Brendon's twenty minutes late. Ryan pushes up onto the back of the park bench, setting his boots on the seat, and leans forward with his arms hugging his elbows. A girl and boy are crossing the lawn between paths, grinning and whispering to each other. They dart glances at the straightened bangs pushing into Ryan's lashes, the eyeliner and the black eye drawn on only one side, the glimmer of blue shadow at his temple and the corner of his mouth. He taps his fingers on the knees of his skinny black jeans and stares through them.
If Brendon's much later they're going to miss the opening band, and they might not be able to even find Jon and Spencer. Jon's been talking about his friend Tom and his underground half-fey band for months, and Ryan isn't going to just ... miss the show, because Brendon's a flake.
On a billboard over the street from the park, a centaur is gesturing discreetly between his legs as a willowy girl considers the gourmet chocolates in her hand, her expression torn. It's the crassest depiction of the Fey Law of Exchange that Ryan has ever seen.
Brendon finally appears, loping across the park from the far corner. He has the ear buds to his iPod plugged in, his head bobbing. He speeds up a bit when he sees Ryan.
"Dude," he says, out of breath. "Sorry. Work." He tugs the ear buds out, letting them dangle.
Ryan slides off the seat, shoving his hands into his pockets. "You're late," he says, pushing against Brendon's shoulder a bit as he starts walking. It could be a friendly push, except that they don't do that, not unless there are other people around to keep it meaningless. Brendon narrows his eyes, hitching his shoulders up.
"Yeah," he says, falling into step beside Ryan, "my manager kept me back. Work. You remember, right, this thing where I have a job to keep me from actually starving to death while I finish school?"
Brendon's wearing a black leather jacket over a bright red tee-shirt, his fringe flipping over his forehead, and he would look like a puppy except for the sharp set his mouth has now. Ryan's jittery and pissed off at having to wait and mostly, today, too aware of Brendon next to him. He's glad to topple them over into the fight.
"Do you ever get sick of using that line?" Ryan asks. "It's your trump card, isn't it? Nobody can ever hold you accountable, because you're the only one who's been kicked out of home for the band."
Brendon hugs the arms of his leather jacket around himself. "Right," he says. "Yeah, that was a line. Obviously, if work keeps me late, that's a ... a pity cry, or ... you caught me."
Ryan pushes his hands deeper into his pocket. "I'm just saying," he says, his steps bringing him almost too close to Brendon again, "the brave little toaster thing is –"
"Fuck you, Ross. You think I'm the one who goes on about how much he's done for the band?" His eyes skitter to Ryan's face and away, and he stares at his shoes. "Maybe that's the problem." His low tone almost disguises the mean edge. "Maybe you don't want anyone else to do anything for the band. Maybe you want it to be all yours."
Ryan flinches. "We're a band. I'm not even the frontman, I don't even sing, don't try to..."
"You wish you could, though." They stop at a pedestrian crossing, Brendon's fingers playing a nervy beat over the button. There are street decorations up, now: holly branches and dancing skeletons and fluttering neon wings. They're getting into the Fey Quarter. "You wish you didn't even need a singer, don't you? You wish you could just keep the band to yourself, your own vision where nobody ever talked back about anything." Brendon's mouth twists and he says, casually, "Maybe you'd keep Spencer, I guess. Couldn't break up that pairing."
The little green figure starts flashing, and Ryan pushes ahead. "You don't know anything about it."
Brendon catches up to him. His eyes are dark, something fierce in them even though he's not looking at Ryan properly – he never does, Ryan can never make him. "I know it's your escape," he says. "Everyone knows you need it most; do you think they don't? Poor tragic Ryan Ross, he needs a dream to escape his fucking awful life."
Ryan wheels on him. "Like you don't," he says. The words spill out, off-kilter and uncontrolled as Brendon always makes him. "You left your family, right? You left everything, you live in the shittiest apartment I have ever seen and you pay for it with a shitty job on top of school and practice. Don't even pretend like you did that for my band."
Brendon looks incredulous. "Is this a competition?" His face is close, but dimly lit, his eyes dark. Ryan stares for a moment, shivering. Then he processes the low light. Hours work differently in the Fey Quarter, so it might be that twilight has come early. Either way, they're still late. Ryan wheels away.
They aren't in the best area within the Quarter. There are still the ubiquitous holly branches and the streetlamps fluttering with tiny glowing fae, but the few people on the streets are wrapped up and walking quickly. The buildings facing the street are concrete faces, looming and cutting out any remaining sun. Graffiti spills over the walls: Ryan sees a psychedelically blue-toned face weep a single tear, ducking her head so that paint flows over concrete cracks as they pass.
Brendon catches him up again. He's tearing at the hem of his tee-shirt, staring down as his fingers stretch it out. For a moment, Ryan can't drag his eye away from the blotchy flush on Brendon's cheeks. "I don't wear it on my face, like you," Brendon says. "At least I have that much self-respect, right? I don't actually paint the desperation on my face."
Ryan's fingers curl with the need to not reach up and touch the makeup around his eyes. Instead he flicks his gaze down Brendon's body and back up, over the tight jeans and too-short shirt and the tense line of Brendon's back and shoulders, vulnerable and brashly fuck-the-consequences all at once. "Self-respect?" Ryan says. "Yeah, I don't think so."
Ryan's walking backwards, so he sees how that makes Brendon's face whiten. Brendon opens his mouth to reply and Ryan's shoulder blades knock into the moving body behind him.
There's a yelp and a confused milling of figures. Ryan stumbles, catching his hand on Brendon's shoulder, and then they're both surrounded by fae. There are five of them; Ryan turns, taking them all in. One, a boy with lurid pink hair and delicate membranous wings, is shaking an empty paper cup, his hand and sleeve dripping. He looks annoyed.
"Clumsy," another one says. She has long spindly legs in clinging white skirts, a crown of clover growing from her temples and twining around her head. She looks like a faerie queen wannabe, Ryan thinks, and she's obviously the one in charge. "You knocked his cup," she says to Ryan." And without looking away from him, "Zepha, what was in your cup?"
"First dew of a midwinter morning," the pink-haired boy says immediately.
"I'm sorry," Ryan says. His fingers shift on Brendon's shoulder – he's all wrapped up in how they were fighting, his heartbeat in his throat. He's finding it hard to change direction. "Uh, I – I should have looked where I was going."
Brendon shifts next to him; opens his mouth and closes it again.
"That's sweet," the wannabe queen says, "except that Zeph has first dew all over his sleeve. Do you have any idea how valuable that is?"
Ryan stares at her. After a long moment he lets his breath out. "We owe you something, don't we." His voice comes out even flatter than usual.
The queen smiles, bright with teeth. "That's right. Let me think. What do we want from you?"
The other fae are looking bright-eyed and interested now – the one with the pretty blue lizard tongue is actually licking her lips. There's a general sense of amusement, too.
Ryan suspects, crossing his arms, that it was actually soda in the cup. He can't prove it, though, and they're in the Fey Quarter. That means the Law of Exchange actually is law – it's absolute justice, and if you don't pay what you owe you don't get out again.
It still pisses Ryan off.
"What," the fairy queen says, her fingers tapping her chin, "do the two of you have that we might want?"
Brendon's glaring at his shoes. "You can have Ross," he mutters.
"Brendon!" Ryan says. Brendon looks up, alarmed.
The faerie queen's eyes light up. "What an intriguing idea," she says. She runs her fingers along Ryan's jaw line, smiling into his wide eyes. She's too young to play this role, really, but Ryan can still feel his heart beating too fast. You don't offer something to a fae if you don't mean it; not as a joke, not ever.
She makes a moue of disappointment. "Sadly," she says to Brendon, "he doesn't seem to be yours to give, not yet."
Brendon's breath of relief is more of a full-body sigh.
"No," the wannabe queen says, "I think we'll take something else. How about..." Her lip curls in a smile. "How about a kiss?"
Ryan blinks at her. "You want one of us to kiss you?"
"One of us?" Brendon hisses, tugging him close. "I didn't spill their cup of whatever!"
"You just tried to trade me," Ryan hisses back, curling in towards his ear.
The queen laughs, hiding her mouth behind her hand. "No, she says. "No, not that."
Ryan looks at her, his mouth making a confused shape.
The girl with the lizard tongue rolls her eyes, leaning under the wannabe queen's arm.
"Um," Brendon says. His voice sounds strangled. "I think she wants us to kiss. You and me."
Ryan thinks his vision goes grey for a second. "What," he croaks.
The queen grins. "That's our price," she says. "One kiss, good enough to fill Zepha's cup."
Ryan and Brendon both look at the cup in the pink-haired boy's hand. "I hope you don't mean, like, fill with saliva," Brendon says, sounding hysterical.
"What?" the wannabe queen says. "Oh, mother, that is unspeakably disgusting. No, it's a kiss, you moron. We're going to collect it."
"Something else," Ryan says, breaking in. "Choose something else, we don't agree to this."
"You already spilt the dew," Zepha says, leaning back against the concrete wall behind him. "You don't get to negotiate the trade."
Ryan darts a trapped glance at Brendon. Brendon has his arms crossed, staring at nothing. "Just say yes, Ryan," he says after a second. "What's the big deal? Just – whatever." He scowls, crossing his arms tighter.
Ryan glares at him. "Fine," he says. "Fuck. I don't even care."
One of the fae drops to the pavement, sprawling against the faerie queen's legs. He pulls some string from the pocket of his patchwork jacket and starts weaving a cat's cradle.
The queen pushes her fingers through his curly hair around his horns. "Come on, then," she says. "One kiss to make us even, and you can go do –" She flicks her hand. "Whatever it is you're so dressed up for."
Ryan notices that for all Brendon's 'Just say yes' before, he's not making any move towards Ryan, or even looking at him. It makes Ryan angry all over again. He takes two quick steps, grabbing Brendon's jaw. Brendon swings around to look at him, wide-eyed for a second before his expression hardens. Ryan stares at him, his stomach swooping, and he nearly loses his nerve. Then he leans in and presses their mouths together.
It should be dry, that was what Ryan meant it to be, but Brendon opens his mouth on a surprised exhale and the soft edge of his lip slides between Ryan's. Ryan's hand tightens on Brendon's shoulder, his heart thudding, and this is too real, this is too much. Brendon shifts, a tiny amount, fitful breath hot against Ryan's mouth. Ryan jerks back. He's breathing hard. Brendon turns his face to the side so Ryan can't see his eyes.
"Seriously?" the wannabe queen says. Ryan has to make himself concentrate on what she's saying. "Glynn?"
The patchwork boy at her feet shrugs and passes his cat's cradle up to Zepha with the cup. Zepha crowds the tangled string into his palm and squeezes, tilting the cup to look at whatever he's poured inside. "Like, a thimble," he says. "If that."
The queen sighs and waves a hand at Ryan and Brendon. "The deal was a cup," she says. "You're going to have to do better."
Ryan can't do this. He can handle Brendon flirting with him when Jon and Spencer are around to act as a buffer, and he can tip his mouth in a grin and let Brendon drape himself over Ryan's shoulder and he can fight with Brendon and he can joke around and he can go home and beat off and pretend he isn't thinking about what he's thinking about, but he can't do this.
"Come on," Brendon says. His voice is quiet, and he's right there – he's moved in close, his eyes steady and dark. "One real kiss," he says. "We can do that."
Ryan meets his eyes. He feels like he's drowning. He jerks a nod.
This time Ryan threads his arms around Brendon's neck; lets his fingers brush the short hair at Brendon's nape. Brendon rests his hands on Ryan's hips, fingers touching the strip of skin Ryan's shirt leaves bare, there at the line of his hip bone. Ryan can't read Brendon's eyes. He sucks in a breath and Brendon wets his lips. Ryan's stomach tugs, low down with want, his breath stuttering again, and he pushes forward so he doesn't have to look at Brendon anymore.
Brendon catches Ryan's mouth, tilting their heads to a better angle. Ryan parts his lips, teeth scraping gently at Brendon's lower lip. Brendon opens with a gasp, his tongue tracing the edge of Ryan's teeth, and Ryan shivers, pressing closer. He sucks Brendon's lower lip between his own like he's wanted to do for, fuck, Ryan isn't going to think, he isn't. Brendon groans, a low sound that makes Ryan's toes curl, and one of his hands pushes up under Ryan's tee-shirt at the hollow of his back. It's all sweet heat and the taste of Brendon's mouth and Brendon's hand leaving shivery trails on the skin of Ryan's lower back, and Ryan shudders and doesn't think he'll ever stop. He brings his hands around from where they're loosely crossed at the back of Brendon's neck and cups his face, kissing deeper and fiercer.
Brendon gasps something that's almost words, breaking the kiss for a moment; pressing back in and then breaking it again. Ryan has to blink to make his vision come into focus. Brendon's eyes are huge, his pupils blown, and he's biting his lip. His face twists as though he's upset, and then he brings his hands back to Ryan's hips, gently pushing away.
Ryan stumbles, his hands dropping from Brendon's cheeks. He's staring, still. Then he gets a hold on himself and wheels away, breathing hard. He presses his shaking hands against his face.
"Jesus," somebody says.
Ryan jumps, his face flushing even hotter. Six feet or so away, Jon's mouth is hanging open, one of his hands still half-raised as though he was about to wave hello. Spencer is just behind him, his expression sharp and concerned.
Ryan has always thought the cliche of wanting the ground to swallow you is an overused one. He thinks, hysterically, he would maybe be okay with a building falling on him, though.
The fae are gathered around Glynn the patchwork boy while he gets to his feet, carefully holding the cat's cradle. Ryan can see something glittering in the strands, hard to look at. Glynn leans over the stupid paper cup, squeezing the strands of cat's cradle between his fingers, and the fae sigh.
"Of course," the faerie queen says after a moment, "you could say that it's not quite full..."
"It's full," Jon says, out of breath. "Definitely full, Claudia." He gives her a steady look, and Ryan remembers all the time Jon spends with fae and half-fae. The wannabe faerie queen – Claudia – looks as though she's going to be petulant for a moment. Then she sighs, the sound shaking out with a shrug. "Whatever," she says. "We were owed."
He keeps looking at her, and she sighs again, put upon. She turns to go with a skip in her step, though; they all have one. Zepha folds the cup into an improbable origami square and gives it to Claudia the queen as they walk away. She tucks it into her belt, slinging an arm around his shoulders under the wings.
Ryan hugs himself. He feels as if he could tumble into pieces if he's not careful. "What are you doing here?" he manages to ask. "We were supposed to meet you at the club."
"Tom said he thought you might be ... um, in trouble?" Jon sounds cautious.
"Nothing we couldn't handle," Brendon says. He leans his elbow on Jon's shoulder, grinning wide at him. "Speaking of the club, we are so fucking late, man, I'm sorry. It was my fault, and then it was Ross's fault, but I'm excited to see Tom's band, right?" He shifts his arm, squeezing Jon's shoulders, and lets go with a flourish. "Lead the way!"
Jon grins, willing to let it go. "They're awesome, you should be excited," he says, tilting the easy smile to include Ryan.
Ryan nods. "Lead the way," he repeats.
Spencer doesn't say anything, but he settles in to walk beside Ryan, letting the others pull ahead. Spencer bumps their shoulders together, quirking an eyebrow. Ryan ducks his head and bumps back.
The band is good, like Jon said they were. The music keeps everything buzzing under Ryan's skin, and he's jolted and moved by other bodies, human and fae, everything heightened and coloured. The singer up on stage has a raw energy that's infectious, and Jon's friend Tom curves into his guitar with a fragile, fey awkwardness that draws the eye. Except that Ryan can't take his eyes off Brendon. Brendon's dancing out where the crowd is thinnest, with goofy arm-waving and shimmies and a smile that could crack his face.
Ryan leans back against the wall of the club, his breath tight in his chest.
The song finishes, the singer breaking into a ragged stage patter, and Brendon stretches his arms above his neck, cricking the joints. He moves away from the centre of the floor, swinging his arms, and Ryan sees him seek out Spencer. The club's too dim for Ryan to make out expressions from this far away, but he sees Brendon drop his head against Spencer's shoulder. He sees Spencer's hand rest light on Brendon's hair.
After a moment Brendon straightens, shrugging his shoulders, and he moves away again, off towards the door.
Ryan waits another song before he makes his way over to Spencer. He ducks under Spencer's arm and leans up against his side. "What did Brendon say?" he mumbles.
Spencer shrugs, shifting to accommodate him. "He's pretty messed up about ... whatever happened, with those fae," he says, low-voiced. He tilts a sideways look at Ryan. "Not as much as you, but, like."
Ryan chews on his lower lip. "Right," he says.
"He's going to get over you eventually, you know," Spencer says after a moment.
Ryan pretends not to hear, but his breath all disappears from his chest, leaving it tight and painful.
Spencer leans his head against Ryan's, the slide pushing Ryan's bangs into his eyes. Ryan wrinkles his nose.
Spencer grins. "Man, this drummer is really good," he murmurs. "Did you hear that? With the ..." He beats a tempo against Ryan's shoulder.
"Mm hm," Ryan lies.
Part of him wants to stay there, keep pretending, but most of him is itchy with the need to see Brendon again. Ryan keeps looking at the door, but Brendon hasn't come back inside.
He tangles his fingers with Spencer's for a moment, a half-hearted thumb war that neither of them has to look down for, then he pushes away through the crowd.
The bouncer gives him a disinterested look as Ryan slips past. Clubs in the Fey Quarter don't tend to fuss about age, especially since troll bouncers generally can't tell human age within ten years or so, but Ryan likes to think he looks older than he is anyway. (Jon likes to laugh and laugh at him, but whatever.) He finds Brendon after only a couple of minutes searching. He's leaning against a wall, his shoulders drawn in tight and his face tilted forward into shadow.
Ryan wraps his arms around himself, cold in the night air. Brendon looks up, registering Ryan's presence, then looks down again. There's some kind of tiny fae hanging about at street level, Ryan notices: it's screwing with Brendon's shadow, stretching it out into the wavering light from the club.
After a moment Brendon laughs, kind of fucked-sounding. "I was doing really well, I thought," he says. There's music spilling out of the club, giving his words an uneven soundtrack. "I mean, it was self-destructive and shit, but it's not like pining ever hurt anyone, right?"
Ryan's heartbeat thuds and speeds up.
"Then –" Brendon says. "But – you kissed me, like you –" His voice is shaking.
Ryan leans against the wall next to him. The little shadow fae skitters away, retreating further down the alley, and Ryan slides down to sit on the ground. It's damp with spilt beer and littered with cigarette butts and fuck knows what else, but for the moment Ryan doesn't care. He pulls his knees up to his chest. He doesn't know how to say that he's spent the last year pretending he doesn't want Brendon, because it was too big to think about. Fighting instead of making out because he didn't know how to be unaffected around him.
"You're really –" he says to his knees, forcing the words out. "You're really fucking scary. I never – you make me feel like I'm in freefall."
Brendon lowers himself to a crouch in front of Ryan, his knees tipping forward onto the dirty pavement. He rests his arms on Ryan's knee and lays his head on top of them for a moment. "I'm," he says, and he starts laughing, muffled hiccupping laughter that's almost soundless. He lifts his face, close enough that Ryan can see his expression, wide open. "I think I already fell. Like, all the way. And it – it fucking hurt, wow."
Ryan's fingers tangle with Brendon's on his knees, and before he can think he leans forward, kissing him. Not because a wannabe faerie queen told him to, but because he's been wanting to since the first time Brendon stepped into their practise space, ducking his head and smiling so shy, his fingers curled around the neck of his guitar as though it was a passport for entry.
Ryan pulls back, gazing at Brendon's face. Brendon's smile has gone soft, something heartbreaking and warm in it. "Yeah?"
Ryan nods, quickly. "Yeah," he says. Brendon shifts forward, rocking between his knees, and the tension melts out of his shoulders as he kisses Ryan back.