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Some people say a single moment can change your life. Some people, but not Brendon.

It's much better suited to his brain -- the spastic, kaleidescopey way his thoughts tend to run -- for him to thrive on the belief that it's the union of moments, the unpredictable domino effect of one after another, that truly shapes us.

If it -- It, capital It -- had never happened two years ago in the middle of the north Nevada mountains one hour before sunset (first moment), no one would be knocking on Brendon's door in a minute and a half (second). But it did, and they will. The person will ask a question (third), and that moment will take a yes or a no. The moment before Brendon answers will be fourth, fifth will be when Brendon says yes, and from there, a thousand more will be set in place, one domino lined up after another. But the dominos don't just follow one path: there are swerves, options, places where the angle of the floor or the speed of the wind will shift them, determine which gets knocked over next. You don't know the end until the end, but you wouldn't get there without each one, each moment set in place. Take one moment out, and the entire journey is lost.

No single moments. A thousand, like a puzzle with no clear image until it's complete.

 

+++

 

June 2009

 

"Oh, you fucker, you -- ! I fucking -- oh, you worthless cocksucking piece of shit!"

Shane giggles, fending off Brendon's ruthless, sideswiping shoulder attacks with one foot, fingers tightening around the controller. "Sore fucking loser, Jesus Christ!"

"I haven't lost yet, you assfucker!"

"You wish I'd fuck your ass."

"You wish you still could."

"You make it sound like I lost my dick or something, I totally still could."

"Go for it. I hope you get syphilis."

"You have syphilis?!"

"No! Oh my god, move!" Brendon shrieks uselessly, practically lying flat across the couch now with his legs flailing to distract Shane, laughing too hard for his clammy fingers to be of any use on the buttons, but he's not above playing dirty. Not now, not ever.

"Dude, your fucking foot's in my face, quit!" Shane shoves at him with his whole body and Brendon falls to the floor with a yelp, just as Shane's warrior leaps triumphantly across the screen, fists pumped in the air.

Brendon whimpers in defeat, fingers curling in dramatic agony against the living room rug as he lifts wide puppy eyes to Shane's. "Best out of twenty-seven?"

Shane laughs, sprawling out on the couch and leaving no room for Brendon. "You've totally lost it, man. The fuck were you doing in California?"

"Um, recording an album?"

"And you couldn't shut your trap for one night to whip out the Xbox?"

Brendon huffs, hoisting himself back onto the sofa. "Maybe I was busy having sex."

"You weren't. You totally weren't. At all. You spent four months months in L.A. and didn't get one piece of ass."

"How, how do you fucking know that?"

Shane smiles, and his eyes crinkle mischievously in the corners. "You would've told me. You always brag when you have sex. You even bragged when we were having sex. To me."

"Well, I was good! You told me I was!"

"I told you it was good," Shane corrects, pulling himself off the couch and starting for the kitchen. "I never said anything about you personally. Beer?"

"I hate you," Brendon declares conversationally. "Anyway, like I could've brought someone home anyway; god forbid anyone should disturb Ryan's zen. Swear to god, if you breathe too loud while he's meditating, you're in for it."

"Are you serious?" Shane's voice carries from the kitchen.

"Dude! One time I tried to convince him I was practicing pranayama and he got all excited for a minute, till I started burping 'Camisado' and then he threw guitar picks at me until I left."

Shane's shoulders are shaking with laughter when he reappears, a beer in each hand. "The fuck is prana-whatever?"

"I dunno, some yoga breathing shit."

"Dude, what the fuck happened to him?"

"I don't know, man." Brendon sighs with the longsuffering shudder of one who's tolerated far too much in his short, innocent years. "Ashlee dragged him to one fucking yoga class and that was it. He ended up talking to the yogi for like, two hours after class, and he came home with like sixteen books written by hundred-year-old Indian dudes with missing teeth. He's gone totally vegan, won't even fucking smoke up anymore, he hasn't even had a beer in a month."

Shane's eyes expand monstrously, like those little foam animals you put in water and watch them quadruple in size. He swallows hard, the fizzing cold beer in his hand long forgotten. "Holy shit."

"Yeah."

"How does he... I mean..." The lines of Shane's forehead draw close together, like he's working out a really tough word problem in calculus. "How does he survive? A life without beer? Without weed?!"

Brendon nods dramatically. "It's no life at all."

Shane sighs. "He'll grow out of it. He always does. I mean, if you figure, it's the next logical step. Scene kid, circus freak, nineteenth century street urchin, gay hippie cowboy, John Lennon... zen master?"

Brendon grins around the mouth of his bottle, taking a long, indulgent swig. "What the hell's next?"

"I dunno..." Shane considers for a moment, his voice somewhere between awed and terrified. He's downing careful, conservative sips of his beer, as if only just realizing its value to his life force. "I can see him going on like, a Japanese geisha kick. He always loved the showy, girly stuff. And I bet he's been looking for an excuse to get back into make-up for years."

The doorbell rings suddenly, and Brendon's still laughing as he crosses the room. "Whatever, but the second he tries to get me in a kimono, I'm leaving the band."

He keeps one hand fondly wrapped around his beer and heaves the door open with the other, and speak of the motherfucking devil.

He's smiling a little shyly, shoulders slightly slumped under his dark blue v-neck tee from having his hands stuffed into the pockets of a pair of skinny... khakis? Brendon's always wondered if Ryan has this shit custom made, but he's never asked for fear the answer would actually be yes, and then Brendon might really have to leave the band. For a second, Brendon's eyes settle automatically on the triangle of pale skin where the neckline of his shirt dips, circled with one of the giant beady necklaces he'd taken to wearing last summer and resurrected last month when he decided they were just New Agey enough for his liking.

"Hi," Ryan says.

Brendon smiles, but he isn't above the little prickle of guilt that zig-zags through him, all his earlier words still crisp in the air, and with the way Ryan's looking at him now, peaceful and smiley and devoid of pretension or agenda, Brendon can't help regret mocking him so freely, even in jest.

"Hi," he echoes. "What's up?"

"You gonna let me in?"

And just like that, with one cheekily raised eyebrow, the snark settles and all of Brendon's guilt evaporates. He rolls his eyes and swings the door open, stepping aside.

"You have a key, y'know."

Ryan shrugs. "I feel weird using it when you're home."

"Dude, that's the whole point. So I don't have to get off my ass and come to the door."

Ryan stares him down, but doesn't venture a comeback.

"Wanna beer?" Brendon offers, waggling his own suggestively in Ryan's face. Ryan eyes it for a moment, his pupils expanding even in the bright mid-morning sun pouring through the mass of windows, and for a second Brendon wonders if the guy's actually going to start drooling.

"Um." Ryan swallows hard, shaking his gaze away. "No. Thanks."

"'S'up, man," Shane calls, waving his half-empty bottle in greeting as he flicks through all the channels they never watch.

"Hey," Ryan smiles at him, but his attention is fast returned to Brendon. "Hey, um. Speaking of getting off your ass..."

"Whoa." Brendon takes a step back. "No. No way. You're not dragging me to your meditation group again. Last time I fell asleep and when I woke up some guy gave me a lecture about how I wasn't in tune with my third nipple or whatever."

"Eye, Brendon, third eye, Jesus Christ." Ryan rolls his eyes (all three of them, Brendon bets). "Would a little personal enlightenment really kill you?"

"Yes! I prefer to live in complete unawareness of my entire being."

"Well in that case, you're a master."

Brendon flips him off.

"That's not why I'm here," Ryan snaps defensively. "I just. I thought. Maybe."

"Maybe...?"

His fingers are tugging absently on the leather wrist cuffs wrapped around one forearm, gaze intent on their movement, but his eyes lock on Brendon's when he finally shrugs. "Do you want to go on a road trip?"

Brendon chuckles. "We're gonna be on the road in six weeks for like, the next year. Are you serious?"

"I just -- I don't know," he admits, his voice painfully deflated. "Not -- I mean, not really a road trip, but like. A trip. To a place?"

"...A secret magical place?"

"Your mom is a secret magical place, okay? Look, do you want to go or not?"

"I want to know where I'm going!"

"You'll find out when we get there!"

Brendon eyes him with every rightful suspicion, and Ryan's eyes narrow to match. Brendon purses his lips.

"Is this a retreat?"

"No."

"Will I have to sit in lotus position for four hours straight and focus on my breath?"

"No!"

"Can I bring weed?"

"If you can afford to lose any more brain cells, sure."

"Will there be showers?"

"What is this, twenty fucking questions? Yes, there's showers! Like you're gonna use 'em," he adds pointedly, taking a step back and wrinkling his nose.

"Whatever, you love my manly essence. So what about Spence? Oh, dude, is Jon flying in? Are we all going?"

"Um." Ryan scrunches into himself a little, shoulders creeping up toward his ears, and from some sixth Valdez sense, Brendon can feel Shane watching. "I thought, I mean, you and I haven't really spent much time together in awhile, just the two of us. I thought. Y'know. Maybe. Just us."

It doesn't happen often anymore, but sometimes Ryan just fucking walks into it, and all you can do is slam the door behind him and lock him in.

Brendon smirks. "Ross."

"Oh, don't even, you're fucking twelve years old, Jesus -- "

"Are you taking me on a romantic getaway?!"

"Forget it." Ryan spins on his heel and starts for the door.

"Hey, hey, dude, no -- " Brendon lunges forward with surprising agility at this hour of the morning, with this many beers already behind him, and wraps a hand around Ryan's arm. It sets him back for a moment, feeling the tightly toned muscle of Ryan's bicep beneath his curled fingers, firmer than Brendon ever remembers it being. Fleetingly, he recalls all the rambling Ryan's done about the physical merits of yoga, most of which went in one ear, out the other, and down the toilet, but he might remember a mention or two about the whole strength-building part.

Brendon brushes it off, wills it from his thoughts, and softens his grip.

"No," he repeats. "No, I'll go. I want to."

Ryan looks phenomenally unconvinced, but his face unscrunches enough to consider the offer.

"Yeah?"

"Yeah," Brendon smiles. "Yeah, let's do it. When do you want to leave?"

Ryan smiles back. "My car's packed downstairs. Go shower."

Brendon snorts. "Like fuck we're taking your car. Go home, I'll pick you up in an hour."

Ryan turns fully toward him, one hand braced around the square edge of the door, the other balanced on his indignantly cocked hip. "The fuck is wrong with my car?"

"Um, right," Brendon pipes cheerfully. "You can't take a Mercedes on a road trip. It's like, a law. Your windows are tinted like, fucking black, man, how am I supposed to sunbathe? You drive five below the speed limit and your GPS voice makes me feel like I'm in a porno. Should I go on?"

It's a few seconds of Ryan's hardcore glaring, leaving Brendon to plot his counter-argument, but Ryan only squeezes his lips into a tight line and huffs loudly through his nose.

"Fine. But I'm driving."

Fucker.

Brendon takes a long, luxurious moment to weigh the pros and cons. It's not a patience he often indulges, but this is serious business, and his precious little Audi is about the closest thing to a grandchild that his parents can hope to get from him, maybe ever. On one hand, if Ryan drives, they might actually get wherever they're going by the time they have to leave for tour next month. On the other hand, if Brendon relegates him to the passenger seat, every ten seconds Ryan'll be spouting criticism about the way Brendon holds the wheel or how his braking habits are inappropriately aggressive.

He sighs for effect, but he's at relative peace with his decision. "Fine."

Ryan smiles with a juvenile air of triumph, chin held high. "Pack a swimsuit."

Brendon smirks. "You wish."

 

+++

 

Brendon really needs to start making a list of all the ways in which his laziness, procrastination, and the general disorderliness of his existence have benefited the greater good. Then he can get it laminated and hang it on Ryan's fridge.

Take now, for instance. He's been back from California almost a week, still living out of his toiletries bag and suitcase, having never bothered to unpack, and it's about to pay off.

He still digs around in the mess, throwing out the crap he doesn't think he'll need (and by throwing out we mean tossing into a corner of his room and hoping the floor will go all amoebic and just absorb it after awhile). Most of it's still good, even if his toothbrush is looking a little worse for wear, but if Ryan's taking him someplace where fresh toothbrushes are not available, that's Ryan's problem.

Nothing really makes him stop and think until he gets to the twelve-pack of condoms he'd packed before leaving for L.A. The box remains sorely unopened, a callous reminder of his lack of sexy good times, and he turns it over in his hand, idly inspecting the expiration date.

"You slut," Shane's voice greets him from the doorway.

Brendon whips around, spotting his roommate molded against the doorframe, ankles and arms crossed, smirking at Brendon in that obnoxious, too-personal way you're only allowed to do when you've watched someone have an orgasm at your hand.

Brendon smirks back, equally justified. "What -- what?!"

Shane throws his head back and laughs, invading the room's space as he steps forward. "What is seriously going through your head right now, man? Scoring with Ross?"

"No!" he snaps too quickly. Shane needs to stop taking best friend lessons from Spencer; it's creepy. "I -- dude, we could be going anywhere! He could be taking me to San Fransisco. In which case I'm taking the giant box under the bathroom sink, come to think of it."

He's even on his way, taking the first step towards the hall, already lost in epic thoughts of pretty, pretty San Fran boys spread out on smooth, white hotel sheets, when Shane catches his arm, eyes wide.

"No way, that box stays. House rules."

Brendon rolls his eyes, dropping his own pitiful little box of Trojans back into his bag. "Whatever."

"Bren."

"Yeah, yeah, I know, no blowjobs without condoms, cell phone on at all times, no dark alleys, no joints unless I've rolled it myself, never give anyone money for a cab or I could get arrested for soliciting prostitution and this time you're not bailing me out -- "

"Bren," Shane's chuckling, his face gentle when Brendon looks up, instantly softening Brendon's own tense annoyance; sometimes he forgets Shane's parental tendencies are only enforced out of love. "I mean, yeah, but that's not what I was gonna say."

"Then what?"

Shane watches him and somehow Brendon knows instantly what he's going to say, because his eyes are the same sharp, swirling blue-green they were two summers ago, when Brendon came home from the cabin and cried in his lap for an hour, and all Shane had had to say was, "I know, man. I know," and Brendon knew everything would be okay.

Only now, Shane looks worried, like he's not so sure.

"Just because he hasn't said anything doesn't mean he doesn't remember."

It's so, so vague to anyone outside their heads, their secrets, the all-knowing line where their eyes connect, and Brendon only wishes he could claim ignorance.

Instead, he shrugs, falling quietly defensive as he always does when he's lacking a strong argument. "And? It happened, so what?"

Shane sighs. "Just be careful."

Brendon sighs right back, working it into fully theatric. "Of what, Shane? I'm not a fucking kid."

Shane recoils at the hint of attack, and Brendon hates that, hates that Shane never fights back. Brendon's used to inner-band discord, the relentless opinions and stubbornness of Ryan and Spencer, the way they all thrive on conflict, and while Jon doesn't let any diva drama suck him in, he isn't afraid to stand up for himself. Shane's the opposite, will sit back and keep the peace, even at his own expense. Brendon feels a twinge of guilt, because fighting with Shane is like kicking a puppy.

"I just," Shane starts, "I feel like... if you fall again, it would be a lot harder to get up this time."

Their eyes speak for awhile, and Brendon hopes his apology is read, because he doesn't quite know how to say it.

"I won't," he says finally. "I won't fall unless there's someone to catch me."

 

+++

 

One thing Brendon loves about road trips is the way you can have the sun beating down on you for hours, and still adjust the temperature inside to whatever you need to compensate. It makes him feel warm and nestled and safe, scrunched into the passenger side with his feet up on the seat, his shoes kicked to the floor, forehead pressed to the cool glass of the window. It's his own window, so he doesn't feel bad gunking it up with fingerprints or sweat, but the car still doesn't feel like his, not without being in the driver's seat. But with Ryan so close, he doesn't mind. It feels like theirs, and that's better.

He looks over at Ryan, one hand on the wheel and one on the gearshift, head bobbing contentedly as Hot Fuss</a> pumps through the speakers, warm and familiar like old times. It reminds him of early fame and easy nights crammed cozily into the back lounge of their first bus, and Brendon has a tiny flash of memory: slow-dancing backstage with Ryan, right in the middle of an interview, giggling and tripping over each other's feet as they sang along to this very song, too consumed by post-show energy to behave like adults.

Ryan has this thing where he only sings along to specific parts of songs, the same parts each time, because his voice sounds good on those parts or just because he likes them, regardless of how his voice sounds. He does sound good sometimes, always sharp and badass when he spits out "direction to perfection," head bouncing forcefully to the rhythm. He's always had a shitty falsetto, but he can never resist jumping in to catch some of the fever when the bridge escalates. Every time, he looks to Brendon, making sure Brendon's going to join him, won't leave him singing all alone, and Brendon indulges him even now, his voice effected and shrieky and overpowering ("You'll never, ever sing back-up," Patrick told him last year, laughing), as he draws out the last syllable of, "I'm not a soldierrrrrrr!" Underneath it, he hears Ryan's voice break, falling into laughter, his eyes sparkling as he and Brendon catch each other's gaze, grinning.

Warmed by the impromptu performance, he turns back to the window, lips still stretched wide as he lets his forehead connect with the cold relief of the glass. The empty fields zip by in an endless, wheat-colored blur as they merge from I-15 onto Highway 93, and Brendon lets his eyelids drop, placid and sleepy from the lack of visual stimulation. He can smell Ryan's cologne fusing with the rest of the car's smells, and it's. It's good. It makes the car feel like home instead of a car.

Or maybe it's just Ryan that feels like home.

 

+++

 

"Are we there yet?"

"No."

"Are we there yet?"

"Brendon."

"Dude, this is. Like. Where the hell are we going? There's nothing up this way for like, the rest of the country! Except the cabin."

Ryan is audibly silent.

"Oh my god, tell me!"

"No."

"You suck."

"Mm-hmm. I'm stopping. And you'd better pee, 'cause I'm not stopping again."

Between Shane and Ryan, Brendon will never need his actual parents ever again.

Brendon has long held the belief that convenience stores are anything but. They never have the drink he wants at that given moment, a five-minute visit has him smelling like stale cigarettes, gasoline, and packaged snack foods, and he's pretty sure the bathrooms carry at least eighteen different diseases somewhere in their depths.

He wasn't always such a snob. Touring with Ryan Ross for five years and tuning out weekly convenience store diatribes have brainwashed him.

But this isn't touring, and it's only the conscious thought of it that makes him suddenly realize how vastly different this is. Being "on the road," he's learning for the first time, is not a sweeping generalization defined by cramped bunks, deadlines, rest stop time limits, wake-up calls, deafening crowds, and a working diet of gas station food (for lack of a more accurate term). Ryan's quieter, not literally, because he's been talking more as a matter of fact, mouth running a mile a minute when Brendon gets him going on a topic he loves. But quieter inside, it seems. Brendon knows they all live for touring, the stress and the mess, but everyone needs a break, and they've found it -- or maybe it found them. The tense gait that tends to take hold of Ryan on tour is gone like it never existed, his movements and posture loose and free, his smiles effortless to coax and easy to keep. Even in the few hours of travel, the difference has been tangible. No agenda, no schedules, no rules, and it shows.

Just them, whatever they want.

"Seriously?"

"Whatever we want, Ross."

"You're seriously buying a Nevada magnet?"

"Dude, yes." Brendon spins the tall cylinder of magnets on display near the cash register, skipping his fingers over the various sizes and shapes. "How many people have a magnet from their own state?"

"...No one, Brendon."

"Exactly." He plucks a large, Vegas-themed one from the hoard and smiles brightly, slapping it down on the counter.

"Oh, we need water bottles," Ryan adds.

"Yeah. And chips."

"Not the barbeque shit."

"Fine, no salt and vinegar."

"Then no chips."

Brendon sighs.

The elderly Pakistani gentleman behind the counter is watching the two of them with a hawk's eye, gaze darting between them before suddenly announcing, "We have many fruit juices."

Both boys redirect their eyes to his, blinking comically.

"And gourmet chocolates!" he pipes up, thrilled to have their attention.

"Um, I think we're good, thanks," Brendon smiles.

"We also have condoms."

Brendon's eyes widen, scanning over to Ryan, who looks like he's biting the inside of his mouth to keep from laughing.

"Yeah, uh." Brendon turns back to the man. "I don't think we need those."

The man's face sobers. "You young boys have to be safe, nowadays."

Brendon turns his whole body around to face Ryan, keeping himself angled deliberately away from the man, having fallen into a trembling rush of silent giggles.

Ryan bites back his own amusement -- hard, judging by the plump red flush in his lower lip, and turns to the man. "Oh, we're safe," he assures him with that odd sort of deadpan cheerfulness he gets when he's trying to be amusing. "We even have a bodyguard."

Brendon runs out of the store and doubles over in front of the giant icebox, breath lost in his laughter.

Ryan emerges a moment later after he's paid for and bagged their items, falling into giggles as soon as the door's shut behind him. He grabs Brendon's arm and they race back to the car across the parking lot, hand in hand and tripping over themselves like they're running from the law, like they have a hundred secrets, like they're kids without parents.

Brendon feels Ryan's palm tucked against his, a solid reality of pulsing warmth, and he thinks this -- this moment, right here -- is why he's alive.

 

+++

 

"So I've concluded -- " Brendon starts, and it's a sentence on its own for dramatic effect. Ryan mumbles "Oh, lord" under his breath and it's all the acknolwedgment Brendon needs. " -- That you're taking me to Montana. And we're going to like, a dude ranch, do those even exist anymore? And I'll meet this gorgeous cowboy and I'll leave the band to become a farmer, and I'll get back that sweet tan I had when I was working with my dad. It's all part of your plan to get rid of me."

"Right. Which is why I made you bring your guitar."

"Well how else am I gonna seduce the cowboy?"

"...Brendon?"

"Hm."

"You're a whore."

Though affectionately stated, as potentially last words Ryan probably would've chosen different ones, had he been able to anticipate the sudden, jarring jolt of the car, the tilt as it jerks roughly to the side at seventy miles an hour, and the screeching of the wheel dragging over the pavement, the back passenger-side tire blown to bits.

Ryan slams on the brakes, his mouth dropping in shock and one arm shooting instinctively across Brendon's chest, holding him in place as the car hobbles to a stop on the shoulder of the highway.

"You okay?" Ryan asks, breathless, and Brendon nods. "Fucking hell."

They both clamber out of the car to inspect the damage, to which Ryan responds with a string of filthy, creative curses, one hand carding angrily through his hair. Brendon whips out his cell, but Spencer's insistence on programming AAA into their phones isn't going to save them now.

"Fuck," he hisses, waiting for Ryan to look up. "We don't have any fucking signal out here."

Ryan rolls his eyes. "I can't even see what we ran over. When's the last time you had your tires serviced?"

"Um." Brendon wrinkles his nose, his skin prickling in the late afternoon heat. "I... don't know?"

"Christ, you're so fucking helpless," Ryan sighs, hooking his fingers under the waistband of his v-neck and peeling it off over his head, leaving his hair delightfully out of place, before bunching it up and tossing it back into the car.

Brendon watches him warily, too distracted by their plight to let his eyes linger over the long planes of Ryan's torso, the way the muscles in his back and shoulders shift as he...

Right. Too distracted.

Brendon huffs. "If you really wanna lure passing cars, we should be making out."

If Ryan rolled his eyes any higher, they'd get stuck up there.

"Open your trunk," Ryan orders, and when Brendon does, Ryan doesn't waste a moment digging around, dumping their luggage on the ground as he works to uncover the spare lodged at the bottom.

Brendon smiles. "You have got to be kidding me."

"Brendon, shut up, just please tell me you've got a car jack in here."

"Um -- yeah, it's in the back."

"Tire iron?"

"Underneath the -- yeah."

Ryan digs out the items without a word, arranging them on the hot, gravely pavement and turning to face Brendon, hands on his hips. A fine glaze of sweat is already blossoming across his skin, his face flushed and eyes squinty from the blaze of sun, and as inexplicably sexy as it is, Brendon still has to laugh.

"You gonna change a tire, Ross?"

Ryan's eyes narrow even further, and Brendon wonders how he can even see out of them. "Unless you'd rather do it?"

"I don't fucking know how to change a tire, dude!" Brendon laughs. "And if I don't, I'm pretty sure you don't."

Ryan rolls his eyes again, dropping down to the ground. "My dad wasn't good for much," he says suddenly, voice strained as he works to remove the hubcap. "But he had a thing for cars, used to be a mechanic before he met my mom. For a couple summers he thought he'd try the whole father-son bonding thing. Didn't really stick, but I can put together a '69 Corvette from nothing but a pile of parts so don't give me any shit or I'll take this pretentious piece of crap apart and let you put it back together, and don't think I won't."

Brendon doesn't give him any shit.

Brendon doesn't do much of anything but stand with his jaw hanging open and wonder how he never knew this, watching Ryan trudge through the process and trying to remember all the reasons he made himself get over Ryan and how the hell he did it (if he ever did at all). But with Ryan bent over like he is, shirtless and sweaty, hands etched with black grease as the tendons in his arms flex under the exertion, fingers curled strong and tight around the base of the tire iron, Brendon unsurprisingly comes up blank.

He's so blissfully blank that he barely notices the car pulling up behind them until the driver's walking toward him, too close to ignore.

Brendon turns his head and freezes, because holy fuck, he's totally seen this clip on PornoTube.

Brendon doesn't even know where to look: the guy's blinding white smile, his eyes (bluer than Spencer's and doubly intense), the blond curls falling messily into his face, or the outline of his six-pack beneath his practically translucent wife-beater.

"Hi," he says in greeting, gaze locked to Brendon's. Brendon can almost hear Ryan's eyes rolling. "You guys need some help?"

"Yeah," Brendon answers automatically, his voice rough and breathy. "We do."

"No, we don't," Ryan snaps from the ground, but no one seems to notice he's there.

"I'm Troy," the guy offers, still smiling bright as he extends his hand, and Brendon takes it, relishing the familiar little jump below his waist when Troy's fingers squeeze his, firm and strong and filled with intent.

"Brendon," he replies, feeling his body descend into seduction autopilot, eyes darkening and smile stretching slowly, crooked to just the right degree with a side of smirk thrown in for good measure.

It has no small effect, and Troy bites his lip, eyes never leaving Brendon's. "You guys seem to be a little... screwed."

"Totally screwed," Brendon breathes.

"We're fucking fine, thanks," Ryan interjects. Brendon makes a mental note to murder him later. The highway's abandoned; there's a million places he could hide the body.

"You sure you don't need any help?" Troy offers, still staring straight at Brendon. "I live in town, I could... give you a ride."

Brendon's smile explodes (and really, his dick isn't too far behind).

"Finished," Ryan announces in a colorless monotone, casually throwing his supplies back into the trunk along with the afflicted tire and wiping his hands on his pants.

"Uh-huh," Brendon acknowledges absently.

"Listen," Troy says, digging into his pocket and emerging with a crumpled receipt and a stub of a pencil. "If you're gonna be in town for awhile, maybe we could hang out or something."

Brendon tries to agree in a sexy, coherent manner, but it comes out close to "Mm, uh-hmm," with a manic little nod as he watches Troy scribble a few digits onto the back of the receipt before pressing it into Brendon's hand, closing his fingers around Brendon's fist. Ryan is at once all too present, appearing ninja-like out of nowhere to plaster himself against Brendon's side, one arm snaking tightly around Brendon's waist.

"Ready to go, honey?"

Brendon feels the blood freeze in his veins, halting in its rapid rush of hormonal excitement as he and Troy both direct their eyes to Ryan for the first time, matching disappointment in each.

Ryan smiles, toothy and sugary-sweet.

"Um -- I -- sorry," Troy mutters, turning and stalking back to his car, head hung low with disappointment. Brendon watches him drive away, his mouth gawking as the sizzling red sports car speeds off into the distance. He huffs once, twice, running a desperate search for words, but his brain comes up empty and Brendon actually stamps his foot.

"Ryan! You fucking cockblocker, what the fuck?!"

Settling for another eye roll, Ryan simply stomps back to the driver's side and snatches his t-shirt from the seat. "Just get in."

But Brendon's pissed, and he doesn't want to follow orders, especially not when it's his own damn car involved, which he bought with his own money, from his own talents and hard work, and he's totally an adult here and he'll be damned if Ryan's going to make him feel otherwise. He takes a few steadying breaths by the side of the car before allowing himself to crawl inside and shut his door.

It's just. It's not fucking fair. Ryan doesn't get to dictate where Brendon puts his dick, especially not after half a dozen years, subconsciously or not, of making damn sure Brendon never put it anywhere near him. It's none of Ryan's fucking business -- whether or not Brendon wishes it were.

For a few minutes they drive in silence, slower than before to accommodate the smaller, weaker tire, and Brendon tries to even out the tension in his face, because he can be an adult about this, he can. He doesn't want a fight this early in their... whatever this trip is, and he trusts Ryan enough to explain when he's ready.

Unless Ryan's just being a bitch, which is not a possibility Brendon's willing to rule out.

"I'm sorry," Ryan finally says, his voice small and genuine.

Brendon turns to watch Ryan's profile, sharply silhouetted in the sun's long, lazy rays. "Why'd you do it?"

"Dude, he was like... all over you!"

"Um, yeah, did you notice I kind of really didn't mind?"

Ryan sighs. "He was a fucking loser, Brendon. A total slut; he was shameless. He's probably got like five different STDs."

Brendon pulls a deep breath into his lungs, but it does little to calm him. "Right. Okay. Hot friendly guy finds me fuckable, so obviously that must mean there's something wrong with him."

"That's not what I meant, Jesus!"

"Then what?!"

"I just -- " He sighs louder, as if that's supposed to better make his point. "I got... a vibe. I don't know. He just. He seemed... shallow. I just. You deserve better. Someone... real."

Brendon rolls his eyes, but it's only for his defense. Inside, he can feel something warm bubbling in his stomach, something that's laid dormant a long time, long enough to catch him off guard.

"Yeah, well," he mumbles, picking at a loose thread from a rip in his jeans, "if you hadn't noticed, I'm kind of shit at relationships. I'll settle for a shallow fuck just fine, thanks."

"I'm sorry," Ryan repeats. "I shouldn't have -- I'm sorry. I just. I worry about you. I can't help it."

"It's okay."

Ryan's quiet for a moment, but he's clearly thinking hard, weighing some option in his mind, and it's louder than if there were words. "Just -- " he finally stutters, "look, it's not too late. Call him and tell him I was an ass if you want."

Brendon shrugs. "Doesn't matter, not like I'm gonna see him again. God only knows where we're going."

Ryan's frame deflates a bit in his seat, but he doesn't look away from the road. It's that loud silence again, and Brendon watches him, waiting for the bomb to drop.

"We'll be there in thirty minutes," Ryan says.

Brendon's face lights up, but he's a little surprised to find it's nothing to do with Troy. "Dude -- "

"Yeah, whatever."

"The -- no way." He grins. "You're not seriously -- you are? The cabin? Seriously?!"

Ryan grins at him sideways, just a little, but it's enough. "No more questions."

Brendon smiles big at him, waiting for Ryan to turn and catch it, and when he does, Ryan smiles back.

"So there, call him," Ryan suggests, but his voice and posture have dropped, his offer weak and forced in a way Brendon can't begin to understand, but he wants to.

He digs out the crumpled receipt from his pocket and looks at the numbers and name scrawled over the back, the lines of thick, smeary lead from the pencil's dull tip. He can feel Ryan watching him as he smushes the receipt into a little ball, rolling down his window and tossing it out to the dry, summer evening wind.

He meets Ryan's eyes, and Ryan looks confused, like he wants to smile but he's not sure if he's allowed, so Brendon smiles first. Ryan doesn't smile back, not really. It would be too indulgent, too sacrificial of his pride.

But Brendon keeps watching him as he turns his attention back to the road, and after a moment, he can see the edges of Ryan's lips inching upward, just enough to be obvious. And when Brendon loosens his seatbelt a little and leans over, resting his head on Ryan's sun-warmed shoulder, Ryan doesn't push him away.

 

+++

 

Even through Ryan's enduring, halfhearted grip on the element of surprise, Brendon's beginning to give in to his suspicions more and more with each passing mile, trying not to set his heart on it, but unable to hold back his excitement as they start to pass familiar road signs, take exits he remembers with a warm, hazy recognition.

Once they're in town he's all gone, figuring even if they don't end up behind the exact same four walls, this is good enough. He remembers the town all too well, the little grocery store with the weird bananas; the hole-in-the-wall music shop where they bought new strings. Maybe the experience wasn't all good, but no experience worth having ever is, and the summer spent here was filled to the brim with memories of Jon's smile, still bright even through transparent curtains of smoke; Spencer's laughter, easy and open like it never is; and Ryan's... And Ryan. A reckless trail of "try anything once" experimentation, all the drugs they never should've, emerging just lucky to be alive. Laughing and drunk-diving into the lake, stargazing on the roof; guitars burnt to a crisp and Shane's camera making them all feel like they were doing something worth doing, something magical; and music -- always music, everywhere, even through the nights of blistering frustration, sweaty palms squeezing into tight fists to fight tempers; music even that one night, the night that could've changed everything and that Ryan so painstakingly ensured never would.

Brendon wouldn't trade a single moment.

The sun's just starting to blaze over to fiery orange as they drive through the blink-and-you'll-miss-it streets of town, the old buildings sagging comfortably along the roads, when he looks over to Ryan's side and they share a smile. Ryan's says yes to Brendon's unspoken question, and Brendon turns back to his own window, afraid his smile will give away something he can't define.

It's strange, how sure he is of where they're headed, but it doesn't stop his nerves from escalating with every corner they take, every familiar street name that comes into view. It's like listening to them announce the winning lottery ticket: the first few numbers match yours, but with each one, you get more and more nervous, knowing the chance of of it being yours gets slimmer with each number that matches up.

The car rounds the final corner into the quarter-mile driveway, and before Brendon even registers it, the cabin is popping into view over the treetops, its wide, layered roof peeking through the branches.

Pine needles crunch under their feet as they climb out of the car, and Brendon's legs ache gratefully with the opportunity to stretch at last. The air smells just like he never realized he'd remembered, cleaner and clearer than anywhere he's ever been, and if it's possible, he can even smell the lake in the backyard, just beyond the wide deck off the kitchen.

He soaks it up, eyes falling shut and head lolling back lazily, letting the oxygen spill into his lungs. When he finally turns to Ryan, Ryan's watching him behind a shy smile.

"Well?"

Brendon grins. "Well what?"

"I dunno. I mean. Is this... good? Was this -- "

"Are you kidding me?"

"I don't know, I mean. I know, not everything here was... great... and we kind of started to go nuts after awhile, but."

Ryan looks so small standing there by himself, and Brendon finds himself crossing the gravel driveway to stand in front of him, fingers itching to take Ryan's hands, but instead he settles for smiling.

"It's perfect."

It's enough to set Ryan's face alight. "Yeah?"

"Dude. Yes. I loved it here, you know I did. How did you fucking get this place again? Is this out of your own pocket? Because you're fucking nuts, Pete bitched at us for weeks about the price of this place."

Ryan shrugs dismissively. "'S no big deal. I called the guy and he said he didn't have any tenants for another couple months, told me he'd give me a good deal if I booked for four weeks, so... I did."

Brendon's eyes shoot wide. "We're here for a month?"

"I -- " Suddenly Ryan looks horrified, like he's made a gigantic mistake. "I just -- we don't have to -- I mean, we can leave early. Or. Y'know, if you get bored we can see if Spence and Jon want to come, or Shane. Or just. Travel somewhere else, whatever you want, I just thought, we're always really bored when we're not on tour or writing or recording and it's not like we ever do anything productive at home so I just -- "

On some inappropriate instinct, Brendon lunges forward and presses the fingers of one hand flat against Ryan's mouth, stilling the nervous flow of words, and Brendon's insantly rewarded with a flash of sympathy for anyone who's been in his company for any period of time his whole life, because if this is the kind of cracked-out rambling they're forced to tolerate, he doesn't know how they do it.

He jerks his hand away when Ryan's eyes widen a little, but he can't shake his smile.

"Ryan, it's perfect."

Ryan smiles back. "Yeah?"

And despite his fondness for speech, Brendon's always believed touch conquers all. Without giving himself too much time to consider it, he's pushing the last few inches into Ryan's space and wrapping him in a hug, the kind he stopped giving Ryan years ago when he realized he wasn't getting them back.

This time, he gets it back.

 

+++

 

It makes Brendon's face hurt from smiling to see how perfectly their two guitars fit into the music room, propped against the baby grand, beside the out of date but functional drum kit, and the motherfucking harp that no one ever really understood, not that Brendon didn't engage in more than one drunken attempt to play it. There's a cello in one of the closets somewhere, he remembers, and a couple of flutes in another, but he can't recall where. The owner's a retired music professor and that was about all the convincing they'd needed to sign the lease.

He claims his old bedroom, even though he'd prefer the one closest to Ryan's, but he feels the cabin is demanding tradition, as he explains to Ryan while Ryan's on the phone trying to order a veggie pizza without cheese on one half (what the actual fuck). Ryan responds that if tradition is what the cabin wants, then Brendon had better march his ass outside naked and drunk, make up a dance to "Toxic," and perform it on the dock before the sun goes down.

Brendon flips him off.

Dinner ends up a lot more involving than Brendon had bargained for, because it turns out Ryan had packed a secret stash of graham crackers, marshmallows, and Hershey's bars ("Shut up, it doesn't count as dairy if it's chocolate") -- but considering the end result, Brendon can't really find it in himself to complain when Ryan puts him on stick-hunting duty. Brendon diplomatically suggests they could just roast the marshmallows on the ends of Ryan's fingers, but Ryan is somewhat less than sold.

It's on his eighth s'more, mosquitos just starting to buzz around his skin and the last sliver of sun slipping down over the treetops, when Brendon decides any more time spent out of the water would be a crime against the universal concept of vacation.

"You know," Ryan points out, legs dangling over the edge of the dock, one foot kicking out of the water to splash at Brendon, "you're not supposed to swim right after you eat. 'Specially not after you've eaten enough to feed both of us for a week."

Brendon grins manically from where he's waist deep, his boxers bubbling out beneath him underwater, and raises an eyebrow. "If I start to drown, will you save me?"

Ryan smirks. "Maybe."

"Maybe?" Brendon saunters forward, letting the water liquify the movements of his body. "Maybe... you should get your ass in the water, just in case."

"Fuck you, I'm not swimming, not tonight."

"Don't make me start singing 'Under the Sea,' Ross. I'll do it."

"And then I'll drown you."

Brendon bites his lip. "Not if I drown you first."

And just like that, one hand shoots out, hooking around Ryan's calf and tugging him forward until he's sliding right off the dock into the water. Ryan's limbs fly everywhere, reminding Brendon of a puppy subjected to his first bath, but Ryan gets his footing soon enough and he's fighting just as dirty, broken laughter punctuating their moves as they fight to dunk each other. Brendon's got a slight weight advantage, but Ryan's got agility and endless limbs that can practically tie knots around Brendon's body. Brendon manages to wrangle Ryan out of his t-shirt so they're on equal ground, and Ryan finally calls "uncle" when Brendon ducks underwater and starts tugging on the cuffs of Ryan's pants.

"...Four fucking weeks to get back at you, I swear to god," Ryan's laughing as they pull themselves back onto the dock, Ryan with significantly more effort, having to contend with the extra weight from his soaked-through pants.

Brendon collapses on his back on the dock, the wooden surface still warm from the day's dose of sun. He feels Ryan settle beside him, their shoulders brushing as he situates himself. Brendon feels himself shiver, and that nagging voice he's tried to silence for years tells him it's little to do with the water, and more to do with the feel of Ryan's skin, wet but still heated, tickling lightly against Brendon's. If either of them move an inch the contact will be lost. Brendon forces himself not to hold his breath.

The stars are just making the shift from clouded dots to bright, sharp points mapping out the sky, when the silence finally breaks.

"Keltie would've liked it here," Ryan says.

Brendon smiles, his shoulder nudging Ryan's. "Way to kill the mood, loser."

"We have a mood?"

"Not anymore!"

Ryan inclines his head, smiling, but Brendon turns back to the sky.

"You talk to her at all since after Valentine's Day?" he asks.

He feels Ryan shrug. "Not much. I mean. We tried to. Just to... I don't know. Make sense of things. I dunno; she did most of the talking. I didn't really know what to say. I'm not good at... I guess I'm just used to you and Spence and Jon kind of always... knowing what I'm thinking, without me having to say it."

Brendon nods, and he thinks maybe that's the end of it; Ryan hasn't volunteered much information about what happened, and Brendon hasn't asked much, because Ryan will talk when he's ready, even if it takes months, or years.

"I... never told you," Ryan suddenly continues, "never told anyone, but. I was actually the one who ended it."

Brendon turns, his forehead creasing, waiting for Ryan to look at him, but Ryan doesn't. "I thought..."

"I mean, yeah, she caught me, but. She asked me -- she actually asked me, if she should give me another chance. And I told her... no. I said we should call it quits, once and for all." He's holding his breath, and Brendon can feel the moment it spills out, shaky and unsure. "Do you think I'm a bad person?"

"I. No," Brendon answers honestly. "No... you did bad things but that doesn't mean you're a bad person."

Ryan doesn't say anything, but the tension in his shoulders melts a little, enough for Brendon to put forth the one question that's been eating at him since it all went down, eyes still hard-focused on the jagged, meaningless patterns of stars scattered overhead, all motionless but twinkling, like they're trying to move but just can't.

"Can I... can I ask... why you did it? Cheating, I mean?"

Predictably, Ryan sighs, but it's not out of frustration, more like relief that the question's finally been brought to the surface. "I... was searching," he finally says. "For a version of myself that I wanted to exist, but it didn't."

Brendon smiles to himself, because the only explanation more cryptic would've been, simply, "because."

He says, "That's all I'm gonna get, isn't it?"

Ryan turns to him and smiles. "For now."

Ryan's smiles tend to be contagious, and this is no exception. Their eyes eventually gravitate back to the sky in unison, and Brendon wonders if they're looking at the same stars.

"Where do you think we'll be?" Brendon asks. "Not in like, five or ten years but like... twenty. Thirty."

Ryan shrugs. "It'd be easy to say we'll still be in the band, but it's not like a bunch of senior citizens are gonna bring in too many crowds."

"Yeah," Brendon chuckles. "But it's weird, 'cause at the same time, I can't imagine us not making music together, all of us. I can't imagine us not being in each other's lives."

"We will be," Ryan says, and it's the surest Brendon's ever heard his voice since the night he looked into Pete's eyes and assured him, yes, he wanted this. After a moment he pokes at Brendon's arm. "Didn't you say you wanted to teach music, maybe?"

"Yeah... yeah, I'd love to, someday. Get my degree and stuff. It'd be awesome."

"You'd be really good at it," Ryan tells him, and there's a smile in his voice.

Brendon finds himself lost in the hypnotic bits of light above, the way he can see the moon reflecting off the tiny ripples in the lake out of the corner of his eye.

"We'd still be us, though, right?" Ryan asks, and he sounds young again, like they've suddenly descended into a living, breathing flashback to the nights he and Ryan spent in Brendon's shitty apartment, sharing the mattress on his bedroom floor when Ryan couldn't bear to be in his own house. Ryan's voice sounded so young then, young and small but wildly hopeful, always eager for Brendon's approval, his assurance, in a way he wouldn't allow himself to be during the day. "If... we weren't a band. We'd still be us, all of us, together. Wouldn't we?"

Ryan's hand is so close, his knuckles right at Brendon's hip, that it's impossible for Brendon not to reach out and curl his fingers around them, loose, just enough to establish contact.

"We could never not be us, Ryan."

Ryan's fingers weave into his, still damp from the lake but hot against Brendon's, almost too hot, but not enough.

"Ryan?"

"Hmm."

"Why'd you bring me back here?"

The silence stretches long enough for Brendon to wish he'd never opened his mouth, but Ryan's hand doesn't leave his, doesn't stiffen, and when Ryan finally turns to him, his lips are curled upward.

"Ask again later."

Brendon bites back a smirk. "Like a magic eight-ball?"

A small splash of laughter tumbles up from his throat. "Yeah... only, I don't think I'll ever have all the answers."

Brendon smiles. "I don't think I need all the answers."

And that -- maybe that's it, Brendon thinks. Maybe we're not supposed to have all the answers. Maybe that's what makes life interesting, the collision of endless questions and answers, and those precious moments of triumph when we can match the right ones together.

Ryan squeezes his fingers, and Brendon doesn't know whether it's a question or an answer, but somehow, it feels like a match.