"I'm telling you, it's no big deal," Ryan said. "I distracted him, and then I got rid of him. It's fine."
"Distracted him how?" Spencer said.
"How do you think?" Ryan said, and Spencer shook his head.
"Ryan. Dude. You really think that'll make him want to stay away?"
Ryan just rolled his eyes and got back to work.
But Spencer was right, it turned out, because a month later the bell rang again and there was Mulder standing on the step.
"Agent Mulder," Ryan said. He took a breath and leaned slowly back against the doorjamb. "Did you think of some more questions?"
"Can we speak inside, Mr. Ross?" Mulder said. Ryan waved him in without stepping aside. Mulder's sleeve brushed Ryan's bare arm as he went past.
"Have you seen this boy? Alex Lindhurst?"
Ryan leaned forward to look without touching the picture. "I don't think so," he said. "Why, was he in line behind me at Starbucks too?"
"No," Mulder said. "But he was last seen in this neighborhood, where he asked a friend to drop him off at the corner of this block."
Ryan pursed his lips up. "I'm sorry I can't help you."
Mulder tucked the photograph back into its sleeve and then kept it in his hand, rubbing his thumb along one edge.
"Was there anything else?" Ryan said.
"May I see the rest of the house?"
Ryan laughed. "Did you bring a warrant or something?"
"No," Mulder said. "I'm just asking you."
Ryan looked at him, then shrugged. "All right," he said. "Follow me."
Mulder stood in the back bedroom for a long time, looking around at all the walls and the ceiling and the floor. "What do you use this room for?" he asked.
"Guests," Ryan said. After a minute he added, "My guys, in my band, stay in here sometimes when they're over."
Ryan made no effort to hurry him out, but when Mulder stepped back into the hallway Ryan took him by the sleeve and tugged him away towards the last doorway.
"This is my room," Ryan said. He pushed the door shut with one hand and wrapped the other around Mulder's tie, pulling him into a rough kiss. Mulder set his hands on either side of Ryan's face and tilted his head backwards before pushing their mouths back together. Ryan let himself go limp in Mulder's grip.
Mulder's fucking was different than Ryan was used to, just as hard but less wild, hitting Ryan more precisely, as if he was watching exactly what got a reaction. Ryan wrapped a hand around his own cock, which Brendon and Spencer never let him get away with anymore, but Mulder didn't seem to mind. He resettled his grip on Ryan's hips and drove in even faster, and Ryan came with a moan he hadn't intended to make.
When Mulder had stepped back into his trousers, he pulled his phone out of his pocket and looked down at it. "Mind if I check my messages?" he said.
Ryan snorted. "Be my guest," he said.
Mulder sat down on the edge of the bed with the phone to his ear. He clicked through the messages quickly, only listening to a few tinny seconds of each, but Ryan heard at least three different voices and they all started the same way: "Mulder, it's me..."
He watched Mulder's broad bare back disappear beneath the white undershirt and shirt and the black suit jacket and coat. Then Mulder turned back to him with an unreadable look. "You have my card," Mulder said, still so oddly formal.
"Yeah," Ryan said.
Mulder nodded. "I'll see myself out."
After that Ryan was - not waiting, really, but anticipating Mulder's next visit enough that it was almost gratifying to see him at the door. Ryan didn't waste any time, leaning in to kiss Mulder as soon as he was fairly inside, and Mulder's arms came up to wrap closely around him.
Mulder didn't ask him any questions until they were done fucking. "Ross," Mulder said, and Ryan opened his eyes.
Mulder stretched a hand out and touched the back of Ryan's arm. "Will you look at a picture for me?"
"If you want," Ryan said. He pushed himself up and turned around to lean back against the pillow. Mulder got his phone out and started tapping at the screen.
"Here," he said. Ryan took the phone and looked. The picture showed a middle-aged couple, standing in front of what looked like a school building and smiling broadly.
"No, I haven't seen them," Ryan said. "Am I supposed to be kidnapping forty-somethings now too?"
"No," Mulder said. "I just spoke with them a few days ago. That's Michael and Helen Devlin. Shawniqua's parents." He tapped on the phone again to bring up the next picture, in which the couple were joined by a girl in a shiny blue gown and mortarboard. All three of them were beaming.
"Shawniqua Devlin," Mulder said quietly.
Ryan pressed his lips together and shook his head. "Sorry," he said.
He went back down to the front door with Mulder this time, and Mulder kissed him once more before he left.
"Was that FBI guy here bothering us again?" Spencer said.
"Yeah," Ryan said. "Nothing to worry about. I've got him totally off course."
"You've got him under control?"
"Then why don't you just make him stay the fuck away?" Spencer said.
"He could be a useful contact," Ryan said, nettled. "Don't you think Pete would like having an FBI agent in his pocket?"
"Not really," Spencer said.
"Look, I told you. You don't have to worry."
Spencer sighed. "Come here, then," he said, and Ryan went.
"Xochitl Hernandez and her parents," Mulder said while Ryan scrolled. "Alex Lindhurst and his mom. Anita Holloway, Jason Holloway, and their grandmother." Ryan kept quiet.
The last picture in the set looked much older, a scan of a photo taken decades ago. "Samantha Mulder," Mulder said. "Our parents. And me."
"I'm sorry," Ryan said after a minute.
"She was taken about a year after this," Mulder said. "I searched for her... she's the reason I joined the FBI."
"Did you ever find her?"
"I found out what happened to her."
Mulder took the phone back and started scrolling backwards through the other pictures, then forwards again. Ryan watched. Mulder wouldn't look at him.
"Mulder," Ryan said, "I - I really don't know where they are."
"Okay," Mulder said evenly. "Will you look at one more?"
The picture on the screen was one Ryan knew every inch of: his dad, his mom, their old couch, and the baby that was Ryan. "Where the fuck did you get that?" he snapped.
Mulder tilted his head to the side and quirked one corner of his mouth a little wryly.
"And anyway, why - why would you have it in there with those others? I'm right here. I'm not missing. Nobody's fucking looking for me." Ryan's hands were clenched into fists on his thighs. He stared down at them, blinking.
He felt Mulder's palm smoothing over the back of his hair, and then Mulder's lips on his forehead. "Do you think maybe we should be?" Mulder said.
When Ryan looked up, Mulder kissed his mouth once and then got up to go.
Brendon and Spencer came in together and each took Ryan by an arm. "Ryan!" Brendon said, his eyes alight. "C'mon, let's go upstairs."
They took Ryan up into his own room and laid him out on the bed. He bent his head down while Brendon opened him up, lined up, and pushed in. "Fuck, Ryan," Brendon said. "We need you with us, okay? I need you with me. Are you with me?"
"Yeah," Ryan said. "'Course."
"Good," Brendon said, "that's so good, Ryan." He bent down over Ryan's back and went on murmuring too low for Ryan to make out the words.
After Brendon came, he pulled out and gave Ryan a slap on the ass. "Now," he said, "me and Spencer are gonna help you think. Spencer told me you need some help focusing."
Ryan said nothing. Brendon turned Ryan to lie facing him, and Spencer slid in behind Ryan. Brendon curled his hand around the back of Ryan's neck while Spencer started thrusting.
"So," Brendon said, "this FBI guy. What's his name?"
"Agent Mulder," Ryan got out.
"Mulder. Okay. What do you need to do about him?"
"Get rid of him," Ryan gasped.
Brendon smiled and kissed him. "How are you gonna do that?" Ryan moaned wordlessly. Brendon shook him by the shoulders. "Ryan! How can you make him stay away? What's it gonna take?"
"Stop... stop using this house," Ryan breathed out. "Go somewhere else. Let the power get cut off, so - so he sees it's shut down. He'll go away if he believes I shut things down."
"You are so good, Ryan. Spencer, isn't he good?" Spencer grunted in reply. Brendon kissed Ryan and ran his fingers up into the back of Ryan's hair. "You're so good when you're with us." Then finally, finally, he curved his other hand around Ryan's dick and started stroking, pressing close and whispering the message into Ryan's ear until Ryan couldn't, didn't, never wanted to hear anything else.
Pete sent them out on tour for a while and Brendon sang the words every night, the words Ryan had written. Spencer and Jon kept the rhythm going around them, and nobody bothered them, and Ryan didn't have to worry about a single thing.
They got things turned back on at Ryan's house at some point, but he still wound up staying with Spencer a lot anyway. Then Brendon and Shane moved out to LA, and Ryan went and hung out with them there. Spencer came out too and it was all very chill.
One morning Spencer and Ryan got terrible munchies, so they went out and got enormous burritos and parked up at one of the beaches to eat them.
"Fuck, Ryan, you're getting sauce all over my fucking seats," Spencer said, giggling uncontrollably. Ryan stuck out his tongue, laughing himself and spitting out more bits of rice and beans in the process. "Fuck!" Spencer said. He reached into the backseat and threw a wad of cloth at Ryan. "Wipe off your stupid fucking face, asshole."
Ryan stuck out his tongue one more time but then did scrub the cloth over his face. It felt nice against his skin. He pulled it away and unwadded it to look. It was a T-shirt, pale sky-blue with some damp new white streaks and some old dry brown ones. He turned it over, and the front of it read DEVLIN-BOWDEN FAMILY ANNUAL REUNION 2006.
Ryan opened the car door, leaned out, and threw up.
"Ryan! Shit! Are you okay?"
"Fine," Ryan said. His teeth were chattering a little. He wiped at his mouth mechanically with the shirt that was still in his hand, and then had to lean out all over again. After that he just turned his head to wipe on his own sleeve, dropping the blue shirt on the floor of the car. "Can we go home?" he said to Spencer's frown.
"Okay. Just don't hurl in my car, dude," Spencer said.
Ryan pressed his lips together and shook his head.
Jon laughed at Ryan sometimes for being so quiet anymore, but didn't really give him a very hard time. He got the shakes lying awake in bed, nights, but if he was alone nobody noticed, and if he wasn't they either just told him to lay off the coke or to do another line. Nobody bothered him about it. But Ryan closed his eyes and saw a picture of new parents sitting together, holding their baby close.
"I need to see Pete," Ryan said. "Please. I need to talk to him."
There was a silence. "Hang on," Patrick said finally.
After another pause, Patrick came back on the line and said, "Come over to the house tomorrow morning." He hung up without waiting for Ryan to answer.
Everyone was there in Pete's living room: Pete in the middle with his hood up, Patrick and Joe on either side, Andy on the other couch next to a sullen Ashlee with Bronx on her lap, Brendon, Jon, and Spencer in the chairs along the far wall, Zack, Charlie, and Dre sunk deep into the cushions of the recliners, even Shane sitting cross-legged on the floor. Ryan stopped in front of Pete, and Pete looked up and held his gaze but said nothing.
"What is it, Ryan?" Patrick said.
"I needed to talk to you, to tell you," Ryan said, and then he spit it out. "I can't do this anymore. I- I don't believe in the message. It's not for me. I want out."
Pete's eyes narrowed. Nobody said anything. Ryan bit his lip and tried to keep looking directly at Pete.
Jon stood up from his chair. "Me too," he said.
Ryan turned and gaped at Jon. Pete had turned too. Jon crossed the room to stand next to Ryan. There were twin splotches of high color on his cheeks, and he threw Ryan a glance that was terrified and thrilled all at once. Ryan felt a tiny bit lighter.
Pete scowled at them.
Then he shrugged one shoulder. "Go, then," he said.
Ryan caught his breath. "Really?"
Pete grabbed Ryan's wrist, and pulled till Ryan had to kneel down at Pete's eye level in front of the couch. "I only ever want you all to be happy," he said softly, his thumb rubbing at the base of Ryan's palm. "Do you really think I'd keep you around if you didn't want to be here?" Then he shoved Ryan's hand away. "You're no use to me if you can't carry the message. Either of you. Go."
Ryan found himself stumbling away with Jon's arm warm around his waist.
"Oh my god," Jon kept saying. "Oh my god."
They were outside. "There's my car," Ryan said. His keys fell to the curb twice in a row. The third time he left them there and said, "You drive." Jon picked up the keys and turned on the ignition. "My god," he muttered again. Then he got them on the road.
After a while Ryan saw that they were moving east. The city stretched itself out and out, but finally they hit the desert and the land opened up around them.
"I didn't know you wanted to leave," Ryan said.
"I didn't know you did."
"I do," Ryan said. Jon was quiet. Ryan looked at him
"I've been uneasy for... a while. A long time, I guess. I didn't dare say anything," Jon said. Ryan nodded. "When you - said it, then all of a sudden I thought, it's now or never. He'd never let it happen twice. So if I wanted out I had to do it right then, at the same time."
"Yeah," Ryan said.
After another mile, he said, "So do you really think that's just it?"
Jon lifted one shoulder. "I'm guessing we're out of the band," he said. Ryan huffed out a shaky snort.
Jon stopped to refill the tank, and when he slid back into the driver's seat, he reached for the radio. "Um," Ryan said. "Could we not?"
"Oh," Jon said. "Yeah."
When they hit Las Vegas Jon made the turns for Ryan's house and opened the front door with Ryan's key. It was dark and stuffy inside, but the lights and the AC came on when Ryan hit the switches.
Ryan pulled the plastic off his bed and lay down. There were no sheets on it, but the mattress cover had a soft quilted top.
Jon knocked on the doorframe. "Can I sleep in here with you?" he said. Ryan nodded, and Jon lay down at Ryan's back and pulled him close with an arm over his waist. Ryan felt Jon shivering but didn't say anything. He fell into sleep.
Jon got some food at the store, Ryan dug out a couple of guitars, and that held them for a while. Ryan didn't go online, but Jon told him when anything happened. Ryan slept a lot. Jon spent hours on the phone to his mother. They waited.
The announcements went up on a Monday, "their" statement about leaving, Brendon and Spencer's comments and Pete's, and it could have been worse. Ryan nodded when Jon finished reading and played him a bit of a verse he was working out. Jon sang along with some badly off-key lines about a potato with wings, and Ryan harmonized underneath Jon on the chorus. He let himself relax a little.
It got worse. Ryan stilled when Jon showed him the picture with the lines.
"It wasn't even mine," Ryan said. "It wasn't for me, I didn't ask for it. I never wanted it. They always just had it there."
Jon shrugged helplessly. Ryan let his head fall back on the couch again and closed his eyes. He was so tired all the time.
The next night in bed, after they'd seen what everyone was saying, Ryan said, "I'm not gonna have any reputation left. I won't - nobody's gonna work with me."
"Shh," Jon said. "I will." He kissed the back of Ryan's neck.
Ryan froze. Then he rolled over to face Jon. "Jon, what-" he said.
"Shh," Jon said again. He kissed Ryan's lips, then laid his fingers over Ryan's mouth while he kissed Ryan's jaw underneath his chin, his adam's apple, the hollow at the base of his throat.
"Jon," Ryan said, his voice breaking in the middle of the syllable.
Jon turned Ryan over again with gentle hands before he pulled Ryan's hips up and pushed in. He leaned over Ryan's back, pressing his forehead to Ryan's spine, and Ryan felt Jon's lips moving over and over against his skin. He shuddered.
"That's it," Jon hissed, bringing a hand down to wrap around Ryan's dick. Ryan couldn't stop his groan.
Afterwards, Jon pulled Ryan in close to his chest and wrapped both arms around him.
Jon was up already when Ryan woke the next day. He couldn't quite tell how late it was because Jon had drawn all the curtains. He pulled on some jeans and wandered towards the kitchen. Through the doorway he could see Jon sitting on one of the barstools with his back to Ryan.
"...telling you you don't have to worry," Jon was saying. "He won't write anything without me." Then he looked over his shoulder and smiled. "Right, Ryan? We're in this together."
"Who are you talking to?" Ryan said.
"Mom," Jon said. "Wanna say hi?"
Ryan shook his head.
"I gotta go," Jon said into the phone. "Love you too. Bye."
While Jon was out at the store, Ryan took a fast shower and got dressed. He had to blink hard when he went out the front door for the first time since coming back to Las Vegas, but he put on his sunglasses and made himself go on. He walked till he found a bus stop, let the next bus take him in one direction for a while, then transferred to another route and got off when he saw a 7-11.
His ATM card worked. He got out as much cash as he could. Then he bought a bottle of water and a calling card and headed back outside, kicking at the litter and the tawny weeds in the parking lot. The cement was hot through the soles of his shoes, the metal rim around the edge of the phone booth burned his arm, and the mountains looming beyond the desert shimmered and flickered in the dry air.
Ryan pulled out the card he'd kept on him ever since he'd received it. He wet his lips and dialed the number, and when the line connected, he said, "Mulder, it's me."