The house at the end of the drive had stood empty for a long, long time. It had been seasons upon seasons, years even, since the Old Lady had left, escorted to a van by a smiling man and woman in white clothing. Ryan hadn’t seen her since. He’d never really wondered about her, hadn’t missed her.
Perhaps he should have wondered. Perhaps he should have expected that the ever-busy humans with all their hustle and bustle would never leave a house as spacious and inviting as this one unoccupied for long. Perhaps he should have seen the cars that had blocked the drive briefly during the summer as a warning sign, rather than turning a blind eye and hoping the problem went away on its own.
But he hadn’t.
Instead, he’d been curled up underneath the briar bush as tightly as his long limbs would allow, dreaming about the ripening grapes and the first bite of winter, when a van thundering down the drive yanked him unceremoniously from his slumber. He bolted upright, banged his head against one of the sturdy bottom branches, planted his hand in a couple of wayward thorns, and let out an undignified yelp.
When he finally, sucking on his palm and more than a little disgruntled, located the cause of the disturbance, two of the men had already opened the van’s back doors. There were another two, one significantly older than the others, who began to lift cardboard boxes and a disassembled lantern onto the ground. A car was parked over at the far side of the lot, next to a woman who eyed the proceedings with a critical expression and her hands on her hips, and a boy kicking the ground with the biggest frown Ryan had ever seen, on anybody.
“What is it?” Spencer asked from behind him, wriggling his way underneath the briar bush.
“Humans,” Ryan breathed. He could hardly make himself say the words. “There are humans at the house, Spencer.”
“More than one?” Spencer asked, creeping forward on his belly. When Ryan glanced over, he could see one of the thorns tearing a hole into the fabric covering his shoulder, but Spencer seemed preoccupied with other things. Ryan couldn’t blame him.
Once he had come close enough to see properly, Spencer propped himself up on his elbows, head ducked low to avoid the sharp thorns. “Lots of humans,” he said.
“Lots,” Ryan agreed. He chewed his lip. “They’ve brought… things.”
“To-stay things?” Spencer asked, cutting him a sharp glance.
“I think so.” Ryan pointed at the back of the van, where all four of the men were hard at work. “Look, that’s one of those indoor benches.”
“This is not good,” Spencer said. He slipped his thumb into his mouth and chewed vigorously on the nail before he said, speaking around it, “Not good at all.”
They both startled at the sound of branches cracking behind them – Ryan could feel Spencer flinch – but it was only Jon, pressing in against Ryan’s shoulder.
“Hello,” he said quietly, but there wasn’t any of his usual humor in it. His attention was fully focused on the men and the woman bustling around the drive.
“Are the others safe?’ Ryan asked him under his breath.
Jon nodded. “They’re all hiding,” he said. “Watching, but hiding.” He met Ryan’s gaze briefly. “Pete and Patrick are off somewhere, but Patrick’s smart. He won’t let them catch him.”
“Good,” Ryan said, and Jon grinned briefly at the praise before he nodded at the van.
“Do you think they’ll all be staying here?” he asked. “I mean – the house is big, but it’s not that big.”
And there are so many of them, Ryan knew he wasn’t saying.
“I don’t think so,” he said. He bit his lip. “I hope not.”
Spencer nudged him lightly, understanding in his eyes, before he shuffled another few inches forward. “There’s, what? Four men, and the woman?”
“And the boy,” Ryan said.
“Boy?” Jon asked.
“Yeah, he’s –” He had wandered off towards the house, the boy had, apparently fascinated by the ivy climbing up one side. He couldn’t quite reach it, stalled by the flowerbed separating him and whatever had caught his attention, but he was certainly trying his best, tips of his sneakers dipping into the loose soil.
That much fascination for a blank wall was unsettling to Ryan, even though he knew humans did strange things sometimes. He narrowed his eyes, and then widened them in alarm when he caught sight of a telltale shimmer between the ivy leaves, like air rising from asphalt on a boiling hot day.
“Who’s over there?” he asked, under his breath, barely even daring that even though the humans were all the way at the other end of the drive.
“Pete and Patrick, most likely,” Spencer whispered back, just as quietly. “Pete wanted to go raid the bees’ nest in the oak tree, I think.”
Ryan groaned, burying his face in his elbow for a moment before concern for his guys made him look up again. The human boy had edged closer while Ryan wasn’t paying attention, feet barely moving but his torso twisted forward. His eyes had narrowed to little slits.
“He has glasses,” Jon noted. “That’s good, right? That means his eyes are bad.”
“But how bad?” Spencer asked over Ryan’s head. “They’re well camouflaged, but he’ll still see them if he’s looking right at them.”
“Guess we’ll just have to hope for the best,” Ryan said, even though his every instinct was screaming at him to run away, or else cause enough of a distraction that the boy would leave his guys alone.
The boy reached out a questioning hand, and Ryan was just about to throw caution to the wind and march over there when the woman, unexpectedly helpful, intervened.
“Brendon,” she snapped. “Will you make yourself useful, please?” She pointed a demanding finger at the back of the van, and while the boy scowled, he whirled away from the ivy and stomped down the drive.
Ryan let out a long, slow breath.
Across the yard, two shimmering shadows disappeared around the corner of the house, and by the time the boy, with his arms full of boxes, looked their way again, they were long, long gone.
Ryan breathed in, and then out again. “Let’s go,” he said, pushing himself backwards. “We need to talk to the others.”
They’d finally convinced everyone to settle down for the night, to not panic, when daylight was already fading, and then they’d hunkered down amidst the pumpkins and lapsed into distressed silence, watching the sun die on the horizon in a blaze of yellows and greens. Still, it was bright enough that Jon was barely more than a black silhouette, a stark profile surrounded by a soft halo of hair, utterly preoccupied with stuffing tobacco into his pipe. He leaned against a pumpkin the way he always did, legs sprawled out and crossed at the ankles, unlike Spencer, who liked to sit painfully upright even in situations like these.
“What’s taking so long?” Spencer asked, annoyed but not malicious, and Jon turned his head the other way to look at him.
“Do you want to do this?” he asked, waving the pipe around.
“Just… finish it, please,” Ryan said, unwilling to listen to their usual bickering. He slid one leg off the pumpkin he was perched upon and nudged the sole of Jon’s foot. “Take pity on my poor nerves, please.”
“You sound like the Old Lady,” Spencer scoffed, but he left it at that, and so did Jon.
He struck a light on the side of his pumpkin and lit the tobacco with it, the dried leaves glimmering crimson in the falling darkness. He grew even more boneless as he smoked, practically melting into the ground like snow in the spring, and when he finally passed the pipe on to Spencer, his voice was thick and lazy.
“What are we going to do?” he asked. “About the humans?”
“We might not have to do anything,” Spencer said. “Maybe they won’t care about the yard.”
“Did you see their stuff?” Jon asked. “They’re not the type not to care about the yard.”
Ryan took the pipe when Spencer offered it, but he didn’t add anything. He stared off into the sunset and thought about the boy instead, the human boy, the only one in the chaos who’d opened his eyes and looked.
He glanced over his shoulder at the house. Through the briar bush’s branches, he could see the illuminated kitchen window. Not many of the humans – the Urie’s, Ryland had said they were called. Not many of them had stayed, but the woman had, and the older man, and the boy. The Brendon. He was sitting at the table now, inside the house, stabbing at the plate in front of him while the other two scowled.
Ryan had a hard time reading humans, he knew that, but the whole scene looked rather dismal. Unpleasant. He didn’t really understand why they would do that to themselves.
Frowning, he turned back to the sunset, pressed one hand to his cheek and let the other, the one holding the pipe, rest on one knee. Jon poked the other with his toes.
“Ryan?” he said. “Earth to Ryan.”
“I’m alright,” Ryan said automatically.
“Yes, you are,” Jon said. “But the humans? What are we going to do about them?”
“What can we do?” Ryan returned, shrugging helplessly. “It’s a people-house. We have no claim over it. We can’t ask them to leave.”
“We could make them leave,” Spencer offered, but even he looked unconvinced by the idea.
“They’d only bring more people,” Ryan said, shaking his head. “People, and machines, and all sorts of things, and it’ll be troublesome and dangerous.”
“It’ll be dangerous no matter what happens,” Jon said. The frayed sleeves of his shirt trailed over Ryan’s knees when he reached for the pipe. “The boy pays attention. That’s bad for us.”
Ryan looked back at the house again. They were all standing now, the man and the woman and the boy, shuffling around their kitchen with big gestures and agitated movements. As he watched, the man pointed a stern finger at the door and the boy hesitated, said something else that darkened the man’s face like the last black clouds arriving before the storm, and then he stomped away.
When Ryan turned back to his friends, the sun had almost died, and the pipe had passed on to Spencer. Jon settled his hands on the belly bulging out underneath his shirt and sighed lazily. “We should wait,” he said. “Either they’ll try to destroy the yard, or they won’t. We won’t find out tonight.”
“You were the one asking,” Spencer pointed out, but he seemed well pleased with the idea himself.
Ryan couldn’t help sneaking one more look. Inside, the woman had sat down at the kitchen table with her head in her hands, the man rubbing soothingly between her shoulder blades. There was no sight of the boy. Ryan drummed the pipe against the side of his boot to knock out the dregs and tucked it into his coat pocket.
“I suppose there’s nothing further we can do tonight, at least,” he said, even though it was frustrating to acknowledge. “Let’s turn in.”
Spencer, yawning, nodded. “I’m sleeping in the briar patch,” he said. “Anybody with me?”
“I’ve finally managed to get that damn badger out of his hole,” Jon announced gleefully. “It’s mine now.”
“Congratulations,” Spencer said, mostly serious. “Ryan?”
“I’ll be there soon,” Ryan said. “You go on ahead.”
“Suit yourself,” Spencer said, giving him an odd look. He nudged Jon in the shoulder by way of saying goodnight and slipped underneath the branches while Jon disappeared into the high grass beyond the dog rose hedge, chattering under his breath all the while.
Ryan stayed where he was, even though it was starting to get cold, even though the last light was fading fast. If these humans were like the others, if the stories he’d heard tell were true, then this was to be one of their last days in the pumpkin patch, and Ryan wanted to be there for every minute of it.
He was alone, as alone as he ever was, the others scattered across the yard and the fields beyond it. Jon was off picking grapes to make wine with Carden and Maja, and Spencer was somewhere around, doing things that Spencer did when he was alone.
Ryan didn’t mind. He liked the quiet, the way nature grew more solemn when he was on his own, and yet never quite fell silent. It put him in a strange, contemplative mood, and he tended to wander around the pumpkin patch when he was feeling like this, peeking under leaves to spy on the bolder snails and stretching up as far as he could to reach the ripest pears.
The humans were still at the back of his mind, of course, but it had been a day or two and they had yet to venture out of the house much, let alone this far into the yard. They could still be heard arguing sometimes – always, always the boy against the man and the woman, though the instigator changed as frequently as the wind – but Ryan couldn’t quite bring himself to sneak closer and listen in. As long as humans were fighting amongst themselves, he’d learned, they were too busy to destroy anything else.
He paused to investigate a mouse burrow with his toes, but he couldn’t tell if it was lived in or not. He hadn’t seen mice at it in days. Maybe Jon’s badger had gotten them.
“Oh wow,” someone said behind him. “Check this out.”
It was the boy, of course. Ryan turned and it was the boy, standing there, fiddling with a blackberry leaf and grinning at everything. He hadn’t even seemed to notice anything strange, yet. He certainly wasn’t staring at Ryan like he ought to.
Instead, he grinned at him for a second before he plucked one of the berries and popped it into his mouth. “These are really good,” he said around it, warbled. “Small, but really sweet.”
“That’s because they’re wild blackberries,” Ryan said. He couldn’t help it. “They’re not like the man-grown ones.”
“Yeah, I can tell.” The boy stuffed another few into his cheeks.
Ryan felt the corners of his mouth tugging into a smirk.
The boy reached for yet another berry. “Are you the gardener?” he asked. He hesitated, and Ryan could practically feel his gaze dragging up Ryan's spindly limbs, his coattails, the coal-black glimmer of his eyes. “You’re not the gardener,” he said.
“I’m not the gardener,” Ryan agreed. He hopped up to perch on the wrought-iron fence surrounding the pumpkin patch, one hand on the metal between his toes to steady himself. “But you’re the little Urie.”
“Uh. Brendon,” the boy said. “My name’s Brendon.”
“Brendon,” Ryan echoed, rolling the name around his mouth. “Well, little Brendon Urie. Don’t you know it’s bad luck to tell your name to strangers?”
“It is?” Brendon asked, voice going shrill and breathless, so that answered that question, Ryan supposed.
One of the blackberry vines smacked, harmless but startling, against Brendon’s temple. “Oh!” he exclaimed, stumbling backwards. “Did that – was that-?”
“Spencer, stop it,” Ryan said. He didn’t even try not to laugh.
“You’re no fun when you’re being all regal,” Spencer grumbled, but he emerged from the blackberry vines a moment later. He looked the same as he always did, dressed in a bright orange shirt, patches of moss and small trees growing on his shoulders and along his arms, one ear and the side of his head looking as though it had been carved out of cool, smooth stone. Ryan had the sneaking suspicion he was also hiding a cabin in his hair, but Spencer refused to admit it, and Ryan didn’t dare pry.
Brendon watched him walk past with his mouth wide open.
Spencer, catching the look, rolled his eyes. “Humans,” he scoffed. “Think they’re so smart.”
“I, I,” the Brendon said, proving Spencer’s point, and then fell silent, mouth and eyes open wide, when Jon also crawled out from the thicket. His gaze followed Jon’s movements as he brushed clumps of soil from his shirt and the worn out fabric of his pants, from the top of his feet, eyes flickering briefly to the curved claws of Jon’s fingernails.
“You’re the human,” Jon said. “Do you have a cat? I like cats.”
“No cats,” the Brendon said, blinking. “I had a hamster once, but it died.”
Jon nodded knowledgeably. “Cats eat hamsters,” he said.
“Mine just died of old age, I think.” Brendon aimed a helpless look in Ryan’s direction. “And I think hamsters might be a bit big? For cats to eat, I mean.”
“Jon,” Ryan said, when Jon looked to be gearing up to another one of his educational monologues. It did little good, of course, because Frank chose that moment to pop up amidst the begonias, a crown of them hanging precariously off his ear, and say loudly, “I like cats too! They’re delicious.”
Jon bristled immediately, the hairs at the back of his neck visibly straining upwards, and Ryan was fairly certain that only Gerard’s arrival prevented Jon from going straight for Frank’s throat.
“Frankie,” Gerard protested, fussing with the flowers in Frank’s hair. “Don’t be mean,” he added, as an afterthought.
The Brendon looked utterly fascinated and possibly a little horrified by the pair of them, Gerard’s snowy skin contrasting sharply with the blue, green and red patches of Frank’s, his dark hair almost brushing against Frank’s green and orange tufts. Ryan used the momentary respite to gesture Jon closer, tugging him between his knees and scritching lightly at the sensitive skin behind his ear.
“Frank won’t be eating any cats,” he promised quietly. “I won’t let him.” He had little control over what Frank did in his spare time, of course, but even the feral cats tended to stay well clear of the area, and Frank was too enamored with Gerard to set out looking for them, so Ryan figured it was safe enough to say.
Jon rubbed his cheek against Ryan’s knee in response, and Ryan ran his nails over his skin one last time before he looked up to find Brendon spinning on his heel in alarm. During Frank’s little interlude, the pumpkin patch had filled with Ryan’s creatures, and there were more arriving still, slipping in through the fence and underneath the briar bushes, peeking out from the wild grass and behind the broad pumpkin leaves. The Alex’ balanced on the back of the worn resting bench, giggling and attempting to tip each other off of it, but they stayed well clear of the other end with Ian and his crow’s nest of hair, who’d pulled one of the baby birds from the tangles and cradled it carefully in his lap. Victoria sat straddling the faux-Greek statue where it barely rose over the weeds, long legs twisting round and round and round the base. Greta eased herself out of a tangle of pea plants, straightened her skirts and shook the flower blossoms out of her hair, and then more, and more, daisies and marguerites and buttercups until Nate crouching in the grass beside her smacked at her legs to get her to stop.
“This is the human?” Andy asked. His mouth was smeared red with raspberry juice. There were several more speared onto the horns protruding from his hair.
“He’s so squat,” William said, sliding down from the branches of the apricot tree. He bent down to peer closely at Brendon’s face. He had to fold himself nearly in half to do it, and when he drew back, Brendon’s mouth had formed a perfect little o.
“This is one of the humans,” Ryan said, drawing both Brendon’s attention, and the crowd’s. “The little one.”
The little one in question took off his eyeglasses, polished them rapidly on the hem of his t-shirt, and pushed them back up his nose. He closed his eyes firmly, and then opened them again. From the look on his face, he had expected something to change, but as far as Ryan could tell, nothing had.
“Holy shit,” Brendon said, taking them all in. He blinked at Ryan, but his eyes stayed just as wide. “Who are they?”
“My Court,” Ryan said, not entirely without pride.
“Your court,” Brendon repeated.
“My boys and girls. My creatures.” Ryan grinned. “And I’m the King of the Pumpkin Patch.” He bowed as deeply as his precarious perch would allow. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, little Brendon Urie.”
Brendon pointed hesitantly back at the house. “I have to go,” he said. “But, it was nice to meet you. Your Highness?” He bobbed his head. “And everybody.”
“Goodbye, Brendon Urie,” Jon said, waving from the vicinity of Ryan’s knees.
Spencer nodded, once.
“You’ll be here tomorrow?” the boy asked quickly. Another loud, harsher “Brendon!” came from the house, and he called back, “I’m coming, Jeez!” before he whirled back to Ryan. “You’ll be here?” he asked, almost desperately.
“We’re always here,” Ryan said, finally.
The boy nodded hastily. He swept his gaze over the Court’s solemn faces one last time before he rushed towards the house, uncaring of the blackberry vines tearing into his shirt, shoes pounding the ground long after he’d vanished from sight.
“Well,” Spencer said, into the silence. He pushed himself away from the fence. “We’ve got something now, I suppose.”
“I suppose,” Ryan echoed. He rose to his feet, towering over even William and Gabe and Travis from his vantage point on the fence. “My creatures,” he said grandly.
It took them a moment to quiet down, but eventually they all turned their eyes on him, waiting for his verdict.
Ryan pitched his voice loud enough for them all to hear. “Stay away from the humans,” he said. “The boy knows now. That’s already too much. The others cannot know, is that clear?”
He gave them time to nod, to mumble quiet affirmations, before he turned away and beckoned Spencer to him.
“What are we going to do about him?” Spencer asked, head tilted back to meet Ryan’s eyes. “He’s far, far too aware for his own good.”
“When the time is right, we’ll think of something,” Ryan said, hoping he sounded more assured than he felt. He’d never met a human who could spot them that easily, that casually, and yet barely even notice anything was out of place. He hadn’t met many humans at all, but nevertheless, he knew that wasn’t the way it was supposed to go.
He didn’t like it at all.
He craned his neck around and caught sight of two pairs of shoes, one small, one large, both sturdy and sensible.
“Look at this mess,” a woman said, and when Ryan tilted his head back, he could see it was the one from the house. The Urie mother.
“I suppose no one’s been here since Aunt Jenna moved to the home,” was the reply, and that was the man of the house, the Brendon-father, the one with the sternly disapproving eyes. “No one’s bothered to take care of the place.”
“They should have,” the woman said. “We’ll have to get rid of this jungle,” she said, pushing one of the old briar branches aside with so much force that it splintered and cracked. “Maybe we could put in a pool. That might appease Brendon a little bit, don’t you think?”
“We can’t reward his bad behavior by spoiling him,” the man said, but he didn’t sound opposed to the idea, exactly.
“Being strict with him hasn’t worked, either,” the woman said, and she didn’t sound reproachful, exactly, but worn out and frustrated and maybe a little sad.
The man sighed. “We’ll look into a pool,” he said. “The trees would have to go.”
The woman looked up at the apricot tree that was William’s favorite, his preferred spot to curl around the branches and bask in the last rays of summer sun, to fold himself along the bark and listen to the voices of the garden. “I think we’ll survive,” she said. “It’s not like there’ll be a lot of fruit we’re missing out on.”
The man took a few decided steps over and laid his hand on the bark curiously. “I suppose not,” he said.
A hand settled on Ryan’s shoulder, and then Spencer’s arms slipped around his torso, pressing in close, his nose squashed against the fabric of Ryan’s suit. Ryan covered Spencer’s fingers with his own.
“I’ll call the landscaping agency, get a quote,” the woman said, and then they were moving away, voices fading into the quiet sounds of morning.
A pool. They were going to ruin the pumpkin patch, their home, for a pool.
Humans. Most days, Ryan just wanted to strangle them all.
“We can’t let this happen,” Spencer said, squeezing Ryan’s middle once before letting go.
“We can’t,” Ryan agreed. He ran his fingers through his hair, dislodging a few overzealous leaves, and shook his head.
Spencer pulled at his own hair in frustration. “Why can’t we just tell them to go?” he asked. “We were here first. We’ve been here for years! Why can they just waltz in and destroy everything?”
Ryan was about to agree vehemently when an idea struck him. He tapped his forefinger against his chin. “Maybe we can,” he said.
Spencer blinked. “What do you mean?”
“The Brendon,” Ryan said. “He knows about us already, and he’s one of them. We’ll make him their champion. If I challenge him to a contest, maybe we can strike up a deal. If I win, I remain King of the Pumpkin Patch, and he and the other humans will leave. And if he wins…” He trailed off, but Spencer merely nodded his understanding.
“Can you even do that?” he asked. “Challenge someone for your own title?”
“I’m King of the Pumpkin Patch,” Ryan pointed out in response. “Who’s going to stop me?”
Spencer shrugged, because no one would, and they both knew it. “But what if you lose?” he asked instead. “What if he wins, and you’re no longer the King of the Pumpkin Patch?”
“Why be King of the Pumpkin Patch if there is no pumpkin patch anymore?” Ryan asked.
Spencer, it seemed, could think of nothing to say to that.
Ryan himself had cozied up to William’s apricot tree, still and hidden from view long before the Brendon’s shuffling steps came close enough to be heard.
They hesitated fairly early on, and Ryan could hear him smacking his lips absently. “Creatures?” he asked loudly. “Anybody?”
Ryan almost felt bad for him, the way his voice dipped from expectant to forlorn just about instantly, but apparently that wasn’t going to deter Brendon from anything.
“Hello?” he called. “Guys? You can come out now. I know I didn’t imagine you.” He took an uncertain step, a pumpkin leaf breaking loudly under his soles, and stumbled backwards.
Ryan gritted his teeth.
“Please?” the Brendon called, and he sounded almost miserable now. “Come on, now. Don’t do this to me.” Another leaf shattered under his careless feet.
“Stop that,” Ryan grouched, slipping around the trunk of the tree and startling the boy so badly he narrowly avoided flattening a pumpkin. “There’s no need to destroy everything in sight.”
“I didn’t mean to,” Brendon said quickly. “It was an accident, I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Ryan waved a bony hand. “You’re just getting a head start, really.”
“Head start?” Brendon shook his head, frowning. “Head start on what?”
“On the destruction,” Ryan said, slowly. Maybe this one was a little weak in the head. He knew that happened sometimes, if they were dropped as children. He’d heard humans say that before.
“I really don’t know what you’re talking about,” Brendon said slowly, like maybe Ryan was the dense one.
“The humans,” Ryan said, sharply gesturing towards the house. “Your parents. Don’t tell me you don’t know they’re planning on razing the entire pumpkin patch to the ground.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry about that,” the Brendon said, looking unsettlingly sincere. “They don’t really get it.” He scowled at the ground. “They don’t get a lot of things.”
“I don’t like it,” Ryan said, more to himself than the boy. “No one’s disturbed us for years,” he said, pulling at the hem of his coat. “The Old Lady knew better.”
“Aunt Jenna?” the Brendon said, looking surprised. “She knew about you?”
“She knew to leave the pumpkin patch alone,” Ryan said loftily, because the truth was, he had no idea if the Old Lady had known. But she’d been careful, only coming in to trim when it was absolutely necessary, never destroying. In turn, Ryan and his creatures had saved her the juiciest apples and the darkest pumpkins, the sweetest berries and the ripest pears. Things had been good, like that.
And then she’d disappeared.
“Anyhow,” Ryan said, pulling himself upright. It was extremely gratifying to see how Brendon had to strain his neck to meet his eyes. “What you do or don’t know is inconsequential. I’m here to challenge you.”
“You’re challenging me?” Brendon asked, voice flipping. “To what? Why? Um, your majesty.”
“A competition,” Ryan confirmed, unimpressed. “I am challenging you to a competition. Its outcome will determine the future King of the Pumpkin Patch.”
“A competition?” Brendon breathed. “Fuck, that’s cool.”
Ryan rolled his eyes. “I’m glad you think so,” he said.
“I really do.” Brendon grinned. “I was kind of hoping my parents would get me a dog, but this is so much better.”
Ryan turned away so Brendon wouldn’t see him roll his eyes. That was probably bad form, now that they were formal challengers.
“Shall we begin, then?” he asked instead, summoning his creatures with a wave of his hand.
“You mean right now?” Brendon asked, eyes going wide. He sounded thrilled.
“No time like the present,” Spencer said, striding over to them, followed by a crowd of Ryan's creatures. “Do you, the Brendon, formally agree to partake in the competition?”
“It’s just ‘Brendon,’ actually,” the Brendon put in. “There’s no ‘the.’ It’s not a title, or anything.”
Spencer managed to look distinctly unimpressed without even twitching a muscle. “Do you?”
Brendon bounced on the balls of his feet, looking around at the creatures bustling across the pumpkin patch, trying to pretend they weren’t watching their every move. “Yeah, sure,” he said. “Let’s compete.”
Ryan would really have liked to reach over and hold him still, but instead he fit his hands into the pockets of his waistcoat, elbows sticking out at stark angles.
One of the Alex’ darted up and pressed three white pebbles into Spencer’s palm, who inspected them for a moment before he turned away, nodding.
Someone had brought over a pumpkin for Spencer to sit on, leaves and stem curled carefully away. When he settled, so did Ryan’s creatures, leaving him and Brendon standing awkwardly at the center of a cleared circle, constrained at every side by watchful eyes.
Brendon shot Ryan a quick smile. Ryan turned his attention to Spencer, who carefully placed all three pebbles between his feet and cleared his throat.
“Do the contestants agree to abide by the rules?”
“We do,” Ryan said calmly.
Brendon darted quick glances back and forth between them. “What rules?” he asked. “Guys, what are the rules?”
Spencer nodded approvingly. “I’ll get everything ready,” he told Ryan.
Ryan nodded himself, turning away to get a drink of water, and maybe find something to eat. It wasn’t good to fight on an empty stomach.
“No, seriously, what are the rules?” Brendon asked, trailing after him.
Ryan paused and gave Spencer a look over Brendon’s head. “Explain the rules,” he said.
“The rules,” Spencer began, slow and long-suffering, “are the following: You and his majesty shall duel each other. You may not let anyone help you in any task. The winner of each task should be fairly obvious, but when there is doubt, the Master of Ceremonies,” he pointed at himself, “shall decide. Clear so far?”
Brendon nodded seriously.
Spencer went on, “There will be three challenges. The first contestant to win two of them becomes – or remains,” he amended with a nod in Ryan’s direction, “the King of the Pumpkin Patch, thus deciding its future. Is everyone in accord?”
There was murmured assent from the crowd around them. Spencer nodded regally. “Then the contest begins.”
Ryan’s creatures cheered, but they didn’t sound like their hearts were really in it. He could understand that – after all, the duel would decide all their futures, and while Ryan didn’t quite think he would lose, he also couldn’t guarantee success.
“Alright,” Spencer said. “First challenge. Who wants to start?”
“I’m the challenger,” Ryan said. “I’ll do it.”
Spencer nodded gravely.
Brendon pushed himself up onto his tiptoes to manage some semblance of looking them in the eyes. “Um – is anybody going to tell us what the first challenge is?”
“The king knows,” Spencer said lightly.
Brendon pulled on Ryan’s sleeve. “Tell me what the first challenge is,” he said. “Come on, your majesty.”
Ryan tugged his arm free and carefully inspected the fabric. “We’re going to perform poetry,” he said.
“Poetry?” Brendon asked. He looked absolutely horrified. “I thought it was going to be stuff like finding the hidden treasure, and shit. I’m shit at poetry!”
“I don’t think the king will really mind,” Frank put in sardonically.
“Frank,” Ryan chided, even though it was the truth.
Frank settled back, scowling.
“You can bow out,” Spencer informed Brendon, who still looked like Ryan had announced that the Winter Solace celebration had been cancelled. “In that case, you will forfeit, and Ryan be declared winner.”
Brendon looked over at Ryan, who smiled.
Brendon wrinkled his nose. “No, I’ll try it,” he said. “Whatever. What do I do?”
“His majesty will start,” Spencer reminded him. “As challenger. You sit with us until it’s your turn.”
“Okay,” Brendon said. “Fine.” He let out a noisy sigh. “I can do that.”
Jon patted the empty patch of ground next to him. “Come sit with me,” he said. “Front row seat. They’re the best.”
Spencer waited until Brendon was settled, arms wrapped around his knees, before he nodded regally. “Your majesty, begin.”
Ryan let his gaze sweep over his creatures for a moment. He didn’t meet anyone’s eyes, but he could still see them gazing up at him, expectant and enraptured, and Ryan drew in a deep breath and spoke.
Spencer gave Ryan a slow nod. His eyes kept flickering back to Brendon, just like Ryan’s. “Brendon, are you ready?”
Brendon giggled a little, high-pitched and nervous, as he pushed to his feet. Ryan pretended not to notice the calming palm Jon settled on his back.
Ryan took the spot the boy had just vacated, wrapping his arms around his knees just like Brendon had. Even from this perspective, Brendon wasn’t particularly tall, and Ryan could see every drop of sweat gathered at the line of his hair.
“You may begin,” Spencer said, and Brendon shot him a panicked look.
“Okay. Poetry. Okay.” He blew out a sharp breath. “Here goes nothing.”
“That was terrible,” he said, oddly cheerful. “Right, guys?”
Ryan’s creatures nodded, some more forcefully than others, and Brendon grinned at them all despite the flush on his cheeks before he turned to await Spencer’s verdict. Ryan’s lips twitched, and even Spencer looked like he was fighting back a smile.
“Ryan wins this challenge, then,” Spencer said. “Is everyone in accord?”
They all nodded, even Brendon, and while Ryan wanted to remind himself that this was only one of three challenges, he couldn’t help but feel a jolt of relief. Maybe hope, even. Maybe they actually had a chance.
Spencer carefully placed one of the three white stones by his right foot. “The second challenge will now begin,” he said. “Brendon, if you lose again, you will relinquish the contest.”
Brendon nodded gravely. “What’s the second challenge?”
Spencer cut a glance at Ryan. “Your majesty?” he said.
Ryan nodded. He knew what was coming, and so did his creatures. He could hear them shifting around in their seats, whispering to each other, tapping their toes to some inaudible beat. “The second challenge will be song,” he said.
Brendon’s eyes went wide. “We get to perform a song?” He whirled around to face Spencer. “Really?”
Spencer nodded gravely. He didn’t quite manage to hide his bemusement.
Brendon, to everyone’s surprise, broke out in a wide grin. “Oh man,” he said. “Oh man, oh man, oh man. I need to get something, from the house, I’ll be right back.”
“Don’t think you’re getting out of this challenge,” Spencer called after him, but Brendon had already disappeared past the briar bush, shoes drumming along the driveway.
“Can we disqualify him for stalling?” Gabe asked, the top of his head just barely brushing against the leaves of the apricot tree, unaware that William was lovingly decorating his hair with small twigs.
“We’re not disqualifying him,” Ryan snapped. “Spencer said it was fine.”
“Well if Spencer says,” Gabe said, rolling his eyes, but he kept his mouth shut until Brendon’s footsteps pounded across the driveway once more.
“Not right now, God,” they heard him yelling, right before he skidded back into view behind the blackberry thicket, a gigantic wooden… thing in his arms.
Ryan stared. His creatures stared. After a moment, Brendon’s grin died on his face.
“What?” he asked.
“What’s that?” Jon finally said.
Brendon looked down at the thing in his hands as if he’d never seen it before. “This is a guitar,” he said. “You guys don’t know what a guitar is?”
“It looks like firewood,” Frank said, edging closer.
Brendon drew the guitar against his body, arms wrapped around it protectively. “It’s not firewood,” he said. “It’s an instrument. You make music with it.”
“Can he do that?” Jon asked Spencer. “Use something to help him make music?”
Spencer pondered that over for a minute before he shrugged. “Don’t see why he couldn’t,” he said. “We’re still going to judge him on his singing.”
“It’s fine,” Ryan said, when Jamia opened her mouth to jump into the conversation. “I say it’s fine, and since I’m the one going up against him, my opinion is the only one that matters in this instance.”
Spencer cleared his throat noisily, and Ryan rolled his eyes. “The Master of Ceremony’s opinion also matter, of course.” Just not as much, was all.
“Enough stalling,” Spencer said prissily. “Your majesty, begin.”
Ryan rolled his eyes in Spencer’s direction, but obeyed. Singing wasn’t his greatest talent, but he did okay, muddling his way through one of their ancient songs, one everybody knew. None of his creatures were allowed to sing along, of course, but Bob tapped out the beat against the dry earth, and Ryan could definitely see Spencer’s foot twitching. He could do this. For the first time since that van rumbled up the drive, Ryan let himself believe that all this might actually turn out okay.
“Quiet,” Spencer chided. “Brendon, are you ready?”
“Fuck yeah,” Brendon said, and dragged his fingers over the strings.
Ryan shook his head. “Tomorrow,” he said, gesturing to where the sun was turned red on the horizon. “Tonight, we celebrate our victories.”
“But our victories were against each other,” Brendon said, frowning. “I thought we were rivals.”
Ryan rolled his eyes. “No one’s forcing you to stay,” he said testily, gesturing back at the house in an invitation for the boy to leave. Ryan wasn’t about to make anyone stay in his pumpkin patch if they didn’t want to.
Brendon quickly shook his head. “No, no,” he said, tongue tripping over the words, “nope. Staying ‘cause I like it, that’s me.”
“Wonderful,” Ryan said. He still sounded surly, he could tell, but Brendon grinned and punched him lightly in the side. He’d probably been going for the shoulder, but couldn’t reach that far. He was short, and ridiculous, and Ryan couldn’t quite remember why he had thought inviting him to stay would be a good idea.
He briefly entertained the thought of uninviting him, but then Frank unearthed a bottle of mead with a cry of delight, and Brendon laughed, and Ryan figured he could stay, for a bit.
In any case, Brendon leaned his instrument against the trunk of the apricot tree, and Ryan turned away from the still-flushed nape of his neck when Alicia called, “A little light, your highness?”
There was a mocking quality to the title, the way all of his creatures said it, but Ryan pretended not to hear it when he knelt down in the middle of the pumpkin patch, keeping his bony knees well clear of the large, rough leaves. Twilight was coming on fast, so even though there was still plenty of light to see by, Ryan stroked his hand down the side of one of the larger pumpkins, smiling with satisfaction when it began to emit a soft, warm glow.
“Oh wow,” Brendon said, almost kneeling on Ryan’s hand in his haste to come closer. “Did you do that? That’s insane.”
“Perks of the job,” Ryan said, wriggling his fingers at him.
“Oh man.” Brendon laughed. “If I win, am I going to be able to do that, too?”
Ryan shrugged. He wasn’t entirely sure, to be perfectly honest. He’d been King of the Pumpkin Patch for as long as he could remember. He had no idea whether it was something that came with the title, or one of Ryan’s personal quirks.
“You might want to rescue your gee-tar before the Alex’ get their hands on it,” Spencer remarked, shuffling by with another earthen bottle and a basket full of sweet, ripe plums.
Brendon turned and rushed over to his guitar, pushing into the fascinated group of boys to cradle the instrument to his chest and flee. He only paused when he was back at Ryan’s side, casting paranoid looks over his shoulder, and he kept the guitar close even when Lindsey invited him to sit with a wave of her four-fingered hand.
He immediately edged closer when Ryan sat down as well, one arm draped over a pumpkin. Spencer settled on Ryan’s other side, and Dallon next to him, the bark on his bare arms and neck creaking lightly.
Jon sat across from them, and it wasn’t long before he abandoned his conversation with the Butcher to turn greedy eyes on the guitar in Brendon’s lap. “Can I look at it?” he asked, holding out his hands like he was asking to cradle a baby.
Brendon eyed Jon’s claws with some trepidation, but he finally nodded, holding the instrument out by the neck. “Be careful with it,” he said. “It’s the only one I have.”
Jon nodded solemnly. He looked cautious enough, settling the guitar against his body the way they’d seen Brendon do, brushing the side of his thumb over the strings. The sound was metallic, and sharp, and it didn’t sound anything like when Brendon had played the instrument.
“If you press your fingers against the strings, up here,” Brendon said, “the notes change.”
Jon peered at him doubtfully, but Brendon just grinned and nodded his chin at the instrument. “Go on, try it.”
Jon did, cautiously, startling when Brendon’s words turned out to be the truth. He tried pressing down on different strings, and then on different heights on the instrument’s neck, and then different ones at the same time, and Ryan couldn’t stop staring at it, at him, at the way his fingers stumbled and tripped over the strings as he picked out a clumsy melody.
Somebody cheered when he was done, and Jon looked up, cheeks red, grinning. He said, “Hey, Ryan, you want to try?”
“Ryan?” Brendon asked.
Ryan smiled at him. It was, surprisingly, not very hard at all. “That’s me,” he said. “I do have an actual name, you know?”
“I wouldn’t,” Brendon said, shrugging, but his smile was brilliant.
“Here,” Jon said, holding the guitar out by the neck. “Try it, Ryan. It’s fun.”
Ryan did, carefully, his spindly fingers wrapping around the neck once and then half around again. It was lighter than he thought it would be, and it wasn’t very hard at all to prop it against his knee the way he had seen Brendon do.
Jon eyed him for a moment before he was distracted by Victoria’s ferocious laughter, and then it was just Brendon, watching Ryan with a soft smile on his face.
“Aren’t you worried?” Brendon asked. “Now that I know your name?”
Ryan looked down at his hands. He was smiling, but he couldn’t help it. “I think I’ll be okay.”
A warm, broad smile blossomed over Brendon’s face. For a moment, he simply sat there, smiling at Ryan, and then he suddenly clapped his hands together. “Do you want to try?” he asked. “I could teach you, if you wanted.”
“Teach me to play the guitar?” Ryan asked.
Brendon nodded happily. “I’ll pick something simple, I promise.”
“Will you now.” Ryan’s fingertips sounded odd when he drummed them against the wood. “I suppose you better get over here then.”
Brendon’s grin split his face. “Okay,” he said. “Okay,” and shuffled over, fingers settling on top of Ryan’s, his entire body pressed against Ryan’s side.
“Don’t forget your guitar,” Ryan said, holding it out to him.
“Oh yeah.” The boy took it carefully. “Thanks, Ryan.” He smiled a little hesitantly, like he wasn’t sure he was allowed, but Ryan only smiled in return.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, then,” Brendon said, and Ryan could feel his smile stiffen a little at the corners.
“Until tomorrow, Brendon Urie,” he said, and didn’t let himself stay and watch him go.
“Best of luck,” he said, quietly. His claws dug rhythmically into Ryan’s calves.
Ryan let his palm rest on top of Jon’s head for a moment before he pushed him back to meet his eyes. “Is Spencer awake?” he asked.
Jon nodded. “He said he’d be here soon,” he said. “Does the Brendon know when we’re starting?”
Ryan wasn’t sure, actually, but he assumed Spencer had filled him in. He was Master of Ceremony, after all.
He must have, because it wasn’t very long at all before Brendon arrived with sleep-bleary eyes, wearing a different shirt but the same pants as yesterday. “Hey,” he said with a brilliant smile. He scrubbed his palms over his bare arms. “It’s a bit chilly, huh?”
“It’s getting to be winter,” Ryan said absently. “The frost is coming soon.”
“Already?” Brendon asked.
Ryan didn’t get around to answering before Spencer strode over, raising his eyebrows. “Are you both ready?” he asked.
Brendon nodded happily, bouncing on the balls of his feet. “So ready,” he said. “What is it this time? Pumpkin throwing? A berry eating contest? Maybe a little arts and crafts?”
“A duel,” Spencer said blankly.
“A duel?” Brendon’s voice did a neat little flip. “Like, with swords and stuff?”
“Is there a different kind?” Ryan asked, but gently. He felt a little bad for Brendon, but, well, the rules were the rules.
“I’ve never used a sword in my life,” Brendon protested, with just a hint of a tremble in his voice.
“Neither has Ryan,” Jon assured him. “So you’re both going to be terrible, don’t worry.”
“Great,” Brendon said. He smiled broadly. “This’ll be a cakewalk, then,” he said, and released a shuddering breath.
“Okay,” Spencer said, happily enough, and produced two broadswords apparently out of thin air. They were huge and unwieldy, and Brendon staggered under the weight when he took hold of one of them.
“Shit,” he said. He gave Ryan a wide-eyed look. “Dude, I’m not sure I can actually lift this.”
“Then I suppose you’ll lose,” Spencer commented blithely. He turned away to pick his way through the growing crowd of spectators and settle on his pumpkin. “Everyone settle down,” he said. “Sit down and be quiet. Now, if you don’t mind.”
There was one white pebble by his right foot, one by his left, the third still sitting untouched in front of him. Ryan forced himself to concentrate on that. One more challenge. One more chance to save their home.
“Begin,” Spencer said, and Brendon barely had time to say, “Man, this is so much better than getting bitched at all day,” before Ryan swung his sword, aiming for Brendon’s neck.
Brendon, caught off-guard, parried clumsily, sword held at an awkward angle that was bound to hurt his wrists. They were close, so close, cheek to cheek and Ryan could feel Brendon’s ragged breath across his skin, see his wide open eyes. For the first time since Ryan met him, Brendon looked scared.
When Ryan eased up on the pressure, Brendon took a quick step back and cleared his throat, but he didn’t say anything. No little quip to lighten the mood.
Someone in their audience shifted uneasily, so Ryan brought his sword up again. So did Brendon, movements slow and semi-controlled, muscles bulging underneath the sleeves of his t-shirt in an attempt to hold the weapon steady. He was the one to attack this time, sword swinging slow and clumsy, but the impact of metal against metal still jarred Ryan’s very bones. His breathing was loud in his own ears, perspiration already gathering at the back of his neck, the sound of his shoes shuffling in the dust grating and harsh.
He sincerely doubted his fight had a lot of entertainment value, but his creatures were almost unnaturally silent, watching their every move with rapt attention. Ryan’s sword was almost too heavy to lift, his thin arms tiring quickly, and Brendon didn’t look to be faring much better. It took just about all of Ryan’s strength, but he managed to force Brendon back a step, and then another, until Alicia had to pull her boots out of the way to avoid tripping the boy.
Then Brendon bit his lip and suddenly, unexpectedly, threw himself forward. Ryan went to parry his blow only for Brendon to tear his sword back and send it flying at Ryan from the other direction.
Ryan just barely managed to get his blade between himself and Brendon. It hurt, though, the impact did, and the angle tore the sword from his grasp and sent it flying, thudding heavily on the ground and skidding to a halt at Joe’s feet.
The yard was silent.
“Oh wow,” Brendon said, with a hint of a smile. “I really didn’t think that would work.”
Ryan scowled. He hated losing to incompetent people.
“That’s great, Brendon,” Spencer said with an easy smile. “Now you just have to kill him.”
Ryan hastily pulled his foot back when Brendon all but dropped his sword. “Kill him?” he asked, voice flipping. “Nobody said anything about killing!”
“Those are the rules,” Spencer shrugged, and Ryan glared at him. He could at least sound a little bit more concerned. Ryan’s life was at stake here, after all.
“But I don’t want to kill him,” Brendon said, sounding utterly lost. He stood, shoulders slumped, tip of his sword digging into the soil, looking so young Ryan could hardly believe this had all been his idea. There was no way he would challenge someone this – innocent to become King of the Pumpkin Patch.
Spencer drummed the tips of his fingers against his lips. “Then Ryan is going to kill you,” he finally decided. “Ryan, get your sword.”
“A little bit of respect, please,” Ryan said, but he straightened his back and took his sword from Patrick with a gracious nod.
“Kill me?” Brendon asked, sounding quite a bit more afraid, but no less shocked.
“Well, yes.” Spencer spread his hands. “It’s a duel to the death. Either you kill him, or he kills you. There’s no third option.”
“But-” Brendon began. He barely managed to wrench his sword up in time to parry Ryan’s blow. When Ryan retreated, circling him carefully, he took a few hasty steps backwards. “But!”
“There’s really no use arguing about it,” Spencer said casually. “So you might want to save your breath.”
It was good advice, if a bit cruel; the brief respite had allowed Ryan to recollect his strength but unsettled Brendon enough that their fight had become horrifically one-sided. Ryan advanced, and Brendon retreated, doing his best to fumble his sword between himself and Ryan’s blade. He parried, once, twice, lunged sloppily a time or two, but it wasn’t long at all before Ryan managed to slip one of his long legs behind Brendon’s and trip him. Brendon stumbled backwards, into the watching crowd, dropped his sword, and sat down heavily between Mikey and Amanda, who both scootched as far away from him as possible.
“Okay,” Spencer said, while Ryan’s creatures held their breath. “Ryan, you know what you have to do.”
Ryan did. He raised his sword high, drawing back his arm, and then he made the mistake of meeting Brendon’s eyes, his big, dark, terrified eyes. Had he looked like that when Brendon had advantage over him? When Brendon had been in this position?
Brendon didn’t say anything. The pumpkin patch was deathly quiet, and Ryan would have heard every word, had Brendon chosen to plead. But he stayed quiet. He simply sat there, staring up at Ryan, eyes big and wet, lip quivering unhappily. It was pathetic, and Ryan dropped his sword with a sigh. “I’m not going to kill you,” he said.
Brendon’s eyes widened.
Spencer clicked his tongue sharply. He leaned back and folded his arms in front of his chest. “Well, one of you is going to have to kill the other, or we’ll be here until the end of time.”
“I’m still your king,” Ryan reminded him, with a sharp look that let Spencer know exactly how much Ryan didn’t appreciate his tone.
“Yes, your majesty.” Spencer dropped his eyes. He didn’t look very sorry, but Ryan was used to that from him. “But it’s a duel to the death. If you won’t kill Brendon, and Brendon won’t kill you, then the duel won’t end. The rules are very clear about this.”
“The rules, hm?” Ryan looked back at Brendon, who had deflated into a tiny ball. The Butcher had reached over to rub Brendon’s shoulder with furry fingers, and Amanda had Brendon’s hand clasped firmly between her own, and Brendon looked like he didn’t know if he wanted to laugh or cry.
“I’m King of the Pumpkin Patch,” Ryan said grandly. “I’m changing the damn rules.”
There ought to have been stunned silence, perhaps a round of applause. Instead, every single one of Ryan’s creatures began whispering to someone else, and the veins in Spencer’s forehead looked ready to burst.
“You can’t just ‘change the rules’ in the middle of the contest!” he protested.
“Are you questioning your King?” Ryan asked haughtily, and Spencer scowled but shook his head.
“It’s fine,” he muttered. “Whatever.”
Brendon choked on a laugh, and Ryan grinned when he reached down to offer him a hand. Brendon surprised him by going for a hug as soon as he was upright, wrapping his arms around Ryan’s skinny torso and burying his face in Ryan’s chest.
“Thank you,” he whispered. “For not killing me. Thank you.”
“You didn’t kill me either,” Ryan reminded him, sliding one hand into the hair at the back of Brendon’s neck.
They were pulled apart by Jon, who first curved himself around Ryan, claws digging into his back, before hugging Brendon with equal determination. Ryan caught Frank when he launched himself at him, and then Pete, and then he suddenly started laughing. Not too loudly, not too boisterous, but just enough to make Brendon glance over at him and smile.
It was wonderful that the duel was over now, of course, wonderful that both he and Brendon had somehow made it out alive, but at the same time, didn’t that mean the end of the pumpkin patch? Brendon’s parents were going to tear up the grass and the brambles, chop down the trees in the orchard and fill in the dirty old pond at the far end of the property to make way for a shiny-tiled, shimmering pool instead. Ryan and his creatures were going to have to find somewhere else to go; flowers without a garden, leaves without branches, kings without a kingdom.
They were going to lose everything.
“Ryan, hey.” Brendon flopped down on the grass next to him. “What are you gazing at all soulfully?”
Ryan turned his head to meet Brendon’s eyes, smiling perfunctorily, but Brendon’s happy grin practically melted from his face.
“What’s wrong?” he asked suddenly. He sounded concerned, and almost scared. “Ryan, what is it?”
Ryan rested his cheek against his knee and gave Brendon a long look. “The pumpkin patch, Brendon,” he said. “What are we going to do? This is the only home we’ve ever known.”
Brendon chewed his lower lip. “Well, to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure you would have saved it by killing me, you know? My parents can be pretty harsh, but they wouldn’t just let that go.” He shrugged, smiling helplessly. “Humans don’t really work that way.”
“Great,” Ryan muttered. “So we were doomed from the start. That’s very reassuring, Brendon, thank you.”
Brendon sat up straight, startling Ryan upright as well. “Wait, wait,” he said. “Nobody said anything about being doomed.”
“But we are, Brendon,” Ryan insisted. “Unless you can pull a plan to save the pumpkin patch out of that guitar of yours, we are doomed.”
“Not necessarily.” Brendon lifted a stalling finger into the air. “I have an idea.”
“What kind of idea?” Ryan asked, but Brendon shook his head.
“Just. Let me work my magic, okay? Have a little faith.”
Ryan scoffed, but Brendon seemed too elated suddenly to pay him anymore attention, springing to his feet and dusting the soil from his knees and ass. He was still holding up his finger, grinning wide, and barely called out a goodbye before he stumble-rushed away to the house.
Ryan stared after him. He didn’t want to believe in Brendon and his idea just yet, but it was hard. Hard not to let that small glimmer of hope in his chest blaze into a full-fledged inferno. He wanted to believe that Brendon knew what he was doing. He really, really did.
“Are we really going to trust him?” Spencer asked, settling down at his side.
Ryan shrugged. His lips kept wanting to smile, no matter how often he fought them down. “He’s proved himself.”
“I suppose,” Spencer said. He hesitated. “I’m glad you didn’t die,” he said, nudging Ryan with his shoulder.
“Thanks for letting me know,” Ryan said snippishly. “I wasn’t sure for a moment.”
“You know I was rooting for you,” Spencer protested. “But I was supposed to be impartial, remember?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Ryan reached over to ruffle Spencer’s hair, using his longer arms to his advantage when Spencer ducked away.
Spencer escaped after a moment, glaring, and Ryan let him go. His smile was slowly turning into a frown. It was a little strange, knowing that their fate was being decided, perhaps right this very second, and there was nothing they could do. There was nothing any of them could do.
They were all in Brendon’s talented little hands, now.
“Careful,” Brendon said to his mother, her hand on his arm, as he pushed aside a couple of curious vines. “Careful with the pumpkin leaves, they break easily.”
His mother huffed, unaware of Spencer tugging Ryan out of sight behind the dog rose hedge with a hand curled around Ryan’s wrist.
“What are we doing here, Brendon?” she asked, stepping cautiously over a thorny blackberry tendril. “I’ve got lunch to prepare.”
“I know,” Brendon said. “This won’t take long. I hope.”
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Spencer breathed in Ryan’s ear.
Ryan couldn’t do anything but shrug, so he didn’t. “He almost became king of the pumpkin patch,” he pointed out. “We should have a little faith.”
“Yeah, because you lost against a human,” Spencer said, grinning, but the expression quickly dropped off his face when he caught Ryan’s bony elbow in the side.
“Almost lost,” he corrected tightly.
“Yes, your majesty,” Spencer said. He sounded like he was rolling his eyes, but Ryan didn’t look over. He was a king. He was above such pettiness.
In the meantime, Brendon had lead his mother over to the garden bench and urged her to sit down on the dilapidated wood, despite her doubtful look. “It’ll hold,” he assured her. “I promise, Mom. Just sit.”
She sat, carefully smoothing out her skirt but halting her movement when Brendon crouched down at her feet, looking up at her with an earnest expression.
She cleared her throat a little, and then again when Brendon reached up and caught one of her hands. “Honey, what is it?” she asked, offering him her other hand as well.
Brendon looked down at his feet for a moment before he looked back up. “I know I’ve been terrible lately,” he said, but he was grinning a little. “About the move, and in general.”
Mrs. Urie nodded. She said nothing to contradict him, but Ryan thought she looked almost – hopeful, somehow.
“And, well.” Brendon looked down at his knees. “And I didn’t want to admit it, at first, but I like it here. It’s nice, you know. Like it could be a home.”
She freed one of her hands to tuck a wayward lock of hair behind his ear. “I’m sorry we couldn’t pay more consideration to your objections, honey, but your father and I thought long and hard about this move.”
“Yeah, I know,” Brendon said. His jaw tightened for a moment, but then he breathed out, and Ryan could see his shoulders forcibly relax. “I know that, Mom.” He sucked in a deep breath and held it for a second before he said, “I wanted to ask you to leave the garden alone. Like, to leave it as it is.”
Her eyes went horrified-wide, and Brendon quickly went on, “I mean, trim it back a little, of course, make it look all nice and sh-stuff, but. Like, not completely flatten it? It’d have, like. Charm. I think it could be nice.”
Ryan could tell from the look on Mrs. Urie’s face that she wasn’t going for it, even before she shook her head. “That’s really not what we had in mind, Brendon,” she said.
Brendon gave her a hopeful look. “I know that,” he said. “But I think it’d be for the best, you know? I just – this place is special, can’t you feel it? We can’t just mow it down.”
She tightened her lips, clicked her tongue. “Brendon, baby, it’s just a garden.”
“It’s not just the garden!” Brendon said fiercely. “Not just a garden, I mean. Not to me.” His face smoothed out, though Ryan had the feeling it was deliberately done. “I really, really like this place, Mom, and I’m asking you to just leave it be. Please. For me.”
The woman was wavering, Ryan thought, looking down at Brendon. She looked confused, but not malicious. “They’re just weeds, Brendon,” she said.
Brendon ducked his head. “I know,” he said. “But I like it, you know? It makes me feel – at ease, I guess. Peaceful.”
“I thought you’d been less argumentative the last two, three days,” she conceded. Then she sighed, deep and loud. “I’ll have to talk it over with your father,” she said, but from the way Brendon started grinning, that was as good as a yes, and the woman looked like she knew it too.
“It can’t just be an indulgence, Brendon,” she said. “You’re going to have to take good care of it if we let you do this.”
Brendon laughed, delighted. “Maybe you’ll even let me get a dog, one day,” he said.
“How about you take care of your garden, first,” Mrs. Urie said. She was smiling, though, and Ryan could feel his heart unclench a little bit.
“I will,” Brendon said, jaw set fiercely.
The woman reached over to ruffle his hair. “I’m starting to get that,” she said. She smiled at him, long enough that Brendon started fidgeting with the tear at his knee, before she looked up at the sky. “I really do have to start getting lunch ready, though.”
“Do you need any help?” Brendon asked.
Her expression was startled, at first, but when Brendon simply knelt there, looking up with earnest eyes, it eased into a soft, fond smile. “I’m alright, honey,” she said. “But maybe you could check if your dad needs any help sorting out the attic.”
“I can do that,” Brendon said easily before he pushed himself to his feet and dusted off his knees with his hands. He reached up to tug a couple of blackberry vines out of the woman’s way when she made to push them roughly aside. “After you,” he said, grinning.
She smiled, charmed, unsuspecting, running her hand over Brendon’s shoulder when she passed him. Brendon took a moment to follow, letting his gaze wander over the seemingly deserted pumpkin patch. Then he grinned, sudden and startling but oh so bright, and even though Brendon couldn’t see him, Ryan smiled back just as wide.
He heard Brendon’s footsteps long before he felt the presence at his side, the shuffle-step of his sneakers against the summer-hardened soil. He didn’t look over, not even when Brendon sighed.
“The sunsets are so colorful out here,” Brendon said. “I swear they never looked like this back home.”
Ryan shrugged. He’d never strayed far from the pumpkin patch, had barely even been past the fields surrounding the house on all sides. Every sunset he’d ever seen was a brilliant purple, a crimson red, a startlingly bright turquoise.
“Beautiful, though,” Brendon added after a while. Ryan was fairly sure the boy wasn’t actually looking at the setting sun, despite his words. He could feel Brendon’s eyes on him.
“So,” Brendon said after a while. “The pumpkin patch is saved.”
“For now,” Ryan said, even though even he couldn’t quite manage to feel hopeless at the moment. Eventually the Brendon would leave, and then maybe then his family would decide to destroy the pumpkin patch after all, or maybe one day he would stop caring about them and not bother to hold up his end of his agreement with his mother any longer, but that was ‘maybe’, it was ‘one day.’ It wasn’t now.
For now, the pumpkin patch was saved.
“For a very long time, if I have anything to say about it,” Brendon said.
He sounded so fierce, so determined, that Ryan turned his head and smiled at him. “You would have made a good king, I think,” he said. “You care a lot.”
Brendon shook his head fiercely. “I’m glad I didn’t win,” he said. “I don’t ever want to take something away from you.” He scowled at the mere thought, and Ryan quirked his lips and leaned over to cover Brendon’s fingers with his own.
Brendon fell silent at that, eyes firmly on their intertwined hands until Ryan pulled his back to fiddle with the buttons of his waistcoat. Then he suddenly rose up onto his tiptoes and pressed a quick, dry kiss to Ryan’s cheek.
“Ryan,” Brendon said. “Thank you,” he said, when Ryan blinked at him. Even in the fading light, Ryan could see him turning pink. “For this. For being my friend.”
“You’re welcome,” Ryan said, after a moment.
“I should go inside,” Brendon said. He hesitated for a moment, but then he smiled and pushed himself away from the fence. “Good night, Ryan,” he called, when he was almost out of sight, and then he was gone.
“Good night, Brendon,” Ryan said. He stayed on his perch, watching the sunset dye the sky in violent shades, fingers ghosting over the spot where Brendon’s lips had touched him, and smiled to himself.