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This is not my (heart)

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When Kevin wakes up one morning and realizes his penis has disappeared, and that the hair on his chest has been replaced with the soft swell of breasts, he takes it pretty calmly. He feels like maybe he should be more upset, but he's just ... not. For all he knows, this happens to everybody at some point, and it's just that nobody ever bothered to tell Kevin about it. (People sort of forget to tell Kevin a lot of things; he's pretty much used to it by now.)

Kevin gets up and takes his shower in the carefully locked bathroom. Sometimes he uses that rare moment of privacy to jerk off, but this morning is an exercise in scrubbing without looking. He's not panicking, exactly, but his body feels put together wrong, and the wrongness gets worse every time his fingers brush over parts he shouldn't have. Getting dressed is almost as bad. His uniform doesn't fit perfectly anymore -- it's loose in some places and tight in others -- but with a couple of layers (yes to the sweater-vest, no to the blazer that's too wide on his shoulders), even he can't tell at a glance that his chest isn't flat. He looks in the mirror for a long time, scrutinizing his face. It hasn't really changed much; no stubble, but the basic shape of him is the same.

Their mom stops to look at Kevin as she drops pancakes on his plate, pausing before moving on to Joe. "Are you feeling all right, honey?" she asks him, and Kevin freezes.

"I'm fine," he says, in a voice that could almost be mistaken for an actual "fine" voice in some countries, Kevin is sure. She looks at him again, then shakes her head as if to clear it and smiles one of those happy-sad smiles she gets when looking at their baby pictures in photo albums.

"I guess you boys are just growing up too fast for me to keep up," she says finally, squeezing Kevin's shoulder and dropping a tragically embarrassing mom kiss on the top of his head as she walks back to the stove for the next round of pancakes.

Frankie watches Kevin with a funny expression on his face all through breakfast, but Nick's too busy eating to bother noticing, and Joe's too busy making fun of Nick over some girl he supposedly has a crush on.

(Kevin is certain that he's a not-particularly-attractive girl. No boys will develop crushes on Kevin. He sighs about this, not sure if it's a happy sigh or a sad sigh, but he stops sighing altogether when Frankie gives him another look.)

He thinks he should probably inform his brothers about this. Nick would be able to tell him if it was one of those Totally Normal Things No One Tells Kevin About, or if Kevin is just weird. Or cursed. Or some kind of freak of nature.

On second thought, he doesn't tell his brothers anything other than, "We're going to be late." If they notice that his voice is a little higher than usual, they don't mention it.

Kevin isn't a genius, not like Nick, but he does just fine in school. He's the steady, reliable, average one in the family -- not particularly talented beyond the guitar, but not a failure at anything either -- and he's always been okay with that. Their parents worry about Joe and take pride in Nick's genius at everything and try to keep Frankie from conquering the world before he hits puberty. Kevin, they don't have to think about. Kevin does his homework, keeps his grades up, doesn't skip class. Except, looking down the hallway that leads to the boys' locker room, he realizes that he does skip class. Specifically, he skips PE, because there's no way he can change and shower without someone noticing that he's ... well, not himself.

He ends up taking refuge in the blissfully empty-this-period music room, where he can hide out in the back corner with his guitar and pretend he's practicing his parts for the orchestra, but secretly play with chord progressions while Nick isn't around to comment as he's working (Nick means well, but it's so distracting to have to explain his thought process every five minutes when all he wants to do is play with it until it sounds right).

So far, Kevin has congratulated himself on how well he's taking his sudden female-ness. He ducked away before Stella could corral him into a before-school fitting, and avoided Macy like the plague (Macy studies pictures of JONAS like there's going to be a pop quiz later -- if she sees him, she'll know). He remembered to go into a stall in the bathroom before he started unzipping at the urinal (massive public humiliation: averted). He sits with his legs spread, guy-style, even though he doesn't need to and even though it feels like he's somehow on display when he does it. He can handle this, he really can.

But maybe he isn't handling it as well as he thought, because when he realizes, abruptly and terrifyingly, that his hands are smaller, his fingers shorter, and that he can't make his girl-fingers reach the right places on the fretboard -- when he realizes that he can't play -- it doesn't take more than a few seconds before he bursts into tears.

Boy-Kevin didn't really cry much, even when he got hurt as a kid, but girl-Kevin is apparently a champion cry-er. Girl-Kevin could probably win awards for crying, and Kevin doesn't know how it happens but somehow he's laughing and crying at the same time and that just makes it worse. His cheeks are wet and he sort of can't breathe and the edge of his guitar is pressing uncomfortably against his chest, so that's of course when the door to the music room opens and Mike Carden walks in.

Kevin does not hang out with Mike Carden. Ever. This is for a number of very important reasons, primarily that Kevin is a good boy (well, usually a boy) who happens to be in a successful and wildly-famous band with his brothers, while Mike Carden smokes in the parking lot after school and is rumored to have killed a man with his bare hands. (Kevin does not entirely disbelieve this rumor.) Also because Mike has never shown even a glimmer of interest in Kevin, or his brothers, or their band. They were in the same biology class sophomore year, and the only time Kevin can even remember speaking to him was when Mike asked, "You got a pen?" He never returned Kevin's pen, but Kevin decided that discretion was the better part of remaining alive, and just stole a new one from Joe.

Stupid girl-Kevin's body doesn't get the memo from his brain (the memo, if written out, would read something like, "DANGER! SHARK!", and feature a picture of Mike and the sharp, pointy teeth with which he is going to eat Kevin alive), because he can't stop crying even though this is very bad and Kevin is going to die before he's ever been kissed, like one of those tragic Lifetime movies where everything is in soft-focus and everyone gets pregnant or has cancer or both.

"Shit," Mike swears, and -- ohgod -- flips the deadbolt on the door with a click. Kevin clings to his guitar like a shield, even though it's digging into his breasts kind of painfully , and tries to will his lip to stop wobbling (unsuccessfully). But Mike doesn't immediately descend to tear the flesh from Kevin's tender limbs. Instead, he asks, "What's wrong?"

Kevin is trying to figure out how to answer that without actually telling Mike anything because it's entirely possible this whole incident is a prelude to blackmail, and he's still crying -- there is something wrong with girl-Kevin's eyes, that's gotta be it, some sort of imbalance of the humors -- when Mike zeroes in on the way the guitar is pressed to Kevin's chest.

"Fuck, you're a girl?" Mike isn't actually freaking out, which Kevin thinks may be a good sign. For one, it means that only one of them is freaking out, not both. Only one freakout at a time; Kevin's almost positive that's a rule or something. Anyway, Mike just sounds surprised, really surprised, like he'd actually put thought into Kevin's not!girl-ness or something and is dismayed to find out he was wrong.

"No, I'm not!" Kevin protests, relinquishing his hold on the guitar only enough so that it's no longer pressed against his breasts.

Mike doesn't seem to get it, though. Instead of being properly weirded out by how Kevin is suddenly possessed of girl parts, he just nods seriously and sits down next to Kevin. "Okay," he says, "I get that. What happened? Was somebody hassling you? Shit, why aren't you wearing your binder? You're in school; anybody could see--" he trails off, like this is supposed to mean something to Kevin, who is not a girl and if Mike is suggesting he wear a bra, that is just not happening. Not in the least because the thought of shopping for one is maybe more horrifying than the thought of not being able to play his guitar ever again. (Maybe. Kevin doesn't have much experience differentiating between shades of abject terror.)

Apparently, though he couldn't bring himself to tell his brothers, Kevin is going to talk to Mike nearly-got-expelled-for-coming-to-class-hungover-again Carden about this. That's ... about what Kevin expects out of life at this point.

"I don't know what happened," he says, loosening his grip on the neck of the guitar (it's not the guitar's fault; she doesn't deserve to be strangled). "I went to sleep and I was normal, and then I woke up with ..." He can't actually say it, but he gestures meaningfully toward his chest with his free hand.

"Wait, what?" Mike stares at him, and Kevin is starting to feel even more uncomfortable in his newly-shaped skin. He thought they'd covered this already, and he really doesn't want to talk about it any more to anyone who can't fix it. Kevin blocks Mike and his sharp-eyed staring out of his mind and tries again to move his fingers from one chord to the next. They still don't reach -- not naturally, not so he can play -- and Kevin wraps himself around the guitar hopelessly. Maybe his sudden female-ness is fatal? He thinks he'd prefer death over having to tell Nick and Joe that he can't be in the band anymore because his chromosomes decided to play musical chairs while he slept.

"You're serious," Mike says softly, unexpected enough that it breaks through Kevin's mental Cone of Silence. He's watching Kevin's hands, not his chest, and Kevin self-consciously curls his fingers against his palm. Kevin looks away and then can't look back, because this is the part where Mike laughs and ties Kevin to the flagpole or whatever.

Except Mike's not laughing.

Rather, Mike has his cell phone out (in blatant violation of school rules, but they're both skipping class so Kevin can't bring himself to be indignant about it), texting at a speed even Stella would admire. He looks satisfied when his phone dings about a minute later.

"Okay, come on," Mike says, standing up and offering Kevin a hand he doesn't take.

"Are you going to tie me to the flagpole?" Kevin's stupid, traitorous mouth says, and Mike's eyebrows shoot up.

"Why would I tie you to the flagpole?" He sounds genuinely confused by this, which gives Kevin some small measure of comfort. "We're going to Bill's. Unless you want to stay here for the rest of the day?"

It's not even lunchtime yet, Kevin realizes, and he contemplates sitting in the cafeteria with his brothers, where surely Macy will find them and see him and he won't be able to avoid Stella and even if, by some miracle, he does manage to hide what's happened, he'll still have to sit through the rest of the day's classes with his legs spread uncomfortably wide, trying to cover up the pitch-change in his voice.

Kevin really, really doesn't want to stay here for the rest of the day.

He carefully replaces the guitar in its case, and when Mike offers his hand again, Kevin grabs it to pull himself up. His girl-hand feels oddly small in Mike's, and Mike takes most of Kevin's weight like it's nothing. Maybe it should be unsettling, that difference in strength that probably wouldn't have existed for boy-Kevin, but as he follows Mike out to his battered old Jeep, Kevin feels more secure than he has since he woke up.

'Bill' turns out to be William Beckett, who sleeps through 5th period AP US History every day but still manages to have the best grade in the class, and his place turns out to be a tiny house on the not-that-bad side of town, which features ugly wood paneling and dingy shag carpet, and a woman surrounded by empty bottles, snoring on the floral-printed sofa.

Kevin figures that this is William's mother, and also that he shouldn't ask questions about her. That's not a problem, because Kevin has loads of questions to ask that in no way feature the passed-out woman on the sofa. For starters, why was it necessary to go to William Beckett's house instead of just going to the mall or wherever people normally went when they skipped school? And also, why did not only William swing up into Mike's Jeep, but also Brendon Urie, the hyper kid from orchestra who -- Kevin is pretty sure -- Mr. Phelps only puts up with because he can play, like, every instrument ever? Kevin knew that Brendon (who's kind of a dork, in a friendly, overly-enthusiastic kind of way) was sort of friends with Mike Might-Have-Killed-a-Guy Carden, the same way he knows vaguely which football players were dating which cheerleaders or that the croquet team hasn't won a match in three years. He didn't know Brendon Urie and Mike Carden were the sort of friends who skipped out of school together.

But then, Kevin hadn't known it was possible to wake up with breasts, either, so maybe he should stop being surprised by things.

The four of them sneak through the living room and up the narrow stairs to a converted attic space that reveals itself to be William's bedroom. Brendon is the only one of them who doesn't have to hunch to avoid banging his head on the angled ceiling; William has to make his way to the precise center of the room, where the ceiling is highest, to stand up straight. Mike immediately flops down into one of the elderly beanbag chairs in the open area of the room, and gestures for Kevin to do the same.

William drops his bag next to his desk and joins them, and Brendon drops his next to a rumpled but made-up mattress in the opposite corner, near the stairs. There are a few milk crates stacked next to it, full of clothes and CDs, and a picture of two smiling, long-haired girls, in a simple frame -- his sisters, maybe? Or maybe not, because it kind of looks like Brendon lives on a mattress in William Beckett's room, and if he has sisters, why isn't he living with them, at home? Kevin can't imagine what it would be like to live away from his brothers, and he suddenly feels completely out of his depth. The feeling gets worse when, lacking a beanbag of his own, Brendon plops himself down in William's lap.

"Not that I'm complaining," Brendon says as William wraps long arms around his waist, "but why are we skipping class today?"

In answer, and before Kevin can figure out what he's doing and stop him, Mike grabs the back of Kevin's carefully layered shirts and tugs, pulling them tight across his chest and revealing the lumps of his stupid breasts.

Brendon's mouth drops open, but it's William who says, "Ah. That's ... interesting," with an inscrutable look on his face. Kevin crosses his arms over his chest, even though Mike has let go of his shirts.

It takes a second, but Brendon finds his voice. "Wait, so you're -- ? Really? I mean, I wouldn't have guessed, but that's the poi -- " Brendon stops as Mike shakes his head.

"He says he woke up like this," Mike explains, and Kevin may be dying of embarrassment, but still.

"He is right here," Kevin grumbles, which is more bitchy than he usually lets himself be, but when he looks up, Mike is smiling at him, and Brendon and William both look amused (William perhaps more so -- Brendon seems to be trying to decide whether to smile or be confused).

"'Woke up' like this?" William asks, and Kevin can hear the air-quotes. "So this morning, poof!--" he cups Brendon's chest with his hands to illustrate, though Brendon looks grumpy about it and bats his hands away. Kevin nods. "Well that's certainly ... unexpected," William muses, staring off into the middle distance and leaving Kevin with the distinct impression that he's just missed something.

"How?" Brendon asks, staring at Kevin so intensely that he might be worried if he didn't know Brendon was a (loudly outspoken) vegetarian. "How did it happen? I mean, did you do something? Was there, like, some creepy guy or maybe a fortune teller, or a weird bottle you found in your attic?" He's scarily serious, like he expects Kevin to reveal that yes, obviously some mysterious stranger cursed him with girl-ness, because that happens all the time in real life and does not sound at all crazy.

Then again, Kevin woke up as a girl that morning. It's possible he needs to adjust his definition of 'crazy'.

"No," Kevin says, not entirely sure how to handle the onslaught of focused Brendon. "Nothing like that. I just ... woke up, and I was like this. We had chili for dinner last night?" he offers as Brendon deflates, shrinking back against William's chest to be cuddled. William pets Brendon's hair the way Kevin's mom used to do when he was sick, and Kevin feels intensely miserable. Not only is he a not-particularly-attractive girl, but he's made the irrepressible Brendon Urie look like someone killed his puppy.

"Sorry, Bren," Mike says, surprisingly soft, and Brendon nods in acknowledgment though he won't meet anyone's eyes. Kevin is so totally and completely lost.

"I know it's not fair," Mike says, "and tell me if I'm a shitty friend for asking, but I thought you might be able to help?" Mike waves at Kevin's chest. "He can't walk around like that."

Brendon closes his eyes for a long minute, and Kevin can see William grip Brendon tighter around his waist and nuzzle into his hair. Brendon takes a deep breath, then another. He droops bonelessly for a second, then pushes off of William's lap and walks over to give Mike a smacking kiss on the cheek.

"You are definitely not a shitty friend, Michael Carden," Brendon declares, then turns and looks determinedly at Kevin. "You're bigger than I am," he purses his lips and hums a little. "It'll be tight, but maybe..." He goes to dig in his milk crates, emerging after some rummaging-interspersed-with-swearing with a piece of peachy-colored fabric and a triumphant expression. He crooks a finger at Kevin. "Come on. The bathroom's downstairs."

Kevin looks at Mike, because Mike seems to know what's going on here whereas Kevin has no clue, but Mike just jerks his chin in Brendon's direction. "Brendon knows what he's doing," Mike tells him, and that's probably all Kevin is going to get, so he follows Brendon down the stairs and past William's still-passed-out mom to a cramped bathroom that smells faintly of stale potpourri and Lysol.

"Shirts off," Brendon commands, which is kind of hilarious since Brendon is tiny, and also mortifying because what? and also absolutely not, never in a million years.

"I'm not taking my shirt off!" Kevin protests, keeping his voice low enough that he's sure it doesn't carry to the living room. Brendon puts his hands on his hips and cocks his head at Kevin.

"You're not taking your shirt off," Brendon agrees, and Kevin breathes a premature sigh of relief before he continues, "You're taking your four shirts off. And believe me, I've seen everything you've got."

Kevin kind of doubts that, because Brendon always seemed ... well, like just as much of a virgin as Kevin, to put it bluntly, and apparently gay, based on all the boy-on-boy PDA that had been happening upstairs (not that Kevin has a problem with that, since ... well, he'd like to like girls, but he hasn't quite figured out how to like girls, and until he does he's going to continue to ignore the sculpted chests and other things he sees in the locker room every day. Really).

But, if Brendon's gay, maybe Kevin doesn't need to worry about taking his shirt off? The thought stalls Kevin's brain out for a second, just long enough for Brendon to come to some sort of decision.

"Okay," Brendon takes a deep breath, hesitating. "Do you swear on your life that you will never breathe a word of this to anyone? I mean anyone, except Bill and Mike 'cause they already know, but, you have to promise." Brendon has some of that intense look back, and Kevin swallows and thinks. He doesn't know if he'd be any good at keeping secrets from Nick and Joe, mostly because they don't have many secrets. But whatever Brendon's so worried about, they probably don't care, since he's pretty sure neither Nick nor Joe have ever spent much time contemplating the life of Brendon Urie. (Remembering the mattress upstairs, Kevin feels kind of bad about that, because maybe they should have been thinking about Brendon, but he can't change the fact that they weren't.)

Kevin nods, and sticks out a hand. "I promise," he says, and Brendon bites his lip nervously but he takes Kevin's hand and seems satisfied. Kevin waits for him to start talking again, but instead Brendon starts unbuttoning his uniform shirt. He's got a t-shirt on underneath, and once he's done neatly folding the uniform, he whips the t-shirt over his head and Kevin blinks in surprise. It takes a second for him to process, because Brendon's wearing some sort of ... something, it's not exactly a shirt and not exactly a bandage, but it resembles the peachy-thing that Brendon had retrieved upstairs and it's tight around Brendon's chest, and okay, Kevin was raised right, so as soon as he realizes that he's essentially looking at Brendon's breasts--hidden under a layer of fabric though they may be--he closes his eyes tight and spins around so fast he hits his hip on the edge of the counter.

"Sorry!" he says reflexively, and he's facing away so he can open his eyes and be extremely interested in the ugly wallpaper in front of him. As such, he doesn't immediately realize that Brendon is sort of laughing at him. He's so not turning around, but he has to know what the hell is going on here.

"Did you-- Did this happen to you, too?" Kevin asks, gesturing at himself. As he follows the pattern of the wallpaper with his eyes, he thinks maybe that wouldn't be so bad. Well, bad for Brendon, maybe, but at least it would mean that Kevin isn't a freak of nature by himself, which would suck more than just being a normal freak of nature. Or something. (Kevin doesn't particularly want to be any sort of freak, but being the only one would be worse, he's sure. They probably dissect you for that.)

"No," Brendon says shortly, his voice tight and sad-sounding. "You can turn around, you know. It's sort of weird talking to your back."

Kevin turns around cautiously, but Brendon has put his t-shirt back on and hopped up to perch on the countertop, his heel tapping lightly against the cabinet beneath. He's still confused, really confused, but Brendon looks sad and Kevin forcibly keeps his mouth closed. He doesn't need to keep making Brendon feel bad.

"My parents named me Brenda," Brendon says, and he almost smiles. "That's already a mistake right there, don't you think? I mean, really, Brenda? Who's named Brenda anymore?"

Kevin swallows hard and listens as Brendon explains; that he never felt right, that he always wanted his big brother's hand-me-downs, not his sister's, that the frilly dresses his mother put him in for family photos felt wrong, that he knew he was a boy, no matter how many times his mom and dad explained things to him, or prayed over him, or made him talk to the bishop. So he moved out, about two years ago. He chopped off his hair and wrapped his chest with an ace bandage and called himself Brendon on his job application for the Smoothie Hut, and he'd been living in a 'crappy apartment' (Kevin doesn't want to think about what that means, if a mattress in William's bedroom is an improvement) until William brought him home and declared that Brendon wasn't allowed to leave. William, apparently, works at the Gap sixteen hours a week, has most of his breaks at the same time as Brendon's, and was the one who helped Brendon fill out all the paperwork he needed to get his scholarship to Horace Mantis.

Kevin's feeling kind of sick to his stomach, because seriously, he doesn't know if he could survive, doing what Brendon's done, and he's tempted to go in for the hug except he's never really spoken to Brendon much before today and then he made Brendon sad so the whole hugging thing might be weird (which is too bad, because Kevin is of the opinion that hugs are awesome).

Brendon taps his heel against the cabinet in a quick, syncopated rhythm. "So now will you please take your ridiculous number of shirts off before Mike thinks I've kidnapped you?" he asks, and waves the peach fabric-thing in front of Kevin, "We still need to see if this fits. It's my loosest binder, but I'm smaller than you." There's not much that Kevin can say to that, so he doesn't. He just strips off his top three layers quickly, and the fourth much, much more slowly, before crossing his arms over his chest to hide himself. Luckily, the embarrassment doesn't last long, maybe because Brendon's gaze is remarkably detached.

"Not too big. That's good," he mutters, then he hops down off the cabinet to help Kevin get the binder arranged properly. It's so tight, and for the first few seconds Kevin wonders if this was all an elaborate plot to asphyxiate him, but then Brendon's fingers are on his breasts oh god shifting things around and breathing gets a little easier. When Kevin looks in the mirror, his chest is almost as flat as usual, though the contour is off a little. Well, probably nobody was paying that close of attention to Kevin's chest, anyway. Brendon gives him a critical once-over, then tosses his t-shirt at his head.

"It's too tight, but you should be okay as long as you don't wear it for too long at a time," he says. "If you stay like this for a while, you should get one that actually fits. I can help, if you want." Brendon shrugs, and Kevin pulls his head through his shirt and says, "Thanks," in a small voice. Brendon beams at him.

"C'mon. We should get back upstairs before Bill's mom wakes up."

They interrupt Mike and William, who were apparently in the middle of an intense and -- judging by their sudden silence -- private conversation, but Brendon either doesn't notice or doesn't care, bouncing over to deposit himself on William's lap once more.

"You're amazing," William tells him, raking his eyes over Kevin, who holds his folded shirts in front of him as a protective barrier.

"Thanks, Bden," Mike says, and Kevin's kind of uncomfortable with that because why does Mike Carden care about any of this? He tucks his extra shirts into his bookbag and wonders if this is going to get extremely awkward very fast, but then Brendon chirps, "Scrabble?" and somehow Kevin finds himself spending the rest of the afternoon eating Doritos and counting triple word scores and arguing about whether 'fucktard' counts as a word or not.

When Mike drops Kevin off a block away from the firehouse and says, "See you tomorrow," Kevin knows that he will, and it feels totally natural to say, "Yeah, see you," and wave a little as Mike drives away.

The next couple of days are the most stressful Kevin's ever had, and that includes the weeks they spent recording their first album, with Nick sniping at everyone and their dad worrying about how much studio time they had left.

The lack of privacy in the firehouse has never really bothered Kevin before, but then, he's never had anything to hide before. He has to time things perfectly -- waking up before his brothers (even Nick, and that's tough) to get into the bathroom before they see him, going to bed after their lights are shut off. He learns how to get the binder on himself, so that it doesn't cut off his entire air supply and doesn't leave his chest looking lumpy, and he starts wearing a t-shirt to bed even though he'd always been a boxers man, and even that leaves him feeling exposed and restless. His boxers are too loose and too empty, and he feels oddly naked all the time.

The hardest part is convincing them that he needs to take a break from band practice for a few days (Kevin refuses to believe his girl-ness will last more than a few days -- it can't, right?). The looks Nick and Joe give him are part disappointment, part betrayal.

"An SAT class?" Nick narrows his eyes at Kevin, who fights the urge to hide under the table. "I didn't know you were thinking about college." He says it like it's an accusation, because it sort of is. Kevin's the first one of them to graduate; the first one to have to decide how to deal with the competing demands of The Band vs. Everything Else.

"Well, I think it's a good idea," their mom tells Nick, spooning another serving of peas onto his plate while he makes an unhappy face at her. "You never know what can happen. You boys have been very lucky, and it's wonderful that the band is such a success." She stares down their dad, who had made a movement like he was going to speak. He makes a zipping motion across his lips and sits back in his chair. "But I think it's very practical of you to make sure you have other options for your future."

Kevin blushes, feeling a little bit dirty for making his mother so proud of a complete and total lie.

His fictitious SAT prep class comes in handy, though, because that day Mike bumps into Kevin outside third period biology and says, "Meet us in the parking lot after school?" and Kevin says, "Okay, yeah," and manages, he thinks, to cover his surprise that Mike is continuing to talk to him.

So he spends another afternoon in William's room -- Mike stowed his Xbox under the front seat of the Jeep, so they carry it upstairs and hook it up to the small, slightly fuzzy TV William has tucked in his closet. Brendon and William laugh gleefully as Kevin dies approximately a million times while Mike teaches him to play Halo, and when he's just had enough of the binder for the day, Brendon takes his off too -- in solidarity, he says. It's weird at first, especially when Mike reaches over to show him the button sequence he needs (again) and his arm brushes against Kevin's chest; Kevin's breath hitches a little, and he thinks maybe Mike notices but he doesn't say anything, sparing Kevin the utter embarrassment of acknowledging how good the contact felt. But everyone just goes on teasing Kevin for being horrifically bad at the game and Mike doesn't start treating Kevin any differently, so with nothing to fight against, Kevin lets himself relax.

That evening and breakfast Thursday morning, though, are horrible, because while Kevin had been trying to keep the Master Chief alive, Nick had officially "fallen in love" (apparently Joe's teasing was right on the money) and he's written twelve songs in as many hours and he wants Joe and Kevin to help with the music. Kevin escapes to school in the morning unscathed, except for the way Nick's hurt eyes burned holes into his back on his way out the door. He and Joe may do their best to discourage Nick's habit of falling in love at the drop of a hat, but they've always been on board when it comes to the music.

Kevin is the worst brother in the history of the universe.

He's hiding out in the second floor boys' bathroom when Brendon finds him. It's long after the bell has rung, and while Kevin is now making a habit of skipping class, Brendon has a bathroom pass dangling from his fingertips.

"You wanna talk about it?" he asks, hopping up on the counter and patting the space next to him. Kevin checks for excess water, then tentatively situates himself. He can kinda see why Brendon likes perching on things so much. It's fun to swing his feet.

"Not really," he says, but he's lying because he follows it with, "My hands are smaller." Brendon appears flummoxed by that, which, in thinking over things, Kevin can understand. "I can't play guitar anymore," he admits quietly, and then Brendon understands, if the sad, breathy, "Oh!" is anything to go by.

"Yeah," Kevin confirms, then swings his feet more vigorously, like that'll make all the hurt go away. Instead all he manages to do his bang his Achilles tendon against the plumbing or the garbage can or whatever's lurking beneath the countertop. Ow.

"So..." Brendon says tentatively, "Your band?"

Kevin shakes his head. "My brothers don't know. Yet, I mean. I have to tell them, but -- " He makes a pained sound, and feels pathetic for it. "The guitar's the only thing I'm good at, you know?" he asks, even though Brendon couldn't possibly know, since Kevin only started talking to Brendon a few days ago. But Brendon, Kevin has discovered, is good people, and Brendon, Kevin remembers, understands about music.

Kevin swings his feet again, heedless of the danger to his abused tendon and needing to express everything he's feeling without resorting to violence or destruction of property. "It's my life. And now it's gone and I'm a girl and I'm ugly and I'm not good at anything!"

(There is still something wrong with girl-Kevin's eyes.)

He's fairly sure that Brendon will, at this point, write him off as a total crazy person and possibly spread word to the entire school and maybe several tabloids that Kevin is certifiable and also cries a lot. Instead, Kevin finds himself with an armful of warm boy. It just so happens that Brendon is also a firm believer in the healing power of hugs, and Kevin hugs him back gratefully.

Normally, he and his brothers touch all the time. They were close-knit to start with, and becoming famous brought them all even closer, so the Lucas household is normally full of high-fives and back-pats and hugs (...okay, maybe not for Nick, but for everyone else), and of course the usual kicking and punching and noogie-ing that comes with having four boys living in the same house. Since the Change, which is what Kevin has decided to call it (since "The Day I Woke Up a Girl and My Life Ended" is too much of a mouthful), he's been avoiding even the casual touches -- it'd be so easy to give it away, and Kevin can't let that happen. He should let his brothers know; he should be honest with them, but if he's going to tell them (and he is, really, he totally is), it's going to be on his own terms.

So Kevin's maybe a little bit touch-starved after two-and-a-half days without having Joe tackle him for the TV remote or picking Frankie up for a piggy-back-ride (which Never Happens, because Frankie's too old for that sort of thing, except for how he's not). Brendon is tiny and skinny, but he gives awesome hugs. Kevin wishes Brendon was just a little bit bigger so he could bury his face in Brendon's shoulder, but this is good, and Kevin holds on as long as he can -- Brendon doesn't seem to mind -- until the bathroom door opens with a bang, and the two of them stiffen and fly apart at the loud and entirely unexpected noise.

Kevin vaguely recognizes the guy who's standing there; he's pretty sure it's the same guy from the percussion section who'd glared daggers at him for a week after he broke that drum when he was trying out for the orchestra. Right now he's not glaring anything, he's just sort of standing there with a blank look on his face, and Brendon's sitting up straighter, his expression pained.

"Spencer -- " Brendon chokes out; and right, yes, Spencer Smith, cold-hearted and iron-fisted ruler of the Horace Mantis drumline, Kevin can totally remember things.

Spencer doesn't say anything. He just keeps looking at them blankly for a moment longer, then turns on the heels of his -- wow, really amazing -- shoes and walks back out the door, though it doesn't slam behind him this time.

"Fuck," Brendon mumbles, sliding down off the countertop and slumping against it. Kevin slides down next to him.

"Are you okay?" he asks, and Brendon nods even though it's incredibly obvious, even to Kevin, that he's really not.

"Yeah," Brendon says, "I'm fine. Just a totally stupid, hopeless crush ... thing. Y'know." He waves a hand dejectedly, and Kevin really doesn't know; he hasn't had many crushes at all, even including that embarrassing debacle with the pizza girl, and none of them were hopeless in a way that could make his voice sound like that.

This time, Brendon's the one gratefully accepting the hug.

"Go out and hang by the Jeep, okay?" Brendon says when he pulls away, and Kevin nods because it's not like he has anything left to lose at this point. The school is probably going to call his parents about the skipped classes just as soon as they realize that his brothers were in school and he wasn't, and even that won't matter once he tells them the band is over, done with; no more JONAS. Kevin is doomed to be an ugly girl who can't play guitar and whose brothers hate him for destroying their band. It is inevitable at this point. There will probably be a Behind the Music special devoted to how much Kevin Lucas sucks at life.

Mike's Jeep is in what Kevin is learning is its regular spot -- the far corner of the parking lot near the athletic fields, just out of view of the classroom windows. Perfectly located should a teenage boy or three (or four) decide to make a strategic escape in the middle of the day, and conveniently angled so that no one inside the building can see Kevin leaning against the passenger side door, scuffing the toes of his shoes against the asphalt occasionally. White Chuck Taylors with green laces; they aren't Kevin's favorite shoes, but these are Joe's anyway. All of Kevin's shoes are too big for his feet, but he's been able to squish into Joe's shoes sometimes, so it's not too weird that he's stolen these. Joe hasn't mentioned it, anyway, and that's the best Kevin hoped for when he made off with them. He has to cinch the laces tightly so they don't feel like they're going to fall off.

He's been waiting for ten or fifteen minutes (stewing over his own imminent demise at the hands of his younger brothers, it feels more like forty or fifty years) when Mike shows up, uniform shirt untucked as usual, with his bookbag slung over his shoulder and his hands stuffed in his pockets.

"Hey," he says, and Kevin looks up from the dirty tips of Joe's shoes to give him a little wave. "Brendon said you needed to get out of here." Mike's keys are in his hand, and the jingle of metal is the most welcome thing Kevin's heard all day.

"I really do," Kevin confirms, sagging back against the door of Mike's Jeep. Mike does the weird thing he does, where he starts to touch Kevin and then stops and then starts again, like he can't make up his mind, but he eventually squeezes Kevin's shoulder reassuringly and unlocks the door for him. (Kevin should inform Mike about his opinions on hugging -- shoulder squeezes are totally just a mild form of hugging, after all. But maybe Mike's just worried that Kevin's girl-ness is catching or something, and Kevin really can't fault him for that.)

Kevin climbs into the front seat, looking back at the building. "They're not coming?" he asks. He'd kind of figured Brendon would be there, too. And William, since it's his house they always crash in. Mike, putting the key in the ignition and firing it up, shakes his head.

"Brendon's got a lab report due and Bill's got a history test or something," he explains with a shrug. "They'll show up later."

Great. Kevin adds 'going to fail AP History' to the list of things that are going tragically and horrendously wrong in his life.

Mike's house isn't too far away from William's, in the same not-that-great part of town. The building is obviously older and in need of a coat of paint, but the lawn has been freshly mowed and there's a cheerful pot of petunias brightening up the front entrance. Kevin gets that empty house feeling the second he walks in the door, which Mike confirms when he says, "My mom works a double shift on Thursdays."

Kevin hangs in the entry, not sure if he should follow while Mike goes into the kitchen and fishes around in the refrigerator, but then Mike reappears with two cold cans of Coke and hands one to Kevin, gesturing down the hallway toward the back of the house. Mike's room is an instantly comfortable combination of blue walls and boy smells and laundry piled in the corner, with an amp and guitar case at the foot of the bed, cables spilling across the carpet in uneven loops, and two more guitars on stands, jostling for space beside Mike's desk.

"You play?" Kevin hadn't known that.

Mike shrugs. "Bill and I are gonna start a band. Brendon plays keyboard," he explains (unnecessarily, since Brendon had taken over playing piano in the orchestra after Nick quit), and Kevin nods, not knowing exactly what to say. Mike sort of looks embarrassed, actually, and Kevin has no idea why he'd be embarrassed. Music is awesome; more awesome than hugs, even. Kevin really, really misses being able to pick up his guitar and just play.

"We're probably not gonna have, like, a headlining arena tour or whatever," Mike says then, cracking his Coke in the awkward silence. Oh. Okay. Right then.

"It's not -- We just got lucky," Kevin says quietly, shifting in the binder containing the evidence that his luck had changed dramatically. "Really lucky. I mean, we still work really hard," he says, double-speed, because they did get lucky but it's not like they hadn't worked day and night for it, but it's maybe not necessary, because Mike's sort of half-smiling at him.

"Yeah, I know. It's cool," he says, and then he drops down to the carpet to pull the guitar out of its case and plug it in. "Here," he says as he stands back up, guitar in hand, and passes it to Kevin. It's a Gibson, a pretty nice one, and Kevin is just distracted enough that he doesn't notice the size of it until it's in his hands. He grips it wonderingly.

"This is -- ?" He looks at Mike, who nods.

"Three-fourths, yeah. My dad got it for me when I was ten. I guess he figured I'd hate him less when he took off." Mike shrugs, but his eyes are unhappy and Kevin wishes he'd gotten up the nerve to discuss the hugging issue earlier. "I never got rid of it, but it's not like I use it anymore, so I thought you might wanna try it? 'Cause of your hands, I mean. I was gonna bring it over to Bill's later, but..."

If Kevin didn't know better, he might label Mike's current expression as "bashful", but that would be very silly, so he doesn't. Instead, he lifts the strap over his head and settles the guitar into position over his hips. Kevin takes a deep breath before wrapping his left hand around the neck, splaying his too-short fingers over the fretboard... And somehow, miraculously, his too-short fingers aren't too short. He fingers different chords, stretching and testing, but it works. It actually works! He plays a few notes -- he'll need to tune the guitar, it's a bit off key -- letting the sound vibrate through him with blissful satisfaction.

He lets the notes fade out of the air, then reverently lifts the strap back over his head and moves to set the guitar gently down in its case.

"Oh. Yeah, I guess it's not what you're used to -- " Mike is saying, but Kevin ignores that, because Mike is being an idiot, and Kevin has more important things to worry about, like whether it might have been better to have the hugging conversation before he launched himself at Mike and wrapped his arms around Mike's neck.

Despite a slight stumble, Mike seems to be okay with it. He stiffens up, at first, and Kevin's a little bit worried that his 'contagious girl-ness' theory was right, or that maybe Mike is not a hugging person and he's about to get the crap beaten out of him, but after a few seconds Mike loosens up and hugs back. (It is at that point that Kevin decides, once and for all, that Mike Carden is not scary and probably has not murdered anyone. Kevin knows the truth, and the truth is that Mike is secretly a cuddler.)

"Thank you," Kevin murmurs into Mike's shoulder, and Mike's arms tighten around him. "Thank you, thank you, thank you," Kevin repeats, glad that Mike is big enough that Kevin can bury his face in Mike's shoulder. Mike smells good, and he says, "Hey," and "Of course," and lets Kevin hold on as long as he needs to.

Any suspicious wetness left on Mike's uniform shirt is not Kevin's fault. (Girl-Kevin's eye problems are obviously more serious than he'd originally thought.)

When Brendon and William get there, about forty minutes after the end of the school day according to the glowing green numbers of Mike's alarm clock, Mike is lying on his stomach on his bed, scribbling away at what Kevin thinks is his math homework but might be chemistry or physics -- something that involves Mike tapping things out on his calculator at semi-regular intervals, anyway -- and Kevin, seated on the floor leaning against the bed, is about halfway through JONAS's discography. He's going chronologically from oldest to newest, but he thinks that maybe when he finishes, he'll play them all again in alphabetical order, just because he can.

"Ooh, I love this one!" Brendon exclaims as soon as he walks in the door (it would've disrupted Kevin's rhythm if his fingers weren't so used to playing these songs while any number of crazy things happened on stage or in the audience), dropping his school bag and flopping down with his head near Kevin's thigh, where he can watch his fingers sliding along the fretboard. It takes a second for Kevin to realize that Brendon's humming along with the melody and occasionally singing a line under his breath. It makes him smile.

"Go for it," he tells Brendon, and Brendon flashes him a quick, bright smile before coming in on Nick's next line, perfectly on key. William kicks at Brendon's ankle as he steps over him, and Brendon aims a kick upwards but entirely fails to hit William's ass, which was apparently his intended target. William goes to sit on the bed, falling backwards over Mike, who makes a noise of complaint but doesn't actually move.

"So is that...?" Kevin hears William ask quietly, and he hears Mike's equally quiet, "Yeah. And you can shut up about it."

"I didn't say anything!" William protests, but if he says anything else, Kevin doesn't hear it, because he hits the chorus and Brendon starts belting out Joe's lines, and whatever, something weird is going on, but he's got a guitar and he can play and that's all he's ever really wanted.

Kevin sort of doesn't want to go home.

He loves his family more than anything; that hasn't changed. But he loves being able to hang out with these guys, and loves even more that he doesn't have to hide what's happened. When he gets sick of the binder restricting his movement, he takes it off in the bathroom and throws on a borrowed tank top of Mike's, and no one stares or asks questions, other than Brendon asking him if he wants help getting a binder that fits properly. (He can't admit, yet, that this might be permanent, but he tells Brendon maybe in a couple of days and feels Mike's fingers tugging gently on the curls at the nape of his neck; there could be worse things than this.)

Maybe it wouldn't be such a big deal, if Nick and Joe hadn't started spending so much time watching him. Well, it's possible they always watched him and Kevin just didn't notice because he wasn't trying to hide anything from them, but it seems like every time Nick manages to drag his brain away from wooing his latest dream girl with song, he's looking thoughtfully at Kevin. Joe's interest is slightly less easy to read, mostly because Joe has been known to stare thoughtfully at a lump of lint he thought looked like Elvis, but Joe knows Nick like they're the same person; if Nick's watching, Joe is too.

It's just ... easier, to be out from under their eyes, not worrying about what they're seeing. Not worrying if they notice that he can't quite figure out how to stand like a boy without looking like he's trying, or the way he hesitates when he crosses his arms or puts on his seatbelt because it feels weird no matter how often he does it.

Kevin ends up not going through every song again, mostly because Brendon keeps making requests that throw off Kevin's systematic approach, and then they order pizza and Kevin gets the Master Chief killed a few times and eventually all four of them settle in to tackle their homework. Kevin helps Brendon with his Trig and William helps Kevin with his essay for English (it turns out that William likes poetry, which is awesome since Kevin has no idea what any of it means most of the time; he hopes Nick never decides to experiment with writing lyrics in sonnet form).

By the time Kevin has moved on to his Biology reading, sprawled stomach-down on the carpet with a pillow under his chest so he doesn't feel so squashed, Mike has already finished his assignments, so he crashes on the floor with his head next to Brendon's Spanish homework (occasionally providing conjugation help) and his legs draped over Kevin's. It's comfortable and safe and Kevin doesn't want to put the binder back on and face what is sure to be an inquisition at home. But regardless of what he wants, Mike's alarm clock now reads 11:02, and while there's no way his parents are going to believe that his SAT prep class ran this long, it'll be even worse if he doesn't come home at all.

Mike drops William and Brendon off first; William's house is closer to Mike's than Kevin thought it was, close enough to walk, but it's dark and while the neighborhood isn't dangerous, it isn't exactly safe, either. Then Mike takes the long way back to the firehouse, and Kevin appreciates the gesture even if he spends the ride in silence, watching the lights of the houses as they go by. Mike pulls the Jeep over to the curb a couple of blocks from the firehouse, just barely inside the glow of a sickly-orange streetlight.

"Let me see your phone," Mike says, sticking out his hand and twitching his fingers in the appropriate gimme gesture. Kevin has to dig around for it inside his bookbag -- it's been on silent all day, so the fourteen voicemails and twenty-seven text messages are news to him. Yeah. Totally, completely dead as soon as he walks in the door. Kevin hangs his head miserably as Mike pokes at the phone, and Mike has to hold it under his nose to get him to take it back. There's a new entry, complete with phone number and an email address, listed as Mike C.

"Just in case," Mike says, holding the steering wheel with both hands and very deliberately not looking at Kevin. "If you need anything, y'know. Call or whatever."

"I'm going to be grounded forever," Kevin says, which isn't really a response.

Mike shrugs. "I'll be around," he says, followed by, "Don't forget the guitar," as Kevin pops his door open and slides out. He grabs the case out of the back where it had previously been sandwiched between Brendon and William and holds it close.

"Thanks," he tells Mike, meaning it in more ways than he's sure even exist. Mike just nods.

"See you tomorrow," he says as he puts the Jeep in gear and Kevin starts walking home. If I survive, Kevin adds mentally. The odds, he thinks, are not in his favor.

The firehouse is dark, which doesn't mean anything other than that Frankie's in bed and Nick has probably convinced or forced Joe to do the same -- Nick gets snippy when he hasn't had enough sleep, and Joe knows, by this point, that it's better to let Nick get his rest than to deal with him afterward if he doesn't.

The darkness doesn't change the fact that his parents are sitting in the kitchen waiting for him.

"Kevin!" His mom's being quiet, but that doesn't stop her from running up and giving him a hug -- Kevin's grateful the guitar case keeps some distance between them; she doesn't seem to notice anything. "We were worried about you! Where have you been?" She's scolding but obviously checking him over to see that he's all in one piece, not torn to shreds by the fans or devoured by a horde of marauding mongooses or whatever it is that moms worry is happening to their children when they're not home.

"Sorry, mom," he apologizes, gripping the case a little tighter. "I was just. I was with some friends. Hanging out and ... doing homework, and stuff," he says, clinging to the homework angle like a lifeline.

"Kevin," his dad says, advancing with far less relieved enthusiasm. "Your school called us. You've been skipping classes? And now you're getting home at nearly midnight and you never even bothered to call to let us know where you were."

Kevin hangs his head. There's nothing he can say to that.

"We're very disappointed in you, Kevin," his dad says, and mom tucks into his side as he wraps an arm around her waist: a united front of parental disapproval.

"What's gotten into you, sweetheart?" his mom asks, voice plaintive. "This isn't like you at all. You're not -- " she looks horrified by what she's saying, "You're not doing drugs, are you? Kevin, please tell me it's not that -- "

Kevin's head snaps up and he shakes it quickly. "No! No, of course not!" His mom looks like she's about to cry. "No, Mom, I wouldn't. I promise."

She takes a deep, steadying breath. "Okay. Okay, that's good. But honey -- " She looks torn.

"What your mother means is," his dad interjects, "We're worried about you. Are you feeling all right? Is there something wrong at school?"

"No, Dad," Kevin shakes his head and focuses on lying without letting his voice get all squeaky; his voice is already higher pitched than it should be, he doesn't need it to get worse. "I've just been really stressed out lately. That's all. I shouldn't have skipped class like that, I know, and I won't do it again, but," Kevin lifts his bookbag up and gestures with it, "I really was studying with some friends. You can check if you want; all my homework's done." This part, he doesn't have to lie about.

His dad looks like he's going to take the bag and check, but his mom smacks his chest with an open hand.

"We believe you, Kevin. Just promise us you'll call next time? And no more skipping classes!" she admonishes, and Kevin nods his agreement.

"I promise," he says, not knowing if he'll be keeping it or not. It hurts to lie like that. "I should probably get to bed..."

"Of course," his dad says, and his mom comes over and kisses his cheek and hugs him again, still being (thankfully) mindful of the guitar case.

Kevin trudges upstairs, carefully setting both his books and the guitar down next to his bunk as silently as possible before retreating to the bathroom to remove the binder and strip down to his boxers and the tank top he maybe stole from Mike a little bit (it's really comfy! plus Mike has at least four or five more that Kevin saw, and he totally intends to return it eventually), shuffling back into the main living space a few minutes later.

He's about halfway to the safety of the bunk when Joe says, "Hey, Kev?" softly, like he's trying not to wake Nick (which is ridiculous, since Nick is always preternaturally aware of everything that goes on in the house). Kevin freezes, holding his bundle of school clothes over his chest.

"Uh...yeah?" he says back, just as quietly (Nick is definitely listening by this point, Kevin is sure).

"You know that if something was wrong, you could tell us, right?" The worry in Joe's voice makes Kevin feel so guilty. He could tell them. He could come clean, right now, and tell them the truth. Or he could crawl into his bunk and pretend there's nothing wrong at all. It's the cowardly way out, but... Kevin just doesn't feel so brave, at the moment.

"I know, Joe," he says. His brothers will always be there for him when he needs them. If he needs them. That is and always will be the absolute and final truth.

(Except, perhaps, for Frankie, who will be there when and if Kevin can afford his fees. This, as it turns out, comes in handy, when his parents announce at breakfast that Kevin's grounded for the weekend and that his cell phone will be impounded as soon as he gets home from school -- "Right after school!" -- that afternoon.)

School that Friday is excruciatingly long, and not only because Kevin has to work to avoid Stella's fitting sessions again. Nick and Joe have taken it upon themselves to watch Kevin's every move, apparently unconvinced by his excuses for his behavior. He can't so much as sneeze without accidentally elbowing one or both of his brothers, and as much as Kevin appreciates how much they're trying to help (he does!), he's almost pathetically grateful that it's Friday, which means he gets to spend a two-hour block of time rehearsing with the orchestra instead of having gym.

Nick and Joe both gave up the orchestra, but Kevin owes them for the stuff he damaged trying out in the first place, and besides that, orchestra is fun! They're planning this awesome Disney medley for the Spring concert that Kevin is really looking forward to (Brendon is, too; he and Kevin spent several hours talking about it until William threatened them both with muzzles).

Plus, instead of being terrified of being discovered, today Kevin has Mike's guitar, which he can actually play, and which is better quality than the low-end guitar Kevin had been using for orchestra practice (for concerts, he brought his own -- Mr. Phelps didn't seem to mind). When Brendon grins at him during tuning, Kevin grins back and plays a strong B chord in response; the resultant smile is somewhere between beaming and supernova, and Kevin feels better than he's felt all day.

The bright mood fades, though, when Kevin looks up to see Spencer Smith glaring at him (or is that just the way he normally looks?) over the timpani.

Kevin hadn't given a lot of thought to those few seconds in the bathroom, other than how Brendon had been upset about it, but Spencer's continued attention is troubling. He and his brothers stopped worrying about people at school, at least as far as publicity and security go. The kids at Horace Mantis are used to them; they're just Kevin and Joe and Nick, for the most part (with notable, mostly Macy-shaped, exceptions). But Kevin doesn't actually know Spencer at all, and he doesn't know what Spencer thinks of what he's seen. Kevin's never thought to be wary of the kids at school before, but the kids at school hadn't, previously, walked in on him hugging another boy in the bathroom during class time and ... this could maybe be bad if Spencer thinks to go to one of the gossip rags with the story.

Kevin Lucas: Gay??? is just not a headline he needs to be dealing with right now, no matter how true it might be. (But then, if he's currently a girl, but still likes guys, does that make him straight? Oh, that's confusing...) He doesn't even want to think about what it could do to his family -- he hasn't told anyone yet, though he suspects Stella might know, and they can't hear about it from US Weekly before they hear about it from Kevin.

There's a jarring, discordant sound from the piano, which Kevin takes to mean that Brendon has noticed their little exchange. He's right. Brendon is looking back and forth between Spencer and Kevin (well, mostly looking at Spencer), conflicting emotions at war on his face. Spencer notices him a half-second after Kevin does, then looks away swiftly, shuffling his sheet music like it wasn't already in precise order. Brendon's face crumples, and Kevin wishes he knew what to do, but even if he did, there isn't time. Mr. Phelps is already tapping his baton to call everyone to order, and Kevin resolves to think more about it later.

He doesn't get a chance to really talk to Brendon at all, but he does manage to grab him for a half-second on their way out the door so he can explain how he's grounded and if he's not home right after school his parents will probably get out the thumbscrews. (Okay, maybe not. He's pretty sure they don't actually own any thumbscrews. But if they did...) Brendon makes the appropriate sympathetic noises.

"It's okay," he says, shifting his books in his arms, "Me and Bill have shifts at work today anyway. I'll tell them, though." He smiles at Kevin reassuringly, and Kevin actually does feel a bit better.

As soon as they're out of the safety of the classroom, though, Joe and Nick materialize again, and Kevin resigns himself to their observation.

They have band practice that afternoon, since they've got the whole weekend to do homework. Nick's still sort of pissed off at Kevin, which Kevin can totally understand, so he doesn't even argue when Nick makes him run through the same chord progression twenty-seven times in a row when he'd gotten it perfect the third time through.

"Is that a new guitar?" Joe asks early on, and Kevin answers with a non-committal noise.

"I'm borrowing it," he explains when Joe presses the point, but that's the most he's going to say. For one, they'd never believe him if he told them that Mike Carden had loaned him the guitar. He sees the raised eyebrows and shrugs that pass between his brothers, but where sometimes the things they leave him out of bother him, he doesn't mind this time. They can wonder all they want; this is ... his.

He shreds for hours and hours, until finally Nick ends their rehearsal so he can work on fixing the bridge of their newest song (not, Kevin notes, the one he was obsessed with writing for the girl a few days ago -- Nick is too predictable sometimes). Joe and Stella have one of their it's not a date! things that night, going to see some new movie with lots of explosions, so Kevin ends up doing his homework for lack of anything else to do. Unfortunately, that only lasts until about nine o'clock, and after that he ends up reading ahead for his English class until Joe gets back and Nick declares lights-out.

Kevin's not used to wearing the binder for so long -- he would've taken if off hours ago if he'd been at William's or Mike's, but around his brothers he has to keep it on. He locks the bathroom door and pokes gingerly at the angry red marks where the material had been digging into his flesh. There's a clear imprint of the texture on his skin, which is sort of cool except for how his torso feels like it's been worked over with a meat tenderizer. His breasts are shockingly sensitive after being confined for so long; his nipples hardened almost as soon as he pulled the binder off, and he nearly jumps at the jolt of sensation when he brushes his fingers over them. It feels really good, so much better than touching his chest ever had when he was in his normal body, but he's not going there.

He's definitely talking to Brendon about getting a binder that fits him properly, if he's not back to being himself by Monday. For the time being, he slips Mike's tank top over his head and tries not to shiver as the fabric drags over his skin.

Saturday they have family breakfast, followed by a series of phone interviews that fill up the rest of the morning, all of them sitting around in the kitchen and trying not to talk over each other at the speakerphone. Nick thinks he fixed the bridge he was working on, so they rehearse for a few more hours after lunch, but by six o'clock or so, Joe splits off to go watch TV and Nick has some sort of school project to work on, and Kevin is left feeling bored.

He decides to put his plan into action.

Kevin has a secret compartment in his bunk, which exists for exactly this sort of situation. A piece of the paneling pulls away to reveal a small hollow space. The hollow space, assuming Kevin hasn't needed it recently, is full of cash. In his own head, Kevin refers to it as his Emergency Frankie Fund, and whenever he has spare cash left from his (rather generous -- being a rock star has advantages) allowance, he adds to it. The key to negotiating with Frankie is to start low, and to always remember that you might need his help again before you've had a chance to replenish your cash supply. Kevin has gotten rather good at it.

"How's fifty bucks sound?" Kevin offers. Frankie crosses his arms and looks at him skeptically.

"To get your phone back from mom and dad? That's a high-risk operation." Frankie is a shrewd businessman, Kevin will freely admit. "A hundred."

Kevin frowns and does some mental calculations. "A hundred, but you have to cover for me," he negotiates. Frankie thinks it over.

"One-fifty," he counters, raising an eyebrow. That's a steep price; steeper than usual. Frankie wants something. Kevin thinks hard for a minute. Finally, the light dawns.

"A hundred bucks and my PSP. Deal?" Kevin holds his hand out to shake on it. Frankie smiles, wide and self-assured, adjusting his fedora slightly before taking Kevin's hand.

"Deal. Give me at least an hour for the phone."

(Kevin is glad that Frankie is on their side, sort of. He can't imagine trying to deal with Frankie if he didn't like you.)

"I need to get out of here," Kevin tells Mike as Frankie walks away, money in his pocket and PSP in his palms.

There's a lot of noise on the other end of the line, but he can hear Mike say, "Just a sec..." and the noise slowly fades enough that he doesn't have to strain to make out the words when Mike says, "Better?"

"Yeah," Kevin tells him. "I need to get out of here."

Mike laughs. "What are you gonna do, sneak out?"

"Yup," Kevin says, deadly serious. They've still got that rappelling gear tucked in a storage closet. He can use that. Or he could get Frankie to distract everyone long enough that Kevin doesn't have to risk his neck climbing out the window. That would work, too.

Mike laughs again, but he says, "Pete's band's playing ... Hold on, I'll get the address." The connection goes muffled, but he can hear Mike yelling, "Gabe!" on the other end. A few moments later, the connection un-muffles again and Mike says, "Can you write this down?"

Kevin scrawls the address in ball-point pen on the inside of his forearm. It's not too far away, actually, more on his side of town than Mike and William's. He can probably get there in twenty minutes or a half-hour; faster if he takes his bike instead of walking, but a missing bike might attract attention.

He sneaks down the stairs and gives Frankie the signal, but he doesn't stick around long enough to observe Frankie's precision distracting techniques in action. As soon as no one's looking his way, he slips out the front door.

Kevin isn't sure what the rules are for attending a party in someone's basement when you don't know the person who owns the basement or even what the party is for. But once he finds the address (533 Elmwood, "Saporta" on the mailbox), he wanders up the driveway and around the side of the house to where he hears voices, one of which turns out to be William's. So Kevin is spared the embarrassment of having to ask someone he doesn't know where the people he does know are hanging out. Unfortunately, he is not spared the embarrassment of having William drape an elegant arm over his shoulders and announce to everyone in the vicinity,

"This is the fluffy one! He is not a girl, despite what you may think." Whatever is sloshing around in the red plastic cup William is gesturing with smells like it could peel paint. Kevin wrinkles his nose.

"Is Mike around? Or Brendon?" he asks, hoping to see one or both of their familiar faces appear miraculously in his hour of need. Neither of them materialize, though.

"You're the one Mike invited, right?" The guy who speaks is, shockingly, tall enough to match William. "He's inside somewhere." The guy waves at the door, then insinuates himself between Kevin and William, stroking a hand through William's hair.

"Bilvy, baby, you're not planning to break my heart, are you?" he asks, pouting, as Kevin slips away.

William looks put out. "Of course not," he says, and then they're making out, right there in front of everyone, and Kevin is very confused; even more so when the guy stops kissing William long enough to call out, "Feel free to grab a drink!" at him. Somebody tries to hand him one of the red plastic cups, but it smells as bad as the one William has, so he chooses to skip it and go inside instead.

The noise of the band seems to triple as soon as Kevin steps in the door; he only barely resists the urge to put his hands over his ears. It's like someone packed JONAS's setup for a stadium show into 400 square feet of basement, and the result is somewhere between 'airplane taking off' and 'sonic boom'. The singer/bassist is screaming something unintelligible, but once Kevin's ears adjust to the sudden barrage, the music is actually pretty good.

It seems like a million people have stuffed themselves into the space -- the basement is hot and sticky with sweat, and smells worse than William's cup of whatever-it-was. But there's that same palpable energy that Kevin feels in the crowd at a really good show, and Kevin moves with the ebb and flow of the crowd, peering over and around heads to see if he can locate Mike. Brendon is a lost cause -- Kevin's sure he's here somewhere, but he's way too short to be spotted like this. On stage, the tone of the music changes, and one of the guitarists steps up to sing lyrics that Kevin can actually understand (sort of), and on the far side of the basement, what was previously just another long-haired boy at the show turns around and reveals himself to be Mike.

"You found it!" Mike shouts over the noise as Kevin squishes his way out of the crush of bodies near the stage, which, Kevin has discovered in his trek, is really just some loading pallets with plywood layered on top of them.

"Yeah!" Kevin shouts back, taking a position close to Mike's ear so he doesn't have to continue yelling everything he says. "Who are they?" He gestures at the band, and Mike smirks and shrugs, taking a swig out of the bottle he's holding. Beer, which is probably at least a little more responsible than drinking whatever is in the plastic cups, Kevin rationalizes.

"Who knows?" he says, then laughs. "Actually they keep fighting over what to name the band, but if they're not careful they're gonna be stuck as 'Who Knows?' forever. Fuckers." This last is said with genuine affection, though. Kevin nods like he knows what's going on (he doesn't), still getting used to the fact that his new friends show that they care by swearing at each other.

"...Are they doing a Beatles cover?" Kevin asks at length, mostly because it takes him that long to figure out what the song is supposed to be.

Mike shrugs. "Probably. Don't worry about it too much, they kind of do whatever." Kevin has never actually heard of a band that could switch from heavy-metal screaming to Beatles covers before. Now, apparently, he has.

"How dead are you when you get home?" Mike asks, and Kevin slumps against the wall.

"Very, severely dead," he admits. "They'll probably stake me outside for the fans to devour." Sadly, Kevin can see this happening. Well, he could see it happening if Nick was in charge of punishments -- Nick can be kind of sadistic like that. Kevin's parents will hopefully show more mercy. They, at least, will kill him before throwing his body to the horde of JONAS-merch-clad sharks.

Mike is giving him an unreadable look, though that could be because, as Kevin realizes when he thinks back, he has been talking about cannibalism. He breathes as deeply as the binder will allow and ponders that his life is extremely far from normal.

"You need a drink," Mike says after a minute, snagging the next person to go by with an armful of red Solo cups. Kevin blanches.

"Uh, thanks, but..." He's not sure how to express the sentiment I think William might have been drinking paint thinner. Mike presses the cup into his hands anyway.

"Try it," he says, shrugging and taking another drink of his beer. "If you hate it, don't drink it."

Kevin considers this. He's been taught all that Just Say No stuff, but somehow he always thought that peer pressure would involve more ... pressure. Mike doesn't actually seem to care whether Kevin drinks or not; he's mostly gone back to watching the band. Whatever is in the cup doesn't smell as foul as whatever William had been drinking, and it's sort of a pleasant purple-ish color. He lifts the cup gingerly and takes a tiny sip, halfway expecting it to taste like that grape cough syrup his mom gave him when he was little. It doesn't. Actually, it tastes pretty good -- cold and fruity and sweet, with just a little bit of tangy aftertaste.

The band gets through three more songs before Kevin finishes his cup (which was only two-thirds of the way full to begin with), and he's vaguely trying to find another cup (preferably a full one this time) when Brendon appears in a gap between bodies on the floor and loops his arms around Kevin's waist, pouting impishly.

"I didn't know you were coming!" he exclaims, fake-glaring at Mike. "I had to hear it from Bill! Well, sort of, he said something about fluffy and finding Mike, so I knew it had to be you, and here you are! Are you having fun?" Brendon has given up the pout in favor of his usual boisterous happiness. "I thought you were grounded or something?"

"I am," Kevin says morosely, letting Brendon hang off of him even as he finally locates and commandeers another red cup full of purple liquid.

"He's a rebel," Mike tells Brendon, nudging Kevin with his elbow.

"That's me," Kevin agrees, before realizing that it's kind of true. He's supposed to be grounded -- for skipping class -- but instead he snuck out of the house to go to a party where he's drinking and everything. He's a rebel. Kevin takes a long, rebellious drink of his purple stuff, feeling cooler than he's ever felt in his entire life (because hey, he might be a rock star, which is pretty cool, but he knows that the rock star thing can only make up for a certain amount of dorkiness, and Kevin has a lot of that).

"Where's Bill?" Mike asks.

"I think he went upstairs with Gabe," Brendon says, letting go of Kevin's waist just enough that he can clap for the band, who have apparently finished their set based on how they're putting their instruments away and coming down off the stage.

"You staying here tonight, then?" Mike doesn't sound particularly concerned, and Brendon just nods.

"Yeah, but I can drop you guys off as long as I can keep the Jeep," he says, then looks up at Kevin and winks. "I'm the designated driver!" he proclaims.

"And such a good one!" says a new voice, and Kevin barely has time to connect the voice and face and think, bassist/screamer guy before bassist/screamer guy is attacking Brendon from behind (which means that he's sort of attacking Kevin, but Kevin is relatively secure in the belief that he's not the intended target).

Brendon smacks him away. "No biting, Pete!" he declares, rubbing at the back of his neck.

"He bites," non-singing guitarist guy tells Kevin, which is about the time Kevin realizes that the entire band has descended on their corner of the basement.

"I do," Pete confirms proudly, winking at Kevin in a way Kevin is certain is not appropriate. Pete's about as small as Brendon, though, so Kevin's not too terribly worried about his virtue. He's sure he could hold him off if it became necessary. But then he remembers the near-disaster that was his attempt to re-organize his amps that morning, which he'd never had trouble doing before, so maybe it would be better to just keep his distance.

"Kevin, this is Pete," Mike introduces, cracking two beers and passing one to Pete. He gestures at non-singing guitarist guy and says, "Mikeyway. The grouchy one in the hat is Patrick--" Patrick flips Mike off without breaking off his conversation with one of the 'bartenders'. "And ... " Mike looks at Pete, who blinks and looks surprised.

"Oh, fuck, right. Hey, Rossy! Get over here!" Pete grabs singing guitarist guy by his rather extravagant scarf (Kevin decides he wants one) and hauls him over, heedless of the fact that he's kind of choking him.

"Meet our new secret weapon!" Pete announces proudly, like singing guitarist guy is something he invented himself, instead of a person. "Ryan Ross, these are the guys."

Ryan looks unimpressed. "Hey," he says, and Pete points in turn --

"Mike Carden, not to be confused with our Mikeyway, Brendon Urie, and ... Kevin?" Kevin nods, not expecting a flash of recognition to pass over Pete's face. Kevin loves his band, and his brothers, and being famous, but he doesn't want to be recognized here, not at all.

"Wait, Kevin? As in Kevin?" Pete's waggling his eyebrows at Mike like Kevin's name is some kind of code word.

"Shut the fuck up, Pete," is all Mike says. Ryan is still standing in the middle of everything, though he's giving Brendon a weird look and Brendon, in response, is sort of hiding himself behind Kevin.

It's possible Kevin needs more purple drinks.

Kevin has maybe had too many purple drinks.

He lost count somewhere between "many" and "lots", but that's probably fine. He was never really great at math anyway. Somewhere after "lots", Mike grabs his hand on its way to find another cup, and then Mike's face is right in front of Kevin's.

"Yeah, it's time to get you home," Mike says, which Kevin could tell him is a bad, terrible, awful plan. Home is just no good at all. (For one thing, home does not approve of delicious purple drinks; Kevin is sure of this. And anyone who doesn't like delicious purple drinks is no friend of Kevin's.)

"I don' wanna," Kevin says, perfectly intelligible thank you very much, but Mike seems set on not respecting Kevin's wishes in this matter.

"Mm-hmm," Mike nods along condescendingly, rolling his eyes. "Come on." He loops Kevin's arm over his own shoulders and wraps his arm around Kevin's waist. This has the startling effect of making the ground wobble a lot less, so maybe Mike knows what he's doing in this case. Kevin decides to just go with it.

"Bden!" Mike calls out, and halfway across the room, Brendon turns to look at them. He pulls Mike's keys from his pocket and jangles them, and Mike nods.

"Brendon's gonna give us a lift, okay?" Mike says, and Kevin gets the feeling he's trying to be soothing, which is silly because Kevin is fine. Kevin is better than he's been in a long time, actually. Even since a long time before he mysteriously woke up all girl-ized.

Kevin only trips once on the stairs to the driveway, and that's because the stairs are stupid jerks and moved while he was trying to climb them, so he counts himself victorious. When they reach the top, the Jeep is right there, Brendon oddly small in the driver's seat. Mike opens the door and kind of shoves Kevin up into the seat, with Brendon providing help by tugging on any parts of Kevin he can reach. Kevin doesn't remember the Jeep being this complicated before. Mike reaches across Kevin to buckle his seatbelt, then closes the door firmly. Which, hey, no.

"Hey--" Kevin protests, reaching after Mike, but then Mike's swinging himself up into the backseat, so that's okay. Mike settles in behind Kevin, but he's leaning forward and his hands are on Kevin's shoulders, thumbs rubbing circles into his muscles. Kevin kind of zones out, so he's a little surprised to find them pulling into Mike's driveway, which is nowhere near the firehouse (that he didn't want to go to anyway, so it's more happy-surprised than upset-surprised).

Getting out of the Jeep is a lot easier than getting in, but the steps up to Mike's front door are no more cooperative than the steps out of the basement. Luckily it's not William's house -- there are neither stairs nor sleeping women. The lamp in the living room is lit, but the house still has that empty feeling. Kevin thinks it's kind of sad that Mike's house always feels empty.

Mike's room is just the same as it was, minus one guitar case. Kevin doesn't trip on the amp cables, and Mike hauls him over and makes him sit on the edge of the bed while he takes Kevin's shoes off for him. He puts Kevin's shoes and socks off to the side, then stands up and looks down at him. Looking up makes Kevin kind of dizzy, so he leans forward and rests his forehead against Mike's stomach instead. Mike is good at making the world stop being wobbly. Mike takes a deep breath, which feels funny up-close like this.

He grabs Kevin by the undersides of his arms and pulls him to his feet again. Kevin makes an unhappy noise at being dislodged -- standing up is making everything more spinny, not less -- but Mike lets him slump forward and lean his whole upper body against Mike's, tucking his head into Mike's shoulder.

Mike makes sure he's steady, then lets his hands drop to the waistband of Kevin's jeans, the backs of his fingertips rubbing against Kevin's belly as he undoes the top button. The light touches of warmth and blunt nails are doing funny things to Kevin's insides that he's pretty sure have nothing to do with the purple drinks, and the ... space, between his legs, is starting to feel sort of itchy and hot and wet. Kevin squirms, pressing his face against Mike's neck and his thighs together, which almost helps, but then just seems to make the feeling worse.

"Jesus," Mike says, under his breath like Kevin isn't supposed to hear, "This is not how I wanted to get into your pants."

Something about that is significant, Kevin thinks, but at the moment all he knows for sure that any combination of Mike + his pants = YES. He's really glad he decided on the button-fly jeans, because the movements of Mike's fingers keep sending shivery feelings through him, even though they're pressing against the fabric of his boxers now, not his skin. Mike got all sweaty at the party, and even though cool night air and the ride in the Jeep has dried most of it, his skin still smells awesome. Kevin has no idea what he's doing when he mouths the pulse-point under Mike's jaw, but when he swipes his tongue against it, Mike's skin tastes awesome, too.

Mike's hands stutter on the last button, then slide around to hold Kevin's waist as his open jeans barely hang on to his hips.

"Fuck," Mike's forehead falls onto Kevin's shoulder. He's gripping Kevin hard, maybe hard enough to bruise. "Don't do that," he mutters into Kevin's shirt.

But Kevin is a rebel tonight, and rebels don't take direction. He mouths over the moist patch of skin again, then licks over the line of Mike's jaw towards his ear. The hands on Kevin's waist clench even tighter, then Kevin's being picked up -- actually picked up -- and deposited back on the bed. His jeans slide down his legs in the process, ending up mostly on the floor but still kind of attached to Kevin at the ankles. Mike leaves Kevin where he is and bends down to free his feet, then he takes a deliberate step backward.

Kevin may not have done this before, but he's pretty sure that's not what comes next.

"Can you get your binder off yourself?" Mike asks, not actually looking at Kevin. Kevin has to think about it for a minute -- he's still kind of startled about the abrupt ending to what had promised to feel really good and the itchy-hot-wetness between his legs is still there, just as bad as before. But eventually he nods; he's gotten good at taking it on and off, and he can do it even if the room is refusing to stay still.

Mike grabs a t-shirt out of his dresser and tosses it on the bed next to Kevin. "Get changed," he says, then turns to leave the room, pausing in the doorway. "I gotta go to the bathroom."

Then he's gone, and Kevin is alone in the wobbly room, wondering what just happened.

Luckily, Mike is gone for a while, because it takes Kevin a long time to untangle his shirt from his limbs and even longer to get the binder off. Sorting out the shirt Mike had thrown him -- it's black and says Oliver! on it in decorative letters -- takes another few minutes. He finally manages it, though, and then he sits and tries to make the wall stop moving with the power of his mind for a while. It doesn't work, but Mike comes back before he's put any real effort into it.

He makes Kevin drink the glass of water he's brought back with him, then makes Kevin get under the covers.

"Go to sleep," he tells Kevin, smoothing the curls back from his face. The sensation is fantastic and kind of hypnotizing, and Kevin can feel himself drifting off, his eyelids too heavy to keep open. For a second he thinks he feels a puff of air on his face and the soft press of lips against his, but after that there's only darkness.

Kevin wakes up and has three seconds to curse the beam of light that's slipped past Mike's curtains and into his eyes before his stomach begins a swift and brutal revolt against the rest of his body. He thanks all that is holy that he manages not to get tangled up in the sheets or forget where Mike's bathroom is, because he only barely manages to throw himself at the toilet in time. What comes out tastes like it was cooked up in Hell. It's also violently purple.

Kevin blanches and then throws up again, and a few more times for good measure. Somewhere in the middle of things he must have woken Mike up, because eventually there's a warm hand rubbing his back, and a glass of water being offered.

"Don't try to drink it yet," Mike counsels. "Just rinse your mouth out."

Kevin takes the glass with a groan. "Am I dead?" he asks before taking a sip, swishing the liquid around in his mouth and spitting it back out again. Ridding his mouth of most of the rancid taste does a lot to make him feel more human.

"Nah. It'll take more than that." Mike is smiling wryly, and it occurs to Kevin that he's being made fun of. He's halfway tempted to throw up on Mike, but he doesn't. He's polite that way.

Kevin stays slumped over the toilet for a few more minutes, until his stomach has settled to a mild gurgling and his bladder takes its turn to make itself known. Flushing away the purple stuff only makes it worse.

"Um. I gotta..." Kevin waves vaguely at the toilet, pulling himself to his feet (he ends up using the edge of the tub for balancing purposes -- his muscles seem to have forgotten their own existence).

"Right." Mike kind of blushes, just a little bit, and hustles out of the bathroom quickly, pulling the door shut behind him.

It's only once all the distractions are gone, and Kevin's head has had some time to clear, that he realizes something is different. That's... Kevin pats at his chest gingerly. There's no swell of flesh, just the light scratching of Mike's t-shirt against his chest hair. And when he sticks his hand down the front of his boxers, his fingers encounter the familiar rise of his penis, not the soft folds he'd been (gradually) becoming accustomed to.

Oh thank God. Kevin nearly collapses from the relief of it, of being himself again, but he still really has to pee.

(He vows never to take his ability to go standing up for granted ever again.)

He tucks himself away after, then washes his hands and refills the glass with water from the tap so he can wash his mouth out one more time. His head is threatening to split down the middle, but he can't even bring himself to care.

Mike's waiting outside the bathroom door, leaning against the wall. Beyond him, Kevin can see into the living room, where the lumpy blankets on the couch clarify the issue of where Mike spent the night. He looks startled by Kevin's beaming grin.

"You're happy all of a sudden," Mike says, "Feeling better?" And Kevin doesn't know what to say, so he just reaches for Mike's hand and pulls it to his chest. There's a half-second lag while Mike's brain processes, and then his eyes widen.

"Wow," he says, and Kevin lets his hand drop.

"I'm back to normal!" Kevin's not shouting, because he can already tell that shouting will make his head hurt worse, and also he doesn't know if Mike's mom might be trying to sleep behind one of the closed doors in the house, but he wants to shout. Actually he wants to run and scream and jump around and throw confetti everywhere, because oh God he can go to gym class again and play his guitars again and not have to get up before Nick anymore ...

This time when he hugs Mike, though, Mike stays kind of tense, though he sort of wraps his arms around Kevin's chest. Kevin breaks the embrace much earlier than he had been planning to.

"Brendon's bringing the Jeep; it's still early enough that you might be able to sneak in," Mike says. His feet are bare on the carpet, and suddenly it feels like an intrusion, that Kevin knows what they look like.

"I should get dressed," Kevin says awkwardly, and Mike nods.

"Yeah. I gotta clean this stuff up before my mom gets home." He gestures at the living room.

Kevin locates his jeans and his own shirt, both of which kind of reek of sweat and smoke and booze, but he pulls them on anyway. He makes the bed, then leaves Mike's Oliver! t-shirt folded neatly on the foot of it. He finds Brendon's binder, too, and picks it up carefully. Brendon will probably be glad to have it back.

He slips out of Mike's room to find Mike putting away his blankets in the hall closet.

"Can I -- ?" Mike waves at his room, and Kevin nods vigorously once he catches on.

"Oh. Yeah, I'm done. I'll just ... wait out here, I guess," Kevin says, and seats himself on the couch to wait for Mike to get dressed, too. The couch smells a little bit like Mike, and Kevin lets himself sink into the cushions. How did everything get so awkward? Okay, well, that might have been Kevin's fault with all the licking and whatnot, but Mike had definitely said something about liking Kevin. Or at least about getting into his pants, which had to involve some kind of liking, right? Unless Kevin had drunkenly hallucinated the whole thing, which was possible, maybe. He doesn't know much about being drunk. Maybe people hallucinate drunken confessions of lust all the time?

Or maybe, Kevin thinks, his heart sinking into his shoes, Mike only wanted to get into his pants when his pants contained a girl.

Mike has, after all, only known Kevin as a girl. Or, well, as a boy in a girl body. And if Joe's any indicator, having girl parts is apparently all that matters. (And being pretty, but that can't be as important as Kevin thought it was, if Mike wanted him anyway.)

Mike comes out of his room at about the same time that Brendon pulls up in the Jeep, William propped up in the passenger seat, half asleep and looking like death warmed over. He's got bruises all over his neck and downward, past the collar of his shirt. Kevin blushes. He blushes harder when he notices that Brendon has a few matching marks of his own.

"Morning!" Brendon waves as he climbs out of the Jeep; quietly, though, which Kevin (or more specifically, Kevin's head) is grateful for. He waves back and heads over, Mike closing the door behind them. The sun is just barely up, and the air is still damp and oddly chilly for how warm the weather had been lately.

Brendon greets Kevin with a hug, but he tenses up after a second, then steps back. "Kev?" Brendon asks, confused. Kevin grins at him.

"I changed back!" he says happily, then holds out the binder he'd had clutched in one hand. "So, you can have this back. I... Really, thank you so much," Kevin fumbles a little, not sure how exactly to express how much he owes Brendon for helping him.

"Oh. That's -- " Expressions chase each other across Brendon's face, not all of them nice. After a few seconds, he settles on a smile, but something about it looks painful. "That's great, Kev. Really, that's awesome." Brendon takes the binder and clenches it in his own fist.

"Hey, Mike?" Brendon says, turning his attention away from Kevin. "I think Bill and I are gonna walk home, if that's okay?" Bill makes a grumpy noise, but he lets Brendon open his door and pull him down off the seat. He seems to be standing up just fine, though, which means he passes Mike's once-over inspection.

"Sure," Mike says. Brendon left the keys in the ignition, so he takes his place in the driver's seat and waits for Kevin to climb in beside him.

"I'll... see you later?" Kevin offers. William offers a wave in return, but Brendon just nods shallowly. Mike doesn't even look at him as he backs the Jeep down the driveway. Kevin feels suddenly, utterly alone, like if he wasn't belted into the Jeep, he might drift off into the morning haze. When he looks into the side mirror as they drive away, he catches a glimpse of Brendon and William, still in the driveway. Brendon's got his face buried in William's chest, William's arms wrapped around him. Their figures fade into the mist and the distance, but Kevin is absolutely sure, the way he's sure the sun will rise and the sky is blue, that Brendon is crying.

Mike drops him off around the corner from the firehouse with his customary, "See you," but this time it doesn't feel like a promise.

The morning is still in its infancy and they don't have any Sunday morning interviews set up this weekend, so the firehouse is dim and silent as Kevin slips through the front door. He tiptoes upstairs and heads to the bathroom first, shucking off his incriminating clothing and burying it in the hamper (part of his grounding includes laundry duty; for once, he's not going to complain about it). He can wear just his boxers again, no shirt required.

Nick makes a groggy noise as Kevin heads to his bunk, and Kevin freezes.

"Kev?" Nick mumbles, propping himself up a little. Joe's still snoring lightly on the other side of the room, but Nick wakes up fast, too fast, and even in the dim, watery light filtering through the windows, Kevin can see his eyes are narrow and focused. "Did you have fun?" Nick asks, his voice razor-edged despite a touch of morning roughness.

Kevin is very, very dead.

But he's also very tired -- the few hours of sleep he managed to get in between the party and waking up puking are not nearly enough to counter his complete physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion -- so he turns his back to Nick and opens the curtains to his bunk. Frankie has placed pillows under his blankets and a wig stretched over a basketball where Kevin's head normally rests.

"Well?" Nick presses, his voice angrier, and Kevin just can't deal with Nick's inquisition right now. Later, when he's gotten enough sleep, and (maybe, just maybe) the worst of the hurt he's feeling has dulled to something a little less raw and painful, then he'll think about what to tell his brothers.

"Not really," Kevin bites out, dumping the pillows and be-wigged basketball onto the floor and climbing into bed. The basketball bounces forlornly (and lopsidedly) toward the stairs as Kevin pulls his curtains shut.

Kevin sleeps straight through church and lunch. He should have thought to set himself an alarm, but he didn't; instead, he inadvertently gives Nick and Joe enough time to make plans of their own.

They ambush him coming out of the bathroom, which is completely unfair. Kevin's half-dressed in just a pair of sweatpants and barely coherent anyway -- groggy from too much sleep, this time, though at least the hangover is gone -- so he's nowhere near quick enough to make an escape when he opens the door to find them standing there, Nick with his arms crossed and Joe ... crap. Joe holding an armful of clothes, specifically the ones Kevin wore at the party the night before. He can smell them clearly.

"We need to talk," Nick states, tone brooking no argument, and Joe nods his agreement. Kevin is frog-marched over to the sitting area, though they at least have the courtesy to let him have his favorite chair. Joe drops the clothes on the floor in front of the coffee table and perches himself on it. Nick stays standing, imposing like he can be when he sets his mind to it.

"What's going on with you, Kev? You've been acting weird all week, and now you're staying out all night drinking?" There's a pink flush to Nick's cheeks, and his fists are clenched tightly. Kevin glances nervously over at the fire poles -- everyone in the house can hear what's being said, and if his parents heard that ...

"They're out," Joe tells him, understanding. Joe doesn't look angry like Nick does. He just looks sort of lost, his feet turned inward and his forearms resting on his knees. "Frankie got them to take him out for the afternoon. Movie and mini-golf." Frankie is an expert at making a single mini-golf game last for two hours or more. That's something of a relief -- at least his parents won't overhear any of this conversation.

"It's not ... really like that," Kevin says weakly, because maybe it kind of is. Not that he'd set out to stay out all night drinking, but that's what happened so there's no getting around it.

"Then what's it like?" Nick snaps, then takes a quick breath, visibly tempering himself. "Look, is it about Mike Carden?"

Kevin blinks hard, tensing up. How does Nick know ... He glances at Joe, a non-verbal plea for help.

Joe licks his lips, hesitating. "Macy saw you on Thursday, getting in his car. She asked Stella if she should invite him to her birthday party."

Kevin almost wants to laugh at that. He can almost hear Macy in his head, chirping, If he's a friend of JONAS, he's a friend of mine! Ooh, do you think he'll come to the fanclub meeting next week? with a big, sweet smile on her face.

"I--" Kevin doesn't know what to say. It isn't -- wasn't -- about Mike, exactly. Mike didn't cause anything; it's not his fault that Kevin was girl-shaped for most of a week.

"Is he blackmailing you or something?" Nick cuts into Kevin's distracted pause. The idea is so ludicrous that Kevin sits in stunned silence, staring at Nick.

"What?" he asks finally, still gobsmacked.

The tension and anger seem to drain out of Nick all at once, and he slumps (as much as Nick ever slumps) down into the adjacent chair.

"Whatever it is," Joe says, taking over the conversation, "You don't have to let him -- I mean, you don't have to keep secrets from us, you know? Let us help."

Nick shifts uncomfortably in his chair, and Joe reaches out to put a hand on his knee. "We know," Nick says finally, "about the whole ... About you, y'know. Liking boys. Thing. So if that's what this is about, you don't have to ...."

Kevin's never seen Nick look so distressed in his life, and he's torn between wanting to comfort his little brother (because for all Nick acts like an adult, he'll always be Kevin's little brother, always) and wanting to jump out a window, because it's him that's putting that expression on Nick's face.

He was going to tell them someday; he knew at some point he'd have to. He never thought it would be a shock, exactly, not to anyone, but to think that they already know ...? But then, it's Nick, after all. Nick's always been the smartest of them. It's just, Kevin always thought they'd be okay with it, at least. Maybe not supportive in the waving-rainbow-flags-at-parades way, but at least enough to know he hasn't changed, that he's still Kevin, that he's always been himself. He never thought Nick's face would look like that.

This is rapidly becoming the absolute worst day of Kevin's entire life. There's a weird feeling spreading through him, as Nick continues to look devastated and Joe won't look up from the floor. It's like there's a hole in Kevin's stomach, this numb, hollow space, where some cosmic force pulled all his insides out while he wasn't paying attention.

Kevin hangs his head and curls his fingers in the soft material of his sweatpants, unable to stand the sight of Nick's face any longer. His chest feels as tight as if he still had the binder on, and he's glad he's back in his own body, because girl-Kevin's tears would have been running down her cheeks by now; boy-Kevin's are still clinging to his eyes, just barely. He feels like if he breathes too deeply he might shatter.

He doesn't realize he's shaking until Joe's hand lands on his shoulder and his muscles clench even tighter.

"Why didn't you tell us?" Joe asks, his voice small and hurt-sounding, and all Kevin can do is shake his head and curl further in on himself. His whole body is one massive hurt, and his throat is all closed up. He doesn't think he could speak even if he knew what to say.

There's a sort of grayness on the watery edges of his vision, blurring and dulling the outlines of his knees and arms and his bare feet on the carpet. Can you die from this kind of pain? At that moment, Kevin thinks maybe it's possible, thinks maybe it's preferable ... There's a rushing sound in his ears -- his own blood pumping, too fast and too hard -- and he's not aware of much of anything beyond the texture of the carpet and of his sweatpants against his palms and fingertips, and the knowledge that he managed to hide his transformation only to have everything fall apart anyway.

He doesn't notice Joe until he's already wormed his way into Kevin's lap, in that improbable way he has of fitting himself wherever he wants to be. Kevin startles, and almost tries to scramble out from under his brother, but then Joe's arms are around his neck and he's holding on so, so tight and saying, "Kev, no, it's okay, it's okay," over and over again, right up by Kevin's ear, until he actually starts hearing it. "We don't-- God, Kevin, we don't care about that, okay? We don't. Just, why didn't you tell us?"

The hollow space in Kevin's middle starts to fill up again, something heavy trickling in to replace the nothingness. He reaches up tentatively, oh so slowly, to wrap his arms around Joe's back; Joe's only response is to hold on even tighter. Something snaps in Kevin and suddenly he's clinging to his brother and saying things like, "I'm sorry," and "I didn't think -- ," and, "Are you sure?" in a quavering voice.

Before Joe can answer, Nick smacks the back of Kevin's head.

"Don't be stupid," he says irritably, but when Kevin looks up at him, his eyes are red-rimmed and a little bit puffy, and when Kevin holds one arm open, Nick allows himself to be dragged down into the group hug, even though the chair isn't at all big enough for all three of them.

The hugging gets awkward, at a certain point, and the arms of the chair are cutting off circulation to various limbs, but none of them is really willing to let go yet. They end up sprawling on the couch, tangled up together watching a terrible monster movie marathon just like they used to watch Saturday morning cartoons when they were younger -- Joe's head somewhere around Nick's kidneys and Nick's legs thrown over Kevin's and someone always getting kicked in the head. Their parents smile at them indulgently when they get home, Frankie passed out and snoring quietly in their dad's arms.

"Are you feeling better?" his mom asks Kevin as she presses a hand to his forehead. Nick and Joe don't say anything, but Kevin can feel them waiting for a response, too.

"Yeah, mom. I'm feeling a lot better." He's not sure if it's Joe or Nick who squeezes his thigh reassuringly, but in the end, it doesn't actually matter.

Monday is harder than Kevin thought it would be.

He doesn't have to worry about avoiding Stella's surprise clothes fittings or Macy's eagle-eyed gaze anymore, which is nice, especially considering how much time those two have started spending with them -- or, really, with Joe and Nick, if Kevin's being honest. Stella always has, to an extent, but she and Joe have been dancing around each other since puberty hit, and Macy had been a sort of scary (and possibly hazardous) presence for a long time, until she started calming down a little.

Kevin appreciates being able to sit with them at lunch and not spend every moment wondering if the binder is showing, if he's sitting enough like his boy-self that they won't notice a difference, if he's pitched his voice deeply enough, if if if. The constant worry had been gnawing away at him during the previous week, like a patient and resolute beast trapped inside him, inexorably clawing its way to freedom. If he hadn't had those afternoons away, where he could just be ...

Kevin feels a sudden pang, then, as he realizes abruptly that Brendon must have to deal with that gnawing, nagging worry every day. He hadn't actually, really thought about it before. He'd been so wrapped up in what was happening to him, and Brendon was so helpful and he smiled all the time, so Kevin hadn't thought about what it must be like, to be Brendon. Brendon doesn't even have the hope that Kevin clung to; of waking up one morning, magically fixed.

At that moment, Kevin feels very small. He hadn't realized. He'd been thoughtless, and maybe even cruel, to ... to almost rub Brendon's face in what he couldn't have. Oh, god, he's a complete asshole.

Brendon sits with William and Mike, at a small table on the other side of the cafeteria. They've sat there as long as Kevin can remember, just another plotted area on his mental map of lunchroom politics. Today, when Kevin glances over, William is saying something -- possibly about a giraffe, but Kevin is probably interpreting that hand gesture incorrectly -- and Brendon and Mike look about as happy as Kevin feels. Which is to say, not very. Brendon is poking at his tray with a breadstick, and Mike has his chin propped up on one hand. Neither of them appear to be paying any actual attention to William, hand gestures or no. Kevin looks away before any of them notice him staring.

In the previous week, since he's actually sort of gotten to know the three of them, he's begun to realize how often he actually passes them in the halls on a normal day. He hadn't noticed before, and now he can't help noticing that they've been avoiding him all morning. Well, Mike and Brendon have. William nods to Kevin once, though Kevin is too startled to say anything before William moves too far down the corridor.

They have orchestra that afternoon, and Kevin thinks that maybe, just maybe, he'll have a chance to talk to Brendon then, to at least apologize for not understanding, for not getting it sooner, for hurting him, as unintentional as it was. But Brendon doesn't appear until the last echoes of the class bell are sounding. Mr Phelps watches pointedly as Brendon makes his way to the piano. Kevin watches too, but Brendon doesn't look at him even once. Kevin's tense all through the class period, messing up easy chords and improvising the last ten measures of the song completely, as they've totally slipped his mind. It doesn't help that, while Brendon refuses to acknowledge his existence, Spencer Smith's steely-eyed glare seems to be focused exclusively on Kevin.

Orchestra is not a very successful class period at all, and to top it off, Brendon disappears from the room while Kevin is putting his guitar away and Kevin doesn't see him for the rest of the day.

Tuesday starts off very much like Monday, but without even the benefit of orchestra to give Kevin an opportunity to (maybe) talk to Brendon. He spots Brendon in the hallway between second and third periods, but if Kevin needed any further confirmation that he's being avoided, the way Brendon sprints in the opposite direction would probably be enough. And, as a bonus, Kevin is fairly certain that Spencer Smith is both stalking him and plotting his imminent demise. He doesn't know why he was ever scared of Mike -- Spencer is obviously the person everyone should be worried about.

By the time lunch rolls around, Kevin has the persistent feeling that he's being watched -- it's making him twitchy -- and decides he's not actually hungry anyway, so he makes his excuses to his brothers and wanders in the direction of the Arts corridor. He's not really going anywhere in particular, maybe the orchestra room, or maybe the library if there are people in there practicing already. Maybe it's the total unplanned-ness of the excursion that makes it possible, but Kevin turns the corner and runs directly into Mike.

They both have to catch their balance, and then a few seconds of thick, awkward silence tick by.

"Hey," Kevin chokes out at last, adding a completely dorky finger wave that he immediately wishes he could take back.

Mike's gaze flickers for a second, and he offers an equally hesitant, "Hey," before stepping out to move around Kevin. He's already halfway gone by the time Kevin spins around and manages to grab the edge of his sleeve.

"Wait -- !" Kevin says desperately, and he feels a little spike of hope when Mike stops instead of pulling away. "I..." And, okay, now would be a really great time for a plan, but Kevin doesn't actually have one of those. Time. He needs time, to have a plan. "Um. Would you meet me? Later, I mean," Kevin fumbles. "Tomorrow? After school?"

Mike turns to look at him, and Kevin drops his grip on Mike's sleeve. "Why?" Mike asks, his voice void of inflection. Kevin scrambles for something -- anything --

"Your guitar!" he says, maybe a little bit too loudly, as the idea blossoms in his head. "I need to give you back your guitar. It's at home." Kevin is probably imagining the fleeting look of sadness that crosses Mike's face.

Mike nods. "At the Jeep?" he suggests, and Kevin says, "Okay," and lets him walk away down the corridor.

Kevin has a plan now. Okay, so his plan mainly involves lots of apologizing and hoping that Mike will forgive him enough to pass on another apology to Brendon, at which time the plan sort of falls apart if Brendon still won't speak to Kevin, but he'll worry about that when the time comes. It's a plan. It's flawless. Kevin is confident.

And then, of course, he hears during fourth period that Mike got detention (the details are vague, but possibly involve someone ending up with a broken nose? Kevin is fairly certain the "someone" is not Mike, and he's pretty sure they do more than give you detention if you break someone's nose, so the whole story is rather suspect). This ... poses a problem for the plan. Two, in fact. Their names are Joe and Nick, and they are looking at Kevin suspiciously over their lunch trays.

"I promise, it's really nothing," Kevin assures them for the second time, but neither of them appears mollified. Nick is wearing his Concerned face, and Joe just looks sad.

"You don't have to deal with stuff on your own," Joe tells him, painfully sincere.

"Look, I'll only be a couple of hours. I promise," Kevin says, stabbing his meatloaf with his fork. "I ... I have to return something."

It's Joe, surprisingly enough, who connects the dots first. "The guitar. That's why you brought it today, right? You said you borrowed it."

Kevin nods. "Yeah. I need to give it back." His meatloaf is becoming progressively more shredded as the conversation continues. He's still not very hungry.

"And you have to do this alone. All by yourself. Without telling us where you're going or who you're meeting with," Nick deadpans, and, okay, on the surface maybe it's a little bit suspicious. Kevin sighs.

"Can you just," Kevin stops, because maybe after the last week it's too much to ask, but... "Can you just trust me? Please?" he asks, meeting Joe and Nick's eyes each in turn. "It's just something I have to do by myself. I'll be fine, really. Home before dinner."

His brothers share a heavily loaded glance, and Kevin holds his breath for the moment before Nick nods and Joe says, "If you're sure, Kev."

So Kevin waits around after school for an hour. He spends most of the time working on his stupid math problems so he doesn't have to drag the heavy book home, and the last ten minutes or so pacing the empty hallways, his nerves jangling. He waits until the clock at the end of the corridor shows the hour exactly, then heads out of the building toward the Jeep's usual space in the parking lot. Maybe not-being-early was a bad plan, though, because Mike is already there waiting, and Kevin feels impossibly vulnerable walking over to him.

Mike straightens up from where he's leaning on the Jeep as Kevin approaches, tucking his hands in his pockets. His tie is nowhere to be seen and his uniform shirt is untucked and wrinkled; Stella would never let Kevin or his brothers get away with something like that, but on Mike, it's perfect. Mike nods a greeting, and Kevin gulps and steps forward, offering the guitar case. Mike stares at it, long enough that Kevin starts to feel the strain of holding it out at that angle.

Eventually Mike reaches out to take the handle, sliding his hand in under Kevin's. For a second they stay like that, frozen in a state of almost-but-not-quite, then Kevin loosens his fingers and Mike's pulling the case away and sliding it into the back seat of the Jeep.

"Thanks," he tells Kevin, but it doesn't sound like gratitude. He starts around the Jeep, heading for the driver's side, leaving, and Kevin blurts out,

"I'msorry!" Fast and too loud, but Mike turns around to look at him. Kevin takes a deep but not very calming breath.

"I'm sorry," Kevin repeats, at a far more normal speed and volume. "I know ... I know that I messed everything up, and you don't want to talk to me. And that's -- " Kevin has to stop and swallow twice to keep his voice from cracking. "Well, it's not actually okay, but I get it. I do. I just ... I wanted to say that. I'm sorry," he finishes quietly, staring down at the asphalt to avoid looking at Mike, especially since Mike might just get in the Jeep and drive off, and Kevin doesn't know if he could watch him do that without his heart breaking, just a little.

He hears Mike's shoes scuffing on the pavement and his heart sinks, but then those same shoes appear on the edge of his vision.

"Wait," Mike says after a beat. "What the hell?" Kevin feels a stab of pain, that Mike is going to make him spell it all out, but this is the plan, he reminds himself.

"I shouldn't have..." He blushes. "With the ... licking, I shouldn't have done that." When he looks, Mike's face is closed off; a hard wall of expressionless stone. "I mean, I don't really know why you would''s not like I was even a cute girl or anything, and I shouldn't have assumed, and then I changed back and I know that made it weird? So I'm sorry I did that. I just ... liked you. Like you," Kevin says helplessly.

"You like me," Mike says, and there's something like disbelief ringing in the words. "Even though you're all -- ?" He gestures at Kevin. Male, Kevin assumes. He nods, then blanches.

"Um. If you wouldn't tell my parents about that, I'd appreciate it?" he adds in a small voice.

"You're serious," Mike says it like Kevin just told him the sky is made of elephants, and maybe this wasn't a very good plan after all.

"I'll leave you alone," Kevin says, feeling sort of beaten and worn around the edges, "If you want. I won't bother you or anything."

"Jesus Christ, kid," Mike swears, rubbing a hand over his face. He steps right up into Kevin's personal space before Kevin can think that maybe he should move back?-- and grabs the nape of Kevin's neck, threading his fingers through curls and pulling Kevin in close. Kevin kind of stops breathing.

"You can bother me all you want, okay?" Mike says, and then his lips are on Kevin's, warm and moist, and when Kevin gasps, Mike licks into his mouth and Kevin decides this was a very excellent plan.

"So," Kevin asks when the kiss breaks and he's not so breathless, "Um. Does that mean you like me, too?" Mike tugs Kevin closer and meets their foreheads together, chuffing out a laugh.

"Yeah," he confirms, scratching at the base of Kevin's skull with blunt fingernails. It feels kind of awesome. "That means I like you, too."

After that, they sort of end up making out against the side of the Jeep in the deserted parking lot, until Kevin's shirt is just as untucked and wrinkled as Mike's and the sky is beginning to turn sunset pink.

"I promised my brothers I'd be home before dinner," Kevin explains sadly, already missing the feeling of Mike's hands exploring his skin.

"It's fine," Mike says, conjuring a smile out of Kevin by kissing him again. "Do you want a ride?"

"If it's not any trouble?" Kevin had planned on walking home while wallowing in his misery. Climbing into the Jeep next to Mike is sort of surreal.

Mike stops at the usual corner, just up the block, and Kevin pauses before he gets out of the car. There's a really important part of the plan that he'd forgotten, what with all the kissing.

"Hey, can you, I mean, would you mind maybe telling Brendon that I'd really like to talk to him?" Kevin asks, clutching the strap of his bookbag tightly. "He won't talk to me at all, but I ... I really need to apologize to him, too."

The corner of Mike's mouth quirks up. "Cheating on me already?" he asks, affecting a hurt voice. Kevin gapes at him.

"That's not what I --" he protests, but Mike reaches out and snags one of his hands, lacing their fingers together and squeezing lightly.

"Relax. I'll tell him," Mike says seriously, "But I can't make any promises."

Kevin nods. "Thanks," he says, squeezing Mike's hand back and then releasing it so he can slide out of the car.

"'Night," Mike says, smiling. Kevin really loves Mike's smile; it's sort of secretly goofy looking, once you get to know it.

"'Night," he replies, and waves as Mike drives off. Watching the Jeep recede into the distance isn't actually painful at all.

Thursday dawns hopefully for Kevin. He still feels guilty, and has his mental fingers crossed that today, maybe, Brendon will be willing to talk to him. It's an incessant worry, but the negative is almost completely eclipsed by the way he feels when he thinks about Mike, who likes him and kissed him and might possibly be considered his boyfriend now.

It still hurts, a lot actually, that Brendon won't look at him in the halls that morning, but Kevin smiles at him anyway. He has no idea if Mike talked to Brendon yet or not, but it's out of Kevin's hands. If Brendon doesn't ever want to speak to him again, Kevin has decided, he won't push. (He'll be really sad, because Brendon is awesome and funny and appreciates hugging and has a five-point argument about why 'fucktard' should count in Scrabble, but he won't push.) And Spencer Smith is still stalking him, or at least glaring in his direction whenever he gets the opportunity, which seems to be often.

Yet somehow, none of it seems as difficult or tragic when he has the memory of Mike's hands on him, playing over and over in his head. It makes him blush to think about, but it also fills his stomach with happy butterflies, and Kevin feels like nothing can bring him down today. So when Mike presses up against him in the crowded hallway between classes and whispers, "Bleachers at lunchtime," in his ear, Kevin spends the next hour trying not to vibrate too excitedly.

When the bell rings, Kevin makes his way out to the athletic fields. The sky is slightly overcast and the croquet team is standing around in the middle of the field, not-practicing as usual, and Mike is sitting in the second row of the stands, his feet braced on the bench in front of him. Kevin slides in so their shoulders and thighs are brushing against each other and grabs Mike's hand. He's sort of angling for a kiss, but Mike doesn't go there.

"I talked to Brendon." He says instead. Kevin takes a shaky breath.

"And?" He prompts, squeezing Mike's hand in a way that's probably a little bit painful, but then, Mike, so maybe not.

"I don't know," Mike admits. "He didn't really say anything. Just that he'd think about it." Kevin swallows the lump in his throat. Thinking about it. Thinking about it is good. At least Brendon hadn't come back with an immediate, outright no.

Kevin scoots over another half an inch, right up against Mike's side. Mike lets go of his hand and wraps his arm around Kevin's waist, but then he says, "You have a tail." Which, Kevin does not, and even if it is possible to turn into a girl for a while, he's pretty sure someone would have noticed if people were growing tails all the time. He glares at Mike indignantly, but Mike just rolls his eyes at him.

"Not that kind. I meant you're being followed."


"Oh. Yeah. Spencer Smith is stalking me," Kevin confirms, and maybe being out here with Mike is stupid and unsafe -- anyone could get a picture of them like this -- but the prospect isn't as scary now that he knows his brothers, at least, are okay with him just as he is.

"...Seriously?" Mike asks, raising an eyebrow. "Okay. Well, I don't know if he is or not; I was talking about them." He nods towards the other end of the bleachers. Kevin's heart pounds as he recognizes Joe and Nick. They're wearing trenchcoats, complete with matching fedoras and sunglasses.

"Wow, how did you even spot them?" Kevin asks, kind of impressed with Mike's observational skills. Mike stares at him.

"Sometimes I have no idea how you've survived this long," Mike sighs, and Kevin should probably be offended by that, but Mike's voice is fond and what they're doing could possibly be called 'cuddling', so he's really not. "Are you sure you want to..." He trails off but sort of shakes the arm that's around Kevin. "They're kind of obviously watching."

Kevin thinks for a second. "Do you care if they know?" He asks.

Mike shrugs. "Not really."

"Then I don't care, either." He decides, and tilts his face up in obvious invitation.

By the time he remembers that, oh, right, Joe and Nick are watching, Kevin has crawled halfway into Mike's lap and the lunch hour is nearly over. His brothers are nowhere to be seen, which is sort of a relief.

"Class," Mike reminds him. "Your parents'll be pissed if you skip anymore, right?" Kevin pouts, but yes, Mike is correct.

"And I have that history test to make up." Kevin cringes inside as he remembers. William told him most of what was covered on the test --

"Extenuating circumstances, oh fluffy one. Do not expect such assistance every time!" ("He'll totally help you every time," Brendon confided later.)

-- but he still has to take it. He glumly slides off of Mike and slouches on the bench.

"I've gotta get over to the science wing," Mike says, standing up and picking his bookbag up from the seat beside him. "Later, though?"

"Yeah," Kevin smiles, and Mike tugs gently on a curl of his hair before slipping down the steps and around the corner. Out on the field, the croquet team is still standing around not doing much of anything, though one of them seems to be making an effort to gather the wickets. Kevin sighs, then gathers his own things and starts making his way back toward the main classroom building.

It's then that Kevin learns an important lesson about Constant Vigilance. He's distracted, which is why he forgets, and which is why Spencer Smith manages to grab him by the elbow and shove him up against the wall of the equipment shed.

"I should kill you slowly," Spencer growls at Kevin, his eyes narrow and angry.

"Um," Kevin squeaks, glancing around to see if anyone is watching who might come to his rescue. There's no one.

"I can't believe you." Spencer is still growling. He's really good at it. "Not that I really know you, but I always thought you were a decent guy. How the fuck do you live with yourself?"

"I -- don't know?" Kevin winces as Spencer's palm smacks into the wall beside his face.

"So what? You just dump him? For Carden?" Spencer's eyes are blazing and he's honestly kind of terrifying for a guy who sometimes wears pink unicorn t-shirts when it's non-uniform day. But more importantly, Kevin realizes, there is a critical breakdown of communication happening here.

"Dump who?" Kevin asks, though it comes out more like a plea for his life (which it sort of is). For a second, Kevin is absolutely sure that Spencer is going to punch him in the face.

"Brendon, you dick!" he seethes, and Kevin blinks at him in shock.

"Brendon?" he repeats dumbly.

"Yeah," Spencer retorts, disdain dripping from every word, "Your boyfriend? Or I guess not anymore, since you're an asshole."

"What!?" Kevin splutters. He's come up with a number of reasons why Spencer Smith might have decided to start stalking him, but this was, honestly, not on the list. "Brendon isn't my boyfriend! He's never been my boyfriend!"

"Uh-huh." Spencer is unimpressed by this. "Then what the hell was that in the bathroom? And anyway, Ryan saw you two all over each other at Saporta's."

"Ryan?" Kevin wonders aloud, his brain flipping back through the hazy memories of the party. "Ryan Ross? From the band? Wait, you know him?"

Spencer scoffs. "He's been my best friend since I was four. And he saw you there. Together." He says 'together' like he thinks Kevin and Brendon were like, having sex in front of everybody or something, and Kevin blushes despite himself.

"Okay, wait. You've got this all wrong," Kevin hastens to explain before Spencer goes back to his 'Kill Kevin' plan. "It's not like that, at all. We're just... Brendon and I are hug people! That's all. Hugs are good! So there was hugging." He waves his hands around in what he hopes is a conciliatory manner. "And Ryan was being all creepy and staring at Brendon all night anyway." Spencer's eyes narrow a little, and Kevin reminds himself, best friend and avoids that topic.

"We ... I did something stupid," he admits, "and Brendon's mad at me, but I didn't dump him! I was never dating him! He's, well, he was my friend -- just my friend -- and even if I did like him like that, he's got a crush on you, anyway, so it's not like it would have worked out. I swear, I didn't dump him or anything like that. I mean, I screwed up, but I didn't -- "

"On me?" Spencer cuts in, suddenly looking a lot less threatening and more like Kevin just smacked him in the face with a mackerel. (Which he hasn't, because he wouldn't do that, and doesn't have a mackerel in any case.)

It takes Kevin a second to rewind his babble. "Oh, crap." He claps a hand over his mouth as if that could reverse time and stop the words from escaping. "Um. I'm pretty sure I wasn't supposed to say that." Brendon is going to hate him. Even more than he might already.

"He has a crush on me?" Spencer's face softens to a wondering expression, possibly bordering on an actual smile. He's sort of shockingly pretty when he's not making angry faces.

Kevin slumps against the wall of the equipment shed. "You're probably not going to believe me if I say 'no' at this point, are you?" he asks dejectedly.

"Probably not," Spencer confirms. "But, seriously? I mean, if I asked him out or something, he'd say yes?"

Kevin wonders how he went from imminent homicide victim to relationship counselor in less than two minutes. "Maybe? I don't really ... He's mad at me right now," Kevin explains. "I don't know. I guess so?"

Spencer shoots Kevin a smile that's just a few shades short of blinding. "Oh. Um. Sorry for the whole, uh, threatening you with death thing," he says awkwardly.

"It's okay," Kevin reassures him just as the bell rings, officially ending the lunch hour and declaring Kevin late for his make-up history exam. Crap.

The make-up exam isn't pretty, but the upshot of it is that Kevin is mostly-sure he's not going to fail AP History this semester, and that's all he was aiming for. So all is well, at least until he gets to orchestra and realizes that Brendon isn't there. In fact, Brendon doesn't appear at any point during the whole hour, and Spencer is back to glaring at Kevin like he's trying to see if he can set things on fire with his eyes. Kevin takes his time putting his guitar away, completely unsurprised that Spencer hangs back as the rest of the students file out of the room. This time, he won't be intimidated. He crosses his arms over his chest and looks Spencer square in the eyes.

"What did you do?" he demands in his most demanding voice. Because the thing is, Brendon has been avoiding Kevin all week, but he hasn't actually skipped a class because of it.

"What did I do!?" Spencer retorts, mirroring Kevin's stance but doing it with a level of styled bitchiness that Kevin has yet to master. "All I did was ask him if he wanted to go to a movie with me on Friday, as I had been told by someone that he would probably say yes. Not look at me like I just killed his puppy and run away!"

Kevin blanches. "Oh, no," he murmurs, and Spencer scowls more deeply. But he's done it again; he didn't think and Brendon ... Kevin wants to beat his head against something solid, but that won't help anyone.

"Look, I didn't lie to you, okay? I'm sorry, I have to go find him, but just -- Brendon. He's," Kevin pauses, biting his tongue. This, he can't say. He won't say. "He's really special. And he's worth waiting for. So will you?" Kevin has to ask, because he was wrong before. Brendon wouldn't say yes. Of course Brendon wouldn't say yes. But he might, eventually.

Spencer isn't glaring as much now, and he's uncrossed his arms, letting them hang at his sides. "Of course I will. What the fuck, you thought I was just trying to get in his pants? Fuck you." The words maybe should be biting, but Kevin get the feeling that Spencer is almost hurt.

He shakes his head. "It doesn't matter what I think. It matters what Brendon thinks, okay? So give him time, okay? He really does like you." Kevin glances at the clock on the wall. The next class period is going to start soon, and he has to find Mike, or at least William. "I have to go," he says, and slips past Spencer and out the door before Spencer's protest of, "Hey!" can become an attempt to catch him.

Kevin finds Mike coming out of the science wing, his bio textbook tucked under his arm. "What's wrong?" He asks as soon as he sees Kevin, and Kevin immediately feels relieved.

"We have to find Brendon."

Once Kevin has explained the situation, complete with several false-starts, Mike makes an executive decision and hauls Kevin down the hallway, depositing him outside the door to his next class (Kevin is only moderately surprised that Mike knows which room he's supposed to be in).

"You can't miss class. I'll find him," Mike promises, shoving Kevin inside just as the bell rings. He doesn't have any of his books, but at least he's there.

The hour drags on and on and Kevin's mind supplies him with a thousand scenarios, none of which are particularly encouraging. His efforts to focus on positive outcomes generally still end with Brendon happy but hating him forever. By the time the class ends, Kevin is convinced that this whole incident will continue to haunt him for the rest of his days, culminating in a Behind the Music special about how his spiraling depression and inability to let go of the past resulted in some sort of breakdown. He'll probably be found dead, surrounded by hookers and cocaine. There is a grim sense of doom creeping over everything.

Luckily, William is waiting outside the door when he steps into the hallway.

"Bden has been located," he says without preamble, and Kevin slumps against the wall of lockers in relief.

"Oh, thank God," Kevin says, maybe the most authentic prayer he's uttered in a while.

"I am taking him home. You," William says, placing both hands square on Kevin's shoulders and squeezing just a shade too tightly for the gesture to be entirely friendly, "will meet Michael in the parking lot after school." Kevin opens his mouth to protest -- his parents still want him home soon after school finishes, he's going to be in so much trouble -- but shuts it abruptly and nods.

"Okay," he agrees, and William gives him an approving smile.

"Good," he says, apparently satisfied, then pulls Kevin in for an unexpected but not unwelcome hug. "It'll be fine, Fluffy. It's not your fault."

Kevin fights the urge to argue that point.

William disappears with his usual suddenness, leaving Kevin to go to his locker and actually retrieve his books for his next and final class of the day. It's English, which isn't too bad, but Kevin has trouble following Eliot on a good day, and this is not one of those. He spots Mike further down the hallway as he trudges to class, but he holds himself back from calling out to him when he realizes that Mike isn't alone. Instead, he's talking to Spencer Smith, who's leaning against his locker with the sort of carefully-studied casualness that says he's prepared, should the wild animal he's facing down decide to leap for his throat. After everything that's happened, Kevin can't help but find it funny that anyone is scared of Mike, especially Spencer of the Death Glare.

But scared he seems to be, or at least intimidated. Mike's got his scary face on, not the goofy smile Kevin much prefers, and he's speaking seriously while Spencer nods and, apparently, gives conciliatory answers. When Mike turns away, he misses the look of mixed apprehension, confusion, and curiosity that Spencer levels at his back. He starts smiling, though, even before he sees Kevin, so Kevin takes that as a good sign.

"What were you talking to Spencer about?" Kevin asks. Does Mike not know that William found Brendon?

Mike's smile takes on a slightly terrifying edge. "Nothing really," he says after a pause. "You're coming to Bill's later, right?" Kevin nods in confirmation. It can't end well, but he'll be there.

"Are you sure -- I mean, does Brendon even want to talk to me?"

Mike shrugs. "Maybe? Look, I know you think you fucked up," Kevin doesn't even flinch when Mike swears, which he considers a personal victory, "But I think you're blowing it out of proportion. You didn't do anything on purpose, right? Brendon's a good guy. He's just freaking out right now."

Kevin takes a deep breath and tries to let Mike's words sink in and calm him. "Yeah. Yeah, you're right." He tightens his grip on The Waste Land.

"Go to class," Mike tells him, reaching out a hand to push some of his curls behind his ear. The gesture makes Kevin feel kind of melty; he's glad Mike seems to be fond of playing with his hair.

"We'll have to make a fast getaway to escape my brothers," Kevin says, though Nick and Joe have been almost suspiciously lax in their spying since lunchtime.

Mike snorts quietly. "I think we can manage."

William's house is quiet when they get there. The woman on the couch isn't, for once, and it looks like someone made an effort to clear the empty bottles and full ashtrays from the room. As soon as his feet hit the stairs, Kevin is tempted to turn around and leave again. But Mike is behind him, warm and solid and also blocking his escape route, so Kevin clenches his fists to fortify himself and continues up to William's room.

Brendon is huddled in one of the beanbag chairs, reading a slightly worn Batman comic. He looks up warily as Kevin steps into the room and then immediately toward the center so he can avoid hitting his head. William spins around in his desk chair, closing the notebook he was scribbling in.

"Hey," Kevin offers, raising a hand in a tentative greeting.

William nods approvingly. "Glad you made it."

Brendon raises a tentative hand of his own, but he doesn't say anything. Kevin's stomach can't decide if it's full of butterflies or lead. Maybe it's full of butterflies made of lead? Willing the leaden butterflies to quiet themselves just for a few minutes, he takes two steps toward Brendon and drops down cross-legged on the carpet. Brendon looks startled, licking his lips reflexively as his eyes dart toward the door. He's got the same Mike-shaped roadblock problem Kevin had before, though.

Kevin's run through this conversation a thousand times in his head, but nothing ever seemed right. So, faced with Brendon right here, with William looking on curiously and Mike at his back, he decides to go for the most direct route.

"I was a dick to you, and I'm really sorry."

Brendon looks even more startled at that, and William can't keep from letting out a short laugh, though he recovers himself quickly.

"I didn't think about what it would be like, for you, when I changed back." Kevin fights not to trip over his own tongue getting the words out. "I should have. You were so great to me, and I was really ... insensitive." It's not a big enough word to encompass what Kevin wants to say, but it's the best he can think of.

Brendon is crumpling Batman in his grip, until he notices what he's doing and very deliberately straightens out the creases and sets the comic to the side.

"That's not -- " Brendon's voice is pitching upward; he stops and takes two deep breaths before trying again. "I won't say it didn't hurt," he admits, and Kevin wishes they were back on hugging terms already because there's nothing he wants to do more than try to cuddle Brendon better. "But it's not you. Or like, not only you. I didn't ... I didn't think about it either, you know? Until it happened. You ... changed back ... and then I was feeling all this stuff and I kind of flipped out. So I'm sorry, for that. For making you feel like it was all your fault," he says, and Kevin's already shaking his head, because no, it is his fault and he's not going to let Brendon beat himself up for Kevin's stupidity.

But Brendon's not done, and no amount of deep breathing can stop his voice from cracking when he says, "But I can't -- you told Spencer?" Kevin feels like he was just punched in the gut. "Why would you -- how could you do that?" Brendon snaps his mouth shut like speaking is physically painful, turning away from Kevin.

"I didn't!" Kevin says, more a gasp than a sentence. "Brendon, no, I didn't, I wouldn't do that! I would never ... I didn't tell Spencer anything, okay? Please -- !"

Brendon's face is red and blotchy and he looks like he's not too far from actual tears. Kevin balls his fists and stares down at the carpet.

"All I told him," Kevin says quietly, "is that you like him. Liked him. That's it. I promise." He doesn't know if this is helping at all.

"But why?" Brendon's so quiet, and it's so wrong on him.

Kevin fights for the best way to explain this, but decides that honesty is the better part of valor. "Um. He threatened to kill me for dumping you and breaking your heart?"

Brendon blinks at Kevin, and there's a long, long silence before William says, "Seriously?" from the other side of the room, and Brendon almost, almost cracks a smile.

"Yeah. He, um, he's friends with Ryan? From Pete's band? And he saw us at the party and thought ... and, well, then Spencer saw me and Mike and, um. Well." Kevin blushes. It's all so ridiculous and embarrassing.

"Really now?" William says in a terrifying voice, raising an eyebrow at Mike. "Carden, you've been holding out on us!"

Oops. Kevin thinks. Although, William knowing that he and Mike are ... people who kiss sometimes, is the least of his worries.

Brendon shifts in his beanbag, and Kevin watches him warily.

"...He really did that?" Brendon asks at length, and Kevin nods. "That's ... kind of sweet. Right?" Kevin doesn't know why Brendon needs confirmation of this from him, but he thinks about it, and yeah, he supposes that if you were the one whose honor was being defended rather than the one being threatened with death, it might be kind of sweet.

"Yeah," Kevin finally agrees. "He seemed really upset that he, y'know. Upset you. I didn't mean to tell him, but he seemed really happy, when he found out you liked him, too."

Brendon hugs himself tightly, thinking things over. "But what if he doesn't like me? I mean me, me. If he doesn't know..." Brendon looks lost and more than a little scared, so it's probably a good thing that William finally moves from his desk chair and squishes in behind Brendon on the beanbag, severely testing its capacity.

"So don't tell him," William says, and Brendon starts to make a noise of protest but William squishes him tighter and continues, "Not right away. If you go out on two dates and decide you hate each other, he doesn't need to know. And if you fall madly in love and decide to go full-on Brangelina and adopt a houseful of African orphans, then you tell him."

"And if he's an asshole about it, I'll kill him slowly and painfully," Mike adds, stepping up behind Kevin and resting a hand on top of his head.

Brendon smiles at Mike and leans back into William's embrace.

"Do you think he'll hate me for flipping out on him, though? I kind of ... He asked me out and I ran away." Brendon's face twists up in a moue of worry.

Mike shrugs and lowers himself into the beanbag behind Kevin, and Kevin scoots back a few inches so he can lean against Mike's calf.

"He didn't flee in terror when I gave him the shovel speech," Mike says, and this apparently means something to Brendon because his face lights up like someone plugged in a thousand-watt bulb.

"Yeah?" he asks hopefully, and Mike says, "Yeah," and Kevin is clearly missing something, but the way Brendon manages to tackle-hug both of them at once leaves him feeling pretty optimistic.

"I'm probably going to be grounded again," Kevin comments as Mike pulls the Jeep over to the curb just behind the firehouse. A startled rat scurries down the alley toward the safety of the dumpsters at the far end. Kevin's not too worried about the grounding, honestly. Even if his parents decide to lock him in the house forever, they'll forget all about it in a few weeks when report cards are handed out and they see Joe's math grade. The disappointed looks in the meantime, though ...

"Sorry," Mike says, squeezing Kevin's hand, and Kevin squeezes back but shakes his head.

"Don't be. This was the right thing to do." Kevin is sure of that, one-hundred-percent. "I'll see you tomorrow?" Kevin says, and he doesn't actually intend for it to be a question but it comes out as one anyway. Mike's smile is all fond amusement, though, and Kevin sort of loves that Mike doesn't care that he fails at life sometimes. A lot of the time. Whatever, he's trying and that's the important thing.

"Of course," Mike says, like it's a given, and Kevin's stomach flips over because maybe it is. Mike's lips are a little dry, but warm and pleasant and Kevin leans into Mike's hand on the side of his face and opens up to the kiss. There's less touching than Kevin is willing to go for (and sort of hoping for), mostly because Mike is still wearing his seatbelt, but at some point, Kevin thinks, they will find the time to be alone without seatbelts or impending groundings, and the anticipation of it sends a little thrill through him.

The "Ah-hem," from beside the Jeep startles both of them, but at least Kevin recognizes immediately that it's not his father's voice, or Big Rob's. It's Joe, standing there looking bemused and delighted (which is roughly the same look he gets whenever Nick's got a new crush, and Kevin feels like an idiot for not anticipating that), and wearing one of the rappelling harnesses, a long stretch of rope trailing behind him up to the loft window where Nick is looking mildly pissed-off, as usual.

"Time to stop making out with your boyfriend," Joe says gleefully, and Kevin isn't looking forward to the ribbing he's going to get over the next few days or weeks (however long it takes for Joe to get bored and move on to something else), but he can't help the way his heart pounds a little harder at 'boyfriend'. "Mom's gonna be done with dinner soon, and we can't keep pretending you're doing homework forever." He tosses Kevin the second harness, blithely ignoring Mike's raised eyebrow.

"Um, I have to go," Kevin says, and Mike says, "Yeah, I got that," with a note of amusement in his voice, and kisses Kevin one more time for good measure while Joe makes fake gagging noises.

"So, boyfriend?" he murmurs in Kevin's ear, too quietly for Joe to overhear. Kevin licks his lips nervously.

"I didn't tell him that," he hedges, unsure. Mike chuckles and tucks a stray curl behind Kevin's ear, possibly not oblivious to how that makes Kevin feel kind of melty every time he does it.

"I could do boyfriend," Mike says, and this time Kevin kisses him, swift and happy, even though he's sure he's blushing furiously the whole time.

"Hurry up!" Nick whisper-yells from the window, and Kevin slides out of the Jeep and into his harness while Joe begins his return ascent. At that moment, Kevin feels like he doesn't even need the harness, like he could just fly to the window. But, well, gravity, so he settles for climbing up the wall after Joe and sticking his head back out the window once he's inside so he can wave goodnight before Mike drives away.

"You guys really covered for me?" Kevin asks as he strips out of the harness again and takes over coiling the ropes from Joe, who always gets his hopelessly tangled.

"Yeah, well." Nick shrugs and looks away, embarrassed.

"Thanks, Nicky," Kevin says, heartfelt even if the nickname earns him a glare.

"Just don't get pregnant!" Joe quips, and Kevin laughs so hard he can barely breathe.