Actions

Work Header

Fix That Hole In You

Work Text:

Spencer watches the clock on the wall, counting every single second hand tick and anticipating the bell. It's the last Friday of his junior year in high school, and he couldn't be more ready to just get the fuck out of this room. His history teacher is reminding them of their finals schedule for the next week, but Spencer can't concentrate on the buzzing words, just sits in his chair and zeroes in on the clock. He has a handout in his backpack that will tell him what he needs to know; he can check it Monday morning and still be fine. As the clock ticks closer, Spencer begins to tap his foot. His rhythm is off - it's a sloppy 4/4 time that would make his band teacher cringe, but he doesn't have the patience to slow his foot down.

Finally, the bell rings. Spencer is up and out of his chair, bolting through the door before his teacher even finishes her words. He'll maybe feel bad about the rudeness when he sees her next week for his final exam, but for now he's just relieved to be out of that room. He has a weekend, then three days of tests, and then Spencer has three months off. Three whole months to sit in his underwear all day and watch TV and play drums with Ryan and jerk off in the middle of the day. He can't wait.

Spencer's walk home is short, but in the 110 degree Nevada heat it still feels like too long. With the sun beating down on him, Spencer's sweat soaks through his shirt, making the skin chafe where his backpack straps rub on his shoulders as he walks. He can't wait to be done with school already, he's not going to leave his air conditioned house all summer if he can help it. As he rounds the corner to his street, Spencer pulls his backpack from his shoulders and carries it in one hand toward his house. He can't wait to get inside and drink some water. Spencer's up the walkway and on his porch before he realizes his dad's car is in the driveway, which, weird, he's supposed to still be at work. He barely has the door open, and he can hear his dad sobbing in the kitchen.

Spencer's stomach drops.

Once inside, Spencer closes the door, turning the handle so it shuts without a sound. He puts his backpack by the stairs and walks to the kitchen. His heart is hammering in his chest. Spencer can't see his mom or sisters, but he can hear someone moving things around upstairs, and he hopes that means they're all okay. Once he gets to the breakfast bar, Spencer can see his dad hunched over the sink, knuckles white from where his hands are gripping the edge of the counter.

"Dad? What's- is everyone okay?" a voice asks, and it's not until his dad is hugging him that Spencer realizes the voice was his.

"C'mon, Spence, we need to talk." is all Jerry says as he leads Spencer to the kitchen table. They sit in chairs next to each other, and Jerry reaches out for Spencer's hand. Spencer and his dad are facing each other, and Spencer is freaking the fuck out.

"What's going on, Dad? You're scaring me."

"Spencer," Jerry says, squeezing his son's hand, "your mom's upstairs with the twins right now. I asked her to let me talk to you by myself, because you're old enough to hear the truth. Your mom and I decided that I should move out. Neither of us have been happy in a long time, and it's not fair to anyone in this house for us to stay together."

Spencer's parents are getting a divorce, and he is blindsided. He's always been proud of being smart, intuitive, but this one slipped by him somehow. He doesn't know how to handle it. Jerry is next to Spencer still, telling him how much Spencer's dad and mom love him and his younger sisters, that this is no one's fault, that his parents hadn't loved each other in a long time, that no one could have made it any different. It doesn't help Spencer keep it together. Spencer feels like a child, he feels stupid and young and scared, and he doesn't want any of this to be real. Spencer breaks down. He dips his head and tries to hold it all in, but the moment his dad's arms wrap around him, he starts to cry. Spencer might feel ashamed later, when he's older and looks back on it, but for now, this is the worst thing that has ever happened to him and he needs his dad.

"Where are you going?" Spencer asks his dad once he's able to calm down.

"Well, your mom and I have been talking about this for a while, about what would happen if we were to split up. I put in for a new position at work a few weeks ago in Chicago. It's a huge promotion, Spencer. They're setting me up with a house there. The girls already said they want to stay here with Mom and their friends, but it's up to you where you want to be. You don't have to decide anything yet, sleep on it and think about it for a few days. You aren't going to hurt anyone's feelings and you'll still have both Mom and me in your life no matter what."

Jerry squeezes Spencer's knee, and they sit at the table in silence. Eventually, his sisters come downstairs. Jenna and Nicole are both pink cheeked and puffy eyed, and they come right over to their father to give him hugs. Jenna whispers something into their dad's ear that makes him nod and squeeze his daughter tighter. Spencer feels sick when he thinks that this might be the last time his whole family is in the same house, and he reaches out to hug the girls.

Later that night, Spencer is laying in his bed trying to clear his head enough to sleep. There's a soft knock on his door and his mom pokes her head in and whispers his name.

"I'm awake," he says, sitting up in his bed. Jean comes into the room, leaving the door open just enough for a sliver of light to fall across Spencer's floor, and she takes a seat on the edge of his bed. This is the first time Spencer has seen his mom since he found out about his parents' divorce. He can tell she's been crying. Jean looks at Spencer, and he looks back at her in the darkness. He doesn't know what to say.

"Spencer, I want you to know-" Jean stalls, takes a deep breath, and then starts again, "When I was pregnant with you, Dad and I used to talk about all of the wonderful things you would grow up to be. We talked about what color your eyes would be, which one of us you would take after more. I always hoped that you would come out and be able to look at life and be able to see the highlights, all of the good things hidden in the bad. That's who your dad was to me, when we met, he was just this great guy who could make me laugh and who could remind me that life is not always so serious. But then I also thought that I had to keep track of him and make sure that he got the bills paid and paid enough attention to the important things. I always had to be the one to tell him to get his head out of the clouds. We are such different people, me and Dad, and the things that you love about a person when you're young aren't always the things you love about them once you get older, and sometimes the things you used to love to do become a burden."

Jean is crying now. Spencer wants to hug his mom, hold her close and tell her that he doesn't need to hear anymore, that he loves her and that everything will be okay. Spencer doesn't, though. He feels like he should be a better son to her, but he doesn't know what he can do. Spencer can't remember ever seeing his parents cry before today, and it makes him feel helpless.

Spencer's mom holds her hand out, and he grabs on like a lifeline.

"I just, I just want you to know that I love you. You are my first born, and I will always, always love you and want to protect you, and I will always try to do what's best for you. And if you think I'm wrong, then you can tell me. Dad's going to need someone to help keep him grounded, and, Spencer," Jean is crying again, her voice distorted from the tightness in her throat, "honey, for now, I think you need to go with him. You're getting older every day, and you need your father in your life, and I don't think you being so far away from him will work."

Spencer is crying again. He can feel his chin wavering as his eyes get blurry, and he reaches out to hug his mom. In that moment, he knows that she's right.

-----

It only takes three weeks for Spencer and Jerry to pack up their things. For some reason, Spencer thought that it would have taken longer to move his entire existence from point A to point B. Spencer has one friend to speak of, a drum set that occupies nearly all of his spare time, and an assortment of CDs and video games to fill in the rest of his days. When he itemizes his possessions, Spencer starts to think that those 21 days were maybe even too many. He wonders why he doesn't have more in his life, and then he reminds himself that it's because he was happy with what he had. Spencer wonders if a drum kit and a PlayStation 2 will be enough now, if they'll be enough to keep him happy the way he was in Vegas.

On his last morning in town, Spencer goes out to breakfast with his mom and his best friend Ryan; Jerry takes the twins. Spencer, Ryan, and Jean all make small talk, and no one says anything at all about Chicago, about school breaks, about holidays. Spencer is thankful for that. As breakfast comes to an end, Spencer's chest starts feeling tight. He knew when he agreed to leave with his dad that this would happen, of course Spencer knew he would have to say goodbye and leave everything behind. He just didn't know, couldn't guess, that it would feel like this. There's a passing thought that at least there wasn't a girlfriend, that it was good it was only one friend, really, and some family to say goodbye to, instead of someone that he was in love with. It makes him more sad, in a way. Spencer wonders if that's how soldiers feel without someone to write home to.

And then his mother is paying the bill and Ryan is standing up, and Spencer realizes that breakfast is over. He wishes he hadn't eaten, he feels like he's going to be sick. They get to the car, and Spencer wonders which seat he should take on his last ride in Vegas. He would rather be in the front, holding his mom's hand, but he shares the back seat with Ryan instead. He doesn't know why. No one says anything on the way back to the house, and Spencer is glad. The trip doesn't take long enough, and Spencer's eyes start to water when the car takes the final turn to his - or rather, his mom's - house. This is it.

Jerry is already there with the girls, holding one in each arm. Spencer can see the way twins are shaking, and he knows he's going to cry too. He doesn't want to. Spencer takes an extra minute to get out of the car, spending the time pulling air into his lungs as slowly as possible, as if it could slow down time, as if it could make all of this right. It doesn't. Spencer is in the driveway, then, and his mom has her arms wrapped tightly around his middle. The top of her head just barely reaches his chin, and Spencer wonders when he got so tall, if it was over night or if it was gradual. Then Spencer squeezes his eyes shut, tears falling down his cheeks, and whispers "loveyouloveyouloveyou" against Jean's hair. He doesn't know if she hears him or not, but Jean's arms tighten more anyway. Spencer doesn't ever want to pull away, but he has to, so he does. He gives his little sisters their own hugs and wishes he would have done it more. Spencer is sorry for treating them as one big nuisance his whole life, and he promises himself to pay them each their own attention from now on. He hopes it isn't too little too late. Ryan is the last one for a hug; it's hard yet fleeting. No one says anything. But then again, what would they even have to say?

After that, it's time for them to go.

-----

Spencer and his dad have a U-Haul packed full of their belongings that they hitch up to Jerry's TrailBlazer. As they get in and buckle up, Jerry calls Spencer his co-pilot and puts a map in Spencer's lap. The map is huge, and Spencer opens it up, flipping through the pages until he hits Nevada. There's a marker drawn in over the I-15; Spencer puts his finger on it and traces the line of the highway out of the state. Jerry starts the car and pulls away, then. Spencer knows better than to look behind them. Jerry reaches over and puts his hand on Spencer's knee, pats it, and then his hand is back on the wheel. Spencer is glad he and Jerry are both wearing sunglasses, he's already sick of tears.

It takes them two days to make the drive to Chicago. They sleep in a cheap motel off the side of the highway that first night, and they eat all of their meals on the road. It's a long couple of days. Neither of them says much of anything unless it's about what they should have for lunch or when they need to make a pit stop, and Spencer wonders if his dad will be back to normal once they're off the road. He hopes so, he misses his dad's laugh.

It's past midnight on the second night, and Spencer is sleeping when his dad says his name. Spencer jolts and opens his eyes to see Jerry smiling, pointing at the highway sign in front of them. "Welcome to Chicago, son."

Forty minutes later, they're pulling into a residential area full of big homes with lush green yards. Jerry pulls in front of one and kills the engine. He asks Spencer what he thinks. This is the first time Spencer is seeing the new house, and he is blown away by just how different it all is. "It's nice," Spencer says, but really, he's pretty sure he hates it.

"Good. Let's get inside and get some rest, we can start bringing things in tomorrow." Jerry gets out of the car, then, stretching out his back and walking towards the house. Spencer follows, glancing around at the houses that are in the dark. He'll wait to see everything in the daylight.

-----

It only takes two days for Spencer and Jerry to unpack their things into their new home. Spencer and Jerry don't actually leave the house except for when they drop off the U-Haul, and they stop at a grocery store to stock up on candy and chips. They spend the first few nights on their own eating junk food and watching action movies, ordering in food when they're hungry and pretending like it's any other day. They stay up late together and crash on the couches, always waking up the next morning cramped up and laughing about how they really need to turn off the TV earlier. Neither of them admit that they're sleeping in the living room on purpose, and they both have the decency to not call each other out on it. Spencer wonders how different things are back in Vegas, sometimes, and then he realizes that it hasn't even been a week since he left. It feels like he's a lifetime and a world away. It's been less than a month since he found out about his parents' divorce, and Spencer's whole life is different. He's not sure he likes it yet, and it makes him wonder if he made the right decision by leaving with his dad. Spencer feels sad all the way down to his bones.

Jerry starts working 8 days after they arrive in their new city. That morning, just before he heads to work, Jerry nudges Spencer where he's sleeping on the couch. "Hey bud, I'm heading to work. You should get out today and try to check out the town, get out of the house for a little bit. I put some money on the counter for you if you want to look up bus schedules or go get some food or something." Spencer murmurs back to him, and Jerry must hear whatever it is that he needs to hear because Spencer can hear the front door open and shut, then the sound of the lock clicking. Spencer doesn't actually wake up until 2 in the afternoon, and he figures it's late enough that his dad will be home soon anyway, so he might as well just stay. When Jerry gets home that night and sees that Spencer is in the exact same spot that he was that morning, Jerry sighs. He knows he should be setting a better example for his son, but he doesn't have it in him just yet. Maybe tomorrow they can go out and see some of the sights, tomorrow they'll get out of the house together.

They don't.

Spencer's in the middle of a Project Runway marathon on Thursday when his phone beeps with a picture message. It's of Ryan; he has his arm wrapped around a petite blonde and he's kissing the corner of her smiling lips. There are no words with it, so Spencer sends back a question mark. It's not even a minute later when he gets a reply, new gf:). Spencer turns his phone off, tucks it under his thigh on the couch. It isn't the first time, Spencer thinks, that Ryan has had someone while Spencer has been alone, and it probably won't be the last time, either. Some people are just lucky that way, Spencer guesses. Or maybe it's just Spencer who is unlucky in that way. Either way, the idea of Ryan sitting back in Vegas with some girl while Spencer is, well, not, is just depressing. Spencer thinks that he'll maybe wait a little while before he texts Ryan again, that maybe he should wait until he even has anything to say that isn't just come get me.

-----

It isn't until the beginning of July that Jerry and Spencer get out into the city. They get lost on the El and eat grossly overpriced pizza at Gino's East; they walk down Clark Street, stopping in some of the stores and taking their picture outside of Wrigley Field. Jerry takes them to Ann's in the Ukrainian Village, getting cheeses and pastries for them to snack on at home. It's a good day. The city is beautiful and even in the middle of July, it's bearable to be outside if you're in the shade. It feels so different when he's on the streets, more like he's someone else rather than same old Spencer just moving to a new state. Spencer feels invigorated, in a way, and, for the first time since the move, Spencer and Jerry both enjoy their time out of their house.

The next day, Spencer wakes up at 10. He pulls on some basketball shorts and a t-shirt, grabs his wallet and keys, and goes outside. He locks the door behind him and then starts walking down the street. At the corner, Spencer laughs. He has no fucking clue where he's going. He knows how to get to the grocery store a couple blocks away, and Spencer guesses that's at least a big enough start. They haven't done much by the way of seeing what's in the area, so Spencer figures that at the very least he can grab some lunch and come back, maybe look up a map before leaving the next time and seeing what could be worth checking out.

It takes about 15 minutes to get to the strip mall that the grocery store is in, and, despite the 30-degree temperature difference between Chicago and Vegas, Spencer is sweating enough that his hair is sticking to his forehead and neck. There's a nail place and a cell phone store in the same strip mall, but across the street it looks like there are a few more choices. Spencer stops into the grocery store for a bottle of water, and at the register, he tosses in a candy bar. He does it less because the candy bars are right there and more because the girl working is cute, but she doesn't even give him a passing glance. Of course not, Spencer thinks. When he gets outside, he grabs the water out of the grocery bag, unscrews the cap and drinks half the water in one go. He puts the lid back on, and stops himself before he puts it in the grocery bag. Instead, he throws the bag in the trash and decides to carry the water in his hand. Spencer pretends to forget that there was candy still in the bag, and, as he crosses the street into the neighboring strip mall, he tells himself it doesn't mean anything other than the fact that he changed his mind.

Jerry's smile is wide and surprised when he gets home that night and finds out that Spencer went on an adventure. Spencer tries to laugh and say that he just went to the store, but it makes him happy to see his dad so excited over something stupid. It makes Spencer feel like he's maybe been shitty about the move, and he tells himself to start paying more attention to the way he's acting.

-----

Daily walks turn into a thing for Spencer. He starts waking up in the mornings and getting dressed, then he just takes off. Spencer looks at a few maps online and tries to find somewhere that sounds like it would be fun to go check out, but nearly everything that he finds is further into the city. He knows he could just take the bus in, but there's something really nice about being able to walk around and find things as he sees fit. Plus, after getting lost on the El with his dad, Spencer is a little shy about public transportation in this still-new-to-him city. It's all well and good other than the humidity because, even though it was much hotter in Vegas, he's still used to a dry heat, and Spencer feels gross with all of the humidity making his hair and clothes stick to his skin. On a whim during one particularly muggy spell, Spencer stops at a sign that advertises nine dollar haircuts. He cuts his shoulder length hair into a tapered pompadour. Spencer blushes at the stylists who all turn to compliment him on his new look; the girls use words like 'handsome' and 'smart'. Spencer has never cared much about his hair before, and it amazes him that one small change can get so much attention. He feels naked on the way back to his house, but Spencer holds his head up and tries to tell himself that nothing is different.

When Jerry gets home, Spencer is in the kitchen working on making dinner. Spencer had picked up some veggies and tofu at the grocery store after an intense craving for the vegetarian stir fry he used to get in Vegas. He's chopping up the mushrooms when Jerry comes in.

"Wow," Jerry says, patting Spencer on the shoulder, "big change! It looks great, Spence!"

Spencer shrugs, tells his dad "It was getting too hot, I felt like my hair was glued to my neck."

Jerry leaves the room to change into his after work clothes, but once he comes back in the room he helps Spencer finish their dinner. The whole time he keeps telling Spencer how great his hair looks, tells Spencer that he looks older now, asks when his little boy turned into a man. Spencer turns red from the attention and laughs his dad off. When they eat, they sit at the kitchen table across from each other and split the stir fry down the middle, half going to each of their plates. Jerry takes a big bite, hums and smiles at Spencer.

"Tastes just like home," Jerry says. It makes Spencer's throat tight, and he has to drink water after he swallows down his first forkful.

"Yeah," Spencer says, making himself smile back at Jerry, "just like home."

He doesn't know when it happened, but Spencer finds it hard to think of Vegas as home anymore. But still, he argues in his head, could he really call Chicago home? It's a weird limbo that he plays out in his mind, he's neither here nor there. Surely he has to be somewhere. Spencer thinks of the phrase 'home is where your heart is', but all that does is make him feel more alone. Maybe he needs to find his heart first and figure out his home later. Spencer just keeps turning it over in his head until he hears his name.

"You okay?" Jerry is asking. His plate is empty, and Spencer has no idea how long he spaced out for.

"Just tired," Spencer lies. It was the first thing that came to mind that wasn't 'no'. "I think I'm going to head to bed early."

The food on Spencer's plate is practically untouched other than what he had pushed around with his fork after his first bite. Spencer doesn't much feel like eating anymore. He picks up his plate and carries it into the kitchen where he puts the leftovers in the fridge. He'll eat them for lunch tomorrow, Spencer tells himself, and then he'll call his mom and the twins and Ryan and talk about anything that isn't how much he misses all of them. Spencer calls out goodnight to Jerry. He waits, but doesn't hear anything back, so he goes into his room and closes the door behind him. Spencer doesn't bother turning on the light, just gets undressed and gets into bed.

There's still a hint of light filtering through the blinds in his room, and Spencer isn't even vaguely sleepy. Homesick is the word that comes to Spencer's mind, but then he thinks, maybe nostalgia? Depression. But maybe just loneliness? It's hard to say. Spencer pulls his ipod off of his bedside table, puts the earbuds into his ears, and presses shuffle. The first song is Such Great Heights, and Spencer groans. He tosses his ipod off the side of his bed, the earbuds pulling out of his ears on the way down. Spencer thinks fuck life. Fuck life and fuck music, and fuck Ben Gibbard.

Spencer lays in bed, turning things over and over in his mind, trying to figure out what is going on with him. He didn't think coming out here would be that big of a deal. He thought he would move and spend some time with his dad and then go to college in a year, no big deal. When Spencer lays it out like that, yes, he got exactly what he was expecting. So, what the hell? Really. Spencer thinks that maybe he's just lonely, that maybe things will be better once he starts school. But then he thinks about his old school, the one that he went to with the same people for eleven years, the one where he sat alone at lunch every single day because his best friend went to a different school. Spencer thinks that maybe school isn't the answer. Maybe there's just something wrong with Spencer in general. He doesn't know anymore, doesn't know who he is or where he's going or what he wants, all because he changed his zip code. He feels like disappearing, so he pulls the blankets up over his head and just breathes. Spencer stays awake all night like that.

Once Jerry leaves for work, Spencer gets out of bed. He grabs his phone and presses in the numbers by heart. Ryan's number goes directly to voice mail, so Spencer tries the house phone for his mom and sisters. The line rings and rings and rings. Spencer redials both numbers two more times. No one is answering their phone, and Spencer's heart is clenching as tightly as his jaw. He's so sad right now, he doesn't know why and he doesn't know what the hell he's supposed to do anymore and he just wants to talk to someone that isn't his stupid, selfish dad who made him move out here in the first place. Spencer groans and throws his pillow. When that doesn't feel good enough, he throws his phone against the wall, then he picks his ipod up from where it fell the night before and he throws that too. Then Spencer picks up a shoe, a book, a hat, throws them all at the wall one at a time. He still isn't satisfied, so he quickly pulls on some shoes with the clothes he had worn the day before and gets out of his house before he flips his damn mattress.

Spencer starts across the lawn and his insides are just twisted in knots. He's so angry about being so sad, and he wishes he could just calm down but no one is answering their fucking phones and Spencer just, he gasps for air and throws his head back. Spencer looks around, looks at their neighbors and the cloudy sky that doesn't belong in summertime, and he wants to get out. So he starts running. He just takes off, running in the opposite direction that he usually goes. He needs to get away from the house, he needs to get out of this neighborhood, he needs to get away from himself. Spencer runs until his muscles are burning. He is gasping for air and his throat is dry, but he keeps running anyway. He feet pound on the cement in a rhythm he didn't realize that he missed, and he runs faster. It feels like the first time he did a double stroke roll on drums. His brain voice goes quiet for the first time in days as he focuses on the beat running through his bones.

He runs well past the point that he's lost, then turns around and runs back. He doesn't stop until he can see his house, and Spencer is rubber-limbed when he goes up the walk. He makes it inside, drinks three glasses of water in a row, and gets in the shower to clean up. Once he's dried off, he goes into his room and gets dressed. He sees the pile of things that had hit the wall and bounced onto the floor, and Spencer feels guilty. He knows he acted like a brat, and he feels guilty for calling his dad names, even if it was only in his head. Spencer picks everything up, putting things where they belong. He saves his phone for last. There are missed calls and messages from his mom and Ryan; it was 6am when he was trying to call, and everyone was still asleep. Spencer is embarrassed. He's such a jerk. He doesn't call anyone back.

The next day, Spencer goes for another run. This time, he brings water with him and an ipod, picking out the fastest songs he has and seeing if he can match the rhythms. It feels almost as good as playing again. Spencer brought his kit with him in the move, his dad giving him the whole basement to practice, but it doesn't feel right. Music is something between him and Ryan, and Spencer just can't bring himself to play by himself yet. It's stupid, he knows, but he guesses that's just who he is now. Spencer is done thinking, done feeling bad, so he just turns his music up louder and keeps his feet in time.

-----

One night, during a commercial break, Jerry asks Spencer if he's getting excited to start school. Spencer entirely forgot about school. He doesn't even know what the date is. He doesn't even know what school he's supposed to be going to. He knows his dad told him all about it, but Spencer can't think of a single detail. Jerry laughs loud, a bright burst that startles Spencer and then Jerry laughs harder.

"Do you even know what the date is today, Spence? Man, I forget what it's like to have the time off." Jerry laughs again, "We've got the registration date for us to go down there and get you enrolled, but I think we still have two or three weeks. Still got plenty of time."

Spencer isn't looking forward to it. He shrugs. "I guess I need to get some new clothes and some supplies, then."

Jerry makes plans with Spencer to get school clothes that weekend. They're up and out of the house by 11, cruising into the city with a list of stores to try. The first stop is one that a co-worker of Jerry's told him about - it's a shop in Boystown called Cram. They find street parking about two blocks away - 'it's like I'm trying to park on the strip!' - and spend the walk talking about what kinds of clothes Spencer is going to look for. They get into Cram, and immediately turn around and go back through the door. Spencer and Jerry look at each other, wide-eyed and red-faced.

"Well," Jerry says, clearing his throat, "I guess I know a lot more about Christopher now than I did before."

And Spencer laughs, because they were sent to a store with a whole section devoted to jock straps and tiny underwear, and he was in there with his dad.

"Boystown probably should have been the first hint," Spencer says. He can still feel his cheeks burning.

Something Old Something New is the fourth store on their list. Jerry waffles around when he sees the exterior, an older shop with a big red 'liquidation' sign, but he parks anyway.

"Bitchin'," Spencer says, urging his dad inside, "a thrift store. So maybe there is somewhere in the city to get a shirt for under 70 bucks." Jerry snorts.

When Spencer goes into the store, he sees that everything is on sale for half off that day, and he figures he should get a few things just because it will be so cheap. He isn't normally a big fan of shopping - back in Vegas, Jean was still buying his clothes. But Spencer knows that this year he's going to have to do his shopping without the help of his mom, so he may as well jump in head first now that he's found a store that isn't too expensive or so awkward for him to be in with his dad. The store is cramped, every possible space filled with some kind of clothing, and Spencer leads Jerry to the men's shirts first. There are golf shirts, work shirts and a few logo t-shirts, but they're all hideously ugly. Jerry and Spencer are playing a game of finding progressively worse shirts when, stuck between a muscle shirt patterned with tiny, dancing frogs and a sweater with a dog on it, Spencer kind of falls in love. The shirt is a soft material, Spencer thinks it must have been worn and washed often. Well-loved. It's a light indigo with rolled sleeves and pearl snaps. It's a medium, but Spencer grabs it to try on anyways, hoping to just barely fit in the too-small shirt. He grabs a few large shirts and jeans in a few different sizes since his height always seems to make pants fit differently depending on the cut.

In the fitting room, the indigo shirt hangs on Spencer like it was tailored for him. Of course, Spencer's been running every day, he must be losing weight, he just - Spencer doesn't see it. Spencer doesn't mean to make losing weight a thing; he's not running in an effort to change his body, and he hadn't really noticed a change at all until now. Right there - wearing a fitted shirt and jeans two sizes smaller than normal, with his short hair moussed back - Spencer sees himself as a totally different person. He's lost weight around his belly, and his legs, now thinner, look impossibly long in dark denim. He looks good, or better than before, at least, and that's not something Spencer has ever said about himself. Spencer doesn't say anything about it to Jerry, doesn't ask if Jerry thinks Spencer is looking thinner, doesn't tell Jerry what size his clothes are. Instead, Spencer just politely leaves all of the clothes that are too big in the go-back pile near the fitting rooms and goes back to find more clothes.

-----

On Ryan's birthday, Spencer tries to call and wish a happy day to his oldest friend. Ryan doesn't answer. Spencer considers leaving a message, but it isn't until he hears the beep that Spencer realizes he doesn't really have much to say. He hangs up, then, and sends a text instead - happy bday, treat urself to some lasertag.

A few hours later, Ryan calls Spencer. There's loud music shaking tinny through the phone, and Spencer figures Ryan must be at a party or a show.

"I wish you were here, man, you'd never believe what just happened to me!" Ryan shouts down the line.

Spencer sits and listens as Ryan tells him about the college guys he met a few weeks ago, about the strip club they dragged Ryan to for his birthday, about getting pulled on stage for a lapdance by three different dancers.

"That's, that's awesome, man. Sounds like a blast," Spencer finally says once Ryan's run out of words. "I'm glad you're having a good night."

Spencer doesn't add "I wish I were there, too", because he doesn't, and he knows that Ryan has always been able to hear straight through Spencer's lies.

-----

The next day - and two days before Spencer's own 18th birthday - he enrolls for his senior year at Lee High School. Jerry takes him down there on a Wednesday evening and they meet with the guidance counselor, Mr. Weekes. Mr. Weekes is tall, tall enough to look imposing except for his crooked tie and grin to match, and Spencer's smile is real when they shake hands.

"So, Spencer," Mr. Weekes says after they sit and he looks through Spencer's transcripts, "it looks like you just have a few classes left to graduate, mostly just electives and an English credit, but you're really close. I'm not sure how they did things back at your old school, but for our seniors who are as close to graduation as you are, we like to offer the option for an early graduation. What that would entail, basically, is that you would be here for most of the day for your elective classes and we would set you up with an alternative AP English class that you could take online or through homework packets, whichever you would like to do. Assuming you chose to go with the early graduation. If not, you can go the full year and you'll just have a shorter schedule."

Jerry smiles brightly at Mr. Weekes. Spencer thinks his dad looks impressed. It's a little bit embarrassing.

"What happens if I graduate early?"

"Well," Mr. Weekes draws out the word and opens his eyes impossibly wide, "you would, uh, be done with school sooner. It's a good choice for those students who want to get school over with and plan on working or starting at a community college right after graduation. Some 4-year schools look down on it, but if you keep up your great GPA, get a good score on your SATs and maybe pick up a few extracurriculars, then I don't really see that being to big of an issue. I can let you guys talk it over, but I need to know in order to get you started for the year"

Spencer hasn't put a single thought into college before these last few months, he had always thought that Ryan would finally send their demo to the right person and they would be famous rock stars before they ever had to worry about things like graduating from college and getting real jobs. But now that the idea is staring him in the face, there's nothing that Spencer could want any less.

"Early." Spencer says, and Mr. Weekes nods, asking Jerry if he's okay with the idea.

"If Spencer is up to it, I support him."

"Then it is so!" Mr. Weekes reaches out to high five Spencer from across the table. Spencer obliges.

-----

The morning that Spencer turns eighteen, he wakes up to his phone ringing with a call from his mom and the twins. The twins scream happy birthday at him, making him laugh, and his mom tells him that she pitched in with Jerry to buy Spencer's gift. It makes Spencer's chest sting a little to think about, so he pushes the stinging aside and thinks giftgiftgiftgift. Spencer tells her and the girls how much he loves them, that he misses them all and can't wait to visit them, and he goes to find his dad. Jerry is sitting at the kitchen table reading the paper with a mug of coffee in his hand. He smiles when Spencer comes into the room, puts his coffee and newspaper down, and stands up to hug Spencer.

"Happy birthday, son, welcome to adulthood." Jerry says, squeezing Spencer tight. Spencer clings just a little too long, wishing he could give his mom a hug today, too, and he hopes that she can feel that hug somehow, despite the miles between them. After they part, Jerry tells Spencer to take a seat, then makes Spencer a cup of coffee. Jerry grabs a plate and reaches into the bakery box on the counter. Jerry pulls out a muffin and places it on the plate, puts a single candle in the muffin, and then he lights it; Spencer laughs, because of course his dorky dad would do this.

"Close your eyes and make a wish!" Jerry calls out, putting the muffin plate in front of Spencer. Spencer does as he's told. When he opens his eyes, with the word home still echoing around in his brain, Jerry is holding a key ring up. "Happy birthday," Jerry grins, "from your mom and me. We hope you like it." Spencer sputters. He stands up and grabs the key from his dad, his jaw dropping as he goes outside to see if his dad is playing with him, if the key really just goes to a trunk or a toy car or is maybe made out of chocolate. It's none of the above.

Parked in the driveway is a car that Spencer has never seen before. It's hideously boxy, an old gold Volvo with a scratch on the driver's side door and a spot on the hood where the paint has chipped. Spencer knows that if anyone else were driving this car he would hate it, but with the key cutting into his palm from how tightly he's holding it, Spencer feels a little bit in love. His grin is hurting his cheeks, and it's not until Jerry is standing next to him that Spencer thinks to hug him and thank him over and over and over. Jerry can't stop smiling either as he watches Spencer climb into the driver's seat.

They go for a short drive around the neighborhood, then come back so Spencer can eat his breakfast and open the other gifts his dad has for him. ("Dad, this is too much," Spencer says, trying to hand the card back to his dad. Jerry doesn't budge. "You only turn 18 once," Jerry says, "Enjoy it while you can") After opening cards from Jerry and a couple of long-distance relatives, there's $350 in cash and gift cards in Spencer's wallet, and Jerry is urging Spencer to get dressed and take his new car out on the town. Spencer asks Jerry to come with, but Jerry winks and says "Don't you want to get some 18 year old things?" and Spencer is far, far too red to ask again.

Spencer is standing in the middle of the DVDs at Best Buy when he gets a text from Ryan. It says happy b day old chum, and Spencer says thx. It makes him feel sad, suddenly, that he's spending his birthday hanging out by himself. Spencer leaves the store without buying anything. He gets to his car, unlocks it and sits in the driver's seat. Minutes pass with Spencer trying to blink back the burning in his eyes and tightness in his throat. Eventually, he starts up the car and drives away, stopping on the way home to pick up some pizza and wings for him and his dad. Jerry is surprised when Spencer comes home early. Spencer just shrugs Jerry off, telling him, "I figured I would have more fun back here with you." Jerry must sense something in the tone of Spencer's voice, or maybe he can read it all over Spencer's face, but either way, Jerry drops the issue. Instead, Jerry turns on the TV, flipping through the channels until he finds something with a car chase, and then settles on the couch to eat. Spencer is grateful for it, grateful for his dad in a way that he can't really describe other than how it runs so deeply through his bones.

-----

The first day of school, Spencer wakes up early to go for a run, hoping it will help him work the knots out of his stomach. Spencer has always been smart, he's always excelled in school, but being the chubby kid with a weird sense of humor has never really helped make school easy for him. In Nevada, Spencer spent his lunches alone, mostly, unless he felt like sitting in the band room and listening in on the drumline kids and their inside jokes. In Chicago, Spencer is hoping to just coast through his days for the next four months until he graduates. He's used to being alone at school, and he's not expecting anyone to pay any more attention to him now, either. Spencer gets home from his run energized, but it doesn't do anything to change the way he dreads the start of the school year. Spencer gets into the shower, sighing, trying to push the thoughts out of his head. He gets ready for his day, styling his hair and wearing his new clothes, hoping that he can at least not have a terrible first day of the school year. He drives to school in his new car, parks in the student lot and grabs his backpack from the passenger seat before getting out. "This is it," Spencer sighs, getting out of the car to make his way into the building so he can get his schedule and find his class.

His first class is Photography. There are already kids sitting at some of the computers that are lined up against the wall near the door, and there's a smattering of round tables with mis-matched chairs in the middle of the room. Spencer takes a seat at an empty table and looks around the room. There are two separate doors branching off the back of the room. The one on the left is brightly lit, and he can see a rainbow of curtains on a track down a side wall. The other is dark; the only light is a solitary red bulb glowing from somewhere within, and the walls, ceiling and floor all painted black. On the walls of the main room are prints of different famous portraits, some blocks of text on printed papers; there's a filmstrip painted on the wall, winding itself around the whole room before it ribbons down and disappears into the ground. A few more people filter into the room, and then the bell rings. Spencer has officially started the first day of his senior year.

A disheveled guy at one of the computers stands up. He walks to the small desk in front of a whiteboard, his flip flops slapping the ground every step of the way, and Spencer turns in his seat in time to see the guy smile a huge grin. It's more maniacal than happy.

"Hi!" he says in a loud burst. "This is my first year teaching, and you guys are my first class, so hello, how are you? I'm Jon Walker, but you should probably just call me Mr. Walker. I'm going to hand out your syllabus, let you read it on your own for a minute, and then we'll start talking shop. And by shop, I definitely mean photography." Mr. Walker waggles his hands in an abortive little gesture that Spencer is pretty sure was supposed to be jazz hands, then he picks up a stack of neon paper and starts passing them out. Spencer wonders if Mr. Walker and his guidance counselor Mr. Weekes know each other, and if they don't already know each other, Spencer thinks that they'll maybe become best friends at the next faculty meeting. That, or maybe every adult in Chicago is just fucking weird.

Spencer looks at his bright green paper; there are stars scribbled in the margins and a list of assignments and due dates. There are 8 total assignments written on the paper, and Spencer is pretty happy with what seems like a fairly simple, light load. After a minute of silence, a few of the people around the room start to chatter, and Mr. Walker grabs an easel and goes back to the whiteboard. He sets the easel up with some difficulty - he nearly knocks it over at one point before he rights it, then grins sheepishly up at the class. Mr. Walker pulls a poster-sized print from under the desk and sets it on the easel. It's that shot of a naked John Lennon wrapped around a clothed Yoko Ono that Spencer always used to see in the hipster record stores and coffee shops Ryan would drag him through.

"This photo is one of my favorites, it's of John Lennon and Yoko Ono and was taken by Annie Leibovitz. It's one of her more iconic photographs; that's due in part to the fact that Ms. Leibovitz took this just hours before John Lennon was shot and killed, but also because of the emotion it evokes from the viewer. The first time I saw this print was on an old cover of Rolling Stone that my oldest brother kept in a frame in our house when we were growing up, and there was something about it that made me feel so, so sad. I still feel that way today looking at this print, a melancholy so deep that it's hard to explain. Very few photographs have an emotional depth to them, but that's part of what I hope you will learn through this class, how to put yourself and your words and your heart all into an image. Everyone knows the phrase 'a picture is worth a thousand words', everyone has felt that before, so here's your first homework assignment: tonight, you're going to go home and find your favorite picture. It can be of your family pet or a print of Ansel Adams' Pine Forest in Snow, whatever you want, but it has to be your favorite for a reason. Tomorrow, we'll have everyone come up and share their pictures, I want you to come up here and give us the title, photographer and a few sentences about what it means to you."

Spencer sighs. There goes the idea of coasting through this class. Mr. Walker is kind of endearing, though, and Spencer figures finding a picture to bring in won't be that hard. Mr. Walker spends the next few minutes talking about himself: what college he went to, what neighborhood he grew up in, his favorite restaurants. Spencer thinks it would maybe be more interesting if he had an idea of what any of them were. The bell rings while Mr. Walker is still talking, and he just smiles wide and says he'll see everyone tomorrow. Spencer is pretty sure he's going to like having Mr. Walker.

The rest of Spencer's day goes by quickly. His classes aren't bad and the school isn't too hard to navigate, and Spencer knows that things could definitely be worse. Spencer finally makes it to his last class of the day, Creative Writing (which he mostly took just because he knew Ryan would love to help Spencer with assignments) and that's when things take a turn for the weird. The class is packed, nearly every desk is taken already by the time Spencer gets there, and the sound of everyone talking at once is overwhelming. Spencer's other classes had been relatively small and mostly quiet and it throws him off for a moment. He grabs the nearest empty seat, and Spencer feels more foreign in that moment than he ever has in his life. The teacher is a wisp of an old woman, her grey hair has thinned enough that Spencer can see straight through to her scalp, and Spencer can't help but think that she probably smells like sawdust. He screws his face up, grossed out by the thought, then quickly forces his face back to normal.

The teacher, Mrs. Heinz, passes out a few papers and tells them to enjoy the rest of the hour as a free period. He's not really sure why they would need to have a free period on the first day of school, but everyone else in the room seems relieved to not have to read through paperwork or play yet another inane 'get to know you' game. Spencer pulls a book out of his backpack and starts reading. Spencer is just starting to get into his book when a bright blue nail on a pale finger taps directly on the page that Spencer is reading. He is startled, and looks up to find a girl turned around in the chair in front of him, staring directly at him with a smirk.

"That," she says, voice rich as velvet, "is my favorite book ever." Spencer closes the book, using his finger as a bookmark, and looks at the cover. Survivor it says, with a small airplane careening down an orange and black background. It's some Palahniuk novel that Ryan gave him for Christmas last year, but Spencer never cared enough about it to pick it up before. Spencer had tossed it in his backpack the night before, trying to ensure he had something to occupy him in case there was any downtime in classes. He's glad he grabbed it, now.

"Yeah," Spencer lies, "mine too."

"What's your favorite part?" the girl asks, and Spencer is ready for this.

"When he's on the bus with the guy cracking jokes behind him." Spencer hasn't even read that far in the book yet, but he knows every single plot point in every single pretentious, hipster novel thanks to the years of friendship between him and Ryan. Spencer should maybe feel bad about lying, but the girl's emerald green eyes light up when he says it, and he can't think of a single reason to stop. Maybe he would feel bad later, or maybe, a tiny voice says inside his head, maybe you would feel bad if you actually knew why you were doing it.

"Hollie," the girl states, holding her hand out for Spencer to shake, "and you're Spencer. My friends tell me you're new here."

It isn't until then that Spencer notices the group of girls all looking over at them. He blushes and looks away, but all he can hear now is the giggling and whispering from across the room. Hollie leans forward then, and whispers, "You're fucking cute when you blush, Spencer." Hollie smirks at him, her grin fucking devious, and Spencer wonders how a girl like this ever even noticed him.

By the time the bell rings, Spencer knows all about Hollie. He knows why she uses boxed black-blue dye on her hair ("My mom does hair and it makes her rage!" Hollie crowed) her favorite music ("I like feeling like I'm all alone, like there's no one here but me") her plans for the future ("I turn 18 in a month, and then I'm out of here. I've got some friends that'll let me stay with them on the South side, I already have some money put aside") and her complete lack of apathy ("I just don't give a fuck"). Spencer doesn't know that he's actually told her anything about himself, but she still grins nonetheless when she shoves her phone into his hand, asking him to put his number in.

Spencer calls Ryan when he gets home. Surprisingly, Ryan answers his phone. Spencer sits on the couch, channel surfing while he talks at Ryan about his first day. He tells Ryan all about how they didn't put him in band, about how weird and quiet everyone was, how everything was so bland right up until he met Hollie.

"Are you going to ask her out?" Ryan asks. Spencer can hear Ryan crunching on something down the phone line. It's ice or chips, something loud, and Spencer lets it distract him from the question. Ryan asks again, and Spencer sighs.

"I dunno," Spencer clicks his tongue. "She's kind of more up your alley. Just, you know, with black hair and all that." Ryan laughs, but it doesn't make the statement any less true to Spencer. Spencer has spent his whole life being a supporting actor, he's not so sure he could actually win the girl if he tried. And, really, Spencer wonders if this girl is really the one he would want to be winning, anyway. Spencer hasn't had a crush in a while, and has never even had a girlfriend - in truth, he's only kissed three girls, and two of them were during party games - but when he thinks about it, in an abstract sense, he always pictures someone soft-spoken and sweet-tempered.

Spencer changes the subject, "How was school, what have you been doing?"

Ryan tells Spencer about this guy Brendon that he met through Brent ("Brent? From middle school?" Spencer asks, "Yeah..." Ryan tells him. Spencer can hear the 'duh.' hanging between them.) Brendon apparently is totally funny and a great musician and he has all of these really great t-shirts with biblical quotations that Ryan wants to steal and wear ironically to shows. Spencer doesn't think this Brendon guy sounds that great, but Spencer is happy that there's at least someone back in Vegas to keep Ryan grounded when he gets too self-loathing. There's a lightness in Spencer's chest when he thinks about it, about the fact that he doesn't have to worry about Ryan's mood swings now that he's too far away to actually do anything to help.

They talk for a few more minutes before Ryan mumbles something away from the phone, making someone laugh loud and long in the background, and then Ryan tells Spencer he'll call back, that he has to go. Spencer wonders who Ryan is with, why Ryan didn't say anything about having plans. Spencer puts his phone down with a sigh. He flips through the channels for a while longer, but nothing is making him happy. Spencer huffs, turns the TV off, and drags his backpack to his room. He has a few assignments from school that he can work on until his dad gets home.

-----

Mr. Walker calls on Spencer first to share his favorite photograph. Spencer grabs the printed sheet from his backpack and heads to the front of the room. It's one he found while browsing the internet the night before, and it resonated somewhere deep inside his chest. Spencer saw the shot of the night sky and immediately was taken back, back to memories of family camping trips to Colorado when he was little, the smell of pine and the sharpness of fresh air in his lungs. "This makes me feel young, like I'm small in the world and in the universe, and like there's nothing that I have to worry about. Um. I like the way the trees are on the bottom, otherwise the picture could be from any other place in the universe, but with the trees, you know that the photographer was on the ground." Spencer shrugs. He never was as eloquent as speaker as other people he knew, he never was a poet like Ryan. Mr. Walker's smile is soft as he nods, says "Thank you", and Spencer takes his seat. There are a lot of artist-types in his class, wrapped in scarves and cardigans, and after 6 black-and-white super-sweet-in-action shots of rock stars or skateboarders in a row, Spencer feels. He doesn't know the word. Maybe dignified. Maybe more profound than anyone else in this room.

And then a boy shows the class a picture of a post-war country, says "My grandpa took this picture from my grandparent's home before they came to the United States," and Spencer feels the almost physical shove of the world putting him back in his place.

When he walks into his Creative Writing class, Hollie shouts out "Spencer!" and waves, pointing to an empty seat directly in front of hers. Spencer sits, smiling awkwardly back at the group of girls surrounding him. He recognizes a few of them from the day before, but there are definitely more today than yesterday. He feels like he's the bait in some weird shark tank, only there are overly-bleached teeth instead of sharpened double rows, home dye jobs instead of fins. When the teacher starts talking, everyone looks to the front of the room, forgetting all about Spencer for now. He rolls his eyes in relief and faces front.

-----

A few weeks go by, and Spencer gets into the swing of things. The days go by quickly for Spencer, and he finds himself falling into a routine. His mornings always start with a run, then Spencer goes home to get ready for school.

Photo class with Mr. Walker quickly becomes his second favorite time of the day, falling just behind his morning routine. Spencer never cared much for art before, but there's something about setting up a shot, about the developing that comes after, that makes the art of photography so fulfilling. It makes Spencer feel proud - like the way he used to feel when he would perfect a beat he'd been practicing on his drums. It feels like an accomplishment. Spencer spends nearly all period one day developing and re-devolping a print for a portrait assignment, trying different filters and different exposure times trying to get the depth perfect. The portrait itself is nothing special, it's of some girl that Spencer had gotten partnered up with for their class - he doesn't know her name, but her gums showed when she smiled so Spencer had asked her to close her mouth. Spencer has the print sitting on the desk in front of him once it's dried, looking at the girl who is staring directly at the camera, no trace of a smile or frown on her face. Mr. Walker comes to stand behind Spencer. Mr. Walker circles his fingers around the eyes of the portrait.

"It's all about the eyes. If you take a portrait of someone, and you can tell their emotions just by looking at their eyes, then you're doing it right."

"Am I? Doing it right?" Spencer asks, not sure if it's a question someone else can answer for him, not sure if it's something he wants someone else to answer for him.

Mr. Walker nods though, one side of his mouth quirking into a half-smile, "I think you can definitely get there, Spencer."

-----

Somewhere along the way, Hollie becomes Spencer's maybe-kinda-but-not-really girlfriend. They don't go on dates, and they don't touch, but it seems like Spencer can't go longer than ten minutes without hearing from her or seeing her most days. Spencer can't even pretend like he doesn't love the attention, he's just not so sure about how he feels about the girl giving him all of the attention. To Spencer, Hollie is still mostly just this loud, crass girl with too much of an attitude for how many fucks she tries to say she doesn't give. It's mostly unattractive to Spencer, but like a car crash, Spencer just can't look away.

Hollie had asked for a ride home one of the first days he had known her, and, somehow, Spencer is now picking her up on the way to school every morning and driving her home after school every afternoon. Spencer feels like she finagled all of his time away, but he's not really sure where else he would be, what else he would have to do, if he weren't spending so much time with Hollie.

Spencer goes home every day after dropping Hollie off, and he sits in the quiet and tried to get him homework done. Spencer gets himself into the habit of turning his phone off, leaving the house lights off, and not turning on the TV or any music until his dad gets home. Spencer is starting to enjoy the clarity that the quiet brings.

Spencer always eats dinner with his dad. They always end up watching game shows on TV for a few hours before bed, laughing at the smiling hosts who announce the next horrible challenge for the player. On a Sunday night in September, when Spencer and Jerry are talking about how they could definitely win The Amazing Race, Spencer's phone beeps with a picture. He opens it and there's a topless Hollie; she's got one hand covering her chest, her lip is sucked between her teeth, and her darkly made-up eyes are half-closed. Spencer stares - never has a girl ever sent him a picture like this. Spencer doesn't know what to do with the picture, so he closes out of the message and hold his phone against his thigh. Barely a minute passes before his phone buzzes, then again, and again. Spencer opens the text messages, palms damp. All three messages are from Hollie; all three messages are explicit. The words she uses are filthy enough that Spencer can feel his cheeks burning, more embarrassed than turned on. He's not used to attention, especially not attention like this. Spencer doesn't know what to say to her, so he doesn't say anything at all. He thumbs out of the messages, tucks his phone into his pocket instead, and pretends to not feel the messages that come after.

After school the next day, Hollie follows Spencer out of the school and all the way to his car in the parking lot. He tries to tell her more than once that he's got stuff to do at home, but Hollie refuses to take no for an answer. She climbs into the passenger seat and pouts, she asks Spencer if he knows what happens when a pretty girl like her has to hitchhike home. He sighs at that, turning the key in the ignition, and she starts shuffling through the songs on his mp3 player. She does it every day, plays DJ while Spencer drives, but today Spencer wants to slap her hands away and turn the radio off. Hollie lives in a beautiful house in an upscale neighborhood, and it isn't a very far drive from school. Spencer parks in front of her house and he is caught off guard when Hollie leans over and kisses him - though, really, after the text messages she had sent him, he should have been expecting a lot more than a kiss. She slides her hands into his hair, whispers right against his lips "You're so hot, Spencer, I can't even control myself", and then his hands are at her waist. Spencer kisses Hollie back, letting her take the lead, and she keeps making these soft, soft noises. With his eyes squeezed shut, Spencer can forget who it is that he's kissing, can forget the evil glint in her eyes and her sharp words, and just enjoy it. It's nice. He doesn't know how long they're parked there in front of her house, but a knocking on the window breaks them apart. Spencer looks up, and a beautiful woman with wavy auburn hair is glaring into the car. Hollie huffs out something about her mom, then gets out of Spencer's car. She slams the door behind her and starts shouting at the woman, who in turn puts her fists on her hips and leans in towards Hollie. Spencer turns the key and speeds away, hoping like hell Hollie's mom hadn't been sitting there watching the entire time.

Spencer texts Ryan about it, still high on the adrenaline that coursed through his body as he tried to flee the scene. it wasn't much he tells Ryan, just some kissing, but the thrill of getting caught makes it better, turns Spencer on more than the act itself did. Spencer gets a text and he opens it automatically, thinking that it's Ryan. It isn't. The text is from Hollie, and it says ur amazing. Spencer isn't sure what this girl's deal is, but he just can't think of a reason to push her away, so he doesn't. He also can't think of a single thing to text back to her, so he doesn't do that either.

Spencer's phone, surprisingly, is silent for the rest of the night.

-----

Even without everything that's happening with Hollie, Spencer's senior year is... weird. Weird is a good word to describe it. No longer that ugly, chubby kid, Spencer has become kind of a big deal at his new school. It's not something he tries to do, and it's not something that Spencer acknowledges, but he can't deny the fact that there are all of these people who are suddenly interested in him. He tells himself that it's because he's new, but, really, Spencer knows it's because he's thinned out, knows that his haircut and new clothes and quiet demeanor add to his appeal, knows that if he was like this back in Vegas that he would have the exact same reaction. It makes him more self-conscious than ever, and he pushes all of the false friends away. They don't leave Spencer alone - instead, Spencer hears rumors whispered through the hallways about how he doesn't need anyone, how he's got people elsewhere. He doesn't know how true that is anymore, but it makes Spencer think sure, fuck 'em all. He considers wearing a shirt that says something like Rebel or Lone Wolf, but he doesn't think anyone would get the joke. If anything, it would probably just make him more popular.

-----

On Friday, Jerry and Spencer decide to treat themselves to a guy's night out; it started at a comic shop and ended with yogurt. Jerry had asked Spencer about Hollie - not directly, just asked about the girl that Spencer's always talking to, and Spencer said nothing was happening, that it wasn't like that - and then Jerry asked Spencer about school.

"There's that photo thing," Spencer told his dad, aiming for nonchalant and landing somewhere around completely uninterested.

"What do you mean, photo thing?" Jerry asks. They're sitting at a small table in the frozen yogurt shop, sharing a bowl of raspberry swirl, and Spencer stares at the pink spoon in his hands when he answers. He doesn't know why this is hard for him to bring up.

"Well," Spencer starts, "I really like it." Spencer shrugs.

"That's great," Jerry smiles, brows half-knit, "but what's the problem with that?"

"I just. I really like it." Spencer fiddles with his spoon, trailing it around the rim of their yogurt bowl. "I like my teacher and I love the class, and I'm really starting to like being behind a camera. I don't know. I, I think I want to keep doing it."

Jerry is silent for a minute - Spencer can tell that his dad is choosing his words carefully before speaking them. "Is this something you'd like to look into? I can help you, if you'd like." Jerry waits patiently for Spencer to reply. It's one of the things Spencer loves most about his dad, the way that he's always letting Spencer feel like he's in control of his own life. Despite being 18, Spencer still feels very much a kid, and he thinks that Jerry knows it.

"Yeah." Spencer finally says, "Do you think it would be a good idea to sign up for some courses after I graduate?"

"If that's what you're interested in, then I think it's a great idea." Jerry smiles. Spencer is so, so grateful in that moment to have always had his dad.

Jerry suggests that Spencer ask Mr. Walker about it (actually, Jerry suggests that he schedule a meeting with Mr. Walker, and when Spencer turns pink and says "Dad, no", Jerry suggests that Spencer talk to him at school one day), so Spencer does. It takes Spencer a few days to work up the courage, and then a few more days until there's a good opportunity for Spencer to actually hang late after class and speak with Mr. Walker. Mr. Walker lights up when Spencer says he's interested in pursuing photography.

Mr. Walker says, "One of the things I love about photography is that it is such an amazing, expansive career field. There's commercial photography, you can do portraits or freelance work, you can be a teacher." Mr. Walker grins wide at that one and waggles his eyebrows until Spencer smiles. "Are you thinking of portrait photography, or are you wanting to just try a little bit of everything?"

"I don't know," Spencer tells him, "I'm not too big on the, like, landscape stuff. I like the stuff we've done with portraits. I like developing."

"I know a lot of people around town. I grew up and went to school in Chicagoland, so I can help you try to find a college or maybe a part time job in the industry if you'd like."

Yeah, Spencer would like.

Mr. Walker gets Spencer's email address and tells him to keep an eye out, that he'll be sending some information Spencer's way.

-----

Spencer texts Ryan i think i want to go to college for photo. He doesn't get an answer. He wasn't really expecting one, either.

Three days later, Spencer gets a picture message of Ryan and some other guys crowded around a drum kit - the text says panic at the disco. Spencer's chest hurts, and he can't help but send a text back to Ryan. All it says is the name sux. Ryan, predictably, doesn't respond.

-----

Saturday morning, there is an email in Spencer's inbox from Dylan Walker, Esq., and the subject line reads "Awesome Chicago College Stuff". Spencer clicks it open, and is actually surprised to find a list of colleges in the tri-state area, ranked in order by their photography and art programs, with a link to each school's website. There's also an attachment, a fuzzy, monochromatic flyer for a show the next weekend. The flyer lists a half dozen bands that Spencer doesn't recognize, and they're playing an 18+ venue he doesn't know. Spencer thinks he was maybe not supposed to get the flyer, so he ignores it. Spencer starts clicking the links Mr. Walker sent, taking mental notes as he goes so he can talk with his dad about it all later.

Jerry thinks it's great that Spencer is starting to get excited about a career. Or that he's at least interested enough to start doing his own research. ("There's nothing wrong with not going to college," Jerry had told Spencer one night, right after Spencer started the school year, "but if you think it's something for you, then you shouldn't let anything hold you back. You're only young once." Spencer tried to not let it sink in, didn't want to think about any of the regrets his dad may carry around.) Jerry tells Spencer that any path Spencer chooses, Jerry will be there to help. Spencer doesn't know how to thank his dad for being so constant in his life, for being a better dad than Spencer deserves, so Spencer doesn't say anything.

-----

October starts, and Hollie turns eighteen. Spencer spends the entire day answering calls from her, listening to her beg him to take her out. Spencer tells her he's not feeling well, tells her they can do something the following weekend, and she finally lets it go. Spencer has no intentions of following up on the promise.

True to her word, though, Hollie doesn't come back to school after her birthday. She sends Spencer a text Monday morning no ride today. movin out fuck yah. Spencer doesn't text her back, he doesn't tell her that she can have fun working at McDonald's, doesn't let her know how stupid he thinks it is to rebel just for the sake of it. Instead, Spencer spends his drive to school sitting alone, soaking in the silence, and hoping that he doesn't have to deal with her shitty friends in class today. He doesn't. Hollie's entire group of friends are all absent from school, and for the first time since the first day of the school year, Spencer gets to be alone.

Hollie calls Spencer every night that week, and on Saturday he finally gives in and goes to her new place. It's a shithole apartment in the worst neighborhood, and Spencer feels embarrassed for her - he can't imagine anyone choosing a life of poverty. Spencer asks Hollie if it makes her feel weird, choosing to live somewhere where people are truly struggling to have a home and a meal since she's just here as some form of protest against growing up above the poverty line. She laughs, like what Spencer said is fucking cute or something, and he's never detested anyone more. When Hollie slides into Spencer's lap and kisses him, though, he doesn't stop her. He wonders if that makes him a fucking hypocrite or if it just makes him a human. He pushes his thoughts away and gets lost in the push and pull of lips against each other, lets himself stop thinking about everything and just focus on the soft hands on his skin.

Spencer loses his virginity to Hollie that night. It doesn't last long. They're tucked into her bed after, her head is on his shoulder and her lips are pressed to his chest. Hollie drags her fingers across Spencer's stomach and whispers softly "I love you". Spencer's stomach drops, he wants to be anywhere else but here in this bed with a girl who means nothing to him. Spencer makes an excuse, he says his dad wants him home that night, and then he gets out of her bed and gets dressed. As he's leaving, Spencer tells her he'll call her in the morning. He doesn't. Hollie sends Spencer a few texts that next day, then after six days of silence, he gets one more from her. Her last text just says fine, fuck u too u fucking prick. Spencer can't bring himself to feel bad about it, no matter how hard he thinks about it - which, to be honest, isn't very hard at all. He's really glad she's not at school anymore.

-----

Towards the end of October, Spencer is at a record shop when a curvy blond girl walks up to him and compliments him on his hair. The girl is wearing a Saves the Day shirt and has fishnets on under her skirt, and Spencer thinks yeah, okay. Spencer stands there talking to the girl - Amy, he finds out - for close to half an hour before she leans in and says "Hey, so my friends are throwing this thing tonight-" and Spencer says yeah, sure, okay, whatever. It turns out to be the trashiest of house parties, with a keg of beer in the backyard and half-naked girls kissing each other in the kitchen while a group of guys stand around catcalling. Spencer thought these parties only existed in movies; the parties he and Ryan had gone to in Vegas usually were just 20 people and a few cans of beer that someone would pull from the fridge. Ryan had issues with alcohol, though, which meant that Spencer had never had a drink at a party. Sure, there was wine at family dinners on holidays for Spencer, but he'd never really drank before, had never really had the chance to get drunk.

Now, with Ryan so far away, Spencer thinks there's nothing holding him back.

Spencer and Amy stay in the backyard most of the night, filling their cups from the keg and slowly getting closer as they talk. Spencer is feeling fuzzy, light-hearted like he hasn't been in months, and he leans in to kiss Amy. She lets him kiss her, then puts her hand on his chest and gently pushes him back to look at his face. "Spencer," Amy sighs, "I really like you, but I don't do random hook ups. If you're interested, I need you to be interested."

"I am," Spencer whispers, "I am, I am." He kisses her again, this time pulling her face into his hands, and Amy kisses back in earnest. Amy pulls back and unzips Spencer's pants, and Spencer helps guide her mouth where he wants it. He finishes silently, tucking himself back into his pants as Amy wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. He says thank you, says he's going to go find a bathroom, tells Amy he'll come right back outside.

He doesn't.

Spencer drives himself home tipsy, focusing entirely on keeping his car between the lines of the road; when he makes it home in one piece, Spencer smiles. He makes his way into his bedroom, lays down fully-clothed on top of the blankets, and falls asleep fast. The next morning, Spencer wakes up with a sour, metallic taste in his mouth and his head is pounding. Spencer remembers nearly everything about the night before, and he wishes he could talk to someone about it, talk about how fucking fun it was to be drunk and stupid. There's no one for Spencer to talk to; instead, Spencer just strips down to his underwear, tucks himself into his bed and goes back to sleep.

He wakes up again when Jerry knocks on Spencer's door. Spencer can hear his dad's voice muffled through the wood, asking if Spencer is feeling alright.

"Great," Spencer calls out, "just tired." Spencer pulls himself out of bed, pushes down the wave of nausea that comes, and stumbles to open the door for his dad. "What do you want to do for dinner?"

They get Thai food and Spencer forces it down, still feeling sick to his stomach. Jerry and Spencer get wrapped up in The Bachelor, laughing at the girl who is trying to teach Ben how to high kick like a Rockette, and Spencer goes to bed that night without thinking about the girl from the party again.

-----

Mr. Walker pulls Spencer aside one day in the middle of class right when Spencer is cropping a print.

"Hey, so, don't let anyone hear about this or anything," Mr. Walker whispers, too loud for a secret but still quiet enough to not be overheard in the mostly-empty room, "but I have some friends who are looking for ---" Mr. Walker stops and squints at Spencer. "How old are you Spencer?"

"Eighteen?" Spencer tells him. It sounds like a question, even to Spencer's ears, so when Mr. Walker raises an eyebrow Spencer says, "Eighteen. My birthday was in September."

"Okay, okay, that's what I thought. So my friends are looking for a guy to do a photoshoot for their band, and I told them I would ask around. What do you think, would you be interested? It won't be a paying gig or anything, it's mostly as a favor for me, but it's free pictures for you to start a portfolio with if you're interested. And I'd let you borrow a camera if you need one."

"I. Yeah, okay," is what Spencer says. In his head, he's doing a victory dance.

"Awesome, awesome," Mr. Walker breaks into a smile, "I can email you all of the information if you want?"

Spencer agrees.

-----

A new email is in his inbox that very night; Spencer clicks on 'Contacts and such, &c and things' from Dylan Walker, Esq., and tries to not judge Mr. Walker based on his email subjects alone. There's a phone number followed by "Tommy, but call him Tom", and then another number with "Max but he's a jerk sometimes if you call when he's at work".

Spencer dials the first number with shaking hands, presses the phone to his ear and tries not to throw up.

"Yeah," a man says.

"Hi, uh, my name is Spencer, I'm looking for Tom ---"

"You're the kid for the shoot, right?"

"Yes?"

"Awesome, we've been trying to find someone for a long time. Jonny says he's busy with school and stuff, so, you know," Spencer makes a noise, just a small one of agreement and sits and listens to Tom talk about Jonny, which turns into a rant about Sean and Max and Empires, and by the time Spencer gets off the phone with Tom, they have made no plans whatsoever for any kind of photoshoot. Spencer has no idea what just happened to him.

-----

The next day at school, Mr. Walker asks Spencer if he got the email. Spencer must roll his eyes or make a face because Mr. Walker starts laughing.

"Right?!" Mr. Walker laughs out, "they can be a bit much. I would have warned you, but I didn't know whether you'd go through with calling or not."

Which, fair enough, Spencer really would not have called if he was told in advance what kind of phone call he was going to have. He has no regrets now, though, so that's something. Spencer tells Mr. Walker that even though he had called Tom, they hadn't made plans for a photoshoot yet, and Mr. Walker shrugs it off.

"You'll hear from him again soon enough."

"He kept saying all these names, Max and Sean and Jonny, and I have no idea who any of these people are," Spencer tells him, "I'm a little worried."

"I'm Jon!" Mr. Walker laughs, shaking his head a little, rolling his eyes, "Tom's my best friend."

"Oh," Spencer says, confused by the emails he's been getting, "then who's Dylan?"

Mr. Walker smiles wide and pulls his phone out of his pocket, showing Spencer his lock screen while he laughs. "Dylan Walker, Esq. is a cat?"

"A very smart cat. And also very cute."

Fucking Chicago, Spencer thinks. Everyone here is so weird.

-----

True to what Mr. Walker - Jon, apparently - said, Spencer gets a call from Tom early the next morning. He's in the middle of his run, so Spencer doesn't feel his phone go off. Spencer gets home, showers, gets ready and goes to his car to call Tom back.

"Fucking Starbucks," is how Tom answers the phone, "I hate that people want coffee at like, fucking dawn and shit." Spencer hears shuffling down the phone line, then Tom shouts out that he's the manager, he's going on a break.

"Sorry I missed your call," Spencer tells him, "I was out for a run. What's up?"

"Runner, huh? Are you like, all healthy?" Tom sounds genuinely curious.

"Nah, not really. It's just something I do."

"Huh," Tom clicks his tongue, "so what else do you do? Talk me through my break, Spencer, these fifteen minutes are all yours."

And Spencer may laugh then, but he does as he's told. Spencer tells Tom about Vegas, which Tom thinks is a great city, apparently, and about music he loves and drumming and his new found love for cameras, which is something else that Tom apparently thinks is great. It's closer to 20 minutes before they get off the phone - Spencer is already parked in the school parking lot, looking around at the yellowed leaves on the trees near his school when they finally hang up. Spencer opens his car door and breathes in deep. He grabs his backpack and heads into the school.

-----

Spencer gets invited to a Halloween party by some girl in his Trig class, and he goes just so he has something to do. He doesn't wear a costume, just pulls on his dark wash jeans and a button-down, and walks to the party since it's only two blocks from his house.

Spencer can hear the music from the end of the block, and by the time he gets to the house itself, Spencer is surprised to see that there's maybe only thirty people there. There's a table in the front room with drinks on it, and Spencer grabs a can of beer, popping the tab and taking a huge pull from it as soon as it's in his hand. It's warm, and has clearly just been sitting on the table since it was brought to the house, but Spencer chugs it anyway. He gags a little, towards the end, and decides to switch to liquor instead. He wants to get drunk tonight, thinks that maybe he'll have a better time if he does, so he fills his Solo cup half-way with alcohol and tops it off with Pepsi.

It tastes horrible. Spencer drinks it all anyway, hand braced on the table while he tips his head back to finish what's in the cup.

He's still at the table, trying to figure out what to mix next, when a girl with big pink hair comes up beside him. He can smell her, all cheap cotton candy perfume and cigarettes, but he thinks maybe, maybe.

"Hey," Spencer calls out, "I like your hair."

He doesn't, he just thinks that's the kind of thing she'd like to hear.

"Awe, thanks, sweetie," she says, smiling at him and moving closer, putting her hand on his arm, "I'm Bunny."

It takes everything in Spencer to not roll his eyes at her.

"Spencer," he tells her, then, "You want to get out of here with me?"

Her eyes get wide for just a fracture of a second, then she bats her long, fake eyelashes at him, "Sure."

Bunny grabs Spencer by the hand and leads him into a bedroom, pulling him to lay in the bed with her. They make out without turning the light on, and Spencer can taste the alcohol between them. He wonders if he's really that drunk, if Bunny is drunk too, but he pushes the thoughts aside when Bunny pulls back and strips her top off. She's not wearing a bra, and Spencer's hands go immediately for her breasts. He'd done this a few times with Hollie, but the female body is still new enough to Spencer that he's slightly in awe of the fact that a girl is allowing him to touch; he keeps kissing Bunny, hoping that she doesn't make him stop. She doesn't. Instead, she unbuttons his shirt and leans over the side of the bed, pulling a condom out of her purse. Spencer thinks 'yes, yes, yes' as Bunny strips the rest of their clothes off, rolls the condom onto Spencer, and climbs on top of him.

Bunny doesn't even pretend like she wants Spencer's number after, just re-dresses as quickly as possible and leaves him in the room by himself.

He leaves the party entirely happy.

-----

November shivers roll in quickly, and the cool bite in the air quickly starts to feel more like a freezing winter than a chilly autumn. Spencer and Jerry have bought snow jackets already, and Spencer has taken to wearing sweats and a heavy hoodie during his morning runs. Spencer has never lived in a snowy climate, and he's actually pretty excited for it. Jerry even brings home 'car snow kits' one day - whether they were marketed like that or whether Jerry made them, Spencer isn't sure - that consist of scrapers for his windshield and some towels and salt and Spencer isn't entirely sure what to do with it, so he just tucks it into the backseat of his car and thinks it must be one of those things that you don't know what to do with until you need it.

November also brings in a strange friendship with Tom. They haven't actually met face to face yet, but they it isn't long before they talk to each other at least once a day. It's never about anything important, and the calls never last longer than 20 or 30 minutes, but it's nice having someone to call. Spencer feels like his friendship with Tom is the first true connection he's had with someone since moving, and he's grateful for it. With his friendship with Tom, of course, comes a closeness to Jon, who is an awesome teacher and mentor. Spencer feels like Jon - who he no longer calls Mr. Walker unless another student can hear him - was a gift to him from some unnamed deity, from some great force in the universe, and Spencer is so, so thankful every single day that he decided to take Photography.

It's six weeks from graduation, and Spencer feels like he has a plan for the future. In six weeks, Spencer will be done with high school forever, and he will never, ever look back.

-----

Jean calls Spencer every Monday afternoon. It's something she started doing once he started school, and it helps him feel grounded to know that his mom still has time set aside for him. On the first Monday in November, she asks Spencer if he'll come home to visit her soon, asks if he wants to come home for Thanksgiving. Spencer bristles when she calls Nevada his home; Chicago feels more and more like home every day. He agrees though, says he'd love to come visit the weekend after Thanksgiving - he can't imagine leaving his dad alone on the holiday - and says he'll talk to his dad about.

Spencer waits until his dad comes home from work that night to talk about it. Jerry smiles sadly when Spencer tells him about the phone call, "Sure wish I could see the girls," Jerry says, "they just keep getting bigger."

"You should come with. Let's go together." Spencer quickly tells his dad. It hasn't really been on his mind, but of course his dad would be missing the twins, the same way his mom must be missing him.

"But, your mom and I ---" Jerry cuts himself off, clears his throat, "I really, really miss the girls. Let me go call your mom, we'll catch up in a minute, okay?"

Jerry disappears into his bedroom with his phone in hand, and Spencer's stomach feels tight. He really just wants all of them to be together. Not forever - not permanently - but Spencer definitely wishes he could have his whole family back in the same room for a little while.

-----

Spencer and Jerry book tickets for a flight to Vegas on the day before Thanksgiving, leaving in the afternoon after work and school, and they plan on flying back the Sunday after. Jerry's smile was tight when he said that he and Jean had agreed that it would be a good idea, but Spencer keeps pushing the image deep, deep down inside of his chest. He figures that if he can will them all to be happy, that Spencer's whole family will be.

-----

They're sitting on the couch, Jerry and Spencer wrapped up in blankets on either end, flipping through the channels. It's a Saturday morning, early enough that they're both still sleep soft and not fully with it, and Jerry stops on a commercial. The commercial is some generic thing, full of over-saturated colors and twangy background music, and Spencer is gearing up to laugh at it when he glances over at his dad. Jerry isn't saying anything, just watching the screen with the corners of his mouth turned down, and oh. The commercial is of a dad and his happy daughters, his beautiful wife, his perfect family. Spencer sees Jerry swallow roughly, and it slams into Spencer's chest once again how sad his dad must be. Jerry has always been the fun parent, the comic relief, the one to ask when you want a cookie before dinner, and Spencer just... forgets. He forgets that his dad is going through this, too, that his dad is going through this even more, because Jerry didn't just lose a hometown and a friend, he lost his whole life, he lost his family. And, sure, Spencer isn't living with his mom and sisters anymore, either, but it's different. In his head, Spencer had planned on leaving them anyway after his senior year, so it's only 6 months that he's missing out on. Jerry, Spencer realizes suddenly, Jerry is missing the day-to-day of his daughters' lives for much, much longer. Spencer also reminds himself, his heart clenching tight in his chest, that Jerry also lost his wife, the woman he spent the last two decades with.

"Are you lonely, Dad?" Spencer doesn't mean to say it, and he feels like an asshole as soon as Jerry looks at him, sadder than Spencer has ever seen his dad before.

"Sometimes, yeah, I guess." Jerry purses his lips, clears his throat.

"We'll be in Vegas in a few weeks, it'll be awesome, we'll get a whole weekend with the girls."

"Yeah," Jerry nods, smiling tight, "it'll be good."

Jerry looks back at the TV then, and channel surfs for a few more minutes, not landing on anything for more than a few seconds. Jerry sighs and stands, still wrapped up in blankets, and hands Spencer the remote.

"Here, I'm still pretty tired, I think I'm going to try to get a few more winks."

Spencer takes the remote, waiting until he hears the click of Jerry's bedroom door, before he turns off the TV. He pulls his blanket tightly around himself, grabs his phone, and opens the back door.

-----

"I just feel, you know, I don't know, weird. I guess. Do you ever feel like that?"

Tom clicks his tongue at Spencer and hums. "I feel a lot of weirdness, Spence. Not an all-day-every-day kinda thing, but definitely more often than not."

Spencer has the phone pressed to his ear, his legs folded so his chin can rest on his knees. He tries to remember to breathe, breathe, breathe, as he thinks of what to say to Tom. Tom must figure something out, must realize that Spencer is freaking out and just needs a distraction, and Tom just starts to talk. At first, there's no real pattern to his sentences, just one-line jokes and anecdotes about the coffee snobs in Starbucks, but then Tom starts talking about his favorite songs, favorite albums, favorite groups.

"The Bee Gees?!" Spencer practically guffaws when Tom says that he loves the group, and Tom just tuts back at him.

"Go watch Sgt. Pepper's, and then come back and tell me how lame The Bee Gees are."

"Isn't that the one where The Beatles aren't even in it?"

Tom scoffs at Spencer. "Okay, so we're going to watch it together some time, you little elitist," Spencer tries to argues, gets out a "What?!", before Tom plows right over him, "and when you tell me what a great film it is, when you ask me to get you a Bee Gees shirt and a VHS copy of Sgt. Pepper's for Christmas, then I have every right to tell you to suck my balls."

Spencer is curled up in his blanket, laughing so hard his eyes are watering. Through the phone, Spencer can hear Tom sputtering through his words, trying not to laugh while still rambling about all of the things Spencer is going to ask Tom for for Christmas.

"Hold on, hold on, hold on," Tom says, then. "Shit, I'm dying. Can I call you back in a little bit?"

"Yeah, sure."

"Okay, okay, awesome, uh," Tom pauses. "I'm glad I got a laugh out of you, Spencer, Spencer Louis Stevenson."

"James Smith, but close," Spencer smiles. "Thanks for, you know, the laughs and all that."

"My pleasure, Mr. Smith. I'll talk to you in a little while."

Tom hangs up before Spencer can say goodbye. Spencer sits wrapped up in his backyard for a little while, toying around with his phone, turning it between his hands and killing time before he feels brave enough to go back inside.

There's a knock on the glass door a few minutes later, and Jerry is standing there dressed. He opens up the door and peeks his head out, asking Spencer if he's on the phone.

"Nah," Spencer tells him, "just sitting out here."

"Well, I was thinking about going out, maybe seeing a movie, getting some grub. You interested?" Spencer looks at his dad, the shadows showing every fine line in Jerry's face - the cracks in Jerry's mask. Jerry is so much stronger than Spencer gives him credit for.

"Yeah, yeah. Give me a few, I'll go get dressed."

-----

The snow comes earlier than anyone was expecting it to.

Spencer wakes up on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving to a blanket of white on the ground. He snaps a picture with his phone and sends it to his mom and sisters; as an afterthought, he sends it to Ryan with the message coming to town this weekend.

After school, Spencer gets a message from Ryan - ur mom said, c u then. Okay then, Spencer thinks. His mom never said anything about talking to Ryan; Spencer wonders if Ryan still shows up in the middle of the night some nights or if he has a new place to go, wonders if that new place is Brendon's. Spencer is still looking at Ryan's message, still running it through his brain, when his phone lights up with a call from Tom. Spencer answers it, and immediately smiles when he hears Tom's laugh.

"Dude!" Tom shouts down the line, "Spencer, dude, you have got to come meet me before I go into work tonight. Let me see you make your first snow angel and shit, I'll even make you hot chocolate after!"

Spencer has no reason to say no, and about a dozen reasons to say yes, so he says yes. Spencer gets directions while he drives, chatting with Tom about his plans for Vegas (he dresses them up, pretends he has places to be other than his mom's house) and he soon finds himself in a pretty shopping complex. There are nice buildings and some upscale stores and Spencer is entirely taken aback when a bearded guy in a bright blue parka waves both his arms in the air. Spencer isn't sure what he was expecting Tom to look like, but it somehow wasn't this. Spencer parks his car where Tom points him to, and climbs out. Spencer's nervous, his stomach flipping over as he holds his hand up in a wave and says, "Hey. Hey man." Tom pulls Spencer into a hug - a real hug, a tight squeeze with two arms - and he rocks Spencer back and forth on his feet for a minute. Spencer hugs him back, hugs him like a real friend.

"It is so good to see your face," Tom tells him, pulling away with his hands planted on Spencer's shoulders. Tom's smile is lazy, but genuine. Spencer didn't realize how badly he was wanting to see Tom until now, and now that he's here he's not really sure why it's taken so long for them to actually meet. Tom pats Spencer's shoulders once more, then breaks away; he takes three big strides backwards and then spins in a wide circle, arms outstretched. Spencer smiles and laughs. He's all too aware of how young he must look, so Spencer dips his head down to take a deep breath. When Spencer looks back up, Tom has stilled. There's a soft smile on his face, and he's just looking at Spencer.

"Go on," Tom says, "I called expecting to see some angels. Let's see 'em."

"I don't know how to," Spencer replies dumbly.

"Have you never, like, watched any winter-themed shows?" Tom draws out the 'a' in have - haaaaaaave - and it makes Spencer notice Tom's teeth, all small and aligned in his mouth. It distracts Spencer from the question at hand. Tom's eyebrows raise impossibly high, his eyes wide and Spencer has to look away; the spell is broken.

"Yeah, I mean, I've seen the idea of it, but I don't really know the mechanics of it or anything." Tom just grins at him. He doesn't try to make Spencer feel stupid or anything, doesn't try to shove Spencer into the snow, and Spencer appreciates it. "You gotta show me how, I guess," is the most logical thing Spencer can think to say.

And Tom does. They're standing in a breezeway in front of the stores on a grassy little hill; off to one side is a small sidewalk going from the shops to the parking lot, and the other side is lined by trees. Tom walks a few feet to a deeper patch of snow on the ground and lays deliberately with his limbs stretched out like a sea star. Tom calls out, "So, start like this," then wags his arms and legs in these short, disjointed little moves that make Spencer think Tom is maybe not an experienced snow-angeler, "and then, you know, wiggle around."

Spencer probably could have figured the details out himself.

Spencer lays in the snow next to Tom, surprised by how hard the snow actually feels under his back, and waves his arms and legs. When he stands up, his snow angel looks like a snow blob. Tom laughs, clapping him on the back once they're both back on their feet, and says "Maybe you should take your snow angel running with you next time you go." Spencer laughs.

"C'mon," Tom urges, nodding towards the shops, "I'm pretty sure I was supposed to be at work like, 30 minutes ago."

"You're not going to get in trouble because of me, are you?" Spencer asks, nodding his thanks to Tom who is holding the door open so Spencer can go in first.

"I'm the manager," Tom tells Spencer, loud enough for the staff to hear; the three people currently working all lift their heads and smile, "what are they going to do, fire their manager?"

"Guess not," Spencer shrugs, walking up to the coffee bar as Tom slips behind it, taking his parka off and hanging it on a coat rack on the wall. Tom is pushing buttons on the register while a girl takes off her apron; she hands it to Tom and he puts it on. Tom lifts the name tag on the apron so he can read it, then drops it as he smiles up at Spencer.

"Hi, I'm Greta. Welcome to Starbucks. Can I interest you in a delicious peppermint hot chocolate today?"

"Sure," Spencer nods, "that sounds okay."

"Okay? Oh-kay?" Tom scoffs. "I have regulars who beg me for this, I'll have you know." Tom is making Spencer's drink behind the bar, and he looks up at Spencer through the chunk of hair that is falling over his forehead. Spencer can't read Tom's expression, but he looks directly back at Tom anyway. Spencer keeps eye contact with Tom until Tom looks back down, licks his lips, and says "One house special. On the... house. Specially." Tom holds the paper cup out to Spencer, and Spencer smiles at him, taking it. Spencer sits at a table when a group of people come in the door, letting Tom get to work. Spencer sits with his hot chocolate, playing around on his phone while he drinks. Spencer can feel eyes on him after a few minutes, and he looks up to see Tom watching him from behind the counter. Spencer is looking at Tom, and Tom stares back, smiling slightly. It's a soft, soft smile, one that doesn't reach his eyes, but Spencer likes it all the same. Eventually, Tom breaks his glance so he can keep working, and Spencer goes back to his phone. The rest of the time Spencer is at Starbucks, he feels Tom's eyes on him.

-----

Spencer and Jerry get into Las Vegas the same hour that they left. Spencer will never understand time zones.

Jean, Jenna and Nicole are all waiting in the airport when Spencer and his dad get off the plane, and Spencer is in his mom's arms before he knows it. He holds her close, breathes in the familiar scent of cherry shampoo and hairspray, and he tries not to cry. Spencer has spent all these months pretending like he was okay with just his dad, but he's missed his mom so much it makes his chest ache. He's been holding back for too long already, and the second he hears Jean sniffle, Spencer has tears blurring his vision. He holds his mom until he feels four smaller arms wrap around him, two on each side, and he moves his arms from his mom to his sisters.

"Hey, brats," he says, shaking the shoulders of his little sisters, "I missed you guys."

Spencer focuses on the chattering of his sisters, the two voices battling to be heard over one another, instead of on the way his parents don't even say hello to each other.

-----

They get dinner at an old family favorite - a diner tucked into a strip mall in the suburbs - and then go back to the house that Spencer grew up in. They watch TV as a family, turning on A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, and then everyone heads off to bed.

Spencer sleeps in his old room. After he left, Jean had put a futon, a TV, and Spencer's old PlayStation in the room, saying she tried to fill it with things he could use when he came to visit.

Jerry sleeps on the couch.

-----

Spencer can't sleep. He spends hours tossing and turning on the futon before he finally sits up and tosses the blankets onto the floor. Grunting, Spencer sits up in the dark, feeling around for the remote, hoping that he can fall asleep in the glow of late-night reruns.

He's in the middle of I Love Lucy, the episode where Lucy and Ethel pretend to be aliens, and Spencer grabs his phone and sends Tom a text are you lucy or are you ethel?, hoping like hell that Tom doesn't ask him what Spencer is talking about. His phone lights up within a minute, and picking it up, Spencer sees Tom is actually calling him.

"Hello?"

"So," Tom is already laughing, "I can't even believe this. Oh my god, dude, when we were like 16, Jonny and i stayed up all night, every night during summer vacation watching Nick at Nite, and we decided that I was Lucy and he was Ethel because he was always just going along with my stupid ideas and trying to keep me out of trouble!" Tom is laughing so hard, this deep, honking laugh that Spencer can't help but laugh along.

"So who am I, then?"

"Duh," and Spencer can hear the fucking smirk through the phone line as Tome says, "Ricky."

Maybe it's because he's sleep-deprived, or maybe it's the safety of the distance between them that makes Spencer say, "Well, okay then. But you've got some 'splainin' to do."

Tom laughs again, and it makes something warm curl in Spencer's belly.

Spencer wakes up the next morning with his phone in his hand, and he texts Tom sorry, i guess i fell asleep. He puts his phone on the floor, pulls the blankets up over his head, and falls back asleep. He wakes up again a few hours later, head hazy from weird dreams about snow, the taste of peppermint still lingering in his mouth.

-----

Thanksgiving afternoon, Ryan shows up at the front door. Spencer answers it, still wearing his pajamas, and swallows the lump in his throat when he sees that Ryan isn't alone.

"Hey, I'm Brendon," the other guy says - he's all big, brown eyes and nervous energy and Spencer already hates him.

"I'm Spencer," he says, pulling the door open wide enough for the two boys to come in and closing it behind them. The three stand awkwardly just inside the door, Ryan and Spencer looking at one another while Brendon's eyes dart between them.

"You look really different," is what Ryan finally comes up with. Spencer doesn't say anything back, just keeps looking at Ryan. Ryan lifts one shoulder up, a half-hearted shrug, and walks into Spencer's - Spencer's mom's - house, greeting the rest of Spencer's family. Jean hugs Ryan, then Brendon, says she's so glad her guys could make it for dinner, and Spencer thinks 'oh.' So apparently Ryan had been around still, and apparently he was bringing his annoying friends with him. Okay.

"Honey, why don't you boys go back to your room to catch up while I cook?" Jean smiles at Spencer, and Spencer just can't say no to his mom. He waves Ryan and Brendon back to his room. Spencer sits on his bed and looks at the other boys; Ryan makes the first move.

"You still have Pro Skater?"

"I dunno," Spencer tells him honestly, "Mom set everything up before we came in. I didn't even look to see what games were over there."

Ryan opens the small TV stand and looks through the cases, pulling one out to put into the PlayStation. Ryan sets everything up and Brendon just stands there, hovering near the doorway, until Ryan tells him to sit. Brendon sits on the floor with his back to the bed, and he takes the controller when Ryan holds it out. Ryan sits down next to Brendon, leaving Spencer on the bed by himself. Spencer rolls his eyes, fine then, and pulls out his phone. Spencer types out a message to Tom save me, then he thinks that comes off as desperate so he deletes it. Spencer is just staring at his phone, trying to figure out what to say to Tom, when his phone lights up with a call. Tom maybe has a spidersense. Or maybe Spencer has been pocket dialed.

"Hello?" Spencer asks when the call connects, wondering if Tom would really be calling him in the middle of the holiday.

"Hey, hey, hi, hello, hi Spencer," it comes out as one big slur, and Spencer laughs. Ryan looks over his shoulder at Spencer, but it's just a quick glance, barely long enough to see that Spencer is on his phone. Brendon doesn't glance over at all.

"Are you drunk already? It's like, 3 or 4 o'clock there, dude," Spencer notices Brendon bristle at that, sees the way Brendon looks to Ryan, and Spencer wants to punch Brendon's stupid fucking face in. As if Brendon knows anything about Ryan's life, as if Brendon has been there with Ryan through any of it.

"--- so I thought I should call you, baby blue."

"What?" Spencer has been too busy glaring at the backs of Ryan and Brendon's head to have heard Tom properly. He has no idea what's going on.

"I said," Tom over-enunciates the words, smile clearly heard though the thousands of miles between them, "that it is snowing outside, in buckets, literal fucking buckets of snow, Spencer, and that you need to come home soon so you can show me more of your mad snow angel skills. And also because I had to sit by myself on my break this morning 'cause I figured you were still asleep and I didn't want to wake you up."

"You could have called," is what Spencer says. The words stick in his throat as he says them, wondering why it is that his best friend is sitting two feet away but Spencer couldn't care less about hanging out when he's got Tom on the phone. "What are you doing now? Are you with your family?"

"Nah," Tom scoffs a little, "me and the guys decided to just do our own thing. Don't tell Jonny I called you, though, he told me I shouldn't."

"Why did he say that?" Spencer hears voices in the background, then Tom lets out a low chuckle.

"Hey, hey Spencer, I have to go. Come back home to me soon, okay?" Spencer's phone lights up, signaling the call's end, before Spencer has a chance to say anything back; he doesn't know anything he could have said to the sentiment, anyway.

It isn't long before Jean comes and gets the boys, tells them that dinner is ready. His family, plus Ryan and Brendon, sit around the table and, rather than saying grace, this year his mom asks them all to say what they're thankful for. Spencer's heart jackhammers in his chest as he says, "I'm thankful to be here," and tries to not look his mom in the face lest she read the lie in his eyes.

-----

Dinner is amazing - the food at least, Spencer amends in his head. He's really missed his mom's cooking. The twins took up most of the conversation for the night, talking about school and boys and dance class, and Spencer actually listens. His sisters are taller, thinner than the last time he saw them, and they're both wearing a little bit of blush and lipstick. It's new, and it's weird, and Spencer doesn't really know how to talk to them now that his little sisters are real teenagers now. He nods along with what they tell him and his dad, asking questions every once in a while, but the teasing doesn't come as easily as it used to. Before he came out, when Spencer would talk to Jenna and Nicole on the phone, there was nothing different - it was all comfortable and familiar. Now, though, now that Spencer is in Vegas with them, he feels like the relationships he has with his sisters are going to change. He's not sure how he feels about it.

After dinner, Spencer's family says goodbye to their guests, and Spencer sees Ryan and Brendon to the porch, closing the front door behind them. Ryan and Brendon each have a grocery bag full of leftovers, and Spencer thinks don't you have your own family?, hoping the brain waves make it to Brendon. Ryan doesn't even go in for a hug, just looks awkwardly at Spencer.

"Look," Ryan tells him, "Brent is having this thing, a party, tomorrow night. You should come. I can pick you up."

"Okay," Spencer replies. They leave it at that. Spencer stays on the porch, even after watching Ryan's old, beat-up car drive away, and he takes the time to breathe. It feels warm out, though it's probably only 70 degrees, and Spencer misses the cold. He pulls his phone out of his pocket and stares at it in his hand, trying to think of a message he can send to Tom. In the end, he can't think of a thing to say that won't make him sound like a little jerk, so he doesn't say anything at all.

Jean comes out to him eventually, and she wraps her arms around Spencer's waist.

"So tall and thin," she says, looking up at him, "and so, so serious now. I know that you're older now, but I wasn't expecting my boy to come back home as a man."

Spencer hugs his mom back, giving her a squeeze.

"I really have missed you, if that means anything," he tells her, entirely sincere.

"I know, honey. Me too."

-----

The party is, surprisingly, a real party. And also to Spencer's surprise is the fact that Ryan, Brent and Brendon are three-fourths of the band playing the house party. Spencer is fucking angry, he can't believe that Ryan wouldn't tell him beforehand, can't believe that Ryan would just drag him along like Spencer had nothing better to do that see his best friend - former best friend - play music with the new band that Spencer is not a part of.

Spencer drinks the entire time, pounding back shots and chasing them with whatever is within reach. The entire time the band plays, Spencer ignores the music in favor of listening to the voice in his brain shouting expletives at Nevada and Ryan Ross and even Spencer himself. He keeps his eyes peeled for someone he knows, thinks maybe he can run into someone he's met before, and then Spencer remembers that his entire life in Vegas revolved around Ryan fucking Ross, who clearly never give the same amount of shits about Spencer.

"What's your issue?" Ryan barks out at Spencer after the band's set. Spencer has had enough to drink that he doesn't care about anyone else or their feelings, and it makes him feel fearless.

"No issue here," Spencer shouts back, "what about you, asshole, got anything you wanna say?"

"You were drinking." Ryan sounds hurt, genuinely hurt, and Spencer couldn't care less.

"Yeah, that's what you do at a party. Or, well, I guess you go to parties to fucking stab your friends in the back. I go to parties to have fun. So that's what I'm going to do."

"Go ahead, Spencer," Ryan shouts after him, "I stopped caring a long time ago!"

I know, Spencer thinks.

Spencer stomps off towards the makeshift dance floor, looking for a girl to talk to, maybe another girl who is looking to do more than just talking. He sees a redhead in a tight grey dress, thinks he recognizes her from school or maybe just from earlier in the evening, and watches her for a few seconds to make sure she doesn't have a guy with her already. He's getting ready to go over and make a move when his phone buzzes in his pocket, then again. He pulls his phone out, and he has two messages from Tom. Spencer's heart stops in his chest when he reads them, and he has to re-read them a few times to make sure he's not misunderstanding them - come home to me already, the first says, then i cant get you off my mind.

Spencer stands there, swaying slightly on his feet from how much alcohol and adrenaline is in his system, and he tries to keep his breath even. Spencer's head is fuzzy, and his stomach is tight. There's no way that Tom --- Spencer and Tom are just friends, there's no. There's no way that Tom means what it sounds like. Spencer reads the messages one more time, then deletes them both, hoping they will go away. He tucks his phone back into his pocket and walks on shaky legs to the front door, letting himself outside, trying to get some fresh air in his lungs. Spencer lays on the yard, arms outstretched, and stares at the sky.

Laying out like that makes him feel like making a snow angel, except he can't since he's in the desert, and he's half a country away from ---

Spencer gets to his feet as quickly as he can, stomach lurching at the sudden movement as he pulls his phone from his pocket and dials the first person that comes to mind.

"Mom? Hey, uh, can you pick me up?"

-----

Jerry and Jean don't say a word about Spencer calling to be picked up drunk from a party, they don't chastise or (even worse) tell him that what he did was normal or something. They just politely ignore it, and Spencer spends Saturday feeling like death, waiting for the other shoe to drop. It never does. Spencer doesn't know if he said something to them - most of Friday night blurred away into hazy lines and vague ideas - but neither Jean nor Jerry bring Ryan up for the rest of the visit. Instead, they spend the time together as a family, catching up on the things they've all been doing and watching the twins practice their dance routines. It's weird - and it strikes Spencer as weird more than once during their visit - that his parents are getting along so well, that there's no awkwardness or tension between them beyond that first night.

It's nice, it's really, really nice, to see his mom and and sisters, but by the time Sunday rolls around, Spencer is ready to get back home. Home, the word that has bounced around inside his heart and head and body for so many months now, has finally settled. Spencer can't even say he feels sorry about it, can't even say he'll miss anything about calling Nevada home.

On the plane, Spencer has a book opened in his lap - it's some verbose, sociopolitical novel set in Victorian England, a reading list pick for his online English class. Spencer reads all of maybe ten pages, but with so many thoughts flitting through his mind, he can't focus on the words in front of him. Spencer gives up, sighing, and closes his book. He doesn't even bother with a bookmark, knowing full well that he's just going to have to start the novel all over again. Or, better yet, maybe he can just find the Cliffs Notes online.

With his book put away, Spencer turns his attention to the tiny window at his side, watching as the land speeds by below him. Despite most of Friday night being forgotten, the text messages that Tom sent Spencer are still lurking in Spencer's mind. Spencer almost wishes he hadn't deleted them, wondering more than once since Friday if in his drunken state he had misconstrued the true meaning of the words. He doesn't know why he cares so much.

-----

Tom texts Spencer a lot that week, mostly in the evenings, mostly about how busy work has been, and Spencer replies to every single one of them.

It isn't until Friday that Tom actually calls Spencer on the phone, though. Spencer can hear Tom slurring his words and knows that he's been drunk dialed again. Spencer takes a deep breath, and blurts out, "Hey, those, those messages you sent me last weekend..."

The silence hangs heavy between them. Spencer can hear a click, then Tom exhales deeply and Spencer can practically smell the smoke.

"I was drunk."

Spencer waits, expecting Tom to say more, but Tom doesn't. Neither does Spencer.

"'Kay, well, I should go," Tom says, hanging up. Spencer huffs.

"Okay, then."

-----

By Monday, Spencer hasn't heard from Tom at all in three days, which is about two and a half days longer than any previous records. He considers sending him a text, or maybe just calling Tom up, but Spencer doesn't really know what to say, doesn't trust himself to not just ask Tom about the text messages again.

Spencer makes it to Monday afternoon before he breaks. He calls Tom on his way home from school.

"Hey, Spencer, I can't talk now, I'm really busy," Tom tells him, then hangs up.

Okay then, Spencer thinks, not for the first time.

Spencer rolls his windows down as he drives, inviting the freezing air into his car to bite at his hands and face. It feels fucking amazing, almost better than his morning runs where the cold air shocks his lungs with every gasping breath, almost better than the burning tingle on his skin as he warms himself in the shower once he comes back from those runs. Spencer is completely in love with the cold and the snow and the wind.

Spencer doesn't feel like going home yet - not with his brain so loud, the house so empty, the weather so perfect - so he doesn't.

He drives himself around town for close to three hours before going home. It's dark by the time he gets there, and his dad is in the kitchen making dinner. Spencer considers joining him, maybe to help out or maybe just to talk, but he decides against it, taking a shower instead. Spencer gets out and dries himself off, pulls out his favorite flannel pajama bottoms and an old long-sleeved t-shirt from a pile of winter clothes he had pulled together before leaving for Vegas. Both the shirt and pants are too big for him now. It makes Spencer smile. Spencer is so glad he's not the same person he was a year ago, he's so, so happy to not have anything tying him down to his former life.

By the time he goes to bed that night, Spencer still hasn't heard back from Tom.

-----

He makes it until Thursday before he tries to see if Jon knows what's going on with Tom. Spencer corners him in the photo room before class, asking if he's been talking to Tom this week.

"Yeah, we've talked," Jon says, straightening things up around him and pointedly not looking Spencer in the eyes.

"I haven't heard from him in a while, I'm worried that I said something to make him upset," I'm worried he said something to make himself upset.

"Spencer," Jon sighs, tilting his head back and rubbing at his eyes before looking Spencer directly in the face, "you should just leave him alone for a little while. He's going through some... stuff. Give him a little room."

"But I miss him," Spencer says, and the words hit him hard and heavy in the chest, realizing how true they are as he's saying them, "I'm really missing him."

"Look," Jon tells him, voice soft, "just give him some space and he'll call you when he's ready to talk again. You're like three weeks from graduating, Spencer, just focus on finishing your school work and figuring out your post-graduation plans."

Spencer is in a shitty mood for the rest of the day.

-----

Spencer's last day of school is a Wednesday.

He meets with Mr. Weekes, the crazy guidance counselor, after his last final exam to make sure everything is there so Spencer can finish school.

"You've done great," Mr. Weekes tells him. "You've got a 3.8 GPA as it stands - which, high five, dude - aaand it looks like everything else in place. You get your diploma in the mail, shouldn't take too long, but other than that you're a free man. So, you know, congrats, grad." Mr. Weekes holds his hand up for an actual high five, and Spencer gives him one, smiling.

He's officially done with all of this high school bullshit, and other than Jon, who Spencer already emails outside of school, Spencer isn't going to miss a damn thing.

He's elated.

-----

Half-way through his and Jerry's celebratory dinner at a burger joint, Spencer gets a text from Tom heard you're done with hs, congrats. It's been so long since Spencer has heard from Tom that Spencer doesn't know what to say back. He settles on thanks, and tries to ignore his heart, now beating wildly, as he waits to see if he's going to hear any more from Tom.

They're at home on the couch that night when Spencer's phone rings. It's Tom calling. With his palms damp with sweat, Spencer heads to his room to talk.

"Hey, hey man," Spencer says when he answers, closing the door behind him and going to sit on his bed.

"Hey," Tom says, voice quiet, "how's it been going?" Tom sounds tired.

"You, know, it's been going. How, how have you been? Jon said you're going through some stuff..." Spencer lets the words hang between them.

"M'fine," Tom says, "anyway, this is about you. You're out of high school. You can party hard now."

"I dunno about that," Spencer smiles, "I haven't really done anything to celebrate yet. Got any ideas?"

"Empires is playing a show on Friday, you could come see us?"

-----

Spencer does.

He doesn't see Tom beforehand, but the set the band plays is fucking amazing. Spencer hasn't heard the band before, which strikes him pretty suddenly as being absurd considering how often he and Tom had talked and considering that the entire reason they had started talking was the band itself. Tom is good, really good, and if it weren't for how talented the rest of the band is, Spencer wouldn't have looked away for a second. The singer - Spencer knows his name is Sean, knows that he's Tom's roommate, but Spencer has never met him - vamps it up the entire time, captivating the entire audience. Spencer's never seen a local band play a show like this.

Afterwards, Spencer hangs out close to the bar so he can try to catch Tom. Tom comes out and sees Spencer right away, heads over to pull Spencer into a sweaty hug. Spencer wants tell him how great he is, how much Spencer loves Empires, but hes caught off by how Tom looks tonight. He's got a nose ring in, now, and he's wearing a fitted, long-sleeved plaid button shirt. Spencer wants to push Tom's sweaty hair back off of his forehead.

"You came," Tom grins, "what did you think?"

"You're fucking amazing, dude, seriously amazing."

Spencer has to tilt his head down to shout in Tom's ear, and when he does, he sees that Tom's wearing flip flops. In December. Spencer laughs when he sees this, and uses the tip of his shoe - his full, complete, snow-proof shoe - to nudge Tom's toes. Tom wiggles his toes back at Spencer, then bounces up onto the balls of his feet and back down.

"I don't like shoes," Tom tells Spencer simply. Spencer is just tall enough that Tom has to stand on his tip-toes to reach Spencer's ear, and Spencer just...

He doesn't know what happens, doesn't think either of them sees it coming at all, but the next thing Spencer knows is that Tom's lips are on his. It's not a hard kiss, there's no other contact between their bodies, so Spencer just has to turn his head to the side to break their lips.

"What?" Spencer asks, voice cracking.

Tom's eyes are wide, his red, red lips are shiny from where Spencer's lips had been.

"I'm not, m'not like that," Spencer tells him, heart pounding and throat dry, "I'm not- I'm not gay."

Tom's eyes are still wide and his lips are shining even more from the way he keeps licking them, and Spencer can't do this, can't have this conversation at all. So he doesn't. Spencer leaves the small club, walking as fast as he can to his car and hoping like hell that Tom doesn't follow him.

When he gets to his car, Spencer sits in the driver's seat with his head on the wheel. His breaths are coming fast, he can feel his eyes burning, and it all makes him feel so sick. Spencer will not cry, he will not, he will not. Spencer inhales deep, exhales slow, lets himself sink into the car seat. It will be funny tomorrow, Spencer tells himself, then he and Tom can laugh about it together. Ryan would probably laugh about it too, if Spencer were brave enough to call Ryan up. Maybe this story can be the ice breaker, the apology. But then again, maybe it won't be. Spencer lets out a breath. With all of the adrenaline leaving him, he's just sad.

"Time to go home," he says into the darkness. Spencer starts the car and drives away.

-----

The worst part, the very, very worst part of it all, is the fact that Spencer can't figure out which of them it was that moved in for the kiss, no matter how many times he replays the scene in his head.

-----

Spencer tries to call Tom a few times, but Tom forwards all of them straight to his voicemail. Spencer would be happy for it, considering that he's not actually sure what he has to say to Tom right now, but, in reality, Spencer just misses him, misses having hours and hours a week of Tom's attention. It hurts more than Spencer is willing to admit. This time, though, at least Spencer knows why he's being ignored. And, truthfully, Spencer feels like it's probably the same reason why Tom quit talking to him last time.

-----

Christmas comes and goes.

Spencer and Jerry agree to not exchange gifts this year, opting instead to just get some take out and politely ignore any sign of the holiday by watching The Twilight Zone instead. After Thanksgiving, the idea of having a holiday with just the two of them seemed sad.

Spencer thinks about sending Tom a text message, but changes his mind before he sends it.

Spencer doesn't know what it is, doesn't know why, but he just can't let go of Tom, can't get Tom off of his mind.

-----

Spencer enrolls at one of the community colleges Jon had recommended, signing up for his math and English prerequisites and a couple of visual arts courses.

In Digital Photography, Spencer meets a guy name Andy. Andy is close to graduating, has a background in art and music, and has a sense of humor that makes Spencer shake his head. Spencer likes him immediately, and they exchange numbers, making vague plans to hang out and do a drum circle one day.

Andy sends Spencer a text the Saturday after they meet, inviting him to come to a show, tells him that some friends are all playing. Spencer has absolutely nothing else going on, so he agrees to go.

-----

As soon as Spencer gets into the venue, he sees Sean, the singer for Empires, sitting at the bar. Spencer should have known it was a bad idea to go out. He turns to leave, wanting to just get the fuck out, and as soon as he does he sees Tom. Tom sees Spencer too, if the deer-in-headlights look on his face is anything to go by, and Spencer tries to figure out what his next move should be. Before he can make up his mind, Tom tightens his expression and walks right past Spencer, making the decision for both of them.

"Wait," Spencer says, catching Tom by the sleeve before he can get too far away from Spencer, "Tom, I, I want to talk to you."

"I don't really have much to say," Tom tells him, looking him in the eyes. Spencer thinks Tom is a liar, thinks that there are a million things Tom should be saying right now.

"Tell me what you're thinking," Spencer says instead, trying to prod at Tom, trying to get Tom to just fucking say it already.

"I'm thinking that this is all too much for me right now."

"What? What's too much for you, Tom?"

"You." Tom scratches at his beard, running his hands over his face. "I think, I think that right now, it's pretty clear how I feel, and it's too much for me. I can't just be your friend, Spencer," Tom says, looking down at his feet now rather than Spencer's face, "I tried, and it didn't work. Sorry."

Spencer doesn't let go of Tom, tells him, "Yes you can! We can be friends, Tom, we---"

"Don't," Tom pleads, still not looking at Spencer, "I can't, I really, really can't. I'm sorry."

Spencer drops Tom's sleeve, and Tom walks to the bar without looking back once.

Spencer leaves, going home and ignoring the texts from Andy asking where he is.

"It's pretty clear how I feel" echoes in Spencer's mind, and he just keeps thinking no, no it's fucking not.

-----

Spencer misses Tom all over again, misses him so much that his whole body aches with it.

Spencer thinks is this what heartbreak feels like?

He won't let himself think any harder about the question, though, and he really won't let himself try to figure out the answer.

It's not like that, Spencer repeats to himself, over and over, you're not like that.

-----

Spencer gets brave and looks Empires up online. He finds out that they're playing a show that weekend at the same venue Spencer saw them before, and he really has no reason to not go. Other than the fact that Tom hasn't even so much as attempted to talk to him. Other than the fact that Spencer hasn't even figured out what it is that he wants from Tom. Other than the fact that he has absolutely no idea what he's doing.

-----

Spencer plans it out so that he gets there right before Empires is supposed to take the stage. He stays near the back of the room, far from where anyone in the band could see him, and tries to calm his pounding heart. He's so nervous he could puke. It's not the first time that Spencer has no idea what it is that he's doing.

When Tom is playing - all the way up on stage and completely oblivious to Spencer's presence - he suddenly throws his head back, jaw falling open, and he shakes the damp hair off of his sweating forehead.

Oh.

Oh.

Spencer feels dizzy with how suddenly all of the cogs in his brain click into place. Tom Tom Tom Tom, he chants inside of his head. Spencer is completely in love with Tom, no questions about it anymore. Spencer is having a fucking epiphany with this, thinking back to the first night at Starbucks with Tom staring at him, and yes - yes, Spencer was staring right back. Of course he was, of fucking course he was. Tom is gorgeous, Spencer can admit that - probably would have admitted it weeks and months ago too had he had any presence of mind - but he's also funny and he makes Spencer smile and he never seems to run out of funny stories or kind words or opinions on art and music and fucking life in general. Tom is perfect, he is, he's absolutely perfect.

That means that Spencer is the biggest asshole in the world.

When the band emerges after their set, Spencer heads straight towards Tom. Spencer's hands are sweating, his stomach is churning, his mouth is completely dry.

"Tom," Spencer shouts once he's close enough for Tom to hear. Tom turns, face dropping as soon as he sees Spencer. It's like a punch to the gut. "Wait, wait, don't go, please, please just talk to me."

Tom stares at Spencer, opening his mouth to speak, but then he must see something in Spencer's face because he shakes his head.

"C'mon," Tom tells him, jerking his head toward the smoking patio and leading Spencer outside.

Tom is wearing a hoodie and his flip flops, and Spencer asks, "Those fucking flip flops. Aren't you freezing?"

Tom pulls a pack of cigarettes out of his hoodie pocket. He pulls one out and lights it, inhaling deeply and exhaling a cloud of smoke and condensation.

"You just wanna talk about my shoes or what?" Tom's arms are crossed, with the right hand coming up to allow Tom puffs of his cigarette. His head is turned to look at anything but Spencer. When Tom swallows, his adam's apple bobs and it makes Spencer's fingers itch to run across the stubble that grows on Tom's jaw.

Well. That's new for Spencer.

"I'm not gay," is what Spencer says. Even he makes a face at that, wincing even more as Tom shifts his eyes to glare at Spencer.

"Yeah," Tom looks straight at Spencer, "that's what you said."

"No, I know," Spencer tells Tom, holding up his chin in bravado. He wants to reach out for Tom, but he's too scared to make the move. He thinks it's maybe for the better, since he doesn't actually know what would happen if he did touch Tom right now anyways. "I'm not gay. But, like, there's you. And I don't know what I'm supposed to do about that."

The silence that hangs between them is so, so heavy.

"I've really missed you," Spencer says, quieter. He licks his lips, hoping the action will distract him from saying anything else. It doesn't work. "I haven't stopped thinking about you, and I just. I don't know what I'm doing here, Tom. I just can't forget about you."

"I'm not some... I'm not an experiment," is Tom's answer. Spencer thinks Tom's voice wavers a little. Tom is still not looking at Spencer, even though he's long finished his smoke, and Spencer feels like he's on the edge, just waiting for Tom to give the finishing blow that knocks him all of the way off.

"I don't want you to be. I don't think I do, at least. You're the first person that has ever made me feel like this, and I don't know what it means or what I'm supposed to be doing with it. But I do know that you feel it too, that we've both had this, this thing, for a while. I know that now. And if I would have known to look for it before, I probably would have seen it then, too."

"So what do you want from me, Spencer? A blowjob? A relationship? What? I'm not just going to be here for you to use," Tom has his jaw set now, his fists are curled up where his arms are crossed.

Spencer says dumbly, "I want you, Tom, and everything that you bring with you, and everything that that means."

Tom swallows, lifts his hands to run through his hair, and exhales, leaving his mouth open.

"Do you even know what you're saying, Spencer?"

"Yes."

"Because, I've gotta say, for so emphatically being not gay, you're asking for something that is, in fact, very, very gay," there isn't even a hint of an emotion on Tom's face when he says it, and Spencer can't tell if he's being mocked or if Tom's just making his point. With Tom, it's probably a little bit of both.

"I don't know what you want me to tell you," Spencer is looking at the ground now, mentally steeling himself against the rejection he's about to face, and he tells Tom honestly, "I just know that I want you, and I'm pretty sure I have since we've met. And it scares me, because I have never wanted anyone the way that I want you."

Spencer is still looking at the ground when a pair of feet, bright red from the cold, shuffle into his space. Tom puts his hands on Spencer's forearms, and when Spencer looks up, Tom's eyes are big and bright. Spencer does what he should have done before - he takes Tom's face in his hands, and he kisses him. It's just a short, soft press of lips, but in it, Spencer feels promise.

"If you tell me again how you're not gay, I'll punch you in your fucking face."

End