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We Would Bring It On And On

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The only good thing about summer band practice is that Spencer isn’t going into his senior year at a new school blind. Although he wouldn’t be going in completely blind anyway, since he’d gone to elementary school with a large chunk of these guys, but seven years is a difficult gap to span, and Spencer doesn’t think, “Hey, so remember that time Chris projectile vomited all over Greta?” is going to cut it.

It’s fucking hot in Vegas in August, and Spencer misses Jersey. It’s insane, because Jersey summers have this stench about them, this wet garbage, dead babies smell, but Jersey summers have beaches and salt air and all his fucking friends, and Vegas has this dry heat that’s roasting him from the inside out.

Every day he texts Frank that he’s dying a slow, painful death, and Frank always ignores him and sends him pics of Gerard’s nostrils or dog shit or something. Frank’s an asshole. He has no idea why they’re friends, and Spencer misses him so much sometimes he feels like punching something that’ll punch back.

Andy kicks Spencer in the side, and Spencer cups a hand over his eyes and squints up at him from his sprawl in the grass.

“Time to get out of here,” Andy says, sounding bored. Andy always sounds bored, except when he’s drumming. Spencer can respect that.

Spencer lifts his head up a little and catches the tail end of a mass exodus from the field, Butcher bringing up the rear. Last practice of the summer is over, which means school is that much closer to starting. Spencer’s really sort of dreading it.

“Spencer Smith!” Brendon comes bounding out of nowhere and tackles Spencer before he can even struggle upright. Brendon’s a senior, too, and he plays the trombone, and he’s decided to adopt Spencer – he’d said it just like that, too: “Spencer Smith, I’m adopting you,” and he’d lounged all over his lap during lunch break, like, two days into camp - and he’s possibly got more energy than Frank. Or maybe not more, exactly, just a different kind of energy. Brendon sings Disney songs and pretends to strip for the Butcher and wears tiny purple hoodies and jeans that barely cover his ass. Frank kicks Gerard in the balls and rides around on Bob’s back and calls Spencer a motherfucker at least five times a day.

“Stop sighing,” Brendon says, poking Spencer in the belly. “Oh my god, cheer the fuck up before you bring me down with you.”

“That’s impossible,” Spencer says. He shoves at Brendon until Brendon rolls off him and into the grass.

He writhes a little, because he’s kind of obscene.

“Jesus, Brendon,” someone says, and then Spencer’s looking up at—someone really familiar.

Brendon sticks his tongue out. Then he goes a step farther and touches the tip to his nose and the guy snorts and Brendon says, “Yeah, you know you want this, Ross,” and ruins the entire effect by giggling.

Spencer’s sort of stuck in place, though, this weird half-recline that’s seriously hurting his arms. Ross. Ryan fucking Ross.

“Ryan?” Spencer says, and it’s not like he meant to, because way to be cool, Smith, but he goes with it, schooling his face into what Bob calls his bitch-please look.

Ryan cocks an eyebrow at him, and Spencer isn’t surprised when he just seems a little puzzled.

Ryan has a bandana around his head and a flowered vest layered over a kelly green t-shirt. He’s sort of unreal. He says, “Do I know you?” just as Brendon says, “Hey, hey, this is Spencer,” and Ryan’s eyes widen in recognition, though Spencer doesn’t know if it’s because he remembers how they were once best fucking friends, or because Brendon’s been talking about him behind his back.

“Spencer—”

Frank had set his ringer to Panama because he thinks he’s funny, and Spencer’s more eager to talk to Frank than Ryan, really, so he says, “Hey, I gotta take this,” and rolls to his feet and walks away.

He can feel their eyes on him as he pushes talk and he hunches into himself a little, pacing down the length of the football field. “Iero,” he says, and Bob says, “I’m gonna kill Frank,” and Frank’s in the background yelling, “Motherfucker, tell Smith he owes me.”

“You can’t kill Frank,” Spencer says, and then there’s a scuffle and Frank’s on the line, panting a little.

“You owe me, Smith,” he says. He’s a smug bastard. “Friday night. She Said, dude, I got Chaz to get her brother to put you on the list.”

She Said, fuck. That’s pure blind luck that they’re even in town, but. “I can’t.”

“You’re in, motherfucker, no ID, I own you. Take your band buddy.”

Spencer laughs. “Yeah, okay. I’ll take Brendon.” Brendon would get eaten, or at the very least trampled to death. He’s, like, Frank small, only softer.

“Pussy,” Frank says. “Bob’ll kick your ass if you miss this. Oh, shit, gotta cheese it, Smith,” and then he’s gone.

Spencer stares bemusedly at his cell before slipping it back into his pocket, shoving it under his battered pack of cigarettes. Brendon’s still splayed out in the grass by Spencer’s snare when he starts walking back, but Ryan’s no where in sight. Spencer’s mostly relieved. Mostly relieved, but a little curious. When he’d been ten—hell, when he’d been five they were inseparable. It’s all just a little weird.

Brendon’s humming, and he smiles brightly when Spencer looms over him. He’s really a nice guy, Spencer thinks, and he smiles back.

“Tomorrow, Spencer,” Brendon says, hopping to his feet and brushing off his jeans. “Tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow. We’ll hang out, it’ll be awesome.”

Spencer seriously has no clue how he ended up with him. “I hang out with you every day,” Spencer says.

“Well, yeah, but no band practice! And listen. Listen,” Brendon leans in close and pokes at his lip ring, “did that hurt? ‘Cause I was thinking tattoo, man, you know? Like, piano keys or a green tiger ala Battle Cat, right, but maybe a piercing would be less painful.”

Spencer blinks. Gerard would fucking love this kid. He’ll probably regret it, but he collects his sticks, stuffs them in his back pocket before hefting his drum, and asks, “So what are you doing Friday night?”

*

Spencer drives a piece of shit Civic with a Frank-sized dent on the bumper, cleverly covered up by an I Brake For Unicorns sticker, because the Way brothers are the weirdest fucking kids in Jersey and Mikey’d given it to him with a totally sincere twinkle in his eyes. Frank had almost fucking choked he’d laughed so hard, but Spencer hates disappointing Mikey, so he’d slapped it on anyway.

Spencer drives his piece of shit Civic to the grocery store with a list from his mom, then stops at this dive comic book place right next door. Spencer takes one step inside and. And his eyes start pricking, because he’s a giant fucking girl and it’s sort of like coming home. Spencer has little to no interest in comics, but it’s hard to be friends with Gerard and Ray and not spend at least eighty percent of your free time in a store just like this one.

He takes a deep breath and slips down a random aisle and just stands there for a minute.

And then this tiny hardcore girl with dyed black hair and a nose ring appears out of nowhere and says, “If you even think about stealing anything I’m gonna have to shank you.”

Spencer blinks. “Yeah, no.”

“Good.” She nods, then says brightly, “Happy shopping,” and walks away.

She reminds him of Frank. He sort of falls half in love with her right then and there.

He picks up a Doom Patrol just to have something to do with his hands, then thinks, fuck it, and takes it up to the front counter. He can call Gerard later and Gerard’ll fucking talk his ear off about it and maybe then Spencer won’t feel so much like committing seppuku.

He kind of really wants to start up a conversation with the clerk, but Spencer sucks at starting conversations. He thinks maybe that’s Gerard’s influence, ‘cause it sure as shit isn’t Frank’s. Frank can talk to a lamppost.

The girl bobs her head to the M83 being piped throughout the shop and says, “Electronic pop. It’s totally making a comeback,” and Spencer doesn’t know if she’s joking or not. She smiles at him with all her teeth after she rings him up.

Spencer tries on a tight smile of his own and wanders outside to text Frank: epic fail

dude at life, Frank texts back, and then, i want cookies tell gee to share

Spencer laughs. He sends: fuck you and then taps out a cigarette, because he feels like a good wallow. Spencer smokes when he’s stressed, and he smokes because Frank and Gee smoke – like fucking chimneys - but he’s somehow managed to never get addicted, can stretch one pack into two months or more.

“Those’ll knock sixteen years off your life, you know.”

Spencer squints at the guy across from him. He’s backlit, but Spencer can sense his smile, can see the edges of a too-lazy-to-shave beard. “Do I get to choose which ones?”

“Nope.” He stuffs his hands in his jeans and rocks back on his heels. “It’s always the ones you wish you had.”

Spencer pinches the end and tosses it into the nearest trashcan. He quirks an eyebrow. “Happy?”

The guy shrugs. “Sure. I’m Jon,” he says, shifting on his feet, and Spencer can suddenly see his grin. It’s a whole lot wider than he’d imagined it.

“Spencer.” Spencer cocks a hip, the one Frank always laughs and pokes at, and Spencer realizes he’s fucking flirting, god. And with some sort of hybrid frat boy stoner. Spencer’s got nothing against weed, seriously, but he doesn’t advertise it with a beard and flip-flops and, like, a hemp bracelet, what the fuck.

Jon palms his nape, ducks his head a little. “Yeah, so, Edie’ll kill me if I’m late.” He moves past Spencer, tilts a shoulder into the door, angling towards him. “See you around, Spencer,” he says, and there’s hair sweeping across his forehead and he’s smiling with his entire face and Spencer’s chest tightens up.

He looks like the kind of guy who’d let his friends beat the shit out of Gee for being a fag, except maybe not, since his eyes are sort of amazingly kind.

“Yeah,” Spencer says. “See you.”

His cell vibrates just as the door closes behind Jon, and it’s a text from Brendon.

Texts from Brendon pretty much consist of hi! hi hi! and maybe a wot r u doin and this one isn’t any different. Except it also says im at urhouse and yur mom is great!!!! and Spencer maybe twists something in his mad dash to get to his car.

And it’s true, Spencer’s mom is great, but Spencer’s mom also thinks the move here is gonna break him out of his, “destructive slide, you’ve got to learn how to curb your anger, and, honey, you know I like Frank and Mikey, but maybe you should think about colors, hmm?” and Brendon’s, like, a circus tent worth of colors. An extremely gay circus tent filled with ponies. The last thing he needs is to have Brendon prove how much this move had been the right move, because they totally have a deal. One term here, and then, if Spencer’s still miserable, he has the option to go live with his dad back in Jersey to finish out his school career. Like that’s not going to happen.

Spencer has some minor aggression issues, yeah, but that’s mainly from being best friends with a foul-mouthed elf that routinely gets stuffed into lockers. He’s had to deal with all the fights Frank’s started for years, so maybe he’s a little quick on the draw now. Maybe he likes to punch first, because that way maybe Gerard won’t get punched at all. Bob calls him overprotective, but Spencer’s witnessed Bob deck a guy for just looking at Mikey wrong, so he really has no room to talk.

Spencer’s tires screech when he skids to a stop out in front of his house. He pulls on the emergency brake by habit – it’s rolled backwards down a hill before, and he’s pretty sure it’d been Frank’s fault, and the Frank-sized dent in his bumper, but it’s just easier to always remember the brake now, as a contingency – and hops out of the car and is sort of breathless when he flings open his front door.

Brendon’s in his den. And he’s not alone.

Ryan looks just about as awkward as Spencer feels, but Spencer’s mom is gushing over him, so it’s understandable.

“Spencer, hon, look who it is,” Spencer’s mom says, sort of hovering and fluttering her hands. God, she’s so embarrassing. “You remember Ryan, right?”

Spencer can’t help the scowl. “Yeah, hi.”

Brendon says, “Well, this is fun,” and from anyone else it would’ve been sarcastic, but Brendon’s totally got a manic gleam of amusement in his eyes. Spencer thinks maybe he’s just a little sadistic.

“Um.” Ryan twists his fingers in his truly ridiculous scarf – it’s August – and Spencer rolls his eyes.

“Come on,” Spencer says, half-turning out of the room, “let’s go up to my room.”

Brendon bounds ahead of him up the stairs, because he’s seriously like a golden retriever or something, and it kind of makes Spencer smile. Then he sees Ryan looking at him from the corner of his eye and he scowls again and says, “What?”

Ryan just shakes his head, a weird little smile of his own on his lips.

It sucks, but Spencer has to fight to keep his frown.

It’s like. Spencer wasn’t the one who stopped calling, okay? And they’d been ten and fine. Fine, it’s not like ten-year-olds have the best attention span, but Ryan had been his whole world and not only had he had to start over in a new town, a new school, but he hadn’t had any fucking support from the one kid who knew every fucking thing about him and had loved him anyway.

He’d been in a hole of sucking misery, and then he’d met Frank.

Frank had been the loser outcast who actually had no clue he was a loser outcast, so he made his own fucking awesome mischief and laughed off everyone’s attempt to put him down. Spencer had kind of worshipped him.

Spencer hasn’t done much to his room. It’s part rebellion, and part plain disinterest; he just doesn’t see this place as permanent. He’s got one wall, though, that’s covered in band flyers. Gerard had handed him a stack before he’d left, ink-stained fingers gripping the rumpled papers and big-ass sunglasses perched over his tiny-doll nose, smile sheepish-wide. The posters are real, but they all have special Gerard adjustments – zombies, vampires, werewolves, robots – and their favorite, She Said She Knows Your Mom, has a little red-eyed crazy chimp on it with Frank written across its t-shirt.

Brendon says, “Cool,” even though the entire rest of his room is fucking bare. He bounces back onto Spencer’s bed.

Spencer slides into his desk chair and stares at Ryan until he stops fidgeting in the doorway and folds himself up on the floor. Ryan has, like, the most awkward body since Mikey Way, all spindly limbs, thin fingers and skin stretched tight over bone. Spencer’s pretty sure he could break him with a strategically placed poke.

“Okay, seriously,” Brendon says after a minute of creepy, even-breathed silence. “You guys are boring. Tell me you have a Wii or something, Spence. Or, like, we should visit Greta and Bills.”

Spencer flicks a glance at his digital clock and it’s flashing four-thirty. Spencer’s mom is weird about dinner. Curfews never seemed to stick – they can’t really, not with the company he keeps, not unless his mom wants to ground him until the end of time - but she always insists that he’s home for dinner. Frank, Ray and Bob’s families are the same exact way and Gerard and Mikey don’t always run home at five, but they always run somewhere. Dinner is dinner. You don’t miss it.

“I can’t,” Spencer says. “I’ve got dinner soon.” And he kind of wants them out of there before his mom starts tossing out invites.

“No, wait, wait.” Brendon jerks upright, waves his hands around. “You guys used to know each other. Tell me all about it!”

*

Spencer has a shoe problem. He’s always had it, and Frank thinks it’s the funniest shit ever, especially since Spencer never wears any of them. He’s got a closet full of pristine, unworn shoes, and he bums around in these battered black boots that Gerard’s drawn all over in whiteout.

Spencer wakes up Wednesday – afternoon, he thinks, he hopes, since he’d been online with Mikey for fucking ever the night before – and there’s noises coming from his closet. Humming noises. ABBA noises, and then Brendon breaks into the chorus to Fernando and Spencer rolls over with a groan. He blinks up at his ceiling. “Brendon,” he says.

“Spencer, what’s the deal with the shoes, huh? I mean. I could build a fort with all these boxes. Oh my god, seriously, are these sparkly?” Brendon’s voice goes kind of squeaky.

Spencer’s cheeks heat. Fuck Gerard and his fucking lectures on gender-specific roles in the economy. He’d pulled some voodoo shit and suddenly Spencer found himself buying a pimped out pair of blue sparkly Skechers for the greater good. Gerard’s been known to show up at school in a skirt, and Spencer really has to remember things like that before letting him tag along on trips to the mall.

“What are you doing?” Spencer asks.

“It’s after two, Spence, seriously, did you turn your phone off?”

Spencer shifts up onto his elbows, sees Brendon peeking out of his closet, puppy-dog quizzical with hair sticking up every which way. “Maybe,” Spencer says. He might have. Frank likes to call him at seven every morning on his way to work, and some days Spencer just doesn’t want to deal with that. Days when he’s been up ‘til four trying to talk Mikey down from Gerard-inspired crazy, involving Spiderman or his Breakfast Monkey or something. Mostly he’d just IM’d Spencer pics of horses and manips of Gerard’s head on different Harry Potter characters.

Brendon holds up a pair of shiny white paten leather loafers that Spencer doesn’t even remember buying. “Don’t let Ryan see these,” he says.

“Do I want to know why?” Spencer asks. Ryan had been freaky quiet throughout dinner the night before – yeah, that had been fun – but he’d doled out these little smiles, delight hidden in the corners of his mouth, and Spencer really has no idea what to do with him.

“He’s got this,” Brendon waves a hand, “this vision for Homecoming this year. Riverboat gambling, Mark Twain chic or whatever, and he’s already got Greta and Darren in his corner on the committee, so this’ll, like, cement his resolve. I mean, I like pinstripes as much as the next guy, but I’ve been looking forward to wearing my new top hat. I’m rooting for something more Dickens-ian.” He cocks his head, eyes thoughtful. “Like Technicolor Great Expectations, you know?”

Spencer blinks, but Brendon doesn’t look like he’s joking. He says, “Huh?” and, “Why would my shoes even matter?”

“Dude, this is Ryan. He pretty much thinks you invented ponies. God, he hasn’t smiled this much since Jon Walker was born.”

That absolutely made no sense. Not one single part of that made any sense at all. Spencer shakes his head and says, “Whatever,” then reaches for his cell on the bedside table. He’s got one voicemail and six texts; four from Brendon – in escalating excitement; the last one is basically just a bunch of exclamation points – and two from Frank, calling him an asshole.

“Is there a reason you’re in my closet?” Spencer asks Brendon, tossing his phone aside after texting Frank: mikey fucking way

“Not a very good one.”

Spencer nods. “Okay.”

When he finally drags himself out of bed, Brendon’s crawling out of the closet with a huge grin and the pink rainbow tee Frank had given him when he’d finally decided he liked boys just as much as girls, because Frank’s a little shit. Brendon holds it up and says, “It’s like a little ray of sunshine.”

Spencer pulls a face. “No.”

“Spence, Spencer,” Brendon drops the shirt and bounces into a hug. He’s kind of vibrating all over. Spencer’s not much of a hugger, but he tentatively pats Brendon’s back. Gerard likes to hug everything that moves, but that’s Gerard, and Brendon’s just this weird kid he’s known for a little over three weeks.

“Wow, so you kind of suck at hugs,” Brendon says into his shoulder, voice muffled.

“Hey.”

“No, no, it’s okay. Ryan’s pretty bad too, only it’s more ‘cause he’s so bony. Sometimes,” Brendon says, pulling back to look up at Spencer’s face, “hugs are the only answer.”

“Brendon.” Spencer grabs Brendon’s arms, shakes him lightly. “Why are you here?”

Brendon grins brighter. “We’re gonna go visit Jon Walker. Are you ready?”

Spencer doesn’t know if he’s asking if he’s physically ready or, like, mentally prepared to meet the legendary Jon Walker, but either way Spencer needs some pants. “I need some pants,” Spencer says.

“Pants are always a good option.” Brendon nods. “But Jon Walker never judges.”

Of course Jon Walker doesn’t judge. Over the past three weeks, since Jon is a very favorite subject of Brendon’s, Spencer’s learned that Jon Walker is awesome, and that his smile makes the world fall in love – Spencer isn’t exaggerating; those are the exact words that had come out of Brendon’s mouth.

He’s learned that Jon Walker’s a senior who’s perfected the art of hugging, is friends with almost everyone, has a cat that plays fetch, takes the most perfect photos ever, plays truly spectacular guitar for a shitty band, and now, the latest, that he probably wouldn’t care at all if Spencer decided he no longer wanted to wear pants. Good to know.

Spencer kicks the pink shirt aside and tugs on a black Automatic Zombie Fall tee and a comfortable pair of jeans that have holes worn through over the knees, one thigh covered in ballpoint - Frank’s name paired with Jamia’s in fifty different ways, a stick figure of Dr. Sloat getting stabbed to death by a raccoon, Gerard gives good head running along the seam - because Frank got bored.

Brendon talks almost nonstop. Spencer’s learned to block most of it out by now, so it’s mainly just white noise through the bathroom door as he pisses and brushes his teeth. He stares at himself in the mirror, thinks about pulling a Mikey Way and tugging on a knit cap, but it’s, like, ninety degrees outside, so he’s pretty sure he’d pass out. Instead, he dunks his head under the sink faucet and runs his fingers through his hair, so it hangs in thick wet strands past his jaw line.

When Spencer opens the door, Brendon’s standing right there, talking about this guy named Bill, and Spencer pokes him in the chest and says, “You’re buying me coffee.”

Brendon nods agreeably. “Sure, we’ll swing by and see Greta before picking up Ryan, or maybe we should pick up Ryan first and we’ll all get coffee and Ryan can, like, do this hilarious flirting thing he does with Greta, oh man, just wait ‘til you see it, and we can bring some hot beverage goodness for Jon, even—”

“Wait, Ryan’s coming?”

“Of course,” Brendon says, then he frowns and reaches out and starts playing with the hair falling over Spencer’s face and Spencer slaps his hands away.

This day is going to be just great, Spencer can tell.

*

Ryan’s waiting on the curb when they roll up in Brendon’s purple minivan. He’s got a neckerchief the size of Texas around his neck and skinny corduroys on and Spencer really wonders what goes through his head when he gets dressed in the morning.

“You’re like live-action Woody,” Brendon says as Ryan climbs into the back.

Ryan says, “Fuck off,” but he doesn’t seem upset.

Spencer swings a look over his shoulder and says, “Hey,” as Ryan settles into a seat.

“Spencer,” Ryan says and makes big eyes at him and Brendon cracks up.

“No, no,” Brendon says, adjusting his rearview mirror. “No, no, seriously, that’s awesome. Ryan, you’re. You’re awesome, I just forgot for a minute. Don’t flirt with Spencer.”

“That’s flirting?” Spencer asks, mouth twitching, and he maybe doesn’t mean to ask that, but Brendon’s hilarity is kind of catching.

“I’m not flirting,” Ryan says flatly. “Oh my god, shut the fuck up, Brendon.”

“Ryan gets mancrushes,” Brendon tells Spencer, ignoring Ryan’s indignant squawk. “He’s, like, almost worse than Pete, except Pete takes his mancrushes to that next level, right.”

“Next level,” Spencer echoes. He’s not sure he actually wants to know.

“Brendon, I fucking swear—”

“Pete will make out with you. Pete will totally make out with you, but he won’t touch your dick.”

Spencer blinks. “Um. Okay.”

Brendon nods. “Dicks freak him out.”

Ryan makes what Spencer thinks is a little defeated noise, but he doesn’t turn around to check his expression.

“So Pete’s a tease, but Ryan’s just false advertising.” Brendon says this like it makes absolute sense. Spencer has no idea who Pete even is, though, so it’s not like he cares about the conversation.

“Seriously, I can’t even hear you, are you still talking?” Ryan deadpans. It’s weird, because Spencer doesn’t feel very familiar with this Ryan, but some things he remembers without even trying. Like the way he can tell Ryan’s amused, even though he’s not showing a single fucking clue.

Brendon seems to know this, too, because he just flips him off and keeps on grinning.

They turn into a strip mall that’s half shabby, half mid-scale, with an abandoned DSW on one side and an Italian deli bumped up next to a Starbucks on the other. Brendon parks in front of the deli and Spencer almost trips in his haste to get out of the car and into some caffeine. Sweet caffeine, nectar of the fucking gods. He’s not a zombie without it, but he functions much, much better after he’s had at least one huge cup.

Ryan slides open the back door and hops out, and his pace as he rounds the front of the van reminds Spencer a little of Mikey, only not as disaffected. Mikey just doesn’t care and you can tell, but Ryan looks like he knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s almost like a more reserved and slightly smaller Gabe, the way he uses the entire length of his limbs to walk. Gabe does it because he wants everyone to get all tangled up in him, Spencer knows, but he thinks maybe Ryan does it to keep everyone just that little bit further away.

He tightens it up when he reaches Brendon, reins in enough to bump his shoulder, automatically shortening his strides to match, and Brendon just throws an arm around Ryan’s waist and tugs him up the sidewalk, and Spencer isn’t sure how that makes him feel.

He brings up the rear of their little group, and when he makes it inside Brendon and Ryan are already at the counter, talking to a blonde girl with plump cheeks and a plump smile and even if he didn’t already know she worked there, Spencer would have recognized Greta. She looks almost exactly the same.

Greta says, “Spencer Smith,” while he’s lurking behind Brendon. “I remember when you were small.”

Spencer says, “You’re still a shrimp,” because, god, Greta had been the teeniest girl in their class and oh so sensitive about it.

Her smile just turns slightly wry, though, and then Ryan spends the entire fifteen minutes they’re in the shop staring at Greta and leaning a hip up against the bar and laughing whenever Greta laughs and Brendon widens his eyes at Spencer and mouths, see? and how funny is this shit? and it’s pretty damn funny.

When they’re leaving, Brendon hooks his arm through Spencer’s and stage-whispers, “They dated for, like, a minute freshman year, it was so cute.”

Ryan smacks the back of Brendon’s head. “Asshole.”

Brendon makes kissy faces over his shoulder and draws out, “So cute,” and tells Spencer, “Greta’s mom drove them and it was a disaster, Ryan got so nervous he threw up all over her shoes.”

Spencer says, “You didn’t.”

Ryan narrows his eyes. “What—”

“You. You pulled a Chris Faller, dude,” Spencer says, grinning, because that’s—seriously, that’s classic.

“So, hey, that’s great, thanks,” Ryan says, and he doesn’t sound like it’s great at all, voice practically monotone, and it’s like riding a bicycle, here, because Ryan always had these hilariously tiny facial ticks, and before he’d moved back to Vegas Spencer probably couldn’t tell you about a single one of them, but now. Now, it’s all coming back to him, and Ryan isn’t pissed yet, but he’s getting there.

Spencer can’t stop smiling when they pile back into the minivan and take off. It’s sort of novel.

Spencer isn’t exactly sure what he’d been expecting – a big bear of a guy, maybe, with a jolly laugh and, yeah, Spencer’s aware he’s picturing a teenage version of Santa Claus, but Brendon’s even said he smells like Christmas, so, really, it’s not Spencer’s fault – but Brendon pulls into a parking spot in front of the little comic book store Spencer had been in the day before, and he gets a sinking feeling in the bottom of his stomach. Jon Walker is apparently the Jon he accidentally flirted with the other day. Awesome.

Inside, it takes a second for Spencer to recognize him, because Jon’s traded in the preppy button-down for a cream and orange track suit, Blue Blockers pushed up on top of his head.

Spencer sticks his hands in his pockets and hangs back with Ryan as Brendon crowds the front counter.

“Brendon, little dude, what’s up?” Jon asks, bumping his fist.

“I,” Brendon says, “have brought you Spencer.”

Jon arches an eyebrow at Spencer over Brendon’s shoulder. “Yeah?”

Spencer nods. “Hey.” He is so cool. Seriously, he’s playing this awesomely cool. He shakes his hair out of his face and digs his teeth into his lower lip, and his face doesn’t flush at all.

Jon leans his elbows on the counter. “So you’re the guy Brendon’s adopted.”

“For my very own,” Brendon says, earnest.

Spencer says, “That’s great,” and Ryan says, “He’s not a puppy, Brendon, Christ,” rolling his eyes.

Ryan and Jon do some sort of complicated handshake thing that Frank would’ve pissed himself laughing over, and then spent the rest of the day figuring out how to emulate.

“Ross,” Jon says.

Ryan nods. “Walker.”

“Ryan Rossy.” A tall, gangly guy with glasses slipped down to the edge of his nose steps out of the back room. He purses his lips and says, “You’ve been to see Greta. You’ve got that just-seen-Greta bloom to your cheeks. I hope nothing untoward happened with my particular lady friend.”

“Bill—”

“And who’s this eager young man?” Bill asks, gaze sharpening on Spencer. Or, okay, it’s not exactly sharp. Nothing about this Bill guy is sharp, unless you count his elbows.

Jon grins at him. “This is Spencer. Spencer, this is Bill. He’s not actually a gentleman.”

“That’s a scandalous untruth and you know it, Jonny Walker. Spencer.” Bill’s eyes narrow. “I have no idea what’s going on with your pants. I have an extra bandana if you’d like?”

“Um.” Somehow, Spencer thinks he’s being insulted.

“It’s red. It’ll match the, uh, are those zombies on your shirt? Nice aesthetic. Very pleasing.”

Ryan stiffens, crosses his arms over his chest and shifts to stand more directly in the path between Spencer and Bill, and Spencer finds that a little hilarious. Spencer relaxes, though, settles a small, bemused smile on his lips, and waits to see what’ll happen.

Bill says, “I mean that with my whole heart, Ross, don’t think I don’t,” and Ryan just stands there, silent, the line of his back still radiating pissed-off.

“Hey, so,” Jon says. “No coffee for me?”

“We’re going to share. Share with me, Jon Walker, for this caffeine has proven too much for my tiny, tiny body.” Brendon nudges his cup across the counter.

Jon says, “You forgot.”

“Yes,” Brendon says solemnly. “Yes, I did.”

“Did Greta send a love note for me?” Bill asks. He moves so he’s half draped over Ryan, though, and a corner of Ryan’s mouth is tugged up when he turns around. “A missive proclaiming her sweet, sweet love?”

“No,” Ryan says.

Bill pokes him in the ribs. “She has. She has, and you’ve kept it all to yourself, because you’re a dirty, rotten Greta-hog.”

Bill, Spencer thinks, is sort of ridiculous.

“You’re an ass,” Ryan says, but his face is doing that thing that it does when he’s laughing on the inside, and it’s so stupid and endearing that Spencer’s glad when his cell buzzes, because he doesn’t want to find Ryan stupid and endearing. Ryan hasn’t even talked to him yet.

Spencer pulls out his phone and it’s a text from Frank, of course, but it only reads, fucking gabe, which could mean so many things.

He wanders down an aisle and dials Frank’s number and Frank says, “Fucking Gabe, dude, he hitched a ride with Chaz.”

Spencer grins. “Cool.”

“Cool, right, yeah, except the fucker wouldn’t let me come with, so.”

Frankie coming to Vegas would’ve been awesome, but Spencer’s getting Gabe and that’s. Well, that’s not even remotely as good, because Gabe’s creepy as all get out, but it’s a little slice of home, right? And Spencer doesn’t know Michelle all that well, but Frank had some sort of undisclosed moment with her years and years ago, and he’s been in her pocket ever since. He’s the only one – other than Gabe, who always does just as he damn well pleases - that can get away with calling her Chaz, for whatever fucking reason. Spencer seriously has no idea.

“Christmas,” Spencer says. “Thanksgiving, if I can swing it.” He kind of feels like a giant hormonal girl, because the only thing he wants right then is Frank hanging off his neck like a monkey and he has to wait over three fucking months for it.

“Yeah, whatever, motherfucker. I’ll see you when I see you.” Spencer can hear his grin. “Ciao, Smithereen,” Frank says, and then all he’s got is dead air.

When he looks up, Ryan’s staring at him with his creepy, big eyes. He’s slouched at the end of the aisle and Spencer says, “What?”

Ryan shrugs a little. “Bill’s off. He wants ice cream.”

Spencer isn’t going to say no to ice cream.

*

Panama jolts Spencer out of sleep early as fuck Thursday morning, because he forgot to set his cell on vibrate. He gropes for it without opening his eyes and mumbles, “Fuck off, Frankie,” and then ducks back under the covers to sleep for a hundred more hours.

The next time Spencer wakes up, he wakes up to Brendon again, and for a moment he’s not actually sure Brendon ever even left. They’d watched Dawn of the Dead the night before, because Brendon had never even seen the original – and Gerard might be picky, but the remake scares the shit out of Spencer; it’s fucking awesome – and he’d thought at some point they’d all left, took off for their respective homes, Bill and Ryan arguing over the merits of shopping malls in the event of a zombie-apocalypse.

So either Brendon’s getting there early enough for Spencer’s mom to let him in before work, or he’s found their extra house key.

Spencer struggles up and yawns and scrubs a hand over his jaw. Brendon’s sitting cross-legged on the foot of the bed, eating cereal and watching cartoons.

“Don’t you have your own house?” Spencer asks.

Brendon makes a face over his shoulder at him. “Ryan leaves for work early. It’s boring, Spence, and I don’t have to be at the Smoothie Hut ‘til four today.”

“Wait. Wait, you live with Ryan?”

“Practically.” Brendon nods. “Almost.” He beams and sets his bowl aside and scrambles up so he’s close to Spencer and says, “Hi, hi, your hair is doing ridiculous things,” and then buries his fingers in whatever mess sleep made of Spencer’s head.

Spencer lets him play, but it’s just because he isn’t really awake yet. His eyes fall closed and he leans forward, forehead tipping onto Brendon’s shoulder. It’s, like, way too early to even function.

Brendon hmmms and finger-combs his hair and rests his palms on the back of Spencer’s neck.

“Time’s it?” Spencer asks.

“Nearly noon,” Brendon says. He drums his fingers lightly on the top of Spencer’s spine, just under the collar of his t-shirt. “The witching hour.”

Spencer snorts. “That’s midnight.”

“Or it’s noon, and they trick you into thinking it’s midnight so you’ll be caught unawares.”

Spencer thinks Brendon’s brain is kind of a scary place. “Okay,” he says, then moves back, and Brendon’s hands slip down his shoulders and land curled in his lap. “Okay, so what are we doing today?” He gives up and gives in, because he figures he’s never ever going to actually get rid of Brendon, and forcing him to leave would be like kicking a fucking puppy to the curb. Spencer’s a little soft around puppies.

“Cartoons,” Brendon says. He says this very seriously, brow wrinkled, so Spencer knows he’s not actually all that serious at all.

“Cartoons, check.” Spencer nods.

“Lunch.”

Spencer slants a glance at the empty bowl perched precariously on the edge of the mattress. “You already had cereal.”

“That’s nothing.” Brendon waves a hand. “Cereal’s a snack, Spence, we need actual sustenance. Like soup or pizza or milkshakes.”

“I could go for a milkshake.”

“I like your style,” Brendon says, rolling off the side of the bed. “Milkshakes are my very favorite, and I happen to be a pro at blending. You’re looking at a top smoothie maker of the month, here.”

Spencer scratches his belly. “Milkshakes are kind of hard to get wrong.”

“Only a person who cannot properly make milkshakes would ever say that.” Brendon holds out his arms. “Take me to your blender.”

Spencer stares at Brendon’s hands and Brendon makes grabby motions with his fingers and Spencer shakes his head, tosses the covers aside and gets out of bed on his own steam. It kind of weirds him out a little, this seemingly constant need of Brendon’s to be touching someone.

“I’m getting a shower,” Spencer says, and Brendon huffs.

“Fine,” Brendon says, “I’ll just go through your cabinets.”

“Go for it.” Spencer digs out a pair of probably-clean underwear. It’s folded, but that doesn’t really mean anything, since his mom occasionally whirls through his room and neatens and dusts, but Spencer has a tendency to stuff everything into random open drawers instead of dropping them on the floor.

“Hey, hey, you have ice cream, right?” Brendon’s hovering in the doorway, fingers twisting together.

“Maybe,” Spencer says. He’s pretty sure they do.

Brendon nods. “Okay. Okay, so I’ll just, um, wait downstairs.”

“You can. Or you can wait here, Bren. I’ll be, like, five minutes,” Spencer says, because Brendon’s acting kind of odd.

Brendon bobs his head again but stays where he is, not in and not out, radiating antsy indecision, and Spencer rolls his eyes and stalks into his bathroom with a t-shirt and jeans.

Spencer shucks his shirt and boxers and runs the water and he maybe takes longer than five minutes, but no more than ten. Or, okay, fifteen, but it’s steamy hot and Spencer has a lot of hair, and it’s actually kind of nice to take a shower without Frank banging on the door or coming in to piss or hopping up on the counter to chat about how Gerard needs someone to tackle him into a bath or something and accusing Spencer of jerking off to his voice, because he’s an ass. So maybe Spencer’s enjoying his privacy.

Brendon’s not in the room when he finally gets out. By the sound of it, he’s rattling around his kitchen.

There’s a voicemail from an unfamiliar number on his cell, but he just texts Frank and stuffs it into his back pocket before braving whatever mess Brendon’s making downstairs. He hangs in the doorway, watches Brendon rifle through the freezer, humming a little to himself.

“Vanilla.” Brendon shoots him a smile. “Chocolate’s better, but this’ll work.”

“Pretty sure we’ve got syrup,” Spencer says.

“This is why I keep you around,” Brendon says, bumping the freezer closed and going for the fridge. “Always thinking.”

Spencer’s cell vibrates, but it’s not Frank.

Gerard’s sent him, gimme muse, and Brendon’s doing something to his mom’s blender – “Correct attachments are key, Spencer!” - so he snaps a few pics and sends them back to him.

Frank calls two minutes later, and Spencer thinks he really needs to change his ringtone, but Brendon always ends up singing Van Halen for hours and, okay, Spencer kind of enjoys that. Brendon’s got a pretty decent voice.

“Frank,” Spencer says, thumbing on his cell after watching Brendon shake his ass for a few seconds.

“Gee says he’s hot. In an objective, non-gay way.”

“Stop saying that, asshole,” Spencer hears Gerard yell in the background. “You don’t have to tack on a fucking disclaimer. I’m totally within my rights to find any human being attractive, even if I don’t want to make out with them!”

“Gee says he wants to make out with him,” Frank says, giggling.

“Awesome,” Spencer says blandly, and Frank says, “Oh fuck, you want to make out with him. How fucking precious is that? Gee, Gee—”

“I don’t—Frank, shut the fuck up.” Spencer scowls, keeps on scowling even as Brendon sends him a questioning look.

“It’s cute, man, is he wearing fucking capris?”

“I’m not even going to ask how you know what they’re called. And no.” He’s pretty sure Brendon just has his jeans rolled up. Which isn’t much better, but whatever. Frank can go fuck himself.

“Alicia, dude, she’s corrupting us, you’re missing out. Look, look, I’m emailing you details about tomorrow night. It’ll be the perfect first date for you two.”

“Seriously, Iero, I’ll get Bob to kill you.”

“Bob loves me too much,” Frank says, like he’s trying not to laugh, but not trying very hard. “Bob composes sonnets to my eyebrows. Bob wishes on stars every night for my eternal—”

“Bob’s gonna break both your legs,” Bob says, really, really close to phone, and then there’s a click and dead air.

Spencer really fucking misses his friends.

“Spencer, hey, do you have whipped cream?”

*

Brendon is, like, epically excited. He’s a little ball of tense energy beside Spencer, and it’s kind of adorable, fuck. Spencer’s losing his mind in this place.

“Calm the fuck down,” Spencer tells him, clamping a hand on his shoulder.

“Are you sure we can get in?” Brendon asks, fingers tangling in the hem of his this-is-totally-hardcore-Spence! t-shirt. It’s light yellow with a kitten iron-on plastered over the chest. It’s holding a tiny machine gun in its little kitten paws, so that’s something.

“We can get in.” Spencer’s sure they can get in if they’d just get up to the fucking door, because even if he’s not on the list, Michelle is there to vouch for him, and if not Michelle, then definitely Gabe.

The bar is just as shitty as Frank said it was probably going to be in his email. It’s seriously a dump, but a crowded dump, because She Said’s got somewhat of a diverse following, mainly because of the last drunken set they do that’s just hardcore Neil Diamond covers. It’d started because Jesse Lacey is kind of a moron when he’s obliterated. It’d stuck because apparently every-fucking-body has a weakness for Sweet Caroline, and Spencer doesn’t think there’s anything as fucking hysterical as Nolan and Lacey dueting You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.

The guy at the door gives Brendon a once-over and a snort, but Spencer’s on the list, apparently, which he’s only slightly surprised about – Frank’s been known to forget the important stuff, even when he gets all the little details right - and they barely get inside before Spencer’s attacked by long, grabby arms and hefted off his feet.

Gabe staggers and says, “Fuck, Smith, you’re heavy,” and Spencer elbows him in the gut. Gabe drops him with an oof and Spencer follows up the elbow jab with an arm punch.

“Saporta,” Spencer says. “Hey.” Gabe’s the only guy Spencer knows who can sport a backwards baseball cap without looking like a total douche. Gabe’s defaulted cool, because he used to be normal. Relatively normal, at least, but then he discovered shades of fluorescent and the entire clusterfuck that was the 80s and never looked back.

“Smithy, Jesus,” Gabe says, grinning. “Tell Frank he’s missing some fucking awesome shit.”

“He’s going to kill you for taking off without him.”

“Yeah, like his mom would’ve even let him come,” Gabe says, which is a good point. Mama Iero might let Frank go crazy with the ink, but school starts Monday, and Mama Iero hates Gabe. Like really, hilariously hates him.

Spencer grins back. “He’s still pissed.”

Gabe asks, “You brave this melee alone, Smithy?” and that’s when Spencer realizes he’s lost Brendon. Literal minutes after they’d arrived; he should have put a leash on him.

“Shit.” He spins around, but Brendon isn’t any fucking where, and he could have spotted something shiny and wandered off or he could have been accosted, but Spencer’s sure Ryan would be pissed either way if he came home without him. “You don’t happen to see a little dude in pastels around, do you?” Gabe’s sort of ten feet tall. He’s good to have around in crowded rooms.

Gabe scans the bar, then grins a little evilly. “I think he found the band.”

“Please tell me you mean Nolan,” Spencer says, craning his neck to see.

“I could. I could indeed, Spence, but then we’d both know it was a lie.” Gabe starts pushing his way towards the stage, and Spencer makes good use of his wake.

Jesse Lacey is a sleaze. He’s kind of a bitter sleaze when he’s high or drunk, and Spencer thinks he’s an okay guy in a vague, that-dude’s-okay kind of way. He knows him even less than Michelle. He doesn’t really trust him with Brendon.

Lacey’s draped all over Brendon, and he smirks when Spencer arches an eyebrow. Seriously, complete fucking sleaze. Spencer presses his lips together and scowls. “Lacey,” he says.

“Smith,” Lacey says, nodding.

“Spencer, Spence, hi, I got lost,” Brendon says, grinning up him.

Of course, Gabe’s sleazy in an entirely different way than Lacey, so he immediately scoops Brendon away from Lacey and presses him up against his side and says, “You’re like a tiny precious doll. I’d like to keep you in my basement.”

Brendon blinks. “Uh.”

“We’re gonna have fun,” Gabe says. “Fucking awesome fun, kid, come with me.”

“Gabe,” Spencer says warningly. He crosses his arms over his chest to show he means business, but he cocks his hip by accident and Gabe’s often vocal viewpoint on Spencer’s hip-cock is that it’s too adorable for words, so Gabe ends up extending his other arm to tug Spencer close, too, and then he’s got both of them in half-hugs.

Gabe says, “You’d think the desert sun would give you a little color, Smithy, but you’re still a perfect porcelain. Tell me, has this little fellow—”

“Brendon,” Brendon puts in, looking fascinated, and Spencer rolls his eyes.

“Has Brendon seen that unfortunate beffie tattoo you’re sporting on your upper back? You know, the friends forever fiery skull Gerard fashioned for you and Frank on your sweet sixteenth?” Gabe asks, waggling his brows in a scary, scary leer.

If Spencer was as freakishly tall as Gabe, he’d fucking stab his eyes out.

“You have a tattoo, Spence?” Brendon asks, eyes huge.

Spencer had thought long and hard about getting a tattoo – mainly because his mom had made him think long and hard about getting a tattoo, and Spencer appreciates that more now than he had before - and Gerard’s an amazing artist, so he even likes his tattoo, but Gabe thinks it’s the funniest thing ever, and he knows exactly how to piss Spencer off about it. It’s a kick-ass tattoo, and so the fuck what if it matches one of Frank’s? They’re not even the same, Gabe’s just a complete asshole.

“Yeah,” Spencer says. “I have one.”

“Can I see it?”

Spencer frowns. “No.”

“Awww, let him see, Smithy,” Gabe says, tugging at the hem of Spencer’s shirt.

“Fuck off, Gabe.” Spencer slaps his hand away, but Brendon looks so disappointed that Spencer tells him, “Maybe later, okay,” and hopes that he just forgets about it. He’s not ashamed of it or anything, but he really doesn’t want to strip for Brendon, either. It would be a little weird.

Luckily, Gabe gets distracted by Michelle – “Chazzy, darling, I think you should buy me a drink, maybe several” – and wanders off, and by that time the first band is ready to go on.

The first band, by dint of being first, kind of sucks.

Which is an unfair generalization to really awesome opening bands, except this one actually truly sucks. Spencer’s a little embarrassed, like it’s somehow his fault, but Brendon’s just bobbing his head and he yells, “They suck,” when he catches Spencer watching him, and, “This is awesome!” grinning this big stupid grin and shooting him a thumbs-up.

She Said rocks, of course, and Gabe and Michelle both come out for Deadly Saints Under Missions From God and Spencer half expects to turn and see Frank and Mikey next to him, but he’s strangely not all that disappointed to just see Brendon still there, completely spazzing out, really, and that’s all kinds of awesome and hilarious.

Brendon falls asleep on his shoulder on the way home, obviously tuckered.

Spencer has no idea where Brendon lives, or where Ryan lives, so he takes him home, jostling him awake when he parks out in front of his house.

“We’re here, kiddo,” he says.

Brendon yawns in his face. He says, “Awesome,” and doesn’t seem surprised that they’re at Spencer’s – just slumps sleepily onto the living room couch when they get inside.

Spencer checks his phone, sees Frank’s number on the recent calls list and a new voicemail flashing. It isn’t until he’s hit send that he remembers the message from the day before, and it’s Ryan’s voice that says, “Hey,” and, “Um, Brendon gave me your number,” and, “I hope you don’t, like, mind or anything. Just calling to see what’s up.”

Spencer erases it and scrolls back through the missed calls and saves the unfamiliar number under Ryan.

*Spencer’s last weekend of freedom is almost a blur. He remembers shopping for school supplies with Brendon – which is possibly worse than shopping with Gerard; he ends up with three Lisa Frank notebooks and a panda shaped eraser – and he remembers Gabe showing up on his doorstep at four in the morning, Sunday, demanding a shower and a place to crash, and he remembers calling up Frank to yell at him about giving Gabe his fucking address; who does that shit? Gabe’s like an alley cat. You feed him once and he camps out in your house and eats all your Pringles and Eddie Haskell’s your mom, Jesus.

All in all, though, it’d been a pretty good time, but now it’s Monday morning, and Spencer’s sitting in the front office at school, waiting for his schedule.

There’s a kid with big teeth and a polo shirt with the collar popped sitting across from him. He’s slumped down, knees spread, grinning, and he asks, “What’re you in for?”

Spencer arches an eyebrow. “I’m new.”

“Awesome,” the guy bobs his head, “awesome. I’m Pete.”

Spencer thinks maybe this is the Pete Brendon had been talking about before, because Pete’s giving him a half-lidded eye rape. It’s making Spencer uncomfortable. He tries not to squirm and says, “Spencer,” and, “That’s kind of inappropriate,” when Pete licks his lips and winks at him.

“Generally speaking, I’m an inappropriate dude,” Pete says, straightening up. “I can tell my wiles won’t work on you, though. Hey, Dr. McLynn, there’s a problem with my lunch period, and the problem is that my special friend, Patrick, isn’t—”

“Pete, talk to your counselor. Mr. Smith?”

Spencer glances up at Principal McLynn, nods. “Yes.”

“Here’s your schedule and locker assignment.” He hands Spencer two slips of paper. Pete’s making faces at him behind McLynn’s back. “I like to sit and chat with my new students, but I haven’t got the time this morning. Pete,” he shoots Pete a harried, knowing glance, and Pete schools his face blank, even though his lips are twitching, “can show you to your locker and your first class.”

“Yes, sir,” Pete says.

McLynn sighs. He says to Spencer, “Welcome to Greensboro,” and then disappears into his office.

Pete claps his hands together and says, “All right, Spencer Smith, let’s see what you got.”

Spencer wordlessly hands over his schedule.

Pete nods and hmmms, says, “Oh, dude, you’ve got Hummel, that sucks,” and, “First period science, other side of the caf, upstairs, let’s go.”

On the way to the science wing, Pete shows him his locker, the art rooms, the bathroom that no one ever goes into, the storage closet where he makes out with his special friend, Patrick – what the fuck – and then he plasters on a toothy smile and knocks on room 217.

He sidesteps away before the door even opens and squeezes Spencer’s shoulder and says, “Chemistry with Hummel. Good luck,” and stuffs his hands in the pockets of his very tight jeans, whistling his way back down the hall.

A spacey kid in glasses opens the door, says, “What?” and Spencer knows his day is gonna be awesome.

Spencer doesn’t recognize a single person in any of his classes all morning, and he’s sort of been looked at like a freak, and he’s getting really, really close to punching somebody in the fucking face, but Brendon’s waiting by his locker before lunch, grinning.

“Hey,” Spencer says, and the entire horror of a morning seems kind of distant and muted.

“Spence, hey, Pete said you’ve got B lunch,” he says, bouncing a little. “I’ve missed your constant presence, so this is totally a good thing.”

“Definitely a good thing,” Spencer says, and he finds himself grinning back. “I’m guessing you’ve got B lunch, too?”

Brendon nods. “Yep. And Ryan and Jon and Tommy, who you haven’t met, but you’ll like him, swear, he’s, like, the cool to Jon Walker’s awesome, and I think we’ve got Greta, too.”

Spencer switches out his books, listening to Brendon talk and seriously feeling all the tension that’d built up in his shoulders slip away.

“Hey, hey, are you listening, Spence?”

“No,” Spencer says. He knocks Brendon’s shoulder. “Come on, show me where the cafeteria is.”

Brendon links their arms together, and Spencer wonders briefly if they’re gonna get odd looks – he doesn’t realize until later that he’s somehow managed to make friends with strategically popular people, which is fucking weird and he’s pretty sure it’s all Brendon’s fault – but he doesn’t pull away.

The lunch line is uneventful, and Spencer’s just settled down next to Brendon with his tray when Gabe shows up out of nowhere in hot pink hightops, a Member’s Only jacket, and a purple sweatband wrapped around his head. Spencer sinks lower in his seat and palms his forehead.

Gabe announces to the room, “I’m looking for Smithy,” and, “He’s about as tall as my nipples, give or take an inch,” and, “Lip ring? Vampire in training? Plays his drums with entirely too much elbow?” and then, when everyone just stares at him, he says, “I’m too much Jersey for you fuckers, right.”

Spencer can probably slip under the table and hide. There’s really no shame in hiding from Gabe.

Brendon pokes Spencer in the side. “Um.”

“Yeah,” Spencer says, resigned, because he can hide, but Gabe’ll never fucking give up, and it’ll just end up even more embarrassing. “Yeah, I know.” Spencer half stands and waves a hand to catch Gabe’s attention.

Gabe grins. He saunters over and spins the caf chair next to Ryan around before straddling it, then nods at Brendon and says, “Little dude.” He turns and gives Ryan a look. It’s Gabe’s I’m-judging-you look, but it works better when he’s wearing his reflective shades.

Spencer says, “Gabe—”

“Shhhh,” Gabe says, then stares at Ryan some more before nodding, slowly, and looking over at Spencer again. “I like this place. It’s got a bohemian vibe. Sort of like Annie Oakley meets Ringo Starr meets 1977 JC Penney catalog model, Joe Public.”

Ryan scrunches up his face a little. He’s gotten a hair cut, so he sort of looks like he’s twelve years old, and it’s fucking with Spencer’s mind. Spencer knows Gabe isn’t actually insulting Ryan, though. That’s all admiration, but Gabe’s the kind of guy who thinks Velcro is still an acceptable fastener, so.

“Gabe, what are you—”

“The Cobra has brought me here, Smithy. You see, I’ve gone on a quest through the desert, and the Cobra sent to me a vision. A vision of—hey, hey, watch the shoes, they’re classics.”

Jon blinks at Gabe before pulling out the chair next to him. “Sorry, are you—”

“I’m speaking. You may speak when I’m done,” Gabe says, wagging a finger at Jon.

Another guy, a guy with an even scruffier beard than Jon’s, slides in next to Spencer. He narrows his eyes and asks, “What’s on your head, man?”

“The uniform of the Cobra, Scott—”

“I’m Tom.”

“Hmmmm, really? Are you entirely sure?” Gabe leans forward. “You look like a Scott. Like you’re about to wolf out, man, what’s happening with your beard?”

“Gabe, seriously,” Spencer says. “What are you doing here? I thought you’d left.” He hadn’t been in the house that morning, and Spencer had figured he’d just found a way back home. He’d hoped he’d found a way back home, or at least decided to last out the rest of the tour with Michelle.

Gabe spreads his hands. “Hey, maybe I’m just checking out the school, right. Maybe I’m thinking about transferring to this fine establishment.”

“You graduated,” Spencer says. Gabe sometimes doesn’t remember that, since it’d taken him three tries to do it.

“Oh. Right.” Gabe rubs his chin. “Still. The Cobra likes Vegas. And your mom.”

It’s very possible that Gabe has completely lost his mind. Although, honestly, he’s not acting all that much different than normal. He just maybe seems extra weird without his posse, without Blackinton, Nate and Alex and their predilection towards neon and humoring Gabe.

“Why, hello,” Gabe says when Greta walks over, dropping her brown paper bag onto the table next to Jon’s.

She says, “Hi,” and Gabe says, “Aren’t you adorable, kitty kitten,” and Spencer realizes he’s essentially living with that creepy older dude who hits on all your underage friends, fuck.

He slips out his cell and texts Frank: gabes staying i’m in hell

Frank texts back: insert maniacal laugther here

*

Spencer thinks the only reason he survives his first week at school at all is because he’s got Brendon in his math class, and Greta, Bill and Ryan in history. And Gabe, if you count Gabe, and Spencer’s honestly not sure why no one’s called campus security on him yet.

“I have to pick an elective,” Spencer tells Brendon, sprawled across his bed.

Brendon does something that looks hilariously like jazz hands. “Graphic arts!” he says. “We make t-shirts, Spence, it’s pretty cool.”

“Unless I want to switch history classes, I have to choose between woodshop and photography.”

Spencer’s got one eye on his computer, where Mikey’s IM’ing him about the gaping wound Frank got in gym, because Frank’s a fucking maniac and shouldn’t be allowed near sharp objects. They’re doing archery this semester, and Blackinton apparently thinks he killed a squirrel, even though they couldn’t find any evidence of said dead squirrel, and he’s making posters of protest and trying to talk everybody into boycotting the Presidential Physical Fitness Awards. Frank stole half the archery equipment in the name of the cause, only he’d stabbed himself in the leg with an arrow trying to climb some trees, who the fuck knows how. The whole thing is kind of awesome. Spencer can’t believe he’s stuck halfway across the fucking country from them.

“Well,” Brendon says, leveraging up on his elbows. “On the one hand, you’ve got fun with wood. On the other, you’ve got a ninety percent chance of sunshine and Jon Walker. Are you wearing that?”

Spencer glances down at his jeans. “Yeah?”

Brendon makes a face, and Spencer clenches his hands into fists, but then Brendon just says, “Should I change?” kind of anxiously, and Spencer has no idea where that’s coming from, since he wore a kitten shirt to a dive bar, and this is just some fucking basement gig.

“I think you’ll be good,” Spencer says, and Brendon’s answering grin is kind of blinding.

Jon Walker is in a shitty nameless band with his friend Tom and this freshman Spencer knows from band, Johnson, and Bill. Spencer may or may not be interested in Jon Walker – seriously, he’s not fucking talking, but the guy’s hot, okay? - but he’s starting to think maybe Brendon’s Jon-is-super-awesome shtick is some sort of puppy crush. He’s surprisingly not okay with that. Huh.

Spencer signs off with Mikey and gets to his feet, jerks his head towards the door. “We ready?”

Brendon slips off the edge of the bed. “Yep, yes, we’re picking up Ryan, though, and we’ll be, like, another hour over there while he decides what to wear, just to warn you. And whatever you do, don’t say the words fine or paisley ‘cause that’ll send him into spasms, oh my god.”

“Wait, why?” Spencer asks.

“They’re little flowers. Little sprigs of flowers which are technically paisley, but if you say paisley he thinks you’re making fun of him.”

Spencer presses his lips together, watches as Brendon nods earnestly. He says, “I’m pretty sure I’d actually be making fun of him, though.”

“Yeah. Yeah, and you do not want that hissy fit, Spence, oh no.”

Spencer grins. He doesn’t think he’s grinned so much around another person besides his mom since he was little, Brendon just gets to him. He’d be annoyed if he wasn’t so fucking happy all the time, Christ.

Of course, the happy only lasts until they get to the party – and Ryan had only taken a half hour, and Brendon kept making faces at Spencer behind Ryan’s back, and Spencer had to bite his lip to keep from laughing, seriously, it’s that bad – and Brendon takes off for parts Jon Walker.

Spencer grabs a beer. It’s cheap and watery and exactly fits Spencer’s mood.

Ryan follows him into the kitchen and leans against the counter while Spencer gulps half his beer in one swallow. He tips the cup towards him in offering and Ryan shakes his head.

“Don’t really drink,” Ryan says.

Spencer nods. “Okay.”

They stand there for a little in silence. There’re kids everywhere, no one Spencer knows, and Ryan only waves a few times, once gives a quick greeting, “Hey.” It’s not uncomfortable, though, this hanging out together shit, for maybe the first time since they’d re-met. It’s just Ryan being weirdly Ryan, and Spencer finding that nicely familiar.

And then Ryan ruins it all by saying, “So you’re into Brendon.”

Spencer doesn’t spit-take because he’s not a fucking cartoon character, but it’s a close call. He maintains most of his cool with a, “Um. What?” and the crinkle of his fingers tightening around the plastic cup.

Ryan shrugs. “Hey, it’s really easy.” There isn’t quite a smile on his lips when Spencer looks at him, but it’s kind of there anyway. “He’s.” Ryan shrugs again.

“I’m not.”

“Okay,” Ryan says, mostly like he doesn’t believe him, but Spencer doesn’t think he has to defend himself on this one.

“Smithy.” Gabe swoops in out of nowhere and steals Spencer’s beer, and Bill is right behind him.

The first meeting between Bill and Gabe had gone something like this:

Bill had said, “I’ll thank you to keep your abnormally large paws off Greta, the heart of my heart,” and, “I admire anyone who can pull off a face shirt.”

And Gabe had said, “It’s my best girl, Vicky-T, so she’s with me in constant spirit,” eyeing Bill up and down. “You’ve got skinny limbs, my friend. D’you think you’d fit into, say, the trunk of a car?”

And then they’d grinned blindingly at each other and haven’t left each other’s sides since. They’ve even made friendship necklaces, which might’ve been cute if it wasn’t Bill and Gabe, and if Spencer didn’t suspect creepy blood oaths had been involved.

“Look at you, Vegas party boy,” Gabe says.

Spencer snorts, grabs his cup back. “Yeah, okay.”

“Where’s your little shadow?”

“Boy-shaped and delicious,” Bill puts in, curling fingers over Gabe’s arm to peek over his shoulder, “my favorite snack besides Salpeter.”

Spencer knows he basically feels the same around Brendon as he does around Frank, and he doesn’t want into Frank’s pants. He’s not jealous of Jamia – although maybe in the beginning he had been, because Jamia takes up an awful fucking lot of Frank’s time – and this is, like, the same type deal. He’s sure of it. He’s just had Brendon’s almost constant attention for a while, and now that school’s started he has to get used to sharing him.

Spencer shrugs. “No idea, man,” he says, and finishes off his beer before making his way back towards the keg.

He’s on his fourth beer by the time they head downstairs to the basement and, okay, Spencer can get a little pissy when he’s drunk. Not that he’s drunk, but he’s also never been able to hold his alcohol very well, and he’s not, like, in the best mood to begin with. So it’s a little tough to be all smiles with Brendon noodling around on Jon’s bass.

“You should grow a beard.”

Spencer jerks a little, then turns to see that comic book store clerk standing next to him, staring. “What?”

“That bitchy glare you’ve got going on. It’s pretty impressive, but I think you’d look less like a pre-menstrual girl if you grew a beard.” She punches his shoulder. “Buck up there, camper.”

“Um.”

She grins at him, and it’s a little scary. She’s got so much black around her eyes that there’s a distinct possibility she’s of the undead, which is kind of amazing. She says, “You know what’d be cool? If you’d introduce me to that guy you were hanging with who keeps calling Walker Stiles. That’s prime crazy right there,” and Spencer would absolutely fucking love to introduce her to Gabe, except he really has no idea who she is. Besides totally fucking awesome.

Spencer gets his shit together and finally says, “I’m Spencer.”

“Yeah,” she says, bobbing her head. “Okay, we’re doing this? I’m Edie. I like cherry M&Ms and watching the sixth period boys’ gym class instead of going to study hall. It’s all part of my plan to bag Colligan, the lovable lacrosse-playing freak. Jocks are awesome.” There’s a certain fondness in her tone that suggests she isn’t actually joking, despite the way she’s openly mocking Spencer. “Now,” she goes on, “Walker looks uncomfortable. I want to give this guy a hug.”

Gabe loves hugs. And making people uncomfortable. Spencer thinks Edie and Gabe are gonna get along just fine.

*

It’s almost like Spencer blinks and it’s October. October, usually the best month of the year, since Frank’s enthusiasm about his birthday is contagious. Spencer wakes up on the first with two call me texts from Jamia, an o god its worse witout u from Ray, and wish me wish me from Frank, which could mean practically anything and makes Spencer grin like crazy.

Gabe finally got a job, so he no longer lurks creepily in dark corners at Spencer’s school, but he doesn’t have a car, so Spencer has to drive his ass to the fish store every morning – “Fish extravaganza, Smithy, it’s like a rainbow explosion of adorable wee gilled beings” – where some unwise dude has apparently put Gabe in charge of all the cichlids.

Gabe rubs at his brass nameplate pinned onto his blue Team Fish t-shirt and bounds out of Spencer’s piece of shit Civic with a backwards wave. Spencer’s still not sure if he likes having Gabe around. He’s the kind of guy that he’d probably miss if he went away, but drives him fucking insane every second he’s still there.

Spencer’s cell goes off as he pulls out of the fish store parking lot, and he thumbs it on without looking at the display.

“So you know it wasn’t actually a suggestion.”

Spencer grins. “Hey, Jamia.”

“Spencer, Spencer, Spencer. Frank’s kind of lost without you. It’s pretty pathetic.”

Spencer grins wider. “Did he make his list yet?”

“He made a fucking impossible list, number one being you.”

God. Spencer feels this gooey warmth puddle in his stomach and it sort of makes him want to choke himself. He’s a total fucking goofball for Frank.

“Of course,” Jamia says, “being the awesome lady that I am, I’m organizing a fund.”

“A fund,” Spencer echoes, turning into the school driveway.

“A send Frank to Vegas for his birthday fund. You want in?”

Spencer almost jams on the brakes, which would’ve sucked, since he’s got a line of cars behind him. “Dude, yes. Are you kidding me? I am so fucking in.”

Jamia laughs. She says, “Don’t say a word, okay. We know Mikey’s gonna let it slip at some point, but we’re trying to keep it a surprise for as long as we can. It’ll be great. Everyone’s going to skip out on his party planning. I’ve got money on him crying.”

“You’re a little evil,” Spencer says. He admires Jamia’s ability to torture Frank without remorse and love him more than anything in the world all at the same time. She’s sort of amazing.

“I’m a lot evil. It’s part of my charm,” she says, then hangs up without saying goodbye, and Spencer just shakes his head, still grinning this stupid-ass grin.

Brendon’s leaning against his minivan when Spencer parks, and he practically lights up when he spots Spencer. Brendon always acts like he’s surprised to see Spencer each morning, which is crazy, because it’s been almost a month and a half and Brendon always waits for him before school. Crazy, but gratifying. Spencer isn’t going to lie. He looks forward to walking to homeroom together, Brendon so close to him their arms brush.

Ryan sends him knowing looks when they finally get to class, but Ryan can just bite him. So he maybe has a little crush on Brendon, whatever. He’s got a crush on Edie, too, and Jon Walker and the littlest of the Alexes that Colligan hangs out with – Edie is kind of hilarious around Colligan, but he thinks maybe if he ever points that out she’d climb up onto a desk and kick him in the head – the one that bounces almost as much as Brendon and still has freaking braces. Spencer’s libido is all over the place. He blames the change in time zones.

Unfortunately, Spencer has to trudge off to chemistry by himself after homeroom, which fucking sucks. Hummel is the devil. Chem is only bearable because of his lab partner, a completely fucking annoying blond girl who’s wormed her way into his good graces by showing up with coffee for each of them every day.

“Okay. Okay, I’ve seriously held my tongue forever,” Ashlee says, leaning her elbows onto the lab table and nudging one of the large coffee cups over towards Spencer.

Spencer arches an eyebrow. As far as Spencer knows, Ashlee has never ever held her tongue about anything. “Yeah?”

“So I’m awesome and you clearly love me—”

Spencer snorts. “I love coffee.”

“Bribery is best.” Ashlee nods. “I’m making muffins for Friday.”

“Why?” Spencer’s not going to turn down muffins, but Ashlee’s sneaky.

“Gossip! You and Ross, Spence, there’s rumors of broken hearts.”

“I was ten,” Spencer says. Jesus Christ, people are nosy assholes.

Ashlee pats his arm and makes a disturbing cooing sound. “He totally makes cow eyes around you, you know that, right?”

Spencer rolls his eyes. “It’s nothing. I’m, like, a fucking novelty.” And Ryan doesn’t make cow eyes. He’s too busy annoying him about Brendon, giving him this blank expression that Spencer just knows means you-know-you-want-into-his-pants-just-do-it-already, although maybe Spencer’s reading too much into that nose-wrinkle he does whenever Spencer laughs at another fucking adorable thing Brendon’s done.

Ashlee gives him a twinkly-eyed grin. “You are seriously so cute, oh my god.”

“Whatever,” Spencer mumbles into his cup. It’s way too early to deal with all her perkiness.

“Oh, oh, and don’t even get me started on you and Brendon. You—”

“I don’t see muffins. Do you see muffins?” Spencer glares at her. “Which means shut the fuck up.”

“Don’t be so touchy, geez. I’m just curious. I told you all about me and Pete.”

“Which I’m pretty sure I asked you not to do,” Spencer points out. That had been mainly traumatizing, and included talk of role playing in trucker hats that Spencer just wishes he could scrub completely from his brain.

Ashlee pouts. “You’re totally not living up to my expectations.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Seriously, coffee and muffins are maybe not worth this.

“My expectations for you,” Ashlee says, “as my gay best friend.”

That statement actually does not surprise Spencer, but it’s still so very, very wrong. “First of all,” he says, “no.”

“No?”

“Second of all, I’m not gay.”

“But you like boys,” Ashlee says. She tilts her head, going for that quizzical thing Brendon does, only it actually works for him. It just makes Ashlee look stupid.

Spencer says, “I think boys are great. I’m also fond of girls.”

Ashlee nods. “I’ve heard of that.”

See, Ashlee is not actually dumb, their chem grades reflect this, but sometimes Spencer has trouble remembering that. “Are we done with this conversation?” Spencer asks.

“Seriously, stop acting pissy.” Ashlee lifts her hands up, palms out. “Pete puts me up for half this shit, you know that.”

He does know that. He knows that because Pete corners him all the time and tells him he’s got his female eye on him, which, okay, at first Spencer didn’t want to assume anything, because apparently anything goes with Pete, but now he realizes his female eye is Ashlee. “You go along with it, though.”

Ashlee grins. “’Cause it’s fun.”

Spencer rolls his eyes. “Whatever.”

“Whatever,” Ashlee echoes, still grinning, and Spencer hopes her muffins are really fucking delicious.

*

In the middle of the month, which is actually much longer than Spencer thought it’d take, Frank calls Spencer at two in the morning and says, “Fuck, yeah.”

Spencer laughs. “Dude.” He isn’t asleep yet, even though it’s a school night. Mikey and Gerard are fighting like the twelve-year-old girls they are again, and Mikey’s got him trapped online.

“Seriously, there better be some fucking awesome Vegas Halloween shenanigans going on,” Frank says.

“Seeing me isn’t enough of a birthday present?”

“No way, man. I’m totally getting a giant Elvis head on my arm or, like, Wayne Newton, lord of the snow monkeys.”

Spencer is sixty-seven percent sure Frank is kidding. “Right.”

“I’ll talk your baby boyfriend into coming with, dude, pop his tattoo cherry, it’ll be awesome.” Frank is such an asshole. Spencer can’t wait to see him.

“Frank—”

“Your posse, motherfucker, your Vegas crew. I’m finally gonna meet Hot-Ass Jon and Creepy Ryan, dude, dude, tell me you weren’t lying about the scarves, right, because that shit is fucking hilarious.”

Spencer feels the slightest and strangest twinge of protectiveness towards Ryan at Frank’s words, but he doesn’t say anything about it. He laughs instead, says, “I’m hanging up, you shit. Tell Mikes to lay off the Paint Shop Pro,” because there are only so many pony pics Spencer needs with Gerard’s head pasted onto them.

“You tell him,” Frank says. “That mounted mare one is going up on my wall, dude, fucking framed.”

Spencer shakes his head and says, “Asswipe, seriously,” and Frank says, “You love me,” and makes some kissy noises before hanging up.

Spencer sighs and gets into bed without signing off AIM. Mikey’ll just go on for hours; he never really needs a response.

Gabe slips into his bedroom fifteen minutes later, though, and Spencer hears the rapid clack of keys and says, “Stop pretending you’re me, Saporta.”

Gabe cackles. He says, “Mikeyway is seriously fucked up, man. A genius, but fucked up.”

“Stop pretending you’re me,” Spencer says again. He kicks out a foot and catches Gabe’s side. “Fucker.”

Gabe curves away from him, freakishly long body like a comma, and bats at Spencer’s ankle with the flat of his hand. “I’m gonna start a manip war. You got any saved pictures of Brendon on this thing?”

“No.” Spencer absolutely did not hook up his phone and download a ton of crappy res photos onto his computer. That would be lame.

“I sense you’re lying to me, Smithy. That isn’t very nice.” Gabe arches an eerily shadowed eyebrow over his shoulder at him.

Spencer flips him off, which somehow leads to Gabe wrestling him out of bed and making microwave popcorn and staying up until five watching Spanish infomercials, and Spencer’s basically a walking zombie the next day.

Ryan and Brendon are waiting for him when he shows up at school, along with this guy Zack. Spencer didn’t actually meet Zack until a couple weeks into September, since Zack isn’t in school anymore, but hangs out around Ryan and Brendon sometimes anyway. Zack isn’t scary exactly – Spencer’s used to Bob, and Bob’ll fuck you up if he needs to – but he’s a big guy. He’s got a look that says, “I’m not an asshole, but I’ve got no problem faking it long enough to break your face.”

Spencer respects Zack. He respects the way he can toss Brendon over his shoulder and the way he can curl a guiding hand around Ryan’s arm without snapping it in half. Once, purely for demonstrative purposes, he’d scooped Spencer up into his arms like, as Brendon had said, “A swooning fairy princess,” and, okay, that hadn’t actually made Spencer respect him any more, but it’d made his point. Spencer respects Zack.

Ryan gives him a wave that turns into a tug on the scarf around his neck, like he wasn’t sure he meant to greet Spencer so enthusiastically, if a fucking limp-wristed wave could be considered an enthused hello.

It’s more amusing than anything now, though.

Ryan, Spencer can honestly admit, is not actually all that creepy when you get to know him, despite the hobo gloves, the scarves, the – swear to god - makeup. He kind of grows on you, and no matter how much Spencer wants to stay pissed at him, the fact of the matter is that they’d been ten. They’d been ten, and it was a long time ago, and Brendon tells Spencer daily how awesome Ryan thinks he is and seriously, okay, Spencer is not immune to a little hero-worship. If Ryan wants to hang around him thinking Spencer-is-the-shit thoughts, hey, Spencer isn’t going to stop him.

Edie thinks he’s an idiot, but Edie has an entire notebook dedicated to Cash Money Colligan, so Edie can’t really fucking talk.

It’d be nice if Ryan could actually hold a conversation with him, though. One that doesn’t consist of knowing eyebrow arches and pointed looks in Brendon’s direction, although lately there’s been something in his eyes that Spencer can’t quite read, and he’s really not sure he wants to.

Spencer is not a moron. Spencer likes waking up on weekend mornings to Brendon wrapped up in his extra blankets, perched on the edge of his bed with a bowl of cereal. He likes it a little too much.

It’s not like Jon, who practically everyone, Spencer has found, has a crush on. Jon can get a blush out of Spencer faster than anyone on the planet. Spencer loses his train of thought when Jon smiles. Spencer’s stomach bottoms out when Jon reaches over to flick Spencer’s bangs out of his face, because, “You’re just so pretty, Spence, seriously, don’t hide those baby blues,” and anyone but Jon would get fucking decked for a remark like that, but Spencer has as huge Jon-shaped weakness.

It’s not like with the littlest Alex, who Spencer has never actually talked to. Edie makes Spencer skip study hall to watch the sixth period boy’s gym with her, and there’s something freaking endearing about the littlest Alex, and Spencer will kill Edie if she ever, ever tells anyone he thinks that.

During sixth period that day Spencer maybe snaps. The littlest Alex fumbles the soccer ball and lands on his face and Cash is laughing like a jackass and Edie is drawing a big black heart around the initials E.B. & C.C., and that right there is an inappropriate crush. These dudes are not for them, Spencer knows this, and neither is Brendon, because Brendon’s a complete bubbly spaz and Frank would never ever let him get away with dating him, not without giving him massive amounts of shit for it, seriously. Hell, he already gives him massive amounts of shit, and that’s just Frank thinking he’s fucking hilarious, like Spencer’s life in Vegas is one huge joke.

So Spencer does the only thing he can do. He asks out Edie.

She laughs in his face and then says, “Yeah, sure, why not.”

*

The thing about dating Edie is that they don’t really date. They hang out, and it’s only been, like, a week, but he’s got a bruise on his arm from where she keeps punching him. He’d tried to kiss her once - because he had some sort of brain fart, obviously - and she’d bit his tongue so hard he’d had to stuff a washcloth in his mouth to stop the bleeding. She’s vicious and possibly psychotic and very, very scary.

“So are you done being a pussy about Urie yet?” she asks him. They’re watching a marathon of America’s Next Top Model because it’s addicting and Edie likes to make fun of Tyra Banks.

“Wha—no.” Spencer purses his lips, what the fuck.

“I’m okay with being used, you know, but it’d be awesome if you could maybe put some effort into this.”

“I’m not—fuck, why does everyone think I’m after Brendon? Maybe I’m into Jon.” Spencer slumps down low on the couch and texts Frank: u & edie should have tiny mean hardcore bbs

Frank sends back a pic of Bob eating a cheesesteak.

“Well, fucking duh, Smith. Everyone’s into Walker. Walker shits rainbows,” Edie says. “Urie’s the one you get all googlie-eyed over.”

“I’m—seriously, how is this your business?”

“You made this my business. And I thought I’d be awesome and warn you about Ross.”

Spencer wrinkles his forehead. “Huh?”

“Ross might go homicidal. Personally, I’m looking forward to it, but you might not want to actually die. I mean, Urie has no idea what an idiot you’re being about this, but Ross has a freaky sense for knowing when his friends are being dicked around.”

Spencer stares at the side of Edie’s head. “What?”

“Yeah, that’s all you’re getting. You talk to Ross or Urie about the rest, okay, because this is getting way too A Very Special Webster for me.”

Spencer blinks. He has no idea what Edie is talking about, but that isn’t so surprising. “What?”

She turns and narrows a glare. “Don’t make me kick your ass, Smith. Take some fucking initiative here, Christ.”

Spencer clenches his jaw. They’re in the same fucking boat. He says, “Colligan.” Edie isn’t going to do anything about Colligan because Colligan is Colligan, and Edie is herself. They don’t make any fucking sense.

“Shut the fuck up,” Edie says, jabbing a finger at him. “I’m honing my stalker skills. I’m thinking about becoming a serial killer.”

“There is something mentally wrong with you,” Spencer says, but he can feel the corners of his mouth twitching. Sometimes he just can’t believe the shit that comes out of her mouth. Edie’s awesome and all, but she’s totally imbalanced, he’s sure of it.

Edie rolls her eyes. “Yeah, okay.”

“No, really.” Edie’s like Frank, Gabe and Pete all rolled into one. That is seriously losing its appeal. “We’re breaking up.”

“Smith, we were never actually dating, are you retarded?”

Spencer is going to go up to Colligan tomorrow. He’s going to stroll right up to him and tell him all about Edie’s enormous crush because Edie is an ass.

“Anyway,” Edie shrugs a little, “Urie’s gonna ask you to Homecoming.”

“No, he’s not,” Spencer says, slightly horrified.

She arches an eyebrow. “Yes, he is.”

“Well tell him not to.” Spencer does not want to go to Homecoming. Homecoming would be the worst kind of torture, and he certainly doesn’t want to go with Brendon, who’d probably show up in a powder blue tux and that top hat he’s been bragging about.

“I’m not going to break his fragile heart, Smith, you’re gonna have to do that all on your own.”

Well, Spencer thinks. Shit. “I’m going,” he says, getting to his feet.

“Of course you are.”

Spencer resists the urge to smack her in the back of the head, because that’s just cause for retaliation, and who knows what kind of sadistic shit Edie can come up with. He starts off through the kitchen towards the front door, waving to Edie’s mom on his way, and when he gets outside there’s an unfamiliar sedan at the end of the driveway, parking him in.

A chill runs down Spencer’s spine. And then the driver’s side door pops open and Zack gets out. He walks calmly around the front of the car and then opens the back passenger side and gestures for Spencer to get in.

Somehow, he feels like Edie knew about this.

He kind of wants to turn around and scramble back inside the house, but on the other hand, what the fuck? He shrugs and slips his hands into his pockets and sets off across the lawn.

“Hey,” he says to Zack, and Zack grins and says, “Get in.”

Spencer isn’t surprised that Ryan’s in the backseat of the car, waiting for him. Ryan is not a scary dude, though. Ryan looks about as threatening as a fuzzy kitten, even with the I-am-so-serious brow and the arms crossed over his chest. He’s got on a spaghetti tie and a brown derby with a flower tucked over the brim.

Spencer stares at him and knows that his own expression is much, much more foreboding. He wants to know what the hell is going on.

And then Ryan lets out an exasperated breath and deflates a little and Spencer feels something tight shift in his chest.

“Hey,” Spencer says. “I’m—”

“No, okay.” Ryan reaches out, curls a hand over Spencer’s arm briefly before pulling back. “I get that you’re—I mean, I know that you think I’m—that I’m funny, okay.”

Spencer opens his mouth, but cuts off at a headshake from Ryan. Ryan hasn’t talked this much to, or even around Spencer, since they were little.

“That you think I’m a big joke,” Ryan goes on, and he’s looking down at his lap, at his hands loosely clasped together.

The something tight in Spencer’s chest tightens up even more. He hadn’t—it isn’t that he thinks Ryan is a joke, he’d just thought. He’d thought Ryan made himself a joke, like it was some act, some show he kept up to keep everyone from really seeing him, the makeup and stupid scarves and headbands and neckerchiefs and sashes and, okay, maybe it is like that. Maybe it is, but he still doesn’t think Ryan’s—“Ryan, I don’t. I don’t think that.”

Ryan shoots him a sharp look. “We are such a fucking novelty to you, Spencer Smith,” he says. “You have no clue—” Ryan stops, pinches the bridge of his nose.

Spencer has no idea what Ryan wants from him. He twists his mouth and says a little viciously, because he’s feeling fucking attacked, “I’m not like you. I didn’t grow up with you, Ryan, and I’m sorry if I—if you don’t like who I am—”

“That isn’t it and you know it,” Ryan says, not letting Spencer get away with that lie, because it’s such a fucking lie. Ryan has never once acted like Spencer needs to change in order to be friends with him.

Spencer feels a little color heat his cheeks.

“Spencer,” Ryan says slowly. “Brendon’s going to ask you to Homecoming. And you’re going to say no.”

Spencer tries to protest. He says, “No, I’m—”

“You’re going to say no,” Ryan says, and he lifts his gaze finally and pins Spencer with his earnest eyes and Spencer gets it.

Spencer is going to say no.

*

Spencer doesn’t actually start worrying until Brendon stops showing up for band.

Brendon had crawled up his bed the Saturday morning after Ryan had cornered him and he’d grabbed Spencer’s hands and he’d looked him straight in the eye and asked him to Homecoming, and Spencer. Spencer had wanted to say yes. It’d hit him hard, unexpected, Spencer had so wanted to say yes, but Ryan had been mostly right. Spencer’s going to leave after the term is over, at Christmas. Spencer’s got Frank coming in a week and Brendon wears tight pink and rainbow t-shirts and red-framed glasses and has the stupidest haircut Spencer has ever, ever seen, so Spencer says no.

And now Brendon’s gotten somewhat subdued around him, not as likely to launch himself onto his lap, crawl up onto his bed on weekend mornings.

But Brendon still waits for him in the mornings before school and sits too close at lunch and passes him notes all through math, and Spencer’s relieved that hasn’t changed, no matter how superficial their friendship might seem to be. But then there’s an empty seat in the brass section during band practice, near the front, and now, suddenly, there isn’t an empty seat anymore, but there’s also no longer a spastic Urie in the line of trombones, and Spencer gets really fucking worried.

Ryan can accuse him of not really getting to know any of them, yeah, but the one big important thing Spencer knows about Brendon is that he loves being in band. Head-over-heels fucking loves it, and Brendon up and quitting makes Spencer sick to his stomach.

Spencer has never been to Brendon’s work before. Brendon talks about it enough, so maybe it feels like he’s been there, but he’s never before actually stepped foot into the Smoothie Hut. That would explain the huge, surprised eyes Brendon gives him.

And then he beams and says, “Spencer, hey,” and, “Are you here to try out my famous banana-strawberry dream?”

Spencer shrugs. “Sure.”

Brendon seems jittery when he makes his smoothie. He calls out, “I’m taking my break now,” after he slides it over the counter to Spencer, and then he’s bounding out, flipping the ties of his apron up over his head and stuffing it under the counter as he joins Spencer on the other side.

Spencer asks, “How long’s your break?”

“You’ve got me for twenty minutes,” Brendon says, and Spencer can see some strain around his eyes, and he really, really doesn’t like it.

They sit outside on the sidewalk and Spencer stretches his legs out into an empty parking spot. He sets his smoothie down on the asphalt and knocks his shoulder into Brendon’s and says, “So you haven’t been to band in a few days.”

“Yeah, I.” Brendon ducks his head. “I had to pick up more hours here, so. I quit.”

Spencer’s fingers clench into fists. “Okay.”

“It’s not a big deal.”

“It’s.” Spencer kind of wants to hug Brendon, because it’s sort of a huge deal. He wants to ask why he had to pick up more hours, but he’s not sure if he’s allowed, not sure if it’s any of his business. But then Ryan’s there in the back of his head, making this bland, smug, you-know-I’m-fucking-right face and Spencer realizes it sort of is his business. He just hadn’t realized that before. “So. Why?” Spencer asks, and he feels Brendon tighten up next to him, get tenser than he’s ever seen him.

“It’s really fucking ironic, right.” Brendon laughs a little, and there’s that strain again, this time threading his voice, but the laugh doesn’t seem exactly fake. “They told me to get out, see how far I got on my own if I wasn’t going to. Wasn’t going to do what they wanted me to do, and all I ever wanted to do was play music. Piano, guitar, drums, trombone, harmonica, whatever.” He sniffs, rubs his forefinger over the bridge of his nose. “So, yeah. It’s harder to make rent when I’m in school everyday, you know?”

Spencer does not actually know, but he can imagine. Fuck.

“They’re expecting me to come back home,” Brendon says.

“But you’re not,” Spencer says, because Brendon is hardcore, Spencer sees that now.

“No.” Brendon straightens up a little. “No. And Ryan’s been.” He stops, bites his lip, like he’s said too much.

“Ryan’s been staying with you, too.” That makes a hell of a lot of sense, really. Even when they’d been ten, Ryan hadn’t always had the best home life.

Brendon shrugs. “Sometimes.”

“Sometimes,” Spencer echoes, and lets out a weighty breath. Jesus.

“So, um,” Brendon fidgets with his fingers, “I’ve got to get back inside, but—”

“Want to help me plan Frank’s birthday party?” Spencer asks, not so much because he needs the help – although he does; Frank’s gonna fucking kill him if his party isn’t completely awesome – but because he absolutely can’t leave with Brendon looking so low, so much like his fucking heart is broken.

Brendon smiles at him, eyes crinkling. “Yeah, of course,” he says. He’s maybe not as enthusiastic as usual, but everything about him is still so genuine.

Spencer hangs around outside the Smoothie Hut, thinks about tapping out a cigarette but doesn’t, just turns the battered pack over and over in his fingers. And then Bill shows up – without Gabe, for once – and catches sight of him and says grandly, “Smithy, Smith, you must entertain me, since my lady love and the cobra of my heart are sadly both at their demanding jobs.”

Bill reaches down and tugs Spencer to his feet and Spencer says, “All right, fine,” and, “So what are we going to do?”

“We,” Bill says, wiggling his fingers in Spencer’s face, “are going to go find Jonny Walker, because Jonny Walker always has the best stash.”

Spencer doesn’t bother asking what kind of stash. That’s pretty obvious. Spencer grins and says, “Lead on.”

*

When Spencer wakes up sometime Sunday, there are whispers. Loud whispers and the scent of markers and Spencer groans and tips his head off the edge of the bed. “The fuck?”

Brendon and Gabe look up from where they’re sprawled on the floor on their stomachs, matching big-ass grins across their faces.

“We’re making plans, Spence,” Brendon says, tapping a sharpie against his chin. “Pete says we can use his house, which’ll be awesome. I can’t believe you waited until the very last minute, Gabe says he’s coming Friday.”

Gabe bites the end of his marker and kicks his feet up in the air. “I’m assuming you’re thinking costumes, Smithy. Frank’s gonna want a good old fashioned monster mash.”

Spencer yawns and rubs the heel of his palm over his eyes. “Sure,” he says. It’s too damn early to deal with Gabe and Brendon drawing fucking – he tilts his head a little more – cats or something, what the hell. “What’s with the cats?”

“We’re planning our outfits,” Brendon says brightly, and Spencer does not want to know, seriously.

“That’s great,” Spencer says, rolling over onto his back. He blinks, thinks it’s closer to morning then he’d like judging by the low light creeping across his ceiling. Then he smiles a little, because Frank’s going to be there in, like, five days, and that’s fucking awesome.

“Pete says he’ll only play host for this if you’ll make out with him.” Brendon bounces up onto the bed and leans over Spencer. He waggles his eyebrows. “Above the waist heavy petting. He does this thing with his tongue—”

Spencer claps a hand over Brendon’s mouth. He can feel the grin beneath his palm, see Brendon’s eyes laughing.

“There will be no talk of Pete’s tongue,” Spencer says. He’s trying to frown, but it’s really hard to manage with Brendon that close. “Promise?”

Brendon nods.

“Okay, then.” He drops his hand and asks, “Couldn’t you have done this down in the living room?”

“Your mom said not to get markers on the couch or rug or table or anything, so we figured it was safest up here,” Brendon says, and he’s got a blue smudge along his jaw and the dip of his lower lip, so Spencer’s mom had a right to be concerned. Apparently Brendon has the coloring abilities of a six-year-old, and Spencer thinks Gabe can’t possibly be much better.

“Smithy,” Gabe says, “we’re having a theme. A cat theme. We’re putting it on the evites.”

“A cat theme.”

Gabe says, “I’m pretty sure it was Billiam’s idea,” then bends back over his giant sheet of construction paper and starts singing something about being also into cats.

Brendon changes it to, “Black cat, nine lives, short days, long nights,” and dances on his knees, making the bed shake, then cuts himself off with, “You can totally be a lion, Spence.” He presses his hands to Spencer’s cheeks. “You’re all prickly right now, just let it grow out a little.”

Spencer doesn’t know what happened to bring back this touchy-feely Brendon, but he’s not going to mention it. Spencer’s cheeks are warm under Brendon’s palms so he shakes him off, but he can’t keep the stupid grin off his face, Jesus Christ.

“Come on,” Brendon says. “Help us color.”

“I thought you were making plans.” Spencer tosses back his covers and slides off the other side of the bed, tugging his t-shirt down where it’s ridden up over his stomach. He combs his fingers through his hair and yawns again, thinking about a shower.

“Plans, yes, but also rockin’ posters,” Brendon says, and then Gabe helpfully adds, “Of cats.”

And then there’s pointed throat-clearing and they all look over to see Ryan hanging kind of awkwardly in the doorway. “You said it was an emergency,” he deadpans.

Brendon beams at him. “A party planning emergency, Ryan Ross. We need your, um—I was going to say we need your organizational skills, but that’d totally be a hilarious lie.”

Ryan cocks a hip and stares at him blandly. He’s got the ugliest plaid pants on that Spencer has ever seen, complete with a matching vest. “Thanks.”

“No, no, that’s a compliment, you know that. You’re, like, refreshingly free-spirited, right?” Brendon beckons Ryan further into the room. “You can DJ, seriously, lets make a playlist, it’ll be great, you can use up all those techno dance tunes you find so darn irresistible.”

“Ross,” Gabe says, folding his lanky body into a sitting position on the floor. He looks up at Ryan. “Are you entirely sure you’re not eighty-five years old?”

Ryan flips Gabe off, but it’s sort of an absentminded gesture.

Spencer shakes his head and escapes to his bathroom, dragging a pair of jeans with him. By the time he gets out, Ashlee is sprawled on his bed, cell out and fingers flying, and Edie is at his computer

“What the hell, Smith,” Edie says.

“Whatever it is, I didn’t do it.”

“Which is it?” Gabe asks, craning his neck to see around her.

Spencer’s desktop has mysteriously turned into a picture of a unicorn with Brendon’s head. It’s actually pretty good. That doesn’t mean Spencer’s not completely fucking embarrassed by it, though.

“That, my dear,” Gabe says, “is my handiwork. Notice how seamlessly I blended his hair into the mane.”

Edie says, “Impressive,” and she doesn’t sound sarcastic, but with Edie you never know.

“Pete approves of the furries concept,” Ashlee says, flipping her cell shut.

“Cats,” Brendon says. He’s got his tongue poking out of the side of his mouth and a blue crayon pinched in his fingers, hunched over a sheet of construction paper again.

Ashlee shrugs. “Same thing. I’m gonna be a panda.”

“That’s not a cat,” Spencer says, like that’s the argument to make about all this, what the fuck.

“We will accept all furries,” Gabe says, and Spencer thinks all his friends are motherfucking weird.

*Band is still band without Brendon. They didn’t really interact much in practices anyway, so it’s not like it’s a huge adjustment. Spencer likes band because he likes to drum, and he likes being flanked by Butcher and Patrick – Pete’s very special friend Patrick, it turns out, and Patrick turns bright red every time someone teases him about that – and he likes being shown up by Andy, because there is no fucking person in the world who can drum better than Andy, except for maybe Bob.

Spencer’s willing to admit he’s a little biased about Bob, but Bob can fucking drum with Frankie perched on top of his kit, and that takes some serious skill. Frank’s a danger to himself and others when he’s playing guitar.

So Spencer feels the loss of Brendon sort of minimally, in the grand scheme of band, and Spencer has never been a band geek – mostly, he’d joined up because of his mom, because it was something to do to get him out of the house, because he loves drumming, basically in all forms, and because the whole fucking move is temporary anyway – but Spencer has fun at practices. He likes the crew he’s with, likes his section. The director is kind of a douche, but he lives with it.

Patrick tips his hat back off his forehead with his thumb and grins. “Furries, eh? Pete’s over the moon, dude. He’s got, like, a stash of outfits just for things like this.”

Spencer blinks at him. “Pete’s a weirdo.” It’s just about the nicest thing he can say about Pete, really.

“No doubt,” Butcher says absently, sprawled low in his seat.

Andy leans over the back of their chairs and says, “Yeah, you should see what he’s got planned for you, Patrick,” and Patrick shakes his head.

“Oh, no way,” he says. “No fucking way, Pete’s a delusional asshole if he thinks I’m wearing that fucking bunny suit again.”

“Again?” Spencer asks, both eyebrows arched.

“It’s nothing,” Patrick says.

“Easter, 2006,” Butcher says. He tips his head back onto the lip of the metal chair and closes his eyes. “It was unusually warm for April, and Patrick was sweating like a motherfucker at the Wentz’s seventh annual Easter egg hunt and barbecue. Patrick’s secret crush, Mike Card—”

“I will kill you.” Patrick is flushed, fingers clenched over his drumsticks, and Spencer seems to recall Andy warning him about Patrick’s infamous temper a couple times, but Spencer hasn’t witnessed it full force yet. Once, he’d punched Dirty in the kidney, but Spencer’s pretty sure that had been a bet.

Butcher grins. “I think Pete’s fixed the zipper by now.”

“Wait, you have a secret crush on Mike Carden?” Spencer asks. Maybe not the wisest move on his part, but Patrick’s really a little guy – Spencer’s sixty percent sure he could take him - and Spencer’s curious. He remembers Mike. Mike used to eat bugs for quarters. Now, Mike looks like he’s the kind of dude who’s got lots of hunting paraphernalia locked away in his bedroom. Like maybe he sharpens knives in his free time; sits around with toothpicks hanging out of the corner of his mouth, wears lots of camo and has an extensive collection of wife beaters. Spencer has no proof of this; he just gets that feeling from him.

Patrick’s turning an interesting shade of fuchsia, and his eyes are threatening painful, messy death.

Butcher is laughing his ass off, but not really making any noise. He’s just sort of curled up on his seat, one arm across his stomach, huge grin on his face.

Andy looks zen, chin propped on a palm, fingers tapping out a rhythm on his upper lip.

Johnson comes strolling over, one hand in his pocket. “What’s up?” he asks, dropping his school bag at Spencer’s feet. He cocks his head. “Did you break Patrick?”

“We’re just discussing his secret crush on Mike Carden,” Butcher says, and Patrick’s kind of mute with rage. He makes some sputtering sounds, and Spencer tries not to find that funny.

“I don’t have a fucking crush,” Patrick bites out finally. “I just.” He flails a hand. “He’s really cool, okay?”

“Mike Carden is indeed cool,” Butcher says.

“Mike Carden has just entered the room,” Andy says, getting to his feet. “I’ll be back.”

For a second, Spencer thinks Andy’s going to approach Mike and embarrass the hell out of Patrick, but he just makes his way over to Joe. Joe, Spencer has learned from Bill, is the best guy to go to if you can’t get to Jon Walker. Joe doesn’t seem like Andy’s kind of dude – Andy’s sort of epically straight edge – but they’re always hanging around together anyway.

Mike gives them a funny look, and Spencer realizes they’re all kind of staring at him, and Patrick lets out a pained groan.

“Oh my fucking god, seriously,” Patrick says, tugging his hat down low on his forehead.

Johnson claps his shoulder. “Dude, it’s fine. He already thinks we’re all insane thanks to Butcher.”

The drum section has a reputation, Spencer’s found out. This is mainly because the Butcher enjoys sporting skimpy short-shorts whenever possible, and Spencer has no idea how he manages to pull that look off and not get the shit beaten out of him.

Butcher gives them a slow smile and says, “I’m awesome. You’d be lost without me.”

“You sunbathed on my front lawn all weekend,” Johnson says, kicking his bag under his chair and sitting down next to Patrick. “My parents think we’re dating. I’m not even gay.”

“You’re just confused.” Butcher reaches across Patrick and pats Johnson’s knee. “Soon, Johnson. Soon, you’ll succumb to my naked wiles.”

Johnson shoves at his hand, says, “Fuck off,” but he’s grinning.

Spencer’s pretty sure Butcher’s dating several girls at once. Spencer doesn’t know how he does it.

Andy wanders back over when Mr. E finally comes out of his office and yells at them to get quiet and get serious, and Spencer spends the next hour and a half trying not think about how off the brass section sounds – he’s sure it’s all in his head, anyway.

By the time practice is over, it’s already dark out, the cool October twilight deepening earlier and earlier each day. He follows Butcher, Andy and Patrick towards the parking lot, gives them an absent wave before ducking into his piece of shit Civic.

Right about now, back in Jersey, Spencer would be finishing up dinner already, scrambling to clear the table and get to Frank’s. They’d sprawl on his bedroom floor, music blaring, waiting for Mikey to get off work.

Spencer feels a wave of homesickness swell over him, and he swallows it down, tightens his grip on the steering wheel. Seriously, he’s seeing Frank in two fucking days. It’s maybe not the same thing as going home, but it’s pretty fucking close.

When he swings open the door to the kitchen, dropping his book bag by the island, he spots an iced chocolate cake sitting out on the table, an unlit candle in the middle and a giant smiley face traced out in mini pretzels. His mom is so weird.

“It’s your three month cake, Spence.” She kisses his forehead. “I’m so proud of you, sweetheart, you’re doing so well,” she says, which is mom-speak for, ‘You’re not getting into fights, hurray!’ Spencer’s not actually an angry guy, though. Most of Spencer’s aggression had come from being a social dredge in a Catholic high school. Here, his friends aren’t so prone to getting pummeled for rocking the croquet field. He’s not so sure it’s much of an accomplishment.

“Thanks, Mom,” Spencer says dryly.

“Will Gabe be home for dinner?” she asks, moving to the cabinets, getting dishes down. Spencer suspects his mom likes having Gabe there because his sisters are still in Jersey, finishing middle school - which is fucking unfair, but Spencer’s had that argument with his parents too many times to count.

Spencer shrugs. “He didn’t say.”

“Hon.” She frowns at him.

Spencer feels his stomach clench, because that’s her I’m-divorcing-your-father look. That’s her I’m-uprooting-you-to-Vegas set to her mouth.

But then she just says, “You’ll keep Frankie out of trouble, right?” and Spencer laughs. Out of equal parts relief and disbelief, because no one can keep Frank out of trouble. Frank is trouble; it’s part of what makes him so awesome.

“Mom,” he says, shaking his head. “Mom, seriously, this is Frank.”

She looks exasperated. “Just don’t go punching strangers for him, okay?”

And, okay, that’s low, because Spencer has never punched a stranger, for Frank or otherwise. “Mom.”

She just keeps her gaze steady. “His mom’ll kill me if he comes back worse than how we got him,” she says.

Spencer rolls his eyes. It’s his unspoken whatever, because he knows better than to talk back to his mom.

She grins at him, her I’m-still-the-boss-of-you grin. She says, “So I’m thinking we need a dog, what do you say?”

*

Spencer doesn’t fully realize he’s actually growing a beard, not really, until he picks Frank up at the airport and the first thing Frank says is, “Dude, your mustache is a little evil French scientist, right?”

“Shut the fuck up,” Spencer says, but he’s grinning, because fucking Frank is there and it’s almost like it’s been years and only minutes since he’s seen him, all at the same time. “Brendon likes it.”

“Brendon’s a preteen girl,” Frank says, and Spencer punches him, hard, in the arm.

It’s kind of surreal, having Frank standing there on the sidewalk in front of him, and then Frank says, “You look tan, Smith,” and, “What the fuck have you been eating?” and sort of attacks him. It’s not quite a hug, more like a tackle. And then he’s pushing at Spencer’s back. “Let’s get out of here,” he says. “Airports give me hives.”

“Breathing gives you hives,” Spencer says, which isn’t strictly true. Frank’s sick a lot, but mainly it’s fucking pneumonia or staph or a nasty bug or whatever. Spencer’s spent almost as much time as Frank has in hospitals, just visiting.

Spencer grabs Frank’s bag, and Frank doesn’t even protest for show. Just grins, drops his shades down over his eyes and stuffs his hands in his pockets, following Spencer over to the car.

“Whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” Frank says when he slides into the passenger seat.

Spencer slants him a glance, gives an amused snort. “Yeah, right.”

“Seriously, this’ll be epic, you’ll see,” Frank says, grin turning just slightly manic, and Spencer feels a giddy laugh swelling his chest and he shakes his hair out of his eyes, bites his lip to keep it down, because Frank will make fun of him for fucking ever if he lets it out.

Frank spends the entire ride back to Spencer’s house talking about Mikey and this girl, Alicia, who Mikey’s somehow convinced to go out with him.

“It’s pretty hilarious,” Frank says, gripping the dash as they turn onto Spencer’s street. “Mikey actually has entire conversations with her. I mean, they’re either about music or cats, but that dead carp thing Mikey does when he doesn’t agree with you totally doesn’t faze her at all. It’s kind of awesome, really. I think maybe he’s happy.”

“He sent me a Hippogriff with Gerard’s head on it last night.” Spencer’s just pointing out how, in the grand scheme of things, Mikey still seems to be Mikey.

“Well, yeah.” Frank pokes his shoulder. “I told him to.”

Spencer sighs and wishes Mikey could have flown out, too.

Frank’s poke turns into a punch. “Seriously, stop brooding, it’s my fucking birthday.”

It is, actually, exactly Frank’s birthday. Spencer grins. “Your party’s tomorrow, though,” he says.

Frank laughs. “You didn’t actually have to throw me a party, you know that right?”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Spencer shakes his head. “Like you would’ve shut up if I didn’t.” He throws the car in park in front of his house.

Frank looks out the window. “You live here?”

Spencer shrugs. It’s a little too suburban, white picket fence, manicured lawn for him, but his mom loves it.

“Is that—is that a rat?” Frank jabs his finger into the glass, smooshes up close, and Spencer can’t see around his head, but he’s pretty sure what he’ll find.

“No,” Spencer says. “That’s Lola.” Lola is a teacup yorkie. Lola is his mom’s midlife crisis or whatever, and they’ve had her for all of one day and she’s already completely destroyed the living room coffee table.

Frank looks over his shoulder at him. “Lola?”

“Gabe named her.” Gabe, who seriously needs to get the fuck out of his house. He’s not jealous or whatever, but his mom let him fucking name their dog.

“That motherfucker needs to call Chaz, dude. She hasn’t heard from him since August.” Frank gets out of the car, stretching a little. “They’re supposed to play through again and pick him up.”

Spencer can’t imagine Gabe leaving, but then he couldn’t really imagine him staying, either, and there they are. He’s got Bill here, but he’s got his Cobra crew back in Jersey, so who the fuck knows. “Whatever. Good luck with that.”

Frank grabs his wrist and tugs him towards the house. “Come on, I wanna see your mom and your room and your rat and I could eat a pizza the size of your head, dude, and then we can fuck with Mikey online all night.”

“Sounds awesome,” Spencer says dryly, but he mostly means it.

The rest of the night is a blur of food and Gabe and Frank and Spencer kind of thinks he maybe ate his weight in Swedish fish and at some point he passes out in bed with all his clothes on, because the last thing he remembers is watching Frank sit at his computer, hurling good-natured insults at Gabe as they combine their powers for what can only be pure evil.

Saturday, Spencer wakes up to an epic stare down between Brendon and Frank, sitting nose to nose on the foot of Spencer’s bed.

“Are you wearing makeup?” Frank asks, and Brendon says, “No,” and, “How do you feel about Lucky Charms?”

Frank’s eyes narrow. “Depends. Are we talking sugary goodness, or am I gonna have to get blood all over your pretty pink shirt?”

Brendon blinks, face completely blank for a moment, and Spencer bites his lip to keep from laughing. “Uh. What?”

Frank beams at him. “Okay.” He turns to Spencer, hooks a thumb towards Brendon. “I like him. A little slow, a lot gay—”

“Hey!” Brendon says, and Spencer feels his entire body relax, relief coursing through him. Brendon is Spencer’s friend - somehow he’s bullied his way into, “Best Vegas friend, Spencer Smith, true blue!” – and apparently it’d been more important to Spencer for Brendon and Frank to get along than he’d realized.

Frank pats Brendon’s shoulder. “It’s okay, little buddy, you’re special.” He’s not teasing meanly, exactly, and Brendon can obviously tell.

“You,” Brendon says, “are not a nice person. I can see why Spencer loves you.”

“Awww, Smithsonian,” Frank says, clasping his hands and fluttering his lashes at him. “You love me.’

Spencer’s just really glad his legs aren’t tangled in any blankets, so his feet are clear to kick Frank in the head.

*

Frank is surprisingly enthusiastic about the cat concept, and Brendon shows up sometime in the evening with a selection of ears and tails and makeup. So Spencer and Frank are fully prepared for the party, drawn on whiskers and all, and Spencer would feel a lot more ridiculous, except Brendon’s decked out in the tightest pair of black pants he’s ever seen. With wedge-heeled boots and a black scoop-neck sweater that Spencer swears is Greta’s. He looks completely stupid and really fucking hot.

“So,” Frank says, collapsing on the couch where Spencer’s set up camp and dropping an arm over Spencer’s shoulders, “I like your boyfriend.”

“He’s not,” Spencer says.

“Why the fuck not, dude?” Frank kicks at his calf. Spencer shrugs and Frank kicks him harder. “I raised you better than this, Smith the Fifth. Edie’s right, you’re a total fucking pussy.”

Spencer slants him a glare and pulls his leg out of the harm’s way, gulping the rest of his beer. Frank’s whiskers are smudged and his ears are hanging around his neck, and the fake blood from his scalp – “I’ll be an undead cat, dude, like Pet Sematary, check out my head wound!” - is just one big smear over his forehead. Spencer thinks he probably doesn’t look much better.

“I’m not talking about this,” Spencer says, and then completely negates that by saying, “Ryan told me—“

“Oh, Ryan. Ryan, fuck, that kid’s a giraffe, right, because otherwise we’ve got completely different views on what a cheetah actually looks like.” Frank switches out his full glass for Spencer’s empty.

Spencer would glare at him some more, except: beer. “Me and Brendon,” he says, “make about as much sense as—holy shit.” There is every possibility that Spencer is drunk, even though he’s only had two beers, because it really looks like Edie just fucking attacked Cash Colligan on the other side of the room.

“What, what?” Frank says, whipping his head around.

Spencer uses Frank’s thigh as leverage and pushes to his feet. There’s some screaming going on – Edie – and Colligan looks kind of like he’s afraid she’ll eat him.

Johnson grabs his arm as he passes him, but Spencer just shakes him off, ignores him, because he doesn’t know what the fuck happened, but he’s going to have Edie’s back, no matter what. He looms up over behind her just as she hisses, “Seriously, Colligan, what the fuck?”

Colligan lifts his hands, palms out. “Wait, wait, no, I thought—”

“You can’t. You can’t fucking do that,” Edie says, and her voice is shaking a little, and Colligan better hope to god he didn’t just make Edie cry.

“You’re just. I thought you wanted,” Colligan stutters, face red. “Edie. Edie, I’m sorry.”

Spencer fits a hand over Edie’s shoulder and she flashes a look up at him, all big welling eyes, and Spencer’s other hand clenches into a fist before he narrows his gaze over her head at Colligan. “Want to tell me what the hell is going on?”

The thing is, Colligan could probably take him in a fair fight. Spencer’s not really good at sticking to fair fights. He feels someone slide up beside him and he thinks it’s Frank, knows it’s Frank, but he’s not expecting Brendon to be there, too, arms crossed, huffing a breath to get his sweaty hair out of his face.

“This’s just a misunderstanding, man,” Colligan says.

“Edie,” Spencer says, still staring Colligan down, “what’s wrong?”

“He kissed me, Smith. Can you—can you fucking believe that?”

Spencer blinks. Frank maybe giggles beside him. If Edie didn’t sound like the fucking world was ending, he’d maybe laugh a little, too, what the fuck. “Edie. Seriously, what?”

Edie says, “Spencer,” in a strangled voice and Spencer pinches the bridge of his nose.

“Okay,” he says. “Okay, Edie, come here a sec.”

Edie lets him pull her into the kitchen and then she gets her wits back and tugs her hand away, scowling, crossing her arms over her chest. “I can take care of myself, Smith.”

“Hey, not arguing.” Spencer mirrors her stance. “Except Cash Colligan just kissed you and you flipped the fuck out. What’s up with that?”

Edie flounders for a brief second before rallying another glare. “Fuck off.”

“Hey,” Ashlee says, sweeping into the room in a giant furry panda suit, only the head missing. She’s been claiming nakedness underneath all evening, and Spencer would think she’s joking except she’s entirely too close to Pete to joke about nakedness. “Cash is hiding in the bathroom. He thinks Edie’s going to set him on fire or something. I’m here to confiscate all lighters and-or matches.” She’s got her paws wrapped awkwardly around a plastic cup.

“Mind your own fucking business, Simpson,” Edie says.

Ashlee shrugs. “You didn’t bite him, girl. I’m pretty sure that’s love.”

Edie deflates a little. “His initiative is inconvenient.”

“You’re fucking crazy,” Spencer says, because, Jesus Christ, Edie’s fucking stubborn about some things. “I’m finding Frank. Don’t kill Colligan.”

Spencer doesn’t find Frank. He finds Patrick, looking half-miserable and resigned in a bunny outfit, big bunny head resting on his lap, wedged into the corner of a sofa next to Trace and Mason, who are doing their very best to eat each other’s faces. Spencer gives him a total I-feel-your-pain salute and then bumps directly into Jon Walker. His belly only swoops a little when Jon smiles.

“Ryan,” Jon says, “is a giraffe.”

“Yeah,” Spencer agrees. He’s got the neck for it. And the haircut.

“He’s currently being a giraffe on the back porch,” Jon says, nodding.

Spencer nods back. “Let’s go join him, then,” he says, and Spencer ends up spending the rest of the night on Pete’s back porch with Jon, Ryan and Zack. Zack is sort of just lurking, though, a hulking shape just outside the spotlight.

“He’s your henchman, right?” Spencer asks Ryan. Spencer’s cross-legged on the wooden deck and his ass is steadily going numb.

Ryan laughs. He’s sprawled out on a chaise lounger with Jon, feet up by Jon’s head. He’s got his own head tipped off the bottom, and Spencer holds the joint up to Ryan’s mouth, lets him take a hit before leaning forward and passing it to Jon.

Ryan lets the smoke out slowly, seeping out of the corner of his mouth. He looks really fucking stupid. Or French.

“Zack’s cool,” Jon says.

Zack snorts. “Thanks, Walker.”

“No problem.” Jon cocks his thumb and forefinger like a gun at him.

Spencer. Spencer is really fucking high maybe. And he has a beard. “I have a beard, guys.”

Ryan bites the side of his hand, smile wide around it, upside down.

“I.” Spencer laughs, because it’s fucking hilarious and it itches like a bitch. “I grew a beard for fucking Brendon.”

“You’re fucking Brendon?” Jon asks.

“Hey, hey.” Ryan waves his hands around like a fucking Muppet and almost falls off the chaise; Zack catches his wrist before he can slide off onto his face. “Hey. No one’s fucking Brendon.”

“Seriously,” Spencer says to Zack. “Henchman.” He’s such a fucking henchman. Spencer totally wishes he had a henchman, too. Or a minion. A minion would fucking rock. “Do you do his evil bidding?”

“Dude.” Jon giggles. “Evil bidding. That’s like. Ryan’s evil, it’s true.”

Ryan frowns. “Why don’t we have those—you know what we need?”

“Cookies,” Jon says.

“No, no. I mean yes, hell yes to cookies, but I’m like—those, like, mini pizza things. Those individual size pizzas, dudes, they’re just for one.”

“There’s three of us,” Spencer says. “Plus Zack.”

“So, like, six of us,” Jon says, nodding. “I see what you mean.”

“More than one,” Ryan says. He’s still fluttering his hands over his head. “They’re just. Perfectly sized for me. I could eat five of them.”

“Ten. Ten, they’re tiny, right,” Jon says, and Spencer’s getting really fucking hungry from all the pizza talk.

“Fooooood,” Ryan says, drawing out the word. “Zack. Zack, fooooooood.”

“Henchman.” Jon laughs.

Zack makes a breathy noise, like a sigh only louder and with more meaning. Spencer’s pretty sure it means why-the-fuck-me. Zack says, “I’m looking for Brendon.”

“Bring him here,” Ryan says. He rolls over, accidentally kicking Jon in the face, but Jon just laughs. “Bring me Brendon, Zack, please. Make sure he has food.”

Jon laughs harder, and Spencer leans into Ryan, forehead resting on his side, and he grins so wide his face hurts.

*

It’s really fucking bright and really fucking early, Spencer thinks, groaning as he presses a hand over his closed eyes. Whatever he’s lying on is rock hard and there’s something pointy poking into his side and he thinks maybe he fell asleep out on Pete’s back porch. Awesome.

When he cracks his eyes open he sees Ryan’s giraffe skin vest, which means the pointy thing poking him is probably one of Ryan’s bony limbs.

“Holy fuck,” Spencer tries to say, but it comes out more of a croak. He lifts his head, leverages up on his elbows. Jon’s sprawled out on the lounger, snoring, Ryan’s curled onto his side next to Spencer, one knee jammed up against his ribs, and Brendon’s sitting up by Spencer’s feet, blinking owlishly at him.

“Glargh,” Brendon says. He no longer has any whiskers and his ears are a crooked. His scoop-neck sweater is pulled down off one shoulder, and Spencer has the insane urge to bury his face in the crease of his armpit. That’s some fucked up shit.

Spencer looks blearily around and there’s food carnage all over the deck. He feels a little bad for that torn apart bag of Doritos. He shakes his head, a little fuzzy, but mostly just from a crappy night’s sleep. He elbows Ryan in the head. “Wake up.”

“Fuck,” Ryan groans. He flutters his eyes, widening them as he takes in Spencer and the porch, and he says, “Fuck,” again, and, “Pete better not have pictures.”

Then the glass door slides open behind them and Pete crows, “Pancakes, kiddies.”

Frank’s facedown at the kitchen table when they all shuffle in, a hand loosely curled around a mug of coffee. Spencer isn’t fooled. Anyone who reaches for it risks getting his fingers bitten off.

Patrick’s sitting next to him in sweats and a scowl, looking only marginally more awake than Spencer feels.

Butcher, sitting up on the counter, swinging his feet, looks downright cheery. It’s kind of annoying as fuck, but it’s Butcher, so he gets away with it.

“Okay,” Pete says brightly – Spencer gets the feeling maybe Pete hasn’t slept at all; there’s a manic light in his eyes – “so who can cook?”

“Diner,” Jon says, slumping into the doorframe.

“Diner,” Patrick echoes around a yawn.

Spencer isn’t going to argue. He can cook, but he isn’t going to offer to cook for these douches.

They stuff themselves into Brendon’s minivan, and somehow Spencer ends up on Jon’s lap. He has no fucking idea, right, but it’s completely embarrassing. His cheeks heat and Jon has one arm around his waist and his chin hooked over his shoulder. Spencer can feel Jon smiling against his jaw. There’s no way Jon’s legs aren’t going numb from his weight, and Spencer hears Frank snickering behind them. Frank is a total shithead. He’s the smallest; he should have been the one sitting on someone’s lap.

Spencer sends out I-hate-you-all vibes, but he thinks maybe it’s overlooked in the wake of hangovers and lack of sleep.

Spencer wants orange juice. And coffee. And a huge motherfucking stack of pancakes.

He slides into a booth across from Frank when they get there, and Frank kicks at his shins and makes stupid faces at him until Spencer gives him his hoodie, because Frank always gets fucking cold indoors and Spencer’s a fucking sucker.

Brendon leans into his side, and Patrick sits down next to Frank, and the other guys noisily pile into the booth directly behind them.

“How did I end up with all the vegetarians?” Spencer asks.

“Incredible luck,” Brendon murmurs into his sleeve.

Spencer jostles his head. “Hey, hey, no drooling on me, Urie.”

“Cooooffeee,” Brendon says, and snuggles further into Spencer.

Frank arches an eyebrow at them.

“Don’t,” Spencer says, because he knows Frank’s gonna say something fucking embarrassing and then Spencer is going to have to kill him, and that’d just be a shame.

“I’m leaving this afternoon, Spence,” Frank says idly, picking up a laminated menu. “You have to be nice to me.”

Spencer kind of feels like he’s been punched in the gut. Frank leaving fucking sucks. “Yeah,” he says, staring down at his own menu.

Frank kicks him again, hard.

Spencer glances up with a glare and Frank makes kissy faces at him, and Spencer rubs a fist over his mouth to stifle a grin.

“Waffles,” Patrick says. Only his hat is visible over the menu he has propped up on the table in front of him. “A coffee the size of my head.”

The waitress, who Spencer belatedly realizes is standing there taking their order, taps her pad impatiently.

“Make that two coffees the size of Patrick’s head,” Frank says. “And a short stack.”

“Coffee, short stack, and a side of bacon and sausage, please,” Spencer says. He doesn’t think he’s going to eat it all, but Frank pulls a face and Brendon groans, “Meeeeeat.”

“Meat is murder,” Frank says, nodding.

Brendon holds his hand up for a high-five without moving away from Spencer, then orders pancakes and coffee of his own.

Later, Frank says, “See you in two months, motherfucker,” and Spencer bumps his fist and says, “Yeah, see you,” and he kind of wishes he wasn’t alone, standing there outside the airport, watching Frank walk away.

Frank gives him a wave over his shoulder. Spencer is absolutely not choked up. He’s just got fucking allergies.

*

Homecoming is apparently a pretty big deal. It’s all anyone’s fucking talking about and Spencer feels dumb, because even Edie and Trace and Butcher are into it, and Spencer would think Homecoming would be the last thing Edie’d want to go to. Awkward dancing and crappy music don’t actually sound like a good time to Spencer.

“Smith, seriously, Wentz always gets an awesome line up,” Edie says, leaning back on the bleachers and kicking her feet up on the bench in front of them.

Colligan abruptly twists on the field, eyes scanning the stands, and the littlest Alex takes him out with a flying tackle. Edie laughs. And it’s not, like, a mean laugh, and Spencer turns wide eyes on her.

“What the fuck?” he asks.

Edie straightens up and crosses her arms. “I’ve amended my plan,” she says. “He’s got the stupidest fucking tattoo I’ve ever seen on his chest. I’m letting him take me to Homecoming.”

“No you’re not,” Spencer says automatically, and she glares at him.

“Not all of us are social fucktards, Smith.”

Spencer bristles. First of all, Edie is a total social fucktard, if her actions at Frank’s birthday party are anything to go by. And second of all, it’s not his fucking fault. “Ryan told me to—”

“Like that makes any difference, Christ. If you’d really wanted to say yes, Smith, you would have said yes. Ross makes less sense than Ashlee Simpson as an actual person, you know this,” she says. “Ross thinks he’s a fucking cowboy three days out of every week.”

Spencer doesn’t think that’s a fair assessment. Of Ryan or himself. “You’re talking out of your ass,” Spencer says. He’s getting the feeling that Edie always talks out of her ass, more or less. He loves her, but she’s got some fucking problems.

“Urie’s going with Walker to Homecoming.” She gives him a smug look that isn’t quite a grin, but comes damn close.

“Walker’s straight.” Spencer has it on good authority that Jon is straight. Or, okay, maybe not good authority, because it’s Bill, but Spencer knows Jon has never dated a guy. Spencer’s even caught him making out with that sophomore, Cassie, in the photography classroom after school.

Edie says, “Walker’s a good fucking friend, and he didn’t want Urie to go alone.”

Spencer wants to know how she even knows all this. He doesn’t ask, though, just buries his face in his hands and groans a little. His life sucks.

Edie nudges his knee with hers. “You know what your problem is, Smith? You’re thinking this is all fucking temporary, right, and not worth your time.”

“I don’t—”

“I couldn’t care less either way,” Edie cuts him off. “You’re a warm body I can verbally abuse, and for some reason you keep coming back for more. But Urie and Ross are a little more sensitive.”

Spencer clenches his hands in his lap, stares down at them. “I really fucking hate school dances,” he mutters.

“Suck it up,” Edie says brightly.

Spencer lets out a noisy breath.

Down on the field, Colligan pants the littlest Alex and Edie lets out a snort of laughter. “Dumb as a box of rocks,” she says, grinning. Spencer’s going to assume she’s talking about Colligan and not him.

He’s got math with Brendon next, and he spends the entire time trying to figure out how to bring up Jon Walker and Homecoming without seeming fucking dumb, but he can’t think of a single thing to say. Brendon gives him weird looks, but just makes him play connect the dots with him and it ends up a draw when the bell rings.

By the time Spencer gets to the photography room, his skin feels tight and uncomfortable, because he knows if Jon isn’t in there now, he’ll be in there by the end of class, vying for darkroom time, and Spencer’s not exactly sure how to deal with him.

Jon Walker is taking Brendon out. Like, on some sort of date.

Spencer isn’t all that great at photography, mainly because he doesn’t seek out any new material. Half the time he just ends up with pictures of Brendon or Gabe, working through his assigned aperture and f-stop effects and exposure. It’s an okay class, and it’s nice to do some hands-on shit, and he doesn’t have any problems with his classmates, even if he doesn’t try and, like, talk to them. Ever. Mostly they’re sophomores and freshmen. He’s pretty sure they’re afraid of him, and he’s fucking fine with that.

Of course, then Jon shows up ten minutes before the end of class and calls Spencer, “Pretty as a sugar plum, dude, Brendon’s words, not mine,” which makes Nick snicker and Miley shoot him these huge, earnest doe eyes and go, “Oh, darlin’, you’ve got the sweetest blush,” and Spencer growls at them because what the fuck.

There’s something about Jon Walker that makes Spencer feel like a total girl, though. He’s not proud of that fact. He ducks his head and rubs the back of his neck, damp with sweat. It’s not like Jon’s the only one who’s ever called him pretty before, but he’s kind of the only one who hasn’t gotten a bloody nose for it.

“Stay and chat with me, Spencer Smith,” Jon says, holding up a few rolls of film.

Spencer’s got some time before band practice starts, so he shrugs and follows Jon into the darkroom.

Jon’s as quiet as Spencer with the lights off, and Spencer can hear the scratch of metal on metal as Jon fills the canisters with his negatives. Then there’s a shuffle of feet on linoleum and the red light snaps on. Jon eyes him over the chemicals, standing a lot closer to Spencer than he would’ve guessed.

“So what’s wrong?” Jon asks.

It occurs to Spencer that he’s never actually had a conversation with Jon. Not sober, at least.

“I don’t really smoke,” Spencer says.

Jon arches his eyebrows, but says gamely, “Okay. I do.”

Spencer shakes his head and smiles, because what the fuck.

“Seriously,” Jon reaches out and squeezes his arm. “What’s up?”

The thing is.

The thing is there’s something there, Spencer’s sure of it.

It’s entirely possible that everyone feels this way around Jon, but Spencer doesn’t think so. He doesn’t think Jon gives everyone that smile, the one where he bites the corner of his mouth and shakes his hair out of his face. It’s distracting.

Spencer doesn’t exactly think about it beforehand, it isn’t premeditated or anything. If he thought about it at all, it wouldn’t have happened, he knows this. He just crowds Jon a little, he’s standing so close anyway, and Jon’s eyes widen and he says, “Spencer, what—” and Spencer cuts him off with his mouth. Just the press of his lips, because Jon doesn’t kiss him back.

He doesn’t push him away, either, and then Spencer feels light touches at his waist and Spencer tilts his head a little more, lets his tongue slip out, and Jon makes a little questioning sound in his throat and opens his mouth and even with tongues, even with Jon finally, finally reciprocating here, it feels amazingly chaste, strangely sweet, the scruff of Jon’s cheeks scratching his palms as Spencer cups them.

When Spencer steps back, Jon has slightly dazed eyes that quickly fade into focus, blink. Jon gives him a soft smile and says, “I normally just date girls, you know. Like, exclusively.”

“I know,” Spencer says. His face is hot, but he doesn’t feel all that embarrassed, not really.

Jon sweeps his hair off his forehead, grin widening. “So that was pretty awesome, Spencer Smith.”

Spencer rolls his eyes. “Thanks.”

“Brendon has a hardcore, solid crush on you, though.” Jon prods him in the belly.

“You’re taking Brendon to Homecoming.” Spencer isn’t entirely sure he meant to say that, but he crosses his arms over his chest and tries to look deliberate.

“I’m taking Brendon to Homecoming,” Jon says, nodding. “Should be fun.”

“Right.” Spencer stares down at his feet. This is fucking awkward, and not just because he kissed Jon – and what the fuck, really, Frank’s gonna laugh his ass off over that – but because Spencer gets the distinct feeling that Jon is disappointed in him.

Having Jon Walker disappointed in you is close to the worst feeling ever apparently. It almost makes him queasy.

Jon sighs. “I am, however, also taking Tom. You’re welcome to tag along with us.”

“Oh, that’s um,” Spencer shakes his head, “that sounds—” really fucking awful.

Jon stares at him with level calm, but Spencer thinks maybe he’s laughing at him deep down inside.

Spencer’s shoulder’s slump. “I hate dances.”

Jon claps his upper arm, mouth splitting into a sudden, huge grin. “This isn’t just a school dance. This is Pete Wentz’s baby, dude. I hear he got Gabe from Midtown to MC.”

Spencer groans. Midtown’s been disbanded for nearly a year, in favor of Gabe’s on again, off again nameless Cobra tribute. “You realize I live with that guy, right?” Spencer doesn’t think Jon’s idea of fun coincides with Spencer’s, not if Gabe’s involved.

Jon just keeps on grinning. “Come on,” he says, and it’s this I-know-you-can’t-resist-me tone of voice, because Spencer kind of thinks he’s never going to live down that impulsive lip-lock. Jon’s one step away from lilting a teasing, “You love me, you wanna kiss me,” Spencer just knows it.

Spencer doesn’t actually say he’ll go, but he thinks it’s written plain on his face when he gives up. Jon just looks smug.

*

Spencer wakes up the morning of Homecoming, deep in the middle of November, to find Gabe straddling his chest, face inches from his own, and Spencer’s heart almost stops, because waking up to find Gabe Saporta crouching over him is one of his top five nightmares, only usually Gabe’s mouth is covered in a lot more blood. “Fuck,” Spencer breathes, clutching at the bed sheets.

“I’ve decided what’s wrong with you.” Gabe pokes him in the sternum. “I’ve decided that you, sir, are scared.”

“Gabe.” Spencer scrubs a hand over his face. There’s barely a trickle of light spilling in from the window. “What?”

“You’re scared, and I know you’re scared, because you’ve never dated a guy before.” Gabe grins down at him, grins like he’s got everything figured out. “You’re terrified of little Brendon Urie.”

“Gabe, I don’t know what—”

“You’ve never dated a guy, Smithy, and you came out to Frank nearly two years ago, and I know that because he called me and nearly everyone else he knows almost directly after.”

Spencer hates his life. Spencer has no idea why he loves Frank so much, because Frank is the biggest shithead in the entire world.

“In fact, I’d be willing to bet you’ve never even kissed a guy,” Gabe says, and Spencer ordinarily wouldn’t tell Gabe shit, except it’s way too early for any of his faculties to be functioning correctly, and Spencer’s fucking pissed off here.

“I kissed Jon Walker,” he says, only slightly petulant.

“You kissed—” Gabe shakes his head and laughs. “You’re proving my point, dude. You pretended to date Boof—”

“Her name’s Edie,” Spencer says, not because it makes any difference, but because Gabe is seriously a freak.

“—and you kissed Stiles, all in the name of fucking up whatever you could have with Urie, because you’re fucking frightened out of your mind, Smithy.” Gabe pokes him again. “I know my shit.”

“Gabe,” Spencer says as calmly as he can, “get the fuck off me.” He doesn’t know what the fuck Gabe’s on, but he’s not scared of Brendon. Brendon’s like a miniature poodle, a sweet fuzzy kitten, a harmless little lamb, and Spencer is absolutely not scared of him at all.

Gabe rolls off him and says, “Whatever, dude,” grin sharp, before settling down in Spencer’s desk chair in front of his computer, no doubt starting off his morning with a friendly Mikey taunt.

Spencer groans and grabs for his cell phone. He hits speed dial two and Frank picks up on the fifth ring.

“’lo,” Frank says, voice gruff.

“I’m going to Homecoming.”

“You are,” Frank rasps, then clears his throat and says a little louder, “You are,” and giggles. Then Frank’s cell beeps and he says, “Hang on,” and then, “Who’s Stiles?” and Spencer glares at the back of Gabe’s head, while Gabe’s shoulders shake in silent laughter, because Gabe is a motherfucking annoying asshole who deserves to die.

“Jon Walker,” Spencer says.

“Way to go, dude, he’s that flip-flop guy with the scruff and the track suit fetish, right?”

“You’ve just summed him up exactly,” Spencer says, struggling out of his covers and propping himself against the headboard.

“Awesome. Why are you calling me at buttfuck o’clock?”

“Because I hate Gabe.”

Gabe flips him off over his shoulder but he doesn’t turn around.

“We all hate Gabe,” Frank says around a yawn. “It’s because he’s so charming. Seriously, tell him to call Chaz. He’ll be gone in three weeks.”

“Frank says you need to call Michelle,” Spencer says to Gabe, and Gabe says, “I’ve already heard from that temptress,” in this you-have-offended-me-greatly tone, and Spencer rolls his eyes.

“I’m hanging up now and going back to sleep,” Frank says, and then does just that, because apparently it’s, like, fucking six in the morning, and Gabe needs to die. Like, really fucking slowly. School doesn’t start for hours, and there’s no way Spencer’s getting back to sleep now.

He gropes for a book off his floor and chucks it at Gabe’s head. “Fucking make me breakfast,” he says.

“I don’t think Mikey sleeps,” Gabe says thoughtfully, ignoring him.

Spencer sighs and slides back down on the bed. He feels like screaming into his pillow. “Mikey sleeps in class.” Mikey has always slept in class, for as long as Spencer’s known him. He doesn’t understand how he passes, except his glasses are so thick and Mikey’s so good at staying propped upright even when he’s completely out of it, that nobody seems to actually notice he’s asleep.

“Anyway,” Gabe spins the desk chair around so he’s facing Spencer, “Chazzy has informed me that She Said’s playing through again. The winds are a-changing, Smithy.” He licks his forefinger and holds it up. “The Cobra is calling me home.”

Spencer blinks. “When?”

Gabe shrugs. “A month, maybe less?”

Spencer thinks about doing a little dance. He doesn’t, but it’s close.

There’s a scratch and whine at Spencer’s closed door and Gabe’s eyes light up as he scrambles to open it. “Oh, Lola dearest, is it time for your walky-poo? I’m going to miss you most of all, besides Billiam, perhaps, one entire side of my hexagonal soul.”

Lola barks and hops around on her tiny, tiny paws.

“My own Victoria would just love you to death,” Gabe says, scooping Lola up, and she wriggles between his hands and tries to lick his face off.

Lola barely tolerates Spencer. Barely. She curls her tiny lip back and growls at him whenever they’re alone.

Even when Gabe leaves to take Lola out for her morning walk – “Constitutional, dude, it centers her chi and shit” – Spencer just stares up at his ceiling, mind on overdrive. Today is Homecoming. Homecoming means going to a school dance with Brendon - and Tom and Jon – but it also means a pep rally and football, both requiring Spencer’s presence, which really fucking sucks.

It’s after seven when Spencer finally drags his ass out of bed and into the shower. His mom’s left out cereal for him and Gabe’s leaning up against his car, his Team Fish polo cleaner and more subdued than anything Spencer has ever seen on Gabe, by the time he gets outside.

Spencer’s cell goes off – The Mexican Hat Dance, because Butcher stole it once in band and he’d randomly assigned weird ringtones to all his contacts - just as he unlocks the doors, and he answers it without checking the ID.

“So how much do you love me?”

“What—” Spencer holds his phone out and stares at the screen, then holds it up to his ear again and ventures, “Brendon?”

“How willing are you to come pick Ryan and me up? Spencer, Spence, my ride died, dude, totally conked out. Pretty please come pick us up? I’ll be your best friend forever. Ryan’s giving me scary, evil looks of death here, I didn’t do this on purpose, Ryan Ross!”

Spencer sighs but his lips are twitching. “Yeah, sure,” he says, and taps his fingers on the steering wheel as Brendon rattles out directions.

He drops off Gabe first, because Gabe’s work is closer to the school, but Brendon’s apartment is further along in the opposite direction. And Spencer thinks it’s a good idea to ditch Gabe before he gets Brendon anyway, because Gabe can’t be trusted, and Gabe has this fucking theory now, and it’s not entirely beyond the realm of possibility that he’ll tell Brendon to his face that Spencer is scared of him – which he totally, completely isn’t. Gabe’s a delusional bastard.

Spencer pulls up in front of Brendon’s apartment building – it’s a little rundown, and not in a great area, but it’s maybe not as horrible as Spencer had thought, and he realizes maybe he’s been avoiding coming here, seeing exactly what Brendon’s gotten himself into - and Brendon and Ryan stumble out from the doorway and down the stoop, shoulders banging together. Spencer hasn’t really seen Ryan laugh before, but his face looks awfully close to cracking up. Brendon’s waving his arms around a lot and Ryan’s biting his lip and shaking his head.

When he gets to the car, though, he just yanks on the back door and drops inside and says, “Fucking finally.”

Brendon slips into the passenger seat and grins and says, “You are a savior, Spencer Smith, a champion.”

“Yeah, now I don’t have to kill him in his sleep for making me late to English. Again.” Ryan knocks a fist into Spencer’s shoulder and Spencer can see him smiling at him in the rearview mirror and it’s. It’s kind of surreal, because last thing Spencer knew Ryan had written him off as a douchebag. Maybe he felt they’d really bonded during Frank’s party, what with all of Jon Walker’s pot and those poor defenseless Doritos.

“Uh. It’s no problem,” Spencer says, and he shrugs a little before turning out of the lot.

*

Ryan apparently won the Homecoming theme debate with support from Pete, but Spencer ignores the riverboat dictate - “Think riverboat gambler, only more gay,” Pete had told him - and digs out an ancient pair of black dress pants and layers a paper-thin white button-down over a Robot Queen t-shirt that he’s pretty sure is Frank’s. He’s just tugging on his boots when the doorbell rings, and seconds later his mom’s calling up the stairs.

Spencer doesn’t know what he’d been expecting – Jon maybe, or even just a blaring car horn out front - but it isn’t Brendon in pinstripes and rouge, no top hat in sight, with a paisley waistcoat worthy of Ryan Ross.

Brendon beams at him when he hits the landing, stuffing his wallet in his back pocket and swiping his still-wet hair back from his face. He doesn’t feel self-conscious, exactly, but he does feel a little underdressed.

“You boys have fun,” Spencer’s mom says after passing a glance over Spencer’s outfit with a slight frown.

“Is it okay if Spence stays at my place tonight?” Brendon asks, rocking back on his heels, and that surprises the hell out of Spencer, but he tries not to let it show.

“Of course, hon. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She pats Spencer’s cheek before he can duck his head, and then Spencer grabs Brendon’s arm and drags him out the door. He thinks she’s on the edge of whipping out a camera, and this isn’t the fucking prom.

Afterwards, the night is just a mess of impressions, of Gabe up on stage, of pretty decent bands and more than decent bands and spiked punch, of Brendon making a complete fool out of himself on the dance floor, of Colligan and Edie having a screaming fight by the DJ table over classic rock, of Ryan’s awkward attempts at stealing Greta out from William’s long-reaching clutches.

In the middle of the night, they end up down on the football field, sprawled in the grass. They’re spread out in clumps, and Spencer’s got Ryan sitting up next to where he’s on his back, hands pillowing his head. Ryan’s knees are pulled up to his chest, hands clasped around his calves, head resting on top, turned sideways, and they’re not talking and it’s possibly the most normal they’ve ever been together – Spencer feels almost comfortable, almost like the intervening years haven’t been filled with complete radio silence.

Sometimes, Spencer thinks about how different it would be if they’d never lost touch. Sometimes, he thinks the only thing that’d change is the way they look at each other.

Ryan nudges his arm with the tip of his shoe. He says, “Okay?” and Spencer thinks this is some kind of forgiveness. Some kind of truce, maybe.

Spencer nods and says, “Okay.”

Ryan is sort of important. Ryan’s important to Brendon and Ryan’s important to Spencer’s life there, and at some point over the past few months Spencer started thinking about this as being more than temporary. He thinks if he keeps focusing on later, well. That’ll make for a pretty crappy now. Spencer smiles, and Ryan’s still watching him, even if Spencer can’t read his eyes in the darkness.

Ryan huffs, almost a laugh. He unfolds his spider-like limbs and gets to his feet, swiping his palms on his thighs.

“Ry,” Brendon shouts, bounding up behind Ryan and gripping his hips. “Hide me, hide me.” His breath is hitching with laughter, and he ducks around Ryan and collapses on the ground by Spencer’s side. “Spencer, oh my god, seriously, hide me from Butcher.”

Spencer arches an eyebrow, because Butcher’s harmless. And usually busy torturing Johnson.

Brendon’s lost his jacket and waistcoat and his sleeves are rolled up and he’s probably getting grass stains all over his nice pants. Spencer likes how he doesn’t seem to care.

“Spencer Smith,” Brendon whispers close to his face. He’s just south of buzzed, Spencer can tell. He tugs on the chunk of hair hanging over Spencer’s forehead. “Spencer Smith, I think you’re wonderful.”

Spencer feels his cheeks heat because god. God, Brendon’s such a dork.

Brendon beams, trails his fingertips over Spencer’s face, and Spencer has absolutely no explanation for why he’s not jerking away. None at all.

“You’re blushing,” Brendon says.

“No.” There’s no way Brendon can tell if he’s blushing or not. It’s too dark on the field, even with the clear sky and the star- and moonlight, even then. There is no way Brendon can prove it.

“You are,” Brendon insists. “It’s lovely.”

“Oh my god.” Spencer slips a hand over his eyes. Lovely and wonderful are not terms that Spencer has ever heard to describe himself. Spencer’s definitely not lovely and wonderful.

Brendon chuckles. “Really, Spencer, I am so serious here. You make me want to be a better boy.”

“Shut up, what are you—are you quoting crappy movies at me?”

Brendon’s eyes are wide and dark. “Yes. Yes I am. Is it working?”

“Working for—Brendon.” Brendon’s hands have wandered down over his neck, one thumb petting his pulse point, and Spencer grabs his wrists but doesn’t shove him back. “Brendon.”

“I’m not going away, Spencer Smith,” Brendon says, and it’s kind of the most serious Spencer’s ever heard him sound. “You’re not ever getting rid of me, you realize this, right?”

Spencer’s heart is beating a little fast. He feels a little lightheaded, a little—a little terrified and, fucking hell, Gabe’s right. Gabe is so so right. Spencer wants to throw up. “I don’t think—”

It’s not how Spencer imagined it – and Spencer has imagined it, he’s not a robot, but Brendon’s usually a lot less focused and lot more playful and Spencer can always breathe – but it feels like Spencer’s entire chest has seized up, like time’s fucking stopped, and then Brendon groans into his mouth and everything snaps into motion again, and Spencer’s hyperaware of Brendon’s hands on his stomach, just under the hem of his tee, of Brendon’s tongue slipping in between his lips.

Spencer’s eyes fall shut and he grabs fistfuls of Brendon’s shirt and tugs him completely on top of him, settling him between his legs where all the pressure is just exactly right, and Spencer vaguely hears Ryan go, “Oh, come on,” and, “My eyes, guys, seriously,” and Spencer lets Brendon go long enough to flip him off.

Brendon has a fantastic mouth. It’s hot on his throat, sucking kisses onto the underside of his jaw, and Spencer is maybe arching up into him a little, but it’s dark out still and nobody can fucking prove anything, okay.

“Bren,” Spencer manages. “Brendon.”

Brendon lifts his head, bites Spencer’s chin and says, “We’re making out here, Spence, just go with it.” He adds, “Please,” and he sounds half-desperate and Spencer almost laughs, because he’s not going to tell him to stop – he’s not a fucking idiot, no matter what Edie says – but he doesn’t really want to do this in the middle of the football field, their friends and various acquaintances scattered around them.

Spencer’s still sort of frightened out of his mind – scared of fucking this up, of not fucking it up – but he can’t stop it from happening, not anymore. He doesn’t think he’d really even want to, if he’s being completely honest with himself.

Brendon threads his fingers in Spencer’s hair and says, “What, what?”

Spencer shakes his head and slips an arm around Brendon’s waist. And then he rolls them over and Brendon’s eyes widen and he wriggles around under Spencer and Spencer bites his lip and tries to keep perfectly still. He’s not going to make a scene. Or anymore of one, since he thinks that’s fucking Pete catcalling from somewhere close by.

“Spencer,” Brendon says, breathy. “Spence, I can totally see your tattoo now, right?”

Spencer tips his forehead against Brendon’s and says, “Yes.”

*

“Smithy,” Gabe says, gripping Spencer’s shoulder. “The time has come for me to depart.”

What the fuck, Spencer thinks, because he’s pretty sure Bill’s weeping, hovering over Gabe’s shoulder, wringing his hands. “Good,” Spencer says.

“Oh, don’t be like that.” Gabe still sounds perfectly serious. “Do not be like that, Smithy. My boy’s all grown up and doesn’t need me anymore.”

“Fuck off, Gabe,” Spencer says, Jesus Christ. His eyes are not stinging, damn it. “I’ll see you at Christmas.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps, but not for good, Smithy. I sense your true destiny lies here.” He leans forward and whispers, “Keep an eye on Billy for me. He’s my pride and joy, you know.”

“Gabe—”

“I came, I saw,” Gabe says loudly, spreading out his arms, “I made love, not war.” Gabe’s cell beeps and he glances at it, shaking his head. “Chazzy calls, my children.”

Gabe—”

“I’ll see you at the show tonight.” He spins around and saunters off with Bill trailing miserably after him, and Spencer’s looking forward to the show and he’s looking forward to Gabe leaving, he really, really is. Damn it.

He rubs a fist into his eyes and sniffs.

Ryan’s holding up a baggie when he turns back into the room. Brendon’s making grabby hands at it and Spencer thinks that’s a fucking ace idea.

Whatever happens next is totally the weed’s fault, whether Spencer breaks down about losing Gabe – who’s been practically a brother, a really annoyingly creepy older brother, but still a brother, family – or about how much his dog still fucking hates his guts and pissed all over his school bag.

Before long, Ryan’s making snow angels on the floor of Spencer’s bedroom and Brendon’s snuggled up against Spencer’s side, humming to himself, fingers chasing the trails of smoke as Spencer exhales.

“Oh, oh,” Brendon says suddenly, sitting up. “Ohhhhh,” he waves his hands around, “we should totally start a band.”

Ryan’s voice floats up from the floor, eerily flat. “Michael Clarke Duncan’s Exit Dream,” he says.

“We should. No, Spence, hear me out,” Brendon says. “We should totally get Jon Walker for our band.” Brendon shackles Spencer’s wrist and shakes his whole arm.

“The Damn Fine Natives,” Ryan says.

Brendon says, “He’s got a million of those, seriously, he’s been saving up for years.”

“Quality Assurance for Your Hate,” Ryan says. “Panic at the Disco.”

“Think about it, Spencer Smith,” Brendon says. He twists around so he’s right up in Spencer’s face, nose to his nose, straddling his waist.

Spencer goes a little cross-eyed. He pulls back some and Brendon’s eyes are huge and black and his cheeks are flushed and Spencer kind of doesn’t remember what they were talking about. He says, “Okay,” anyway.

Brendon’s eyes, if possible, get bigger. “Yeah?”

Spencer nods. He thinks he’ll agree to almost anything if t means they can make out, like, soon. “Sure.”

Brendon grins and licks the tip of Spencer’s nose. “You can play my tambourine.”

Spencer makes a face, because he hates the tambourine. “I hate the tambourine.” The tambourine is slotted right down in between the triangle and the cowbell, which isn’t nearly as cool as Christopher Walken has led most people to believe.

“Sugarcane,” Ryan says. Spencer can see his creepy-long fingers wiggling in the air above the edge of the mattress. “Easy Morning Capital Gain.”

“Jon Walker’s Grand Funk Revival Band,” Brendon says, nodding solemnly.

Spencer likes how Brendon can get away with making fun of Ryan. He likes how he can kind of get away with it now, too. “The Awesome Team,” Spencer says.

“Dude.” Ryan sits up, hair sticking up everywhere, eyes rimmed red, staring at him, and Spencer freezes, thinks for a split-second he’d been wrong, but then Ryan just says, “Duuuuuude,” again, and snaps his fingers a lot.

Brendon grins and says, “Win.”