Gabe’s beach house was kind of amazing.
Brendon didn’t know how Gabe afforded it, or why he wasn’t spending every single second of his life there, honestly. It was on the beach, like, the ocean was right outside, as in the back door opened on to sand. The east coast was a little colder and saltier than Brendon had expected, but it was way warmer than Philadelphia, and the sun was amazingly bright.
“Home sweet home,” Brian said, dumping his stuff upstairs. “Try not to touch anything, okay guys? Who knows what the shit Gabe gets up to here.”
“I’m going outside,” Brendon replied immediately. “That’s the beach outside, do you see that?”
Mikey looked doubtfully out the window. “You’ll get all sandy,” he said.
“That is the fucking point, Mikey Way,” Brendon said firmly, and dragged Mikey outside.
The brisk breeze blowing in from the water smelled like fish and salt water. The beach stretched up to the nearest town in one direction, past endless beach houses and private beaches, and disappeared around a sharp curve the other way. “I’ve got sand in my shoes,” Mikey complained.
“I will throw you in the water if you don’t stop complaining,” Brendon replied. “We’re at the beach, Mikey!”
Mikey grumbled, “Do we have to be outside the whole time?”
“Yes. Absolutely every single second,” Brendon said. “First we’re going to swim. Then we’re going to lie in the sun and tan. And tonight we’re going to build a campfire and play guitars and eat s’mores and you are going to love it.”
“I don’t want to get a tan,” said Mikey. “What if I get stung by a jellyfish? What if there’s a riptide? Frank says there are sharks.”
“Right,” said Brendon, “that’s it.” He grabbed Mikey and hoisted him over his shoulder. Mikey squealed and flailed, but he weighed a little less than absolutely nothing.
“Brendon! Put me down!” Mikey ordered. Gerard and Frank had come running out of the house. Gerard looked sort of like he wanted to intervene, but Frank was laughing and wouldn’t let him.
“I said no more complaining,” Brendon said. “We’re on vacation. Vacation is fun.” He waded determinedly out in to the surf. His sneakers squished and the water dragged at his jeans. The waves came crashing out and staggered him back a couple of steps, which meant he nearly dropped Mikey right there.
“I’ll stop, I’ll stop,” Mikey promised. He kicked a little.
“Throw him!” Frank yelled.
“This is for your own good,” said Brendon solemnly. He waded out a little further and dumped Mikey in the surf.
It wasn’t very deep; Mikey landed underwater and immediately bobbed back up, sputtering in shock. His glasses hadn’t even fallen off. “You suck!” he said, and threw himself at Brendon.
Brendon had pretty much expected that, so he obligingly let Mikey knock him down. The water was shockingly cold, just for a second, and then it was nice, although the mouthful he accidentally swallowed was really briny. When he sat up and shook his hair out like a wet dog Mikey giggled.
“I’m all wet,” said Mikey.
“That is the entire fucking point of the ocean,” said Brendon. He splashed Mikey, who giggled indignantly and splashed him back.
Gerard was standing just beyond where the water could reach. “You look ridiculous,” he said, laughing. “Both of you.”
Mikey and Brendon exchanged a look. “I hear,” said Mikey, “that getting wet is the entire fucking point of the ocean.”
“You are very wise,” Brendon agreed. “You think we can get him and Frank?”
Mikey pointed. Brian had just come out and was watching them with a speculative face. Brendon made a complicated hand gesture that was supposed to mean ‘You get Gerard and we’ll get Frank,’ although it was anyone’s guess if that translated. Brian nodded, though, so maybe.
“One,” said Brendon loudly. Mikey stood up. “Two.” They exchanged another little nod with Brian. “Three.”
It took a couple of minutes of total chaos. Frank was little but he was feisty as hell, and he kept kicking Brendon. Gerard just couldn’t believe Brian was throwing him in to the surf, and the shock kept him from reacting until it was too late. Eventually Mikey and Brendon wrestled Frank in to submission. They carried him out until Mikey was waist-deep in the water, and then, amidst constant shrieks of, “But there are sharks!” dumped him in the water.
Mikey and Brendon had time to high-five and then Frank launched himself at them, knocking them all in to the water, and yelling, “You fuckers! We’re going to get bit!” Brendon was laughing so hard he accidentally inhaled some water and started coughing. Frank jumped on Mikey and flailed, while Brian dragged Brendon back to shore before he drowned.
They all ended up soggy and covered in sand, sitting right where the waves were coming in. Frank sat behind everyone else, with his arms crossed. “There could be sharks,” he said. “You don’t know.”
“Sure,” said Gerard agreeably, pushing wet hair out of his face. “They probably have really giant, sharp teeth. You know sharks never sleep? They’re exactly the same as dinosaur sharks, because they don’t need to evolve. They’re perfect killing machines already.”
Frank shivered and scooted further back on the beach. It took a lot of willpower, but Brendon didn’t laugh.
“I’m all sandy,” Brian complained. “It’s kind of gross.”
Brendon and Mikey exchanged a look. “Whiners get dunked,” Mikey said sternly.
Brian held up his hands. “Right,” he said. “No whining. Dinner, though, might be a good plan.”
Mikey said, almost inaudibly, “Campfire.”
Brian said doubtfully, “Does anyone know how to start a campfire?”
“Oh my god, Brian, you are so lucky I’m here,” Brendon replied, patting his arm. “I was totally a boy scout. Okay, I was a boy scout for like, six days, and then stuff happened, but I am a youth-group camping champion.”
Brian looked questioning at ‘stuff happened,’ but there was no way Brendon was going to bring up shit about his family while they were on vacation. He’d gone to boy scout meetings with friends from school for a few days and had the best time ever, but when his parents had found out they’d forbidden him to go anymore because it wasn’t in the church, and eight-year-old Brendon had cried for weeks when everyone else in his class at school had gone on a camping trip and he hadn’t. It had all worked out eventually; his parents had forced one of his brothers to take him along to youth group, and they’d gone camping. Brendon really did know how to start a campfire and all kinds of other useful stuff.
“Gabe has guitars upstairs,” said Gerard helpfully. “I saw them when I put my bag there.”
“Are you going to wear a black hoodie and jeans the entire time we’re on the beach?” Brian asked. “It’s too warm for that, dude.”
Gerard scowled and crossed his arms. “I will if I want,” he said.
Brian opened his mouth like he was going to argue, and then thought better of it. “Fine,” he said. “Sweat to death. See if I care.”
“I’m going to go get some driftwood for the fire,” Brendon announced. “Who wants to come with?”
“I want dry clothes first,” Mikey said, which seemed reasonable.
They trooped inside to shower, and then Brendon dragged Mikey back outside to go looking for driftwood while Gerard and Frank hung out on the beach. This was, after all, supposed to be Mikey’s vacation, and Brendon was determined to make sure he enjoyed it. Apparently all the kid wanted was for Brian to take some time off from work and hang out with them.
Brendon was so flattered to have been asked along he didn’t quite know how to articulate it. He’d tried, a couple of times, to tell Brian that he could buy his own plane ticket, which Brian was having none of.
Ryan had thought the whole thing was a little hilarious. “They’re not playing at this family shit,” he said. “They’re, like, unconventional. You should just go with it.”
“Yeah, but,--” Brendon started a couple of times.
“Shut up and let people be nice to you,” Spencer had scowled. And then, “Speaking of which, my mom sent you more cookies. I keep telling her you’re not starving, you’re just skinny. She never believes me about Ryan, either.”
“Cookies!” Brendon had yelled, and that was end of that discussion for a while.
It wasn’t people being nice that Brendon minded, it was the idea that he was taking advantage of their niceness. Spencer’s family probably took Ryan on vacation, sometimes, but it was different, in some, ineffable, indescribable way. It just was.
Mikey kicked a rock on the beach and shoved his hands in his pockets. “This is cool, right?” he said. “The beach?”
“This is the coolest ever,” Brendon agreed. “Grab that stick.”
“What do you think is around there?” Mikey asked, nodding to where the beach curved out of view and the houses stopped.
Brendon screwed up his face in thought. “Wolves?” he offered.
Mikey rolled his eyes. “No, I mean really,” he said.
“Oh, really? More houses, probably, or maybe some deserted beach.”
“Deserted beach,” Mikey echoed. “That’s cool. Like on Lost.”
“Just like Lost, except half an hour from a town, and no lame-ass polar bears.”
“Shut up,” said Mikey, picking up more sticks. “Can we walk down there?”
Brendon craned his neck. “Maybe,” he said. “It might be someone’s private property. Like, someone has a hidden house down there, and if we went there we’d be trespassing.”
That did not appreciably discourage Mikey. “Deserted beach,” he muttered, “and a hidden house. I’m gonna tell Gee. He likes that kind of stuff.”
“He could make a kick-ass comic about it,” Brendon agreed. “Did he bring drawing stuff with him?”
“Well, he’s not planning to go out in the sun,” Mikey scoffed. “He’s agro… Angora… What’s the one where you’re afraid of stuff that’s big?”
It took Brendon a second to remember that he’d accidentally taught Mikey that word while watching Rear Window, which had given both boys nightmares for a week. “Agoraphobic,” he said. “Afraid of big open spaces.”
“That. I think he is.”
“No, he’s not,” Brendon said. “He’s just… He’s a hermit.”
Mikey giggled. “He’s a hermit crab,” he said, and scissored his hands menacingly at Brendon.
Brendon grinned. “Then what’s Frank?”
“Um…” Mikey bit his lip. “Frank’s something that follows crabs around being in love with them.”
Brendon burst out laughing. “Mikey!” he said. “That’s not nice.”
“It’s true, though!”
“…Right, but still.” Brendon totally failed to sound either stern or disapproving.
Mikey gestured with a stick. “There are these kids I know, okay, and Pete follows Patrick around all the time like a puppy dog or something. And Ray says it’s because Pete loves Patrick. Well I was thinking that Frank follows Gerard around like that, too. So they must be in love.”
Brendon doubled over, laughing, and collapsed on the sand. “Oh my god,” he said. “Out of the mouths of babes.”
“I am not a baby,” Mikey objected. He looked uncertain; proud of himself for making Brendon laugh, but not totally sure why it was funny.
“That’s not what I meant,” Brendon assured him. “Just… You’re right on the money.”
“Oh,” said Mikey. He sat down next to Brendon. “Okay, then.”
They sat comfortably for a little while, listening to the ocean. Brendon was pretty sure Mikey didn’t totally get what was going on with Gerard and Frank, but that was okay; he was pretty sure Gerard and Frank were only halfway to figuring it out. They seemed to have stalled out at “we like spending time together.” Brendon couldn’t wait for them to catch the snap. He had big plans for what he was going to wear to the wedding when they lived happily ever after.
Brendon stood up, brushed sand off his jeans, and announced, “Driftwood time.”
Mikey sighed, but not in a bad way, and got up, too. “This better be an awesome campfire,” he said.
“Oh, it will be,” Brendon promised, and dragged him down the beach.
Brendon hadn’t actually had a chance to just lie around in the sun in a while, because he’d spent all of last summer playing video games with Gerard and Mikey, and he’d forgotten how much he liked doing absolutely nothing. He spent the entirety of their second morning on vacation lying on a towel and trying to move as little as possible.
Gerard was wearing SPF 50 and a hat and sunglasses and a long-sleeved t-shirt and jeans. He looked miserable, but he also refused to take any of it off. “I don’t want to tan,” he said stubbornly a couple of times, and pouted. Whenever he got too pouty he’d start yelling, and Frank would drag him off in to the shade.
A little way down the beach, Mikey was building incredibly elaborate sandcastles, with moats and towers and windows and what he kept referring to as “horse garages,” no matter how many times Gerard corrected him. Mikey’s response was mostly to roll his eyes and say, “You call them what you want. This is my horse garage.” And then he’d build another one. Brendon admired his determination to drive Gerard absolutely crazy.
Sometime during the second afternoon Gerard wandered by Brendon and announced, “Brian has to leave me alone. Vacation is cool and all, but I can’t spend every waking minute around him. Or anyone else. It’s killing me.”
“Sure,” said Brendon. For all intents and purposes he had melted completely in to goo on the sand.
Gerard balled his hands in to fists. “Me and Frank are going for a walk.”
“I’m not going to tell you where, though.”
“If we’re not back by dinner, we’re probably dead somewhere.”
“If you’re not back by dinner, Frank will just eat you, instead.”
“Brendon! You’re not funny.”
Brendon laughed. “Fine,” he said, sitting up. “I will be over here, terrified about your wellbeing. Even though if anyone tried to kidnap you guys Frank would bite them to death and they’d end up paying Brian to take you back.”
Gerard scowled. “You’re supposed to worry.”
“I’m very concerned, okay?” Brendon sighed. “Do you want me to come along and make sure a shark doesn’t eat Frank?”
“No. We’re going alone. I just thought you should know.”
Gerard was so fucking weird sometimes. “Right,” said Brendon. “Got it. Have a good walk.”
That was apparently the wrong response, because Gerard stomped off. “What?” Brendon asked plaintively. “He said worry, and I worried.”
Mikey stopped digging and pushed his glasses speculatively up his nose. “I think,” he said after a minute, “you were supposed to try and stop him.”
“From taking a walk with Frank?” Brendon asked, bewildered.
“I think he wanted you to say no, so he could go do it anyway.”
“That’s insane,” Brendon protested. “Your brother is the weirdest.”
Mikey tilted his head thoughtfully. “Sometimes,” he said. “He and Brian have been kind of snappy.”
“Well, he and Brian are both crazy,” Brendon said.
“I want to go work with Brian like you do. You get to hang out with bands all day.”
In fact, Brendon didn’t do that at all. He mostly answered the phones and alphabetized things, and sometimes he talked Ryan down from an incoherent rage after he got to hang out with bands all day. “Brian would totally let you do that,” he said.
Mikey said, “No, I want to be useful. I’m doing pretty good in math class.”
“You – what?”
“Brian said he needs someone at the office who can add and keep track of stuff like that,” Mikey explained. “And I can do that. I mean, I can’t right now, because I almost failed math. But I will, I think.” He rolled his eyes. “I tried to tell Gerard and he got all, ‘you can do whatever you set your mind to,’ and then he gave me a speech about Joan of Arc. She died.”
Brendon was caught between wanting to burst in to laughter over Mikey’s confusion at Gerard’s motivational speeches – which were, indeed, odd – and wanting to squeeze him to death for his determination to help Brian. He settled for laughing while he hugged. Mikey, who never quite knew how to take a hug anyway, looked baffled.
“Brendon,” Mikey complained after a second. “You’re doing it again.”
“Yeah,” Brendon agreed. “This is kind of what I do.”
“Ngggh,” said Mikey, and wiggled free. “Look, you stepped on my castle. Now I have to rebuild it.”
“Want some help with the horse garages?” Brendon asked, grinning.
“I was thinking,” Mikey said, “about adding in some outdoor poop rooms.”
It took Brendon a second. “Latrines?”
Mikey’s smile was absolutely evil. “Outdoor poop rooms,” he repeated. “I bet I can make Gerard’s face turn purple.”
“I bet you can,” Brendon agreed, a little awed, and helped build.
After lunch Brendon took a break from helping Mikey make the world’s most elaborate sandcastle. He needed to call Ryan. It was, actually, the first time he’d ever actually been away from Ryan since they’d started going out, instead of just too busy to see him. It felt weird that they hadn’t talked in 48 hours. Ryan had made him promise not to call the first day, because he wanted Brendon to have time to ‘settle in,’ whatever that meant in Ryan’s crazy brain.
He was the tiniest bit nervous calling, actually, which was silly, because he spent just about every waking minute talking to Ryan if he possibly could. This ought to have been the same thing. It wasn’t, though. Brendon felt far away.
He couldn’t ask if Ryan missed him, too. If Ryan didn’t he would sound ridiculous. If Ryan did… Well, Ryan wasn’t likely to say so. That was one of a hundred reasons Brendon hadn’t yet mentioned that he was in love with Ryan to Ryan. The way Brendon was always hanging off Ryan was a dead giveaway, wasn’t it? Ryan wasn’t usually comfortable with it, though, and Brendon didn’t want to risk bringing it up.
Brendon loved Ryan and all, but sometimes he could have done with just a tiny, tiny bit more demonstrativeness. He sighed and dialed.
Weirdly, Spencer answered, which meant he’d grabbed the phone out of Ryan’s hand. “You didn’t do the dishes before you left,” Spencer said, instead of a greeting.
“I forgot,” Brendon said. “We left really early.”
“Your dishes smell, Brendon, it’s completely gross—” Spencer said, and then there was a muffled laugh and a strange noise and thump. Brendon tapped the phone a couple of times, in case he’d lost the call. Someone yelled and laughed.
“Hey,” said Jon suddenly, sounding out of breath. So everyone was hanging out without him. He tried to make that feel normal; he wouldn’t have cared if they’d called to tell him. Or if he’d been there and too busy to hang out. It was just… He was away. It was weird. Brendon bit his lip.
“Um,” said Brendon. “What happened to Spencer?”
“He was grumpy,” said Jon. “I may have tickled him and locked him out of the room.”
Brendon was sitting on the deck with his legs hanging off the edge. He kicked them idly and considered. “He’s going to kill you,” he said.
“Spencer,” said Jon, “is really fucking adorable when he’s mad. Anyway, I need to ask you something.”
“Anything for you, Jon Walker,” Brendon said, because it was true.
Jon laughed. “I signed up for a photography class. I used to do it a lot, and Spencer was bugging me. I need a model.”
Brendon squinched his face up, even though Jon couldn’t see him. “I’ll model nude for you, Jon, but only if you clear it with Ryan,” he said.
“You are such a dork. I meant your face, actually. As irresistible as your ass is. Ow. Ryan hit me.”
“Yeah,” said Brendon, feeling a tiny bit better. “Good.”
“When I take pictures of Ryan he just stares at me. I have seventeen pictures of Spencer pointing angrily at me trying to get me to stop. So I need you to come home and let me take lots of pictures of you. Cool?”
“That’s barely a favor,” Brendon scoffed. “Can I make faces? Oooh, I do the best Tyra Banks ‘fierce’ eyes ever. You won’t even believe it.”
“I’m counting on it,” said Jon. "I can’t wait until you get back on Saturday, because Ryan has been totally – Ow, fuck, Ross, you have pointy fucking fingers.”
“Then shut up,” Brendon heard Ryan say clearly.
“Dude, what?” asked Brendon. There was a thump and some yelling and suddenly Spencer’s voice was a lot clearer, and that was definitely Jon yelling, “I give, I give!”
After a minute Ryan came on the phone and said, “So, I got my phone back. Finally. How’s the beach?”
“Peachy,” said Brendon. “It’d be cool if you were here.” He couldn’t quite keep all the wistfulness out of his voice.
“Shut up,” said Ryan, but not meanly. “Normal people can be away from each other for five days and not fall apart.”
“I might never be normal about you,” Brendon confessed, kicking his feet again. He secretly hoped not.
Ryan was quiet for a minute. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s… How are the kids?”
“Fine. Gerard’s off with Frank somewhere, and Mikey’s building sandcastles. Brian’s been on the phone with Gabe, doing business-y stuff. He’s really trying to be here for Mikey, but it’s not like he can just stop working.”
“Hmm,” said Ryan. “Keep an eye on Mikey.”
Brendon frowned. “What?” he asked. As far as he knew, Ryan and Mikey had come to a tentative truce, but they weren’t exchanging secrets or anything.
He could hear Ryan fidgeting. “Okay, this is Mikey’s vacation,” said Ryan. “But Brian’s working and you’re calling me, and Gerard has Frank. Just. He might not… He won’t say anything. But you should keep an eye—”
“Ask him why he’s been so quiet!” Jon shrieked in the background, and then there were some thumps and Spencer yelling “—your fucking face –” and hysterical laughter.
“Why have you been quiet?” Brendon asked curiously. “Not feeling well?”
“Yeah,” said Ryan, in his ‘I’m lying’ voice.
“Um,” said Brendon, feeling lost. He was missing some kind of joke while he was gone, and it sucked. Ryan was allowed to hang out with people without him. He totally, completely was. And Brendon, although it took tons of effort, was going to be less clingy, because it made Ryan get all weird.
Brendon was quiet for a minute. He had no idea what to say. Then, in his brightest, happiest tone, he started, “I should probably get back to the beach and Mikey—”
“Fuck,” said Ryan. “I hate it when you do that. I’ve been – Spencer says I’ve been quiet. I… I miss you or something.”
“You,” said Brendon uncertainly, because that was the last thing he’d really expected Ryan to say out loud. “For serious?”
Ryan sighed. “I just… I don’t talk to Spencer and Jon about the stuff I talk to you about. So I don’t have anyone to talk about stupid shit with. You’re… Never mind. This is stupid.”
“It’s sort of the most awesome thing I’ve ever heard,” Brendon said. “You know I’m only gone for a week, right? And you can call whenever?”
“You’re not here, though. I’m… Weird about you, too.”
“You should see my face right now,” said Brendon, because he couldn’t scream or jump through the phone. He was going to explode from grinning. “You should see it, okay? It’s like… Oh my god, I can’t—”
“Well, I’ll see you on Saturday, and you can show me then,” said Ryan. In as much as Ryan ever sounded anything, he sounded pleased. “I should never have told Spencer I was lonely.”
“You said you were lonely without me, Ryan Ross,” said Brendon without thinking. “This is totally true love.” And then he bit his tongue, because that was a stupid fucking way to accidentally use the ‘L’ word to Ryan for the first time.
There was a really, really long pause. Brendon couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t take it back, either. He just sat there, paralyzed, while something awful and indefinable crushed his chest and his hands shook, just enough to notice.
“I… I guess it is,” said Ryan, so softly that Brendon could barely hear over the pounding in his ears. “I have to go. Tell Brian I said hi, okay? I’ll see you Saturday.” He hung up.
Brendon felt like he’d fallen off a cliff and maybe, barely, escaped with his life. “Holy shit,” he whispered to himself, and sat, staring at the phone, for a long time.
Brendon lost track of the days a little while after that. There was no TV and no work and no schedule. All he had to do was lie around and go swimming and occasionally make one of the boys a sandwich.
Frank and Gerard kept wandering away down the beach and into town, where they’d buy tons of horrible, sticky candy with Gerard’s allowance. Brendon didn’t care, as long as they shared with him. Mikey seemed pretty content to stay near the house on the beach, sometimes just sitting in the shade by the house and listening to his iPod or looking out at nothing. Sometimes Gerard would get kind of worked up for no apparent reason – being Gerard and all it wasn’t that shocking – and then Frank would grab him by the arm and hustle him down the beach. Mikey looked thoughtfully after them and then shrugged and went back to his castles.
Gerard and Brian were circling each other like they were getting ready for a fight, which Brendon couldn’t figure out. They were on vacation, and no one had to do anything except sleep and hang out. Gerard, though, was increasingly mean when Brian said things like, “So what are you guys doing today?”
Gerard’s answer went from, “Nothing,” to “None of your business,” to “Oh my god, Brian, can you leave me alone for five minutes?” over the course of a couple days. Brendon winced and tried not to be alone in a room with them. Every time Gerard snapped Brian would get madder and madder, until he was crossing his arms and pressing his lips together so tightly he looked kind of possessed.
On what turned out to be the fourth day, things blew up.
It started with Gerard – of course it did – yelling in the living room suddenly, “I don’t want another sandwich for lunch. I am sick of fucking sandwiches.”
Brendon was startled. Brian narrowed his eyes. “We’re not going in to town to eat lunch just because you’re throwing a hissy fit,” said Brian.
Gerard was so mad the air around him was almost crackling. “I’m so tired of this,” he said. “I’m so tired of you being in my face all the time.”
“I’m not in your face yet,” Brian said grimly, “but if you keep that tone of voice up I will be. Now knock it off.”
Brendon took a step backward. He exchanged a look with Frank, who was halfway between baffled and upset. “We can make spaghetti—” Brendon started.
“No!” Gerard yelled. He was red, but if it was from anger or sunburn, Brendon couldn’t tell. He was definitely tired and flaily. “I don’t want anything here!”
“Then you can just skip lunch,” said Brian.
“Fine, I will,” Gerard snapped.
“Fine!” Brian yelled back at him.
Gerard made an incoherently angry noise. “You suck so hard,” he said. “All I want is ten fucking minutes away from everyone in this room. Just like, ten minutes to myself when someone’s not kicking sand on me, or asking me where I’m going, or making me eat the worst fucking sandwich in the world. I am so – I’m so sick of all of this.” He stormed upstairs and slammed the door.
There was a minute of silence. “Oh. Um. He’s all… ” Brendon looked around. Mikey looked pretty resigned. Frank looked mad. “So, who wants lunch?” Brendon said finally.
Brian clenched his teeth. “Later,” he said. “I’m going out for a few minutes.”
“Where—” Brendon started, but Brian had already grabbed his hat and left.
Brendon stood frozen for a second. Mikey and Frank were both staring at him. “Okay,” said Brendon. “Um. Lunch.” They really were terrible sandwiches. They didn’t have any of the kind of bread the kids normally liked, and the peanut butter was store-brand and it tasted like cardboard.
“What the hell is wrong with Gerard?” Frank demanded. “He’s been like this since we got here.”
“Uh,” said Brendon, looking at Mikey for a hint.
All Mikey said, though, was, “Do you think we can see what’s around that curve in the beach today?”
“Maybe not,” said Brendon. “We kind of need to deal with Gerard, I think.” And Brian, he thought but didn’t say.
“You want to take something upstairs and see if Gerard’s hungry?” Brendon asked Frank.
“No way,” said Frank. “If he yells at me like that I’ll hit him.”
Mikey looked at his sneakers. “When he’s mad you have to let him just be mad, I think. For a while.” He took a bite of his sandwich and made a face. “I’m tired of sandwiches, too,” he said instead, looking a little sad.
“This sucks,” Frank announced, flopping on the floor. He was already almost done with his lunch.
“We just have to deal with Gerard,” said Brendon. “And then it won’t suck anymore.”
Brendon tried to remember family vacations when he’d been fifteen, and why he might have blown up for no reason. By the time he’d been a teenager he’d been having trouble with his parents, and it would have been miraculous for all his brothers and sisters to come along on a vacation. Brendon would never have dared to ruin that by screaming. He’d have been too excited to have everyone around.
Gerard was clearly a very different person. Brendon sat on the couch and worried.
Frank was perfectly happy sitting around and reading a comic book, and after a few minutes he actually dozed off, lying on the floor. Brian came back a little while after that. He stomped in to the kitchen and Brendon followed. “I think Gerard’s tired,” said Brendon. “Frank just fell asleep in the middle of a word. He’s overtired and maybe over-sunned.”
“Yeah,” said Brian grumpily. “And Gerard’s a miserable brat.” Brendon must have looked shocked, because Brian’s grumpiness turned in to guilt. “I mean,” he said, “he’s being a brat. Who yells like that on vacation?”
“Gerard?” Brendon offered.
Brian almost laughed. “Yeah,” he said. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I mean, five whole days without fighting over anything? That’s crazy.”
“Usually when he gets upset,” said Brendon, working it out, “he can go to his room and be by himself, or go read a book or something. He’s read everything he brought with him, and he’s sharing a room with Frank and Mikey and me.”
Brian growled and poured himself a glass of water. “So he’s overtired and he’s been wearing a black hoodie in the sun all week and he’s stressed. So he yells. You’re telling me it makes perfect sense and I suck for not figuring it out, right? Jesus Christ, Brendon, every time I think I’m getting better at this stuff he finds a way to get under my skin and make me blow up like I’m the teenager. Fuck.”
“I… I didn’t say you suck,” Brendon said uncertainly.
Brian put his face in his hands for a second. “I’m a little stressed, too,” he said. “It’s actually sort of hard to be on vacation and have your family around every single second.”
It sounded awesome to Brendon, but he wasn’t wired the same way Gerard and apparently Brian were. “Sure,” said Brendon, handing Brian a soda.
Brian put the can against the side of his neck and sighed. “We’re on vacation, so everything’s supposed to be relaxing and awesome. But it’s not, and I’ve been working, and… Jesus fuck. We are not going home like this tomorrow.”
“Right,” said Brendon. “Um. You want me to go talk to him?”
“No,” said Brian. “I’m going to let him cool down and then I’m going to handle this like a fucking grownup.”
“’Kay,” said Brendon, fidgeting. “I guess I’ll go check on Frank and Mikey.”
“This is not going to ruin the last night of vacation,” Brian called after him.
Brendon didn’t really consider everything ruined as long as they were still on vacation, but the tension between everyone was making his shoulders tight and his neck hurt. Frank was conked out on the floor, drooling on Gerard’s comic, and that was going to cause trouble in a little while.
Mikey, on the other hand, was gone.
Brendon’s heart stopped for a second, because the Way brothers had a nasty habit of vanishing when they were upset, and if Brendon had to walk in to the other room and tell Brian that he’d lost Mikey, he was going to die.
That was totally irrational, though; Mikey wasn’t Gerard. Mikey didn’t vanish for no reason. He was upstairs, or he’d gone outside to sit by the beach, or he –
Or he knew it was the last day they were spending at the house, and his last chance to go check out what was around the curve of the beach. The minute he thought it, Brendon knew he was right. “I’ll be back in a while,” he yelled, and ran out.
Mikey was out of sight already, and it was kind of hard to run on sand, but Brendon made a valiant effort. The beach curved out in to the ocean where the land was all covered in trees, and then it curved back. There were no more houses, just trees and rocks and a big sign that said ‘NO SWIMMING PAST THIS POINT.’ It did look a little like the beach on Lost; there was no civilization in sight.
There was, however, a kid with glasses and spikey hair throwing rocks in to the ocean. Brendon skidded to a stop.
“Is Gerard better?” Mikey said, not turning around.
“Better than what?” Brendon asked, trying to catch his breath.
Mikey turned and just looked at him. ‘Keep an eye on Mikey,’ Ryan had said, and Brendon hadn’t thought too much about it. But Mikey’s face was so perfectly expressionless that he had to be upset.
“Just better,” said Mikey. He turned away and threw another rock in to the waves. “He gets Brian all upset.”
“He and Brian are both… They both like to yell about stuff.” Brendon normally understood Mikey pretty well, but he wasn’t sure quite what to say. “It doesn’t mean they’re really mad.”
Mikey grumbled something under his breath.
“What?” Brendon asked. “Say it so I can hear, Mikes.”
“Nothing,” said Mikey, throwing more rocks.
Brendon walked up behind him and sighed. “Tell me what’s going on.”
Mikey huffed, exasperated. “They just... They ruin stuff.”
“Whoa, whoa, nothing’s ruined. Mikey, nothing’s—”
“I was gonna ask Brian if we could go in to town for dinner,” Mikey said. “And now he’ll say no because Gerard’s all –” Mikey threw another stone, harder this time. “Sometimes I…” His voice broke, and Brendon had no idea what to say.
“Sometimes you what?” Brendon asked, putting a hand on Mikey’s shoulder.
He was shocked to see tears on Mikey’s face, even if he didn’t sound like he was crying. “Sometimes I hate him,” Mikey whispered. “But I can’t, because it’s Gerard.”
Brendon flinched. He couldn’t help it. There was nothing but love between those kids, and he knew it, but Mikey’s tone was pure, awful, guilt. “Oh no,” he said. “Mikey, it’s not… You’re allowed to get mad at him.”
“But it’s Gerard,” Mikey repeated stubbornly. “He’s not… He’s not mean.”
“He doesn’t have to be,” Brendon offered. “You can still get mad at him. I know he’s pretty much the best brother ever, and if it weren’t for him you guys wouldn’t be here. But you’re still allowed to be frustrated with him. I get totally frustrated with him sometimes. Brian does, too.”
Mikey bit his lip. “But I’m not… I don’t really hate him.”
“Oh, Mikey,” said Brendon, and hugged him.
Mikey was stiff and toneless. “I don’t want to get mad at him,” he said. “I shouldn’t. I’m… It feels bad.”
“It’s not,” Brendon promised. “You’re around him more than we are. He means more to you. You’re supposed to get mad, Mikey. It doesn’t mean you don’t love him and appreciate him. Gerard’s annoying. He freaks out, and you always have to be the level-headed brother. You’re so awesome.” He hugged Mikey tighter, until the little hands dropped all the rocks he was holding and he stopped staring out at the water.
Mikey sat down hard on the sand, and Brendon sat down next to him, arm still around his shoulder. “Sorry,” Mikey said finally.
Brendon hadn’t seen Mikey cry since the awful night Gerard had disappeared. “This vacation is making everyone crazy,” Brendon said. And then, “You know I wasn’t ignoring you for him, right? Because I love both you guys.”
“But he’s Gerard,” Mikey said morosely.
“And you’re Mikey,” Brendon said. “I’m… Listen, I’m a younger brother, just like you. But when my brothers did stuff without me, I was so loud they couldn’t forget about me. I screamed and screamed until they took me along. You never do that.”
Mikey whispered, “It doesn’t count if I have to tell you.”
That fucking hurt. Brendon didn’t know how to fix that. “Then you’re going to spend a lot of time feeling sad by yourself,” he said helplessly. “Because I’m not a mind-reader, and neither is Brian. And if Gerard knew he was making you this upset he’d throw himself off the roof.”
Mikey muttered, “Drama queen,” but he didn’t disagree.
“You’re… Gerard’s a flower, okay?” Brendon tried. This whole conversation was fraught with giant, gaping chasms to fall in if Brendon made a mistake, and he didn’t know how to bridge them. “He needs attention all the time. And you’re a tree. You grow just fine without us. You have to remind us to look sometimes,” he said. “I… I think Ryan’s like that, too. When he wants something he gets even quieter, and I don’t know what to do, because when I’m mad I can’t stop talking about it.”
Mikey smiled, just a tiny little bit. “Yeah,” he said. “You’re kind of loud.”
“But you asked Brian to take everyone on vacation, and he did. He’d do anything you asked for. You know that, right?” He squeezed Mikey’s shoulders.
“He’s been working all week,” said Mikey.
“I… Yeah. But he’s here. Everyone’s here.”
Mikey nodded. “I hate asking.”
“Well, I hate seeing you cry, so we’re going to have to work something out.”
Mikey sighed. “And I hate being mad at Gerard. Was he like this on the roof at Thanksgiving?”
“Yeah,” said Brendon. “Just like this, but louder. You two are really a lot alike, you know that, right?”
“Good,” said Mikey, suddenly fierce. “We should be.”
Brendon was starting to feel a little bit more like he was on solid ground. “If you ask more, you’ll get more,” he said. “We need you to try.”
“Okay,” said Mikey after a second. “If you don’t tell Brian and Gerard I was stupid and got all upset.”
“You are never stupid, Mikey Way,” said Brendon. “Don’t ever say that.”
Mikey nodded. He wasn’t leaning against Brendon, but he wasn’t pulling away, either. “I just… I don’t want Gerard to get mad for no reason. It makes Brian upset.”
“Poor Brian,” Brendon sighed. “His life is so hard. We need to get him a girlfriend.”
Mikey made a face. “Ewww,” he said.
“Maybe we’ll put that project off until you’re a little older,” Brendon conceded, swallowing a laugh. “So we have enough time to scout someone really cool.”
“Who’s cool enough for Brian?” Mikey asked. “No one.”
Brendon decided to use that declaration as blackmail material when Mikey got a little older. “Brian deserves true love,” said Brendon. “Like Frank and Gerard.”
Mikey rolled his eyes. “You’re so corny,” he complained. “I want to see what’s down past there.” He pointed, and then looked up at Brendon, waiting.
Brendon had said to ask. “Okay,” he agreed, standing up and brushing sand off his pants. “C’mon. Last one past that tree is a rotten egg.”
“Wait, I didn’t say—” Mikey started, but Brendon had already taken off, not too quickly, running down the beach. Mikey jumped up after him, yelling, “You’re cheating, Brendon, you’re a cheater!” Brendon laughed and kept running.
By the time they got back, Brian was sitting upstairs with Gerard, and they were having what was apparently an epic conversation in hushed voices. Frank, bored, was drawing all over his own arms in Sharpie. “Tattoos,” he explained, when Brendon looked horrified.
Mikey settled on the couch with a comic book. “They’re going to keep talking,” he sighed. “And talking. And talking.”
“Mikey wants to go out for dinner!” Brendon yelled to the house in general.
Mikey looked startled. “Brendon,” he said. “That wasn’t –”
“Okay,” Brian yelled back, followed shortly by Gerard yelling, “Mikey has the best ideas!” and then, “Brian! That tickles, stop it!” and hysterical giggling.
Brendon gave Mikey a smug look. Mikey rolled his eyes and stuck his nose in the comic book.
Frank looked contemplative. “I sort of thought,” he said, “that Gerard was going to explode.”
“Thanks for the warning.”
“No, I mean…” Frank hesitated. “It’s supposed to be this awesome vacation, so you’re supposed to be happy. But what if you’re not happy? Then you ruined it for everyone. But when people tell you to be happy, it’s hard not to get madder.”
It was easy, sometimes, to forget that Frank paid as much attention as everyone else. Well, he paid easily twice as much attention to Gerard as Brendon could manage, but that was mostly infatuation. “So all those walks you two went on,” Brendon prompted.
“Yeah,” said Frank. “I was trying to get him away from Mikey before he got all mad and it made Mikey get quiet.”
Mikey glanced up, just for a second, and then back down at his book, and nodded. Of course he hadn’t said anything, he was Mikey. Brendon could have strangled him. Instead, he hugged Frank, who looked confused. “What?” Frank said. “I don’t want to be at ground zero with those two, either.”
“We need to get Brendon home,” said Mikey, not looking up. “You’re hugging too much. You miss Ryan.”
Brendon started to protest, and then realized it was pretty much true. He had no one to curl up on the couch with, and no one to pet him when he was tired. “I like hugging,” he said.
“You do,” Frank agreed, making a face.
“We should have Ryan over more,” said Mikey suddenly. He did look up this time, tilting his head like he was considering.
Brendon said, “Nah, Mikes, it’s okay. You don’t have to.”
“No,” said Mikey, slowly, thinking it over. “He’s cool. For a while I kind of thought he was like… But he’s not, he’s like me. He doesn’t say it. He looks at Brian like you do, though. Like Gerard does. And he looks at you like…” He trailed off, and then looked very deliberately at Frank, who missed it.
Brendon laughed. “Hermit crabs, right?” he said.
Mikey grinned for a second. “And things that love hermit crabs,” he agreed.
“You’re both insane,” Frank announced, jumping to his feet. “Mikey, the time for books is over. Now is the time for crushing sandcastles like Godzilla.” He ran for the door.
“I spent a long time building those!” Mikey complained. He put the comic down and trailed after Frank. “So I get to crush them first.”
“Graaaaagh,” said Frank, holding his arms out like Frankenstein. “Crush youuuuuuuuuuuu.” He grabbed Mikey and dragged him outside.
Brendon reveled in the silence for a minute. He loved the kids and all, but wow, he was ready for some grownup conversation and cable TV and Ryan and Spencer and Jon. Plus, he could only handle being the Guy Who Fixes Things for so long per day before it exhausted him.
The quiet – Gerard and Brian had shut the door – was too quiet. All Brendon could really hear was the ocean roaring softly in the background. Brendon flipped open his phone and dialed home. “Hey,” he said, when Ryan picked up. “Tell me something grownup.”
Ryan, to his credit, didn’t miss a beat. “Spencer and Jon went out to get soda. They’ve been gone for two hours. I think our car has officially been christened. That’s pretty grownup.”
Brendon laughed so hard he almost fell off the couch. “Awesome,” he said. “Is that… It’s weird if we take a turn, then, right?”
“Ewww,” said Ryan. “How’s everyone out there?”
Brendon thought about it for a minute. “They’re…” he shrugged. “They’re a family. Normal, I guess.”
“Normal, huh?” said Ryan. Brendon could hear him smiling. “That’s pretty great.”
“It’s awesome,” Brendon agreed, and settled in on the couch. “Tell me more tales of loneliness and woe, Ryan Ross.”
“Well,” said Ryan. “No one will watch TiVoed episodes of Project Runway with me. I’m not asking for the moon, right?”
“You could, though,” Brendon offered, and he could hear Ryan rolling his eyes over the phone. It felt awesome talking to him, without any of the weirdness Brendon had been expecting. He loved being away. He couldn’t wait to go home.