Ryan says. "Hopefully someone is parked up there, but if not, I left some stuff we can eat while we wait."

"More trash food?" Spencer asks, sounding resigned.

"Yeah." Ryan doesn't justify keeping it, Spencer's smart, he knows they have to do what they can to survive.

Neither of them speak then, reserving their strength for walking. Finally, Ryan sees the rest-area ahead. The toilet block with the vending machines, the trash cans and sign, the space where the trucks can park. The lot is still empty, but Ryan knows someone will come, it's just a case of when.

"I could kiss you right now."

Spencer's standing propped up against Ryan, his hair tangled. He pushes it back, exposing a dirt-streaked face, but all Ryan sees is his smile, how relieved Spencer looks as he pulls Ryan even closer, into something that's more a hug than just support.

"Told you we'd get here."

"You did," Spencer agrees, and to Ryan's surprise, he presses a quick kiss against Ryan's mouth. It's not a good kiss as such; Spencer smells, and his lips are gritty with dirt. Ryan just blinks as Spencer asks, "Is that okay? I mean, I always assumed, but we never said anything...."

"The location could be better," Ryan says, but he kisses Spencer in return, a quick brush of lips. "It's fine, promise."

"Good," Spencer says, and he moves in again, his touch tentative at first as he hesitantly runs his tongue over one side of Ryan's lip, stopping just short of where the skin begins to split, then back toward the corner. Ryan's heart is beating fast, prickles of sensation running through his body because this is Spencer. They've been leading up to this for what feels like forever, and it's all kinds of frustrating that their first kiss is now, when Ryan can't even fully enjoy it.

"I can kiss much better than this usually," Ryan says, his words against Spencer's mouth.

"Yeah?" Spencer smiles and rests his forehead against Ryan's. "You've been practicing with your hand again?"

"Are you implying I've never been kissed?"

"Not by me," Spencer says.

Which is an important distinction, so Ryan says, "True."

One last smile, then Spencer pulls back to look around. "So we're sleeping in the toilets?"

"It'll be slightly warmer, I guess, but the floors are concrete and if anyone comes in when we're asleep--"

"Good point." Spencer indicates an area set back from the toilet blocks, planted with a series of bushes, a barrier between the grass behind. "We could sleep under those bushes."

"Bush sleeping, awesome," Ryan says. But it makes sense, the last thing they want to do is be trapped anywhere, and this time Ryan is determined to check any potential driver who offer them a ride. He's not going to put Spencer in danger again.

"Just pretend we're camping, you used to like it."

"Camping in your front room with your mom bringing us food and drinks was different," Ryan points out.

Spencer looks away, his smile fading. "Yeah."

Ryan feels a sting of guilt at bringing up memories that only remind Spencer of what he's lost. Wanting to make amends, he looks around until he sees the bush where he hid the apples, and goes to pull out the bag, holding it up. "Want a picnic?"

"You know it," Spencer says, and while his smile is obviously forced, it's there as they both walk toward the toilet block and sit on the ground. It takes a while to actually sit. Spencer has to lower himself down, his foot always outstretched, and Ryan watches to make sure Spencer's safely down before heading inside to fill the water bottle. It takes a while, Ryan's hands are shaking and the water flows over his hand, dripping into the sink, until finally the bottle is full. Taking a drink he refills the bottle, then makes his way back to Spencer. Bracing himself on the wall, Ryan sits, each movement making him gasp as he finally settles on the hard ground.

When he's as comfortable as possible, he sets the apples on the ground and opens the water bottle before handing it to Spencer and looking at the vending machines, the rows of candy bars and chips and cold drinks, just there. "I don't suppose you know how to get into those?"

"Not without a hammer." Spencer puts down the bottle and tilts his head as he looks at the flap at the bottom. "Maybe you could get your arm inside?"

"Maybe," Ryan says, dubiously, because while he's thin, he doesn't think his arms can bend enough to get at the stuff inside. Still, he can give it a try. He pushes himself to his knees and knee-walks to the machine, using one hand to push back the flap. It's heavy and rigid and Ryan can't help imagining getting stuck, but the temptation of real food is too much, and he's about to put in his hand when Spencer yells.

"Wait, stop. I just remembered. I've got the change from when I bought the Band-aids." Leaning to one side, Spencer digs in his pocket and finally pulls out a handful of coins. Holding out his hand he displays what they've got -- two quarters and a few dimes -- just enough for one thing from the machine.

Ryan looks at the choices. He hasn't been away from home long, but already the selection seems too much. Does he get candy or chips? M & Ms that could be doled out, or a bar that they can nibble at and put away? He turns to Spencer. "What do you want?"

"The chocolate will have more energy value I guess," Spencer says. "I think, M & Ms, get the peanut ones for the protein."

Ryan nods and feeds the money into the machine, pressing the number for the candy and watching as it travels forward, falling to the bottom. Picking up the packet, he crawls back over, and hands it to Spencer.

Sitting back down, he takes one M&M from the bag Spencer offers, and slowly, he sucks at the shell, then the chocolate inside before finally biting through the peanut, savoring it as long as he can. They sit in the early evening sunshine and prepare to wait.

~*~*~*~

 

A truck pulls in late that night. Hidden in the bushes, Ryan rests his hand on Spencer's back and watches as the driver gets out of the cab, stretching before locking his truck and heading for the toilet block. From this distance he's little more than a shape in the darkness. Ryan's pleased that someone has finally parked at last, he's pretty nervous, too, because how're they supposed to know if this guy is some kind of freak or not? Ryan had thought Si was okay, and he hadn't been at all.

"Stop thinking so hard." Spencer turns slightly, enough so he's looking at Ryan. "We have to take a chance, we can't stay here."

"And what if he's some axe murdering pervert?"

"He was carrying a magazine, not an axe."

Which is true, but now that he's faced with trusting someone, Ryan isn't sure that he can.

"Hey, it's okay." Spencer reaches out so he can pat Ryan's leg. "We'll think of something, if we have to, we'll climb into the back."

Ryan looks at the truck, at the sides of the trailer that are held down with straps, which surely they'll be able to loosen to get inside. "You're a genius."

"I try," Spencer says, and then he puts his finger the side of Ryan's mouth. "Shush, he's coming."

Ryan nods, watching as the driver goes back to his truck. There's a tense moment when it looks like he might be leaving immediately. Then the lights of the cab switch on, and for a moment, the driver can be seen clearly, a guy wearing a red plaid shirt with blond hair pulled back into a loose pony tail.

"What is it with truckers and bad fashion choices?" Ryan can't actually see Spencer that clearly due to the covering of bushes they're hiding under, but he catches the hint of an eyebrow raise and asks, "What?"

"Have you seen what we look like lately? And you're critiquing his fashion style?"

"We're very boho chic, he's just lame."

"If by boho chic you mean dirty and smelly, I agree."

"Like I said, boho chic." Ryan tugs gently at Spencer's hair and then sits still, watching the dark shape of the driver move behind the closed curtain. When he finally stops moving, and the main light dims to a faint glow, Spencer starts to wiggle out from their hiding place.

"Come on, we need to get inside before he goes."

Despite knowing he won't be seen, Ryan nods. It takes a while to work himself free. He's been sitting crouched over -- his hair is tangled with the branches and he has to go slowly because deep breaths suck. Eventually, after a cursory brushing of his hair with his fingers, Ryan's on clear ground. He steels himself before pushing upright. When he's standing and mostly steady, Ryan holds out a hand to help Spencer stand, and they both make their way over to the truck.

Neither speaks; they don't need to. Ryan can read Spencer's gestures easily, and soon they're standing at the back of the trailer, examining the buckles and straps. It doesn't look that complicated, and if they can get one undone they can squeeze inside. Then it's a matter of waiting for the morning, when they'll be on their way without anyone knowing they're there.

The straps are pulled so tight that Ryan can't get them loose, and Spencer's not doing any better. Both of them are working as hard as they can, tugging and trying to wedge their fingers between the buckles, but all that happens is that Ryan's nails chip and his fingers ache. Not that he stops, all he does is keep trying harder, moving from strap to strap, hoping that at least one will be loose. None of them are, and Ryan's so frustrated, so angry at his inability to even do this, that he doesn't hear the approaching footsteps until it's too late.

"What the fuck do you think you're doing?!"

Ryan jumps back, turning to see that the driver has hold of Spencer, his hand wrapped around Spencer's arm.

"Let go of him!" Furious, Ryan runs forward, launching himself at the man, who pushes him back easily. Fear pushing past any hurt, Ryan attacks again, and this time the man grabs hold of Ryan's arm too, tightening his grip and not letting go, no matter how hard Spencer and Ryan struggle and hit.

"Will you two stop it? I'm not going to hurt you." The man is frowning, and his strength is obvious, but he's not doing anything except holding on, waiting for them to settle down.

"Let us go," Ryan yells, still struggling to get free. "If you don't, you'll be sorry."

"Really?" The man shakes his head and Ryan catches sight of a hint of a smile. "Seems to me you're the ones who need to be sorry, especially when I hand you over to the authorities for trying to steal my cargo."

"We weren't trying to steal it." Spencer has stopped struggling now, is standing with one foot raised off the ground. "We needed a ride, that's all."

"And you couldn't have asked?"

"Last time we did that it didn't end well." Spencer indicates himself and Ryan with a sweep of his hand. "Look, we're sorry for bothering you, but if you let us go we'll go away and you'll never have to worry about us again."

"Sorry, kid. Can't do that."

"Why? You going to take what you want, too?" Ryan spits out. "Is there some kind of trucker code we don't know about where rides are paid with sex?"

"For some perverted bastards, maybe." The man looks from Spencer to Ryan, as if considering what to do. "Look, if I let go will you run?"

Ryan doesn't reply, just glares, but Spencer says, "Normally, yeah. But right now I don't think we could."

"I figured." The man sighs and lets go. "I can't let you travel in the back, but I can offer you a ride."

Spencer moves so that he's leaning against the side of the truck, his expression defiant. "We don't have any money."

"I don't want any." The trucker looks between them, and says softly, obviously to himself, "I must be insane, fucking friends and their bad influences." Then, more loudly, "My name's Bob. If you don't want to tell me your names that's fine, I'll just call you Hey You."

Ryan's about to answer that that's fine, but Spencer gives him a look, and Ryan closes his mouth, letting Spencer do the talking. "Spencer and Ryan will be fine. That's Ryan."

Ryan nods slightly, but keeps glaring, showing Bob that they're not trusting him, they're on guard. Not that Bob seems to care. In fact, all he does is walk back to the front of his truck. Then he looks back. "Are you coming or what?"

"What do you think?" Spencer asks Ryan, pitching his voice low.

Ryan shrugs, unable to answer the question, because the fact is, he's got no idea what to think. Bob seems okay; he could have hurt them but he didn't. That doesn't mean, though, that he won't. And Ryan's not about to drop his guard -- he's been caught out once, it's not about to happen again.

"We can't stay here," Spencer says, and despite how tired he appears, there's also an underlying layer of determination. "And if he tries anything, I'll punch him out."

"Excellent plan." Making a fist, Ryan holds it in the air until Spencer does the same, and they bump their fists together.

"If you've finished plotting to beat me up, you should come here."

Ryan lets his hand drop and frowns at Bob, because what's he doing spying on them from the front of the truck? But Spencer doesn't seem concerned at all, just starts to limp forward, one hand braced against the side of the trailer. Seeing that, Bob watches for a moment, and Ryan expects him to say something, ask for an explanation or make some stupid meaningless remark, but all he does is disappear back around front, leaving Ryan to hurry and catch up.

When he gets there he sees that Bob's looking for something inside the cab, the only thing visible being his legs, showing off his cargo pants and striped socks. It only proves the point that truckers have no fashion sense at all. Ryan's about to point that out to Spencer when Bob straightens up and jumps to the ground. Turning, he holds up a small first-aid kit.

"You probably need the hospital, but I know you won't go, so this is the best I can do."

"Thanks," Spencer says, and he takes the kit.

In reply, Bob climbs back into the cab and rummages around in the foot-well of the passenger seat, finally coming out with two big bottles of water which he sets on the ground. "I'm going to restock on junk food, give me a shout when you're done."

He goes without a backward glance, heading over to the vending machines, where he starts feeding in coin after coin.

"You're the one with the mad skills, you'd better have this." Spencer holds out the kit to Ryan.

Ryan looks away from Bob, who seems to be on a mission to empty the machine of every chocolate bar in there. He takes the first-aid kit off Spencer and opens it up, setting it on the step of the truck. He takes stock of what's inside, because while he doesn't have mad skills like Spencer seems to think, Ryan can patch himself up, and others too.

Dealing with bruises and cuts is different, though, and Ryan doesn't even know where to start. Picking up a roll of bandages, he puts it back, and looks at Spencer who's lowered himself to the ground. He's sitting in the patch of ground illuminated by the cab lights and looking so washed out and pale that Ryan's frozen in place, his doubts overwhelming, because what if he does something wrong? What if he makes things worse?

"Let me help with that, it's awkward for one person to wrap an ankle."

Ryan can only look at Bob, who's dropped an armful of candy and chips on the ground.

"Here, hold his leg up while I take off his shoe." Somehow, Bob's moved so that he's kneeling next to Spencer. With a curt nod, Ryan does the same, looking at Spencer, who's propped up on his elbows, his eyes half closed. Gently, Ryan cradles Spencer's lower leg in his hands, feeling how warm and swollen it is the closer it gets to the ankle.

"Hey, kid, I'm going to take your shoe off. Hang in there." Movements sure, Bob pulls at Spencer's sneaker, easing it off his foot, and then does the same for his sock. Ryan forces himself to stay still, not to haul Bob away when Spencer tries to suppress his cries of pain -- and fails.

"I'll bandage this up, you keep holding on," Bob says, glancing at Ryan before efficiently wrapping a bandage around Spencer's ankle. When he's done, he secures it with tape and then climbs back into the truck, coming back with a pillow that he sets on the ground. "You can rest his foot on here."

"Yeah, sure." Ryan lowers Spencer's leg onto the cushion, and then stands, watching, as Bob opens a see-through box with multiple small bottles of medication inside. Rummaging through them, he eventually takes out a bottle of Tylenol and one of Ibuprofen, shaking pills from both.

"Here, take these, they're painkillers and anti-inflammatories." He hands them to Spencer, who swallows them dry, then offers the boxes to Ryan. "You want?"

Ryan does want. He wants something to take the edge off the pain in his chest, or tame the headache that's a constant background throb. Still, he shakes his head, because he needs to be alert, especially when Spencer is half-asleep.

"Fair enough," Bob puts the box on the dashboard of the cab. "They're there if you change your mind." He looks at Ryan then, and immediately Ryan feels defensive, like he's been judged somehow and coming up lacking. But when Bob does speak again, all he says is, "You should get yourself cleaned up, those cuts could get infected."

"I'm fine," Ryan says, and takes a step closer to Spencer.

"You're being an idiot." Spencer emphasizes his point by poking his finger at Ryan's leg. "You need to get those cleaned out, and take some pain-killers for fuck's sake."

"But what...."

"Look, kid, if it helps, I've got someone waiting for me at home, and have no desire to get near either of your under-aged asses. Get cleaned up, don't. I don't fucking care."

Which is obviously untrue. It's there in the way Bob looks at them, the concern evident in his actions of gathering blankets and water and food. Still, Ryan appreciates the sentiment. "Fine."

Ryan starts cleaning out the cuts on his own, methodically pouring water over his arms, watching the dirt be washed away. It would be easier to do in the bathroom but he's not about to leave Spencer, and so makes do with the bottled water as he scrubs at each cut and scratch with sterile squares of cloth from the kit, adding antiseptic and then moving onto the next. Up his arms, across his shoulders, over his chest – the one across his rib-cage is one of the worst, deep and hot to the touch. Ryan's hands shake as he tucks his t-shirt up under his chin, cleaning and applying cream, smoothing it into the ragged groove. He's taking in shallow breaths, panting for air, but he grits his teeth and keeps going.

"You're not breathing too well."

Ryan rounds on Bob, letting pain fuel his impatience. "You try walking around with busted ribs and see how well you breathe."

"They're probably just cracked."

"They still fucking hurt."

"Never said they wouldn't," Bob says, not reacting to Ryan's anger at all. "It would help to wrap them."

"I know that." Ryan takes another bandage, using his teeth to pull apart the plastic wrapping. Tucking the end of the bandage under his arm, he pulls his t-shirt under his chin again and starts to wrap across his chest. He doesn't even get to under his other arm before he has to stop. It's impossible to hold up his t-shirt and cross his arm and get the bandage behind his back. Not that he doesn't try -- again and again. Until finally, Bob steps forward and takes hold of the bandage. Ryan's so tired, so fucking done, that all he can do is let him.

"Stay still," Bob orders, and while he sounds rough, his touch is gentle as he carefully wraps the bandage, checking the tightness often, never asking but assessing Ryan's comfort in the way he reacts. "There, done."

Ryan lets his t-shirt drop and takes a tentative deep breath. It still hurts, a lot, but the bandages help.

"Are you going to take these now?"

Ryan turns to Bob, who's leaning against the steps of the cab, holding out the bottles of pills. Despite his reservations, Ryan holds out his hand.

"You're welcome," Bob says, handing them over. Ryan opens both bottles, shakes out the pills and dry swallows them all. When he's done Bob takes back the bottles, and starts to pick up the packets and used sterile squares, crumpling them all together before going to pitch them in the trash cans.

"I can do that," Ryan says, keeping a hand against his ribs as he bends to pick up a stray wrapper.

"You could, and then you'd end up fainting and then I'd have to haul your ass into my truck."

"I don't faint," Ryan protests, because he doesn't. He's never fainted, ever.

"Sorry tough guy, my mistake."

While Bob isn't smiling, Ryan gets the feeling that he's laughing at him somehow, which he doesn't like at all, but he's distracted by the fact Bob's also opening a plastic box filled with sandwiches and setting a giant red plaid flask on the ground.

"More plaid, seriously?" Ryan says without thinking.

Bob looks up. "I like plaid."

"I can see that."

"You're one to talk," Bob says, gesturing toward Ryan.

"He calls it boho chic," Spencer says unexpectedly, and yawns as he rubs at his eyes with one hand. "That's food, non-trash food."

"It is," Bob says, sitting down far enough from Spencer that Ryan can relax, but close enough that he's in the patch of light. "And that's not boho chic, that's dirt."

"At least I'm not wearing plaid." Easing himself down, Ryan sits next to Spencer. He grunts, "What?" when he's poked in the thigh. For almost a minute he engages in a silent conversation with Spencer, one involving eyebrow raises, shoulder shrugs and fierce frowns. Eventually, though, Ryan looks at Bob. "Not that you look bad in plaid."

"I'll sleep easier knowing that." Bob takes the box of sandwiches and holds them out to Spencer and Ryan. "Help yourself."

They do, both taking a sandwich -- thick doughy bread, with copious slices of roast beef. Ryan chews his slowly, favouring one side of his mouth, and by the time he's finished, both Spencer and Bob have eaten two sandwiches and are starting on cups of coffee, the steam rising into the cool of the night as they wrap their hands around the plastic thermos-topper cups.

"Here," Spencer holds out his cup and Ryan takes it. Resisting the urge to gulp at the coffee, he sips instead, enjoying the warmth in his mouth and belly. Combined with the lessening pain as the pills kick in, right now Ryan feels better than he has in a while.

"Are you going somewhere specific?"

It's not an unexpected question. Ryan knew Bob would ask sometime, he's just taken off-guard, and it's Spencer that replies.

"We're going to Chicago."

"Figures," Bob says, at least that's what Ryan thinks he said, because Bob's taking another drink, his mouth mostly concealed by the white cup. "Is someone expecting you there?"

"My uncle," Ryan says immediately. "He's letting us stay for a while."

"Right," Bob says, drawing out the word and obviously not believing Ryan at all. Surprisingly, he doesn't press for details, just drains his cup before shaking it over the ground, getting rid of any last drops. "I've paperwork I was planning to do tonight, so I'll just stay up in the front of the cab, you two can sleep in back."

Ryan sets down the cup, his heart starting to race as he looks at Bob, because he was beginning to trust him, and now he wants them in his bed. "We're staying out here."

Bob shrugs. "It's your choice, but there's a bed going empty. If you'd rather stay out here, I'm not going to stop you." He stands then, and starts to gather the remains of the sandwiches, sealing the lid of the box.

Reaching out, Spencer grabs Ryan's arm and pulls him close, enough so that he can talk in Ryan's ear. "It's stupid staying here when there's a bed in there."

"And what happens if he comes in the back? It's not like we can fight him off."

"Kid, if I wanted I could take you two here. You're in no condition to fight me off." Bob screws the cups back on top of the thermos, not appearing ashamed of listening in at all.

"No way would you be able to take us," Ryan spits, bitter and fierce. He pointedly turns his back, looking only at Spencer, taking in how he's barely keeping himself awake, and how despite the painkillers, he's shifting uncomfortably on the ground. "Fine, okay, we'll sleep in there."

Ryan pushes himself up, ignoring Bob, who's moved close, ready to help if needed. Holding out his hand, Ryan helps Spencer to stand, letting him lean against him, despite the resulting flash of pain.

Getting into the truck is awkward. The steps are high and Spencer has to haul himself up, clinging onto the door as best he can. All the time Ryan stands behind him, ready to help. Thankfully, Spencer manages on his own. Ryan's honestly not sure he can get himself in, never mind help someone else.

Looking over his shoulder, Ryan checks that Bob's moved away, because Ryan can do this on his own, even if reaching up hurts and pulling himself up hurts even more. He still does it, stepping inside and behind the front seats, to the bed area where Spencer is already lying down.

Bob's quilt is red, and there's a pile of pillows at one end of the sleeping area. He's got a small TV on a shallow shelf and a laptop tucked between the bed and the wall. There's a pair of battered slippers and what looks like a sketchbook jammed behind the clothes carefully piled in one corner. It's cosy and comfortable and if Ryan wasn't so nervous he'd be enjoying settling down in the pile of pillows. As it is, he's jumping at every noise, so tense that his shoulders feel brittle and tight as he sits, his back against the wall.

"You should lie down," Spencer says. He's got his foot elevated on two pillows, and he twists around so he can rest his head against Ryan's thigh. "We can trust him, Ryan. I've spent my life having to judge people, I know."

"You didn't know about Si," Ryan says, and hates himself for it after, because none of this is Spencer's fault. Maybe he didn't know Si was some kind of pervert, but it's not like Ryan did, either.

"He's not like Si."

"How do you know?" Ryan rubs his hand over Spencer's shoulder, looking toward the door, where Bob's still moving around outside.

"I don't," Spencer admits. He turns even more, enough so he can rest his arm over Ryan's legs. "But we need sleep, and he hasn't tried anything."

"And I'm not going to." The truck dips slightly when Bob climbs on board. Sitting in the passenger seat, he turns so he can see in back. "Can you pass my laptop?"

Ryan does, watching as Bob opens it and settles down, turning off the cab lights, his feet on the dashboard, the glow of his laptop bleaching his face white. Back against the wall, Ryan pulls up the quilt so it covers Spencer. "I'm not going to sleep."

"Up to you," Bob says.

It's nearly midnight when Ryan gives in and sleeps. He remains sitting up, Spencer a heavy weight on his legs, the sound of Bob typing the background noise of his dreams.

~*~*~*~

Hands against the counter, Brendon leans in, trying his best smile. "Please, I'll be able to pay tomorrow. Promise."

"You pay upfront, or no room." The woman behind the counter glances up then, taking a moment from watching Oprah to actually look at who's standing at the desk. "Have any money?"

Brendon's smile fades, because all he's got is change, and no way will that pay for the room. "No."

"No money, no room, you need to be out by ten." She goes back to watching TV then, something about healthy eating, a chef chopping vegetables, Oprah looking intent as she explains about obesity figures.

Brendon turns away, the sight of food making him feel nauseated. It's been hours since he last threw up, and he feels shaky from dehydration and exhaustion. What he wants is to go back to the room and curl up in bed, but it's pointless, he'd only have to leave in ten minutes, and it's not as if he's got anything to go back for. Never looking back, Brendon leaves the hotel.

It's bright outside, cold, and Brendon shivers and screws up his eyes. Walking slowly, he looks around, taking in the shops and the people who hurry by. None of them look Brendon's way.

He tries to remember his lessons from school, when they were told what to do in an emergency, but none of those situations apply now. It's a terrifying situation, and Brendon crosses his arms across his chest, hugging himself as he watches people walk past. When he sees an older woman he steps forward, about to ask about the nearest park, anything as long as someone sees him and will look his way. He calls, "Excuse me." She doesn't slow down at all.

He tries again and again; each time they duck their heads, look away, and Brendon's left standing alone. Before he'd have gone to the church, but now the thought makes him feel sick, and he begins to walk, never looking where he's going, just knowing he needs to move.

He stops when he notices a library. It's in an old building, a wooden ramp built over the stone stairs that lead to the heavy doors. Walking inside, Brendon heads for the stacks, wandering until he finds a chair. Sitting, he takes a moment to rest, then reaches out and grabs the nearest book, opening it and holding it in his hands. He grips the pages, forces himself to loosen his grip when the paper crumples -- he doesn't try to read. It's pointless when all the words will do is dance in front of his eyes. Instead Brendon pretends, that he's supposed to be here, tucked up small, book in hands. He pretends to be a boy with somewhere to go.

~~~~~~

The problem is, he isn't that boy. The library closes at eight, and Brendon has to leave. He smiles at the woman who's ushering people out, keeps acting -- he's got someplace to go, really, he's going to walk out here and go home. What he does instead is walk out and start walking again.

Brendon's hungry, thirsty, and all he has is a few coins in his pocket. It's dark, cold, and he shivers, curling his hands as he hurries through the emptying streets, until, finally, he finds himself outside of the club again. This time there's no line outside, just locked doors and dim lights and Brendon walks up to the doors, rests his hands on the sparkling surface and imagines he can feel the beat of music that's contained within.

Which is stupid and pointless, but Brendon focuses on the songs, the melodies that he keeps safe in his head. Things that have never turned on him, have never expected more than he can give. If he imagines those he doesn't have to remember how his stomach is growling and his throat is dry, how he's freezing and so tired he's swaying in place. Lost in those sounds, those songs, Brendon jumps when someone suddenly walks close, stops in front of Brendon and clears his throat.

"You're new around here, aren't you?" The man is older, around Brendon's dad's age. He's wearing a tan overcoat, a striped scarf and black pants. He smiles at Brendon, reaches out and runs his fingers down Brendon's face. "Did you just arrive?"

Brendon nods and then remembers his manners, smiling as he holds out his hand. "I'm Brendon."

The man seems surprised and shakes hands briefly, looking Brendon up and down. "Even with the bruise you're a pretty one."

Flushing, Brendon wonders what to say. He eventually settles on, "Thanks."

"You're welcome." The man's still staring at Brendon, assessing him. "I take it this is your first day?"

"I'm not..." Brendon's unsure what he's supposed to say, but the man looks pleased with his confusion, like Brendon's pleased him somehow.

"Oh, you really are green." He steps forward, so close that Brendon has to look up at him. "I'll give you ten dollars if you blow me."

It's not what Brendon expected at all, and he's about to refuse, hurry away when he thinks what the money will get him. It could easily buy something hot to drink, something to settle his stomach, to warm him; something plain, because despite the constant nausea, Brendon's starving. And even if he hasn't done this before, there's no reason why he can't, a blow job can't be that difficult. He's tainted anyway, that's why his parents couldn't keep him.

"Come on, pretty. A few minutes for ten dollars, that's a good rate. I'm being generous here." The man reaches into his pocket and pulls out his wallet, taking out a ten; he holds it in front of Brendon's face.

Brendon wants the money, but more than that, he needs it. He has a momentary dream of hot soup, tea with sugar, even an apple would do. Stomach grumbling, he reaches out, placing his palm flat against the wall of the club, steadying himself as he suddenly sways.

"You using, pretty?"

Brendon's not sure what that means, but, "Just hungry." He blinks away the spots that float in front of his eyes. He concentrates on the rough feel of the wall, the brick digging into the scabbed cuts on his palms, the sidewalk, so solid under his feet, how he's cold, exposed skin chilled, anything to keep him rooted in the here and now.

The man nods, opens his wallet again. "Tell you what, I like to think of myself as a kind man and I like you. So I'm going to make it fifteen – that's a solid meal."

It's an offer Brendon can't refuse. He takes a deep breath and pushes back the part of him that's screaming wrong wrong wrong . "Okay."

"Excellent." The man smiles and starts to walk, looking cursorily back at Brendon. "Well come on, we can't do it here."

The end up in an alley behind the club, the floor littered with used condoms, broken glass and take-out cartons. It smells of decay, urine, the sour taint of old vomit. Brendon begins to regret saying yes; he's out of his depth and each decision he makes seems to make things worse. He looks back at the entrance to the alley and thinks about running, but that would take energy he doesn't have, and he makes himself remember Alan's face. How close he came to dying, and all because of Brendon. Would-be murderers deserve to be punished: there's a reason Brendon's here.

Nervous, Brendon takes a step back, looks down and digs the toe of his sneaker into the ground. "I haven't. I mean. I haven't done this before."

"It's easy." The man opens his coat, runs his hands through Brendon's hair, his touch gentle. He urges Brendon down, pressing on his head until he drops to his knees. "You need to open my pants first."

Brendon's palms are still criss-crossed with scrapes, and he feels clumsy as he fumbles at the button of the man's pants --they're made of some kind of plastic, tiny buttons arranged in a pair. It takes a while to unbutton each one, and Brendon listens to the man breathe, so relaxed in comparison to the way Brendon is almost hyperventilating as he bites at his bottom lip and finally undoes the buttons. He figures out to pull down the zipper all on his own.

"That's it, pretty, take them down. My underwear too."

Brendon does, his hands shaking as he eases the man's pants past his hips, then hooks his fingers in the waistband of his underwear and tugs. The man sighs, and Brendon doesn't know where to look. He's never been this close to someone else's cock before, and he's got no idea what to do. He's read books, checked out web sites, seen all the movies that Alan used to show, but none of that helps at all. Not when he's kneeling on the hard ground and the man's cock is right there, hard and red and already glistening at the end.

"Come on, pretty. I haven't got all night."

The man sounds impatient now, and instead of stroking Brendon's hair, he grabs hold of it, his grip tight. Wincing, Brendon tentatively moves in, opening his mouth, intending to go slow. It doesn't happen like that at all. As soon as Brendon's close, the man thrusts forward, shoving his cock into Brendon's mouth. It hits the back of his throat and Brendon gags at the taste and sensation, hating how his mouth is full, how he has to open his mouth wide to get it all in. He tries to pull back but the man tightens his hold and starts to thrust, pulling his hips back slightly before slamming back in.

Eyes streaming, Brendon chokes with each thrust, fighting for breath as spit oozes from his mouth, sliding down his chin. Desperate, he brings up his hands and grabs hold of the man's hips, trying to keep him back, but that doesn't work. Brendon yelps when the man just thrusts harder while pulling on Brendon's hair.

"Come on. Jesus, you said I could do this."

Brendon closes his eyes and fights for air, choking on the man's cock, pushing too far into his throat, the rhythm brutal, and only getting faster, more insistent.

"That's it. You can take it. Such a good boy. If I didn't have to get home I'd fuck you, too. I bet you'd be tight. Would you want that, pretty? My cock in your ass?"

There's no way Brendon can reply, not that the man seems to expect him to, he just grunts and slams his hips forward, and Brendon has no warning before he's forced to swallow when the man comes, retching at the thick warm fluid that slides down his throat. The man pulls back then, sliding his softening cock over Brendon's bottom lip, leaving behind a trail of fluid. Brendon wipes at his mouth with his hand, keeps looking at the ground as the man pulls up his underwear and pants, fastens his coat.

"Here you go, pretty."

Two bills float to the ground, and Brendon reaches out for them, crumpling them in his hand. He stays on his knees, breathing hard as the man fastens his coat, and then goes. As soon as he's gone Brendon falls forward, hands against the ground as he throws up, bile mixed with the remains of the man's come -- evidence of just how disgusting Brendon has become.

~*~*~*~

"I'll be stopping for breakfast soon." It's the first time Bob's addressed them since they set off almost two hours earlier, when they drove away in the silvery-light of pre-dawn. Since then he's mostly driven in silence, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel in time to songs on the radio and occasionally talking on the CB, short conversations with people with handles like Zombie and BMonkey, not that Ryan understands any of what they say.

"Okay," Spencer says. He's lying down and reading one of Bob's books, his foot propped on a pile of pillows. He looks better now, less strain apparent around his mouth. Seeing that helps Ryan relax, too, helps him believe that maybe this will turn out okay.

"I'll wash our clothes while we're there, there has to be a sink." Ryan looks down at his t-shirt, grimacing at how stained it is. All their clothes are.

"Good idea," Spencer says. "I'll help." He pats the space next to him then, urging Ryan to come closer. "Come lie next to me until we get there."

With a look at Bob, Ryan does so, stretching out as best he can. While he still doesn't trust Bob completely, the man hasn't done anything that could be taken the wrong way, and Ryan's content to lie close to Spencer, listening to the swish of the road.

"I was thinking. We should get a place with a tub and a shower." Spencer puts down the book and props himself up on one elbow, looking down at Ryan. "Maybe our own towels. You can have blue and I'll have green."

"You've got issues about sharing?"

"Not really." Spencer shrugs. "It's just, I shared for so long at the home it would be nice to have something totally mine. But I don't mind sharing, not with you."

"We'll get separate towels," Ryan says. "I'll stitch our names on the corners, like rich people do."

"You can stitch?" Spencer smiles, and rests his hand on Ryan's side. "When did you learn that?"

"I'm a man of mystery." Ryan tries for mysterious, but suspects all he looks is constipated when Spencer bursts out laughing.

"Okay mystery man, you can stitch our towels."

Ryan holds up his hand for a high five. "It's a deal." They slap hands and it's then that Ryan remembers that Bob can easily overhear, and that some things he doesn't need to know. Inclining his head, he says, "Shush."

"Shushing," Spencer says, and while he's not smiling anymore, it's easy to see that he's amused.

Bob parks almost twenty minutes later. Ryan's expecting a truck stop, but they've pulled up at the side of the road, where a large silver van is set on the grass. There's a sign on the side, Marge's Eats, a long hatch in the side, and Bob turns around, his arm over the back of his seat.

"It's take out only, so what do you guys want? I can recommend the egg sandwiches."

"We don't have any money," Spencer says, and he pushes himself up so he can see Bob better.

"I know." Bob keeps looking at them. "Well?"

Spencer looks unsure, and exchanges a glance with Ryan before saying. "I'll have the egg sandwich. Bacon, too, if they have it."

"Good choice, Ryan?"

"I'll have the same."

"Right," Bob says, and doesn't move, just sits still as if he's thinking of something. Wondering if he expects them to get out, Ryan's about to stand up when Bob suddenly shuffles along to the passenger seat, and then steps into the sleeping area.

"Don't freak out, I'm just getting something," Bob says, looking down at Ryan before he starts rummaging on a high shelf that's set above the bed. Eventually, after he's searched through piles of something, Bob pulls out two sweatshirts and drops them on the bed. "I don't need these, you should wear them. It's cold out."

He leaves then, jumping down to the ground.

"We don't need his cast offs." Ryan pushes aside the clothes and starts to get up, but remains on his knees when he sees Spencer reach for one of the sweatshirts, shaking it out so he can take a look. "You're not wearing that are you? We don't want to be in his debt."

"I think it's too late for that, and he's right, it'll be cold out there." Spencer opens the second sweatshirt and lays it out next to the first, then looks at Ryan. "Before, I made a vow, that one day I'd never wear anything second hand again. I'd pick my own clothes, stuff I like and that fits, no more growing into things or making do. But that's something for the future, right now we need to take what we can get."

Which is something Ryan can understand, but he just wishes the sweatshirts weren't so plain. Both of them are black, with a front pocket and a hood. Still, it could be worse -- they could be plaid. Ryan takes one of the sweatshirts and carefully eases it over his head. Of course it's too big, the sleeves falling over his hands and the hem reaching to mid thigh. Still, it is warm and smells slightly of what Ryan's coming to think of as Bob, coffee and cigarettes and somehow, dog.

"Now we're dressed, can we go eat?"

Busy rolling up his sleeves, Spencer says, "Go ahead."

After lying still for so long, walking isn't pleasant. Ryan has to hold onto the back of the passenger seat with one hand and getting to the ground is an exercise in patience, careful footing and many curse words as he eases himself down. When he does he sees that Bob is standing at the counter of the van, talking to the woman inside. She's busy frying eggs on a griddle and laughing at something Bob is saying. Which is surprising, because Ryan wouldn't have pegged Bob as a funny guy, yet there he is, making the woman laugh as she gathers bread and splashes oil over the eggs.

"You know, if you stopped spying I could get down."

Ryan looks up at Spencer who's sitting on the passenger seat, waiting to get down. He's got his bandaged foot raised off the ground and Ryan can't resist tickling over his exposed toes.

"Bastard," Spencer says, pulling back his foot.

Unrepentant, Ryan steps to one side, ready to help Spencer down when Bob turns to look their way. "Wait there, Spencer. I'll get you a chair."

Disappearing around the back of the trailer, Bob comes back carrying three plastic chairs which he brings over to the truck. Setting them down, he moves next to Ryan, watching as Spencer climbs down, then hops to one of the chairs.

"Put your foot on here," Bob says, and moves one of the other chairs so it's in front of Spencer.

"Thank you." Obediently, Spencer rests his foot on the chair, and settles back, eyes half closed as he tips his head back, enjoying the early morning sun.

"Ryan, get over here."

Ryan frowns in Bob's direction, because Ryan's not some dog who can be ordered around, but Bob isn't even looking, has turned back to the woman who's spooning sugar into mugs. With ill-grace, Ryan walks over, kicking at the ground so that the dust swirls around his feet.

The first thing he notices is there's a whole small kitchen inside the van, a fridge and stove and a counter with a coffee machine and an urn for hot water. There are miss-matched mugs stacked along one wall, plates in haphazard piles and trays of sandwiches and chocolate bars covered with plastic domes.

"This is Ada, she makes the best tea in the area."

"Oh hush." Ada smiles and pours water into the mugs, stirring them so the string from the tea bag swirls in circles. "Here you go, sweetie, three teas with extra sugar."

She pushes the mugs close, and Ryan doesn't mention he's not keen on tea. He takes two of the mugs, the one with the yellow duck and the one with multi-coloured spots. Eyeing the third, he's wondering if he can manage two in one hand when Bob picks up the mug and takes a sip.

"Go take those back to Spencer, I'll bring the rest."

Ryan goes. Sitting in the spare chair, he hands a mug to Spencer, and then takes a sip of his own tea. It's sickly sweet and strong, but Ryan keeps drinking, enjoying the heat and the way the mug is warm and solid in his hands.

"What do you think?" Somehow Bob's managed to carry his mug of tea as well as three plates, all stacked on top of one another, a sandwich on each one. When Ryan starts to stand, offering the chair, Bob shakes his head no and sits on the ground, resting against the tire of his truck.

"So, the tea. It's enough to put hairs on your chest, yeah?"

"It's different." Spencer's looking down into his mug, as if there's something fascinating contained in the almost black liquid. "I'd rather have a hot chocolate, though."

"Coffee's my drug of choice." Bob hands over plates and sets his own in his lap, picks up his sandwich and takes a bite.

"So why stop here?" Spencer's pulling back the top layer of his bread, looking at what's inside. Picking up a slice of crispy bacon, he puts it in his mouth and starts to chew. He swallows. ""There has to be other places to stop."

"There are," Bob says. "But Ada runs this place herself and she needs the trade. It was her mom's van and she took it over."

"Marge, right?" Spencer says.

Bob grins around a mouthful of sandwich, swallows and says, "She was called Fiona, no one's really sure who Marge was."

Spencer looks over at the van, and then at Bob. "Whatever, she makes good sandwiches."

"She does," Ryan agrees, and to prove just how good they are, he sets to eating his in record time.

~~~~~~

Traveling with Bob is easy. He buys them food without comment and is content to drive as Ryan and Spencer stretch out in his bed, napping and reading his books and magazines. Late in the afternoon Spencer climbs in front, foot up on the dashboard, resting it on one of Bob's hoodies as they become involved in a spirited discussion of music, discovering a mutual love of drumming. It seems Bob plays in his spare time and Spencer used to play to play, and they debate bands as Ryan sits in back and pretends he's not feeling left out. He could get up front and join in, he knows lots about music and has an opinion about it all. It's just, he doesn't want to. Bob hasn't asked for payback yet, but he still could and Ryan needs to be ready, and he won't be if he starts to see Bob as safe. He's not; no one is.

"We'll be arriving in Chicago soon." Bob reaches out and turns down the radio slightly, drumming his fingers against the steering wheel as he keeps looking forward. "Where does your uncle live? I need to deliver this cargo but I'll drop you off as close as I can."

Ryan tries to think of a place to say, but his mind is blank and he knows the silence is stretching too long. "You can drop us off near the bus station, we'll find our way."

"Right." Bob keeps looking forward, then seems to makes some kind of decision as he takes a deep breath and glances at Spencer, who looks wary, his back against the door and turned slightly to the side so he can look easily between Bob and Ryan. "Look, if you've nowhere to go, I can tell you some places, safe places. Or take you somewhere else."

"We've got somewhere to go," Ryan says, and he pulls Spencer's bag close, sets it on his guitar. "Just let us out near the station, we'll find our way, we don't need your help."

"Fair enough." Bob doesn't seem convinced, but he says nothing more.

They finally pull up on a wet Wednesday evening, when the sidewalks glisten grey and the clouds seem to press down from the sky. Bob doesn't get out of the cab, just watches as Spencer and Ryan climb outside.

"Wait. Take this," Bob says suddenly, sliding across the seats and holding out a business card that Spencer reaches up and takes. He holds it up, showing Ryan what it says -- Clan House, with a phone number and, ask for Mikey or Pete scrawled on the back. Spencer tucks it in his pocket as they stand side by side on the sidewalk, watching Bob drive away.

~*~*~*~

Brendon spends his fifteen dollars on a cup of hot chocolate – he adds an extra sugar, just like his mom used to do, and when the man behind the counter isn't looking, shoves a handful of packets into his pocket – a bag of gummy worms, two apples and a muffin. Change in his pocket, he takes the bag with the food and holds his cocoa as he steps outside of the store.

It's late, almost midnight, and the simple fact is, Brendon's scared. He's got nowhere to go, only a few dollars to his name and is faced with yet another night alone. Brendon hates that, being alone has always felt wrong, he needs contact, hugs and touching and before, when he was always surrounded by family he got that, until suddenly, he didn't at all. Taking a sip of cocoa, he swills the liquid around his mouth, hoping the sweetness will mask the lingering taste of the man's cock and come. It doesn't, no matter how many packets of sugar Brendon rips open and pours in his mouth.

Dropping the open packets into the trash, Brendon begins to walk, looking around for a place to spend the night. He passes alleys and benches. He hunches in on himself when he has to walk past an all night café where a group of people stand in the parking lot, laughing. Brendon reminds himself it's not at him, they don't even see him. It doesn't stop him almost running past, head down and eyes toward the ground.

The plastic bag bumps against Brendon's thigh as he walks and his cocoa is cold when he finally finishes drinking, making it last with small sips. Throwing the cup in the trash, Brendon sees a bench nearby, one at the side of the road, close to a bus stop. He sits down, placing the bag next to him.

If anyone asks, he'll say that he's waiting for a bus. He looks at the sign and imagines that he's off to visit his sister, that he's missed the last bus and when he gets there in the morning she'll be waiting, wrapped in a robe, her hair a mess as she yawns and shakes her head before pulling him in for a hug. She'll steer him to the kitchen for orange juice and bagels. No, not bagels. Brendon opens the bag, tears at the plastic wrapping of the muffin and pulls off a piece, putting it in his mouth. She'll have made pancakes, with syrup and blueberries, and they'll listen to the radio as he tells her how he missed the last bus, and she'll tsk and laugh before sliding a pancake onto his plate. Yeah, that's exactly what would happen.

Brendon eats more of the muffin, chewing slowly, back straight, feet on the floor as he waits for morning to come.

~~

When the sun begins to rise, Brendon stands. He's exhausted and he shivers as he shoves the gummy worms in his back pocket, drops the bag, apple cores and muffin wrapper into the trash.

Already a few people are walking past, stride determined, bundled up in coats and scarves, ear buds pushed in their ears. Brendon smiles at each one and tries to pretend he's not cold that he's okay, he's fine, but that's hard when his hands are shaking, no matter how hard he wills them to stop. Crossing his arms, he jams his hands under his armpits and keeps looking for a shop, somewhere he can get a warm drink, because that's what he needs. A drink and some of his candy and his hands will stop shaking and he won't feel so clammy and sick. Brendon's sure of that.

It's why he spends the last of his money on another hot chocolate, hissing when he takes his drink from the machine and spills some onto his hand. Blowing on the sore spot, Brendon sets down the cup and adds extra sugar and then tries to put on the plastic lid, but it must be defective somehow, because no matter how hard he tries, it doesn't seem to fit.

Eventually, when Brendon's tried multiple times, he leaves it loose and sets the cup on the counter, the lid hanging off one side.

"That's three dollars, please," the assistant says, and she leans forward and deftly fits the lid onto the cup. "There you go."

"Thank you." Brendon smiles and looks at the coins in his hand. He picks out three dollars, hands them over and takes his hot chocolate.

Both hands wrapped around the cup, Brendon reluctantly goes back outside, where it's still cold despite the rising sun. Knowing the only thing he can do is to keep moving, he begins to walk.

~*~*~*~

"So, what am I supposed to do, chair dance?"

Ryan flexes his fingers and then goes back to tuning his guitar, pointedly ignoring Spencer, who's on an ornate metal bench, knee bent and sitting slightly sideways so that his bad foot is off the ground.

"Because I know we said you'd busk, but I thought I'd be doing something, too, not just sitting here."

"There's nothing you can do," Ryan says, and he looks up at Spencer. "Not right now."

"Great, so that's what you think, I'm useless."

"That's not what I meant." Pushing his hair out of his eyes, Ryan tries to find the right words, but it's hard, because Spencer's supposed to understand what Ryan means, even when he's not saying things right.

The problem is, they're both cold and tired after spending the night in the bus station, Ryan sitting propped up against Spencer, sharing the last of the sandwiches and the sodas and chocolate Bob had somehow shoved into their bag. At one point Ryan had seen Spencer look at the card Bob had given him, but then he'd put it safely back in the bag, and neither have mentioned it. Even at four am when it began to rain and they had to shelter in a shop doorway, curled up tight and pressed in as far as they could physically go.

Now they're damp and irritable and Spencer doesn't understand that the most important thing he can do is be here, at Ryan's side. Picking up his guitar, Ryan winces at the pull in his chest as he puts the strap over his shoulder, and then stands. "You're not useless, I need you here."

"Why?" Spencer asks.

"You need to keep an eye on any money, and clap when I finish singing, even if no one else does, and if anyone boos you have to glare."

Spencer smiles, slightly, but still, it's there. "What, so I'm your official number one fan?"

"Basically," Ryan says, hiding his own smile. He brushes his fingers over the strings then, looking around at the people hurrying past. "What happens if they hate me or no one gives me any money?"

"Then you'd have to take off your shirt, that's worked before." Spencer reaches out, covering Ryan's hand with his own. "They'll love you, and if they don't I'll scowl at them until they do."

"You're good at scowling."

"I know," Spencer says. "So go on, make us some money."

It's not that simple, of course. Ryan's so nervous that it takes a while before he can even start to sing, and when he does, his voice is croaky, rough with disuse and the careful breaths he has to take due to his healing ribs. The few people who do look his way walk straight past, some laughing and shaking their heads, and Spencer's arms are crossed as he glares at each one, before clapping enthusiastically after each song.

Ryan keeps playing. The Beatles, some Backstreet, and eventually he feels more confident, singing louder, especially when the first person stops, throwing in a coin when he gets to the end of I Want It That Way.

It's when he's singing Blur's Song Two, Spencer joining in with the woo hoos, that Ryan sees the man. He's sitting on the bench next to Spencer's, hat pulled down almost to his glasses, coat buttoned to his chin and wearing fingerless gloves as he texts furiously. There's a giant Starbucks cup next to him, steam escaping from the hole in the top and he's got his legs crossed, one foot tapping in the air to the beat of the song. When Ryan stops singing, he looks up, seemingly waiting, and despite the fact he doesn't smile or his expression change really at all, he seems approving as Ryan begins to sing Don't Look Back in Anger.

When Ryan's half way through the song, the man stops texting and shoves his phone into his pocket, and Ryan's expecting him to go. He doesn't, instead he sits and keeps listening, only standing when Ryan gets to the end of the song. Pulling out his wallet, the man takes out a ten and hands it over to Ryan. "Great songs, it makes a change from the crap you hear every day."

"Thank you," Ryan says, and tucks the money into the pocket of his hoodie.

"You're welcome." Holding up the coffee cup in some kind of salute, the man walks away, and Ryan turns to Spencer.

"He gave me a ten."

"I know. I saw. He liked your singing."

"How can you tell?" Ryan takes the money out of his pocket and hands it to Spencer. "It's not like he was smiling or anything."

"I know," Spencer says. "He still enjoyed it, I could tell."

Which is enough for Ryan, and he nods before he begins to sing Dancing Queen, Spencer laughing and tapping out the beat on the arm of the bench.

**

By the time Ryan stops singing, they've made almost forty dollars. The money is safely in the bag, mostly coins with a small amount of dollars, all carefully bundled in one of Spencer's socks.

It's been a long day, and Ryan stumbles slightly as he stands, needing food and rest, but they still need to find somewhere to spend the night. Preferably somewhere that's not this bench, because Ryan's aching and cold and the thought of another night spent sleeping sitting up isn't appealing at all.

"I think we should book a cheap hotel room for tonight," Ryan says, half expecting Spencer to disagree. He doesn't, just pushes himself to his feet with a harsh intake of air when he puts his foot on the ground and stands.

"I'll go ask in the shop, they should know the cheap hotels."

About to say he'll go, Ryan stops himself when he sees the determination in Spencer's face, the way he hop-walks toward the small newsagents where Ryan bought bottles of water earlier that day, as if he's trying to prove he can do something. Which Ryan can understand, and despite his urge to make Spencer sit down he waits on the bench, hands shoved into his hoodie pocket.

"There's a cheap hotel on the other side of the park. She didn't seem keen on giving directions, saying bad kinds go there, but I told her we didn't have much money, so." Spencer shrugs, and then holds up a candy bar. "She gave me this, too."

"You're a charmer, Spencer." Ryan picks up his guitar and stands, taking the half of candy bar that Spencer hands over. "Did she tell you where the park is?"

"Two blocks in that direction," Spencer says, pointing. "She said to keep out of the north end, though."

"More bad kinds?"

"Apparently."

With Spencer limping badly it takes a while to get to the park, never mind the hotel. When they reach the gates the sun has already set, and only a few late joggers are running along the wide well-lit paths. None slow as they pass, and Ryan keeps to the very edge of the path, his feet brushing against the flowers that grow along the side.

"After we get a room we should go get something to eat."

Ryan slows, matching his pace to Spencer's. "Or you could stay in and I'll get us something."

"I've done nothing all day," Spencer protests. "And it's not like you're not hurt, too."

"I can walk at least."

"So can I." Spencer stops walking completely and turns so he can see Ryan. "I can look after myself; I don't need anyone else to do it."

"I know you can, but you need to rest your foot. You can't do that running around for food."

For a long time, Spencer doesn't reply, but then he says. "I guess I could stay in, for tonight anyway."

"Good, you can warm the bed."

"Now I see your plan, get me lying in bed, warming the sheets for you."

"You know it," Ryan says. "Come on, we'll have no bed at all if we don't get moving." It's a valid concern, it's fully dark now and most people have gone home to their warm houses, comfortable beds and hot food. The only person in sight is a girl who's hurrying along the path behind them, her heels clicking against the ground. When she gets close she slows a little, and Ryan sees that her legs are bare, white and goose-bumped under her short-skirt and she's got her arms crossed over her chest.

"You'll have to hurry if you want the good stuff; they always run out of the soft rolls after the first ten minutes."

"Rolls?" Ryan says, and looks at Spencer, suspecting some kind of drug terminology he doesn't know, some reference to a deal that's going down at the north end of the park.

The girl rolls her eyes. "Like, bread. From the soup kitchen." She purses her lips then, taps a red-nailed finger against her mouth. "Though it's Thursday, they have better stuff on a Thursday. I think it must be delivery day."

"You're saying there's a soup kitchen in the park, where we can get food for free?"

"Isn't that what I just said?" She rolls her eyes.

"No, what you said was the soft rolls would run out," Spencer replies.

"Whatever." The girls shrugs and hurries off. "Come eat, don't. I don't care."

She heads toward the far end of the park, and Ryan looks at Spencer. "Well?"

"I think we should go. We don't know how much a room will cost; we mightn't have anything left for food."

"Yeah," Ryan says. "So we go see the bad kinds."

"We do." Within a short walk they start to smell the scent of bread, around a corner and they see clouds of steam rising into the air, hear people chatting and the faint sound of music. Around another corner, past a white-painted bandstand and they see the soup kitchen.

It's arranged close to a black van that's parked on an expanse of concrete next to the entrance to the park, a long row of trestle tables set in front. Three of the tables hold large silver vats and the last holds a big basket of rolls and piles of large plastic cups.

Two men stand behind the tables, both chatting as they serve soup and hand out rolls to the long line of people who pick up a cup, take a roll from the man with the tattoos on his hands and then walk in a line until their bowl is filled by the second man, the one with the wide smile and hoodie hood pulled up over his head.

"Hey, come over here."

Ryan looks around, and sees the girl beckoning them from the end of the line. She's stepping from foot to foot and rubbing at her arms when they come close. "If you stand staring like that they'll know you're fresh off the bus."

"Truck," Spencer says. "We got off a truck, and it was yesterday."

"Bus, truck. Doesn't matter. They'll still be on you."

Spencer straightens his shoulders and brings himself up to his full height. "We can look after ourselves."

"Sure you can, limpy. You and stick boy, here."

"You're funny," Spencer says. "What do you do for your day job, comedian?"

"Hooker, actually." She looks between them both when neither Spencer nor Ryan reply. "See, this is what I mean. Fresh meat."

"Well, what did you expect us to say? That's nice."

"Better than gaping at me." The girl pokes a finger at Spencer's chest. "You won't meet many office workers around here, princess."

"Don't call me princess, and we're not staying around here, we're getting an apartment together."

"Sure you are, princess." She smiles then, the heavy shadow around her eyes creasing into dark lines. "I'm Lisa, and you are?"

"Spencer, and that's Ryan."

"So, Princess and Ryan, nice to meet you." Stepping out of the line, Lisa looks toward the tables, then steps back. "I think we might get lucky and get a soft roll. That is if Frankie doesn't start giving out two to the hard luck cases."

"Frankie?" Ryan says, stretching up so he can look toward the man giving out rolls.

"Small, tattooed, handing out rolls. That's Frank. He helps out sometimes, when Pete or Mikey isn't here."

"You do realise we don't know anyone you're talking about," Spencer says.

"That's because you're fresh meat, Princess." Lisa bumps Spencer with her elbow, and then holds up her hand, three fingers extended. "One, Frankie. Small, tattooed, rolls. We've gone over this, keep up. Pete: also small, also tattooed, giving out soup in that ugly hoodie. This is his gig, well his and Mikey's but he's not here, so."

"Wait," Ryan says. "Mikey and Pete, do they run something called Clan House?"

Lisa narrows her eyes and looks at Ryan. "Not so new after all. They do, but you won't get in. They never kick anyone out; just let them stay until they get set up with homes and jobs. It's a sweet place, but the turnover is low."

"Turnover of what?"

"Really, Princess, keep up. Clan House is a shelter, for people like us, homeless with nowhere to go."

"Like you maybe, we're getting a home. Ryan's going to busk and save money for our own place."

Expecting some sarcastic comment, Ryan's surprised when Lisa just shrugs one bony shoulder. "I hope you do."

She says nothing else, and they stand in silence, shuffling forward until finally they're at the first table. Taking a cup, Lisa grins when she's in front of Frank. "Hey gorgeous, got something soft for me?"

"Hey kid, you're lucky, there's a few of the soft ones left." He takes a roll out of the basket and hands it over with a wink. "How you doing?"

"Not bad, you know how it is; you do what you have to." Lisa smiles, but Ryan sees how tightly she's holding onto the roll and the way she licks her bottom lip, a flash of tongue as she glances at the vats of soup.

"It's vegetable today, I made it myself."

"Yeah, right. From a packet maybe." Lisa starts to step along the line, then stops, looking back. "Watch these two, they're new. Ryan and Princess."

"Ryan and Princess, so which is which?" Frank looks at them both, keeps smiling despite the way Ryan is staring at him without a word, shocked into silence after finding himself in a crowd of people and faced with someone so obviously alive, his energy an almost tangible thing.

"That's Ryan, I'm Spencer." Spencer picks up a cup and hands it to Ryan, then takes one for himself.

"Nice to meet you," Frank says, and he puts down a roll and holds out his hand across the table. Ryan looks at his hand, at the letters across his knuckles, the ends of other tattoos that snake from under the cuffs of his sweatshirt. Frank wraps his hand around Spencer's and shakes, and does the same to Ryan, even when Ryan lets his hand hang limp.

"You're looking a little beaten up; you know there's free clinics if you need them."

"No," Ryan says immediately, not ready to face yet more new people. Frank doesn't seem to mind the brusque reply, just holds up his hands before picking up two rolls, handing them over to Ryan and Spencer.

"No worries, but if you change your mind, just ask."

They move on then, holding out their cups to Pete, who fills each one to almost overflowing while grinning at them both. "Hey, you're new, right? Welcome."

"Thanks," Spencer says. He's holding his cup tightly, keeping it level so none spills and Ryan does the same, his roll held securely in his mouth as he carries his soup and guitar.

The immediate area is full of people sitting on the benches and on the ground, some talking in small groups, most on their own as they quickly inhale their food before melting off into the night. None of them look homeless, not like Ryan expected, anyway. He sees a woman pulling a shopping cart full of junk, a man with matted hair and two odd shoes, but most look like ordinary people bundled in their layers of clothes. That is, until Ryan looks closer, when he sees sharp cheekbones and ragged nails, outfits that don't fit and are far from clean. Mostly though, it's their expressions, as if the world has turned against them somehow. Ryan knows that expression; he's seen it often in Spencer's eyes.

Needing distraction, he looks around and sees that Lisa's found a place on a low wall, her cup balanced on her lap as she soaks pieces of her roll and stuffs them in her mouth.

Swallowing, she looks up and indicates the wall next to her. "Come pull up some wall."

They do, Ryan sitting next to Lisa and the wall is slightly damp, mossy in parts and the back of Ryan's thighs press against the blunt edge as he dips the roll in the soup, watching the bread become soaked through and turn orange. Before Ryan's halfway through his cup Lisa's is empty, and she drags her finger over the plastic, getting the last drops. Watching her, Spencer holds out his cup. "Here."

"Princess, you can't be giving away food, not if you want to survive." But Ryan can see how much Lisa wants the soup, and Spencer doesn't pull back his hand.

"I'm full, I don't need any more."

It sounds like the truth, and obviously Lisa thinks so too as she grabs the cup from Spencer, looking at him over the rim as she tips it to her mouth. When she finishes drinking, there's a red lip-print on the rim of the cup and a piece of carrot stuck to the corner of her mouth.

"You've got...." Spencer points at his own lip and Lisa sticks out her tongue, using it to pull the piece of carrot into her mouth. "Thanks, Princess."

"Spencer," Spencer corrects, and he looks at Ryan, asking if he's finished through a series of eyebrow lifts and quirks of his mouth that Ryan answers with a slight nod. "Well, I'd say it's been good, but I'd be lying."

"Whatever," Lisa says, and she slides to the ground, her heels hitting the concrete with a click. She starts to walk away then, takes one step, two, three, then stops and turns. "Look, normally I wouldn't, but you've been decent to me. Where are you planning on sleeping tonight?"

Ryan glances at Spencer and shrugs, the slightest movement of his shoulders. "We're heading for a hotel, the one on the other side of the park."

"The Weston? You really don't want to be there. They eat fresh meat like you for breakfast. Save your money, I'll show you a place."

"Why?" Spencer asks.

Lisa begins to walk, doesn't look back and says. "Call it my good deed for the day."

"Well?" Spencer asks, his voice low.

"I think we should go with her. We'll save money and I doubt she'll jump us for our stuff."

Ryan stands, picking up his guitar and waits for Spencer to get down and steady himself before they follow. Taking a short detour to throw away the cups, they soon catch up, and Ryan knows Lisa's deliberately going slowly, especially when she looks at him when they get close.

"Second lesson: I could be after your stuff. How do you know I don't have an accomplice waiting to jump you?"

"Do you?" Spencer asks, suspiciously.

"It's not like I'd tell you if I did, but no. I live alone, work alone, well, mostly."

"So why help us now?"

"Don't get me wrong, this is no student-mentor thing, I'm gonna show you a safe place to stay and then I'm outta here."

"That's fine by me," Spencer says, almost bristling as he moves so that he's walking closer to Ryan.

"Simmer down, Princess. I'm making no moves on what's yours."

"Good." They walk in silence a while, Spencer eyeing Lisa, as if he's weighing up the truth of her words, then visually relaxes and takes a half step to the side, deciding she can be trusted for now. "So, this place, where is it?"

Lisa looks at Spencer and while she's not smiling, she's not looking away either. "Two blocks over. It's an office block marked for demolition, kinda scuzzy, but at least it's dry -- and free."

It sounds good to Ryan -- after spending time sleeping in the open, anywhere with a roof sounds good. Still, when he first sees where they're going, he begins to change his mind. While the office block is still standing, all the windows have been smashed and the main door is hanging loose, the wood splintered around the lock. When they squeeze inside it's light next to the windows, broken glass glinting in the moonlight, but further in it's dark, and all Ryan can see are looming shadows. Feeling uneasy, he moves so he's close to Spencer, enough that their hands are brushing together.

They keep going, picking their way through piles of trash, and Ryan wants to put his hand over his nose and mouth, because the smell is terrible. Unwashed bodies and mold underlain with something sweet, like somewhere there's something rotting, and Ryan can't help thinking of brittle bones and liquefying flesh.

When they're close to the back of the building, close to a staircase where the treads are broken, most lying on the floor in a dirt-covered pile, Lisa stops and toes at a mattress on the floor. Springs are sticking through the fabric at one end and even in the dim light Ryan can see a huge stain that covers over half of the surface.

"You can stay here, no one will bother you as long as you keep out of their way. If Jon turns up …but he probably won't. He hasn't since Tom started running with Jake -- tell him I said it's okay."

"We will, thank you," Spencer says, and he drops his bag next to the mattress, remaining standing as Lisa turns and walks away.

"We could go, get a room somewhere," Ryan says. He can see better now, blurred lines forming into actual things in the dark, but that doesn't help how his heart is thumping or how out of his depth he feels.

"We should stay, she's right we need to save our money." Spencer sounds determined as he grabs for Ryan's hand, squeezing it once. "Think about our apartment, we'll get a deposit faster this way."

"Right, our apartment." Reluctantly, Ryan allows Spencer to pull back his hand, and then sits on the mattress. It sags under his weight and the surface feels damp to the touch, but right now he's too tired to care, just eases himself down and curls onto his side, his arm over Spencer when he lies down, too.

It takes a while to get comfortable, Ryan's chest is aching and he has to move so that his mouth isn't touching the mattress. Despite the way he sounded -- confident, sure that this was the right thing -- Spencer's tense, his muscles tight under Ryan's touch.

"It does make me wonder why no one took this already," Spencer says unexpectedly.

"What?"

Spencer turns, his face a white blur as he leans in close. "The mattress, you'd think it would have been taken."

"Maybe it belonged to that Jon, and he's a hard ass. He could have murdered someone on here, and the mattress is soaked with blood and bad emotion. Anyone that lies on it could be tainted, pulled in by bad memories, dream of silent screams and cut throats."

"Ryan," Spencer says. "Shut up and tell me your decorating plans instead. I want to sleep tonight."

"Who says I have any?" Indignant, Ryan pokes Spencer in the thigh, jabbing hard. He keeps silent for almost five minutes after that, the building quiet except for Spencer's breathing and rustles from other parts of the room. Then he says, "Okay, so I had some ideas. I was thinking of rust colors in the bathroom."

Ryan falls asleep in the middle of explaining how fabric flowers glued to the wall are a good idea. The reality of a damp, foul-smelling mattress is replaced by dreams of a home.

~*~*~*~

They stay at the offices and over the next few weeks they fall into a routine: Ryan busks at the bus station, and Spencer stays close, the smile to Ryan's song. Each morning the skinny guy with the coffee stops to listen. He always takes the same bench, coffee cup and phone at hand, and each morning he gives Ryan a ten before slipping away.

All day Ryan keeps singing, until his throat is dry, his voice little more than a rasp. Sometimes Spencer joins in, singing at times but more often drumming two sticks against the metal arm of the bench. He also searches for left behind newspapers, brow furrowed as he reads the property pages. Ryan never asks for the details of what he's reading, he doesn't think he's ready to know how far away their dream actually is.

When people start to go home, the street emptying as the sun begins to set, they pack up and go to the soup kitchen. They've seen Lisa there once, Frank and Pete every time, but tonight, as they get in line, Ryan realizes that Frank's missing, and in his place is the guy who stops each morning. He looks different now -- more awake for one thing -- and when Ryan gets closer he sees that he's wearing eye makeup, tight pants and a dark jacket, complete with a unicorn pin. It seems like he should look out of place in this setting, but he doesn't at all. He's obviously comfortable as he serves rolls and greets each person who steps in front of him, most of them by name.

They move closer, almost to the table, and Spencer turns from where he's been talking to the woman behind them in line, and finally notices who's serving. "Hey, it's Coffee Guy."

"Well, my friends call me Mikey, but I suppose Coffee Guy fits." Coffee Guy – Mikey -- picks up a roll and holds it out to Ryan. "You're a good wake up call."

"Er, thanks," Ryan says, unsure if that's supposed to be a compliment.

"What Mikey means is," Pete says, bounding over and brandishing a dripping ladle at Ryan. You're a good singer who knows fantastic songs, at least that's what he says when he comes in every morning. You should have told me you knew Mikey."

"That's because I didn't know I knew him." Ryan takes the roll off Mikey. "So, you're the Mikey from Pete and Mikey?"

"That's him." Suddenly, Pete pounces, soup splattering from the ladle as he grabs Mikey and dips him down so he can kiss him solidly on the lips. "The love of my life, the wind beneath my wings, the peanut butter on my jelly, my love puppy, my sweetums."

In an impressive move, considering he's still bent backwards by Pete, Mikey reaches out and grabs a roll. "I swear, I'll shove this down your throat."

"No wasting stock, Mikey. You'll upset Ray."

"He'll understand, now let me up, people want to eat."

Which is true, the line stretches back almost to the bandstand, but no one seems that worried about waiting, which suggest this display happens often. Not that Ryan's about to ask. Upright once more, Mikey tugs at his hat and pushes his glasses up his nose, his mouth curled into the smallest of smiles when Pete brushes against him, running his hand over Mikey's hip.

"You do have good taste in songs," Mikey says, and he takes a roll, handing it to Spencer. "Do you like those groups or is it just a busking thing?"

"I like them."

"Good, you should like what you sing." Looking past Spencer, Mikey picks up another roll. "Tomorrow, you should tell me about your favourite bands."

"I can do that," Ryan says, smiling briefly before moving along the line, grabbing a cup and getting it filled by Pete, who greets him with a beaming smile, as if he hadn't seen Ryan only seconds before.

When they've moved away from the serving area and settled under a tree, the guitar and bag between their feet, Spencer grins. "Has little Ryan got a play date?"

Ryan dips his roll into the soup -- tomato today. "Jealous?"

"Of you meeting hot guys to talk music? Not at all."

"Good." Ryan grins down at his soup, enjoying that they can tease like this, have a moment when they're not thinking about getting clean in public bathrooms or making money or having to spend another night in the cold of the abandoned building. These moments that don't happen often, especially now, but this one seems to stretch, the easy feeling remaining as they eat their soup and then start for their temporary home.

~*~*~*~

Brendon sucks his second cock early on a Thursday evening, when the moon is low in the sky and his breath clouds with every panicked exhale. The grass is cold under his knees and he still feels sick to his stomach, the ground swaying beneath him. He puts out his hand, fingers curling in mulch and brittle leaves, steadying himself because once he does this he can get something to eat, maybe something hot and he'll eat that and find somewhere to sleep. Food and sleep and he'll feel better, get his energy back so he can start to regain control of his life. All he has to do is get through this, become the person this man wants to see.

Smiling wide, Brendon looks up and reaches out, rests his hand against the man's hips, waiting for direction. The man doesn't say anything, though, hasn't since he came to Brendon almost ten minutes before and held out too much cash to turn down.

"You ready?" Brendon asks. He's still not sure how this is supposed to go -- if he's supposed to take the lead or just wait.

"Jesus Christ, do I have to do everything myself?" The man brushes away Brendon's hand, unfastens his belt and unzips his pants, pushing them down with his boxers. "Now suck me, whore."

"Right. Right," Brendon says, and curls his hands into fists, trying to stop them from shaking as he knee-walks forward, swallowing and licking at his lips to get moisture in his mouth.

"God, come on, I'd have gone to my regular if I'd known you'd be this pathetic."

"Sorry." Reminding himself of the money, Brendon leans in and licks over the head of the man's cock, tasting salt and sweat. He hides his grimace, sucking lower, harder, listening for a reaction. Which he gets -- a low groan and Brendon has the slightest of warnings before the man slams his hips forward, hitting the back of Brendon's throat. Gagging, he tries to pull back but the man grabs handfuls of his hair, holding on painfully tight as he starts to fuck Brendon's mouth.

"You love this, don't you? You love my cock in my mouth, you get off on having it rammed in, loving it like the dirty slut that you are. Take it, I know you want it, I could tell when I saw you, that you were a cock-sucker, someone who loves to take it like this."

Eyes streaming, Brendon holds himself still and concentrates on breathing. He closes his eyes and lets the words become blurred, each one running together and shaped around the rhythm of thrusts. He can feel saliva drip from his mouth, and he rakes his nails across the scabs on his palms, breaking them open.

"I bet you're getting off on this, whore." A last thrust and the man pulls back and Brendon feels something hot hit his face, running down his cheek and onto his mouth. Using the back of his hand, Brendon wipes across his mouth, smearing come and saliva. He opens his eyes, just in time to see the man pulling up his pants and taking out his wallet.

"Twenty, right?" He peels off a bill from the wad in his wallet and hands it to Brendon, who holds it between two fingers, worried about getting it bloody. "I'd have given you more if you'd actually done something instead of making me do all the work."

"Sorry," Brendon says, and forces himself to shut up about the fact that he didn't get the chance to do anything -- all he could do was stay upright and take it. That's not what the man wants to hear, and the sooner he goes the sooner Brendon can go and buy some food.

"Whatever." The man shrugs and puts away his wallet, smoothing down the front of his shirt and pants so he looks tidy before walking away without a backward glance. He's just disappearing around a corner when a group of people walk into view. Most of the group are men, but there's a few women, their high heels sinking into the grass as they walk. Expecting them to go past, Brendon gets to his feet, tensing when they come closer, circling around him.

One of the men steps so he's standing in front of Brendon. "Jake wants to talk to you."

"Right, I can do that." Trying to appear casual, like he's been surrounded like this before, Brendon hooks his thumbs in his pockets as someone steps forward. Despite the cold, this guy is wearing dark pants and a neatly pressed white shirt, a cigarette held between two fingers, his dress and bearing markedly different to the others that surround him.

"You'll have to forgive Bryce, he tends to forget about pleasantries." The man transfers the cigarette and holds out his hand. "I'm Jake, and you are?"

Brendon shakes Jake's hand and smiles. "I'm Brendon."

"Brendon, you may not be aware, but this is my park, my territory," Jake says, his voice low, even friendly. "You can't be here, not without my say so."

Brendon begins to back away, hearing the unspoken threat. "I didn't know. I'll go now, you'll never see me again."

"It's not that easy, I'm afraid. See, you trespassed on what's mine. I can't let that happen." Jake smiles and looks directly at Brendon. "You have to understand, if I allow people to do what they want it reflects badly on my ability to control my territory, and that money you have? That should be mine. It should have gone to my people, and it didn't. It went to you."

Glancing around at the surrounding group, Brendon pulls the money out of his pocket and holds it out. "Take it. I'll just go."

Jake takes the money, and for a moment Brendon thinks he's going to get out of this, especially when Jake smiles. "Thank you, Brendon. The gesture is appreciated. However, too little too late I'm afraid." Jake steps back then, and says, "He's all yours."

Brendon tries to run, but he's brought to his knees and then to the ground, pushed down by an onslaught of people, mostly people bigger than himself. He can't see any way to escape and instead curls up, trying to protect his head with his hands. Brendon cries out at the first kick to his side, which is followed by another, another, until each one bleeds into the next. He gasps when one kick hits higher, catching him under the chin, forcing his head back. Terrified, he looks up at the ring of faces hovering menacingly above him, some snarling as the kicks land. Some are laughing, which is even scarier. A few have scornful expressions to go with their careful aim.

When he sees one of the girls push through the crowd, Brendon tries to plead for help, but all she does is pull her foot back. Brendon brings his arms up, trying to protect his face. The move deflects her kick enough that the pointed heel of her shoe only rakes across his cheek and mouth, blood flowing immediately.

"Now, that's not nice, denying the lady," one of the men says, and Brendon screams when he's kicked again, the man's boot hitting his defensively held arm at full force. Brendon hears something snap, and the resultant pain in his arm is literally blinding.

"Stop, please," Brendon says, his mouth slick as he forces out the words, his vision still only spots of bright light. Thankfully, this time they listen. Brendon lies still, tears mixing with his blood as it drips to the ground.

"Take this as a lesson on what happens to people who trespass on my territory."

Eyes closed, Brendon listens to Jake. The man's voice fades in and out. Brendon whimpers when something hits his side. Forcing open his eyes, Brendon sees Jake, who's crouching over him, still with that slight smile as he runs his fingers through the blood on Brendon's face. "This park belongs to me. You should have remembered that." He wipes his fingers on Brendon's chest and stands, dropping his cigarette so that it lands near Brendon's face. "Jon, Chris, finish him."

For a moment Brendon thinks about just lying still and letting things happen. It's not like he'd be missed if he died, and anything is better than the life he's living right now. He hurts; he was hurting well before now. It would be so easy to stop fighting, to give in. Except, Brendon can't. Buried beneath the constant thrumming of the pain, and his fear, and even the loneliness, is a love of life that has no interest in going anywhere. Struggling to push himself up on one hand, he looks at the men who have been left behind. One is smirking and holding up a small knife, the other is looking after Jake, watching as he walks away with the rest of the group.

"How'd you like to wear my design, kid?" The man with the knife is poised and ready to push right into skin and muscle. Brendon's still struggling to get upright when the other man steps in front of him, shielding him from view.

"I'm not going to let you kill him."

"You can't stop me." The man drops his arms and twists the knife nervously around in his hand. "Face it, Jon, this is going to happen whatever you say."

"No, it's not." Jon holds out his hands, appearing relaxed despite the blade that's so close to his hands. "Jake's gone too far, he's been bathshit for a long time now and I've gone along with it to keep Tom safe, but that's not an issue now, so no. You're not gonna kill the kid for being in the wrong place, wrong time."

"You've got a lot of balls," Chris says, shaking his head. "Jake won't like you going against his orders."

"I know." Jon shrugs. "I haven't been back to the offices for a while, he won't find me."

For a long while there's a stand-off, Chris staring at Jon. Then he drops his hand, the knife held laxly at his side. "I don't know about that, but… I guess this means you're running?"

"I'm running."

"I should kill you both," Chris says, looking down at Brendon, then up again at Jon.

"It would be better for you," Jon agrees, and if Brendon could talk or move he'd be telling Jon he's an idiot. All he can do is remain in a collapsed huddle, arm cradled against his chest. He's so, so tired. Closing his eyes, he lets himself drift.

"Damn, wake up, kid." Brendon blinks up at Jon, who has kneeled down next to him. Jon spares a glance for Chris. "Look, either do it, or get out of here."

"I hope you know what you're doing." Chris crouches so he's next to Jon, and they clasp hands before Chris stands and begins to walk away. Relieved, Brendon lets his eyes close again, opening them when Jon leans in so he's close to Brendon's face.

"No sleeping. I'm not doing this just for you to die anyway." He rests his hand against Brendon's cheek, then, the one without the deep cut. His touch is gentle. Brendon can't help trying to push into it, taking the first comfort he's been offered since…the last time his mother hugged him. He can't remember how long ago that was. He can barely remember how it felt.

"That's it, no giving up."

Brendon tries to reply, but it's taking all his effort just to breathe. Jon seems to get that, smiling reassuringly at him before he looking around. "I need to find some help, get you to the free clinic."

"No." Brendon forces out the word, because he can't go to the clinic, he can't.

"It's not negotiable," Jon says firmly, then suddenly stands when he hears voices. "Hey! Hey, whoever's there, I need help!"

Brendon hopes no one will come, because a nap and Brendon will be fine. He'll get up and out of here; he just needs a moment to rest. Only someone does come -- two someones. As they come closer, Brendon can't hang on anymore, and he lets the darkness take him away.

~~~~

Ryan's first instinct is to run, to not get involved with issues that don't concern Spencer and him at all. But he can't turn his back on someone that so obviously needs help, no matter how much he wishes he could.

Hurrying across the grass, he pulls ahead of Spencer and stops close to the man who was shouting. He's bent over another man, one who's curled up and covered in blood and bruises, obviously badly hurt. It's a sight that provokes bad memories, and Ryan looks back, thinks Spencer, but Spencer's fine. He's limping as quickly as he can to get to them.

"I need help getting him to the doctor." The man looks up, taking in the sight of Spencer, with his limp, and Ryan, who's got his hand pressed against his chest, obviously winded. "You couldn't have been bigger?"

"Sorry," Ryan says, with an edge. No good deed, jeez. "I'll try and grow for you."

"You do that." Something snaps and the man smiles a little then, something slow and easy despite the tension apparent in his body. He runs his hand through his hair. "Sorry, sorry. Let me start again. Hi, I'm Jon, and he-- he needs help and no offense, I doubt any of us could carry him safely."

"You need to go get Pete and Mikey, they should be able to help," Spencer says and he kneels next to the unconscious man. "I'll stay here and do, um, something."

"Right," Ryan says, but he doesn't go immediately, worried about leaving Spencer alone.

Seeming to understand, Spencer looks up and reaches out, squeezing Ryan's hand. "Go on. I'll be fine, and he needs help."

Ryan goes then, hurrying as best he can back to the soup kitchen. When he gets there, Pete and Mikey are packing up, putting the urns and the tables in the black van. When they see Ryan, Pete grins. "Hey, Ryan. Hope you're not here for seconds -- there's nothing left."

"No." Ryan waves his hand as he regains his breath. "There's a man -- a, a boy. He's been beaten up, um, there's someone with him. Jon. Jon, and I left Spencer, and we can't carry him, and I shouldn't have left him. I need to go, now."

Ryan turns, about to run back, when Mikey comes over and stands in front of him. He stops Ryan with a hand to his chest, the lightest of touches.

"Ryan, stop. We'll drive there," Mikey says. He keeps his voice level and looks directly at Ryan, soothing with his tone. "But we'll need you for directions."

Ryan closed his eyes, made himself slow down. "Okay. Okay, I can do that."

"Good," Mikey says, and he starts back toward the van, where Pete is working feverishly to pack up the last table. When that's done Pete jumps in the driving seat, and Mikey gets in the passenger side, squeezing himself into the middle so Ryan can sit too. Ryan's wedged against the door when he finally pulls it closed, all of them packed in tight. He waits impatiently for Pete to start the engine and drive.

It takes Pete prompting for directions to get them back to Spencer. Ryan's unable to answer anything but yes or no to each question because all he can think of is Spencer, how there was so much blood, how the boy's wrist was bent at a wrong angle. Ryan breathes deeply, drawing air through his nose and pushing it out of his mouth, trying to hold on to control.

"It'll be okay," Mikey says suddenly. He makes no attempt to touch Ryan, just keeps scrolling through his phone before quickly typing out a message.

Ryan keeps looking forward, hanging off the far end of the seat, his side pressed against the door. "You can't promise that."

"True." Mikey lifts himself up and pushes his phone in his pocket after reading a reply. "I still believe it."

Ryan would argue, but they're pulling up next to where they left Spencer, and Ryan looks out the side window, his nose pushed against the glass. He can't see them at first, just the dark expanse of grass surrounded by trees, but eventually the shadows take shape, and he can make out two people kneeling, both of them bent forward. Before the van even stops, Ryan throws open the door and jumps out, running as he hits the ground. Taking the direct route, he runs through a flower bed, his feet slipping from under him, too anxious to slow down. When he reaches Spencer, Ryan falls to his knees. Spencer's fingers are bloody, red against the white of the material that he's holding to the boy's cheek.

"Did you find them?" Spencer looks up through his hair that's fallen in front of his face, but even through that mask, Ryan can see the fear he's trying to hide, and all he can think is that they're too late.

"He did." Pete kneels next to Jon and hands him a flashlight. "Shine this so I can see." Jon does, holding up the flashlight so they're in their own small circle of light, exposing details Ryan doesn't want to see. There are footprints on the boy's t-shirt and jeans, a lump of what has to be bone bulging under the skin of his wrist, and his jeans are wet through, dark from crotch to knee.

"Someone's done a number on you, haven't they?" Pete talks softly as he pulls off his hoodie and uses it to cover the boy. He moves then, crawling so he's at the boy's head which he carefully straightens to be in line with his neck and body, using his hands for stabilization. "We need to get him to the clinic."

"I've been in contact, she'll be ready." Mikey bends over and gently brushes the boy's hair from his forehead. "I take it carrying him's not a good idea."

Pete shakes his head. "We shouldn't move him at all, really."

"Well, you can't leave him here," Spencer snaps, looking between Mikey and Pete.

"We wouldn't do that," Mikey says. "Jon, give the flashlight to Ryan and come help me with a table."

"Taking the offered flashlight, Ryan holds it as steady as he can.

"Do any of you know him?" Pete asks.

Spencer shakes his head. "No, but Jon said he's called Brendon. They found out he'd been hooking independently in someone else's territory. Jon was supposed to kill him."

It's like Spencer is reading out a shopping list, his voice level, controled. Concerned, Ryan tries to move so he can see Spencer's face.

"I'm fine, Ryan." Spencer pushes the hair out of his eyes with one hand, his expression so blank that Ryan's sure something is wrong. "He's only a kid."

"He looks the same age as you," Pete says, but Spencer shakes his head.

"I'm not a kid."

"No, I bet you're not." Pete looks like he's going to say more, but Mikey and Jon come back then. They're holding one of the trestle tables, the legs folded up. Ryan moves out of the way, and they set it on the ground next to Brendon.

"Pete, you keep supporting his head, Jon, you take his left side, Ryan, the right. I'll take his legs. You can probably stop with the pressure now, the bleeding should have stopped."

Obeying Mikey's quiet orders, they slide Brendon onto the table. He never moves, doesn't even twitch as they settle him on his back and ensure he's covered with Pete's hoodie.

"Has everyone got hold?" Mikey asks. "On three we'll lift. One. Two. Three."

They all lift, and despite the twinge in his ribs, Ryan can't help thinking how small this kid looks, how his clothes do nothing to hide how thin he is, or how he weighs so little. Slowly, they walk back to the van, over the smashed down flowers in the flower bed, and then stop, waiting as Mikey uses one hand to open the van's back doors. Inside it smells strongly of tomato and the space is packed full of urns and other tables, empty baskets and boxes full of plastic cups. There's barely enough room to load Brendon inside, and Pete ends up squashed against the front seats, crouching forward, his knees either side of Brendon's head. It looks like an uncomfortable position, but he doesn't complain, just keeps talking quietly to Brendon as Mikey waits for Ryan to run back for his guitar. He shuts the doors when Ryan gets back and heads to the front.

"One of you will have to sit on someone else's knee." Mikey twirls a set of keys around his finger and gets into the driver's seat. "Unless you've got some kind of spidey powers -- then you're welcome to the roof."

"I'll sit on Spencer's knee," Ryan says, but Jon shakes his head.

"No, you don't need to. I'm not coming."

"I thought you said Jake would come for you," Spencer says.

"He will, which is why I'm going now."

Jon sounds unconcerned, but Ryan knows how to look beyond the surface and when he does so, Jon's nervousness is obvious. It's why Ryan has to try his own protest, despite knowing nothing about the situation at all. "You should come with us. Don't you want to know if he'll be okay?"

For a moment, it looks like Jon's wavering. Then he turns and starts to walk away. "I do, but I can't stay."

Sitting half in, half out of the van, Mikey pulls a business card out of his pocket, a match to the one Bob gave Spencer so many weeks before, except this one is creased, molded to the shape of Mikey's body. "Take this, phone us any time," Mikey says, and then glances at the back of the van. "If you two are coming, get in now. We need to go."

This time Ryan gets in first, leaving Spencer to sit next to the door. When Mikey starts to drive, passing Jon who waves once, Ryan expects him to talk, more platitudes or reassurances, but Mikey says nothing at all. Ryan finds himself listening to Pete, letting his constant stream of words wash over him, stories including dogs and best friends and frequent reassurances that Brendon will be okay. Which is something Ryan clings to, even if he can't bring himself to believe, because Brendon still hasn't moved, opened his eyes, done anything to show that he's still in there. If it weren't for the shallow way his chest moves, Ryan would think he was already dead.

Despite the lack of traffic on the roads, it takes ten minutes to drive to the clinic. Ryan watches the numbers change on the dashboard clock, ticking toward nine, coming toward another new day when he's still tired and dirty and afraid.

"We're here." It's the first thing Mikey's said since they left the park, and Ryan looks at the building where they've arrived. It's small, one window lit up on the first floor and a small plaque attached near the door. As they step outside, the front door opens revealing a young woman. Her hair is pulled back and she's wearing pale yellow scrubs.

"Hey Mikey." She smiles, wide and genuine, as she looks at Spencer and Ryan. "Are these my patients?"

"We're fine," Ryan says, before Mikey has a chance to reply.

"Like he said, they're fine," Mikey says, and despite the lack of inflection, it's obvious he doesn't believe that at all. Still, he doesn't press the point, just walks to the back of the van and opens the doors. "We picked him up in the park. Didn't see what actually happened, but they didn't go easy on him."

As soon as she looks inside, the woman's demeanor changes. Her smile fades and is replaced with efficient professionalism as she takes charge. "Help me carry him inside. It's pointless disturbing him too much so we'll use the table. Pete, keep holding his head, me and Mikey will carry."

Ryan thinks about protesting that he can help, but everything is happening so fast that all he can do is stand and watch as Brendon is carried out of the van and into the clinic. Shutting the van doors, Ryan and Spencer follow and find themselves in a long corridor, orange plastic chairs that look like they somehow were left when the seventies came and went lining the wall. The only sign of the others is a closing door, Staff Only in red letters across the front.

"I guess we stay here," Spencer says, and he sits in one of the chairs, leaning forward and resting his head on his bunched fists. He looks exhausted, wrung out, and Ryan rests his hand against the nape of Spencer's neck before sitting too. He leans back, the edge of the plastic chair diging into his spine, the silence after the chaos of the last hour making his ears ring.

"While you were gone I talked to Jon. Jake, his like, I dunno, boss, or something, he told him to kill Brendon, knife him because he was in the wrong place." Spencer sits up then and looks at his hands, at the blood that's dried on his fingers. "I thought that I'd gotten away from that, that this would be better, but it's not."

"It will be." Ryan tries to find the right words, aware of how close Spencer is to the edge, because Ryan's walking that edge too, it's just, there's no way he's going to let Spencer fall. "We'll get our apartment and jobs."

"How? I've been looking and there's nothing we can afford. Even if we get enough for a deposit we've got no references, no paperwork, we're not even of legal age to rent. We should just go back, at least you had a home."

"And I still have. It sucks and if I had a choice I'd never squat in an abandoned building, sleeping on a disgusting mattress, but I do and it's my home. Whenever I'm with you I'm home and we're not going back, we're staying here and we'll sort something out even if I have to write the references myself."

"I'd say that was touching if it wasn't so cheesy." Spencer smiles, a small curl of his lip as he rubs at his eyes. "I am impressed with the forgery plan. Think you can make us some IDs while you're at it?"

"You know it," Ryan says, and it feels good to smile, even for a moment, but he can't help looking at the shut door, wondering what's going on behind it. "You think he'll be okay?"

"I hope so."It's all Spencer says, and Ryan understands -- he doesn't know either.

Mikey reappears forty minutes later. Spencer's asleep, curled up in his chair while Ryan stares at the wall, at the posters he's already read multiple times, touting useful facts about sexual diseases and nutritional advice. Despite the way his eyes burn, Ryan can't look away. Everything feels too much -- even the air is stuffy, thick with artificial heat. He's beyond exhaustion and all he can do is keep sitting, the world blurring in front of his eyes.

"Hey." Mikey sits two seats away from Ryan, turning so he can look his way. Taking off his glasses, he rubs under his eyes, smudging the liner, then puts his glasses back on. "Sorry for leaving you, it got a bit frantic for a while."

"How's he doing?"

"He'll be okay, it'll just take a while, but Jamia's fixing him up. When she's done she's going to look you two over."

"We're fine, and Jamia?" Ryan asks, and normally he wouldn't even care, but right now he needs to hear someone talk, words to push back the silence that's otherwise too heavy.

"You saw her when we arrived, she's Frank's wife. You should know him from the soup kitchen, small guy that's not Pete? And if you're fine, it won't hurt to be looked over."

"Says you," Ryan says, needing to protest despite knowing this is a fight he doesn't have to win. "So, this is her clinic?"

"Sort of, she lives upstairs with Frank. He'd be here, but the lucky bastard is playing tonight."

Ryan keeps looking at the posters about pregnancy advice, HIV tests, so long as he doesn't have to look around, see Mikey. "What happens now? Will he stay here?"

"He can stay a few hours, enough to get some fluids into him, then he has to go."

Ryan does turn then, stares at Mikey, not believing what he's heard. "He wasn't even conscious! She can't just throw him out."

"She's got no choice," Mikey says simply. "It sucks, I know that, but legally she shouldn't even be seeing him at this hour. The clinic's not open and it operates on a federal budget. She takes risks, but she can't push too much."

"But you'll take him in, right? You and Pete, you've got a place."

"We can't, we've no room."

"So make some."

"It's not that simple." Mikey sits back in his seat, never looking away despite Ryan's anger. "You don't know what we went through to open Clan House, the hoops we jumped through to get funding and insurance. There's ten people living there now, if we get closed down, they'll lose their home."

"And what about Brendon? Doesn't he deserve a home?" Too angry to sit still, Ryan jumps to his feet and paces the corridor, unsure why he even cares so much. He doesn't know Brendon and just taking care of himself and Spencer is hard enough. But somehow, he does care, he just doesn't know why. Each time he turns he sees Mikey watching him, calm and unruffled, waiting for Ryan to settle. Which Ryan does, eventually, when he's paced the small space at least twenty times. He stops near Spencer and looks down at him, asking quietly, "Don't we deserve a home?"

"If I could, I'd give you all a place." There's truth in Mikey's words, but it doesn't help, it can't, not when Ryan knows he has to go back to the abandoned office building, the days ahead stretching endlessly with little chance of change.

But Ryan can do one thing. "He can come back with us."

"I didn't think you knew Brendon."

"We don't," Ryan says, and he doesn't even know why he's doing this, because he should at least talk it over with Spencer, but somehow making the offer feels right.

"He'll need looking after for a while," Mikey warns, but the slight smile he gives Ryan is all approval. "We can get you stuff, blankets and food."

"That'll be good." Ryan sits then, shaking Spencer's shoulder gently and saying, "Spencer, we're taking Brendon back with us."

Eyes still closed, Spencer says, "Good."

~~~~

When Brendon wakes, it feels like he's floating, his body connected to nothing at all. He keeps his eyes closed, confused memories of being attacked jumbled in his head, the realization he was about to die. It's why he's scared to open his eyes, suspecting when he does so he'll find he's been cast into hell. That's inevitable, it's the only place people like Brendon go.

"Brendon, hey, I know you're waking up. Stay with us."

The voice is pleasant, light, but Brendon pretends he can't hear, keeping reality pushed back as long as he can.

"Open your eyes for me, Brendon. Show me you're in there."

There's a touch against Brendon's arm, and he knows something is close, the problem is, what?

"Come on, kid. For me."

"You could be the devil." The words feel rough in Brendon's mouth, scraping over his throat and making him cough, each one revealing new hurts. Wrist, ribs, stomach, legs, face, the pain bleeding through until Brendon's screwing shut his eyes, panting for breath.

"I know it's hard, but just breathe, listen to me. In and out, that's it. You're doing great."

Brendon follows the voice, slows down his breathing and tries to ride out the pain. Finally, when he's breathing evenly, he opens his eyes, or eye, as one refuses to open, just stays swollen shut.

"There you are, hi." A woman moves into view. She's smiling and she rests her hand against Brendon's shoulder. "I'm Jamia, you're at my clinic, and I know it's scary right now and you're probably not feeling great, but you'll be okay, promise."

Heart racing, Brendon feels sick as his memories become more vivid, images coming together, jeering faces and boots kicking at his body, a knife blade glinting in the moonlight. The recalled fear is almost overwhelming.

Jamia strokes along Brendon's shoulder, keeping up a steady rhythm until he's back in control. "No one can hurt you here. Keep telling yourself that."

When he's feeling calmer, Brendon nods, says, "Sorry."

"Nothing to be sorry for." With a last pat of his shoulder, Jamia steps away. "I'll just be over here, collecting some samples you can have -- pain-killers and antibiotics, stuff like that."

Hearing Jamia walk away, Brendon looks around, taking in the IV in the back of his hand, and the dressings on his palms, the bright white cast wrapped around his left wrist. He's covered with a soft red blanket but he can feel bandages wrapped around his chest and when he cautiously brings a hand to his face, he feels a dressing that covers nearly all of his cheek, going from just under his eye to the corner of his mouth.

"No touching."

Caught, Brendon brings his hand down, resting it on top of the blanket. "Sorry."

"You need to stop saying that." Jamia looks at the bag that's attached to the IV, checking how much is left inside. "This should be done soon, until then, you should rest."

Which is something Brendon can do easily, because despite how much pain he's in, for the first time in weeks he feels warm, is starting to feel safe, and he lets himself drift, listening to Jamia putter around the room. It's some time later when Brendon fully wakes. The machine attached to his IV is beeping, but it's not that that wakes him, it's the man who's now standing in the room. He appears jarring in this clean soothing space, smelling of cold and sweat and his movements are quick-fire, abrupt, like he's reigning himself in somehow. He's also got his arm around Jamia's waist, and he leans in to give her a kiss before looking at Brendon with a smile. "Hi."

Brendon starts to smile too, but stops when the movement makes something tug in his cheek. He lifts his casted hand instead, wiggles his fingers, says, "Hi."

"Brendon, this is Frank." Stepping away from Frank, Jamia presses buttons on the machine, stopping the beeping and leans in, as if she's sharing a secret. "He started following me around one day and never stopped."

"Can you blame me? You're beautiful."

"And you're a flatterer," Jamia says, her smile widening even further. "Can you go get Brendon's clothes? Pete was running them through the laundry."

"You let Pete go upstairs alone?" Frank almost runs for the door.

When he's gone the energy in the room seems to drop and Brendon lies still, nervous when Jamia pulls on latex gloves. "I need to take out the IV, it won't hurt."

Still, Brendon can't help tensing up, but Jamia keeps talking, distracting. "The last time Pete was alone in our apartment he changed the wallpaper on Frank's computer. They've had this thing ever since. Frank sends pictures to Pete's phone, he sends them back, it's all kinds of stupid." She shakes her head slightly, laughing as she eases out the needle, dropping it into a sharps container. "I told him to just give it up already. I mean, I love Frank but he's no internet expert, and against Mikey and Pete? Some of the things they find are just scarring." Taping a cotton ball on Brendon's hand, Jamia peels off her gloves and drops them in the trash. "There, all done. As soon as Frank comes back you can get dressed."

"I need to go?" It's not that Brendon didn't expect that, all he can do lately is move on, he'd just thought he'd have more time. A few more hours of staying somewhere clean and where the memories can be pushed back by drugs and the warmth of Jamia's smile.

"I'm sorry, if I could let you, believe me, kid. Believe me."

Jamia isn't smiling now, she just looks sad as she takes Brendon's hand, carefully curling her fingers around his. He looks at her nails, how they're short and painted navy blue and hates himself for making her feel bad. Squeezing her fingers with his own, Brendon swallows around the lump in his throat. "It's okay. You fixed me up. I can look after myself."

"I'm sure you can. You're tough."

Brendon doesn't feel tough, he feels anything but. Still, Jamia doesn't need to know that, and Brendon manages a smile, says, "Yeah."

"Are you making a move on my woman?"

Brendon jumps when Frank abruptly enters the room. He's carrying a pile of clothes, grinning over the top of them as he looks at Brendon and Jamia's joined hands.

"No, I'm..." Brendon tries to pull his hand away, but Jamia holds on.

"He's teasing, ignore him." Still holding on, Jamia turns to Frank. "So, did Pete change anything?"

Setting the clothes on the computer chair, Frank shakes his head. "Not that I could see. He's with Mikey now, waiting with those other two kids."

"They're still awake?"

"Mikey's talking to Gee, Pete's texting. I think one of the kids was asleep."

"At least someone is," Jamia says, and gently uncurls her hand. "Let's get you dressed."

Brendon grips the top of the blanket. "I can dress myself."

"Normally, sure, but let me help today."

"I can manage, honestly," Brendon protests, but Jamia takes no notice, just pulls the blanket down so it's around Brendon's waist.

"We'll go slow, but let me do the work, okay?"

Getting upright is harder than Brendon could ever imagine. Dizzy, he grips Jamia's arm, holding on as she eases him up and then around, each movement resulting in renewed pain until Brendon can feel sweat break out on his forehead, his neckline, and he's swallowing hard, determined that he's not going to throw up.

"Nearly there, you're doing great." Jamia keeps talking, always encouraging and when Brendon's finally sitting with his legs over the side of the bed, she rubs circles on his back, staying close until he says, "I'm okay."

"Sure," Jamia says, crouching so she can see Brendon's face. What she sees must satisfy her as she turns to Frank, holding out her hand. "Pass me his boxers."

It should be humiliating being dressed, but Brendon can't bring himself to care. He stands when ordered, lifts his feet and arms and only protests when Jamia begins to pull a hoodie over his head.

"No, that's not mine."

"It is now." Jamia pulls the hoodie down, threading the sleeves over her own hand so she can ease Brendon's arms into place. "There, that's better than just one hoodie"

"I can't take someone's clothes."

"Pete won't mind, he probably stole it from someone anyway." Pulling the hoodie straight, Jamia examines the design. "Wasn't this Mikey's?"

"Yeah," Frank says. He tilts his head, looking at Brendon. "It looks good on you."

"Thank you," Brendon says, the response automatic. When he's fully dressed, bundled inside the dryer-warm hoodies, Brendon sits on the bed and takes the paper bag Jamia hands over.

"There're painkillers and antibiotics in there, take them. You need to drink lots of fluids and rest, too. Which I know, it's not easy. But you have to try."

"I will," Brendon promises, and he grips the bag hard, holding on tight as he stands. Even with Jamia's help, walking sucks. Each step takes an effort Brendon's not sure he can give. His whole body is throbbing and the thought of having to go outside, find someplace to sleep almost brings him to his knees. But he keeps walking, one step after another, surprised when he shuffles out of the room and finds four people waiting, all looking his way.

"You're looking a bit better." One of them steps forward, smiling wide. "I'm Pete. That's Mikey, Spencer and Ryan."

"Hi," Brendon says, hoping they're not expecting conversation, but none of them speaks, and he starts to walk again. "It was nice meeting you."

"Wait!" One of the younger men, Spencer, Brendon thinks, steps forward. "You can't go, you're coming with us."

Confused, Brendon says nothing, trying to understand what's going on.

"We haven't got much but you can stay with us, we'll find room," Ryan says.

If he was less exhausted, less hurt, Brendon would take time to figure things out, wonder what they want in return, but right now all he needs is somewhere to lie down. He doesn't care where. Arm held against his chest, he nods. "Thank you."

Jamia steps forward then. "Remember, if anything changes, you think you're getting an infection, anything, come straight back. I'll squeeze you in." She gently pats Brendon's arm then turns to Ryan and Spencer. "Same for you two, neither of you are particularly healthy, so no being heroes."

Ryan nods, says, "Okay."

It takes a long time to get to Ryan and Spencer's place. Helped into the van by Jamia, Brendon slumps against the door, his forehead against the glass as Mikey climbs over the driving seat to get to the middle. Pete drives, Spencer and Ryan riding in the back.

The actual journey seems never ending, each bump in the road making Brendon gasp, and by the time they arrive he's almost carried inside, held upright by Mikey and Pete. Past the point where he can help at all, Brendon lets them steer him through the darkness and then carefully lie him down. Curling around, Brendon brings up his knees and moves his head -- which feels like it weighs a thousand pounds, his cheek and eye throbbing in protest, getting as comfortable as he can get -- which isn't all that comfortable at all.

It's three am on a cold night when Brendon closes his eyes, head to the side, his hands pulled inside his sleeves, tears seeping into the mattress as he sleeps.

~*~*~*~

"I'm telling you, no." Determined, Ryan grabs hold of Spencer's hand and tugs him away from Brendon, who's still curled up on the mattress. He's under Spencer's spare clothes as a kind of a makeshift blanket, and is seemingly still fast asleep. "I'm not leaving you alone."

"I won't be alone," Spencer says, jerking his hand out of Ryan's grasp. "Brendon will be here, and it's not like I do much anyway. You do all the singing and playing."

"Brendon won't be able to help if anyone comes, and you do plenty. I need you there."

"No, you don't." Spencer looks over his shoulder at Brendon. "But he does. Someone needs to stay with him."

"So we'll both stay." It's something Ryan refuses to compromise on, because no way are they splitting up.

"Fine," Spencer says, and Ryan will take that agreement, even if Spencer doesn't look happy at all.

The thing is, though, staying here means there's nothing to do. Spencer's not talking, just sitting, resting against an interior wall, his eyes closed and Ryan doesn't know if he's napping or just making a point. The silence leaves Ryan to play his guitar. He's concentrating on something that's more randomly strung together notes than an actual song, when Brendon wakes.

At the gasp of pain, Ryan looks up, setting his guitar aside. Brendon whimpers, his face pressed against the mattress. "Hey, Brendon, hold on. I'll get you some pills."

Moving so that he's kneeling next to the mattress, Ryan tips the paper bag from the clinic upside down, spilling the contents on the floor. Rummaging through the variety of pills, he selects the pain-killers, popping them out of the blister packs and then looks around for Spencer's bag, and the bottle of water inside.

"Here." Spencer holds out the bottle, and Ryan takes it, nodding his thanks.

"Brendon, I've got your pills. You'll need to turn over so you can take them."

At first Brendon doesn't move, just lies still, shoulders drawn in, each breath a shudder. On the verge of suggesting that they need to move him themselves, Ryan remains silent when Brendon finally shifts, slowly, each tiny turn an obvious effort. When he does get on his side, Spencer puts his hands on Brendon's shoulders, easing him down onto his back, which exposes how ashen Brendon is, with dark bruises that creep from under the dressing on his cheek.

"Brendon, open your mouth, I'll do the rest." Relieved when Brendon does as he's asked, Ryan slips the pills into Brendon's mouth, and then pours in a small amount of water. "That's good, now swallow. You'll feel better soon, promise."

"Thank you." The words are almost formless, sounds lost in swollen flesh and lingering sleep, but Ryan understands, says, "You're welcome."

It takes a while for the pills to take effect --too long --and Ryan finds himself noticing every pained sound and restless shift as Brendon tries to get comfortable. But finally, he starts to relax, the tension easing, his hand uncurling as he slips back into sleep. When Ryan's sure that Brendon is sleeping and not keeping his eyes shut to ward off the world, Ryan stands, and sees that Spencer has gathered all the pills together, setting them next to the water, safely inside Spencer's bag.

Spencer himself is over on the other side of the room, looking out of the window and obviously watching something from the way he moves his head, how it looks like he's on guard. Then he takes a step back and turns so he can see Ryan. "Mikey's coming."

It's not what Ryan expected, and he walks over to Spencer, looking outside to where Mikey's locking the van door. There's a pile of stuff at his feet, Ryan can't see what exactly, not from here, but it takes Mikey a few tries before he can pick it all up, and when he does all Ryan can see is his glasses over the top of the pile.

"I'll go and give him a hand." Spencer walks away, leaving Ryan to go back to Brendon, standing close as he waits for Spencer to return. When he does, he's carrying a large cardboard box and Ryan sees Mikey is carrying blankets, a Starbucks bag hanging from one wrist.

"You weren't outside the station so I came here."

"We were sleeping," Ryan says, and then looks away, the feeling of resentment lingering. Surely Mikey could have taken Brendon in somehow, surely that's what he's meant to do.

Spencer sets the box on the floor. "You were there at the usual time? Did you even sleep?"

"I drop people off at school, that can't change because I've had a late night."

It's then that Ryan looks closely, taking in the shadows under Mikey's eyes and the fact that he's clearly wearing the same clothes as yesterday, his eye makeup even more smeared than usual. Despite himself, he asks, "Couldn't someone else do it?"

"I guess." Mikey lets the blankets drop to the floor and opens the bag, taking out the three cups that have been carefully balanced inside. "I didn't know what you liked so I got plain drip." Handing over the cups, Mikey takes a drink of his own coffee then yawns, not bothering to cover his mouth. "I've brought blankets, there's food in the box, sandwiches and shit, Gerard made them this morning so God knows what's in them. There's water, too." Mikey stops then and looks at Brendon. "It's not our choice to have him here, to have any of you here. If we had our way, you'd all be under our roof."

Ryan believes him, it's there in the way Mikey is watching Brendon and the way he looks around, taking in the stained mattress and concrete floors, his expression set, except for the misery apparent in his eyes.

"Thanks, for the food and stuff," Spencer says, he's holding the cup of coffee close to his face, inhaling the steam. Ryan understands, the warmth is a comfort and he wraps his hands around his own cup, holding it tight.

"No worries." Mikey takes another drink, and then looks at his watch. "I need to go. Tell Brendon...well, tell him I'll come see him soon. Oh, and there's stuff to read in the box, too. I figured you'd be bored." He leaves then, drinking his coffee as he walks.

"Want to join me for breakfast?" Spencer has unfolded a blanket and draped it over Brendon, making sure his whole body is covered. He leaves the second one on the ground, and then opens the box, looking inside. "Looks like we've got peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, there's fruit too. Apples and bananas."

"Sounds good." Ryan sits, back against the wall but still close to Brendon as Spencer takes out two sandwiches and a red apple. Handing them over, he sits next to Ryan and unfolds a third blanket, putting it over both of their knees.

"It's no blanket fort, but it's the best I can do."

"It's perfect," Ryan says, and he rests his head against Spencer's shoulder. "I'm sorry for not going."

Spencer keeps looking forward, says, "No, you're right, splitting up would be stupid. It's just, I worry about money. I hate it here, Ryan. I want our own place."

The quiet admission is hard to hear and all Ryan wants to do is say things will be okay. He doesn't, because Spencer deserves more than meaningless platitudes, no matter how well intentioned they may be.

~~~~

Waking up the second time is easier, in the way that at least this time Brendon knows he's not alone. He still hurts, so much so that all he can do is lie still and try to keep the pained sounds trapped inside. It's a losing battle. So when he hears voices and turns his head to see who's there, Brendon can't help a groan.

"Brendon, hey." One of the people from before steps into view, and Brendon tries to pull a name out from the foggy mess that's pretending to be his mind, because names are important, that's something Brendon's learnt -- one of his main strategies for making friends.

"Spencer."

"You remember; good." Spencer smiles and then reaches for a bag, pulling it close. "You'll be wanting painkillers I bet, and you need to take the antibiotics."

"Please."

Popping out the pills, Spencer places them in Brendon's mouth, and then opens a bottle of water. Placing his hand under Brendon's head, he carefully lifts, allowing Brendon to drink. "They should kick in soon."

Brendon hopes so, because right now he feels terrible, and also helpless, flat on his back and only able to see the stained-white panels of the ceiling. Despite cringing at the thought of moving, he asks, "Can you help me sit up?"

Spencer frowns. "I can, but we'll need to pull the mattress to the wall so there's something for you to lean against." He looks past Brendon, then nods slightly, as if he's made a decision. "You sure you want to do this? Sitting up won't be fun."

"Lying down isn't, either."

Spencer stands then, and Brendon hears footsteps and he turns his head slightly to see the other boy walking toward them.

"You're awake," the boy -- Ryan -- says, and he stares down at Brendon, like he's something on display.

"Brendon wants to sit up. We need to pull the mattress so it's against the wall, then he can lean against it."

"Is that a good idea?" Ryan asks, not sounding sure of that at all.

"It shouldn't do any more damage, and it can't be comfortable lying like that."

"It's not," Brendon says. "And the ceiling isn't very interesting to look at."

Ryan looks up and studies the tiles for a bit. "I see your point."

It doesn't take long to move the mattress, Ryan and Spencer grabbing hold at the top and sliding it along the ground. When they do so a terrible smell fills the air, dirt and sweat and what smells suspiciously like old blood. Brendon's gags as they settle it against the wall.

When he's finally able to breathe easier, Brendon signals that he's okay, readying himself as Ryan and Spencer take hold under his arms and ease him up, until Brendon's back is against the wall.

Immediately Brendon feels dizzy. He concentrates on the blanket as he waits for the world to stop spinning, always aware that Ryan and Spencer are standing close, ready to help if needed. They're not, but it's a close thing.

Spencer squats down so he's at Brendon's level. "Is that better?"

Brendon considers. Sitting up has made pain blaze in his stomach and hips, his chest is hurting and that's without considering the constant ache in his cheek and wrist. Still, he was hurting when he was lying down, and at least when he's like this he can actually see --to an extent, anyway. "It's better, thanks."

There's silence then, as if now that they've dealt with immediate issues they've realised Brendon is a stranger, someone they've never talked to at all. Normally, Brendon has questions on hand for awkward silences, ready to show how friendly he is, how he could be an interesting potential friend, but right now all of those questions are beyond him; all he can do is lie heavily against the wall. Not that anyone else is speaking, either. Ryan seems to be inspecting his nails while Spencer is rummaging through a box.

"You should eat." Spencer holds up a sandwich and banana. "There's apples, but this should be easier."

"That's fine." The truth is, Brendon's not hungry at all, but he picks up the sandwich Spencer has placed on his lap. Taking a small bite, Brendon chews slowly, feeling the stitches in his cheek pull each time. He keeps eating, managing half the sandwich and all of the banana.

After, when Brendon is full, the painkillers dialing down his pain to a dull roar, Brendon dozes, listening as Spencer selects a magazine and starts to read aloud, even after Ryan is fast asleep, resting his head in Spencer's lap.

~~~~~

Mikey's been visiting each day, but no matter how much food or how many magazines he brings -- always just enough for a day, swapping new magazines for old, as if somehow he knows they can't keep things, can only have what will fit in Spencer's bag -- Ryan's on the verge of going crazy with needing to go outside. He knows Spencer's feeling antsy too. It's in the way he wanders around the building, exploring areas he's seen countless times before.

As soon as Brendon can finally stand without wanting to fall right back down, they go back to the bus station, needing to busk. Leaving Brendon behind isn't an option, he's too weak to protect himself, so he comes along too, walking slowly, steadied between Ryan and Spencer. He doesn't talk on the way, just puts one foot in front of the other, grimly determined, and when they settle him on the bench, Brendon's hoodie is soaked through at the back, under his arms. Head down, his casted wrist held to his chest Brendon finally looks up, forces a smile and says he's fine. Ryan doesn't contradict him -- he can give Brendon that much.

It's in the afternoon when everything changes, flurries of snow filling the air and Ryan's fingers freeze, blue with cold as he plays his guitar. The people who do pass aren't stopping no matter what he sings. Ryan's frustrated enough that he stumbles over the words of a song, and it just gets worse, whole verses slipping from his brain.

He's cold and tired and hungry. He wants a long shower, a bath, clean clothes, but all he can do is keep playing, saving for a dream that feels more out of reach than ever. Which is when Brendon pushes himself to his feet, hand braced against the back of the bench, and says, "I can sing."

"Do you know REM?" Ryan asks, so tired he's ready to concede his place, even if he expects Brendon to say no.

Brendon hesitates a moment. "Mostly I listened to hymns, except when my parents weren't around." He shrugs a little, looking sheepish. "I heard them a few times, the famous ones, anyway."

Ryan nods and blows on his hands, keeps blowing until they're tingling and he can actually feel the strings. He starts to play, Everybody Hurts, and Brendon sings.

He's half standing, half sitting, propped against the arm of the bench, and his voice is rough, both from lack of use and the careful way he has to sing, taking care not to open his mouth too wide, or take in too deep a breath. But, within that roughness is the promise of something good -- better than good.

He keeps singing for two more songs, The Beatles and Coldplay, and by the end Brendon's smiling, even when he's obviously struggling to stay upright, listing over until Spencer pulls him down onto the bench. "I usually sound better."

"Once you're healed you'll sound fantastic," Ryan says, and Brendon keeps smiling, happiness there for all to see.

"I like singing, I used to be in the choir back in..." Brendon's smile fades, morphs into something for show, rather than genuine happiness. "Well, before."

"Ryan used to be in the choir," Spencer informs Brendon. "He was kicked out for protesting the inclusion of Beyonce as a pop cultural icon in the end of term showcase."

Ryan kicks at Spencer's ankle. "I wasn't kicked out, I chose to leave. There's a difference."

Spencer doesn't even try to hide his smile. "Keep telling yourself that."

"I will," Ryan says. He can't help noticing how Brendon is watching them intently, as if he's taking in every scrap of information. Normally, Ryan's careful with what he says -- it's easier that way, safer -- but he's been with Brendon for days now, slept at his side, helped him eat and piss, drink and walk. Ryan can give him something of importance. "After the choir we decided to form a band, me and Spencer. We were going to be rock stars."

"Did you form one?"

Spencer takes over, then, sounding amused. "We did, and we sucked. Like, seriously bad."

"You got better though," Brendon says. "At least Ryan did, because he sounds great now."

"Well, thanks." Spencer's more amused than annoyed – Ryan can tell. Brendon obviously can't, so Spencer reassures him, saying, "You've never heard me, so you wouldn't know. I used to play drums, and maybe I would have gotten better, but things happened and I didn't get a chance to find out."

"There's no maybe about it, if you'd have been able to keep your kit you'd have been amazing," Ryan says fiercely. "You still will be, one day."

"There's going to be room for a full kit in our apartment?"

Ryan considers the question. "We'll make room."

"You're going to get an apartment together?" It's the first personal question Brendon's asked, and Ryan looks at Spencer, waiting for his okay before he shares their dream.

He gets it -- the slightest incline of Spencer's head. "Eventually. We need to save enough money and other stuff, but one day."

"Ryan's going to paint the walls yellow."

"In the kitchen. I'm thinking purple for the main room."

"Purple is good," Brendon says, and then, "It sounds nice."

"It will be." Ryan imagines their apartment, a place he's pictured so often it feels like home.

"Yeah," Brendon says, and there's no sign of his smile at all now, all previous happiness drained away.

Suddenly, Spencer stands. "I think we should celebrate: earning money and Brendon getting back on his feet."

Technically, Brendon isn't on his feet at all right now, in fact, he looks more ready to lie down than anything. Still, Ryan stands and holds out his hand to Brendon, pulling him upright.

"Hot chocolate?"

Spencer nods. "You know it."

The hot chocolate they buy from a nearby shop isn't the good stuff, not by a long shot, but by the time they pour in packets of sugar it tastes fine, and it's hot, something that's always a plus. As simultaneously walking and drinking isn't an option right now, they end up back at their bench, Brendon in the middle as they sip at their drinks and watch the people walk past, everyone bundled up against the snow.

Said bundling is why Ryan doesn't recognise Mikey at first. He's wearing an over-sized parka, the hood pulled up to conceal his face, snowflakes caught in the fur lining. He's just another body in the crowds until he gets close, and Ryan recognises the way he walks, how he peers out of the depths of his hood. Mostly, though, he recognizes Pete, walking close, talking animatedly, smiling widely -- at that moment, Mikey is his whole world. When they get to the bench they stop walking, standing like a living shelter against the snow.

Mikey pulls down his hood, his knitted hat soon flecked white. "Brendon, it's good to see you up and around."

Brendon wiggles his fingers in Mikey's direction. "I'll be good as new soon."

"You're looking better than when I last saw you," Pete says, looking at Brendon. "Impressive bruising."

Brendon touches his face, running his fingers over the dressing. "Cool, yeah? Think they make me look tough?"

"Not at all," Pete replies cheerfully, because the truth is, Brendon doesn't look even close to tough. He looks battered, bruised, and so vulnerable that Ryan has to remind himself Brendon is tough -- he has to be, because he's still standing.

"Tough's bad, anyway," Spencer says. "It stops people giving us money."

Pete pushes his hands into his pockets, looking relieved. "So you're busking again? Good. Now I won't have to listen to Mikey bitch about the glockenspiel."

Mikey shudders. "He was playing Crazy in Love, Pete. Repeatedly. On a glockenspiel. It was terrible."

"That's inhuman," Ryan says, and can't help shuddering himself at the thought.

"I know, right? It was brainwashing by glockenspiel." Mikey nearly frowned, nearly.

Pete shakes his head, looks at Mikey. "And yet, you could have stepped out of the Starbucks line at any time."

"Not an option. You get to do the paperwork at home, I do drop offs and get coffee. Thinking of, we'd best get going if we're going to catch that movie."

"You're not at the soup kitchen tonight?" Spencer asks.

"Not tonight. Gerard and Frank are there," Pete says, and he reaches for Mikey's hands, holding onto them both. "We're off on a date, dinner and a movie and hopefully he'll put out."

Mikey smiles, the slightest curl of his lips. "You might get lucky."

Stretching up, Pete presses a kiss against Mikey's mouth, lingering slightly, eyes closed and tightly holding onto Mikey's hands. "I'm already lucky."

If Ryan knew them better he'd make some remark about being sappy, but he hasn't that right, not yet. So all he does is watch. He's surprised when Brendon suddenly jumps to his feet, his hot chocolate falling to the ground.

"What are you doing?" His voice is shaky, as shaky as he is on two feet, but he doesn't sound pained, he sounds…scared. "There's people around, children, you can't do that here, it's wrong and people will see."

"Brendon. The hell?" Spencer is standing too, pulling Brendon back, but he stands his ground, pointing at Pete and Mikey.

"You can't. Don't you know how wrong it is? And you're...in public." Now the fear has something else filtered in, something that Ryan can't quite identify, but he thinks it's uncertainty, as if Brendon doesn't even know how he feels.

"Let them see." Pete keeps hold of Mikey's hand, also standing his ground as Brendon stares, wide-eyed and shaking. "There's nothing about us that needs to be or should be hidden. I'm going to take my hot boyfriend to the movies, where I'll try my best to get my hand into his pants." He looks at Brendon, considering. "I don't think you mean any of this, not really, so we're going to go now, before you say something I can't forgive."

They walk away then, still holding hands. Mikey looks over his shoulder to call, "Look after him," with a glance in Brendon's direction.

All Ryan wants to do is grab Brendon and shake him, demand to know what he was thinking. He doesn't. There's no way he can when Brendon looks so distraught. Spencer takes Brendon's arm and gently pulls him forward. "Let's go back, I think you need to talk."

Brendon nods and begins to walk slowly, dependent on Spencer for each step.

~~~~~

Brendon's overdue for painkillers and his head is throbbing, made worse by the strained silence that no one will break. Brendon wishes he could, he wishes a lot of things.

When they get back to the abandoned office building, Spencer helps Brendon squeeze through the broken front door, steadies him until Brendon can sit on the mattress, his back against the wall as Spencer opens his bag, takes out pills and water and a blanket that he unfurls with a flick of his wrists.

Ryan stands apart, shoulders pulled in, staring at Brendon like he's a stranger, the tentative friendship of the last few days ripped apart. Brendon wishes he could turn back time, give himself a chance to fix things, to plaster on a smile and pretend seeing Mikey and Pete like that didn't bother him at all. Wishes are meaningless, though, and Brendon curls in on himself, his misery bone deep.

When he's settled and warmer, the pills start kicking in, and Brendon tries to think what to say, how to explain. He can't say that he didn't mean it, because he did: being a sodomite is disgusting, wrong, a sin.

"Are you feeling better?" Spencer asks, and when Brendon nods he stands closer and snaps, "Good, because I want to know what the fuck you were thinking?"

Brendon worries at a thread of the blanket, anything so that doesn't have to look at Spencer. "They were kissing."

"So?"

"So it's…it's wrong, it's a sin against God. A—a perversion." Brendon closes his eyes, remembering the feel of Alan's hands on his body, the movies, all his time alone. Words that were yelled at him echo in his ear: Brendon's disgusting, corrupt, wrong. "They-- They can't do things like that, they're so good, but what they're doing is wrong, they'll burn in hell and they can't and you don't understand...." Brendon's voice gets quicker, his breathing less even with each word.

"Brendon, stop." Spencer pushes his hair out of his eyes and looks at Ryan, having some silent conversation that Brendon has no chance of understanding. "Do you think me and Ryan are disgusting?"

"No," Brendon says immediately.

Ryan almost runs to Spencer then, grabbing hold and kissing him hard. It's a long lingering kiss, but sweet, tender in a way that nothing Brendon saw at the camp was. Ryan's are fingers curled against Spencer's back, sometimes stroking, and he smiles against Spencer's mouth just before he pulls away, looking at Brendon, defiant. He asks quietly, "What about now?"

The difference between the movies he was forced to watch and what Brendon's seeing now is huge, so large he can scarcely comprehend that any of the actions are the same. Those deliberately staged scenes had none of the ease with which Ryan touches Spencer. The professionals – actors? – with their hard cocks and cum-smeared mouths told Brendon nothing about the way Spencer would curl his fingers around Ryan's wrist. The two scenes are worlds apart and logically, Brendon knows what Ryan and Spencer have is okay, that they haven't changed just because they've admitted they're together. That doesn't stop him feeling sick with fear.

Hands clenched tight, Brendon says, "I know you haven't changed, I know. You're both so good but you can't do that. It's a sin and you can't... people will see, they'll know. They'll hurt you. Maybe...maybe you can just do that stuff here, I won't look and ..."

"We're not hiding anything," Ryan says then, cutting Brendon off. "That's not going to happen. Not everyone thinks like that. Not everyone's ashamed of love." He links his fingers with Spencer's. "We're going to the soup kitchen for something to eat, you can come or stay here, it's your choice."

Brendon takes in the set of Ryan's shoulders, the way his chin is tilted up and his eyes are slightly narrowed, like he's ready to take on the world. It scares Brendon, his fear almost a live thing inside of him as he imagines Ryan and Spencer being beaten, going down under a shower of fists. "Please, you don't have to do that because of me."

"We're not doing anything because of you." Ryan starts to walk then, pulling Spencer with him, but Spencer hesitates, standing still as he looks at Brendon.

"If you're staying, try to get some sleep. We'll be fine, promise."

Brendon nods, waits until he hears the sound of the broken door be pushed aside and then carefully replaced. He waits a little longer, then begins to sing, only songs from movies this time. He uses the lyrics used as shields against the memories pressing close, made worse by being alone.

~~~~

It's fully dark when Spencer and Ryan return. Curled up on the mattress, Brendon lies perfectly still until he's sure it's actually them. Only then can he finally breathe. Pulling at the blanket, he tugs it higher until only the top of his head is exposed, listening as they come near. Spencer's talking quietly, Ryan replying so softly that Brendon can't distinguish actual words. Not that he has to, it's all too easy to hear how much they care. It's there in the soft way Spencer says Ryan's name as they walk close together, how Ryan smiles around his reply.

Right now Brendon's so lonely he could cry, and he squeezes shut his eyes as Ryan unfolds the second blanket and Spencer walks over to the mattress.

"Brendon?" Spencer crouches and rests his hand against Brendon's forehead, the briefest of touches before he steps away.

"He asleep?"

The sound of footsteps is muffled by the blanket, but Spencer and Ryan are clearly settling down for the night, usually lying close to Brendon, always touching him. Tonight they're lying down further away, and the distance cuts deep.

"What if he doesn't come around?" The question is hesitant, like it's something Spencer doesn't want to ask. Maybe it's something Ryan doesn't want to answer, because it takes him a long time to reply. Enough time passes, that Brendon is able to steel himself, readying his goodbyes because they're bound to tell him to go, that's just how it is.

"We'll give him time to deal, but I'm not hiding anything. I'm not hiding you."

Brendon relaxes then, because time is good. Time gives him a chance to deal, to become the person who's allowed to stay.

~~~~~

"Brendon, wake up, there's someone here to see you."

Waking is never fun, even less so when Brendon opens his eyes at Spencer's urging, and the first thing he sees is Pete standing close, his expression set, his arms crossed over his chest.

"Come on, take your pills and you'll feel better." There's the crinkle of plastic and then Spencer's dropping the tablets in Brendon's open mouth, slipping his arm under Brendon's head, and supporting him until he's taken a drink of water.

"I missed breakfast this morning, could you go get me coffee? Something for you all too." Pete pulls his wallet out of his pocket, taking out a twenty which he hands to Ryan.

"I'm not sure," Ryan says, and he takes a half step so he's between Brendon and Pete. "I mean, I know he was an ass, but I'm not leaving you here with him if you're going to, like, yell."

"No yelling," Pete says seriously, taking note of Ryan's barely hidden fears. "I just want to talk."

Ryan doesn't move, says, "You promise."

"I promise." Pete makes a cross over his heart before putting his hands in his hoodie pocket.

Ryan still looks a little unsure, and Brendon wants to tell him to stay. He's actually not afraid that Pete will yell -- he's used to that -- but Brendon doesn't want this talk, aware that the words are bound to hurt as much if not more than any beating. Except he owes Pete this, so Brendon dregs up a smile and says, "Go on. I'll be fine."

"Right. We won't be long." With a last look, Ryan walks away with Spencer, leaving Brendon alone with Pete. It feels wrong lying on his back, Pete standing above him and Brendon slowly pushes himself up with his elbow and uncasted hand. Pete doesn't try to help, just stands close, allowing Brendon the time to settle himself as comfortably as he can. When he's sitting upright, his back against the wall, hand cradled against his chest, Pete sits too, legs crossed Indian style, seemingly uncaring that the floor is filthy.

He looks at his nails then, using his thumb nail to pick at the chipped polish and Brendon's gotten to wondering if he's supposed to start this conversation when Pete looks up. "I meant what I said: I'm not going to yell, but no one gets to make Mikey feel like you did last night. He goes through that shit enough without getting it from someone he actually likes, and it's not going to happen again. I won't let it."

"I didn't mean to, I'm sorry."

Head tilted slightly to the side, Pete looks at Brendon, as if examining the truth of his words. "I believe that you're sorry. The thing is, what for? For making Mikey feel bad or for what you actually said? Those are two different things."

Which is true, and Brendon has to be honest, "The first."

"I thought so." Pete begins to pick at another nail, his index finger this time, flaking away tiny flecks of polish. "We're been running Clan House and the soup kitchen for a while now, and in that time we've been cursed out hundreds of times. What you said wasn't new. We've had people try and save our souls and others who went the direct route and bricked the windows. Point being, they can try all they like, they can throw bricks or words or poison-tipped arrows, we're not going to change."

Brendon wants to say that's fine, that they can do what they like because it's not like he's got any hold on them, but all he can think about is Pete laughing as he ladles out soup. His mind flashes to Mikey gently wiping Brendon's face when he felt sweaty and sick and disgusting.

Those are just two instances amongst so many others of kindness from Pete and Mikey, and Brendon doesn't want them to go to hell, or be hurt, and they will. Drawing up his knees he runs his fingers over the criss-crossed scar tissue. "They'll hurt you. If you do things like that, they'll—they'll hurt you."

"Who'll hurt us?"

Brendon doesn't reply, just presses his mouth against his knees and hopes that Pete won't press for an answer. He doesn't, either -- not about that, anyway. "Before you said it was a sin, and we've heard that too. But there's not a thing you could say that I couldn't refute."

"No, no, the bible is the word of God, it tells us the divine truths." The protest is instinctive, brought forward by years of study, and it pours earnestly from Brendon's mouth. All Pete does is shake his head.

"The bible is a book of words and stories. It's only got as much power as you give it."

Pete's disregard is shocking in its casualness, so different to the way Brendon's been taught that the bible is to be revered, worshipped, followed at all costs. "You-- You can't say things like that."

"I just did," Pete says, but he doesn't sound mean, only calm, matter of fact. "If you've got to have to have faith, fine, but not everyone shares the same kind."

Ryan's words of the night before came back to him, that not everybody believed the way he did, not everybody was taught those things. Then Pete's words caught up to him: "Did you just mangle a George Michael lyric to make a point?" Brendon asks, and he can't help smiling back a little when Pete grins.

"I did. The point stands, though." Pete's grin fades then, and for a moment he looks unsure. After a moment, he asks, "There's more though, with you, isn't there? That reaction, it came out of nowhere. Those behaviors, they're learned, they're…sometimes they're drilled into a person. Did someone hurt you?"

Brendon laughs then, bitter as he indicates his body with his hand. "What do you think?"

"Okay, point," Pete concedes, but he's still looking at Brendon, watching his reactions.

"Before, at home. Did someone try something on--? Your dad or...."

"No!" Brendon cuts Pete off before he can say more. "My dad did nothing like that, he loves-- He loved me."

"I believe you, but there's something else." Pete reaches out, as if he wants to touch Brendon, but then thinks better and pulls his hand back. "When I was a kid, my parents sent me away to a boot camp. It was supposed to straighten out my head but all it did was mess it up. All the dark thoughts I'd had, the ones I never would have acted on, they twisted together with the harsh reality that my parents had sent me away. They thought they were helping, but in reality they fucked me up so badly it took years before I'd let anyone close, allow anything to help me."

"I'm sorry. They shouldn't have done that."

"No, they shouldn't've," Pete agrees. "But they did. Sometimes parents don't make the right choices."

It's something Brendon hadn't considered, because he's been brought up to respect and obey his parents always, and he until this moment, imagining them being wrong was about as easy as imagining the world being run by chimpanzees. Except, they sent him away and he was hurt, and…how can that be right? There's one thing Brendon is still sure of, though. "My parents, they. They loved me."

"Loving someone doesn't mean you can't make mistakes, can't treat them badly." Pete waits a moment. "What happened, Brendon?"

Brendon doesn't intend to talk. It's not a story he wants to share, except suddenly the words are pushing to get out, and Pete is sitting, ready to listen.

"My mom, she caught me jerking off to a magazine, a Playgirl that I'd taken from the store." Brendon looks up and checks Pete's reaction, or lack of one, because he doesn't seem shocked at all. "A few days later, this bus came and I was sent to this house in the middle of nowhere. While mom packed my stuff I had to read all these booklets, about how I was being sent on a church youth program focusing on sexuality and orientation. They wanted to anti-gay me."

"Anti-gay. Fuck," Pete says, anger quickly hidden away. "You were sent away with other kids?"

"There were others there, I guess. I didn't really see them that much, not to talk to anyway. I had to stay in my room or go to the activities with my caseworker."

"Activities like?" Pete prompts.

Brendon remembers the feel of hard plastic digging into his legs, how hot the movie room was, how closed in, how Alan always sat so close, breathing hard as he watched, the calm before he began to yell. He hears how loud the yelling was, always directly in Brendon's face, words made physical things. "We used to watch movies, except, they weren't real movies. They were porn, with extras, like, extra scenes, different stuff. Before I went there I'd never even seen stuff like that," Brendon says, and hopes that Pete doesn't ask about the extras, because already they're solid in his mind, to talk about them will just make his nightmares worse. "He, um, my caseworker, he used to shout, always the same things. How it was a sin against God and that sodomites would be cast into hell. How disgusting it was, how disgusting I was."

Pete frowns, and reaches out so his hand is barely touching the end of Brendon's blanket-covered toes. "So, you were sent away from your family, left alone, yelled at and forced to watch pornography, just because they thought you were gay?"

"Yeah."

"And are you?"

It's the first time Brendon's been asked outright, and he looks at Pete, who looks right back, waiting for an answer. The thing is, it's an answer Brendon doesn't have to give. "I don't know."

"You and millions of other people out there," Pete says. "Welcome to reality, kid."

What Brendon wants is sympathy, someone to say it's possible to be straight as long as he tries, but Pete isn't giving him that at all. "What if I don't want to be?"

"That's not a choice you get. You do get to chose if you hide or not, but believe me, hiding isn't fun."

"Spencer and Ryan were hiding."

Pete shakes his head. "I think it's more that you weren't seeing."

"No, no. They didn't kiss or make out or display inappropriate sexual behavior."

"They didn't have to. People don't have a check list of behaviors they follow or don't. Now, me and Mikey? Another matter." Pete holds up his hand then. "Sorry, I shouldn't joke about that."

"No, you can do what you like," Brendon says. He's not looking at Pete, more remembering the night before, how happy Pete had looked when he was with Mikey. "You love him?"

"I do," Pete says simply.

Brendon believes him, and he wishes it was enough for him to change his mind, but he can't, not yet. It does, however give him something to think about, so he says, "Thank you."

Pete smiles in reply. Ten minutes later, when Pete and Brendon are debating the differences between the live action and cartoon Peter Pan, there's the sound of the door being pushed open, and then footsteps, as Ryan and Spencer appear. Spencer's carrying a cardboard holder filled with Starbucks cups and he pulls one out, handing it over to Pete. "Here you go. I'll get your change."

"Keep it," Pete says, taking a sip of coffee. "I need to go. Meeting with the planners in an hour." He waves then, already heading toward outside. "I'll see you all later."

Brendon waves, and then looks at Ryan who's staring down at him. "He didn't yell."

Ryan shrugs one thin shoulder and takes a cup from the tray. "We got you hot chocolate. With lots of sugar."

"Thanks." Brendon takes the cup and takes a drink, enjoying the sweet taste. "You got added cream."

"We did." Spencer sits on the end of the mattress, taking care not to sit on Brendon's feet. "Ill-advised outbursts aside, you deserve a treat."

He doesn't ask what Pete said, and Brendon knows he won't, it's why he takes another drink and says, "I told Pete stuff, about why I said what I did."

Ryan sits next to Spencer, says, "Good, talking helps."

Which makes Spencer laugh and Ryan frown as Brendon chews at the corner of his thumb nail, watching the way Spencer and Ryan move so easily together, existing easily in the same space.

"Can I ask you something?"

"You can ask, it doesn't mean we'll answer," Ryan says.

Brendon nods, because that's fair. "I didn't even realize you were together. How long has it been?"

"We've been friends forever," Spencer says. "But I don't think that's what you're asking." He looks at Ryan, questioning, and Ryan nods slightly. "My family died and I've been living in various foster and group homes. Ryan was always there, at the end of the phone or visiting when he could, it was one of those unspoken things, that we'd always be together somehow."

Brendon smiles. "Like Snow White, how she loses her family and is sent away but her handsome prince comes to save her."

"Well, if I was a girl, which I'm not, and Ryan a prince, I guess," Spencer says, elbowing Ryan in the side when he laughs.

"No, you're not a girl." Brendon's smile fades, replaced by embarrassment as he realizes what he's said, or more importantly, what he hasn't. "And your family, I didn't say sorry."

"It's okay; it was a long time ago."

"And he does kind of look like a girl," Ryan remarks, evading Spencer's retaliatory elbow to his side.

The teasing helps Brendon relax and he risks another question. "So…you're not really together like that, that was Ryan making a point last night?"

Spencer grins at Ryan. "That was Ryan making a grand gesture. He doesn't do many, but they're always worth waiting for. And we're as together as we can be right now."

"Is that going to bother you?" While it's Ryan that asks the question, Spencer's watching keenly too, and Brendon knows a lot rests on his answer.

"Pete gave me a lot to think about. Give me time?"

Ryan nods, says. "Time we can do."

~*~*~*~

It's been a few days, and Brendon hasn't seen Mikey at all. He's beginning to get worried that he's chased him away, except he's seen Pete and Frank and neither of them seem concerned.

Still, it's a relief when he finally sees Mikey again. Ryan and Spencer have gone to the public bathroom and Brendon's sitting on the bench, left in charge of the guitar.

He's strumming the strings softly, attention totally on the quiet notes. He only looks up when someone steps into his light. Mikey's wearing a dark coat and fingerless gloves, has a hat pulled low on his head, the wet droplets on his glasses glistening as he sits and takes them off, rubbing the lenses against his sleeve.

"You going solo today?"

"Ryan and Spencer are at the bathroom." Brendon stills his hand, fingers pressed against the strings. "You haven't been around lately."

"There was a thing with one of the residents, I stayed with her at the hospital."

"She's going to be okay?"

"She'll be fine." Mikey yawns then, his mouth wide, exposing his back teeth. "Ever notice how the bad shit tends to go down at night? Or maybe it just feels worse then."

Brendon moves his fingers, casually producing a melancholy series of notes. "It's probably a combination of both."

"Probably." Mikey watches as Brendon keeps playing, a mournful tune that's immediately absorbed by the cold. "You're good at that."

"I get by," Brendon says, and remembers the hint of calluses on Mikey's fingers. "You play?"

"Sometimes. God knows why, but Frank likes me to play with his band. When I get time off I go play with them sometimes, only bass, though."

"I'd like to see you one time," Brendon says, and then abruptly stops playing, sure he's pushed too far.

"Next time I'll take you. Just don't expect much, I'm not that good."

"I can't believe that." Brendon looks up then, taking in the way Mikey's still watching Brendon's fingers against the strings. "You want to play? I'm sure Ryan won't mind."

"I only know the bass."

Brendon grins. "Well, that's an awesome start, here, I'll help."

Handing over the guitar, Brendon waits until Mikey has hold before moving Mikey's fingers slightly to the correct placing. It's nothing Brendon's done before, his music has all been solo or learning something in a group, never one-on-one with someone who actually listens and believes Brendon knows what he's doing. Brendon feels better than he has for a long time as he loses himself in the music and helps Mikey do the same.

It's when their heads are close together, both concentrating on the simple song that Brendon says, "I'm sorry."

Still playing, Mikey looks up, and says, "It's okay."

The miracle is, Brendon believes him.

~*~*~*~

It gets colder and all they can do is struggle to survive. It's been weeks since Brendon's outburst, and it's obvious he's trying to understand, to see things differently, even though he sometimes fails. Like when he sees Pete kiss Mikey's cheek and Brendon can't stop watching, his hands curled up tight; or when he sees Spencer pull Ryan close, holding him as the wind howls outside. Which is fine, because he is trying, and Ryan knows he's talked to both Mikey and Pete. Not that Ryan knows what was said -- he won't ask; some things aren't meant to be shared.

While Brendon looks mostly healed and doesn't complain, Ryan knows he must ache. It's there in the way it takes Brendon time to stretch out his muscles enough so that he can walk without hunching over, his hand pressed against his side. It's there in how he winces as he sits or stands, or does anything but lie down.

They're all wearing layers of clothes, sweatshirts that mysteriously appeared after one of Mikey's visits, woollen hats as provided by Pete, even Jamia turned up one day, holding hands with Frank and smiling as she handed over a bag of gloves and scarves that she said had been left at the clinic. Considering that most of it didn't match, maybe that was true.

Still, no matter how many clothes they wear, it's never enough. The cold cuts through each layer and Ryan's fingers are constantly blue. It makes playing his guitar difficult, even when he's swapping with Brendon, who one day, apropos of nothing, admitted he could play. They've had to cut down the hours they busk -- it's impossible to sing and play when you're so cold your teeth chatter and your fingers are numb against the strings. Instead they go back to the office building as soon as the sun begins to set. At least there they're sheltered from the snow. It's the only plus. It's freezing in there, the concrete holding onto the cold and the wind whistling through each open space and crack.

The only way they can sleep is huddled together, and Ryan's become used to feeling Spencer shiver and Brendon huddle in close, making himself as small as he can. Ryan doesn't know how long he can stick it out, except, he's got no choice. None of them do.

It's early one afternoon when Ryan sees Pete. He's talking on his cell, bundled up in a hoodie and a coat, a yellow scarf wound around his neck. When he sees Ryan and Spencer he smiles, and then ends his call, putting his cell in his pocket.

"I was hoping you'd still be here." He looks around then, asks, "Where's Brendon?"

"He went for a walk," Spencer says. "He stiffens up after a while."

Pete looks at his watch. "I can't really stay, we're having a leaving party for Sean and Jenny. They've got their own place."

Ryan tries not to be jealous, but it's a losing battle, because, though they have money, they're still nowhere near having enough for a deposit for the apartment he's planned with Spencer. Even if they were, none of them have ID. Still, he tries. "Have a good time."

"You don't get it." Pete is beaming now, unable to stand still as he looks from Ryan to Spencer. "They're going, which means from tomorrow we've got two empty spaces, and we want you to move in."

"But don't you have waiting lists? Spencer sounds calm but his knuckles are white from where he's gripping his bag. "Compared to some, we've hardly lived rough at all."

"Clan House doesn't work like that. Our offer comes with conditions. If you stay you have to go to school or look for work. It's not so much a shelter but a home, somewhere people can stay while they find their feet in the world. It means if we see someone who we think will do well, we can ask them to stay."

"And you want us to stay?" Ryan asks, needing confirmation, because this feels like a dream. "At Clan House, with you and Mikey?"

"We do."

"And we get our own room, with walls and a door?"

"We even throw in beds, two of them."

It's then that reality hits, and Ryan feels sick as he asks, "There's three of us, what about Brendon?"

Pete's smile falters. "There's only two places, legally we can't have more. If we could..."

"I know, you would." Ryan's heard it all before, from Mikey who couldn't take Brendon in that first time, and Ryan understands, he does. It's just, he doesn't know if he can leave Brendon behind. He looks at Spencer, because this is his decision too, but this time Spencer has no answers, just stands still, looking stricken. "Can we tell you our decision tomorrow?"

"Sure," Pete says, "but it'll have to be tomorrow, we only get funded for the places we have filled." He steps away then, already reaching for his cell. "I know it's a hard decision, but don't decide without talking it over." A last smile, smaller this time, and Pete walks away. Ryan starts to put away his guitar, knowing there's no way he'll be able to sing again today.

"I think we should blow some money on a burger."

It's an unexpected suggestion, but Ryan can see the sense in getting out of the cold, having something hot to eat, and actually being able to talk. He nods. "Let's get Brendon."

They eat at McDonald's, taking a table under a heater. Ryan peels off his sweatshirt and lies it over the back of his chair, rubbing his hands together as Spencer buys burgers from the dollar menu and small hot chocolates, glaring at the girl serving when she comments on him paying with all coins. When he comes back he sets down the tray and sits down, wrapping his hands around his hot cup.

"So, want to tell me why we're here?"

Brendon looks suspicious, has since they found him standing next to the bakery vents and announced they were eating out, because they never do -- it's money they can't spare. Stomach churning, Ryan takes a sip of his own hot chocolate, then sets it down, next to the untouched burgers. "While you were away Pete came. There's places going at Clan House."

For a moment Brendon lights up. Then he deflates. "And? There has to be a catch if we're here."

Ryan swallows hard. "There're only two places."

"Oh, right." At that moment Brendon looks impossibly small, and Ryan hates how he forces a smile, like he's fooling anyone. "Well, I'll still see you I guess, and it means I get the whole mattress to myself."

"Who says we're going?" It's not what Ryan expected to say, but the words slip out despite himself, which is bad, because he shouldn't be speaking for Spencer. Spencer reaches out then, though, taking Ryan's hand under the table and holding on.

"You're our friend, we're not leaving you."

Brendon starts to unwrap his burger, the paper crinkling under his fingers. "You haven't even known me that long."

"We've known you long enough that you matter, that we're not letting you go." Ryan reaches his free hand over the table, resting it on Brendon's. "We'll tell them no tomorrow."

"No, you can't," Brendon says. "You have to take those places. You'll have a place to stay, somewhere warm. You'll have beds. You can't give those up for me."

"Says who?" Ryan asks fiercely. "We go together or not at all."

Brendon starts to protest again, the stops, smiles and says, "Okay."

~*~*~*~

It's three twenty-seven on a Tuesday morning when Brendon runs, his breath misting in the freezing air as Ryan and Spencer lie tangled together in sleep.

Taking a risk, Brendon rests his hand against Spencer's back, runs his fingers over Ryan's cheek, needing these last moments to say goodbye to people who have fast become good friends. When he steps outside, shivering in the cold, he wipes his hands over his face, and tells himself the wetness he feels is melted snow, nothing else. Lying to himself is one thing he can do well.

~*~*~*~

Ryan should have known better. Brendon agreed too easily, he should have protested and attempted to change their minds, but he didn't. He said nothing, and now he's gone.

It doesn't help that Ryan's second guessing himself, wondering if he didn't see because he didn't want to, that he somehow knew Brendon would run, allowing them to take their places at Clan House. Which is something that makes Ryan feel sick, because Brendon is a friend, and the people whom Ryan does let close mean everything. Still, his doubt remains as they run toward Clan House, their feet cruching in the snow. They're hoping that Brendon went there to talk on their behalf, and if he is there, Ryan intends to shake him, hard.

"We couldn't have known," Spencer says suddenly. "Right?"

"He seemed fine last night. He knows he can talk to us." Frustrated, Ryan kicks at a stone, sending it into the road. "We stayed, we stayed for him and he goes off to be all self-sacrificing. Like we'll just forget about him and go live someplace warm."

"You know how he is."

Ryan does know. He knows how Brendon will do anything he can to help, putting effort into everything he does, how hard Brendon tries to be a good friend who listens and talks and tries to get past issues that have burrowed in deep. Ryan knows all that, and he hates that Brendon obviously doesn't see how important he's become to them. If he did, he never would have gone.

It should take thirty minutes to get to Clan House; it takes them fifteen. Looking from the business card that Spencer holds to the unfamiliar street names, they slow when they see what has to be Clan House. It's big -- three floors and surrounded by a garden and a black iron fence. When they push open the gate it squeaks a little, and they hurry up the path, to the double doors painted a glossy black. Ryan knocks, enough that his knuckles ache, not so much that he doesn't keep it up. Impatient, he rocks from foot to foot as he waits for someone to answer, because someone should. It's too early for Mikey to have left, and even if he has, there're the others. Still, no one is coming, and Ryan knocks again, banging as hard as he can.

"Coming!" Someone yells from inside, and finally the door opens, and they're faced by a stranger. It's a man holding a cup of coffee, his hair tousled. He's seemingly still half asleep.

"Sorry, I was getting coffee." He indicates a direction with a jerk of his hand and coffee slops onto his wrist, dripping to the floor. Standing on the spill, he rubs it into the floor with his foot. "Don't tell anyone. Not that they'll care, but you know."

Ryan doesn't know, and he doesn't have time for this. "Is Mikey here? Or Pete?"

"Mikey's doing his hair, he'll be a while yet. I think Pete's feeding the dogs. Hold on, I'll go get him." He steps back then, says, "Come in and wait."

They do, standing next to the radiator as Ryan looks around, taking in the coats hanging on hooks and the framed posters on the walls. There's a well-chewed dog's pull toy on the floor and a life sized Chewbacca stand-up propped in a corner, a striped scarf wrapped around its neck. What Ryan notices the most, though, is how clean it is, how warm. Reaching behind himself he rests his hands on the radiator, curling his fingers over the top.

"Ryan, Spencer, hi." Pete's followed by three dogs, the last a pug wearing a grey sweater, and if Ryan wasn't so frantic he'd already be on his knees. As it is, he ignores them, just gives himself a moment to reach down, petting a silky head. "We weren't sure if you'd come."

"We haven't," Spencer says. "Brendon ran away last night, we hoped he was here."

"Not that I've seen." Smile gone, Pete yells. "Gerard!"

The man with the coffee comes back into the hall. "Yeah?"

"Has anyone else been here this morning? Like someone small with a big smile and brown hair?"

"Sorry, no."

Despite knowing it was a faint hope, Ryan can't help being disappointed and he starts to leave. "Okay, thanks."

"Wait." Pete moves so he's in front of the door and doesn't move, even when Ryan glares. "What are you going to do, walk the city looking for him?"

"That's exactly what we're going to do," Spencer says.

"That's stupid, he could be anywhere."

Which Ryan knows, but at this moment he hates Pete for pointing it out. "We'll keep looking until we find him."

"I have a better idea: wait a while and Mikey'll drive you around. I've got meetings today, but I can do drop offs and Gerard can stay here."

Ryan wants to go now, is about to say no, when Spencer says, "That's great, thank you."

Pete nods slightly and heads for the stairs. "I'll go tell Mikey. Gerard, can you get them breakfast?"

"Sure," Gerard says and he looks at Ryan and Spencer. "This way."

At first Ryan's about to refuse, but Spencer takes hold of his arm, holding on as he leans in. "We can cover more ground in the van."

"But he could be getting on a bus right now."

"Not without money, and he didn't take any. He should have, too, he earned some." Spencer tugs Ryan forward, following Gerard into the kitchen. "We'll find him, and this is the best way."

Ryan nods, and starts moving. The kitchen is one of the biggest Ryan has ever seen. There's a pine table in the middle, the chairs that surround it mismatched, some cushioned, some not; there's even one painted orange with green spots.

"That's Frank's chair, he insisted on decorating it last Halloween." Gerard's dropping thick slices of bread into an over-sized silver toaster. Pushing down the handle he takes two glasses and sets them next to one of the three different coffee machines that are sitting on a bench. They're surrounded by canisters, with a hand written label attached to the shelf: Mikey's Shrine penned in red.

"Juice and toast okay? I'd make you more but I suspect you won't wait."

"We wouldn't," Spencer says, watching as Gerard puts butter and peanut butter, jelly and a plate of already sliced cheese on the table.

Seeing Ryan watching, Gerard smiles again and sets a plate next to the toaster. "I figured you'd be hungry."

Ryan is; he's also desperate to leave. But he makes himself sit down and take a glass of orange juice from Gerard, drinking almost half as Gerard slides a plate full of golden brown toast onto the table. "Help yourself, there's plenty."

"Thank you," Spencer says, and he takes a slice, adding butter and after a moments hesitation, a slice of cheese. Liking that idea, Ryan does the same, and it's not like he's spent a lifetime being hungry, but it's enough that having plentiful food in front of him is a novelty. Before he knows it Ryan's eaten almost three slices of toast, each one topped with cheese. It's only when he's full, stomach aching, that Ryan realizes how fast he has eaten, how he's sucking the butter from his fingers. Embarrassed, he drops his hands, looking anywhere but at Gerard who's standing at the toaster, loaf of bread held in one hand.

"You want more? There's plenty. Or there's fruit, we have apples and bananas and these, whatever the fuck they are." There's a bowl on the counter, yellow and red striped and for some reason, a plastic batman sitting on top of the fruit. Gerard pushes him to one side with his finger, and picks up something brown and knobbly and vaguely sinister looking. "Mikey got them from the morning market, he says they taste good."

Gerard doesn't sound convinced and Ryan doesn't blame him, says. "I'll have an apple, please."

Expecting Gerard to throw one over, Ryan watches as instead Gerard swaps the mystery fruit for a shiny green apple and cuts it into slices which he piles on a plate. "Spencer, you want?"

"I'll share."

"Good plan." Gerard sets the plate between Ryan and Spencer then sits, coffee mug in hand. "They should be down soon, it doesn't take Mikey long to get ready when he needs to, and he was at the putting shit in his hair stage when I came down."

"You live here?" Spencer asks, reaching out to take an apple slice. He bites into it with a crunch.

"I share the top floor with Mikey and Pete. I've my own suite, thank god.

Spencer takes another apple slice, his fingertips white as he bites, chewing hard. "Right, I remember Mikey telling Brendon that, that you own this place together."

Gerard shrugs. "Own, yeah, but it's their baby. I just stick around for a place to stay."

"Yeah, right." Mikey steps into the room then, already wearing his coat and surrounded by four other people, all appearing to be around Ryan's age. They're all staring and Ryan can't help feeling self-conscious about his dirty clothes and how he desperately needs a shower. Seeming to sense that, Mikey turns and says, "Go, Pete's waiting."

They do, and Ryan sets his mug down on the table before standing. "We need to find him."

"We'll do our best," Mikey says, and he walks up to Gerard, stealing the coffee out of his hand and taking a long drink. "Thanks."

"Yeah yeah," Gerard says, but he also grabs a slice of toast, already spread with peanut butter. "Eat."

Mikey takes it. "Thanks, mom."

"Disturbing, being as that would make you my son."

"Whatever." Unconcerned, Mikey bites into his toast. "Come on, we'll take my car."

Mikey's car is purple. It's also got a plastic dinosaur hanging from the mirror and electrically heated seats. Putting his guitar in the back seat, Ryan picks up the CDs that are scattered on the front passenger seat, then gets inside. Spencer sits behind Mikey, so they can look out of both sides.

When Mikey gets in he checks the mirror, adjusts his seat and fastens his seat-belt, looking to check that Ryan and Spencer have done the same. "I'm going to check the main roads first; he's probably hitching."

"Right," Ryan says, and sits back as they move, always watching the sidewalks, always hoping that around the next corner they'll see Brendon.

~~~~

They never do. Fourteen hours, one stop for food and one for the bathroom later, there's no trace of Brendon at all. Even then Ryan would keep looking, but Mikey insists they go home, that they can't see anything in the dark and snow. Ryan knows that he's right, but that doesn't help, not when Brendon's out there somewhere, cold, hungry and alone.

~~~~

Mikey straight up refuses to take them back to the office, at least not to stay. Demonstrating an impressive ability to tune out all protests, he keeps driving toward Clan House, ignoring the strained silence as Ryan deliberately turns away and Spencer slumps in the backseat, head turned and pressed against the glass so he can see outside. Not that there's much to see -- just snow and pools of light that cut through the dark at regular intervals. When they reach home, Mikey parks, taking a spot next to the van, and stepping outside, his feet crunching in the snow.

Ryan doesn't move, just stares forward until Mikey crouches down, looking inside. "I live with Pete and Gerard; I've seen every kind of drama from silence to full out war. You can either come inside where it's warm or stay here, your choice."

He leaves then, shoulders hunched against the snow, heading for the house and its brightly lit windows, the area around the door made warm by two lights attached to the wall, welcoming people home.

Spencer leans forward, arms over the chair back, his head resting against Ryan's. "We'll go out again at first light. Brendon wouldn't want us staying in a car."

"As soon as the sun rises, we go."

"Promise," Spencer says and sits back, getting out of the car. He picks up his bag and Ryan's guitar, and they head for the house, kicking their shoes against the step. Ryan's about to knock when he sees that the door's been left open. They go inside.

"Mikey's gone to get changed. I'm making hot chocolate, you want?" Pete asks from where he's been waiting, sitting on the bottom step of the stairs. He doesn't wait for an answer, just goes into the kitchen before he gets a reply.

They follow and find Pete already looking into a unicorn shaped cookie barrel, examining the choices inside. There's a boy standing at the stove, one of the ones from this morning -- tall and thin, his hair caught back with a red elastic band. He's stirring something in a pan, and when he hears Spencer and Ryan he looks over his shoulder and gives a shy smile.

"Trey. This is Spencer and Ryan. Think you've got enough milk for them too?"

"I can make do." Trey pours chocolate power into the pan and keeps stirring as he turns to the side, hip against the counter, so he can see. "You want marshmallows?"

"Please," Spencer says. Tired, Ryan sits, resting his head in his hands as Trey and Pete talk softly. Their laughter is slight, melodic as they pour out hot chocolate and put cookies on a plate. When he hands over two mugs, Trey smiles again and this close Ryan can see the scar that runs down his neck on one side, wrapping around.

Looking away, Ryan nods his thanks and takes a sip, hoping it'll calm him down, because it feels wrong to be here, where it's warm and dry. All Ryan wants to do is go back out, keep looking, even though he knows the idea is insane.

"Any left for me?" Mikey's changed into pyjama pants and a worn t-shirt. He's wearing knitted red socks that are obviously homemade. He looks comfortable and warm, but when he walks past, Ryan can sense the lingering cold, there in the way Mikey's hair is damp and his fingers are white.

"Here," Pete says, passing over his own mug. He jumps up onto the counter then, close to the coffee shrine, Mikey moving to stand between his spread legs.

"Is Ray here yet?" Mikey asks, when he's finished sharing the hot chocolate with Pete.

"He's with Gerard, apparently there may be a loophole we can exploit." Pete wraps his arms around Mikey's shoulders and tucks his head against Mikey's neck. "I'll have to go up soon, they'll need someone to sign."

"You don't need me?"

"Not yet, maybe later."

A kiss against Mikey's cheek and Pete slides down, putting the mug in the sink when Gerard appears. He's wearing paint-splashed jeans, and for some reason, a red plaid shirt over his t-shirt. He's also talking to another man, one wearing dress pants and an open-necked white shirt, an outfit at odds with the tangled curls of his hair.

"I was just coming up."

"Well you can wait a while, Ray's got the munchies."

Ray shakes his head. "It wasn't me craving cereal."

"I was hungry," Gerard says, and opens a cupboard, pulling out a box. He pours cereal into a bowl, adds milk and eats standing up, shoveling the cereal in as fast as he can.

"Seriously. Fucking gross," Mikey says and he reaches out, taking a floating marshmallow out of the bowl to put it in his own mouth. Not that Gerard seems to care, he just offers the bowl and Mikey takes another marshmallow, a white one this time.

It's then that Ray steps forward, holding out his hand. "As no one is going to bother, hi, I'm Ray."

Ryan takes his hand, shaking briefly, says, "Ryan."

"Spencer," Spencer says.

"Ray's our lawyer," Gerard says around a mouthful of cereal.

Ryan looks at the clock on the wall. "Isn't it a bit late to be working?"

"You'd think. They bribe me with offers of food and then don't follow through."

"I made you a coffee," Gerard protests.

"If you mean you poured me some from the brew you made for yourself, yes, you did," Ray says.

Gerard holds out his bowl, more pink-tinged milk than anything now. "You want?"

"I'll pass." Ray looks at Ryan and Spencer, says, "See what I put up with?"

"You're life. So hard." Gerard drains the last of the milk by tipping it into his mouth and puts his bowl in the sink. "Come on, let's go look at legal shit."

"Your professionalism astounds me," Ray says. They leave then, Pete going with a last smacking kiss to Mikey's jaw.

Without their noise and teasing chatter, the silence weighs heavily, letting briefly pushed-aside thoughts be heard once more. Standing, Ryan looks out of the window, hoping he'll be able to see the road. He can't, all that's out there is a big garden, strings of what have to be leftover Halloween lights wrapped around a large tree.

"If you want," Mikey says suddenly. "You can go get a shower. There's normally a line earlier in the evening but it'll be empty now. We've plenty of spare clothes too, in case you want to get changed."

Spencer's tempted, Ryan can see it in the way he runs his hands through his hair and looks down at his dirty clothes. Catching his eye, Ryan says, "Go."

"You sure? I can stay."

"I can survive without you for a short while," Ryan says, hoping that's actually true.

"Okay, then, yes. Please."

"I'll show you to the bathroom, and the closet with the spare clothes, we'll find you something," Mikey says. "Your bag will be safe here, but if you'd rather take it--"

Spencer hesitates a moment, then picks it up, handing it to Ryan. "Ryan will watch it"

"That works." Mikey touches Spencer's arm. "Come on, let's find you stuff."

"No plaid." The words slip out before Ryan can think what he's saying, but Mikey doesn't seem to mind.

"I'm not that cruel." He smiles then, a bigger smile than Ryan's ever seen him use. "Usually Gee's not a plaid guy either, but his boyfriend left the shirt here last week. It's like a reminder thing, and sadly that reminder's plaid."

"That's sweet."

Mikey laughs then. "It's not often he's called sweet, either of them." Still laughing, he leaves, Spencer trailing behind him, and Ryan's left alone.

Standing next to the window he looks outside and tries to remember the last time he was totally alone. He can't. For the last months he's always been with Spencer, and then Spencer and Brendon, and now he's here, in a strange place, and Brendon is lost somewhere -- lost and alone and no doubt freezing. It's an all-too-easy scenario to imagine, and Ryan grips the edge of the counter and bites at his lower lip, feeling the ridge of scar tissue as he tries to breathe past the lump that's lodged in his throat.

"Spencer'll be down soon."

Ryan's unsure how long he's been standing at the window, long enough that Mikey's come back down, has moved so that he's standing close, and Ryan looks at their reflections in the window. Mikey is scrubbed clean, Ryan still dirty and it's such a contrast that he can't bear to look. Blinking hard, he looks away.

"There's nothing to see here," Mikey says then. "But the TV room overlooks the main road." He wraps his fingers around Ryan's wrist. "Come on, I'll show you."

The TV room is full of couches and easy chairs, crammed together around a big TV. There's a magazine left on a side table, a lamp shining in a corner and one of the dogs is sleeping on a beanbag, her ears pricking up when they appear.

"Hey Piglet." Mikey crouches down and rubs Piglet's head. "You're getting some company tonight." He stands then, taking a blanket that's been thrown over one of the sofas. "That chair's good for thinking in."

Mikey's pointing at a chair that's positioned near the window. It's a deep blue and has soft cushions that Ryan sinks into when he sits down. When he does, he finds it's in the perfect place to see outside, to the road and sidewalk. Ryan takes the blanket Mikey offers, preparing for a night waiting, because if he can't be out there looking for Brendon, he can do this.

"Mind if you have some company?"

Ryan looks up briefly. "You don't need my permission, it's your home."

"Yeah, I do," Mikey says, and sits on the nearest couch, knees bent and feet tucked up. Together they watch and wait.

~*~*~*~

Brendon meets Jon for the second time on a freezing cold night, when the city is sleeping and snow has started to freeze on the ground. He's been sheltering under a bridge for almost a day now, keeping away from the snow but, more importantly, hiding from Ryan and Spencer. He knows they'll be looking, and Brendon can't be found. His blanket is wet through, soggy and cold, but Brendon stays huddled under it, sitting propped up by the rough wall, hands tucked under his armpits and head down, hoping desperately for sleep. Instead he hears a thud, and looks up to see that someone has fallen on the road that runs alongside the bridge.

"Hey, are you okay?" Brendon asks. He peels off his blanket, holding on to a wet corner, his body stiff and protesting painfully as he stands and goes to see if he can help. He backs away, preparing to run when he sees who it is -- one of the men who was running with Jake. In fact, it's the one who was left to make sure Brendon was dead.

The man has stayed on the ground, rubbing at his knee. He's wearing a coat that's wet through, jeans that are dark from ankle to knee, a knit cap pulled low on his head. He looks exhausted, eyes shadowed too dark, even allowing for the poor light. He holds up one hand, looking at the graze that runs along the fleshy part of his palm, then rubs it against his coat, before finally looking at Brendon, obviously shocked. "You're alive! I thought..." He hesitates then, squeezing his eyes shut, then opening them again. "It doesn't matter what I thought. You're alive."

"I am," Brendon says, and he takes a wary step forward, always looking for the flash of a knife. "Are you okay?"

"Define 'okay'." The man laughs then, a bitter, tired sound that contains no humour at all. "No, sorry, I'm fine, just probably the last person you want to see." He stands then, wincing a little when he kneels and pushes himself up, taking care on the slippery ground. He starts to walk, slowly, looking forward, head bowed against the snow. He stops after a few steps and looks back. "For what it's worth. I'm sorry."

Brendon can't actually remember much about the night he was attacked, mostly just pain and fear and faces in the dark. He was lying on the cold grass, Spencer's hands against his cheek, and someone else, someone telling him to keep breathing, that help was coming -- to fucking hold on. "You stayed with me."

"I was told to."

"No," Brendon says, and while most memories are hazy, the flash of knife isn't at all. "You stopped him, you saved me."

"If I'd saved you, I would have stopped them attacking you at all." The man's voice is thick with self-disgust.

"One man against a group," Brendon shakes his head. "That's not a fair fight."

The man shrugs, and starts to walk again. "Maybe."

Brendon watches him go, the way he walks so slowly, as if exhaustion is dragging him down. In a split-second decision, Brendon says, "Wait! If you want shelter, well-- There's plenty under the bridge."

"It's your space."

"My name's not on it, and anyway, I can share."

No one speaks for a long moment, but then the man turns and starts toward the bridge. "I'm Jon."

Brendon smiles. "Brendon."

It doesn't take long to get settled. Brendon slides down the wall, tucking up his legs, draping the wet blanket over his lap. Hands stuffed in the pocket of his hoodie, Brendon watches as Jon sits too, picking a spot where he's close, but still an arm's length away. They're sitting in the middle of the bridge, where it's mostly dry and only the occasional snowflake is blown inside. It's still freezing cold, yet another reason that Brendon has to go. Tomorrow he plans on hitching, going anywhere but here -- hopefully someplace warm.

"I have donuts," Jon says suddenly. He pulls out a bag that he's had stuffed under his coat, and peels back the wet paper, exposing two donuts, both covered in pink sprinkles. "They throw them out after a certain time. I fought a dog for these."

Jon's smiling, and Brendon would think that he's joking, but Brendon's done his share of dumpster diving, and donuts are a good prize. "I take it you won."

"Sort of." Jon holds up his hand, shaking it so the cuff of his coat falls back, exposing the bloody fabric wrapped around his forearm.

"Nasty," Brendon says.

"Worth it." Jon shakes his coat back into place and holds out a donut. "Enjoy."

If he were a better person, Brendon would say no, because this is Jon's food, paid for with his own blood. He takes it anyway, too tired and cold to say no, especially when he's so hungry and daylight seems to be taking forever to come again. "Thank you."

Jon takes a bite of his own donut, eating slowly, and Brendon would do the same, but he's too hungry for that, and soon he's sucking at his fingers, tasting icing mixed with dirt.

"Not bad, yeah? The sprinkles help disguise how stale they are."

"The sprinkles made the difference," Brendon agrees, and he can't help noticing how Jon's worrying at the fabric around his arm, rubbing at the skin below it. "You really should go to the clinic, Jamia's cool, she'll fix you up."

"I washed it out, it'll be fine, and anyway, I'm keeping away from that side of the city."

Brendon knows the rules, that he's not supposed to ask, but he's wide awake now and needs the distraction. "Why?"

Thankfully, Jon doesn't seem to mind the question at all, just settles himself against the wall and pulls his hands into his coat sleeves. "You remember Jake? He's used to be being obeyed."

"And because of me you had to run."

"Considering I was with a group who beat you up, I'd say any guilt is misplaced."

"I didn't see you kicking. Not that I remember everything, but I'd like to think not."

"I didn't," Jon says. "I never did anything like that. I think that's why Jake told me to stay. He was forcing the issue."

"So why stay with them at all?"

At first Brendon thinks it's one question too far. Jon picks at a hangnail, worrying at it until the side of his nail is raw before he replies. "Mostly I ended up with them due to my best friend. You know how it goes." He shrugs. "You come looking for fame and fortune, and instead you end up sleeping rough and doing what you can to survive."

Brendon nods, that he does know. "Where is he? Still with Jake?"

Jon winces. "I wish I knew. He-- He got himself into some heavy shit, drugs mainly, and the more he got into the more he had to repay. He always blamed himself for us losing our place and having to run with Jake's gang." He shakes his head. "Last time I saw Tom he was going on collection for Jake. I waited, but…well, he never came back." Jon looks up then, directly at Brendon. "I've no idea where he is, if he's even alive or dead. I just-- I knew I had to get out."

"I'm sorry," Brendon says, even though he knows the words won't help at all.

"Me too." Jon shifts, pulling up his knees. "So, turnabout and all that, what about you?"

It's a question Brendon could answer in multiple ways but he decides on the shortest. "The two people from before, from the park? I stayed with them. They got offered these places in a shelter, but there wasn't room for me, so I got myself outta there."

"The kid who held your cheek together and the one with the guitar?"

"Yeah."

"You knew them?" Jon says, sounding surprised.

"Not then," Brendon says. "But after, they took me in and looked after me."

"That's…wow. I mean, good." Jon sounds genuinely pleased, but there's something else, some underlying tone that Brendon can't quite grasp, Then Jon asks, "They became your friends?"

"In time." It's a simplistic answer, because there's no easy way to explain how Ryan and Spencer stuck around while he was healing, body and then mind, how the three of them formed a bond through long, late night conversations and banding together to survive.

"And you just…left?"

This time the tone is unmistakable -- disbelief so apparent that Brendon has to explain. "If I'd stayed they wouldn't have taken their places. This was the only way. They've got somewhere to go now, okay? They've got a home."

"And a friend that walked out on them." Jon's not raising his voice, is just sitting looking at Brendon, and Brendon doesn't even know him, his opinion shouldn't matter. Somehow it does.

"I had to. You-- You don't understand."

"I understand that I woke one morning and Tom was gone. I understand that I looked for him for days and each time I expected to find his corpse. I understand that he was my best friend and losing him fucking hurt, hasn't stopped hurting, feels like it never will." Jon's tone picks up urgency and pointedness as he speaks.

"I have to leave," Brendon almost-shouts in response. He had to. No way was he going to deny Ryan and Spencer this chance, no fucking way.

"You could have said goodbye at least, not just left them, probably thinking the worst. You still could. I mean, you know where this shelter is, right?"

Brendon is about to spout an automatic denial when the words catch up to him. Grudgingly, he says, "I'll think about it." He can give Ryan and Spencer that consideration. In his heart, he knows he should.

~~~~~

Eventually, Brendon sleeps, but it's a sleep filled with dreams, shadowy figures and grasping hands -- so much so that he's relieved to wake. Blinking, he screws shut his eyes against the light and tells himself he's not hungry, not tired, not cold, not in pain. It doesn't work, it never does, and Brendon presses his mouth tightly closed, trapping in the whimpers as he forces his fingers to bend, his knees and back to straighten as he looks at Jon.

"Morning." Jon smiles slow and easy, a contradiction to the way he's huddled up, knees bent and hand tucked inside his coat.

"Morning," Brendon says, when he can finally form the words. When his joints are as loose as they're going to get, he struggles to his feet, blowing on his fingers as he looks out onto the road outside the bridge. They're so out of the way that no footprints disturb the fresh snow and despite himself, Brendon has to admire how pretty it is, how serene. The thought prompts a reminder of a time before, when he was at home in the nearly ever-present heat, wishing to see snow.

He tries not to think of those times now, they're only painful memories buried deep, but this one won't be pushed aside. "'I said I'd do this one day," Brendon says to himself. It's a stupid idea, Brendon knows that, but it's not like he can get colder and he's already wet through. He steps forward, lies down on his back and as he scrapes his arms and legs along the ground he can't help laughing, enjoying this one thing for him, something that's purely for fun.

"Enjoying yourself?" Jon looks amused as he watches Brendon, then holds out his hand. "I'll pull you up so it won't spoil."

Brendon takes hold, allowing himself to be pulled up and then looking down at his snow angel. "It's my first one."

"Well congratulations," Jon says, and while he is smiling, there's no mockery at all. "If you've finished, we can go get breakfast. There's a dumpster a few blocks over that always has good pickings."

Brendon looks at his snow angel one last time, committing it to memory, and says, "Lead on."

~~~~

The dumpster is set behind a row of shops, its lid still covered in snow which falls on Brendon's arms as he pushes it open. On his tiptoes he looks inside, at the plastic bags full of trash and the collapsed cardboard boxes pushed to one side. Hooking them with one hand, he pushes the boxes aside, rummaging underneath until finally something catches his eye. Leaning in even further, Brendon tugs at the bag, nose wrinkling at the smell of rotting food but he keeps pulling, eventually dropping to the ground, the bag held tightly in one hand.

"You got something?"

Brendon holds up the bag. "Cold pizza, it must have come from the Dominos."

Digging in with his fingers, Brendon splits the bag, exposing the crusts and scraps of pizza, but there's also some slices that are almost whole and he gathers them together, checking over each one for mold.

"Nice find," Jon says. "A beer and we'd be living the typical student lifestyle."

"Well, there's no beer, but we have melted snow." Brendon looks around, toeing at the snow. "Just maybe not here, it's a little yellow for my taste."

"We should go eat out front, there's a wall."

It's a good plan and Brendon follows Jon out of the alley toward the low wall that runs alongside the parade of shops. Sweeping himself a clear space, he sits, the pizza slices on his lap. Sorting through them, he holds two up. "There's pepperoni or vegetable."

"I'll take the pepperoni." Jon takes the slice, looking at the bite that's been taken out of the side. "One bite and they threw it away." His eyes are a little angry. "Some people don't know what they've got."

Brendon takes a bite of his own slice, the slight taste of plastic nothing compared to how hungry he is. He chews, swallows, and repeats the process until he's finished. "I used to throw away food. I never thought of people going without."

"It's not like you could go out and hand out your half-eaten sandwiches."

"I could have tried."

"And done what? Gone downtown with bags of leftovers?"

Jon starts to eat another slice, this one stained with some kind of sauce. He grimaces once, but keeps eating, chewing until it's all gone then eases his fingers up the sleeve of his coat, rubbing at his arm.

"You really should go to the clinic," Brendon says, seeing how the skin at Jon's wrist has turned red, puffy.

"It'll be fine." Jon pulls at his coat sleeve until his wrist is covered. "Are you still heading out today?"

"Soon as I can."

"You should try the truck-stop to the north, lots of truckers go there."

Brendon watches as Jon examines the slices on his lap before putting them in the pocket of his coat. "You could come with."

Surprised, Jon looks up. "No. Thanks for the offer, but I need to stay here."

Brendon doesn't understand that at all. "Why? You're being chased by Jake and your friend's gone."

"But he could come back," Jon says fiercely. "And when he does, I'll be waiting. He's my friend, I'm not abandoning him."

It's not a slam against Brendon, he knows it's not. It hurts all the same, and he can't help thinking…what if? What if he did go back, just to say goodbye?

"You're a good friend," Brendon says. He thinks of Ryan and Spencer, how they were good friends, too, good friends to him, far better than he'd ever had before. The realization is shocking in its intensity. He needs this goodbye.

 

~*~*~*~

Ryan wakes with a stiff neck and the blanket wrapped around his legs. Blinking against the sunshine streaming into the room, he kicks himself free and sits upright so he can look outside. He's presented with the picture of some kind of winter wonderland, with crisp white snow, except for on the drive, where Mikey's car is missing. There's a snowman built to the side of the van, a sombrero perched on its head.

"Someone donated it a few years back, it gets brought out for parties sometimes."

Jumping, Ryan turns and sees Gerard, who's sitting on the couch, surrounded by papers and books.

"Sorry, I thought you knew I was here." Setting aside a stack of papers, Gerard sits forward, so he's on the edge of the couch. "Mikey's doing drop-offs, and Pete's got a meeting with one of our sponsors. Spencer's helping out in the kitchen. He wasn't going to go, but I promised I'd stay here."

"Okay," Ryan says, trying to keep up. He stretches, carefully working out the kinks in his back. "Someone should have woken me up, we need to search."

"Not until Mikey gets back, it's freezing out there."

"That's why we need to go now."

"No, it's why you need to get something to eat, wait for Mikey and then go. You can't be walking around in this."

Angry, Ryan says, "We did before."

"You didn't have any choices then." Gerard keeps looking at Ryan, but doesn't approach. "Mikey'll be back in ten minutes. You can wait that long."

Ryan doesn't want to wait that long, but he's not stupid, he knows waiting is the sensible thing to do. Still, he doesn't have to like it. "If we miss him because I waited--"

"You can curse me all you want." Gerard gathers up all the papers, placing them in a file. "I need to get these to Ray. Tell Frank I'll be back soon."

"I thought Frank lived at the clinic?"

Gerard smiles then, indicating Ryan should go first. "He does, I think he just comes here to eat our food."

Given that information, it's only appropriate that when Ryan walks into the kitchen he sees Frank sitting on his orange and green chair, eating his way through a plateful of toast. Spencer's sitting next to him, looking clean in clothes that actually fit, his hair glossy. For the first time in forever there's color in his cheeks that's not due to the cold.

"Ryan, it's good to see you."

Ryan's trying to get to Spencer, but Frank grabs hold, pulling him into a hug, which makes Ryan stiffen, all too aware of how dirty he is, how his clothes smell. Frank doesn't seem to care at all, just holds on tight before letting go. "Here, sit. Have some toast."

Ryan does, taking a slice and nibbling at a corner, feeling out of place in this kitchen with its bright blue walls and shining appliances. With Spencer being clean, the contrast is even more acute and all Ryan wants to do is leave. Instead, he mentally retreats, nods slightly at a girl who waves a hello, gives one word answers to Spencer, who looks concerned as he divides his attention between Ryan and Frank. Finally there's the sound of a car, and Ryan stands, making the chair legs scrape across the tiles. It takes all his willpower to stay in the kitchen until Mikey appears, but as soon as he does, Ryan grabs his guitar. "Let's go."

Mikey shrugs his shoulders, the movement almost hidden under his coat and holds out his hand, taking the slice of toast Frank hands over, then starts to leave the room, wet footprints overlapping with those from his entrance. It's then that Ryan hears the sound of footsteps pounding down the stairs and Pete yelling as he pulls open the front door. "Brendon!"

Ryan runs, Spencer too, arriving together to see Pete standing in the doorway, Brendon just behind. Brendon looks frozen, huddled inside his hoodie, the hood pulled up and his cheeks and nose frostbite-red.

"I'm sorry, Brendon says.

"You should be." Spencer steps forward then, past Pete -- who's moved to the side -- and pulls Brendon into a hug, holding on. Before he even knows he's moving, Ryan is joining in, his arms around them both.

"Don't you ever leave again, you idiot, you fucking idiot," Ryan says, and Brendon pulls back then, his smile fading away.

"I don't-- Um, I mean, I didn't come to stay. I just, uh, just wanted to say goodbye, is all."

"Yeah, that's not happening," Ryan says, and he's holding onto Brendon, as if he can physically stop him from going.

"No," Brendon says, sounding quite sure of himself. "I didn't come for that. Jon just said some stuff and…and I need to go. I can't stay."

"How about you come in to talk? Standing on the step is a bitch on the heating." Pete pushes past then, looking outside. "You can come in too, have something to eat."

It's only then that Ryan realizes there's someone else there. He looks over Brendon's head and sees Jon, the guy who helped them save Brendon. That night seems like a lifetime ago.

Jon looks back at them all, smiling slightly. "Thanks for the offer, but no."

"Jon was bitten by a dog. I think it's infected," Brendon says then, looking utterly unrepentant despite the look Jon sends his way.

"In that case, the invitation is compulsory." Pete steps outside, and in the process pushes Brendon so that he's herded into the hall. "Jon, in here before I have to come get you."

Truthfully, Ryan thinks Jon could maybe take Pete, but there's a lot of them standing here, and Jon seems to understand that he's outnumbered as he starts to walk inside. "I'm not staying."

"Seems to be lots of that going around," Pete says, shutting the door. For a moment, there's chaos, as too many people cluster together. Then Mikey steps forward, efficiently taking charge.

"Frank, check over Jon's bite. Spencer, show Brendon to the bathroom and get him some clothes -- he needs to warm up. Ryan, go with them. Pete, go finish charming Mrs. Wilson and if you see him, tell Gee we need a decision, and fast."

A chorus of acknowledgments, and they all separate, heading for different areas of the house. When he gets upstairs, Ryan sees a long corridor, doors on either side, all but one with attached homemade name plates.

"The end one's the bathroom, the one next to it's for storage." Spencer pushes open the door with the giant sharp-toothed squid on its name plate, attached at eye level. Inside there's a cubical shower and tub, two sinks against the far wall, and shelves holding towels of all different colors, each one folded into messy piles. "The shower is awesome, it has different settings and the water's hot."

Spencer goes into the bathroom, sounding awed, and Ryan loves how happy he looks as he points out the toiletries in a cupboard and how the towel rail is heated. Little things that make Spencer's eyes shine, and Ryan doesn't know how they'll be able to leave. Which is when he's reminded of Brendon, and Ryan turns, sees that he's still standing in the corridor, looking pale as he looks inside.

"Are you okay?"

Brendon forces a smile. "I'm fine, honestly. You should go get showered."

Ryan isn't so sure. On one hand there's Spencer, already adjusting the controls, on the other, Brendon, who looks small and tired as he backs away.

"Have you found everything?"

Brendon turns and Ryan looks out the door, seeing Mikey, who's taken off his coat and is walking toward them.

"We're good" Brendon says, and Ryan looks past him, hoping that Mikey gets that Brendon isn't good at all. It's a faint hope, because Mikey isn't Spencer, except in the way that he must be some sort of expert in talking without words, because he rests his hand against Brendon's back and gently turns him toward the storage room.

"There's an outfit in there with your name on it. Come on, I'll show you."

Brendon goes, and Ryan smiles his thanks, along with a soft, "Take care of him."

"Always," Mikey replies.

When he's sure Brendon is safe in Mikey's care, Ryan closes the door. Already tendrils of steam are slinking along the ceiling and he sees that Spencer has his hand under the spray of water, looking thoughtful as he adjusts the temperature.

"I've turned it up hot." Spencer takes his hand out of the water, and looks uncertainly at Ryan when he makes no reply. "Do you want me to go?"

Ryan doesn't, but it also feels weird taking off his clothes when Spencer is just standing there. It shouldn't be an issue, they've slept close and dressed each other's wounds, but this is different, the years of being together are of no use when there has been such distance at times. After almost a minute, when Ryan still hasn't replied, Spencer begins to walk to the door.

"Stay."

Spencer hesitates, then turns back. "Want me to wash your hair?"

Ryan runs his hands through his hair, feeling the lank strands, the dirt that he could never wash out. "Please."

Looking pleased, Spencer starts to gather bottles and Ryan slips out of his clothes, the ingrained smell of body odor and dirt so apparent in this clean room that he can't help feeling ashamed. It just gets worse when he strips to his boxer briefs and sees himself in the mirror, the sharpness of his hip bones, the bumps of his ribs and prominent ridges of his collar bones. He's all angles and bruised, scarred skin, and he's got no idea what Spencer sees, but it must be something different, because he's looking at Ryan like he's something precious, and when he says, you're beautiful, it's in such a way that Ryan believes him.

"Come on, in."

Surprised, Ryan watches as Spencer kicks off his clothes, and then steps into the shower, seemingly not embarrassed at all. Immediately his hair is flattened by the water and he scrunches shut his eyes as he tips back his head, letting the water run over his face, droplets making rivulets over his cheeks and chin, then steps back, leaving room. Hooking his thumbs into the elastic, Ryan pulls off his briefs and joins Spencer.

The water feels amazing, hot with just the right amount of pressure and Ryan can't help a satisfied sigh as he leans forward, hands against the tiles, and lets his hair be soaked, the dirty water swirling around his feet.

"Tip your head back."

Ryan does so, eyes shut against the spray as Spencer works in the shampoo. He takes his time, fingers kneading against Ryan's scalp, ensuring all his hair is clean, then directs Ryan to put his head back under the water, the suds washing down Ryan's body and into the drain. Switching bottles, Spencer squirts conditioner into his hand and works it into Ryan's hair, making sure every strand is covered before picking up a clean sponge.

"I can wash your back."

Ryan nods, and Spencer squeezes shower gel onto the sponge and starts to run it over Ryan's back, long methodical stripes from his neck to ass that feel fantastic and make Ryan's breath quicken, especially when Spencer doesn't stop, changes his focus so he's working the sponge over Ryan's side, across his chest and belly. They're standing so close it's easy to tell that Spencer's turned on. It's a strange feeling, because it's been forever since their clumsy explorations in Spencer's bedroom, but it's also just to right. Ryan starts to turn.

"Not yet," Spencer says. "I need to finish washing you."

It's frustrating, but Ryan's not about to say no to anything Spencer wants, and he stands still, eyes fluttering closed at the feel of the sponge being dragged across his inner thighs and over his knees to his feet.

"Up."

Spencer taps Ryan's toes, and he obediently lifts his foot, hand braced against the wall as he looks down at Spencer, how he's crouched down, back arched, exposing the line of his spine. Ryan wants to touch, but that's not what's needed yet, and he contents himself with just watching. He takes in how Spencer's shoulder muscles move as he carefully washes Ryan's ankles, how his skin gleams with the water, but most of all, how he's so intent on Ryan, insistent on getting every inch of him clean.

"Nearly done," Spencer says, and he drops the sponge to the floor. "I just need to rinse your hair, head back."

Ryan obeys, keeping still as Spencer uses his hand to shield Ryan's eyes, until finally he seems satisfied and takes his hand away.

"Thank you."

"No problem." Spencer steps back then, enough he can look Ryan up and down. "You look better."

"I look like a drowned rat."

"A very hot drowned rat."

There's a veil of water running between them, and the room is full of steam, but Ryan can still easily see Spencer, he thinks even if his eyes were closed he could see him and know what he needs. "Want to redo our first kiss?"

"Cheating, but I think we have grounds."

This kiss is better, much better. Spencer pulls Ryan close so they're out of the direct area of the spray. Still, Ryan can feel hot water running down his back and Spencer's slippery wet under Ryan's wrinkled fingers. After so long, after the false start he initiated, Ryan's determined to make this good. He keeps his hands against Spencer's back, ensuring that they stay pressed close. He shivers at the feel of Spencer's tongue against his mouth, especially when Spencer runs it over the scar tissue on Ryan's lip, the area still hyper-sensitive.

"Okay?" Spencer asks.

"Fine," Ryan says, and to prove it he deepens the kiss, slow and steady at first until they're both needing more. Spencer rubs himself against Ryan's body and Ryan knows he's not going to last long. There's no way he can against the dual assault of Spencer licking at the water on Ryan's neck and rubbing his dick against the crease of Ryan's groin, a slick drag of movement that urges Ryan to do the same, his rhythm falling in with Spencer's until they're both breathing hard and Ryan's balanced on the edge of climax, plummeting over when Spencer works a hand between their bodies and brings Ryan off with a couple of strong strokes.

Ryan rests his head against Spencer's shoulder. "You cheated."

"Really?" Spencer doesn't sounding concerned at all.

"Really. I didn't get to touch you." Ryan is not pouting, not really.

Spencer grins. "There's always next time."

~~~~

The plan was, come here, say goodbye and go, but something that seemed so logical at four in the morning is now full of flaws, because Brendon doesn't know if he can leave. He should have never listened to Jon, because all this goodbye is going to do is break his heart -- again.

"Come in and have a look."

Pulled from his thoughts, Brendon steps in to the room with Mikey, and can only slowly look around. Two of the walls are completely covered with shelves, and each shelf is packed tight with clothes and supplies: jeans and t-shirts and boxes of underwear still in the packet; deodorant and sponges and hairbrushes, all lined up neatly. On the floor, there were even shoes -- sneakers and boots, flip-flops and high heels all tangled together.

"People donate to us, mostly scene people so some of it's a bit out there." Mikey picks up a skirt that's more mesh than material, holding it up to demonstrate. "There's all kinds, though. I was thinking maybe this for you." Putting back the skirt he moves two shelves over and selects a soft lavender hoodie, handing it over. "You like?"

"I do," Brendon says. He runs his hand over the soft material and holds it against his chest, if he wasn't so filthy he'd slip it on right now. Instead he looks around at the shelves, attracted to the piles of jeans. "People just give you this stuff? It looks brand new."

"We can be persuasive," Mikey says, and he nods approvingly when Brendon picks up a pair of jeans. "Nice choice, but you need a belt, hold on." He stretches up to the top shelf and pulls down a box, setting it on the floor. It's full of belts of all colors and styles. "Help yourself."

Brendon's knees twinge when he kneels. He starts to look through the belts, then stops, fingers wrapped tight around something black and studded. "I don't. I mean, there's no need to have a belt on the streets. I don't have to look good."

"Doesn't mean you can't." Mikey kneels too, taking the belt from Brendon's hand. "I don't think studs are you. How about this?"

He's holding something thin, bright red and Brendon nods. "Thank you."

Mikey smiles slightly, stands and puts the box back. "I doubt they'll be out any time soon, so grab yourself some underwear and a t-shirt, you can use our bathroom this time."

Brendon does, taking a moment to check sizes before following Mikey back to the stairs.

"It's supposed to be staff only , but you need to warm up so." Mikey looks down at Brendon. "If you see Ray, hide."

Brendon's unsure if Mikey's joking. He thinks so, but Mikey's a hard read and it doesn't help that Brendon's running on fumes now -- fighting to keep functioning while knowing his time here is ticking down. There's a wide landing at the top of the stairs, framed artwork hanging on the walls, and Brendon can hear the faint sound of voices coming from behind one of the three closed doors.

"That's Gerard's suite, then mine and Pete's, and we share the bathroom." Mikey points to each door, and at the last he pushes it open. "Help yourself to anything in there and just throw your clothes outside, I'll get them."

It's then that Brendon realizes he has a problem, because no matter what he does, he doesn't think he can go inside.

"Brendon?"

Brendon tightens his hold on the doorframe, and all he can think of is cold, tiled floors and Alan's body on top of him and then blood -- blood spreading on the floor, red and slick. Brendon is finding it hard to breathe. "I don't think I can go in."

"Bad memories?" Mikey's moved close, is standing patiently, waiting, watching as Brendon gasps for air. Brendon nods.

"Sometimes it helps if you share." Mikey doesn't attempt to touch, just keeps watching, still patient. "Or I could go get Spencer and Ryan."

"No," Brendon says, hating the thought of them being interrupted to deal with Brendon yet again. The memories are just there, though, swimming in Brendon's head, and he knows Mikey will listen. What Brendon doesn't know, is if he can say the actual words. He takes a deep breath, reminds himself of his vow that he won't be afraid, and begins to talk. "I told Pete I was sent to Shepard House, the, uh, the ex-gay place? Did he—" At Mikey's nod Brendon says, "Yeah, okay. What I didn't tell you was that I-- My caseworker, he, um." Brendon closes his eyes and says quickly, "I was attacked. In-- In a bathroom. He tried to burn the sin out of me, said I was, said he had to boil it out of me with, um, the shower. Turned it on really hot and pushed me in and he was bigger, like, really bigger, and I kinda freaked and then he-- He tried…. Um, he said he had to teach me, I think, I don't remember, he was on top of me and I had to fight him and he was trying...." The words lodge in Brendon's throat, shame burning deep.

"It's okay," Mikey says.

"No! No it's fucking not!" Brendon yells, and he pulls away, stepping back from the door, feeling the tears in his eyes but unwilling to let them fall. "Don't you-- It's not--I want to feel clean, and I-- There's no way. He-- I can't."

Mikey lets silence sit between them for a few seconds before saying calmly, confidently, "You will. It'll probably take a while, you're right, but you will."

Brendon wants Mikey's faith, but right now it's beyond him, just one more thing outside of his reach.

"How about we start small?" Mikey pushes open the bathroom door. "If showers come attached with memories, well, we have an excellent tub and bubbles."

"I don't know if I can," Brendon admits, his voice small.

"I do," Mikey says. "If you want, I'll stay. I won't look, I'll just tell you about the time Frank made tomato soup without tomatoes."

It's a tempting offer; Brendon has always loved stories. Brendon looks at the tub, and imagines being clean, even if it's only his skin, only for a short time. He thinks of Ryan and Spencer downstairs, how they've gone through so much but never given up. He even thinks of Jon, who continues to wait for Tom. And Mikey, who could have left but didn't, sticking around so he could be Brendon's friend. None of them has ever given up, and Brendon won't either. "You'll stay?"

"I'll tell you my best stories."

"And I get to have bubbles?"

"As many as you want."

"I'll try. I can't promise-- I might have to get out."

Mikey shrugs. "We've got plenty of sinks not in bathrooms and a hose in the garden."

Brendon grips the doorframe, fingers digging in. "I'd take the sink."

"Wise choice," Mikey says. "If it doesn't work out this time, it's okay, no one's died for a lack of showers."

Brendon looks away from the bathroom, at the floor and Mikey's feet. "Maybe not, but it's so stupid."

"Everyone has issues, and we've plenty of people qualified to listen if you want to talk."

"Even if I'm not here?" Brendon looks up then, watching Mikey's face.

"Even then. You have friends here, Brendon, and friends listen."

"Will friends look away if I run screaming when I hear the water running?"

"No," Mikey says. "Friends will run after you and then bring a bowl of warm water to a private room."

It's not what Brendon expected, but the talk of friends makes him feel good, warm inside. Gathering his courage, he steps into the bathroom, knowing Mikey will be right behind.

~~~~~~

It's late afternoon, and the air is filled with loud conversation. Lasagnas are cooking in the oven as Pete comes into the kitchen and pulls Mikey into a hug. He holds on and starts to talk, words whispered directly into Mikey's ear. Then he turns and says, "Ryan, Spencer, Brendon, Jon, can you come with?"

It's what Brendon's expected for hours, because Clan House isn't their home, they're visitors, nothing more. Smiling at the people around the table, Brendon stands, following Pete and Mikey to a room at the back of the house. Inside, there's a battered desk, a computer and shelves of books and files, a dog bed where a bulldog is sleeping. There's also a low coffee table and a couch against the wall, where Gerard and Ray are sitting, both holding thin files.

"Take a seat if you can find one," Pete says, and he sits on the edge of the desk as Mikey squashes himself between Gerard and Ray. This leaves one easy chair and two chairs in front of the desk. Jon and Spencer take those while Brendon sits in the easy chair with Ryan, jammed together, preparing for goodbye.

It's Ray that speaks first. He sits forward and taps the file on his knee. "When Mikey and Pete applied for a license for Clan House it was for ten residents. A few weeks ago they asked me about adding more."

"We've been thinking of expanding for a while," Pete says, kicking his heels against the front of the desk. "The situation with Brendon just pushed up the timeline."

"They said no at first," Ray continues. "But Gerard did his best youth worker spiel, and well, an hour ago Clan House was officially granted permission for another two residents."

"We're converting my office," Mikey says. "I'll share with Pete."

"That's great." Brendon smiles, enjoying how happy Pete seems, the way Mikey and Gerard are smiling as Ray sets down the file.

"The room won't be done for a few weeks, until then the new residents will have to share with someone," Ray says, and he looks significantly at Brendon. "Hopefully they won't mind."

It's then that Brendon realizes Ryan's on the verge of a grin -- not quite there but close -- and that Spencer is glancing at the titles on the files. Putting things together, Brendon pushes his hands into the pocket of his hoodie to hide how they're shaking, and asks quietly. "Are you offering me a place?"

All out beaming now, Pete jumps off the desk. "We're offering all of four of you places." He holds out his hand then, heading off the replies. "Before you say yes, there're still conditions. There're no free rides here. We expect you to go to school or to look for work. There's legal issues, too. I'm assuming you're all under-aged, which means that Ray and Gerard are going to have to work so you're officially under our care. But it means we need honesty, about everything, and also patience, because I'm warning you now, it'll be a complicated and long process."

"I don't think--"

Brendon doesn't get to finish before Ryan's turning to him, his expression fierce. "You've got nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing. And you belong with us."

Jon rubs at his face, looking lost. "That's all, I mean, sure, Brendon, but, um. You don't even know me."

"You're right, we don't," Pete says, slowly. "But our first experience with you was when you refused to hurt Brendon despite intense peer pressure, possibly even of the dangerous sort. And you brought him back today. Your actions suggest that you're someone who deserves a chance."

Wiggling from between Gerard and Ray, Mikey spreads out the files on the coffee table. Spencer. Ryan. Brendon. Jon. Each one is empty right now, but ready to be filled out. "Well, are you part of Clan House?"

In reply Brendon jumps up, launches himself over the table and grabs hold of Mikey, clinging on as he listens to Ryan, Spencer and Jon, each one saying yes.

~~~~~

Ryan's head is thumping, dull pain a steady bass line against the quiet of the room. It's been a chaotic half hour, Gerard and Pete taking basic information and already Ryan's done. All he wants to do is lie down but instead he's stuck here, squashed on the sofa between Spencer and Brendon. Not that it's a bad place to be, it's comforting having them so close, and Ryan's warm, pleasantly full from the lasagna that Mikey insisted they eat. The problem is, it feels too much like a dream, and Ryan can't help think it'll be taken away. Someone will surely come in and say it's a mistake, and they'll all be back out in the cold. It's why Ryan's sitting upright, paying careful attention so he's not caught off guard, not again.

"Sorry we took so long." Mikey's holding an armful of pillows, and he keeps the door open with his hip as he looks inside. "It took all of a minute for word to get out and we've been fielding questions."

"They don't want us here?" Brendon asks, his expression resigned.

"No. There was this whole deal about rooms. Ben and Connor offered to share with Andrew and Zack."

Pete looks up from his phone call, pen held over a form. "You didn't say yes, did you?"

"I told them I wasn't born yesterday." Shifting the pillows a little, Mikey looks toward the sofa. "Trey offered to share too, he's got a single and it'll be a squash getting two in there but it's an option."

"No," Brendon says immediately. "I mean, I'd rather share the double."

Ryan would too, even if he doesn't know Jon, who looks shell-shocked and unsure as he looks at them all. "I should take the single. I mean, you don't really know me. That way you guys can have Brendon in the double, and nothing's too much of a squeeze."

"I guess. If that's the way you want it. I say we could get to know a guy who saved our best friend's life twice." Spencer sits forward, his hand resting against Ryan's knee.

"But...."

"But nothing," Spencer says, cutting Jon off. "You brought him back."

"You did," Brendon says.

Jon's gripping the arm of his chair, and Ryan takes note of how nervous he seems, how he swallows hard. Jon says, "I don't know."

"What would Tom want?" Brendon asks then.

Jon hesitates, his knuckles white. "I can't stop looking."

"You don't have to, but there's no reason for you not to rest a while," Brendon points out. "Who knows, maybe the people here can help."

"I guess," Jon says, and there are all kinds of conversations going on that Ryan doesn't understand, but Brendon obviously does, and he waits, never looking away. "Gaining three more friends doesn't diminish what he is to you. Give us a chance."

Jon loosens his hold on the chair. "I'll try."

"In that case," Mikey says. "Your room awaits."

They all stand, no one speaking as they follow Mikey along the corridor to the empty room. Using his elbow, he pushes at the handle and opens the door before stepping aside.

There's a confused moment when no one wants to go in first. Then Spencer pushes at Ryan's back, propelling him inside. He moves in enough that they can all fit, four people in one small room -- their room. It includes two single beds, striped duvets on them both, and two cots folded against a wall. There's a large desk and empty shelves against blue-painted walls. The curtains are beige, pulled to keep the night darkness of the outside from creeping, and there're two lamps on the bedside tables, both turned on so the room is cast in gentle light. It's warm and cozy and Ryan thinks he should be excited, but all he can do is stand frozen in place, so numb that he barely feels the touch of Spencer's hand.

"It's not an apartment." He wraps his fingers around Ryan's, holding on. "But we're safe now."

Ryan manages a nod, stepping to one side as Mikey squeezes into the room and drops the pile of pillows onto one of the beds. "Is there anything you need?"

Ryan needs many things, most of which he'll never ask for. He shakes his head. "I'm fine."

The others all say no, too, and Mikey gives them all once last considering glance. "Okay, I'll leave you to it. Just get up whenever tomorrow, there's no rush. There's always one of us around and Pete tends to be up most of the night if you need anything." He starts to leave then, stopping and turning back. "I'm glad you decided to stay."

"Me too," Spencer says, answering for them all.

That night Ryan and Spencer sleep in the same bed, Brendon on the cot in the middle while Jon takes the other single, setting himself that slight touch away from the group. There's no talking as they climb under the covers, none of them taking off their clothes. Within a minute they're all asleep.

~~~~~

When Ryan wakes, the duvet is crumpled at the bottom of the bed. Turning his head, he sees that Spencer is still fast asleep, curled up so that his chin is tucked against Ryan's shoulder. He can't see Brendon, and Jon's nothing but a lump and dark strands of hair visible at the top of his own duvet. Needing to pee, Ryan carefully moves and Spencer opens his eyes, as if he's been waiting for Ryan to wake.

"Morning," Spencer whispers and he tilts his head so he can press a kiss against Ryan's chin.

"I think it may be afternoon," Brendon says unexpectedly, appearring in Ryan's line of sight, leaning heavily on the desk as he pulls back the curtains and looks outside. "Yeah, definitely missed morning."

Spencer squints when Brendon pulls open the curtains, making light flood into the room. "Fuck, warn a person."

"Sorry, sorry." Brendon starts to close the curtains, but Spencer reaches out, groping for his hand.

"No, I'm getting up anyway."

He does, sitting upright. Ryan does the same, both of them moving slowly, one night's sleep in a real bed unable to touch bone-deep aches. Doing so shows Ryan that Brendon's t-shirt is dark with sweat, his hair damp and he pushes it back off his forehead with a grimace.

Sitting on the side of the bed, feet against the floor, Ryan can examine the room in the natural light, taking in the wooden shelving unit on one wall, the mirror attached to the back of the door and what could be used as a small bookshelf, empty right now, but Ryan can easily imagine it filled with books.

"We could spend some of the money," Spencer says, looking at the bookshelf. "There has to be a bookshop close by."

It's tempting, but Ryan shakes his head. "That's our safety money."

"Right." Spencer stands, using Ryan's shoulder for support, the suggestion put aside for now. "I'm going to find food. You coming with?"

"I am," Brendon says.

"Yeah," Ryan agrees.

"Coming."

The last is from Jon, who kicks at his duvet, wincing as he moves his arm, tucking it against his chest. When he's finally standing upright, steady on his feet, they each make their beds, working around one another, tugging at corners and straightening sheets until everything is perfect. When they're finished, Ryan automatically reaches for his guitar, then uncurls his fingers and steps back.

"It'll be safe, right?"

Spencer's holding his bag, about to sling it over his shoulder, but he stops, letting his arm drop. "I could leave this, too."

"Only if you're sure, but take the money," Ryan says. They're talking about a battered guitar, a bag stuffed with clothes Spencer's outgrown -- things that are worth little to nothing, but mean everything. Spencer rummages in the bag and takes the sock full of money, shoving it in his pocket, then bends and pushes his bag under the bed. "I'm sure."

A last look at his guitar and Ryan says, "Me too."

Only then do they leave the room. It's quiet when they step into the corridor, the house seemingly deserted. Then there's a series of frantic barks and Piglet comes running forward, brushing against Ryan's legs. He crouches, running his hand over her fur, making her pant and nuzzle at his hand, dog drool sliding over his fingers, and for what feels like the first time in forever, Ryan's laughing.

"I think she likes you." Pete's holding three leashes, Hemmy and Winston at his feet. "You've missed their walk, but if you want you can go with us later, Winston loves to play fetch."

"Doesn't he sink in the snow?" Ryan asks, worried about Winston's short legs. "He'll get cold."

"He's got a coat." Pete holds up his hand without the leashes, showing a small dog coat, the collar made of fluffy golden fur.

"That's the same as Mikey's," Ryan says, remembering nights in the bitter cold, Mikey bundled inside his coat as he ladled out soup.

Pete grins wide. "It is, I bought them for an anniversary present."

"Good choice," Spencer says.

"I thought so." Hanging the leashes and coat on a hook, Pete heads toward the stairs. "Can't stop, sorry. People to charm and money to beg for, but Mikey and Gerard are in the kitchen. Bob too."

Jon looks puzzled. "Can you remember a Bob?"

Ryan shakes his head, they'd been briefly introduced to the others the day before, but the only Bob he knows is the one who brought them here; the one who comes back to someone in the city and has a fondness for plaid. Ryan looks at Spencer. "You don't think?"

They both move together, not running, not really, but they still push the door open to the kitchen that little bit too hard, and then stand, staring at Bob, who's sitting close to Gerard. Bob looks back. "I thought I'd see you here."

Spencer takes a step forward. "You're... The person you come back to is Gerard?

"It is."

"And that's your ugly shirt that Gerard's wearing." The words slip out and too late, Ryan clamps shut his mouth, but Bob just smooths the front of his own plaid shirt down.

"Yep." He stands then, pushing back his chair. "Aren't you going to say hello?"

"Hi," Spencer says, and then he's running forward, pulling Bob into a hug, holding on until they both break apart. "I thought we'd never see you again."

"You would have, one way or another." Bob looks over his shoulder at Gerard. "There's not many people we don't know around here. The ones that matter anyway."

He doesn't make any moves to indicate Ryan should come close, does nothing but stand still and Ryan knows Bob's trustworthy, he does. The same way he knows it's time he started acting on that knowledge. He moves next to Spencer and Bob, and then stops, unsure of how to go on, but Bob does, gathering Ryan in a hug. He doesn't hold on, or cling close, just rests his hands against Ryan's back, saying quietly, "I'm glad to see you, kid," then steps away, looking at Brendon and Jon. "You seem to have picked up more people."

Spencer makes the introductions. "Bob, this is Brendon and Jon. They're our friends."

Bob smiles slightly, says, "Any friends of these two."

"You've found Bob." Mikey appears from a room at the back of the kitchen. He's wearing his usual outfit, tight jeans and a t-shirt, hair gelled straight, eye make-up perfect, but he's also wearing an apron, one with a black skull print on the front that ties at his neck and has strings that wrap around his waist twice. "We've eaten but there's stuff in the fridge for sandwiches."

"Thanks," Ryan says, but stays standing where he is, until Bob sighs.

"You'll have to get it yourself, they only wait on guests. I worked that out the day Gee left me sitting for nearly an hour while he colored in. I about gnawed off my arm."

"You can't be a guest when you class Clan House as your home," Gerard says, and he moves to stand next to Bob, wrapping his arm around his waist. "And I wasn't coloring in, but he is right about serving yourself. We do only wait on guests."

Ryan smiles, he can't help it. Lunch consists of thick sandwiches and slices of cake. This time Ryan stops before he's stuffed full, stomach aching from too much food, but only after he's reminded himself that it's okay, that there'll always be enough to eat. It's why he says nothing when he sees Jon slip half a sandwich in his pocket, just turns away when Jon catches him looking, his expression ashamed.

"I forgot," Jon says, and he puts the sandwich back on his plate before turning to Mikey, still flustered as he asks. "Is it okay if I take a shower?"

Mikey's busy scrubbing at a counter and when he turns he pushes his glasses back up his nose. "You don't have to ask, there's more official stuff to sort out later, but you've plenty of time. You all have. Just shove your plates in the dishwasher first."

"I call second shower," Spencer says then. Ryan doesn't try for third, there's no point -- he'll be sharing with Spencer anyway. He does expect Brendon to call third, because it has to be uncomfortable in his damp clothes, but Brendon just keeps picking at the remains of his cake, looking down at his plate.

"Before you shower you should pick out some more clothes, you need more than one set," Mikey says. He drops the sponge he's using in the sink and hooks the spray bottle of cleaner on the waistband of his jeans. "I need to clean our bathroom, Brendon, can you give me a hand?"

Brendon looks up then. "I'm good at polishing."

Mikey smiles. "Good."

~~~~~

Brendon wakes with a muffled yell. Mouth tightly closed against more panicked shouts he looks around and reassures himself that he's in his own bed. He's safe. He's warm. He really is okay. That doesn't help rid the lingering affects of his nightmare, tendrils of fear still wrapped tight. Rubbing at his wrist, his face, he wiggles out of his blankets keeping hold and trailing one behind him as he crawls to the bottom of the cot then stands. He looks back then, at Spencer and Ryan curled up tight together, Jon almost completely concealed by his quilt.

They're Brendon's friends and he knows he could wake them up and they wouldn't mind. But that's not what he needs right now. He needs space to breathe, space and light. Wrapping the blanket securely around his shoulders he heads for the door, walking as quietly as possible as he steps out of the room. Pulling the door open, he stands still a moment, his bare toes curled against the wood floor. All houses have their own feel and right now Clan House is quiet. Not silent because it's full of life still, the sound of snores coming from one room, the clatter of a keyboard from upstairs, and also the sound of someone moving in the kitchen.

The blanket swishes against the floor as Brendon walks past Hemmy, who lifts his head and snuffles a greeting, and into the kitchen, where Gerard is leaning against the counter, watching the kettle on the stove.

"It won't boil any faster doing that."

Gerard jumps his hand flat against his chest. "Fuck, you scared me."

"Sorry."

"No, no. I was in my own dream world." Gerard widens his eyes. "I didn't wake you did I?"

Brendon shakes his head and pulls the blanket closed in front of him. "I couldn't sleep."

"Sucks." Gerard reaches out and taps his fingers against a mug. "I'm making herbal tea, you want?"

"Not coffee?"

"I'd kill for a coffee, but I need to get up in the morning." Opening a cupboard door, Gerard exposes multiple small boxes, each one a different colour. "Bob keeps bringing me back new kinds, most of which taste like shit, like fucking bramble and elderflower. It was like drinking water used to steep sticks." Gerard hesitates then, smiles. "I'm not selling this well am I?"

"Not especially," Brendon says. "But I will have tea, just not the bramble."

"Good choice." Gerard grabs a box and places two tea bags into mugs, their tabs hanging over the side. He snatches at the kettle, taking it off the heat as it starts to whistle. Pouring out the water, he puts back the kettle then sits, pushing a mug toward Brendon. "Come, sit. It's apple and blackcurrant, this one actually tastes good."

Brendon's willing to take Gerard's word, and he sits and cradles the mug in his hands, enjoying the quiet as they both drink.

"Have you all had a look around yet? Or did Mikey con you into doing his cleaning all day?"

"He didn't make me," Brendon protests. "I liked helping."

"It starts that way then next thing you know you're left in charge of reattaching all the heads of your GI Joes or knocking down walls with a hammer and a prayer." Gerard takes a sip of his tea, says, "That kid," love obvious in every word.

"I helped sort out some donated clothes," Brendon says, remembering sitting in the store room with Mikey, the easy silence as they pulled apart bags and revealed the clothes inside.

"Yeah? Was there anything good?"

"Jeans mostly, lots of t-shirts and a few dresses."

"Good, we've been short of those." Draining his tea, Gerard sets down his mug, says, "Are you feeling better?"

Brendon's about to protest that he wasn't feeling bad, that he can't sleep is all, but Gerard's watching him keenly, like he's waiting for any lie. "A little."

"Enough that you could go back to sleep?"

The right answer should be yes, show that Brendon isn't afraid of his own thoughts and memories, but the fact is that he is. He shakes his head. "Not yet."

"You know, talking usually helps."

Brendon remembers Ryan saying the same thing, and still Brendon can't understand why talking is seen as so good. He doesn't want people to know how disgusting he feels, the things he had to do to survive. Those are things he wants to keep hidden, where no one can see at all. He pulls at the blanket, holding it so he's covered from shoulders to knees. "There's nothing to tell."

Gerard pushes the hair out of his eyes, seeming to accept that as he starts talking in another direction. "It's funny. We've got official rooms for counseling but more secrets have been discussed over this table than anywhere else in the house, especially at night. I told Bob about my past here. Half past two in the morning and he'd just come in from a week-long trip. He was about dead on his feet but still listened as I told him the sordid details." Gerard laughs slightly, gaze slightly unfocused as he's caught in his own memories. "We hadn't been dating long but I knew I had to tell him before we got serious. Give him the chance to ditch the ex-alcoholic junkie."

It's not what Brendon expected to hear, but he leans forward slightly, the edge of the table digging into his stomach. "He stayed?"

"He did, which was good because Mikey was hiding behind the door waiting to kick his ass if he didn't."

"He was going to take on Bob?" Brendon cringes slightly, imagining Mikey being hit by Bob, but Gerard doesn't seem concerned at all.

"Mikey's vicious when he's fighting for something he cares about. This house, Pete, me. There's not a fight he wouldn't take on." Gerard directs his attention on Brendon then. "He's fighting for you, too. We all are."

It should be good to hear, it is, except in the way it makes Brendon feel worse, because they're fighting over something that isn't worth saving. "You should save your energy. I'm not worth fighting for."

"That's bullshit," Gerard says. "Everyone in this house is worth fighting for. We fight together. We're a fucking army, and no one gets left behind."

"You don't understand," Brendon says, already exhausted by this conversation.

"I understand not wanting to live another day," Gerard says, sounding calm despite what he's saying. "How it feels to be covered in piss, shit and blood and not care because all I wanted was another drink. How it's possible to feel so disgusting that you want everyone to look away. But I'm lucky -- I've got people who wouldn't do that, who were there for me whatever happened."

Brendon looks down at the tabletop -- battered by time and hundreds of hands -- and says quietly. "I just feel so ashamed."

"Then why don't we work on changing that?"

"I don't know if I can." Brendon looks up then, sees that Gerard is waiting patiently, looking nothing but sympathetic. Brendon doesn't want to tell, but he's so tired, he doesn't think he can keep carrying the memories alone. Before he even knows he's going to do so, he starts to talk. "Before, when I first came here? The city? I ran out of money, and…and there with this man. He offered...y'know, he, he said he'd give me money. If I blew him." Despite having cooled, the tea burns when Brendon takes a sip. "I wouldn't have, I really wouldn't have, but I was so hungry. I was just-- I hadn't done it before, never, but he must have thought I had? I don't know why but he asked and we went to this alley and I wouldn't have said yes, I wouldn't but I needed to eat so badly and there was glass on the ground and he made me suck him and I got apples and a hot drink but it didn't help because I felt so disgusting, like people could see and then I did it again, like once wasn't bad enough and I was so weak, I was so – all those things they said, they were true, they must be, because I did it, I gave in, because I needed the food, just, like, some soup or something, I hadn't heard about the kitchen, or else I—Well, I was stupid, and all the time I was doing it I felt like them, the people in the videos and I was so dirty and ashamed and it hurt, they hurt me." A droplet of water lands on the table and Brendon puts up his hand, surprised to find his cheek is wet. "I'm a whore. I—a whore, selling myself for money."

"I'd say you were a survivor," Gerard replies after a bit, when Brendon is surprised to find that he can actually listen. "Doing what you needed to live. There's a difference between that, and someone who sells himself for love of the job. That's fine, too, just different.." He stands then, pulling Brendon into a quick one-armed hug. "Want more tea? I have a stash of strawberry hidden at the back. It's excellent for conversations like these."

Brendon wipes at his face, says, "Please."

~*~*~*~

Ryan watches as Spencer shifts in place and tries not to look at the closed door to his side. He's got his thumbs hooked in his jeans pocket and is trying for a casualness that he's utterly failing to achieve. It's making Ryan antsy just watching him, and he jumps when the door is suddenly pulled open and Pete looks outside.

"Spencer, you can come in now."

"Right," Spencer says, but he doesn't actually move, just stands in the same place, his carefully crafted calm fracturing even more.

Ryan steps forward so he's between Spencer and Pete, determined that Spencer won't have to do this alone. "I'll come in with you."

"Sorry little dude. I know he'll tell you everything anyway but these meetings have to go solo." Pete steps into view fully then. "There's nothing to worry about, promise. Just we need things to be legal."

"And what if you contact the home and they want me to come back?"

It's the first time Spencer's actually verbalised that worry, and hearing how unsure he sounds strengthens Ryan's determination that that's something that will never happen. But it's not Ryan who speaks out.

"Then we'll go somewhere else," Brendon says, stepping forward and taking his place next to Ryan and Spencer, then after a hesitation, as if he's still unsure of his place, Jon.

Pete puts his hands over his ears. "I never heard that." He lets his hands drop then, says, "You've nothing to worry about. We've done this a lot and haven't lost anyone yet. Ray and Gerard make a mean team."

It's something Ryan wants to believe, but that means trusting someone to look after Spencer, and he doesn't know if he can do that. Not yet. "I'm still coming in."

"Hold on." Pete holds up his hand and looks back into the room. "Let me talk to Gee and Ray, we could sort something out."

Ryan nods, satisfied that Pete's trying at least, which is when Spencer turns to him. "I'll be fine, you should go explore with Brendon."

For the briefest of moments Ryan feels the sting of rejection but Spencer does look slightly calmer, like he's ready to face any issues head-on, and Ryan knows Pete won't do anything to deliberately hurt him. "You'll come find us when you're done?"

"Promise."

Which is enough that Ryan can remain in place, watching as Spencer follows Pete into the room.

"There's supposed to be more rooms at the back of the house," Brendon says. "Want to check them out?"

What Ryan wants to do is stay here and wait for Spencer to come back out. What he does is turn and start to walk toward the back of the house, Brendon and Jon staying close by his side.

Passing the kitchen, they keep going, past offices and storage rooms and down a small flight of stairs that lead to a whole new area of the house, a part they still haven't explored due to sticking close to the familiar, the spaces that have begun to be home.

It's cool, the light coming from a window that looks out at ground level, snow pressed up against the glass. The walls are painted a bright blue, the floors polished wood; framed art and pictures hang on the walls. There's a painting of a fantasy scene, a blown-up photo of Pete and Mikey standing in front of Clan house with Pete grinning widely, Mikey smiling slightly as they hold up a key. Ryan's examining that photo, taking note of how blissfully happy they look when Brendon touches his arm. "Come see."

Ryan turns, following Brendon into a room filled with art supplies, easels and canvases stacked in piles while every inch of the walls is covered in drawings and paintings, some gaudy with bright paint, others stark pencil sketches that portray everything from scribbled, mashed-up lines to elaborate landscapes. Attracted by the crates stuffed with materials and the boxes full of shiny-handled scissors and fat tubs of glue, Ryan's tempted to linger, but Brendon's already moving on, urging Jon to follow.

Ryan's looking through small tubs full of what looks like liquid glitter, putting his finger into a tub and drawing a stripe of golden glitter along the back of his hand when Brendon yells, "Ryan, come here."

Brendon sounds excited, and he almost runs back into the art room before urging Ryan into the next, which is a small library, bookshelves against two walls, each one completely filled.

"You like books, right? You said, before," Brendon says, but Ryan doesn't reply, just keeps looking around. There are bean bags in one corner, a chair with the scuffed arms that's positioned next to a tall lamp, a red dragon painted on its shade. The books themselves look slightly battered, obviously well read, but that doesn't matter. All Ryan sees is the possibilities, stories to discover and words to read. Running his fingers along the spines, he's tempted to pull out a book and curl up in the chair, but Brendon and Jon are already on the way out, and it's not like Ryan can't come back. One last look, and Ryan follows, ready to discover more.

What they find is a room containing a piano, and Ryan knows leaving the books behind was the right thing to do when he sees how delighted Brendon looks, the easy, genuine way he smiles as he sits at the piano bench and runs his fingers over the keys. He looks back over his shoulders, hands still resting in place. "Do you think I can play this?"

"I don't see why not." Jon walks close and then folds himself down to the floor, back against the wall. "Well, we're waiting."

"I haven't played for a long time, I'll be rusty," Brendon warns, but he's still smiling, looking more relaxed than he has for a long time when he looks over at Ryan. "Everybody Hurts?"

Ryan smiles, sitting down next to Jon. "Sure."

Brendon begins to play.

~*~*~*~

Waking up screaming is starting to get old. Brendon's sure it is for the others too. It's only a matter of time before they tell him to go, maybe sleep in the TV room or even the half-finished new bedroom. It's why when he wakes he automatically stifles his cries and tries to calm down as he slides to the bottom of the cot, always soaked through with sweat, his heart pounding from the dreams that just won't go away.

Most nights he ends up in the kitchen, and somehow there's always someone there. Pete or Mikey usually, but sometimes Gerard, and -- on one occasion -- Bob, dressed in a too-small robe and baggy cargo shorts as he rummaged in the fridge. Brendon nearly went and hid elsewhere that night, but all Bob did was make tea and open his laptop, showing off his collection of favorited Youtube clips until Brendon was yawning and ready for bed. He dreamt of prat falls and blinking lights that night. It was a nice change.

Tonight though, Brendon doesn't get halfway down the cot when someone reaches out and grabs his arm. Heart beating even faster he peers through the darkness and sees that both Ryan and Spencer are awake, and it's Ryan that's got tight hold of Brendon's arm. "Sorry I woke you, I'll go."

"No you won't," Ryan says, whisper soft. "We've watched you go off for over a week now, we've given you space and it's not working. Tonight we're trying something else."

"You're right." Brendon starts to gather his blankets. "I'll go sleep in the TV room."

Spencer pushes himself up on one elbow, looking over Ryan's body. "We're not telling you to go, we're telling you to come here."

"In your bed?"

"No, in our intergalactic spaceship." Ryan pulls back the covers and rolls over, squashing Spencer against the wall. "Get in, and Jon, you sleep in the cot, I don't think we could fit four into the bed but this way you're close."

Brendon hadn't even known Jon was awake, but he makes a muffled sound of assent as Brendon climbs into Ryan and Spencer's bed, lying balanced on the edge as Jon rolls out of his bed onto the cot, pulling his blankets with him, says, "Is he always this bossy?" his words slightly slurred with sleep.

"You don't know the half of it," Spencer says, then laughs when Ryan tries to elbow him in the side.

Despite the lack of space Brendon's comfortable, especially when Ryan rolls his eyes and pulls Brendon away from the edge. "You won't catch gay cooties."

For a long while Brendon lies still, his cheek resting against the soft pillow, warm and comfortable and feeling safe. It's why, finally, he says, "I think I already have."

"Is that your big coming out scene?" Ryan asks, protesting indignantly when Spencer pushes himself back up again and puts his hand over Ryan's mouth.

"Shush, everyone doesn't have to come out with the aid of metaphors and teaching aids." Moving his hand, Spencer drapes himself over Ryan, looking at Brendon. "Is that what you're dreaming about?"

"Sometimes." Brendon's wide awake now, staring up at the ceiling. "There's other stuff too."

Jon reaches up and touches Brendon's side through the blankets. "So tell us, we're listening."

It's two forty-five on a freezing Sunday morning when Brendon shares his secrets, the wind rattling against the window and three people listening as he reveals painful, hidden secrets that hurt coming off his tongue. They are each there for him until finally he runs out of words. His friends around him, he falls into sleep.

~*~*~*~

School isn't easy for Brendon. The actual work is simple, but the crowds make him nervous, and he can't help thinking people are watching, seeing the secrets he holds close. It's why he keeps smiling, so much that his face aches at the end of each day, when he meets Jon, Spencer and Ryan at the gates, and can finally go home.

It's not a long walk, not when you've somewhere to walk to, and Brendon shoves his mitten-covered hands in his coat pocket, head down against the snow. They talk about home or work, what they had for lunch, or Ryan's plans for them to join the band -- ordinary things that help soothe the scars they all hold. When they get back to Clan House the lights are lit next to the door, and Brendon can't help smiling again, except this time it's for real.

Inside it's chaos. Dogs are running wild and the hall is crowded with people coming home from school. Waving a greeting, Brendon starts to pull off his coat and heads for their room, still shared for now, but that doesn't matter at all. Despite the small space they fit perfectly, and Brendon can't imagine waking without Jon on one side, Ryan and Spencer the other.

Getting closer, Brendon sees something pinned on their door, next to their name plate -- a picture of them dressed as carnival performers, as drawn by Gerard -- and he plucks it free, handing it to Ryan.

"It's for you."

Ryan opens the note, quickly reading before folding it up. "Dad called."

"Are you calling him back?" Spencer asks, sounding wary, and Brendon can't blame him. The last time Ryan was encouraged to call his dad still fresh in his mind.

"I think so, yeah. He's trying; I can meet him halfway," Ryan says.

For a moment Brendon feels a burning jealousy for Ryan's careful hope, because Brendon doesn't even have that -- his family refuses to take his calls. Any brooding he might be working up to is cut off by Spencer bumping him with his hip, edging him toward the door.

"Come on, I think Mikey was going to make cookies."

"Mikey makes terrible cookies, he always burns them," Brendon says.

Spencer grins wide. "I know, I like to watch Pete eat them and say they're delicious."

"Mean, Spencer." Ryan steps in the room and sets his bag on the desk, taking out his school books and setting them on the shelf. "But also valid."

It doesn't take long to get settled. They hang their coats on waiting hooks, take their medications, and, in Jon's case, remove shoes and tuck them under the bed. That done, they head for the kitchen, stepping inside to be greeted by a cheer.

Everyone is there: Mikey and Pete, Gerard and Bob, Ray, Jamia and Frank, Trey, Ben and Connor, Andrew and Zack, Zoe, Aaron and Beth. A homemade banner stretches along the wall, Welcome Home written in sparkling letters, and on the table lies a huge cake. It is lopsided with yellow icing, the most perfect thing Brendon's ever seen.

"We would have done this before, but we had to cut through all the official bullshit." Mikey steps forward and holds up four pieces of paper. "As of this morning, you're all officially in the care of Clan House."

"God help you," Pete says, but he's grinning widely as everyone starts to whistle and clap and cheer.