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white noise and intimate strangers

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The first thing Ryan becomes aware of is sound.

He clutches onto it, the sound. The shuffling of papers, the squeaking of rusty wheels on laminate tile, voices over the intercom in crackling waves. He hears people talking in too-loud voices followed by hushed whispers, and he hears laughter, and he hears words. The sound is all inside of him before he can manage to register it all. He hears a soft, faint noise that sounds an awful lot like a heartbeat. And then he opens his eyes.

Everything is white, startlingly white, and he almost feels blinded by the newness of it. Sunlight is streaming in through the slit blinds on the other side of the room, casting the whole world in some strange natural light. He’s not used to that, he realizes. Light. Color.

And then sound. “Hey.”

He’s not used to that either, he thinks, because the words sound too close to him and they vibrate off his skull. He focuses on her, then, the woman flipping idly through a magazine in a plastic chair in the corner of the room. She smiles at him. He doesn’t recognize her, but she looks vaguely like someone he’d be into, blonde hair and pretty smile.

She repeats herself. “Hey. Ryan.”

Ryan is mildly sure that he can’t speak. His mouth feels fuzzy and dry, his tongue too thick for his mouth. But he manages to say, “Um, um,” before he gives up, and the girl is laughing. She sounds relieved. She sounds like he should know who she is.

“God, fuck,” she says. She’s too pretty for the filthy words but they suit her, he thinks. They do. “Two days? You couldn’t have even gone for like, the full coma, you had to do a half-assed one.”

He feels bad, suddenly, for worrying this person, but it’s gone in a second. It’s not the first time he’s woken up in the hospital as of late, just the first time he’s felt this tired. Like all the life in him has been sucked out, leaving him a husk of a human being drowning in the mess he made inside. He’s got to get better at this. He figures he must, anyway.

“Um,” he says again, and this time the words feel stuck, even if he could get them out. He wants to apologize to her.

Instead, she rolls her eyes at him, lifting to her feet. “Dan and I were taking bets on who would be here when you woke up.” She says it conversationally. Ryan doesn’t ask her what she’s talking about. It’s not important. She disappears down the hall, with a promise to get a doctor, and he doesn’t know how to say thanks or anything, so he doesn’t.

He feels overwhelmingly tired, like the thought of moving his arms is just too much and he might as well lie there forever. He stares up at the ceiling. White. It’s all white.

He must have dozed off, because he’s jarred awake by the sound of footsteps coming back down the hall. He forces his eyes open. His doctor flashes his teeth comfortingly but it reminds Ryan of a dog about to bite down, and the imagery is the opposite of comforting.

“Hello, Ryan.” His words sound like they belong in a constant exclamation point. Ryan just stares at him. His eyelids are heavily. He wants to go back to sleep.

The doctor starts rattling off phrases, terms that Ryan remembers from E.R marathons when he was too stoned to change the channel. He tells Ryan something he’d been assuming now: “You’ve been asleep for forty-three hours. Another five and you could’ve gone for the full two days.” Again he smiles. Like there’s anything funny about it.

The girl has her arms crossed, and Ryan can hear her heel tapping into the floor. This makes him smile. He doesn’t like doctors, doesn’t like hospitals, never has, not since he was a kid. Everything smells so clinical.

“When can I leave?” Ryan is surprised by the strength of his own voice, and he cuts off the doctor mid-sentence. He’s too tired to feel bad about that.

“Well –“ The doctor pauses. A pin on his left breast pocket says his name is Dr. T Gabbard. “Once we get some vitals taken… as soon as you’re ready.”

Ryan breathes out a sigh. That’s a start, at least.

As soon as you’re ready roughly translates to as soon as we feel you are ready. They keep him again over night to make sure his vitals haven’t changed by the morning. Ryan doesn’t know how to fight this, doesn’t really know if he wants to, and the thought of moving is exhausting anyways, so he just nods.

The girl is back in the morning, and Ryan is less tired now, able to get a good look at her. She’s short and thin and beautiful, dressed like she has big plans and is going big places. She grins at him widely and says, “You look less like shit today.”

Ryan’s forehead still feels clammy, but he feels a bit more like himself. “Thanks.” The words on his tongue feel foreign, like he hasn’t spoken in years. He clears his throat. “Um, who –“

“Dan’s got the car out front,” she interrupts, not hearing him. She’s rummaging in her purse for something. “Are they giving you anything for the pain?”

Ryan lifts his hand to his head, feeling the smooth, shaved sides, the bandages wrapped around his skull. He frowns. “My hair.” He still can’t get all the words out.

The girl doesn’t look up. “Yeah, I know, you look like you haven’t fucking showered in years.”

Ryan is scared to touch the bandages, scared to ask what happened. He makes shitty fucking decisions, okay. Nothing new. Brendon likes to tease him, likes to make a challenge of it, but none of Brendon’s shitty decisions have disastrous consequences. Ryan is good at the consequences.

Ryan frowns again, rubbing a hand along his hair. “Where’s Brendon?”

This time the girl does look up, and she stares at him for a second before letting out a disbelieving snort of laughter. “Nice try. I’m not falling for that shit.”

There is a sudden ball of panic forming in Ryan’s chest. “I don’t know who you are.”

The words hang in the silence for a second. The girl bites her lip. “Ryan. That’s not funny.”

“I’m not trying to be funny.”

There’s a brief moment where the girl keeps staring at him, frowning, like she’s trying to figure out if he’s joking. He stares back at her.

She says, “Oh. God. Shit. This is like one of those fucking movies.”

And then she says, “I’m getting the doctor.”

And Ryan keeps staring.

“Okay, Ryan.” He hates the way they say his name, like he’s a rowdy kid being punished. “What’s the last thing you remember?”

That’s never an easy question to answer, he thinks. His memory has never been good. Ryan closes his eyes, tries to think. The passing of time feels unfamiliar for him but he knows it can’t be more than a week since Keltie –

He winces at the memory, a dull ache. The doctor keeps looking at him expectantly. The girl is on the other side of the room, looking vaguely pissed off and impatient, and there’s a man beside her chewing on gum loudly. They both look too beautiful and out of place against the white walls. Washed out.

“I remember breaking up with Keltie,” he offers. He remembers other things, too, but he doesn’t want to talk about them. The girl swears, looking even more pissed off. He’s sorry for that.

The doctor hums, giving nothing away. “What year is it?”

“2009.”

Another hum. “Do you know how you ended up here?”

“Uh.” He’d assumed he was drunk, high, both, making a typical shitty decision with minor consequences. He chews on his lip, suddenly anxious. “No. I don’t.”

The doctor nods, looking calm. Ryan envies that. His insides can’t stop churning with the realization that something is very, very wrong. He feels like a stranger. He is a stranger. He doesn’t know his body.

“Okay, Ryan.” Again with the name. “There is always the chance of this happening. It’s not always permanent. Your brain needs time to catch up.”

The words sound fake and ugly and wrong. “Okay.” He still says it, just because.

“And I want you to know that the worst thing you can do right now is panic.”

The sickening feeling in Ryan’s chest gets worse. “Okay.” He still doesn’t know what else to say. What is he supposed to say? “Okay.” He repeats it, just because.

“You’re missing a chunk of memory from the past four years.”

That knocks the breath out of him. Four years. What can happen in four years? He’s missing his whole life. Four years. Shit.

“Okay.”

“You were in an accident. A car hit you. Do you remember that?”

Ryan shakes his head. “No.”

The doctor keeps saying things, over and over. It feels like he’s telling Ryan a story about something that didn’t happen to him. Another person’s story. Another person’s life that could be added to his. A cracked rib, he said. Explains the ache in his chest. Bruises line his arms, a nasty scar forming on his elbow from where he slid. It had been raining. He was drunk.

Ryan nods, over and over, listening to this man tell him about his life. It feels strange. A story.

After what feels like hours, Dr. Gabbard finally says, “Do you want to go home? Legally we can’t stop you.”

He says yes, he’d like to go home. Please. He doesn’t know where home is. Do Brendon and Shane still live in that place? Is he still welcome on their couch? He wonders again where Brendon is. But when he goes home, it’s the girl who takes him, the girl and that man, both of them too beautiful for hospital rooms.

“It’s like I’m meeting you for the first time,” she says, thinking aloud. “We could start over completely.”

“Don’t,” the man says, but he’s laughing. “He’ll remember everything sooner or later and you’ll look like an idiot.”

Ryan keeps staring at his reflection. There’s something strange there. Something he doesn’t like. He looks away. “I’m sorry I don’t remember you.”

“It’s okay.” She smiles. “Maybe we’ll like each other better this way.” She extends her hand cordially. “Z. It’s nice meeting you for the first time again.”

“Z,” he repeats. “Hi. I’m Ryan.”

“I know.” And she smiles again.

They get him home, in a place that looks like somewhere he would live. At least that’s something he knows about himself. The man’s name is Dan, and he comes inside for a beer. Doesn’t ask, just does it, and maybe that’s something about these people that he likes.

Being around them is strange. They’re like intimate strangers. People who know him, love him, enough to show up to the hospital and enough to take him home, but he doesn’t remember them, doesn’t recall meeting them. Intimate strangers. Like distant aunts and uncles.

It’s when they’re all settled in his living room that Ryan brings it up again. “Where’s Brendon?” He assumes these people know him. They must.

Z glances at Dan, who gives her this weird, funny look. He snorts. “I’m too sober for this conversation.” He takes another sip, like maybe that’ll get him there faster. “You do it.”

The sickening feeling in his stomach is back. Four years is a long time. Four years is a fucking long time. For a crazy moment he wonders if Brendon is dead. That would be funny, maybe, if this were happening to another person. And it’s almost like it is. He wants to laugh.

Z says, “You and Brendon aren’t friends.” Like it’s that simple.

The feeling in the pit of his stomach is warm and heavy. He frowns. His palm itches. “Why?”

She leans back on the couch, rolling her shoulders. “You won’t tell us.” She laughs slightly, like this is a joke. “You just keep saying, ‘nothing, no reason, not a big deal.’” She mocks his monotone a little, lowering her voice an octave.

“Oh.” He can’t figure out what he’s feeling, just that the passage of time is terrifying him. “When?”

“Uh, like.” She smiles at him, pityingly. “A few years ago.”

Ryan takes a deep breath. His head is killing him. There’s a bottle of pain pills tucked inside the pocket of his jacket, with a note warning him to take them sparingly. Sparingly is a good word, he thinks. A nice, solid word. “The band?” he asks, even though now he knows, now it seems clear.

She sips on her own beer, and her pretty mouth is perpetually in a tight frown. “They’re still around. You aren’t.”

“Oh.”

Well, what else does he say to that?

His stomach twists uncomfortably. He doesn’t really have much else to say, no more questions. He wonders what changed. Four years. Shit, four years ago was four years ago. Why did he expect nothing to have changed?

“Does he hate me?” The funny thing, the real funny thing, is that Ryan maybe could have seen this coming four years ago. The hate thing. Brendon hating him. That’s something Ryan could’ve predicted. Could have, but he didn’t. He’s not good with planning head.

Z looks at Dan, who looks at her, and they both share some kind of knowledge between them, but Ryan misses it. She says, “I mean. Who really knows?”

Which is an answer.

He sucks in a breath. “Shit.”

She hums, agreeing. “Yeah. Shit.”

There’s something awful in him, something he can’t grasp or give a name. He’s angry. Angry for missing the past four years, angry for not knowing how to make it better. How to change it. How to fix it. He’s angry at Brendon. He can’t figure out why that is, and it’s making him even more livid. There’s so much of it inside of him he feels like he’ll explode.

Dan stands up, his knees cracking. He looks tired. Bored, maybe. Pitying. Ryan hates that look, so he avoids his eyes. “I should go,” Dan says. “You want a ride back?”

He’s talking to Z. She shifts a little, pressing her lips together. “I don’t want to leave him alone.”

That’s answer enough. Ryan is grateful but at the same time he wishes she would just go away. He wants to go back to sleep. He wants to wake up and remember.

Dan squeezes his shoulder. He looks like the kind of person Ryan would like to be friends with. “I’ll see you later, dude.” He smiles and looks like he means it. The front door slams shut and the windowpanes rattle.

He keeps staring at Z, and she keeps staring back. He wonders what kind of friend she is, if she’s the good kind, the kind he wants. She brushes hair out of her eyes and tilts her head at him, sizing him up. “What’s the last thing you remember?” He starts to repeat what he told the doctor, but then she’s saying, “And I mean, like. The last specific memory. The last time you can remember feeling everything around you.”

His lips go in a thin line. He remembers.

He’d woken up on the couch, in the apartment Shane and Brendon shared. His head had been pounding. It feels like only a few days ago. He has to remind himself the passage of time.

He’d been drunk. Passed out on the couch. He woke up, and he heard laughter. The air was warm. The whole apartment smelled like grease and fried eggs, bacon sizzling in the pan. Coffee in the pot. His mouth was fuzzy, tasted like beer and cigarettes, coated with a layer of shit.

He’d stood up. The blanket wasn’t his. Someone woke up and put it on him. A plastic serving bowl sat on the ground by the couch. For puking. Someone put that there, too. He’d been glad to see he hadn’t thrown up.

He walked into the kitchen. The tile was cold. The air was heavy. Brendon was leaning against the fridge. He was laughing. He couldn’t see Ryan. Shane was cooking breakfast, a pile of half-burnt bacon sitting on a paper towel. Brendon was saying, “God, you can’t fucking cook,” and dissolving into laughter.

And Ryan was staring because. Because Brendon was staring at Shane like.

He felt like a stranger in this home. Brendon’s eyes and his mouth and his pretty, pretty smile. And Ryan felt like a stranger. Intimate strangers.

And that feels like only a few days ago but Ryan knows. Passage of time. Four years. He swallows and tries to remember anything else. But that’s all, that’s the last thing. His chest feels constricted. He doesn’t know why. He doesn’t know why.

“Shane cooking breakfast,” he says, as an answer. “I walked into the kitchen and Brendon was there. He looked happy and it made me angry.”

She lets out this sigh. “I’m sorry.” He doesn’t know what she’s sorry for, but he likes that she is. Maybe she’s the kind of friend he likes.

“It’s okay.” Because it is. It has to be.

“You liked him,” Z supplies, like this is any of her business. “Didn’t you?”

Ryan stares down at his hands. The weight of the pill bottle in his jacket suddenly becomes unbearable. He shifts a little, hearing it rattle. It’s been four years. He doesn’t have any secrets now. “Yeah. Maybe a little.”

He doesn’t tell her more than that. She nods, like this isn’t news, not a surprise. He feels very tired suddenly. He feels angry. He’s tired of being angry.

“I’m sorry,” she says again.

He’s still angry. “Don’t be.”

“Maybe you should sleep.”

She sounds sorry. She sounds so fucking sorry. Ryan just nods. No point arguing. No point.

His bed is unfamiliar. Comfortable. He stares at the ceiling and it’s white. White, white, white. He doesn’t go to sleep for a long time because. Because.

Brendon on his back and the sheets are warm and slicked to his skin and Brendon is laughing, he’s saying, “God, you fucking idiot,” and Ryan is laughing, because.

And Brendon is beautiful and naked and beautiful and Ryan kisses him because he can, because Brendon wants him to. Ryan kisses him again. And he kisses him, and kisses him. And Brendon says, “Fuck, I can’t breathe, you idiot,” and then they’re laughing again and Ryan loves him. He thinks this is what love is. It must be.

Then Ryan is inside him and Brendon sounds so dirty, sounds so fucking dirty, so beautiful. He’s too beautiful. Ryan kisses him.

And Brendon is on top of him and he’s riding him and he’s throwing his head back and he’s perfect, he’s so fucking perfect. And Ryan is lost. And Ryan is in love, he’s in love. What a foreign concept. To be in love.

Ryan’s hands are shaking. Withdrawal. And Brendon is saying, “You idiot,” but he doesn’t sound happy anymore and Ryan thinks that’s sad. Brendon is beautiful when he’s sad, even prettier than when he’s happy. Beauty touched by sadness. Poetic imagery. He’ll put it on the next album.

Shane is cooking breakfast and Brendon looks beautiful. He looks happy. Happiness ruining beauty. Ryan hates him. Ryan hates this.

The world shrinks, shrinks, shrinks.

He wakes up and it’s cold.

He’s not surprised that Brendon hates him. He’s not.

He knows it’s a stupid idea so he doesn’t tell anyone. He keeps having to remind himself that time has passed, the world has moved on. His relevance is less relevant. He doesn’t get recognized on the streets, no awkward clamoring for a photograph. In a way, Ryan is glad. He’s never been good with fans, and he’s tired of reading more blog posts about what a dick he is in real life. How disappointed they were when they met him.

In truth, he’s tired of disappointing perfect strangers, and tired of caring.

The day is methodical. When he wakes up, Z is gone, with a note in her place, simply, Gotta run. Call me if you need help. – Z

He makes a mental note not to call. Obviously.

It’s a stupid idea. He doesn’t call.

The day is hot. The public transit is crowded, full of people, and not one person says his name, not one person with wide eyes and shaking hands asking for an autograph. It’s strange. He’s not unhappy about it.

The house, when he sees it, is too normal. Ryan huffs laughter, then feels bad about it. He doesn’t know why he even has the address – after four years, he still keeps an updated list of ways to contact Brendon Urie. It’s a stupid idea. He doesn’t even know what to expect, doesn’t even know what he’s hoping for.

Answers, mostly. The doctor said it’s not uncommon for him to never regain his memories. He’ll spend the rest of his life wondering what happened if he doesn’t ask now.

Ryan knocks anyways.

There’s silence, mostly, on the other side of the door. The last time he remembers seeing Brendon feels like only a few days ago, only a handful of hours passed, but even if he can’t remember time passing, he feels it. The world feels heavy with it. The silence is heavy with it.

A shuffling, then, behind the door, and Ryan shoves his hands into his pockets. He feels out of place and young and stupid. He wishes he understood. Wishes he could remember. His head still throbs.

The man that answers the door is not Brendon the way Ryan remembers him.

It’s age, maybe, but probably not. He looks filled out, like maybe he’s finally been putting his energy into something productive. His hair is different. Shorter. Wet from a shower. Mostly he still looks like Brendon, still looks like the boy Ryan knew when he was a boy, too. He looks different. He looks the same. Ryan can’t help himself from noticing that he looks good.

“Hey.” Ryan’s voice is raw. He hates that. Giving everything away.

And Brendon looks surprised. Not in a pleasant way, maybe. Surprised. “Hi.” He says it carefully and Ryan feels something flood through him, relief maybe, that he still sounds the same. He still sounds like Brendon.

There’s a weird feeling, then, of feeling like a perfect stranger to the man before him, despite remembering the last time he saw him as if it was less than a week ago. That Brendon had a smile in his eyes, his mouth open wide in nonsensical laughter. There was a Brendon that loved him once. Neither here nor there.

“Uh.” Ryan coughs. “Are you busy?”

Brendon’s lips press together in a thin line. He looks angry. Ryan shies away from the look. “No. Not really.”

He doesn’t move, though, doesn’t usher Ryan inside, doesn’t make any movement to welcome him. And then Ryan looks at him, tries to meet his gaze levelly, and Brendon lets out this resigned sigh, stepping aside to let Ryan in. Like he supposes he has to. Just to be polite.

The rejection and humiliation isn’t lost on him. He keeps it quiet.

The house looks lived in, like a real home, and Ryan feels very out of place. A stark contrast to the atmosphere. Something that doesn’t belong there. The door clicks shut and Brendon is facing him, looking so different, looking like a stranger.

“What are you doing here?” Brendon clears his throat pointedly.

This had been a bad idea, Ryan knows it, but he’s already done it, already gone through with it. “It’ll sound crazy.”

Brendon shrugs, like it doesn’t matter either way. “That’s fine.” His voice is cool, clipped disinterest, and Ryan has to struggle not to flinch away from it. Intimate strangers.

“So, uh.” Ryan gestures vaguely to his head, where there’s still the wrapped gauze. “I got into an accident, a few days ago. They say I got hit really bad.” He studies Brendon’s face, tries to find pity there, but his features are carefully calm. “And now I can’t remember.”

Brendon folds his arms across his chest. His face gives nothing away and Ryan is reminded, suddenly, of when Brendon’s self-preservation skills weren’t so great. People could read his emotions without even trying. He wore his heart on his sleeve and never apologized for it.

“Can’t remember what?” Brendon’s voice is soft, not with fondness, no, not likely. Disbelief, maybe. Veiled anger.

Ryan is surprised by how suddenly frustrated he feels, like all the anger is flooding back into him. “Anything. Nothing.  Not from the past few years.”

When Ryan meets Brendon’s gaze, he’s not sure what he hopes to find. Pity, maybe. Sadness. Shock. Anything other than indifference. Brendon’s lips are pressed together, brows furrowed, like he’s expecting for Ryan to be lying, telling a joke, anything. But Ryan just stares back. It’s quiet, for a second. Then Brendon lets out this laugh, a humorless one, but not an unkind one. “Well.” He runs a hand through his short hair. “Lucky you.”

The bitterness is there, but Brendon laughs again, this time disbelief, and Ryan doesn’t have the energy to question the anger. He just stands there, awkwardly, his hands in his pockets, standing in the middle of Brendon’s domestic life, and he feels like he shouldn’t be here. He feels like he doesn’t belong in this world.

“I was hoping you could.” Ryan pauses. “They say it’s possible I won’t get it back.”

Brendon’s mouth twists into a smile. “It’s possible,” he echoes.

“I was hoping you could tell me what happened.”

The guarded look is back, but it flits quickly and then it’s gone again. Brendon looks suddenly small. Ryan feels like an idiot. “What’s the last thing you remember?”

Ryan wonders what to say to that, so he settles on, “Breaking up with Keltie. Crashing on your couch.”

“Oh, fuck.” Brendon laughs. “Fuck.”

“Fuck,” Ryan agrees.

Brendon pauses. He bites his lip, looking young again. “We’re not friends. Did you know that?”

Ryan dutifully avoids his gaze, embarrassed by the churning in his stomach again. He’s not a fucking preteen with a crush. “Yeah,” he says, and then feels like even more like an idiot. “I know that.”

“You don’t know why, though.” It’s not a question.

“No.” Ryan shakes his head. “I don’t know why.”

“And you want me to tell you why.”

Ryan shrugs. “Yeah. I guess that’s what I want.”

He doesn’t like the way Brendon is looking at him, doesn’t like the careful way Brendon seems to be regarding him. There’s something horrifying about their awkwardness with each other. No more fluid movements and easy conversations. Ryan feels like a stranger in his own body with none of the answers. Like Brendon knows stories about him that he doesn’t know.

Brendon’s smile is small, small, small. “You won’t like what I have to say.”

“No,” Ryan agrees.

They don’t look directly at each other. Brendon shifts his weight to one side, and he looks the same. He really does. The same and different. “I can’t, right now.” He sounds almost regretful. “Maybe –“ He cuts himself off, stares at a point beyond Ryan’s left shoulder. “Maybe if you left your address. I’ll come by. We can talk.”

Ryan feels heat on the back of his neck, remembering when they used to “talk.” But this isn’t one of those times. The world has moved on. He’s not surprised by it, but it still feels like a blow. “Okay.” He doesn’t know what else to say. “Okay,” he repeats.

He scrawls it on the notebook sitting by the armchair, the words and numbers Z made him memorize. She’d said he wasn’t stupid, he could figure out how to get there and back. He wasn’t stupid.

He feels it, though. He really does. Brendon still looks at him like he’s not to be trusted, like maybe he’ll prove himself to be a liar, after all.

When the door slams shut, Ryan doesn’t look back once.

Ryan begins to think Brendon will never show up on the day that Brendon actually does.

“I can’t drink yet,” Ryan says in lieu of hello when Brendon shoves past him, a six-pack in his arms. He can’t drink for another week, until his brain goes back to normal. Even if it’ll never be the same.

“I didn’t say it was for you,” Brendon says. He goes right to the kitchen, like he’s been here before, and Ryan shuts the door behind him. He follows him into the kitchen, finds him twisting off the cap of a beer and taking a long sip. Ryan’s stomach feels heavy. Just watching him.

Brendon regards him with this look and Ryan feels the tension in his shoulders, settling hard in his chest. Brendon doesn’t say anything, though, just looks at him, and finally he tears his eyes away and goes to the living room, flopping down on the couch. Ryan doesn’t know how he’s supposed to act around this new Brendon, so he doesn’t say anything, either, just follows.

Brendon says, conversationally, “You cleaned up around here.”

Ryan chews the inside of his cheek. “When were you last here?”

Brendon makes this sound, a kind of laugh from deep in his throat. “Don’t you want me to start from the beginning?”

And Ryan does, he supposes that is what he wants. He doesn’t know if he’ll like it, if he wants to know what Brendon has to say. He doesn’t know. It seems everyone has the answers to his puzzle and he’s scared of the final picture.

All the same, he nods. “Yeah.”

Brendon hums. “You remember Keltie.”

“I remember Keltie.”

“Unforgettable,” Brendon says knowingly. “So, like. Then you crashed on my couch for a while. Spencer was there.”

Ryan remembers this, but he doesn’t say anything. Brendon is scratching at the stubble on his jaw, looking deep in thought. Ryan doesn’t want to feel affected by it, but he’s human. He’s always been nothing but human.

“And then…” Brendon pauses. “You were mad all the time. No one knew why. You drank a lot.” The tone is conversational, disinterested, like he’s reading off a grocery list. “You kind of.” He laughs. “You were kind of a dick, honestly.”

Ryan feels heat crawling up his cheeks but he doesn’t say anything, still.

“You didn’t want to be around me anymore.” That’s something Brendon barely says, his voice like a rough stage-whisper. “I didn’t know why. You and Jon got along better, anyway. Musically, and all.” Brendon takes another long sip. His knee is jittering, his eyes on the floor. “You said, I remember, that none of it was working anymore. I said, fine, maybe we’ll take a hiatus. And you said, no, I want something more permanent than that.”

Ryan’s heart squeezes and contracts. “Oh.”

“I wasn’t surprised,” Brendon says now. “Maybe I thought I was. But it made sense, you know. You were distant from us. From me.” He closes his eyes, leaning back against the couch. “I wasn’t surprised,” he repeats, softer.

Ryan is silent. He wishes he could remember what he was feeling, what he was thinking. It’s all blank, blank space and nothingness, a yawning distance between then and now. He clears his throat. “So, we split the band up.” It’s not really a question, but Brendon nods anyways. “Oh.”

There’s more questions, but Brendon looks strange now, small and different and closed up. Ryan feels the familiar urge to touch him but refrains. Brendon swallows soundly. “You and Jon left. You said some stuff that hurt. Everyone was mad at you for a little while.”

“A little while?”

Brendon cracks a smile. “I’m still mad.”

Ryan laughs, but it’s not really funny. He leans back, following suit, staring straight ahead. “I’m sorry. For being a dick.”

Brendon shifts and Ryan ends up having to look at him. Brendon is staring at him, this look, this familiar and unfamiliar gaze, his mouth twisting upwards a little. He blinks and says, “You never apologized before.”

“Why not?” Ryan is affected. Only human.

Brendon shakes his head. “I don’t know how your brain works.”

“Me neither, right now.” Ryan smiles and Brendon smiles back and it’s easy, for the moment. The distance doesn’t seem so far. The space between his thoughts is shrinking.

But it doesn’t last. The guarded look is back in Brendon’s eyes, and Ryan doesn’t look away but feels himself recoiling from it. He has more questions. Brendon’s tongue darts out, briefly, to wet his lips, and Ryan watches the movement and has more questions.

“We stopped,” Brendon informs him, answering him without meaning to. His voice is carefully indifferent. “Whatever it was, it stopped.”

“I know.” Ryan doesn’t know how he knows, but he’d guessed. He’d assumed. “When did we –“ The close proximity is too much and Ryan pulls back a little. “When did we?”

Ryan has never been good at using the correct words to describe what they did with each other, what Brendon did to him. He never called it a relationship because that’s not what it was. It wasn’t convenience, either. It was just what they did. The natural movement of their bodies.

But Brendon knows what he’s talking about, always knows. “We fucked a few more times, after.” His words fall like nails, blunt and straight-forward like it’s no big deal. “A handful of times.”

Ryan looks away now. He studies a chip in the paint on the other side of the room. “And then?”

“And then we stopped.”

Ryan exhales. “Mutual?”

“Mutual.” Ryan can hear Brendon take a breath. “It was definitely mutual.”

Ryan’s shoulders are tensed. “Why?”

He figures that’s a dumb question, but he needs the answers. Needs the memories. He has to fill in the past four years with something. Brendon leans forward to snatch another beer from the floor. He’s downing them quickly, and Ryan wonders if maybe that had been the point. Getting drunk enough not to have to say the right things. Ryan used to do it himself, often, a perfect tactic.

Brendon takes a sip before he says anything, and his breath stutters, like he’s trying to find the right words. “I think.” He stops himself, sounding small and tired. “I think it’s enough that one of us remembers.” His voice is soft like Ryan’s never heard it, his eyes on his shoes. “I don’t think you need to remember.”

Ryan doesn’t know what to say to that. He wants the memories, craves them, but it never occurred to him that maybe there are some memories he doesn’t want back. He hesitates. All he manages to get out is, “Was it bad?”

Brendon inhales sharply. “It wasn’t good.”

“Oh.”

More silence.

Ryan yearns, and the quiet yearning is filling him up, until it’s all he feels. He tries to remember if he’s angry at Brendon. He remembers being angry, in general, angry that Brendon could be happy without him, angry that he could not keep his life together. He had been angry. He remembers.

Ryan casts a glance at Brendon now and tries to feel anger, resentment, anything. The man beside him is not the man Ryan remembers, but he’s not too different, either. Brendon is looking down the neck of his bottle, fidgeting with his hands, looking small. Ryan wonders how he manages to make Brendon look small, when Brendon’s presence can fill a whole stadium.

He tries to remember if he’d been angry. He knows there was anger. It hadn’t been pointed at Brendon. It hadn’t been anyone’s anger, only his own.

Sometimes, he forgets not to let his anger bubble over.

“I’m getting married,” Brendon says suddenly, as if he’d forgotten until then. Ryan isn’t shocked by this, but feels the stinging on his cheek as if he’d been slapped there. “Yeah. In a month.”

A selfish, aching feeling begins to burn in Ryan’s guts, but he says, “Congratulations.”

Brendon’s smile is small and fleeting. “You never wanted to meet her.”

Ryan doesn’t say anything.

“You still don’t.” Brendon meets his gaze. “Do you?”

He doesn’t know what to say to that. It feels like Brendon is saying something else entirely, asking another question. He has a lot of questions with no straight answers. Ryan coughs, clearing his throat. “No.” He doesn’t know what question he’s answering.

Brendon seems to know, though, his lips quirking upwards at the corners for a fraction of a second. “Yeah, okay.”

Ryan feels full of words. The silence is too heavy, like the air before a storm. He studies a scuff on his shoe, trying to figure out how to continue the conversation, but Brendon has gone almost completely quiet now. Ryan eyes the beer. Brendon managed to down four in the short time they’ve been talking.

If Ryan were to look at him now, really look at him, he’d be able to see the slight pink to his cheeks. If Brendon were happy, he’d be clingy and smiley, attaching himself to Ryan’s side like glue. Brendon is an affectionate drunk. Ryan is trying so hard to remember things but this is all he comes up with.

Instead, Ryan is staring down at the floor, trying not to look at Brendon. This had been a bad idea. He had known it would be, but now he has full confirmation.

“Can you get home safe?”

Ryan doesn’t mean to be kicking him out, but he feels Brendon tense up beside him. There’s a beat of silence, and then, “Yeah, I’ll call a cab.”

Brendon fishes around in his pocket for his phone while Ryan rises to his feet. Brendon makes the brief call for the cab, and Ryan watches, feeling out of place. Just as Brendon hangs up, Ryan makes for the bedroom, but then turns around quickly, rushing out with, “Is it okay if I just –“

“Yeah, no, it’s –“ Brendon bites down on his lip, scrolling through his phone. “It’s fine,” he says at last. “You gotta sleep, so. Maybe we’ll talk about this some other time.”

The maybe is there, but Ryan knows better. So does Brendon.

He’s just about to disappear, but the question that’s been gnawing at him spills from his lips without warning: “Do you hate me?”

Brendon looks up. “Now? Or before?”

“Are we two separate people?”

Brendon smiles at that, quickly. “I guess not.” There’s a short period of silence, and then he’s saying, “I wish I could hate you.”

Ryan feels like a child, then. A punished child. “Oh.”

“Sometimes, I think I hate you so fucking much I might want you dead.” Brendon sighs, scrubbing his face with the back of his hand tiredly. The beer made him too bold. Too easily opened. “Sometimes. I really think that.”

Ryan fidgets, looking anywhere but at Brendon. He doesn’t know what this is going to prove, if anything. He doesn’t know why he wants it to mean any more than it does. “Okay.” He says it, just because there’s nothing else to say.

“But I don’t hate you,” Brendon says, quieter now. “I want to.”

The ache in Ryan’s chest yawns larger, and he feels like he’s never going to be more than this. He wants to know what he did, what he’s done to make Brendon look at him like that. It’s unsettling. Unnerving. He wants nothing more than to not be the cause of that look on his face. But he is. He is.

“I’m sorry.” He doesn’t know what he’s apologizing for, but it feels right.

Brendon gives him this smile, this small one that looks out of place, unfamiliar. “I know you are.” He holds Ryan’s gaze for a second before standing up, craning his neck to glance out the window. “Cab’s here.”

Ryan itches to turn back around. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight.” There’s no gracelessness in the way he walks. He picks up the last of his beer and smoothly downs it, placing the empty bottle next to the others on the coffee table. And when he disappears, he walks out of Ryan’s new, empty house and Ryan’s new, empty life like he never wants to walk back in.

Ryan closes the door shut behind him.

Ryan can feel it when he wakes up the next morning, hitting him all at once and out of nowhere. He recognizes it, remembers it like a vivid picture image, and when Z comes over, later, he feels like this is a proper time to blame her.

“I’m withdrawing?” He hates the way his voice sounds, ugly and mean and high-pitched.

She looks at him with this blank stare. “Probably.”

The accusations fall, the anger dissolving. His palms are itching and he keeps his fingertips steady on his knee, trying to calm himself. He gets jitters, he remembers. He gets loud and angry. A headache starts forming behind his eyes, and he closes them.

Z makes this sound, a sympathetic hum. “I can get you some Valium.”

Trading one thing for another. He clenches his teeth together, grinding them, imagining that he could crumble his teeth into dust and never speak. Instead, he nods. “Please.”

“Okay.” And then she’s gone.

He thinks maybe she might love him, but not in a way that means anything. There are different kinds of love. He’ll take any version of it he can get, any kind that he can grab onto. Get his hands on, dirty up. He thinks about Brendon. He thinks about calling him, remembering when Brendon would try to smooth away the anger and the jitters and the migraines, remembering when they would spend whole days in bed trying to fix it.

He must’ve fallen asleep, because when he wakes up, the door is slamming shut and Z is tossing an orange bottle at him on the couch. It lands with a thud and a rattle.

“Here.” She sounds angry, but Ryan can’t figure out what she’d be angry for. “Sparingly.”

“Sparingly,” Ryan echoes. It feels like a calm wave over him, relief flooding through him until he’s weak at the knees. “Thanks.”

“Yeah.” She looks down to the floor. Ryan can’t understand what she’s feeling. He’s not used to her enough yet.

All the same.  He downs two at a time with water from the tap, ignoring the disapproving look he gets. It’s better than the shaking, he wants to say to her. It’s better.

Z looks around, taking in the empty bottles on the coffee table. “You can’t drink yet.” Her voice is sharp with the accusation, angry, and she whips her head around to glare at him. “Ryan.

Already he can feel the calming effect, feel his body relax, a smooth transition. “It wasn’t me. Brendon was here.”

This gets her attention. She presses her lips into a thin red line, a perfectly-arched eyebrow lifting. “Brendon came here?” She sounds almost close to laughing. Ryan can’t wrap his mind around it, and he isn’t sure now if he wants to. “Are you serious?”

Again he gets that feeling that everyone else is holding the pieces to his puzzle. “Yeah, he came over to talk. You know.” He’d told her about this.

She smiles fleetingly. “I really didn’t expect him to.”

“Yeah. Well.” Ryan’s body begins to shut down, go numb, and he welcomes it, tired of feeling so uneasy and full of questions. The weight of it is unbearable. He wonders if it will always feel like this, if he never remembers. He’ll be left with a thousand questions and no one willing to give him the answers. The echo of Brendon telling him, “It’s enough that one of us remembers.

Z glances at the clock. Ryan follows her gaze, watching the minute hand tick to the one. Almost 9:05. “I was going to invite you out, but.” She pauses, meeting his gaze, and he gets it. He does.

“I should probably sleep,” he says as a way to save her from having to explain. “You know. Rest up.”

“Yeah.” She nods, maybe a little too fast, then points at the bottle still clutched in his hands. “Sparingly.”

“Sparingly,” he agrees.

She’s still giving him this look, this all-knowing look, and it makes him feel dumb and small in comparison. The anger is bubbling, rising in his chest, and he almost spits out something cruel to her before he shuts his mouth. He has to keep a cap on it. He remembers now.

When she leaves, she turns around to look at him, really look at him, like she’s seeing him now for the first time. She studies him and he lets her study. And then she says, “You know, Ryan, people really do love you.”

He doesn’t know what to say to that, so he doesn’t say anything. There are four years’ worth of words thrumming under his skin but he can’t form them, doesn’t have the proper blueprints yet.

“People love you a lot. Even now.”

Even now.

Ryan still doesn’t answer her. She closes the door behind her quietly, gently, as if not to disturb his peace. The house is suddenly empty. He’s not anything, he realizes. Maybe a piece of décor. Blending into the walls and the paint and the furniture. He doesn’t occupy this house, he simply owns it.

This house is not a home.

His bed sheets don’t smell like anything. Just fabric softener and cigarettes. He sinks his nose into them and breathes in deep.

It’s another few days before Brendon shows back up, this time empty-handed. Ryan answers the door and Brendon immediately gives him a thorough once-over. “You’re withdrawing,” he accuses, and shoves past him without waiting to be let inside.

Ryan rubs a hand over his face, trying to get the sleep out of his eyes. “Yeah,” he says, lamely, because he doesn’t bother trying to lie anymore.

Brendon lets out a huff. “I guess you didn’t know.”

“No.”

“Figures.” Brendon’s lips twitch into a smile. “How do you feel?”

Ryan tries to smile back, but he’s almost too tired. “Like shit,” he replies honestly, and Brendon laughs, like it’s funny. It isn’t, but maybe it’s some kind of retribution. An inside joke Brendon won’t let him in on.

The silence is brief, then, before Ryan is saying, “What are you doing here?”

It’s not a dumb question. Brendon’s smile flickers. “I thought I should tell you more.”

Ryan stops himself from asking how much more there could be to tell. The timeline of events still remains hazy. Everything blends together. It’s not like Brendon is an expert on Ryan’s current life, anyways, but for some reason he trusts Brendon’s view of things more than he could trust his own or anyone else’s. It seems proper, fitting, that Brendon is the one filling in the gaps, the spaces between then and now.

“Okay,” he says, because it is okay. It is. Maybe now he can fix it, whatever it was he broke. Maybe now it’s not impossible.

Brendon looks calm, happy even, nothing like the closed-off man Ryan had sent home just a week before. He looks like he has a secret, but Brendon’s always got that look in his eyes, that sparkle, like he’s just finished committing a horrible crime with a great punch line. Ryan’s stomach twists, does this uncomfortable somersault, and he has to look away.

“So,” he says at length, running his fingers through his hair. “What else is there?”

And Brendon laughs.

They end up lying on their backs on the living room floor, talking most of the night. It’s simpler, because this time Brendon’s less angry, less anything, and the world is getting easy again. Brendon plays him some of the new music. It’s good, he says, because it is. It’s different. It’s good.

Brendon looks like those compliments actually mean something, like his words hold weight. Ryan doesn’t know what to make of that so he doesn’t question it. The ceiling above them is an off-white, closer to beige. The room is tinged yellow from the lamp in the corner. Brendon starts playing more music.

Ryan closes his eyes. Then he opens them, saying, “I remember writing this.” He does, he does, and that’s him singing too, and. Fuck. “I remember that.”

Brendon hums. “It’s good.”

“Yeah,” he says, and then thinks maybe he sounds silly, self-congratulatory. “That’s Jon, too.”

“You both left.”

“Right.” He’d forgotten.

Listening to it is making him feel surreal, a little sick in the stomach, so Ryan is grateful when Brendon shuts it off. The silence is better. Ryan closes his eyes again. It helps steady the queasiness in his stomach, the migraine starting to appear just behind his left eye.

Brendon is just a foot away on the floor, but he shifts closer, and Ryan can hear the movement rather than see it. Tiredly, he opens his eyes, and Brendon is propped up on his elbow, staring down at him.

“What?” Somehow it feels unnerving.

Brendon frowns at him, lifting a hand to his temple where the skin is bruised and cut. “Just looking,” he says, and his calloused fingertips begin to rub into the flesh.

Ryan relaxes into it. He’s only human. He feels like he’ll start to arch into the touch like a cat, but then Brendon is pulling his hand away, as if remembering himself. Ryan’s breath is quick and rapid and he feels like an idiot, a fucking idiot.

Brendon flops back down onto the ground and they don’t look at each other. It’s not like that anymore. It’s not.

“Did you want me to tell you?” Brendon asks.

Ryan isn’t sure what he’s saying. “Tell me what?”

Brendon lets out a sigh. He’s close enough for Ryan to feel the rise-and-fall of his chest. “Why we stopped. What you did.”

Ryan’s heart stutters and stops. “Yes.” He doesn’t know why he wants to know, only knows that it matters. It matters. He needs to fill in the blanks, color inside the lines, and he can’t unless Brendon tells him. “I want you to tell me.”

Brendon answers him with silence, then, “I could lie.”

“You could.” But he won’t.

Brendon laughs humorlessly. “Okay.” He shifts again, sitting up on his knees so he gets to look down at Ryan from that angle. It makes Ryan feel exposed, scrutinized, but he doesn’t move, his whole body feeling too weak. He just lets Brendon stare down at him, lets Brendon study him.

Brendon looks like he’s thinking hard, and one hand comes up to push his hair back. He’s got stubble lining his jaw, and he suddenly looks tired. Ryan can’t place that. He can’t figure it out, what he’s done to look so tired.

“Okay,” Brendon says again. “We were, like. You know.” He makes a vague hand gesture, to encompass whatever it was they were. Fucking. That was what it was. “But you were mad. You were mad at me. I didn’t get it, why you were mad. You were mad, but we still.”

But we still.

Ryan swallows soundly, and suddenly he doesn’t like where this is going, wishes he could take it back, asking for it. He doesn’t want it anymore. He doesn’t want to know. But these words and protests get lost in his throat and he doesn’t say a word, just lets Brendon talk, lets Brendon tell him a story.

“And I didn’t know what you wanted,” Brendon continues, and he’s not really looking at Ryan, his eyes sort of glazed over as he remembers. “That’s not new, right?”

He’s not asking Ryan to answer, but Ryan does. “No.”

Brendon smiles. “I kept asking you what you wanted.” His shoulders tense up. Ryan catches every little movement, watches the way Brendon remembers, and feels sick. “I shouldn’t have asked so much, maybe. You didn’t know what you wanted, either.”

That’s not new.

“And then.” A dark look flits over Brendon’s gaze, and it’s gone in a second. “There was this one time. You might’ve been withdrawing. I couldn’t – I wasn’t sure. You acted like that a lot, anyways.” He pauses. “ I said, what the hell is wrong with you? And you said, you’re what’s wrong with me.” He doesn’t go as far as to mock Ryan’s monotone, imitate it, but Ryan can feel the sting anyways. “We got so angry. I wanted to hit you.”

Brendon stops talking for a moment, long enough for the silence to feel unbearable. Then: “You told me to stop acting like a lovesick faggot.”

Breath escapes Ryan’s lungs. He already wishes he could take it back.

“And then,” Brendon says, trudging forward, “you said if I wanted my cock sucked, have Shane do it, because it’s not your job anymore. And you laughed.”

Ryan feels stinging behind his eyes. He think he might actually cry, and then he thinks that he’s an idiot, so he closes his eyes. He doesn’t want to look at Brendon anymore. When he does speak, his voice is rough and obvious. “What did you do?”

“I hit you.” Brendon’s voice has a smile to it, like he’s reliving the satisfaction. “Just once. Punched you right in the jaw.”

Ryan’s jaw aches now, as if remembering the pain. “Good.”

“Yeah, it was pretty good.” Brendon laughs, and maybe now there’s actually something to laugh about. “But then I went home. I expected you to call me or something, and then I could have the satisfaction of telling you to fuck off, have your gay crisis somewhere else. But you never did. So.”

Ryan is quiet. He opens his eyes, slowly, letting the light flood back into his vision. Brendon is still hunched over him, on his knees, and for all he’s filled out and grown, he still reminds Ryan of the seventeen-year-old kid he met years ago. Somehow that’s comforting. Somehow it’s terrifying.

Ryan says, “I wish I knew why.”

Brendon looks at him, his head tilted slightly. “Me too.”

Ryan is trying so hard to remember now, and now he doesn’t know if his memories are trickling back or if he’s just remembering what Brendon’s told him. He still tries. Tries to place the night Brendon hit him, tries to feel the bruise on his jaw. He presses his fingertips along his jawline, maybe hoping to feel tenderness somewhere, but he’s all healed there. Like it never happened. Just a story.

“I’m sorry,” Ryan says, his voice a rough whisper, as if the words were torn unwillingly from his throat. There’s a beat of silence. He says, “I want to take it back.”

“You can’t,” Brendon says, but he’s not angry. He sounds more resigned than anything. “If you hadn’t –“ He stops himself, and he meets Ryan’s eyes, like there’s something to be found there. “If you hadn’t lost the time. If you remembered. It wouldn’t matter, you’d never have taken it back.”

Ryan wants to say that’s not true, but he doesn’t know. That’s the worst part, he realizes, the fact that he doesn’t know who he is now, he doesn’t know if the person he became would ever have taken it back. “I never would’ve given you the satisfaction,” he says, and knows it’s mostly true.

Brendon looks back down. The corners of his lips twitch upwards. “No, you wouldn’t. That’s why you never called.”

Stubborn. Ryan is too fucking stubborn for his own good, but Brendon is too. That’s why it worked, that’s why it worked in the studio and in the bed and onstage. Too stubborn, pushing and pulling at each other in both directions until one of them gave in, but they never did.

The silence is palpable now, maybe because they’ve realized there’s not much else to say. Ryan not remembering doesn’t mean things didn’t happen. It just means he doesn’t have the answers for them anymore. He doesn’t have the reasons.

Brendon scrubs his face tiredly, and Ryan can’t help but watch him. He wonders what changed, what broke inside of him, something ugly and mean that made Brendon hurt this way. It isn’t fair. He knows it isn’t fair, but he can’t take it back. He can’t take it back just because he doesn’t remember the reasons why.

Ryan moves to sit up, his knees knocking against Brendon’s on the floor, and they’re so close, and Ryan yearns. He misses him, and the feeling takes over everything, fills him up. He knows he should say something, some kind of explanation. He knows he’d been angry. He knows why he’d been angry, four years ago, four whole fucking years ago. But the jealousy is still there, curling up in his stomach, and he thinks he’ll throw up if he tries to talk about it. The reason he’d been angry, the jealousy, the way Brendon laughed and laughed when he looked at Shane and there was nothing funny enough.

Brendon looks back up and Ryan can tell, he knows that he’s not unaffected, that they always have this kind of pull. Ryan can’t be the only one that feels it, he knows he’s not the only one. Brendon is a hairbreadth away, barely, and their knees are touching and Ryan could. He could close the distance and make everything okay again.

But that’s not the smart thing to do, it’s not what he should be doing, he knows that, too. Brendon is getting married. Two weeks, he’d said, and he looked happy. He did. He had that same look in his eyes that Ryan remembers from four years ago. He remembers it.

“Ryan.” It’s a warning. Probably. Ryan lifts a hand and rests it on Brendon’s knee, the angle awkward, but it helps with the jitters.

“Yeah?”

Brendon is breathing hard, and Ryan wants to remember this, store it in the file cabinets in his brain forever, because he wants memories of Brendon like this, he wants to fill in the blank space with Brendon’s shuddering breath and pink cheeks and accelerating pulse. He wants to remember this. He wants to color in the lines with this.

Brendon leans forward and kisses him, soft and warm and dry, and Ryan swallows back the relief he feels, because so many things can change, so many things and all the years between them, and Brendon still smells the same, his lips still feel the same.

It’s quick and fleeting, a chaste brush of skin, before Brendon is pulling away and wiping his mouth as if to get the taste off. It stings but Ryan ignores it, a dull throb.

“Sorry,” Brendon says, like there’s anything to be sorry for, anything at all. “I just. Old habits.”

“Yeah.” Ryan hates the sound of his own voice. “It’s fine. Old habits.”

The moment is over. Brendon starts to rise to his feet, almost as if he’s running away, and, yeah. He is. Ryan used to be the one that was good at that but Brendon is getting better. He’s always been a quick study.

“I should go.” Brendon’s voice is a rough sound and he clears his throat and says, “I told Sarah I’d be home.”

Ryan swallows the bile in his throat. “Yeah, sure.” He stands up, too, feeling out of place in his own home, which is ridiculous. Brendon has a way of making him feel like this. He wonders if he has the same effect on Brendon.

He knows that he does. It makes it all feel worse, somehow.

Brendon is looking at him like – like he used to, maybe, but different. Scared. Apprehensive. Guilty. Ryan could write a book about the way Brendon is looking at him, if only he had enough words in his body. Ryan doesn’t meet his gaze, looking anywhere but at him, the elephant in the room.

“I don’t want to do this,” Brendon says, and he’s not saying anything else, but it means what it means.

It aches all the same. “Me neither.” And it’s true. He doesn’t want to do this. He’s missing too much, not feeling the right things. “It’s just a kiss. Doesn’t mean anything, one way or another.”

“Yeah.” Brendon is nodding too fast. “Yeah, you’re right.”

And then the silence.

“Well.” Another beat. “I’m glad we got to talk.”

Brendon’s hand is curling on the doorknob, and he’s nodding again, looking panicked and scared and – “Maybe another time.”

Empty words, Ryan thinks, but he’d thought the last goodbye was empty, too. He’s getting worse at predicting Brendon, or maybe Brendon’s getting less predictable. “Yeah. Of course.”

It’s raining outside when Brendon opens the door, a steady static sound, white noise. Brendon tosses a wave over his shoulder, ducking his head, and when the door closes, Ryan catches the glimpse of him huddled in a silhouette against the rain, looking like someone with a place to be.

Ryan counts the drums of raindrops against the roof and hums along to the rhythm.

Ryan wakes up to the flash of light in his room. It’s still raining, heavy thuds against his roof, white noise and pattering, wind rattling against his windowpanes. The house is empty and wrong and scary and Ryan has a headache, he has a fucking migraine, and he doesn’t want to –

A crash of thunder and Ryan is standing straight up and he remembers, he remembers, he remembers. The flash of white light in his room, casting shadows, and he remembers Brendon laughing and Christ, he is beautiful, he is divine, he is –

“Stop acting like such a fucking lovesick faggot,” and Brendon is standing there, and he looks small, crumpled, a dead thing, and the room is yellow, he remembers yellow –

“Fuck you,” and Ryan can’t stop hearing him say that, it’s a mantra, over and over, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, “fuck you, Ryan, fuck you.”

There’s a sound like roaring in his ears, his blood or something else, and Ryan says, “God, if you want your cock sucked –“

Brendon is moving towards him and he looks beautiful and he looks beautiful and he looks beautiful and he hits him and there’s blood in his mouth, there’s blood in his mouth and he looks beautiful, he looks –

Ryan squeezes his eyes shut against the noise and the blood and. And.

“You’re going to die and I’m going to be happy.” Brendon is crying, he’s crying, and Ryan can taste blood, and maybe Brendon is crying for him, maybe he’s crying because he’s happy, he’s so fucking happy – “You’re going to kill yourself and I’ll laugh at you.”

Ryan is laughing with the blood in his mouth. He’s laughing even when Brendon is crying and he can taste the salt like it’s his own.

“Okay,” he says, and Brendon looks like a child. He looks like a fucking child.

He’s laughing even when Brendon leaves.

There’s another crash of thunder, the windows shaking, the house yawning like it’s about to fall over, and Ryan tucks his knees up to his chin and remembers, he remembers. The tremors star t in his shoulders and go down to his knees and he can’t stop. He can’t stop remembering. He doesn’t want to remember anymore. He doesn’t want the memories back. He doesn’t want them, he doesn’t want them, he’ll do anything, just take them back, please –

“Sorry,” Brendon had said. “Old habits.”

Ryan bites down on his thumb and chokes it all down, all of it, and when he cries he can taste the blood. Old habits. Old habits.

It’s not a surprise, a week later, when Brendon shows up past dark, and it’s not a surprise that Ryan is still affected. Because seeing him is harder now, now that he remembers that night, he remembers the hit, still feels the ache in his jaw like it happened yesterday. It’s not a surprise.

Ryan lets him inside, counts the seconds away on his fingertips, and when the door shuts, Brendon has him pushed against it, but he’s not kissing him, he’s not even breathing, he’s just staring. Like there’s anything to see anymore, anything, when Ryan’s whole life is measured in Brendon’s stories.

“You have to remember something,” Brendon says and he’s breathing hard like he’s been running and maybe, maybe he has, maybe Ryan is the destination and maybe that’s the funniest fucking thing he’s ever heard.

Ryan holds eye contact. “I don’t know what you want me to say.” He does know.

“You do know.” Brendon looks angry and manic and for a second, for a split second, Ryan is scared of him. “Don’t fucking give me that – you know. You know.”

Ryan can feel his heartbeat, can feel every little cell in his body thrumming. He says, “I know what you wanted me to do and I couldn’t do it.”

It’s not enough. Brendon has him pressed against the wood by his shoulders, and he keeps staring, keeps looking at him, his eyes flying from feature to feature like he’ll forget. “Tell me.”

“I’m sorry. I wasn’t ever going to leave her for you.”

Brendon steps back and the pressure is gone but Ryan still feels the urgency. Brendon is looking at him like –

“God, fuck you. God.” He laughs, a little hysterically, looking so fucked. “Thanks, it only took you four fucking years –“

Ryan feels like the worst asshole but he knows it’s not fair. “You’re welcome.” He doesn’t know why he’s angry, why it matters at all, any of it.

Brendon is glaring at him and Ryan knows he should’ve kept his mouth shut, he never should’ve said a goddamn word, because now Brendon is looking at him like. “You’re such a fucking asshole, Ryan. You’re such an asshole.”

The anger seems like it’s coming from nowhere but Ryan knows better, knows the pent-up frustration over the course of four years is getting to him, like he can’t stand staying quiet about it anymore. Ryan feels it, too, and he hates. He hates feeling it. “I know,” he says. “I’m sorry.”

“You wanted me to –“ Brendon stops and breathes in deep. “You wanted me to always fucking. Be around. So that when you made up your mind, I was still there. I had to wait. I hated you. I hated you for all of that.”

Ryan doesn’t move a muscle, he just stays still, breathes in, out, in, out, reminds his body to keep steady. “I know you did.”

“And then,” Brendon continues, and he’s getting close now, closer than before, “you were done with her, it was over, and I thought.” He pauses and he looks stupid and young and humiliated. “I thought it meant you would finally make up your fucking mind.”

“But I didn’t.”

“You didn’t.”

“I’m sorry.” He means it, but it doesn’t matter.

Brendon pushes forward and kisses him and it’s not something he expects but he welcomes it, the silence that comes from Brendon’s lips on his and everything else sort of fading away into ambiance. Brendon’s mouth opens, and he breathes out quick and stuttered breaths, urgent, pressing his tongue against Ryan’s and. And.

Ryan grips Brendon’s waist and turns them around, so he’s got Brendon against the door, and the wood creaks, not used to the weight. Brendon lets out this sound, a turned-on gasp, and Ryan remembers. He remembers this. They’ve done this before, and he remembers it.

He breaks the kiss and Brendon is already melting underneath him, and maybe he’s not unpredictable now, maybe he’s just as much of an open book as before. Ryan feels it erupting inside of him, a hidden well, and his whole body is tense and ready for this. He was created to kiss this man. It’s what he was put here to do.

“I’m sorry,” he says, and his voice is thick and he wants him, he wants him. He drags his mouth over to Brendon’s neck and Brendon lets him, lets him, of course he does. Nothing can change that much. Four years is nothing, a blip in the timeline, nothing at all. “I’m sorry,” he says there, his lips brushing a pulse point, a vein, the soft curve of his throat. “I’m sorry.”

Brendon’s breathing is erratic, his breath shuddering, but he doesn’t answer, he doesn’t try to. Ryan keeps whispering the apologies into his skin, hoping that maybe he could mark Brendon with them, breathe the words into his body and make them eternal.

And Brendon is pushing him forwards and he has an arm around his neck, a chokehold if he wanted to, and Ryan lets him bend and break, lets him push. The carpet presses against his back and Brendon is on him, all over him, and his hands are –

Ryan breathes in shakily, lets Brendon’s fingers work at his belt, unbuckling and pulling and tugging and then Ryan can feel the slide of fabric and Brendon’s hot breath on his exposed cock. They were good at this. They were always so good at this part.

Brendon’s calloused fingertips run up and down Ryan’s length, and Ryan bites back the whimper, the begging, because he won’t beg for this. Brendon’s thumb is at his slit and he’s got his mouth lowered, his tongue wet and hot along the underside of Ryan’s cock and Ryan jerks and groans into the empty air, feeling torn apart even when he’s barely been touched.

Brendon doesn’t let it develop into a proper blowjob. His hand replaces his mouth and then he’s crawled back up Ryan’s body and he’s kissing him, kissing him like he doesn’t need to breathe, and Ryan hooks a leg around Brendon’s calf and flips them over.

Brendon lands with a thud, his teeth sinking into Ryan’s lower lip, and Ryan reaches between them, urgency filling him up, cheering him on. Brendon is hard underneath the denim and Ryan almost wants to cry out of relief. Maybe nothing else could work out but Brendon still gets hard for him, underneath everything else. Ryan kisses him again and again, trying to shove his jeans down mid-thigh.

Brendon’s shirt is in the way but neither of them bother to remove it, it’s all too important to feel the friction, and then Ryan is dragging his naked cock against Brendon’s with slow, deliberate thrusts, and Brendon chokes on his breath underneath him, his cheeks flaming red.

Before Ryan can get Brendon’s pants out of the way entirely, Brendon stills his hand and fishes around in his pockets for a condom and a familiar blue-and-white tube. And Ryan realizes this is what Brendon had in mind the whole time, it’s what he wanted when he came here in the first place, he had wanted this, and something about that makes Ryan’s guts twist in a way that could be lust or anything else. Something angrier and something worse.

Ryan takes it from him without asking because he doesn’t need to ask for these things anymore. Brendon’s jeans are at his ankles and he spreads his thighs, willingly, asking for it, offering himself. Ryan tries to remember the last time, and it’s all hazy memories, shadows on the walls of his brain.

“Please,” Brendon is saying. Ryan rushes back to reality.

He doesn’t waste time, because that’s not what Brendon wants, and for once this is about Brendon. It’s always been about Brendon, maybe, but this time Ryan knows it, can feel it, and when he slicks up his fingers, he looks up to watch Brendon watching him, and something about that makes his skin flare up.

Ryan shoves his hand between Brendon’s cheeks, searching for the tight ring of muscle, spreading lube around it until Brendon is letting out quiet groans of encouragement, practically begging for it. Ryan pushes both fingers in without warning and feels the tight heat surrounding him, all over him. Brendon gasps and arches up, and his elbows will have rug burn, he’ll look so fucked, he’ll look –

Ryan swallows and lifts himself up as much as he can to watch Brendon’s face. Brendon’s mouth is dropped open, his eyes squeezed shut, sweat on his brow, and he looks beautiful. He looks so beautiful, like something Ryan shouldn’t be touching, but then Ryan crooks his fingers and Brendon’s biting his lip and he looks even better like that. Gorgeous.

Ryan is hit all at once by how much he doesn’t deserve this. He crooks harder, and Brendon cries out, his eyes flying open, and he meets Ryan’s gaze and his pupils are so wide and his eyes are so dark and Ryan wants this. He wants this anyways.

Brendon is reaching for Ryan’s cock even though he’s barely been stretched. “Please,” he’s saying, and Ryan keeps up the rhythm, in and out, a slight twist, then rubbing him on the spot that makes him look so fucked, so wrecked and stunning. Brendon groans, his head falling back onto the carpet, and he’s saying, “Please, please, please,” over and over.

Ryan’s fingers slide out and he’s rolling on the condom in the next breath, trying not to bite his lip over how sensitive the heated flesh feels. Brendon is propping himself up on his elbows to watch him and Ryan has to struggle to breathe. He starts squeezing his cock with lube-covered fingers, trying to remember what Brendon likes, how much, and it’s all falling apart in his hands, every bit of control he thought he had here.

Brendon automatically wraps his legs around Ryan’s hips, and Ryan is lining himself, trying to find the perfect angle, and then. Then the tip of his cock is brushing against Brendon’s hole and they both swear, struggling to calm themselves.

“Ryan, please,” Brendon says, and he’s pushing back, trying to get the pressure.

Ryan gets it, he knows, he knows, and he’s pushing to meet him and the pressure is there, the resistance, and then Brendon’s body gives in and Ryan is sliding past the entrance and into the inviting, tight warmth.

Brendon groans, and he’s so fucking loud, he’s always been responsive, grunts and moans and hissing, and that’s what Ryan always liked so much, being able to make those sounds rip from Brendon’s throat. Ryan pushes in steadily, a smooth movement, and then he stops when he’s buried as far as he can go. Brendon claws at his back with blunt nails, his breathing sharp and irregular, and Ryan’s got his eyes closed because he knows one look and he’d be falling apart.

Still, he can’t help himself. Ryan opens his eyes and Brendon’s gaze is there, burning right into him, and Ryan swallows down the lump in his throat. He doesn’t deserve this. The sickening feeling in his stomach is back and he tries to keep it down, but in the moment he’s buried as deep as he can go, in the moment he’s become close enough to Brendon to never let go, he knows he doesn’t deserve this.

Brendon keeps staring at him and his hands are on his shoulders, and he whispers, “Please, God,” and Ryan doesn’t move, he doesn’t move at all.

But he’s selfish, too, Ryan is selfish, and Brendon looks beautiful and perfect and Ryan wants it, he wants it for now, even if just for now.

Brendon rolls his hips restlessly and fire licks at the walls of Ryan’s stomach. Brendon’s mouth is on his neck, his lips traveling across his cheek, and then his tongue is at the shell of Ryan’s ear. He scratches a message into Ryan’s shoulder blades and whispers, “Fuck me, come on. Fuck me. Ryan.”

And Ryan feels it building inside of him, the realization that he would do anything, anything, to make Brendon say his name like that, so he’s pulling back, a slick drag, and then he’s pushing back in as deep as he can go and Brendon keeps saying his name, over and over. And Ryan wants it. He wants it more than anything.

He knows he’s not going to last long and for some reason that makes it even better, and he’s starting a steady rhythm, every movement hard and fast, and Brendon’s head is rolling back and he sounds dirty and fucked and filthy and Ryan yearns to hear him, craves it. Brendon’s legs are drawing him in deeper, pushing him in, and Ryan shifts his hips and gets the angle right and Brendon is jerking and falling to pieces beneath him.

Ryan moves his mouth to Brendon’s neck and tastes the sweat and the skin and he says his name, he feels it ripping from his chest, and it’s all he can taste now. Brendon’s name and the salt. And Brendon is groaning, writhing, his hips meeting Ryan’s thrusts, and the rhythm is perfect and deep and fast and Ryan will not last. He will not last.

He moves a hand between them and grabs Brendon’s cock, earning the hitch in Brendon’s breath and a low moan escaping. He trails pre-come from the slit down the underside and wraps his fingers around the length, pumping slowly, tightening on the upstroke, trying to make him come apart the same way Ryan is.

Brendon’s breathing is harsh and loud and he’s almost whimpering, almost begging, and Ryan keeps up the rhythm, the smacks of skin against skin, stroking Brendon’s cock to the force of his thrusts. And he knows him, he knows Brendon enough to know when he’s getting close, and he lifts himself up, balancing on one hand, trying to take in the sight, so he can remember, he can remember this –

Brendon’s mouth drops open and his pupils get blown, he looks so gone, so fucking gone and then a dirty moan fights its away up his throat, his orgasm hitting him all at once and he’s clawing Ryan’s shoulders, tugging at the skin, and he’s moaning and he’s perfect and he’s stunning –

Brendon’s head falls back and Ryan can feel the hot, sticky streaks of come sliding through his fingers, and he lets go just enough to let Brendon take over, milking the rest out, and then Ryan is pushing in hard, harder than he can stand, Brendon’s muscles still contracting, and his balls are going tight, tight, tight, and then he follows.

Ryan is aware of a million little sensations after he’s done, and they all run up and down his body, and he’s shivering but it’s not cold. He pulls out, twisting off the top of the condom and tossing it across the room. He rolls to Brendon’s side and Brendon isn’t looking at him and Ryan knows. He gets it. He knows.

He thinks maybe Brendon will be the one to break the silence, but he never does. He drags himself to his feet, and there’s wet stains on his shirt that they never bothered removing, and his hair is fucked, he looks so –

“Can I use your shower before I go home?” Brendon still won’t look at him.

The feeling in Ryan’s stomach is hot and angry but he’s not going to say anything. He nods, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the bathroom, and Brendon isn’t saying a goddamn word.

Ryan tucks himself back into his jeans and buckles up with shaking fingers. He opens and closes his fist, feeling the jittering sensation back. His knees are weak. Fuck. Fuck. He doesn’t know why he.

But he does.

Ryan can hear the hot water starting up, and in the empty silence he hears the water hitting the porcelain, imagines Brendon standing there, the steam hiding his face, washing the traces of Ryan’s mouth off his skin. Ryan can imagine it so well because he used to do it, too, washing the evidence of Brendon off of him, and Keltie never could tell, she never noticed if he smelled like Brendon.

Full circle. It only took them four years.

And maybe this is Ryan’s punishment.

Ryan gets himself to his feet and starts towards the kitchen, finding the familiar orange bottles stacked next to each other. He’s stopped taking the pain meds they wanted him on, finding Valium to be a sweeter release, and he’s tired of the shaking, the headaches, and he just wants them all to disappear. He wants it all to go away now.

So he’s fucked him, and it’s fine, it’s fine, it’ll go away soon. Because it has to.

There’s three left in the bottom of the bottle and he swallows them down with a gulp of water from the tap. He closes his eyes, pressing his palms into the counter, hunched over the sink like maybe he’s going to throw them back up.

He hears Brendon clearing his throat, and he lifts his head back up, the empty bottle still clutched in one hand.

Brendon is looking at him like he’s a stranger and. Yeah. Maybe he is one, now, and it’s not a surprise. It isn’t. It’s not a surprise at all.

“I’m going to go home.” Brendon isn’t looking him right in the eye, but Ryan knew this would happen. He’s not going to pretend he didn’t know. “I think maybe we shouldn’t…”

“Yeah,” Ryan says, and every word feels like it’s scraping its way out of his throat. “Yeah, I was going to say.”

He feels the calm washing over him now, and it’s a strange feeling. The medication working its magic on him when moments ago he was on fire, burning from the insides. And now this. He feels almost numb and it’s welcome, now, it’s all over him in the best way.

Ryan looks at Brendon and tries to find a trace of him left on his skin. He hadn’t marked him, hadn’t wanted to, because he’d known. Brendon looks clean and his hair is wet and he smells like the body wash Ryan uses and. It’s like Ryan had never been there at all. No proof of him, no flag, no way of claiming his existence on Brendon’s skin.

He feels it all happening to him in slow motion, like he’s watching from somewhere else.

“We shouldn’t have,” Brendon says, like Ryan doesn’t already know, like it’s not already obvious.

He bites back the words he wants to say, about how Brendon is the one who came prepared, he’s the one who wanted it, he’s the one who begged. It doesn’t matter now. Ryan leans back against the counter, staring at the tile between his toes. “Yeah.”

“Ryan.”

Ryan looks up and. Fuck. “What?”

Brendon runs his fingers through his wet hair, and he doesn’t look young anymore. He doesn’t look small. His presence is filling the whole room and Ryan can’t look away. “I don’t want to be friends.”

Ryan didn’t expect that, but he doesn’t flinch. “Okay.”

“I don’t think you understand,” Brendon says, and yeah, no. Ryan doesn’t understand. “I wish we could be friends. I would want that.” He stands taller even when he looks so sad. Ryan wants to touch him but maybe that was the problem in the first place. Touching what didn’t belong to him. “We can’t be friends. We couldn’t ever just be friends.”

He says everything so slowly, like Ryan is a child. And the thing is that Ryan understands. He can feel it building in him, every word he doesn’t say, but he keeps his mouth shut because. It’s not his place. It was never his place to begin with.

Ryan says, “I know.”

Brendon says it again. “We can’t be friends.”

“I know.”

Brendon looks like he’ll say something else, but instead he retreats from the entrance to the kitchen and pauses at the front door. Ryan doesn’t move, just watches him, waiting for him to talk. But Brendon thinks better of it. He opens the door and there’s a warm gust of air, and the night looks beautiful.

Brendon looks beautiful. Ryan recognizes this hazily, and he feels it, warmth in the pit of his stomach, anger dissolving on his tongue too quickly. He’s not mad. He’s not mad at all.

And Brendon turns around and Ryan thinks he might say goodbye but instead he’s saying, “Sorry.” Ryan notices the hunch of his shoulders, the waver of his breath. So maybe he’s not so tall. But he wants to be.

Ryan doesn’t know what to say to that. So he doesn’t say anything. And the door is shut, and the house is almost empty, the world collapsing in on itself. He still doesn’t remember. He still can’t remember anything else but Brendon’s stories. He can hear the music. He can feel everything like it happened to someone else. But it’s not him. Those stories were never about him. Brendon was the point all along. Brendon was the protagonist the whole time.

It only just took him this long to see it.

They’re lying on their backs on his bed, the blinds open, the room filled with natural white light. Everything is too bright but he likes it, likes the laziness of it. Z is smoking a cigarette, tapping the ashes into a plastic cup. He keeps staring at the ceiling. White.

The memories aren’t coming back yet. Ryan hadn’t expected them to, not really, but he had hoped. But then he’d feel like a liar. So the memories aren’t there yet. He might have to accept that they’ll never come back. And that’s okay, too. That’s fine, too.

She sighs, and rolls her head to the side to look at him. She scrunches her nose. “You look like shit.”

“Thanks.”

“Have you been sleeping?” Her tone is accusatory.

Ryan blinks. His eyelids feel heavy. He closes them, suddenly very relaxed. “Not really,” he admits. She lightly punches him, and he can hear her exasperated exhale of breath.

“Maybe sleep will help.”

He hums. Not an answer. Sleep won’t help, but he doesn’t feel like arguing with her. The world is closing in on itself. He’s not tired enough to fall asleep, but he stays in that limbo between rest and wakefulness, that quiet, calm feeling washing over him.

Z continues, “Sleep is good for you. You need to do more of it.”

Again he hums, sort of disinterestedly. He opens his eyes and shifts his own head to the side to meet her gaze. “Hey.”

She smiles. Too pretty, Ryan thinks. Too pretty for this world. “Hi.”

The question is there, on the tip of his tongue. “Are we… do we. Ever?”

She pretends to think hard about this for a little while. “We’re not,” she says, and he’s only a little bit disappointed. “But sometimes, we do.”

“Lucky me.” It’s not unkind.

“Lucky you,” she agrees.

Ryan closes his eyes. He tries not to think about things too much, the things he’s missing from the past four years. How he still feels like he’s barely twenty-two, still making all those dumb decisions in the name of his youth. He’d grow out of it, they said. He’s just young.

The chunk of memory he’s lost feels like it was never his to begin with.

“Do you want to?” he asks, and he doesn’t really mean it, doesn’t really care either way. But it would be nice, he thinks.

Z only flashes him that pretty smile again. “Maybe one day.” She huffs laughter. “When you’re older.”

That makes him laugh, too.

And on and on it goes.